This year country music hearkened back to its glory days of duets, when superstar solo performers often teamed up – think Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn. In 2017, however, that means names like Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood, and Thomas Rhett and Maren Morris. Both pairings delivered some of the year’s most thrilling collaborations on country radio. Other mash-ups were more under the radar, be they album cuts, like Dustin Lynch and Karen Fairchild’s stunning “Love Me or Leave Me Alone,” or Americana hidden gems, like Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash and John Paul White’s poignant “It Ain’t Over Yet.” Here are the year’s 10 best collabs.
Of all the big-ticket guest spots on Brad Paisley’s Love and War LP, the one with Mick Jagger was the longest in coming. Besides Paisley’s own admission to “ripping the Rolling Stones off” in much of his writing, he’d shared the mic with Jagger in concert years before the pair hit the studio to record “Drive of Shame.” Built around a chunky, staccato guitar riff that would make Keith Richards proud, the tale of a cock of the walk with a bruised ego was the perfect mix of cheek and swagger for a cameo from Jagger, right down to his ad-libbed intro about beer and Calvin Klein cologne. J.G.
A tag-teamed update of Chris LeDoux’s early-Eighties signature, the revamped “This Cowboy’s Hat” appeared on two albums in 2017. On Ned LeDoux’s Sagebrush, the song feels like a family heirloom, passed from one generation to the next and modernized with a cameo from the platinum-selling Chase Rice. Two weeks after Sagebrush‘s release, the same recording resurfaced as the final track on Rice’s Lambs & Lions. On that album, the song serves as a sign of maturity – one last piece of proof that the former bro-country prince is ready to ditch the crown and find inspiration in something other than beer bottles and bikini bottoms. R.C.
Growing old played a central role in Rodney Crowell’s latest album, Close Ties, but “It Ain’t Over Yet” confronted a topic that he had even less control over than his own mortality: watching his friends approach death. The specific inspiration for “It Ain’t Over Yet,” a title that was as much a plea as a declaration, was Crowell’s buddy Guy Clark, who died in 2016, and that sense of witnessing a loved one slip away is palpable in the performance. But it’s all the more effective thanks to the presence of Rosanne Cash and John Paul White, who form a support group with Crowell as he ponders the drive to keep learning, creating, and loving — three things he knows he’ll keep chasing, whether he has company or not. J.G.
There’s a reason this duet was the only song able to knock Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road” from the top of the Hot Country Songs chart, where it had reigned supreme for 34 weeks. Split between the worlds of power-ballad pop and clean-scrubbed hip-hop, “What Ifs” was cut from the same cloth as Hunt’s own hit, with a country pedigree that was more implied than executed. Add an American Idol-worthy backstory to the mix – Kane Brown and Lauren Alaina once performed in the same high-school choir, where Alaina (an Idol runner-up herself) helped Brown overcome his stage fright – and you’ve got a genre-jumping hit that gave Brown his first Number One. R.C.
Friendships like those between Glen Campbell and Willie Nelson have a way of changing and taking on new meaning over the years, and so too do the songs they perform. Those two phenomena converged in bittersweet fashion this year with the pair’s final duet, “Funny How Time Slips Away,” included on Campbell’s last LP, Adiós, and released just a few months before Campbell’s death at 81. Spare and loping, the familiar standard took on an achy, wistful shuffle with the weathered singing of Campbell and Nelson, lending their sturdy old friendship an undercurrent of impermanence. But the true heart of the performance came in knowing that Campbell’s own memory was slipping away through the ravages of Alzheimer’s, adding a previously unintended dimension to a ballad about heartbreak. J.G.
Written and recorded in London, “The Fighter” trades Keith Urban’s country roots for the international, retro-leaning sheen of Eurodance, sounding like some long-lost single from the Real McCoy’s catalog. Country traditionalists were quick to pan the song, but mainstream audiences had a different reaction, sending “The Fighter” to platinum status earlier this year. The song’s unsung hero is co-producer Busbee, who straddled a similar line between pop and country with Maren Morris’ “80s Mercedes.” Here, he drenches Urban’s ganjo in reverb, pads the verses with synthesizers and sets everything to a drum-machined groove, allowing Urban and Underwood’s call-and-response vocals to serve as the only human element in an otherwise digitized landscape. It’s not your grandfather’s country music, but that’s sort of the point. Everybody dance, now. R.C.
The vocal highlight of Dustin Lynch’s career, “Love Me or Leave Me Alone” finds the cowboy-hatted crooner in rare, subdued form. There’s a seriousness here – something that was missing from early hits like “Where It’s At (Yep, Yep)” – and Lynch wears it well, filling the verses with soulful rumblings from his lower register before swapping harmonies with Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild during the song’s chorus. Two years earlier, when Fairchild made an appearance on Luke Bryan’s “Home Alone Tonight,” the pair’s chemistry was steamrolled by the track’s slick production. On “Love Me or Leave Me Alone,” though, Fairchild and Lynch sound both bummed-out and believable, like two estranged sweethearts stuck on either side of a dividing line. R.C.
If any country pairing in 2017 could sell a convincing song about the pain of a breakup, it was Steve Earle and Miranda Lambert. Both have lived it and, moreover, both have written about it in raw and unflinching terms. Fresh off her brilliant The Weight of These Wings LP, Lambert was primed for her duet on Earle’s “This Is How It Ends,” a wrenching ballad from his own So You Wannabe an Outlaw about the end of a relationship that may never have been destined to work in the first place. It’s the perfect mix of the sweet and sour that comes with heartbreak, as Earle’s cold, hard truth delivery is matched note for note by Lambert’s warm, gentle twang and a fiddle that cuts and soothes in equal measure. J.G.
Although its chugging acoustic guitars sound beamed in from the Traveling Wilburys’ 1989 debut, “I Only Know” has more than a little punk in its DNA. Clocking in under two minutes, it’s a zippy ode to moving past the wreckage of one’s youth, with sparkling harmonies from the Loved Ones’ Dave Hause and Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace. Like Hause, Branan cut his teeth on harder-edged music before inching his way closer to the Americana camp, and “I Only Know” nods to both of those identities: the feral, punky teenager from Mississippi, and the roots-rock songwriter whose gravelly voice betrays a wilder past. R.C.
The big-budget feel of Thomas Rhett and Maren Morris’ action-flick music video for “Craving You” was a perfect fit for a song that had blockbuster written all over it. The first track to be released from Rhett’s third LP, Life Changes, it paired two of country music’s most pop-forward young stars for a duet that reveled in broad strokes and sweeping gestures. Full of big guitars and colorful synths, “Craving You” was more Eighties electro-pop than country, but no matter. Such ingredients were the perfect vehicle for the pinch-hitting of Morris, who wove her soulful guest harmonies around Rhett’s romantic obsessions, helping to ratchet up the intensity. There was no need for subtlety here – this was a collab all about having fun. J.G.