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2017 Country Music Preview: Most Anticipated Albums, Tours and Festivals

From new albums by Chris Stapleton, Shania Twain and Sam Hunt to massive country gatherings like Stagecoach and CMA Music Festival

RS Country 2017 Album Preview

Chris Stapleton and Shania Twain are both expected to release new albums in 2017.

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With new albums expected from Chris Stapleton, Shania Twain and Sam Hunt, 2017 is poised to be chockfull of fresh beats – and good ol' fashioned twang. But it's not just albums that highlight the next 12 months: a wealth of can't-miss tours, festivals and awards shows all are worthy of adding to fans' country calendars. Here's our look at the year ahead.

Little Big Town

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Little Big Town

Album: The Breaker
Release Date: February 24th
The Grammy-winning vocal group expertly married pop production (via producer Jay Joyce) with country tradition on 2014's Pain Killer and their stellar Number One "Girl Crush." Following a disco detour with Pharrell Williams on last year's Wanderlust, Little Big Town reunite with Joyce for The Breaker. Led by first single "Better Man," a breakup ballad written especially for the group by Taylor Swift, the album furthers the progressive sound and spirit of Pain Killer, according to LBT's Phillip Sweet. It's also intended to be a complete album, not a set of radio-ready singles. "It's such a playlist society," Sweet told Rolling Stone, "and it feels like no one gives a shit about making albums anymore."

eric church

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Eric Church

Tour: Holdin' My Own Tour
Dates: January 13th through May 27th
The Chief managed to pull off what is possibly one of the biggest direct-to-fan achievements of all time when he sent copies, on vinyl, of Mr. Misunderstood straight to his Church Choir, before it even touched streaming services or the press. For his 60-date Holdin' My Own Tour, he'll follow the same ethos, crafting an environment meant to prioritize his fanbase, not ticket scalpers, through strict pre-sale guidelines. Opening bands are axed, too: this will be two sets of pure, in-the-round Church with an intermission in between, most likely clocking in at three hours long. Expect anything from deep cuts and albums in their entirety (Bruce Springsteen style, though he won't always play "Springsteen") to acoustic moments and plenty of praise for the outsider and the underdog – only this outsider gets to end with two nights at Nashville's biggest arena.

Jason Isbell

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Jason Isbell

Album: TBA
Release Date: TBA
Teaming up with producer Dave Cobb for a third time, Jason Isbell will start tracking Something More Than Free's long-awaited follow-up this month. His team has remained tight-lipped about the album's direction, although Isbell may have given everyone a hint on New Years Eve, when the songwriter tweeted his plans for an upcoming studio session with his "rock and roll band." Might that mean a louder album is in the works? Perhaps something that shines a light on the interplay between Isbell and bandmate Sadler Vaden, one of the best guitar duos in modern-day roots-rock. All bets are off, but this former Drive-By Trucker could be gearing up for highway speed. 

Sunny Sweeney

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Sunny Sweeney

Album: Trophy
Release Date: March 10th
One of the greatest gifts Texas-born Sunny Sweeney has (and there are many) is an uncanny knack for keeping listeners on their toes. Whiskey-laced ballads mingle with extraordinarily honest confessionals, delivered in a soul-piercing voice that alternates between cynically tough and heart-achingly tender. Where 2014's brilliant Provoked, which chronicled the disintegration of one marriage and the early days of another, felt like a game-changing career-builder, Trophy tops it in myriad unexpected ways. That's especially true for "Bottle by My Bed," which isn't about an empty fifth of whiskey, but a baby bottle that remains painfully out of reach. Four terrific songs penned with her "spirit animal," Lori McKenna, and guest shots from Trisha Yearwood, Ray Benson and Jack Ingram are nice touches, but Sweeney's soul-baring remains the ultimate prize.

Charlie Worsham

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Charlie Worsham

Album: TBA
Release Date: TBA
Charlie Worsham released his debut LP Rubberband in 2013, and since then the able-fingered Berklee grad has been filling his time with admirable work (charity, focusing on music education) and the admirably weird (a Nirvana cover show at East Nashville's The 5 Spot). Where it will all end up on his sophomore, Frank Liddell-produced LP will likely be a combination of that gentle spirit and rebellious streak – with plenty of room to showcase his serious guitar chops. A track listing has yet to be announced, but Worsham's been spending time with the likes of Shane McAnally and Luke Dick, even reportedly covering "Birthday Suit," from Dick's shit-kicking punk band Republican Hair, on the record. The Mississippi native has also unveiled "Cut Your Groove" at live shows, an acoustic ode to paving your own way – and finding time to stay analog in a digital world.  

Nikki Lane

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Nikki Lane

Album: Highway Queen
Release Date: February 17th
You’ve got to admire anyone with the moxie to pose for an album-cover photograph in a vintage Victorian dress, draped across the horns of a massive Texas longhorn steer. That’s the look for Highway Queen, the third and latest album from South Carolina native Nikki Lane, a coolly alluring siren who is earthy enough to know her way around a monster-truck rally. And it’s an album that should boost the big-voiced Lane well above the pack, because she sounds 10 feet tall from her very first utterance – hollering “Yippee ki yay” to kick off the album-opening "700,000 Rednecks." With quirky fashion sense to go with that booming voice, plus a tour schedule including a slot at Stagecoach in California in April, Lane seems perfectly poised for a mainstream breakthrough.

Kenny Chesney

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Tortuga Music Festival

Location: Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Dates: April 7th – 9th
To quote the Zac Brown Band, it’s time for toes in the water and ass in the sand at the Tortuga Music Festival, celebrating its fifth year on the beaches of Fort Lauderdale Beach Park. Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan and Chris Stapleton headline this edition, while the undercard includes Alan Jackson, Darius Rucker and Dustin Lynch. Watch performances from swimming pools, viewing decks and cabanas or do some good while getting your groove on: visit Rock the Ocean’s on-site Conservation Village, which raises awareness for marine research, including protecting the festival’s namesake sea turtles that nest on the South Florida coast. 

Rhiannon Giddens

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Rhiannon Giddens

Album: Freedom Highway
Release Date: February 24th
Many have tried to spin a silver lining from Donald Trump's untimely rise – that active dissent to his presidency will lead to even better art. Rhiannon Giddens' sophomore LP, Freedom Highway, proves that wrong: only because Giddens didn't need to be motivated by Trump to form this urgent call-to-arms where swift-picking banjo is her ammo, her guttural, gripping voice her weapon and equality the only battle to be won. Ferguson. Freddie Gray. Our warped, post Civil Rights semi-progress – all of these serve as fodder for Giddens' striking 12-song collection, including nine originals. Though perhaps it's the title track, a rework of the Staple Singers' "Freedom Highway," that's the most telling. It hits on everything from Eric Burden-era soul to free jazz to the fiery swing of Sixties protest anthems like Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth." In an America in peril, this is Americana with a purpose. 

Kelsea Ballerini

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Kelsea Ballerini

Album: TBA
Release Date: TBA
Ballerini is just one album into her career, but her resume is already brimming with accolades: her first three singles all hit Number One, and she's the only woman in history to top Billboard's Country Airplay and Hot Country Songs charts at the same time. All of this made even more impressive by the fact that Ballerini is on an independent label working without the benefit of big-name collaborators. But making history opens doors, and according to Ballerini's Twitter, in the last year she's written with some of the most successful songwriters in country music, including Shane McAnally and Luke Laird. Now that the scrappy outsider has the keys to the castle as she makes her next album, the possibilities are seemingly endless.

Dierks Bentley

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Stagecoach Festival

Location: Indio, California
Dates: April 28th – 30th
Country music's California weekend returns to the Coachella Valley on April 28th, when Dierks Bentley headlines the first evening of this three-day twangfest. Now in its 11th year, Stagecoach caters to every faction of its genre's splintered fanbase, giving stage time to country-poppers (Maren Morris, Thomas Rhett), Nineties queens (Shania Twain, Wynonna Judd), crooner kings (Kenny Chesney, Travis Tritt), unfuckwithable pioneers (Jerry Lee Lewis, Willie Nelson) and East Nashville cool kids (Margo Price, Aaron Lee Tasjan). For countryphobes who find themselves dragged to the event by overenthusiastic spouses, the Zombies and Tommy James and the Shondells are on the bill, too.

Chris Janson

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Chris Janson

Album: TBA
Release Date: TBA
Live phenom Janson scored his first Number One with 2015's "Buy Me a Boat," but, on his second album for Warner Music Nashville, he refuses to be a one-float wonder. Working with Blake Shelton producer Scott Hendricks and songwriting aces Chris DuBois and Brent Anderson, Janson is challenging himself in both the studio and the writing room. "I feel like a brand new songwriter all over again," he says, "just having fun with it." And it shows onstage. A pair of new songs have quickly become sing-along fan favorites: the play-on-words "Fix a Drink" and the blazing "I Didn't Choose the Redneck Life (The Redneck Life Chose Me)." The latter is Janson's blue-collar country story, delivered with the punk abandon of the Ramones.  

Marty Stuart

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Marty Stuart

Title: Way Out West
Release Date: March 10th
Marty Stuart follows up his ambitious 2014 double album Saturday Night/Sunday Morning with a more streamlined record, one inspired by the natural wonder of California. Stuart and his longtime band, the Fabulous Superlatives, recorded the bulk of the album in the Golden State, splitting time between Capitol Studios in Hollywood and the studio of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, who produced the project. Expect a dusty, cinematic listen – a mix of country, delivered with Stuart's unwavering reverence for the genre, and early rock & roll.

Shania Twain

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Shania Twain

Album: TBA
Release Date: TBA
The pop-country superstar's last album, Up!, was in 2002. Since then, Shania's kicked back for a spell, performed a two-year Vegas residency, and, maybe most crucially, split with husband and producer Robert "Mutt" Lange. For her comeback album, Twain wrangled a crew of production pros who've worked with the likes of Ed Sheeran and Bruce Springsteen, but she came to them with demos she's been recording over the years using GarageBand and Pro Tools. "I did so many of my backing vocal arrangements – just being able to have all these multi-tracks and moving them around and experimenting that way," Twain told Entertainment Weekly. "By the time I got into the studio, I was already quite familiar with what I wanted to do."

Brad Paisley

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Brad Paisley

Album: Love and War
Release Date: TBA
For his 11th full-length album, Brad Paisley appears to be shifting back toward a more adventurous, pop-conscious approach after the relatively traditional sounds of Moonshine in the Trunk. There's no official track listing available for Love and War yet, but Paisley – who co-produced the album with Luke Wooten – partnered with pop star Demi Lovato on the playful, sultry first single "Without a Fight," and then urged us all to experience living in the moment on his uplifting new "Today." Back in May, he teased possible album collaborations with rock icons Mick Jagger – with whom he'd shared the stage during the Stones' 2013 and 2015 tours – and John Fogerty, as well as hip-hop and R&B maestro Timbaland. What ends up on the final mix remains to be seen. 

Natalie Hemby

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Natalie Hemby

Album: Puxico
Release Date: January 13th
Hemby has made a name for herself as one of Nashville's sharpest songwriters, with credits on hits for Lady Antebellum and Little Big Town; she was Miranda Lambert's primary accomplice when the star put together last year's excellent double album The Weight of These Wings. Now Hemby is ready to trace the steps of acclaimed artists like Ashley Monroe and Brandy Clark, who cut their teeth in writing rooms before earning comparable recognition as solo artists. Puxico, named after her grandfather's hometown in Missouri, nods to both Shelby Lynne and Laurel Canyon country-rock; it's tranquil, sure-footed, and lovely.

Dustin Lynch

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Dustin Lynch

Album: TBA
Release Date: TBA
Lynch has been quietly locked in since 2014: After the irrepressible "Where It's At (Yep Yep)" hit Number One that year, he followed it with two more chart-toppers. "Seein' Red," the lead track from Lynch's next record, is simultaneously one of his hardest singles and one of his most sensual. Guitars explode out of every nook and cranny here: one playing Jason Aldean-style hard rock, another hinting at disco, and a pedal steel slicing around like a laser beam. Lynch, meanwhile, is so excited about an impending make-out session that he sounds like he's ready to spontaneously combust. But he makes it through the track, secure in the knowledge that he's already raised the stakes for his next album.

RaeLynn

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RaeLynn

Album: Wildhorse
Release Date: TBA
RaeLynn's somewhat off-putting debut single "God Made Girls" really didn't make the most of the Voice album's talents as a unique stylist and writer, but her forthcoming album Wildhorse (her first under Warner Music) makes up for it with 12 new songs that she had a hand in co-writing. Lead single "Love Triangle" paints a shattering portrait of a child being passed between her divorcing parents, while numbers like "The Apple" and "Lonely Call" reveal an uncommon wisdom and clarity around the emotional minefield of dating. Produced by ace songwriters Jimmy Robbins and Nicolle Galyon, Wildhorse also features guest appearances by Dan + Shay and Christian musician Leeland Mooring.

Luke Combs

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Luke Combs

Album: This One's for You
Release Date: early summer
There are high hopes for 26-year-old Luke Combs. A big-boned, big-voiced everydude from North Carolina who couldn't even play guitar five years ago, he's a natural born singer-songwriter making an outsized debut with This One's for You. With a modern-throwback sound and grizzled vocals, Combs’ album hits all the backwoods bullet points (romance, beers, growing up, knowing who you are), but he does it with uniquely fun, clever songs. His debut single, "Hurricane," likens seeing your ex in public to an approaching cyclone. "Don’t Tempt Me" is a party-all-night anthem for college kids and the young at heart. And "I Got a Way With You" compares winning his girl's heart to stealing the Mona Lisa. Meanwhile, the title track is a classy thank you to early believers, and the friends he had to leave behind to follow his dreams. Combs will perform at Bonnaroo in June.

asleep at the wheel

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Austin City Limits Music Festival

Location: Austin, Texas
Dates: October 6th – 8th; October 13th-15th
Weighing in at 450,000 attendees, two back-to-back weekends and six total days, the Austin City Limits Music Festival is as mammoth as Texas itself. ACL's yearly lineups are similarly broad, with a weighty serving of country artists — particularly those with roots in the Lone Star State — rounding out the bill. Last year, home state heroes Willie Nelson, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and Asleep at the Wheel all flew the Texas flag. The slate is still empty for the 2017 festival, though, which takes over Austin's Zilker Park during the first two weekends of October. 

Thomas Rhett

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Thomas Rhett

Tour: Home Team Tour
Dates: February 23rd – April 21st
Thomas Rhett started 2016 with one of the year's biggest hits in "Die a Happy Man" – a multi-week Number One – and found his way back to the top a second time with "T-Shirt," both from his album Tangled Up. With the deluxe edition of that album recently yielding new tunes "Star of the Show" and "American Spirit," Rhett will mount his first-ever headlining trek beginning February 23rd. The Home Team Tour will feature guests Kelsea Ballerini, Ryan Hurd and Russell Dickerson and boasts back-to-back dates at Nashville's Ascend Amphitheater when Home Team returns to Rhett's hometown in April.

sam hunt

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Rock the South

Location: Cullman, Alabama
Dates: June 2nd – 3rd
Eleven years after playing football for the University of Alabama's Birmingham branch, Sam Hunt returns to the Yellowhammer State. This time, he's tackling the co-headlining slot at Rock the South, an annual two-day fest in Cullman – Luke Bryan also tops the bill. With an average attendance that roughly triples the size of its host city, Rock the South is a town unto itself, a feeling that will only increase this year, when the festival introduces on-site camping (or so-called "glamping," if you're willing to shell out extra cash for a furnished crashpad) for the first time. Other improvements include an enlarged stage and two supersized LED screens. Hunt is currently the only name on the bill, with more than a dozen additions promised before the spring. 

Hunter Hayes

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Hunter Hayes

Album Title: TBA
Release Date: TBA
The multi-instrumentalist surprised fans in September when he published three tunes from the new set on his 25th birthday, including the rollicking "Yesterday’s Song." Hayes' latest full-length album finds him co-producing with long-time collaborator Dann Huff on several cuts, but for the first time, Hayes handles production duties all by himself on songs like "Young Blood." Recorded in a tiny studio off of Nashville’s Music Row, the set also marks the first time Hayes delves into his bluesy Louisiana roots. Shaking things up a little, he deliberately keeps things raw on tracks like "Tell Me," which features his vulnerable demo vocals instead of studio polish.

Reba McEntire

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Reba McEntire

Album: Sing It Now: Songs of Faith & Hope
Release Date: February 3rd
McEntire has never been shy about her religious faith, making it all the more remarkable that this is her first full gospel album. The two-disc set ranges from traditional music McEntire grew up on, such as “Jesus Loves Me” and “Oh Happy Day,” to contemporary tracks that have provided the star with comfort and hope through troubling times. McEntire, who co-produced the album with Rascal Flatts’ Jay DeMarcus and her band leader Doug Sisemore, makes a heavenly noise with Kelly Clarkson and Trisha Yearwood on "Softly and Tenderly," but the most angelic voice on this collection comes from McEntire's 89-year old mom, who accompanies her daughter on "I'll Fly Away." 

Chris Stapleton

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Chris Stapleton

Album: TBA
Release Date: TBA
Stapleton has debuted a handful of new songs on his never-ending tour in support of his breakout debut Traveller. "Hard Living" is a honky-tonk rave-up that showcases the powerhouse vocalist's gritty wail. "Broken Halos," premiered during Dolly Parton's East Tennessee wildfires benefit, is more soulful and touching. Both could end up on his upcoming second album, rumored to see the light of day in early spring. "We've been working on other things, experimenting," Stapleton told Rolling Stone last year, offering that he and his loyal band often use soundcheck to try out new material. A new single is expected to be released soon, along with the announcement of a fresh string of tour dates.

Lauren Alaina

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Lauren Alaina

Album: Road Less Traveled
Release Date: January 27th
For American Idol winners (or runners up, in Lauren Alaina's case), it's often the second album that's the most telling. There's no doubt that on Wildflower, her 2011 debut, Alaina cemented herself as owning one of the genre's most impressive vocal ranges – but singles like "Georgia Peaches," while catchy and cute, didn't do justice to the sarcasm, spitfire and songwriting chops hidden behind all that gloss. For Road Less Traveled, Alaina had a hand in crafting each and every track, and the results range from powerhouse, Marina McBride-esque ballads ("Three") to pop-tinged confessionals ("Doin' Fine," where her "daddy got sober, mama got his best friend") and motivational anthems ("Road Less Traveled"). Idol may be caput, but Alaina's another example of how it still shapes the past, present and future of country music.

Angaleena Presley

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Angaleena Presley

Album: Wrangled
Release Date: April 21st
The artist formerly known as Holler Annie doubles down on her solo career with Wrangled, the follow-up to 2014's American Middle Class. Taking a page from that debut album, she pulls triple duty once again, multi-tasking as frontwoman, chief songwriter and co-producer. Wrangled also boasts the last song Guy Clark ever completed: "Cheer Up Little Darling," co-written alongside Presley and recorded with guest artist Shawn Camp, who strums along on Clark's own #10 guitar. Due April 21st, Wrangled dishes out more proof that the former Pistol Annie can still pack heat as a lone gun. 

Brantley Gilbert

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Brantley Gilbert

Album: The Devil Don’t Sleep
Release Date: January 27th
The Devil Don’t Sleep is Brantley Gilbert's fourth album, and his first since 2014's Just As I Am. Sixteen songs are included in the project (26 on the deluxe edition), and Gilbert had a hand in writing each one, showing a brass-knuckled tough guy whose heart seems to grow a little more with each project. Lead single "The Weekend" sets a rowdy, growling tone. He squares up to fight in ass-kicking anthems like "Bro Code" and "Bullet in a Bonfire," but then dusts himself off for some small-town Shakespeare in "Way Back," rekindling the embers of his high-school flame years down the road. The title track and "3 Feet of Water" finish the album off, tipping the thematic scales ever so slightly in favor of reflection and spirituality.

Son Volt

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Son Volt

Album: Notes of Blue
Release Date: February 17th
The basic concept for Notes of Blue – Son Volt’s eighth album, and the 20th overall for Americana forefather Jay Farrar going back to his days fronting Uncle Tupelo – is a highly idiosyncratic take on the blues. These songs follow the basic sonic architecture of folk blues, the quirky tunings and tics of Skip James and Mississippi Fred McDowell, but often aggressively amplified by way of snarling, dirtied-up guitars. And the album closes with "Thread and Steel," which sounds for all the world like the notoriously secretive Farrar venturing into political territory; it describes an ugly American in a "go to hell hat" who "doesn’t know the word shame" and is "going around taking names." Son Volt will tour extensively following Notes of Blue’s release, including an April 28th date at California's Stagecoach Country Music Festival.

Wheeler Walker Jr.

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Wheeler Walker Jr.

Album: TBA
Release Date: TBA
The vulgar vocalist – or the man behind the beard, comic Ben Hoffman – promises he's not a one-joke pony. So expect ol' Wheeler to probe deeper on the follow-up to last year's riotous Redneck Shit – and we do mean probe. Once again teaming up with (or coercing?) producer Dave Cobb, Wheeler boasts, brags and even yodels over a series of twangy tracks. There's even a supposed duet with Maren Morris. "No comment," says Walker Jr. when asked. "But the album will grab America by the pussy. You have my word on that."

Sam Hunt

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Sam Hunt

Album: TBA
Release Date: TBA
Sam Hunt's 2014 debut Montevallo is a testament to the enduring power of a good breakup album. Spawning five hit singles, the collection became one of the biggest – and most polarizing – country debuts in recent memory with its winning combination of personal, detail-rich songwriting, boundary-pushing production and hints of modern R&B filtered through Drake's sensitivity and self-loathing. More than two years later, the highly-anticipated follow-up is still mostly a mystery, though Hunt did say the writing process was going a little more slowly since hitting the big time. "I really find my true sense of purpose in a room writing a song," he told Rolling Stone in late 2015. "That's something I have missed, because I haven't figured out how to write on the road. I realized after writing songs for years how important it is. Whether it provides a living for me or not, that creative outlet is something I need." On January 1st, 2017, Hunt released the first taste. Titled "Drinkin' Too Much," the track probably won't quiet purists with its murky, electro-tinged production and sung/spoken lyrical delivery.

Maren Morris

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Maren Morris

Tour: The Hero Tour
Dates: February 2nd – April 5th
What a difference a year made for Maren Morris, who at this time in 2016 had only released her debut self-titled EP. Now, Morris has a hit album in Hero, a CMA New Artist of the Year win and four nominations at the upcoming Grammy Awards. She's also about to kick off her first headlining run, the Hero Tour. Leading off with a February 2nd date at New York City's Bowery Ballroom, the 16-show tour hits major hubs like Boston and Dallas before closing with two nights at Nashville's Cannery Ballroom. Fans who didn't catch Morris up-close at last year's Bonnaroo or on Keith Urban's 2016 Ripcord World Tour still have a chance with this intimate run. Sooner than later, she'll be headlining arenas.

luke bryan, keith urban

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CMA Music Festival

Location: Nashville, Tennessee
Dates: June 8th – 11th
Tennessee's tourism board must love the summertime. While Bonnaroo rages less than hour away, 2017's CMA Music Festival will overtake downtown Nashville during the second weekend of June, flooding the city with more than 250,000 attendees. Expect newer acts to fill the daytime schedules, with the genre's biggest and brightest slated for the stacked, nightly bills at Nissan Stadium. Last year, we caught Blake Shelton playing an unannounced honky-tonk gig on Lower Broadway, Chris Stapleton nailing a hometown set to 60,000 fans and Luke Bryan enlisting Keith Urban for an all-covers medley.

Old 97's

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The Old 97’s

Album: Graveyard Whistling
Release Date: February 24th
With Graveyard Whistling, alt-country torchbearers the Old 97’s are mile-marking two decades (and then some) of rule-breaking and music-making with all four original members still onboard and the gas pedal pressed firmly to the floor. Or, as frontman Rhett Miller describes it to Rolling Stone Country, "The band is bowstring tight. Our producer, Vance Powell, coaxed out our best performances in years, and found new sounds we didn't even know we were capable of making. I think it's as honest and rocking as anything we've ever done." For the album, the pioneering quartet returned to the same small-town Texas studio where they recorded their celebrated 1996 major label debut, Too Far to Care, and have brewed another signature batch of the rowdy sonic ruckus that first put them on the map. Old 97’s released the ominous "Good with God" last month as the lead single and it features some otherworldly guest vocals from Brandi Carlile playing the omniscient (and slightly sinister) voice of God. Along with Carlile, Graveyard Whistling also features collaborations with Butch Walker and Nicole Atkins.

Aaron Watson

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Aaron Watson

Album: Vaquero
Release Date: February 24th
Last we heard from Aaron Watson, the Texas traditionalist was topping the charts with The Underdog, becoming the first male artist to ever reach Number One without a leg-up from a major label. He's still waving an independent flag with this year's Vaquero, but he's paying attention to modern trends, too, with the lead single "Outta Style" taking its cues from the pop-country mainstream. One listen to Vaquero's accordion-heavy title track, though, and it's clear this rodeo king remains proud of his Lone Star State roots. Texas forever. 

Brett Young

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Brett Young

Album: Brett Young
Release Date: February 10th
Young was one of the breakout acts of 2016, country's answer to the countless heart-on-sleeve troubadours who run amuck on pop radio: a singer who thrived in a state of isolation and spun his loneliness into approachable, strummy, patient eruptions of feeling. Young's eponymous EP has two modes, ecstatically solitary or painfully so, and both came refreshingly free of macho posturing. "The thing about a breakup," the singer explains on "Left Side of Leavin,'" "is sometimes you just gotta break down." He's on to something here. Expect more of the same on Young's self-titled debut.

Travis Meadows

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Travis Meadows

Album: TBA
Release Date: TBA
With 2011's Killing Uncle Buzzy, a sonic diary about his time in rehab, Nashville's most resilient songwriter Travis Meadows made fans of power players Eric Church and Dierks Bentley, both of whom cut his songs. Now, Meadows finally follows up 2013's Old Ghosts & Unfinished Business – more an EP than an album – with a hard-hitting studio project that includes many of the songs he's been playing at writers rounds around town. Chief among them: the redemptive "Pray for Jungleland," which Meadows partially wrote during a Springsteen concert in Nashville. It's equal parts hazy nostalgia and clear-eyed hope for what is to come. 

Sam Outlaw

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Sam Outlaw

Album: TBA
Release Date: TBA
Los Angeles-based Sam Outlaw quickly transcended skepticism around his stage name with his Ry Cooder-produced 2015 album Angeleno, which sounded more like a mixture of Buck Owens and Laurel Canyon tunesmiths than anything resembling Waylon or Willie. Narrative-driven, hook-filled tunes like "Keep It Interesting" and "Ghost Town" helped Outlaw define his vision of "California country," putting a heavier emphasis on the long lost "Western" component of the genre. Little is known about the singer's follow-up, but it's tentatively slated for a spring 2017 release.

Tift Merritt

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Tift Merritt

Album: Stitch of the World
Release Date: January 27th
On her new album Stitch of the World, Merritt turns geographic inspiration into a sonic sewing kit of connectivity. "I wrote these songs on desert plains, on a seaside cliff and in the city,” Merritt tells Rolling Stone Country. "They are an eye pulled up very close to 10 different moments that are all loosely tied together, not neatly, but creating a lay of the landscape nonetheless." With an instrumental bed composed of unpolished acoustic guitars, slinky pedal steel and a solid-yet-relaxed rhythm section, Stitch of the World showcases Merritt's ability to let her songs breathe and unfold in a manner that allows her unassuming vocals to shine. During the writing process, Merritt workshopped some of her songs with friend and fellow artist Sam Beam (Iron & Wine), who actually ended up contributing vocals to much of the new album, including bluesy new single "Dusty Old Man."

Stephen Dorff

‘Wheeler’

Release Date: February 3rd
What could have been just a vanity project for actor-musician Stephen Dorff (Blade) is, in reality, a tour-de-force. Shot as a pseudo-documentary, Wheeler follows soft-spoken musician Wheeler Bryson from his Kaufman, Texas, home to Nashville's bright lights, and filmgoers (even jaded, cynical Music City types) can't help get caught up in the character's wide-eyed wonder. Driven by a set of original songs that Dorff performs and penned for the film (including one written by his brother, Andrew Dorff, who died late last year), real-life "characters," including Kris Kristofferson and songwriters Bobby Tomberlin and Audrey Spillman, mix with fictional folks Wheeler encounters. Drawn in by his raw, unassuming talent, the biggest question the charming – and ultimately disarming – Wheeler invites isn't whether it's realistic for an unpolished 41-year-old to be embraced by Nashville power brokers, but "Why shouldn't it be?" 

Alison Krauss

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Alison Krauss

Album: Windy City
Release Date: February 17th
For her first solo LP since 1999's Forget About It, Krauss trains her clear-as-a-bell vocals on a set of nostalgic tunes running the gamut from bittersweet pop standards to the lively sort of bluegrass she and her band, Union Station, have been playing together since the late Eighties. Union Station member Dan Tyminski is among those featured here, alongside Hank Williams Jr., Jamey Johnson, Alabama's Teddy Gentry, siblings Suzanne and Sidney Cox, and producer Buddy Cannon with his daughter, Melonie. But whether she's delivering an all-too-convincing lament with "You Don't Know Me" or lightening the proceedings with such grassy concoctions as "It's Goodbye and So Long to You" and "Poison Love," it's impossible not to hang on every angelic note Krauss utters. That's something list-makers and Grammy voters will likely remember when 2017 comes to an end.

Jason Aldean

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ACM Awards

Date: Sunday, April 2nd (airing 8:00 p.m./ET on CBS)
Location: T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas
The Academy of Country Music Awards are a more loose, freewheeling affair than Nashville's formal CMA Awards – they're staged in Vegas, after all. And this year they take over Sin City's hot new venue, the T-Mobile Arena, on April 2nd. With the ACMs marking their 52nd anniversary, expect an all-star lineup of performers, more than a few buzzworthy collaborations and, assuming they're back for a second year, good ol' bro banter from hosts Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley. Last year, Jason Aldean took home the night's biggest prize, winning his very first Entertainer of the Year trophy.