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Fall Country Music Preview 2015: 25 Essential Albums and Events

From a presumed nail-biter at the CMA Music Awards to a rock icon’s big country move, here’s what we’re most looking forward to in the coming months

Carrie Underwood; Don Henley

Don Henley and Carrie Underwood both have highly-anticipated albums coming out in Fall 2015.

Gary Miller/FilmMagic/Getty; Rick Diamond/Getty

No matter if you listen to country music at dive bars, tailgate parties or spin class, there's a little something for everyone among the new albums being released this fall. For the mainstream lovers who like a little pep in their two-step, there's Carrie Underwood's surefire smash Storyteller album and Thomas Rhett's adventurous, R&B-infused Tangled Up. Trad-country fans (and nostalgia seekers) are counting down the days until the long-lost sequel to Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt's Trio album comes out — not to mention the triumphant, long-awaited return of Alabama. And the chic indie crowd will soon be analyzing the NSFW lyrics of the likes of Jason Boland and the Stragglers.

On the live side of country, the festival season may be slowing down but is certainly amping up the creativity. Tennessee's Pilgrimage Festival boasts an eclectic lineup including Willie Nelson, Weezer and Wilco. And North Carolina's American Roots Festival features the likes of Eric Church and Sheryl Crow alongside visual artists from all over the country. Plus, the no-Pro-Tools-needed voices of Randy Houser and Maddie and Tae will headline tours for the first time.

Here are the albums and events we typed in large, bold font on our Fall 2015 calendar.

Pilgrimage Festival

AUSTIN, TX - APRIL 20: Musicians Sheryl Crow (L) and Willie Nelson perform during the "We Walk The Line: A Celebration Of The Music Of Johnny Cash" show at ACL Live on April 20, 2012 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Gary Miller/FilmMagic)

Gary Miller/FilmMagic

Pilgrimage Festival

While many country stars take up residence in the relatively sleepy town of Franklin, Tennessee, it's never exactly been known as a thriving musical center despite its relative proximity to Nashville's Music Row. The Pilgrimage Festival, founded by Better Than Ezra's Kevin Griffin (who lives in you guessed it — Franklin) is set to change that on September 26th and 27th, when it transforms a local farm into a two-day all-star gathering, featuring sets from Wilco, Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson, Nikki Lane, Dawes, Chris Stapleton, the Decemberists and more. But unlike Bonnaroo — Tennessee's fluorescent flagship fest — there will be no 2:00 a.m. DJ sets or sunrise raves; Pilgrimage is strictly a daytime event, meant to cater to families who want to bring their toddlers, catch the stellar lineup and hope Griffin hops on stage for a "Good" redux. All that and home for bath time. Marissa R. Moss

Corb Lund

INDIO, CA - APRIL 26: Musician Corb Lund performs onstage during day 2 of 2014 Stagecoach: California's Country Music Festival at the Empire Polo Club on April 26, 2014 in Indio, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Stagecoach)

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Stagecoach

Corb Lund’s ‘Things That Can’t Be Undone’ Album

Corb Lund's breed of country has been simmering comfortably under the mainstream radar for years. Born on the farming fields of Canada, he's a cowboy who makes Alberta seem like the noir version of Hank Williams' Nashville, where northern snow melts to melodic tears and dusty old cabins become weary honky-tonks. For his newest LP, Things That Can't Be Undone, out October 9th, he enlisted ace producer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton) to infuse some new dynamics into his music: licks of Motown, Nineties rock and Middle Eastern tones all weave their way into songs that often sound one way but mean something else entirely, delivered with a clever, restless wink and a quivery howl. Marissa R.  Moss

Maddie and Tae

NBC

Maddie & Tae’s ‘Start Here’ Tour

Fresh off the release of their debut album Start Here, Maddie & Tae will be hitting the road this fall for a 12-date club tour. By the time it's over, audiences should have no doubt that the future Vocal Duo winners (it's inevitable, really) have more to offer than just the wit and wisdom of "Girl in a Country Song." On stage, Maddie Marlow and Taylor Dye entrance with first-rate harmonies on instant fan favorites like "No Place Like You" and "Downside of Growing Up," and the country newbies already command with the confidence and charisma of an arena headliner, wowing crowds with nuanced covers of Stevie Nicks' "Landslide," Dixie Chicks' "Cowboy Take Me Away" and even Rihanna's "Umbrella." "To write songs that matter is one thing," Marlow says of the upcoming tour, which kicks off October 7th in New York City. "To bring people inside them is another." Jonathan Bernstein

Warren Haynes

OAKLAND, CA - FEBRUARY 20: Warren Haynes of Gov't Mule performs in support of the band's " Sco-Mule" release at The Fox Theater on February 20, 2015 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

American Roots and Arts Festival

Pop festivals like Bonnaroo and country fests like FarmBorough have at least one thing in common: They both send the Americana acts to a side stage. October 17th and 18th, Raleigh, North Carolina's American Roots and Arts Festival flips the script. Eric Church headlines both nights at the Walnut Creek Amphitheatre, and he's preceded by a roster that includes Willie Nelson, Warren Haynes, Chris Stapleton, Modest Mouse, Sheryl Crow, Grace Potter, Tedeschi Trucks, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and — why not — the Roots themselves. Nick Murray

Jason Isbell

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 12: Musician Jason Isbell performs onstage at The Wiltern on August 12, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson’s Sell-Outs

Selling out one show at the legendary Ryman Auditorium is a pipe dream for many artists – let alone multiple nights in a row. Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson, however, make it look easy: Isbell will dominate in a four-night run on October 23rd-26th (with openers like Chris Stapleton and Hurray for the Riff Raff), while Simpson will make his headlining debut at the venue with a three-evening stand a few days later, from October 30th – November 1st. When Isbell's tickets went on sale in the spring, he hadn't yet released a lick of new music from July's stellar Something More Than Free, and Simpson's groundbreaking 2014 LP Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is well over a year old: a testament to their growing power as timeless talents, not dependent on novelty or quick hits to woo an audience into snatching up countless concert tickets. Marissa R. Moss

Patty Griffin

CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 19: (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) Patty Griffin performs "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" onstage during I'll Take You There: Celebrating 75 Years Of Mavis Staples at Auditorium Theatre on November 19, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Daniel Boczarski/MSBB14/Getty Images for Blackbird Productions)

Daniel Boczarski/MSBB14/Getty Images for Blackbird Productions

Patty Griffin’s ‘Servant of Love’ Album

"Silver Bell kind of kicked my ass a little bit,” Patty Griffin tells Rolling Stone Country, referring to the 2013 LP she recorded in Daniel Lanois' New Orleans studio. On September 25th, the 51-year-old singer-songwriter moves forward with Servant of Love, an independent release that sets her keen lyrics amid stark instrumentation that demands — and earns — your full attention. "Gunpowder" is as explosive as its title suggests, but "Made of the Sun" is an account of a sunny winter day so lovely that it almost makes us want to skip fall altogether. Nick Murray

Glen Hansard

DUBLIN, IRELAND - JULY 04: Glen Hansard of The Frames at Iveagh Gardens on July 4, 2015 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Kieran Frost/Redferns via Getty Images)

Kieran Frost/Redferns

Glen Hansard’s ‘Didn’t He Ramble’ Album

On his second solo album, Didn't He Ramble, out September 18th, the Oscar-winning Once co-star and Frames/Swell Season co-leader doesn't ramble so much as murmur. You'll want to lean in and listen because Hansard has seldom sounded this quiet, only rarely raising his voice on these 10 tracks. But lower volume doesn't cut down on the emotionality a bit. Didn't He Ramble evokes a feeling similar to one of Van Morrison's Celtic-soul fever dreams, burnishing the prevailing sense of romantic fatalism with some low-key bravado on the standout track "Winning Streak" (a kissing cousin to Bob Dylan's early-Seventies' chestnut "Forever Young"). Sam Amidon and Iron & Wine's Sam Beam also show up in cameo star turns. David Menconi

Country Music Hall of Fame

NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 25: Back row: Duane Allen, William Lee Golden, Richard Sterban and Joe Bonsall - The Oak Ridge Boys. Front row: Bonnie Brown, Jim Ed Brown and Maxine Brown - Jim Ed Brown and The Browns during the CMA announcement that JIM ED BROWN AND THE BROWNS, GRADY MARTIN, AND THE OAK RIDGE BOYS are the NEWEST MEMBERS OF THE COUNTRY MUSIC HALL OF FAME at Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on March 25, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Country Music Hall of Fame Medallion Ceremony

In March, the Country Music Hall of Fame announced its class of 2015: the Oak Ridge Boys; late, great sideman Grady Martin; and Jim Ed Brown and the Browns. The Medallion Ceremony  honoring the three inductees at the hall and museum's CMA Theater in October will be a bittersweet one for friends and family of the latter. Just this past June, Jim Ed Brown died at 81. The late Brown — along with his surviving sisters and band mates Maxine and Bonnie – will be inducted in the hall's Veteran Era category. The Oak Ridge Boys, who are still going strong over 60 years of lineup changes, are being inducted in the "Modern Era" category. Martin, a session guitarist who's pickin' can be heard on such classics as Marty Robbins' "El Paso" and Loretta Lynn's "The Coal Miner's Daughter," and who died in 2001 at age 72, is being honored in the Recording and/or Touring Musician category. Hosting a crowd of less than a thousand, the Medallion Ceremony is an intimate affair compared to most red-carpet hooplas in Music City. Each inductee will be honored with a bronze plague and tribute performances. Adam Gold

Dave Rawlings Machine

ATHENS, GA - NOVEMBER 26: Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch perform with Dave Rawlings Machine at the Georgia Theatre on November 26, 2013 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo by Chris McKay/WireImage)

Chris McKay/WireImage

Dave Rawlings’ Machine’s ‘Nashville Obsolete’ Album

For his second album under his own name, guitarist extraordinaire Dave Rawlings enlisted players including Punch Brothers bassist Paul Kowert and Old Crow Medicine show alumnus Willie Watson. But as always, Rawlings' most important collaborator remains longtime partner Gillian Welch. Nashville Obsolete is the seventh album Rawlings and Welch have made together, and its September 18th release comes just two days after they'll receive a lifetime songwriting achievement award at the Americana Music Association Awards show in Nashville. While they made a point of recording on old-fashioned analog tape to get the requisite atmosphere, there's nothing old-fashioned about Rawlings' brilliantly idiosyncratic flights of guitar fancy. Nobody gets more emotion out of less volume than he does. The album's centerpiece is its penultimate track, an 11-minute epic called "The Trip" – which it literally is. David Menconi

Thomas Rhett

SANTA CLARA, CA - AUGUST 29: Thomas Rhett performs during the 2015 Kick Up The Dust Tour at Levi's Stadium on August 29, 2015 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by C Flanigan/FilmMagic)

C Flanigan/FilmMagic

Thomas Rhett’s ‘Tangled Up’ Album

"Crash and Burn," the lead-off single from 25-year-old Thomas Rhett's forthcoming album Tangled Up (out September 25th), sounds a bit like a guy's answer to Taylor Swift's blockbuster hit "Shake It Off." The singer's 2013 debut, It Goes Like This, scored a handful of charting singles and plenty of country radio airplay, but the question is, will his sophomore release catapult him from rising country star to crossover pop sensation, à la Miss Swift? Well, if the catchy, feel-good melodies and outsized production of Tangled Up tracks like "Vacation" are any indication, he at least has a fighting chance. D. Patrick Rodgers

Sturgill Simpson

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 20: Sturgill Simpson performs live on stage at Islington Assembly Hall on August 20, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Burak Cingi/Redferns)

Burak Cingi/Redferns

Americana Honors and Awards

Helping kick off 2015's Americana Music Festival will be the annual Americana Honors and Awards at Nashville's Mother Church of Country Music, the Ryman Auditorium. Jason Isbell, who took home last year's Artist of the Year trophy, is nominated in that category once more, but in breakout trad-country songster Sturgill Simpson — who won Emerging Artist of the Year in 2014 and is still cruising on the strength of last year's Metamodern Sounds in Country Music — and established artists Lucinda Williams and Lee Ann Womack, he'll have some stiff competition. Also tough to call is this year's Emerging Artist category, where Swedish sister act First Aid Kit will duke it out against fellow young performers Shakey Graves, Nikki Lane and Houndmouth, as well as Doug Seegers, a formerly homeless singer-songwriter who released his debut record Going Down to the River last year at the age of 62. Hosted by the always charming Jim Lauderdale and featuring a house band led by the acclaimed Buddy Miller, the ceremony will also feature a slew of performances from many of the night's nominees. D. Patrick Rodgers

Alabama

NASHVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 01: Randy Owen, Jeff Cook, and Teddy Gentry of Alabama accept the Career Achievement Award onstage during the 9th Annual ACM Honors at the Ryman Auditorium on September 1, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by John Shearer/Getty Images for ACM)

John Shearer/Getty Images for ACM

Alabama’s ‘Southern Drawl’ Album

Country music's most successful group reunited in 2011 following a seven-year hiatus. A tribute album in 2013 featured two new songs by the band, but Southern Drawl, out September 15th, is Alabama's first full country album since 2001's When It All Goes South (the band released a gospel album last year). If songs such as the upcoming LP's first single, mid-tempo ballad "Wasn't Through Lovin' You Yet," and the gentle, longing "Come Find Me" featuring Alison Krauss, are any indication, Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook haven't missed a step. There's a reason Alabama has sold more than 46 million albums — and now a new generation will found out why. Melinda Newman

Chris Young

GEORGE, WA - AUGUST 02: Chris Young performs at the Watershed Music Festival at The Gorge on August 2, 2015 in George, Washington. (Photo by Suzi Pratt/FilmMagic)

Suzi Pratt/FilmMagic

Chris Young’s ‘I’m Comin’ Over’ Tour

"Aw Naw" might have pushed this Tennessee native just past the borderline of bro-territory, but a good look at his catalog shows a true reverence for country music's roots. And with a voice like his, that's pretty inevitable. When Young sings hits such as the heartfelt "Who I Am With You" and "Voices," he sounds like the long lost vocal spawn of George Jones. He'll take that deep baritone on the road this fall for his 'I'm Comin' Over' tour, which kicks off October 22nd in Savannah, Georgia. The trek is the namesake of the singer's new album, due November 13th, which has already spawned a hit with the rapidly-climbing (and seriously sexy) title track. Added bonuses to the tour stops are guitar virtuoso Clare Dunn and Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Eric Paslay.

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