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10 Songs You Didn't Know Dolly Parton Wrote: Hits By Whitney Houston, Kenny Rogers & More
Country icon Dolly Parton has had plenty of hits with her own name on it, but she’s also behind several songs by some of her fellow legends in country music and beyond
Dolly Parton estimates that she has written close to 3,000 songs throughout her illustrious seven-decade career. While 450 of those songs have been recorded, Parton hasn't always been the artist to sing them: Merle Haggard, Hank Williams Jr. and Kenny Rogers have famously recorded and released tracks written by the 10-time GRAMMY winner.
"I love to write songs for men," Parton says in her 2020 book, Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics. "And it's a good thing I do because back then, there weren't that many women in the country-music business to write songs for. Especially ones who weren't writing their own songs, like Loretta Lynn was. I didn't have a lot of space to write songs for women so I purposefully tried to write songs that men could record. Or songs that could go either way."
That's not to say women haven't been a part of Parton's canon. She penned songs that have been recorded by Emmylou Harris and Skeeter Davis, and even gave Whitney Houston one of the biggest songs of her career.
Parton's songs have taken on new life thanks to artists across countless genres. In celebration of the Country Music Hall of Famer's 76th birthday on Jan. 19, GRAMMY.com takes a look back at 10 songs you may not have known Dolly Parton wrote.
"Put It Off Until Tomorrow," Bill Phillips
Before Parton became a household name for her own music, she was a songwriter for other artists. In January 1966, Bill Phillips released one of the songs she penned, "Put It Off Until Tomorrow," on which she provided backing vocals. The song peaked at No. 6 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart three months later, and the track's success helped garner Parton a recording contract with Monument Records. (Phillips also recorded Parton's "The Company You Keep," which became another top 10 hit later that year.)
"Fuel to the Flame," Skeeter Davis
Parton's career may not have taken off without her uncle Bill Owens, who recognized his niece's talent from a young age. In her early years in Nashville, Parton would frequently write with Owens and one of their earliest cuts together was when Skeeter Davis recorded and released "Fuel to the Flame" as a single in 1967. A beautiful ballad of a burgeoning love, "Fuel to the Flame" gave Davis her first major hit in two years, helping the star prolong her career while simultaneously helping launch Dolly's.
"Kentucky Gambler," Merle Haggard
A year before he wrote "Always Wanting You" for Dolly, Haggard recorded "Kentucky Gambler" in September 1974 at Nashville's Columbia Studios while Parton provided harmony. A song about a miner who left behind his wife and kids, "Kentucky Gambler" is a classic Dolly Parton story song providing a lesson on greed.
Released as a single with the Strangers later that year, Haggard's version of "Kentucky Gambler" reached No. 1 on Jan. 18, 1975. Parton recorded her own version of the song in 1973 and included it on her 1975 album The Bargain Store, but Haggard's rendition is most recognized today.
"There'll Always Be Music," Tina Turner
Two years after Tina Turner and then-husband Ike Turner got the world dancing with their iconic hit "Proud Mary," Tina kicked off her solo career by dabbling in country music. Her 10-track debut solo studio album, Tina Turns the Country On!, had an A-list roster of songwriters including Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Hank Snow and Parton, who penned "There'll Always Be Music."
The piano ballad showcased Turner's soulful vocals and was an introduction to Turner apart from the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. While the album didn't chart, it did earn Turner a GRAMMY nomination for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female.
"I'm In No Condition," Hank Williams Jr.
Like many of Parton's songs that were recorded by someone else, the singer still included her own version of "I'm In No Condition" on her 1967 album Hello, I'm Dolly. But after listening to Hank Williams Jr.'s rendition, it's hard to believe it was written for anyone but him.
An honest portrayal of the struggle in the aftermath of a breakup, the song laments a love he didn't want to end — underlined by the song's titular chorus line, "I'm in no condition to try to love again." Though it wasn't one of Williams Jr.'s most successful singles, it certainly encapsulated the vulnerability the bellowing star brought to the genre.
"Circle of Love," Jennifer Nettles
Jennifer Nettles played the role of Parton's mother, Avie Lee Parton, in the 2016 television movie "Dolly Parton's Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love" based on a true story from Parton's childhood. In classic Dolly fashion, she penned the film's heartfelt title track by herself.
Moved by the waltzing song's biblical message, Nettles also included her version on her solo To Celebrate Christmas holiday album released that year. Parton shared her own recording on her 2020 holiday album, A Holly Dolly Christmas, which is nominated for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album this year, and teamed up with Nettles to duet the song on "The Voice" that December.
"The Stranger," Kenny Rogers
One month before Parton and her longtime collaborator Kenny Rogers released their revered Once Upon a Christmas holiday album, Rogers unveiled his What About Me? album in October 1984. Though that project didn't include vocals from his singing partner, Rogers still had a touch of Dolly on the record: the powerful story song "The Stranger," written by Parton.
It's a tale of a boy wondering why his father deserted him before he was born only to meet him a decade after his mother's death. "The Stranger" is a descriptive and heart-wrenching tune that pulls the listener right into the song. "It was me and mamma that you left behind," Rogers croons at the song's close. "You're just a stranger."
"Waltz Me to Heaven," Waylon Jennings
While Parton reportedly wrote "Waltz Me to Heaven" for Waylon Jennings, the song first appeared on the 1984 film soundtrack for "Rhinestone," starring Parton and Sylvester Stallone. Her youngest brother, Floyd Parton, sang on the original track.
Later that year, Jennings included "Waltz Me to Heaven" on Waylon's Greatest Hits, Vol. 2. The stirring waltz highlights Jennings' memorable baritone alongside sweeping pedal steel and delicate fiddle accompaniment. Jennings' "Waltz Me to Heaven" made the soundtrack song a hit, reaching No. 10 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart.
"To Daddy," Emmylou Harris
A song written from the perspective of a teenager watching an unhappy relationship between her parents transpire, "To Daddy" sees the mother leaving her unaffectionate husband. The poignant tale clearly meant a lot to Harris and Parton, as Emmylou released it as a single from her 1977 album, Quarter Moon in Cent Town, and Dolly included it in her 1995 compilation, The Essential Dolly Parton, Vol. 1.
Harris' version also resonated with fans: It scored her a No. 3 hit on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart in 1978, and it was the only song featured on the 2003 tribute album Just Because I'm a Woman: Songs of Dolly Parton that wasn't recorded specifically for the project.
"I Will Always Love You," Whitney Houston
Long before Whitney Houston broke countless records with her rendition of "I Will Always Love You," Parton wrote and released the song as a letter to Porter Wagoner. After telling Wagoner she wanted to leave The Porter Wagoner Show countless times and Wagoner ignoring those wishes, Parton decided to do what she does best: write a song.
"I wrote the song, took it back in the next day, and I said, 'Porter, sit down. I've got something I have to sing to you,'" Parton recalled in Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns' Country Music book and documentary. "So, I sang it, and he was sitting at his desk, and he was crying. He said, 'That's the best thing you ever wrote. Okay, you can go, but only if I can produce that record.'"
While Parton's recording landed at No. 1 on two different occasions (upon its release in 1974 and again in 1982, when a new version was recorded and released for the film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas), it was Houston's spellbinding 1992 version from The Bodyguard that took the world by storm.
Spending 14 consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, Houston's "I Will Always Love You" became the best-selling physical single by a woman, with 20 million copies sold to date. Houston's version also took home Record Of The Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female at the 1994 GRAMMYs — creating an everlasting legacy for Whitney and Dolly alike.
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Clive Davis On His Famed GRAMMY Party, The Future Of The Industry & Whitney Houston's Enduring Legacy
As Clive Davis' renowned Pre-GRAMMY Gala returns after a pandemic-induced hiatus, GRAMMY.com spoke with the music industry icon about some of his most unexpected career wins and his thoughts on the 2023 GRAMMY nominees.
One of the most legendary events of GRAMMY weekend is back after a two year break.
Masterminded by Clive Davis, the Pre-GRAMMY Gala & Industry Salute to Icons has enjoyed iconic status as a place where music industry titans, tastemakers, politicians and actors alike rub elbows to toast the year, reflect on the past and look to the future of music. Taking over the Los Angeles' Beverly Hilton, the return of Clive's party for the 2023 GRAMMYs is a show business tradition without parallel.
The event also comes on the heels of a big year for Davis, who not only celebrated his 90th birthday but also hosted the Paramount+ series Clive Davis: Most Iconic Performances, and was portrayed by Stanley Tucci in the big-screen adaptation of Whitney Houston's life in I Wanna Dance With Somebody, which hit theaters in December.
Ahead of the Feb. 4 event, GRAMMY.com caught up with Davis at the Beverly Hilton to preview this year's party, gauge his thoughts on today's favorite artists and reveal the act whose success most took him by surprise.
Your Pre-GRAMMY Gala is back for the first time since 2020 after a COVID-induced break! How does that feel, and how are you feeling?
I feel great that it's back. The demand from day one — maybe since we emailed the invites this year — there's been such eagerness. People are ready and it makes me feel great. I'm getting emails and so much in writing as to what the party has meant for them, somehow it triggers that type of response and it's been touching. It's exciting!
Can you offer us a preview? Who's coming or who may be performing?
Well, you know that that's all a secret. Who's coming is a who's who of music, many more great movie stars are coming whatever the reason. Nancy Pelosi and Paul Pelosi are coming, for example. But the tales about who meets who from past parties [are legendary], from Brandi Carlile meeting Joni Mitchell for the first time and how they've bonded since, or Joni meeting someone like David Hockney.
This year, the Gala is honoring Atlantic Music Group Chairman and CEO Julie Greenwald and Atlantic Records Chairman and CEO Craig Kallman. Can you talk about their impact on the industry?
They have been very gifted competitors as far as I'm concerned. I've obviously competed more with people like Mo Ostin, Joe Smith and Chris Blackwell. But Julie and Criag are incredibly gifted music executives. I greatly admire what they've done and how they're revered by the artists who've worked with them.
In fact, one artist who works with them has asked to present the Icon award to Julie, and normally it's Harvey Mason Jr who's presenting it. So we'll see if that comes about. But if it does, it will be touching.
You bring up Joni Mitchell — in the past year she's had a renaissance of being back in the public eye. What does that mean to you to watch Joni come back?
I felt it starting six, seven or eight years ago. Joni decided she wanted to attend my GRAMMY party. I don't allow schmoozing, so if there's a five-minute or seven-minute gap in between performers, I give shoutouts because it's a big ballroom and people don't often know who's there. But when I gave a shoutout to Joni Mitchell, I mean, it got as much reaction as one for an artist who has conquered the room after a performance. There were cheers and a standing ovation just for a shoutout, so there's a connection there. She influenced so many lives. And she'll be there this year too.
I want to talk to you about Whitney Houston. Her movie came out last month and people are celebrating her again since it's her 75th birthday year. When you look back at your memories of her, do they make you sad or joyful?
There's a certain element of both because I miss her. But, seeing the recognition of her talent and seeing that it's historic — in the film, she's quoted as being the finest of her generation. So, it's a combination.
I'm gratified that she was not a one-hit wonder or a passing fad, but she'lll be a permanent influence and inspiration to young artists forever because she was that unique. So it's been very gratifying.
Speaking of the movie, Stanley Tucci portrayed you. This is a feeling not many people in the world know, to be depicted in a film. How do you think he did?
I felt he did me justice, and if that's his take on me, I'm happy with that take. I was gratified that my character is being portrayed by a really gifted actor who was not hamming it up or inventing a shtick or a persona. The reaction of others is that he captured me too, so it's only been positive. We've also become quite friendly.
I'm interested in your thoughts on the state of the music industry. Where does it stand now?
I'm very excited, most of all, that the industry is healthy — especially having gone through the period that the future of music was questionable. Now, I'm endowing a school in my name at NYU and giving scholarships.
People ask, "Is there a legitimate future in the industry?" And the answer is, music is a necessity and it will be here to stay. So I feel very good that the industry is healthy, and the streaming and digital evolution, and that those entering a career in the industry will take it wherever that goes in the future.
Speaking of the modern industry, are your feelings on the current crop of nominated artists?
I'm a big fan of Beyoncé, I'm a big admirer of what Harry Styles is doing so uniquely. But in the longer future, there hasn't been a new Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen. I also want to make sure that with hip-hop dominating, that a new Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston — a person with a voice who is breathtaking — deserves to have a home.
In your storied career, has anyone's success taken you by surprise?
I have a healthy respect for failure, so the most gratifying thing for a legacy or my career has been the height that so many artists that I've created a home for have reached and influenced as many people have. I'm thinking of someone who was maligned by the critics like Barry Manilow was and now he's still headlining. I recently saw him in Florida at an arena and the fervor in the audience for him was amazing to see.
Does a particular record come to mind?
As far as what record, the record that I helped break personally that the odds were against and became a landmark breakthrough was Kenny G's "Songbird," especially being an instrumental. I wrote a letter to every radio station. He became the best-selling instrumentalist of all time.
But who's' also coming to mind is when I signed Carlos Santana for the second time. It was viewed as Davis' folly. This was a man who did not have a hit in 25 years and was past the age of 50 and wasn't even a lead singer, so the fact he could come back with one of the best-selling albums of all time in Supernatural. I thought he'd have some success or else I wouldn't have signed him, but to be an all-timer is clearly surprising and gratifying.
Photo: Travis Bailey
Babyface Reflects On Collaborating With Whitney, Toni, Ella Mai & More: How The Legendary Hitmaker Learned To "Speak In Their Voices"
Babyface has enough Top 10 singles to keep a playlist bumping for hours. The songwriter and producer discusses his most memorable productions, many of which tell compelling stories from a woman's perspective.
You didn't have to live through the '90s to know that 11-time GRAMMY winner Babyface is the mastermind behind so many of the decade's biggest R&B hits. Whitney Houston's "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)," Boyz II Men's "End of the Road," and Toni Braxton's "You're Makin' Me High" are just a few No. 1 singles penned by the Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee.
Babyface's legendary status is driven home by 125 Top 10 writer/producer credits, top-tier collaborations with Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Barbra Streisand, Beyoncé, and Eric Clapton, plus his own iconic hits, such as "Whip Appeal," "When Can I See You," and "Every Time I Close My Eyes." But telling compelling stories — especially from the female perspective — is arguably one of his greatest strengths, as evidenced most recently on Girls' Night Out.
The 13-track collaboration project champions some of today's brightest female R&B stars, including Ari Lennox, Kehlani, and Queen Naija. Lead single "Keeps on Fallin'" with Ella Mai is nominated for Best Traditional R&B Performance at the 2023 GRAMMYs, which means he's now surpassed 50 GRAMMY nominations. "It was a nice surprise," Babyface tells GRAMMY.com. "It inspires you to keep doing the work."
A master of his craft, Babyface did his homework before getting in the studio with each artist on Girls' Night Out. "I needed to learn how people spoke and how melodies are different. Otherwise, I don't know if I would've been able to speak in their voices," he shares. "I have a much clearer understanding of today's R&B because there is a difference, and it's not necessarily a difference that's any better or any worse. It's just a difference in terms of time, and that's what made the process enjoyable to me."
Though Babyface took more of a mentoring approach with Girls' Night Out, he's no stranger to fostering talented female singers, particularly on the soundtrack for the 1995 movie Waiting to Exhale — which exclusively features Black women. The OST boasts a string of No. 1 and Top 10 hits penned entirely by Babyface himself, including beloved classics like Braxton's "Let It Flow" and Brandy's "Sittin' Up in My Room."
Yet "Not Gon' Cry" by Mary J. Blige — who is nominated in six categories at the 65th GRAMMY Awards — remains among Babyface's most memorable productions for Waiting To Exhale. The timeless ballad, written from character Bernadine’s point of view after her husband of 11 years leaves her for another woman, emerged as the Black woman's anthem for showing resilience in the face of romantic heartbreak and betrayal, but the song almost didn't happen.
"The opening lyrics, 'While all the time that I was loving you, you were busy loving yourself,' just sounded like a real-life conversation, and it sounded like something Mary could say," Babyface explains. "I played it for Andre Harrell, and he said, 'It's okay, but I don't think it's the record for her… Mary's too young for this. She's not 47 years old and she ain't been married and all that.'"
He continues, "My answer to him was, 'Mary's singing for everyone else… and she ultimately became a voice for other women.' It wasn't her personal story, but her voice could deliver that."
Babyface's musical legacy developed further with the formation of LaFace Records in 1989 with music executive L.A. Reid. In the label’s glory days, LaFace launched the careers of Braxton, TLC, OutKast, Pink, Usher, Ciara, Goodie Mob, and Donell Jones. But one of his most impressive feats isn't talked about enough: that Whitney Houston selected Babyface to help usher in the more R&B-oriented sound of her third studio album, 1990's I'm Your Baby Tonight.
"They came to LaFace because they wanted a Blacker record, but when I was writing 'I'm Your Baby Tonight,' I wasn't thinking R&B… I was just writing a Whitney record," he says. "There's an urban flavor to it, but the truth is it wasn't that R&B, but everything is R&B if a Black artist touches it… the idea was to run away from songs like 'How Will I Know' and 'I Wanna Dance with Somebody' that were big records for her that they said weren't Black enough."
Babyface and Houston proved to be a winning musical duo, and "I'm Your Baby Tonight" was nominated for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female at the 33rd GRAMMY Awards. The collaboration also gave Houston her eighth No. 1 hit, tying with Madonna for the female artist with most No. 1s on the Billboard Hot 100 at the time.
The success with divas like Houston and Braxton allowed Babyface to explore his versatility as a hitmaker for superstars outside of the R&B realm. For the lush sounds heard on Madonna's sixth studio album, Bedtime Stories, the pop icon teamed up with Dallas Austin, Dave Hall, and of course Babyface, who co-wrote "Forbidden Love" and "Take a Bow." The latter song became her longest running No. 1 hit.
"The track was already laid down and when we brought in the live strings, which was Madonna's suggestion, it became a whole other thing. I think it was the combination of my background vocals behind Madonna's that just made for a very unique song in that sense for her," Babyface recalls. "She was nervous because she just wasn't used to singing that controlled and being that vulnerable. I remember how we sat there and wrote the song together [at the Hit Factory Studios in New York City], so that's a really cool memory."
As the 64-year-old musician enters the next stage of his four-decade career, he has plenty to look forward to: Touring with eight-time GRAMMY winner Anita Baker, a possible deluxe version of Girls' Night Out, and the upcoming 30th anniversary of his third studio album, For the Cool in You, which spawned the top 5 hit "When Can I See You." (The acoustic tune earned Babyface his first GRAMMY for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.)
For all his success, Babyface has remained humble and his greatest joy comes from being able to hear a talented vocalist bring a song he wrote to life. "The best part is when you get into the studio with this idea, this little demo and then, when someone like Whitney, Aretha, or Boyz II Men sings your song, it becomes a hit before your eyes," he says. "They take it to a place I never imagined it could go."
Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist
The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.
Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!
The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.
Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.
So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.
Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.
About GRAMMY U:
GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.
Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.
As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.
Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.
Photo: (L-R) Mickey Bernal/Getty Images, Neil Lupin/Redferns, Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy, Scott Kowalchyk/CBS via Getty Images, Jason Kempin/Getty Images
2022 In Review: 6 Trends That Defined Country Music
From Dolly Parton to Zach Bryan, country music's veterans and new generation found room to grow within the genre in 2022.
Country music isn't always heralded as a haven for artists who fall outside the genre's accepted mainstream. But 2022 saw country music claim a bigger piece of the cultural pie than it has in recent years.
Artists are discovering new paths to success, driven by the meme-ification of culture and music and templated by stars like Walker Hayes, whose GRAMMY-nominated song "Fancy Like" broke through in mid-2021 thanks to TikTok and ended 2022 among the top five of Billboard's Hot Country Songs. Breakout stars Zach Bryan and Bailey Zimmerman also rode online acceptance to mainstream success — the former built a career on his YouTube buzz, while the latter turned his TikTok virality into Platinum sales.
The genre expanded in other non-traditional ways in 2022 as well. In particular, indie-rock and LGBTQIA+ artists are no longer hovering in the periphery, but making real impacts on country music listenership, thanks to worthy efforts by Waxahatchee and Adeem the Artist, among others.
As country music continues to expand its horizons into 2023, here are six trends that defined country music in 2022.
New Artists Dominated
If the emergence of new talent is a barometer of a genre's health, country music has nothing to worry about. Not since 2015 has a country artist landed on Billboard's top five Best New Artists, when Sam Hunt broke through big. But this year, country music landed two of the five spots on the year-end chart, thanks to newcomers Zach Bryan and Bailey Zimmerman.
Bryan emerged with an audacious statement, claiming country's biggest first-week sales with his major-label debut, the triple-album American Heartbreak. The album landed at No. 5 on the Billboard Top 200 and topped country streaming tallies on both Spotify and Apple Music.
Like Bryan, who first found success when his music went viral on social media, Bailey Zimmerman parlayed his online following into an impressive run with Platinum singles "Fall in Love" and "Rock and a Hard Place." Both are off of his first EP on Warner Music Nashville, Leave the Light On, which became the most-streamed all-genre debut of the year and the biggest streaming country debut of all time.
Lainey Wilson also had a banner year, proving that her No. 1 hit on country radio with "Things A Man Oughta Know" in 2021 was no fluke. In between winning new artist honors from both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association this year, she landed her second No. 1 on country radio with the Cole Swindell collab "Never Say Never" in April. Most recently, Wilson became the latest country star to appear on the hit Paramount TV drama "Yellowstone"; she debuted on season five as the character Abby, performing her original songs "Smell Like Smoke" and "Watermelon Moonshine," and has become a recurring character.
After Jelly Roll made waves with his 2021 single "Dead Man Walking" and the 2022 Brantley Gilbert collaboration "Son of the Dirty South," the Nashville country rapper solidified himself as a newcomer to watch with "Son of a Sinner." The slow-burning single scored Jelly Roll his first top 10 hit on Billboard's Hot Country Songs and Country Airplay charts, and it broke the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100. He also proved his hometown pride is strong: On. Dec 9, he headlined a sold-out show at Nashville's 20,000-cap Bridgestone Arena.
Bluegrass Saw A Resurgence
You'd be hard-pressed to find another artist who has broadened the bluegrass horizon in recent years more than Billy Strings; his progressive approach to the foundational country genre pulls in elements of rock and psychedelia. While he titled his 2019 Grammy-winning album Home, on his 2022 set Me/And/Dad, Strings came full-circle to play traditional bluegrass standards with his father, Terry, like they did when he was a kid. Strings (whose birth name is William Lee Apostol) even located the Martin acoustic guitar Terry played in those early days but pawned to support the family, fulfilling Billy's bucket-list bluegrass album in more ways than one.
Representing the more traditional approach to the genre, bluegrass icon Del McCoury issued his 17th album, Almost Proud, in February. A peer and collaborator of the genre's Mt. Rushmore (Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs), McCoury is keeping the flame lit in his ninth decade — and he hasn't lost a lick of his abilities. McCoury and his sons Ronnie and Robbie pick, roll and harmonize like it's a Saturday night at the Grand Ole Opry.
Up in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, the Po' Ramblin' Boys have tapped into a similar authenticity by playing bluegrass standards like their forebears. Although they formed around a regular gig at a moonshine distillery, their 2022 album God's Love Is So Divine walks the straight and narrow on 13 gospel bluegrass tunes.
Old Crow Medicine Show have come a long way since O.G. bluegrass musician Doc Watson discovered them busking on the streets of Boone, North Carolina in 2000. While that growth is evident throughout 2022's Paint This Town, they incorporate bluegrass on tracks like "Painkiller," "DeFord Rides Again" and "Hillbilly Boy." The group also invited Americana mainstay Jim Lauderdale to co-write a couple of tunes, and Mississippi fife master Sharde Thomas to guest on "New Mississippi Flag."
Punk Went Country (And Country Went Punk)
Genre-bending is nothing new in Nashville, and even punk rockers have been acknowledging the raw power of country music since the early '80s — when bands like X, Social Distortion and The Gun Club began incorporating elements into their music, and even covering classics like Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire." Fast forward to 2022, and the trend has kicked into high gear.
Woody Guthrie, the iconic folk hero of dust-bowl-era America, left behind a large body of unrecorded songs — evidenced by the three volumes of lyrics that have been set to music and recorded as Mermaid Avenue by Billy Bragg and Wilco. Boston pub punks Dropkick Murphys plucked 10 more uncut Guthrie gems for their 2022 set This Machine Still Kills Fascists, a play on the line Guthrie famously scrawled onto the body of his guitar. For their first country album, Dropkick Murphys recruited two of the genre's brightest lights: Nikki Lane, who guests on "Never Git Drunk No More," and Evan Felker of Turnpike Troubadours, who shares the mic on "The Last One."
Foo Fighter Chris Shiflett — who previously played with speedy punks No Use For A Name — got into the act, too. When he isn't cranking guitars alongside Dave Grohl and Pat Smear, he plays his own Bakersfield-inspired country rock, as heard on 2017's West Coast Town and 2019's Hard Lessons. This year, he issued the singles "Born & Raised" and "Long, Long Year," a pair of breezy, pedal steel-assisted cuts that find him leaning more than ever into his sunny SoCal disposition.
Shiflett previously shredded the guitar solo on "Goin' Nowhere," a collaboration with country hitmaker HARDY on his Hixtape Vol. 2, released in the last weeks of 2021. Now, HARDY's back and flipping the script with his own rock record, the mockingbird & THE CROW, set for release in January. Early singles "JACK," "TRUCK BED" and the title track, all released in 2022, show the influence of Nirvana and post-grunge songcraft alongside his distinctive, rhythmic lyrical delivery.
Legends Got Their Due
In 2022, country music proved that age is irrelevant when the music is this good. Newcomers Chapel Hart captured the national spotlight — and a rare Golden Buzzer — on "America's Got Talent" in July with a nod to icon Dolly Parton. The trio's electrifying performance of their original song "You Can Have Him Jolene," an answer to Parton's 1974 smash "Jolene," elevated them to star status, and they spent the latter half of 2022 playing to sold-out audiences across America. Darius Rucker even recruited them to back him on his song "Ol' Church Hymn."
Parton had her own high point this year, earning her first No. 1 on Billboard's Bluegrass Albums chart with her 48th studio album, Run, Rose, Run. She also released a new compilation album, Diamonds & Rhinestones: The Greatest Hits Collection, in November.
After Shania Twain spent the last couple of years featuring on other artist's songs, the best-selling female country artist of all time returned to her throne in 2022. She announced her sixth studio album, Queen of Me (due Feb. 3, 2023), helmed by the dance-floor bop "Waking Up Dreaming." The announcement followed the Netflix documentary Not Just A Girl (and the companion album that featured more than a dozen unreleased songs) and preceded another huge announcement: a 76-date U.S. tour for 2023.
Twain's fellow genre-bending '90s icon, Sheryl Crow, also issued a documentary in 2022. The Showtime special, "Sheryl," was accompanied by a double-album compilation of the same name, which featured two discs of hits plus collaborations with Chris Stapleton, Stevie Nicks, Jason Isbell and more. Crow also featured on 2022 releases from TobyMac and Lucius. The latter track also featured Brandi Carlile, who has played a big role in Tanya Tucker's recent comeback story — as shown in yet another 2022 doc, "The Return of Tanya Tucker," which featured their song "Ready As I'll Never Be."
The CMA Awards paid tribute to icons Jerry Lee Lewis, who passed away in October, and Alan Jackson, who is in the midst of a farewell tour dubbed Last Call: One More For the Road. Firebrand singer Elle King channeled The Killer's wild moves as she performed his signature hit, "Great Balls of Fire," backed by The Black Keys. Meanwhile, Carrie Underwood led a star-studded Jackson tribute featuring Dierks Bentley, Jon Pardi and Lainey Wilson, who performed a melody of his hits including "Chattahoochee" and "Don't Rock the Jukebox."
The legacies continued both on stage and in studio. Brooks & Dunn's Ronnie Dunn, Reba McEntire and Bonnie Raitt all returned with new albums in 2022; meanwhile, Shenandoah, Billy Dean and Wade Hayes appeared on the Country Comeback Tour, and Wynonna led The Judds: The Final Tour in tribute to her mother, Naomi Judd, who passed away in April.
Indie Rockers Infiltrated Country Music
As '90s-style indie rock has a moment thanks to artists like Big Thief, Momma and Alvvays, Katie Crutchfield is leaning deeper into laid-back country vibes. The leader of Waxahatchee, whose blissful 2020 set Saint Cloud landed her on scores of year-end lists, doubled down in 2022.
Waxahatchee collaborated with Wynonna on the single "Other Side," recorded on the Judds singer's farm in Tennessee — an experience both artists ranked among their favorite recording sessions. Crutchfield also collaborated with Jess Williamson on a new project dubbed Plains, releasing the album I Walked With You A Ways in 2022 to critical acclaim. The 10 songs on Plains' debut rival the artists' soothing solo work and combine their strengths with Fleetwood Mac harmonies.
Madison Cunningham, who is best known for weaving mind-bending melodies and harmonies between her voice and guitar, guested on the second edition of Watkins Family Hour — which pairs siblings Sara and Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek with a series of notable collaborators like Fiona Apple and Jackson Browne — contributing her signature spidery guitar playing to "Pitseleh."
Other notables on the indie side of country include Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit, who returned with Palomino, a strummy set of acoustic guitar-driven country pop and their first album in four years. Michaela Anne's gentle LP Oh To Be That Free chronicled a period of personal troubles with compassion, while Sierra Ferrell released the sparse, playful single "Hey Me, Hey Mama" and collaborated with Shakey Graves on "Ready Or Not."
LGBTQIA+ Country Artists Were Celebrated
Acceptance for LGBTQIA+ artists in country music has grown steadily in recent years, thanks to efforts by allies like Kacey Musgraves and Dolly Parton, as well as artists who have publicly discussed their sexuality, including T.J. Osborne, Lil Nas X, Chely Wright, Amythyst Kiah and Shane McAnally. With such star power in their corner, gay and non-binary country artists are now getting a fairer shake.
Non-binary singer-songwriter Adeem the Artist released the acclaimed album White Trash Revelry. Over 11 songs, Adeem chronicles their experiences growing up different in small towns surrounded by smaller minds — from the stomp-along "Going to Hell" to the Heartland rocker "Heritage of Arrogance" and fingerpicked album closer "My America."
Elsewhere, Orville Peck, the masked singer who performs a fever dream of '70s-inspired country music with a deep-throated croon, returned with his second album, Bronco. Peck traded the spare songscapes of his 2019 debut, Pony, for Bronco's more fully realized, cinematic arrangements, broadening his sound and the scope of his persona.
Brandi Carlile, whose pro-LGBTQIA+ activism is tied directly to her music — she founded the Looking Out Foundation early in her music career, and donates a portion of touring proceeds to groups like The Trevor Project — has seen her reputation grow steadily over nearly two decades of releasing music to ever-growing audiences. In 2022, she added to an already storied career by performing with her personal hero, Joni Mitchell, at Newport Folk Festival. Carlile also headlined Tennessee's Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival, marking the first time a woman has headlined the fest.
However country music continues to expand and impact culture as a result, 2022's trends certainly set up a promising future for the genre.