Booming production can’t drown out Reyna Roberts’ awe-inspiring vocals. With fire-red hair and a voice to match, Roberts is coming for her country crown in 2021. Case in point: her latest single, “Stompin’ Grounds,” with its rollicking guitars and spellbinding blend of hard rock and country. Her rock influences – ranging from Jimi Hendrix to AC/DC – become apparent the second you press play. Roberts’ fierce voice is wild and free, yet she knows how to tame it as she wails on the spitfire lyrics, “Boots down/Flames up from dawn to dusk/Drowning in that whiskey river/But too damn high to sink.” It’s the type of song that’s tailor-made for a live show and one she’s bound to light up on stage with.
Roberts moved from LA to Nashville in March, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown swept across the country. A few months later, in July 2020, she unleashed “Stompin’ Grounds.” In an interview with Rolling Stone, she shares that the song is partially inspired by her military background. As the stepdaughter of a Marine, Roberts lived in Alaska for a period of time during childhood before calling California and Alabama home, noting that while writing “Stompin’ Grounds,” she thought of the servicewomen and men who have to make stomping grounds for themselves when they’re stationed around the world, her thoughtfulness adding a layer of compassion to an already striking number.
Roberts debuted with “67 (Winchester)” back in the beginning of 2019, then spent the next few years networking with songwriters and industry reps and honing her craft. But it was her vocal talent that propelled her into the spotlight this summer, when she uploaded a cover of Carrie Underwood’s “Drinking Alone” to YouTube. Poised at a piano in her home, Roberts voice flies as magically as it does in a professional studio. Her rendition won over the approval of Underwood herself, who praised “Looks AND sounds great!” after Mickey Guyton retweeted a video of Roberts slaying the song with her arena-ready voice.
On top of her electrifying vocals, Roberts has proven that she’s just as willing to be honest in real life as she is in her music. In a series of Tweets, Roberts is sharing her recovery journey with fans from a recent eye surgery she had to correct cross-eyed vision impairment she was born with as a premature baby. Whether she’s revealing to Billboard that she lost every high school wrestling match her first year, yet refused to give up the sport, or sharing her truth on social media, Roberts says she was raised to be fearless, and so far, it’s proven to be true.
Roberts will perform on Brandy Clark’s holiday special, Christmas From Here There And Everywhere, alongside Clark, Melissa Etheridge, Cam, Ashley McBryde, Shane McAnally and Charlie Worsham, when it airs on Circle All Access on Dec. 22 at 10 p.m. ET.
With the 2020 holiday season comes a bounty of festive music straight out of Nashville. Stars across Music City have been getting into the holiday spirit with new Christmas albums, and while many offer sound renditions of the classics, they’ve also contributed their own perspectives with holiday originals. From a music legend to a bright newcomer, this collection of holiday tunes from some of Nashville’s finest provide comfort in their own unique ways during a time we need it most.
Dolly Parton (featuring Miley Cyrus) – “Christmas Is”
Dolly Parton has a monopoly on Christmas this year, and frankly, the world is better for it. When she’s not funding research for Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, Parton is offering up her first holiday album in almost 30 years, A Holly Dolly Christmas. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, as the icon shares stellar covers of Christmas classics poised alongside a handful of Parton-penned originals that make the season bright, including the tender-hearted “Christmas Is” featuring her goddaughter, Miley Cyrus. During a tumultuous year, leave it to Dolly’s graceful nature to bring us back down to earth with a reminder of what’s truly important not only during this time of reflection, but all year round, with her message of kindness and the joy of giving over receiving. Her words are destined to bring a smile to your face – one of the many gifts from the national treasure that is Dolly Parton.
Best lyrics: “It’s all about kindness/Love and compassion/Better to give than receive/That is a true fact/But those who don’t know that/Well, they are the poorest indeed”
“Christmas is a time for caring/Being at your best/Christmas is a time for sharing/Knowing you’ve been blessed/Christmas is a time for giving/Love is made of this/That’s what Christmas is”
Ingrid Andress – “Christmas Always Finds Me”
2020 was a major year for Ingrid Andress. While her debut hit “More Hearts Than Mine” and corresponding album, Lady Like, scored the breakout star multiple Grammy nominations, Andress still managed to cut through the hype with the tear-inducing “Christmas Always Finds Me.” Backed by a piano and intimate string orchestra, Andress delivers a timely message for those feeling lonely this holiday season. The songwriter has a gift for visual storytelling, and these lyrics (co-written with Derrick Southerland and Sam Ellis) find her clinging to warm memories of the past that follow her wherever she roams the earth. Delivered with breathtaking vocals that speak right to the heart, Andress offers a message of comfort with this gentle holiday lullaby.
Best lyrics: “And even if I’m all alone/A million miles away from home/It shows up in warm memory/Another year older/Getting harder to believe/But somehow Christmas always find me”
Carrie Underwood ft. John Legend – “Hallelujah”
One can only expect greatness when two of the best singers in music team up for an original holiday song, and that’s precisely what Carrie Underwood and John Legend deliver on the gorgeous “Hallelujah,” which appears on Underwood’s first-ever holiday album, My Gift. The lyrics, co-penned by Legend, evoke beautiful imagery ranging from a choir of angels to embers burning bright, and one can feel the crisp winter-kissed air the Grammy winners sing of as their brilliant voices unite. The song is wrapped in a feeling of calm and serenity they bring to life on this cinematic number, all while offering a message of peace and hope that feels like a warm embrace. The video is clip from My Gift: A Christmas Special from Carrie Underwood which begins streaming December 3 on HBO Max.
Best lyrics: “Let there be peace on earth/Let the lonely join together, let them know their worth/Let the children know/There’s a brighter day ahead/Let’s hold on to hope/And on the coldest evening in this December/Let us pray the spirit of love will linger”
Dan + Shay – “Take Me Home For Christmas” and “Christmas Isn’t Christmas”
Quenching fans’ thirst for Christmas tunes, Dan + Shay offer a sugar and spice blend of holiday originals with “Take Me Home For Christmas” and “Christmas Isn’t Christmas.” The crossover duo, featuring Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney, offer a pair of festive songs that reflect the current time, juxtaposing the happy and the sad. “Take Me Home For Christmas” is a banjo-laden bop for new lovers spending their first holiday together, injecting the listener with a dose of Christmas cheer as the narrator beckons their partner to take them to their hometown where they established holiday traditions and memories. But Dan + Shay bring us back to reality with the pandemic-friendly “Christmas Isn’t Christmas,” the two serenading those longing for the person they love during a time when many are separated from family and friends on a holiday of camaraderie.
Best lyrics: “And those songs wouldn’t sound the same/Home wouldn’t feel like home/I’m thankful you’re here tonight/‘Cause all I know is/Christmas isn’t Christmas if it’s not with you”
Louis York ft. Jimmie Allen and The Shindellas – “What Does Christmas Mean”
Bust out those jazz hands – Louis York and The Shindellas shoobie-doobie their way into the holiday season with Jimmie Allen on “What Does Christmas Mean.” Originally released in 2017, the Grammy nominated duo of Claude Kelly and Chuck Harmony called on hit making country star Allen for a re-imagination of the track that finds them painting their ideal Christmas scene with snow on the ground and loved ones all around. Allen’s buttery-smooth voice and The Shindellas’ sparkling harmonies add flair to the already bouncy track, the three acts instantly igniting Christmas spirit the moment the song starts. But the real star of the show is the way Harmony tickles those ivories, creating a jazzy Christmas melody that’ll hit you in all the holly jolly feels.
Best lyrics: ”There’ll be snow on the ground/There’ll be lights in the trees/There’ll be love all around/But if you’re not with me/Tell me what does Christmas mean without you?”
With the end of the year comes a time of reflection. Looking back on this year in country music, the firestorm of conversation about the lack of women on country radio spilled into 2019, while new artists like Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown broke down barriers, and names including Billy Ray Cyrus and Tanya Tucker saw a resurgence in their careers.
In 2019, country fans saw two legends experience an unexpected, but celebrated resurgence in Billy Ray Cyrus and Tanya Tucker.
Though known as ’90s country star with the breakthrough hit “Achy Breaky Heart” and as the father of Miley Cyrus, his name is now synonymous with the global hit that is “Old Town Road.” While the Nine Inch Nails-sampling Lil Nas X penned rap gained traction as a viral favorite on Tik Tok, it was a remix version featuring Billy Ray Cyrus that came to define the newish genre of “country rap.” Kicked off the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart based on the claim that it “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version,” “Old Town Road” quickly grew into a smash hit that broke the record as the longest running No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 – and Cyrus was a significant part of this. Though the song was already a jam in its original state, the unlikely pairing of the millennial rapper and baby boomer country star made for an important moment in pop culture. The song feels complete with both on the track, and Cyrus’ affinity for the song and ability to see how it connects to the history of country music is part of what gave him a second life in the genre.
Tucker enjoyed her own renaissance moment in 2019; the 61-year-old icon, who had her first hit single at age 13 with “Delta Dawn,” released her first album in 10 years, While I’m Livin,’ produced by Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings. Partnering with a new generation of talent gave Tucker an edge and refreshed identity while still delivering a strong body of work, and earned her four 2020 Grammy nominations. It was gratifying to see two iconicstars rise like phoenixes for a new phase in their lives.
It’s disappointing to think that even in 2019, you can count the number of mainstream African American country artists on one hand. Over the past few years, we’ve seen acts like Kane Brown become rising superstars, while Jimmie Allen reached No. 1 with his debut single “Best Shot” last year. But with Lil Nas X breaking down the walls for artists creating country trap, it feels like the beginning of a tidal wave of diverse artists who we’ll see breaking through in the next few years.
Yola is one of the many artists blazing this path. The elegant British country singer had a banner year with her debut record Walk Through Fire. Her spell-binding voice and awe-inspiring songwriting solidified her as a major breakthrough act this year, so much so that Kacey Musgraves invited her to be one of the opening acts at her first arena headlining show in Nashville and Elton John declared himself a fan after hearing her cover of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” She’ll embark on her own headlining Walk Through Fire Tour in 2020.
Blanco Brown also took country by storm with his original “Cotton Eyed Joe” style dance song, “The Git Up,” which was the longest running No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and spent 13 weeks as the top selling country single in the U.S. Meanwhile, former X Factor contestant Willie Jones spent the year building momentum with songs that range from the sweet (“Down For It”) to playfully observing the influx of bachelorette parties in downtown Nashville with “Bachelorettes on Broadway,” while up-and-coming singer-songwriter Tiera was named to CMT’s Next Women of Country class of 2020.
Jimmie Allen also joined forces with dynamic duo Louis York for a poetic number titled “Teach Me a Song” on the twosome’s American Griots album, and when they all performed on the Grand Ole Opry, it marked the first time three African American artists have appeared on the Opry stage at one time. With Louis York set to make their own Opry debut in February, it feels like we’re at the start of a revolution of multi-racial artists finally becoming a mainstay in a genre that has been sorely lacking in diversity.
Women in country
The conversation surrounding the lack of women on country radio was a dominant theme in 2018, with the likes of Carrie Underwood, Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris, Miranda Lambert and countless others speaking out. At 2018’s end, there were no women in the top 20 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart for the first time in the chart’s near 30-year history, and they didn’t fare too much better in 2019, as there are no solo female artists on the year-end list of Billboard Country Airplay songs. With the conversation being so loud, it instilled a false sense of hope that radio would take action and begin to move toward more balanced playlist.
But where radio faltered, women united in the form of all-female tours in 2019. Underwood set this precedent by inviting duo Maddie & Tae and trio Runaway June as her opening acts on the Cry Pretty 360 Tour, proving that a troupe of half a dozen women can sell out arenas across the country. Lambert followed suit, as her Roadside Bars & Pink Guitars Tour featured a massive all-female bill with openers including Maren Morris and CMA New Artist of the Year Ashley McBryde, along with newcomers like Tenille Townes, Kassi Ashton and many more.
Morris also set a standard by joining forces with Carlile, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby to form The Highwomen, whose debut album serves as one of the year’s best (and their surprise performance with Dolly Parton at 2019 Newport Folk Festival is arguably one of the highlights of the year in music). Morris continued with her support for women by bringing a mix of five female friends and rising artists in country on her aptly titled Girl: The World Tour named after her CMA Album of the Year. Even legends like Trisha Yearwood stepped up, taking an all-female bill out on the road with her for the Every Girl on Tour.
In addition, several new female artists not only made an impact on fans and the industry alike, but brought a distinct element with them: empathy. It’s the foundation of Townes’ “Somebody’s Daughter,” a compelling narrative inspired by a woman she saw on the side of the road who was homeless that should have been a No. 1 hit, but just barely made the top 30 on the country charts. Meanwhile, Ingrid Andress broke hearts in the best way with her powerful debut single “More Hearts Than Mine” that made her the only female artist to have a debut single reach the top 20 in 2019.
Though the fact that Carrie Underwood lost Entertainer of the Year to seven-time winner Garth Brooks during a year where she put on an impeccable production that led to growth as an artist while supporting deserving young women felt like another major blow to the cause, it was inspiring to see so many women uniting in the face of adversity – there is something truly special about seeing a group of gifted women lifting one another up in a bold way.
But in order to see real change, there needs to be integration, and there seems to be signs of that going into the new year. Dan + Shay, the country duo behind the wildly successful, Grammy winning crossover hit “Tequila,” recently announced that Andress will be joining them as an opening act on their 2020 Arena Tour. Jordan Davis, who has two country hits to his name, is bringing a pair of compelling singer-songwriters, Ashton and Hailey Whitters, as his openers on the 2020 Trouble Town Tour. I hope this is a trend that turns into a movement in 2020.
Carrie Underwood gets in touch with the bold side of her artistry with her new single “Drinking Alone.”
This week, Underwood released a music video for the smoldering track, and in the four-minute clip, the superstar acts as a singer in a swanky club, donning a fedora and sequined, sheer black ensemble, making eyes with a heartbroken stranger from the stage. It turns out the singer is a lonely patron herself, later joining him in a corner booth, sipping a glass of whiskey as she croons “We should be drinkin’ alone together/Drownin’ the pain is better/With somebody else who got problems/We ain’t gonna solve ’em/The misery loves company.”
As beguiling as the video is, the real intrigue lies in the song itself. “Drinking Alone” finds Underwood tapping into an R&B sound she hasn’t really experimented with before, mixing jazz flavor with slick wordplay. She doesn’t go over the top with her vocals, belting out the powerhouse notes when need be, but letting the softer tones in her voice really do the talking. The track has long been a standout and fan favorite on Underwood’s acclaimed 2018 album Cry Pretty, pushing her out of the sonic comfort zone that’s largely seen her play it close to the mainstream country line, whereas “Drinking Alone” feels like a significant growth spurt.
The video’s release comes on the heels of Underwood’s killer performance of the track at the 2019 CMA Awards. It was more of a theatrical display, really – oozing with confidence and flawless vocals. The show marked the twelfth consecutive year that Underwood served as host of the awards show, previously sharing duties with Brad Paisley.
This year, the CMA’s tone shifted to shine a spotlight on the women of country throughout the broadcast, pairing Underwood with legends Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire as co-hosts on a night that opened with a tribute to generations of hits recorded by women and featuring performances by the all three of them, along with The Highwomen, Martina McBride, Sara Evans, Tanya Tucker and many more.
But the female-centric night ended with Garth Brooks being crowned Entertainer of the Year – one of the highest honors in country music – for the seventh time, an outcome that somewhat rattled the Nashville industry. Eric Church, Chris Stapleton, Keith Urban, and Underwood herself were all nominated, with Underwood considered the top contender.
But Entertainer goes beyond touring. Many industry giants (including Miranda Lambert) had voiced their support for the lone woman nominee in the wake of her massive Cry Pretty Tour 360 that had her selling out arenas throughout 2019 and doing her part to support women in the genre by bringing duo Maddie & Tae and trio Runaway June as her opening acts. Cry Pretty is one of the most critically acclaimed albums Underwood has released in her 15-year career, on which she served as producer for the first time, during a season that saw the reserved star opening up about her experience with three miscarriages in a two-year period before welcoming a second son, Jacob, in January 2019. She also continues to cultivate her lifestyle brand Calia and is working on a health-focused book, Find Your Path: Honor Your Body, Fuel Your Soul, and Get Strong with the Fit52 Life, to be released in 2020, and has made impact outside of the genre, as NFL fans know her as the singer of the Sunday Night Football theme song.
Albeit, Brooks was headlining stadiums this year, setting records with ticket sales of 80,000 or more each night, while simultaneously reaching fans in a more personal way with his Dive Bar Tour that sees the superstar performing in intimate dive bars across the country. Still, this truly felt like Underwood’s year. While she’s the first woman to be awarded Entertainer of the Year twice consecutively at the ACM Awards, she hasn’t been able to break that glass ceiling at the CMAs, despite the buzz surrounding her with nominations in 2016 and 2019. While she’s always been at the center of a grand production, the Cry Pretty Tour was a spectacle, taking her show-womanship to the next level with fireworks, moving stages and interactive 360 degree staging that literally put her in the center of the crowd. And speaking as a fan for over a decade, she had me in tears throughout the show, taking us through a “walk down memory lane” segment where she shared her connection to a collection of early fan favorites while also realizing she now has so many hits that she had to perform snippets of several in one take. These are just a few of the factors that proved how much she’s grown as an entertainer since the first time I saw her in concert in 2012.
If you’re going solely based on ticket sales, it makes sense why Brooks was awarded the elite prize. But if you take into consideration the impact of an artist’s branding, how they challenged themselves musically and in their stage show, leading to overall growth as an artist, then Underwood defines the title of Entertainer of the Year.
Underwood is nominated for Favorite Female Artist (Country) and Favorite Album (Country) for Cry Pretty at the 2019 American Music Awards, airing on Nov. 24 on ABC. Here’s hoping she finally gains some long-deserved recognition.
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