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Emma's Country Column: Rewinding 2022 Releases

For each of her songs, Hailey Whitters recorded a themed lyric video with a corresponding photo shoot based on life in the heartland. For "Boys Back Home," Whitters thought shooting in a silo would be more cute than corny. (Photo Used Under the Fair Use Provision of the U.S. Copyright Code)

By Emma Duncan--Eagle Editor

It seems as if just a few weeks ago I was rewinding 2021 releases, but now 2023 is officially here! To hope this year brings just as many wonderful new songs and albums, I wanted to review some of my favorite country, Americana, and folk releases from the past year.

Starting off strong, Hailey Whitters released her third studio album Raised on March 18, and after months of positive feedback from fans online and throughout her tour, Raised was named the #1 Album of the Year by Holler. Whitters has found that perfect mix of truthful lyrics, calming strums, and poppy beats, and she’s claiming it as her own for those like her. “College Town,” “Everything She Ain’t,” “Boys Back Home,” and “Big Family” are incredibly relatable to me in this chapter of my life, as I, along with the entire senior class, prepare to venture out into the unknown adventures of our futures, holding tight to the fond memories we’ve created so far. Raised is a combination of ambitious dreams and worrisome realities melded together with the all-too-familiar sounds of youth.

Originally, I didn’t plan on mentioning any singles, but Thomas Rhett’s “Death Row,” released on April 1 as part of his Where We Started album is a deserving exception. Featuring Russel Dickerson and Tyler Hubbard, “Death Row” reflects on a true time when the trio visited a prison in Tennessee to sing songs of love, laughter, loss, and the Lord to inmates who would soon face the death penalty. What started as a simple concert, however, turned into an unexpected realization for the singers and sinners alike. This song proves that even though we all walk different roads, and some make worse choices than others, we’re all still humans with passions, emotions, and ambitions. Definitely worth a listen.

Almost exactly a year ago, I highlighted all three of Luke Combs’ 2021 singles, but this year I get to talk about his amazing new album, Growin’ Up, which was published on June 24. This record has it all: a slight tribute to Brad Paisley's "The Fishing Song" with “On the Other Line,” a collaboration with Miranda Lambert through “Outrunnin’ Your Memory,” and several Combs classics about roller coaster relationships such as “Tomorrow Me” and “Going, Going, Gone.” Combs rarely ever disappoints me, and this album proves that, but one can’t deny that Growin’ Up is unfinished.

The cover art for "Growin' Up" only features half of Luke Combs' face, which makes me think the deluxe album will finish his subtle smile and hat but potentially feature a concert stadium. (Photo Used Under the Fair Use Provision of the U.S. Copyright Code)

Let me explain. The unreleased song mentioned in this title is called “Growin’ Up and Gettin’ Old,” which means we’ve got a deluxe album on the way! Combs revealed that the new album's release date will be March 24 titled …Gettin’ Old. I feel like it will be an even bigger hit than Growin’ Up, obviously featuring the title track which hit streaming platforms on Friday, January 27, but hopefully including his cover of “Dive” and one of my favorite Combs songs “Ever Mine”. If it’s anything like Growin’ Up, …and Gettin’ Old will be diverse with rock and pop influences yet comforting with country familiarity.

While Combs’ voice is known around the globe, the band Caamp lays a bit deeper below the surface, but their newest album Lavender Days, released on June 24, is bound to change that. This album is a journey where singer Taylor Meier asks listeners to “Come With Me Now” into a fever-dream-spiritual-awakening-hippie-bluegrass-hiking-wonderland (that’s a thing, just trust me). Instead of wanting to be Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” or The Lumineers’ “Ophelia”, I want to be Caamp’s “Lavender Girl.” I want to feel “Apple Tree Blues” while exploring the countryside with friends. I want to "float in deep water like the unfamiliar otter," staying peaceful and content through life's highs and lows. I want to jump and dance and sing and thrive. With Lavender Days, I can do all of these things. I can escape.

Keeping with the folk/Americana genre, Zach Bryan’s American Heartbreak, published on May 20, was obviously bound to have a place on this rewind. It’s undoubtedly the best album of the year, and possibly of the last five years.

Many of the songs included in "Summertime Blues" were written by Zach Bryan and his bandmates while on tour, just like the cover art for this EP. (Photo Used Under the Fair Use Provision of the U.S. Copyright Code)

I’m not going to give you another rant about that, though. Instead, I thought I’d give a moment in the sun to Bryan’s second release of the year, an EP called Summertime Blues, released on July 15, which continued the essence created through American Heartbreak. Every song on this EP is a hit. “Jamie” featuring Charles Wesley Godwin turns the story of a widower taking his own life into an addictive bittersweet melody about the power of true love. The title track is truly beautiful, personifying the wildness of nature through a letter to a distant lover. “Matt and Audie” is the story of Bonnie and Clyde told in a more positive light. These songs make the meaning of Summertime Blues something much more meaningful. Blues aren’t always bad; they often hint at a season of growth and freedom.

The second single I’m rewinding is no stranger to the country music scene. Since finding a home on streaming platforms on August 12, “Next Thing You Know” by Jordan Davis has won numerous awards, started a TikTok trend, and caused thousands of young adults to daydream about their future selves. “Next Thing You Know” brings a fuzzy-feel-good side to growing up, and shows that life truly does happen in the blink of an eye. I feel Davis is trying to encourage listeners not to plan their lives out too strictly, because everything will work out for the better in the end, and some parts of life are best kept a mystery.

This same theme can be felt in Koe Wetzel’s September 16 release Hell Paso, just in a less positive, more country-rock way. Wetzel has lost all care regarding what others think of his music or his way of life. He’s singing and living for himself, which to me makes Hell Paso much more real. The album starts with a teased, unfinished foreword from Wetzel before jumping right into “Creeps,” “April Showers,” and “Money Spent,” three upbeat, firey songs to scream when feeling left out by the world. From here, “Cabo” brings listeners to a time of reflection and ironic acceptance with “Oklahoma Sun,” “So Low,” and “Three Weeks.” After a short cheers to “everyone who’s loved the album so far… everyone who’s hated the album so far… [and] everyone who thinks [he’s] ruining country music,” Wetzel finds some peace and shares that his journey is “To Be Continued.” Some may write to sell records, but Wetzel writes to express himself.

Instead of just writing a song about his wife, Rhett McLaughlin (James and the Shame) released "Where We're Going" as a single using cover art of a young Jessie McLaughlin and even featured her vocals in the track. They also recorded a music video together featuring videos from their younger years in love. (Photo Used Under the Fair Use Provision of the U.S Copyright Code)

While Koe Wetzel is a name I discovered only a year or two ago, Rhett McLaughlin has been one of my favorite Internet personalities since elementary school. As one half of the comedic duo Rhett and Link, McLaughlin has been singing for years, but while these songs were mostly humorous, his country album Human Overboard, published on September 23 under the show name James and the Shame, is far from a joke.

This 11-track record packs a heavy punch as it tells the story of McLaughlin finding himself by losing his faith. Although I’m a Christian, I understand the struggle McLaughlin faced, and learned a lot about my own religion through “In Vain,” “Fruit,” and “Believe Me.” McLaughlin showed immense strength by releasing this album, but he also paid homage to his family. “Creek and Back” is a dedication to the love he has for his sons and while “Where We’re Going” was meant to be an intimate explanation of his and his wife’s love story together, it’s a masterpiece that should be the goal of all relationships. This album is groovy, twangy, and just so so good. I can’t wait for the future of James and the Shame.

From the faith deconstruction of James and the Shame, I now move into the expansive gospel sensation that is Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven? by Tyler Childers, released on September 30. While the album looks hefty with 24 songs, it’s actually three collections of eight songs recorded in different ways. First, the “Hallelujah” Version brings simplicity and raw vocals that emphasize the power of Childer’s voice accompanied by his live band. The “Jubilee” version adds background vocals, slightly more production, and other instruments such as strings and horns. Finally, “Joyful Noise” is what it appears to be, a completely instrumental session to showcase Childer’s talented bandmates. Each version adds more depth to the songs and proves Childers put a great deal of intention into breaking his two-year album hiatus.

The cover art, track list, and overall aura of "Bell Bottom Country" perfectly fit Lainey Wilson's adventurous and free-spirited personality. (Photo Used Under the Fair Use Provision of the U.S. Copyright Code)

Although it was released the latest, on October 28, Bell Bottom Country by Lainey Wilson is, in my opinion, the best female album of the year. Never have I heard lyrics so clean and high notes so effortlessly executed. This album is truly magical. Wilson describes it as “country with a flare,” which can be seen through the slightly psychedelic track videos and some song titles such as “Hillbilly Hippie,” “Wildflowers and Wild Horses,” and “Watermelon Moonshine.” Speaking of “Watermelon Moonshine,” this song as well as “Heart Like a Truck” and “Me, You, and Jesus” feel like classics I grew up listening to but could continue to play for years and years. "Atta Girl" is probably my favorite track, though, with its encouraging lyrics and double-meanings, it's a song I can always depend on when I need confidence. From the cover art to the lyrics to Lainey Wilson herself, Bell Bottom Country is nothing short of an absolute vibe.

Along with being my favorite songs of the year, almost all of these tracks have a common theme. With this year’s rise in people claiming a hat and a few concerts make them “country," many artists have used their music as a chance to prove that this is nothing new to them, as country flows through their veins like blood. This past year’s music was real, it told the story of those who came before us, and it had a heartbeat, one that will continue to beat into 2023 and beyond.

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