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Baylen Leonard's Year in Review

By Baylen Leonard

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Thank God for music, right?! Music is something I’m thankful for most of the time, but in 2020 I really *feel* it. Can I get an amen? In some of the darkest days of this year, with shocking death and infection rates, lockdown in full effect, political strife, travel plans dashed, and all the gloomy rest, sometimes it seemed music was the only light we had.

For a year that, let’s face it, pretty much sucked, at least we still had some great music to soothe our zoom-addled minds with. Looking back on a year that most people would rather forget is a tricky one. How do you sum up a time that for so many was emotionally, financially, or physically devastating? While lots of releases were pushed back, rescheduled, and rescheduled again, we still had some of the best music yet from established acts like Brandy Clark, Ashley McBryde, Lucinda Williams, and Luke Combs, plus exciting debuts from artists like Ingrid Andress, Caylee Hammack, Twinnie, and Parker McCullum. I’ve been saying all year that despite it being a very different year, it was a time ripe for breaking new artists. I mean, come on - what else did we have to do but sit around in our comfy trousers with a bottle of wine and listen to some music, right?

We had to improvise. We found new ways to not only hear live music but to gather. Gathering together is, in my mind, just as important as the music.

With live music essentially non-existent, the only way to actually experience live music was virtually. With all the postponed marquee country and Americana events - from Stagecoach, CMA Fest, and AmericanaFest in the states to C2C and The Long Road in the UK (and well, pretty much every festival everywhere) - we had to improvise. We found new ways to not only hear live music but to gather. Gathering together is, in my mind, just as important as the music. So off to our laptops we went, and not only were we treated to some really personal performances from some of our favourite artists, but in most cases, we also got to check out their home furnishings, pets, and bookshelves. Brandy Clark’s Beatles artwork, Suzy Bogguss’ cozy fireplace, and Margo Price’s very pregnant kitty cat all caught my eye.

The streaming performances often brought a new intimacy to songs I’d heard many times before and made me really listen, which is sometimes hard in a loud sweaty gig venue. Not that I can’t wait to get back to those loud sweaty gigs mind you, and we all know how important it is for venues of all sizes to get back on their feet.

Even though we were all watching from our own homes, it still felt communal, because not only did the chat flow in the comments section, but moreover there was a real sense of being in something together and making the most of it. Even iconic stalwarts like the Grand Ole Opry opened up their online doors, welcoming the masses in with no travel or planning needed. The Opry has been broadcasting it’s legendary and career making shows since 1925 and a pandemic wasn’t about to stop that.

Artists took their careers into their own hands this year too, with TikTok becoming a major player in music. Priscilla Block went viral on the platform before landing a major label deal and becoming one of the most buzzed about breakout stars of the year. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I can imagine we’ll be seeing more artists finding their way to fame this way, and I think we’ll be all the better for it. Anything that gets more people listening to great music, and gives more talented people a shot, the better.

The excitement of so many new artists in country and Americana this year was tempered by the devastation of losing some giants. John Prine, Kenny Rogers, Charlie Daniels, Joe Diffe, Justin Townes Earle, Jerry Jeff Walker, Charley Pride, and so many more. During a year of reflection and loss, these hit particularly hard. What a legacy they all leave in their own individual ways.

One of the things that country music does so well is hold up a mirror to life, but in 2020, country music had to take a deep look at itself. The long-simmering and deep-rooted issues of race and gender representation finally took center stage for a long overdue conversation. With artists like Mickey Guyton, Reyna Roberts, Rissi Palmer, and allies like Maren Morris leading the charge, a change is coming, and it can’t come fast enough. Being gay in country has always been a taboo but that too is changing - Jaime Wyatt came out and released some of her best music to date and had the biggest year of her career so far. Orville Peck is a creative force to be reckoned with and the commercial and critical success of both these artists is to be celebrated.

Country could learn a thing or two from its more open minded, liberal cousin Americana, which has always held the door open for anyone to come join the family. Though the year was notable for artists that refused to just shut up and sing, and who loudly spoke about issues important to them, it was just as notable for the artists who stayed silent on those issues - or worse yet, mocked them. We see you.

There were some big name changes this year too: Lady Antebellum became Lady A, The Dixie Chicks are now The Chicks, both finally dropping words that have long been contentious and to large segments of the population, downright offensive. Some people got their knickers all in a twist about this, but thankfully that’s died down now.

Though the year was notable for artists that refused to just shut up and sing, and who loudly spoke about issues important to them, it was just as notable for the artists who stayed silent on those issues - or worse yet, mocked them. We see you.

Even Dolly Parton dropped the word Dixie from one of her dinner shows because, as she said, it’s just a name, if it offends people then change it. It’s now simply Dolly Parton’s Stampede, and I can’t wait to go again when I next make it back home to Tennessee. A word missing from the title isn’t going to change how much fun it is to watch a live musical horse show while eating far too much BBQ and a bucket of corn on the cob. Yes, literally, you get a bucket of corn.

Speaking of Dolly, she’s having a huge moment again, and has solidified herself as the patron saint of country music - or should that be Parton Saint? In addition to finding a whole new generation of fans online, new music and a string of movies and TV shows, she also donated $1million toward the development of a coronavirus vaccine. God bless Dolly Parton for proving that Country music just might save us after all.