All was calm in country music until May when a radio consultant went on the record with a significant radio trade publication, compared the format to a salad and said that women are the tomatoes in the salad and men are the lettuce. The comparisons outraged many artists, launched the #Tomatogate movement and helped raise awareness on the gender disparity in country radio airplay. However, it was also in 2015 when the most expressive and thought-provoking work came from women like Ashley Monroe, Kacey Musgraves, Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini and Cam. Little Big Town also rocked the year with their multi-platinum ballad, “Girl Crush,” which swept major ACM, CMA and Grammy categories.
Here are the country albums that defined 2015.
10. Django and Jimmie by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard
It’s safe to say American treasures Nelson and Haggard built two of music’s most desirable careers. They are among the principal architects of the outlaw country movement, and their word-class musicianship sets the standard for all rising artists who want to make music for life. After releasing several famous duets including with 1983’s Pancho & Lefty, Django and Jimmie is their final collaboration before Haggard’s death on April 6, 2016 – his 79th birthday. Featuring a moving cover of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” the 14-song album offers some shared inherent truths and beliefs between the two friends. In the title song, they express the world wouldn’t know their music had it not been for their principal influences, Django Reinhardt and Jimmie Rodgers. “It’s All Going to Pot,” by producer Buddy Cannon, Jamey Johnson and Larry Shell, is an amusing ode for marijuana advocates.
9. Untamed by Cam
“Burning House” brought out the ballad fan in everyone when it was released in summer 2015. Earning a Grammy nomination for best country solo performance, the runaway hit was inspired by one of Cam’s dreams that had her trying to save an ex-boyfriend from a burning home. Untamed is beloved by critics and fans alike for its blend of progressive production with perennial ideas of heartache, loss and love. Not a note is out of place. But the album’s beauty is in its wise one-liners that stand on their own, like “We can’t pretend the stings aren’t gonna bite” from “Hungover on Heartache.” She co-wrote the entire 11-song collection, and also contributed songs to Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz and Sam Smith’s The Thrill of It All. In 2018, Cam joined Smith’s The Thrill of it All world tour, collaborated with Smokey Robinson on CMT Crossroads, and released “Road to Happiness” from RCA Records following the exhilarating “Diane.” She and husband Adam Weaver became first-time parents when they welcomed their daughter, Lucy Marvel, on Dec. 21, 2019.
8. The First Time by Kelsea Ballerini
Ballerini made her first album count in every way. Stacked with arena-ready hits, The First Time broke through with the success of her runaway debut “Love Me Like You Mean It.” The song instantly cemented Ballerini’s name among icons Deana Carter, Trisha Yearwood, Wynonna, Faith Hill, Jamie O’Neal, Gretchen Wilson, Cyndi Thompson and Carrie Underwood. They are the only women to have debut singles all reach No. 1 on Billboard’s country airplay chart. Ballerini achieved the feat on an independent record label, Black River Entertainment. Other gems from The First Time include “Peter Pan,” “Dibs,” “Yeah Boy” and “Stilettos.”
7. Wild Ones by Kip Moore
Owning one of country music’s most identifiable voices, Moore scrapped an entire follow-up to Up All Night and started from scratch to create what became Wild Ones. The 11-song collection builds on his signature country-rock that invades the soul of any listener with its vulnerable subject matter and irresistible musicality. Wild Ones captures the essence of Moore’s dynamic live show, which has fans singing every song like they are the world’s greatest hits every time he steps onstage. Highlights from Wild Ones include the title song, “I’m to Blame,” “Magic,” “Heart’s Desire” and “Running for You.”
6. Something More than Free by Jason Isbell
Including his work with the Drive-By Truckers, Isbell released a series of musical contributions that lead to 2015’s Something More than Free. Its intimate tones highlight Isbell’s poetic acuity, offering acoustic country storytelling that country people would recognize. Highlights include “If It Takes a Lifetime,” “Children of Children,” “Speed Trap Town” and “Palmetto Rose.”
5. Mr. Misunderstood by Eric Church
The release of Church’s fifth studio album, Mr. Misunderstood, was a surprise during the week of the 49th annual CMA Awards. Since then, music from this 10-song collection has become a standard in Church’s live set. Songs that make Mr. Misunderstood timeless include “Mistress Named Music,” “Kill a Word,” “Chattanooga Lucy,” “Holdin’ My Own” and “Record Year.” Mr. Misunderstood won album of the year at the 2016 CMA Awards, marking Church’s second win in the category.
4. Pageant Material by Kacey Musgraves
Following multiple Grammy wins for Same Trailer Different Park, Musgraves went bold for her sophomore album, Pageant Material. The 13-song collection celebrates timeless country themes like self-acceptance, family and home backed by a theatrical, genre-blending soundscape that’s quintessentially her. Standout songs include “Biscuits,” “High Time,” “Late to the Party,” “Family is Family,” and the hidden Willie Nelson collaboration “Are You Sure.”
3. The Blade by Ashley Monroe
Many artists wanted “The Blade” for their own, but Monroe came out the victor when she recorded it as the title song for her Grammy-nominated, fourth studio album. Monroe’s soul-baring collection has country music that fits every mood from earth-shattering heartache to mojo-working, hillbilly rock. Marc Beeson, Jamie Floyd and Allen Shamblin co-wrote “The Blade.” Monroe co-wrote 12 of the album’s 13 songs. Her co-writers include Vince Gill, Miranda Lambert, Chris Stapleton, Steve Moakler, as well as Striking Matches’ Justin Davis and Sarah Zimmerman.
2. Storyteller by Carrie Underwood
Underwood set up her next decade in music with the release of her fifth album, Storyteller, which features dynamic performances that champion heroes who overcome some of life’s harsher truths. Underwood sings of her partner being her ideal escape in “Heartbeat.” She pours on her signature attitude in “Choctaw County Affair,” “Renegade Runaway,” “Dirty Laundry” and “Smoke Break.”
1. Traveller by Chris Stapleton
Although Stapleton released Traveller on May 5, 2015, it took a few months for the album to become inescapable. It catapulted to No. 1 after Stapleton made his performance debut with “Tennessee Whiskey” at the 49th annual CMA Awards with Justin Timberlake. That night marked the beginning of a seismic shift in the sound of the country music. And it challenges every artist to release honest work that unifies people of all backgrounds. Earning Stapleton two Grammy wins, Traveller remains a top-seller having been certified four-times platinum.