Saving Country Music’s 2018 Artist of the Year

Music is just one of the many factors to weigh when naming the Artist of the Year. Unlike Album of the Year nominees, and Song of the Year nominees, this is not a distinction that is put up for a vote to the public, and it’s not just about the appeal any particular artist might garner for their yearly musical output, live or recorded.

Who is chosen for Artist of the Year is directly tied to a man’s or woman’s effort and achievement in fighting for the honesty, integrity, history, and cross-generational appeal of country music, and in whatever capacity they might shoulder that cause. It could be solely tied to setting an example with their music, and finding great appeal and acclaim in that effort. Or it could be taking a leadership role via speaking out about the troubles the genre faces. Personal character could also weigh in, as could their overall effort over the year, meaning the doggedness with which they pursued their goals and conquests.

With Tyler Childers, all of these factors measured into the conclusion. The Kentucky native did not release a new record in 2018, though his breakout Purgatory from 2017 still had one of the greatest impacts on country music in this calendar year as any new release, and the re-issue of his Live At Red Barn Radio session also kept fans well-satiated. He was on tour virtually the entirety of 2018, selling out nearly every one of his headliner stops. He played important festivals such as Newport Folk, Tumbleweed, Stagecoach, and Hinterland. He took a stint over to Europe on an acoustic tour. And everywhere he went he left mouths agape, and people believing.

Tyler Childers also used his newly-won attention to help draw attention to others, which is another important attribute of an Artist of the Year. Whether it was guesting with bluegrass outfit Town Mountain on their song “Down Low” and taking them out on tour, or doing the same with his old buddies The Wooks, or shouting out fellow Appalachia songwriter John R. Miller, Tyler Childers hasn’t let where he’s going get in the way of remembering where he’s from. This was underscored even more when he chose to take the initiative to help raise awareness and donations for the Martin County, Kentucky’s water crisis recently.

There were other artists in country music who also exuded similar leadership, and certainly deserve mention, and consideration for being the best artist in country music in 2019. Cody Jinks had a big year with a new album, and a very successful inaugural Loud and Heavy fest, which will hopefully be a rallying point for true country fans for years to come. Whitey Morgan (who was the Artist of the Year in 2015) also helped keep the heart of country music beating with his new record Hard Times and White Lines. Sarah Shook had a breakout year in 2018, and don’t be surprised if she challenges for the award in years to come. So did Brandi Carlile, even if Brandi’s been around for much longer. From garnering an incredible six Grammy Award nominations, to launching the important Girls Just Wanna festival, if someone should be considered a runner-up, perhaps it’s Brandi.

It was no easy decision to settle on Tyler Childers. But when he took the stage at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee—the Mother Church of Country Music—during the Americana Music Association’s awards and honors in September, and after receiving the distinction of Emerging Artist of the Year (and having the presenter pronounce his name wrong), he said, “As a man who identifies as a country music singer, I feel Americana ain’t no part of nothin’. It is a distraction from the issues that we are facing on a bigger level as country music singers. It kind of feels like ‘Purgatory.’ ” ...and that pretty much solidified it. The guts to deliver this message, and the potency of the message itself sealed Tyler’s place as the preeminent country music contributor in the last 12 months.

The Americana Music Association is not the culprit for the high crimes and misdemeanors being perpetrated against country music. If anything, they’re at the forefront of trying to do something about them, and offering a haven for artists pushed out of what is rightfully theirs in the proper country music genre. But “Americana,” nor any other term should ever be used as an alternative to “country,” which is for the people, and by the people, and must be defended from being co-opted by the financial cretins on Music Row and elsewhere who unfairly use Americana as a relegating term.

Standing up for the integrity of country music is not easy, especially these days when speech is increasingly stifled, speaking your mind is significantly frowned upon, and so often business interests must weigh into what you say. But instead of keeping his lips tight—intimidated by the idea that his words would hinder his career—Tyler Childers said what he was thinking, as were the rest of us.

Tyler Childers wasn’t being rude, and he wasn’t being an Outlaw. Tyler Childers was simply being 100% honest, just like his music is 100% of the time. He knows no different, like all of the greats who’ve come before him. And for that, he is Saving Country Music’s 2018 Artist of the Year.

photo: Brad Coolidge