What's better than your two favorite artists teaming up together? Well ... if you're anything like us, then not much. Fortunately for country fans, 2019 brought quite a few exciting team-ups, several unforgettable collaborations and even a couple of complete and utter surprises.
Some team-ups saw mainstream country and Americana coming together to make a powerful statement (the Highwomen); others, such as Brantley Gilbert and Lindsay Ell's "What Happens in a Small Town," were simply great male-female country duets.
There were cross-genre collaborations. There will all-star jam-sessions. And, in an at least one instance, there was a rapper who crash-landed into country's mainstream, forcing listeners to rethink their definition of country (lookin' at you, Lil Nas X!). Read on to take a look back at the year in country and Americana collaborations.
"Old Friends"Steve Earle Feat. Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell
Steve Earle paid tribute to a musical hero and mentor, Guy Clark, with his 2019 album Guy and its included track "Old Friends." On his own version of "Old Friends," in 1988, Clark included a large selection of his own tight-knit musical community, and so, when Earle embarked on his rendition of the song, he brought two of those original contributors -- Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris -- into the recording process.
"Old Friends" is the 16th and final track on Guy, and earlier in 2019, Earle told The Boot that it felt like a perfect fit for that slot on the album. "It seemed like a natural way to close the record. Guy and I had done it together to end shows that we did together," he said.
"10,000 Hours"Dan + Shay and Justin Bieber
In 2019, Dan + Shay teamed up with pop superstar Justin Bieber to spotlight all three artists' newlywed statuses with "10,000 Hours." Bieber, Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney contributed their songwriting talents to the genre-spanning love song, along with Jordan Reynolds, Jessie Jo Dillon and Jason "Poo Bear" Boyd.
"This song means a lot to us because we are married to two wonderful ladies, Hannah and Abby, and it was cool to be able to collaborate with our friend, Justin Bieber, because he’s in that same boat: just recently got married to his wife Hailey," Mooney explained of the track upon its October release. "And this song means a lot to all of us, and we hope that this song resonates as much to our fans as it does to us."
The song's music video further highlights the personal elements of the song, bringing all three of the artists' wives into the spotlight as well as mixing in home video footage of their love stories.
"What Happens in a Small Town"Brantley Gilbert and Lindsay Ell
Brantley Gilbert and Lindsay Ell hit No. 1 at country radio in 2019 with their brooding break-up duet, "What Happens in a Small Town," which was the lead single from Gilbert's fifth studio album, Fire & Brimstone. For Gilbert, the song is a true story that documents the rocky, on-again, off-again early days of his relationship with his now-wife, Amber.
Gilbert says he carefully selected Ell as a duet partner for the song. "[The song] really has that want for someone you can't have, and having to live in all these places that they are. I wanted to have someone on the record who could match those feelings, to really push the song," he explains. "It's not just any female singer who makes sense, and we knew that. But Lindsay is a whole other kind of artist, and she understands that power."
In addition to singing on the track, Ell also contributes her impressive talents as a guitarist to "What Happens in a Small Town."
'Songs of Our Native Daughters'Our Native Daughters
The convergence of four artists -- Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leylah McCalla and Allison Russell -- in the midst of successful solo careers, Our Native Daughters reimagines stories of black women throughout history. Their 2019 project, Songs of Our Native Daughters, updates those stories for modern ears.
The project not only revitalizes old songs, but also highlights their modern-day relevance. Songs such as "Barbados" draw a clear connection between American slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries and the exploitation of mine workers and child laborers today.
While Songs of Our Native Daughters brought much-needed, sobering discussion to important aspects of life in America in 2019, it was also a celebration of freedom, friendship and community. "We are our ancestors' wildest dreams," Russell told The Boot earlier in 2019. "They couldn't have imagined the kind of agency and freedom that we have."
"Way Too Pretty for Prison"Miranda Lambert and Maren Morris
Miranda Lambert included a tongue-in-cheek twist on a murder ballad on her 2019 studio album, Wildcard, with a little help from fellow country star Maren Morris. "Way Too Pretty for Prison" finds reason after reason not to kill an unfaithful husband -- but none of them have to do with whether or not he deserves to die.
A collaboration between two iconic women of country would be enough to make for a powerhouse duet; "Way Too Pretty for Prison" was actually inspired by a third badass female country artist, however. Lambert says the song's title comes from a "wine night" she had with Little Big Town's Karen Fairchild. After a night of tour planning, girl talk and a few drinks, Fairchild took an Uber home from Lambert's house, because she was -- as Lambert put it -- "way too pretty for prison."
"Dive Bar"Garth Brooks and Blake Shelton
Garth Brooks' 2019 collaboration with Blake Shelton, "Dive Bar," was more than just a song: It helped inspire a whole new concept for a tour.
Brooks says he got the idea to tap Shelton for the duet after he saw the "God's Country" singer's 2019 ACM Awards performance. "I thought, 'I’m feeling something here that's drawing me right into this television.' So I just reached out for him. He was so sweet on the phone," Brooks said at the time.
Brooks and Shelton performed "Dive Bar" live for the first time at a July 2019 stop on his Stadium Tour. That same month, Brooks revealed plans for a Dive Bar Tour in support of the song that would take him to tiny venues across the country.
'While I'm Livin''Tanya Tucker, Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings
In the spring, Tanya Tucker began sharing plans for the release of her first studio album in 17 years. The project, While I'm Livin', features a high-profile boost from Shooter Jennings and Brandi Carlile, the latter of whom wrote many of its songs with her bandmates, Tim and Phil Hanseroth.
Thanks in large part to the rejuvenated energy her collaborators brought to the table, Tucker made a long overdue return to the spotlight with the album's release. Late in 2019, she revealed plans to headline the 2020 CMT Next Women of Country Tour, flanked by artists such as Aubrie Sellers, Brandy Clark, Erin Enderlin and many more. Jennings will also make an appearance at various tour stops.
Tucker also netted four 2020 Grammy nominations -- her first since 1993, and the most of the year by any country artist (though Americana / roots artist Yola tied with her).
"Reboot"Brooks & Dunn and Various Artists
In 2019, Brooks & Dunn raised the bar on what a country duets album can be with Reboot, a collection of reimagined versions of their hits as collaborations with some of the genre's biggest contemporary artists. From Brothers Osborne and Midland to Kacey Musgraves and Ashley McBryde, a wide variety of performers helped put a new twist on Brooks & Dunn's classic hits.
The duo's Kix Brooks told The Boot early in 2019 that the idea for Reboot came after the duo saw a number of artists cover them during live shows: "Luke [Combs] kind of started this by [playing] "Brand New Man" with some of his bands, banging out the song, and next thing you know, Kacey’s doing "Neon Moon" in her show," Brooks explained.
"Ronnie sends me a copy -- He goes, 'Hey, check this out,' and [our manager] Clarence [Spalding] said, 'I think there could be a project here.'" he added. "He came back a few weeks later and said, 'Hey, I wanna talk to you guys. Here’s what’s going on: I made a bunch of calls and everybody wants to do this. Do y’all wanna do this?'"
"Old Town Road (Remix)"Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus
Lil Nas X entered the country music scene with a bang in early 2019, when his song, "Old Town Road," went viral on the TikTok app. The song rapidly gained traction, earning the country rapper a large grassroots fanbase and the No. 19 spot on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. The media organization promptly removed the song from chart consideration, citing a lack of sufficient musical elements to warrant its inclusion, though many fans saw the decision as racially motivated.
However, like Loretta Lynn and many more other pioneering artists before him, Lil Nas X rode that controversy all the way into the spotlight. Billy Ray Cyrus jumped to the young artist's defense on social media, then hopped on what would become the first of many remixes of the song. Lil Nas X and Cyrus' version of "Old Town Road" ruled charts and airwaves for much of the rest of the year.
"Highwomen" The Highwomen
The Highwomen were an undeniable force in 2019, ever since the supergroup's four members -- Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby -- first fell into place. Their self-titled debut album covers a wide range of material, all written or co-written by the group's four members and often featuring "honorary Highwomen" such as Yola and Sheryl Crow.
From the beginning, the group's mission statement was to uplift and honor all women within music. The Highwomen formed in large part as a response from its members to the current place women held in country music.
"Almost all of us are mothers of young girls. And we all grew up listening to country music," Carlile says. "We recognize that we're in a time right now where our daughters don't have the same country music heroes that we had."