Blues Music

The Saving Country Music 2022 Artist of the Year

The Saving Country Music Artist of the Year is not about who sold the most tickets or left the biggest footprint, or who shattered the expectations and possibilities of independent artists that are not played on mainstream country radio. It’s about the artist who most embodied the spirit of of the idea behind “saving country music.” In 2022, it just happens to be that all of those accomplishments are empirically true for this particular artist.

We will look back on 2022 as being a landmark year in the fight to return the power of country music back to the artists, and back to the people—where a performer like Zach Bryan positively shattered our conceptions of what was possible by an artist existing outside of the Music Row system, and challenged that power structure like never before. It was a year when even a band like the Turnpike Troubadours that spent the previous years in hiatus returned to such a ferocious reception, they were selling out arenas by the end of the cycle.

Both of these artists were also considered for this distinction, but despite their incredible years, they may still just be getting started with what they have in store. Meanwhile, both the International Bluegrass Music Association, as well as the Americana Music Association in 2022 chose Billy Strings as their Artist of the Year. And at the risk of coming off as unimaginative or safe, I simply have to concur. 2022 is the year of Billy Strings.

Similar to 2021’s Artist of the Year Charley Crockett, Billy Strings illustrated his respect and support for the roots of the music in a very direct way in 2022. In 2021, Charley Crockett released a tribute to country troubadour James Hand, helping to boost the underground country legend’s status and name recognition. In 2022 as Strings achieved arena-level status and shattered all barriers for what we’d expect for a bluegrass musician in this lifetime or any other, he didn’t take the moment to cash in, but to pay tribute to the bluegrass greats of the past, and to elevate his father who taught him the art form.

Me / And / Dad isn’t just an album. Since it’s full of covers and standards, it was never going to compete with the top titles in country and Americana for top end-of-year distinction, or become especially commercially successful. That wasn’t the point. The point was to establish what bluegrass is in the modern context, and that Billy Strings—despite all the interludes and improvisations—is a bluegrass musician at heart.

What does it take to save country music? It takes proving to audiences that the roots of the genre can remain relevant today, and even in their most pure forms. It takes making these sounds and modes of country and bluegrass cool to a new generation so it will sustain into the future. It also takes understanding that for the music to survive, it also can’t remain static. It must remain grounded in its roots, but while also undergoing innovation to push it positively forward. When trying to think of another name that shouldered that difficult challenge and exceeded expectations more than Billy Strings in 2022, the mind falters.

Molly Tuttle and some others also are coming up in the bluegrass discipline, and promise to backstop what Billy Strings is doing to make this movement broad based, sustainable, and long-lasting. And as we’ve always suspected from the very beginning of Billy’s career, there’s a chance he may jump the rails of bluegrass at some point, and venture off into to the unknown of music like Béla Fleck and others have done in the past, while the number of hippies, wooks, and Rastafarian kids in Billy’s audiences have some bluegrass aficionados curious, and sometimes, worried.

But in 2022, Billy Strings did exactly what you want from your favorite country and bluegrass artists. He didn’t just not let you down, he unequivocally rose to your expectations, took bluegrass to the arena level, while also booking more intimate shows interspersed throughout his itinerary to stay connected to his most loyal fans. Because of course that’s what Billy Strings would do for you.

The challenge for Billy Strings, the Turnpike Troubadours, Zach Bryan, Tyler Childers and the like is not finding the sustainability to endure anymore, but finding enough seats in venues to facilitate all the people who want to see them. This presents a new set of challenges that the independent side of country and roots music is grappling with. But it’s a good problem to have compared to the alternative. And it’s one that Billy Strings will help lead us through, just like he’s led bluegrass out of the shadows of popular country to prove once again that bluegrass is really damn cool, as it always has been.

Not bad for a boy and his guitar.

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