An R&B-loving former college football quarterback, a bearded Nashville veteran and a 21-year-old singer-songwriter took over country music this year.
It sounds like the setup for a joke, but it was anything but in 2015.
Country mainstays like Luke Bryan and Carrie Underwood continued to dominate radio airplay and record sales, according to Billboard, but newcomers Sam Hunt, Chris Stapleton and Kelsea Ballerini moved the proverbial needle.
It’s a stretch to label Stapleton a “newcomer” — he co-wrote his first Billboard No. 1 country single in 2005 — but his coming-out party at the 2015 CMA Awards launched him into the spotlight. The 37-year-old performer won three trophies at the show and nailed an epic performance with Justin Timberlake that became the stuff of legend.
In the days following the CMAs, Stapleton’s debut album “Traveller” and single “Tennessee Whiskey” topped the charts. Stapleton would go on to score four 2016 Grammy Award nominations, including one for album of the year, the show’s biggest honor. Little Big Town also earned crossover critical acclaim and a Grammy nod in a major category.
The group’s song “Girl Crush” was nearly country’s biggest single of the year — Billboard ranked it second only to Hunt’s genre-bending “Take Your Time” — and brought a soulful, vulnerable sound to country and pop radio.
Ballerini broke out with “Love Me Like You Mean It,” a song that made history as the first debut single by a woman to top the Billboard Country Airplay chart since Underwood’s 2006 smash “Jesus Take the Wheel.”
Iconic country artists also made news in 2015. Reba McEntire released the acclaimed “Love Somebody,” her first album in five years. She also united with Brooks & Dunn for a Las Vegas residency that started in June, a pairing that will continue into 2016.
The year’s first country music headline was arguably also its saddest. Beloved Grand Ole Opry legend Little Jimmy Dickens died on Jan. 2, 2015 in a Nashville hospital, at the age of 94. On July 31, the genre lost Grammy Award-winning singer Lynn Anderson after she suffered a heart attack. Anderson’s 1970 hit “Rose Garden” was a crossover success. Anderson was 67 years old.
Marriages also dominated a few headlines in country music in 2015. The divorce of superstars Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton was one of the year’s most talked-about stories. The couple had been married for four years but were together for nearly a decade. McEntire also made news after she and husband Narvel Blackstock called it quits. That couple had been married for 26 years.
But an enduring love story took the crown as 2015’s most heartbreaking headline. Singer Joey Feek — of the duo Joey + Rory — announced she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, after battling the disease since June 2014. Her husband Rory Feek has chronicled the singer’s journey online in a blog. In October, Joey Feek revealed she was stopping all treatment and was receiving in-home hospice care.
Check out a list of the year’s biggest country singles of 2015 below, as well as the new artists that debuted this year.
Clint Davis is a writer for the E.W. Scripps National Desk. Follow him on Twitter @MrClintDavis.