By the looks of it Taylor Swift isn’t about to release a country record anytime soon. Get over the crushing disappointment with our indispensible list of the best pop country artists looking to steal her vacant throne.
It just doesn’t make sense. Taylor Swift was supposed to go country again. 12 months ago the signs were all there - secretly writing a Top 10 country hit for someone else, hugging Garth Brooks at the CMA awards, and recording her new album in Nashville... and she had curly hair again - we all felt so sure of it this time, but two songs into the Reputation campaign and it’s already becoming pretty obvious Taylor Swift isn’t about to release a country record.
When Dolly Parton went all out pop with Here You Come Again in 1977 the closed-minded country community in Nashville reacted with suspicion and resentment, but Dolly didn’t care. "I'm not leaving country," she told them. "I'm taking it with me." She went on to pull off one of the biggest worldwide pop country crossovers ever, but it would be another 12 long years before Dolly came back to country again with the Ricky Skaggs-produced White Limozeen album. 12 years?! By those calculations Taylor Swift isn’t going to make another country record until 2026. What are we all supposed to do until then?! Luckily, here are 10 artists to plug that gaping Taylor Swift-shaped hole in country music while we wait for her glorious return.
If Swift was always destined to be the girl stuck sitting on the bleachers giving daggers to all the cheerleaders, then Jillian Jacqueline is the girl having a crafty fag underneath them, cutting class with all the misfits, losers, and underachievers and tying Swift’s shoelaces together. After drip-feeding us with a tantalising stream of pop country bangers for the last two years, Jacqueline finally gets her shit together to release (at least the first half of) an album. Side A, which came out last month, is probably the best half of a pop country album you’ll hear all year and “Reasons” is the song you only wished T Swizzle had returned with.
So, here’s the thing: rumour has it that Liz Rose, who co-wrote like 20 of Taylor Swift’s biggest songs, including “You Belong With Me”, “Teardrops On My Guitar”, and “All Too Well”, isn’t even on speaking terms with Swift at the moment, which obviously just makes us all worry even more about Swift's mindspace and emotional wellbeing right now, but the flip side of that is that Rose has a little bit of spare time kicking around for every other country singer currently panning for country gold and she seems only too happy to throw a few nuggets their way. Catherine McGrath ended up co-writing “Cinderella” with her and if you close your eyes it’s like listening to a Taylor Swift deep cut from 2005.
Aww, it’s so nice to have Shania Twain back, and just in time to see all the little baby Shania Twains she gave birth to growing up and going out into the world to make little pop country records of their own. The 24-year-old Knoxville girl Kelsea Ballerini is just one of a seemingly endless number of pop country singers who cite Twain as their biggest influence, and she looks like giving Twain a run for her money with her own peculiar brand of power ballads in 2018.
The BeyHive might have had a conniption fit when Taylor turned up with a baseball bat in the video for "Look What You Made Me Do", but twelve years before Beyoncé was swinging hot sauce around in the "Hold Up" video Carrie Underwood was taking her Louisville slugger to the headlights of her duplicitous boyfriend’s four-wheel drive in the video for "Before He Cheats". She’s the reigning queen of country vengeance, switching seamlessly between goofy girl-next-door and imperious Las Vegas diva. Swift might think she invented the stylised revenge fantasy video, but Carrie Underwood makes the "Bad Blood" video look like that episode of Father Ted where all the priests dress up as the ’68 Comeback Special Elvis.
It hasn’t all been Taylor Swift round here you know. Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert have scooped every Female Vocalist Of The Year award at the CMA awards and the ACM awards between the two of them for the last 10 years (except for that one year when Swift won it). Miranda Lambert is the shit-talking, whiskey-drinking, cigarette-smoking, pistol-packing outlaw queen of Texas. She’s Thelma and she’s Louise. A tough as nails traditionalist and firearm-wielding fourth wave feminist who loves puppies and ponies and old pink shit. Her last record Weight Of These Wings might have showcased a more classic country sound, but there was still enough pure pop country in “Pink Sunglasses” and “We Should Be Friends” to make Taylor think twice before assuming the throne will still be hers if she does ever return to try and take it.
Unlike its UK equivalent something actually happens to the contestants on the American version of The Voice after they’ve been on the show. RaeLynn didn’t even make it past the quarter finals and five years later she was sitting on top of the Billboard Country Albums chart! The 24-year-old with the squeaky Texan lilt might take her country cues more from Miranda Lambert – she auditioned on The Voice with a rendition of Pistol Annies’ “Hell On Heels” - than she does Taylor Swift, but her album, WildHorse is set firmly in Swift’s backyard. “Love Triangle” - a belting heartbreaker about divorce told from the perspective of a child growing up stuck in the middle of it - is the best pop country ballad since “Begin Again”.
Seemingly intent on living out the plotline to Hannah Montana: The Movie, Miley Cyrus has beaten Swift to it and gone full circle, reviving her husky southern drawl and returning to her pop country roots on Younger Now - a multi-coloured acid flashback to the country pop of her youth which even includes a duet with Dolly Parton. Haters gonna hate of course, but Cyrus doesn't need to prove her country credentials to anyone; she grew up around Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, Waylon Jennings taught her how to play “Good Hearted Woman” on the guitar, Billy Ray Cyrus is her dad, and Dolly Parton is her godmother! She couldn't be any more country if she tried.
26-year-old Maren Morris might be a year younger than Swift, but there’s a definite world-weariness to her songs that belies her age. After building her reputation as a songwriter in Nashville for the last few years - writing songs for Tim McGraw, Kelly Clarkson and the Nashville TV series among others - she finally broke through with her major label debut Hero when its lead single “My Church” unexpectedly blew up in everyone’s faces last year. She’s a pint-sized pop country badass cussing and cruising round town in her '80s Mercedes and bumming cigarettes off all the wrong guys, who seems to be taking Nora Ephron’s advice to young people to “put on a bikini, and don't take it off until you're 34” and just running with it.
Taylor Swift might have her long list of ex-lovers and enemies underlined in red, but she still hasn’t fallen out with Scott Borchetta, the CEO of Big Machine who signed her to his label when she was 15. Despite also being the man behind Florida Georgia Line, lately he’s been turning his attention to a more traditional kind of country troubadour, albeit one with enough contemporary pop touches to make it fit in on country radio. Alex Williams and Drake White are both a refreshing alternative to the backwards baseball cap wearing beery chauvinism of bro-country, but Midland are undoubtedly the jewel in his country crown right now. Their debut album On The Rocks is a creamy collection of smooth country classics that looks longingly back to George Strait, Gary Stewart, the Urban Cowboy soundtrack and the first wave of new traditionalists in the '80s. The lead single "Drinkin’ Problem", co-written by the band with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, went Top 5 on the Country Airplay chart and even made it onto Swift’s playlist of songs she loves on Spotify.
If no one else can keep you going until Taylor Swift makes another country record then at least you can always turn to Little Big Town. Not only did Swift write their hit “Better Man”, which has earned her a nomination for Song Of The Year and Single Of The Year at the CMA awards next month, but she even performs it herself at her own shows. It’s the closest thing we’re going to get to a new Taylor Swift country song for a while. Recently Swift’s ex-boyfriend Harry Styles completely exploded the met-anarrative when he covered Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” at The Ryman in Nashville, which was co-written by Liz Rose, who if you remember is reportedly not on speaking terms with Taylor at the moment (keep up!). Listening to “Better Man” again now it’s easy to see how we all got carried away thinking Swift was about to make a country record. It’s a quintessential Taylor Swift country breakup song. 'Only a matter of time', we all thought. 'Just wait until November', we all said. Dust down the porch swing and put the Prosecco on ice. How wrong we were. Oh well, maybe next time.