Muscadine Bloodline recently opened a show with their new song "Dyin' for a Livin'," which was ... a bold move. No one had ever heard it — until Friday (Aug. 27), it wasn't widely available — and musically, it's a departure from everything the duo have released thus far.

But the weirdest thing happened: An audience member who was in part there to see the headliner, the Eli Young Band, started dancing. "I’m not talking about TokTok dancing. I mean dancing dancing," guitarist Gary Stanton recalls.

It's been more than half a decade since Stanton and singer Charlie Muncaster started calling themselves Muscadine Bloodline, and in that time, they've built a loyal fanbase the old-fashioned way: with quality songs and meaningful live performances. Still, their biggest hits ("Porch Swing Angel," "Can't Tell You No," "Movin' On") have, at best, been mid-tempo shufflers that carried poetic lyrics and country storytelling.

"Dyin' for a Livin'," though, is quick and dirty. It's easy to imagine Muncaster snarling as he starts out a cappella: "Well ... my ..."

"It’s pretty much where our ship is coming to port," Stanton says, with Muncaster on the line agreeing. "We’ve always flirted with the idea that ‘maybe this could be on radio, maybe it couldn’t. Maybe this could get us a record deal' — all of those variables ...

"We’ve always ended up, to us, a vanilla version of what we’re searching for," he continues, "and this was the first time we were like ... 'What do we really want to do? What’s going to make us happy?'"

Raised in Mobile, Ala. but based in Nashville, Muscadine Bloodline have done about everything there is to do as a country act, except sign a record deal. They've followed bad advice and ignored good; toured with mentors, including Kip Moore, Whiskey Myers and Luke Combs; written with a variety of co-writers before settling on a tight inner circle of creatives; and driven a party bus across the country. That last part is different now; in fact, MB describe their after-party as among the lamest in country music.

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 provided a chance to reflect on where to go next. Secure financially — it's real nice owning your own masters, they say — the friends focused on new music and the future, and decided it was time to give up some of the administration duties and focus on the art.

"One thing we decided is that, creatively, we’re done with advice," Muncaster says. "We’re done hearing it from anybody. It’s not on our heart to make it, it’s like we’re not gonna make it that way. And if it is on our heart to make it that way, then that’s the bible."

Their enthusiasm for whatever's next is palpable. Both men offer detailed answers that go layers beyond what even a seasoned country act may offer a reporter they'd just met during a relatively short interview. A love/hate relationship with the industry, the perils of "catchphrase country" and nearly liquidating their touring business to keep the band paid are a few outtakes.

It's difficult not to get wrapped up in their energy. For Muscadine Bloodline, 2021 and 2022 are going to be very big years.

Sobriety helps. Three years ago, Muncaster quit drinking, and he knows he's better for it. At first, the decision brought added anxiety, but now, he's a better live performer.

"I’m having more fun now and living more in the moment than I ever have," he says, "so it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made."

Stanton agrees, going as far as to say that the group's singer has led the entire band by example. They focus on good sleep, which is not at the top of the priority list for many traveling road shows.

“We don’t look like Riley Green or Parker McCollum or any of those guys," Stanton says, joking but with no hint of disparagement to either one. "Where we hang our hat on is the performance aspect."

To that end, Muscadine Bloodline recently announced the 2021 Dyin' for a Livin' Tour, beginning in September and lasting through mid-December:

Best Country Albums of 2021 - Critic's Pick

There have been many creative country albums in 2021, but not all have hit the mark. Artists are more than ever toying with distribution methods and packaging as much as they are new sounds, so you get double and triple albums, Part 1 and Part 2, and digital EPs in lieu of a traditional 10 or 11-song release.

The bar for an EP on this list of the best country albums of 2021 is higher than an LP, but one project did crack the Top 10. Too much music proved to dampen other artist's efforts, although Alan Jackson's first album in years was filled with country music we couldn't turn away from. Where Have You Gone has 21 songs, but somehow no filler.

More than ever, this relied on staff opinion and artistic merit to allow for some parity among major label artists and independents. The 10 albums listed below are not ranked, although the year-end list published in the fall will crown a true best album of 2021.