20. Heidi Newfield – Johnny & June
Epic. That’s the only word to describe this song. Newfield’s performance is perfection, but the production – a throwback to the Meatloaf power ballads of the 80s – could have easily fallen into cheesy name-dropping semantics. I am usually the first one to spit at a Johnny Cash or Waylon Jennings (or Kris Kristofferson) reference in a country song. Unless, this is coming from someone I believe really does love the music of said artist. For instance, every time Alan Jackson sings ‘I wanna hear some Jones’, I believe him. But this isn’t about dropping the name Johnny Cash into a song just to sell it. This is a beautiful ode to the love story of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, and Newfield makes me believe she is paying homage rather than pandering.
19. Jamey Johnson – High Cost Of Living
This is a great country song, plain and simple. And one of the best hooks I’ve ever heard as Johnson sings in his gravelly tone, ‘The high cost of living/Ain’t nothin’ like the cost of livin’ high’. He then goes on to explain in great detail the mistakes he made – and with stark candidness. A real country song.
18. Gary Allan – Learnin’ How To Bend
I admit, I wasn’t immediately sold on this one like I was ‘Watching Airplanes’, but the more I listened to it, it really grew on me and I grew to appreciate it for the great tune it is. Superb vocals from Gary, even as he acends into near fasletto in the chorus.
17. George Strait – Troubadour
Out of all the fabulous and countless hits in the catalog of George Strait, this will be the one I remember him for best. This entire song just seems to sum up his entire time on earth. In lesser hands, this song could wind up sounding inferior and insincere, but when it’s George, you know it’s the truth, and by god, he’s been there and back. Catchy chorus too.
16. Dolly Parton – Backwoods Barbie
Like ‘Troubadour’, I think this song sums up the life and times of Dolly Parton as well as can be done in three and a half minutes. And it shows us that she has a lot better grasp on her larger than life persona and caricature looks than any of us. ‘I’m just a backwoods Barbie, too much make up, too much hair/But don’t be fooled by thinking’ that the goods are not all there’. Never underestimate Dolly Parton. I pity the fool who would.
15. Heidi Newfield – Cry, Cry (Til The Sun Shines)
I admit, I like this follow-up to Heidi Newfield’s epic ‘Johnny and June’ better than the namesake tune. Vocally, I think she delivers one of the best performances from her album here, and I just really like the lyrics and the melody of the song. Heidi sold me on a song that Martina couldn’t.
14. Sugarland – Already Gone
I wasn’t sold on this song as a single when I heard it was being released. In fact, I was disappointed. Not because I don’t like the song; to the contrary. My thinking was that its abstract lyric wouldn’t fare well with country radio. The duo proved me wrong as the tune soared into the top 5. The theme of a young girl leaving home for the world unknown is certainly not a fresh idea, but in the hands of Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush, it sounds new again.
13. Randy Houser – Anything Goes
I was floored the first time I heard this song on the radio. A real country song, with lyrics about drinking, one-night stands, and morning-afters – themes that are few and far between in mainstream country music these days. Excellent hook, and this guy has some great pipes, even if his debut album didn’t quite live up to the standard set by the lead single.
12. Dolly Parton – Better Get To Livin’
If I could sit down and talk with any one person in the world, living or dead, it would be Dolly Parton. (Sorry, Jesus.) I would just like to ask her some questions about what she thinks life is all about. She just seems like someone who’s figured out a thing or two during her trips around the sun. Since that dream will probably never come true, Dolly offers up these ‘few words of advice’ in a way that only Dolly could do. And with lyrics that only Dolly could write and sing. If you don’t love Dolly Parton, I advise you to check your pulse immediately.
11. Lady Antebellum – Lookin’ For A Good Time
I admit it: I was sold on this song the first time I saw the video for it, which was, incidentally, the first time I heard the song. As soon as Hillary Scott struts out in that fabulous blue dress, they had me. The treatment for the video is ‘The Price is Right meets American Bandstand’. A bit naff, yes. But I like naff. The more I listened, this song has some really great lyrics too. ’Complicated situations only get worse in the morning light’ – I couldn’t have said it better myself, guys.
10. Sugarland, Little Big Town, & Jake Owen – Life In A Northern Town
I had never heard this song before I heard this version. Being the music lover that I am, I of course seeked out the original. What I found is that even a song as catchy as this one can fall to pieces without just the right vocalists to sell it. And even lyrics like ‘Hey ah ma ma ma’ and the abstract verses come alive in the hands of these seven talented individuals.
9. Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson – Sweetest Waste of Time
We’ve all pined for someone. Just been totally smitten and out of control. Here, we find a woman in love. She’s so caught up in the rush of being in love that even if it doesn’t work out, she doesn’t mind. She’s savoring the moment.
If all this hoping, just leaves me hurtin’
You still would be the sweetest waste of time
Aside from those brilliant lyrics, Kasey Chambers and hubby Shane Nicholson deliver some of the finest harmonies this side of the International Date Line on this track.
8. Josh Turner with Trisha Yearwood – Another Try
This song could have been perfection with just a few minor tweaks in production. I would say minus the cymbals, and the strings on the bridge. Otherwise, the lyrics are beautiful. Josh is in terrific voice, and of course Trisha Yearwood provides stunning harmonies.
7. George Strait – I Saw God Today
Religious and/or spiritual tunes are very rarely my cup of tea. So for this song to rate so high on my year-end list is a testament to both the writers and Strait’s delivery. Writers Rodney Clawson, Monty Criswell, and Wade Kirby present their message of spirituality in a stop and smell the roses sort of way, rather than preaching to us that we all need to be better people. And when King George breaks into the sweeping chorus, it’s amazing. The scenario is what I would think summarizes 90% of American’s relationship with God. It just reminds us to stop, slow down and look ,and you can see God: in the flower growing in the sidewalk, the amber sunset, or a new-born baby’s face. There’s God.
6. Jamey Johnson – In Color
The story in this song is the kind that has been forgotten in country music these days as songwriters opt for three-act plays that revolve around a single hook. Here, Johnson doesn’t exactly follow that formula, but instead tells the story of a man sitting down with his grandpa and reminiscing over some black and white photos. Anything else I write wouldn’t do any kind of justice to this song, so if you haven’t heard it yet, just go listen and you’ll see why I love it so much.
5. Trisha Yearwood – They Call It Fallin’ For A Reason
Trisha Yearwood finds new depth to her voice as she pounds out the steady chorus to this up-tempo tune. But, this song has a special meaning for me as I found out around this time last year exactly what Ms. Yearwood means in the chorus when says ‘It’s a tumbling rush, it’s a helpless kind of feeling/When your heart doesn’t know which way is up or down’. Then later on the same night I found out what she meant with ‘Til you hit the ground hard and fast and bruised and barely breathing’ – I learned they do call it fallin’ for a reason. In life we learn that some clichés’ like ‘The higher you fly, the harder you fall’ sure do ring true on occasion. And how wonderful it is to have a song tell your story for you.
4. Reba – Every Other Weekend (with Skip Ewing or Kenny Chesney)
This is a brilliant and heartbreaking lyric. Reba is the master of heartbreak songs, so it’s no surprise that she delivers a perfect example of what makes her peerless at what she does. The irony in the plot only adds to the melancholy, and makes it one of the best country songs in recent memory. I suggest the Skip Ewing version too.
3. Sugarland – Stay
This song was actually released in 2007, but its chart peak came early this year, so I am including it here. Nettles’ stark and raw delivery of the lyric grabs me every time, some 2,500 listens later. If Sugarland only contributed this one song to the American music landscape, they would still be giants to me.
2. Lee Ann Womack – Last Call
First off, I just love the hook to this song. Why nobody has ever made a country song out of it until now is beyond me. Secondly, I love Lee Ann Womack, and third, I love traditional country music. And I get to experience all three in these 3 minutes, 17 seconds. The final vindication comes at the end when the narrator finally wises up to the whiskey-soaked ‘I love yous’ and decides the two have had their ‘last call’.
1. Trisha Yearwood – This Is Me You’re Talking To
Trisha Yearwood has always had pitch-perfect vocals, we all know that. But what some people forget is beneath those golden vocal chords is one of the best song stylists country music has ever been blessed with. Trisha has the soul of a deep and sensitive woman. This is never more evident than when she delivers a lyric as poignant and universal as ‘We don’t have to do this/We don’t have to act like friends/As much as I would love to/I really just don’t think I can’. I believe every word Trisha Yearwood has ever sang to me, but I can feel the hurt in the last line there, and I ache right along with her for all the lovers lost that we all still ache for now and then.