While it wasn’t a great year for country music, there were some definite signs of life, and some very good songs made their way across the airwaves. A few were even hits. Here are my favorite singles this year:
10. ‘Look It Up – Ashton Shepherd’
Ashton comes across like a modern Loretta Lynn in this scornful rejoinder to a cheating spouse. Forgiveness is not an option. Although it was a top 20 hit and just about her biggest to date, I expected more commercial success from this sassy number, written by Pistol Annie Angaleena Presley with Robert Ellis Orrall.
9. ‘Colder Weather’ – Zac Brown Band
The Georgia band is one of the most artistically adventurous acts in country music, and this is one of their finest records. A complex lyric depicts a couple separated by the man’s driving job; she seems keener than he does on their being together. It was inspired by co-writer Wyatt Durrette’s own thwarted romance with a girl who struggled with the travel demanded by a music career. The production neatly marries an understated piano-led first verse with rock elements as the protagonist’s emotions rise. It was another #1 hit for the band.
8. ‘In God’s Time’ – Randy Houser
Rich-voiced singer-songwriter Randy Houser released his finest effort to date this year with this gently understated expression of faith in God, whatever may happen. A gentle piano-led accompaniment provides effective support. This was intended to be the lead single for Houser’s third album for Show Dog Universal, but it did not do as well as hoped, and Houser has now left the label. He has since signed to indie label Broken Bow, so hopefully he will be able to continue releasing mauic of this caliber.
7. ‘Just Fishin’’ – Trace Adkins
A father’s tender tribute to time with his little girl, it was written by Casey Beathard, Ed Hill and Monty Criswell, but Trace’s warm vocal makes it feel very personal – something underlined by the casting of the youngest of Trace’s own five daughters in the video. A top 10 hit, peaking at #6, this was a very welcome return to form from one of the better singers out there after some unwise song selections.
6. ‘One Day Closer’ – Jeff Bates
This is a beautifully understated religious song written by the former RCA artist with Jason Matthews. The single was ignored by mainstream radio, but it hit #1 on Christian country radio, and with the EP of the same title led to his acclamation as Mainstream Country Artist of the Year by the Inspirational Country Music Association. Doubts and faith both get their say here, with the sensitive lyric and Jeff’s warm, emotional vocal making this the best religious song of the year.
5. ‘From A Table Away’ – Sunny Sweeney
Technically, Sunny’s breakthrough hit was released in 2010, but it didn’t peak on Billboard until March 2011, so it wins a place on my list for this year. An insinuatingly catchy melody and well-crafted lyric makes this stick in your mind, as Sunny plays the part of the Other Woman who suddenly realizes her lover’s marrriage isn’t quite as struggling as he has told her.
4. ‘Headache’ – Joey + Rory
My favourite single this year with a female lead vocal comes courtesy of the most endearing couple in country music. This irresistible tongue-in-cheek number about a wife promising her own revenge for her husband’s fishing trip is absolutely delightful. It whets my appetite for their next studio album, due next year.
3. Mr Bartender – Bradley Gaskin
The year’s most promising newcomer, Bradley Gaskin delighted fans of 90s neotraditional country with his Travis Tritt style honky tonker ‘Mr Bartender’ released on Columbia earlier this year. It got some rave reviews, but peaked outside the top 30. I’m awaiting more music from the talented young singer, whose great voice and solid approach promise much. He also wrote the song himself, with Vicky Walker – another good sign for his future. Bradley Gaskin was discovered by John Rich – and could just turn out to be Rich’s most valuable contribution to the genre.
2. ‘Tomorrow’ – Chris Young
Chris Young is one of the best singers currently on a major label, but his material has not always been worthy of his rich, classic country voice. This year he led the release of his third RCA album with the excellent ‘Tomorrow’, which he wrote with Frank Myers and Anthony Smith. Combining a memorable melody and emotion, Chris declares that he and his lover are “like fire and gasoline” with only “tears and sorrow” in waiting, but there is still passion enough for one last night together. Half a million downloads later, this was a well-deserved #1 hit, and shows there is still a demand for great country songs which actually sound country. It’s just disappinting that Chris hasn’t yet been rewarded with a CMA nomination as Best Male Vocalist but is still being limited to the New artist category.
1. ‘Cost Of Livin’ – Ronnie Dunn
Ronnie was the star of Brooks & Dunn, and his solo material was much anticipated. The first single, the well-meaning but bland ‘Bleed Red’, and the album as a whole were a little disappointing, but thankfully Arista picked the excellent and topical ‘Cost Of Livin’’ as the second single. Sensitively written by Philip Coleman with some tweaking by Dunn himself, Ronnie portrays an army veteran whose search for work falls foul of the current economy. Honest, hard working, and surely the ideal candidate for a job, yet unable to catch a break, this man’s situation is entirely genuine, and represents reality for all too many people at the moment. The vocal is just as good as the song; sung with dignity and feeling which is intense but never exaggerated, in a way that feels entirely right for the character he is portraying Dunn shows off the vocals that helped Brooks & Dunn to dominate the duo category in country music awards shows for so many years, with rather more subtlety than he showed at times in the past. This is a song worthy of some of Merle Haggard’s working man laments. Rightfully critically acclaimed, radio was initially receptive, but seems to have cooled on the song, as it seems to have peaked just inside the top 20 – a travesty. The video roots it even more firmly in reality by interviewing real-life unemployed people.