Monthly Archives: November 2005

400 Best Contemporary Country Singles: #25-#1

The 400 Best Contemporary Country Singles
Part 16:
#25-#1

#25
“Dancin’ Circles ‘Round The Sun (Epictetus Speaks)”
Rodney Crowell
2005
Peak: did not chart

I don’t want to begin quoting lyrics from this song, since every one of the lines is memorable. What can I say about Crowell drawing inspiration from an ancient Greek philosopher from the Stoic era? This song jump-started me out of my mid-summer lull, provoking me to find a fresh approach to the world around me. “Disregard what don’t concern you, don’t let disappointment turn you, avoid adopting other people’s view.” “In between the masks you wear, wash your face and comb your hair.” “Your reputation doesn’t matter, let idle gossip chirp and chatter, no one else can tell you how you feel.” “Bend the rules until it breaks, stand your ground until it shakes.” It’s everything I needed to hear to rediscover my inner fearlessness. The change has been duly noted by all of those around me, and greater happiness has followed.

#24
“The Fear Of Being Alone”
Reba McEntire
1996
Peak: #2

I am something of an anomaly in that I am remarkably self-reliant. I enjoy companionship but don’t yearn for it; the need for it doesn’t cloud my judgement. So I hear a lot of my inner voice in this song that warns against believing something is love when it’s really just your fear of being alone that’s making you think you’re in love. Here, McEntire’s head is clearly in charge of her heart, which is almost never the case in her songs. The result is her finest single of this era.


#23
“Shake The Sugar Tree”
Pam Tillis
1992
Peak: #3

The mandolin and fiddle create a warm, back-porch sound that complements Tillis’ playful vocal. You could listen to this song for years and simply enjoy it as a fun, nagging little tune that asks for a little more attention from a lover with a sing-along chorus and a catchy melody. I certainly did.
But listen a bit closer and you realize there’s a lot more going on here, as Tillis is calling for more than just a hug and kiss, and she’s going to do a lot more than just ask for the attention she wants. The blues-borrowed sexual message here is so subtle that even a close listener could miss it, so let me just say that unlike the woman in Lorrie Morgan’s “Something In Red”, Tillis isn’t going to use a designer dress to get the fire back in her marriage. More like Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman”, she doesn’t need that designer tag to make her man want her. She’s going to use everything God gave her to get her man begging for more; her vocal indicates that one shake of her hips and a come-hither stare is all she’s going to need to raise that commotion that will make him show her some real emotion. She’s the only woman in the genre’s history who could pull off this double-entendre so deftly; everybody else would’ve missed the subtext completely or made it so obvious that radio wouldn’t dare touch it.

#22
“Callin’ Baton Rouge”
Garth Brooks
1994
Peak: #2

I never fully understood the Garth Brooks phenomenon until I saw him live. The burning intensity in his eyes and ferocious energy of his performance was mind-blowing. I have still never been part of a concert crowd that was so completely committed to the artist in front of them. That intensity is almost impossible to capture in the recording studio, but the closest he came to doing so was with this fiery cover of the New Grass Revival hit “Callin’ Baton Rouge”, which opens with an explosion of Cajun fiddle and never lets up. I cannot sit still when this record is on; even typing this while listening to it, my head is involuntarily bopping along.

#21
“I Don’t Paint Myself Into Corners”
Trisha Yearwood
2002
Peak: #47

The ultimate statement of personal accountability. In her most traditional performance, Yearwood looks back on a bad relationship with the clarity-assisted understanding that yes, even though this person was unfair to her, she was responsible for allowing herself to be emotionally manipulated – “in the light of truth, it wasn’t you, it was me.” She has gotten to the point of not even recognizing herself, and while drowning in her misery, she suddenly realizes she’s not even trying to pull herself up. Taking back control, she celebrates that she won’t paint herself into corners anymore; as her convictions grow stronger while the song progresses, so does her vocal. Her first declaration is a near-whisper; by the end, it’s a heart-stopping wail that can only be produced by the most powerful vocalist in the history of country music.

#20
“You Don’t Seem To Miss Me”
Patty Loveless with George Jones
1997
Peak: #14

I’m drawn to songs that deal with emotions that are not commonly expressed in song. Love and loss songs are everywhere, but a song about people beginning to grow apart is harder to find. I still can’t believe Jim Lauderdale was observant enough to capture that feeling that a person who is always on your mind doesn’t seem to miss you as much as you miss them. There’s no anger or resentment here; just confused desperation. The chorus is also the closest thing I’ve ever heard to head-banging country music.

#19
“Monday Morning Church”
Alan Jackson
2004
Peak: #5

Faith is a funny thing; you’re expected to believe in what you cannot see. If you aren’t a faithful person by nature, it helps to have somebody who is to emulate. I was a lapsed Catholic for many years; I didn’t really believe in anything from about fifth grade on, despite receiving Confirmation during that time. It took seeing a college professor of mine living her faith for me to want to explore my own again; the strength she derived from it was very real to me, and something I could get a handle on. I would not be active in my faith if I had not had her example to follow.
My aunt had the strongest faith of anybody I ever knew, but by the time I was curious enough to ask her about it, she had passed away. I can’t help but think of her when I hear this song about a man who loses his faith when his wife dies: “You left your Bible on the dresser, so I put it in the drawer, cause I can’t seem to talk to God without yelling anymore.” What happens to your connection to God when the very model of your faith is no longer there as a living, breathing example of the power faith can have? I fear I’m watching my uncle slip into the same emptiness as the man in this song: “I still believe in heaven, and I’m sure you made it there. But as for me, without your love, I don’t have a prayer.”

#18
“Aces”
Suzy Bogguss
1992
Peak: #9

There’s a mystery to this Cheryl Wheeler song. I can never quite be sure who is to blame for the breaking point that has been reached in this relationship. I think that’s why the song has resonated with me so deeply. I’ve related to the person here who is being walked away from, and doesn’t understand exactly what has happened, pleading “Talk to me, can’t you see I would never want to do what it seems I’ve done?” And I relate to the stubborn person who is threatening to walk away, the one who seems to have unrealistic expectations and is never fully satisfied with the effort being given: “The things you think I should do, I’ve never understood that part of you. You know I’ve tried to be a friend, but you feel undermined and hurt again.” There’s usually not a good person and bad person when things go south; it’s almost always more complicated than that. This Bogguss hit captures that dynamic perfectly.

#17
“Suspicious Minds”
Dwight Yoakam
1992
Peak: #35

Dwight Yoakam succeeded in creating a musical sound that is completely unique and all his own. It’s so distinctive that when he covers another artist’s material, he takes complete ownership of it. A Yoakam fan not versed in the history of rock music would not even suspect this was an Elvis Presley classic, not a Yoakam original. In the Presley rendition, you never fully believe that the man has been faithful; Presley gives credibility to his woman’s suspicions with his shaky vocal. With Yoakam singing this and Pete Anderson’s aggressive production, you fully believe that the man is being unfairly accused; you want to shake this woman back into reality and get her to appreciate the love she has. A monumental reworking, and ultimately an improvement, of a durable classic.

#16
“House of Cards”
Mary Chapin Carpenter
1995
Peak: #21

There is a darkness lying underneath the perfect surface of American suburbia. In the ten years since this hit was released, thanks to everything from school shootings to Desperate Housewives, this is now common wisdom. But when Carpenter was singing it, she was among the first to begin poking holes in our idealistic notions of community and family life, and she did so by having the courage to pull back the curtain and expose the naked truth: the perfect image we try to portray to our neighbors is a facade; what’s going on behind closed doors is as dysfunctional and damaging as anything you’d find in the big city. The pain of trying to keep up appearances instead of tending to emotional needs – “God forbid if word got out about your house of cards” – silently destroys families that would be better off if they put their skeletons on the lawn and just took care of each other, caring less about what the person across the street is saying about them.

#15
“Please Remember Me”
Tim McGraw
1999
Peak: #1

If you truly love someone, but you know that you’re not good for them, how do you find the strength to let them go? On this classic Rodney Crowell-penned hit, McGraw struggles with this very question, and comes to the understanding that she’ll be better off “when I can’t hurt you anymore.” He doesn’t spell out exactly what he’s done to hurt her, but judging from the soaring chorus claiming she’ll find “better love, strong as it ever was” and all he’s hoping for is that she will, once in a while, think back and remember him, you can imagine that this was quite the one-sided relationship. In ending it, he finally is the man that she needed him to be.

#14
“The River & The Highway”
Pam Tillis
1996
Peak: #8

The woman in this song goes with the flow. She has no direction in her life and changes with the wind. She’s a river. The man is controlled by structure and rules. He does everything as he’s expected to and has nothing resembling a restless spirit. He’s a highway. Two people like this can never travel together, as their approaches to life are fundamentally incompatible. But they can meet at a crossroads, and give each other the comfort they need: “Every now and then he offers her a shoulder, and every now and then she overflows. And every now and then a bridge crosses over, and it’s a moment that every lover knows.” Love is a funny thing; sometimes the person who is all you ever wanted can give you the greatest moments of your life, but love can’t make two people that different follow the same path together.

#13
“Where Are You Now”
Trisha Yearwood
2000
Peak: #45

“I’m good one of a kind, but I would rather be two. And I still speak my mind, but I miss talking with you.” My mouth dropped open when I heard that line for the first time. The raw vulnerability of this Mary Chapin Carpenter/Kim Richey song takes no prisoners. Those women are great writers, but it takes Yearwood’s vocal to reveal all of the anger, disappointment and yearning that this woman is feeling towards the man who is nowhere to be found. There’s not only a love that’s died here; innocence has been lost, too : “Who would’ve ever thought that you and me would let forever come to used to be?” It took a week for me to get past track one of the Real Live Woman album this song opened; when that last guitar fades out, you can’t help but press repeat and experience this powerful song again.

#12
“Love Travels”
Kathy Mattea
1997
Peak: #39

This is the sound of a creativity that had simmered under the surface of a standard country career suddenly rising up and taking control. This ambitious and spiritually empowering anthem for those tender hearts that Heaven makes the strongest celebrates how true love will find you wherever you are. How do you let somebody you love be so far away? Only if you can say that “the dream that saves me is that you’re happy and that you’re free.” This is such an overwhelmingly positive expression of true love that you’ll have a knowing smile listening to it if you have given or recieived such selfless love.


#11
“After All This Time”
Rodney Crowell
1989
Peak: #1
Crowell’s plaintive and honest sonnet to his long-time love is a pure declaration completely lacking any unnecessary sap or sentiment. “There were ways I should have thrilled you, there were days I could have killed you, you’re the only love my heart has ever known.” This isn’t a romanticized or idealized version of love; this is a man speaking from his heart about a love that has had its ups and downs, and its share of mistakes on both sides. But it has survived. There has never been a better country song that could also double as an anniversary song.

#10
“Hurt”
Johnny Cash
2003
Peak: #56
The greatest contribution of Johnny Cash to country music, in my opinion, was his uncanny ability to take the most reprehensible members of society – murderers, adulterers, and common criminals – and give them a voice, becoming a sympathetic advocate for their regret and sorrow, if not for the actions that they have taken. When he covered this Trent Reznor song about the depths of drug addiction, many misintepreted it as him trying to apologize for a life full of regrets, using Reznor’s imagery as metaphor. This is a frustrating misreading of his performance, aided by a brilliant video that too many interpreted as documentary rather than the fiction it was.
Johnny Cash did not shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die, as he sang in “Folsom Prison Blues”, and he did not hurt everyone he loves, as he sings in this song. This was the final major example of Cash being able to get into the head of a tragic figure and give him a sympathetic voice on record. This is not biography; it is performance art at its finest.

#9
“Independence Day”
Martina McBride
1994
Peak: #12

A fearless, landmark record about an abused wife finally standing up for herself, this permanently expanded the realm of what was acceptable to talk about in a mainstream country song. It was so shocking on first release that the opening line – “She seemed alright by dawn’s early light, though she looked a little worried and weak. She tried to pretend he wasn’t drinking again, but Daddy had left the proof on her cheek” – was an electric jolt. McBride’s powerful voice has never found another song so worthy of her volume – the fact that we never heard her this intense until this single suggested she hadn’t found anything worth screaming about until “Independence Day.” This is a historically significant and important record, giving voice to countless women and children who were suffering in silence.

#8
“I May Hate Myself In The Morning”
Lee Ann Womack
2004
Peak: #10

Never has the steel guitar sounded so passionate. Never has a fiddle sounded so romantic. Never has a record sounded so intimate and honest as this flawless single from last year. This is the perfect example of how country instrumentation and production can capture the cold, honest truth in under five minutes. The sentiment is so instantly familiar that I wondered upon first listen how nobody had ever written this before – “I may hate myself in the morning, but I’m gonna love you tonight.”

As she gives into temptation by the bridge, wailing “I know it’s wrong, but it ain’t easy moving on”, you’re sinking along with her. Then those fiddles, that steel guitar, the soft string section pushing everything along. Even when her singing is done, the band keeps going for another minute, producing the best instrumental fade-out I have ever heard in a country song. Check out the steel guitar solo at 3:38, and try to name another instrument or another genre that could produce that same gut feeling when you hear it, so perfectly reinforcing the lyrics that have preceded it. This is a hillbilly masterpiece.

#7
“Travelin’ Soldier”
Dixie Chicks
2003
Peak: #1

How perfect was the album Home? Any one of the songs on it would’ve made the list if they had been released as a single. If “Truth No. 2″ or “Top of the World” had been sent to radio, they would’ve ranked even higher than “Travelin’ Soldier”, a powerful story written and originally recorded by Bruce Robison. Here, a young man meets a young woman at a cafe before he heads off to war. She’s too young for him, but she falls anyway, and he sends her letters from an army camp, and then Vietnam.

You know pretty early on that he won’t be making it home, but what elevates this tale is the cold indifference to his death: “One Friday night at a football game, the Lord’s prayer said and the anthem played, a man said ‘Folks, would you bow your heads for a list of local Vietnam dead. Crying all alone under the stairs was the piccolo player in the marching band, one name read, and nobody really cared, but a pretty little girl with a bow in her hair.”

When you can’t match a name with a face, the death doesn’t really affect you. There has been a turning in support for the current war, and I think it has a lot less to do with the incompetence it’s been conducted and the dishonest foundations for it, and a lot more to do with more and more people knowing somebody who has died (nearly 2, 100) or been seriously wounded (over 16,000) in combat. There’s a lesson here about death by violence: we seem to be able to care so much more about people dying if we either know them or can imagine ourselves in the same situation. Nearly 3,000 civilian deaths in terrorist attacks on New York and Washington four years ago completely shook us to the core; at least 26,000 civilian deaths in Iraq since we invaded doesn’t bother us quite as much. I fear that we are, as a nation, a lot more like the football crowd wanting the game to start than the piccolo player under the stairs. Perhaps I’m hearing more in this song than is actually there, but these are the thoughts that go through my mind when I listen to “Travelin’ Soldier”, and why it has impacted me enough to rank so highly on this list.

#6
“In Between Dances”
Pam Tillis
1995
Peak: #3

A gorgeous waltz that captures the difficulty of starting another relationship when the last one has let you down so badly, this is the best single of a remarkably illustrious career of great singles. There’s no bitterness here, not even much regret. Just a quiet wariness of putting yourself out there again, knowing that you could be hurt again: “I could sure use your company now, but don’t be mistaking my smile. I’m only in between dances, sitting it out for a while.” Tillis perfectly captures the tentativeness of a woman that is too unsure to enter the dance again, but still longs for companionship. By the bridge, she is looking for a reason to dance again: “Have you been in my shoes? I search your eyes for signs. Will you remain, remember my name, after it’s closing time?” A classic performance by one of the genre’s strongest talents in history.

#5
“Cafe On The Corner”
Sawyer Brown
2002
Peak: #5

There are some jobs you can have that are more than just what you do; they become an essential part of who you are, your identity nearly synonymous with your line of work. After a few years, I’ve learned that teaching is one of those jobs. To a much stronger degree, being a farmer is one of those jobs. Your work and your family and your home are all in one place, tied together and supported by the job you do in the fields. When family farms began to close down on a large scale, shut down by banks and repurchased by large companies, many farmers had the unfortunate experience of finding their identity in crisis, with the job that had defined them no longer being a viable option for them to perform.

This Sawyer Brown classic tells the story of a man who is forced to take a job as a waiter at a small-town cafe because the bank has repossessed his family farm: “The coffee is cold, and he’s fifty years old, and he’s got to learn to live some other way.” A sharp use of biblical imagery drives the tragedy of the situation home: “And the meek shall inherit the earth, and the bank shall repossess it. This job don’t pay half what it’s worth, but it’s a thankful man that gets it.”

Using the backdrop of the cafe, the story is quietly expanded to include the other lost souls of the early-nineties recession, which was the worst to hit the country since the Great Depression: “All these soldiers without wars, and hometown boys without a home. Farmers without fields, dealers without deals, and they sit here drinking coffee all alone.” They all know they need to make a change, but they can’t begin to figure out how, as they don’t know another way. One of the primary reasons country music must exist is to give voice to everyday trials like this, which captures an ongoing undercurrent in American society better than any documentary ever could.

#4
“Here I Am”
Patty Loveless
1994
Peak: #4

Tony Arata is justly lauded for writing “The Dance”, but this Patty Loveless ballad is his masterpiece, a brilliantly written declaration of ongoing love that slowly reveals itself over the course of three minutes. It begins as a bitter taunt, reminding the man who left her behind that he’s still in love with her – “You said you didn’t want to see me, but you’ve been looking for me everywhere.” She teases him almost snidely for trying to get over her through drinking his problems away, reminding him that “honey I’m right there waiting on you at the bottom of your glass.”

The first hint that she’s not quite over him surfaces in the second verse, as she continues to mock him for not being able to make it work with the women he has been with since leaving her: “It ain’t workin’ darlin’, hard as you may try, you keep hearing the words you told me in everyone’s goodbye, and you know that you’re just one step from another one being gone.” She then begins to show her cards ever so slightly: “I know I’ve seen them all unravel, I’ve been watching it all along.”

As she builds to the bridge, the lies she has told to herself and to him about just how well she’s doing without him begin to be exposed, but she’s struggling to maintain a surface indifference to the whole situation, telling him: “Honey I got over you passing me over a long time ago,” then letting slip that “My pride was stronger when I was younger, now I’d rather have you to know…”

And then, with the twist in the final verse, comes her secret confession: “Here I am, here I am, I still carry a flame for you burning me like a brand, here I am.” Loveless’ vocal perfectly captures the shifting emotions as she goes from cold indifference to desperate vulnerability. It’s a flawless performance of a perfect country song.

#3
“You’re Gone”
Diamond Rio
1998
Peak: #4

This isn’t how it’s supposed to work. When you find the woman who makes you a better person just by being with her, and she changes your life in the process, you’re supposed to either (a) marry her and live happily ever after, or (b) drown in misery when she leaves you. This fantastic Jon Vezner-penned Diamond Rio hit suggests a third way: be grateful that you were touched by her presence and that she made you a better person, even though she’s gone: “I bless the day I met you, and I thank God that he let you stand beside me for a moment that lives on; and the good news is I’m better for the time we spent together, and the bad news is you’re gone.”

The man in this song is remarkably candid about his own failings, and how lucky he was to find someone willing to call him on it: “I said, ‘Hello I think I’m broken’, and though I was only joking, it took me by surprise when you agreed. I was trying to be clever, for the life of me I never would have guessed how far the simple truth would lead. You knew all my lines, you knew all my tricks, you knew how to heal that pain no medicine can fix.”

I suppose there is a mystery to this song, in that it’s not necessarily clear that she’s gone because she left him, or because she has died. I’ve always preferred the first reading, because I think it makes the song more poignant: “Looking back it’s still surprising, I was sinking, you were rising, and with a look you caught me in mid-air.” I think there’s a beauty in the fact that our relationships have a beginning and an end; no matter how close you are with a lover, or a friend, there will come a time when that relationship ends, but the impact they had on you will remain. I think the man of this song wasn’t able to make it work with the woman and she left, but I also think he’s going to be a better man in his next romance because of how she transformed him.

#2
“The Song Remembers When”
Trisha Yearwood
1993
Peak: #2

This classic Hugh Prestwood-penned hit is the ultimate song about songs, and the memories that go along with them. Yearwood “was standing at the counter, I was waiting for the change, when I heard that old familiar music start. It was like a lighted match had been tossed into my soul, it was like a dam had broken in my heart.” Suddenly, all those memories of a forgotten love come flooding back as she hears the song they sang along with in the car.
Prestwood wrote more than a song here; it can only be described as poetry: “We were rolling through the Rockies, we were up above the clouds, when a station out of Jackson played that song. And it seemed to fit the moment, and the moment seemed to freeze, when we turned the music up and sang along. And there was a God in Heaven, and the world made perfect sense. We were young and were in love, and we were easy to convince. We were headed straight for Eden, it was just around the bend, and though I had forgotten all about it, the song remembers when.”
Yearwood is the perfect vocalist for such a celebration of the power of a great song. She has always had the good taste to let the song tell the story, never showing off her vocal powers at the expense of the material. Her nuanced performance captures all of the melancholy-tinged regret that results from the flood of memories the song triggers. In a genre that often claims it’s all about the song, Yearwood makes a stunningly effective case for that claim.


#1
“Where’ve You Been”
Kathy Mattea
1990
Peak: #10

Everybody loved the song, but nobody wanted to cut it. A slow and simple tale of an aging couple that ends with them both in a hospital, as the wife is succumbing to Alzheimer’s? Not exactly the formula for a smash hit. Co-writers Jon Vezner and Don Henry pitched the song all around Nashville, and it was finally Vezner’s wife, Kathy Mattea, who committed to recording the song that was piercing her heart with every listen.

The tale of Claire & Edwin starts unassumingly enough, with Claire wondering “where’ve you been” when they fall in love, and she finds the man she always dreamed of. She asks the same question when a storm delays his coming home from work – “Her frightened tears fell to the floor, until his key turned in the door.”

The gentle instrumentation – Mattea is accompanied only by acoustic guitar through much of the song – gives the tale and unassuming nature. There’s no foreshadowing of the turn the lyrics will take, and country fans certainly hadn’t been conditioned to three-act story songs that end like this, even though there would be countless numbers of them during the boom years. But the turn comes, as the bridge pulls the rug out from under the listener with disarming humor: “They never spent a night apart, for sixty years she heard him snore; now they’re in a hospital, in separate beds on different floors.”

The final verse, where Edwin and Claire have their last conversation, captures the very best of what country music can be, revealing deep truths about the human experience through careful observation of word and deed: “Then one day they wheeled him in. He held her hand and stroked her head, and in a fragile voice she said, ‘Where’ve you been? I’ve looked for you forever and a day.'”

There is no bombast, no cheap appeals for sentiment or manipulative vocals. Mattea lets the song shine, and only slightly increases the intensity of the last “where’ve you been”. The quiet grace of this single, which would go on to win the CMA, ACM & Grammy Award for Song of the Year, is the perfect illustration of what country music can be, without any of the annoyances that often bring the genre down. Great song, fantastic vocalist, tasteful arrangement and the honest truth – these are the things that keep country fans wading through a sea of mediocrity to find treasures like this.

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My CMA Picks

I’m not even going to try to handicap this year’s CMA Awards. It’s been years since I’ve been able to intuitively call these races. But I will be happy to share my preference for each category. Check to see who takes home the trophies Tuesday, Nov. 15 at 8 p.m. on CBS.

P.S. If you’re wondering how a New Yorker with a country music blog has managed to avoid talking about the show’s move to the Big Apple this year, and all the controversy and hoopla surrounding it, the answer is simple: I don’t care.

Music Video of the Year
“Alcohol” – Brad Paisley
“As Good As I Once Was” – Toby Keith
“Day Go By” – Keith Urban
“I May Hate Myself In The Morning” – Lee Ann Womack
“When I Think About Cheatin'” – Gretchen Wilson

My Pick: “As Good As I Once Was” – Toby Keith
These are all great clips, but my cousin and I just keep doing that turn away from the bar to face the camera that Toby does to start the first chorus, just to make each other laugh. It’s a very funny video, and humor should be rewarded more often.

Musical Event of the Year
“Good News, Bad News” – George Strait & Lee Ann Womack
“I’ll Never Be Free” – Willie Nelson & Lee Ann Womack
“New Again” – Brad Paisley & Sara Evans
“Party For Two” – Shania Twain with Billy Currington
“Trip Around The Sun” – Jimmy Buffett & Martina McBride

My Pick: “Party For Two” – Shania Twain with Billy Currington
It’s still stuck in my head. Anyway, Twain and Currington’s voices blend perfectly, and it’s the only song of the five that I really enjoy.

Horizon Award
Dierks Bentley
Big & Rich
Miranda Lambert
Julie Roberts
Sugarland

My Pick: Sugarland
It’s a tough call between Sugarland and Big & Rich, but I give the former the edge because they really broke through this year, while B&R were working their debut CD for a second year in a row.

Vocal Duo
Big & Rich
Brooks & Dunn
Montgomery Gentry
Van Zant
Warren Brothers

My Pick: Big & Rich
It’s time for a changing of the guard here, and I think Big & Rich are far more creative and talented than Montgomery Gentry, who have already won once anyway. Please, no more Brooks & Dunn!

Single of the Year
“Alcohol”- Brad Paisley
“As Good As I Once Was” – Toby Keith
“Baby Girl” – Sugarland
“Bless The Broken Road” – Rascal Flatts
“I May Hate Myself In The Morning” – Lee Ann Womack

My Pick: “I May Hate Myself In The Morning” – Lee Ann Womack
One of my favorite records of all-time, not just this past year. I had to get #10-#6 of my top 400 up so I could do this CMA post without giving away some of the list. I really hope she wins.

Song of the Year
“Alcohol” – Brad Paisley
“As Good As I Once Was” – Toby Keith & Scott Emerick
“Bless The Broken Road” – Marcus Hummon, Bobby Boyd & Jeff Hanna
“I May Hate Myself In The Morning” – Odie Blackmon
“Redneck Woman” – Gretchen Wilson & John Rich
“Whiskey Lullaby” – Bill Anderson & Jon Randall

My pick: “I May Hate Myself In The Morning” – Odie Blackmon
It’s a fantastic, timeless song that is refreshingly honest. I can’t say enough good things about it, so I’m just going to stop here.

Album of the Year
Tim McGraw Live Like You Were Dying
Rascal Flatts Feels Like Today
George Strait Somewhere Down In Texas
Keith Urban Be Here
Lee Ann Womack There’s More Where That Came From

My Pick: Lee Ann Womack There’s More Where That Came From
Tough call between Womack and McGraw, but Lee Ann’s traditional masterpiece gets the edge. Tim’s won twice in this category anyway.

Vocal Group
Alison Krauss & Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas
Diamond Rio
Lonestar
Rascal Flatts
Sugarland

My Pick: Sugarland
They get the edge for AKUS for writing every song on their album together, and riding their collective effort to stardom. They’re also a powerful live act, the most important group – hell, the only important group – to come along since the Dixie Chicks.

Male Vocalist
Kenny Chesney
Alan Jackson
Brad Paisley
George Strait
Keith Urban

My Pick: Alan Jackson
He’s still the best, and he only has two of these. His control keeps “Monday Morning Church” from being maudlin, and his humor carried “Talkin’ Song Repair Blues”, which would’ve tripped up a lesser vocalist. I think he’s the gold standard; the only one in his league here is Strait, who has five wins in this category – that’s right, five!

Female Vocalist
Sara Evans
Alison Krauss
Martina McBride
Gretchen Wilson
Lee Ann Womack

My Pick: Alison Krauss
It’s a no-brainer. I hate to be the one to say it, but the only one in this category who can replicate on stage what’s on the record is Krauss. I remember when I used to pick my preferred winner based on the specifics of the year – the album sales, chart success, etc. – because it was a given that the woman could sing live flawlessly. Pam, Trisha, Patty, Kathy, Wynonna, Tanya, Reba, even Faith and Chapin – no studio tricks needed. I miss those days.

Entertainer of the Year
Kenny Chesney
Alan Jackson
Toby Keith
Brad Paisley
Keith Urban

My Pick: Keith Urban
He’s selling a ton of records, dominating radio (three 5-week #1 singles from this new album), he’s a phenomenal live act and he’s even crossing over to the pop charts. He represents the genre on the international stage and does so with humility and dignity. He’s the classiest star country has produced in a long time, and this year, he was also the brightest.

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400 Best Contemporary Country Singles: #50-#26

The 400 Best Contemporary Country Singles
Part 15:
#50-#26

#50
“Meet In The Middle”
Diamond Rio
1991
Peak: #1

Diamond Rio burst on to the country music scene with an ideal showcase of their talents: stunning musicianship, classic country harmony and a good ear for strong material. You can tell by the story revolving around an oak tree that this is a Chapin Hartford song; she loves that nature imagery. The need to compromise for a love to survive finds the perfect metaphor here.

#49
“The Walk”
Sawyer Brown
1991
Peak: #2

When it’s time to take the next step in your life, and the change is scaring you, it certainly helps to talk to someone who’s been there before. Beginning with the first day of school, continuing with leaving home as an adult and, finally, saying goodbye to your earthly life, a father takes his son by the hand each time, an comforts him by saying, “I took this walk you’re walking now, boy I’ve been in your shoes.”


#48
“Come On Back”
Carlene Carter
1990
Peak: #3

If somebody was going to rewrite “Seven Year Ache”, it might as well be Rosanne Cash’s stepsister. Carter makes a plea of intelligence, rather than desperation, to get her man to stop seeking the nightlife and “come on back to the one who really loves” him.

#47
“Long Time Gone”
Dixie Chicks
2002
Peak: #2

After taking a couple of years off, the Chicks returned with Home, appropriately titled for where the set was recorded. It was like nothing they’d ever done before; in fact, just about all of their early work paled in comparison to this acoustic collection. “Long Time Gone” set the tone perfectly for the new project, as a slightly bitter but mostly nostalgic reminiscence of the good old days. There’s a brilliant music business parable subtly weaved into the lyric, and the Chicks articulated the problem with the antiseptic country music of that time by noting “the music ain’t got no soul,” it’s all money and no Cash.

#46
“If Tomorrow Never Comes”
Garth Brooks
1989
Peak: #1

One of his finest achievements as an artist and a writer, Brooks asks the question that we should all ask ourselves. If we were to die tomorrow, would the people we love know how much they meant to us? Timeless.

#45
“The Ballad Of The Kingsmen”
Todd Snider
2004
Peak: did not chart

Somehow, Snider manages to tie together the Columbine shootings, Eminem’s use of the word fag, violent images on the nightly news about war, and the incongruity between the American ideal of greed is good and the Christian ideal of the meek inheriting the earth by using the controversy over The Kingsmen hit “Louie, Louie.” And he does it all without being preachy or political. It’s a mind-blowing listen; seek it out.

#44
“Ain’t That Lonely Yet”
Dwight Yoakam
1993
Peak: #2

Yoakam’s performance of this song is so sincere and genuine, it’s hard to believe he didn’t write it. Over a calm steel guitar and understated piano, he explains to his lover that she hurt him so much by leaving, that he’s simply not lonely enough to take her back. He deservedly won a Grammy for this performance.

#43
“You’ll Think Of Me”
Keith Urban
2004
Peak: #1

A dark and moody challenge to the woman who has destroyed him by leaving, he makes clear that she may think she’s free, but there’s going to come a time where he’s moved on with his life, but she wants him back. More than a little bitter, he’s also relieved for one thing: “The only blessing I have left to my name is not knowing what we could’ve been, what we should’ve been.”

#42
“Little Rock”
Collin Raye
1994
Peak: #2

Raye never sounded better than on this powerful piano-laden ballad from the perspective of a recovering alcoholic. His voice captures all of the guilt and regret for the mistakes he has made as the clarity of sobriety forces him to deal with his past.

#41
“Passionate Kisses”
Mary Chapin Carpenter
1993
Peak: #4

The third and final single from this list to originally appear on Lucinda Williams, Carpenter made this quite reasonable wish list a major hit. This is the thinking woman’s “Any Man of Mine”, a polite request for what she really deserves, like “pens that don’t run out of ink, and cool quiet, and time to think.”

#40
“Sin Wagon”
Dixie Chicks
2000
Peak: #52

Even after winning the Entertainer of the Year award, the Chicks weren’t able to get radio to play this filthy little record. A crowd-pleaser that they use to close their shows, this is a shameless celebration of debauchery, while still keeping an eye on the heavens, just to make sure God isn’t looking while they “do a little mattress dancin’.”

#39
“A Night To Remember”
Joe Diffie
1999
Peak: #6

His pure country baritone was the closest the nineties got to its own George Jones or Conway Twitty. Diffie wasted too much time with silly redneck rave-ups, but when he teared into a ballad, he was unrivaled. This heart-piercing monologue of a man making big plans for tonight leads you to think he’s going to hit the bars, but he’s just planning on closing the door at home, spreading pictures on the floor of the woman he lost, and giving in to his heartache and memories.

#38
“You’re Still The One”
Shania Twain
1998
Peak: #1

The perfect country crossover record. It was unavoidable, but rightfully so, since it was so damn good. A timeless melody, a sincere message of commitment and pristine production combined for a massive hit that will still stick in your head for days if you hear it in a store or elevator.

#37
“I’m Movin’ On”
Rascal Flatts
2001
Peak: #4

I still can’t believe there’s a Rascal Flatts song I love this much, but dear God, what a song. A man is realizing that the people he loves are holding him back, and he needs to get a fresh start somewhere else: “They mean me no harm but it’s time that I face it, they’ll never allow me to change. But I never dreamed home would end up where I don’t belong; I’m movin’ on.” Letting go is never easy, but sometimes it has to be done; I’ve never heard why that’s true captured as perfectly as it is on this record.

#36
“Welcome Home”
Dolly Parton
2004
Peak: did not chart

Dolly Parton is writing her best songs in thirty years, and it’s going largely unnoticed. This is an undeniable masterpiece, which weaves twin stories of a soldier coming home to his family and another soldier dying at war and going home to heaven. (“A dreary rain was falling while another soldier fell/And a mother wakes up crying in the night. She thought she heard him calling, and in that moment she could tell, her only son had passed into the light.”) Not satisfied to end there, she imagines Jesus’ own homecoming after his crucifixion, and then dreams of being welcomed home herself to heaven when it’s her time to go.

#35
“All The Good Ones Are Gone”
Pam Tillis
1997
Peak: #4

The quintessential tear-jerker for single women everywhere, Tillis gives them their voice with this mournful ballad of fearing that love has passed you by. She skillfully holds back in the verses, where she’s hanging out with friends at the bar or just quietly thinking to herself of loves she let slip away, but when she gets to the chorus, where she’s justifying her single life to her mother on the phone, her vocal becomes intense and pleading, revealing the vulnerablilty lurking beneath the surface.

#34
“You’ll Be There”
George Strait
2005
Peak: #4

“You don’t take nothing with you here, and you can’t take nothing back; I ain’t ever seen a hearse with a luggage rack.” Has there ever been a more perfect country metaphor for life and death? Strait surprises with this philosophical pondering on God’s motivation for creating us, and where we go in the end. He’s not sure of the answer, but he’s going to do his best to live a good life so he can go to heaven, because the person he’s singing to will be there.

#33
“Somebody’s Hero”
Jamie O’ Neal
2005
Peak: #3

I can be a little arrogant about country music. I’ve heard so much of it that I can usually anticipate where a song is going. When I heard the first verse about how mom is “somebody’s hero” because she gives her daughter Cheerios and kisses to make it all better, I grinned. Then when she’s her daughter’s hero on her wedding day because she “gave her wings to leave the nest”, I thought, how nice! When I heard the bridge: “Her daughter’s staring at all the photographs of her mother, and she wishes she could be like that – oh, but she already is,” I groaned. Here comes the third verse, where we learn that she has her own daughter now, and she’s a hero to her little child.
Boy, was I wrong: “She’s somebody’s hero, a hero to her mother in the rocking chair, she runs a brush through her silver hair. The envy of the nursing home, she drops by every afternoon, feeds her mama with a spoon, and that smile lets her know she’s somebody’s hero.”
What could have been a sappy song about mother and child transformed into a perfect illustration of how the relationship between mother and child changes over time, with the roles eventually switching as the parent reaches old age. It gets me every time I hear it.

#32
“Worlds Apart”
Vince Gill
1996
Peak: #5

A simple plea for those of us who are “worlds apart” to come together. In three short verses, Gill tells of the pain that distance causes: in a relationship where communication has ended, in the pain of having children leave home, and finally, how humanity can be divided over things like race. He poignantly asks the question, “Why do you and me have to be worlds apart?” I truly believe he is right when he says, “We’ll all end up as equals when we stand at heaven’s gate. Love is still the answer, it’s the only place to start.”

#31
“Song For The Life”
Alan Jackson
1995
Peak: #6

This Rodney Crowell song has been recorded by everybody from Kathy Mattea to Alison Krauss, but it was Jackson’s definitive version that finally brought out the homespun truth in the lyrics. “I don’t drink as much as I used to, lately it just ain’t my style.” There’s an inner peace that comes with getting older, and settling down in your place in life. Maybe it’s the cool confidence that comes with finding the right person or the right job. Whatever causes it, suddenly you have so much less to prove, and you have time to fully appreciate the goodness around you.

#30
“Maybe It Was Memphis”
Pam Tillis
1992
Peak: #3

A scorching, torrid recollection of a chance meeting in Memphis that was intensely passionate, Tillis sings the ever-loving daylights out of this, infusing it with more energy and emotion than a proper southern lady would ever have dared to before the nineties. Her signature hit, this is one of those records that feels every bit as powerful when you’re hearing it for the thousandth time as it did the first time you heard it.

#29
“Something In Red”
Lorrie Morgan
1992
Peak: #14

A woman’s life is told through small conversations with sales assistants at clothing stores. That description doesn’t really do justice of this song, does it? What can I say, it’s a genre-defying showtune that perfectly showcases Morgan’s versitality as a vocalist. She fully becomes the woman in this song, whether she’s envious because her boyfriend has a different date for the prom or wistful that the passion is gone from her marriage as she shops for an outfit for her new baby boy.

#28
“Something Worth Leaving Behind”
Lee Ann Womack
2002
Peak: #20

“If I will love then I will find that I have touched another life, and that’s something worth leaving behind.” Here’s some wisdom for you, as articulated by Womack in this insightful life lesson: if you only live to make things better for yourself, all of your hard work and effort dies with you. What, then, was the point of you existing at all, if once you’re gone, there’s nothing positive to show for you being there?
I was given a card with these song lyrics on them after a close friend had spent a day watching me teach, and I revisited the song because of it. It’s helped me to realize that the best thing I can do with my life is try to do as much good for others as possible; if I don’t see tomorrow, it will still matter that I was here today, and the good I have done will hopefully live on in other people. Perhaps it’s hopelessly idealistic, but it keeps me where I am, doing what I do. How many songs can do that?

#27
“Red Ragtop”
Tim McGraw
2002
Peak: #5

Abortion is one of the most heatedly debated issues of modern times. People are passionate on both sides, abstractly arguing for the right to life or the right to choose. Perhaps that’s why it was so shocking to hear this single, which discusses a young couple choosing to have one so matter-of-factly, the reality of why people would make the choice is suddenly understandable. The song wisely makes no moral judgement on the couple, but does note that the choices you make younger in life will stay with you as you grow older.


#26
“Time Passes By”
Kathy Mattea
1991
Peak: #7
“If Tomorrow Never Comes” with a beat, this uplifting hit is an important reminder to leave time in your day for doing the fun things you want to do, and making time to be with those you love, because “time passes by, people pass on, in the drop of a tear, they’re gone.” It’s too easy to let work and routine get in the way of being with those that we care about. We have to value each moment like it’s the last, which is just about impossible to do; for the three minutes this song plays, it seems possible after all.

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400 Best Contemporary Country Singles: #75-#51

The 400 Best Contemporary Country Singles
Part 14:
#75-#51

#75
“Wrong Side of Memphis”
Trisha Yearwood
1992
Peak: #4

Yearwood kicked it into a higher gear with this lead single from her second album, the critically-lauded Hearts In Armor. A classic tale of leaving home for the bright lights of Nashville, the vivid imagery of the lyrics (“I’ve had this dream from a tender age, calling my name from the Opry stage”) and her full-bodied delivery help make this one of the best singles of her career.

#74
“Fancy”
Reba McEntire
1991
Peak: #8

Let’s not beat around the bush. This is about a mother pushing her young daughter into prostitution as a way out of their poverty-stricken life. Leave it to Reba McEntire to make this sordid tale into a triumph of female empowerment. Her cover of this Bobbie Gentry hit was so powerful and memorable that it became Reba’s signature tune.


#73
“Come Next Monday”
K.T. Oslin
1990
Peak: #1

K.T. Oslin has a subtle vocal delivery, laid-back and comfortable just humming the melody along with the backing music. She sounds here like she’s singing out of the corner of her mouth at times, signaling only the slightest conviction that come next Monday, she’ll go on a diet, stop talking dirty and give up on the man that’s no good for her. Her commitment is as forceful as her delivery, leaving no doubt that on “temptation Tuesday, I might be sorry.”

#72
“Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying of Thirst)”
Kathy Mattea
1993
Peak: #19

Mattea makes the painful observation that we’re surrounded by an abundance of everything we need, but we fail to take advantage of that fact – we’re knee-deep in water and dying of thirst. She uses the metaphor first to acknowledge that “friends I could count on, I could count on one hand, with a leftover finger or two” but she took them for granted and they slipped away. Then she recounts the lovers that still linger in her mind, and she can’t recall why she let them go. But the kicker is in the third verse, where she challenges all of us: the homeless on the streets look to her for help, but she looks the other way. They are the ones, in the end, who are dying of thirst in the richest nation in the world; and as a society, we are looking the other way as they suffer among us.

#71
“Without You”
Dixie Chicks
2000
Peak: #1

It was girl-power anthems and cocky independence that launched the Chicks into superstar status – songs like “Ready to Run”, “Wide Open Spaces” and “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me” were all spunk and self-reliance. But when they showed their sensitive side, the girls really shined. This tender ballad about a woman who can’t convince herself she’s better off alone, even though her former man is doing fine without her, is intense and heartfelt. Like album-closer “Let Him Fly”, this foreshadowed the sound that would dominate their next record, the masterpiece Home.

#70
“Breathe”
Faith Hill
1999
Peak: #1

It’s hard to remember that when we first heard “Breathe”, many of us said, “Hey! That’s the same melody as ‘It Matters To Me’!” This was such a giant hit that it eclipsed all of her previous work fairly quickly. Its popularity was justified. The record builds from a sultry first verse that is sparse in instrumentation, with Hill singing softly in her lower register. Then it builds to a powerful chorus, where all the tension is released and she sings with passionate intensity.

#69
“My Old Friend”
Tim McGraw
2005
Peak: #6

One of the reasons you make some of your closest friendships when you’re young is that you don’t really have the time once you’re out of school and working full-time to make and maintain deep friendships. Indeed, the busy pace of your everyday life can make even the best of friends slip away, as there just isn’t time. McGraw never exactly says why he is saying goodbye to his old friend, though it’s clear the goodbye is a final one. The cause of his friend’s death is a mystery, though McGraw’s need to apologize for not being there for his old friend subtly suggests suicide. Regardless, it’s a potent reminder that if you don’t make the time for the people you care about, you run the risk of time running out too soon.

#68
“A Little Past Little Rock”
Lee Ann Womack
1998
Peak: #2

Again, a woman is leaving a relationship behind and hitting the road. This record is distinguished by a haunting melody and string section that casts a dark pall over the record. She’s running as much from herself as she is from the man she’s leaving behind; she simply doesn’t trust herself to make the right choices if she’s in the same city as him.

#67
“Nothing”
Dwight Yoakam
1995
Peak: #20

This is as close to avant-garde a country radio hit ever got. The irregular rhythm section, the surprising burst of horns, the nearly out-of-place female backing vocalists, and Yoakam’s distant and cold delivery make this one of the most intriguing and mysterious records of his career – heck, of anybody’s career.

#66
“No Fear”
Terri Clark
2001
Peak: #27

She’s best known for her self-described “balls to the wall” honky-tonk rockers, but when she decided to get reflective on her fourth album and began writing with Mary Chapin Carpenter, she revealed a sensitivity and thoughtfulness that was previously only hinted at. This appeal to find the strength within herself to face her fears is her finest moment to date.

#65
“I Hope”
Dixie Chicks
2005
Peak: #60

Recorded as a charity single to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina, this country gospel number serves as a challenge to all of humanity to follow their best instincts, and to remember that we are creating by our example the next generation: “Our children are watching us, they put their trust in us, they’re gonna be like us.” An inspiring and timely message.

#64
“You’d Think He’d Know Me Better”
Bobbie Cryner
1996
Peak: #56

A harrowing portrait that shows how a failure to communicate will doom a marriage. Cryner can’t figure out why her husband doesn’t know her well enough by now. She feels she shouldn’t have to tell him she feels neglected and bored at home, so she doesn’t. In the end, as he is leaving her, he says through tears that she doesn’t talk to him enough.

#63
“The Greatest Man I Never Knew”
Reba McEntire
1993
Peak: #3

A father works as hard as he can to provide for his family, and his young daughter is the center of his world. But he doesn’t know how to show that love through words or affection, and nearly a year after his death, his daughter is still struggling with the fact that he never said “I love you” to her. This is the finest ballad of a career that is defined by them.

#62
“Deep Down”
Pam Tillis
1995
Peak: #6

One of the best-produced country singles in history. Powerful contrast is used to heighten the emotions of the song. A bouncy melody is applied to the darkest of messages – “I’ve got the bleeding stopped, but there’s gonna be a scar.” On the verses, there’s a back-and-forth between Pam and the band, where she sings a line and the fiddle or guitar echoes it back in response. They build off of each other, escalating the intensity until it explodes in the bridge. It’s a country record with the sonic texture of a classic 60’s pop record.

#61
“My Baby Loves Me”
Martina McBride
1993
Peak: #2

With it’s “Born In The U.S.A.” beats and “Shiny Happy People” melody, this was a burst of sunshine on the radio in 1993, a stunningly confident celebration of a love that is built on respect and positive reinforcement. McBride has rarely sounded better since.

#60
“A Real Fine Place to Start”
Sara Evans
2005
Peak: #1

Once Keith Urban scored a big hit covering Radney Foster’s “Raining On Sunday”, artists in Nashville started hitting the Foster catalog trying to find hits of their own. Earlier this year, Evans scored big-time with this spot-on rendition of Radney’s “A Real Fine Place To Start”, which practically leaps off the radio with its energy and joy. Her voice absolutely soars by the time she hits the bridge; the entire record radiates sexual tension.

#59
“Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)”
Dixie Chicks
2003
Peak: #48

Always ahead of their time, the Chicks were already covering Radney Foster back in 1998, when they included one of his songs on their first collection for Sony. A few years later, they covered this achingly beautiful lullaby that Foster wrote for his young son, who was living thousands of miles away in Paris with his mother. His son would play a tape of his dad singing this song every night before going to bed – “God hears Amen wherever wer are, and I love you. Godspeed little man; Sweet dreams little man. My love will fly to you each night on angel’s wings.” Maines’ delivery of the song in a near-whisper and a faint echo of vocals from guest Emmylou Harris make the Chicks’ cover resonate as deeply as Foster’s original recording.

#58
“Believe Me Baby (I Lied)”
Trisha Yearwood
1996
Peak: #1

For a change, Yearwood plays the role of the jerk. She’s said way too many things in anger that she’s wanting to take back, but realizes she may have gone too far. So she begs her lover to believe her when she says she lied. It’s a clever play on words, as one would expect with Kim Richey being one of the writers. The most interesting thing about the record is that instead of having the big vocal moments in the chorus, the moments of intensity come in the verses – a particularly stunning “You’re the only one” in the second verse will destroy a cheap set of speakers.

#57
“Hard Rock Bottom Of Your Heart”
Randy Travis
1990
Peak: #1

It’s easy to forget just how innovative the production of this record was in 1990. For such a staunch traditionalist, Travis was very comfortable pushing the boundaries from time to time. On this fantastic Hugh Prestwood cheating number, he does his very best to lay blame on the broken relationship with the wife he has cheated on. His attempts to minimize his own role in the troubles they have are unbelievable: “Since the day I was led to temptation, and in weakness did let your love down, I have prayed that with time and compassion, you’d come around.” He’s the one who cheated, but he’s so good at playing the victim that the listener can’t help but wonder why the woman just can’t get over it.

#56
“Past The Point Of Rescue”
Hal Ketchum
1992
Peak: #2

Ketchum is slowly sinking into misery and delusion as he tries to convince his ex-lover, and himself, that she’d be better off if she came back home. “Do you know how much you’re losing? No you don’t, but I do.” As he contends to descend into the darkness, he confesses that it’s really just him who is lost without her.

#55
“Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)”
Alan Jackson
2001
Peak: #1

Written in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, before they had been fully processed and cynically politicized, Jackson struck the bare and frayed nerves of the American public by giving voice to the mosaic of reactions that different people had to the shock of the attacks. That he did so without judgement, or preference, or moral grandstanding is no small feat. He only hints at his own beliefs by recounting that he remembers from his childhood lessons that of all the gifts God gave us, “the greatest is love.”

#54
“Strawberry Wine”
Deana Carter
1996
Peak: #1

On the surface, it’s a nostalgic waltz that recalls a young girl losing her virginity in the fields under the hot July moon. But on a deeper level, it’s about longing for a return to your innocence, back when having a car represented new freedom and “thirty was old.” Carter’s sandpaper vocals are perfect for conveying the wisdom that age brings.

#53
“On Your Way Home”
Patty Loveless
2004
Peak: #29

Loveless wonders where her cheating husband goes on his way home from cheating – not just where his car takes him, but where his mind wanders as he’s heading back to the woman he has wronged. She’s wanting out, too; she’s only staying out of spite to punish him for his dishonesty. An angry, bitter and mournful turn of the knife by a woman who’s been done wrong.

#52
“Love Without End, Amen”
George Strait
1990
Peak: #1

A young boy gets a black eye in school, and is trembling at home waiting for his father to dole out the punishment. Dad lets him in on a secret that he’ll pass on to his own son in the second verse – “Daddies don’t just love their children every now and then, it’s a love without end, amen.” In classic country style, it becomes a spiritual lesson in the final verse, where our narrator finds himself in heaven and thinks “there must be some mistake. If they know half the things I’ve done, they’ll never let me in.” Then he hears his father’s words again coming from the mouth of God himself. Hillbilly poetry.


#51
“Straight Tequila Night”
John Anderson
1992
Peak: #1
Seemingly out of nowhere, John Anderson made a monstrous comeback on the strength of this honky-tonk ode to a woman who has been drinking to forget the man who hurt her. As the bartender, Anderson tells a new man her favorite song and her choice of wine, and urges him to “turn her love life around.” But, he warns, stay away from her if she’s hitting the hard stuff tonight. She “blames her broken heart on every man in sight on a straight tequila night.” His goosebump-inducing vocals and a fiery fiddle help make this one of the best honky-tonk hits of the modern country era.

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400 Best Contemporary Country Singles: #100-#76

The 400 Best Contemporary Country Singles
Part 13:
#100-#76

#100
“Nobody Wins”
Radney Foster
1992
Peak: #2

Pride can be crippling. Sometimes you win the fight but lose the one you love. In the end, you win nothing at all. Radney gets that, and makes a passionate appeal to his lover to stop the fighting and just remember that the love they have is more important than any argument between them.

#99
“Quittin’ Time”
Mary Chapin Carpenter
1990
Peak: #7

Sometimes, however, fights signify that things aren’t as good as they used to be, but you stick around because you remember how good it used to be. Here, Chapin appeals to her lover to give up the fight, since it’s clear that their love is a thing of the past.


#98
“Cry”
Faith Hill
2002
Peak: #12

It’s never fun being the one who gives more than they take. To be the one who is the better person, who gives until they can’t give anymore while overlooking the failings of the other person, and still be left in the end? That’s not fun at all. Faith Hill demands that her leaving lover give her at least a few tears to justify all of the sacrifices that she has made on his behalf; she deserves that much.

#97
“You Win Again”
Mary Chapin Carpenter
1990
Peak: #16

I’ve never heard a more harrowing tale of desperation, of being trapped in a one-sided relationship where you’re being emotionally exploited – “I can’t stand up when I’m always kneeling at your altar or at your throne, you could show just a little feeling for who I am, baby you win again.” Desperation at its most fervent.

#96
“It’s Lonely Out There”
Pam Tillis
1996
Peak: #14

The grass ain’t always greener. The brilliance of this record is how Pam starts off coldly indifferent to her lover’s desire to find someone new, then slowly reveals her desire for him to stay, to the point that she’s finally pleading for him not to leave. At the beginning, “it’s lonely out there” is a cold reminder; by the end, it’s a desperate plea for him to stay.

#95
“He Would Be Sixteen”
Michelle Wright
1992
Peak: #31

A woman is haunted by the baby she gave up for adoption 16 years ago. Her need to know how the son she never knew is doing reveals a mother’s love is eternal, even if she doesn’t raise her child.

#94
“Whiskey Lullaby”
Brad Paisley & Alison Krauss
2004
Peak: #3

Who knew a double-suicide song could be a hit? Paisley is a very ordinary artist, but the extraordinary vocal talents of Alison Krauss and songwriting talents of Jon Randall & Bill Anderson give him his finest moment on record.

#93
“Keep Your Distance”
Patty Loveless
2005
Peak: did not chart

Some people just aren’t good for your system. If they can’t commit to you completely, you’re better off staying away from them completely. Loveless captures this in this fantastic single, which appeals to an ex-lover to keep their distance, since “with us, it must be all or none at all.” My favorite line in a song this year was “I played and I got stung, now I’m biting back my tongue and sweeping out the footprints where I strayed.”

#92
“Come From The Heart”
Kathy Mattea
1989
Peak: #1

If you let your head rule your heart, you won’t take the chances necessary to find real happiness. Sometimes you have to be willing to make an ass out of yourself.

#91
“Bring On The Rain”
Jo Dee Messina with Tim McGraw
2001
Peak: #1

Jo Dee tends to O.D. on the inspirational songs, but this one resonates with me more than the others. Don’t just deal with adversity; invite it. “Tomorrow’s another day, and I’m thirsty anyway, so bring on the rain.” A powerful motivation to survive.

#90
“Portland, Oregon”
Loretta Lynn with Jack White
2004
Peak: did not chart

Loretta meets Jack White on his own turf and shines on this honky-tonk rocker. She absolutely radiates from the speakers. She’s old enough for Social Security and I still want to take her home.

#89
“Feed Jake”
Pirates of the Mississippi
1991
Peak: #15

They take the classic joke about country songs about dogs, and use it to make biting social commentary. The chorus sings about feeding Jake, a good dog. The verses tackle homelessness, poverty and anti-gay bigotry. A stroke of brilliance.

#88
“I Don’t Call Him Daddy”
Doug Supernaw
1993
Peak: #1

This was a surprise hit, perhaps because it finally gave a voice to Sunday fathers who love their children but can’t fully provide for them. “He’s quite a little man, growing up as fast as he can, and I don’t get to see him half as much as I had planned.” Your heart breaks with the father when you hear his ode to his son.

#87
“You’ve Got A Way”
Shania Twain
1999
Peak: #13

There was something almost indignant about ending her pop crossover phenom Come On Over with this stripped-down country ballad. Here, Twain proves she can outclass all those folkies in the coffee shops when she wants to; she’s just chosen to please the masses instead.

#86
“Yard Sale”
Sammy Kershaw
1992
Peak: #17

A brilliant way of showing the aftermath of a broken home, Kershaw sings about the yard sale selling off all of his memories. “They’re sorting through what’s left of you and me”, he warbles, capturing pure country heartbreak in the most mundane of weekend activities.

#85
“Shut Up and Drive”
Chely Wright
1997
Peak: #14

The best woman leaving by driving away country song ever. Wright provides the voice of strength for every woman stuck in a relationship that makes her weak, and speaks an obvious truth: “He’s the one who will be missing you, and you’ll only miss the man that you wanted him to be.”

#84
“All These Years”
Sawyer Brown
1993
Peak: #3

A man comes home early and sees his cheating wife in bed with another man. No moral grandstanding here; the conversation they have lays blame on all sides. “She said you’re not the man you used to be, and he said neither is this guy. She said there’s some things you refuse to see, but I guess sometimes so do I.” You actually believe the marriage will be stronger after this incident than it was before, because honesty is finally on the table.

#83
“Drugs or Jesus”
Tim McGraw
2005
Peak: #14

Has there ever been a more honest explanation of why people use drugs? You do want that escape from reality, that hope that everything will be okay. Hey, that’s why some people go to church, too. Is that okay to put in a country song? McGraw thought so, and captured both situations without judgement and with sympathy.

#82
“Come Some Rainy Day”
Wynonna
1998
Peak: #14

All those good old days you’re hoping to revisit are already a thing of the past. Don’t wait for the rainy day; appreciate what you have while it’s still there.

#81
“Love, Me”
Collin Raye
1991
Peak: #1

Go ahead. Try not to cry as the grandfather kneels and tells his wife who has died that he’ll meet her when his chores are through.

#80
“Angry All The Time”
Bruce Robison
1998
Peak: did not chart

Tim McGraw had a #1 hit with this, but it’s Robison’s original version, with passionate harmony from Kelly Willis, that fully captures the voice of a man whose “reasons that I can’t stay don’t have a thing to do with being in love.” A stark and powerful story about how married life can fail to meet your expectations.

#79
“Just My Luck”
Kim Richey
1995
Peak: #47

A brilliant voice makes herself heard on her own terms, telling how her independence has been compromised by falling for a new man, and wondering if that’s good luck or bad luck. The jangly guitars still sound great ten years later. This should have been a #1 hit.

#78
“Things Change”
Dwight Yoakam
1998
Peak: #17

Dwight is dealing with a bitchy lover who no longer loves him, even though he “still feels the same.” She mocks his failure to understand how time changes things, but when she comes crawling back, he uses her own words against her.

#77
“Three Wooden Crosses”
Randy Travis
2002
Peak: #1

I can’t believe a #1 country hit started out with the line “A farmer and a teacher, a hooker and a preacher.” But more Baptists need to listen to how a prostitute can be the one who leads others to salvation. Too many Christians overlook the fact that Jesus bypassed the temples and hung out with the bottom-feeders of society. God’s love is not discriminating, and neither should ours be.


#76
“Perfect”
Sara Evans
2004
Peak: #2
I remember feeling frustrated that I wasn’t doing everything the right way, and I was being nailed at work for it. Then this song came on as I drove home and it was a reminder that nobody’s perfect, and if you surround yourself with people who know you’re trying your best, you will better yourself without all the extra guilt. I’m thankful for this song because it helped me find greater perspective and appreciation for myself.

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400 Best Contemporary Country Singles: #125-#101

The 400 Best Contemporary Country Singles
Part 12:
#125-#101

#125
“Any Man of Mine”
Shania Twain
1995
Peak: #1

There are a few records in country music history that serve as a clear turning point. “On The Other Hand” is one. “Any Man of Mine” is another. After a short five-second tease of twangy guitar, the arena-rock drums slam in, and the rules for what you can put on a country record and still call it one are permanently rewritten. This was the pivotal single from The Woman In Me that launched Shania Twain into the stratosphere, replacing Garth Brooks as the dominant creative force in country music. Ten years later, I still remember hearing it for the first time and thinking, “They can’t do that, can they?”

#124
“You Can Sleep While I Drive”
Trisha Yearwood
1995
Peak: #23

Shania was the earthquake that made everybody sit up and take notice that women were suddenly the dominant voices in country music, but artists like Trisha Yearwood had already been laying the groundwork for this seismic shift since the dawn of the nineties. One of the reasons country music became a female-dominated genre for the first time in its history was the artistic risks those women were taking. Having only a few strong women in the genre’s history to emulate – Dolly, Loretta, Emmylou & Rosanne were about it – women like Yearwood expanded their realm of influences to include country-rock artists like Linda Ronstadt, Yearwood’s biggest influence. Ronstadt had made it big by finding songs by rock artists that sounded good done as a country song. Following that example, Yearwood covered this brilliant Melissa Etheridge track, adding a bit of steel guitar and making it her own.


#123
“Back When We Were Beautiful”
Matraca Berg
1997
Peak: did not chart

Female artists would have been a lot quieter on the charts in the nineties if it wasn’t for sharp material being written by female songwriters. Of all the women writing in Nashville, none of them had more impact on country music in the nineties than Matraca Berg, who penned smash hits for Patty Loveless, Deana Carter, Suzy Bogguss, Trisha Yearwood and Martina McBride. She had recorded for RCA in the early nineties, and resurfaced on Rising Tide in 1997, who signed her hoping she’d have as much luck with her own voice singing her songs. It didn’t work out that way, but not because the music wasn’t there. This poignant ballad, debuted on the CMA Awards that year, recounts a conversation between a grandmother and her granddaughter, and is a heartbreaking commentary on the affects of aging (“I hate it when they say I’m aging gracefully. I fight it every day, I guess they never see.”)

#122
“The Back of Your Hand”
Dwight Yoakam
2003
Peak: #52

Yoakam’s a great songwriter, and great songwriters are usually pretty good at spotting quality outside material. This string-dominated appeal to save a fading relationship is a bit odd, but then again, so is Dwight. Who else would spot the genius in asking a woman to stay with him by encouraging her to “pick a number from one to two”?

#121
“I Know”
Kim Richey
1997
Peak: #72

Kim Richey had plenty of success as a songwriter in Nashville, penning a few big hits that are on this list. Her solo work was so good that many songs off both of her country albums have been covered, by everybody from Brooks & Dunn to Patty Loveless. This was the only single from Bitter Sweet to chart, and it deserved greater success. Here, Richey tells herself that she should be moving on and forgetting about the man who left her behind. You’re not sure if she’s trying to convince a girlfriend she’s talking to, or if she’s just arguing with her own pride.

#120
“Twenty Years and Two Husbands Ago”
Lee Ann Womack
2005
Peak: #32

In one of her rare self-written hits, Womack takes stock of her life as she’s putting her makeup on, and as she’s driving the kids to school. The song is just fantastically written – “I remember when he took my hand and said ‘I do’, and the kitchen I was standing in when he said, ‘I’m through.'” She learns that for all the wrong turns made, she’s right where she’s meant to be. It’s a lesson for all of us: what we consider our mistakes were often necessary steps towards becoming who we are today.

#119
“Tough Little Boys”
Gary Allan
2003
Peak: #1

Gary Allan doesn’t do vulnerability often, and even here he’s holding back. But he confesses that even though he was a tough little boy, taking black eyes with pride and not crying when Old Yeller died (“at least not in front of my friends”) – “but when tough little boys grow up to be dads, they turn into big babies again.” This is funny and sweet and a great tribute to parenthood. I don’t even have a daughter yet, but when he says on her wedding day, “I’m gonna stand there and smile/But when I get home, and I’m alone, I’ll sit in your room for a while”, I can flash forward thirty years. That’s how good this is.

#118
“Asking Us To Dance”
Kathy Mattea
1991
Peak: #27

Country music has many songwriters, but few poets. Hugh Prestwood is a poet. It is not easy to write a convincing love song, even harder to write a genuinely romantic one rather than an one of those “I’d die for you” or “I want to sleep with you now” numbers. Prestwood’s appeal to “get caught in this moment, be victims of sweet circumstance” because it feels “like all creation is asking us to dance” is undeniably romantic. Needless to say, Mattea knocks a great song out of the park.

#117
“Hello God”
Dolly Parton
2002
Peak: #60

There were so many songs written as a response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and quite frankly, most of them weren’t very good. I would say that was an event that separated the good songwriters from the great ones; for all their hits, Toby Keith and Phil Vassar are merely good songwriters; Alan Jackson and Dolly Parton are great ones. Parton’s heartfelt attempt to talk to God about all the hate and violence in the world asks all of the right questions on behalf of a bewildered population: “We fight and kill each other, in Your name, defending You. Do You love some more than others? We’re so lost and confused.” The pleas simply escalate as the choir comes in: “Hello God, we’ve learned our lesson…please forgive us, for we know not what we do, give us one more chance to prove ourselves to you.” She got that it was humanity that was attacked that day, not just a city or a country. Sadly, many of our musicians and most of our politicians missed that.

#116
“Has Anybody Seen Amy”
John & Audrey Wiggins
1994
Peak: #22

There comes a moment when you realize that you’re not part of the cool generation anymore; when you teach junior high, you reach that moment earlier than most. This fantastic hit captures that very moment where you suddenly become the adult that doesn’t “get it”, the guy you swore you’d never become back when you were a teenager. The killer line: “Those songs I hear from those teenage cars, still got the beat but they’ve lost the heart.” Oh, and “you feel your age when you face the fact, you can always go home but you can never go back.”

#115
“When The Lights Go Down”
Faith Hill
2002
Peak: #26

All day long you can wear the masks that hide who you really are. But when the lights go down, “and there’s nothing left to be” and “the truth is all you see”, you can’t hide from yourself. All of the voices in your head that you can drown out by staying busy will finally be heard when you’re all alone at night, and you “wonder if my life’s about the sum of all my fears and all my doubts.” Deeply penetrating.

#114
“They Don’t Understand”
Sawyer Brown
2005
Peak: #36

The boys challenge us to think a little more about what our neighbors are going through, and not about how they may be a minor annoyance to us. That old man you’re honking for driving too slow? His family doesn’t have time for him and he has no choice but to fend for himself. That woman who won’t discipline her screaming kids? Turns out they’ve been up all night at the hospital with their dying father. The man up on that cross?

#113
“Nobody’s Home”
Clint Black
1990
Peak: #1

Black hasn’t been the same since his woman left him. Actually, in most ways he has been the same: same job, same morning routines, same cologne, same truck. But “since you left everybody says I’m not the guy they’ve known – the lights are on, but nobody’s home.” Black at his most incisive.

#112
“Almost Goodbye”
Mark Chesnutt
1993
Peak: #1

Why almost goodbye? The fight was bad enough, and “everything we said, we made sure the neighbors heard.” Everything comes down to one word, but they don’t say it. The next morning, as the sun is shining, they breathe a sigh of relief that the storm in the relationship has passed and they didn’t walk away from love in the heat of a fight. As the bridge perfectly states, “sometimes the most important words are the ones that you leave unspoken.”

#111
“Safe In The Arms of Love”
Martina McBride
1995
Peak: #4

This dreamy little single sounded like nothing else on the radio ten years ago, and it still sounds fresh today. Back when McBride was making great records instead of vocal showcases, she transforms a song of hope for future love into a magical and uplifting celebration of hope itself.

#110
“When It Comes To You”
John Anderson
1992
Peak: #3

Anderson is the voice of reason and resignation as he contemplates leaving his woman. “If we can’t get along, we oughta be apart…I’m tired of being the villain of the peace. Now you’ve been giving me bad times, tell me what did i do? Saying things that you didn’t have to, how come I always get a hard time, honey when it comes to you?” I haven’t met the woman who inspired this song, but judging from Anderson’s simmering anger and the edge in his voice, not to mention the cutting lyrics, I’m willing to wager that she’s as cold as ice.

#109
“Back of the Bottom Drawer”
Chely Wright
2004
Peak: did not chart

Sometimes we hang on to things because they remind us of good memories; sometimes we hang on to them because they remind us of our failings, and we want to remind ourselves not to make the same mistakes again. Chely’s got things that fall in to both categories in a box at the back of her bottom drawer so she will be “reminded of my rights and wrongs.” I want to say this is incredibly creative, but it’s really incredibly truthful. So many songs come nowhere near truth that when we hear a song that is, we think “how creative!” We need more songs like this.

#108
“When You Say Nothing At All”
Alison Krauss & Union Station
1995
Peak: #3

This Keith Whitley cover worked incredibly and unexpectedly well for bluegrass stars Alison Krauss & Union Station. In hindsight, it makes sense. The message of the song is that someone you love can say everything with a look or a touch; they don’t need to loudly proclaim their love with words. Krauss’ near-whisper vocals and the band’s soft instrumentation are the perfect match for that message. No wonder this won Single of the Year – it managed to improve on something that was already a classic.

#107
“Back When”
Tim McGraw
2004
Peak: #1

“A fried bologna sandwich, with mayo and tomato, sitting ’round the table, don’t happen much anymore.” With that line, McGraw described in exacting detail all the big family gatherings that used to occur in my house every weekend when I was a kid. As so many of those family members have either moved away or passed away in the last twenty years, McGraw’s nostalgic yearning hit me hard. Silly, perhaps, since this song is very tongue-in-cheek, but still deeply meaningful to me.

#106
“I Wanna Do It All”
Terri Clark
2003
Peak: #3

What a great list of ambitions! Fighting city hall, Paris in the fall, watching the Yankees play ball, beating the odds with your back to the wall. Yep, they all rhyme with “all.” It’s close to what a Dr. Seuss country song would sound like, though I don’t think he moonlighted in the genre like Shel Silverstein did. But how can you not love a woman who wants to catch a few beads down at Mardis Gras?

#105
“I’m Tryin'”
Trace Adkins
2001
Peak: #6

A hard-working man learns the American dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. You can work your ass off and still be behind on all of your bills, and you can love your kids but not be able to make things work with your wife, who now views you as a monthly check. His refusal to scream “It’s not fair” makes you want to do it for him. We are destroying the working poor in our country; hell, you can work 40 hours a week at Wal-Mart and still be below the poverty level, with no health benefits, and if a hurricane hits and you don’t have a car to leave town, some people still won’t care about your situation. The reality Adkins sings about is becoming more widespread, as millions more fall into poverty, even though they’re working as hard as they can.

#104
“September When It Comes”
Rosanne Cash featuring Johnny Cash
2004
Peak: #1

When you know death is coming, you prepare the best you can for “when the shadows lengthen.” When Rosanne invited her father to sing on this, the walking definition of artistic integrity said he’d need to hear it first before saying yes. After hearing it, he could not decline. His section of the song, where he sings “I cannot be who I was then. In a way, I never was”, perfectly captures the conflict between his status as an icon and his status as a mortal man.

#103
“Something More”
Sugarland
2005
Peak: #2

My parents are of the generation that picked one job and stuck with it for life. I’m of the generation where you get restless doing the same thing for too long. For my generation, this is the anthem. “Five years and there’s no doubt that I’m burned out, I’ve had enough.” Life is simply too short to do the same thing for forty years. You only get one life. When will you get the chance to do something different? I love my job and I’m still feeling that itch now that I’m in my fourth year. How can I still be in the same place when I’m 30 that I was when I was 23? Sugarland are struggling with the same question.

#102
“Baby, Now That I’ve Found You”
Alison Krauss & Union Station
1995
Peak: #49

With “When You Say Nothing At All”, AKUS made a great record even better, which is no small feat. But I’m even more impressed with them turning an incredibly schlocky record like “Baby Now That I’ve Found You” by The Foundations into a heartfelt and touching appeal for holding on to someone who has already let go.


#101
“I’ll Think of Something”
Mark Chesnutt
1992
Peak: #1
“I can’t say today that I’m alright, but by tonight, I’ll think of something.” A gut-wrenching testimony from a man who still loves the woman who has let him go, but promises to find a way to get through it, even if he’s not sure what that way is. Should he drink enough to drown her? Should he find a one-night stand to meet his short-term needs, even if it won’t be a long-term solution? He doesn’t have the answers to those questions. It’s all he can do to take it one day at a time.

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400 Best Contemporary Country Singles: #150-#126

The 400 Best Contemporary Country Singles
Part 11:
#150-#126

#150
“So Much Like My Dad”
George Strait
1992
Peak: #3

A man surprises his mother with a visit, and begins recollecting on his childhood. He recalls how she always said he was just like his dad, and you’re wondering where he’s going with this. Then he reveals the motive for his visit: “She says she’s gonna leave mama, and nothing on God’s green earth can make her stay….but if I’m so much like my dad, there must have been times you felt her way. So tell me, word for word, what he said that always made you stay.”

#149
“Real Live Woman”
Trisha Yearwood
2000
Peak: #16

For those women who don’t fit into a size 2, Shania’s girl-power anthems rang a little hollow. They found their own declaration of confidence in this Bobbie Cryner-penned classic about what it means to be a real live woman, who will “offer no apologies for the things that I believe and say”, and feels no “need to be 19 years old, or starve myself for some weight I’m told will turn man’s heads.” For men like me who prefer women over girls, this is the inner monologue of a perfect ten.


#148
“Young Love (Strong Love)”
The Judds
1989
Peak: #1

Two years before “She’s In Love With The Boy”, The Judds had one of their last hits with this tender small-town story of two teenagers finding true love. There may not be an amusing confrontation between her dad and her boyfriend, but by the time he’s putting that down payment down and he still “couldn’t believe that God had made a girl that he would never, ever leave”, this tale will be the one that resonates long after the last note.

#147
“But I Will”
Faith Hill
1994
Peak: #35

This ballad from her debut album was the only single from that set to miss the top five. That’s a shame, since it’s her first great performance. Hill sings from the perspective of a woman who is finally giving up on the man who has hurt her too many times, and the conflict between wanting to stay but knowing she has to leave is evident in the trembling of her voice.

#146
“Holy Water”
Big & Rich
2005
Peak: #15

Inspired by one of the duo’s sisters, who was recovering from an abusive relationship, is a call for grace and help from above for the woman they love so much. They imagine her praying at the edge of her bed, and crying for God “to take me away and take me farther, surround me now and hold me like holy water.”

#145
“Count Me In”
Deana Carter
1997
Peak: #5

Deana’s been around the block a few times since sipping that “Strawberry Wine”, and she’s looking for love, but been burned in the past – not enough to be bitter, but certainly enough to be wary. So she’s willing to make a deal: if heartache and pain are part of the deal, count her out; if it’s honesty and love you’re offering, count her in.

#144
“Here In The Real World”
Alan Jackson
1990
Peak: #3

Jackson recounts all the happy endings that we see in the movies – “cowboys don’t cry, heroes don’t die, good always wins, again and again” – but alas, things don’t work out that way: “Darlin’ it’s sad but true, the one thing I learned from you, is how the boy don’t always get the girl, here in the real world.” His breakthrough hit is still one of his best.

#143
“I’ve Come To Expect It From You”
George Strait
1990
Peak: #1

Simmering anger over a relationship that has ended again – “so upset, nervous wreck, can’t believe you’ve said goodbye.” The question is who his anger is directed at – the girl for leaving, or himself for trusting her again. “I guess that I should thank my unlucky stars, that I’m alive and you’re the way you are, but that’s what I get, I’ve come to expect it from you.” Strait’s not exactly known for bitter pessimism, but he can certainly pull it off.

#142
“Shine”
Dolly Parton
2001
Peak: did not chart

Dolly Parton has a tendency to hear a secular rock song and hear in it a spiritual mountain hymn – hell, she covered “Stairway to Heaven.” But it is this Grammy-winning cover of the Collective Soul hit “Shine” that is a revelation, building from a slow-paced mandolin intro to an explosion of bluegrass as the song reaches its climax.

#141
“Baby Girl”
Sugarland
2004
Peak: #2

The coolest new act in country music of the past two years broke through with this timeless tale of trying to break into the music business. The singer has no doubt that success is coming for her, but she knows to be suspicious of things that seem too good to be true, as captured in one of the most audacious lines to ever get past the censors at country radio: “They’ll promise fancy cars and diamond rings and all sorts of shiny things, but girl, you’ll remember what your knees are for.”

#140
“Things I Wish I’d Said”
Rodney Crowell
1991
Peak: #72

A son says his final goodbye to his father, as he lies there “fighting for each breath, while angels hover around your head.” As he does so, he thanks God that they were able to make peace before he died, and heal old scars, so “I don’t have to hang my head over things I wish I’d said.”

#139
“What the World Needs”
Wynonna
2003
Peak: #14

What a relief this song was, after having to choke down “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” and “Have You Forgotten.” The people who claim to be on the side of God as they try to solve all of our problems in the very way His son preached against need to brush up on their Bible Study, or at the very least, listen to some Wynonna.

#138
“Backseat of a Greyhound Bus”
Sara Evans
2003
Peak: #16

I like songs that take an unexpected turn. Here, a pregnant young girl leaves a small town on a Greyhound bus to get away from all of the gossip and shame. The chorus reveals that “she fell in love on the backseat of a Greyhound bus”, setting up the second verse, which will show how she meets the man who loves her the way she is, right? Wrong. She has the baby on the bus instead, and “she looked into the face of a brand new world.” It turns out all of the strength she needs will come from within. Nice twist.

#137
“You Don’t Even Know Who I Am”
Patty Loveless
1995
Peak: #5

Speaking of twists, when you hear the first verse of this Gretchen Peters song, and a neglected wife is leaving her ring on the pillow and her kids at her mama’s, you’re thinking it’s one of those marriages where the man took his wife for granted. Let’s be honest, Peters isn’t exactly known for writing songs with sympathetic husbands – they either run off with a barmaid or beat the hell out of their wife until she burns the house down. But she surprises here. When the husband gets home, “he called her to say he was sorry, but he couldn’t remember what for.” He’s been going to work every day and coming home every night, and she’s become a stranger to him, just like he has to her. Blame is shared equally.

#136
“When You Leave That Way You Can Never Go Back”
Confederate Railroad
1993
Peak: #14

A chilling tale that shows how one bad choice can lead to another, and no amount of regret can undo the damage you have done. It’s no small feat that they are able to garner sympathy for a man who leaves his family home after punching his father, leaves a woman at the altar with a baby on the way, and then ends up on death row.

#135
“Flies On The Butter (You Can’t Go Home Again)”
Wynonna featuring Naomi Judd
2004
Peak: #33

A longing reflection on a childhood that is long since gone, a loving portrait is painted through small details of flies on the butter, holes in the screen door, running through the sprinkler in your underwear, and catching fireflies in a Mason jar. As close as the memories seem, you can’t go home again: “There’s a blacktop road, a faded yellow center line, it can take you back to the place but it can’t take you back in time.”

#134
“Cry On The Shoulder Of The Road”
Martina McBride
1997
Peak: #26

Damn, a lot of women hit the road when they’re leaving their man. Powered by mesmerizing harmonies from Levon Helm, Martina fully expects to break down and cry, but she’d rather di it on the shoulder of the road, since “there’s no comfort here in your zip code.” She keeps the vocal histrionics in check and lets a great song shine through.

#133
“Trouble”
Mark Chesnutt
1995
Peak: #18

This Todd Snider-penned serenade to a woman he’s about to cheat with captures all those conflicting desires: keeping the vows you made vs. giving in to temptation. Despite a strong attempt at laying blame at the feet of the temptress – “a woman like you walks in a place like this, you can almost hear the promises break” – it’s clear that this guy doesn’t need much to make him fall off the wagon – “you’re gonna make me do something that I’m afraid I won’t regret.”

#132
“One Of These Days”
Tim McGraw
1998
Peak: #2

Like “Bless the Broken Road”, this surfaced first on the debut album of songwriter Marcus Hummon. A man reflects on his bullying of a kid who was different and on the high school sweetheart who he left behind after she finally went all the way with him, and he reveals that the hurt he caused others was rooted in a deep loathing of himself.

#131
“Baby Mine”
Alison Krauss
1996
Peak: did not chart

The concept is unbelievably corny – country stars recording Disney songs – and most of the tracks met the low expectations such an idea invites. But there were a few great moments: Pam Tillis found an earthy wisdom in “Colors of the Wind”, and George Jones & Kathy Mattea charmed the hell out of “You’ve Got A Friend In Me.” But nothing compared to the Alison Krauss rendition of “Baby Mine”, the lullaby from mother to son in Dumbo. She becomes the voice of every mother as she sings, “all those people who scold you, what they’d give just for the right to hold you.”

#130
“He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”
Mary Chapin Carpenter
1994
Peak: #2

Some songs are very much of their time period. “Harper Valley P.T.A.” only makes sense in 1968; “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” is the perfect feminist statement for the early 90’s, where thirty-something women were feeling confident enough to leave an empty marriage and join the workforce, but mostly didn’t have the college degrees or training to end up anywhere but “the typing pool at minimum wage” once they left.

#129
“Suds In The Bucket”
Sara Evans
2004
Peak: #1

Silly and fun. The aftermath of an 18-year old girl running away from her small Southern town to get married is hilarious. How suddenly did she leave? “She left the suds in the bucket and the clothes hanging out on the line.”

#128
“Alibis”
Tracy Lawrence
1993
Peak: #1

Tracy’s voice is completely shot, judging by a cursory listen to his new record, but at the start of his career, he had a goosebump-inducing drawl. Here, he laments that he pulled so many tricks on his lady that she learned a few of them, and is now out breaking hearts to compensate for the innocence she has lost.

#127
“The Thunder Rolls”
Garth Brooks
1991
Peak: #1

“Raindrops on the windshield, there’s a storm rolling in, he’s heading back from somewhere that he never should have been, and the thunder rolls, the thunder rolls…” The record simmers at first like a storm rolling in, before building into a ferocious storm within the heart of his wife, when “the lightning flashes in her eyes, and he knows that she knows.” On the record, Brooks left off the third verse where the wife goes back in to the house for her pistol and ends his cheating ways for good; the record is more effective without it, as the lingering tension finds no resolution.


#126
“Out Of My Bones”
Randy Travis
1998
Peak: #2
Travis is determined to walk away the memory of a woman who has gotten so far under his skin that he needs to get her out of his bones. His rich baritone complements the crying fiddle and steel guitar. Nobody else could wring so much emotion out of a line like “sweet amnesia, come and set me free.”

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400 Best Contemporary Country Singles: #175-#151

The 400 Best Contemporary Country Singles
Part 10:
#175-#151

#175
“(This Thing Called) Wantin’ and Havin’ It All”
Sawyer Brown
1995
Peak: #11

The opening piano sounds like a kick-off to an old-time tent revival; the storyline is worthy enough to be told from the altar. A rich man rewrites his will as he nears death, giving most of the money to his hard-working working-class neighbor instead of his ungrateful children.

#174
“Alright Guy”
Todd Snider
1994
Peak: did not chart

Gary Allan had the good taste to cover this fantastic single from Snider’s debut album. Todd can’t figure out why his feminist friend, his old man and the cop that pulled him over don’t get that for all his faults, he’s an alright guy. Hilarious.


#173
“Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)”
Big & Rich
2004
Peak: #11

Brazen, ballsy and deliriously over the top, this was like an ice bucket of cold water on the sleepy sounds of mainstream country music. Forget Gretchen Wilson, their Muzik Mafia comrade – it’s Big & Rich, with their fearless collision of musical styles and relentless confidence, that are most likely to permanently reshape the genre in the near future.

#172
“Shut Up and Kiss Me”
Mary Chapin Carpenter
1994
Peak: #1

The lead single from her landmark Stones In The Road album is all snare drum and slide guitar, with seductive whispers from a tongue firmly in cheek. The apprehension of a jaded woman slowly giving in to love again, turning off her head and following her heart, is as romantic you can ever hope a cynic will get. That Brooks & Dunn got away with desecrating the hook with their carbon-copy piece of trash “Play Something Country” is sinful.

#171
“Heartbreak Town”
Dixie Chicks
2001
Peak: #23

They had their share of huge hits from the diamond-selling Fly album, but this quiet little single released late in the lifespan of the project was one of the album’s best. It tells the story of a man following a woman’s ambition, baby in tow, to what they hope will be a dream town. But they find themselves surrounded by bitter and jaded people who only stand aside to see how far you’re going to go. Are they singing about Nashville? Probably, but the sentiment of being surrounded by “square people in a world that’s round” is fairly universal.

#170
“26 Cents”
The Wilkinsons
1998
Peak: #3

Their only real hit, this is an appropriately family-friendly story song for this trio of father, daughter and son. Mother gives her daughter on a voyage away from home “a penny for your thoughts, a quarter for the call”, hence the title.

#169
“Down At The Twist & Shout”
Mary Chapin Carpenter
1991
Peak: #2

A fun and spirited Cajun romp, with enough French thrown in to make Toby Keith call her a commie.

#168
“Smoke Rings In The Dark”
Gary Allan
1999
Peak: #12

Rich and atmospheric, a casual listener might mistake this for Chris Isaak at first listen, but Isaak has nothing on Allan as a vocalist. One of the best male vocalists of his generation finally found his own sound on his third album, with this single and title track leading the way. A fantastic showcase for a gifted man.

#167
“Somewhere In My Broken Heart”
Billy Dean
1991
Peak: #3

A testament of love from a man unselfish enough to let the women he loves go and find her dreams. His voice aches with the pain of her leaving, but he invites no pity.

#166
“Nothin’ But The Wheel”
Patty Loveless
1993
Peak: #20

“And 41 goes on and on, and the lights go winding in the dawn, and the sky’s the color now of polished steel; and the only thing I know for sure, is if you don’t want me anymore, then I’m holding on to nothin’ but the wheel.” The hurt in her voice is so apparent, but the reslience underneath it undeniable, that you almost feel like you’re in the car with her.

#165
“The Dance”
Garth Brooks
1990
Peak: #1

It’s easy to overstate the importance of this song; it’s one of those that his risen to legendary status in country music history. You can cry at the video montage of MLK and JFK, or play it at the funeral of someone who died too young, but this really is a sweet and simple “love gone bad” song, one of the best of those types of songs in recent years. The message that if you want to avoid losing love that means you’ll have to live without it is poignant enough without all the added pomp and circumstance.

#164
“Drive (For Daddy Gene)”
Alan Jackson
2002
Peak: #1

Alan Jackson’s father had more influence and impact on him than anybody else in his life. Rather than write a sappy tribute to how empty life is with him gone, Jackson honored his father’s memory with a celebratory joy, capturing the love between the two in snippets of learning how to drive a boat and truck from his father in childhood. Tying it all up with the hope that his own daughters will look back on him the same way once he’s gone? A master stroke.

#163
“Thanks To You”
Emmylou Harris
1994
Peak: #65

I’ve never been a big fan of Contemporary Christian music. It’s all joy and praise, no struggle and torment. This dark gospel number from Emmylou Harris is my type of Christian music, full of love for God while struggling to live up to His standards. Her image of finally meeting her Maker is glorious: “One day up in Glory, I’ll weep and tell the story to someone who will smile and say, ‘You’re a mess, but you’re my child.'”

#162
“Cheap Whiskey”
Martina McBride
1993
Peak: #44

A woman forces her man to choose between her and his whiskey. He picks the whiskey. She leaves, and he’s lost without her. The shock of her gone is enough to push him into sobriety, but it’s too late. “The things that will haunt him till the day that he dies, is the smell of cheap whiskey and the sound of goodbye.” Stone-cold country worthy of Jones.

#161
“Where I Belong”
Rachel Proctor
2004
Peak: #37

Achingly beautiful. Over an acoustic guitar and tasteful strings, Proctor confesses how she’s felt lost, wondering if she was broken because she’d never found a place where she belongs. As she slowly reveals that she has found that place, you feel the warmth and comfort she sings about.

#160
“It Works”
Alabama
1995
Peak: #19

A tender appeal for respecting the generation gap, Randy Owen sings about the traditional setup of his parents – “He rattles his glass, she jumps up fast, and pours him a glass of tea; deep in her heart she believes that’s the way it should be,” and notes that even if that’s not the way we do it today, for them, it works. He quietly hopes that there will come a day where his own children will look at his marriage as quaint and outdated, but also appreciate that it works.

#159
“Unanswered Prayers”
Garth Brooks
1990
Peak: #1

Brooks and his wife run into his old high school flame at a football game, and he reminisces about how he’d prayed to God that she would be his. He stops, and thinks, and says: “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers.” A mature and thoughtful observation that sometimes what we want the most is not what we need, and there’s a higher power that knows that.

#158
“Lead On”
George Strait
1995
Peak: #7

Two jaded lovers meet and compare battle scars. The pace is slow, Strait’s singing weary, but with just enough hope that maybe the next chance at love will be the one that they’ve been waiting on. A nearly forgotten gem from the extensive George Strait hit parade.

#157
“Before You Kill Us All”
Randy Travis
1994
Peak: #2

Randy’s got a problem. Since his woman left, the goldfish are floating at the top of the bowl, the dog won’t eat, the plants are dying and the cat’s down to three more lives. “I know I had it coming and it’s all my fault, but baby come back before you kill us all.” Who knew Travis could be so damn funny?

#156
“If My Heart Had Wings”
Faith Hill
2001
Peak: #3

A burst of fresh air and raucous energy, Hill never sounded more determined and aggressive then on this adrenaline rush of a hit. The throbbing intensity and fierceness of her performance are irresistable.

#155
“I Meant To Do That”
Paul Brandt
1996
Peak: #39

Brandt realizes after the fact that he never did all that he needed to do for his woman, who has moved on. He looks back and lists all the things he meant to do, from love letters to kind words. This elevates above your standard ode of devotion on the strength of Brandt’s painfully heartbroken vocal performance, and sharp lines like “I’d give you the world, if you’d give mine back.”

#154
“Ships That Don’t Come In”
Joe Diffie
1992
Peak: #5

Two world-weary travellers at the end of the line compare their hardships over a few beers at a presumably run-down tavern. Before the self-pity overwhelms them, one reminds the other that they’ve had chances, at least – there’s some who never have. And then they drink a toast to soldiers who have died in vain, the homeless down on Main, and “those who wait forever for ships that don’t come in.”

#153
“Sick and Tired”
Cross Canadian Ragweed
2004
Peak: #46

“Memories are overrated – all they do is get you damn frustrated, and who needs that on your back?” The Ragweeed boys are the voice of reason, talking to somebody who has stayed too long in a bad situation. They give voice to all those bad thoughts inside, and create a way out of the pain with frank talk and clear reason.

#152
“You Lie”
Reba McEntire
1990
Peak: #1

Rare is the country song where the woman who doesn’t want her man to leave is the bad guy. She loves him so much, and knows he doesn’t love her anymore, but she guilts him into staying: “So I say I need you, and leave you no choice – you don’t want to hurt me, so you lie.” There’s such desperation in her voice it’s hard to fault her for the game she plays, but she makes it clear that it’s the man who deserves the sympathy.


#151
“Mine All Mine”
SHeDaisy
2002
Peak: #28
These girls are always clever, but have rarely used their word twists on a heartbreak number. Here they do, and it works wonders: “Sun kisses the window sill, and I am still on my second cup of ‘pity-me’.” Easily the best single of their career, the vocalist realizes she’s screwed up big time, and doesn’t see a way to make amends. “It’s my bad, my broken, all my should-haves left unspoken, mine all mine all mine.” Love it.

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400 Best Contemporary Country Singles: #200-#176

The 400 Best Contemporary Country Singles
Part 9:
#200-#176

#200
“Do You Know Where Your Man Is”
Pam Tillis
1993
Peak: #16

When Tillis began performing “Do You Know Where Your Man Is”, she would tell her audience, “If Tammy Wynette was just starting out, she’d kill for this song.” She’s right. This single sounded like something from another era, with Tillis whispering in the ear of her female friends that she better treat her man right, or he’ll find someone else: “Are you still in his heart when he’s out of your sight?”

#199
“She Is Gone”
Willie Nelson
1996
Peak: did not chart

Willie Nelson’s genius is unquestioned these days, but it’s worth noting whenever the opportunity arises. Here, he crafts an entire song around only eight lines of lyrics, and he’s able to say everything he needs to say in those few lines. Concrete proof that sometimes, less is much, much more.


#198
“Walking Away a Winner”
Kathy Mattea
1994
Peak: #3

There is an inherent wisdom in everything that Kathy Mattea records. Her songs are full of hope and insight, with a sharp focus on self-fulfillment. Here, instead of being bitter about a love that has failed, she realizes she’s walking away with her pride and dignity, and walking back into her life. Don’t let the slick production fool you; this is classic country music.

#197
“I Just Wanna Be Mad”
Terri Clark
2003
Peak: #1

Ultimately, country music is for adults. There are some artists that flirt with the teenybopper crowd, but this is a genre for old souls, if not for old people. This Terri Clark hit has a wife who is very pissed off, but makes clear she’s never going to leave – she just wants to be mad for a while. A genuine sentiment about a real lifetime commitment, and damn funny to boot.

#196
“Maybe”
Alison Krauss
1999
Peak: did not chart

Somber and melancholy, this dark meditation has Krauss regretting things haven’t worked out for the best, but hopes that maybe it’s for the best, or maybe he’ll come back in the end. Repeated use of “maybe” as a qualifier reveals she has no clue what is true anymore.

#195
“Best I Ever Had”
Gary Allan
2005
Peak: #7

Other than Reba McEntire’s For My Broken Heart, I cannot think of another modern country album where one tragic event permeates everything on the record. This cover of the late-90’s Vertical Horizon hit becomes so much more than a love-gone-bad song when viewed through the prism of Allan’s wife committing suicide. When he sings, “Was it what you wanted? Could it be I’m haunted?” the song is transformed to something far different, and deeper, than the original artist’s intent.

#194
“Friends In Low Places”
Garth Brooks
1990
Peak: #1

There I was, at a dive bar in Waco, TX for a makeshift bachelor party for a northeastern man and an Alaskan woman who were settling by Baylor University. To say we were out of place among the cigarette smoke and redneck clientele is an understatement. You could feel the tone of the room change when “Friends In Low Places” came on the jukebox. What was always a fun song in my mind was obviously a proud lifestyle celebration to the beer-drinking, pool-shooting country boys in the room. Suddenly I understood how this album sold 16 million copies.

#193
“Hurt Me Bad (In A Real Good Way)”
Patty Loveless
1991
Peak: #3

Patty’s last big hit for MCA has all the hallmarks of her formative work at that label. Simple production of a nice, radio-friendly song that oozes charm and hillbilly sentiment. She released so many great singles for MCA that if she had stopped here, she’d be warmly remembered as a B-level artist that never fully reached her potential. Her groundbreaking work for Epic records that followed has guaranteed her a place in the Country Music Hall of Fame, but it shouldn’t completely overshadow finely polished little gems like this.

#192
“Can’t Be Really Gone”
Tim McGraw
1995
Peak: #2

“Her book is lying on the bed, the two of hearts to mark her page. Now who could ever walk away at Chapter 21? So she can’t be really gone.” That was the line that announced that Tim McGraw was not one of those interchangeable hat acts of the mid-90’s. The fine attention to detail showed that once McGraw had the clout to demand great material, he had the ear to find it. The songs off his breakthrough album – “Indian Outlaw”, “Don’t Take The Girl”, “Refried Dreams”, “Down on the Farm” – were all bombast and no subtlety. Tim’s reputation as the ultimate song man of modern country music begins here.

#191
“Probably Wouldn’t Be This Way”
LeAnn Rimes
2005
Peak: #3

It took nine years after “Blue” for Rimes to finally put out another fantastic single, but good God, it was worth the wait. This bluesy, rambling meditation of a young woman unexpectedly widowed is chilling. She was compared to Tanya Tucker ad nauseum because they both broke through in their early teens, but this single is the spiritual grandchild of those early Tucker records like “Delta Dawn” and “What’s Your Mama’s Name.”

#190
“I Let Her Lie”
Daryle Singletary
1995
Peak: #2

I just love it when a title has two meanings, and reveals the twist at the end. It’s a classic country songwriting trick. Here, Singletary knows his woman is cheating him, and every time he would hear her alibis, “I let her lie”, because being with her beat being alone. Finally, he can’t take the abuse anymore, so early one morning, she’s still asleep in their bed, and he leaves without saying goodbye. The last time, he lets her lie in the bed. Get it? Isn’t that hillbilly wordplay so darn clever?

#189
“The Lucky One”
Alison Krauss & Union Station
2001
Peak: #53

Some people just seem to lead a charmed life, but it’s because they’re happy no matter what happens to them. Krauss sings longingly about a man just like this, for whom “the next best thing to playing and winning is playing and losing.” This a very wise understanding that he’s lucky because he’s happy in spite of what happens around him, not because of what happens to him.

#188
“This Kiss”
Faith Hill
1998
Peak: #1

Was it possible to avoid this song in 1998? Talk about blanketing the airwaves. Even pop stations climbed on board with this irresistibly infectious cotton-candy hit. Extra points for getting people to sing along with a line about centrifugal motion.

#187
“Landslide”
Dixie Chicks
2002
Peak: #2

I’m going to come right out and say it: they covered Fleetwood Mac and improved on the original. The three-part harmony, and the acoustic production adds more flavor and personality to an already great song, and the rising and falling melodies sound like “the seasons of my life” vocalized. Avoid the clunky pop remix and listen to the original album version that was played on country radio. It’s flawless.

#186
“Everytime I Cry”
Terri Clark
1999
Peak: #12

Emotional abuse is a difficult thing to capture in the song. Martina McBride made a valiant effort with “A Broken Wing”, but it was hard to fully identify with the woman when she was being sung about in the third person. This Clark hit sings from the perspective of the woman being emotionally abused, playing out the internal debate she is having as she comes to the conclusion that she can’t fall for his lies again. You can tell she’s an intelligent woman who somehow let her emotions blind her, but she’s finally finding her voice again.

#185
“Alcohol”
Brad Paisley
2005
Peak: #3

Speaking of first-person, Paisley manages to sing from the perspective of alcohol on this recent hit. I’ve always found him to be corny, but he nails it this time: “I’ve been known to cause a few breakups/I’ve been known to cause a few births”; “I got you in trouble in high school, but college, now that was a ball/You’ll have some of the best times you’ll never remember with me, alcohol.” And, my favorite: “I got blamed at your wedding reception for your best man’s embarrassing speech.” Quality.

#184
“When You Walk In The Room”
Pam Tillis
1994
Peak: #2

This Jackie DeShannon classic has one of the best hooks in pop music history. When Tillis chose to cover it, she dropped a couple of notes from that hook to make it more compatible with the steel guitar on the track. Today, a lesser artist would just save the hook and drop the steel guitar. That, my friends, is the difference between a country artist incorporating pop elements into their music and a pop artist putting out music they claim is country.

#183
“Cold Day In July”
Joy Lynn White
1993
Peak: #71

White’s debut album Between Midnight & Hindsight is one of the best albums you’ve probably never heard. There were two other great singles from it (“Little Tears” & “True Confessions”) but it was this powerful ballad that was the best one. White’s piercing vocals convey pure honky-tonk heartache. The Chicks went top ten with their version a few years later, but it is White’s recording that is the best version of this song.

#182
“Up!”
Shania Twain
2002
Peak: #12

When Come On Over crossed over to the pop charts after being remixed, Twain found a brand new audience separate from her already-established country audience. When recording Up!, she faced the dilemma of making an album to please both fan bases. Rather than trying to be all things to all people, she came up with a brilliant solution: record all of the songs in three different styles: country for her old fans, pop for the new ones and some Indian rhythm approach to try to make new fans in East Asia. This approach freed her to make the country versions be as hillbillied up as she wanted them to be. The best example of this is the title track, which is drenched in banjo, steel guitar and fiddle.

#181
“We Can’t Love Like This Anymore”
Alabama
1994
Peak: #6

A beautiful ballad of resignation, Randy Owen gives a heartfelt goodbye to a long-time lover.

#180
“Cleopatra, Queen of Denial”
Pam Tillis
1993
Peak: #11

After emulating the Wynette sound and style with “Do You Know Where Your Man Is”, Tillis turned the country victim role on its heels, adding a kick of humor and sarcasm to all those done-me-wrong songs that were always the bread and butter of female country singers. If you’re wondering how we got from Tammy to Shania, it was songs like this that bridged the gap between the eras. She may be a fool, but she knows it, and she’s finding it very easy to laugh at her own self-deceptions: “He’s probably stuck in traffic, and he’ll be here in a little while/Just call be Cleopatra everybody ’cause I’m the queen of denial.”

#179
“Miss Being Mrs.”
Loretta Lynn
2004
Peak: did not chart

Accompanied only by guitar, Lynn mourns the loss of her husband, saying how she misses being Mrs. tonight.

#178
“Bless the Broken Road”
Rascal Flatts
2005
Peak: #1

A gorgeous celebration of finding the love of your life after messing up with so many wrong ones. Co-writer Marcus Hummon recorded this on his own album in the 90’s, and the song is every bit as good today.

#177
“When I Call Your Name”
Vince Gill
1990
Peak: #2

With haunting harmonies by Patty Loveless, Gill moans that his whole life has changed because he came home from work and “nobody answers when I call your name.” This was the 1991 CMA Song of the Year, the first of four trophies Gill would win in that category.


#176
“I Always Liked That Best”
Cyndi Thomson
2001
Peak: #21
Earnest but endearing. Thomson sings a bittersweet ode for the man who has left her behind. Great attention to the little moments of love make this sound anything but contrived.

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