The 400 Best Contemporary Country Singles
“Do You Know Where Your Man Is”
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?”
“She Is Gone”
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.
“Walking Away a Winner”
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.
“I Just Wanna Be Mad”
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.
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.
“Best I Ever Had”
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.
“Friends In Low Places”
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.
“Hurt Me Bad (In A Real Good Way)”
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.
“Can’t Be Really Gone”
“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.
“Probably Wouldn’t Be This Way”
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.”
“I Let Her Lie”
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?
“The Lucky One”
Alison Krauss & Union Station
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.
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.
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.
“Everytime I Cry”
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.
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.
“When You Walk In The Room”
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.
“Cold Day In July”
Joy Lynn White
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.
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.
“We Can’t Love Like This Anymore”
A beautiful ballad of resignation, Randy Owen gives a heartfelt goodbye to a long-time lover.
“Cleopatra, Queen of Denial”
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.”
“Miss Being Mrs.”
Peak: did not chart
Accompanied only by guitar, Lynn mourns the loss of her husband, saying how she misses being Mrs. tonight.
“Bless the Broken Road”
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.
“When I Call Your Name”
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.
“I Always Liked That Best”
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.