The 400 Best Contemporary Country Singles
“So Much Like My Dad”
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.”
“Real Live Woman”
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.
“Young Love (Strong Love)”
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.
“But I Will”
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.
Big & Rich
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.”
“Count Me In”
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.
“Here In The Real World”
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.
“I’ve Come To Expect It From You”
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.
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.
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.”
“Things I Wish I’d Said”
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.”
“What the World Needs”
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.
“Backseat of a Greyhound Bus”
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.
“You Don’t Even Know Who I Am”
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.
“When You Leave That Way You Can Never Go Back”
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.
“Flies On The Butter (You Can’t Go Home Again)”
Wynonna featuring Naomi Judd
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.”
“Cry On The Shoulder Of The Road”
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.
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.”
“One Of These Days”
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.
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.”
“He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”
Mary Chapin Carpenter
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.
“Suds In The Bucket”
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.”
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.
“The Thunder Rolls”
“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.
“Out Of My Bones”
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.”