The 400 Best Contemporary Country Singles
“Meet In The Middle”
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.
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.”
“Come On Back”
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.
“Long Time Gone”
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.
“If Tomorrow Never Comes”
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.
“The Ballad Of The Kingsmen”
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.
“Ain’t That Lonely Yet”
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.
“You’ll Think Of Me”
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.”
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.
Mary Chapin Carpenter
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.”
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’.”
“A Night To Remember”
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.
“You’re Still The One”
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.
“I’m Movin’ On”
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.
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.
“All The Good Ones Are Gone”
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.
“You’ll Be There”
“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.
Jamie O’ Neal
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.
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.”
“Song For The Life”
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.
“Maybe It Was Memphis”
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.
“Something In Red”
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.
“Something Worth Leaving Behind”
Lee Ann Womack
“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?
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.
“Time Passes By”
“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.