I have to say that any one of these songs could have been in my top ten in years past. It’s just been a great year for country singles.
George Strait, “How ‘Bout Them Cowgirls”
For all of those who have tried to imitate him, there’s never been one that came close. “Cowgirls” is a classic showcase of Strait’s smooth, effortless vocals. A lesser singer would’ve tripped over the line in the second verse, “Those other wide open spaces, nowadays there ain’t as many,” but he delivers it perfectly, then slips right into the soaring chorus. He’s the master.
Steve Earle featuring Forro in the Dark, “City of Immigrants”
Native New Yorkers curse the traffic and slushy winter days. The immigrants Earle celebrates? They send their kids to school to become Americanized while they work themselves to the bone, wishing they were still in their homeland. The only New Yorkers who see the city as a glorious tapestry of diverse cultures and beautiful noises are those like Earle, who came from a more mundane part of the country and moved here. They’re the ones who see the true beauty of going around the world without a passport, and they remind those of us who take it for granted that New York really is a special place.
Carrie Underwood, “I’ll Stand By You”
Underwood’s charity single was also her biggest gift to country music listeners this year. Her cover of the Pretenders classic “I’ll Stand By You” turns a power ballad into a traditional country one. It’s just Carrie, a guitar and a lonesome fiddle, and that’s all the adornment she needs. If she has any mercy on her fans who don’t care for all of the bells and whistles of her studio albums, she’ll do more acoustic records, so we can just listen to the purity of her voice against the backdrop of minimal instrumentation.
Suzy Bogguss, “In Heaven”
Her crystal-clear voice, pure as a mountain stream, has been in hiding for far too long. Thankfully, she returned with a single worthy of her gift, a heartbreaking song that finds a widowed woman visiting her late husband’s grave and asking for his blessing on the new love she’s found. There’s nothing cloying or manipulative in the lyric, just hopeful observations (“I think you’d really like him, if you ever got to know him”) alongside honest confessions (“I’m only flesh and blood, I can’t keep talking to a ghost.”)
Martina McBride, “Anyway”
The core message of McBride’s first self-penned hit can be found on the walls of Mother Teresa’s home for Children in Calcutta, though variations of it have existed for years. It’s a message that resonates because it directly confronts the futility of the human existence, the reality that all that we do may be forgotten and not matter in the long run. “Anyway” counters that since what we do makes a difference now, it has value even if the impact fades over time.
Josh Turner, “Firecracker”
How far can you push the metaphor of love as a fiery explosion? Turner goes through all the ones you’d expect to hear and throws in some that you never would’ve even thought of. “We might not oughta take a roll in the hay, ’cause we’d burn the barn down one of these days.” That line alone makes this worth the price of admission. Turner’s signature vocals make it a classic.
Pam Tillis, “The Hard Way”
In the most personal single of her lengthy career, Tillis is looking back with hard-earned wisdom, but the lessons learned haven’t eased the pain of regret. She’s so internalized her own failures (“Each time I believed before, that’s right where it all went wrong”) that she’s finding it unbelievable that her new love is the real deal. She says more with her delivery of “But you swear you love, and oh God, I think you mean it” than most singers can communicate with an entire song.
Lori McKenna, “Unglamorous”
Frozen dinner, jelly glass of wine. Two breadwinners, five kids in short time with eyes just like mine. Little details of domestication paint a vivid picture of working-class family life, the stuff that’s supposed to be the bread-and-butter of country music, but is largely absent from the landscape these days. It used to be a coal miner’s daughter from rural Kentucky that sang like this. Now, it’s a housewife from Massachusetts, proving that finding beauty in the mundane routines of hard-working family folk isn’t just a southern thing.
Alan Jackson, “Small Town Southern Man”
The first time Jackson looked back into his family history, he gave us the reverent “Home.” Grappling with his father’s death, he turned in the powerful “Drive (For Daddy Gene).” Five years later, he’s paying tribute to his father again, with the perspective and wisdom that comes with time and distance from the loss. Jackson’s gift as a songwriter has always been his keen observation, and “Small Town Southern Man” demonstrates that, as he’s able to see that the way his father lived his life holds larger truths that are worth sharing with the world.
Craig Morgan, “Tough”
A poignant celebration of the matriarch. My family is chock full of them, strong women who keep everything running smoothly, even when they’re facing challenges of their own that should be breaking them down. Morgan’s heroine shuttles kids to activities in the first verse, then battles cancer in the second, but in both situations, she’s the one who’s calm and in control, making it possible for the rest of the family to cope.