Let’s do this, y’all. You’ll recognize some of these write-ups from our collective list, but others weren’t posted there or were cut down for that list. This is my “Director’s Cut” version, you might say – or maybe the “UNRATED!!” version, depending on your taste in films.
In any case, here are my favorite 20 things designated as country music singles in 2008 (that I picked up on, anyhoo):
Elizabeth Cook, “Sunday Morning”
Cook mines an abstract Velvet Underground song and halfway convinces you it was always meant to be a quiet country reflection. The production and vocal are a bit too buoyant to fully convey the song’s weariness, but they do flesh out its gentle message of hope, and that’s not too bad, either.
Hank Williams III, “Six Pack of Beer”
Silly and shallow it may be, but III’s turbo-campy lament of hard times + booze was also this year’s sweetest piece of hillbilly ear candy. I think it sounds like the fastest, most frivolous thing Johnny Cash never recorded, but maybe that’s just me.
James Otto, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”
What’s this? A contemporary country single with a traditional structure that skips on big choruses? A distinctive voice at the helm? Oh? It was the most played song of the year? Huh. So country music fans want to hear unique-sounding singers singing some semblance of actual country music on the radio? How perplexing.
In all seriousness, this smash really is a fine example of feel-good radio fluff that still manages to sound human. It’s impossible to evaluate honestly without the requisite (and very valid) comparison to Josh Turner’s “Your Man,” but honestly, I think Otto out-sexed his predecessor by a good margin. Turner gave a fine performance with his standard sweetness, but Otto opted for randy, slightly jagged cooing that ultimately sounds much more convincing coming from a man in this particular situation.
Joey + Rory, “Cheater, Cheater”
My soft spot for frivolity shows itself again. This tell-off ditty has a cute bite, and its malicious irrationality is delivered with a knowing wink that has been regrettably absent in many recent, like-minded harangues (cough cough, “Picture to Burn”). Still, it’s the frenetic bluegrass production and the couple’s palpable chemistry that ultimately sell the thing.
Josh Turner featuring Trisha Yearwood, “Another Try”
I’m always game for more regret on country radio, particularly when you’ve got two of the best singers in the biz on the job. The only thing holding it back for me is the melody, which is a bit too “Peabo Bryson goes country” for my taste.
Sugarland, Little Big Town & Jake Owen, “Life in a Northern Town”
There is a certain kind of song whose impact simply defies logical explanation, which seems to tap something so primal in the human spirit that you don’t even want to try explaining it for fear you might belittle it somehow. You couldn’t ask for a better example of that phenomenon than this cover of Dream Academy’s surreal ode to singer-songwriter Nick Drake, which resolves into a chorus of tribal “hey ma ma ma ma”s that somehow manage to say more (to me) than most actual words ever do.
It’s much more “Lion King soundtrack” than “country,” of course, but the union of all of these unique individual voices evokes the sort of grand communal warmth that you can normally only find in church or around a campfire. Personal favorite moment: Jake Owen’s solo, which he sings with such silky ease that it makes you pissed he hasn’t found better material for himself yet.
Reckless Kelly, “Ragged is the Road”
A classic Texas road anthem. The theme of finding personal enlightenment through the consideration of a historical setting is hardly new – especially when that setting is the open road – but these guys manage to rejuvenate it with broadly poetic lyrics and a galloping chorus that sounds damn good coming out of your car speakers. Crank it.
Del McCoury Band, “Moneyland”
American greed and corruption get roundly served. Hard, fast, and so ruthlessly convicted that you’d have to be a statue or a total bluegrass hater to not be a bit shaken by it.
Emily West, “Rocks in Your Shoes”
A burst of country-poptimism that manages to sound both sunny and smart. Eat your heart out, “Red Umbrella.”
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, “Please Read the Letter”
What I imagine you’d get if traditional country/folk story songs and Beatlesy acoustic theatrics met somewhere in outer space. I’ve yet to hear another record that so effectively captures that weird, dreamlike anxiety that comes with waiting for something painful to finally end.
Gary Allan, “Learning How to Bend”
I’d probably hate it if anyone else sang it. At least as music goes, very few men could pull off lines like, “I’m still learning how to trust / It’s so hard to open up” without sounding like total wusses, mostly because most men couldn’t sell that kind of couples-counseling line with any psychological conviction.
Allan, of course, is not most men. He understands the need to play against the vulnerability of the song in order to convey his character’s ingrained pride, and his vocal burns with the memory of unspoken hurt even as he pledges to embrace emotional and spiritual surrender. Much has been said of the technical impressiveness of his falsettos in the chorus, but listen to the way his full voice pops out ungracefully as he rebounds from them, like he’s scared to death of exposing such a vulnerable part of himself for too long. That’s not just impressive; that’s artful.
The Raconteurs featuring Ricky Skaggs & Ashley Monroe, “Old Enough”
A thrilling, organic collaboration that sounds cooler and more convincing with each listen. It probably hasn’t gotten enough exposure to be remembered several years down the line, but it’s one of 2008’s most compelling arguments for the uncanning of country music.
Reba McEntire & Kenny Chesney, “Every Other Weekend”
Two divorced parents contemplate the unfulfilling aftermath of their split and the lingering feelings they have for one another in intimate detail (”First thing in the morning / I turn the T.V. on to make the quiet go away”). Neither Chesney nor co-writer Skip Ewing was able to match McEntire’s combination of technical and interpretive skill, but you don’t get this kind of song everyday.
Randy Travis, “Dig Two Graves”
I can’t imagine ever feeling this attached to another person – at least, not for a very long while from now, after I’ve undergone the sort of emotional growth that would essentially render me a completely different person – but I think the extremity of Travis’ declaration is the crux of its charm. Kevin summed up the beauty of the theme wonderfully in his write-up of the single, and I would just add to that that the single succeeds in large part because its subdued composition and execution complement the song’s quiet sincerity so well – and honestly, how many other recordings from 2008 could you really call “subdued”?
Lee Ann Womack, “Last Call”
Journalists like to pigeonhole Womack as a neotraditionalist amid a sea of pop-rock posers, but the truth of the matter is that she’s just an unusually smart artist, the kind who understands country music well enough to know how far she can push it musically while still retaining its essential nature. Compositionally speaking, “Last Call” ain’t your granddaddy’s country, but it comes across like latter-day-Tammy because of a beautifully drawn story and one of Womack’s richest, most nuanced performances to date. As she imagines the scenario driving her former lover’s call and takes stock of its implications for her, her interpretation betrays a conflict of emotions that is all too loyal to the way situations like these usually play on the real-life human heart.
LeAnn Rimes, “What I Cannot Change”
I tend to be wary of songs that pull their central ideas from well-known prayers; too often, it seems like a way to score easy lyrical points without really trying. But Rimes’ spin on the Serenity Prayer does it the right way: by finding and expressing the specific personal relevance of the established idea. Not every line is a knock-out for me, but the kind of frank insight you see in observations like, “I don’t know my father or my mother well enough / It seems like every time we talk we can’t get past the little stuff” is a rare thing indeed. I just want to know what in the world is up with the dance remixes of this song. I beg your pardon, Curb?
Hayes Carll, “She Left Me For Jesus”
It’s about as far away thematically as you can get from “What I Cannot Change,” but we’d be remiss to ignore the significant part that well-done funny songs have played in country music’s legacy, and that’s just what Carll has given us here. His story of an impossibly clueless man who mistakes his girlfriend’s conversion for a secular love affair is not just an outrageous hoot; it’s also one of the most meticulously constructed releases of the year, with nary a wasted line and a whiny delivery that sounds perfectly matched to thoughtful conjectures like, “They must think that I’m stupid!”. Five years from now, you’ll likely have forgotten about 3/4 of the gooey ballads and feel-good nothings littering this week’s Top 20, but you’ll still remember Carll’s ludicrous threat to pick a fight with his gal’s “other man.”
Jamey Johnson, “In Color”
Contemporary country is long on nostalgia, but short on the kind that actually lingers on after the song is over. Johnson & Co. had a tall order to fill in writing a song about something as typical as looking back through old photographs, but they reset the standard with this one, which recounts key moments in a grandfather’s life with such vivid detail that it’s easy to get lulled into thinking you’re looking at the pictures yourself.
The appeal doesn’t stop there, though; the common description of the man and his various companions as “a couple of kids just trying to save each other” is a pretty striking assessment of the human experience, while the key punch, “you should’ve seen it in color,” acknowledges the natural division between us as individuals, unable to ever fully grasp the depth of any other person’s experience, even those we may love and try very hard to understand. Talk about your bold themes.
Ashton Shepherd, “Takin’ Off This Pain”
In my opinion, this single paints the best kind of picture of everything contemporary country in the 2000’s can be. It’s not pure traditionalism, as some have suggested – there’s a lot more modern drive than old-school shuffle at work here – but few major-label artists this decade have updated the spirit of classic country more loyally or convincingly than Shepherd has with this debut. Even if you take away the whopping voice, you’ve got clear, focused storytelling with palpable personality and an unusually clever hook. Loretta Lynn is smiling to herself somewhere.
Trisha Yearwood, “This Is Me You’re Talking To”
Life is never quite as linear as we like to think it is. Sometimes, halfway through your future, you get summoned back a few chapters and find yourself reliving what feel like ancient sensations all over again. Those old feelings – the ones that really mattered, but somehow went south – creep back up, perhaps couched in the possibility that things could turn out better this time. Part of you hates yourself for even considering that possibility, while part of you would give anything to feel that neglected gash finally heal. But what should happen if you find out that the other person has already moved on, that you’ve gotten your hopes up just to have them dashed again?
Once upon a time, recounts of situations like these comprised the very best that country music had to offer, giving quiet validation to the sort of emotional suffering that’s too nuanced to be fully appreciated or understood amid the bottom-line bustle of everyday life. It’s the rare songwriter(s) who can capture the raw nature of such a situation, and the even rarer singer who can interpret it effectively through manipulation or his or her instrument. “This Is Me You’re Talking To” represents the brilliant junction of both. Radio hit or not, this single does what all country music aspires to do: tell the truth, and tell it well. There can be no higher praise from me.