Modern country classics

There is no disputing that throughout its history, country music has had its fair share of classic songs – instances when the combination of vocal, lyric, and melody mix to create a sense of magic. Get anyone in the know in a room and they’ll likely agree that “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “Stand By Your Man,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “El Paso,” and “Crazy” are among songs considered quintessential to the genre. Moments in country history worth preserving so that everyone for as long as time will get a chance to enjoy them. As the decades go on, we see countless singers come and go as single climb and fall off the charts. Most are mediocre at best – drivel that fall prey to exploiting every last cliche in the book. But every now and then a song comes along worthy of joining the revered list of classics. The following are 11 songs, since the turn of the century, that I would put in the company of every great country song ever recorded.

2000 – “I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow” – The Soggy Bottom Boys

A novelty in its purest form, “Sorrow” was a marvel – it helped sell 8 million copies of the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack without the support of country radio. Led by Dan Tymenski, the Soggy Bottom Boys were a fictitious band created by producer T Bone Burnett for use in the movie. No one expected the CMA to crown the song its single of the year or the Grammys to choose the soundtrack over a very popular U2 LP for album of the year but they did. A word of mouth success story, “Sorrow” is an example of why country radio rarely tells the whole country music story.

2001 – “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” – Alan Jackson

Written in response to the 9-11 terror attacks, “Where Were You” is a snapshot of emotion; a quantifier of our feelings. Jackson was able to capture the mood of the nation so poignantly  you forgot the best country songs come from real world experience. When he sings “I’m Just A Singer of Simple Songs” he captures not only his own truth, but the goal of every country singer who’s ever had the music in their soul. A moment in time that never felt so raw or was so heartbreakingly real.

2002 – “I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin’ Song)” – Brad Paisley

The story of a man who must choose between his woman and love of fishing, marks the moment Paisley came into his own as a songwriter, artist, and videographer. He would go on to make his mark by using humor to tell many a story, but “Miss Her” was the first and arguably the best novelty song he’s ever recorded.

2003 – “Traveling Soldier” – Dixie Chicks

At #1 when Natalie Maines famously denouced then President George W. Bush on British soil, you never saw a song fall so hard, so fast. It’s a shame because “Soldier” is the hit that deserved to be yet never should have been – a nearly five minute acoustic love song about a waitress with a bow in her hair and the three days passed 18 years old soldier who needed someone back home to care about. Neither pro nor anti military, songwriter Bruce Robinson uses the heartbreak of war to tell a greater story about eternal love. The highlight of their masterful Home album, “Solider” is a reminder of all that perished when the world turned a deaf ear to the greatest band country music ever produced.

2004 – “Live Like You Were Dying” – Tim McGraw

Nothing elicits emotion like the loss of a parent, and Tim McGraw knows that well. Although penned by Craig Wiseman and Tim Nichols, its as if McGraw had written the words himself. He asks us all to live as though we’ve reached our final days and gives us a laundry list of what he’d do (sky dive, climb the Rocky Mountains, ride a bull for 2.7 seconds) if given the chance. Introspection at its finest, “Dying” is a battle cry to live for today in case tomorrow never comes.

2005 – “Somebody’s Hero” – Jamie O’Neal

A fleeting moment in country music history, “Hero” is the anthem for all women who had to grow up perfect daughters and then, with children of their own to raise, care for their ailing parents. It’s the story of a vicious cycle every family must endure on a path to wholeness. When O’Neal sings, “The envy of the nursing home/she drops by every afternoon/feeds her mother with a spoon,” you can hear women everywhere shedding a tear for when they were in the character’s shoes themselves. It’s a gentler and kinder relationship women of that generation had with their mothers, and O’Neal captures it perfectly with her sweet yet powerful vocal that enhances – not hinders – the message of the song.

2006 – Little Big Town – “Boondocks”

By late 2005 Little Big Town had been cast off in the bargain bin. Their self-titled debut album proved they were nothing special – yet another generic act with nothing revelatory about their makeup, sound, or look. To turn opinions around would be a major undertaking and they did it as only Little Big Town can. With “Boondocks” they had modified their sound just slightly, and were given the second chance only the rare few are allowed to make. The only spectacular addition in a long line of dismal “where you come from” songs to hit country radio in the decade, “Boondocks” stands out not because its an outstandingly well written, sung, and produced record, but because it injected life into the genre at a time when country music was begging for a new force to be reckoned with.

2007 – “Our Song” – Taylor Swift

Back in high school, Swift debuted this song at a talent show. She only sang it once, yet by the next morning, the whole school was singing it too. When the world got ahold of it, “Song” shot to #1 and stayed their six weeks. The story of a couple who don’t, but are always on the lookout for, a tune to define their relationship, “Song” is a perfect confection of country/pop and easily the best thing Swift has ever sent to country radio. She’ll be chasing the flawlessness of this record for the rest of her career, mark my words. “Song” isn’t just a snapshot of an artist on the rise, it’s the career record only the fortunate few are blessed to have. It’s here the world fell in love with Swift and made her the star everyone who watched that assembly knew she would become.

2008 – “Stay” – Sugarland

Inspired by Reba McEntire’s “Who’s Ever In New England,” and written from the mistress’s point of view, “Stay” proves Jennifer Nettles is a double threat- singer and writer. The sparse arraignment and aching vocal only add to the intensity building in the lyrics. Nettles has never shined brighter than she does here, and like Swift before her, will be chasing this little piece of magic for the rest of her career. She may have also solely written “Shine The Light” as well, but nothing will ever compare to the heights she reached on this instant classic.

2009 – “In Color” – Jamey Johnson

A picture may be worth 1,000 words but according to Johnson and co-writers Tommy Lee Miller and James Otto, “You can’t see what those shades of grey keep covered/you should’ve seen it in color.” A brilliant ode to a simple pleasure we all take for granted, “Color” brings our modern world into perspective and gives new meaning to those old 8x10s sitting in our attics. Songs about pictures are nothing new, but “Color” revives the theme with an intensity lacking from most of modern country. Heartfelt and sincere yet commanding and attentive, “Color” is the epitome of country music and a foundation towards a (hopefully) promising future.

2010 – Miranda Lambert – “The House That Built Me”

“I know they say, you can’t go home again,” sings Lambert in an ode to finding yourself through the walls of your childhood home. A quiet gem that made a huge statement, “House” is the hit no one saw coming from the artist radio could no longer ignore. Songs like “House” rarely come along and when they do, you’d be a fool not to grab them. The video only enhances the quality of the lyric with the home movies woven throughout. Lambert was a fine country singer before she snag this song, but after, she just may be the best female country star having hits today.

One Response to “Modern country classics”

  1. Brendon Morelock Says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    I’ve really been enjoying your blog! I can’t believe I just recently discovered it, and I tend to strongly agree with your criticizing and your praising, but I’ve got a few things to say about this one…

    I agree with your choices as the -best- modern country classic from their respective years (ESPECIALLY in 2003 and 2010), except for 2004-2007.

    Your 2010 choice did shock me, as I thought you would have chosen If I Die Young, but very happily shocked! I have zero bad things to say about The Band Perry; frankly, I think women like Kim Perry and Jennifer Nettles are the reason country award shows are stuck still nominating Martina McBride and, ummm, Kelly Clarkson. (I saw something similar here on your blog, and I’ve thought that ever since I read that Kelly Clarkson was nominated as a female “country” vocalist of 2012.) But my #1 favorite artist from any genre and any decade since Tammy Wynette is Miranda Lambert.

    For 2007, I do believe that you got the artist right. Our Song may have been the biggest-selling and highest-charting single of Swift’s debut record, but to me, nothing of hers will match the perfection of (1) Breathe (without Colbie Caillat), my personal favorite of hers, from “Fearless,” and (2) Teardrops on My Guitar, the 2007 song I would have chosen.

    For 2006, I would have chosen Your Man by Josh Turner. He’s always brought George Jones to mind. Other options for me may have been Red High Heels by Kellie Pickler, If You’re Going Through Hell by Rodney Atkins, and The Long Way Around by the Dixie Chicks. And if Natalie Maines had never joined the Chicks, then Long Black Train would be my 2003 choice.

    As the most amazing year for country music since the ’90s, 2005 is an extremely tough one — including Miranda Lambert’s (big) debut, Carrie Underwood’s debut, Sara Evans’ “Real Fine Place,” Lee Ann Womack’s “There’s More Where That Came From” and Martina McBride’s “Timeless.” (The latter is nothing more than a notable mention, since of course “Timeless” is merely a compilation of covers of the songs to which you’re comparing modern country music.)

    Somebody’s Hero is an emotional song, with an emotional video, but so was You’ll Always Be My Baby by Sara Evans, with a very similar message, except involving Daddy rather than Mommy. My nominations for 2005 would be I May Hate Myself in the Morning, Must Be Doin’ Somethin’ Right, and Before He Cheats. I May Hate Myself in the Morning would probably be my choice. And if not, then 2000 was the wrong choice as well and you should’ve written about I Hope You Dance!

    As far as 2004 goes, Tim was dead to me after what I believe to be his only GOOD album, “Set This Circus Down” w/ The Cowboy in Me and Angry all the Time. Before then he was bearable, but even pre-2001 the only song I really like is Can’t Be Really Gone. So, my 2004 country-classic pick would definitely be Me and Charlie Talking by Miranda Lambert; the single was released in October ’04.

    Overall grade on this list: C-. But now I’m left wondering what your choices for 2011 and 2012 are, and I wish that you’d do this for the ’90s, if you haven’t already.

    Thanks for reading! Brendon

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