I’m just gonna lay it all out on the table: country music sucks.
Oh, there are qualifiers (there are always qualifiers). Before you collectively leap down my throat, let me list them for you:
- I am aware that country music used to be fairly awesome. So there’s no need to remind me that Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson exist; I’m keenly aware of them and have nothing but respect for their art. “Jolene”? “The Gambler”? “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”? These songs bring me as much pleasure as they bring you, theoretical old-school country apologist. When I say “country music sucks”, I mean it in the present tense.
- I am aware that there may be lesser-known artists working in the country milieu that are fairly awesome. Uncle Confederate’s Spitshine Jug Band may have released a killer album this year, but it was recorded in a barn and I can’t for the life of me bring myself to care.
- I am aware that there is a burgeoning Americana movement that’s been producing great art for years. But let’s not disgrace folk-rock or alt-country by lumping it in with country radio. For the purposes of this article, I’m defining country music as what the majority of society understands country music to be, not what Avett Brothers or Neko Case devotees defend as quality country.
But look, let’s drop the pretense for a second. Tastes are subjective, to be sure, and there are bound to be genres that simply don’t gel with a particular listener. I’ve never been a metal fan, for example; I see the merit, and I like select artists, but outside of my limited metal spectrum the genre does little for me. But where my generalized notion of the metal genre ends in an apathetic shrug, country makes me downright angry. The gimmicky turns of phrase, the saccharine ballads, the lowest-common-denominator targeting towards good-ole-boys, the fierce (often blind) patriotism, the bewildering poverty fetish, the forced drawls… it’s just the lowest of the low.
But while I appear to be gearing up to rant about a genre I have little to no respect for, this list is actually positive. For, you see, I am above all a music lover; and as any music lover with an open mind should, I realize that a good song is a good song, regardless of the artistic tools used to create it. If Skrillex created a dubstep song I loved, I’d gladly shout its praises to the rafters; if Nickelback made a killer anthem for the ages, I’d… well, I’d probably keep my admiration to myself, but best believe I’d be a dashboard rock star in the privacy of my vehicle. Likewise, in the modern country era, I’ve stumbled across a handful of songs that I’ve enjoyed. Here they are.
7. “Toes,” Zac Brown Band
Zac Brown’s a talented guy, and his band is aces: a down-home, backwoodsy shuffle, honeyed harmonies, killer pop choruses. “Toes” introduced him to the country world, and it’s a laconic, vaguely island-tinged PBR salute to relaxation. Follow-up single “Chicken Fried” remains insanely catchy, but baits its audience a little too overtly: fried food, beer, AMURRICA! “Toes” is where it’s at; it gives a big thumbs-up to beer, but when said beer is consumed from a beach chair, and not in a redneck dive bar where the regulars furrow their brows at any troublemakin’ brown folks unfortunate enough to wander in, the effect is a lot more relaxing.
6. “Rodeo,” Garth Brooks
For the purposes of this list, modern country is pretty much defined as post-Garth; Mr. Brooks was, after all, one of the earliest (and most prominent) crossover megastars, the easiest dividing line between country singer as highway outlaw and country singer as chart-topping superstar. Arguably, he was the best at it — I can’t bring myself to get excited about Tim McGraw or Blake Shelton, and the less said about Toby Keith the better — mostly due to his tunes, and the grit in his higher register that recalled a twangy retooling of arena-rock. I can’t bring myself to down any of his tunes (he nails the climax in his “Shameless” cover, “The Dance” boasts a potent and resonant sense of ache that defies genre, even “The Thunder Rolls” projects the high drama of a heartland Jim Steinman), but “Rodeo” nails me every time: a perfectly-pitched encapsulation of a distinctly redneck form of entertainment that manages, through a creeping, heightened sense of tension, to make buckin’ broncos seem exciting to the most yankee of yanks.
5. “Gone,” Montogomery Gentry
I don’t even know how to explain this one. There’s a certain universality to this jaunty country-rocker; the lyrics aren’t country-specific, but rather of the “we’re so breaking up for real this time” variety — well-worn territory in pop music, and Taylor Swift’s topic of choice. But there’s something about that manic Hammond organ that pulsates throughout the song as it builds to a frenzy that I can’t ignore; it’s galvanizing, energizing. And then there’s the lead vocal — courtesy of Gentry, as it turns out — which soars to the rafters on an escalating, perfectly-pitched chorus. Like so many of the songs on this list, “Gone” didn’t necessarily need to be a country song, and wrestling it away from Nashville is a pleasure.
4. “If I Die Young,” The Band Perry
It was something of a strange choice for a massive hit single: The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young” successfully crossed over to pop radio, piggy-backing a new wave of goodwill for banjo-goosed Americana, but there was something a little different about this song, something… well… pretty. It’s a downright lovely song, stepping lightly through a bevy of final thoughts; detractors seems to think it handles the topic with kid gloves, but given the encyclopedic volumes of country songs that aim for manipulation, it’s nice that “If I Die Young” doesn’t go for the throat. The lead Perry’s voice floats nimbly above the delicate instrumental, and when the harmonies dovetail with the lead, it’s a neat slice of honest, clear-eyed Americana.
3. “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett
If “Toes” was a country stab at Jimmy Buffett’s brand of rum-soaked tropical dad-rock, “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” one-ups it by bringing the man himself along for the ride. Alan Jackson’s been responsible for his share of crimes against humanity — remember his mawkish, cloying 9/11 ballad? — but with “Five O’Clock”, he tips his ten-gallon towards the tropics and proves quite adept at having a party. It’s tailor-made for poolside tiki bars; it’s a sunny ode to imbibing that says “hey, let’s get something with a little umbrella in it and just chill out,” rather than “let’s suck down beers and then punch each other in the face” (a phrase I’m far less likely to co-sign). It’s difficult to hate on a song this summery and genial; it’s best to just pour something tall and strong, and go along for the ride.
2. “Independence Day,” Martina McBride
Have I gone soft on country? After all, much of this list is populated with songs that aren’t really that country, the implication being that plain old country simply doesn’t cut the mustard. But in a lot of ways, “Independence Day” is about as country as it gets: a woman recalls her childhood experiences in an abusive household, intercuts loads of patriotic imagery that leads Sean Hannity to co-opt the tune on one of his vaunted programs. (His ears heard “freedom” and “fourth of July”, after all. There’s no getting in Hannity’s way when his America sense starts tinglin’.) And while the song’s structure is nothing to sneeze at — the title doubling as both setting and retribution — the message comes second to the melody, and “Independence Day” is a doozy. The verses I can take or leave — it’s the same workaday country melody that countless songwriters have utilized, even on this very list (listen to it back to back with “Toes”) — but Martina leaps into her star-spangled spaceship and blasts off in the chorus. Not only is it impeccably sung, it’s perfectly written; hooks this super-sized don’t get a lot of mileage in rock music anymore, much less the barren wasteland of modern country. Ms. McBride may have been responsible for some of the most turgid country ballads to ever grace a beer-soaked karaoke stage, but this little gem is about as rousing as country music — music in general, really — gets.
1. “She’s in Love With the Boy,” Trisha Yearwood
God help us all, this is one of the most glorious pop songs of all time. The earmarks of country are all there: there’s a down-home, Southern family at its core, “mama” and “papa” are prominent characters, and the final refrain uses the distinctively country twist of utilizing the song’s most prominent melody out of its original context, in this case shifting perspective entirely. (Another example: “Don’t Take the Girl,” which you should absolutely listen to if you like things that are terrible.) And yet, the sentiment is distinctly universal: the romanticism of forbidden love has been a potent staple of high drama since the days of Shakespeare, so there’s that, and Yearwood’s wistful tone makes young puppy love seem like riding a unicorn through a field of blooming daisies, instead of the “OMG nothing matters more than the feelings I feel at the ripe old age of 14” lunacy that it actually is. A tightly-structured pop song in three discernible acts, with a last-minute reveal that changes the plot? (Spoiler alert: Mama chides Papa for thinking our heroine’s new beau is dumber’n a sack of ‘tarded squirrels, reminding Papa that, just like literally everyone that’s ever existed, he was an idiot as a teenager too.) Tres magnifique. Country music doesn’t come from the heart, like a lot of people say — everyone knows it comes from the butt — but Yearwood’s delivery here is the stuff of pop magic. Her phrasing on the “wasn’t worth a lick”/”short end of the stick” couplet is practically perfect.
And there you have it: seven terrific country songs that I’ll unashamedly admit to enjoying.
The rest of it? Eh, I’ve flushed things more interesting and dynamic after a late-night Taco Bell adventure.
Can’t win ’em all.