by Bobby Peacock
BEST OF 2022
20. "Circles Around This Town" by Lunatic Country Music Person... I mean, Maren Morris
I've always liked Maren Morris, although I get why she's not everyone's cup of tea. The "trying to make it big in Nashville" trope is one that's been done, but Maren's take has plenty of flavor. She touches on the cliché nature of songwriting ("trying to compete with everybody else's ones that got away") and the relentless hustle needed to make it big. She even works in a couple references to her earlier hits that make perfect sense in context. Sure, you could argue it could be produced a little cleaner, but it still conveys a brightness and optimism just the same. And I've always felt Maren had a more progressive edge to her stuff that would make her stand out, so the subtext of her younger and more contemporary leanings is a perfect match for the concept of trying to write circles around stodgy conservative ol' Nashville.
19. "Something in the Orange" by Zach Bryan
The vastly lopsided way it caught on with streaming, international audiences, and just about every damn place but country radio is telling; this is quickly falling into the "Feathered Indians" pile of "Americana/alt-country song that's accessible enough to catch on with the social media and bar band crowds.” Truth is, I'll probably be burnt out on it by 2024. But taken entirely on its own merits, I love the tension of this impending heartbreak, combined with how the abstract metaphor of the title conveys that sense of unease. (I'm a very literal person, so if a more metaphorical song clicks this hard for me, you know you've done something right.) The old-school singer-songwriter approach (gruff vocals, guitar, harmonica, that's it) can be a cliché in the wrong hands, but here it feels like deliberate minimalism. In short, I'm happy that a song this different and artful has managed to reach a lot more ears.
18. "Don't Come Lookin'" by Jackson Dean
It's refreshing to hear a newcomer with some bite and an original premise. This guy just wants to clear his head, and he'll go anywhere that isn't "here.” I love the hook "if I don't come back, don't come lookin'" and how it summarizes that sense of wanderlust. His vocal delivery is appropriately rough-edged and he knows how to vary his phrasing a bit on each chorus. But probably the best element here is the production: with the low-tuned acoustics and hard-edged slide, the guitar work sounds straight out of Jay Joyce's playbook. If Jackson Dean hadn't gotten to this song first, I could easily see it being a new cut from Eric Church. I'm lookin' for Jackson here to have more hits in 2023 that have even a little bit of this one's grit.
17. "Marlboros & Avon" by McBride & the Ride
Although I'm considerably younger than the nostalgia brought up in this song, I can still relate. Even in the early 90s, my small town still had a drive-in theater; my neighbors still had wood-panel TVs; I listened to CCR; and dad drove my grandma's old 1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, which isn't that different from a Mercury Marquis if you're not a car guy. Hell, even the smell of Marlboros and Avon is nostalgic to me, as our housekeeper was a chain smoker who also sold Avon products on the side. And by matching all these details to the tight twangy harmonies of McBride & the Ride -- who sound like they haven't aged a day since five-year-old me was captivated by "Sacred Ground" in 1992 -- that nostalgia buzz hits all the harder.
16. "Everything She Ain't" by Hailey Whitters
I admit, seeing her name on the atrocious "Happy People" was a case of starting on the wrong foot. Thankfully that was the only misfire, because everything else I've heard with her name on it since then has been great. Case in point: her first bow as a singles artist. Between the banjo and sharp twangy vocals, I'm already getting serious Chicks vibes from this in all the right ways. You don't often see the "dump the person you're with because I'm better" trope played from a female perspective, and that's probably why this one stands out to me. Some of the details are quite interesting as well, including possibly the first ever Hank Sr. name-drop that also mentions his first wife Audrey. Some have interesting contrast like "plenty of fish in the sea...only one of me" and best of all, the title hook of "I'm everything she is and everything she ain't.” Can we have more of this in 2023?
15. "What He Didn't Do" by Carly Pearce
Carly Pearce hasn't missed once for me, while her ex-husband Michael Ray has exactly one song I like. But her ex did inspire a rather clever, incisive song about a breakup. We've got the stage set with the usual "if you can't say something nice, then don't say anything at all" and admission that there are two sides in play. It all gives context to a neatly summarized list of things one would expect out of a relationship. By framing it this way, Carly doesn't seem bitter or judgmental, just matter-of-fact and even subversive. And it doesn't stop at the list, as we get further great lines like "Imma take the high road, even though we both know I could run him out of this town / That's just dirty laundry, I don't need to wear the truth.” Carly has a clean-cut delivery and the production is crisp but still stays out of her way, helping to make this sick burn really land.
14. "Fall in Love" by Bailey Zimmerman
This one works in part because of what it doesn't do. There's no petty misogyny or pleas for sympathy, and he's not too sulky or angry; we just get detailed scenes with the right amount of melodrama, building up to a great hook of "you don't wanna fall in love.” The verses tell us a lot about what both of them are doing now that they're no longer together. I especially like the detail of him meeting her mom at the store and asking about her, only for her to take his side too ("tried to go convincing you not to settle down with him"). I could see where his voice might not be for everyone (there are times when he sounds like if Morgan Wallen could stay in key without Auto-Tune). But between that rough vocal and the production -- surprisingly uncompressed, with actual bass and drums -- the result feels considerably more real than I expected from a guy who got popular through TikTok.
13. "wait in the truck" by HARDY and Lainey Wilson
Oh hey, it's the first song I've liked from either artist. Maybe the secret was HARDY finally turning off his caps lock. It's been a while since we've had a good murder ballad on radio, and this one hits all the right notes. Both vocalists give credible performances (which on HARDY's part, is saying something) that portray a man's willingness for revenge -- namely, to murder another man who is committing abuse while also protecting the abused woman. There's an almost sinister tone to the morally gray protagonist, balanced with a few well-placed lines from the victim's POV. Even the production stays out of the way (which on Joey Moi's part, is REALLY saying something), keeping the surroundings spare and moody. As often as HARDY has vacillated between decent and awful, he was bound to find "great" eventually and I'm glad he did.
12. "Damn Strait" by Scotty McCreery
I wanted to like Scotty McCreery from the beginning, but his forced aw-shucks demeanor always made him seem like a southern-fried Alfred E. Neuman to me. But between the goatee and some stronger song choices, he's finally won me over. His best radio release yet takes the shopworn trope of "make a song largely out of references to song titles" and actually comes up with something original by leaning into a pun for good measure. (I can tell Trent Tomlinson wrote this.) The songs chosen -- I especially like that more modern ones like "I Hate Everything" and "Give It Away" got worked in -- show a knowledge of Strait's material that goes deeper than average, as well as a knack for wordplay ("But do I wish I could get her back? Damn Strait") that slot seamlessly into the radio-centric narrative and an appropriately neo-trad sound. Is this Scotty's best radio single to date? Damn straight.
11. "Doin' This" by Luke Combs
For his last few singles, Luke Combs has been the musical equivalent of cranberry juice cocktail: heavily watered down, but still with just enough flavor left to remind me of the stronger taste it used to be. His first good radio single since "Even Though I'm Leaving" maxes out the humble everyman nature that has kept me from dismissing him entirely. The concept is interesting on its own, being an answer to an interview question many musicians have been asked: "what would you do if you weren't doin' this?" His answer may not be surprising -- he'd still be singing and playing music just for the fun of it. But if you were to take any mainstream artist in Nashville and convince me he's not in it for the money, Luke Combs would probably be one of the first I'd buy it from. And between his gruff yet intense delivery and that clever hook of "I'd still be doin' this if I wasn't doin' this,” I believe him.
10. "Handle on You" by Parker McCollum
Parker McCollum's first two mainstream hits didn't do anything for me, due mainly to his extremely whiny voice on them. However, his third charted single goes down much smoother. There's a laid-back Texas country vibe that reminds me of early Randy Rogers Band, and a great reminder of what the steel guitar sounds like. I also like the hopefulness of how he's finally gotten over drinking her away ("after all this back and forth, a fifth won't do"), but that's far from the only brilliant line here. Add to that list the equally sharp "I tell myself that I should quit, but I don't listen to drunks,” not to mention a subtle nod to "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" that pays off the Merle Haggard name-drop earlier in the song, and the results are a damn good country song all around. I'm glad he's finally gotten a handle on his artistry.
9. "One More Night" by Miko Marks & the Resurrectors
Especially considering she's from my family's hometown of Flint, how has Miko Marks been off my radar until the past few months? Her lyrical tour of the more upbeat sectors of Southern music culture -- New Orleans jazz, Memphis R&B, Muscle Shoals soul -- is wrapped up in a musical package that encompasses all of them. The production swings and bops in all the right places (love that slide guitar!), and Marks' vocal is a torchy belt backed by some gospel-tinged harmonies. Everything about this song just sounds so cool in all the right ways. I can see why this is the kind of sound she'd want to be hanging around with for "one more night" because honestly, with the passion she's showing here, I'd want a lot more of this too.
8, "'Til You Can't" by Cody Johnson
"If you got a dream, chase it 'cause a dream can't chase you back.” Brilliant observation. While it's easy to feel catharsis in hearing someone recall the opportunities they missed (which is why Kathy Mattea's "Standing Knee Deep in a River (Dying of Thirst)" hits me so hard), Cody takes a more upbeat approach by pointing out that a lot of opportunities still exist. I only got to see my grandfather once before he died in '93, and I'm glad I did. My stepdad is slowly losing himself to early-onset Alzheimer's, and I'm glad I can still do anything at all with him. By latching onto specific details in a similar fashion -- in particular, I like the verse about fixing up a car -- Cody Johnson and the writers find that sense of realism and accessibility that makes those emotions connect. And of course, that it sounds so country and heartwarming doesn't hurt, either.
7. "The Man from Waco" by Charley Crockett
How does Charley Crockett release like, 90 songs a year that all slap? Maybe it's because he draws from so many influences and just owns all of them. Sure, its Western flavored murder ballad plot line may bring to mind "El Paso" (one of the best country songs of all time), but if you're warranting comparisons to Marty Robbins then I'd say you're doing it right. The production here is more sinister with that big spaghetti Western guitar sound I love so much, a deep minor-key melody, and Crockett's smooth commanding baritone. It's very economical lyrically, telling its entire story in four short verses, but there's still more than enough to fill things out. And that ending line "A moment of burning anger can curse the living through the days" adds a cautionary note for extra drama. Like most of Charley Crockett's material, this one exudes too much coolness for me to ignore.
6. "Bonfire at Tina's" by Ashley McBryde with Brandy Clark, Caylee Hammack, and Pillbox Patti
Ashley McBryde doing an album inspired by Dennis Linde (my favorite songwriter) is the kind of stuff I live for. In the same songwriting universe that brought us such character sketches as "Queen of My Double Wide Trailer,” "Bubba Shot the Jukebox,” and "Goodbye Earl,” you're sure to find the same "small town women" sung about here. Sure, they don't always get along, but between the cheating lazy husbands and misbehaving stepchildren, they're able to air out all their dirty laundry together and find solidarity as "bitches that are sick of taking it.” I'd like to imagine that at least some of their husbands' possessions are in that bonfire. Maybe a stick doll effigy of one of them. Whatever the case, this is something that totally feels like it would happen in real life, and all present sing the hell out of it.
5. "Whiskey Sour" by Kane Brown
I swear I'm not doing this just to piss off Trailer (or to appease Kevin John Coyne, for that matter); I really did find Kane Brown grew on me immensely over the past year-plus. And this was the turning point: the moment Kane did a song that I'm sure even the "but Kane isn't country" crowd would say is country as hell. This guy thought he had her, but she turned into the oft-lamented "one that got away.” Kane fills us in on all the details of how this proposal went south, and he's now drowning his sorrows at the bar ("How can I get over if the love was never ours?" is a great line). While this wasn't a single, it qualifies for my list due to it having made the charts. If it ends up being a single in 2023 anyway, then I would seriously consider putting it on next year's list too -- because in the year that Kane finally won me over, this is his best song to date.
4. "Son of a Sinner" by Jelly Roll
Jelly Roll is a sympathetic figure: a "reformed drug dealer and active alcoholic" (to quote his own Twitter bio) who is clearly trying to right himself. Some of his hip-hop releases that I sampled fall into one of my favorite variants of that genre, where the artist just lays all their struggles on the line. So it's no surprise that his first outing as a country singer is in the same vein -- a man who's clearly dealing with substance abuse, a fixation on the past, and even a crisis of faith. With his rough-edged voice, lush production, and direct lyricism ("I'm only one drink away from the Devil"), he finds the perfect balance of realism and accessibility. And judging from the reactions to this song on social media, it's clear he's found a lot more "sons of sinners" who connected with this song.
3. "Here Tonight" by Banditos
"Live for today 'cause you're here tonight,” promises this unique bartender-giving-advice song. And that advice is delivered in a sassy, energetic tone by Banditos lead vocalist Mary Beth Richardson to a group of bar patrons as disparate as this song's instrument choices (baritone saxophone, güiro, banjo, Hammond organ, and what I swear is a toy piano). Between the extremely "real" feel to the lyrics and the way the production enhances the mood, this is easily one of the most interesting and fun journeys into the mind that I've had this year. And of course, a few well-placed name-drops of the lesser-known George Jones songs don't hurt, either.
2. "Made for Me" by Chapel Hart
In the wake of Chapel Hart's appearance on AGT, it's easy to forget they actually had songs sent out to radio too. Although one of their earlier recordings, it fits perfectly with their career arc. The buzz was already present before then, but Chapel Hart found a way to drastically increase their profile. Though they didn't win, they still got far more eyes on them than ever before. And that passion and drive to chase that (neon) rainbow is evident in this song's autobiographical lyrics. We learn the name of their town, previous jobs they held, and the fun times they had in small-town Mississippi before aiming their sights on the big time. And as is expected, they wrap it all up in a harmonious, tuneful package. This is probably the best song about yearning for musical stardom since "Baby Girl,” and it's made all the better by its subtext.
1. "Middle of a Heart" by Adeem the Artist
The narrator's story is a common arc that I've seen even here in the North: learning to hunt, falling in love, and going off to war. But it's that last verse -- where the narrator is so horrified by the atrocities of war as to commit suicide -- that Adeem goes where others fear. I've obviously never been in combat myself, nor do I know anyone who has, so it's hard for me to fathom the atrocities that can be seen on the battlefield or the ensuing PTSD. According to The Bluegrass Situation, Adeem wrote this song about someone they knew personally and described as "a richly problematic man who I loved deeply.” But even without knowing that, I know this song hits me hard every time, thanks in no small part to Adeem's sharp, sympathetic songcraft. I don't think any war-themed song has hit my emotions with that much force since "Travelin' Soldier.”
(Honorable mentions: "She Had Me at Heads Carolina,” "Joy of My Life,” "Out in the Middle,” "Going to Hell")
BEST NON-SINGLES OR OTHER SONGS
Note: Unlike previous years, where I only include singles or songs that charted in order to keep the list focused, I felt there was enough non-single content this year for an appendix. This is by no means exhaustive; just a selection of additional songs this year that I felt were strong enough to be worthy of a review.
6. "Suspicious Minds" by Morgan Wade
I swear, it's impossible to mess this song up. It's my favorite Elvis Presley song, and Dwight Yoakam turbocharged the hell out of it with his cover version on the Honeymoon in Vegas soundtrack to make it my favorite song of his too. Morgan Wade takes a different approach that I can only describe as "if Cheryl Crow sang lead for Electric Light Orchestra" and makes it work in a way that description alone does not do justice. Between the drums and the vocoder, there are a lot of production tricks sure to set off "not country" alarms, but the evergreen lyrics about a dysfunctional relationship keep it grounded. Now why hasn't she sent another single out to radio yet?
5. "Barbed Wire Boys" by Trout Fishing in America
Why no, this isn't just me trying to draw more eyes to my "Top 20 Trout Fishing in America Songs (That Aren't Children's Songs)" list (which was actually a Top 21 because I suck at copy editing). Even if I hadn't made that list, this song would be here regardless. I've loved Trout since the late 90s, and their 2022 album Safe Haven shows they haven't lost a step. As I said in the aforementioned list, it's easy to think of men -- especially "salt of the earth" types -- as not having any vulnerability whatsoever lest our society perceive them as "weak.” But Susan Werner saw that hidden depth in her original lyrics, and by actually having a male artist sing it, these lyrics feel all the more introspective. And honestly, I'd believe it just as much from these guys if I didn't already know they were responsible for songs as lighthearted as "My Hair Had a Party Last Night.”
4. "You Can Have Him Jolene" by Chapel Hart
This actually was a single last year, but it charted this year. And best of all, I got WATZ to play it. As I said in the singles entries, Chapel Hart seized an unconventional opportunity to get a bigger platform for their music this year -- in a way I honestly did not expect but am all the happier for having seen it happen. They already had me with "I Will Follow,” but their first song to actually chart proves it was no fluke. Sassy and hard-edged, they turn the evergreen "Jolene" on its head by telling the titular Jolene "when you think that he's in love, he'll surely leave, like he did me.” This song kicks ass in a completely different way than "I Will Follow" did, and that's ultimately its greatest asset: it proves they have range as well as talent.
3. "Southern Curls" by Julie Williams
This was also a single last year, and had I known about it then, it seriously would have had a shot at the top 3. I don't want my view on this song to go unnoticed, especially not after I finally found my way to a Black Opry show earlier this year (hi, Holly) and heard Julie Williams perform it live. Even as a kid, I wondered why so few Black artists (especially women) seemed to exist in country music. And the current climate of the genre has only made me all the more aware. It's a sad truth that far too many people in the world are "looked down on before [they]'re even born" simply because of who they are. Julie Williams tells of her struggles, yet offers a ray of hope through optimistic lines such as "I know that I glow, and so do you.”
2. "Carolina" by Adeem the Artist
"Some of us have childhoods that aren't poems on sight / But darlin', you're doin' alright.” So ends the first track on Adeem the Artist's White Trash Revelry. We learn a lot about their life in every richly detailed lyric, especially in the references to their "runaway" mother who withstood abuse from her parents. And while so many of these details are so different from mine, it's the sympathy emanating from every lyric -- finding one's identity (something I, a person on the autism spectrum, deal with constantly even before gender identity comes into the picture), coming to terms with life changes that didn't go your way (like the four jobs I went through this past year), and making the best of what you do have (the job I finally got by year's end that stuck). I honestly could have put nearly any song in this spot, but "Carolina" gets the slot because of that extra bit of personal connection.
1. "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive" by Chris Stapleton and Patty Loveless
And you thought country music was dead? Well, take one of the most traditional mainstream artists out there, and match him with a '90s country icon. Have them both perform the best goddamn lyric Darrell Scott ever wrote -- you know, that haunting downer about the hardscrabble life in a Kentucky coal mining town? That one that like, six other artists have sung? Between Stapleton's bluesy growl, Patty Loveless' mature twang that I swear hasn't changed a day since "Blame It on Your Heart,” and a little harmony help from Chris' wife, the vocal arrangement is divine. The playing is professional yet never overpowering; I will literally never tire of the sound of a Dobro. I've rarely felt a song as much as I did when this performance aired. Every ingredient involved made it magical to listen to. In short, this was the best musical moment of 2022.