By Bobby Peacock
101. "Highway 20 Ride" by Zac Brown Band (#1, 2009)
This was the moment I started taking the ZBB seriously. It hit on all of the strengths: harmony, nylon-string guitar, fiddle, organ, and thoughtful lyrics. The song is a touching look at a struggling father who shares custody of his son with his ex-wife, so on theme alone, it has me hooked. And the execution is honest ("Son, please don't mistake me / For a man that didn't care at all"), showing that even though the man is still conflicted, he knew divorce was for the best. It took four songs for them to really hit their artistic stride, but I'm glad that a song this strong set the stage for the next couple great albums.
102. "Hillbillies" by Hot Apple Pie (#26, 2005)
After "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy),” it seems a few new acts were willing to get silly. Former Little Texas keyboardist Brady Seals gets his freak on with a song that bursts with energetic production and quirky, funny lyrics that stay just on the right side of lewdness ("Hillbillies love it in the hay") for a bit of redneckin' love-makin'. And the production is just as weird, what with its noodly guitar work, slap bass, pitch-shifted vocals, and even a swipe at "I Want Candy.” Weird in all the right ways, this one jumped out of the speakers every time I heard it and still holds up on repeated listens. It's just a shame that their label closed, because this is was one tasty musical pie.
103. "Honesty (Write Me a List)" by Rodney Atkins (#4, 2003-04)
Sure, he sounds more than slightly like Tim McGraw on this, but it's a more warm and relaxing vocal style that I wish he'd stayed with. And it's a great story-song, too. It's common to split things up after a divorce, so this man asks his soon-to-be-ex to write a list of what she wants; but instead of objects, she offers up concepts like "honesty, sincerity, tenderness, and trust.” That alone is a great twist, but then the song follows through when both of them clearly think this over. It doesn't even resolve the situation, leaving you to wonder if these two patch things up or not. And that, to me, is the best asset of this song.
104. "Honey Do" by Mike Walker (#42, 2001)
Mike Walker's only album brought us, right out of the gate, a song with some definite Conway Twitty vibes and a dash of Rodney Crowell's "Lovin' All Night.” (Incidentally, said album includes a cover of that song's followup, Best of the 90's list entrant "What Kind of Love.” ) By combining the former's raw sexual energy and the latter's mix of rowdiness, thoughtfulness, and cleverness (the phrase "honey do" leads into "honey, do you wanna love all night"), the result is refreshing. Walker's voice is the right level of gravelly passion, and the gallop beat pulls the song along. This guy deserved a better fate than headlining Conway Twitty tribute shows.
105. "House Like That" by Donovan Chapman (#42, 2006)
Prior to this song's release, Donovan Chapman had to put his music career on hiatus when he was deployed to Afghanistan. I think the context of coming back from a tour of duty enriches this charming song about the joys of home. Sunny, guitar-heavy production and his everyman voice don't hurt either, as he sings about that everlasting relationship so often found in country (think "From the Ground Up"). He chronicles apartments where the residents count change to pay rent, shacks with porch swings, and even mansions. And "where love wears out our welcome mat" is a damn good line. I'm no romantic, but he's sold me this house.
106. "How Do I Get Off the Moon" by Doug Stone (did not chart, 2004)
Long after his hit-making days had ended, Doug Stone still proved capable of a damn great sad song. As often as the moon is romanticized in love songs, this one extends that metaphor to its logical endpoint: the love has ended, and the feeling is compared to some of the less desirable properties of someone being on the moon -- i.e., stranded on a cold rock with little atmosphere. I also like the follow-through on the lunar theme with the phrases "took off like a rocket ship" and "get these stars from my eyes.” Stone's reedy voice is as nuanced and tearful as ever, matching perfectly to this lunar lost-love lament.
107. "How Long" by Eagles (#23, 2007-08)
Inspired by a Vietnam War soldier who was imprisoned for going AWOL, this song takes a poetic approach -- is the "lonesome prison" this guy is lamenting about literal or metaphorical? Is the "freedom river" actually muddy? They had covered this J. D. Souther song back in the 70s, and sound confident and professional on the studio recording decades later. And that's probably why this song made any noise at all. Although drawn from a specific era, the lyrics are open-ended without being vague or incomprehensible, and the execution keeps all the coolness of '70s country rock. I hate to use the word "timeless,” but I can't find a better term.
108. "Hurry Home" by Jason Michael Carroll (#14, 2009-10)
This song's father sings a plea onto his answering machine (remember those?) for his daughter to come home, and it's a good one because it begins with "it doesn't matter what you've done, I still love you.” One friend is concerned, and another asks why he hasn't taken the message off yet. And he knows why -- she eventually does hear it at a low point in her life, and the song ends on a short line showing that she does, indeed, come home. Jason plays the role of a sympathetic and caring father to a tee, keeping things mellow and conversational -- and ultimately heartwarming.
109. "Hurt" by Johnny Cash (#56, 2003)
Even Trent Reznor, whose Nine Inch Nails was covered here, says this is the better version. The original has been disputed: some say it's a suicide note by a self-harming drug addict, and others think that it's just about a man struggling with pain and depression. And it's this latter interpretation that fits Cash near the end of his long, troubled, yet awe-inspiring life: a wearied, pained, depressed man ("Everyone I know goes away in the end" hits all the harder with June Carter Cash dying shortly aftterward). How appropriate that his last single release in his lifetime was this starkly personal, and had such a sense of finality.
110. "I Can't Lie to Me" by Clay Davidson (#26, 2000)
This is the best Montgomery Gentry song not cut by Montgomery Gentry. In fact, Clay seems to have Eddie Montgomery's baritone swagger and Troy Gentry's passionate high range both in this same song. It's also got a great "not so tough" image. This guy does his best to hide his broken heart behind a brave front -- but he knows there's one person he can't hide it from, and that's himself. (Great line: "I got everybody thinking I'm Superman strong / But that big ol' 'S' ain't on my chest at night when I get home"). It's a gritty performance well-suited for this material. Clay Davidson's entire album was "Superman strong,” so I'm baffled as to how he never got to cut another.
111. "I Can't Sleep" by Clay Walker (#9, 2004)
Clay Walker tapped Chely Wright to co-write on one of his most underrated cuts. It's a lonely plea that seems simple on paper ("I'm not gonna sleep 'til I touch your face / Baby, not a wink; I could go for days"), but a more vocal-centric arrangement pushes him beyond the range of his strong '90s catalog. What starts off as a simple assertation of loneliness grows more desperate and impassioned throughout, with Walker's voice sliding into some raspiness and even falsetto near the end. You can hear his emotions grow throughout the song, and that's ultimately what turned my head both then and now.
112. "I Can't Take You Anywhere" by Scotty Emerick and Toby Keith (#24, 2003)
I wanted this to be a single when I heard Toby sing it on Pull My Chain. Imagine my surprise two years later when I heard another voice singing it! Emerick has been responsible for some of Keith's best early-2000s output, so it was only natural that he'd get a few turns behind the mic. This one goes for clever wordplay when showing a guy trying to get on with his life -- he just wants to go out to eat, but people ask about his woman, and his buddy (represented by Keith himself in this version) leaves a message asking about her. It's a charming and human character sketch that I'm glad got a second chance.
113. "I Don't Love You Like That" by Jypsi (#38, 2008)
Questionable band name aside, this was one that deserved better. Three sisters and a brother, providing instrumentation and harmony to spare. Lillie Mae Rische's voice is sweet and youthful as she chronicles a relationship that didn't work out: "I wouldn't want you to suffer like I have / Oh no, I don't love you like that.” Further lines like "It would kill me to watch you pretend" show a concern and depth to this theme. It's accompanied by a gentle mandolin-and-fiddle waltz setting that adds some progressive bluegrass and Americana flavor. And I love this song like that.
114. "I Don't Want To" by Ashley Monroe and Ronnie Dunn (#37, 2006)
Ashley Monroe had to grow on me, but I'm glad she did. And you can't go wrong adding Ronnie Dunn. This one is a perfect anti-cheating song: she could go out and do all these things with someone else, but she can't because she's finally found the one. If it sounds simple on paper, the execution is crystalline. Monroe's voice has unique quavers and turns to it, finding an unexpected balance of confidence and vulnerability, like someone who's just found her confidence after years of hesitation I also love the arrangement and melody, what with the off-beat piano chords and modulations in and out of minor key.
115. "I Got More" by Cold Eggs Cole Deggs & the Lonesome (#25, 2007)
Sorry, I have to do that joke every time I bring these guys up. This was a great lead single with a great melody and great production, especially the Wurlitzer electric piano. I like the conversational tone of the lyrics ("I know you think I'm drunk or I'm crazy, but I had to talk to you"), where this country boy is pleading this woman to dump the guy she's with in favor of him. Unlike the entitled douche in Old Dominion's conceptually similar "Break Up with Him,” the protagonist of this song comes off as humble and sincere. I've wondered why this band didn't "get more.” Was it the silly band name?
116. "I Hate This Town" by Shane O'Dazier (did not chart, 2008)
What's this? More small town nostalgia? Ah, but there's a catch. All these things he remembers about his small town -- the old grocery store, the football field, the rope swing? Well, it turns out that he hates every last one of them now that his girl isn't around. All that effort in building her a house and marrying her, wasted. The twist comes out of nowhere in just the right way, completely turning its sunny nostalgia on its head. The indie releases I heard so much in this timespan yielded a few gems now and then, and I love "I Hate This Town.”
117. "I Just Came Back from a War" by Darryl Worley (#18, 2006)
This man has come back from combat and is happy to be in a place where he doesn't have to fear for his life. He keeps his tone calm and reassuring, helping to sell lines like "I hope you cherish this sweet way of life / And I hope you know that it comes with a price.” He is sympathetic towards those who did not survive combat, those whom he is protecting, and even the memories and scars that will linger long after the fact. By dropping the aggressive jingoism and straw-man arguments of "Have You Forgotten?" and focusing instead on real people and real emotions, he hits on his best patriotic take by far.
118. "I Shouldn't Do This" by Jon Randall (did not chart, 2005)
"I shouldn't do this was the last thing I heard me say" is just a great line for book-ending this song. It's a standard cheatin' situation: he hides his wedding ring, drives her home, gives in to temptation, and comes home too late with a bunch of excuses. Each one ties in perfectly to the central theme of "I shouldn't do this,” and Randall's voice has gotten even warmer from the already strong start he had back in the days of "This Heart.” I also love the minimalist acoustic production and Patty Loveless' harmony vocal. If there's one thing you should be doing, it's listening to more Jon Randall.
119. "I Told You So" by Keith Urban (#2, 2007)
"Don't say 'I'm sorry' and I won't say 'I told you so'.” What a great line on its own: a humble, reasonable rejoinder to a lover who "needed [her] space" but is now back. There's a surprising amount of nuance to the lyric, and Urban sings the hell out of it... but all of that is blown away by one of the best damn arrangements in country music history. We have bagpipes, a pennywhistle, and a bouzouki joining Urban's guitar and ganjo wizardry. And then that bridge, with a snare drum solo of all things. This is a great song that becomes a hundred times greater by just sounding so freaking cool.
120. "I Wanna Feel Something" by Trace Adkins (#25, 2007)
Coming from Trace Adkins, who devoted most of his 21st-century output to macho posturing, a song about cynicism is a very different and vulnerable side. Trace brings in one of the best performances, sounding just as desperate and world-weary as the lyrics call for. This narrator knows he wasn't jaded in the past because he's felt love and devotion; now he's too jaded to even blink at the latest tragedies on the news, so he turns to the one he loves. I'm only 35, and there are times that I've felt that level of despair, too. It's a great song that's different not just for the artist, but also for radio in general. Seriously, why did he pull this for "I Got My Game On"?
121. "I Wanna Talk About Me" by Toby Keith (#1, 2001)
I'll use the same defense Toby did: Bobby Braddock wrote this. It would be easy for a premise about how women talk all the time to be highly misogynstic (especially if you remember "Nag, Nag, Nag" from the "worst of the '80s" list), but this one keeps things playfully lighthearted. The lists of things that the woman talks about are amusing (I love the way he says "crazy ex-lover"), and the chorus points out that he's not some knuckle-dragging meathead; he just wants to get in on the conversation with someone he clearly loves. And of course, it's a rap, but it's a well-delivered, tongue-in-cheek one with solid beat and flow. Definitely an interesting song to "talk about.”
122. "I Wish You'd Stay" by Brad Paisley (#7, 2002-03)
As known as he is for novelty, it's easy to overlook his skill with a ballad. This one is right at the moment of breakup, with him calmly wishing well to his soon-to-be-ex. He's left her some assistance, including a road map and a place to stay at his sister's, and he knows that it's for the best. But there's still a tangible hesitation in lines like "I'm sorry for still holdin' on / I'll try to let go and I'll try to be strong,” all building up to the title phrase. This was at a time when Paisley's voice was a bit more twangy and relaxed; between that, the perfectly detailed lyrics, and the warm piano-and-string production, I wish more people knew about this forgotten gem.
123. "I Wonder" by Kellie Pickler (#14, 2007)
Pickler was separated from her mother at an early age, manages to channel her emotions in a way that (especially after a lightweight debut such as "Red High Heels") was striking. Lyrics like "Would you even recognize the woman that your little girl has grown up to be?" are devastating in how straightforward yet hard-hitting they are. But the moment that cemented this song for me was watching her break down crying on the last chorus at the 2007 CMAs. And that was the moment I knew there was far more to her than just the bubble gum. It's just a shame it took her a long time to realize any semblance of emotion again on an album.
124. "I Would Cry" by Amy Dalley (#29, 2004-05)
The lady who got the edgy "Love's Got an Attitude" and "Men Don't Change" shows a vulnerable side in her best single. It's yet another "caught the man cheating" song, but moody production and sharp lyrics are perfectly on-point. "If I could pull you back / From where you've been I would / But you've left me no reason left to fight" shows a woman who is upset, hurt, and confused in a way that few songs of this ilk explore, and Dalley's voice hits on every single one of those emotions. Curb Records really dropped the ball by not releasing her album when they had a chance.
125. "I'd Still Have You" by John Pierce (#59, 2006)
Here's a guy who realizes that all of his excuses won't get her back. We learn a lot about him: he's tried to blame it on losing track of time with his buddies or the fact that he married up, or just that he was distracted by fishing. But he knows deep down that the relationship ending is entirely his doing. I love every single line of this, especially with gems like "anything to keep from feeling like a fool.” The production is smooth and twangy, and Pierce sounds like the conflicted everyman his lyrics call for. I'm at a loss as to why he was dropped after only one single, because he really had a strong first release.
126. "If Heartaches Had Wings" by Rhonda Vincent (#48, 2004)
Since the 1990s, a lot more country songs addressed women dissatisfied with their marital roles. The woman in this song has come to the realization that her ideal married life isn't all it's cracked up to be: she was the homecoming queen, so she just had to marry the football captain. But instead, he's passed out on the couch and she's wondering if anyone cares for her plight. With the beautiful production and crystal clear vocal from Rhonda Vincent (not to mention a rare use of Mixolydian mode), I know I do. And I'm rooting for this woman to find the courage to get the hell out of there and onto a better life.
127. "If I Could" by Sunny Sweeney (did not chart, 2007)
Prepare ship for ludicrous speed. Sometimes you wish that you could enjoy all the good things in life without the stress of a job -- and just spend all day fishing, making love, and playing music. For her first single, Sunny Sweeney tears into this song with a breakneck new-grass approach that makes Tim Carroll's original sound like a dirge in comparison, accompanied by a thick, playful drawl well suited for lyrics like "I ain't makin' money goin' fishin' like I'm paid at the factory.” It's a fun listen with a ton of steel and energy, and it crams a lot of both into a mere two minutes and sixteen seconds.
128. "If I Didn't Know Any Better" by Alison Krauss & Union Station (did not chart, 2006)
Another song that I didn't like when it first came out. But come on, it's Alison freaking Krauss. One of the most hauntingly beautiful voices ever to exist. She offers a hesitant tale of falling in love, but waiting for the other shoe to drop. She knows she's been deceived before, and she's resisting as hard as she can. By not over-selling the moment vocally or production-wise, this one is a fantastic slow-burn that deliberately never resolves. And those subtleties are probably why this song turned off 2006-me, but thankfully, 2022-me does know better.
129. "If I Don't Make It Back" by Tracy Lawrence (#42, 2006)
I can't imagine what it's like to have a friend go off to war, but this situation just seems so real. They're just drinking and having a good time, and Jimmy gives them a list of ways to honor him should he not return from combat. There's a tension in the air when he asks them to take care of his car and his wife, and then the song abruptly jumps to the revelation: the narrator is sitting there drinking his friend's favorite beer and making arrangements for Jimmy's widow. In doing so, this song hits on the suddenness of the entire scenario as well, making it seem all the sadder when that last verse comes.
130. "If You Don't Wanna Love Me" by Cowboy Troy and Sarah Buxton (did not chart, 2005)
Another of the MuzikMafia's myriad of goofballs offered a mixed bag of a debut, from which this was the strongest cut. For those scared off by the "hick-hop" shtick, this one feels more like an old-school story-song recitation. He tells compelling mini-stories of people who feel unloved and neglected. The pictures painted are all surprisingly credible -- an unhappy wife and a runaway teenager -- and sold without any melodrama or ill-timed comedy. The choice to put Buxton's ultra-distinctive raspy soprano on the chorus adds that final touch of emotion and sonic greatness.
131. "I'll Take Love over Money" by Aaron Tippin (#46, 2002)
Have I got the deal for you. Would you like to have a lushly produced power ballad, served with the loudest belting, accompanied by a list of the world's most banal romantic clichés? Or would you rather have Aaron Tippin's playful, twangy, spoken-word delivery about eating fast food, riding carnival rides, and blaring Southern rock... with the one... you... love? I'll take "I'll Take Love over Money.” It's cute but not overbearing; it's funny and holds up on repeated listens; it's unique in how it's delivered and written; and in its own quirky way, it thumbs its nose at lavishness and consumerism.
132. "I'm Glad It Was You" by Ragsdale (did not chart, 2005)
The only release for this sibling duo is high on the "slipped through the cracks" list. Joshua Ragsdale (who died of leukemia in 2010) has a warm voice that sells an absolutely stark, plaintive, and unique look at a broken relationship: "If someone is gonna get the best of me / Turn and walk away, and turn into a memory...I'm glad it was you.” Sister Shi-Anne adds haunting harmonies, and Jeff Balding's production is perfect. 2005 was a year of discovery, stuffed with great singles. And if I had to discover yet another gem in a year I thought I already knew forward and backward, I'm glad it was Ragsdale.
133. "I'm Movin' On" by Rascal Flatts (#4, 2001-02)
I have no idea why 2001-me hated this song. Maybe I just didn't have the life experiences yet. This guy's "movin' on" in more than one sense of the word. Not only is he finally making peace with the demons in his past, he also seems to be moving out of town to put more distance between them. There's an unexpected depth in lines like "I never dreamed home would end up where I don't belong" and "I had to lose everything to find out.” Between the gentle lead vocal, perfect harmonies, and 3/4 time signature (one of many, many waltzes in their catalog), even the sound design has that sense of inner peace that the lyrics call for.
134. "I'm Tryin'" by Trace Adkins (#6, 2001-02)
Getting back to the concept of Trace Adkins playing against type... I'm a sucker for a song about a struggling divorced parent, likely because I was raised by one. The man in this song is worried that he's going to work himself to death, while also burdened by life advice from his past. Although the opening verse lays a very specific groundwork, the struggles of trying to be one's best in even the worst of circumstances are universally relatable. Adkins' delivery sounds weathered and concerned, adding just the right layers of gravitas to the hard-hitting production. I also love the use of the iv chord on the chorus. As much as he's tryin', I want him to come out on top.
135. "In Color" by Jamey Johnson (#9, 2008-09)
We're shown pictures of a now elderly man's journey through life, from the Great Depression to World War II to a wedding. The grandson may be able to see small pieces of a no doubt very intriguing story through these old black-and-whites, but he can't beat the experiences his grandfather had living those. I had very little exposure to the lives of my own elder relatives, and this is probably the best song since "He Walked on Water" to capture that feeling of wanting to know more about my family's past. Jamey's vocal delivery even fills in the mood: warm, imperfect, yet full of imagery. Just like the photos he's singing about.
136. "In My Dreams" by Rick Trevino (#41, 2003)
Rick Trevino's best song finds him escaping radio formulae in favor of a Latino-accented brand of country rivaling the best work of the Mavericks (which it should, as their lead singer Raul Malo was producer here). Sounding stronger-voiced and more impassioned than ever, he sings the hell out of this brokenhearted plea: "You are the dream I live with / You are the wish I made / The name I always whisper / In every prayer I pray" is almost deceptive in how simple yet effective it is. The sound design is probably the best aspect here, combining unusual chord patterns, big lead guitar, and a few notes of steel.
137. "Intentional Heartache" by Dwight Yoakam (#54, 2005)
In a way that foreshadows "Before He Cheats,” this one is about a female narrator vandalizing all of her man's possessions. She crashes into his car, tears up his garden, and spray-paints his expensive boots and signed NASCAR posters. And it's all set to a funky drum line and hard-hitting country-rock guitars, as we'd expect from Dwight by this point. What's not expected is the genuinely funny spoken-word segment seemingly giving a play-by-play ("Put the can down, Connie!") that I'm pretty sure was ad-libbed. It's a welcome dose of goofiness to an already off-kilter premise. In a way, it feels like a counterpart to "Sorry You Asked?"
138. "It Can All Be Gone" by Jamie Lee Thurston (#59, 2003)
I don't know how many political points I'd agree with Jamie on, but I certainly agree with his call for unity. With bracing country-rock energy, he seeks a solution to disillusionment with the current world scene, aided by an empathetic and inclusive view ("Got no time for jealousy, got no time for greed... God is in the soul of every man"). Given that this came out at a time when country music was at its most xeonphobic and hawkish, this message was extremely necessary then -- and his choice to re-record it in 2020 shows he still stands by what he believes.
139. "It Doesn't Mean I Don't Love You" by McHayes (#41, 2003)
This duo's only charted single (yes, the "Hayes" is Wade) is a surprisingly intense look at a troubled relationship. He's so angry that he's using pointed imagery like "last shot fired is a slammin' door" and "words...aimed straight for your throat" to come to the realization that he hates his rash actions, but still loves the person that they're targeted at. It's a surprisingly vulnerable nuance, and Wade gives a tender read that's quietly intense on the verses before building to a powerful chorus. Even the production supports these emotions with piano and some well-placed iv chords. Add this to the list of "great singles whose corresponding albums sadly never got released.”
140. "It Never Rains in Southern California" by Trent Summar & the New Row Mob (#74, 2000)
I'm a fan of the original Albert Hammond song. But Trent Summar brings some hard-edged Texas twang (not to mention a very distinctive synthesized-string sound) that adds a little extra dose of energy to this well-worn tale of a struggling actor. One of my childhood friends tried his hand in LA, and has since moved back to town to open up a photo studio, so I have the emotional connection there. If VFR Records hadn't closed, I think the New Row Mob would have had a hot streak going; thankfully, they got a couple more albums out and Summar's written some songs, too. So I guess for him, it did rain.
141. "It's Always Somethin'" by Joe Diffie (#5, 2000)
Joe Diffie's last top-five hit finds him well past the novelty and pushing fully into his more serious side -- something that was evident as early as "Home,” but continued to mature with age. While a bit poppier than his standard fare, it's a great take on the usual "still seeing the former lover everywhere I go" trope. Red cars, songs on the radio, waitresses with the same name, and encounters with friends are all salt in this guy's wound. They all string together into a fully cohesive narrative, the chorus is catchy as hell, and Diffie sounds as strong as ever. One of the highlights in a weird, uneven year for country.
142. "It's Getting Better All the Time" by Brooks & Dunn (#1, 2004-05)
I didn't include a lot of Brooks & Dunn on the '90s list because I found them very formulaic after the first album. "Ain't Nothing 'bout You" brought them back full-throttle, but it was far from a one off. Case in point: this ballad that's both sadder and more hopeful than any of their others. He's managing to drag himself to work, but at least he's stopped drinking; he's afraid of saying something when he sees her with someone else, but manages to hold his tongue. The piano and string production is a different sonic surrounding than usual for Ronnie: dramatic, but with plenty of room to breathe. B&D kept "getting better" in the noughts, and this is proof.
143. "I've Never Been Anywhere" by Sammy Kershaw (#58, 2003)
Leave it to Dean Dillon to come up with a fresh take on a boy-meets-girl story. The boy shows up in a fancy car and takes his new girl for a ride. She's just happy for the attention, because she's stuck in a dead-end job and never had a relationship. He drops her off, only to turn back around and admit that he's fallen in love... because he, too, is stuck in a dead-end job and never had a relationship. Sometimes all it takes is forgetting your keys to find the right one, and this one feels like a truly human tale about how sometmies people aren't so different after all. Sammy's voice is as warm as ever, perfectly suited for this kind of storytelling.
144. "John J. Blanchard" by Anthony Smith (#40, 2003)
Anthony Smith is a very strong songwriter (see "I'm Tryin'"), and he's no slouch as a singer either. At the very least, he blows Tommy Shane Steiner's version of this out of the water with a charmingly gruff delivery. In this song, an elderly stroke victim in a nursing home hasn't seen his family in years, but the nurses seem to like him. For all they know, he could have been an astronaut, athlete, bootlegger, mechanic, or rock star -- and when he starts to rouse, he playfully assures them that his imagination was active as ever. I think that it's great to see positive portrayals of those whose faculties have diminished with age.
145. "Johnny & June" by Heidi Newfield (#11, 2008)
Even without the rest of Trick Pony behind her, Heidi Newfield still has a highly distinctive voice. Her first solo effort was a very strong take on a clever name-drop. The marriage of Johnny and June Carter Cash is so well-known that I feel I don't have to elaborate on it; name-drops like "Ring of Fire" (which June wrote), "Jackson,” and kicking the footlights out show a knowledge of their artistry and personal lives that goes beyond surface level. And of course, there's the fact that Johnny and June both died a few months apart, still loving each other until the end (and no doubt beyond). Who wouldn't want a love like that?
146. "Jolene" by Mickey DiMichele (#57, 2004)
This song snuck onto the charts for one week and disappeared so quickly that I can't find a single bit of info on its artist. Who is this guy, and how did he chart? Whatever the case, he's got a very pleasant baritone and buttery-smooth production behind him. Jolene and the narrator are alone, so he warmly and gently asks for her to join him for a night on the town. The stakes are low; she's been dumped, and he just wants to lift both of their spirits. It's an incredibly charismatic take on a recurring theme. Maybe my selection of this song will bring Mickey out of the woodwork...
147. "Just Another Day" by Lisa Dames (did not chart, 2006)
The narrator of this song is a woman who has lost both of her parents: her father to divorce and her mother to a car accident. While it would be easy to dismiss this as melodrama, I've never once felt that this song was contrived. What's more, it uses these examples to show that big changes in one's life don't always impact everyone -- an interesting perspective I think it nails without trivializing the impact on the people who were affected, narrator included. And it ends with a sense of hopefulness when she finally makes peace with the loss of her parents. Because after all, it's just another day.
148. "Just Let Me Be in Love" by Tracy Byrd (#9, 2001-02)
"But knowing me, I'll probably find a way to mess it up / Who knows, who cares? Just let me be in love" is one of the best declarations I've ever heard in a love song. This guy is confident enough to push aside any criticism of his impending relationship, even if the first verse lets on that she hasn't committed yet. Better than all of those is the increasing assurance in Byrd's voice, and better than that is the pretty, minor-key melody with its classical guitar fills. How interesting that Tracy Byrd's two strongest songs all have so many elements in common: tight Mark Nesler lyrics, great vocals, and great production.
149. "Just Might (Make Me Believe)" by Sugarland (#7, 2005-06)
I almost didn't want to double-dip Sugarland's debut album, but come on, this single is amazing. The harmonies underneath Jennifer Nettles' bracing lead vocal are pristine, especially with some subtle suspended chords near the end. And the lyrics are warm and reassuring. The woman in this song is stressed out by everyday life; even counting her blessings and having the right person by her side still make it hard just to get by. But that second one is just enough to "make [her] believe,” and there's comfort in her words. This song just exudes warmth and subtle confidence through the hard times, a message to which I'm sure we can all relate.
150. "Just This Side of Heaven (Hal-lelujah)" by Hal Ketchum (#47, 2006)
A '90s voice that I wanted to come back in the 2000s, and he did. (Sadly, I didn't know until much later that he had suffered myelitis in between.) After a couple false starts (including "She Is,” possibly his worst single), we get this lush weaving of Heavenly imagery and love. There are hints of salvation and redemption, but they never feel overdone or forced (neither does the title's pun on his name), and it's all colored with details like halos, hair like rain, etc. And if it sounds boring and sappy on paper, believe me: the spacious production and Hal's assertive, grainy delivery make it sound absolutely beautiful.
151. "Katie Wants a Fast One" by Steve Wariner and Garth Brooks (#22, 2000)
Steve has rarely sounded this lively. Maybe it's the horn sections; maybe it's the trash cans being used as drums (really!); maybe it's that my sister is named Katy and her "type A" personality reminds me of this song. Even if it didn't make me think of my own sister, it's still a total blast to listen to regardless. The lyrics certainly don't slack in conveying the loose, fun feel, what with casual phrasing such as "chomping at the bit.” Between this and "Been There,” Steve had some late-career highlights that more than washed away the bad taste of "Holes in the Floor of Heaven.”
152. "Keep the Change" by Holly Williams (#53, 2009)
I have to say, "a more weathered Sheryl Crow" is not what I expected out of Hank Jr.'s daughter, but I'll more than welcome it. This is rough and jangly in all the right ways, pairing an unpolished and bracing vocal with an unusual song structure. She could do all these bad things that "ain't gettin' [her] nowhere" (a phrase repeated several times) like locking herself in the house and listening to sad songs, but she's much better off just letting go of this bad relationship. "I've paid my dues, honey; you can keep the change" is a brilliantly confident hook that brings an end to her hard times.
153. "Keep Your Distance" by Patty Loveless (did not chart, 2005)
I still feel like I didn't put enough Patty on the '90s list. But she was no slouch in the 21st century, either. Exhibit A: this twangy warning to an ex. Don't cross my path, because we'll just end up making the same mistakes over and over. There's a desperation to lyrics like "wounds that can't be mended and debts that can't be paid.” Even though this is the only time Patty ever used Auto-Tune, the production is otherwise a bit rootsier than her '90s fare (love the fiddle!), yet still uniquely her. I also get a chuckle out of that fake-out ending, which always caught the DJs at WATZ off-guard.
154. "Kill Me Now" by Rio Grand (#42, 2006)
As much as the phrase "I can't live without you" shows up, why not give it a darker edge and turn it into "kill me now"? There's a bit of darkness to the production: a cold open, Hammond organ, and a big harmonious chorus. This guy can tell that the relationship is ending, so even as scared as he is, he has to admit that losing her is an option. Even though it's such an emotional bombshell that he's literally comparing it to his own death! It's an original spin on a common idea, and these guys execute it to perfection. Now if only these guys weren't on Curb Records, we might have heard more from them.
155. "Kiss Me" by Shelly Fairchild (did not chart, 2005)
Shelly Fairchild felt like everything Gretchen Wilson was trying to be, but a million times better. Better songs, better lyrics, better production, and a better voice to match the "tough girl" persona. While it may look simple on paper, the love-making lyrics have a passion and playfulness (not to mention atmosphere; I love the phrases "delta sun" and "muddy water moon"). But what sells them is her slow-burning vocal performance: gentle and sultry, gradually growing verse by verse to a scorching final chorus. And the sexual energy of that performance is more than enough to make this one a winner.
156. "Last Call" by Lee Ann Womack (#14, 2008-09)
Continuing from the great There's More Where That Came From, Lee Ann Womack offers more traditional smoothness. There's an evocative moodiness to the acoustic guitar production and vocals (would we expect anything less by now?), and it's a great lyric about late-night drunk calls from an ex. (Apparently this really did happen to one of the writers.) "I bet you're in a bar 'cause I'm always your last call" is a wickedly clever hook, made even more so by how it spills into .” ..me crazy but I think maybe we've had our last call.” Unfortunately this was also Womack's last call on the charts, as she hasn't hit top-20 since.
157. "The Last Thing on My Mind" by Patty Loveless (#20, 2000-01)
I love wordplay. Here, "He's the last thing on my mind" turns from a rejection of his memory to a more literal bent -- he's all she can think of. There's a dark moodiness to the verses, with an almost spoken-word cadence, drums, and minor chords, before the chorus turns into a twangy new-grass declaration of the truth. I especially love the line "this empty bed's as big as Arkansas,” as well as the defiant tone of that last "I don't love him anymore.” Patty may not have had much chart success in the noughts, but her consistently high quality didn't waver.
158. "The Last Thing She Said" by Ryan Tyler (#42, 2004)
This one finds a woman in a car accident after a fight with her husband; fearing that she may not live, she expresses regret for her circumstances. There's a definite tension to the story -- not only in the line "knowing 'I love you' was not the last thing she said,” but also in showing that the husband still cares. And not unlike "Go Back,” there is a sense of relief when the protagonist is revealed to be okay despite her close call. Tyler's voice and the production imbue the song with warmth and sympathy without feeling melodramatic. Seriously, between this and "Run, Run, Run,” Arista Nashville really dropped the ball.
159. "Last Train Running" by Whiskey Falls (#32, 2007)
These guys all had experience outside country music, and it shows in all the right ways. Harmonious and earthy, this is a dark and moody take on its commonplace end-of-life theme. This guy knows that he's done a lot of wrong in his life, and is doing everything he can to try and make it right before it's too late and he's on that funeral train. He questions whether he's been good enough, whether he's gotten the forgiveness that he's sought, and whether anyone will remember him when he's gone. It's heavy stuff, and the gospel-meets-Southern rock production holds none of the emotions back. Oh, and their lead singer was named "Seven.” That's pretty cool.
160. "Leave the Pieces" by The Wreckers (#1, 2006)
Michelle Branch going from alt-rock to country made sense, as her style had enough songwriter-y detail and jangle. Adding one of her friends for some sweet vocal harmony was a good idea, too. This is yet another song where the narrator faces an impending breakup, but it's a great take. She's telling him to just get on with it and not worry about what he's doing to her -- because she's resilient and can bounce back, no matter how long it takes. While catchy and smooth on the surface, a deeper dig reveals an unexpected layer of grit. And I just love when songs become better on repeated listens. This duo shouldn't have just been a one-time deal.
161. "Letter to Me" by Brad Paisley (#1, 2007-08)
This song's concept of writing a letter to one's past self is clever on its own. But it also resonates with me because at 17, I was a depressed, autistic loser with no job. Hell, I was still that at 27. Even if I didn't take every opportunity I could have in between, I'm still in a better place now -- but I could have used that reassurance back then, and I'm sure teenagers in the current sociopolitical climate could use similar reassurance. Brad's message is sincere and heartwarming, mixing real details, deconstruction ("there are nowhere near the best years of your life"), sadness, and humor for an extremely necessary message.
162. "Life Ain't Always Beautiful" by Gary Allan (#4, 2006)
Although Gary didn't write this, it's one of many tracks on Tough All Over clearly informed by his wife's then-recent suicide. Lines like "Some days I miss your smile / I get tired of walkin' all these lonely miles" make this clear. While that's really the only part of the song that feels specific, the mood is impossible to miss. He keeps a downbeat, somewhat pained delivery that lightens up on the hook "life ain't always beautiful, but it's a beautiful ride.” Sonically and lyrically, this song perfectly conveys that ray of hope that I'm sure he needed -- but in a way that I'm certain was uplifting to others, too.
163. "Life Happened" by Tammy Cochran (#20, 2002)
Not unlike "Unanswered Prayers,” this excels at finding a positive outcome in things that didn't happen. We have a lady who aspired to be an actor but is instead working at a video store (remember those?); an amateur racecar driver who now teaches driver's education; and a narrator who thinks back to all of the big dreams her graduating class had. I wanted to be a cartographer and a country music singer after I graduated, but life happened and I went a different direction instead. And just like this song's narrator, I finally realized that I "turned out all right.” Why? Because some of my friends from long ago are still with me. And life happened.
164. "Life in a Northern Town" by Sugarland, Little Big Town, and Jake Owen (#28, 2008)
While The Dream Academy's original has specific inspirations -- it was dedicated to English folk singer Nick Drake and has distinctly British imagery throughout -- it hits on a nostalgic and thoughtful mood with wide appeal. Lines like "they shut the factory down" aren't far removed from country's history of hard-life tales. And that's probably why this group of artists decided to cover it on their 2007 tour -- and make it into a video, which spawned unsolicited radio airplay. The live arrangement is more acoustic than the original, giving a perfect mix of grandeur and grit that, like most of the best cover songs, keeps all the great qualities of the original while adding plenty of its own flavor.
165. "The Lighthouse's Tale" by Nickel Creek (#49, 2001)
Nickel Creek performed at a local church when I was about 15, and this was the song that won me over. The use of a lighthouse is an inspired image instantly relatable to a Michigan native such as I. In this case, a lighthouse keeper who loves his job loses his wife in a shipwreck, and then commits suicide by jumping off said lighthouse. The ending lines are haunting as the now un-tenanted lighthouse observes "what has been and what can never be.” Chris Thile's lead vocal and mandolin, and his bandmates' understated picking, are the perfectly beautiful sonic surroundings for one of the best sad bluegrass songs out there.
166. "Like Red on a Rose" by Alan Jackson (#15, 2006)
The whole Like Red on a Rose project felt like an extension of "I'll Go On Loving You": a warmer, more lush, more romantic version of Alan Jackson that still stays true to his artistic strengths. By focusing on outside writers, he comes across a more poetic flavor of country love song ("You're where I belong, like red on a rose") that never feels hackneyed or cliché. Alison Krauss' production and Jackson's vocal are both dark in a moody (furthering the comparisons to "I'll Go On Loving You"), giving a fantastic soundscape that's simultaneously grand and intimate. I've said before that I'm no romantic, but I know a damn good love song when I hear it.
167. "A Little Too Late" by Toby Keith (#2, 2006)
After a few oddball single choices in 2005, he decided to lead off 2006 -- and his first full release on his own Show Dog label -- with a surprisingly countrypolitan flavor. This guy confidently tells his woman that it's over, using sharp lines such as "Only time you and me wastin' is the time it takes to walk right out that door.” The chorus alone is fantastic, by leaning into the "little too" phrasings and modernizing things with "I'm big-time over you, baby.” Best of all is the production, combining one of his smoothest vocals with a string section and slide guitar. The whole package is simultaneously retro and contemporary, cool and hard-edged, making for one of his best ballads.
168. "Living for the Night" by George Strait (#2, 2009)
Strait's first co-writer's credit on a single is a surprisingly dark turn for him. This man is so downcast that he keeps the curtains drawn and the lights off, only coming out at night to drown his sorrows. There's a moodiness to each lyric; I particularly like "Daylight can't hide the tears I cry / The pain that came with your goodbye" and the melodic cadence to which it fits. Strait's vocal and the production are appropriately downcast as well. It's a totally different vibe for King George, but it's still recognizably a product from one of the most reliable hit-makers ever to exist in Nashville. I'd buy this guy a beer, no questions asked.
169. "Long Black Train" by Josh Turner (#13, 2003-04)
This was a sleeper hit that stopped me in my tracks (no pun intended) the first time I heard it. With a commanding bass voice and old-school production style, he obviously invokes comparisons to Johnny Cash, but I also hear some Tennessee Ernie Ford and George Beverly Shea. There's a quiet urgency on his comparison of temptation to a funeral train; unlike the aforementioned "Last Train Running,” it's a foreboding warning to everyone and not just the narrator. Like most of the great religious-themed songs, this one is a highly original idea, delivered without proselytization or pretense. But it's the vintage production style that keeps this train moving to excellence.
170. "Long Trip Alone" by Dierks Bentley (#10, 2006-07)
When I first heard this song, I thought it was a journeyman looking for a traveling companion -- maybe because it followed "Every Mile a Memory,” or maybe it was the desert-esque imagery of sand, stones, and sun. Others have suggested a broader interpretation as a man asking for a woman's hand in marriage. Whatever the case, this is one of his most compelling singles to me. I love the gritty, melancholic feel of Dierks' vocals, the melody, and the production, and how all of those contrast with the sincere plea for companionship. It's songs like this that made me start taking Dierks more seriously.
171. "A Lot of Things Different" by Kenny Chesney (#6, 2002-03)
This one is a highly detailed list of missed opportunities in life; thematically it's similar to "Standing Knee Deep in a River (Dying of Thirst),” but more focused on the events themselves than the underlying emotions. Those are more subtle in comparison, showing the brilliance of this song's concept when he hits us with "People say they wouldn't change a thing even if they could / Oh, but I would.” Chesney opts for hushed recitation, letting us know that Whisperin' Bill Anderson co-wrote this without ever feeling derivative. Chesney showed a great deal of growth and introspection in the noughts, and this is one of the best on that front.
172. "Louisiana CoCo" by The Kentucky Headhunters (did not chart, 2001)
As I said in the "Top 10 Kentucky Headhunters songs" review, this was the song that reintroduced me to them. That guitar riff is catchy as all get out, and Richard Young's first turn on lead vocals adds a ZZ Top feel to the band's already well-defined sound (something they needed after the two prior albums watered it down). References to cornbread and "left-handed cigarettes" help give this song so much color and personality in describing that hot Southern belle without ever feeling sleazy. Overall this song's got so much of a cool factor going for it that my like of it extends far beyond the nostalgia of re-learning why I love these guys so much.
173. "Love Changes Everything" by Aaron Lines (#39, 2003)
"You Can't Hide Beautiful" felt like a proto-version of boyfriend country, but this showed he was capable of more. A father is persuaded by a television commercial to spend more time with his child and find his "purpose in life,” and an exhausted mother has her mood lifted by her kid's drawing. These slightly left-of-center images -- possibly suggesting that both figures are divorced parents -- are good enough on their own. But the "na na na na" heavy production, a well-executed shift to first person, and even better-executed key change, add a bright and sunny texture that makes this one all the more uplifting.
174. "Love Lives On" by Mallary Hope (#42, 2009)
A great song about missing her man, accentuated by a lot of detail and a gently flowing melody. I love the little nuances of every moment without him: she still pours two cups of coffee, she still calls his mom to talk about him, and she still keeps his favorite shirt around. The third verse and video make it clear that the man has died; one could argue this is a predictable twist, but it's still pleasing to see she has no regrets. Though the production is on the heavy side at times, it never feels overdone thanks in part to Hope keeping the vocals in check. Pop as she was, Hope felt different enough to stand out, and I'm surprised she didn't.
175. "The Lucky One" by Faith Hill (#5, 2006)
There are so many songs that follow the "I Got You Babe" formula of "we're broke but we have each other.” But in country, the surroundings are rarely so urban. The woman in this song is using the last of her money to get a bus ride home, and sitting in a barren apartment with a broken AC, but she's got the one she loves. Faith's vocal is bright and sunny without belting, matching the underlying positivity of the lyrics. But what really made me put this song on the list is the heavily nuanced production: acoustic guitars, two steel guitars, an electric mandolin, and even a Weissenborn (a brand of acoustic slide guitar). It's just fun to listen to because of all the layers.
176. "Me and Emily" by Rachel Proctor (#18, 2004)
The picture is set immediately with a messy car and a child in a car seat, but I love how each verse adds something new. We find that the child will not know her father... and then we find out that the narrator and her child are escapnig the father's abuse. There's a grain to Proctor's voice throughout, progressing from scared and vulnerable to outwardly optimistic when she sings of her "second chance.” The song's subtle breaks in chord patterns underneath the resolving verses are an added musical touch, and "Least there's one good thing he gave me, and she's starting to wake up" is one of the best ending lines I've ever heard. With material like this, it's easy to see why Proctor kept writing songs.
177. "Meanwhile Back at the Ranch" by The Clark Family Experience (#18, 2000)
These guys should have been huge, but label issues (read: "they were on Curb Records") kept them from gaining momentum. A six-piece family band proves to be no gimmick, as this one's full of youthful harmony and energy, with some electric banjo and uncommon chord patterns for flavor. The lyrics of escaping stressful city life for the country are full of quirky little details like "livin' like sardines" (I'll forgive the Y2K reference for admitting it was overblown) keep things light-hearted without sounding flippant or preachy. This was a great piece of ear candy that I wish more ears got to "experience.”
178. "Measure of a Man" by Jack Ingram (#18, 2007)
This man escapes his father's negative upbringing, but finds himself starting to turn around when he gets married and has a son. And that's when all of the pride and ego built up are cast aside; he calls up dad and says "Truth is, I need you; we'll cry if we need to / And I'll swallow my pride if you can.” This revelation is subversive not only of the "prodigal son" arc that is expected, but also of societal expectations of men. It's okay to drop the ego and be vulnerable, and to grow. Ingram's delivery is appropriately balanced between roughess and sensitivity, making me wonder how a song this fantastic ended up between his two worst singles.
179. "A Memory Like I'm Gonna Be" by Tanya Tucker (#34, 2002)
Five years after her last major-label entry, she snuck onto the charts with an indie release. I've always loved the raspy edge to Tucker's voice, and this late in her career it was still fully present. She offers a warning that many soon-to-be-exes have no doubt heard: yeah, we may be breaking up, but my memory will still be there for you. It's not the first time even Tanya's done that theme, but I love the contrast between the subdued production and her commanding delievery (especially on the spoken-word third verse). And really, it was just cool to see Tanya on the charts this late in the game.
180. "Mendocino County Line" by Willie Nelson and Lee Ann Womack (#22, 2002)
A lost-love ballad with an inspired name-drop (a very scenic looking county in northern California) and an even more inspired vocal pairing. Willie's signature ragged, reedy delivery and Lee Ann's clear soprano are an excellent study in vocal contrast. With the lush production behind them, they reminisce about the one that got away in surprisingly introspective ("Feeling near immortal every Friday night / Lost in our convictions, lips stained with wine") and poetic ("I spent time with an angel just passing through / Now all that's left is this image of you") tones. Legacy acts like Willie often have a lot of late-career gems that go largely unnoticed, and this is one of them.
181. "Minivan" by Hometown News (#37, 2002)
When I was 7, my mom's minivan won second place in a "messy car" contest. So I was familiar at an early age with the stereotype of how "uncool" a parent may feel behind the wheel of one. The narrator delivers this thought with humility ("I'm becomin' my old man"), yet still realizes that he's growing up ("I don't cruise for chicks no more") and has something more practical. And I think it's these underlying themes of maturity that keep this song from being soccer mom-pandering mush in the vein of "Mr. Mom.” Of course, the unpolished rotating lead vocals from Ron Kingery and the late Scott Whitehead don't hurt, either.
182. "Missing Years" by Little Texas (#45, 2007)
While rougher voiced than the now-absent Tim Rushlow, Porter Howell slots in seamlessly with Little Texas' soft rock-meets-country approach to ballads. The lyrics beautifully describe how comforted this guy is to return to the hometown he once yearned to leave. As picky as I am about "hometown" songs, this is so full of detail (the old guy at the café who greets him like he never left) and gravitas that it's completely won me over. This guy's hometown is still his hometown despite some changes, and Little Texas is still Little Texas despite some changes. In a way, it's almost a meta-commentary on my favorite Little Texas song.
183. "Mission Temple Fireworks Stand" by Sawyer Brown and Robert Randolph (#55, 2004)
One of my go-tos for "best steel guitar songs.” It fits in perfectly with this song's revival-tent approach (a style Sawyer Brown had already nailed with "(This Thing Called) Wantin' and Havin' It All"), and, as he did on "800 Pound Jesus,” co-writer Paul Thorn ties it to yet another off-kilter yet meaningful religious theme. This time, it's about a tent preacher who sells fireworks for extra money because he's sick of corporate religion. Why fireworks? Because it's a subtle symbol for how short and transient life can be. (At least that's how I read it.) This puts the "fire" in "fire and brimstone.”
184. "Moments" by Emerson Drive (#1, 2006-07)
A man about to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge is stopped by a homeless man, who reflects on the nature of his own life and how he got to where he is. Said reflections cause the narrator to stop and think as well before reconsidering his actions. The homeless man is humanized as a flawed person who happened to be in the right place at the right time, not merely a dispenser of advice -- especially when the narrator imagines said homeless man relating the story to his friends. Brad Mates hits on his best vocal performance, sparing his usual habit of over-singing in favor of a relaxing yet still emotive tone. This is easily the best "moment" of their career.
185. "More Than a Memory" by Garth Brooks (#1, 2007)
Garth's career has been "go big or go home,” and this time, he went so big that the song debuted at #1. The song feels larger than life in the right ways, too. This guy realizes that his ex is still haunting his mind. Even destroying all of her possessions isn't enough, because he still finds himself driving by her house and trying to call her. There's a slow build to a powerhouse of a chorus, combining with the string section to sound "big" without descending into melodrama. And I think it's the imperfections of Garth's vocal, combined with the vivid lyrics (and the ending on a minor-second chord), that keep this one "more" than just a bit of chart trivia.
186. "Move On" by The Warren Brothers (#17, 2000)
Why do I have no memory of ever hearing a single Warrren Brothers song on radio? These guys had some good stuff. Like most of their other singles, this one has a cocky edge that recalls '90s college rock. It's another "the relationship is ending" song, but one brimming with bitterness and sarcasm: "Had a pocket full of love; now there ain't nothing left but lint" and "I got one foot out the door, I got one foot in my mouth" are just the right level of snark to add a sense of finality. The vocals and the snappy, muted guitar-focused production sound fresh as ever, making this a perfect chaser to "Guilty.” Seriously, how did these guys completely escape my radar?
187. "Mrs. Steven Rudy" by Mark McGuinn (#6, 2001)
I remember a lot of people giving Mark McGuinn flak for his beatnik image and drum machine-laden production. Some even thought this was a sleazy stalker song, but I don't hear it at all. He can tell that Mrs. Steven Rudy is in a relationship that she doesn't want to be in, and goes out of his way to console her in hopes of getting her out of it. It's not thematically dissimilar to Steve Wariner's verses in "What If I Said,” just more quirky and lighthearted. McGuinn's uncommon lyrical and production choices made this song pop even in 2001, and it still sounds extremely fresh and progressive two decades later.
188. "Mustache" by Heartland (did not chart, 2009)
When I still wrote for Roughstock, I knew from the title alone that I had to review this. And I'm glad I did -- this is the song that proved Heartland was capable of far more than one of the only wedding anthems that doesn't make me gag. Like so many other country songs, this one finds the narrator observing the guy his woman's left him for. What makes it fascinatingly unique is that the new guy has a pornstache! (This is why I don't grow my facial hair.) The delivery is far more energetic and playful than you'd expect, completely selling this guy's incredulousness. When it comes to Heartland, I loved this song first.
189. "My Hometown" by Charlie Robison (#65, 2000)
This guy reminisces about his old Texas buddies working on the pipeline, going to college, and playing in a band. He extends an invitation to visit if they ever find the time, because he won't ever be comfortable in any other place besides his hometown. Texas red dirt country is at its best when it uses the Lone Star State as a dusty backdrop for universal themes. Recently I got a new job at the hometown I left in 2014, and I already like both the job and the town a lot more, so there's that extra avenue of relatability. While surgery has rendered Charlie unable to sing, there's still plenty of room for his and his brother's fantastic songs in my hometown.
190. "My Kind of Beautiful" by One Flew South (#54, 2008)
Huge caveat: the album version only. For some reason, the radio edit heavily watered down the vocal track. And it's a shame, because whoever these guys are, they can harmonize. The production is twang with a punch, thanks in no small part to the use of electric banjo. Lines like "I ask for water and she brings me wine" (Andy Griggs, who co-wrote and originally cut the song, may have been penning a sequel to "How Cool Is That") are colorful and distinctive in twisting around the "this very distinctive woman has me hooked" trope so common in country. Unfortunately, radio didn't bite and this talented trio flew away.
191. "My Name" by George Canyon (#44, 2005)
Canyon wrote this song about a friend who suffered a miscarriage, and his point of view is extremely sympathetic. We see the viewpoint of the miscarried child: anticipating tthe beginning of life, only to be taken back to Heaven at the last second. What could have been a maudlin image is handled with sincerity and respect to both child and parents (who still love said child even though they never picked out a name). I can't imagine what the mother of a stillborn child goes through, but when I read social media comments on this song, I can see how they're comforted by the image of their unborn child's soul being brought "back home" in anticipation of another chance at life.
192. "My Sister" by Reba McEntire (#16, 2005)
Back when American Country Countdown still had their own forums, I remember this song getting absolutely trashed. And I don't get it. It's just a phone conversation song, but it's a damn good one. I spent most of my life hearing my mom have hour-long phone conversations with my aunt every day. The details aren't quite the same -- my aunt's been in a stable relationship since the mid-90s, and I don't think she or my mom ever played with Barbie dolls -- but the pleasant everyday-ness of the conversation just sounds like something a couple of 40-something sisters who clearly love each other would have. And I'd still think that even without the personal connection.
193. "My Way to You" by Jamey Johnson (#52, 2009)
While this one isn't as specific as "High Cost of Living,” it feels so thematically connected that Jamey makes the more open-ended lines like "Setting fires and dark desires / And nights I can't recall" sound as real as the former's "I traded that for cocaine and a whore.” Who's the "you" that he found? Could it be a friend? A lover? God? The execution is top-notch, with Jamey's unpolished vocals and a slow-building production. Steel guitar, acoustic guitar, and a couple of bells rise to a larger electric guitar-driven bridge in a countrified power ballad approach as big as the redemption arc it conveys.
194. "No Regrets Yet" by Sonya Isaacs (#36, 2003-04)
Fun fact: this is the newest song in my library that Shazam doesn't recognize. I like songs about realizing that your decisions were the right ones, and this one takes a unique approach to that common idea. In this song, the female narrator looks through her yearbook and thinks about all of the guys she could have dated, and the possible outcomes -- from a happy family to a runaway bride to an abuse victim. In the end, she declares that she's made the right choice where she is. Isaacs' clear voice fits perfectly to this assertive, confident declaration, and the melody is top-notch, too. This song deserved better.
195. "Not Me" by Keni Thomas, Emmylou Harris, and Vince Gill (#56, 2005)
Another inspired "three scenarios, same chorus" take. The phrase "not me" applies to different people taking up jobs that they don't want to: coaching youth sports, assuming custody of children, and serving in the military. Each scenario is human, especially the third one -- even if you don't know that Thomas actually did serve in the Army, it's chilling when he sings "They deserve the medals; the men who died, not me.” The song is also beautifully produced, relying just on guitar, cello, and three voices, allowing its humble message to shine all the brighter. No pandering, no divisiveness, no jingoism, just humility.
196. "Oklahoma" by Billy Gilman (#33, 2000)
Child singers are often hampered by underdeveloped deliveries and/or manipulative material, as was the case with Gilman's debut single "One Voice.” But this song alone made up for it. The lyrics are already uplifting without resorting to Chicken Soup for the Soul heavy-handedness; the son is nervous yet eager when being told that his estranged father has been found, and said father is shown as a humble man trying to correct a mistake. Having a child sing this age-appropriate material adds an extra layer of realism, and Gilman's voice is assured against the unusually-progressing melody. More songs like this, and I think he could have had a much bigger string of hits.
197. "Ol' Red" by Blake Shelton (#14, 2002)
There's a reason this one is so more popular after the fact than its chart peak would indicate: cleverness and originality. A man jailed for murdering his wife is tasked with taking care of the warden's dog, leading to an elaborate escape plan involving the dog escaping to mate with another. The distraction of the dogs is enough for the prisoner to escape successfully, leading to the fantastic line "love got me in here and love got me out.” With the rough-edged production and use of Mixolydian mode, the song's sound is as greasy and gritty as is its storyline. And, you know, it's one of maybe a dozen country songs actually about dogs.
198. "Once in a Lifetime" by Keith Urban (#6, 2006)
I remember this one getting a lot of flak from fans for being very un-country, but it's always been my favorite. Maybe it's the slow build of the production -- the way it starts off with just a couple of synths, surges when it hits the chorus, drops back for a quiet bridge with some cellos, and returns full-blast for a wild 5:54 ride. Maybe it's just the sincerity in this simple promise of undying love ("If anyone can make it, I'm betting on me and you"). But most importantly, not unlike "Ain't Nothing 'bout You,” this is Keith turning all the things I like about him up to eleven. And like album-mate "I Told You So,” some amazing sound design doesn't hurt.
199. "The One in the Middle" by Sarah Johns (#39, 2007)
Sometimes, you just want to tell off the one you've dumped. Sarah Johns has one of the most inspired solutions: just flip him off! As if she weren't already forward enough by calling the other woman a "skank.” And the middle-finger theme is carried through by pointing out it's next to the finger that used to have a wedding ring. Johns has a twangy bite to her voice that's perfect for this scenario, and I like the backing vocal "ba dow ba dow"s (one of which I'm pretty sure is co-writer Jason Sellers). It's amazing how in a post-Gretchen Wilson world, so many newcomers beat her at her own game by being a million times less forced.
200. "One Last Time" by Dusty Drake (#26, 2003)
One of the best 9/11-inspired songs. The context is a cell phone conversation between a passenger on one of the planes and his wife. He knows what's about to happen, so he leaves her with one last "I love you" and the best words of encouragement he can offer. Drake's voice is impassioned (especially on the bridge) and sincere, and the lyrics are never trite or jingoistic. He doesn't even sing the last word of the song, emphasizing the urgency and abruptness of that crash. I was only 14, but I remember just how... gutted I felt after the towers were hit. No doubt it was infinitely worse for those who actually did lose loved ones.