What is a country song?
I mentioned on Monday that country music itself has punted on this question, leaving the door open for anything and everything to try the label on for size. For the purposes of this blog, I tend to go with “if it’s on country radio, then it’s country enough to merit a review,” but my personal opinion is that “country” is a lot like beauty: It’s all in the eyes (or ears) of the beholder. As such, it falls to each and every one of this to keep an open ear about the music that’s out there, and when we declare whether or not something is “country,” we should think critically about what led us to that decision, and try to understand what criteria (whether implicit or explicit) we used in our evaluation.
For me, the strongest criteria for a “country” song seems to be time, and the lessons, maturity, and experience that comes with it. Party and pick-up songs just feel too short-sighted and ephemeral to me, and while that doesn’t immediately disqualify these sorts of songs from the song, I find that they don’t have the impact or staying power that a song with more reflection and introspection does, and these rankings (mostly) reflect that.
But I’ve digressed for too long already, and there’s a spot in my ‘Song Of The Decade’ bracket up for grabs. Here are my favorite songs from the past year.
Last Year’s Winner: Aaron Watson, “Run Wild Horses”
|Artist, Song||Final Rating|
|#15||Gone West, “What Could’ve Been”||7/10|
|#14||Old Dominion, “One Man Band”||7/10|
|#13||Riley Green, “In Love By Now”||7/10|
|#12||Aaron Watson, “Kiss That Girl Goodbye”||7/10|
|#11||Maddie & Tae, “Die From A Broken Heart”||7/10|
#10: Dierks Bentley, “Living” (final rating: 8/10)
While 2019 has been a rewarding year for me on balance, it’s also been a really busy one, and while taking care of all this business (including keeping Kyle’s Korner afloat), there haven’t been too many opportunities to stop, smell the roses, and recognize how much you have to be appreciate. Bentley, after fifteen-plus years of grinding away in Nashville, comes to the same conclusion here, and implores the listener to find happiness in the love, family, and natural beauty that surrounds you. Backed with suitably-atmospheric production and straightforward-yet-detailed lyrics, the song is a nice reminder that despite all the noise and negativity in the world, there are still some thing on this planet that are worth cherishing.
#9: Jason Aldean, “Rearview Town” (8/10)
Anger is a powerful emotion, but I find that it often feels misdirected or unnecessary in recent country songs (consider Blake Shelton’s “God Country” or Aldean’s own “They Don’t Know”). However, it can be used to emphatically drive home a point when used effectively, as seen in Gabby Barrett’s “I Hope” and here in “Rearview Town.”
In the wake of a failed relationship, the narrator chooses to take a metaphorical flamethrower to everything he held dear, a surprising reaction in a genre that usually deifies small rural communities. Through the standout writing, however, we discover that the narrator’s issues with their hometown and deeper and more longstanding than initially shown, and the song does a nice job capturing the bleakness and corrosion of small-town life in America today. Aldean is known for using overly-dark production and being overly-serious in his delivery, but this time his negative energy feels understandable for a change, and the result is a powerful tune that I revisited often over the course of the year.
#8: Ashley McBryde, “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” (8/10)
Everyone runs into doubters somewhere along the road, and when a person finally reaches some modicum of success, their reaction is often to mock those did not believe this day would come. Taking the high road in this situation hasn’t always been country music’s strength (see: Kip Moore’s “The Bull”), and in truth the lyrics to “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” set McBryde up to lay a smackdown on her detractors.
It’s been said, however, that true strength is having power and choosing not to use it, and McBryde demonstrates an incredible amount of charisma by reflecting on her journey and those who doubted her without a hint of malice or ill will in her delivery. She’s achieved her goal; what’s the point of wasting time going after the naysayers? To their credit, the lyrics paint a vivid picture of McBryde’s journey to Nashville success (a journey that should progress even farther with her recent CMA award), and the simple, restrained arrangement create a forward-looking and optimistic vibe that bolsters McBryde’s credibility.
The radio hasn’t really warmed up to McBryde’s work yet, and I’m not sure that will change in 2020. If they choose to ignore her, however, they’ll do so at their own peril.
#7: Ingrid Andress, “More Hearts Than Mine” (8/10)
Andress was probably the biggest revelation of 2019, showing up with “More Hearts Than Mine” just in time to wreck my mid-year list and having enough staying power to earn a spot on my year-end list as well. There’s nothing particularly novel about a homecoming track like this, but not doing new stuff is totally fine when you can do the old stuff this much better than everyone else. For one thing, the writing was absolutely phenomenal, with enough depth and detail to let the listener visualize every scene on the tour through the narrator’s hometown. The piano-centered production does a nice job setting the mood and supplementing the writing, and Andress sold the story perfectly with an easy, earnest delivery and more than enough charisma to draw the audience into the story. This was an exceptional track, and though its climb up the Mediabase chart has been slow, be on the lookout for big things from Andress in the future.
#6: Eric Church, “Some Of It” (8/10)
“Monsters” seemed to get more attention, but for me this the superior Church single of 2019. This thing fits my previous definition of country music to a T (unlike Ryan Hurd’s “To A T,” ironically): It’s the rare laundry-list song that you can actually use, as the narrator looks back at all the things they’ve learned in their life and offers it as unsolicited advice to the audience. The production is much more by-the-book than “Desperate Man,” and its restrained approach keeps the focus on the writing while setting a reflective mood for Church to work his magic. I’ve never been the biggest Church fan in the past, but he does a great job conveying a helpful attitude without preaching to the listener, and unlike “Monsters,” he has something more to say than “pray and hope for the best.”
Despite my lukewarm reaction to much of Church’s discography, I can at least say I like “Some Of It” now. 😉
#5: Midland, “Mr. Lonely” (8/10)
It’s not an official Kyle’s Korner Top 10 list without some mention of Midland, but it’s a little surprising to see them this low on the list after earning #1 and #2 the last two years. On the flip side, this song is almost the exact opposite of the “country” definition I dropped earlier (this is all about ephemeral, short-sighted partying), so what’s it doing here at all?
“Mr. Lonely” is a prime example of the “not new, but old done well” phenomenon and a good reason why you should never make your genre boundaries too rigid. It’s got the classic instrumentation with a heaping helping of steel guitar for the traditionalist crowd, the lyrics are sharp and work with the sound to re-create the atmosphere of a raucous barroom, the vocal and harmony work are excellent, and honestly, this is the most fun I’ve had listening to a track since Russell Dickerson’s “Every Little Thing.” This is not only a country song, it’s one of the best country songs I’ve heard all year.
#4: Kacey Musgraves, “Rainbow” (8/10)
The best way I could describe this track is that it’s a darker, more-impactful version of “Living.”
I missed out of Musgraves’s 2018 single releases, which turned out to be a major omission when seemingly every other list included them somewhere. I resolved to pay more attention this year, and while she only had one official release in 2019, it was more than worth the effort to find.
This might be the most impressive piano work I’ve heard all year, as it captures both the darkness in the verses and the optimism in the chorus while taking care not to distract from the song’s message. Musgraves proves to be a capable, charismatic artist who projects being understanding towards life’s hardships while also nudging people out of their shells to see that the danger has passed and that there are still things in the world worth seeing and appreciating. The writing makes strong use of the storm/rainbow metaphor (which feels even more impressive now given some of the weaksauce hooks I’ve heard the last few months), and does its best to uplift the listener and push them to hold their hand out to see that the rain has stopped falling.
Radio continues to ignore Musgraves, but from here on out, I’m not going to make that mistake.
#3: Easton Corbin, “Raising Humans” (9/10)
How good is Easton Corbin? So good that he can turn the tropiest of tropes into a great song.
“Somebody’s Gotta Be Country” was okay, but it never quite escaped the fact that it was just another “I’m so country!” song in a genre awash with them. “Raising Humans,” however, raised the bar even higher: Ask any random person on the street what country music is, and there’s a good chance they’ll say “The song where the dog dies in the end.” Well, the dog does die in the end here, but it’s the story before then (abbreviated as it is) that sticks with the listener the most, especially since it’s done from the dog’s perspective and still manages to be not only believable, but endearing! I’ve gushed over Corbin’s charisma in the past, but pulling off this track might be the most impressive thing he’s ever done, and the simple arrangement behind him keeps the focus on the story and makes the song feels comfortable and inviting. (Songwriter Michael White deserves major props as well for tugging at the user’s heartstrings without falling into sickeningly-sweet territory.) It’s a great song that deserves far more recognition than it got, and hopefully it’s a springboard towards an actual record deal for Corbin next year.
#2: Tanya Tucker, “Bring My Flowers Now” (10/10)
2019 was the year that the 1990s struck back, with a plethora of older artists coming out of the woodwork to chase that neon rainbow one more time. Very few of them, however, conceded anything to their experience level, and instead tried to recreate their success from days of yore. Tucker, however, decided to go the route of Trace Adkins’s “Watered Down” and lean into her age, asking people to fete her before she leaves this earthly plane and taking off her rose-colored glasses to try to objectively evaluate her life. It’s the sort of song that only an artist with the history and experience of someone like Tucker could pull off credibly, and the piano-ballad production (boy, there are a lot of these on the list this year…) gives the track a somber, reflective feel befitting a track trying hard to avoid blind nostalgia. It treads dangerously close to saccharine territory (and the hook is , but Tucker is able to avoid it through her still-solid delivery and the sheer force of her personality, and as a result, it earns a premier position on my year-end list.
But it didn’t get the premier position on the list, or the slot in my ‘Song of the Decade’ tournament. That goes to…
#1: Ashley McBryde, “One Night Standards” (10/10)
Move over Kelsea Ballerini, you’ve got company.
…Wait, isn’t this even more ephemeral and short-sighted than “Mr.Lonely”? Yes it is, and that’s the beauty of it: The world-weary narrator knows exactly what they’re getting into, and they’re making an informed decision to attach no strings and accept whatever consequences might come next. The self-awareness speaks to the character’s hard-won experience, and McBryde shifts effortlessly from the happy, excited star of “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” to the defeated, give-a-darn’s-busted protagonist on this track. The production isn’t exactly classic, but it creates a matter-of-fact, non-judgemental atmosphere that complements the cold attitude of the speaker, and the writing eschews flowery description to “stick to the one night standards” and deliver its lines straight with no chaser. It doesn’t exactly fit my “country” definition, but it’s hands-down the best country song I heard all year.
Watch your back, Thomas Rhett. This is a #16 seed that’s ready for an upset.
So what did we learn from this exercise?
- Trying to come up with an all-encompassing definition of country music is at least NP-hard.
- Women are killing it in country music right now: They took five slots out of the Top Ten, nine slots plus the Colbie Caillat-fronted Gone West out of the Top Twenty, and none in the bottom fifteen (although Lainey Wilson just missed it).
- Mainstream country as a whole feels extremely flawed right now, but it wouldn’t take that much to put it back on the path to quality (giving more airtime to McBryde would be a good start).
Congratulations Madam McBryde, you and your high musical standards have earned my “song of the year” award for 2019. I’m not sure what 2020 has in store (these lists are notoriously volatile, although Watson only fell to #12), but I’m crossing my fingers and hoping we get an equivalent batch of solid songs next year, whether they fit my, or anyone else’s, definition of country music.