When it comes to country music, the 1990s and 2010s tend to have strong narratives and elicit strong opinions: The 90s were a neotraditional revival, and the 10s were a time of experimental (and controversial) genre-fusing. In contrast, the decade wedged in between these two eras lacks a similarly strong identity: It was mostly a time of transition, where some titans of 90s continued their reign (Alan jackson, George Strait, Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney), some titans of the 2010s began to find their footing (Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan), and the defining sound of the era was, well, hard to define. Were the 2000s the era of pop-country stylists like Carrie Underwood, Rascal Flatts, and Taylor Swift, or the era of modernized torch-bearers like Brad Paisley, Dierks Bentley, and Miranda Lambert?
What’s lost in this debate is a more fundamental question: Was the music any good? I’d argue that there was a lot to like on both sides of the equation, and last week I finally performed the overdue task of making a sibling playlist to my ultimate 80s/90s collection that memorialized the best of the 2000s. Today, the goal is to celebrate a decade that lacks the hype and and the debate of its predecessor and successor.
The concept of LITS is simple: Hit the shuffle button on my old iPad, listen to ten songs chosen by whatever random number generator Apple uses (which could end up being anything from sizzling singles to deep album cuts to songs not even remotely related to country music), make a snap judgement on how good or bad the songs are, and produce a highly-subjective ranking of the impromptu playlist.
Is this silly and without purpose? Absolutely, but it’s also a chance to potentially introduce folks to some different songs/artists, and potentially introduce people to some great material that they had forgotten or missed. Without further ado, let’s hit the play button and see just how wacky my musical library really is.
#1. Travis Tritt, “Love Of A Woman”
Tritt falls squarely on the 90s side of this divide, and 2000’s Down The Road I Go was his last major hurrah in the genre. This song, the third single from the album, would probably be labeled Boyfriend country if it had come out recently, but it leans on the “woman as a man’s rock/savior” premise that’s gotten a lot of play over the years, especially from the rough-edged outlaw singers that Tritt draws inspiration from. The arrangement features some decent depth behind the few headline categories (you’ve got both a piano- and an organ-tuned keyboard, some acoustic and slick electric guitars, and a steel guitar that gets some decent airtime), and the feeling here is equal parts awe-struck and reverent as the narrator celebrates the ability of women to put up with imperfect men like himself. Tritt is known for his rowdier material, but he could also sell a sentimental song when we wanted to, and he does a nice job infusing some feeling and heartfelt emotion into the track. I don’t know if I would call it Tritt’s best work, but it’s pretty good nonetheless.
#2: Reba McEntire, “I’m A Survivor”
Is it just me, or has McEntire been completely forgotten by country music? She can go toe-to-toe with heavyweights like Jackson and Strait in the hits department, yet you never hear her get name-dropped in modern singles the way those two do. McEntire’s wasn’t as prevalent on the radio as other holdovers from the 90s (partially because she was branching out to other forms of media; she spent six seasons starring in the hit TV series Reba), but she still made a respectable showing on the charts, including this song that served as the leadoff single for his third greatest hits compilation in 2001. The song is more string-focused, but its tone remains upbeat and resilient, the writing does a nice job discussing the narrator’s struggles while simultaneously allowing the narrator to shrug them off and push through. McEntire’s performance simply radiates strength and power, and it helps elevate the track and connect with anyone who’s had a rough go of life but finds a way to survive and make it work. It doesn’t seem like an empowerment anthem, but it sure feels like one, and McEntire set a standard that other female artists would aspire to meet for the rest of the decade.
#3: Blake Shelton, “Playboys Of The Southwestern World”
Shelton may have debuted in 2001 and released five albums during the decade, but his chart performance for much of the decade was so inconsistent that I would call him more of a 2010s artist (he didn’t find consistent radio traction until about 2008). “Playboys Of The Southwestern World” is the long-forgotten third single from his long-forgotten sophomore album The Dreamer, and while I found the song to be silly fun back in the day, it’s not hard to see why it only reached #24 on the radio. For one thing, the story cuts out at the best part: The border guard finds the money, the narrator blames his friend…and then the song ends with only a brief mention of being “temporary cellmates.” The hook makes for a nice title, but it’s a bit long and clunky for Shelton to spit out, and while the electric guitar has some decent texture, it’s basically all you hear during the song—the fiddle is barely noticeable, and the organ is consigned to background duty. (Shelton’s kinda-sorta accent when saying the Mexican border guard’s line is also kinda-sorta questionable.) The song is really just a sugar rush that’s in desperate need of another verse or two, and probably won’t make much of a splash on this list.
#4: Tritt, “Best Of Intentions”
Two songs from the same artist is one thing, but two songs from the same album?? This was the leadoff single from Down The Road I Go, and it’s a melancholy confessional of the narrator’s failures in their relationship. What’s interesting here is that while many of these songs focus of the narrator’s emotional failures in pursuit of material things or a better way of life, this song goes in the opposite direction: The feelings are present and deep (a credit to Tritt’s emotional range), but the narrator is unhappy that they aren’t able to give their partner the sort of life that they deserve. The production is suitably moody, with regular minor chords and reliance on a piano, steel guitar, and neutral-sounding acoustic guitar to emphasize the narrator’s sense of sadness and frustration. Said frustration is palpable in the writing as well, but there’s also a sense of hope as well: The narrator wants a chance to fix whatever is wrong, and with love still apparently present, the listener gets the sense that there might still be a happy ending in store here. Tritt may have been overshadowed by his peers over the years, but he deserves a lot of credit as a flexible, emotive performer who could deliver any of of material with presence and ease. I like this one than “Love Of A Woman,” so maybe he can finally get some of his due on this list.
#5: Martina McBride, “Blessed”
I’m starting to worry about my playlist: It was pretty close to half the size of the 80s/90s list (which makes sense since it’s covering half the time), but all the songs thus far have been concentrated in the early part of the decade. What the heck was I doing for those last five years?
It’s always a risk putting new material on what’s supposed to be a greatest hits album, but McBride put four new songs on hers in 2001, and all of them performed well, with this one reaching #1 (which turned out to be the last #1 for a solo female artist for the next 22 months). The production for this one is surprisingly unorthodox: I wouldn’t call the instrument tones terribly bright and there are a lot of minor chords here, but there’s an energy and a power in the sound that drives the song forward and gives it an optimistic feel. Lyrically, this is a standard count-your-blessings track, with the narrator highlighting the people and moments that make their life worthwhile, and given the simple, family-oriented nature of said moments, the song in turn pushes others to recognize how lucky they are in their own lives. McBride herself is a strong combination of power and positivity, and while she holds herself back on the verses, she’s merely storing her power to unleash it on the chorus, and she’s got the charm and charisma to take even a simple message like this one and get everyone nodding and singing along. She’s another one of those artists whose legacy has gotten dusty in recent years, and it’s worth recalling just how good she was back in her day.
#6: Josh Turner, “Firecracker”
Well, at least we’ve made it to 2007 now! Turner was a revelation (especially for a Randy Travis partisan like myself) when he emerged with “Long Black Train” back in 2003, but his career never took off the way I expected it to, and he basically disappeared for most of the 2010s. I seem to be a contrarian when it comes to Turner’s early work: I consider Everything Is Fine to be ten times the album that Your Man was, but it only reached gold status compared to Your Man‘s double-platinum sales, and I’d honestly call “Firecracker” one of the weaker songs on the disc despite it being the only single to reach the Top Ten. I’d group this one with “Playboys Of The Southwestern World” in the silly-fun category, but this track is so much better, and it all starts with the production: It’s a fiddle-and-steel throwback with some seriously rollicking guitars, and it pushes the tempo to eleven to make a three-and-a-half minute song feel only about half that long. Despite being mostly stuck in his upper range and dropping ridiculous lines like the “Sssssssssssssbang” quote on the outro, Turner pulls the whole thing together with his easy, effortless charisma and and makes the whole thing far more fun than it has any right to be. The writing really has to stretch to get some of the “firecracker” rhymes to work (you can tell that Turner, who I’ve called out for his poor writing in the past, was a co-writer here), but in the end, Turner and the producer make the whole thing so catchy that you barely even notice. I really miss this guy in mainstream music, and MCA deserves to be charged for manslaughter for killing this guy’s career.
#7: McBride, “Concrete Angel”
Two songs from the same artist is one thing, and two songs from the same album is another, but two songs from two separate albums??? I’m starting to question the variety on this playlist…
Just like with Tritt’s pair, however, the second entry is the stronger one, and this one might have the power to claim this post’s crown. Start with a emotional story of a abused child whose story is discovered too late, put the power of Martina Freaking McBride behind it, and mix in a classic piano-and-sting-driven formula that’s will catch the listener’s attention, and you’ve got a ready-made tearjerker guaranteed to melt even the hardest of hearts (or was it? It only made it to #5 on Billboard’s airplay chart). Much like with “Best Of Intentions,” there’s a glimmer of hope amidst the darkness: The deceased is in a better place now, beyond whatever pain and suffering they felt on Earth, and the world is left with the collective shame of letting it happen under their noses. With her history of thought-provoking and activist material (her debut single was “Independence Day,” for crying out loud) and her hey-stop-and-listen-to-me power vocals, McBride is the perfect person for a song like this, and she’s able to capture the emotion and sadness of this story and shoot it straight through the collective heart of the audience.
It missed #1 on Billboard, but “Concrete Angel” has another chance to reach #1 here, and it just might pull it off…
#8: Montgomery Gentry, “My Town”
“She Couldn’t Change Me” might have made it to #2, but I would argue that it was this song and this album from 2002 that really catapulted Montgomery Gentry into the public consciousness. It may have been one of those rural-glorification tracks that have come to dominate the genre in recent years, but while the attitude is recent years has gotten more confrontational and exclusive, this song was an invitation and a guided tour to the place the narrator held dear. Instead of being a token instrument, the banjo ends up anchoring the melody during the verses, and the duo’s rough-edged sound is sanded down smooth to stay out of the writing’s way, even when the guitars and organ swell up on the chorus. Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry show off their incredible chemistry, the mood here is reverent and optimistic instead of protective and defiant (which perhaps reflects how the nation’s mood have soured over the last twenty years), and the old symbols still find purpose in a new era (the rusty tractor is repainted, the water-tower romance has consummated with a baby, and the church continues to draw a crowd). This is the approach I wish more artists would take today when it comes to where they come from: Don’t draw a line and slam the door in our faces—instead, invite the world in and show them just what makes the country life awesome.
#9: …Tritt, “Modern Day Bonnie And Clyde”?!
Okay, this is getting ridiculous. There are 450+ songs on this playlist, and the iPad picks three from the same album???? I know Down The Road I Go was great, but I’m not sure we need every freaking single from the album here…
Still, this is hands-down my favorite song on the album, and one of the better story songs to come out of Nashville in the last two decades. (I’m kind of a sucker for these sorts of tales; Ricky Van Shelton’s “Crime Of Passion” and LeAnn Rimes’s “Nothin’ Better To Do” are also pretty good.) There’s a rollicking back-porch feel to this mix thanks to its prominent dobro, acoustic guitars, and even some harmonica tossed in (the guitars and keyboards are here, but they’re supporting cast instead of the leading roles), and it’s upbeat energetic vibe keep the audience humming along. The writing is the sort of romantic banditry tale that everyone can enjoy: We get the imagery of a long highway trek with a star-crossed pair, nobody gets hurt, and justice is eventually served in the most enjoyable way possible. As for Tritt…come on, is there any role this guy can’t play? His rule-bending persona makes him exactly the sort of character that would engage in a little opportunistic larceny, and he absolutely owns this track with his lively performance.
There aren’t many tracks that could challenge “Concrete Angel” for list supremacy, but this is one of them. However, if the last track is “It’s A Great Day To Be Alive,” “Where Would You Be,” or “When God-Fearin’ Women Get The Blues,” I swear I’ll—
#10: The Wreckers, “Tennessee”
…Okay, now I’m sad. Michelle Branch and Jessica Harp formed the short-lived duo in 2005 and released a fantastic debut album a year later…and then they broke up soon afterwards and left us all wondering what might have been. “Tennessee” was the group’s third and final single, and it didn’t stand out either on the radio or the album (there were so many other great songs on that album: The title track, “One More Girl,” “Rain”…), but at least it showed off what made the duo so good: A roots-rock sound that could take either a softer or harder line with equal success (this one is on the softer side, driven mostly by acoustic guitars), some of the best vocal chemistry and harmony that I’ve ever heard, and thought-provoking writing that finds the narrator ruminating on a relationship decision and wondering if it was the right choice. There’s a bit of ambiguity in the writing (Did the narrator choose their dreams over love? Was either party terribly serious about the romance at the time?), but the puzzling seems to draw people more into the story, and while I’ve never been a fan of nostalgia romance tracks (what’s done is done; all you can do is move forward), there’s enough in the sound and the vocals to keep me paying attention until the very end. (Ironically, the song makes me break my own nostalgia rule: How good would this pair have been on their follow-up album?) It’s okay, but I like some of their other songs better.
|#2||“Modern Day Bonnie And Clyde”|
|#5||“Best Of Intentions”|
|#8||“I’m A Survivor”|
|#9||“Love Of A Woman”|
|#10||“Playboys Of The Southwestern World”|
Man, Blake Shelton just can’t catch a break around here, can he? But the victory goes to McBride over Tritt in the strangest LITS yet (Alan Jackson put three songs in LITS #2, but at least they were from different albums), with the somber tale of child abuse holding off the ill-fated tale of two convenient criminals. If I’m honest, this is a pretty strong list overall (even “Playboys Of The Southwestern World” has its merits), which helps prove the point I wanted to make at the start: The 2000s were a pretty solid decade in country music, and they deserve better than to be remembered as the placeholder between two more-prominent periods in history. If you take the time to look around, there’s some great music to be found here, and based on Chris Owen’s constant mentioning of how songs are bringing back the old 2000s feel, perhaps the industry and rest of the world are starting to realize that too.
As for me, I guess I’d better go listen to the rest of Tritt’s Down The Road I Go and McBride’s Greatest Hits, because that’s what this iPad is going to make me do anyway…
(Editor’s Note: In looking at the songs coming up after the first ten, “When God-Fearing Women Get The Blues” was thisclose to making the list too!)