As the calendar prepares to turn it’s first page of the new year, Nashville is getting back into full swing after collectively taking an extended holiday break. Tours are being announced, CMA Fest plans are being made, and country music is making a comeback with better songwriting and music.
The “Taylor Swift” effect took country music all over the map the past few years, as her pop-infused sound brought in legions of new fans (and aspiring artists) to country radio. This in turn led artists to produce what some would say was watered-down music in an attempt to appease these new fans to the genre by giving them something they’d like instead of traditional country music. The steel guitars and fiddles were replaced with several sub-genres of country music.
You’ve ended up with rock-country that the likes of Jason Aldean and Brantley Gilbert are known for. You’ve got pop-country, which the likes of Lady Antebellum, Carrie Underwood, and The Band Perry gravitated towards. Even Blake Shelton, known for his boom-or-bust, true-blue country sound in his early career, also went with a safer, more pop-sounding style to appease all of the new fans he picked up from being on The Voice. It worked, as he put together a streak of 17-straight #1 hits until it was recently broken when “Shes’ Got A Way With Words” failed to top the charts (backlash for the perceived attack on Miranda the song portrays?) Then you’ve got bro-country. We won’t go off on a tirade about that here. You’ve got groovy-blues styled music from Jake Owen and Thomas Rhett. You even have rap-country, led by Colt Ford and other artists on the Average Joe’s label.
While traditional and classic country music fans (like myself) were disheartened by the changing sound of country music, the industry was booming. Album sales, radio ratings, and touring all were on the upswing. Then, Taylor Swift left country music. And slowly, some of those casual country music fans also left the genre. Young aspiring artists stopped wanting to be country singers. Bro-country wore out it’s welcome, in part thanks to Maddie & Tae’s calling-out debut single of “Girl in a Country Song.” Album sales, ratings, and even ticket sales (at least in our local venues in my neck of the woods) started to slip. Heck, even I severely limited my listening time to country radio for nearly a year in favor of classic country stations, custom playlists on Pandora, or even sports-talk radio.
As I licked the wounds of my team being knocked out early in the NFL playoffs and no longer desired to listen to sports-talk radio, I decided to tune in to the local country stations again for a few days, and was pleasantly surprised. Over the past few years, there has been a severe lack of songs that made you stop and go “wow”. Rarely did you hear a song that would fall into the “love song” category. Instead of targeting the heart, songwriters were targeting your loins. In the last two weeks, however, I have heard a noticeable difference in the quality of the songwriting and even the sound of some of the new music coming out of Nashville. And it’s a good difference. Songs that have meaning. Love songs. Songs that aren’t about drinking and hooking up. I heard GOOD country music! Even Luke Bryan, who often dabbled in bro-country, has a bonafide COUNTRY hit on his hands with “Fast.”
So without further ado, here is a list of the best songs on country radio right now, in no particular order!
- “In Case You Didn’t Know” by Brett Young – When’s the last time you heard a love song as great as this? Thomas Rhett’s “Die a Happy Man”? I wasn’t a big fan of his debut single, “Can’t Sleep Without You,” but this one made me stop in my tracks and stay in my car after I pulled into the parking lot of the post office the first time I heard it. His song “Would You Wait For Me” will immediately be on this list in the future if he ever releases it as a single.
- “Better Man” by Little Big Town – Ironically, this song was written by Taylor Swift. This is the anti-love song directed to an ex that makes your heart hurt for the singer who had to give up on loving someone that didn’t treat them well enough. Those clamoring for Taylor Swift to come back to country music will be happy to at least see her accepting “Song of the Year” awards in the next cycle of award shows for this one.
- “Sober Saturday Night” by Chris Young w/ Vince Gill – Chris Young has almost single-handedly carried the torch of traditional-sounding country music on the radio, and this is just another great song by him.
- “80’s Mercedes” by Maren Morris – I almost didn’t include this song on the list because there isn’t much “traditional” about the sound of this song, but it’s just so darn catchy and on multiple times this month has been the song stuck in my head when I’m not listening to music. That’s gotta count for something.
- “Today” by Brad Paisley – He’s back! Lately, he’s been teetering on being put to pasture by country radio like Toby Keith, Alan Jackson, and Trace Adkins have over the last few years, as his singles have been hit or miss after a long string of top-3 hits. When you’ve been as successful has he has, I guess you have earned the right to experiment (what was up with that duet with Demi Lovato??), but he’s back to his traditional style with another great song here.
- “Dirt on My Boots” by Jon Pardi – When “80’s Mercedes” isn’t stuck in my head, this song often replaces it. It’s a boot-stomper (see what I did there?) with a unique, catchy style/sound to it. If country music is indeed shifting back to center, he’s poised to be a future headliner if he cranks out a couple more albums like the one this tune is from.
- “Fast” by Luke Bryan – Yes, even Luke Bryan makes this list! He’s not singing a rump-shaking, alcohol-drinking fun-times song for a change! It’s a reflective song, showing a sign of maturity and hopefully a step towards progressing towards more meaningful music as he grows out of the “party phase” of his life now that he’s done with the Spring Break shows and albums.
- “Road Less Traveled” by Lauren Alaina – Lauren has been battling an eating disorder since her American Idol days, and this motivational anthem shows that she has risen above it and is now looking to help motivate others. It’s great to see another female voice rising up the charts!
- “Make You Mine” by High Valley – Has a little Bluegrass sound to it, which is unheard of for successful country radio hits these days. High Valley has been a hit in Canada for going on 5 years now, and is finally starting to make it in the United States 10 years after they debuted.
- “Holdin’ Her” by Chris Janson – Another great love song! Chris Janson is another one that’s been working hard on making it big for a nearly a decade now before 2015’s “Buy Me a Boat” finally put him on the map. This one’s been slowly climbing the charts for months…hopefully radio will fully embrace it and make it the #1 hit it deserves to be.
- “Outskirts of Heaven” by Craig Campbell – This song is probably a little too country for country radio, even if it is turning back towards it’s traditional sound. However, Luke Bryan picked him up for his 2017 tour, so maybe it’s a sign that this song, and this style, truly is coming back. If I ranked these songs in order, this would be hovering near the top.
- “Lipstick” by Runaway June – This catchy debut single by the female trio reminds me of some great music that never went too mainstream a few years ago from the likes of Cowboy Crush and Bomshel. If you’ve never heard of them, look them up and listen to their music if you like this song.
- “Love Triangle” by RaeLynn – RaeLynn has really grown up since being a spunky teen on The Voice. This poignant song has special meaning for those that grew up in families divided by divorce and shows that she is maturing into an artist with a bright future.
- “There’s a Girl” by Trent Harmon – The fourth former reality show alumni on this list, the final American Idol winner came in under the radar with his debut single “Falling” last year. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing this song climb at least into the top-10 before it’s lifespan is over.
- “Somebody Else Will” by Justin Moore – Even though the theme of this song has been overplayed lately (hitting on a girl at a bar), this song has a groovy, unique sound to it that earned it a spot on this list. Plus it’s Justin Moore…he’s more country than just about anyone on this list, so he gets a pass for the unoriginal theme.
- “Roots” by Parmalee – I’ve been hot and cold on their singles since they debuted a few years back, but this is their best song in my opinion. It’s fitting that the song is titled “Roots” as country music seems to be finding it’s way back to it’s roots.
What do you think of this list? Do you agree/disagree with any of these songs? Let us know what you think in the comments below!