by Julian Spivey
Note: portions of this article have previously been published on this site
60. "You and Tequila" by Kenny Chesney feat. Grace Potter (2011)
"One is one too many, one more is never enough"
Kenny Chesney gets made fun of a lot in some country music circles for his beach bum persona and songs. But when he does something a bit more singer-songwriter with this style it really fits his voice and vibe very well. “You & Tequila,” from Chesney’s 2010 album Hemingway’s Whiskey, is one of his career best. With smooth guest vocals provided by Grace Potter, Chesney sings this tender ballad of how his two loves – a woman and tequila – are both likely to be his undoing. After all, “it’s always your favorite sins that do you in.” This song written by Matraca Berg and Deana Carter was a top-five country hit for Chesney in 2011.
59. "Tennessee Whiskey" by Chris Stapleton (2015)
"You rescued me from reachin' for the bottom/And brought me back from being too far gone"
“Tennessee Whiskey” is the song that just keeps going and going. At the time of this writing (Nov. 22, 2019) it’s currently no. 30 on the iTunes Country Songs chart and the song was released on Chris Stapleton’s Traveller album more than four and a half years ago. Also, it was never released as a single by Stapleton, but it’s performance with pop sensation Justin Timberlake at the 2015 CMA Awards helped both the track and the album skyrocket. The song penned by Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove dates back nearly 40 years when it was originally released by David Allen Coe in 1981 and made into a classic by George Jones in 1983. Stapleton’s bluesy take on the song gave it a new life and there’s no telling how long this one’s going to last.
58. "Senor" by Dierks Bentley with The Punch Brothers (2010)
"This place don't make sense to me no more/Can you tell me what we're waiting for, senor?"
I really, really wish this Dierks Bentley had stuck around. I was a fan of Dierks Bentley’s work in the decade prior to this one, but I felt his turn to a more bluegrass, old school sound on 2010’s Up on the Ridge was the best he’s ever been. After this album didn’t do so well commercials and, on the charts, Bentley turned to a more pop-country, or at least what was happening in the mainstream sound and, in my opinion, has never been the same. There were many highlights on Up on the Ridge, but my favorite was this cover with The Punch Brothers on this strange Bob Dylan song “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power).” The song is mysterious as hell – supposedly Dylan combined the characters of Billy the Kid and Jesus Christ – and the bluegrass interpretation that Bentley and The Punch Brothers give to it just magnifies this mysteriousness. I may not ever completely get this song, but I’ll always love the hell out of it.
57. "Talladega" by Eric Church (2015)
"Most days in life don't stand out/But life's about those days that will"
I’ll mention a few times on this list how Eric Church does nostalgia with the best of them. “Talladega,” off his 2014 album The Outsiders, is ample proof of this as it recalls a late teenage summer and a group of friends who roadtrip to Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama for one of the highlights on the NASCAR schedule. Even if you’re not a facing of auto racing I think you can understand the feeling of this song as most of us have that one final moment with our good buddies before the real world of adulthood gets started. “Talladega,” co-written by Church and Luke Laird, topped the country charts in 2015.
56. "I'm Not the Devil" by Cody Jinks (2016)
"It ain't no excuse but I'm just a man/I slipped and I fell it got out of hand/but I'm not the devil you think that I am"
Every ‘best of’ country song list needs a perfect heartbreak song and Cody Jinks gave us just that in 2016 with his superb “I’m Not the Devil.” The song sees Jinks recalling past mistakes in his life that caused him and a loved one to go their separate ways. It’s such a simple, but exquisite lyric sung by one of the most exciting new voices in the country music genre.
55. "Chemical Plant" by Robert Ellis (2014)
"I was sure they would always be there/And then one day they were gone/The lights from the chemical plant"
“Chemical Plant” by Robert Ellis is without a doubt one of the most heartbreaking songs of the decade. Just try to listen to it without tearing up. The song, off his 2014 release The Lights from the Chemical Plant, tells the story of life-long lovers who spend their entire life in a small town that lives and dies with the prosperity of the local chemical plant (the song is inspired by Ellis’ hometown of Lake Jackson, Texas). Ellis evocative songwriting at such a young age shows he could be destined to be one of the greats, it’s unbelievable one could write a story song this good in their mid-20s.
54. "Hurtin' (On the Bottle)" by Margo Price (2016)
"I've been drinking whiskey like it's water/But that don't touch the pain you put on me"
The first thing that came to mind when I heard Margo Price’s “Hurtin’ (On The Bottle)” was Loretta Lynn. That’s pretty much the highest praise you can give any up-and-coming country songstress. “Hurtin’ (On The Bottle)” is the very definition of a country drinking song, but not necessarily the tear in your beer kind. ‘Hurtin’’ has a rowdy jam feel to it, which has the ability to make you want to raise a little hell while listening along.
53. "Cheater's Game" by Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis (2013)
"A cheater's game/Just breaking me down/When I'm broken in two/Is that so easy to do?"
Sure, they’re not as high profile as Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood or Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, but the best country music couple for my money is Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis down in Texas. These two, who have been married nearly 25 years, released three albums together this decade and each one is flawless and beautifully melds their voices together. My favorite track off their albums this decade is “Cheater’s Game,” the title track of their 2013 release (their first non-holiday duets album), has this classic country sound to it that makes me believe it could’ve been an all-time great in a more friendly era to such a sound. Willis takes the lead on this track, but it’s pure musical magic when Robison joins her for the chorus.
52. "Hope the High Road" by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (2017)
"Wherever you are/I hope the high road leads you home again/To a world you want to live in”
“Hope the High Road” was the first song I heard off Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit’s fantastic The Nashville Sound album early in the year and coming off the incredibly tough 2016 it was the most hopeful thing I could’ve heard. I’m not sure any other chorus spoke to me as much this year as: “I know you’re tired/And you ain’t sleeping well/Uninspired/And likely mad as hell/But wherever you are/I hope the high road leads you home again/To a world you want to live in.” Many people, including those considering themselves to be big fans of Isbell, were put off by the line “there can’t be more of them than us,” but they may be reading too much into the line. All it really means, in my opinion, is there are more good people in this world than bad. At times it doesn’t necessarily feel like it anymore, but if we can all take the high road, we’ll get there.
51. "Hold My Hand" by Brandy Clark (2013)
"Let her know for sure/That I'm more than just a soft place to land/This'd be a real good time to hold my hand"
One of my favorite live performances on television this decade was seeing Brandy Clark, a Grammy Best New Artist nominee despite being virtually ignored by her genre, perform “Hold My Hand” with backing vocals by Dwight Yoakam on the 2015 Grammys telecast. The song, from her 2013 debut 12 Stories, is an incredibly beautiful ballad about a woman needing some reassurance from her man that he’s still in love with her when the couple bumps into an ex flame of his. Clark’s vocal on this song is absolutely devastating.