by Julian Spivey
Note: portions of this article have previously been published on this site
20. "Either Way" by Chris Stapleton (2017)
“We can just go on like this/Say the word, we’ll call it quits/Baby, you can go or you can stay/But, I won’t love you either way”
I doubt there’s a more devastating song to come out of 2017 than Chris Stapleton’s “Either Way.” It’s a heartbreaking fallen out of love track about a couple that still lives together, but can’t even consider each other friends, let alone lovers anymore. The brutality of the ballad really hits home with the stunningly vocalized chorus: “We can just go on like this/Say the word, we’ll call it quits/Baby, you can go or you can stay/But, I won’t love you either way.” If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “Why has Chris Stapleton won three consecutive CMA Awards for Male Vocalist of the Year?” you need look no farther than this song. The remarkable thing about “Either Way” is Stapleton wrote it (with Timothy Alan James and Kendell Marvel) more than a decade ago and even appeared on Lee Ann Womack’s 2008 album Call Me Crazy. It just kind of shows you how Stapleton was a hidden superstar in the waiting before breaking out a few years ago.
19. "Summer's End" by John Prine (2018)
"Just like that old house we thought was haunted/Summer's end came faster than we wanted"
John Prine is one of the greatest lyricists of all-time and songs like “Angel From Montgomery,” “Hello in There” and “Sam Stone” prove it. “Summer’s End,” from Prine’s first album of original material in more than a decade, is one of the 10 best songs he’s ever written. The song is simply devastating, while also being nostalgic. On its face it could be the telling of someone hoping to be reunited with a loved one – be it spouse, significant other, family member or friend – they haven’t seen in an awful long time. For someone who’s 72-years old like Prine summer could also be a stand-in for time and life passing by so quickly. The music video adds an even more devastating take to the song as it takes on America’s opioid crisis featuring a grandfather and his granddaughter who lost a child and mother to the epidemic.
18. "The Funeral" by Turnpike Troubadours (2010)
"Coming home, coming home/There's nothing like a family to make you feel so damned alone"
Evan Felker is the William Faulkner of Red Dirt Country. The way he captures small-town life and all of it intricacies makes him one of the greatest songwriters the Americana/Country world has ever seen. Even though “The Funeral,” off Turnpike Troubadours’ 2010 album Diamonds & Gasoline, is only ranked as the third best Troubadours song on this very list it may very well be the best written song Felker has ever had with its story of a James Dean-esque outcast coming home for the funeral of his father. Felker has been hailed as a very cinematic songwriter and this is a supreme example of that.
17. "Cover Me Up" by Jason Isbell (2013)
"I sobered up/and swore off that stuff/forever this time"
“Cover Me Up” has probably become Jason Isbell’s signature song in the years since it was first released on 2013’s Southeastern. The vocal is absolutely gut-wrenching and easily one of the best from anybody this decade. But, it’s also a deeply personal love story for Isbell and his wife Amanda Shires about how she helped to save him from the alcoholism and despair that had overtaken his life. The line: “I sobered up/and swore off that stuff/forever this time” garners huge applause every time Isbell performs the song live.
16. "Good Lord Lorrie" by Turnpike Troubadour (2012)
"I've been learning that believing/And that barely breaking even/Is just a part of life for you and me"
Evan Felker, the songwriter and frontman for Turnpike Troubadours, is such a visual lyricist that you can always see these terrific songs of his in your head. “Good Lord Lorrie,” off the group’s 2012 album Goodbye Normal Street, is one of the band’s absolute best as it tells the ups-and-downs of a relationship between the song’s narrator and Lorrie, this seemingly perfect dark-haired, green eyed beauty from Southwest Arkansas. It’s impossible for me to hear this song without placing myself in the narrator’s shoes – that’s how talented of a songwriter Felker is. Lorrie would pop up again in Troubadours songs like “The Mercury” and “The Housefire,” where she was explicitly name-dropped, and possibly others where she isn’t. She’s definitely the most intriguing character in the Troubadours songbook.
15. "The World's On Fire" by American Aquarium (2018)
"She said, 'What are we gonna do? What's this world comin' to?'/For the first time in my whole life/I stood there speechless"
I’m not sure there was a song in 2018 that I felt deep down in my core like American Aquarium’s “The World’s on Fire.” Songwriter B.J. Barham recounts how he and his partner felt in the direct aftermath of the election of President Donald Trump and how it seemingly turned American values upside down. My favorite moment in the song is how Barham sings with optimism about his soon-to-be-born daughter and how if anybody builds a wall in her journey to bust right through it. The world is on fire indeed, but I love the optimism of the song’s chorus about not giving up or giving in and seeing to it that one day the fire is put out.
14. "The Mother" by Brandi Carlile (2018)
"You are not an accident where no one thought it through/The world had stood against us, made us mean to fight for you/And when we chose your name we knew that you'd fight the power too"
Brandi Carlile’s “The Mother” was one of my favorite songs of 2018 from the first time I heard it. The track tells of how a child can completely change your life, even turn it upside down, but in the end just how rewarding it can be. Carlile wrote the song for her first daughter Evangeline, who’s now four-years old. The song is raw and honest and gets into the early stages of parenthood like most songs never could. It’s soul-baring if I’ve ever heard it and that’s the mark of a damn good artist. Few artists were as good as Carlile in 2018.
13. "Merry Go 'Round" by Kacey Musgraves (2012)
"Jack and Jill went up the hill/Jack burned out on booze and pills/And Mary had a little lamb/Mary just don't give a damn no more"
Kacey Musgraves’ first impression was probably the best of any artist of the decade with “Merry Go ‘Round.” We just weren’t getting shots of reality like this on mainstream country radio in 2012 (or since for that matter), but here she came with this cynical (and unfortunately realistic) look at small-town American life and all the darkness that can often live within it and she sets it to the style of a nursery rhyme. It was absolutely devastating and immediately shown that Musgraves would be a songwriter of stature. The song would become a top 10 hit on country radio, but mainstream country radio would never allow Musgraves to even sniff that kind of success again … oh well, she’s gone on to prove you can be a massive country star without the help of country radio.
12. "Outlaw Band" (LIVE) by Jason Boland & the Stragglers (2010)
"They were an outlaw band from Oklahoma/Rolling through the night like a summer thunder/And the rain will wash us clean/Oh the rain will wash us clean"
I’ve had the great privilege of seeing Jason Boland & the Stragglers, truly one of the unsung heroes of Red Dirt Country, perform live on four occasions now and they always end their show with “Outlaw Band,” which I’ve come to believe is maybe the most perfect show-ender I’ve ever seen. The song originally appeared on the group’s 2008 album Comal County Blue, which may make it a cheat to appear on this list, but it’s the live version I love so much and was the first one I heard from the group’s 2010 High in the Rockies, so it’s making the cut. The song was co-written by Bob Childers, one of Boland’s songwriting and performing heroes, with Randy Crouch and Layle Stagner and tells the story of a group of loners in the ‘60s who formed a band and did things just as they wanted – a dream for anyone who’s ever wanted to strike out and make a career of music.
11. "As She's Walking Away" by Zac Brown Band & Alan Jackson (2010)
"I'm falling in love as she's walking away/And my heart won't tell my mind to tell my mouth what it should say"
“As She’s Walking Away” was the perfect melding of old and new to form something amazing. The song, written by Zac Brown and Wyatt Durrette, tells of a younger man whose kind of stuck out at a bar with a girl he’s crushing on and gets advice from an older, wiser man about taking more of a chance and actually getting the girl. Brown does the vocal of the young man and the choice of country living legend Alan Jackson as the wise man is perfect casting. It’s this interplay between the two that really makes this 2010 No. 1 hit a modern classic.