Country music is a much-maligned genre which doesn’t get the credit it deserves for being utterly brilliant. For those of you who, like me, grew up thinking country music was all John Denver and line dancing, here’s a little introduction to this incredibly diverse genre. My own introduction to country music came with ‘Jolene’ by Dolly Parton (a song I still love to this day but oh, it’s so sad!) Then, like many other ’90s teenagers in the UK, I was horrified at the advent of line dancing and the general trend for all things (bad) country. Admittedly, the ’90s is a decade best forgotten in many ways, the British trend for line dancing being only one of many things which should be consigned to the memory hole.
As a fairly recent convert to country music, I’ve been happily astonished at the range and quality of music that’s out there. So here’s a little playlist which contains a bit of something for everyone — give it a try and let us know what you think!
1) If you like singing along in the car — Keith Urban — ‘Somewhere In My Car’
The ultimate country car sing-along (I’m serious — you can really belt this out — turn up the volume and give it a go). Keith Urban is, of course, a modern country legend and a judge on various TV talent shows, as well as being married to Nicole Kidman, apparently. He has many brilliant songs but this is the best one for singing along to on a road trip. Bonus points for hand actions, but only if you’re not the driver!
2) If you like your music feisty — Miranda Lambert — ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’
Miranda Lambert has a great range of styles but I think she’s at her best when she’s being furiously witty and sarcastic. This song is a great example of that, and the video underlines her point perfectly. Country feminism at its best.
3) If you like a good old Southern accent (I definitely do) — Luke Bryan — ‘Country Girl (Shake It For Me)’
I can forgive the horrendous sexism of this song, which is essentially Luke Bryan commanding a girl to dance for him on his daddy’s tractor (yes, really) because his voice is just delicious and he seems like a genuinely nice guy. Also, did I mention that accent? I can almost hear the twinkle is his eye… One of country’s most successful (and most polarising) artists, he has a LOT of good songs but this is probably my favourite, and a great one to start with if you’re new to country music. I highly recommend singing along to this song — the rhythm of the lyrics is perfect, like a country music tongue twister (‘the crickets and the critters and the squirrels’), especially if you try and do it in a Southern accent. Serious fun.
Video-wise I can see why, given the lyrics, the record company must have had a hard time coming up with a concept for this particular video. Any song that is basically instructing ‘somebody’s sweet little farmer’s child’ to, er, shake it for him is going to have a tough time with any kind of non-abstract video concept. So I hope whoever came up with the absolutely genius idea of turning the video into a mini dance documentary — yes, seriously — got a huge pay rise and a promotion because it would have been extremely well-deserved. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to move to LA to pursue a career in dance and audition for one of Luke’s videos, here is the answer.
Side note — I almost picked a different song here because I felt that some Luke Bryan was essential (that accent again, the talent, his general level of smiliness). There is a song called ‘That’s My Kind of Night‘ which always makes me smile because the first two words are ‘ungh ungh’. I doubt that’s how they’d be written in the CD sleeve (anyone remember those?) but that’s definitely how they sound to me. Worth checking out just for that (and for the visual, which has EVEN BETTER ungh unghs.
4) If you like pop music — Maren Morris — ”80s Mercedes’
One of the great things about compiling this list was that it really made me realise how much amazing female talent there is in country, a genre which has its own issues with sexism (but that’s a whole other article, and let’s be honest, what genre doesn’t?). Maren Morris is a young crossover artist who I would describe as country pop and this song is a perfect slice of that, for your listening delectation.
5) If you love a good ballad, but without the sap — Tim McGraw — ‘Shotgun Rider’
Aw. We all want our own shotgun rider, right? In the UK we have no idea of what riding shotgun means — I wanted to make a joke about the how naming the passenger seat for a shotgun suggests to me that better gun control really is way overdue in the US but then I checked and found out it’s actually an historic thing to do with carriages, so… anyway, this song manages to be both romantic and singable without being vomit-inducing or comedic. And Tim McGraw has great taste in hats.
Once I went on a work trip to Texas and I saw a guy at the airport who was an ACTUAL COWBOY. Now, I know for Americans in the South this may not be that far out of the ordinary but for a Brit from the Northeast part of England it was quite an occasion. Obviously, being British, I didn’t stare (too rude) or ask for a photo (too forthcoming) or even speak to him (too direct) but I did send several very excited text messages to friends and family. Could it have been Tim McGraw? Who knows. I like to think so. He was wearing both a Stetson and real spurs. Spurs, people. In an airport. How do you get those through security? Anyone who knows how this could possibly happen, please comment below.
In the meantime, enjoy this live performance. I think this song tends towards what I think of as more traditional country (note the guitar work), so consider that ticked off our list.
6) If you like your blues a little edgy — Whiskey Myers — ‘Dogwood’
I love this song. It has just the right amount of raw emotion and rock n roll edge to it, like a small, intimate gig where the band are intense and anything could happen. Listen to it now — I promise you won’t regret it.
7) If you love Aerosmith — Steven Tyler — ‘Love Is Your Name’
Imagine my excitement when one of my all-time heroes announced he was releasing a country album! I read somewhere (I have no idea where and haven’t been able to find it since) that country is one of the fastest-growing segments of the music business and is therefore attracting new artists from a commercial perspective. Maybe that’s Steven’s motive. Maybe he’s always loved country. Who knows? To be quite frank, who cares? This song is beautiful, and I cannot wait to hear the rest of the album — I feel like with this, he’s gone back to a time before the huge stadium days of Aerosmith and taken it back to where it’s just him and the music.
The video is a different story though. Why is there a tree wrapped in paper doilies from someone’s grandma’s house? Why has Steven decided a blonde streak at the front of his hair is a good idea? (I love you Steven, but no. Just no. It is not the ’90s and you are not Geri Halliwell.) Why is there a creepy girl wandering around the forest pulling ribbons behind her which she’s stolen from Steven’s microphone? Is she a deranged stalker who’s going to crash his lovely country party, which he’s having with his happy country friends?
You can tell they’re his country music friends because they’re all dressed like they’re going to a folk festival, just to make it clear that they’re not his Aerosmith/rock star friends. Also, they’re in a field and dancing around a bonfire and a series of huts, just to make it extra extra clear. I mean, I’m glad he gets his ribbons back and everything, but it’s a shame, especially given Aerosmith’s record of producing some of the best music videos of all time, that the video to this song is a bit rubbish. So listen to the song instead, because it is amazing, and don’t bother watching the video unless you want to be baffled and befuddled.
8) If you fancy some British country music — The Shires — ‘Nashville Grey Skies’
Yes, you read that right. The Shires, as Brits may have guessed from their name, are in fact a British country band and not just keen Lord of the Rings fans. Who’d have thought? They formed in the UK after finding each other through a shared love of country music and this song is a gorgeous ode to creating your own Nashville under the rainy grey skies of England.
Watch this video of them exploring Nashville, with wry British humour.
9) If you love the ’80s — Old Dominion — ‘Snapback’
If you love ’80s pop, this song is for you. Who said country can’t have new influences? This song combines an ’80s synth beat with deeper country styling and is a great example of some of the new innovation coming through in country at the moment (there’s a whole sub-genre of country-hip hop crossover which I haven’t even tried to cover here, but it’s coming, people).
Great video too.
10) If you love a bit of swagger — Love and Theft — ‘Running Out of Air’
The riff on this song is what might happen if Josh Homme spent a week at his house in the desert listening to ’80s rock and decided to write a country song at the end of it. It swaggers into the room, grabs you by the collar and drags you straight into the song. In short, it’s awesome. Sadly, the video has a whiff of Robin Thicke about it (although weirdly, the singer kind of reminds me of Peter Andre) and doesn’t do the song any kind of justice. This is the kind of song that deserves a video like this:
But instead we get this:
Ah well. I guess we can’t have everything.
11) If you want a song with a sense of humour — Bucky Covington — ‘Drinking Side Of Country’
One of the great things about country is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and this song is the perfect example of that. Like a perfect romp through a Hangover-style country adventure, Bucky (yes, that is his name, and what’s more, he has a twin called Rocky) will make you laugh out loud and sing along at the same time. No mean feat, I can tell you. Thank you Bucky, for your services to both country music and my morning commute.
12) If you want to hear the next generation of country — Cam — ‘Untamed’
Cam has attracted a lot of critical attention as one of the new generation of country artists attracting a crossover audience, and rightly so. This is a fantastic song with true country roots but also the ability to appeal to a much wider audience than a ‘traditional’ country audience, whatever that might be these days. The rest of her album is equally brilliant with a depth and rage which is startling for a younger artist — check it out as soon as you can.
13) If you’re getting over a breakup — Lady Antebellum — ‘Need You Now’
Another great song to sing along to (although that is a prerequisite for me to enjoy any song, if I’m honest), this is a bittersweet duet about the aftereffects of a breakup. Another great thing about country which makes it almost unique as a genre is the number of duets and multi-vocal tracks, which aren’t as common in any other type of music. Hip hop is the only other genre I can think of which has as much collaboration but in hip hop collaboration tends to be exactly that — collaboration between individual artists rather than bands made up of multiple vocalists, which can lend a richness and depth to composition which you might not otherwise get.
Anyway, I digress. I have one friend who listens almost exclusively to classical music but when this song came on in my car she immediately exclaimed that she loved it. So that’s a serious endorsement. Another serious endorsement — look how many times this video has been played!
14) If you’re in a bad mood — Gary Allan — ‘Bones’
This song is brilliantly aggressive. If you’re ever feeling grumpy, play this song, turn it up loud, and shout along with Gary Allan as he threatens to murder his cheating girlfriend and her lover. I have just reread that sentence and it sounds extremely violent but I can assure you it’s not that bad. Anyway, give it a go — I’m sure it will make you feel much better.
15) If you love rock music — Brett Eldredge — ‘Shadow’
If you’re a rock fan, this is the entry to country you’re looking for. As a rock fan myself, I have realised that rock and country have an awful lot in common, but this is an excellent song to cut your teeth on. And then you will fall in love with country, like Steven Tyler clearly has, and possibly join his circle of country friends in their field – they look to be having a pretty good time. Just leave your doilies (and peroxide) at home.
16) If you want a feminist anthem — Brandy Clark — ‘Girl Next Door’
Brandy Clark is actually a co-writer on Miranda Lambert’s Mama’s ‘Broken Heart’ (see above), and was an established songwriter before she released her own album in 2013, having previously written for Keith Urban, Darius Rucker, Sheryl Crow and Reba McEntire, amongst others — quite the list. This song has guts as well a a dark humour and her voice is beautiful — with depths far beyond the sugary sweetness of many pop singers.
17) If you love female songwriters with depth — Ashley Monroe — ‘You Got Me’
I love this song. It’s haunting without being depressing, country without being twangy, romantic without being sappy and the instrumentals are beautifully balanced. Another amazing example of female talent.
And so concludes our whistlestop tour of country music, for today at least. I’ve tried to keep this list upbeat because I know country has a reputation for being depressing (thanks, John Denver), and I’ve also concentrated on newer and more modern artists rather than the classics, but the great thing about country is that it’s actually a very diverse and creative genre — it just doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. There is a little piece of country for everyone, and hopefully at least one piece on this list for everyone to like.
Please let me know in the comments what other songs you would have liked to see, or if there are other artists we should be listening to — we love finding new music!
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