For country music in general, 2003 wasn’t a stellar year. That’s not an indictment of song quality, but rather a note on the year in general. I mean, we lost Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Johnny Paycheck, and Gary Stewart in the same year.
Then of course there’s discussing the year in music itself. To longtime country fans, the genre died out by the ’90s, despite the quality still remaining strong up until this point in time. It’s a shame, as while country music of the 2000s was targeting a new demographic, there were certainly plenty of great songs throughout the year. This feature is dedicated to talking about them.
As always, this is the only feature where Wikipedia is a handy source, as I’m counting down the best “hit” songs of 1996 (basically top 20 or close to it). Also, these are of course only my personal picks and preferences. I invite you share yours down below!
First, let’s count down some honorable mentions:
- Toby Keith – “I Love This Bar” (sometimes Toby Keith’s drunken bemusement worked quite well)
- Brooks & Dunn – “Red Dirt Road” (nostalgia done right)
- Montgomery Gentry – “Speed” (one of Eddie Montgomery’s best performances)
- Gary Allan – “Man To Man” (this song just rolls along so easily)
- Reba McEntire – “I’m Gonna Take That Mountain” (Bluegrass Reba McEntire is always a treat)
- Shania Twain – “Up!” (Perhaps a controversial pick, but wow, this is such a jam)
Further honorable mentions can be found here.
On with the list!
No. 10 – Blake Shelton, “The Baby”
Some of Blake Shelton’s finest singles were his first ones, and “The Baby” is a fine testament of that statement. Sure, it’s meant to tug at your heartstrings in the most obvious way possible, but it’s a song any young (or only) child can relate to. Even if you can see that ending coming, it doesn’t make it any less effective.
No. 9 – Dierks Bentley, “What Was I Thinkin'”
This is perhaps one of the most “fun” songs in country music. It was Dierks Bentley’s introduction to the country music world, with a twangy accompaniment and excellent, hilarious story. More than that, however, the song bridged the gap between a country music world caught between a post-neotraditional and current-pop-country sound. Since then, Bentley has continued to bridge that gap in a way that makes him one of current country music’s best.
No. 8 – Joe Nichols, “Brokenheartsville”
Speaking of a country music climate caught between two worlds, Joe Nichols represented the ways of tradition. With a voice that could really only sing traditional country music, “Brokenheartsville” is just one of those modern day classics in the genre. Seeped in heartache with an edge of bitterness to it, this is what country music is all about. “Here’s to the past, they can kiss my glass” – you tell ’em, Joe.
No. 7 – Brad Paisley, “I Wish You’d Stay”
Brad Paisley’s goofier tracks are highly underrated and surely a signature part of his discography. Even “Celebrity” is another good track from this year. But part of Paisley’s lasting appeal is that he’s not a one-trick pony telling old jokes. When the time comes for him to deliver a classic heartbreaking country song, he can nail them just as good as anyone else. Plus, Paisley is the kind of likable performer where you actually hang on to the last note hoping this girl stays after all. But she doesn’t, and that only makes his delivery all the better knowing that.
No. 6 – Kenny Chesney, “There Goes My Life”
Kenny Chesney’s ballads are among his best songs, and “There Goes My Life” is no exception. Sure, it’s the kind of feel-good story that could be maudlin in the wrong hands, but I’d argue “There Goes My Life” is still able to tackle a real problem in a grounded way. The play on the hook is excellent, and it’s one of many songs from this year that can bring a tear to your eye.
No. 5 – Sara Evans, “Backseat of a Greyhound Bus”
On the other hand (from my No. 6 pick), pregnancies can also come with clouds of judgment. In Sara Evans’s case, on “Backseat of a Greyhound Bus,” the protagonist is an unwed soon-to-be mother shunned by her community, but that doesn’t matter when she gives birth on well … the backseat of a greyhound bus headed for somewhere else. The only thing that matters at that point is her daughter, making it an excellent tale of love, devotion, and knowing what truly matters.
No. 4 – Billy Currington, “Walk A Little Straighter”
Billy Currington’s debut single is arguably his finest, and in time would become a very different single for him. The most heartbreaking thing about the tale of a son watching his father succumb to alcoholism is that it still leads to a lesson learned. The son’s future children won’t have to watch their father repeat their grandfather’s mistakes. Sadly, this is an example of where country music gets a bit too real.
No. 3 – Dixie Chicks, “Travelin’ Soldier”
A simple, heartbreaking tale of young romance crushed under the weight of war. Just as the two main characters find what they’ve been looking for in each other and finally erase their loneliness, they’re ripped apart from each other permanently. It may be a Bruce Robison cover, but this acoustic version is definitely the definitive version.
No. 2 – Randy Travis, “Three Wooden Crosses”
A story of redemption not only for its characters, but for Randy Travis himself. The song became Travis’s first No. 1 single in just under a decade, and what a way to return. Even the most stone-cold heart has to appreciate this tale of redemption in a song where you know only one of the four characters is making it out alive. As an added bonus, Travis perfectly conveys the nuance of the lyric through his rich baritone. I consider the top three songs on this list instant classics in country music, for the record.
No. 1 – Craig Morgan, “Almost Home”
As a testament to how good this song is, Trace Adkins almost came to blows with Craig Morgan over this. Little did Adkins know that Morgan helped to write this classic country song. The song’s structure has always reminded me of Porter Wagoner’s “Green, Green Grass Of Home” – the main character escapes to a better place in his mind akin to heaven, and before he meets his end, he’s rudely (well, in the case of “Almost Home”) brought back down to reality.
But this song is of a more tender variety. Morgan only meant to shield this poor vagrant from the freezing cold, and instead, he took away the only happiness the innocent man had likely felt in a long time. It’s a bit more loaded than your average simple country song, but it packs a gut-punch of a story that fits well within the genre. Beyond just a contender for best country song of the 2000s thus far, “Almost Home” would challenge some of the genre’s absolute best in general.