I’ve mostly been disenchanted by mainstream country music over the past decade, and chances are you’ve been as well, if you regularly read a website like this one. As a kid who gravitated toward country in the late 2000s and was damn-near obsessed by the very early 2010s with collecting albums and watching charts, there was something dispiriting watching the genre’s transformation around 2012-2013 in the advent of bro-country, even despite that music being largely targeted toward my age demographic. Thinking back on it now, it’s probably been a decade since I recreationally listened to country radio regularly, and while things are better in some regards, I’m still largely indifferent to most of what comes through the industry (at least, according to my Boom-or-Bust Jukebox feature).
Even despite that, I can’t say I’m one of those people who’s given up on the genre. If anything, I’ve just focused that attention and passion elsewhere, like keeping up with the independent scene and diving into writing about the genre, all while still holding out hope that maybe things will improve someday soon. I still enjoy keeping up with what’s popular and don’t like to adopt the “real country” mentality, though, which is where The Musical Divide’s long-running Favorite Hit Songs feature stems from. Lately, however, I’ve been thinking about the songs that bridge that happy medium – the ones that are clearly marketed at country radio but don’t fare well, for reasons that have almost always have little to do with a song’s quality or lack thereof, sadly. They’re usually songs you can tell won’t catch casual fans who don’t want to engage deeper with the music than others, but the ones you root for anyway, only to be disappointed when they finally do run out of steam.
So, for something fun and different, rather than take a look at the best hit songs of a particular year, this feature will be dedicated to the anti-hits – the songs that didn’t reach that top 20 echelon. Granted, given that the definition of a “radio single” is somewhat open to interpretation and that one could argue that anything marketed to radio should count, I’ve decided to only include singles that charted on the Billboard Country Airplay chart, if only for the sake of consistency. Even still, this list is by no means exhaustive. Sadly, there’s no great historical archive for this sort of thing, and most of the selections you’ll see stem from ones I remembered or asked others about. Regardless, it’s all in good fun and nothing more, so let’s dive into 20 songs that I feel deserved better at radio, starting with 10 additional unranked honorable mentions and moving on from there.
Alan Jackson, “You Go Your Way” (Peak: No. 39, 2012)
And like that, a master’s final top 40 hit to date sounds like it just comes naturally, all the way down to that fantastic hook. It’s not quite my favorite heartbreak song of his from the 2010s, but we just may get to that anyway.
Jon Pardi, “What I Can’t Put Down” (Peak: No. 31, 2014)
Perhaps an unpopular opinion, but while I like the bulk of Jon Pardi’s material, I haven’t really loved something from him since his debut album, which aimed for more of a raucous Bakersfield edge over the smoother neotraditional tones of his current work. He’s a better hell-raiser than balladeer, and this is a blast that deserved to be his true breakthrough hit.
Kacey Musgraves, “Keep It To Yourself” (Peak: No. 32, 2014)
I mean, this feature is pretty much dedicated to an artist like her, so of course we’ll see her in the top 20 proper. But this is a forgotten gem that, no, may not have had the striking social commentary of her other singles from this album, but still proved she could sell a tried-and-true heartbreak song, all the same.
Maddie and Tae, “Shut Up and Fish” (Peak: No. 23, 2015)
I’m still holding out hope that they’ll return to this brand of quirky, neotraditional country in their writing and presentation someday, because especially in a year like 2015, this kiss-off from women on the radio was pretty much needed.
William Michael Morgan, “Missing” (Peak: No. 29, 2016)
I still remember that brief period in 2016 when everyone was hyping up artists like Jon Pardi, William Michael Morgan, and Mo Pitney as the next neotraditional wave in Nashville. That didn’t happen, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t gems worth seeking out, especially from the latter two, like this one that embraces escapism in one of the cheeriest ways imaginable.
The Mavericks, “Born to Be Blue” (Peak: No. 46, 2012)
… It’s the Mavericks. Just jam with it.
Jon Pardi, “She Ain’t In It” (Peak: No. 21, 2017)
I said earlier that Jon Pardi wasn’t a particularly convincing balladeer, but this is a strong exception that should have been a modern-day neotraditional classic.
Brothers Osborne, “Shoot Me Straight” (Peak: No. 28, 2018)
At this point, the number of eligible candidates for a list like this from these guys is starting to pile up, which is a damn shame, because they rock. Literally – you don’t want the radio edits of songs like this or “Stay a Little Longer.” Trust me.
Midland, “Mr. Lonely” (Peak: No. 23, 2019)
I get it. Midland isn’t for everyone. But we could have had a fun honky-tonk number with some Dwight Yoakam swagger thrown in to rule the airwaves, and radio just said, “No.” Granted, they mostly said that to Yoakam as well, but still …
Kacey Musgraves, “Rainbow” (Peak: No. 33, 2019)
At this point, she didn’t need country radio, but that something as warm and graceful like this couldn’t maybe convince radio that they needed her … what a shame.
And now, on to the list proper!
No. 20 – Midland, “Cheatin’ Songs” (Peak: No. 26, 2020)
I’ve already mentioned this band’s mischievous side, but they’re good at playing the ones getting hurt, too. Still, this shouldn’t work as well as it does – a stab at smoother, ‘80s-inspired country-pop that, lyrically, is aiming for something darker in exploring our protagonist’s paranoia over his partner’s suspected cheating. But it just all rolls so effortlessly without one element contradicting the other, half because there’s always been an easy charm and playfulness to this band’s presentation, and half because, ultimately, it’s just trying to be a tongue-in-cheek ode to one of country music’s most popular tropes. I wish the band actually had brought back cheating songs with this, but as it is, still a jam.
No. 19 – Runaway June, “We Were Rich” (Peak: No. 37, 2020)
I like the similarly themed Justin Moore that managed to become a hit last year, but Runaway June’s warm ode to childhood nostalgia just cut a little deeper in the wake of the pandemic (even if it was originally featured on an album from 2019 from what is now an almost entirely different band). Sure, the details are mundane, but that’s the point. In framing this character’s childhood as slightly less than average in what this family owned or could do compared to others, the events help to offer perspective – one of the best gifts of all, really. And with a framing and tone that can carry a rare sort of jubilance in its recollections while also carrying the self-awareness to know how hard it was for this character’s parents to even provide a little, this just has a sense of empathy and humanity that, I repeat, should have gone down so much smoother in the summer of 2020.
No. 18 – Brothers Osborne, “21 Summer” (Peak: No. 24, 2016)
Of course, speaking of songs that should ruled airwaves over the summer, we have another gem from Brothers Osborne that deserved better. Even despite the done-to-death theme of faded summer romance, there are a lot of smart details in the writing and tone that have always put this in the same league as, say, Keith Urban’s “’Til Summer Comes Around” for me. The smooth, reverb-touched melody and bass strikes a balance between fond nostalgia for what was and sadness for what never will be again, which also ties into the writing, namely that despite how this character still carries a torch for an old partner, they know that the past is the past. And the larger wish just comes in hoping that life has treated them well ever since. Wistful in the best possible way.
No. 17 – Cam, “Mayday” (Peak: No. 36, 2016)
I guess I’m surprised that country radio allowed a slow, contemplative ballad in “Burning House” ascend to nearly the top of the charts, so while I (thankfully) can’t complain about their reception to that song, I can complain about every other way the industry at large has treated Cam otherwise. She’s always had a fantastic knack for theatricality in her presentation that can strike a careful balance between dramatic and subtle, and that really shows on the collapse of a relationship she no longer wants on “Mayday.” Between the fantastic progression and interplay of the piano and acoustic accents driving the momentum until that final chorus hits, along with Cam’s personality to carry it all through, we have a pop-country smash that, sadly, sank before it could be rescued.
No. 16 – Candi Carpenter, “Burn the Bed” (Peak: No. 56, 2016)
This is a strange one to discuss. Candi Carpenter was briefly signed to Sony Music Nashville in 2016 and released only one single, which, following her departure from the label shortly thereafter, has mostly been scrubbed from the Internet these days (I didn’t even know it was back on YouTube until I sat down to write this). Granted, she’s still releasing music now, and said music is being produced by Brandi Carlile. So, like, she’s doing fine and all, but I remember being part of the online country music community from way back when hoping this would skyrocket up the charts and lead to more. Seriously – “I don’t want to wash the sheets, I want to burn the bed” is one of the most cutting hooks I’ve heard for a cheating song, and with fantastically burnished production that, pardon the pun, smolders and a personality that can nail the careful balance between shocked hurt and seething anger, it’s a huge reason why I’ve followed her work ever since.
No. 15 – Charlie Worsham, “Want Me Too” (Peak: No. 33, 2013)
The obvious common cliché with this particular feature is that basically every artist here deserved better, and while Charlie Worsham eventually received some deserved recognition from Luke Combs, the world really only knew him briefly for “Could It Be.” What said world missed was a stacked debut album that, at least amidst the arrival and peak of the bro-country era, sounded like a breath of the fresh air. The sound went more for tasteful country-pop akin to Vince Gill over Brantley Gilbert butt-rock, and the song lyrics actually gave its characters – particularly its female ones – agency. It’s why even despite how “Want Me Too” may sound like radio filler today, there’s so many things I appreciate in context, even beyond the catchy electric and bass grooves and cleaner tones carrying the shimmering high of the chorus. Worsham’s character is certainly hoping for something more with this potential significant other, but only if they want too as well, and it’s just that that parallel urgency and understanding that’s always made this come across as cheerfully playful in the best way. For some reason, though, we wanted Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line instead, and I’ll never understand that.
No. 14 – Dierks Bentley feat. Kacey Musgraves, “Bourbon in Kentucky” (Peak: No. 45, 2013)
Man, was the industry already that scared of Kacey Musgraves in mid-to-late 2013, that they’d screw over a fantastic Dierks Bentley lead single to prove it? Granted, we’re also still in distinct bro-country territory, and nothing quite proves that than shutting down a track soaked in bitterness like this one. And honestly, that’s the short and sweet selling point right there of why I enjoy this, letting all that negative atmosphere simmer and having Musgraves’ subtle backing vocals serve as a greatly effective counterbalance to Bentley’s frustrations on display. Definitely a slow-burn drowning in misery, but it’s one worth stewing in, all the same.
No. 13 – Josh Turner, “Lay Low” (Peak: No. 25, 2014)
Most singles from around 2013 and 2014 usually come with sad stories, and this is the start of one that would instigate Turner’s long absence from country radio … because, you know, bro-country. Funny, though, that during a time period where mindless escapism was the name of the game for so many radio hits, Turner delivered a more thoughtful, mature take on the subject that involved escaping somewhere with a partner to reclaim a clear head and peace of mind. I had basically stopped listening to country radio by this point, but I’ll never forget rooting for this one’s success, if only because Turner seemed like one of the few genuine good guys.
No. 12 – Josh Abbott Band feat. Carly Pearce, “Wasn’t That Drunk” (Peak: No. 37, 2016)
Funny how Carly Pearce’s first taste of mainstream country success came from a featured spot on a Texas country act’s song (Funny enough, Kacey Musgraves is in the same boat, having been featured on a single from 2011 called “Oh Tonight” with, you guessed it, the Josh Abbott Band). Granted, her counterbalance is a huge reason why this works, playing off Josh Abbott to show two friends too scared to make a move toward the other, only for it to happen by chance and finally have both of them find the courage to take that next step. I’ll be blunt and say it’s sensual enough to let that tension rise and fall excellently, and to this day, whether in reference to Abbott or Pearce, it’s still one of their best.
No. 11 – Kacey Musgraves, “Blowin’ Smoke” (Peak: No. 23, 2013)
I’m not sure anything I could say about “Blowin’ Smoke” couldn’t just as well apply to any of Kacey Musgraves’ early work. It’s bleak, it’s vivid, and it’s textured in a way that paints a familiar picture for small town America. And like with her best material, she throws herself into the picture as well, showing how she’s just as desperate and hopeless as her peers, granting an empathy that’s always been among the star traits of her earliest work. But beyond lyrics that cut just a little sharper against frustration ready to really blow and a surprisingly catchy melody despite it all, “Blowin’ Smoke” still remains a winner.
No. 10 – Kacey Musgraves, “Follow Your Arrow” (Peak: No. 43, 2013)
I’m thankful that “Merry Go Round” did well enough to be ineligible for this list, but in discussing a song that’s the complete opposite of that one, this might arguably be even better. There hasn’t been much in country music to blow past stereotypes of a typically conservative genre in its references to pot, same-sex religion, and open denigration of those who would impose contradictory standards of gender and religion … pretty much ever, I think. At least, nothing that quite captured the cultural and popular zeitgeist quite like this did, even despite its airplay chart peak. But what’s so charming about it is how Musgraves makes it look easy, flipping the song into upbeat cheer in walking down its own roads and being so relaxed and playful to make it all look like nothing. But in country music, it is something, and it’s still a marvel to behold.
No. 9 – Gary Allan, “It Ain’t the Whiskey” (Peak: No. 36, 2013)
Man, you don’t know how much I wish Gary Allan would return to this sort of dark bitterness he’s always been a master at over what he’s doing now. I noted how “Bourbon in Kentucky” drowns itself in its misery from before, but this sounds like it’s been soaking in it for a few weeks and is just ready for it to end, from the swells of organ and muted, fuzzed out tones that lead to a pretty bleak end solo. Yeah, of course it wasn’t going to do well at radio, but when has Allan ever gave a damn about that anyway? This is a tried-and-true contemplation of one’s inner self that he has always nailed, and even with that bar set, it’s still one of his best.
No. 8 – Chris Stapleton, “What Are You Listening To?” (Peak: No. 46, 2013)
“I was listening to Chris Stapleton before it was cool!” Yeah, go back to reading Whiskey Riff, you grifter dudebro hipster, you. In all seriousness, it’s weird to think that there was a time in the 2010s when Chris Stapleton wasn’t that well known, outside of those who knew his bluegrass or southern rock work, or who paid very close attention to the liner notes of certain radio singles. His first attempt at country radio as a solo success remains one of his best, sporting a surprisingly quaint feel in the tone that his huge voice isn’t typically known for. If anything, though, it greatly complements the low-key somberness in wondering what an old partner is up to these days, framed through a musical connection they had as friends and partners, which is just an awesome little detail. And I love songs like this where the backing vocals add that subtle implication that they’re pining too, like here, how the other partner is possibly asking the same titular question as our protagonist. Nowadays, I think there would be at least a few people who’d answer this question with Chris Stapleton
– the Grammys, I guess.
No. 7 – Cam, “Diane” (Peak: No. 43, 2017)
2017 me initially wasn’t that wild about this song; 2022 me thinks 2017 me was stupid. Cam has always been creative with her song ideas and choices in executing them, and this song that frames itself as an answer to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” more than clears the high bar set for it. It’s more than just about being presented as “the other woman’s perspective,” though. If anything, Cam’s character claims her agency, not only in doing her best to apologize for a situation she didn’t know would cause trouble for someone else, but also in placing the blame on her lover for feeling cheated herself. And it’s that complicated flurry of emotions that not only is conveyed excellently through the writing, but also in the driving momentum carrying this track, from the monstrously huge gallop of the groove to Cam’s huge presence as a performer. To date, it’s likely her best, and I wish someone in Nashville had realized that way back when.
No. 6 – Mickey Guyton, “Better Than You Left Me” (Peak: No. 34, 2015)
And speaking of female artists constantly getting screwed over by Nashville, we have Mickey Guyton’s debut single, which, if we’re going to enter this conversation, was far better and certainly more country than whatever your average Cole Chase Bryan was serving up during that time. And really, diving into what I like about this is simple. It’s a tried-and-true song about drawing resilience from a heartbreak, where Guyton’s parallel vulnerability and confidence as an emotive interpreter does the bulk of the heavy lifting here. And it deserved better. If “Nice Things” had charted, it would have handily made this list, but this is still a fantastic showcase of Guyton’s talent.
No. 5 – Chris Young, “Neon” (Peak: No. 23, 2012)
It won’t hold up in court, but I’m convinced that this song’s failure to do as well as Chris Young’s chart-topping hits is what led him on the dark and utterly boring path he’s been on as an artist ever since. Because, this Chris Young? He’s an entirely different guy. He’s actually using that golden voice for good, channeling the timeless spirit of honky tonks and bars akin to Brooks and Dunn’s “Neon Moon” that carries country music in the understated use of pedal steel, fiddle, and piano. It’s less about the “tear in my beer” mentality and more about celebrating its atmosphere and resonance, all while being a bit playful in what it’s going for along the way, where Young, if anything, simply feels more like an outside observer to it all. I hope this guy comes back around again someday, because he can deliver country music gold and make it look easy.
No. 4 – Alan Jackson, “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore” (Peak: No. 25, 2012)
Why pay for therapy when most streaming services charge you $10 to listen to sad Alan Jackson songs? Really, though, this is brutal, a heartbreak song where Jackson’s character loves his ex-partner so much, that he’s willing to save face, swallow his pride, and fully accept any blame for why it didn’t work out, just so they can move on and find happiness. And that’s the thing – there’s an easy way to make something like this sound clingy or petty and vengeful in its intentions. But there’s that subtle implication from Jackson that there really was bad blood on both sides, where even his partner likely has their own doubts about leaving, which makes his choice to be the bad guy more powerful. He’ll play along to help them both move on, even if he’ll still love his partner regardless. It’s a master simply doing what he does best, and even more than 20 years after his debut, he still had it.
No. 3 – Ashley McBryde, “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” (Peak: No. 40, 2019)
It’s about time we got to an Ashley McBryde song, huh? The sad truth of this feature is that, for most artists featured here, it’s too late for that second chance or comeback hit. McBryde’s star is only burning brighter, though, which is great, albeit not at country radio, outside of a few exceptions. But I loved “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” even before the recognition came, and if anything, its thankful humility on display only resonates louder now because of it (even if I kinda prefer her more reckless take on the same subject with “Never Will”). Sure, it’s intimate and damn-near skeletal in its composition, but when you have a good song and an honest performer to carry it, you have it all, really. And for a song with this much lived-in detail in the journey of “making it” that shows how what that means for McBryde is simply the ability to play music, regardless of the fame status, this really ain’t that bad for a girl now going, well … somewhere.
No. 2 – David Nail, “The Sound of a Million Dreams” (Peak: No. 38, 2012)
I think anyone who listens to music has a sweet spot for certain types of songs. Songs about finding joy in music tend to hit one of them for me, but it’s really the songs that find something even more transcendent within it that forces me to really value the art. And even despite this being a piano ballad and carrying the bones in its melody and composition to go for something big, David Nail doesn’t do that. He exercises restraint in his performance to honor the power of a good song and how it’ll cut through the noise to hit listeners, indeed. It’s simply stirring and beautiful in a way I can’t properly describe beyond that, but in a time where the “songs about songs” genre is starting to result in mindless list-driven odes to nothing, it matters to me that the song references made here are made for a reason. He references “Mama Tried” because he didn’t live up to his potential and knows it – a cutting detail that feels earned – and in actually communicating why timeless songs resonate, Nail made a classic of his own, and sings it like he truly does understand the power of a song when it hits just right.
No. 1 – Ashley McBryde, “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” (Peak: No. 30, 2017)
I’ve written about music for seven years now (as a hobby, mind you), and I have to admit that I’ve lost the drive that once fueled my reasoning for doing so in the first place. That feeling of encountering something rare and precious is just harder to come by in a modern age where new music is constantly being overfed to us and we’re introduced to artists – no, legends in the making – that apparently we should have known three weeks ago. I miss that feeling of encountering something new on the radio and being blown away by what I was listening to as a kid, and I’m not saying it’s totally gone now or that it doesn’t manifest in new ways through streaming recommendations and the like. But in an age where most music journalism feels like extended PR anyway, it’s hard to know who to trust when someone says, “Listen to this.”
But man, I remember. I remember the buzz circling around Ashley McBryde in 2017, and I remember really getting it. I remember watching “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” slowly climb up the charts and how it grounded in that feeling I’d used to get as a kid. It’s why I still care about what gets popular at radio, because it’s fun to watch a song actually do well and possibly connect with people beyond that, if they let it. This song, however, was meant for the dreamers and listeners who cared a bit deeper about the music they were taking in, delivered by a performer who sounded weathered enough to sell her own journey with lived-in exhaustion, yet also the confidence needed to keep going with it. Sure, it’s a little close to “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” from before, but this is a bit more for everyone else – another slow-burn with just a hint of smolder in its tones and swells of organ but still intimate enough to underplay the sentiment and help it hit close to home. McBryde didn’t need this to do well at radio to get where she’s at now, but it sure would have helped, and it’s the sort of song I’d still label as a breakthrough regardless, if only because it resonated with who it needed to. Still, over the past decade, it’s the song I feel deserved better than what it got from the industry, but that’s all in the process of making the best of the worst day kind of night, I guess.