We’ve been counting the years backward for this feature, so it feels weird to say we’ve been leading up to this year, but we kind of have.
And between the death of several legends – Johnny and June Carter Cash, Johnny Paycheck, and Gary Stewart, among others – as well as the blackballing of a certain group we’ll inevitably discuss later on, 2003 is one of those years that feels ripe with change – some of which would be good and most of which would be bad, or at least carry negative ramifications for the genre and how it was perceived.
So, OK, how was the actual music, then? Well, let’s find out together. As always, these lists are compiled according to what peaked within the top 20 during a given year on Billboard’s country charts. I invite you to share your own picks below! Let’s get started.
No. 10 – Brooks & Dunn, “Red Dirt Road” (written by Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn)
Every fiber of my being tells me this I shouldn’t put this here. It’s your average country-rock ode to nostalgia that, come a decade later, would get milked into the ground. But beyond an ironic nostalgic attachment I myself have to this song, I think this sets the template for how to do this kind of song right: from a strong storytelling aspect filled with the highs and the lows of growing up, moving on, and letting go, to Ronnie Dunn’s wistful yet surprisingly melancholic delivery that suits this song well. Couple that all with a pretty potent outro, and you have a strong underdog pick for one of my favorite tracks by the duo.
No. 9 – Jennifer Hanson, “Beautiful Goodbye” (written by Jennifer Hanson and Kim Patton-Johnston)
This one caught me by surprise, if only because I was only familiar with Jennifer Hanson as a writer and not as a solo artist (my favorite of her writes probably being The Wreckers’ “Leave the Pieces”). And in a year that was not kind to female country artists, I suppose a minor top 20 hit could be considered a small victory … but man, what a shame – because this deserved better! No, I’m not really wild about the way she stretches out that hook, but I’m certainly a fan of the Sheryl Crow influence in the sharper guitar tones and the oily organ and bass adding some appreciated heft to this. The framing in the writing is pretty strong as well, able to approach that beautiful goodbye with a sunny bit of optimism that things could end on a good note and a clean slate, where there’s some regret present but the bigger focus is on the possibilities of what moving on could bring. It’s just an all-around solid debut worth checking out and saying hello to once again.
No. 8 – Montgomery Gentry, “Speed” (written by Jeffrey Steele and Chris Wallin)
For every time my opinion has shifted on Tim McGraw’s “7500 OBO” (it’s weird but I think I like it?), I’m just reminded of one of the best songs to tackle an emotional attachment to a vehicle with this particular Montgomery Gentry single. Actually, it just may be my favorite radio single of theirs, due mostly to Eddie Montgomery’s huge, expressive delivery here and the fantastic melancholic liquid tones anchored in the piano and pedal steel. And in trading one vehicle in for another, maybe he’ll find that speed machine to finally escape his heartbreak … or not. After all, physical distance doesn’t silence old demons – that sort of healing will only come with time and hard confrontations with one’s own self. But hey, it’s always nice to dream, right?
No. 7 – Joe Nichols, “Brokenheartsville” (written by Donny Kees, Blake Mevis, Randy Boudreaux, and Clint Daniels)
I’m not really sure Joe Nichols’ smoother delivery is exactly built for the kiss-off template, but there’s just something so sneakily cool about his devil-may-care attitude on display here. He knows he can’t change what’s meant to be in losing his partner to another, so he’s just going to toast their new love by hoping to stick that glass where the sun don’t shine. But he can’t, and while the setting is a very familiar one for tried-and-true country songs, he’s going to shrug it off and spend some time in the titular place instead. It’s just one of those neotraditional classics of the modern era that’s one part melancholic and two parts seedy and toxic. “They can kiss my glass” – you tell ‘em Joe
, now set ‘em up and playing “Walking the Floor.”
No. 6 – Brad Paisley, “I Wish You’d Stay” (written by Brad Paisley and Chris DuBois)
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 his lasting appeal is that he’s not a one-trick pony telling old jokes. When the time calls for him to get serious, he’s just as good as anyone else. Even still, damn it, he should not have made a country power ballad drenched in strings and piano flourishes work this damn well. Yet, he did. He’s such a convincing performer of all varieties, so when he tries to sell the role of the displaced partner who has to watch his significant other leave town to chase her dreams, he’s able to conjure sympathy from the audience naturally. For as much power as there is in that hook, I think what works best about it is that, for one, Paisley isn’t trying to trap her. He knows she has to do whatever it is she’s going to do, and if that means starting an entirely new life, he’s going to give her the space she needs to find herself. But that he still so desperately wants her to stay and knows it’s a plea for naught is what gives the song its potency in a way that can be powerful without being clingy, all the more evidenced by that smoldering outro.
No. 5 – Sara Evans, “Backseat of a Greyhound Bus” (written by Chris Lindsey, Hillary Lindsey, Aimee Mayo, and Troy Verges)
I guess it was a good year for pregnancies in country music this year, as while Kenny Chesney’s “There Goes My Life” will just barely miss the cut for this list, it is worth noting the differences between it and this particular song. After all, a surprise teenage pregnancy certainly surprises and uproots Chesney’s character’s life in the former, but it doesn’t come with the shame cast toward a single mother in the same boat shunned by her hometown on the latter – a shame rooted in foolish gender and societal expectations. But out of hatred comes love, and in the most surprising way in the backseat of a greyhound bus that, hopefully, is headed toward a better place and a better tomorrow. In a way I’m also reminded of Rachel Proctor’s “Me and Emily,” where there’s a lot of uncertainty and fear in how to navigate the coming days ahead, but also so much joy to be found nevertheless in the moment of knowing this character won’t make her journey alone.
No. 4 – Dierks Bentley, “What Was I Thinkin’” (written by Deric Ruttan, Brett Beavers, and Dierks Bentley)
I mentioned in my preamble that this was a year of a change, and while that change came literally in many ways, there are also parts of it harder to accurately describe. Sonically, the genre was caught somewhere between the fading embers of the neotraditional movement and the growing embrace of more polished country-pop tones – and it’s that odd mishmash that would basically define the decade. There were exceptions, naturally, and acts that leaned heavily toward one direction or another. And I think Dierks Bentley entered the fray with something all his own – a fast-paced story song with some hilarious twists for what was supposed to be a simple date night and a twangy accompaniment that, much to my personal delight, leans heavily on that dobro. It’s a bit of a frenzy overall, which is fitting given that this leans headfirst into its primal instincts over anything that could be described as carefully calculated. It’s the sort of rambunctious, hangdog track that would define Bentley’s 2000s work – and to this day, it’s one of my favorites of his.
No. 3 – Craig Morgan, “Almost Home” (written by Craig Morgan and Kerry Kurt Philips)
My top three for this year presents one of those cases where any of these songs could be a No. 1 contender, if only because they all lean heavy on emotive storytelling. The thing is, though, these stories carry more complex meanings, be they in their subtle implications or possibly even in the straightforward text. “Almost Home” is more of a case of the latter – a song that pulls from the dreamlike sequencing of, say, “Green, Green Grass of Home” to pull away from a darker reality into past times of ease and comfort. And as Craig Morgan’s character tries to do the right thing by comforting a sleeping homeless man freezing to death, he inadvertently wakes them and rips away that last good memory likely keeping this person fighting. We never find out how he went from a happy childhood to where he’s at now – which mirrors reality in how we never truly know a person’s story or what has shaped it – but there’s something so potently sad knowing that all that’s left is what was left behind; perhaps even relatable, specific circumstances aside. It’s just such a deeply empathetic story told through such a unique lens – and that it’s only placed here says a lot about what’s ahead.
No. 2 – The Chicks, “Travelin’ Soldier” (written by Bruce Robison)
Well, no use dancing around it any longer. Those familiar with their country music history know that this is the last year we’ll hear from the Chicks for this feature (although since we’re counting backwards, it’s really the first time) – due to their banishment from the genre that’s left such an ugly stain on it ever since. And that “Travelin Solider” was their last big country hit feels so right yet so wrong somehow. It’s not the incendiary firestorm of a comment that was “Long Time Gone” before it that one might have expected to ruffle more feathers than it did. This is just something more innately familiar to the genre – the tale of a young couple torn apart by the crushing reality of war, with the emphasis rightfully placed on an intimate production and their story that began but was never rightfully finished. I’d call it timely for the year if it wasn’t a Bruce Robison cover, but … you know, yeah, it fits anyway. A story that finished long before it should have. I mean, it’s a beautiful song regardless, but if that doesn’t speak to the larger irony of everything surrounding this song’s descent in the wake of those comments, I don’t know what does.
Before I unveil my No. 1 pick, here are a few honorable mentions that just barely missed the cut for this list, presented in no particular order:
Brian McComas, “99.9% Sure (I’ve Never Been Here Before)” (written by Billy Austin and Greg Barnhill)
The catchiest song by a one-hit wonder in country music.
Terri Clark, “I Just Wanna Be Mad” (written by Kelley Lovelace and Lee Thomas Miller)
A pretty cute and relatable song about trying to make a marriage work, even if it requires letting the anger and frustration out every now and then.
Alan Jackson feat. Jimmy Buffett, “It’s Five O’ Clock Somewhere” (written by Jim “Moose” Brown and Don Rollins)
I’ve heard it so many times in my life that I’ve grown kind of numb to it, but it is a fantastic song.
Toby Keith, “I Love This Bar” (written by Toby Keith and Scotty Emerick)
He’d overdo this theme during the remainder of the decade, but the strong details sketched here in making this place feel lived-in coupled with Toby Keith’s – following pun intended – boozy swagger make this one of his best.
Shania Twain, “Up!” (written by Shania Twain and Robert John “Mutt” Lange)
Guaranteed mood-booster for the day. Duh.
And now, my No. 1 pick:
No. 1 – Randy Travis, “Three Wooden Crosses” (written by Kim Williams and Doug Johnson)
A story of redemption – both in terms of the content and the fact that it gave Randy Travis a final No. 1 country hit … even if he was targeting the Christian music market by this point. I’m a nostalgic person, but I’m not one of those people who says country music was better in any one particular past time period. With that said, I think as far as country radio is concerned, this is one of the last years where you’d hear complex storytelling songs like my top three selections turn into legitimate hits. After all, it’s unclear where exactly we’re headed with that opening line: “A farmer and a teacher, a hooker and a preacher, ridin’ on a midnight bus bound for Mexico.”
But we quickly learn that only one of those passengers will survive an accident on the way to their destination, and will be the key in spreading the message of the fallen – that who we continue to impact after we’re gone is perhaps the greatest thing we can hope of for our legacies. Granted, it’s easy to witness the mark left behind by a farmer and a teacher, but this isn’t the story of how the oft-villified-by-society hooker turns toward the straight and narrow by divine revelation. No, if anything, the song humanizes every character present not by their labels or professions, but simply by the people who they are and were while here. Everyone took the trip in search of something – be it higher education or to find themselves in a confusing world – and everyone is equal here. And from the aftermath of that tragedy still somehow leads to a story with … maybe not so much a happy ending as a heartwarming one. It’s one of those songs that gets to me with every revisit, no matter how many times I’ve heard it before or the fact that its twists no longer surprise me, because it’s the power of that message that always prevails first and foremost.