Like with the year after it, 2001 feels like one of those odd years, in hindsight, that was more of a transitional phase for the country music genre over anything else – with plenty of names that would come to define the decade still somewhat in their career infancy as well as other notable names on their way out. And let’s not dance around it – obviously, due to the September 11 attacks, the genre got caught in a whirlwind of patriotic songs this year and afterwards, some of which were moving and poignant and aimed to heal a frayed nation … and some of which were just loud and obnoxious.
I’m not going to get into that, though, because the aim of this feature is simply offer a fun retrospective of yesterday’s hit songs. And when it comes to assessing the actual music, it’s odd. There are a ton of quality selections here, and filling the list out wasn’t tough at all. Finding those true classics or standouts, on the other hand, proved to be a bit more difficult. 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 – The Chicks, “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me” (written by Matraca Berg and Annie Roboff)
Look, it’s far from their deepest song, but I’ve already covered those selections in other features, and in a year where I’d best describe the music as optimistic or hopeful, this is just such a charming, relentless blast of energy that’s hard to turn away from or deny. Natalie Maines plays coy and dares her partner to fall – take that next step that could lead to something more; just because it’s a serious commitment doesn’t mean love can’t be fun, after all. And when you combine lines like “I never felt the Earth move, honey, until you shook my tree” alongside a choral melody that’s that infectious … hell, it’s definitely worth the plunge.
No. 9 – Alan Jackson, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” (written by Alan Jackson)
It kind of had to be here somewhere, and perhaps I’ve even surprised you for having it this low on this list. As a tribute to the fallen victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks, this works as an honest reaction from a self-regarded simple person who isn’t sure what to think in the moment, even if maybe a line or two haven’t aged well. That’s the important context, tough – it’s the only way Jackson knew how to make sense of the world around him at the time, drawing out genuine empathy and unity for a nation struck by grief and loss. And considering Alan Jackson is just a naturally charismatic, emphatic singer, this may be a song meant to capture a specific moment in time … but I still feel it now.
No. 8 – Travis Tritt, “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive” (written by Darrell Scott)
It’s always been easy to appreciate this song on the surface – heck, just off the brighter acoustics and chipper mandolin lead laced with fiddle interplay, it’s easy for this to bring a smile to my face even before I hear the words. But there’s a lot of great subtle detail to this I’ve come to appreciate more and more as I’ve grown older, like how even though it’s just about appreciating a good, simple day, it’s a little lonely and a little unsure of itself in how any of this will come together or where its lost time has gone. But a unique, hopeful voice is going to either cut through regardless and find a way to make it work or just appreciate the moment of deserved peace. In other words … yeah, it’s always a great day when I revisit this one.
No. 7 – George Strait, “Run” (written by Anthony Smith and Tony Lane)
Aside from the forced Chevy rhyme, this has always ranked among my favorite George Strait singles, and it comes from favorite album of his, too. And I’m not sure what to really credit most – it’s almost a mysterious song of sorts, given that we never know why Strait’s character’s partner has left … although the fact that his delivery is rather heavy and vulnerable with a driving sense of urgency makes me think it’s all just wishful thinking on his part for a reunion that will only take place, at best, in his mind. And I’d also say that interpretation is bolstered by the alluring, spacious keys and liquid pedal steel – a melancholy that can both envelop and establish a scene and then linger about it. Or maybe it is just simple longing for someone who’s itching to find her way home as well. Either way, it’s a beautiful song that’s always stood apart in Strait’s discography.
No. 6 – Patty Loveless, “The Last Thing On My Mind” (written by Craig Wiseman and Al Anderson)
Patty Loveless is just such a versatile and excellent artist, that even though this song doesn’t quite rank among my all-time favorites of hers, it’s still fantastic. Heck, even during an era where she felt artistically restless she still delivers this coy breakup track with aplomb. And it’s so in line with her usual type of chosen material – a song where you’re led to believe she’s putting on a brave face in vain for her character, only for the hook to not read as a defense mechanism at all. She’s hurting and her partner’s memory will always haunt her, and she can admit that. Couple a great interpretation with a fantastic uptick in tempo on the chorus driven by that great fiddle that only accentuates that urgency, and hell, maybe I need to revisit that list of favorites after all.
No. 5 – Blake Shelton, “Austin” (written by David Kent and Kirsti Manna)
Next to the Alan Jackson selection from before, this is the other song you expect to see on a list like this capturing this year … and yeah, I’ll give it to Blake Shelton – if this was his bid as a classic, “Austin” got there. It’s a big, sweeping ballad by way of Garth Brooks that leans heavy on its emotional sentimentality. And yet, there’s two reasons this works for me. For one, the commitment to detailed storytelling and a good hook helps flesh out otherwise archetypal characters – the woman who left to return home only to realize home was what she left behind, and the man who moved on as best as he could because he had to, but never shut that door completely. And then there’s Shelton himself, who’s always been a great charismatic presence at his best and drives the sentiment home with his hugely earnest delivery … and hey, there’s that Brooks comparison coming through again. It’s perhaps a bit dated today in concept, but it’s still a classic worth the revisit.
No. 4 – Martina McBride, “When God-Fearin’ Women Get the Blues” (written by Leslie Satcher)
I’ll admit, Martina McBride’s heavy dependence on emotional balladry hasn’t ever really made her a favorite of mine, so this feisty, dobro-and-fiddle-weidling firestorm stands as an excellent exception to that! Don’t get me wrong, she proves she can handle the bluster quite well, but this is a track I’d expect more from the Chicks, or, if this were a few years later, Miranda Lambert – an angry-as-hell, damn-near punk-leaning scorcher that tackles preconceived societal and religious expectations for women and … doesn’t turn them on their head so much as run them over with a car, and then backs up and does it again. And again. Even despite that, it’s all pretty much played in good fun, but there’s a lot here said subtly that rings nevertheless, and it’s all awesome regardless.
No. 3 – David Ball, “Riding With Private Malone” (written by Wood Newton and Thom Shepherd)
So, here’s your weird little fun fact for this edition of this series: This is one of two independently released songs from this year that became a surprise hit … and to me, definitely the better one. Anyway, folks may remember David Ball as the ‘90s country act with the hit single “Thinkin’ Problem,” and as for why this song about honoring a fallen soldier’s memory turned into a surprise comeback hit for him despite having the promotional odds against it, it was released in early August – and timing is everything.
And this carries the same sort of warmth and grace to its sentiment and delivery as the Alan Jackson selection from before, a beautifully moving story about the late titular soldier’s memory living on through his car sold to Ball’s character. Yes, it can scan as a bit oversold on paper, given the supernatural angle of Private Malone’s ghost still living on and acting as something of a bodyguard for Ball’s character. But when you have a reserved interpreter like him doing his best only to add solemn respect and nothing more against generally warm and rollicking country-folk-like production, along with the subtle details of the life Malone left behind and didn’t get to live for himself, plus a final verse that is genuinely moving, it feels grounded in a way that connects.
No. 2 – Keith Urban, “But For the Grace of God” (written by Keith Urban, Charlotte Caffey, and Jane Wiedlin)
This isn’t quite my favorite Keith Urban song, but it has always been my favorite radio single of his – a surprising neotraditional pivot that still carries the same warmth and grace that would make his pop-country of the decade so damn earnest and charming, particularly in that fiddle line and the content. Really, I can draw a lot of parallels to Travis Tritt’s “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive” with this – another song about expressing thankfulness for what one has that nevertheless carries a dark underbelly of unease knowing it could very well be different. And whereas Tritt’s song focuses inward on an aging character past his prime but not down and out yet, Urban’s cut looks outward, with a particularly empathetic second verse that puts things into perspective for him – not in a jovial way, but in a way that truly feels lived-in and thankful for the common, everyday things often taken for granted. Beautiful sentiment, and a really underrated highlight of the decade.
Before I list my No. 1 selection, here are (more than) a few honorable mentions that just barely missed the cut for this list:
Brooks & Dunn, “Ain’t Nothing ‘Bout You” (written by Rivers Rutherford and Tom Shapiro)
By far one of their most coolest-sounding singles – ain’t nothing I don’t like about it, really.
Trace Adkins, “I’m Tryin’” (written by Jeffrey Steele, Anthony Smith, and Chris Wallin)
I really wanted to include this in the top ten proper, if only because the divorce angle really adds weight to the familiar motivational sentiment and makes it feel like our character is actually trying, hard as it is.
Sara Evans, “Born to Fly” (written by Sara Evans, Marcus Hummon, and Darrell Scott)
And on the flipside to the Adkins song, we have an example of how straightforward motivational messages can also work, so long as they’re carried by a singer with a natural exuberance and charisma to make it more charming than cloying; Sara Evans delivers on that front.
Gary Allan, “Right Where I Need to Be” (written by Casey Beathard and Kendell Marvell)
The Smoke Rings in the Dark era is really the first time Gary Allan felt like Gary Allan, with a devil-may-care attitude and swagger carrying a track about … well, essentially telling your boss to take this job and shove it. And he does that whole growling thing too, so – added bonus!
Jo Dee Messina, “Downtime” (written by Phillip Coleman and Carolyn Dawn Johnson)
Not her most iconic hit, but between the really solid melody and liquid pop-country textures, possibly one of her more underrated.
The Chicks, “Without You” (written by Natalie Maines and Eric Silver)
The lullaby-esque melody feels a bit contrived for the sentiment, but it’s still a pretty good post-breakup track.
Phil Vassar, “Rose Bouquet” (written by Robert Byrne and Phil Vassar)
This one snuck up on me, a genuinely emotional and moving divorce-centered track where Phil Vassar reminiscences on what went wrong with his character’s failed marriage … and damn, I actually feel really bad for him.
Trisha Yearwood, “I Would’ve Loved You Anyway” (written by Mary Danna and Troy Verges)
It’s kind of like second nature for her to make a big, sweeping piano ballad like this work, and while it’s not among my top favorites of her, it’s moving nonetheless.
And now, my No. 1 pick:
No. 1 – Lee Ann Womack, “Ashes By Now” (written by Rodney Crowell)
From afar, I can see how this song might look like an odd No. 1 choice. It’s certainly brighter than the Rodney Crowell version, and on paper that just seems like the wrong choice for the sentiment; I can’t fault those who prefer the original that includes another verse cut here.
But damn it, every time I revisit this version that sharp instrumental hook lodges itself into my brain for days, and I feel more content with the choice. Lee Ann Womack’s bitterness tends to frame itself much more seriously, but I’ve always loved her performance here painted with a dramatic flair that’s just more urgent than anything else in her discography – a firestorm all the way down that smolders like none other. Couple that with a strong groove (and those bongos!) and an equally strong finish from the backing vocalists that adds potency and fire to that hook, and while it may not scan as the most iconic hit of the year, it is my favorite and my pick for one of her most underrated singles. There may not be much left after the fire is gone here, but it’ll always burn for me regardless.