by Julian Spivey
25. "Pawn Shop Heart" by Left Arm Tan
Texas band Left Arm Tan really hit me with the catchy “Pawn Shop Heart” about a breakup where the narrator gave everything he had to his partner, but she didn’t quite feel the same way. It’s OK, he doesn’t regret the relationship, he just wants his heart back as he might need it again someday. Sounding like something the Eagles may have recorded at some point in their legendary careers, “Pawn Shop Heart” includes one of my favorite choruses of 2020: “Two-steppin’, two-timin’, blue-eyed heart attack/I ain’t perfect, but, baby, I ain’t that bad/I’ll give it away again someday/Or shine it ‘till it ain’t black/It’s just a pawn shop heart/But, baby, I want it back.”
24. "Goodbye John" by Joe Stamm
There have been a lot of hard losses this year for fans of the Country and Americana genres with the passing’s of living legends like Kenny Rogers, Charlie Daniels and more, but the one that had the biggest impact on me was the death of singer-songwriter legend John Prine to COVID-19 in April. Prine was one of the all-time best songwriters and one of many personal favorites of mine. Joe Stamm’s “Goodbye, John,” which was released exactly one month after Prine’s death, is an incredible tribute to Prine and really hit home at the hardships of 2020 and the pandemic that completely changed our world in multiple ways, and completely stopped the livelihood of traveling musicians like Stamm who can’t travel and perform so he finds his own little corner of paradise (a reference to one of Prine’s most loved songs) and finds some solace in this crazy world by listening to the master’s words.
23. "Sarah's Flame" by Drive-By Truckers
The Drive-By Truckers released the critically acclaimed The Unraveling early in 2020 and pretty much everyone expected that’d be the last new music we’d get from the band this year – but then they surprised us with a second album The New OK on October 2. The New OK included my favorite DBT song of 2020, Mike Cooley’s “Sarah’s Flame,” which is incredibly smart in that it places some of what’s gone on in our country over the last four-to-six years or so on former Alaska governor and Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who started fanning some of the country’s racial flames before President Donald Trump even ran for office. It’s not something I’d previously though of, but I think there’s something to it.
22. "Crazyland" by Eric Church
Eric Church has been one of my favorite songwriters for quite some time now, but he even floored me a bit with his wordplay on “Crazyland.” One of many singles released by Church this year without an announced album attached to it, “Crazyland” sees its narrator enter a bar filled with many characters who serve as tropes of your typical country music down-and-out drinking song. The whole crew is here: “sad,” “regret,” “fool,” “lost,” “all my fault” and so on and so forth hanging out listening to the blues. It’s quite the unique spin on both the traditional country music and heartbreak song and according to Church in an interview with Taste of Country the idea came to him in a dream. “I actually dreamed the chorus of the song, and I woke up and I wrote it down, and then I ended up writing the rest of the song to the chorus,” he said.
21. "No Dancing in Bristol" by Reckless Kelly
Reckless Kelly proved greatly long ago on 2005’s “Seven Nights in Eire” that they could get that Irish sound down pat. They bring it back to a lesser extent on this year’s “No Dancing in Bristol,” off their double album North American Jackpot (on of the year’s best releases), on a song about traveling to perform overseas without your loved one. In some ways, “No Dancing in Bristol,” is kind of a more mature sequel to “Seven Nights in Eire,” as the idea of being away from the woman you love for even a short amount of time is just too much to completely enjoy the trip.
20. "The Country Doesn't Sound the Same" by John Baumann
I absolutely love the dual meaning behind John Baumann’s “The Country Doesn’t Sound the Same.” He begins the song by remarking about how the country music you hear on today’s mainstream radio just isn’t the same (read: as good) as the stuff he used to hear on his dad’s radio growing up with fiddle and steel guitar. He then pivots to how the literal countryside doesn’t look the same with family farms being bought out and going under because of cities growing larger and nature being overrun by business. Finally, he takes on the moral state of our country and the vitriolic politics that have run rampant over the past decade or so leading to American citizens treating one another like enemies more so than neighbors. Baumann’s songwriting here is powerful. It’s something many different groups of folks need to listen to and take to heart.
19. "What Are You Gonna Tell Her?" by Mickey Guyton
The only negative thing I can say about Mickey Guyton’s incredibly important “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” is that had it been released say three or four years ago it would’ve made for a perfect theme for the #MeToo movement. Unfortunately, it’s a topic that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon in this world where women are too often treated like objects instead of the humans they are. Guyton’s vocal is heartbreaking on the song she wrote with Emma-Lee, Karen Kosowski and Victoria Banks about having to explain things like being sexually abused and being treated as inferior to the opposite sex to your teenage daughter. It’s particularly important coming from a female in the country genre, a genre that seemingly more so than any other in the mainstream doesn’t value it’s female performers as much as it should with major discrepancies in things like radio airplay for female artists compared to their male counterparts. “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?,” along with “Black Like Me,” have made Guyton one of the most important voices in any genre of music in 2020.
18. "Long Violent History" by Tyler Childers
One of the most important moments in country music in 2020 was when Tyler Childers essentially said enough is enough with police brutality toward black folks in this country in his own Appalachian way with “Long Violent History,” the only song with lyrics on his surprise album of old-timey fiddle tunes released in mid-September. It was important because it was time that someone from the South who looked and sounded like Childers spoke directly to their audience who look and sound like him with truths that needed to be heard (and it was a risk that likely cost him some of that audience). Childers hypothesized about how many white boys it would take being killed by police just for being who they were before white folks would be meeting up in the streets in a “stark-raving anger, looking for answers and armed to the teeth.” Childers knows he hasn’t experienced life as a black man or woman in this country, but at least he can sympathize and asks his fans to do the same.
17. "It's About Blood" by Steve Earle
Steve Earle’s 2020 release Ghosts of West Virginia is a concept album about the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion in 2010 that killed 29 men making it one of the worst coal mining disasters in American history. Earle had come up with much of the album’s music while working on a play with playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen about the same subject that was supposed to premiere this year, but was sidelined, like most everything else, by COVID-19. The album’s “It’s About Blood” is the angstiest track on Ghosts of West Virginia as it takes on the coal company Massey Energy that seemingly cared more about profits than the lives of its employees. Touchingly Earle ends “It’s About Blood” listing the names of all 29 men killed in the tragedy. Massey Effect and Don Blankenship, former CEO of the company, may have forgotten about them, but Earle isn’t about to and isn’t going to let us forget either.
16. "Stick That In Your Country Song" by Eric Church
Eric Church has something to say, and that’s quite unusual for someone within the country music mainstream – and that’s pretty much his entire point with “Stick That in Your Country Song.” For far too long mainstream country music, especially the kind sung by the men of the genre, has been stereotypical Southern tropes about drinking, partying, hitting on women, hooking up with women, bon fires, trucks, dirt roads, back roads, etc. Many of us country fans were tired of that schtick long ago and it’s pretty hard to find a song on country radio about anything important. Country music was meant to be the music of the blue collar, working man – lately it’s been the music of a small subset of country folks who are basically redneck frat boys. With “Stick That In Your Country Song,” Church is telling everybody else within the genre it’s time to get back to these working men and women and real stuff like the veteran who comes back from war disabled or the teacher working her ass off for little pay and essentially the same amount of recognition. I don’t expect mainstream Nashville to listen, but for the time being it’s nice to hear something with substance on country radio.
15. "Only Children" by Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
Jason Isbell can sure write a tearjerker – he’s done it with great effect before on tracks like “Elephant” and “If We Were Vampires.” Isbell told Rolling Stone: “There’s something about the sad songs where it’s not just sad, there’s a resilience, and I think that’s what really affects people.” His latest tearjerker, “Only Children” finds Isbell writing about a friend who died at a young age and remembering the dreams they each had when they were close at an earlier age. “Only Children” may be Isbell’s best songwriting on Reunions with flourishes like this beautiful final verse: “Are you still taking notes/will you have anyone to talk to/Castle walls that you can walk through/and do the dead believe in ghosts/or are you lost in some old building/with over-encouraged only children.”
14. "Drink 'Til I See Double" by Ray Wylie Hubbard feat. Paula Nelson & Elizabeth Cook
My absolute favorite duet of 2020 is “Drink ‘Till I See Double” by Ray Wylie Hubbard, Paula Nelson and Elizabeth Cook. It’s such a Ray Wylie Hubbard vibe and the line “I’m gonna drink ‘till I see double and take one of you home” is such a classic country music pickup line. I really dig duets that are kind of unique in that they don’t play up all the lovey-dovey-ness of your typical love song duet and “Drink ‘Till I See Double” fits in perfectly with some of my other favorites like John Prine and Iris DeMent’s “In Spite of Ourselves” and Hayes Carll and Cary Ann Hearst’s “Another Like You.” Interestingly, Hubbard wrote “Drink ‘Till I See Double” with Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn.
13. "The Mine" by Steve Earle
Steve Earle’s “The Mine” is pretty much about how there’s two options to living in a mining town – you either take a dangerous, but well-paying job at the mine or it’s pretty much a life on welfare. Probably the most optimistic tack on Earle’s coal mining concept album The Ghosts of West Virginia, the song’s narrator assures his lover than he knows things are hard right now, but he’s close to a big payday when his brother gets him a job at the mine.
12. "Even the River Runs Out of This Town" by Will Hoge
The chorus in Will Hoge’s plaintive “Even the River Runs Out of This Town” is among the best songwriting of the year: “you can’t blame a heart for getting broken/you can’t change the color of the blues/the railroad track and the highway/I guess it’s your turn now/even the river runs out of this town.” That’s so beautifully poetic it’s almost hard to believe it hadn’t been written before. It’s the kind of breakup song where the narrator still loves the one who’s left him behind, but knows he has to let her go – I think those are maybe the most heartbreaking breakup songs of them all.
11. "The Problem" by Amanda Shires & Jason Isbell
How do you approach a topic as delicate (and controversial) as abortion in a song? With massive amounts of empathy – and few in the Americana world are as empathetic in their songwriting as the Isbells – Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell – the hit couple of the Americana genre. Written by Shires a few years ago, “The Problem” was released this year to coincide with International Safe Abortion Day with proceeds from its sales going to the Yellowhammer Fund, for reproductive justice in Alabama (Isbell’s home state). When Shires wrote the song, she imagined it as a conversation had between women, but revamped it as a duet with her husband Isbell to be about a couple discussing the possibility of having an abortion. The song features the decision making, the abortion and the after affects mentally with Isbell as the male character supporting any decision his partner makes in the chorus with, “And all I could think to say/was everything’s going to be OK/it’s gonna be all right/I’m on your side.”
10. "Honey On My Tongue" by Steep Canyon Rangers
Steep Canyon Rangers were unbelievably busy in 2020 (which seems hard for a recording artist in such a year). In January they were a part of Steve Martin’s humorous bluegrass single “California” (which also made this list). In March they released the collaborative album Be Still Moses with the Asheville Symphony. In April they released the live album North Carolina Songbook, recorded at Merlefest in April of 2019, which garnered the group a Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album (a category they have won before). In October they released the studio album Arm in Arm, which features my favorite bluegrass song of the year in “Honey on My Tongue.” The track is about a relationship, that the narrator knows isn’t going to last forever, but leaves such a mark on him that he can’t help but smile and remember it fondly. It’s absolutely beautiful – both musically and lyrically – with tender lyrics and an intoxicating chorus comparing the relationship to a bee, but not caring about the danger of being stung because the honey is so sweet with the warm sounds of acoustic guitar, banjo and fiddle throughout.
9. "Old Men" by Corb Lund
One of my absolute favorite country songs of the year from the moment I first heard it has been “Old Men,” off Corb Lund’s tenth studio album Agricultural Tragic. It’s a tribute to those gruff old codgers who came before and perfected a way of life through blood, sweat and tears and I think Lund realizes as a recording and touring musician of now at least a quarter-century he’s kind of turning into one of those “old men” from the young buck he once was.
8. "Thinkin' 'Bout You All Night" by Reckless Kelly
Reckless Kelly’s “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You All Night” has been stuck in my head most of the year since I first heard it, because the melody is so damn good. Willy Braun said on the Reckless Kelly website: “The audience hears the melody, listens to the lyrics and makes up its own story. They cannot feel the wind as it blows through the tamaracks or smell the smoke drifting across the lake. The author, if he does his job correctly, lets them conjure up their own tale, whatever that may be, while he, upon hearing the very same song, sees places.” Braun’s chorus is unbelievably simplistic, “I’ve been thinkin’ ‘bout you all night” repeated, but the environmental images scattered through the verses mixing beautifully with that wonderful melody really paints a picture. Here the author has certainly done his job correctly.
7. "Overseas" by Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
I first heard “Overseas” at a Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit show in Memphis in September of 2019 about eight months before the release of Reunions, and even though I couldn’t make out all of the words live (something that’s almost always an issue with new songs played in concert) I knew it was going to be a highlight on whatever Isbell released next just by the great guitar playing and the feeling seeing him perform it live had. “Overseas” took its start by Isbell and his musician wife Amanda Shires being apart from each other on different tours and the feeling of disconnection it gave him and then he fictionalized a story about a couple who live literally a sea between each other and the sadness that creates. That guitar solo I remembered from the live show last year holds up as one of the best Isbell has ever laid down on record.
6. "If I Was the Priest" by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
“If I Was the Priest,” from the latest Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band album Letter to You (Springsteen’s first with his legendary band since 2012’s Wrecking Ball), is certainly the oldest song to make this year’s list. Springsteen penned the song about a half century ago (that’s not a typo) in either late 1970 or early 1971. It’s a wordy throwback to his earliest albums that had him being hailed as “The New Dylan,” but it never appeared on any of his studio albums. Springsteen resurrected it for Letter to You, an album that sees the band focusing on mortality and just getting back to their roots. “If I Was the Priest” is essentially a tale of coming up in an area and time when many rock acts were trying to break out and likening it to a tale of you’d see in old Western movies or TV shows where only one gunslinger can come out on top. With a different sound it could’ve made a nice addition to Springsteen’s Western themed solo release Western Stars last year, but I do love how it sounds with the mighty E Street Band.
5. "How Long" by Iris DeMent
Oftentimes it takes me multiple listens to a song before I truly know how I feel about it or if it’ll have a chance to wind up on a list like this, but I knew probably midway into my first listen of Iris DeMent’s “How Long” that it was destined for this list. “How Long” just has a classic sound to it like it’s a song I must’ve heard many times before in my life despite being brand new. It feels like it instantly belongs as part of a movement and DeMent wrote it in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, according to her website. She opens the song by telling of someone once asking Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “how long do you stay the course and dream the dream?” when it feels like troubles such as racism are never going to end. The chorus is his reply: “’till justice rolls down like water and righteousness flows like a mighty stream.” DeMent goes on to verses about how power and greed turn a blind eye to those who truly could benefit from a bit of compassion and understanding from those in charge. It’s uplifting and hopeful, but so were those classic movement songs of the ‘60s it reminds me so much of.
4. "Neon Cross" by Jaime Wyatt
Jaime Wyatt’s “Neon Cross” has been one of my absolute favorite songs of the year from the first moment I heard it back in February. The title track of her sophomore album with its pulsating rhythm and jangly guitar just sounds like a song announcing one’s presence with authority. And could there possibly be a better lyric for such a song than “if you don’t love me/why don’t you nail me to a neon cross?” Wyatt is resilient in this song, the “oh poor me” being sarcastic. She’s been through pain and misery – going through a stint in prison at a young age and battling addiction - and has had enough of it.
3. "Colors" (Acoustic) by Black Pumas
I have to admit I missed the ball on this one in 2019 or it would’ve made last year’s list. Luckily, Black Pumas cut and released an acoustic version of their exquisite “Colors” to qualify for this year’s list. I absolutely love vocalist and songwriter Eric Burton’s vocal on this song, especially when he goes falsetto – whether it’s this acoustic version or the original album version from the duo’s 2019 self-titled debut. Black Pumas producer/instrumentalist Adrian Quesada said to JamBands.com of the song’s inspiration: “Eric woke up midday and started the song as the sun was going down. He was inspired by the rich multicolored hues of the sky. The song was written in the themes of mortality and togetherness.” “Colors” definitely makes me think about how the world works better as one when folks of all different races and ethnicities blend together.
2. "The Spark" by William Prince
I had never heard of Canadian folk/country singer-songwriter William Prince before earlier this year when “The Spark” was suggested to me, I believe on a Spotify Americana playlist (one of the great perks of the music streaming app) and it instantly became one of my favorites of the year. The sound, the lyrics, the vocal, the entire vibe of the song just dropped my jaw. There’s so much soul in “The Spark,” about finding a love and how it can bring you out of the darkness of life. Prince told American Songwriter: “There is a warmth within the chemistry you feel when meeting someone for the first time and having it click.” As a writer I absolutely love the way Prince leaves the song’s title to the very end of the song, it really hits home how much this woman means to him and really wraps the entire piece together nicely.
1. "A Better South" by American Aquarium
As someone who has always lived in the American South, but often feels and thinks differently than many of those who live in the region I felt like American Aquarium and songwriter/frontman B.J. Barham was singing right to me on “A Better South,” off the band’s terrific 2020 album Lamentations. It’s certainly a timely song for 2020 with all the year’s injustices. Barham told AllEyesMedia.com, “I wanted to write a song that encapsulated the love/hate relationship that so many folks, including myself, have with the South. Being able to love the place that molded you while simultaneously hating some of it’s dark history.” I believe in the better South that Barham sings about and hope one day we can get there.