Music

Twenty Songs That Will Convert You to Country

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“I’m into everything but _____ and country.”

For years, this was an all-too-common response when people were asked what kind of music they like. Metal, pop, rock, rap, indie, punk, sure, but country — specifically popular country, the kind that hollers about Stetsons and cowboy boots and talk of trucks, beer and girls — up until recently has been maligned as an uncool genre, a cheesy, hokey, twangy tradition that banks on old flavors and sounds instead of reinvention and experimentation.

That’s not the case anymore — but it never has been, really. While the “list” song in bro country continues to rage on unrepentant — seriously, do a shot every time you hear “Chevy,” “whiskey,” “blonde,” or “small town” while blasting a country station; you’ll black out in minutes — artists are taking more twangified risks than ever before, and they’re doing so while contributing to a legacy that’s long since been established by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Patsy Cline, and a handful of American artists who challenge assumptions and expectations for one of the most stigmatized genres of American music. Below is a list of songs that’ll convert you to country fandom and make you reconsider that “Anything but” proclamation. Embrace the banjo and the Southern drawl. It’s good for us; it’s good for y’all.

Luke Bryan, “I Don’t Want This Night to End”

If Top 40 country music isn’t your cup of (sweet) tea, you probably haven’t sought out Luke Bryan, country’s king of spring break, who broke through with a No. 22 Billboard Hot 100 hit called “Country Girl (Shake It for Me).” The title makes for about 90 percent of the lyrics. And that’s a shame, since the second single Bryan released from that album (Tailgates and Tanlines — again, not helping us here) is a rueful ballad built to torch indie hearts. Bryan finds himself driving around until 3:35 in the morning so he can hear some mystery girl sing every song on the radio. Don’t let the trucks and violins fool you. This song has all the magic, joy, and loss that come left of the dial. — Sarah Grant

The Brothers Osborne, “Stay a Little Longer”

Nashville-based brother duo John and T.J. Osborne saw some radio success with last year’s “Rum,” a lighthearted take on a booze-soaked stay-cation. Their latest single, “Stay a Little Longer,” loses the tropes in favor of a shredding number with a little more substance. Co-written with hitmaker Shane McAnally (Kacey Musgraves, Sam Hunt), the song glides over the will-we-or-won’t-we phase in a romance, and hot lines about tearin’ off T-shirts are given depth with T.J.’s low vocals. The bridge makes this song an earworm (“It’s one more call/It’s one more ‘Whatcha doin’ right now’/It’s one more trip to my side of town and you walk right in”), but it’s John’s deft guitar work that’ll win over boot-scootin’ skeptics. From the glittering intro to the lengthy guitar solo (pro tip: skip the radio edit for the full version), the instrumentals pack power into a song that leaves a lasting impression. — Dacey Orr

Taylor Swift, “Picture to Burn”

Just because Taylor Swift ditched her teenage country-mouse persona and Cinderella-ed her way into a svelte, sophisticated city mouse doesn’t mean the rest of us have to stop treasuring the past. On her self-titled debut album, Taylor refined the revenge ballad into a white-hot kiss-off for “Picture to Burn.” Women everywhere roared with triumph. Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” is the obvious precursor here, but there’s plenty of ways to be terrible without infidelity, and most of us aren’t into destroying property. American culture tirelessly renders women as objects to be consumed by men, but Swift turns the tables here, reducing her shitty ex-boyfriend to a picture that she can torch and move on. This is why Taylor is such an important figure — whether she’s working in country or pop — because this isn’t a song about sadness. Instead, it’s about realizing she should value herself more than she values her memories of the past. But let’s be real: Her independent streak was nurtured by Nashville in a way that it probably wouldn’t have been in the pop world. This song isn’t just good for country listeners or women, it’s a fiery salve for heartbroken people the world over. Burn, baby, burn. — Caitlin White

Waylon Jennings, “Waymore’s Blues”

It’s rock-first fans who complain the loudest that today’s country isn’t pure enough. But the mongrelization started decades back, led by Saint Waylon. On his six-album run of absolute essentials — ’73’s Lonesome, On’ry, and Mean through ’76’s Are You Ready for the Country — Jennings cranked up the bass and drums to the levels of rock or even dub. But Waylon’s idea of rock was the Crickets, not Zeppelin. Listening to “Waymore’s Blues,” one of his greatest, is like watching a fence and pasture go by as you’re bumping down an unpaved road. The sound might have been new, but the poetry reached way back to Jimmie Rodgers, the yodeling hobo brakeman, from whom Waylon freely adapted that business about being so famous his name’s painted on his shirt. And that doggerel — horny, boastful, silly, epigrammatic, steeped in his local vernacular — looks ahead, too, to hip-hop. “Every woman she sees looks like a place I came in,” he sings, of the good woman he trifles around on, and before you’ve gotten over being shocked at that, the song’s over. So you start it again. — Alan Scherstuhl

Dixie Chicks, “Goodbye Earl”

Dixie Chicks’ landmark fifth album, Fly, came out in August of 1999. That was a formative summer for millions of millennials who cut their teeth on country music and homicide at the same time. There is a maelstrom of hits on Fly, from “Sin Wagon” to “Cowboy Take Me Away” to “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me.” But “Goodbye Earl” was something else. It has murder plots, girl power, and black comedy all wrapped up in a tarp. To a middle school student, “Goodbye Earl” had lots of valuable information about friendship and revenge. It also proved that Natalie Maines was an angel-voiced fiend, like Barbara Stanwyck in a jean jacket. Flanked by dueling violins and impossibly immaculate harmonies, Maines changed everyone’s perceptions about what a female crossover singer could write about and sound like. “Goodbye Earl” isn’t talked about as a classic, but it wouldn’t hurt to think about old Wanda when you hear “Bad Blood” on the radio all summer. — Sarah Grant

Sam Hunt, “Leave the Night On”

As much as you want to hate a song that throws a lyric like “Sky droppin’ Jupiter around us like some old Train” out there into the ether, you can’t. It’s impossible. Sam Hunt’s career took off like a Jim Beam–fueled rocket in 2014, when the former college quarterback and hit-penning songwriter stepped into the spotlight on his own, and “Leave the Night On” was the first single off his debut, Montevallo, that caught the attention of fans outside of Nashville. That flawless voice aside, Hunt doesn’t shy away from indulging in the pleasures of a late night out and makes a point to roll his eyes at closing time. We’ve all been there. We’ve just never willingly admitted to listening to Train while doing so. — Hilary Hughes

Angaleena Presley, “Life of the Party”

Pistol Annie Presley paints a drearily familiar picture in this morning-after song. “Take the long way home/Don’t remember anything, just that you’re all alone.” Her honeyed voice has almost no affect; the production is sparse. For Presley, this kind of misery is just, as she sings, “another wasted day.” Presley grew up a coal miner’s daughter in Kentucky, similar to country songwriting legend Loretta Lynn. Like Lynn, Presley is a realist. Her thoughts don’t necessarily have conclusions, and not every scene has a solution. “Life of the Party” isn’t necessarily a shot at bro-country culture so much as it is a shot of Novocaine to cope with it. On “Life of the Party,” Presley makes it achingly clear how painful it is to feel absolutely nothing. — Sarah Grant

Tim McGraw, “Where the Green Grass Grows”

Tim McGraw is one of country’s mid-Nineties superstars, a rugged, trustworthy Louisiana boy with a heart of gold and the charming strength to pull off schmaltzy ballads like “Don’t Take the Girl.” This one is off 1997’s Everywhere, and captures the quintessential appeal of country living by contrasting it with the worst parts of modern life. First all you hear is a fiddle solo that’s so Cajun it seems like it could barely be from the Nineties — but it is. Cornfields, rocking chairs, and sleeping with the same good-loving partner every single night are the staples for McGraw’s ideal existence. You swear you love the city lights. You swear not having time to cook is fine by you. Then one day you see a picture of a field in a commercial and you’re crying into your Ikea pillow in your cramped, humid Brooklyn apartment. Give in to the music: You want that fiddle. And you most certainly want to sleep next to the love of your life in a little house behind a cornfield. It’s your destiny. — Caitlin White

Miranda Lambert, “Only Prettier”

So, yeah, country sounds like Nineties rock now. What of it? Most Miranda Lambert records have more bite and fire than most mopey alternative ever did. On “Only Prettier” Lambert and her band dig past the Third Eye Blind–ism of Nashville radio for an earlier alt sound, bashing out the best power-pop this side of Paul Westerberg aping Big Star. The track is brash but stately, the chords jagged but chiming, the pedal steel a seam of pure sugar in a sour-candy confection. The song, not quite a hit, found Lambert (co-writing with Natalie Hemby) growing out of her early Crazy Ex-Girlfriend branding. Here, in the lyric, she’s avoiding a confrontation, pledging to some women who had side-eyed her to hide their mutual distaste behind bless-your-heart Southern politeness. But great country choruses build to punchlines — or, in this case, a knifing: “We got a lot in common, you will see,” Lambert sings, “We’re just like you — only prettier.” Seriously, if rock had stayed as good as this, country wouldn’t have swallowed up its share of the market. — Alan Scherstuhl


Loretta Lynn, “Fist City”

Loretta Lynn is one of the singular female songwriters in popular culture. She addressed women’s issues in striking ways before anyone else on songs like “The Pill” and “One’s on the Way.” But before she did any of that, Lynn made it plain that she was prepared to beat down anyone who tried to take her man (even though he’s no saint, as she sings). Like many of her songs, “Fist City” is part vignette, part public service announcement. It went to No. 1 in 1968, so it’s doubtful any punches were swung on the curb outside of the Opry — at least that year. “Women are much meaner than men,” Lynn wrote in her 2001 autobiography. “Fist City” has endured as a fan favorite. Best Coast covered the song at Bonnaroo in 2011, with Bethany Cosentino saying how pissed she was about missing Loretta Lynn perform that year. Hopefully she’s caught a show since then, because there is nothing more badass than an 83-year-old in a shimmering princess gown singing “I’ll grab you by the hair of the head and I’ll lift you off of the ground.” — Sarah Grant

Brad Paisley, “Alcohol”

Paisley’s the smartest guy in the frat house, the most charming and funny, as well, and a couple years ahead of his brothers on accepting the ways the world has changed. If his hot-shit guitar work hadn’t landed him a record deal, he might be an M.B.A. in an improv troupe, maybe even one with women in it. “Alcohol” is his finest singalong, maybe country’s best since “Friends in Low Places,” and it might be the fullest flowering of Paisley’s songwriting: A first-person soliloquy from the p.o.v. of alcohol itself, the song is hammy and nuanced and ambitious all at once, a Nashville radio smash that presumes its audience reads Hemingway and has been to college. That’s not just because of the line “College, now, that was a ball” — the verse-chorus structure is a five-paragraph essay, evaluating different aspects of a complex subject, just like they taught in expos. The lyric’s an extrapolation of the second greatest of all Homer Simpson quotes: “To alcohol, the cause of — and solution to — all of life’s problems.” But it’s the boozy way the band stumbles into that ace chorus that lifts this from novelty to greatness. — Alan Scherstuhl

Reba McEntire, “Fancy”

The guitars! The hairspray! The weird Fritos commercial! This song is just waiting for enough hipsters to discover it so it can blow up karaoke bars all over Brooklyn. “Fancy” is basically country music’s Great Expectations, set in a different swamp. It’s a dark, rags-to-riches-to-regrets tale about a hard-luck girl named Fancy who scrapes out of poverty by any means necessary (prostitution). We meet Fancy after these tribulations, as a successful but damaged thirtysomething living in a “Georgia mansion and an elegant New York townhouse flat.” Will she forgive the ghost of her mother for pushing her into the arms of “occasional aristocrats”? Does she still have the locket with the inscribed phrase: “To Thine Own Self Be True”? Somehow, “Fancy” combines the unpleasant economic truths of a Dylan song crossed with “Private Dancer” by Tina Turner. If that sounds like a little much, you might prefer the original version, written and performed by Bobbie Gentry in 1969. Gentry’s sultry version is the go-to for Dusty Springfield fans who can’t stand twang. If you can’t stand twang, you have no business listening to Reba McEntire. Remember: To thine own self be true. — Sarah Grant

Eric Church, “Creepin’?”

When it comes to converting naysayers to country music, the real question is which Eric Church song to play first. Sure, you could go for the ubiquitous “Springsteen,” the nostalgic “Talladega,” or the hard-partying “Drink in My Hand,” but “Creepin,’?” the opening track from 2011’s breakthrough Chief, is a solid place to start. Clocking in at just under four minutes, Church goes from a slow, pulsing drawl to an all-out rock ‘n’ roll barnburner, peppering his gruff vocals with distortion, swift guitar pickin’, and a strong beat. When Church gets going — “Your cocaine kiss and caffeine love/Got under my skin and into my blood/That ‘need you back’ comes over me/Like ivy crawlin’ up a hickory tree” — he hardly needs the guttural screams to drive the lyrics home, but he throws ‘em in anyway. A song that speaks to Church’s rockstar stage persona, “Creepin’?” is a clear gateway number to the harder country stuff. — Dacey Orr

Sara Evans, “Suds in the Bucket”

Sara Evans was a trailblazing figure in the early Aughts for women in country. While plenty of female artists are still having tremendous difficulty getting played on the radio, Evans pushed her way through to earn several No. 1 hits, including “Suds in the Bucket.” Replete with fiddles, steel guitar, and some of that Southern steady-trucking percussion, this song celebrates one girl’s choice to flee her small-town malaise. Once again, this is a song that revels in a woman’s independence; she left behind her family and friends, all the gossiping biddies, and even her laundry. Imagine turning your back on that quiet downhome life mid-chore! It depicts a brazen, bold woman who risks it all for love, and that’s the kind of story-song that never tires. Like all good country songs, it also has one of the best metaphors about growing up and outgrowing your past laid to tape: “You can’t fence time.” Usually songs about runaways are sad or fraught with fear, but this one is all smiles and freedom. — Caitlin White

Don Gibson, “Oh Lonesome Me”

“Everybody’s going out and having fun/I’m a fool for staying home and having none.” This charming man is none other than Nashville legend Don Gibson. Nicknamed “the Sad Poet,” Gibson wrote about heartache better than country music’s most heartbroken (Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison). He wrote like Morrissey and he was revered by Neil Young, who covered “Oh Lonesome Me” — one of Gibson’s first, and finest, weeper hits, and the source of that lyric above — on After the Gold Rush. The story goes that Gibson was sitting in his trailer in east Tennessee when his wife came home and announced she was leaving him. That night, devastated, Gibson wrote two songs that wound up launching his career: “Oh Lonesome Me” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” “Lonesome”?’s country-rock grooves have a soft touch thanks to the dreamy harmonies of the Jordanaires, Elvis Presley’s gospel quartet. As for Gibson, he harbored no ill will toward his ex. After the divorce, he allegedly wrote her a letter to thank her for breaking his heart. — Sarah Grant

Sturgill Simpson, “Life of Sin”

Simpson garnered a cult following for the psychospiritual lyrics and refreshingly old-school sound on last year’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music — think Waylon Jennings on acid — and “Life of Sin” is rife with examples as to why. Witty lyrics and spins on clichés (“Sex is cheap/And talk is overrated”) meet honky-tonkin’ rhythm and solos that allow for plenty of air guitar. “I thank God for this here life of sin,” Simpson sings to close out the chorus, a fitting tagline for his position at the forefront of alt-country’s revival. It’s an outlaw anthem that shows how smart lyrics and can’t-quit instrumentals make for a good song, genre be damned. — Dacey Orr

Patsy Cline, “Three Cigarettes (In an Ashtray)”

The only way to get the full-blown psychological treatment of Cline’s masterpiece “Walkin’ After Midnight” is to listen to the song that comes directly before it. “Three Cigarettes” is the slow, disturbing crank that sets Cline on her timelessly haunting jaunt. Cline and her love are sitting in a café, and once a third cigarette enters the scene, Cline is alone. There are no flaming locks of auburn hair or voice as soft as summer rain. Cline had no time to plead, nothing to bargain. It doesn’t get much worse than “A stranger came along/And everything went wrong.” The richness of Cline’s voice is baffling, especially watching her sing sitting down. As a starling in 1957, Cline transformed the set of a country variety show called Ozark Jubilee into a smoky Parisian café, trading her classic fringe dresses for a slinky black number and diamond door-knocker earrings. It’s easy to hear Édith Piaf’s voice playing in the background. — Sarah Grant

Brad Paisley & Alison Krauss, “Whiskey Lullaby”

One of the things country does best is tell tales of tragedy, heartache, and loss. There are more country songs about family trauma than in any other genre on earth. “Whiskey Lullaby” is a Brad Paisley song, from his near-perfect 2004 album Mud on the Tires, about infidelity, suicide, and, obviously, whiskey. But more than that, it tapped the American cultural unconscious that was preoccupied with our own troops overseas at the time. It converted the story of lonely Army wives into a timeless song about betrayal and the heartbreaking struggle with alcoholism. Paisley has become a country superstar several times over, but his duet partner here, Alison Krauss, has remained something of a cult icon. In the bluegrass community she is considered to be a living legend, but the mainstream often overlooks her crystal-clear honey alto. “Whiskey Lullaby” gave her some much-deserved shine, and it’s her too-sweet vocals that keep the tragedy trapped forever in the song. “She put that bottle to her head and pulled the trigger” is the best euphemism for alcoholism that’s been written, and considering the way it ties the war back into the track, it’s a devastating touch. For all those out there who think “real country” is a thing of the past, look no further. — Caitlin White

Conway Twitty, “Slow Hand”

Twitty’s come-ons may not turn you on to country music, but “Slow Hand” is one of those songs that never, ever loosens its grip. You’ve been warned. The 1981 soft jam was originally released by r&b group the Pointer Sisters to amazing international success. It peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, just behind Diana Ross and Lionel Richie’s “Endless Love.” It should’ve stopped there, but “Slow Hand” was the rare case in which some country music producer thought: “What that hit song needs is a pedal steel guitar and a velvety man voice.” Enter the High Priest of Country Music. Twitty’s rendition of “Slow Hand” became his 55th No. 1 hit — and his last. It’s hard to put my finger on what makes the country version so much creepier, and so much more addicting, than the r&b version, but Blake Shelton might know. The new country chart-topper did his best Twitty at the Blindhorse Saloon in Greenville, South Carolina, in 2010, proving country fans are still going hard for an easy touch. — Sarah Grant

Old Crow Medicine Show, “Wagon Wheel”

The well-worn hometown-bar closer of choice, “Wagon Wheel” went from discarded Bob Dylan track to Old Crow Medicine Show live favorite to Appalachian phenomenon in its own right. Darius Rucker has gone on to cover the Americana outfit’s career-launching hit and given it the country arena treatment, but the tight harmonies and jangling strums of the original still strike a chord, even if you’re sick to death o’ that chorus. — Hilary Hughes

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