Updated: Jan 14
As the fireworks soared, expanded, and exploded all around me this past New Years Day, I found myself thinking about how heart-breaking, and inspiring 2019 was for country music. Insert roses, and thorns analogy or “There’s a silver lining in every cloud"..
Either works, especially in a genre that embraces pain, and goes toe to toe with adversity, Even, if it means ending on the losing side sometimes. I mean how else would all these gut wrenching songs ever get written.. You have to live it OR be so close to the flame that you get burned.
Among the snap tracks, and backseat copulation babble were sobering examples of heartfelt confessions, and small town celebrations.
True love, family, loss, regret and honoring our veterans all wrapped in a lush landscape of strings, wood, and notes. Yes, the likes of such could still be found on a national chart like Billboard. As I was rewinding mentally back through the year, I was reminded how science has proven that our memories are far more beautiful in hindsight than they were in the moment.
That thought actually prompted me to look at the charts, and re-listen to some of the songs that touched me.. Songs that were keeping the sentiment of country music alive by sharing something that matters on a deeper level. These artists were forging a new, but yet familiar trail forward to a more transparent, and honest sound albeit with fresh eyes, tinged with current influences, and often hard won victories over adversity, discouragement, and loss.
What follows is a month by month playback on some of the music, and back stories that fueled our hope in our search for meaning in top 40 country music in 2019. This is not a countdown of top songs for 2019 list or anything of the kind. As there are already meaty summaries provided by other linked sites as well as on our #StoneColdCountry recap show.. This is more in line with providing proof that there is a slight pivot towards music with meaning, grit, songs with heart, though sometimes the twang was missing... But still, the type of music that nurses your heartache, and understands your loss.
It is the type of melodious utterances that elevated Hank Williams to legendary status, and Lefty to one of the most influential stylists heard so prominently in the vocal delivery of Merle Haggard, among others. It is a small step forward, but nonetheless a step that is undeniable, and non-retractable. When you listen through, I hope you hear what I heard, the past, and future of country music.
January 2019 brought us a top hit by way of Ashley McBryde who shared how a mean teacher belittled her dreams, but thankfully to no avail. "Girl Goin' Nowhere" landed on the country music radar, and was lodged at 30 in January. At the time, she was one of only three women on the Billboard Top 40 country Chart.
February brought us the top song of 2019. A sweet song about loving someone that might not fit the perfect mold, but she is perfect for him, and that is all that matters. Beautiful Crazy is a song Luke Combs wrote about a girl he wasn't even dating. As the story goes, Luke met his now wife, and just felt inspired. Two days later, he was playing the song for her!
The song eventually spent close to two months at number one, and was Song of The Year at the 2019 CMA Awards.
March saw chart action for another inspiring song which was birthed out of a concert ritual of sorts. Justin Moore for years during his concerts would propose a toast to all our soldiers for keeping us safe, especially those that don't make it back home. One day, it finally hit him that he should write that song, and well, he did. It was a slow climb, but the song eventually topped the charts in October 2019.
April: It was so cool to see King George inching up the charts with Every Little Honky Tonk Bar. The song is slightly an anthem, but certainly 100% feel good. Tastefully done, and almost entirely devoid of overused cliches, and motifs. This is what a feel good song should sound like- happy, hopeful, and familiar. King George nailed it.
May brought an emotional Billy Joel type ballad from Garth Brooks. "Stronger Than Me" is a stripped down piano led love song that even made Trisha Yearwood (Garth Brook's wife) cry. The sparse instrumentation highlights, and punctuates powerfully emotive lyrics such as
"And I'd give her anything in life that's mine to give her
'Til the last breath that I breathe
And if I have a choice, I pray God takes me first'Cause she's stronger
So beautiful! Some would say that is a level of emotional maturity a life partner aspires to reach in a relationship. And Garth has never sounded better.
June brought us a sweet surprise when pop icon Pink, and multi-grammy winner Chris Stapleton teamed up for a confessional ballad "Love Me Anyway" about acceptance, expectations, and to a lesser extent emotional loyalty. Pink’s voice is strong, and as clear as a bell. I’ve loved watching her career. She is ridiculously talented, and the song really shows off her range. The song peaked at 52, and spent 8 weeks on the charts.
When July rolled in, I was honestly just happy to see King George, Midland, and Luke Combs on the charts. The songs were fun, and reminded us to enjoy life. Also Maren Morris gave some much needed advice with her charting single Girl.
August brought one of my favorite songs of the year “I Wish Grandpas Never Died”. Riley Green lost two of his grandfathers, and one specifically had been instrumental instilling a love for country music. The song recalls all the events in his life that he has cherished the most such as his first love, Sundays, and honky tonks. He also talks about the things he wished would happen like our military always making it back home.
It is a well-written song, though I tend to dislike list songs, this one was the exception. Riley also gets extra bonus points for doubling down on the traditional country slant. Early in the song he says how he wished everyone knew the words to Merle Haggard’s Mama Tried, and later in the song he says how he wishes country music was still played on country radio.
As summer romances die down, and fade, September’s billboard charts had Maddie & Tae asking momma for advice. Tae’s real-life breakup with longtime boyfriend Jackie Lee inspired the song Die Of A Broken Heart. What makes the song especially heart-wrenching is that the protagonist fell hard for the guy, yet he was able to walk away from the relationship.
The conversation with her mother is more about soliciting her support, and understanding while the main character in the song tries to deal with the loss of the relationship.
October took me back to a stirring performance by Chris Young at the Grand Ole Opry that took place that summer. With the holiday season nearing, we start to think about our friends, family, people we miss. In a conversation with frequent songwriting buddies, the talk centered around people they lost too soon.
For Chris it was his best friend Adam, who died tragically in a car accident. “Drowning is about grieving over a lost one in the minutiae of everyday. That’s where we really feel it because that is where the loss is more apparent. You can’t drop by and have a beer after work or call when something didn’t go right. Chris goes through bouts of disbelief, and teeters on denial. Calling the deceased friend’s number just to hear his voice..
November 2019 saw The Father, My Son, and The Holy Ghost getting some well deserved traction on the charts. It was Craig Morgan’s first recording after the death of his song during a tubing accident in July of 2016. Craig was overtaken by grief, and used the time to heal as best he could. Here are some of the deeply personal, and moving lyrics:
“ I cried and cried and cried until I passed out on the floor
Then I prayed and prayed and prayed till I thought I couldn't pray anymore
And minute by minute, day by day, my God, He gave me hope
I know my boy ain't here but he ain't gone”
The song ultimately topped the iTunes All Genre chart, and peaked at #4 in Digital Song Sales.
By December, we were all bombarded with Christmas songs, and a whirlwind of festivities. It can be easy to forget it’s the string of moments that in the end carry more weight. Refrigerator Door is a song Luke Combs use to play live at his concerts, but had never released. The lyrics take us back to special moments in our lives-like your first day at school, and grandma’s recipes. It is a very simple, but nonetheless a straightforward heartfelt song about what makes up life.
This is yet another sign that even though in 2019 country music took some anticipated dips on the dirt road there was also a familiar front porch light observed over yonder.
It was sometimes just a flickering bright dot in the night often distant, but enough to navigate around the musical potholes, and bring us back to a homely place filled with memories, hopes, and dreams..
Country music is on its way back home..
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