A Saving Country Music Song of the Year candidate is not just your favorite ditty that gets stuck in your head. These are songs that change hearts, change lives, rest in your head for years to come, open up new ideas, or unlock memories or emotions you haven’t felt in years. Song of the Year nominees are the reason you’re a music fan.
Similar to how it was a strong year for Album of the Year candidates, so it is for Song of the Year nominees. More specifically, there are a lot of songs that are represented from artists who reside in the mainstream, even if they’re not mainstream songs. In fact the 2018 Song of the Year nominees list is probably the most mainstream assemblage of music ever highlighted at Saving Country Music. This isn’t to court a certain audience, it’s just the circumstance’s of this year’s field. It should be taken as a positive toward the effort to return meaning and substance to all sectors of country music.
The field is strong, and the choices are difficult. But as always, this isn’t just a decision for Saving Country Music. Your input is strongly encouraged, though please understand this is not just an up or down vote. It’s your job to convince the rest of us why a certain song should be considered over the others.
And just because something isn’t listed in the field of candidates or in the Honorable Mention category doesn’t mean it’s not qualified. Picking songs is always more personal than albums. We’re not looking to pit songs and songwriters against each other, we’re looking to combine our collective perspectives and opinions into a pool of musical knowledge for the benefit of all.
So without further ado, here are the nominees for Saving Country Music’s Song of the Year. You can also listen to all the nominees and honorable mentions on the Spotify Playlist, or in the Spotify player below.
Ervin Stellar – “My Way”
Normally the Song of the Year distinction is reserved for those songs that really bear down on heartbreak, or reveal something about the human condition in a novel way that reverberates beyond simple words and music. Though this remains the standard requirements, it would feel scandalous not to mention this song by Ervin Stellar in a discussion about the best songs of 2018. One of the many country artists from Brooklyn, NY that’s helping to set the pace for quality in independent country at the moment, he captures vintage twang goodness in “My Way” rarely heard in the modern context.
Not to downplay the songwriting, but the sheer quality of the listening experience of “My Way” is something worthy of national and international recognition. That’s the reason that even as a relatively unknown, the song has received some 85,000 spins on Spotify and counting. In past eras, a song like this would work its way up the food chain and become a hit. Unfortunately that’s unlikely to happen, but we can single it out from the herd and shine a big spotlight on it to help spread the listening enjoyment.
Cody Jinks – “Head Case”
It’s the love songs and sad songs that our favorite artists pen that make them feel personal to us. But it’s often the songs artists compose solely about themselves and their rare experience as performers when they expose their best work. We may not be able to identify with the emptiness they often feel inside after they exit the stage, or wrestle with the demons they face trying to live a private life in the public spotlight. But the sincerity they share in these lines still comes across as palpable and powerful, and the poetry of “Head Case” by Cody Jinks is a perfect example.
To many on the outside, Cody Jinks might just be another bearded dude who sounds like Waylon. But to his devoted fans, they know about the depth with which he brings to his songs, and possibly none as deeper and richer than “Head Case.” And not to be outclassed, the production and music of the song from the early cello and folk style guitar set the mood that makes this so much more than an Outlaw hillbilly anthem. It might be Cody’s best song yet.
Pistol Annies – “Cheyenne”
Composing characters that feel exceptionally real in the span of the 3 or 4 quick minutes of a song to the point where you can feel their presence like a personal connection is one of the most cunning feats of songcraft, and one that the Pistol Annies pull off deftly in “Cheyenne.” It starts off from the perspective of envy, with the narrator observing a skilled love predator with the way they can work a room without getting caught up in their own web, or pierced by their own venom. But beneath the surface is a deeper story of sadness or loss that made Cheyenne so cold. We both fear and envy Cheyenne, because she lives in that abyss that bisects love and loneliness, never being tied down, but never finding resolution. And she also lives inside all of us in one capacity or another.
Caitlyn Smith – “This Town Is Killing Me”
It’s an exercise in learning how to live with injustice to be a music fan in the modern context, and especially a country music fan. There isn’t a truly talented artist out there that is not burdened by an inequitable amount of obscurity to some degree, but nobody can make a grander case for the discrepancy between their talent and the level of their acclaim like Caitlyn Smith. With the hits she’s penned and the voice she possesses, she should be nothing short of a superstar, and instead she remains a creature of relative obscurity due to the oligarchical system in place on Music Row.
“This Town Is Killing Me” is about this very travesty, but like every great song, it rises to be about all of our struggles to attain our dreams amid insurmountable odds. And making this injustice that much more biting, this song has been streamed nearly 5 million times on Spotify alone. It is a massive hit just sitting there to be discovered, yet it is the farthest thing from the viewshed of radio or award shows.
Caitlyn Smith is the greatest undiscovered talent of our current era, and “This Town Is Killing Me” is her grandest achievement up to this point.
Lori McKenna – “People Get Old”
If there’s any hope for the future of mainstream country music, it lies in songwriters like Lori McKenna. Whenever you see a quality song from a major label country artist, it’s uncanny how often Lori McKenna’s name comes up in the songwriting credits. That was the case for Tim McGraw’s award-winning version of “Humble and Kind,” and dozens of other McKenna-penned tracks, including tracks she’s written with her cadre of fellow composers Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose, also known as The Love Junkies.
Mother of five Lori McKenna from Stoughton, Massachusetts is saving country music. You no longer have any legitimate license to say, “Oh, I’ve heard the name. Isn’t she a songwriter or something?” and consider yourself and enlightened music fan. Brushing Lori McKenna off is brushing off one of the greatest living songwriters of our generation, right up there with whatever field of heavyweights you want to amass as challengers or contemporaries. Just as we mourn the loss of songwriters gone by and wonder aloud who will ever be capable of filling their shoes, future generations will say the same of Lori McKenna.
Randall King – “When He Knows Me”
With the same deft accuracy and studious understanding other country artists have evoked certain eras in the modern context, Randall King comes out swinging and fleetly re-imagines 90’s country with one sharp song after another. Some of the terminology and subject matter might be a little more tweaked to modern sensibilities, but the music is authentic, and you keep having to check the liner notes, telling yourself this must be a song you heard before from Alan Jackson, or John Anderson.
A favorite that has emerged off the new album is the touching “When He Knows Me” about dealing with the memory loss of a loved one that so many people have to suffer through as parents and grandparents age. Very specifically about Randall’s grandfather, the personal nature of the song comes through in the writing and performance, and may lubricate a few eyes.
Kacey Musgraves – “Space Cowboy”
Songwriters: Kacey Musgraves Luke Laird, Shane McAnally
Kacey’s signature use of double entendre, which at other times has been rendered tired and trite through its prevalence in her music, is employed here in spectacular fashion. It’s then paired with superior, ethereal production, that may have hampered her latest record Golden Hour as a whole, but allows “Space Cowboy” to positively soar.
The heartache of being left behind is brilliantly captured here, along with the sincere aching in Musgraves’ voice to make “Space Cowboy” bigger than any year, album, or artist. In an ideal world, “Space Cowboy” is what modern country pop would be. It’s a stain, and an embarrassment on the country music industry that the powers that be have rendered this marvelous track simply a cut on a critically-acclaimed record for hipsters to enjoy instead of what America is listening to.
American Aquarium – “One Day At A Time”
What shakes us to our core in the greatest of songs is their ability to speak right to us in a way that seems to know who we are, and our whole life’s story with uncanny accuracy and understanding, ultimately allowing acute emotions to well up in even the most steeled of hearts. Even though “One Day At A Time” expends many of its verses talking shop of the life of a songwriter and musician, American Aquarium frontman BJ Barham makes us all feel his emotions like they’re our own. If not the best song so far in 2018, it very well might have the best line, “Songs fulfill a human need, to sit back and watch another man bleed, so for a moment we don’t have to feel sorry for ourselves.”
No other line better explains the importance of shining a spotlight on songs that can touch people’s lives like “One Day At Time.” With this song, BJ Barham announces his candidacy for inclusion with the very top songwriters of this generation.
John Prine – “Summer’s End”
John Prine was one of the greatest songwriters dead or alive before he released his first record of original songs in 13 years in The Tree of Forgiveness. His wordsmithing is other-worldly, while remaining whimsical enough to feel effortless. “Summer’s End” does not wow you with some incredible turns of phrase or keen insight into life like so many Prine songs have done for decades. With this one, he envelops you in memory from his deft use of simplicity of story, and a timeless melody. John Prine and “Summer’s End” sound like your very fondest memory, as clear in the mind as it was in the minutes after the original moments passed.
Jamie Lin Wilson – “Death & Life”
“Death & Life” is nothing short of songwriting mastery, slaying all who listen with open hearts, feeling less like a country roots song, and more like some Eastern poem that unlocks the inalienable truths of life in a breathtaking efficiency of ink strokes on parchment.
Creating sermons about the cycles of life is at the very kernel of American roots music. This is the reason “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” is often given credit for being the first country song, and the reason these words ring the rotunda of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Jamie Lin Wilson hasn’t just re-imagined these eternal truths in yet another song, she’s forged them into a new axiom, both fresh and timeless.
Kenny Chesney – “Better Boat”
Songwriters: Travis Meadows, Liz Rose
Nearly everything about “Better Boat” is right. The songwriters Travis Meadows and Liz Rose are right. The entirety of the instrumentation being performed by Mac McAnally on an acoustic guitar is right. Kenny choosing songwriter Mindy Smith to perform the song with instead of some pop star is right. The mood and production is right. And most importantly, the song is right. Remember, in 2010 Kenny Chesney covered Guy Clark’s “Hemingway’s Whiskey” and made it the title track to his album. We know the guy is a fan of quality songwriting—when he’s allowed to show it. He showed it selecting John Baumann’s “Gulf Moon,” and he shows it again with “Better Boat.”
This is the type of song that doesn’t get written, certainly doesn’t get cut, and most definitely doesn’t get recorded and released by a major label artist like Kenny Chesney in Nashville these days. Or if it does, they figure out a way to screw it all up by adding an electronic drum beat or something else unclean to country music, sullying the appeal for more distinguished listeners. It’s by God poetic and wise, yet with an effective and easy-to-digest lyrical hook. It reminds you less of Kenny Chesney, and more of Lyle Lovett. It’s about self-improvement, evaluation, and reflection. This is the heady stuff usually left off of mainstream albums as not to alienate audiences. But with “Better Boat,” they didn’t. They released it as a single.
- Trixie Mattel – “Red Side of the Moon”
- Brandon Jenkins – “Fade to Black”
- Dakota Jay – “Don’t Come To Nashville”
- Brandi Carlile – “The Joke”
- Kyla Ray and Colton Hawkins – “Once A Week Cheaters” (written by Keith Whitley)
- Kacey Musgraves – “Rainbow”
- Courtney Patton – “What It’s Like to Fly Alone (Hawk Song)”
- Ward Davis – “Good and Drunk”
- Kristina Murray – “Slow Kill”
- Pistol Annies – “Best Years Of My Life”
- William Clark Green – “Poor”
- Whitey Morgan and the 78’s – “Around Here”
- Jay Bragg – “The Dreamer”
- Any song from Courtney Marie Andrews’ May Your Kindness Remain
- Any song from Jason Eady’s I Travel On