There are all sorts of songs to fit all manner of moods one might go through in a given day or week. Sometimes we need a pick-me-up to get the day started, or a piledriver to get through the evening commute. But when we broach the exercise of whittling down the field of songs of a given year to a list of a chosen few to be considered Song of the Year, we’re not looking for booty shakers or boot scooters. We’re looking for those songs that through the power of words and music, hit you so deeply, you’re a different person after you’re done listening.
Similar to how it was a stellar year for Album of the Year candidates, so it can be said for Song of the Year nominees. 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 also appreciated and requested, thought 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 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.
“Old Songs Like That” – Dillon Carmichael
Songwriters: Dillon Carmichael, Tom Botkin, Michael Rogers.
They just don’t get it. Undoubtedly, you can get a little sugar rush from listening to a lighthearted catchy song on country radio if that’s your cup of tea. But it will never impact you like the deep punch from a true country tearjerker that doesn’t depreciate from age, but grows stronger from its legacy of all the hearts it’s tugged and tears it’s wept as time has gone on. Don’t pass judgement on today’s pop country fans, feel sorry for them, because they will never feel the same soul an old classic country song affords to an appreciative audience. And be grateful to your parents, or your crazy uncle, or whomever it was that turned you on to the true beauty of country music from how much it’s enhanced your life.
What’s great about Dillon Carmichael‘s “Old Songs Like That” is it doesn’t focus on the negative, it accentuates what is positive about all those old country songs. It preaches their virtues, attempts to explain their importance, and pays homage to them not just in name, but in style. By focusing on song titles instead of name dropping a bunch of country legends—which invariable is more about the person dropping the names than it is the legends themselves—Dillon Carmichael makes the message much more about the music than posturing for country cred. (read full review)
“Bottle By My Bed” – Sunny Sweeney – Trophy
Songwriters: Sunny Sweeney, Lori McKenna
“Bottle By My Bed” is the type of song that Music Row in Nashville gets its hands on and figures out how to screw up. So many song ideas start with an excellent germ of inspiration drawn from actual events. But through the songwriting committee process, the emotional brunt is “softened,” and that inspiration gets slowly sifted out. Lucky for us, Sunny Sweeney, who wrote the song with Lori McKenna (who happens to be on fire at the moment), stayed away from all the usual commercial songwriting norms of scrubbing the specifics out of a song until the impact of the message loses its potency and is pallid enough for the simplified palette of the musical masses, and they shied away from getting too sappy to the point of making the message mawkish.
“I don’t even know you yet, but I know I love you,” Sweeney sings in such a specified honesty that its hard to handle, and hard to not believe. It’s lines like this that even if you do have kids, or find yourself on the opposite side of the gene pool from being able to bear children, you can still put yourself in those shoes, and feel the yearning that is hardwired into the human experience to procreate, and love.
“Bottle By My Bed” comes from the lineage of strong country music voices singing from the female perspective, but in a way that creates a broad audience from expounding on a universal truth, and from a perspective conducive to empathy. (read full review)
“Barabbas” – Jason Eady – Jason Eady
Songwriters: Jason Eady, Larry Hooper, Adam Hood, Josh Grider
Jason Eady will not be the next Stapleton, Isbell, or Simpson. He’s too good, and too country for all of that. Instead he’ll be the guy that remains so pure of expression—like Guy and Townes—that he’ll never get spoiled by superfame, while his legacy will still be something of such weight and import, nobody will concern themselves with how many seats in an arena he could sell during the height of his career.
To even germinate the idea of writing a song about the man who was let free when Jesus was sentenced to crucifixion is pretty wondrous in itself, but isn’t it a great representation of how we all walk through life holding on to guilt—products of our past transgressions—trying to make the best of second chances, and the past just as much of a burden as the future is a beacon. Barabbas got off scot-free so that an innocent man could die, but sometimes the conscience can be be as fierce as a prison sentence. Even so, life is what you make of it, and regardless of what got you here, you must move forward by being grateful for the opportunity, and gracious for the gift of life. We all owe that to those that died to make it all possible.
Far from preachy, “Barabbas” is even a bit folksy, which makes it that much more approachable. Yet this song is bolstered by the weight of religious moments most all of us have been taught, whether we choose to heed the message. “Barabbas” is about a specific man, and about all of us, and like all great songwriting its message melds to each of our individual stories to mean something different to everyone in the audience. “Barabbas” is pretty genius, but served in such a simple way anyone can enjoy. (read full review)
“If We Were Vampires” – Jason Isbell – The Nashville Sound
Songwriter: Jason Isbell
A love song with avid participation from his wife and singing partner Amanda Shires, the song delves into the sad perspective that forever in a marriage or a relationship is ultimately a relative term. Though the fantasy of timeless love may be alive in the hearts of young lovers, as we age and give rise to young ones ourselves and watch age overtake the older ones in our families, the reality that Isbell sings about as “Maybe we’ll get 40 years together” puts into perspective just how fleeting love and life is.
The sad reality is that barring double tragedy, one lover will leave before the other, an not uncommonly with the gulf of a decade or more in between. But Isbell doesn’t point these things out just as a lament or a sharp lesson of reality. He uses perspective in “If We Were Vampires” as a conveyance to one’s own heart to cherish every moment and make the most of it, because those moments, however powerful, are incredibly finite. But most importantly, Isbell uses that perspective to covey a deep affection for his other half. (read full review)
“Just Outside of Austin” – Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real – Self-Titled
Songwriter: Lukas Nelson
You can legitimately claim that in raw talent, Lukas Nelson might be the most gifted progeny of a country music superstar the world has ever seen. Perhaps Hank Jr. in his prime or some others may have something to say about that, and there’s newer generations of talent out there that may still have some upside potential to show before final judgement is passed. But Lukas Nelson’s ability to both evoke the timeless magic of his dad’s tone and warble, yet renew it with an original delivery all his own—along with the sheer explosiveness and natural ease of his guitar playing—makes him an awe-inspiring specimen for the theory of pedigree.
In simple musical skills, the talent of Lukas might even surpass that of his famous sire. Of course songwriting and style are a bit harder to tabulate, but Lukas is no slouch in these departments either. Yet nearly 10 years into the performing game now, and Lukas Nelson still feels like he’s attempting to find his footing. The issue is not his talent, or his ability to tell a story through song. If anything, it’s astounding how still under-the-radar Lukas Nelson is when measuring these attributes. It’s his inability to choose or discover a definable lane for his career that keeps him curiously obscure when compared to his skill set.
“Just Outside Of Austin,” with its cutting simplicity and complimentary structure to Lukas’s voice is a timeless song and a perfect example of why you should be paying attention to this performer. (read full review)
“No Glory in Regret” – John Moreland – Big Bad Luv
Songwriter: John Moreland
I’d feel like an idiot trying to sit here and describe the power of John Moreland’s words with whatever feeble and fleeting words I could compose myself. The greatest artists don’t evolve through their music, their music evolves through them. Their songs are a shadow of themselves, or a parallel line with their personal lives. Life takes them in a certain direction, and the music follows.
One of the problems with stellar songwriting is that just like a joke, it’s never going to hit you harder than the first time you hear it, unless there’s something to unravel. But a groove is longer lasting, and can even grow over time. And then when John Moreland strips the music back, like he does in “No Glory in Regret,” the moment is rendered that much more special because it’s isolated to one song instead of the approach to an entire performance or album. (read full review)
“Giving Back The Best of Me” – Jaime Wyatt – Felony Blues
Songwriters: Jaime Wyatt, Matthew Szlachetka
Whether it’s an inalienable flaw or cosmic brilliance, nature has designed humans to inherently need another to complete ourselves. We’re almost like half beings instead of whole ones, unable to fulfill some of our most core functions without a counterpart. So we couple up, and put our most basic trust in one another for our survival and future. And even though the practice feels essential, it’s regularly fraught with peril and heartbreak. But the most important thing is that you try to entrust yourself to another, and understand the importance of when someone entrusts themselves to you. Sometimes, the most honest and deliberate action of love is letting someone go, or allowing them to let go of you. While at other times, the hardest action is to allow yourself to be loved, or allow yourself to love someone else. Because loving is the most vulnerable thing a human can do.
“Old Stone Church” – John Baumann – Proving Grounds
Songwriter: John Baumann
The heartache we all feel in the loss of a loved one is a well-trodden song idea often used when the performer wants to have a deep impact on listeners and connect with them on a human level. However, broaching the subject in a way that doesn’t come across as cliché, mawkish, or even self-centered and opportunistic is one of the biggest challenges of these songs, and one of the reasons they don’t always hit the target, despite the honesty they may convey, or how personal they may be the the performer.
Everyone hurts when they lose a loved one. The difference is in how we deal with that loss. Some use it as an excuse to indulge in self-inflicted pain or to excessively lean on vices. Some use it to re-calibrate their life to find meaning or religion. The genius behind Texas country songwriter John Baumann’s approach in “Old Stone Church” is he uses one instance of loss to illustrate all the possibilities of how we each individually cope with tragedy, and in a way that also encompasses the cyclical nature of life, love, and community in an original, and deeply impacting manner.
Natalie Hemby – “Cairo, IL” – Puxico
Songwriters: Natalie Hemby, Jonathan Lawson, Cassandra Lawson
“As a kid growing up, it was my favorite part of the drive on the way to Puxico [Missouri], and also, the saddest part as I was leaving to go home back to Nashville.” says Natalie Hemby. “Only the skeletons of buildings remain, and what was once a thriving city one hundred years ago, is now what feels like a ghost town…a relic of its beauty. I’ve been driving thru that town for 40 years and it has become a landmark of my childhood.”
“Jonathan and Cassandra Lawson are both writers and artists who are married and in the band The Railers. We have become good friends over the years, but the turning point of that friendship was when we wrote this song. Jonathan is from Missouri, and he would also pass through Cairo, IL on his way back home. Jonathan is an amazing guitar player and came up with the beautiful acoustic melody that is the backdrop of the song. He and Cassandra poetically helped me carve the song into a story, my story, my memories. I loved it so much, the day we wrote it, I made them sing it with me over and over again.”
“A Tornado Warning” – Turnpike Troubadours – A Long Way From Your Heart
“Lint Head Gal” – Phoebe Hunt – Shanti’s Shadow
“The Older I Get” – Alan Jackson
“Scarecrow in the Garden” – Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Vol. 2
“Sunscreen” – Ira Wolf – The Closest Thing to Home
“A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” – Ashley McBryde
“Whitehouse Road” – Tyler Childers – Purgatory
“If I Could Make You My Own” – Dori Freeman – Letters Never Read
“Way Down in My Soul” – Zephaniah Ohora – This Highway
Joseph Huber – Anything from his album The Suffering Stage
Andrew Combs – “Dirty Rain” – Canyons of My Mind
Dalton Domino – “Corners” – Corners
Lindi Ortega – “Final Bow” – Til the Goin’ Gets Gone
The Brother Brothers – “Cairo, IL” – Tugboats EP
All of these songs and more have been featured on the Saving Country Music Top 25 Current Playlist updated on a regular basis. The playlist primarily lives on Spotify, but is also available for those who use Google Play.