A Saving Country Music ‘Song of the Year’ nominee is not just your favorite ditty that gets stuck in your head. These are songs that have the power to change hearts and change lives, open you up new ideas or ways of thinking, or unlock memories or emotions you haven’t felt in years. Song of the Year nominees are the reason you’re a music fan. They can change the world, or at least, they can change your world.
In 2020, there were albums that you could pick just about any song from and call it a Song of the Year nominee, including Album of the Year nominees such as Arlo McKinley’s Die Midwestern, Ward Davis’s Black Cats and Crows, Lori McKenna‘s The Balladeer, and Cahalen Morrison’s Wealth of Sorrow. But also in that category are Brent Cobb’s Keep ‘Em On They Toes, both of Zach Bryan‘s 2020 releases Elisabeth and Quiet, Heavy Dreams, as well as Dalton Domino‘s acoustic record Feverdreamer.
There were songs that beyond any concern for artistic merit, were just bangers in their own right, and perhaps on a lighter year, would have been considered in the nominees proper, songs like “Sister Elizabeth” by The Tender Things, “Dave Dudley” by Rattlesnake Milk, Josh Grider’s “Country’s Comin’ Back” that didn’t seem to get nearly enough attention, “Lac du Flambeau” by the Bloody Jug Band, and perhaps the vocal launching pad in all of roots music in 2020 and arguably one of the best performances all year, Tami Neilson’s “You Were Mine.”
There were other songs that sat right on the bubble of being nominees, like “In Came You” by The Piedmont Boys, “Mattress on the Floor” by Mo Pitney, “Waiting To Be Born” by Jordan Allen and the Bellwethers, “Don’t You Know I’m From Here” by Brennen Leigh, “The Eagle” by The Wilder Blue (formerly Hill Country), and a few songs from Jason Isbell and the 400’s Unit’s new album Reunions, including “St. Peter’s Autograph” and “It Gets Easier.” But 2020 was so stacked, there just wasn’t enough room, even as nominees were extended to an unprecedented 13 entries.
PLEASE NOTE: Just because a song isn’t listed here doesn’t mean it’s being snubbed or forgotten. Picking the best songs of a given year 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.
If you have a song or list of songs you think are the best of 2020 and want to share, please do in the comments section below. Feedback will factor into the final tabulations for the winner, but this is not an up and down vote. Convince us who you think should win and why.
Without further ado, here are the nominees for Saving Country Music’s Song of the Year.
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A Spotify playlist of all nominees and honorable mentions can be found below, and on Spotify.
Emily Scott Robinson – “The Time For Flowers”
In a year when many artists and songwriters have felt compelled to attempt to encapsulate these moments in some sort of artistic expression that both does justice to the sentiments and emotions we all feel, while also giving glimmers of hope for the future, it’s difficult to almost impossible to not come across as trite, overly-sentimental, or even opportunist. It really takes something special to feel both topical, and timeless.
Leave it to the reigning Saving Country Music Song of the Year winner Emily Scott Robinson to strike that balance, and tell a story that adds the weight of wisdom and the perspective of time to our current worries and troubles in a way that warmifies the soul as opposed to just articulating things we already know. “The Time for Flowers” is perfect for 2020. But like any grand piece of art, it will be relevant at any time, on any year.
Zach Bryan – “November Air”
Never before have we known a songwriter quite like Zach Bryan, who rose out of complete obscurity to capture the imagination of hungry listeners, and now become one of the hottest songwriters in the business. His first album was inspired by the passing of his mother DeAnn, and that life event still remains his greatest muse, and the catalyst to continue to refine and share his creativity despite keeping full time commitments to the Navy.
“November Air” from his EP Quiet, Heavy Dreams finds the Oklahoma native refining his writing like never before, and compared to his other earlier recordings, honing those skills into something more pure, with a string section imbuing this composition with the weight of moments the lyrical mastery deserves.
Zach Bryan isn’t just a songwriter. He’s a phenomenon, and continues to astound.
Juliet McConkey – “Hung The Moon”
The stories of Juliet McConkey’s debut album Disappearing Girl are of souls forged in the furnace of life’s tribulations. “Hung The Moon” is a musical masterpiece, rounding out its story like sketching a perfect circle by hand, while the musical movement is soul stirring on the level of “Pachabel’s Canon.” Tracing a life from a coming of age moment, to matrimony, and eventually to disillusion and moving on, it’s like an epic novel encapsulated in under four minutes.
One of many excellent songs from Juliet McConkey’s album, patient and attentive listeners are handsomely rewarded by the chills this song conveys.
Arlo McKinley – “Bag of Pills”
Arlo McKinley empties the kitchen of every single top shelf heartache and sad story he has in the tank on what is officially his first solo album, Die Midwestern, and turns in a stunner of an effort for John Prine’s Oh Boy Records, if to no other end than to not let the blessing of the great John Prine down. It was the song “Bag of Pills” that impressed Prine so much that he signed the Kentuckian/Ohioan, and even preparing yourself, you still won’t be steeled for the emotional wallop the song delivers. Perhaps no other song encapsulates Midwestern breakdown from a modern perspective better than the passages of “Bag of Pills.”
Joshua Ray Walker – “Voices”
Dallas native Joshua Ray Walker wastes no time going to work on your emotional receptors on his new record Glad You Made It, starting it off with this tale of a man making the choice to roll his truck into the lake instead of struggling to keep on living, polishing off a bottle as he does to “make it look like a mistake.” This is the kind of mercilessness Joshua Ray Walker shows to jerk those tears out like only the finest country music can.
Not just a songwriting tour de force, Joshua Ray Walker’s yodel and high range are another highlight of “Voices,” with the song’s rather impressive and elongated note at the 2/3rds interval drawing out the emotion of the story like only a top notch singer can.
John Prine – “I Remember Everything”
The gaping hole left in our hearts where a living John Prine once dwelled will not heal easily or anytime soon. But one of the saving graces of losing one of your musical heroes is that you will always have their music to remember them fondly by, and console you when the weight becomes too heavy.
The very final song John Prine ever recorded, “I Remember Everything” was written with longtime collaborator Pat McLaughlin and produced by Dave Cobb. Whether it was meant to be just an acoustic performance originally or more was to be added later on in the process, the way it turned out works as the perfect epitaph to a historic career.
The delicate sweetness, and poetic weight that accompanied John Prine songs for over 50 years is all evident in “I Remember Everything,” and what a way to punctuate how the most important thing in life is our memories right as Prine’s story was coming to a close. John Prine left us with more wisdom and warm memories than most, and “I Remember Everything” adds to that legacy.
Gabe Lee – “Emmylou”
Women is where Gabe Lee has found his most potent muse in his short but productive career as a superior-level songwriter. “Eveline” from his first record was the song that stood out for most, and found the soft spot in Gabe’s heart, and and the sweet spot in his voice. “Susannah” is one of the more upbeat moments on the new album Honky Tonk Hell, without lacking in the writing department to make sure you don’t just hear, but feel the message.
But it’s on his song “Emmylou” when you once again hear the sound a heart makes when it shatters. It’s difficult to be overly complimentary about Gabe Lee’s manner of singing. It’s not just about some natural gift of tone or control. It’s his instinct to know how to use it. The second time Gabe sings the simple name “Emmylou” on this song, you’d swear it would have the power to make a barren field sprout flowers with the amount of emotion contained in those few fleeting, but eloquently elongated syllables.
Ward Davis – “Threads”
It’s unfortunate that the depths of depression and despair often gives rise to the greatest songwriting moments from our favorite composers. Their pain is our gain, and that certainly goes for the new album from Ward Davis called Black Cats and Crows that some are considering his breakout moment.
Fueled by the painful moments of a divorce, the introspection and desperation found in the song “Threads” is hard to not feel right through to your very bones. Co-written with Pearl Aday, it’s a clinic of why Ward Davis has been considered one of the most gifted under-the-radar songwriters in country, and why he may not remain under-the-radar for much longer.
John Baumann – “The Country Doesn’t Sound The Same”
Country music is a compass to American life. Even if you’re not especially drawn to the music as a fan, it still often resides in your ethos from the strong memories the sounds of it evoke like the smells in your grandmother’s kitchen. Country music’s qualities of nostalgia and timelessness give it that unique power to awaken a warm memory at just the right time, or imbibe you with a sense of place and consistency just when it’s most needed. That is, if it’s still around to be heard.
That’s why so many find a vested interest in attempting to protect and preserve the traditional modes of country music, no different than preserving that historic building in the center of town, that old growth of trees on a hill, that farm at the crossroads, or that sense of community we all feel with each other where differences in opinion are seen as subtle, and a mutual respect for your common man prevails.
These are the themes and feelings interwoven into the quality writing of John Baumann’s “The Country Doesn’t Sound The Same.” Not your standard and cliche-riddled country protest song, this more thoughtful, reflective, and hushed effort bemoans the passing away of important things in life—country music included—to the onslaught of progress and noise, while resisting the new favorite American pastime of finger-pointing and laying blame.
John Anderson – “Years”
The title track from John Anderson’s latest album emerges after an extended period where he was dogged by health problems and was worried he may not make it through, let alone sing again. But even though his plump and cheery face now appears more gaunt like the air was let out of it, the voice that sounds like molasses run through a volume pedal is as pure as it ever was. Taking stock of life amid his recent health woes, Anderson weaves his harrowing experiences and hard-earned wisdom into this song about a deep appreciation for life animated through reflection, helping himself and the audience recalibrate on the most important things at a moment when this exercise couldn’t be more pertinent.
The Panhandlers – “West Texas in My Eye”
The Panhandlers aren’t just bound by their ties to the region. The geography and people of the upper portions of West Texas is what this music is all about. “West Texas in My Eye” was not written by any of the Panhandlers members, but by noted West Texas songwriter Charlie Stout. It sets the table for their debut, self-titled record that runs through the trials and tribulations of the region with such insight and clarity that you taste the grit between your teeth, hear the wind in your ears, and feel the sun on your back until you find yourself alone on the flat plain yourself, beholding the self-reflective mood of the surrounding nothingness.
From falling water tables to failing farms, this is an account of an unforgiving land nobody would ever choose to call home. Yet people still do, and find the beauty in the few places it lingers—the flower on the top of a cactus, a pretty girl in a truck with a good taste in music and a friendly smile. And no matter how unappreciative the rest of the world may regard this seemingly nondescript place, a deep appreciation rests in the heart of its residents, because it’s responsible for who they are.
The Panhandlers are William Clark Green, Josh Abbott, Cleto Cordero, John Baumann.
McKay & Leigh (Brennen Leigh) – “Hundred Year Old Farmhouse”
Yes, Brennen Leigh and her long-time collaborator Noel McKay released this composition very late in 2019 on their album McKay & Leigh, but it’s being given special exception to be considered here from the sheer beauty and importance of this song.
With all due respect to Steve Goodman, “Hundred Year Old Farmhouse” challenges for the perfectly-written country & Western song in the way it captures the sentiments of home so resolute and sweetly. Reminiscent of Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin’s “The House That Built Me” that Miranda Lambert made a massive hit, “Hundred Year Old Farm House” is begging to be recorded by a big country star as other worthy Brennen Leigh compositions have been in the past.
S.G. Goodman – “Space and Time”
Finding new ways to present old themes, submitting timeless modes with fresh perspectives, and offering it all up in a way that is compelling, original, and sonorous enough to rise through the grey din of modern music noise and strike a unique chord is what S.G. Goodman labored to put forth and rightly accomplishes with her debut album Old Time Feeling. The record captures blistering honesty, sparse beauty, spirited expressions, and stretches the possibilities of country music while still nestling within its sonic and thematic values.
Immediately upon cuing up this record you’re undivided attention is earned when the bold and confident voice of S.G. Goodman comes bursting out in a watery tone on the opening track “Space And Time,” rendered way too loud in the mix in the best of ways, and reminiscent of classic country female crooners. About the gratefulness for life, “Space and Time” is like a love letter to the world, “even my enemies,” while avoiding the sappiness normally accompanying such an enterprise.