We’ve run down the Album of the Year Nominees, as well as the Single of the Year Nominees, and now it’s time to recognize the topmost candidates that tear at your very heart and soul when you hear them.
What’s the difference between a Single of the Year and a Song of the Year? A single of the year is a ditty that gets stuck in your head and won’t come out. Ideally, it would still be well-written, but it unlocks the joy of music first and foremost. A Song of the Year nominee needs to be something that can change a life, change someone’s perspective, or change the world we live in. Yes, this is all quite a tall order, but this is where a good song can take you.
In the case of Song of the Year nominees, the writing is paramount. It’s even more important than the genre or how “country” it is. It still needs to reside in the roots music canon, and be organic and authentic. But the song is what’s most important.
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 even more personal and subjective than with the best 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 everyone.
By all means, if you have a song or a list of songs you think are the best of 2023 and want to share, please do so in the comments section below. Feedback will factor into the final tabulations for the winner, but this is not an up and down vote. Try to convince us who you think should win, and why.
For a Spotify playlist of all the Single and Song of the Year nominees, CLICK HERE.
Joe Stamm Band – “Dollar General Sign”
Joe Stamm Band’s album Wild Man really hits home by exploring personalities that get stuck in life’s ruts like we all do from the adverse things that weigh us down. But instead of passing judgement, songs like “The Day Before” about a drunk at a bar, “Old Man” about an elderly man that life has passed by, and “Listen” about a self-destructive type take a deeply poetic approach to trying to explain why life gets the best of some of us.
These songs, along with the song “Wrong Side of Town” from an EP they released earlier in the year are all articulate and top-notch examples of songwriting. But Joe Stamm’s writing might reach its peak use of perspective with the stunning and entertaining “Dollar General Sign,” encapsulating small town American life in the way so many singers and songwriters attempt to do, but often fail at from falling for tropes instead of the true orientation of things. It’s true songwriting mastery. (writer: Joe Stamm)
Brent Cobb – “When Country Came Back To Town”
While living through the musical moments of our era, it can be hard to quantify them in real time. You really have to zoom out, look at the bigger picture, and realize just how far we have come in country music over the last decade or so to be thankful for where we are now.
The song “When Country Came Back To Town” perfectly encapsulates what we’ve experienced in independent country over the last many years. As opposed to criticizing where country music has been in the near past—which is such an easy and appealing thing to do—Brent Cobb uses the names of artists who’ve risen from obscurity over this time period to illuminate just how far we’ve come. (writer: Brent Cobb)
Pony Bradshaw – “Holler Rose”
There is a discipline of Southern heritage deeply interested in the art of language, and not just for the stories and truths it may help tell, but writing and talking just for the sake of it, and finding beauty and wisdom in the words themselves, and how they relate to the Southern American experience. We’re talking about the realm of William Faulkner and other masters that the modern world has so unfortunately moved on from for the frenetic priority of now.
North Georgia native Pony Bradshaw is uninterested and your priorities though. Instead, he’s allured by the idea of resurrecting this proud art form in the musical realm with snapshot stories full of Southern vernacular and worthy aphorisms. It is mostly Americana in sound, but most importantly, it’s strongly literary, aided in this pursuit by a compelling voice reminiscent in some respects to the elusive Willis Alan Ramsey. (writer: Pony Bradshaw)
Wyatt Flores – “Orange Bottles”
There’s nobody moving up the ranks in Red Dirt faster than Wyatt Flores at the moment, and it’s because of the incisive and self-aware writing emblematic of a song like “Orange Bottles,” which brings it all home with a propulsive melody. For some, the song may be a little too “inside baseball” about the manic life of an up-and-coming entertainer out on the road. But it also speaks to the indecisiveness chased with crippling worry that grips so many of us in modern times, especially young men and women who tend to find the most appeal in Wyatt.
If you see the appeal of artists such as Zach Bryan, Oliver Anthony and others, but just can’t get on board because it all feels too unfocused and unrefined, Wyatt Flores is where you should point your nose. He’s the next in line, and perhaps the best of them all. (writers: Wyatt Flores, David DeVaul)
Gabe Lee – “Merigold”
The genius of Gabe Lee’s songwriting is his refusal to work in the realm of clear specificity. He instead favors poetic ambiguity that can mold itself into the nooks and crannies of the listener’s brain, making them believe each line and verse was uniquely crafted just for them. It’s this deftness of writing that have some regarding his 2023 album Drink The River as the year’s best.
But it’s been said before about previous Gabe Lee songs like “Eveline” and “Emmylou” that when Gabe Lee names a song after a woman, hold on to your emotional faculties, because they’re about to be roiled. “Merigold” might be the main character, but the big ‘C’ becomes the center of attention. (writer: Gabe Lee)
Megan Moroney – “Girl in the Mirror”
It’s official, ladies and gentlemen. Country music has entered a new neotraditional age. Not dissimilar to when George Strait and Randy Travis showed up on the scene in the ’80s and swayed everything in the direction of more country-sounding tunes, we’re seeing large swaths of mainstream country re-adopt country sounds and country sentiments in popular music.
Megan Moroney is the latest mainstream country artist making it evidently clear that it’s a new era in popular country. Not only is the steel guitar and twang pronounced throughout her new debut Lucky, the album is blessed with some great songwriting too, evidenced by this excellent track. “Girl in the Mirror” shows a patience and vulnerability that in previous eras would never be allowed in the mainstream. In 2023, it’s a hit with 12 million streams on Spotify alone. (writers: Megan Moroney, Jessie Jo Dillon, Matt Jenkins)
The Wilder Blue – “The Line”
Though the Texas supergroup The Wilder Blue is sometimes compared to The Eagles with their sound, the song “The Line” gives you chill bumps through its recollections of another top-caliber harmony group: Crosby, Still, and Nash. But that’s burying the lede. Writer Zane Williams does what all great songwriters do, which is reflect the times in which they live, articulating truths we all hold to be self-evident, but seem to never be able to articulate as well as we wish.
For a Song of the Year nominee, the sound of “The Line” is rather cheery. But the subject matter might be the most serious and poignant of all of the nominees. The loving lullaby “Sometimes Forever” to close out the new Wilder Blue album Super Natural deserves honorable mention as well. (writer: Zane Williams)
The Steel Woods – “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am”
It has to be something special to break all rules and decorum for a Song of the Year candidate, and allow what’s ultimately a cover song to be considered, especially one that’s a previous hit, and wasn’t even written by the original artist that popularized it in the first place. Then again, if you hear The Steel Woods’ version of “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am” written by Gretchen Peters, and originally recorded by Country Music Hall of Famer Patty Loveless back in 1995, you know why it’s being inserted into this discussion.
The rule of thumb is that a Song of the Year candidate must have the capacity to change a life, and make us realize something about ourselves previously undiscovered. “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am” fits that definition perfectly, and the way Steel Woods frontman Wes Bayliss delivers it makes a previously-released song feel brand new. (writer: Gretchen Peters)
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – “King of Oklahoma”
“King of Oklahoma” is a perfect example of Jason Isbell’s character study and storytelling when he’s at the top of his game, and it’s a taste of vintage Isbell, if you will. The half time shift in the chorus drives home the emotion of this song, and the fiddle compliments the rootsy nature of the setting. “King of Oklahoma” is certainly in contention for the best song on Isbell’s new album Weathervanes, which in turn puts it in contention for being one of Isbell’s best songs ever.
“King of Oklahoma” feels like an era-defining anthem that speaks to the struggles of our era better than most.
Lori McKenna – “Happy Children”
Leaving it to mother of five Lori McKenna to release the song in 2023 that best encapsulates everything important in life, diffuse the anger and envy that feels so effusive and ever-present in this moment in time, and write a song about the most important things in life and what we all should aspire and dream for. Then on top of it, McKenna delivers a performance that makes you savor every single word of it, and lean in to listen intently.
You could take the track list from McKenna’s 2023 album 1998, throw a dart at it, and land on a song that probably deserves to be in the conversation for Song of the Year. But forced to make a hard decision, “Happy Children” is the one that hits the hardest. (writers: Lori McKenna, Chris McKenna)
Charles Wesley Godwin – “Miner Imperfections”
In a time when it seems like everyone wants to tear at the fabric of society and bulldoze everything established in favor of some new version of life, Godwin makes a simple plea for stability and family, which in this moment might be one of the most radical proclamations one can forward.
“Miner Imperfections” with its play on words referring to the region’s coal industry along with our fallible nature delivers keen insight into how none of us are perfect, but it’s the yearning to be true in all your actions that is most important. Just as Godwin forgives those who came before him for failures and shortcomings, he hopes his children will give the same grace to him. It’s from Godwin’s new album Family Ties. (writers: Charles Wesley Godwin, Zach McCord)