Sorry, but these won’t be the best toe tappers of 2021. This is a run down of the songs that have the capacity to change your world, your life, or at least your perspective upon it. The places a song can take you, the realizations a song can impart, the way it can touch something inside of you to make you feel something you never have before, or haven’t felt for a long time—this is the reason we cherish music so much, and we cherish songs specifically as the kernel root of all musical experiences that we remember forever.
Unlike choosing the top albums from a given time period, choosing songs tends to be even more capricious and based on one’s own perspective. But please understand nothing was “forgotten,” and no song or artist should feel insulted by not being included here. This also isn’t an autocratic enterprise. You’re encouraged to share your own insights below about what has moved you in the first half of 2021.
The songs are presented in no certain order, but all should be considered early contenders for Saving Country Music’s 2021 Song of the Year. Time will help sift out the eventual conclusion, with some falling by the wayside, and others rising as time enhances or exposes the effort.
You can also check out the Best Country & Roots Albums of 2021 So Far
Vincent Neil Emerson – “Learning to Drown”
The best songwriters don’t just put their lives to story, they make their stories our own as we listen along, fitting us in their shoes, feeling the waves of emotions as the tragedies unfold, or the joys are recounted.
There’s little joy to be found in this Texas songwriter’s deeply unburdening song about the loss of his father to suicide, and of his own failures and shortcomings placing hurdles in front of the realization of his dreams. Still it feels so comforting to listen in, and lifts the worries off our own souls, contextualizes our problems and sorrows, and lets us know none of us are insulated from life’s tragedies and challenges, or too weak to overcome them.
Blackberry Smoke w/ Jamey Johnson – “Lonesome for a Livin'”
Blackberry Smoke is best known for Southern rock, but can be quite effective when writing and recording country songs too, with possibly no better example in their now 20-year career than this collaboration with Jamey Johnson. Not just a random stab at writing a country heartbreaker by Blackberry frontman Charlie Starr, it was written in tribute to George Jones, who Charlie and Jamey once recorded a version of “Yesterday’s Wine” with.
“It was really meant for him, because those lyrics, it’s not me singing about myself.” Starr says. “That character is a honky tonk singer. It was him, or my vision of him anyway. He is who is he because of the way he can sing a sad song to the world, and we all feel it. And we all know that he feels it. That’s why we all believe it. Because it’s real.”
Morgan Wade – “Take Me Away”
There is no tincture, no compound known to man that can adequately replace the waves of warmth and vitality that overwhelm one when falling into the embrace of another, and losing yourself in intimacy. It is the root of all passion in life … if one has the courage, or the trust in another to succumb to it. Alcohol and sedatives can only deaden that passion, never restore it.
Virginia’s Morgan Wade aptly encapsulates these moments of losing yourself in passion in the song “Take Me Away” from her debut album Reckless.
Jason Eady – “French Summer Sun”
Country songs braying on and on about how we should all be supporting the military and veterans are often just as much musical pablum pandering to a constituency as mainstream country songs about beer and trucks…unless you’re Jason Eady, apparently. If there was a songwriter out there with the acumen and muster to bust through all the bleeding-heart platitudes and overwrought sentimentally that makes so many of these songs immediately disposable, it would be him. And with the help of the equally-talented Drew Kennedy, they turn in a song that leaves you stunned, and blaming allergies for your red eyes.
It’s one thing to write a great song. It’s another to craft one from such over-covered subject matter, and have it resonate and impact so powerfully. It’s Jason Eady levitating above his own existence to attain a 3D perspective upon life that graces this song with brilliance. (read full review)
Rhiannon Giddens feat. Francesco Turrisi – “Calling Me Home”
Can an interpretation of an old Alice Gerrard song be considered for Song of the Year right beside a field of all original compositions? It’s certainly unprecedented. But when it’s Rhiannon Giddens singing, and with the spirits she conjures with this stirring rendition and the heights she takes you to, it would almost feeling like sacrilege if you didn’t.
“Some people just know how to tap into a tradition and an emotion so deep that it sounds like a song that has always been around. Alice Gerrard is one of those rarities. ‘They’re Calling Me Home’ struck me forcefully and deeply the first time I heard it, and every time since. This song just wanted to be sung and so I listened.”
Cole Chaney – “The Flood”
Cole Chaney is from the Kentucky town of Cattlesburg right on the banks of the Ohio River, and right near the confluence of the Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia borders. Where many have dipped their toes into the Kentucky experience with their music, Cole Chaney wades in up to the neck, hollering and wailing about coal mines, flooding catastrophes, dreams cauterized in their infancy due to fleeting opportunities, and other conflagrations that the captivating and hearty characters of the region regularly experience, and that makes such compelling art and stories in the form of country music.
No better case in point than “The Flood,” which paints a resplendent picture of despondency that is at the heart of most all great country music.
The Steel Woods – “Run On Ahead”
You can’t listen to the new album All of Your Stones without considering the passing of the band’s guitarist and founding member Jason “Rowdy” Cope at the age of 42. It may sound like a cliche to say contextualizing the songs within this tragic news results in an entirely different experience that eerily speaks to a prescient awareness of Rowdy’s impending passing, but that’s exactly what happens in one turn after another on this album, and in a way that shakes you to your very core.
The song “Old Pal” about a best friend that’s passed and mourned, “Baby Slow Down” that’s the pleading of a mother to her son to be more careful and delivers the line “There ain’t nothing worse on planet Earth, than a mother laying rest to what she gave birth,” in song after song, and line after line, All of Your Stones strikes chills down your spine and soul knowing that the now deceased Jason “Rowdy” Cope wrote these words, brought perhaps to an emotional apex with the slow, quiet, and lamenting “Run on Ahead” that is hard to stay composed through, even if you had no idea who Rowdy was before.
Hope Dunbar – “Dust”
How much does a preacher’s wife with teenage boys from nowhere Nebraska have to lend to the Americana conversation? Apparently, quite a bit. Sometimes the emptiness of landscape is more inspiring than the mountains and the oceans by offering a clean palette for the imagination, and the isolation from the creative epicenters insulates you from the adverse influence of trends and the the disruptions of inner conversations that the greatest artists have within themselves.
Hope Dunbar many not come with the buzz of the young hipsters in East Nashville, and probably won’t light the Twitterverse on fire. But those that give her an opportunity and forgo the fake hype and name recognition that drives much of music will find an everyday hero writing and singing for her sanity, as it should be. Her song “Dust” from the album Sweetheartland give a loud, resounding voice to quiet desperation.
Alan Jackson – “Where Her Heart Has Always Been”
Alan Jackson’s first album in some six years Where Have You Gone might be his most personal one yet, though they’re pretty much all personal, since he’s always written most of his own songs—a fact that makes Jackson a rare specimen in the country superstar class, and a fact many are quick to forget. Even if Alan was just a songwriter for others, he’d still be considered a legend from the catalog he’s amassed.
This is underscored a number of times on his new album, but perhaps most forcefully with his tribute to his late mother “Where Her Heart Has Always Been.” Some of the greatest songs in the history of country music are eulogic ballads—“Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” “Go Rest High on That Mountain.” Alan Jackson turns in his with a song written and sung for his own mother’s funeral, and one that will likely be played at the funerals of mothers for years to come.
Katie Jo – “Pawn Shop Queen”
Red Shahan – “Pipe Dream”
Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno – “Hollowed Hearts”
Pretty much anything off the album Music City Joke by Mac Leaphart, or Calico Jim by Pony Bradshaw.