Every year is a good year for country music, and 2018 was especially good. Here are five songs that achieved varying degrees of popularity this calendar year that you might enjoy.
1. “Space Cowboy,” by Kacey Musgraves – Underdog country hero Kacey Musgraves has been a vocal opponent of “the machine” in Nashville, as she calls it, or major labels that are cozy with those that make the decisions as to who gets their songs on country radio stations, who gets the big stadium tours, and thus, who country fans will end up falling for. Exposure is the key to success, and the average country fan might know only a song or two by Musgraves despite her already prodigious career.
Musgraves has always done it her way, to some degree, but her third full length album is when she truly found her own voice. From front to back, Golden Hour is a flawless release, and nothing hits quite as hard as the lead single, “Space Cowboy.”
Dreamy, eerie, sensible, it is a musical cocktail of everything that has always made Musgraves great.
Perhaps you haven’t heard this song much on country radio, and that’s because Musgraves took a Swift-ian turn toward pop, the genre where she is clearly most at home. But the country details are undeniable, with wordplay that would make the best songwriters in Nashville green with envy: “You can have your space… cowboy/I ain’t gonna fence you in/go on ride away, in your Silverado/I guess I’ll see you ‘round again.”
If you haven’t checked in with the girl from Golden, Texas in a while, do yourself a favor and start listening to Golden Hour now.
2. “When It Rains It Pours,” by Luke Combs – This year has seen a lot of things in Nashville, but the undeniable breakout star of 2018 is Luke Combs. When the calendar flipped, Combs – born and raised in Asheville – had charted a couple of hits over the past few years, and by the end of the year he had sold out an entire stadium tour.
Want to see Luke Combs in Greensboro in February? Better take a look at the secondary ticket market, because that show sold out quicker than you can say “When It Rains, It Pours.” You’ll have about as much luck in Charlottesville, Knoxville, and on and on.
The song in question was Combs’ second single to reach No. 1 on the Billboard country charts, and it’s his best song yet. It took me longer than I’d like to admit to realize the song is actually the answer to the old joke about country music: what happens when you rewind a country song? You get your girl back, your dog back, and your truck starts.
The narrator’s girlfriend in this song dumps him, and he has astounding luck afterward – winning $100 on a scratch off ticket, a free round of golf, and a beach vacation getaway – therefore inverting the old cliche, “when it rains it pours.” In this case, it’s the good luck that won’t stop coming.
Most impressive is the songwriting, done by Combs himself. I recently read that the mark of a good writer is the ability to tell a complete and interesting story in as few words as possible, and Combs passes the test when he sings, “I got the last spot in the [restaurant’s] parking lot/and the waitress left her number on the check with a heart/she picked up on the first ring when I gave her a call.”
Now that’s a story worth listening to.
3. “Five More Minutes,” by Scotty McCreery – It’s hard to believe this Carolina boy is still just 25 years old. It feels like decades ago that he won American Idol, and to be fair, it was 7 years ago now.
McCreery was blessed with an easy, soothing voice that wowed American Idol fans and made him an instant star in Nashville thereafter. He’s always delivered the goods on his hits through the years, be it “Water Tower Town,” “See You Tonight,” or even the gems on “Christmas with Scotty McCreery” from 2012.
“Five More Minutes” is a quintessential radio country song in that it develops strong narratives throughout the verses that are accentuated by a recurring, nostalgia-infused chorus that boils humanity down into its very essence: “Time goes the clock don’t stop/I wish I had a few more drops of the good stuff, the good times/oh, but they just keep on flying right on by like it ain’t nothing/I wish I had me a pause button, to give myself five… more… minutes.”
A state championship football game in which he comes up short, and he’s standing at midfield: can’t I have five more minutes? An youthful experience with a lover on the porch steps: maybe five more minutes? It’s a great song that will run through your head every time you, too, wish you had a little more time.
4. “Round Here Buzz,” by Eric Church – Okay, this one is a stretch in terms of being from 2018. Released in April 2017, it did spend time on the charts in the first half of 2018, and I haven’t stopped listening to it yet.
Like another songwriter from this list, Church grew up in the Carolina mountains prior to enrolling at Appalachian State. The money he wasted on a marketing degree probably stings a little less considering it was only a waste in that he was a breakout country star by the time he turned 28.
No current radio country artist does defiant heartbreak quite like Eric Church. “Round Here Buzz” seemingly takes place in West Texas – “I never had big city eyes, and I’ve never been east of Dallas” – but it may as well have taken place in our backyard.
A man drinks away the pain of an ex while the rest of the town is at a football game. “Lit up like that one stop light, across from that welcome sign/ever since you caught that ‘Out There’ buzz/I catch me a ‘Round Here Buzz.” I’m not sure I’ll ever stop listening to this one.
5. “People Change,” by Mipso – These Chapel Hill-based bluegrassers won’t ever be on country radio, but they are likely more country than anyone you’ll ever hear on those same stations.
Their fourth album, “Edges Run,” is their most reflective yet, and I’ll be honest, it took me several listens to get into it. It’s less accessible than their previous records, but every bit as good.
“People Change” is a waxing ballad, searching to make sense of a break up (there’s some kind of theme between all of these songs, perhaps you’re starting to notice). I like nothing more than a song that finds what it’s looking for, and who can beat this: “I used to love you, like the world would end/I used to love you, like a child/the thing about people is they change when they walk away.”
Whenever I hear the line, I’m waiting for something more – how do they change, what are you supposed to do? But that’s the point. They change, and you keep on.
There is percussion in this song that doesn’t exist on other Mipso releases, a light roll on a snare drum that feels like marching orders. People change, move along.
And so we do, into 2019.