Six Songs That Define Modern Country
‘Cover Me Up’ by Jason Isbell (2013)
The ‘Song of the Year’ at the 2014 Americana Music Awards, ‘Cover Me Up’ should play loudly whenever anyone searches ‘modern country’ online. The truest love song written this century, the tune is a tear-jerking lament that manages to pull off the magic trick all art aspires to: making you happy and sad at the same time. “It’s not easy to sit down, open yourself up and say ‘this is how much I love you’,” Isbell has said. “It’s scary to do that.” Scary and beautiful.
‘Turtles All The Way Down’ by Sturgill Simpson (2014)
Naming an album ‘Metamodern Sounds in Country Music’ certainly sets your stall out on Broadway. Kentuckian songwriter Sturgill Simpson is as bold as modern country comes and the trad sounds of 2014 hit ‘Turtles All The Way Down’ prove he knows where he’s been – but its lyrics also point the way to where it’s at. “There’s a gateway in our minds that leads somewhere out there far beyond this plane where reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain,” he sings as ‘Suspicious Minds’-era Elvis licks sweeten the medicine.
‘When The Master Calls The Roll’ by Roseanne Cash (2014)
When Roseanne Cash called upon Kris Kristofferson, John Prine and Tony Joe White to help her out on this song from 2017’s ‘The River & The Thread’ album, she must have intuited it was a big one. A Civil War tale that tells the story of the Cash family having relatives on both sides of the coin, it’s an epic tune that’s carried along on acoustic guitar, mandolin and precision percussion. Written by Roseanne and her husband John Leventhal (alongside her ex-husband Rodney Crowell!), the song was originally earmarked for Emmylou Harris, but Cash thought twice about letting it go. We can hear why…
‘The Joke’ by Brandi Carlile (2017)
“I just can’t get the country and western out of my voice,” Brandi Carlile has said. The 21st century country superstar has resisted labels forever, but there’s an ache in her singing that suggests ‘Nashville’ more than any countrypolitan slide guitar riff or sickly string part. “They hate the way you shine,” she sings in 2017’s ‘The Joke’, as its stately pace, broad stroke ballad touchstones and left-turn chord changes hit listeners hard. A Grammy-winner (‘Best American Roots’, ‘Best American Roots Performance’), the song is also Carlile’s biggest hit to-date.
‘May Your Kindness Remain’ by Courtney Marie Andrews (2018)
A gorgeous ballad in the country soul tradition, ‘May Your Kindness Remain’ touches on the kind of gospel we’re told isn’t made any more. The title track of Andrews’ sixth record, released in 2018 on Fat Possum/Loose, this incredible song floats into view on a bed of humming organ and glides effortlessly across its sea of heartbreak like an archaic passenger ship circling the southern United States of America. “You’re a good woman and a good friend,” goes the opening refrain and one hundred lonely housewives clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts…
‘Girl’ by Maren Morris (2019)
The hit title-track of her second major label album, ‘Girl’ had the highest debut on Billboard’s ‘Country Streaming Songs’ chart by a female artist ever. A pounding alt-pop lament dominated by Morris’ modern country twang, the song is a hard-hitting story of growing up in the music business and beyond. Going on to star in supergroup The Highwomen not long after, ‘Girl’ guaranteed a star on the walk for Morris forever.