Country Hits by Women: From Lee Ann Womack to Maren Morris - Rolling Stone
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A Real Fine Place to Start: 20 Years of Country Hits by Women

Important songs by Maren Morris, Taylor Swift, Gretchen Wilson, Sara Evans illustrate how the genre has changed

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It’s no secret that country radio hardly plays women. (Lettuce and tomato, am I right, ladies?) It’s become such an established issue that even talking about it at this point feels like a cliché. When country journalists and fans bemoan the problem, there’s a tendency to list off female country performers who were radio staples in prior eras as proof that the genre has since gone off the deep end: Reba, Trisha, Martina, Terri, the Judds, Dolly, Shania.

These were some of the women that Kelly Clarkson name-checked in her spontaneous rant on the state of country radio from earlier this year. But the truth is that you don’t even have to go back that far to find women artists who are not only making it big in Nashville, but pushing the whole genre forward. Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, two of the enduring stars of mainstream country, both got their start in the mid-2000s, a time when women and women-fronted groups were not exactly rarities on the airwaves. The aughts began and ended with women (Faith Hill and Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott, respectively) at the top of the country charts with huge crossover hits, and in between were a plethora of game-changing singles that each made their mark on the genre’s dominant sound: Dixie Chicks’ “Cowboy Take Me Away,” Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman,” Lambert’s “Kerosene,” Underwood’s “Before He Cheats,” Taylor Swift’s “Our Song,” and many, many more.

So in looking back on the contributions that female artists made to mainstream country music in the 2010s, we’ve decided that it’s worth examining the past 20 years of the genre rather than just the past decade — the better to highlight a recent history that tends to get overlooked. One reason for the 20-year overview is to look at how much the sound of country has changed: mainstream country has always shifted with the winds of other popular music genres (including and especially, well, pop music), and you can hear that evolution over the span of two decades. But we also wanted to recognize the women poised to become the next Dollys and Rebas, artists who are inevitably going to influence a generation of country performers and, in 20 years from now, will have people asking, “Why doesn’t country sound like that anymore?”

There are 20 country singles on this list, one from each year, and all of them made it to Number One on either Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart or their Country Airplay chart. (Unless otherwise stated, “going Number One” on this list only refers to the country charts, not the Hot 100.) Some of these singles were critically lauded; others, less so. But all of them are either indicative of mainstream country’s status quo at the time or significant in how they affected Nashville’s sound and lyrics.

As with everything country, the charts only tell part of the story. It’s disappointing but hardly surprising to see that all the women who have become “names” in the genre in the past two decades have been white, even as artists like Yola, Mickey Guyton, Hurray for the Riff Raff, the War & Treaty, Priscilla Renea, and Our Native Daughters have earned critical praise and devoted fanbases. Listeners unfamiliar with the wider world of country might be surprised to not see Kacey Musgraves on this list; despite her Grammy wins and extended crossover success, country gatekeepers have largely ignored her efforts to be played on the radio. And finally, whatever’s happening in Nashville speaks nothing of country music’s diverse independent and regional scenes that are consistently pushing the boundaries of the genre while staying true to its roots.

So without further ado, here are 20 influential, important, and all-around significant country hits by women from the past 20 years.

Lee Ann Womack

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Lee Ann Womack, “I Hope You Dance” (2000)

One of the biggest tracks to ever appear on both the country and adult contemporary charts — peaking at No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 — “I Hope You Dance” launched Texas-born Lee Ann Womack’s career and cemented itself on at least three different radio formats. But given its string-laden production and its lyrics pulled straight from a commencement address, it’s not surprising that the song’s most enduring legacy has been at proms and graduations. “I was so shocked to see the way the kids got it,” Womack told the Today Show in 2001. “When I say kids, I mean, you know, like teenagers. And we saw a big difference in our audience, and the young kids that were coming out to the shows and really into ‘I Hope You Dance.’”

Coming out of the late Nineties and the continued crossover success of artists like Shania Twain, the biggest country hits by women in the early aughts tended to follow the same blueprint of breezy, motivational pop-twang. Faith Hill, blonde and effervescent, epitomized this trend the most, scoring two Number One hits in 2000 with “Breathe” and “The Way You Love Me.” Elsewhere on the charts, Jo Dee Messina mixed funk groove with a radio-friendly sleekness on “That’s the Way,” and Sara Evans’ “Born to Fly” took the widescreen optimism of “Wide Open Spaces” and projected it on IMAX. The Dixie Chicks themselves released a whopping eight singles from their 1999 commercial juggernaut Fly, but it was the two soaring anthems — “Cowboy Take Me Away” and “Without You” — that reached the top of the Hot Country Songs in 2000 and 2001, respectively.

Womack would have a handful of subsequent radio singles — please, if you haven’t already, give “Last Call” a listen — but never released another mega-hit like “I Hope You Dance.” In recent years, her sound has evolved into more traditional country/Americana, heard on recent excellent albums like The Way I’m Livin’ and The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone.

Jamie O'Neal

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Jamie O’Neal, “There Is No Arizona” (2001)

Believe it or not, Keith Urban is not the only Australian to make it big in Nashville. Around the same time that Urban was first making waves on U.S. radio, Jamie O’Neal signed to Mercury and released two Number One hits off her debut album, Shiver. A former backup singer for Kylie Minogue, O’Neal was an unlikely torch-carrier for classic country tales of outlaws and ghost towns. But Shiver’s lead single, “There Is No Arizona,” is a searing breakup ballad that modernizes those myths, following a man who leaves his partner to build “a new and better life” for them out West and never returns — the anti-“Cowboy Take Me Away,” of sorts. It’s also arguably one of the last “story” songs to make it big on the country charts that wasn’t a morality tale or dripping with sentimentality. The way O’Neal tarnishes her protagonist’s ghosting of his outlaw sweetheart is just simple, damn good songwriting: “If there was a Grand Canyon/She could fill it up with the lies he’s told her.”

Martina McBride

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Martina McBride, “Blessed” (2002)

A guaranteed crowdpleaser of a song, Nashville star Martina McBride looks back on her career (this single was for a greatest-hits compilation) and shows pride in her hometown and family. Co-written by Brett James and Hillary Lindsey, who would later pen Carrie Underwood’s breakout hit “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” this was McBride’s fifth chart-topping single and the only song by a solo female artist to go to Number One on the country charts in 2002.

Like other collaborations between McBride and producer Paul Worley, “Blessed” is a country-pop song injected with the propulsion of the best stadium rock: hard-hitting percussion, guitars that reach the stratosphere, a lead vocalist who soars even higher. It turns what could have been a gentle showing of gratitude tacked onto a compilation LP into one of McBride’s most passionate performances to date.

Dixie Chicks

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Dixie Chicks, “Travelin’ Soldier” (2003)

Bruce Robison wrote “Travelin’ Soldier” in the early Nineties, after a friend and dishwasher at the restaurant where he worked was suddenly deployed to the Gulf War. “I’m not sure I really had a position on the war one way or the other, but he was going over there — this knuckleheaded friend of mine — and I was afraid he was going to get killed,” he would later say. Though inspired by the first U.S. invasion of Iraq, Robison set the song during the Vietnam War, telling the story of a young American soldier who falls in love with a girl back home and writes letters to her from overseas. Robison recorded the song in 1996 and, years later, passed it along to the Dixie Chicks, one of whom, Emily Strayer, was at the time married to Robison’s brother Charlie.

When the song appeared on the group’s 2002 album Home, the Dixie Chicks were coasting on an unprecedented level of success, following the combined 22 million album sales from their previous two releases, Wide Open Spaces and Fly. In the first few months of 2003, Home won five Grammy Awards (and was nominated for Album of the Year), the Dixie Chicks performed at the Super Bowl, and “Travelin’ Soldier” rose to Number One on Hot Country Songs and Number 25 on the Hot 100.

You probably know the story from there: On March 10th, while introducing “Travelin’ Soldier” onstage in London, Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines spoke out against President George W. Bush and his decision to ignite the Iraq War. In the weeks following, the modified quote was printed in The Guardian and reprinted in U.S. newspapers. Conservative listeners called into country radio stations threatening to boycott if they continued to play the band. “Travelin’ Soldier” fell from Number One on March 22nd to Number Three on March 29th, and subsequently disappeared off the charts altogether. It was the only country song by a woman or woman-fronted group to reach Number One in 2003.

Gretchen Wilson

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Gretchen Wilson, “Redneck Woman” (2004)

Born in Pocahontas, Illinois, Gretchen Wilson quit school at age 14 to tend bar, and left bartending behind in the mid-Nineties to pursue a career on Music Row. As you can imagine, she wasn’t exactly rolling in cash during those years. Even after signing with Epic Records in 2003 and earning an advance for her debut album, Here for the Party, Wilson struggled to support herself and her daughter financially, all while feeling out-of-place among the glossy country stars in Nashville. One day in the studio, according to her 2018 biography, Wilson was watching Faith Hill’s satin-clad “Breathe” video on TV with her co-writer John Rich (of hitmaking duo Big & Rich), and remarked, “This is probably never gonna happen for me because I’ll never look like that, and I’ll never be that. That is just not the kind of woman I am.” Rich asked, “Then what kind of woman are you?” And the rest is history.

It’s perhaps too simplistic to chalk up the success of “Redneck Woman” in 2004 to its blue-collar pride. The video was in heavy rotation alongside Usher and Avril Lavigne on MTV, and it quickly became a karaoke classic, though some of its fans no doubt sang the song ironically. And while the other women in Nashville weren’t lining up to show off their Walmart lingerie or year-round Christmas lights, “Redneck Woman” became the sound du jour on country radio: future songs from Terri Clark (“Girls Lie Too”) and Jo Dee Messina (“My Give a Damn’s Busted”) matched Wilson’s rockier, guitar-heavy production and no-nonsense lyrics. The trend even helped pave the way for Miranda Lambert and her fiery breakout hit “Kerosene.”

As for Faith Hill, she followed along the next year with “Mississippi Girl,” in which she proclaims, “Still like wearing my old ball cap/Riding my kids around piggy back/They might know me all around the world/But, y’all, I’m still a Mississippi girl.”

Sara Evans

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Sara Evans, “A Real Fine Place to Start” (2005)

Radney Foster first recorded “A Real Fine Place to Start” as the opener of his 2002 album Another Way to Go. The album cover features a fork in the road splitting into two Texas highways, out in the desert, and that’s much of what Foster’s version of the song evokes — cruising down the road in a Cadillac, your sweetheart in the passenger seat, the sunshine beaming down the back of your head. The lyrics are obscured by its ideal purpose; it’s meant to be blasted out a car radio and serve as background noise.

In her rendition of the song three years later, Sara Evans modifies the key, polishes the production, and cuts right to the feeling. (As seen in the video, she knows the difference between a car song and a motorcycle song.) Evans is no Reba or Shania — her girl-next-door image, crucial to her appeal, rarely makes itself the focal point in the content of her songs. She instead prefers to zero in on the emotional core of a story — wary optimism in “Born to Fly,” restlessness in the phenomenal “Suds in the Bucket” — and make that the centerpiece, a quality she shares with Carly Rae Jepsen. She’s supposed to be singing “Chasing that moon” during the chorus, but it sounds an awful lot like “Chasing that mood” — and why not?

Carrie Underwood

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Carrie Underwood, “Before He Cheats” (2006)

As long as country music has existed, there have been women going up against their no-good men and cheatin’ husbands, ranging on a scale from verbal ethering to committing murder. Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats,” released a little over a year after her American Idol victory, falls squarely in the middle, enacting way more damage on the car than on the two-timing, bathroom Polo-wearing boyfriend. But the catharsis is there, and boy, did it go far: The song spent five consecutive weeks at the top of Billboard’s Hot Country Songs and reached as far as Number Five on the Top 40 pop charts, peaking at Number Eight on the Billboard 100. It was, and still is, an inescapable crossover success, crowning Underwood as queen of Nashville — a title she’s yet to cede, with 15 Number One singles on Country Airplay and counting.

Taylor Swift

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Taylor Swift, “Our Song” (2007)

Taylor Swift wrote “Our Song” as a teenager for a school talent show. “I was sitting there thinking, ‘I’ve gotta write a song that’s gonna relate to everyone in the talent show, and it’s gotta be upbeat,’” she said. It went on to become Swift’s biggest country hit at the time, reaching Number One just after her 18th birthday. Like the best tracks from Swift’s self-titled debut album, “Our Song” is as innovative as it is youthful, applying detail-driven, three-chords-and-the-truth country songwriting to situations and emotions purely felt by teen girls. Its hokiness made it easy for the song’s detractors to criticize, but it was also the key to its tremendous commercial success — six weeks at the top of the country charts, to be exact.

Sugarland

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Sugarland, “All I Want to Do” (2008)

Formed in Atlanta in the early half of the 2000s, Sugarland constitute a more urban-bohemian side of Nashville country. Their singles that preceded “All I Want To Do” all straddled the country-adult contemporary line — save for the honky-tonk banger “Down in Mississippi (Up to No Good)” — but here’s where they really leaned into doing a straightforward pop track. Lead singer Jennifer Nettles does her best “ooh ooh ooh ooh”’s on the catchy hook, while Kristian Bush placidly strums a guitar in the background. An inoffensive sliding steel and some percussion add color to the track, giving it the kind of vibe you’d encounter in a Santa Monica wine bar by the beach. (Just look at the video!) In 2008, contemporary pop was en vogue on the country charts once again, and everyone was hopping aboard.

Lady Antebellum

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Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now” (2009)

Country songs about drinking are nothing new; neither are country songs about drunk-dialing, and neither, in the late 2000s, were country songs about getting drunk-dialed on your flip phone or Blackberry. “Need You Now” is different in that it casts the drunk dialer(s) as the protagonist, and thereby has to walk a tricky tightrope of shame, pity, desperation, and sympathy all in one song. Turns out, you can convey all those emotions through two talented vocalists and one very, very good piano hook.

Lady Antebellum, with the help of “Before He Cheats” songwriter Josh Kear and Nashville hitmaker Paul Worley, sailed to Number One on the country charts for five weeks and a peak of Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100. The song became a lodestar for country-pop success going into the 2010s: male-female vocal duo, shimmering production, heavier use of piano and lighter use of those pesky fiddles and banjo. In the past decade, crossover hits have grown even more assimilated with pop, to the point where it’s become hard to tell what came out of California and what came out of Tennessee. But for a brief moment at the turn of the decade, Lady A seemed to strike the perfect balance.

The Band Perry

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The Band Perry, “If I Die Young” (2010)

In the wake of Taylor Swift’s continued success with “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me,” BMLG founder Scott Borchetta signed the Band Perry to attract the goth-teen contingent to country music. “If I Die Young” is an adolescent fantasy through and through, right down to the antebellum-era costuming and funeral on the water shown in the music video. But it equally resonated with audiences who had lost a loved one too soon, as evident by the amount of letters that lead singer Kimberly Perry received from young fans. The sibling trio were not long for the world of country — they pivoted to pop music, with limited success — but “If I Die Young” remains a time capsule, born out of the Twilight era and an attempt to recreate Swift’s lightning-in-a-bottle star power.

 

Miranda Lambert

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Miranda Lambert, “Heart Like Mine” (2011)

“I grew up in church, grew up Christian, then got in a country band and saw the real world a little bit,” Miranda Lambert says, with a laugh, in the intro to the video for “Heart Like Mine.” “Basically, [this song is] my interpretation of how God would be. How heaven would be. I think Jesus would hang out with our band and stuff.” For Lambert, who had risen to fame through punkish wild-woman anthems like “Kerosene” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Heart Like Mine” signaled a new level of maturity, and her nuanced introspection would soon become a hallmark of both her songwriting and her star image. On later songs like “Settling Down,” or any of the tracks off her post-divorce double LP The Weight of These Wings, she further explores the conflicts between her values and her vices, finding out if true happiness is found “on the highway or parked in the driveway.”

Taylor Swift

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Taylor Swift, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” (2012)

Can a bombastic, cheerleader-taunting breakup anthem produced by Max Martin and Shellback be considered a country song? Will Taylor ever reveal which “indie record” her boyfriend thought was way cooler than hers? Some things are just better left not knowing. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” may use the “country” label generously, but whether or not country radio DJs paid attention to this single, it marked a historic point for the charts. In 2012, Billboard changed policy regarding its Hot Country Songs list, factoring in digital downloads and streams in addition to radio play. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” instantly benefited from the tweak, shooting up to its Number One spot after struggling to hold in the teens in weeks prior. It was also the first song to spent more than 10 weeks atop the chart since Buck Owens’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here” in 1963 and 1964.

 

Thompson Square

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Thompson Square, “If I Didn’t Have You” (2013)

2013 was roughly the year that “bro country” began to dominate country radio — a few years away from “Body Like a Backroad,” but already deep into “Cruise.” Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert remained two of the top solo artists in Nashville, but most other solo female acts had fallen by the wayside or, in Taylor Swift’s case, headed for greener pastures in pop music. In their place were a whole host of mixed-gender groups or male-female vocal duos, trying to become the next Lady Antebellum, Sugarland, or Little Big Town.

Husband-and-wife duo Thompson Square were part of this sudden wave, and scored a big hit in 2011 with “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not,” a cheeky proposal song with metallic production and pristine vocals. They followed it up two years later with “If I Didn’t Have You,” which floated to the top of Country Airplay with its commercial-friendly melodrama. It’s not Thompson Square’s fault that they became the default sound to counteract all the beer-and-truck anthems taking over radio at that point. If anything, their story exemplifies Nashville’s cynical tendency to saturate the market with identical acts, before leaving those same artists in the dust when the money dries up. In the years since “If I Didn’t Have You,” Thompson Square have departed from their label and released their latest album independently.

Maddie & Tae

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Maddie & Tae, “Girl in a Country Song” (2014)

Shots were fired when newcomer duo Maddie & Tae released their debut single, “Girl in a Country Song,” smack dab in the first wave of bro-country artists that took over radio in the 2010s. “Maddie and I were in a songwriting session on St. Patrick’s Day, and we were talking about all the songs and laughing because the lyrics share a common theme,” Tae Dye told Rolling Stone. “We wanted to go at it from a girl’s perspective, and we wanted to put ourselves in the shoes of this girl. You know, how does she feel wearing these cut-off shorts, sitting on the tailgate?”

Amidst every “hey girl” single by Billy Currington, Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, and all the rest, “Girl in a Country Song” was a lighthearted way of poking fun at the Nashville establishment, and radio programmers were happy to slot it in between the very same tailgate anthems that the song criticized. No, it did not defeat sexism in country music, nor did it aim to, and it’s telling that the glut of bro country on the radio hasn’t fully subsided as we enter into the next decade. (If anything, it’s evolved into sleeker “bro pop” with Southern accents.) But the fact that “Girl in a Country Song” became such a tremendous hit signaled that audiences were wanting — and still want — more than dirt roads and bikini tops.

Little Big Town

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Little Big Town, “Girl Crush” (2015)

OK, so “Girl Crush” isn’t so much about crushing on a woman as it is about feeling jealousy toward the beautiful woman who’s with your man. But there is…so much detail about how beautiful this woman is. Her long hair, her “magic touch,” her bottle of perfume…Fellas, is it gay to want to “taste her lips because they taste like you?” “Girl Crush” was penned by the indomitable songwriting team the Love Junkies — Lori McKenna, Hillary Lindsey, and Liz Rose — but when McKenna first pitched the idea to her collaborators, not everyone was onboard. “[Liz] gave me this look like she just hated it,” McKenna recalled to Rolling Stone.  “She said, ‘Lori, shut it down. We’re not writing a song called ‘Girl Crush.’” Eventually Rose came around to the idea, but her initial resistance made the song’s radio success all the more surprising. (Stories of “Girl Crush” getting pulled from country radio stations, Dixie Chicks style, were mostly fabricated.) It’s still one of the most unusual and risque songs by a woman-fronted group to go Number One.

Kelsea Ballerini

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Kelsea Ballerini, “Peter Pan” (2016)

Tennessee-born Kelsea Ballerini is one of country-pop’s newest and brightest young stars — she was nominated for a Grammy for Best New Artist in 2017 — and has already scored four Number One hits on Country Airplay. Her 2016 hit “Peter Pan” fits the mold of a pop ballad by the likes of Demi Lovato or Selena Gomez, and it’s the slight twang and big heart of Ballerini’s vocals that keep it somewhat grounded in Nashville. Along with other breakout singles “Love Me Like You Mean It” and “Dibs,” Ballerini became the first female artist since Wynonna Judd to launch three country-chart-topping singles from a debut album.

Lauren Alaina

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Lauren Alaina, “Road Less Traveled” (2017)

Since Kelly Clarkson won the first season of American Idol, she’s remained in the pop lane but nodded every so often to her country roots, dueting with Jason Aldean and offering some spicy (and correct) takes on the state of country radio. Ironically, those same changes made to country radio over the past decade that Clarkson has criticized are exactly what have allowed Lauren Alaina, runner-up on American Idol’s 10th season, to get some very Clarkson-esque pop anthems like “Road Less Traveled” to the top of Country Airplay, rather than the pop charts. Produced by the late Busbee, who also worked on Clarkson’s “Dark Side” and Maren Morris’s “My Church,” “Road Less Traveled” feels a little like a return to the Faith Hill days of pop-country, with powerhouse vocals and lyrics bursting with optimism.

 

Bebe Rexha

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Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line, “Meant to Be” (2018)

Talk about a crossover smash. Florida Georgia Line’s collaboration with Albanian-American pop star Bebe Rexha came out of nowhere, but it went on to spend a mind-boggling 50 weeks at Number One, breaking the record previously held by Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road.” Rexha is also the first female artist to ever debut at the top of the Hot Country Songs chart, which is a little bittersweet given that country isn’t her main gig, and that other women artists who primarily release country records are struggling to get played on the radio at all. But for all the fussing from country purists, “Meant to Be” never passed itself off as a true-blue country record, or that it was indicative of the genre as a whole. It’s yet another reminder of country’s shifting landscape regarding its relationship to pop music, and where the lines between those genres are drawn.

Maren Morris

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Maren Morris, “Girl” (2019)

Maren Morris channeled the resolve found in “Girl” from her own frustrations and weariness: Like many critically-acclaimed women country artists this decade (hello, Kacey Musgraves) she’d struggled to earn a fair spot on country radio compared to her male counterparts. As a result, “Girl” is the rare motivational anthem that shoots straight for the heart and hits the bullseye. Morris’ soulful vocals are propped up by Greg Kurstin’s steadfast pop-rock production, and best of all, there are no belittling “empowerment” platitudes to be found — something as simple as “I know you’re trying” speaks volumes on its own.

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