25 Best Country and Americana Songs of 2019 - Rolling Stone
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25 Best Country and Americana Songs of 2019

From defiant anthems by Maren Morris and Miranda Lambert to the mariachi-punk of Vandoliers and “Old Town Road”

Rolling Stone, Country, 2019

Tracks by Luke Combs, Maren Morris, and Miranda Lambert are among the 25 best country songs of 2019.

Images in Illustration from Shutterstock

Country and Americana songwriters reflected the grim mood of 2019 in a variety of ways, whether leaning completely into it, retreating to somewhere more fun, or finding ways to rise above.

Kelsey Waldon and Hailey Whitters crafted biographical songs about struggle and success that resonated far and wide. Yola, Morgan Wallen, and Runaway June looked at (or, in Wallen’s case, refused to look at) the dissolution of relationships from different angles. Midland just wanted to cut loose and have some fun, while Runaway June aimed to reclaim independence.

Maren Morris, the Highwomen (of which Morris is a member), and Our Native Daughters all made powerful statements about womanhood. Vince Gill and Emily Scott Robinson both crafted songs about the epidemic of sexual abuse, while acoustic group Che Apalache pledged solidarity with immigrants crossing our southern border.

Luke Combs, Chris Young, and Jason Hawk Harris provided tear-jerking songs about life and death. And Tanya Tucker, making a welcome return, demanded a celebration of her existence while she’s still alive and kickin’.

And, of course, “Old Town Road” took one hell of a ride.

Here are the 25 best country and Americana songs of 2019.

Chris Young

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25

Chris Young, “Drowning”

“Since you’ve been gone I’ve had to find different ways to grieve,” sang Chris Young in this powerful ballad about the unexpected death of a friend. Although inspired by his own true story (his friend Adam died in a car accident when the singer was in his 20s), the song succeeded because of its universal appeal — we all have our own form of loss to deal with, and navigating it can often be like treading water. Young and his cowriters Josh Hoge and Corey Crowder summed that feeling up concisely in the hook: “missing you comes in waves and tonight I’m drowning.” It’s poetry born of grief. J.H.

Carly Pearce

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24

Carly Pearce and Lee Brice, “I Hope You’re Happy Now”

“It’s all on me, it’s my mistake/I said ‘I love you’ a little too late,” sang Carly Pearce in the opening lines of “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” her duet with underrated sensitive dude Lee Brice. It played out like a conversation between two people who experienced the same event in completely different ways, with Pearce assuming blame as she tried to let the guy down gently and Brice plummeting straight into despair. The combination of their voices was electric, shot through with pain, and the title of the song took on a different meaning from each of their mouths — empathetic in Pearce’s case, bitter when Brice sang it. In a genre with a grand tradition of potent male-female duets, “I Hope You’re Happy Now” was a true stunner. J.F.

Jason Hawk Harris

Daley Hake*

23

Jason Hawk Harris, “Phantom Limb”

Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Jason Hawk Harris confronted a devastating loss in “Phantom Limb,” a song written about the grief of losing his mother that was featured on 2019’s Love & the Dark. Over a set of “Girl Crush”-type guitar arpeggios, Harris paired a soulful melody with lyrics about a Formaldehyde-scented shirt — the first clue that he’s singing about a deeper wound than a breakup. “It’s coming in waves, it’s numb in between/When I’m not crying, I can’t feel a thing,” he sang in one verse, feeling (or remembering, perhaps) her presence, only to have it evaporate in an instant. “Mother, you’re dead,” he sang in the final verse, repeating the word “dead” as if saying it out loud would make it feel less like a nightmare. The track closed with a two-minute guitar solo that veered from soaring and graceful to chaotic and cathartic, because sometimes words feel small in the face of a loss so immense. J.F.

Lula Wiles

Laura Partain

22

Lula Wiles, “It’s Cool (We’re Cool, Everything’s Cool)”

Modern love can be a frustrating web of contradictions, and trio Lula Wiles offered a biting critique of it in the non-album single “It’s Cool (We’re Cool, Everything’s Cool).” Employing a little peak-period Shins jangle in the song’s recurring guitar riff, Isa Burke, Eleanor Buckland, and Mali Obomsawin, made longing, resentment, and heartbreak sound positively sparkling — “These days I don’t even miss you/well, except for the days that I miss you,” went one line — even as they picked apart the fickleness of the internet dating age. They escalated the song to a breaking point in the final verse, stating, “Don’t tell me it doesn’t matter,” and then snarling in perfect harmony, “‘Cause I know it fucking matters.” But that title encapsulated the heartbreaking sentiment perfectly: we’re expected to just sigh, force a smile, and move on to the next person like it’s no big deal. J.F.
 

Vince Gill

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21

Vince Gill, “Forever Changed”

Inspired by a real-life incident with a gym teacher when he was in junior high, Vince Gill’s “Forever Changed,” off his latest album Okie, emphasized the human toll of sexual misconduct. “All of a sudden, his hand was on my leg and I thought there is something about this that is really wrong,” he told Rolling Stone. The song is a hushed piano ballad with brushed drums and a plaintive vocal — but Gill’s lyrics are anything but subtle. They’re actually somewhat aggressive, as they address the abuser directly. “Can’t you just leave the child alone?” Gill asked pointedly. “Because of you, she’s forever changed.” It’s a blistering indictment from one of country’s most respected — and brave —writers. J.H.

Ashley McBryde

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20

Ashley McBryde, “One Night Standards”

Ashley McBryde has never shied away from singing about real-life shit, be it drug abuse (“Livin’ Next to Leroy”) or passionate yet illicit affairs (“American Scandal”). But she was brave even by McBryde standards on her latest single, the devilishly titled “One Night Standards.” In plainspoken, unmistakable English — the kind you rarely hear these days — the Arkansas songwriter made her case for an overnight fling: “Can’t you just use me like I’m using you?” This was adult subject matter, the cornerstone of country music, and was in stark contrast to so many of the fantastical puppy-love songs that get played on the radio or further the genre’s squeaky-clean image. What’s more, McBryde didn’t apologize for her lust. “I ain’t gonna say I never do this,” she sang, “cause truth is, lonely makes a heart ruthless.” Vividly honest. J.H.

Jason Aldean

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19

Jason Aldean, “I Don’t Drink Anymore”

It’s easy to forget just how damn good of a vocalist Jason Aldean is, and chest-beating rockers like “We Back,” which energize but lack emotion, don’t do him justice. Instead, his sweet spot lies squarely in balladry, like this majestic heartbreaker written by Kelly Lovelace, CJ Solar, and Neil Thrasher. Just like “The Truth,” “Any Ol’ Barstool,” and “Drowns the Whiskey” before it, “I Don’t Drink Anymore” reveled in dejection. His woman is gone, as is any sense of hope for reconciliation — and the booze in his bottle will soon follow. Despair has never sounded so real. J.H.

Joshua Ray Walker

Josh David Jordan*

18

Joshua Ray Walker, “Canyon”

East Dallas solo artist Joshua Ray Walker — and lead guitarist of the badass Lone Star band Ottoman Turks — took a stark look inward in this graceful ballad. With evocative steel licks accenting Walker’s drawling vocal (listen to the way he draws out “can-eee-yun”, the song pushed the limits of personal reflection. “Are you proud of me? Are you proud of what I do? I’m trying to be a better man than the one that you knew,” Walker sang, exposing both past sins and present insecurity. As an introduction to a promising new artist, “Canyon” had serious depth. J.H.

The Vandoliers

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17

Vandoliers, “Sixteen Years”

The Ramones met the Texas Tornadoes in this irresistible blast of Mariachi-punk off the Vandoliers 2019 LP Forever. The horns were huge, the drums tribal, and the chorus catchy as all get-out, but it’s singer Joshua Fleming’s keening vocal that gave “16 Years” its sense of urgency. He and his Lone Star State bandmates will achieve their rock & roll dreams or die trying. “Yeah, I’m gonna make it,” Fleming spit. It’s even more satisfying when you see them perform it live. Do that as soon as you can. J.H.

Our Native Daughters

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16

Our Native Daughters, “Polly Ann’s Hammer”

This revved-up Mississippi hill-country rave was a conceptual centerpiece of Songs of Our Native Daughters, the roots supergroup made up of Rhiannon Giddens, Allison Russell, Amythyst Kiah, and Leyla McCalla. Kiah and Russell recast the folk-legend of “John Henry” through the eyes of the steel-driving man’s historically neglected wife, who raises Henry’s kid and goes on to do his work after her workman husband perishes. In doing so, the duo crafted a powerful narrative of an American folk hero hiding in plain sight. By the end of the three-minute epic, Polly Ann has a revelation that escaped John Henry. “This little hammer killed your daddy,” she tells her son. “Throw it down, and we’ll be free.” J.B.

Midland

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15

Midland, “Mr. Lonely”

Long live the blues! Singer Mark Wystrach imbues this clever, tongue-in-cheek account of the honky-tonk’s hottest heartthrob with just the right amount of smooth-talking swagger, finding the sweet spot between country croon and tough twang. It’s the perfect combination to deliver lines like “I’m the number that you know by broken heart” and “I ain’t Mr. Right; I’m Mr. Right Now,” which in lesser hands would be pure cheese. Couple Wystrach’s winking vocal with a dance-floor ready arrangement from the trio and you’ve got a certified barroom banger. Like their debut single and breakout hit “Drinkin’ Problem,” “Mr. Lonely” is a co-write between the band and their frequent collaborators Josh Osborne and Shane McAnally, who contribute to several other tracks on the LP, one of the year’s best. B.M.

Miranda Lambert

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14

Miranda Lambert, “Bluebird”

Leave it to Nashville’s finest left-field songsmiths Luke Dick and Natalie Hemby to use a Charles Bukowski poem as the foundation for the quiet mission statement at the heart of Miranda Lambert’s rock-solid album Wildcard. “If love keeps giving me lemons/I just mix them in my drink,” Lambert sings on the mid-tempo stomp. If the song only included that one line, it’d be an instant classic. But on a record of fresh beginnings and new chances, “Bluebird” is the most personal single Lambert has released in years. “Since we wrote [it],” Lambert said, “I’ve been seeing bluebirds everywhere.” J.B.

Emily Scott Robinson

Blair Clark

13

Emily Scott Robinson, “The Dress”

“Was there some sign I ignored?” asked Emily Scott Robinson on “The Dress,” a devastating diary of the emotions that come in the wake of sexual abuse. Guilt, shame, blame, unshakable fear — it’s all in the words of “The Dress,” as Robinson struggled to understand how something so horrific could happen to her and how she could put back together the pieces of a life she once knew. The song is also about how, no matter how long we repress a memory or ignore the realities around us, it’s never as simple as tossing a dress away in the trash. Things are disposable. Pain can be permanent. M.M.

Che Apalache

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12

Che Apalache, “The Dreamer”

Che Apalache leader Joe Troop merged clear-eyed activism with traditional sounds in “The Dreamer,” a track from the multi-national group’s 2019 album Rearrange My Heart. Responding to President Trump’s order to end DACA, Che Apalache embraced the resistance and told the story of Moises Serrano, an undocumented immigrant living in North Carolina since childhood. Set to gentle acoustic strums and twinkling mandolin, it had all the hallmarks of a classic bluegrass number, right down to a quasi-biblical invocation of shepherds roaming in the first verse. But this dangerous pilgrimage across the desert wound up in tobacco country, with Troop’s bandmates Pau Barjau, Franco Martino, and Martin Bobrik singing the lovely, heartbreaking chorus in Spanish. Throughout, Troop brought home the family’s constant paranoia and the uphill battle faced by children for whom “dreaming is forbidden,” wrapping it up with a rousing call to action: “Now you and I can sing a song/And we can build a congregation/But only when we take a stand/Will we change our broken nation.” J.F.

Maren Morris

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11

Maren Morris, “Girl”

“Don’t you lose your halo,” Morris advised her listeners in the shimmering title track to her second album, Girl. She knew firsthand how some are determined to dim a woman’s glow and grace. “We’re so overly well aware of what we’re up against, it’s almost like we’re sick of hearing it,” she told Rolling Stone about the frustrations of living in a sexist world. “I just want to look to the future and stop being in the present.” Morris channeled her anger at being held back at country radio and used it to further the cause in “Girl,” a song that hit its stride when the Grammy-winner released a music video that depicted the struggles of women of all stripes. “I know that you’re tryin’/Everything’s gonna be OK,” Morris sang, her voice confident that change is coming. J.H.

The Highwomen

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10

The Highwomen, “If She Ever Leaves Me”

Billed as the first gay country song (it’s not), the Highwomen’s “If She Ever Leaves Me” was certainly a high-profile example of one when it appeared on the supergroup’s self-titled debut. Amanda Shires penned the song with her husband, Jason Isbell, and “Before He Cheats” co-writer Chris Tompkins, but put fellow Highwoman Brandi Carlile in the lead role. “I thought about this project and went, ‘What if Brandi sang it?’” Isbell told Rolling Stone before the album came out. “And I started going, ‘Gay country song! Gay country song!’ ” The end result was a waltz-time weeper in which Carlile, an out queer woman, gives a dose of reality to a cowboy who has an eye on her significant other. “It takes more than whiskey to make that flower bloom/By the third drink you’ll find out she’s mine,” sang Carlile, before matter-of-factly dropping the hammer: “If she ever leaves me, it won’t be for you.” J.F.

Mike And The Moonpies

Benjamin Yanto

9

Mike and the Moonpies, “Cheap Silver”

Mike Harmeier lamented the rigors of the touring life in this opening track of Mike and the Moonpies’ Abbey Road adventure. “Here’s to another night of paying dues/Tennessee whiskey and rhythm and blues,” he sang, exhausted from night upon night of literally playing “Tennessee Whiskey” for disinterested patrons. It’s partly fiction of course: his Moonpies are hot right now, having established themselves as a vital country band with their orchestral album Cheap Silver & Solid Country Gold and with wildly adventurous songs like this one. It ain’t your old man’s country music — even if Harmeier complained like him here, wishing his own band would turn down. J.H.

Morgan Wallen

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8

Morgan Wallen, “Whiskey Glasses”

East Tennessee native Morgan Wallen scored a perfect little pop-country gem (and a sizable hit) with “Whiskey Glasses,” which was penned by Ben Burgess and Kevin Kadish and appeared on his album If I Know Me. Clever couplets spill out from every half-sloshed verse: “poor me” becomes “pour me” in the opening lines, and the titular glasses are filled with prescription-strength brown liquor to blind him through the hurt. It’s one of those songs that could have been a country hit in virtually any era, but Joey Moi’s sleek production kept it wholly modern and Wallen’s singular voice — a combination of edgy grit and genuine skill — made it sound classic. J.F.

Runaway June

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7

Runaway June, “Buy My Own Drinks”

Where Lizzo ascended to pop superstardom in 2019 to spread a message of self-love and body positivity, trio Runaway June found a way to convey a similar idea on country radio with their hit “Buy My Own Drinks,” from 2019’s Blue Roses. Group members Naomi Cooke, Hannah Mulholland, and Jennifer Wayne wrote the song with Nashville A-listers Josh Kear and Hillary Lindsey, adding a jolt of undeniable swagger to the tried-and-true breakup song by allowing the main character to reclaim her life. “I can drop my own change in the jukebox, I can dance all by myself,” they sang, backed by some funky drumming and rhythmic guitar strums. Like the Robyn song echoed in its chorus, “Buy My Own Drinks” offered a rousing message of resilience — of being unafraid to go out and have fun and then go back home alone — that was desperately needed by anyone struggling to get back on their feet. J.F.

Yola
6

Yola, “Faraway Look”

Yola’s album Walk Through Fire is a powerhouse of an LP, a fact that’s evident just a few seconds into its opening track “Faraway Look.” The sparkling anthem opens with chiming piano and dramatic strings, which serve as an appropriately dramatic announcement of Yola’s forthcoming, pristine vocal performance. Where other numbers on Walk Through Fire venture further into rootsier territory, “Faraway Look” gives Yola a chance to play arena rocker. Gentle, almost soothing verses yield to horn-assisted bombast at the song’s chorus, at which point Yola lets the true power of her voice take center stage. Yola was nominated for four 2020 Grammy Awards, two of which – Best American Roots Performance and Best American Roots Song – are for “Faraway Look.” No wonder. B.M.

Billy Ray Cyrus, Lil Nas X

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5

Lil Nas X feat. Billy Ray Cyrus, “Old Town Road (Remix)”

A trap-country song featuring a prominent Nine Inch Nails sample and a rap verse from Billy Ray Cyrus probably wasn’t on your 2019 bingo card when the year started, but it’s hard to imagine what 2019 would’ve felt like without it. When Lil Nas X, born Montero Hill, recorded “Old Town Road,” he was a college dropout living on his sister’s floor and praying for the perfect viral moment to bring him success. He bought the NIN-sampling beat online from a Dutch producer he’d never met and added a spare yet unforgettable lonely-cowboy tale. After the song went viral on video app TikTok, earning a remix from Cyrus, Lil Nas X became a bona fide pop star, and debates sparked about what “country” is. More important, it’ll be stuck in your head for years to come. B.S.

Luke Combs

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4

Luke Combs, “Even Though I’m Leaving”

Combs is synonymous with rowdy beer-drinking songs — there’s even a “Beer Never Broke My Heart” charm affixed to his line of signature Crocs slippers — but the guy has quietly become Nashville’s new king of ballads too. With his dare-you-not-to-cry single “Even Though I’m Leaving,” the North Carolina songwriter has made grown men emotional as he charts the circle of life between a father and son. Monsters under the bed, military service, and ultimately a final goodbye all figure in, but this song isn’t a tired old cliché. “Trying to write the best song we can is still a huge rush for me,” Combs says. “Going, ‘Could this be the best song I’ve ever written?'” He and co-writers Ray Fulcher and Wyatt Durrette come damn close to that goal here. J.H.

Tanya Tucker

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3

Tanya Tucker, “Bring My Flowers Now”

Tanya Tucker was barely 60 when she recorded this piano ballad, co-written with Brandi Carlile and the Hasneroth Twins. But on her stunning comeback record While I’m Livin’, Tucker delivers the song with urgency and gravitas, turning the fragile plea into an anthem — both for her once-neglected career and for our unfairly forgotten elders. The song would earn the singer legions of new younger fans and Grammy nominations, but, most of all, it brought Tucker some long-deserved salvation. “Don’t spend time, tears and money/On my old breathless body,” she sang. “If your heart is in them flowers/Bring ‘em home.” J.B.

Hailey Whitters

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2

Hailey Whitters, “Ten Year Town”

When Hailey Whitters‘ simple, acoustic “Ten Year Town” debuted, it felt like a slice of raw honesty in a world where success seems synonymous with Instagram likes and yet always just out of reach. “Too old to go back to school,” Whitters sang, her voice direct and unvarnished, the kind that wakes you up. “Won’t be much longer, I’ll be old news.” At what point, if ever, do you give up on your dreams? It’s what the Iowa native wondered here, as she chased the small victories that never seemed to lead anywhere and pondered those who shot straight to the top while she waited tables. The beauty, though, is this was the song that put Whitters on the radar, and saw her ending the year with a management deal and tour dates supporting Maren Morris and Brent Cobb. There’s justice in poetry, sometimes. M.M.

Kelsey Waldon

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1

Kelsey Waldon, “Kentucky, 1988”

Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors.” Margo Price’s “Hands of Time.” Country music has a unique way of telling an entire life story in the span of just a few minutes, and the genre’s best have always done it in a manner that manages to meld the most personal of details with a universal understanding. On “Kentucky, 1988,” Kelsey Waldon told her own origin tale in cinematic detail: the sound of gravel driveways, the Sundays at church, the sunburnt skin from working in the fields, not with a blue collar. And the parents — “two imperfect people” — that raised her, and put her in the middle when times got tough, or succumbed to the bottle far too often (the line about forgiving an angry, intoxicated father, “maybe he should be alone today, I still love him anyway,” is one of those brilliantly simple gut-punches). Set to steel guitar from Brett Resnick, this might be Waldon’s Kentucky autobiography, but it also belongs to anyone who grew up trying to make sense of where they came from, and their parents, who provide both endless love and frequent disappointment. And it’s a reminder to those staring into the eyes of their own children that, no matter what, we’ll all make mistakes. “This is my DNA,” Waldon sang. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” M.M.

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