By Kurt Wolff
In answering a question about contemporary country music — which during a Beacon Theater show this past May he called “bad rock with a fiddle” — he replies, “I hate to generalize on a whole genre of music,” and then proceeds to generalize on a whole genre of music.
Today’s country landscape, Petty feels, “does seem to be missing that magic element that it used to have. I don’t really see a George Jones or a Buck Owens or anything that fresh coming up. I’m sure there must be somebody doing it, but most of that music reminds me of rock in the middle Eighties where it became incredibly generic and relied on videos.” He then finishes by saying, “I don’t want to rail on about country because I don’t really know much about it, but that’s what it seems like to me.”
Since Petty admits he doesn’t really “know much about” contemporary country, we figured we’d help him out with a few favorite artists and songs from the last few years.
Below are ten contemporary country songs that might change Tom Petty’s mind.
1. Kacey Musgraves, “Merry Go ‘Round”
“Merry Go ‘Round” is among the strongest, smartest and most forward-thinking songs to hit the country Top Ten in ages. Musgraves makes brave, insightful comments about the world as she sees it, but she does it with warmth and just enough humor that it never feels deprecating.
2. Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me”
Lambert has a fiery reputation, and she sings plenty of confrontational material (“Gunpower and Lead,” anyone?). But for this song, she strips away that exterior puts focus on the power of the melody and words. She didn’t write it (Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin did), but she made it her own.
3. Eric Church, “Springsteen”
The song title alone makes this at least a curiosity to rock fans, but at its heart “Springsteen” is about the power of memory–how a single song can instantaneously take you back to a specific time and place.
4. Jamey Johnson, “High Cost of Living”
If any current country artist is carrying the ‘outlaw’ mantle, it’s Johnson. The Alabama native has a smooth, rich baritone and plenty of meaty, character-driven songs that aren’t afraid to pull up the carpet and expose the gloomier–and sometimes seedier–sides of modern life. This song is from his powerful, platinum-selling 2008 album That Lonesome Song.
5. Ashley Monroe, “Like A Rose”
Best known as a member of the Pistol Annies (which also features Miranda Lambert), Monroe’s 2013 album Like A Rose is gaining wide recognition on her own. The songs are solid (this title track, for instance, was cowritten by the legendary Guy Clark); and we have Vince Gill to thank for the production, which is stripped down just enough to let the songs–and Monroe’s voice–shine. Further songs of hers like songs such as “Two Weeks Late” and “Weed Instead of Roses” show that, like Musgraves, she’s a brave new talent eager to take country in bold new directions.
6. Dierks Bentley, “Tip It On Back”
This song was the fourth hit single from Bentley’s 2011 album Home, but in some ways it slipped in and out with less notice than it deserved. It’s simple and never shouts for attention (much in the way of Petty’s best material, you could even say), but it’s honest, solidly written, imbued with feeling, and surprisingly catchy.
7. The Mavericks, “Born To Be Blue”
This Latin-inflected country band first gained widespread attention (and earned several hits) in the 1990s, before the members split and scattered. This year, though, they returned with an album that’s as strong as anything they’ve done, aiming at country but showing influences from Roy Orbison to the Texas Tornados. As a bonus, lead singer Raul Malo possesses one of the finest voices in contemporary popular music.
8. The Band Perry, “Better Dig Two”
Rick Rubin saw something in these three talented siblings (he helped shape songs for their 2013 album Pioneer), who are among the hottest bands on the country circuit today. They have a big, bold stage show, and plenty of powerhouse songs to fill it, but they can just as easily bring things back down to earth with songs like “Pioneer” and “If I Die Young.” Their 2013 hit “Better Dig Two” ventures into territory usually mined by artists like T Bone Burnett or Gillian Welch — it’s a vision of love pushed so far and so hard that it falls into darkness.
9. Chris Stapleton, “What Are You Listening To?”
Even the most active modern country fans scratch their heads at this guy’s name, but they know his songs–he’s written loads for the likes of George Strait, Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, and Darius Rucker, among many others. This song is his current single, and first as a solo country artist (he previously played with the Steeldrivers), and it’s just beginning to get traction.
10: Will Hoge, “Even If It Breaks Your Heart”
Hoge is a well-regarded singer-songwriter who remains under the radar for most modern country fans (he’s never had a breakout radio hit of his own). He is, though, often cited as a favorite among country artists, and he’s written his share of well-known songs, such as this one, which was a No. 1 for the Eli Young Band last year.