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OPINION: Seven Songs That Made Country Songwriting Cool Again

songwriting

When artists like Florida Georgia Line started gaining traction on the country music scene and became major players, many wondered what had happened to country music. Tossing 808s and drum machines on country tracks was sure to piss a few people off, but the main issue was the lack of lyrical potency. People listen to music to feel something, and while songs like “Cruise” were absolute hits, the era of “bro country” dropped the bar for songwriting in the genre. It alienated many lifelong country music fans and pushed other genres like rap and pop to the front. There became an emphasis on repeated melodies and run-of-the-mill lyrical concepts as if a factory was producing all that country music had to offer. 

However, in the last few years, great songwriting has been resurgent and has brought the genre back to the front page. Led by absolute poets like Tyler Childers and Zach Bryan, along with more commercially-minded songwriting teams like ERNEST, HARDY, and Morgan Wallen (who have perfected the 50/50 mix of great songwriting and catchy tunes), the art of authentic storytelling and conveying of emotions has brought country music into a bright new epoch. Here, we’ve highlighted a few stand-out songs that truly pioneered the resurgence of lyricism back into the soul of country music. 

The Bird Hunters – Evan Felker (Turnpike Troubadours) (2015)

This one’s a bit older than the rest, but I see it as a song that sets the standard for good songwriting for the next nine years. While bro-country was in full throttle, the boys from Tahlequah, Oklahoma, were going down a different path, mixing red dirt instrumentals with lyrics nobody else could have thought of. Songs like “Good Lord Lorrie” and “The Bird Hunters” are cornerstones of the country music songwriting community and are still a significant influence on massive artists like Zach Bryan, Wyatt Flores, and damn near everybody else who calls themselves an Okie. Lines like “How good does it feel, you belong in these hills” and “With my hands around a Belgian-made Browning, my mind on the lines of her face” remind every man what it’s like to be hung up on a girl and unable to be in the moment. Outside of Nashville, this song set the foundation for a revival. 

A Life Where We Work Out – Cleto Cordero (Flatland Cavalry) (2016)

Cleto Cordero is very quietly one of the best poets in Texas and the music scene as a whole. Since he was 17, he has been crafting absolute movie scenes in his songs, and “A Life Where We Work Out” is a great example. You can feel the sadness in his lyrics and the dream he hopes to make come true. Cordero’s influences, including John Mayer and Turnpike Troubadours, were rooted in his love for well-crafted songwriting. Cordero is a shining example of how far songwriting has come, and he has a Bob Dylan thing about him where he cranks out one quality song after another with the same level of artistic consistency.

Jersey Giant – Tyler Childers (Unreleased)

Childers has never officially released this song, ultimately giving it to Elle King to record instead, but you can still find his version on SoundCloud and other platforms. Childers shows just how talented a writer he is, capturing the emotions of a heavy relationship gone south, being caught in the heat of the moment and not seeing the red flags. Who else compares a woman to the “socks on a jersey giant”? Only Childers could think of that; his unique style has helped shape the music you hear today. Many of the country’s hottest acts right now stand on the shoulders of Tyler Childers and his knack for writing songs that are just masterpieces. Jersey Giant is the best example of that. I could’ve picked a bevy of songs by him, like Charleston Girl, Shake The Frost, or Feathered Indians. All those songs lend credence to Childers as a songwriter, but Jersey Giant truly stands out, which shows why Childers’ influence is so massive. Many have covered it simply because the writing is just that pristine. 

Oklahoma City  – Zach Bryan (2019)

Here comes the Oklahoman son. People can complain about this Navy veteran’s propensity to write more sad songs than not, or maybe his similar chord structures, but nobody can say he’s not one of the best songwriters to touch the scene this century. Show me a TikTok of a young gun singing about heartbreak while strumming away at a guitar, and I’ll guarantee they’ve had a few nights feeling the depths of songs like “Letting Someone Go,” “Loom,” or “Something in the Orange.” Oklahoma City is a shining example of the genius behind Bryan’s writing, with Okie memories from his youth and how he was once just as eager as the kids who now see him as a legend. Oklahoma City may not be as famous as SITO or “I Remember Everything,” but any listener will understand it’s one of his best, touching on themes of friends long gone and fear of goodbyes. This song was foundational to Zach’s growth as a star. It’s a sum of all his talents and shows how incisive his lyricism can be.  Only Zach Bryan could make a song this good feel commonplace amongst a stable of other songwriting gems. Tracks like OKC have been pivotal in advancing the case for stronger songwriting, as this type of writing catapulted Zach Bryan to the top of the industry early on.

More Than My Hometown – HARDY, ERNEST, Morgan Wallen, Ryan Vojtesak (2020)

This one’s a great example of how talented the songwriting trio of HARDY, ERNEST, and Morgan Wallen are. Producing a catchy song with emotion behind it and well-thought-out lyrics comes naturally to these guys. This has somehow become somewhat rare in the Nashville machine, with rarely all traits of emotion, well-thought-out lyrics, and catchiness to a song all being there at once. This trio makes it look easy, with key characteristics of great writing and originality, while also paying tribute to the greats before them. Raising the bar for country music in Nashville and on the radio is hard, but this trio has certainly done it. Morgan Wallen is one of the best country stars to come along, but if not for songwriting giants HARDY and ERNEST, he might not have had as much success as he has. These two great writers regularly churn out hits and are highly talented musicians; as a group, they’ve refined the craft of testing the borders of country music while enforcing the genre tradition. 

Rich Men North of Richmond – Oliver Anthony (2023)

Oliver Anthony may as well have put the guitar down and just yelled out, “HERE ARE SOME THINGS THAT MATTER NOW,” because that’s precisely the message that this hit from the holler sent to the country. Guessing the genre solely off the lyrics would be a challenge, as it echoes the sentiments of Rage Against The Machine and The Clash while channeling some Johnny Cash and speaking out for what is right as plainly as possible. The line “I wish politicians would look out for miners, and not just minors on an island somewhere” is an absolute bar and speaks boldly on the problems in today’s politics. This one has a big Drayton Farley feel, with more Appalachia tossed in, and its widespread resonance has made it a pivotal song to advance the cause of great mainstream songwriting.

Wondering Why – Brandon Coleman, Dan Couch, Drew Nix (Red Clay Strays) (2022)

The Red Clay Strays are like that uncle at the cookout who you didn’t know was an all-American QB in college. They’ve played great music for a while, but their talent recently hit the spotlight on the biggest stages. This group’s got it all, but I think their most important aspect is the topics that Brandon sings about. All of their songs seem to come from the perspective of a humble man of faith, which makes this band so great. “Wondering Why” is an extremely well-written tale about humility in love, but they also have works that touch on more interesting topics. Standouts like  “Killers” and “Sunshine” reflect on the life of a desperate war veteran or the feeling of despair when faith is tested to the absolute limit.  “Wanna be Loved” claims, “They say faith can move a mountain, but I’m here for the climb,” which leaves no doubt where the Strays see themselves as still heading to the peak. Wondering Why is a recent song that shows how far country music songwriting has come. Songs like these are the gold standard for music right now, and the Strays will continue to crush it. 

These artists and many more have brought back the rich songwriting tradition; some could argue that they even reached a new peak. Nobody is writing more songs of their own and performing them than right now. The lyrical themes of heartbreak and love that are so popular right now pay homage to the roots of country music; meanwhile, we’re finally starting to stray away from the beer, truck, girl method that seemed to define country music for so long during the 2000s and 2010s. Artists like Parker McCollum and Zach Bryan, who are proud to write their songs, will continue influencing the younger generation to do the same. This will result in the music you hear being from the heart and not just songs designed to be popular. The heart of country music is finding its way back, and it’s all in the lyrics. Someone get Bob Dylan a cowboy hat!

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