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Wide Open Country’s Best Songs of 2018 So Far

Jamie Goodsell/Jamie Nelson/Becky Fluke

Summer is here and it’s time to reflect on the great music that’s been released this year. From pop-country to Americana, here’s Wide Open Country’s staff picks for the best songs of 2018 so far.

“Space Cowboy,” Kacey Musgraves

Along with the buoyant “Butterflies,” “Space Cowboy” was the world’s introduction to Kacey Musgraves’ brilliant Golden Hour. The songs offered two sides of love: one explores the sweetness and unknown of newfound romance while the other offers understanding for the need to let go of a broken relationship to make room for something new. “Space Cowboy” tells the latter tale, setting a familiar, lonely scene before the chorus hits like a cosmic blast. Written by Musgraves, Luke Laird and Shane McAnally, “Space Cowboy” will go down as not just one of the best country songs of 2018, but one of the best songs of the last decade. — Bobbie Jean Sawyer

“Wild Love,” Ashley Monroe

In many ways, Ashley Monroe’s stellar album Sparrow follows the trajectory of her own life, exploring themes of loss, searching, family, love and desire. Right in the middle of all of it is the sultry “Wild Love,” an ode to unbridled passion that finds the narrator longing for wild love to “wash over me like Barcelona rain.” Written by Monroe, Brendan Benson and Waylon Payne, the track is as bold and self-assured as Monroe herself. — Bobbie Jean Sawyer

“Break Up in the End,” Cole Swindell

In a genre filled with stories of heartbreak and love gone wrong, the reflective “Break Up in the End” still manages to be a standout break up song for anyone of the “It’s better to have loved and lost…” mindset. Like Garth Brooks’ timeless “The Dance,” there’s no anger or regret here, just the acknowledgment of an all too rare experience. Written by Jessie Jo Dillon, Jon Nite and Chase McGill, the lyrics, along with Cole Swindell’s understated delivery, packs an emotional wallop not often heard on modern mainstream country radio. — Bobbie Jean Sawyer

“King of Alabama,” Brent Cobb

“He was a man among men, the old school kind / had a great big heart, a laid back mind.” That’s how singer-songwriter Brent Cobb describes the late country singer Wayne Mills in “King of Alabama,” a track from his southern rock and country-funk masterpiece Providence Canyon. Cobb, who’s been touring regularly since he was in his teens, found a kinship in fellow road warrior Mills, who was murdered in a Nashville bar in 2013. The Georgia-born singer-songwriter celebrates the life and goodness of Mills, honoring the late King of Alabama in the way you’d imagine he’d want to be remembered–in a great country song by a good friend. — Bobbie Jean Sawyer

“I Never (Shed a Tear),” Joshua Hedley

Sometimes the best way (or at least easiest) way to deal with a break up is just straight up denial. That’s the method country crooner Joshua Hedley chooses in “I Never (Shed a Tear),” a “She Thinks I Still Care” for the new generation of country traditionalists. Written by Hedley and delivered in his honey-smooth, Jim Reeves-esque voice, the song is a reminder that what’s classic will never go out of style. — Bobbie Jean Sawyer

“Can’t Cut Loose,” Erin Rae

Erin Rae’s “Can’t Cut Loose” wrestles with the pull to fall back into old habits and acknowledges the fear of being forever tethered to something (or someone). It’s a feeling that most have struggled with at some point and Rae’s warm, gorgeous vocals are enough to pull you through. — Bobbie Jean Sawyer

“Good as Gold,” Sarah Shook and the Disarmers

North Carolina alt-country outfit Sarah Shook and the Disarmers kick off their sophomore album Years with one hell of a kiss off. “Good as Gold” finds Shook telling off a partner with one foot out the door. “Baby if you go it’s over for good and I’m as good as gone,” Shook sings.  It’s a testament to the resilient spirit of Shook and company; even if it’s a bluff, we still believe it. — Bobbie Jean Sawyer

“People Get Old,” Lori McKenna

There’s no shortage of songs about nostalgia in country music. The feeling of being homesick for a place that no longer exists is something that nearly everyone can relate to. But none of those songs are more gripping than Lori McKenna’s “People Get Old,” an ode to her father wrapped up in memories of her childhood. Weaving in familiar snapshots of the past, McKenna reflects on how our childhood shapes us into who we grow up to be. — Bobbie Jean Sawyer

“Better Boyfriend,” Ashley Campbell

Ashley Campbell, daughter of the late, great Glen Campbell, stepped out on her own this spring with debut album The Lonely One. Album cut “Better Boyfriend” shows off not just her banjo-picking and singing talents, but also her sense of humor. The song brings the tongue-in-cheek sass of past Reba McEntire hits. –– Bobby Moore

“Liberty,” Lindi Ortega

Lindi Ortega provides the soundtrack for a would-be spaghetti western with the title track off her latest album. The song takes Ortega’s Tex-Mex flavor and cowpunk snarl to a new creative level, making it one of her strongest tracks to date. — Bobby Moore

“American Scandal,” Ashley McBryde

This song about a love so intense that it makes strangers turn their heads highlights Ashley McBryde’s debut album Girl Going NowhereThe strong follow-up to the still popular “Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” captures the simple yet in-depth songwriting that makes McBryde one of the most promising talents in Nashville. — Bobby Moore

“These Walls,” Joshua Hedley

It’s hard to pick just one standout track off  Joshua Hedley’s album Mr. Jukebox. As Ric Flair once quipped, there ain’t a gelding in the bunch. That said, “These Walls” is a good introduction to an artist dedicated to reviving the storytelling and singing chops of Ray Price. — Bobby Moore

“Most People Are Good,” Luke Bryan

Luke Bryan proudly calls himself a Georgia boy, and he’s tried at times to share his home state experience through songs about hunting and fishing. Yet he’s just now picked a sentimental single that truly captures the values of common folks in the Deep South. — Bobby Moore

“Babe,” Sugarland

Taylor Swift and Train frontman Pat Monahan originally wrote “Babe” back when Swift was recording her 2012 album Red. But the song never made the album nor the deluxe re-release. But Swift never gave up on it, and instead called up Sugarland when she found out they were coming back from hiatus. Swift asked them to do the song, and it’s a great thing they did — it has the contemporary, catchy flavor of a Swift song with the unmistakable delivery of Jennifer Nettles’ vocal and the pristine production quality we’ve come to expect from Sugarland. — Jeremy Burchard

“Don’t Give Up On My Love,” Caitlyn Smith

There are plenty of standout tracks on Caitlyn Smith’s album Starfire, but “Don’t Give Up On My Love” is one of the most anthemic and impassioned tunes of 2018. Building from a slow chug of guitars to a fully symphonic cacophony, this song is everything you need to hear to understand the emotional and physical range Smith delivers on a nightly basis. — Jeremy Burchard

“Wish I Could,” The Wandering Hearts

The four-piece folk pop Americana outfit from across the pond have some of the best harmonies in the game since (forgive the easy comparison) Little Big Town. Each with a unique part to play in the band, The Wandering Hearts manage to feel both substantive and at times delightfully airy. “Wish I Could” showcases the quartet’s ability to be poppy while still maintaining an organic approach to their blend of music. — Jeremy Burchard

“Butterflies,” Kacey Musgraves

Musgraves’ immensely popular third album Golden Hour spouted no shortage of gems, and that includes “Butterflies,” a rare love song from the whip-smart lyricist. With hints of eighth note keyboards and funky backbeats, “Butterflies” is Musgraves own spin on contemporary pop while still staying true to the neo-traditional vibe that earned her love from all corners of country.  — Jeremy Burchard

“The Middle,” Zedd ft. Maren Morris & Grey

“The Middle” is not the first wildly successful pop song to feature a country singer, but it’s certainly on the verge of being the most successful one in, well, maybe ever. It’s certainly introduced an entirely new audience to Maren Morris, which is always a good thing, and it’s managed to straddle that fine line of earnest and just downright catchy. Morris makes the song (there’s a reason they went through a handful of world-class vocalists before settling on her). Let the rabble rousers complain about how it ain’t country. It isn’t, and it wasn’t meant to be, and it still deserves a spot on this list thanks to Morris. — Jeremy Burchard

“Cowboys and Canyon Queens,” John Calvin Abney

Of all the songs on John Calvin Abney’s stunning Coyote, “Cowboys and Canyon Queens” is the strongest lyrically. Abney paints a rich picture of Oklahoma, contrasting his home with the many places he’s seen while on tour. We knew he could sling a guitar, but this song proves Abney’s chops as a lyricist. — Rachel Cholst

“Fine,” Neighbor Lady

Neighbor Lady’s debut, Maybe Later, is a captivating roots-tinged descent into psychosis. The album’s opener, “Fine,” has a driving beat and a bassline that would feel right at home in 90s post-grunge. It’s a great indicator of where roots music can (and should) push its boundaries. — Rachel Cholst

“I Wonder,” Mariel Buckley

I’m just not going to shut up about this album. The first verse of Driving in the Dark’s closer is a one-two-three punch of deft songwriting. In “I Wonder,” Mariel Buckley simultaneously crafts a love song, a song of resistance, and a song that is quietly reflective. This is the song I dance to with my gal. — Rachel Cholst

“Can’t Stop Our Love,” Paisley Fields

This duet on Paisley Fields’ recent Glitter and Sawdust displays James Wilson’s knack for storytelling. The song paints a picture of queer love in a small town. Wilson utilizes a strong, catchy melody to serve up pathos and, most importantly, triumph. — Rachel Cholst

“Baker Lake,” Sera Cahoone

In the wake of a jarring life transition, Portland singer-songwriter Sera Cahoone returned to a number of her best-loved songs in The Flora String Sessions. “Baker Lake” finds the singer on the wrong end of a breakup, contemplating the future. It’s a soothing balm to a difficult time, and the string arrangements give the song a wonderful gravitas the original recording did not have. — Rachel Cholst

“A Lamb, A Dove,” H.C. McEntire

A standout track from a standout album. HC McEntire serves up a softer, countrified version of the mythic southern Gothic grandeur her folk punk band Mount Moriah is known for. In LIONHEART, McEntire continues to explore the intersections of her Southern, queer, and religious identities. “A Lamb, A Dove” is a soft hymn dedicated to desire of the physical and spiritual varieties — Rachel Cholst

“Six Feet From the Flowers,” Caleb Caudle

Caleb Caudle’s Crushed Coins suffered from sharing a release date with a number of heavy hitters, but it’s worth dusting off for the summer. The singer songwriter took a more solemn tack on this outing, putting away his childish urges to party all night and pity himself in the morning. Crushed Coins sees Caudle learn to settle down and face life head on. In “Six Feet From the Flowers,” Caudle contemplates the ultimate finale to his marriage. It’s curiously sad and tender at the same time, a complex mix of emotions that needs to be heard to be appreciated. — Rachel Cholst

“Wet a Line,” Pedigo’s Magic Pilsner

John Pedigo, one half of The O’s, released his first solo album in some time. Pedigo’s Magic Pilsner was written in the wake of Pedigo’s father’s death. The songs have an expansiveness to them, following Pedigo’s protagonists through the tougher moments of their lives only to persevere. “Wet a Line” is an upbeat crowd pleaser, encouraging us to try to wet our lines by casting our lines back into the ocean, no matter what’s come before or what will happen after. — Rachel Cholst

“Oh So Shaky,” Charley Crockett

Charley Crockett sets the tone on “Oh so Shaky” with the simplest of statements with opening lines “I was a hustler, you know I was a gambler.” The smooth R&B rhythms are accented by timely horns that add steamy filter. Crockett’s rich and velvety vocals never sound better as he slightly switches from his typical country croon to more of a soulful delivery. One of the best moments is the breakdown two-thirds that carries on through with Crockett letting loose on the outro. — Thomas Mooney

“Steak Night at the Prairie Rose,” Mike And The Moonpies

While Mike and The Moonpies’ latest album is filled with honky-tonking two-steppers and highway ramblers, it’s the title cut where Mike Harmier delivers one of his best storytelling songs to date. It flows with a gentle ease as Harmier offers up cherished memories with his father, coming-of-age details and the origins of his infatuation with classic country music. Like many classic numbers, Harmier uses a clever chorus device that adapts and morphs with the progression of song.  — Thomas Mooney

“Culberson County,” Red Shahan

At its core, the title cut from Red Shahan’s sophomore album, Culberson County, is a hauntingly delicate love letter. Shahan begs and pleads to preserve the places off the beaten path. Let them remain pure and untouched by gentrification. Still, it’s more than just that; Shahan’s wanting you to remain true to yourself in your journey as well. The desert confessional breathes and moans with an airy confidence and a sonic punch. — Thomas Mooney

“When He Knows Me,” Randall King

Found on the back half of Randall King’s latest self-titled album is the sobering “When He Knows Me.” Written about his late grandfather, King relies heavily on firsthand experiences on the beautifully tragic ballad. Lines about his grandfather’s heyday make it that much more heart wrenching and real. It’s never fun seeing the folks you love get old—that’s a given. But rather than focus on the dementia or Alzheimer’s, King focuses on the good days still left on the worthy tribute. — Thomas Mooney

“I Don’t Deserve You,” Jason Boland & The Stragglers

Oklahoma’s Jason Boland & The Stragglers continue pressing forward on Hard Times Are Relative, their ninth studio album. With “I Don’t Deserve You,” singer-songwriter Sunny Sweeney joins Boland and company for a grooving honky-tonk love song. Plenty of mandolin picking are thrown in for an organic roots feel while a California progressive country rhythm provides an ample punch for toe-tapping and foot-stomping. — Thomas Mooney

“Steady As She Goes,” Shotgun Rider

Texas Panhandle natives Shotgun Rider deliver one of this year’s best dancehall love songs with the addictive “Steady As She Goes.” Much like a mix of Urban Cowboy-era honky tonk and the crisp and sharp guitars of modern garage rock, Shotgun Rider’s “Steady As She Goes” captures the booze-induced confidence of young lust that turns into full-fledged love. It’s a highly combustable blend that’s as lively as they come. — Thomas Mooney

“To My Dearest Wife,” Lucero

War is hell. On Lucero’s “To My Dearest Wife,” the first hints of what’s to come on Among the Ghosts, Ben Nichols and company deliver a somber and tension-filled heart wrenching tale. Inspired by letters back home by American Civil War soldiers, Nichols delicately unravels the perils and harsh realities of war. Much like a grainy black and white photograph come to life, “To My Dearest Wife” is pressed with historical weight and the hazy lens of conflict and perseverance. — Thomas Mooney

“One Day At A Time,” American Aquarium

Old American Aquarium confessionals used to haunt the waning hours after a long night of drinking and/or breakups. It was those moments where you felt most sorry for yourself that BJ Barham and company used to tap into. While “One Day At A Time” isn’t necessarily filled with birthday cake and flowers, it does find Barham in a better place—namely due to his found sobriety and budding family. It’s still just as jarring as anything before though. He’s still fighting off demons. It’s just happening more often in the daylight. — Thomas Mooney

“Bad Times Roll,” Josh Grider

More than anything, Josh Grider’s latest album, Good People, is a testament to hopefulness. On “Bad Times Roll,” he offers one of these much needed pats on the back with an optimistic reminder. His vocal chops are reassuring and calm with a sweet and gentle baritone. Built off the old expression of “let the good times roll,” Grider delivers a slight turn that feels new and refreshing, yet undoubtedly familiar. — Thomas Mooney

“Hell on an Angel,” Dillon Carmichael

“Hell On An Angel” proves country-rock riser Dillon Carmichael is poised to join the ranks as one of the progressive voices in country music’s modern outlaw movement revival. Carmichael’s deep baritone vocals feel as though they’re aged in whiskey on the Lynyrd Skynyrd-meets-classic-country number “Hell On An Angel.” It’s armed to the teeth with southern rock style guitars that set the place ablaze on the barn burner.  — Thomas Mooney

“I Rode The Wild Horses,” Ross Cooper

Ross Cooper’s “I Rode the Wild Horses” is a cool and confident ode to the cowboys he looked up to growing up in the rural plains of the Texas Panhandle. Raised around authentic rodeo cowboys and ranch hands, Cooper delivers a charming “back in my day” number that’s never built on tall tales of grandeur, but rather, believable details filled with moxie and determination. — Thomas Mooney

“Skinny Elvis,” Sam Morrow

Taken from an offhand comment from a friend, Sam Morrow’s “Skinny Elvis” is about as cool as it gets. Built around Morrow’s powerful gravelly pipes, a gritty rhythm and textured guitar tones that shimmer and shine, “Skinny Elvis” is an infectious trucker country anthem. Fellow LA transplant Jaime Wyatt lends a hand with harmony vocals that perfectly accent Morrow’s howling growl. — Thomas Mooney

“All On My Mind,” Anderson East

Anderson East’s “All On My Mind” is a sweltering and arousing song filled with unwavering confidence and a healthy dose of swagger. Built around a rushing and soulful R&B piano and sharp string arrangement, “All On My Mind” finds East at his best. His raspy howl is as warm and engaging as ever and just begs for you to join in on the memorable chorus. — Thomas Mooney

“Death, Dyin’ and Deviled Eggs,” Wade Bowen

Wade Bowen’s “Death, Dyin’ and Deviled Eggs” captures that restless melancholy feeling felt at many funerals. Still, Bowen and co-writer Jon Randall leave us with seeds of hopefulness through the sermon, cemetery and final goodbye. It’s marked by keen observations about life and death and finds Bowen questioning his own mortality throughout. In what’s Bowen’s most John Prine and Guy Clark-esque song, he reminds you it’s not about how many days left you have; it’s how you spend them. 

–Thomas Mooney

“Summer’s End,” John Prine

Does anyone write better than John Prine? (The answer is no). At 71, Prine still has invaluable insight on what makes people tick and move. The acoustic “Summer’s End,” the first single from The Tree of Forgiveness, Prine’s first album of new material in 13 years, is as sparse as it is powerful. Like many Prine classics, he paints a cryptic and fragile tale on the weary ballad. Long after he’s sang his final lines, you feel “Summer’s End” hanging around like a welcomed ghost.  — Thomas Mooney

“Other Arrangements,” Parker Millsap

One of Parker Millsap’s greatest gifts is his ability to keep pushing a song forward while sounding as though he’s about to lose control and let things come off the hinges. It creates an incredibly dynamic mood. On “Other Arrangements,” he’s continues to bolster his southern gothic and gospel-tinged folk ballads with more and more rocking instrumentation. Still, he holds onto what set him apart in the first place, a vulnerable state with moments of real world wisdom. — Thomas Mooney

“Every Time I Hear That Song,” Brandi Carlile

Brandi Carlile perfectly captures the mixed emotions (resentment, anger, sadness, denial, etc) of a difficult breakup. “Every Time I Hear That Song” occupies a space months (or years even) after the split, when both parties have cooled off and began to heal. Still, it’s a sensitive subject that hurts when prodded. The ghosts still haunt you—and here, it comes in the form of a song. Much like a mix of ‘70s Laurel Canyon folk and a the vulnerable state of “The Last Thing I Needed, The First Thing This Morning,” “Every Time I Hear That Song” finds Carlile delivering one of this year’s most candid and insightful confessions. — Thomas Mooney

“Born to Love You,” Lanco

The lead single from LANCO’s Hallelujah Nights, “Born to Love You” blends the youthful exuberance of southern rockers such as Kings of Leon and the heartland narratives of ‘80s John Mellencamp. Lead vocalist Brandon Lancaster and company offer up one of the year’s best singalongs with infectious chorus lines and bolstered up harmonies. It’s a promising start by the buzzworthy Nashville act. — Thomas Mooney

“Weed, Whiskey and Willie,” Brothers Osborne

On “Weed, Whiskey and Willie,” Brothers Osborne cut out the unnecessary. It’s a cool sunset slow-burner that ushers in waves of sweet relief. The pair don’t exactly reinvent the wheel on the classic country trope with the ode, but it’s only because they don’t have to. It’s delivered with an earnest zest few can rival. There’s a stirring glow that buzzes and cracks like that stack of Willie Nelson vinyl mentioned as the brotherly duo’s go-to albums. — Thomas Mooney

“Diane,” Cam

Everyone knows Dolly Parton’s classic track “Jolene,” in which the narrator begs said woman to stop luring her man away. But what does that same situation look like from Jolene’s perspective? That’s the brilliance behind Cam’s “Diane,” an infectious, real and relatable song that brings humanity to a familiar but mysterious character. — Lorie Liebig

“Mother,” Kacey Musgraves

At only a minute and seventeen seconds, Kacey Musgraves’ “Mother” could easily be classified as a simple interlude. But that would simply not do justice for a song that packs in an incredible amount of emotion and honesty. It’s one of the best moments from Golden Hour, a record filled to the brim with remarkable cuts. — Lorie Liebig

“Criminal,” Lindsay Ell

With an infectious guitar riff and melody, “Criminal” stands out as one of my favorite country songs on the pop/rock-leaning side of the genre. Few artists on the country charts right now can shred as well as Lindsay Ell, and her talents really shine through during the ending guitar solo. — Lorie Liebig

“Worth It,” Danielle Bradbery

Anthems for female empowerment have been ignored by country radio for far too long. Danielle Bradbery’s “Worth It” is all about knowing what you deserve from a significant other and asking for it without apology. Aside from its powerful message, Bradbury really lets her vocal talents shine as the song builds to a crescendo. — Lorie Liebig

“Family Tree,” Priscilla Renae

Combining classic country storytelling and sparkling pop production, acclaimed songwriter Priscilla Renae retells her own story with “Family Tree.” Theatrical, poetic and innovative, she proves that some of the best country songs are created by blending elements from many genres. — Lorie Liebig

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