Sometimes my hipper-than-thou friends make fun of me for liking country music. To them, it's all just ignorant cowboy jams sung by toothless ol' fellas in a hat. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, it's heartless, slick, countrified pop sung by über-tanned hotties with hair too perfect to even bother with a hat.
And while both of those impressions are somewhat grounded in real-life examples, there's a world of amazing music that falls somewhere in between -- if you're not too jaded to hear it. The problem is, you need to be super-enlightened to realize you are a jaded, close-minded mofo. I find trickery and deception are especially helpful in situations like these.
This playlist features songs whose overall reach extends beyond genres. Maybe the lyrics touch on experiences that are so well expressed, they become universal. Or maybe there's a familiar guitar riff or dirty Hammond organ sound that recalls a classic rock great. And others, with their stripped-down sound and sweet harmonies, may recall some great singer-songwriter from the '70s. And yes, all this sonic goodness comes from artists who happily call themselves country.
I tried to restrict the song choices to albums that have been released in the past couple years. Maybe I will do a sequel that features older songs. But in any case, it's all here, if you're willing to let your country freak flag fly.
Eric Church, "Drink in My Hand"
Eric Church is my go-to guy when my rock-loving friends tell me they don't like country. This one's an ode to living beyond the time clock and making the most of your off-hours. What's not to relate to? Whether your collar is white or blue, when it comes to summing up the feelings of 9-to-5ers, "Drink in My Hand" stands next to "Take This Job and Shove It" in its universal disdain for The Man. The huge, sharp drum sound and ringing guitars recall heartland rocker John Mellencamp, with a sharp-as-Springsteen writing style that makes you feel as if you're there.
Miranda Lambert, "Baggage Claim"
Yes, she's blonde. And sure, she's cute. But Miranda Lambert ain't your typical fluffy country bumpkin. This wildcat sounds like she could chew you up and spit you out without making much of an effort. "Baggage Claim" is the sassy, swaggering sound of kicking ass -- a feisty little kiss-off number that's not too different from how Janis Joplin did it back in the day. Whereas Janis got all bluesy, Miranda goes twangy, but the sentiment rings true. As Miranda says, "Behind every woman scorned is a man who made her that way." I think Janis would agree.
Cross Canadian Ragweed, "Boys from Oklahoma"
Now here's one for your jam-band-loving, pot-smoking college friends -- like a drunk uncle, everyone's got one or two of those. "Boys from Oklahoma" laments the rolling skills (or lack thereof) of the title characters, and runs through some equally sad sacks from state to state. And even if your jam-oriented friends don't appreciate Cody Canada's growling drawl or the harmonica that features prominently throughout this little ditty, they will certainly appreciate the noodle-y guitar bit in the middle. I cheated a little: this live version comes from C.C.R.'s Live and Loud at Billy Bob's Texas, released in 2002. But the band, which officially split in 2010, just released a new box set. Hey, this whole thing is about cheating your friends into liking country music, so it all fits.
Allen Thompson, "Enter Inspiration"
When Allen Thompson locks into a groove, it's hard to shake. Add a groovy little Hammond organ and a honky-tonk piano, and the delights abound. I just sandwich "Enter Inspiration" between a Stones-going-country song ("Tumbling Dice" or "Happy") and something from the current crop of slightly hippie-leaning adult-alternative feel-gooders (such as The Wallflowers, Train or even the tres soulful James Morrison), and my friends never know what hit them. Gosh, I am evil.
The Dirt Drifters, "Something Better"
When you hear the drums start to roll in here, it sort of sounds like Cheap Trick's very tasty intro to "I Want You to Want Me." For the first five seconds, you're convinced Rick Nielsen and company are going to start begging you to want them, but alas, these tricky cats from Nashville pull a fast one. "Something Better" is a work -- or antiwork -- anthem that anyone punching the clock while waiting for that big break will relate to. Don't know about you, but those are my friends.
Honeyhoney, "Angel of Death"
Suzanne Santo has the kind of husky, honey-kissed voice that women dream about -- or smoke a million cigarettes trying to get and die trying. OK, full disclosure: there's no way that Honeyhoney's retro-laced alt-country sound can really be anything other than what it is, but Santo's voice is just so perfect, no one is going to complain. I promise.
Jake Owen, "Wide Awake"
Jake Owen is one of country music's party ambassadors; he's had great success with the kind of songs that frat boys on spring break relate to. "Wide Awake" finds him embracing a bona fide, dare-I-say adult anthem -- the kind where the lighters come out and fists pump in the air every time he sings the title. Which he does a lot, by the way. But the song is so damn good. I love the way the momentum shifts, building from a sleepy little piano-tinged number to a full-fledged rock masterpiece. This song is epic! I would love to hear Springsteen take a swipe at it.
Kevin Fowler, "That Girl"
Ringing guitars, pounding drums and lyrics that speak of sunsets by the lake are the holy trinity of country songwriting, and in that, Kevin Fowler is a true believer. On "That Girl," he takes an '80s heartland rock sound and turns it to 11 by grafting on a bit of Bryan Adams' megahit "Summer of '69." I mean, the guy literally sings, "That girl/ Barefoot in a sundress/ Top down/ Hair in a wild mess/ Sweet smile/ Singing to the 'Summer of '69." It's the perfect blend of youthful abandon and adult-sized hooks, of country and rock 'n' roll.
Ryan Adams, "Chains of Love"
There are plenty of Ryan Adams songs that could be used to trick your friends into liking country. "Chains of Love" might not be on the very top of that extensive list, because it doesn't sound country enough. Ha -- your country friends might not actually like this one, but this song is so amazing it could easily be used to sucker your sensitive alt-loving friends into becoming Ryan Adams fans. Clocking in at just under 2:30, it's a lush beauty powered by an acoustic guitar and strings -- and would sound right at home between an Oasis power ballad and a U2 anthem.
Love and Theft, "Angel Eyes"
"Angel Eyes" reminds me of the rootsy stuff college radio used to play in the '80s and early '90s. I don't know -- maybe it's the ringing guitars or the harmonies, but playing this next to a BoDeans song or some mumbling-era R.E.M. or even a quieter Drivin' N' Cryin' track sounds like a pretty good mix to me. Your friends will be singing along so loudly, they won't even hear the "rebel heart of country" references. It's a terrible thing, I know.
Little Big Town, "The Reason Why"
There are many reasons why every reviewer under the sun invokes Fleetwood Mac when describing Little Big Town's sound. Sure, the way the boy/girl vocals combine to form a blissful slice of sonic headiness is part of it. That those harmonies are tossed off pristinely, yet effortlessly (or so they make it seem) is another. And yet another is the way sunshine seems to seep from their guitars -- it all ends up invoking shades of '70s Mac. "The Reason Why" starts with an acoustic guitar and slowly introduces other instruments until the sound is full and downright anthemic. This is one of L.B.T.'s many harmony-laced gems, and a fine choice when underhandedly turning your friends on to country music.
Zac Brown Band, "Colder Weather"
The Zac Brown Band offer a country-tinged, singer-songwriter-ish, yacht-rock-meets-slightly-hippie-dippy sound. (Find out more about them here.) They can appeal to a wide spectrum of people, including parents, jam-band devotees and country lovers. "Colder Weather" is one of the band's slow, lamenting songs, and its warm timbre of regret is the perfect carrot to dangle in front of those friends who are into sensitive singer-songwriters -- or unabashed '70s lite rock. Drop this between some James Taylor or Jackson Browne and let the conversion begin!
Dawes, "My Way Back Home"
Dawes will appeal to that same crowd. Like Z.B.B., they've got a singer-songwriter vibe that calls to mind Jackson Browne, but there's a tasty stretch of guitar noodling that's meshed with some Hammond organ and nice harmonies recalling The Grateful Dead. It's not overwhelming -- just enough to shut your damn Deadhead friends up.
Randy Montana, "Assembly Line"
Randy Montana constructs the foundation for this blue-collar anthem with a guitar and some well-timed hand claps. Eventually an organ kicks in, as does a twangy guitar, giving this one an earthy, Stones-y feel. Place this one after "Wild Horses" and your friends will thank you.
Sonia Leigh, "Ain't Dead Yet"
Ah, Sonia Leigh. This Georgia peach has the kind of voice that sounds like she ate one too many pits: rough and raw. Despite her obvious Southern drawl, those tough-as-leather vocals give her jangly, earthy sound a definite rock edge -- just enough to lure some unsuspecting friend who loves Heart, Melissa Etheridge and Janis Joplin into the lurid world of country music. This is my gift to you.
Justin Moore, “Point At You”
The verses to "Point At You" seem to tread heavily on the path that Tracy Byrd’s “Drinkin’ Bone” cut many years ago, while the chorus nicks from Keith Urban’s “You Look Good in My Shirt” -- but your non-country friends wouldn't know that. What they hear is an arty intro that sounds suspiciously like something Styx might have offered up back in the early '80s. And when sweet guitar riffs and Mellencamp-like drums kick in, they are completely sucked in. The game's up once Moore starts singing -- there's no way his Arkansas drawl could pass for anything but country -- so get them in quick!
Gary Allan, “Tough Goodbye”
"Tough Goodbye" is an uptempo, rootsy rocker of the finest sort. What could lure your friends over to the dark side is the ringing guitar that peeks out through the chorus -- its new wave feel is at once a nod to the '80s as well as current bands who actively re-invent the sound. The driving rhythms and sharp, catchy hooks will suck your friends in, and the echo-y guitar seals the deal. Gary Allan fans for life.