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The 20 Best Deep Cuts by 21st Century Country Stars
This week on Billboard, we're digging for buried gems in the catalogs of our favorite artists across all genres. We've already revealed our 100 Best Deep Cuts by 21st Century Pop Stars and Rap Stars, and now we're going deep on country, unearthing the greatest non-singles by our favorite country stars from this century -- the best album cuts, bonus tracks and compilation appearances.
In other words, the best songs you might not know from the artists that you definitely do. From Tim and Faith to Brad and Carrie, here are our 20 favorite deep cuts from the biggest country greats of the century.
20. Martina McBride, "Wearing White" (Martina, 2003)
This track from Martina veered from McBride's usual formula of ballads of devastating heartbreak or inspiring strength. The traditional feel of this number -- about a woman who some might look at as a little tainted, except in the eyes of her future husband -- could have led to it remaining a bit of buried treasure, and perhaps the changing of times had a little bit to do with that, as well. The message of the song might have made more of an impact with listeners in 1983, rather than in a more socially progressive era two decades later. -- CHUCK DAUPHIN
19. Blake Shelton feat. The Oak Ridge Boys, "Doin' It to Country Songs" (If I'm Honest, 2016)
The Voice superstar left one on the table from his If I’m Honest disc. Shelton performed this rowdy singalong on the CMT Music Awards in June 2016, and one could almost see the Oaks getting one more run up the charts as a backing group on the track. However, maybe Warner Bros. was concerned that the mention of 95.5 FM might make other stations a little leery of playing the song. -- C.D.
18. Darius Rucker, "So I Sang" (Southern Style, 2015)
Rucker’s finest moment as a singer-songwriter in his country career came on this heartfelt track from Southern Style, about the role that music plays in one’s life – in good times and bad. The lyrical content could have been too heavy for radio, but take a listen and we think you’ll agree that Capitol Nashville missed one here. -- C.D.
17. Keith Urban, "Worry 'Bout Nothin'" (Ripcord, 2016)
Urban already had one carefree hit on Ripcord with “Wasted Time,” but this no-worries track almost feels like the older sibling to “Wasted Time,” thanks to a more mellow guitar. Despite the slower tempo, “Worry ‘Bout Nothin’” is just as feel-good in its lyrics and sound, and the building melody makes you want to roll down the windows and jam by the end. -- TAYLOR WEATHERBY
16. George Strait, "Poison" (Here for a Good Time, 2011)
Much of the later catalog of George Strait included many radio-ready songs to try to keep his hit streak at radio alive -- after all, that is the name of the game. But, a closer review of his album cuts from the past few years show an artist who still knows a deep lyric – as on this track from Here for a Good Time, about a man evaluating his mistakes in life, unfolding slowly over a spine-chilling crawl of pounding drums and weeping strings. -- C.D.
15. Shania Twain, "I'm Not in the Mood (To Say No)!" (Up, 2002)
Twain had already established herself as one of the sassier ladies on the country scene with Come on Over, but Up! took that attitude into the 2000s -- and songs like "I'm Not In The Mood" is a perfect example of that, with a little extra umph in the sound and production to help evolve Shania into the new millennium. Yet, inclusion of a fiddle post-chorus keeps things country, and Twain sounds confident as ever declaring herself officially ready for the world. -- T.W.
14. Lee Ann Womack, "Thinkin' With My Heart Again" (I Hope You Dance, 2000)
Nobody -- and we mean nobody -- handles a song about heartbreak with the dramatic flair of one Lee Ann Womack. This cut from her I Hope You Dance album detailed an emotional chance meeting with a former lover at the grocery store, and the singer turned in one of her most evocative performances on the track. A should-have-been single, for sure! -- C.D.
13. Jason Aldean, "You're the Love I Wanna Be In" (Jason Aldean, 2005)
It’s no secret that the “My Kinda Party” singer loves singing about having a good time, but he’s also good for a classic romance tune -- one with a beat, of course. Aldean combines rocking guitar with sweet lyrics on “You’re the Love I Wanna Be In,” channeling the sounds of late-‘90s country with a groove that makes it pretty easy to fall for him, as he croons his way through lines like "I want to be there when you wake up/ Be more than just your friend." -- T.W.
12. Little Big Town, "Quit Breaking Up With Me" (Pain Killer, 2014)
The rollicking opener to Little Big Town's Pain Killer album might be popular music's first-ever ode to the toxic appeal of break-up sex, in which Karen Fairchild and Kimbrely Schlapman bemoan, "We're always fixing something that was never broken/ We're on and off again like sobriety." The relationship sounds terrible, but the music sounds great: a thick groove of big riffing, gratuitous handclaps and glorious harmonies, like the perfect answer song to the Eagles' "Heartache Tonight." -- ANDREW UNTERBERGER
11. Brad Paisley, "Death of a Single Man" (Wheelhouse, 2013)
In the hands of an average singer/songwriter, the idea of "Death of a Single Man" -- lamenting the metaphoric loss of a treasured friend on the occasion of his wedding -- would be about as funny as one of those dumb "GAME OVER" t-shirts. But the great Brad Paisley handles it with just the right amount of absurdity and self-conscious corniness, bemoaning "Now here we are, seems so unfair/ It’s poker night and there’s one empty chair!" It's a silly bit, but the level of commitment to it -- and to detail, down to the bad '80s cover band playing "My Sharona" -- makes it near-transcendent. -- A.U.
10. Faith Hill, "Dearly Beloved" (Fireflies, 2005)
Fireflies remains one of Hill’s greatest works of her career, as the album demonstrated so many of the things she’s capable of as a recording artist. There’s a pop sheen to many of the cuts which she handles well, but the standout of the disc was this hilarious story of the wedding from hell ("They'll be together forever/ 'Til they find somebody new"). The single received quite a bit of play on SiriusXM, and would have made an incredible video. "Too country?" Perhaps. But a blast, nonetheless. -- C.D.
9. Sam Hunt, "Ex to See" (Montevallo, 2014)
Before the country star issued the chipper, smitten “Body Like a Back Road,” Sam Hunt had clearly been through some frustrating relationships, and this is one explosive sonic representation of that. Sure, he had a hit with his tale about breaking up in a small town, but the intensity of his anger in “Ex To See” — both with the booming bass and his strained vocals on lines like “I ain’t no fool, you rascal you” — makes vivid his frustration at never really having even been anything but a pawn in someone else's relationship drama. -- T.W.
8. Kenny Chesney, "When I Think About Leaving" (When the Sun Goes Down, 2004)
A pretty classic country conceit: Chesney contemplates his relationship and considers going solo, ultimately deciding not to. What sets "When I Think About Leaving" apart is both the consistently shifting perspective -- how he first considers it from his own selfish vantage, then from enough other viewpoints to quickly realize how foolish he's being -- and how the music picks up steam as he approaches his final realization, rewarding his choice to stay with an absolutely ripping guitar solo. Empathy in country music never sounded so crucial and consequential. -- A.U.
7. Chris Stapleton, "Whiskey and You" (Traveller, 2015)
It wasn't a song he ever brought to an award show, and he might not even have done the most famous version of it, as Tim McGraw first recorded it nearly a decade earlier. But "Whiskey and You" might still be the highlight of Chris Stapleton's breakthrough LP Traveller, just the singer/songwriter, his guitar and a whole lot of lonely echo as he sings about the two biggest problems in his life and the critical distinction between them. Few songs about the Venn diagram between love and alcohol feel this emotionally bare, Stapleton acting more out of self-disgust than self-pity, crumbling anew with each spoken-word "That's the difference." -- A.U.
6. Dixie Chicks, "White Trash Wedding" (Home, 2002)
Before the superstar trio was unfairly ushered out of the country genre, they released the masterpiece Home. Though it never got released as a single, one of the best-remembered cuts on the album was this toe-tapper about a couple who took a not-quite-storybook trip to the altar. "White Trash Wedding" was a perfect showcase for Natalie Maines' vocals, but also the undeniable instrumental prowess of Emily and Martie, as well. The song was very much in a bluegrass style, which might have been a hurdle at radio – but it also could have been that time simply ran out on the album, before radio effectively pulled the plug on the group. -- C.D.
5. Carrie Underwood, "Lessons Learned" (Some Hearts, 2005)
Underwood came out of the Idol gate in impressive fashion, with three country No. 1s (both on Hot Country Songs and Country Airplay) on just her debut album, Some Hearts, alone. For whatever reason, this inspirational song of keeping faith and using hardships to come out stronger on the other side wasn’t picked as one of those hits-to-be, but it surely could’ve been: The message of "Lessons Learned" is as powerful as Underwood’s passionate singing, with lines like "The past can't be rewritten/ You get the life you're given” making moving on from whatever troubles you may be facing a little bit easier. -- T.W.
4. Miranda Lambert, "Fine Tune" (Four the Record, 2012)
In addition to being one of country's true marquee talents, Miranda Lambert has repeatedly proven to be a hell of a rock star. "Fine Tune," one of her all-time best, could be a White Stripes song if it wasn't quite so hip-swaying. A distorted Miranda gently bounces alongside the syrupy blues-rock groove like a skipping stone from measure to measure, playful but never frivolous with her sing-song delivery. The extended auto metaphor running through the lyrics is fun ("Engine of a heart that would not start/ Had to jump it so much, it hurt"), but it's basically all delivery -- like the way Lambert lapses into spoken-word for the refrain's "oh my God" exhortation, or how she pronounces the word "tools" with about five syllables until the final chorus, when she clips it to a a sultry single. It's a fine tune, for sure, but few folks besides Lambert from any genre have the precision to make it a classic. -- A.U.
3. Eric Church, "Jack Daniels" (Chief, 2011)
Many country songs about drinking are mostly celebratory, but while this Chief track may be as fun as any upbeat Eric Church song, but what makes it so endearing is that it's not as fun as it sounds -- even though it's still hilarious. "Every Superman has got his kryptonite/ Jack Daniels kicked my ass again last night," sings Church, telling the tale of a night out that has him singing the whiskey blues the next morning. The best part about it, though? He's not gonna let a little hangover get him down -- and with a jaunty beat like this one, you'll probably be inspired to persevere through even the roughest of post-drinking-too-much days too. -- T.W.
2. Taylor Swift, "Hey Stephen" (Fearless, 2008)
Maybe the simplest, most gleeful love song in Taylor Swift's catalog -- even though it's ultimately about an unrequited (or at least unrevealed) crush, on the dude from Love and Theft of all people. That's kind of what makes the acoustic jam so perfect, though: Throughout, Taylor sounds like she's smiling to herself about a secret that she's enjoying keeping too much to reveal to the whole world, particularly on the heart-melting humming part that opens and closes the song. "Hey Stephen" is a fantastic celebration of harmless romantic infatuation as a joy into itself, regardless of what it leads to, even if the answer is nothing. And needless to say, it'd be the last time a Taylor Swift love song would ever feel quite so uncomplicated. -- A.U.
1. Tim McGraw, "Telluride" (Set This Circus Down, 2001)
In a legendary career that has spanned a quarter-century, Tim McGraw could easily fill a best-of with songs that should have been singles. The highest ranker on that list is this song from Set This Circus Down, which was as wide open vocally and musically as the Rocky Mountains that the lyrics are set in. The fiddle work on this track – courtesy of the great Aubrey Haynie was particularly impressive. So, why wasn’t this a single? When you have a set that includes such classic hits as “Grown Men Don’t Cry” and “Angry All The Time,” what do you leave out? Not a bad problem to have, by anyone’s standards. -- C.D.