Try as they might to play only bad, marginally country songs, country radio programmers sometimes accidentally let a smart, likable, non-pop recording sneak onto their playlists. While the error is usually caught early enough to swap the offending tune out for something by Lady Antebellum or Rodney Atkins, a few good songs inevitably stick around long enough to scale the charts and become bona fide hits.
Here are the ten current country singles most deserving of that fate. Most are from major labels or established indies with some history of placing singles on the chart. Some are already hits. Others have seemingly everything it takes to become hits, save for that bit of influence or alchemy or money or whatever it is that makes some recordings pop off like rockets while others fizzle quietly away.
You can listen to each of our picks in its entirety using the corresponding link.
- Billy Currington – “Love Done Gone”
George Strait had the first hold on it, but Currington ended up getting it for his Enjoy Yourself album. Sounds like summer.
- Bradley Gaskin – “Mr. Bartender”
A fairly by-the-book honky tonk lament enlivened by an astonishingly soulful vocal performance. This sounds like the introduction of a major talent.
- Corey Smith – “Twenty-One”
I wasn’t initially sold on the voice, but good storytelling has a way of winning me over.
- Dirt Drifters – “Always a Reason”
Roots-rock stories of small-town life. Like Steve Earle or Chris Knight if they were interested in getting played on country radio.
- Jacob Lyda – “I’m Doing Alright”
Strait and Jackson are the obvious touchstones, but this guy doesn’t sound like either of them. In fact, he doesn’t sound like much of anyone. It’s nice to hear so little pretense on a debut single.
- Justin Haigh – “All My Best Friends (Are Behind Bars)”
It’d odd that the song here with the slightest chance of mainstream success (outside of Texas, anyway) is the one that would have been an absolute shoo-in during the ’90s.
- Kenny Chesney – “You and Tequila”
The best Chesney ballad on radio since “Down the Road” or, more likely, “Anything But Mine.” Those were three and six years ago, respectively, so he should deliver another good one by 2014.
- Pistol Annies – “Hell on Heels”
We were about due for a great girl trio, and Miranda Lambert + Ashley Monroe + Angaleena Presley delivers. This song’s pretty good, but imagine what they could do with something truly exceptional.
- Ronnie Dunn – “Cost of Livin'”
I’ll be very surprised if this doesn’t go down as one of the best singles released in 2011. But with many listeners in the exact soul-sucking predicament reflected by the lyrics, will the jobless care to be reminded of their plight every time they turn on a radio? It could be that this one’s too honest with not enough of a silver lining to garner all the airplay it deserves.
- Sunny Sweeney – “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving”
After nearly two months on the charts, this still hasn’t cracked the Top 40. I don’t get it.