Favorite Hit Country Songs of 1997
Previous: Favorite Hit Country Songs of 1998
It’s dawned on me that despite this being our third exploration of this decade through this feature, this hasn’t felt very much like a “’90s country” deep-dive quite yet. Not to say that the quality hasn’t been there – it most certainly has, and I’d argue this is an underrated time period in country music history, even if I’ve had some admittedly odd top contenders thus far – but we’ve yet to really find the hits that defined the decade, outside of a few rare exceptions (and whether or not said classics clicked with me is another story altogether). It’s like I said before – this was a weird time period in country music as it transitioned from the actual early ‘90s boom more into what the 2000s would sound like, a weird mishmash of sounds and ideas that defies easy categorization.
And I think 1997 is where that starts (or rather, because we’ve explored these years in reverse, where it ends). Looking ahead to what’s next, we’ve got absolutely crazy good contenders to explore and revisit (1996, in particular, is stacked). This year, however, feels like the weakest link in the bunch. It’s still mostly great throughout – I had no problem filling out a top 10 or finding honorable mentions – but it is a year where the overall quality felt more consistently “good” than “great.”
As a refresher, this is a series in which we explore the hits of yesteryear – not necessarily the best or most impactful ones (because that’s just a silly exercise anyway), but rather just personal favorites, meaning I invite you to share yours, as well. If you’re curious as to what qualifies for this list, here’s a handy guide. Let’s get started.
No. 10 – Alan Jackson, “Everything I Love” (written by Harley Allen and Carson Chamberlain)
Yes, it’s another list of mine to feature Alan Jackson, and yes, this is another example of him using a cheat code to instantly appeal to my personal taste. Because when he slides into heartbreak territory opposite some beautifully stretched-out, aching tones courtesy of the fiddle and acoustic and piano accents, he’s won me over on that alone. I won’t say it’s his wittiest lyrical hook; it’s a pretty straightforward song about him struggling to shake his vices, which now include cigarettes, caffeine, and a former lover’s memory, and it pretty much establishes it all by the first verse. But when you have a rich vocal presence like his at the forefront to sell the aged weariness of what exactly those vices have actually taken from him, it’s just about everything I love in a typical Jackson song. It’s a hit of his I always tend to underrate, but it’s a slow burn worth the attention.
No. 9 – Patty Loveless, “The Trouble With the Truth” (written by Gary Nicholson)
Similar to the Alan Jackson track above, Patty Loveless just has such an amazingly consistent discography full of excellent songs, that I won’t say this one immediately enters my memory as a favorite – we’ll get to one of those later on in this piece. Though I do still love it, a slow but potent and surprisingly groove-driven lament over the concept of truth itself, and how it can be a lonely, nagging reminder of fault and false living, but also a liberating revelation when confronted. I mean, there are country songs about songs, but this feels like it’s breaking the fourth wall of the genre in a way that feels way more insightful and lived-in, another moment among many in Patty Loveless’ catalog sung with conviction, because she understands what that word really means.
No. 8 – Tracy Lawrence, “How a Cowgirl Says Goodbye” (written by Larry Boone, Tracy Lawrence, and Paul Nelson)
To me, this is a sneakily underrated candidate for one of Tracy Lawrence’s best cuts, a rollicking Spanish-inspired tune with a ton of melodic flavor in the sweeter blend of fiddle and acoustics, even if the name of the game once again is heartbreak. Yeah, it’s another song among many to flip the concept of George Strait’s “The Cowboy Rides Away,” showcasing Lawrence as the one who got loved and left behind. But beyond the detailed imagery, what I love is that he’s still on that long stretch of highway searching for her again, a fellow lonesome troubadour who can maybe even sympathize with why she needed to break away. No bittersweet regrets to be found here, just memories of a damn good moment.
No. 7 – Pam Tillis, “Land of the Living” (written by Tia Sillers and Wayland Patton)
This was Pam Tillis’ final top ten hit, and that makes me sad. But it does make me happy to finally have a chance to dive further into her work, as between this and her other hit from this year, “All the Good Ones Are Gone,” she established one hell of a great one-two punch. Whereas that song feels like the sadly quaint sound of defeat in the battle of love, this reshapes the focus. It’s a discussion between friends that, naturally, is wonderfully plainspoken and conversational, but also so much more in how anthemic and empowering it is, too. Against a huge melodic hook, Tillis reminds her friend that, yes, she will be alright, but she’s also aware enough to know to gently nudge her friend in that direction, rather than outright force it. Take a breath to settle and regain composure, and rejoin the land of the living at her own pace, just, you know, so long as it happens. It’s wonderfully optimistic while still being empathetic as a whole, two traits that shape some of my favorite Tillis work.
No. 6 – Toby Keith, “We Were in Love” (written by Chuck Cannon and Allen Shamblin)
I had to come around on this one, a moment of extreme vulnerability from Toby Keith as he walks back through the best parts of a past relationship, which I thought for the longest time just felt slightly oversold. And sure, maybe it is on paper, but the real key here is Keith’s rougher delivery that effectively undersells the song but also lends so much natural power to the memory, especially in that tour de force of a hook where the regret of having to refer to that love in the past tense really cuts through. Honestly, between this, “Does That Blue Moon Ever Shine On You,” “Who’s That Man,” and more, he was just great at selling natural longing and reminiscence with the firepower it deserved during this decade.
No. 5 – Travis Tritt, “Where Corn Don’t Grow” (written by Roger Murrah and Mark Alan Springer)
I’m not going to say the lingering stench of Hardy’s recent lame-ass album didn’t nudge this one up for me a bit, but if you’re going to write about country living, this is the way to do it. Though I also think it’s a song that’s not as straightforward as it seems. It sets up the tired country versus city premise, sure, but to me it ultimately eschews that to feel more personally driven, like how Tritt’s character’s father is disappointed that his son wants to leave the family farm to expand his horizons but doesn’t outright reject his desire. He just warns him that if it’s a desire to escape struggle fueling his decision, it won’t come by running to a new location and life; there are hard times and dusty fields no matter where you roam. It’s a song about growing up and learning lessons the hard way, which is a pretty universal sentiment no matter where one comes from or where they end up traveling on their journey. Couple all of that with a beautifully layered dusty rollick courtesy of the harmonica and plucky acoustics and mandolin, and it makes the bitter pill a bit easier to swallow.
No. 4 – Lee Ann Womack, “The Fool” (written by Marla Cannon-Goodman, Gene Ellsworth, and Charlie Stefl)
I’m sad that this is the last Lee Ann Womack song we’ll get to discuss for this feature, but what a way to go. Not only does it defy expectations by retooling the trope of confronting the “other woman” in a relationship – in this case, everyone’s playing by the rules and the third woman in this scenario just so happens to be an old flame Womack’s character’s current partner can’t shake – Womack even sets it up as a way to admit defeat and ask her new friend to reconsider taking her old partner back, because she knows their current road won’t ever lead to actual love. And that’s the sad kicker, knowing that whether the other woman has or hasn’t already moved on, Womack is going to walk away the loser regardless. But in finding the strength to start a difficult conversation … I don’t know, I think she’ll be strong enough to survive whatever comes next.
No. 3 – Trace Adkins, “This Ain’t No Thinkin’ Thing” (written by Tim Nichols and Mark D. Sanders)
I could have placed any of Trace Adkins’ singles from this year on this list. “The Rest of Mine” is a pretty straightforward traditional ballad he knocks out of the park vocally, and “I Left Something Turned On At Home” came from back when he could be wryly humorous without being hokey. But this plays to something darker, effectively utilizing his signature baritone for something genuinely sensual, buoyed by a lot of equal smolder in the electric axes and keys and, of course, that recurring steel guitar lick. It’s just so unlike anything else from the era, less sentimental and more inclined to actually dive into the mystique. It’s kind of a shame he ironically overthought things in the next decade, but my reasoning for why this is still so captivating even today … well hell, it ain’t no thinkin’ thing.
No. 2 – Tim McGraw, “Everywhere” (written by Mike Reid and Craig Wiseman)
Tim McGraw comes just short of the top yet again, and I do feel bad about that, but if “Just to See You the Smile” feels like one of the few classics we’ve gotten to discuss thus far, “Everywhere” feels more like an underdog pick for another one. I can see why – it’s sweeter, more low-key, and overall underplayed in its sentiment, but that’s what makes it work so well. I gave the bulk of the credit of McGraw’s 2000s material to his power as an emotive interpreter, and it’s no different here, even if he’s more restrained in having to grin and bear reexperiencing old memories of a past love everywhere he goes. But you get the feeling, based on his delivery and the content itself, that it’s more of an asset to continuing onward. By his own admittance, he states that they both chose to end things, so these past images feel more like happy memories than bitter reminders. In an odd way, then, it’s oddly nostalgic and comforting, a familiar sentiment for country music, but a really great and underrated one, too.
As always, before unveiling my No. 1 pick, here are a few honorable mentions that just barely missed the cut for this list, presented in no particular order:
Billy Ray Cyrus, “It’s All the Same to Me” (written by Kerry Kurt Phillips and Jerry Laseter)
Yeah, this guy was always more than just “Achy Breaky Heart.” This is a swaggering slow burn that cuts so effectively.
LeAnn Rimes, “The Light in Your Eyes” (written by Dan Tyler)
On paper, I’m not typically sold by motivational songs like these. But leave it to LeAnn Rimes to do some very heavy lifting in her delivery to make this plea feel actually lived-in and potent.
Vince Gill, “A Little More Love” (written by Vince Gill)
Like with “Feels Like Love,” this entered my head and wouldn’t get out when I revisited these hits. Actually, it still hasn’t left, and I’m OK with that.
Tracy Byrd, “Don’t Take Her She’s All I Got” (written by Gary U.S. Bonds and Jerry Williams Jr.)
I’m not the biggest Tracy Byrd fan, and I don’t know what it says that a cover song is my favorite thing he ever recorded, but much like the Vince Gill track above, this is a song that won’t ever check out of my earworm hotel.
Sawyer Brown, “Six Days on the Road” (written by Earl Green and Carl Montgomery)
My favorite version of this song – an even hotter take is that I think Sawyer Brown is the only act that actually offered this the cool confidence and swagger it deserved.
And now, my No. 1 pick:
No. 1 – Patty Loveless feat. George Jones, “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me” (written by Jim Lauderdale)
I’ve mentioned the odd divide that shapes this year, both in terms of the acts we won’t hear from again for this feature and the ones we’re only just getting started to hear. And this feels like the most stinging reminder of that, one of Patty Loveless’ final hits that dared to even feature George Jones at a time when legends either faded or reinvented themselves to fit into a new mold; radio programmers even requested Loveless cut a remixed version of this without him.
It kind of makes the title oddly fitting, but it’s also funny how a song about a love that’s close to dying due to neglect is performed by Loveless with so much immediacy and urgency, trying ever so desperately to hang on to what’s left but ready to walk away too, if needed. And she also does so by launching any and all necessary barbs at a neglectful lover to get that point across; thankfully, Jones is just here to add harmony, because I wouldn’t want to be on the other end of this. It’s sweeping, and it’s the fitting sendoff that shouldn’t have been one. But I think why this is has always further stood out to me within Loveless’ excellently layered discography is that it feels like a true moment and artistic statement, full of passion and conviction in its rarest form. It may not have been the biggest hit from this particular year, but for me, there were none better than this firestorm.