Story songs are one of country music's greatest asset. Telling stories that hook listeners has been a hallmark of the genre since its start.
Country's icons -- Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Alan Jackson and more -- are among the genre's best storytellers, of course -- but there are a number of modern artists who have proven themselves to be brilliant in that department as well. Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley and others have, since the turn of the 21st century, recorded vivid stories set to music.
Below, take a listen to 10 of the very best story songs in modern country music. These artists, and the writers behind these tunes, have captured listeners' attention with their impressive attention to detail.
From 2017's Happy Endings, Old Dominion's fun and frisky "Hotel Key" tells the story of a pot- and tequila-fueled one-night stand that both parties know is nothing more. Old D members Trevor Rosen and Matthew Ramsey, along with co-writer Josh Osborne, weave in details about the titular hotel's location and the couple's conversation that put listeners right into the scene.
Above all, Janson's 2018 single "Drunk Girl" is a message of respect: "Take a drunk girl home / Let her sleep all alone / Leave her keys on the counter, your number by the phone / Pick up her life she threw on the floor / Leave the hall lights on, walk out and lock the door / That's how she knows the difference between a boy and man ..." That message, though, is strengthened by the picture Janson, Scooter Carusoe and Tom Douglas paint with the rest of the lyrics.
The titular drunk girl in "Drunk Girl" is at once an individual and a universal figure. Whether you've been out on Nashville's Lower Broadway or not, you've seen that woman, her hand covered in stamps from hitting one bar after another. "Her hair's a perfect mess," and she's "singing every word she never knew" and "dancing with her eyes closed like she's the only one in the room" -- heck, plenty of us have been that woman.
From Eldredge's 2013 album Bring You Back, "Raymond" was an emotional debut single for the now-star, inspired by his own grandmother's time living with Alzheimer's disease. Eldredge and co-writer Brad Crisler tell the tale of a young nursing home worker whom a resident -- "Catherine Davis, Room 303" -- mistakes for her deceased son.
"Tells me, 'Get washed up for supper / 'Fore your daddy gets home' ... And stories of a family that I never had," Eldredge sings. Sadly, Raymond Davis died in the Vietnam War in 1971 -- another detail Eldredge and Crisler included in this song's vivid lyrics.
Stapleton's "Scarecrow in the Garden" does not go where you expect it to -- and it's a credit to the country star and co-writers Brice Long and Matt Fleener that the song's very last line made our jaws drop the first time we heard it.
"Scarecrow in the Garden" comes from Stapleton's 2017 album From A Room, Vol. 2. And unlike the other songs on this list thus far, it tells a very specific story: the tale of a farming family, sung from the point of view of the youngest of three children, who now owns the land after inheriting it from his parents, who moved from Ireland.
As the song progresses, listeners learn that the farm was once very profitable, but it isn't so much anymore: "The fields ain't once they once were / The rains just seem to flood ..." In each chorus, the narrator mentions that he's been sitting in the garden, "reading Revelations / With my bare feet in the dirt" -- an innocuous scene until the final chorus ends with a dark cliffhanger.
McBryde's debut album, 2018's Girl Going Nowhere, is filled with solid story songs, but "Livin' Next to Leroy" is perhaps its best and most lively. Inspired, per Rolling Stone, by someone from the hometown of co-writer Nicolette Hayford, the song paints the picture of the drug epidemic in rural America -- "Three doors down, there's tinfoil on the table / They ain't cookin' up nothin' good 'round here / There's one in every house: high on the couch, stealin' cable / On the dark side of the country it ain't bonfires, it ain't beer ..." -- but never demonizes or judges its characters. That was an important feature of the lyrics to McBryde.
“Where I’m from, there are two things to do after a certain age: make babies or make meth,” the Arkansas native explains. “It deserves to be said, and it deserves to be said in a non-negative way. There’s an awful problem we need to deal with, but these people are not bad people.”
The song that introduced Shelton to country music fans was allegedly inspired by a true story. That said, it would make a dang fine movie; listeners find themselves clinging to the lyrics of "Austin," likely with a picture-perfect rom-com playing in their heads.
"Austin," co-written by David Kent and Kirsti Manna, tells the tale of a relationship that ends with a woman moving to Austin, Texas, "without leaving her number." She waits a full year before calling her former flame, at which point she hears on his answering machine: "If this is Tuesday night, I'm bowling / If you've got something to sell / You're wastin' your time, I'm not buyin' ... and P.S., if this is Austin, I still love you." You're lying if you didn't breathe a sigh of relief by the end of the song, which finds the lover who was left behind (spoiler alert!) hearing a similar message on Austin's machine.
Underwood's 2016 No. 1 hit "Church Bells," from her 2015 album Storyteller, is about sweet (and deadly) revenge. Co-writers Zach Crowell, Brett James and Hillary Lindsey use the titular church bells the same way poets and novelists use certain symbols: First, they signify love, then sanctuary, and, finally, the ending of a terrible ordeal and the keeping of a secret. As a nod to the song's place in country music's cannon of stories, Underwood has referred to "Church Bells" as “”Fancy”‘s little sister.”
While Brice's "I Drive Your Truck" was inspired by a very specific story, its become a so much more than that. As its universality exemplifies, we've all clung to the physical mementos (and non-physical memories) of a late loved one to find comfort following a loss.
Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Jimmy Yeary co-wrote "I Drive Your Truck" after Harrington heard the story of Paul Monti: His son, Medal of Honor recipient Jared Monti, was killed in Afghanistan. The elder Monti drives his son's truck to help him feel closer to him.
It's the song's first verse that so perfectly paints the picture of the truck in question: "Eighty-nine cents in the ash tray / Half-empty bottle of Gatorade rolling in the floorboard / That dirty Braves cap on the dash / Dog tags hanging from the rear view / Old Skoal can and cowboy boots and a 'Go Army' shirt / Folded in the back."
In March of 2010, Lambert released "The House That Built Me," as the third single from her Revolution album. The fastest-rising single of her career, the song hit the country Top 20 in just eight weeks, and reached No. 1 -- Lambert's first time in the top spot -- in June. The double-platinum-certified song also picked up Song of the Year at the CMA Awards; Song of the Year and Single Record of the Year at the ACM Awards; and Best Female Country Vocal Performance at the Grammy Awards -- a testament to the powerful story it tells.
"Whiskey Lullaby"Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss
We still need to have tissues handy when listening to Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss' hit duet. "Whiskey Lullaby" is a heartbreaking tale of lost love, alcoholism and, ultimately, a reunion in death -- a country Romeo and Juliet, if you will.
The song found success both commercially and critically: It reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart and No. 41 on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100, and has been certified double platinum and won Song of the Year at the 2005 CMA Awards. That's no surprise, though: Ace tunesmiths Bill Anderson and Jon Randall are behind its gorgeous lyrics.