McGraw, Chicks Among Best Singles of 2002

When people start talking about the great music of years past, they tend to forget the terrible songs and performances that coexisted alongside the classics that have become a part of our lives. We should be thankful that the mind works that way, too. Otherwise, we might think back to the ’70s and remember all those songs about CB radios.

That’s why it’s a challenge to choose the best country singles released in 2002. Some singles capture a moment, while others are timeless. And the truth is that a final determination often can’t be made until years later.

With that in mind, here are my personal choices for the five best singles of 2002 — and a tip of the hat to two major acts on the brink of moving their careers to an even higher plateau.

“Red Ragtop,” Tim McGraw
(Curb)
Story songs are a country music tradition, but the best of them refuse to pass judgments or offer advice. In “Red Ragtop,” Tim McGraw tells the story without going into great detail — a subtlety that prompts the rest of us to reflect on our own lives.

“Long Time Gone,” Dixie Chicks
(Monument)
Sure, it’s a commentary on Nashville and the state of country music, but it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it. As the first music we heard from the Chicks ‘ long-awaited album Home, it was like a message from an old friend. Just try not to smile when you hear it.

“Forgive,” Rebecca Lynn Howard
(MCA)
Rebecca Lynn Howard wrote a great song and then proceeded to sing the ever-living daylights out of it. Few singles in recent years have exceeded the genuine emotion in Howard’s vocal delivery.

“My Town,” Montgomery Gentry
(Columbia)
Honesty is another key element in great country music. That’s the reason Montgomery Gentry ‘s music rings true, especially when they’re performing songs such as “My Town.” Adding to the song’s populist message was a music video that melded a live performance with images of the people and things that we should cherish as Americans.

“Somebody Like You,” Keith Urban
(Capitol)
This single jumped out of car radio speakers. Even before “Somebody Like You” spent five weeks at the top of Billboard‘s country singles chart, it was obvious that Keith Urban had recorded a song he’ll be singing the rest of his life. It’s got a cool banjo riff, too. Keep in mind that many people still don’t associate the words “cool” and “banjo.”

In looking at the extensive list of singles released in 2002, special mentions should be made of Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney — two acts who continue to move closer to true superstardom. Building their careers on radio airplay, Keith and Chesney have sold enough CDs and concert tickets to prove their popularity and staying power. Frankly, they appear to be the only two country artists today who can even come close to claiming the status of acts such as McGraw, Alan Jackson , George Strait , Shania Twain and a handful of others.

Love him or hate him, Keith demands attention. And the mainstream news media certainly noticed him this summer with his single, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).” The song’s right-wing message caused ABC to allegedly rescind an offer for Keith to perform on a Fourth of July TV special. It turned into a major news story, but Keith wasn’t trying to get publicity from his comments about ABC and news anchor Peter Jennings. Or at least that denial was stated in a press release distributed nationally by his publicity team. The year also found Keith in a more reflective mood with the single, “My List,” before returning to a more macho tone with his current hit, “Who’s Your Daddy?”

As for Chesney, he may be the most tenacious artist in the history of country music. Far from being an overnight sensation, Chesney’s success is largely based on his unfailing belief in himself and his music. Chesney expanded his popularity in 2002 with an anthem (“Young”) and two thought-provoking songs (“A Lot of Things Different” and “The Good Stuff”).

The numbers don’t lie, either. When Chesney’s No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems was released in April, no one was particularly surprised it debuted at No. 1 on Billboard‘s Top Country Albums chart. However, the album also debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, which covers all musical genres, to gain the attention of those who normally pay little mind to country music. To support the album, Chesney embarked on his first tour as a headliner. By the end of the year, he had played to 1.8 million fans for a ticket gross of more than $24 million. The statistics prompted Amusement Business magazine to declare Chesney’s roadwork the top grossing country tour of 2002.

See the complete Best of 2002.

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.