Songs, songs, songs. For all the countless thousands of them written and recorded each year, so few make a measurable impact. Even the ones that do may be forgotten shortly their run is over. It's a strange, kind of sad reality. Everything passes into mere history eventually.
But then, a fan never forgets what those certain special songs used to mean, how they offered comfort or excitement at just the right times. A fan treasures a favorite song like the memory of an ecstatic kiss, a memorable plate of dessert, a burning word of advice. A fan can't help hearing and remembering what was, considering what is, dreaming of what could be.
And so as you do your holiday shopping this year, I hope you'll remember the country fans in your life (including yourself, perhaps). You might start with this year's new compilations listed below, which sum up the careers of some of our genre's very best.
Trace Adkins, The Definitive Greatest Hits: 'Til the Last Shot's Fired (Capitol Nashville)
With the big guy having moved to Show Dog Universal, Capitol Nashville gives fans a comprehensive look at his first 14 years. Virtually all of Adkins' singles from 1996 to 2009 are included this double-disc set, from novelty hits like "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk" to lesser-known cuts like "I Wanna Feel Something" and "'Til the Last Shot's Fired."
Chris Cagle, Best of Chris Cagle (Capitol Nashville)
This generous compilation gathers all 13 of Cagle's singles since 2000, including "I Breathe In, I Breathe Out" and "Chicks Dig It," plus a pair of characteristic album cuts -- "Hey Y'all" and "My Life's Been a Country Song."
Dixie Chicks, The Essential Dixie Chicks (Sony Legacy)
While Chicks fans keep a-waitin' for new music from the trio (Yes? Sometime? Maybe?), everyone else can get caught up with this inclusive two-disc set. Pulling at least six tracks apiece from each of the Chicks' four studio albums, The Essential Dixie Chicks provides a worthy summary of one of the most artistically and historically-significant country acts of the last 20 years. For those interested in a trimmer selection, consider the 12-track Playlist set, which offers a similar mix of definitive singles and album tracks at about half the price.
Kevin Fowler, Best Of ... So Far (Kevin Fowler Records)
The Texas favorite celebrates more than a decade of music-making with the release of his first compilation set. If you've ever found yourself in a bar hollering along to "Long Line of Losers" or "Pound Sign," you won't be disappointed.
Highwaymen, The Essential Highwaymen (Sony Legacy)
The premier country supergroup -- Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson -- has been anthologized before, but this two-disc set blows previous efforts out of the water. Not only are all three studio albums represented (itself a major-label first), you also get a glimpse of the four icons' musical kinship outside the official group setting with duets and covers of each other's songs. Heck, even the underappreciated Kristofferson/Nelson musical comedy film Songwriter gets a moment with the funky "How Do You Feel About Foolin' Around" not available anywhere else on CD or for download. In short -- required listening for fans of any of above four artists and for students of country music history, in general.
Alan Jackson, 34 Number Ones (Arista Nashville)
With Jackson's singles having actually hit the top spot in one trade publication or another, you can pick up this two-disc set knowing you'll get your "Drive" and "Chattahoochee"'s worth. The set includes a rousing version of "Ring of Fire" with Lee Ann Womack, plus Jackson's most recent No. 1, the Zac Brown Band collaboration "As She's Walking Away." Go on, son.
Larry the Cable Guy, The Best of Larry the Cable Guy (Jack/Warner Bros.)
Blue collar comedy fans, rejoice. No longer must you reach for separate sets to relive treasured bits like "My Sister Is Covered With Moles," "Terrorist or Toddler" or "The Right to Bare Arms" now that the Cable Guy's finest in chuckle-worthy Southern humor have at last been gathered together under one roof. Larry's even gone and released a 99-cent "sound board" Apple app so iPhone users can regale the rest of us with some of his more notorious sayings, sounds and catchphrases.
Tim McGraw, Number One Hits (Curb)
McGraw's record label is no stranger to the compilation game, but this double-album set of chart-toppers covers the span of his career more comprehensively than any other single set issued by Curb. Oldies like "Don't Take the Girl" and more recent material like "Southern Voice" hang out here alongside his new single, the arena-ready "Felt Good on My Lips."
Brad Paisley, Hits Alive (Arista Nashville)
The newly-crowned CMA entertainer of the year keeps the punny titles coming with his first chart-minded collection. Hits Alive culls together most of the Top 10 singles from a decade of stardom, with one disc offering the familiar studio tracks and the other live takes that showcase Paisley's whizz-bang guitar licks.
Gretchen Peters, Circus Girl: The Best of Gretchen Peters (Scarlet Letter)
Not all country fans will know Gretchen Peters' name, but the lucky ones are at least familiar with her work. Peters has been one of the smartest and most successful singer-songwriters in Nashville for some time, producing standout material for Faith Hill ("The Secret of Life"), Martina McBride ("Independence Day"), Trisha Yearwood ("On a Bus to St. Cloud") and herself (most everything else here). For the thinking country fan interested in looking behind the industry curtain, this set is a dream.
Blake Shelton, Loaded: The Best of Blake Shelton (Warner Bros. Nashville)
Ol' B.S. has hit quite a few milestones in 2010 -- induction into the Grand Ole Opry, his first CMA male vocalist nomination and win, engagement to Miranda Lambert -- and his first "best of" singles package feels like a cherry on the sundae. All the familiar favorites are here, from "Ol' Red" to "Nobody but Me" to current release "Who Are You When I'm Not Looking," and they've even thrown in the thoughtful "Kiss My Country Ass."
Various Artists, Now That's What I Call Country Volume 3 (Capitol)
The good people responsible for the Now series know their way around an ear-to-the-radio collection, and their latest doesn't disappoint, offering some of the biggest hits of the past year -- the Zac Brown Band' s "Highway 20 Ride," Chris Young's "The Man I Want to Be," Luke Bryan's "Rain Is a Good Thing" and more.
Hank Williams, The Complete Mother's Best Recordings ... Plus! (Time Life)
Sixteen discs at 200 bucks means this set can stuff a stocking or two all by itself. For the traditional country enthusiast, though, it's worth the heft, offering stunning new insights into Williams' talent and personality with remarkably crisp sound quality. The antique-radio package is pretty and functional, too. Considering these lost recordings were rescued from a studio dumpster, it's safe to say Hank still cleans up mighty good. Only available at www.hankwilliamsmothersbest.com and at the Ernest Tubb Record stores.
Gretchen Wilson, Greatest Hits (Columbia Nashville)
For fans of full albums, the essential Gretchen Wilson release is still the quintuple-platinum Here for the Party. For an overview of her time at Sony, though, you can't go wrong with this tidy compilation, which gathers her Top 40 hits from 2004 to 2007. "Redneck Woman" remains as oddly universal as ever, and the bonus live cover of Heart's "Barracuda" serves as a good introduction to her more rock-tinged direction.
There's also quite a bit out there this year for classic country fans with Sony Legacy leading the standard-budget charge. Try a collection from the Setlist series with live takes of Alabama, Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash, or perhaps one from the Playlist series with career hits from the Charlie Daniels Band and gospel recordings by Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton or Elvis Presley. Multimedia fan? The Double Play series combines a Playlist audio CD with a DVD of video content. Old reliable such as Alabama, Brooks & Dunn, John Denver and Waylon Jennings all have such sets out this year, as do current favorites Martina McBride and Brad Paisley.
Classic country collectors willing to invest a pretty penny may also want to look into exhaustive new Bear Family boxed sets The Ballads of Johnny Horton, The Ballads of Conway Twitty, Open Up Your Heart: The Buck Owens & the Buckaroos Recordings 1965-1968 and Carl Smith's Hey Joe! -- Gonna Shake This Shack Tonight.