As we look upon the massive Texas country machine that's been chugging along over the past several years, it's easy to see 1997 as a pivotal one. In college towns and major metropolises alike, the masses were demanding more music from people that shared their pride, enthusiasm and thirst for something different. Pat Green's fraternity favorite, George's Bar, was released, signaling his arrival, as was Jack Ingram's Livin' or Dyin' and Robert Earl Keen's sorely under-appreciated, sound-shifting Picnic.
1998 witnessed releases that made everyone take notice of what was going on south of Dollywood: Charlie Robison's Life of the Party, Cross Canadian Ragweed's Carney, Reckless Kelly's Milican and the debut release from arguably the first geographical interloper the fledgling scene would fully embrace, Kentuckian Chris Knight.
Since the end of the '90s, many studs from the Red River region have shot to stardom and major-label deals. Jack Ingram and Pat Green both experienced a healthy dose of mainstream success and chart ascension, while the Randy Rogers Band scored a major-label deal while getting to make the music they've wanted, even if the hits haven't been plentiful. Sunny Sweeney found success and Texas-claimed former rodeo cowboy Ryan Bingham won an Oscar. Denton's Eli Young Band has become an A-list group of stars in the world of modern country, thanks to their smash single, "Crazy Girl."
Unlike the late '90s, it is now just fine to get along with the folks on Music Row, even if many around these parts feel as though the cross-pollination of Nashville cheese and Texas grit creates something banal and formulaic.
We decided to gather some local and not-so-local folks to find out what they think are the best 15 songs of the past 15 years when it comes to this most indefinable genre. Some great songs from both rookie and veteran artists barely missed the cut. The list could have been 30 songs and some signature tunes would've still been left off. What we have below are the 15 songs that just about all of the panelists agreed upon, emphasis on "just about all of the panelists."
Matt Hillyer: Lead singer of multi-Dallas Observer Music Award-winning band Eleven Hundred Springs.
Juli Thanki: Editor-in-chief of Engine 145.com and the 2011 International Bluegrass Association's Print Media Personality of the Year.
Pat Green: A key yet polarizing figure in the surge of Texas country. His hits include "Wave on Wave," "Carry On" and "Baby Doll."
Brad Beheler: Writes and helps run Galleywinter.com, perhaps the best place to go for anything relating to Texas/Red Dirt music.
Ronnie Fauss: Dallas-based folk singer/songwriter who just recorded his debut album for New West Records, due soon.
Cody Canada : Former lead singer for seminal Red Dirt act Cross Canadian Ragweed and now the primary vocalist for the Departed.
Helen Eaton: Former DOMA-winning Americana/country/folk talent buyer at the Granada Theater, who is now helping run the show at Billy Bob's Texas, where she lined up special acts for this year's Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic.
Drew Kennedy: New Braunfels-based troubadour who's written and performed with many of the state's greats. He just returned from a triumphant set at the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass festival.
Merrol Ray: North Texas-based country rocker who won the Shiner Rising Star award when he fronted his old band, Miles From Nowhere.
Katie Key: Editor-in-chief of Best in Texas magazine, which publishes the weekly Texas Music Chart, the barometer for which regional artists are hot.
George Dunham: Star of the massively popular, Marconi award-winning morning show on KTCK-AM 1310 The Ticket, and lead singer for country act The Bird Dogs.
Amber Farris: Lead singer of Dallas' Somebody's Darling, another recent winner of the Shiner Rising Star award (and the vocalist this writer dubbed the "country-rock queen of Dallas").
Rita Ballou: The sauciest blogger in Texas and on-air personality for Waco's KRMX-FM Shooter 92.9.
Oh, and myself.
15. "Angry All the Time" — Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis
14. "Choctaw Bingo" — James McMurtry
13. "Vancouver" — Reckless Kelly
12. "Somewhere Down in Texas" — Jason Boland & The Stragglers
11. "The Weary Kind" — Ryan Bingham
10. "Nashville Blues" — Cory Morrow
Morrow's plight of fightin' the man for what he saw as musical equality lives on despite the success of many Texans on the national stage in recent years. Brad Beheler
09. "17" — Cross Canadian Ragweed
Perhaps the first song that showcased Ragweed's ability to clean up their act and produce a wonderfully written, pristine gem that appealed to our belief that we'll never actually become respected adults in the town we grew up in. Kelly Dearmore
08. "Things Are Fixin' To Get Real Good" — Deryl Dodd
It's a personal song that's also a really pleasant one to listen to. George Dunham
07. "God Bless This Town" — Wade Bowen
Another song that mines its material from the wealth of small-town gossip and the people who perpetuate such whisperings. For a state with as many large cities as Texas, it's the not-so-sleepy burgs with flapping tongues that provide the best song material. Kelly Dearmore
06. "Biloxi" — Jack Ingram
You can tell this song is so personal to Jack. People respond to its candid nature. I love it. Matt Hillyer
05. "My Hometown" — Charlie Robsion
Robison is pure Texan. In this song, he evokes small towns, Friday night football, college revelry, roughnecking and name-checks the largest cities in a candid, believable way. Brad Behler
04. "Down the Road Tonight" — Hayes Carll
I loved Hayes from the first time I heard him. I love his sense of humor. Matt Hillyer
03. "Carry On" — Pat Green
This was one of the first songs I can truly remember loving from the moment I heard it. And it still does my heart good to sing along at the top of my lungs! Katie Key
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02. "Tonight's Not the Night" — Randy Rogers Band
Not only the song that truly started Rogers' ascent into the vanguard of the scene, but this song features a chorus with wordplay that's so natural, it's not really wordplay. A simple yet profound sentiment that anyone can relate to, set to a fiddle-driven, true-blue country song. Kelly Dearmore
01. "Feeling Good Again" — Robert Earl Keen
Keen is a sage writer who describes life in Texas with such vivid detail that he makes you feel like you've visited places a thousand times even when you've never been there. Anyone that hears this song is immediately transported to Bandera on a cold winter night while some old friends reconvene at a tiny bar. Brad Beheler