We’ve already discussed the Single of the Year Nominees for 2022 and picked a winner. But now it’s time to get quiet and serious, and talk about those songs that are so well-composed, they have the capability of changing our lives or perspectives.
Picking the Saving Country Music Song of the Year winner has been especially excruciating here in 2022. Not only was there a strong field of initial nominees, no less than four songs emerged as front runners in the voting and discussion, with all of them basically receiving similar counts in the comments here and across social media.
So in some respects, we should consider these four top contenders ALL winners since they are all so strong, and any margin between them is razor thin. But to not entirely shirk making the difficult decision of who should end up on top, let’s present them all ranked from #4 to #1.
#4 Willi Carlisle – “Tulsa’s Last Magician
Those who’ve seen this whimsical and enthralling folk country storyteller from Arkansas in person will swear by the natural showmanship he exudes, the enchantment of the old traditional songs and tall tales he unearths, and the magnetism of the original songs he composes. Carlisle is like few things you will experience in music. His songs are strongly literary with rich characters, and his delivery is deeply compelling. The soul and authenticity inherent in Willi Carlisle’s music is emblematic in the song “Tulsa’s Last Magician” inspired after hanging out with a group of magicians in Florida, and exploring the idea of a decaying occupation.
#3 – Ian Noe – “Ballad of a Retired Man”
It should take a lifetime of living to compose a song like “Ballad of a Retired Man.” For Ian Noe, it only took 30 years, and his second record. “Ballad of a Retired Man” is a powerful moment born off a simple, fingerpicked melody and background organ underneath a story where where a Vietnam veteran and former road worker resolves himself to his fate in a way that makes us all ponder our mortality and the passage of time in an inescapably unsettling, but still strangely gorgeous and inviting manner.
#2 – Adeem The Artist – “Middle of a Heart”
We’re all instilled with a set of values (or lack thereof) and a range of habits through our upbringing, which like a pebble cast into still water, reverberate outwardly through the unfolding of our lives. The greatest virtue of “Middle of a Heart” is that Adeem leaves the moral of the song up for interpretation. Adeem tells the story, sketches the lines, and lets the personal lineage and upbringing of the individual audience member color them in. Adeem draws a perfect circle—or bullseye if you will—and then takes their best shot at not stopping a heart, but changing one through the work of music.
Saving Country Music’s 2022 Song of the Year
Tommy Prine – “Ships in the Harbor”
We talk about pedigree often in country and roots music, because so often, music becomes a family business for many of our most beloved artists and their worthy offspring. But we’ve rarely if ever had a full circle, cross-generational moment encapsulated in a song quite like what John Prine’s son Tommy perfects in “Ships in the Harbor.”
Even more striking is that this is the very first song Tommy Prine ever professionally released in his career. Can a debut single really rise to be considered the best written song in a given year? Apparently it can be, and it just has. And if the truth be told, you may have to go back multiple years to find a song with a comparable emotional impact for the people with the patience to listen, and all the way to the very end of the song when the genius of the writing unfolds in utter brilliance.
With a poetic grace that doesn’t need a famous name to be compelling, Tommy Prine exquisitely encapsulates how all the happiness and grace in life—however enjoyable—is invariably fleeting. From the warmth of seeing a bluebird perched on a fence, to the unconditional love of a father, eventually it will go away due to the rhythms of life. As much as “Ships in the Harbor” is a lament on inevitability, it’s also a lesson to enjoy the sweet moments of life while we’re in the midst of them.
One of the greatest indicators of great writing and a great song is how it means different things to different people. Tommy Prine wrote “Ships in the Harbor” about the passing of his father specifically. Yet when you listen to this song, it can feel like it’s custom written for the passing of one of your parents or loved ones. A remarkable phenomenon has accompanied the release of this song. Whenever it’s shared, listeners feel compelling to share their own stories of loss, and how this song specifically helped them process or accept it.
Tommy Prine is the youngest son of John Prine who passed away in 2020 at the age of 73. Tommy learned how to fingerpick from his father, first picking up a guitar at the age of 10. But it wasn’t his father’s music that first inspired Tommy to get into singer/songwriter material at the ago of 17. It was Jason Isbell’s opus Southeastern.
Tommy Prine has released a second single called “Turning Stones,” and a debut album is expected from him in early 2023. But with one song, Tommy Prine has already accomplished what many musicians and songwriters work their entire careers to accomplish, which is to make such an indelible emotional connection with an audience, it’s impact lasts well beyond the present tense. His father did this at multiple moments throughout his career, and now Tommy has done it to start his.