Every couple of weeks, I make a couple of new mix CDs to listen to on my 40-or-so-minute each way commute to work, basically culling my current favorite tracks to create my very own Lorentz-centric Top 40 radio station. Just like any other Top 40 radio station, it’s all about the hits (hits with me, anyway): the playlist is necessarily limited (I can rarely fit more than 20 songs on a CD) and repetitive (the CD ends, it starts over). I love it. It drives my kids nuts. Just the other day, when the latest a-ha single “Butterfly, Butterfly” came on, my oldest (who invariably gravitates to “Take On Me” whenever there’s a karaoke machine nearby) begged me to skip it. I didn’t then, but eventually, I will. And that will be when I know it’s time for a new mix CD.

Lately, my morning commute mix CDs have been filling up with a surprising number of country songs. Now, while I’m certainly not one to dismiss country as a genre – I grew up with Kenny Rogers and the Oak Ridge Boys, and thanks to my Dad, I have a very deep love and respect for Willie Nelson – I’m no aficionado either. And as much as I’d like to say I keep an open mind, I have to admit that I’m more open-minded when we’re talking about Scandinavian dance pop than when we’re talking about guys named Garth and Randy who like to wear cowboy hats. I don’t know if it’s the music that’s changing or if it’s just me, but there’s just a lot of country music out there right now that’s, y’know, really good. And I’m not just talking about hipster-approved alternative country. That’s all fine too, but I’m talking about actual country hits. You know, country songs that are genuinely popular with country audiences, and increasingly with pop-crossover audiences as well.

For instance, Brad Paisley‘s “Water”, the fourth single from his 2009 album American Saturday Night which recently enjoyed a stay at the top of the country charts

Brad Paisley “Water”

What I love about this song – and all of Brad Paisley‘s songs really – is how he never wastes a verse. There’s nothing throwaway about how he builds a story, or in this case, builds a monument to something as almost cheesily simple, common, and universal as water. I mean, how dorky does this idea seem on paper? Hey guys, let’s do a song about how great water is. (While we’re at it, why not a song about how cool it is to see stuff?) But verse by verse, he details his ongoing “love affair with water” with images from snapshots that could be sitting in just about anybody’s photo album – the “inflatable pool full of Dad’s hot air” – until you realize that while he might be stating the obvious, sometimes the obvious thing is the easiest to take for granted, and it needs to be stated. Moreover, the song’s joyous invitation to hop into the car and “drive until the map turns blue” has taken on an unintentional and tragic urgency with news of the BP oil spill and its disgusting political and environmental implications casting a depressing pall over this summer season.

Like Brad Paisley, Georgia’s Zac Brown Band is currently riding on an album that’s destined to be regarded not just as one of the great country albums, but just one of the great albums of its time, period. Although they’ve been sending hits up the country charts and the Billboard Hot 100 since their major label debut The Foundation was released two years ago, it was their amazing 2010 Grammy Awards ceremony performance of their signature hit “Chicken Fried” done as a medley with “America the Beautiful” all dressed up in defiantly ragged harmonies, that established once and for all the force of nature this band is. Although their previous hits have had something of a novelty factor to them, this year they’ve sent two gorgeous ballads up the charts: “Highway 20 Ride”, a heartbreaking post-divorce father-to-son confessional, and “Free”, a song about being young, broke, and in love, and living out on the road – a song feels as big and endless as the road itself, and even gives a musical nod to Van Morrison’s classic “Into the Mystic.” Even as “Free” is still making its way up the Hot 100 (where it entered the Top 40 a couple weeks ago), the album’s sixth single “Different Kind of Fine” – a light-hearted romp celebrating a fine specimen of true country womanhood – has just landed on the country charts. I double-dog dare you not to dig it.

Zac Brown Band “Different Kind of Fine”

With his full beard and trademark knit caps, Zac Brown is one of those guys that’s made country radio playlists safe for guys who don’t wear cowboy hats. North Carolina native singer-songwriter Eric Church is a baseball hat kinda guy with a great voice – a boyish, impish, and immediately lovable tenor that he uses to fine effect on songs about love and how nice it is to be naughty. But for its decidedly un-PC celebration of liquor and death sticks, Church’s latest single “Smoke a Little Smoke” barely even qualifies as country, sounding like cross between a Ry Cooder electric blues and a Collective Soul arena rock anthem circa 1993, with all the requisite post-grunge quiet-loud-quiet dynamics. Country as a genre has proven itself relatively slow to evolve. But with the ongoing popular success of Eric Church (and Zac Brown and Brad Paisley), the fish may, in fact, be growing a small set of legs.

Eric Church “Smoke a Little Smoke”