Country music has some tell-tale characteristics: Lyrics that tell a story, guitar, steel guitar, fiddle, banjo and other things of the sort. Adding something to this list of typical country music identifiers is tough.
Drums weren’t allowed at the Grand Old Opry until 1967, long after they were pretty much a staple in most country songs of the 50’s and 60’s. Even today, critics are fast to point out when someone differs from the norm in instrumentation.
But I think there’s one instrument that should be more heavily featured in country music today: Piano.
Now, I know this isn’t ground breaking. We all know country songs that have a piano base, but I think we’re underestimating just how many great songs feature a strong piano base. Or, are just vocals and keys, and the power of this arrangement.
Ronnie Milsap has perhaps the largest catalog of piano based songs, like “Smokey Mountain Range,” “Stranger In My House” and “Any Day Now.” One of Garth’s biggest songs, “The Dance” and some of Brad Paisley’s biggest songs “Then” and “We Danced” all are rooted in the ivory.
One of the most underrated sad songs in country music, Casey Donahew’s “Drove Me To The Whiskey,” is just vocals and piano. Toby Keith’s incredible ballad collection features the piano heavily. Eric Church’s triple album Heart & Soul showcases a lot of work on the keys.
Luke Combs on “Better Together” and even Koe Wetzel and Parker McCollum got into the game with their song “Love” (And that chirpy piano is some of the best I’ve ever heard.)
Now, you might notice a trend in these songs. They’re on the emotional side for sure. None of them are really anything that you’d play at a party, save for the end of the night when you and your buddies put your arms around each other and really get into the feels.
But to that I say, yeah, absolutely true… and we need more emotion in country music. While we’re definitely seeing a resurgence of quality music, recent country has moved away from its history of songs that connect with you deeply and moved into background music for car rides.
The piano naturally has something hearty in it. Maybe it’s the range of notes, maybe the ambient nature of the sound, maybe it’s just how it is, but there’s no denying that piano music is made for active, not passive, listening.
The more country songs that tap into whatever it is that the piano brings, the better.
From Ingrid Andress‘ “More Hearts Than Mine” to Zach Brown Band’s “Colder Weather” to John Michael Montgomery‘s “I Swear”, country songs on the piano somehow connect deeper than others. I’m not saying you can’t play a song on guitar that brings people to their knees, Tyler Childers and Zach Bryan prove that constantly.
But on the aggregate, piano songs hit the heartstrings more than than the other types.
Country Music is making a resurgence in quality and emotional connection, but I believe adding more piano in will only improve the genre. I know I’ll be listening.