File this under sentences I never thought I'd write: In the 11 months that I’ve lived in Qatar, I’ve visited nearly 20 different cities in 10 different countries. Traveling has been the greatest privilege of living overseas, sweetened by the company of some of the most special people in my life.
I’ve done shamefully little writing in this time, and that will change. But immersing myself in other cultures has made me more curious, more inquisitive and more understanding, all qualities I hope will eventually shape me into a stronger writer. Like my favorite writing experiences, traveling prompts me to think deeply about what threads us as a human race, which in turn helps me better understand myself. It tests and strengthens and molds my convictions.
That may be why, living 8,000 miles from Texas, I feel more connected to country music than I have in years. Country songs have always felt intrinsic to me, like an extension of myself and my emotions. It's an inexplicable bond in some ways, but it also makes sense: Country music was built on shared stories of humanity.
Living overseas has made me more diligent in my hunt for quality country music and more appreciative of the artists who truly invest themselves in the creative process. And what a year it's been for the genre: Despite SaladGate and the frustrating decline of mainstream country music, old and new artists alike have released outstanding music that's sparked intelligent, critical discussion around the genre.
This is especially true of female country artists, the genre's underdogs who have steadily and thoughtfully released some of the best music of the year. Their visions vary, but they share a commitment to finding new and incisive ways of expressing themselves. It's these women who have reinvigorated my love for the genre and, better yet, reconnected me to a community of country music writers that I consider myself lucky to know.
So here's to the music, the travels and the gratitude for both that marked this year. As for those next 11 months? I'm still following my arrow.
1. Venice, Italy
The scene: A rare moment of serenity during Carnival of Venice, about six hours before chaos would spread through the city.
The song: Laura Bell Bundy, "Let's Pretend We're Married," off of her second album Another Piece of Me. The song isn't nearly as campy or over-the-top as her famed work, but it's just as unapologetic.
2. Krabi Province, Thailand
The scene: The prettiest rainstorm we never knew we needed, even if it cut short our time on this tiny, pristine island near the Phi Phi Islands.
The song: Lee Ann Womack, "Send it On Down," a haunting prayer for redemption from The Way I'm Livin', which ranked third on our Best Albums of 2014 list over at Country Universe. Womack was brave enough to release it as a single this year.
3. Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
The scene: A surreal end to a day of firsts: riding an ox cart, preparing lunch at a Thai farm and riding this guy through the jungle.
The song: Ashley Monroe, "On To Something Good," a frivolous song on her excellent album The Blade, but the most personal to me in a year that turned my life on its head when I needed it most.
4. London, England
The scene: London's version of a speakeasy, a discrete, cocktail-perfecting paradise in Shoreditch that was well worth the 45 minutes it took to find (because, that minuscule sign).
The song: Cam, "My Mistake," which finds her shrugging off the consequences of messy romantic decisions in the name of exhilaration. The clean pop-country production is stellar.
5. Boppard, Germany
The scene: A sparkling view of Rhine Valley during a hike from the quaint, white wine-infused town of Boppard.
The song: Maddie & Tae, "Downside of Growing Up," a fine representation of the duo's debut album, Start Here, which is quickly becoming one of my favorite albums of the year. Aside from their skillful jab at bro-country, the newcomers (one of whom hails from my hometown of Sugar Land) have a knack for lilting harmonies and youthful, age appropriate songs that are still insightful and universal.
6. Madrid, Spain
The scene: An iconic cocktail bar called Museo Chicote, frequented by Ernest Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War. Another patron: my man Frank Sinatra.
The song: Tami Neilson ft. Marlon Williams, "Lonely," a gorgeous doozy of a song that's best described by one of my Country Universe co-bloggers.
7. Barcelona, Spain
The scene: Lo de Flor, a small restaurant off the beaten path, owned by this fierce, fabulous and slightly terrifying woman. She dictated our orders and gave us the most authentic meal of the trip.
The song: Carrie Underwood, "Smoke Break," the debut single from her fifth album, Storyteller, out Oct. 23. If there's one word that defines Underwood's decade-long legacy, it's empathy, and with "Smoke Break" she finds a new and unexpected way to empathize with people who often get overlooked.
8. Manama, Bahrain
The scene: A guided tour of the majestic Al Fateh Grand Mosque, which gave me the cultural reflection time that everyday life in the Middle East doesn't always allow.
The song: Kacey Musgraves, "Dime Store Cowgirl," her autobiographical tune that's grown on me the longer I've been away from Texas. What felt simplistic at first now feels truthful and direct, as are most of the songs on her sharp sophomore album, Pageant Material.
9. Azeitão, Portugal
The scene: A storybook garden in the middle of José Maria da Fonseca Winery, visited during a cathartic road trip through Portugal.
The song: Sunny Sweeney ft. Will Hoge, "My Bed." Sweeney's voice often skews too nasal for me, but her tone works well here, underscoring the melancholy theme of a passionless marriage.
10. Lisbon, Portugal
The scene: A charming back street I stumbled onto after exploring the city for hours on foot. I was lost, as I usually am, but exquisitely so.
The song: Ashley Monroe, "The Blade," my favorite song of the year, which uses a devastating metaphor to depict the alternate sides of a break-up. Monroe sidesteps hyperbole and delivers an elegant and impassioned explanation of how some people simply hurt more than others.
*Post title inspired by the farewell "card" my Houston colleagues gave me nearly a year ago, a copy of the Dr. Seuss classic.