It's that time of the year again, when students don caps and gowns, emotional parents take a million pictures, and best friends hug each other tight. Graduation time is unlike any other; there's a sense of anticipation and hope for the future. Whether you're graduating from high school or college, the horizon seems to brim with possibilities (and a plethora of IKEA furniture).
Graduation marks the end of one era and the beginning of another; it represents accomplishment, hard work and decades of memories made -- with many more to be created in the future. And country music is full of inspirational songs that are just perfect for graduation ceremonies, the road trip to college and all of the other milestones that come around this time.
Fan-favorite songs by Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley, Garth Brooks and the Dixie Chicks, among others, are all on this list. Some of the songs commiserate with the parental journey of watching a child graduate, while others speak directly to the students. Several will have your eyes misting with tears, while a couple will have you laughing a time or two.
In 2011, Chris Lucas and Preston Brust of LoCash celebrated their first Top 40 hit with "Keep in Mind," a sonic reminder to cherish the loved ones in your life: "Keep in mind / The family and the friends who prayed / Who cried and watched you drive away / Askin' God to please keep you in mind," they sing. While it's a simple concept, it can be easy to forget when embarking on a new adventure post-graduation.
"When I first heard the song, my immediate reaction was, 'We gotta have it!'" Lucas tells Taste of Country. "We are very family oriented, and it spoke from our hearts about how we left home to pursue our dreams. We wanted to show a dedication to our parents. [Then when] my baby boy Caden John was born, the song took on a whole new meaning, as did my life. I could see myself singing this in the back of my mind at my son becoming a little man and how these are the words and lyrics I would want to say and sing to him."
Little-known fact: Chris Stapleton's wife, Morgane Stapleton, wrote "Don't Forget to Remember Me" with Ashley Gorley and Kelley Lovelace. Country superstar Underwood recorded it for her debut record, Some Hearts, and it became the album's fourth single. This song is especially relatable for high school graduates heading off to college, leaving their parents and family and hometowns, on their own for the first time.
"Eighteen years had come and gone / For mama, they flew by / But for me, they drug on and on / We were loading up that Chevy / Both tryin' not to cry" Underwood songs. In the song, her mother tells her, "Don't forget to remember me" -- and then, when she calls her mama on Sundays, she tells her, "Don't forget to remember me." At the end of the song, she kneels at her bed to pray and tells God: “Don’t forget to remember me.”
Several of these graduation-appropriate songs give specific reminders to slow down and savor every day, and Chesney's No. 1 hit "Don't Blink" is one of those that emphasizes that mindset. Even though he released it over a decade ago (September 2007), it still rings true today -- possibly even more so, as life gets more and more fast paced.
In "Don't Blink," Chesney sings about a 102-year-old man being interviewed on the news. When asked what the secret to life is, he responds with a laugh, "All I can say is don't blink." He details how so much of life -- from childhood through adulthood -- passes with the blink of an eye.
"Trust me friend, a hundred years goes faster than you think," Chesney sings. The chorus brings the listener through specific life events: "Don't blink / Just like that you're six years old and you take a nap and you / Wake up and you're twenty-five and your high school sweetheart becomes your wife / Don't blink / You just might miss your babies growing like mine did / Turning into moms and dads next thing you know / Your 'better half' / Of 50 years is there in bed / And you're praying God takes you instead." So, it's a little more sobering than some of the other tracks on this list, but it's also a great reminder to "Take every breathe God gives you for what it's worth."
"Wide Open Spaces" is a signature song for Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Robinson of the Dixie Chicks. Released in July of 1998 from the album of the same name, the single stayed at No. 1 for four weeks and won Single of the Year and Music Video of the Year at the CMA Awards.
"Wide Open Spaces" is a song filled with anticipation of what's to come: The future feels bright and possibilities seem endless. But it also touches on the bittersweet feelings parents have as their kids head out to face the world: "As her folks drive away, her dad yells, 'Check the oil' / Mom stares out the window and says, 'I'm leaving my girl' / She said it didn't seem like that long ago / When she stood there and let her own folks go."
Brooks' hit "The River" is epic in its own right: It hails from his record Ropin' the Wind and was his ninth No. 1 hit on Billboard's country charts. Brooks wrote it with country artist and songwriter Victoria Shaw, and in the liner notes says, "It is a song of inspiration ... a song that I will be proud of a hundred years from now ... And this is what happens when two dreamers get together and write from the heart."
The lyrics to "The River" are applicable to anyone pursuing their dreams, especially graduates. As they walk across the stage, they're headed toward their future -- and "The River" encourages listeners to never stop trying. Brooks sings in the second verse, "Too many times we stand aside / And let the waters slip away / 'Til what we put off 'til tomorrow / Has now become today / So don't you sit upon the shoreline / And say you're satisfied / Choose to chance the rapids / And dare to dance the tide ..."
Rascal Flatts' No. 1 hit "My Wish" was released in August of 2006, and by December, it was at No. 1 on the U.S. country charts. It also crossed over to the Billboard Hot 100 and peaked at No. 28.
You can envision emotional parents blasting this song in the car after dropping their son or daughter off at college, or hear it playing in the background as the graduation ceremony comes to an end. Its lyrics say what every Hallmark graduation card tries to say: "My wish, for you, is that this life becomes all that you want it to / Your dreams stay big, your worries stay small / You never need to carry more than you can hold / And while you're out there getting where you're getting to / I hope you know somebody loves you, and wants the same things too / Yeah, this, is my wish."
As the father and stepfather of several children, Cyrus can empathize with parents preparing to let their kids fly out of the nest. His song "Ready, Set, Don't Go," released in 2007, was the lead single from Home at Last and later re-recorded as a duet with his daughter Miley. Cyrus wrote the song when Miley moved to Los Angeles to pursue her acting career; he recalls, "As Miley was leaving with the family, I reached that pivotal crossroad every parent knows will come someday -- realizing my kid is growing up and I gotta let 'em leave the nest and fly."
The lyrics of "Ready, Set, Don't Go" cut straight to the chase: "She's at the starting line of the rest of her life / As ready as she's ever been / Got the hunger and the stars in her eyes / The prize is hers to win / She's waiting on my blessings before she hits that open road / Baby get ready / Get set / Don't go." Cyrus describes the heartbreak he covered up, singing, "I painted this big old smile on my face / To hide my broken heart." As parents watch their children walk across the stage in a cap and gown, it will feel bittersweet, just like this song.
Paisley calls his Grammy-winning hit "Letter to Me" the most important song of his career. It was released in 2007, from his fifth record 5th Gear, and became his sixth consecutive No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, spending four weeks in the top spot. The singer reveals, "That song was written 100 percent for myself; it was never intended to be a single. We cut it for all the right reasons, which basically were that we knew it needed to exist."
"Letter to Me" incorporates Paisley's humorous side with wisdom and straightforwardness that every graduate needs to hear. The lyrics are from an older man's point of view, and he's giving his younger self advice -- from lighthearted reminders ("At the stop sign at Tomlinson and 8th / Always stop completely; don't just tap your brakes.") to more serious encouragement: "You got so much up ahead / You'll make new friends / You should see your kids and wife / And I'd end by saying have no fear / These are nowhere near / The best years of your life." In other words, don't get too caught up in the drama of the moment; life keeps getting better.
Since 2000, Womack's "I Hope You Dance" has been on pretty much every single graduation playlist ever created. The song's lyrics reflect the sentiment beating behind the hearts of every graduate's parents, and it's the perfect song with which students can bid adieu to fellow graduates: "I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance / Never settle for the path of least resistance / Livin' might mean takin' chances, but they're worth takin' / Lovin' might be a mistake, but it's worth makin'."
"I Hope You Dance" won Womack the Grammy for Best Country Song. It hit No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Country Singles & Tracks and Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks charts, and it also reached No. 14 on Billboard's Hot 100.
The lyrics of "Humble and Kind" should be handed out to every single graduate on graduation day. McGraw gives a boatload of advice in the song, and the overall message is, of course, to "always stay humble and kind."
Lori McKenna wrote "Humble and Kind" as a message to her five children. She dropped them off at school one morning, and recalls, "I was thinking about what we want the kids to know, and honestly how they don’t always listen to the things we say. I just thought, 'I’m going to write it down.' Honestly, it’s a very simple song, and it’s really just this list of things that I wanted to make sure we told them, in this rhyme form."
It's very practical advice, and it's worded in a beautiful and poignant way. One of the verses says, "Don't expect a free ride from no one / Don't hold a grudge or a chip and here's why / Bitterness keeps you from flying / Always stay humble and kind," and the song finishes beautifully, with a parent telling their child, "Don't take for granted the love this life gives you / When you get where you're goin' / Don't forget turn back around / Help the next one in line / Always stay humble and kind."