Not generally a fan of post-1990s country, I have to acknowledge that not all the more contemporary songs are bad and not all the old ones are good---in fact some classic country is maudlin and uninspired, and some of the more recent chart toppers are excellent even if not very country in many cases. The other problem with the newer country is that it is often politically correct and, worse, in the words of the Confederate Railroad song, “a little on the trashy side.”
Because there was a renaissance of sorts in the 1980s and 90s in country music, songs of this period have a nostalgic sound. I have included a few of them in the following list of what I consider the twenty best country songs of all time. The list is not based on Billboard ratings but purely on my own preferences. The songs are in no particular order.
Hello Walls, 1965, Faron Young. This one should be near the top of any list of the all-time greatest country songs. It tells the story of a man who has been abandoned by his “darlin’.” There is an ingeniously controlled quiver in Faron Young’s voice as he sings, “We must all stick together, or else I’ll lose my mind. It looks like she’ll be gone a long, long time.” It is obvious that he has already slipped the bonds of sanity as he is addressing, poor soul, the walls, the window and the ceiling.
Bubba Shot the Jukebox, 1992, Mark Chestnutt. This hilarious hit single pokes fun at social worker psychobabble. Chestnutt is also an extraordinary singer of “sad old country songs.”
If We Make It Through December, 1973, Merle Haggard. Haggard knew what it was like to be poor, to have a hard candy Christmas. New country singers couldn’t duplicate the pain in his voice.
A Place to Fall Apart, 1984, Merle Haggard with Janie Fricke. The harmony, soft instrumentation and the Spanish guitar style bridge in this song make it a country masterpiece. It’s a good one to listen to if you are feeling sorry for yourself.
Mind Your Own Business, 1949, Hank Williams. A song that is very relevant today.
Hey, Good Lookin’, 1951, Hank Williams. One of the songs I remember listening to in the fifties on a Bakelite radio in my mother’s kitchen, this is Hank at his best.
Stand by Your Man, 1968, Tammy Wynette. Tammy was a feminist’s worst nightmare.
Miller’s Cave, 1960, Hank Snow. Born in Nova Scotia, Snow was known as the Singing Ranger. His is a distinctive voice, nasal but deep and pleasant at the same time. You can clearly hear, however, the murderous rage in that pleasant voice as he sings about killing a woman who had unfaithful, “low down ways.”
Wanted: One Good Hearted Woman, 1990, Alan Jackson. This touching song is about forgiveness. Alan Jackson has one of the finest voices in country, a voice also made for singing gospel hymns.
The South’s Gonna Do It Again, 1974, Charlie Daniels. While most people, it seems, think “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” is Charlie Daniel’s greatest hit—and it is first rate—I consider this one his best. The fiddling and the piano playing are incomparable and so are the lyrics—“Elvin Bishop sitting on a bale of hay; he ain’t good looking but he sure can play.”
Jackson, 1967, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. “Yeah, go to Jackson, you big-talking man, and I’ll be waiting there in Jackson behind my Japan fan.” My favorite Johnny Cash song.
I’m a Honky Tonk Girl, 1960, Loretta Lynn. The earliest hit for Loretta—she was 28 at the time—Honky Tonk Girl calls to mind Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”
Amarillo by Morning, 1982, George Strait. “I ain’t got a dime but what I got is mine. I ain’t rich but Lord I’m free.” George Strait with few exceptions during his career remained true to the tradition of Music Row.
Coat of Many Colours, 1971, Dolly Parton. This beautiful tune was recorded when Dolly was still country, in the days before her “Islands in the Stream” and “Nine to Five” phase. Pop culture’s gain was country’s loss. My mother recalled how Dolly, pre-superstardom, and Porter Wagner used to appear at the fairgrounds in our county. They would do their show from a flatbed trailer and would sign autographs and chat with the fans after the show. Mama got to meet them.
I’d Be Better Off in a Pine Box, 1990, Doug Stone. One of the genre’s under-rated singers, Stone has a voice perfectly suited for singing old style country songs. This one’s theme is similar to that of “Miller’s Cave.”
Hello Darlin’, 1971, Conway Twitty. This soulful love song is a far cry from Twitty’s later hits which were, unfortunately, in my opinion, a little coarse.
You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma, 1980, Shelley West and David Frizzell. This duet is about a country girl who goes to Los Angeles but realizes it may be time to go back home. In many country songs, LA represents the cold, heartless city which proves to be no place for people rooted in the soil as Southerners are. Frizzell and West, with their old school harmonizing, personify real country music.
‘Til a Tear Becomes a Rose, 1990, Keith Whitely with Lorrie Morgan. Whitley, who tragically died of alcoholism at 33, was part of that revival of the classic sound in the 1980s and 90s. His voice was vintage country.
Pass Me by if You’re Only Passing Through, 1980, Janie Fricke. This song tells the story of a good-looking stranger who has the air of “the traveling kind,” and a girl who is determined not to be a “stepping stone among the other hearts that [he has] walked on.” The libertine and the trusting young girl is also a popular theme in country songs.
I Sang Dixie, 1988, Dwight Yoakam. No one but Yoakam could have done justice to this song. His is the perfect hillbilly voice. “Dixie” is about a man from the South who dies homeless on a “damned old LA street.” To really appreciate this song search YouTube for Yoakam’s live performance of it accompanied by Buck Owens on the guitar. If it makes you cry, then you are still true to your Southern heritage. “I sang Dixie as he died; people just walked on by as I cried; the bottle had robbed him of all his Rebel pride; so I sang Dixie as he died.”
Joyce Louise Bennett is the author of Maryland, My Maryland: The Cultural Cleansing of a Small Southern State and a contributor to the Abbeville Institute Blog. She lives with her family in St. Mary’s County, Maryland.