Culture

The 10 Best Country Crossover Hits of the '70s and '80s

Actress and Singer Dolly Parton performing with Kenny Rogers, Sept. 26, 1983 during rehearsal for lives NBC special. (AP Photo/Doug Pizac)

Believe it or not, there was a time when the phrase “pop country” didn’t invite scorn in the minds of country fans. In fact, country hits crossed over to the pop charts for years without watering themselves down.

Many of the original rock and roll artists had a background in country music, and a strain of sophisticated country nicknamed “countrypolitan” gave artists like Patsy Cline and Eddy Arnold big pop hits. Occasionally country stars crossed over in the late ’60s as well.

The biggest era of country-pop crossover happened in the ’70s and early ’80s. That’s when a country star could have a pop hit without remixing it or having a rapper guest star on it. Those years constituted the golden age of country crossover, and here are the ten best country hits that made a big impact on the pop charts.

10. “I Love a Rainy Night” (Eddie Rabbitt, 1981)

We tend to think of country music as the domain of the South and West, but one of the genre’s biggest stars in the late ’70s and early ’80s originally hailed from Brooklyn. Eddie Rabbitt learned about country music from his scoutmaster, and he made a career out of it.

Rabbitt had made a name for himself as a songwriter when Elvis Presley recorded his “Kentucky Rain” in 1969, and that break led to his success on the country charts as a performer. He had crossed over to the Hot 100 a handful of times when he came across an old tape he had recorded with lyrical fragments for what would become his biggest hit.

A bouncy, upbeat tune about rain doesn’t exactly sound like the formula for a big hit, but radio took to the song, and “I Love a Rainy Night” wound up topping both the country and pop charts. It’s easy to see why: the tune is catchy, and once you hear it, you can’t get it out of your head. Rabbitt had a few more pop hits, but his country career stretched into the ’90s.

9. “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” (B. J. Thomas, 1975)

B. J. Thomas made a name for himself at the dawn of the ’70s with hits like “Hooked on a Feeling” and the Oscar-winning “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” In 1975, Thomas moved to a new record label, and his first single came from his producer Chips Moman: “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.”

The tune was his breakthrough on country radio and his first bona fide pop hit in years. Listeners identified with the lyrics about a man who takes comfort in sad songs as he mourns the end of a relationship. Thomas sang the song as if he had lived it, and in a way, he had. His addictions had taken a toll on his life, and his wife left him.

Around the same time the song was burning up the charts, Thomas became a believer in Jesus, got clean, and reconciled with his wife. He recorded several albums in the fledgling contemporary Christian music industry (including the iconic “Home Where I Belong”) before going back to the country market in the ’80s.

A bit of trivia: “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” has the longest title of any number one hit in the history of the Hot 100, with the exception of the “Stars on 45” medley from 1981, which had to list the titles of all the songs in the medley at the insistence of publishers.

8. “Love in the First Degree” (Alabama, 1981)

Alabama is one of the biggest bands in all of country music history, with a career on the country charts spanning five decades and an astonishing 33 number ones. For a time in the early ’80s, they had some success on the Hot 100 as well. Their biggest hit, “Love in the First Degree,” made it to number 15 on the pop countdown.

“Love in the First Degree” walks that line between country, rock, and pop that so many bands from the South walked in the ’70s and ’80s. The band’s harmonies are top notch (as always), and the lyrical hook of “if love is a crime, I’m guilty” resonated with enough people for the song to take off on Top 40 radio. In fact, here in the South, the band was a fixture on pop radio throughout the first half of the ’80s.

Alabama’s Hot 100 success only lasted a couple of years, with the exception of their cover of NSYNC’s “God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You,” which dented the Top 40 in 1999. But their legacy as one of country’s most popular and critically acclaimed bands still rings true.

7. “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” (Freddy Fender, 1975)

The year 1975 was particularly big for country crossover hits, with six songs topping both the country charts and the Hot 100. The first one that year was Freddy Fender’s breakthrough hit, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.”

Baldemar Huerta was on the verge of hitting it big in the music industry in 1960 under the name Freddy Fender (taking the name from his amp) when he and a bandmate were arrested for possession of marijuana. After prison time, he worked as a mechanic and played music part-time until Louisiana producer Huey P. Meaux asked him to record the vocals for an instrumental version of “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” in a short session. Fender sang part of the song in English and part in Spanish, and Meaux loved it so much that he released it as a single.

Fender had his first big hit on both the country and pop charts, and it turned into a springboard for a rich career where he and Meaux crafted a unique sound that blended elements of the music of Texas, Mexico, and Louisiana.

“Before the Next Teardrop Falls” is a beautiful ballad that bridges the worlds of pop and country perfectly. In a way, it’s hard to fathom that other artists had released “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” before Fender recorded it, because it sounds tailor-made for his voice. It’s also funny that Fender didn’t care much for the song until it became a hit, because it turned into one of his signature tunes.

6. “The Most Beautiful Girl” (Charlie Rich, 1973)

Remember the episode of Seinfeld where George Costanza sings a lament over breaking up with Susan Ross? That’s a testimony to the lasting legacy of “The Most Beautiful Girl,” the biggest hit in the career of the late Charlie Rich.

Rich had a style that blended country, gospel, pop, and soul, and with a sound that was hard to pigeonhole, he bumped around the music industry throughout the ’60s and couldn’t get traction in any genre. In the ’70s, he found his niche in country music, curating a sophisticated country-pop sound that gave him some crossover success on the Hot 100 as well.

His best album, 1973’s Behind Closed Doors, gave him his greatest critical and chart success. The album’s second single, “The Most Beautiful Girl,” tells of a man’s search for the girl who broke his heart. Drenched in strings and piano, Rich sings as though he really experienced the heartbreak, even though he stayed faithfully married until his death.

“The Most Beautiful Girl” is a beautiful song of heartbreak and longing, and it topped the pop, country, and adult contemporary charts in the United States and Canada and was an international smash. Although he had other hits, Rich, unfortunately, couldn’t duplicate that level of success again.

5. “Lady” (Kenny Rogers, 1980)

Kenny Rogers has been around so long, both as a musical artist and as an actor, that it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t start out on the country charts. He’s been around the music industry since the late ’50s, but his first big hit came in 1968 with a group called First Edition: the psychedelic “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).”

By the turn of the ’80s, Rogers had established himself as one of the top country artists around. He’d also had plenty of pop success as well as beginning an acting career. But teaming up with Lionel Richie of the Commodores gave him his biggest success on the charts with “Lady.”

The dramatic ballad from the point of view of a man who has lost his love spent six weeks atop the Hot 100, topped the adult contemporary and country surveys, and even made the R&B chart (then known as the black singles chart).

“Lady” is a showcase for Rogers’ powerful vocals, and they proved that he was one of the strongest male singers of his generation. It’s hard to imagine anyone else doing this song justice, and it’s hard to picture Rogers’ career without this contribution from his friend Richie.

4. “Here You Come Again” (Dolly Parton, 1977)

By 1977, Dolly Parton had established herself as one of country music’s premier singer-songwriters and had even touched the pop charts a few times. But her first big pop hit turned out to be one she didn’t write herself.

Parton looked to the Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil tune and the album for which it was the title cut as her ticket to greater pop stardom. Her producer convinced her to add a steel guitar to her piano-driven song so that her country fans wouldn’t accuse her of selling out for pop success.

“Here You Come Again” has an irresistible melody and lyrics that most anyone can identify with – trying to get over someone you used to love. When Parton wraps her unique voice around the song, the effect is magic.

Parton’s strategy of conquering the pop charts with “Here You Come Again” worked. She hit number three on the Hot 100 while spending five weeks atop the country survey. The song paved the way for her two Hot 100 number ones “9 to 5” and “Islands in the Stream”

3. “Rhinestone Cowboy” (Glen Campbell, 1975)

The late Glen Campbell made a living as a journeyman musician for years before he hit it big as a solo artist, and he placed a few hits on the pop charts in the early ’70s while making a name for himself in the world of country music.

His big pop breakthrough came in 1975, when he recorded Larry Weiss’ “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Campbell couldn’t help but identify with the subject matter – a music industry veteran who believes he will make it big one day.

In Campbell’s hands, the song hit a sweet spot between pop and country, and it became a worldwide smash, selling a million copies in America alone in its initial chart run and going top ten in eight other nations. It was the second biggest pop hit of 1975 and one of six songs that topped both the country chart and the Hot 100.

It’s easy to see why the song was such a hit. Campbell’s performance shines, the song’s melody is memorable, and the story of the song reflects a unique can-do spirit. “Rhinestone Cowboy” still sounds amazing to this day.

2. “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” (Charlie Daniels Band, 1979)

The old folktale trope about the devil attempting to make a deal for someone’s soul took a musical turn at the end of the ’70s and gave a country fiddler his signature tune.

“The Devil Went Down to Georgia” began as a bluegrass instrumental called “Lonesome Fiddle Blues.” Charlie Daniels played guitar on the album that featured the song, and he and his band added lyrics to the tune and recorded it in late 1978. The track blends bluegrass, edgy rock, and spoken word at a raucous tempo to create a classic.

The lyrics draw on Southern folk tunes and old country standards, and the band’s virtuoso playing combined with Daniels’ rapid-fire vocals created a sensation. The song topped the country charts and made it to number three on Billboard’s Hot 100, and it hit the top 20 across Europe.

“The Devil Went Down to Georgia” is just fun, and of course the themes of defeating evil and the pride of the South help make the song a favorite for so many people nearly four decades later. Dozens of artists have covered it, including Primus and Zac Brown Band, who perform it at most of their shows.

1. “Islands in the Stream” (Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton, 1983)

Some matches wind up being more than the sum of their parts. Putting multimedia titans Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton together for a duet looked like a sure-fire way to strike gold. Add the songwriting and production prowess of the Bee Gees to the mix, and “Islands in the Stream” became an unstoppable phenomenon.

The Bee Gees had originally penned the song for Marvin Gaye, taking the title from an Ernest Hemingway novel of all places, but they changed it up a bit when Rogers agreed to work with them for his album Eyes That See in the Dark. RCA released the song at the end of the summer, and it topped the pop, country, and adult contemporary charts in October. But that wasn’t all: Rogers and Parton hit number one in Canada, Australia, and Austria, and made the top ten in nine other countries.

It’s easy to see why “Islands in the Stream” became such a massive hit. It’s a bouncy, melodic pop hit done by two killer vocalists who just happened to have already crossed over from country to pop multiple times before. Go ahead and sing along – you can’t get it out of your head, can you?

That’s the list! What songs do you think belong on this list? Let us know in the comments section below.