Country music is the most American of musical idioms, alongside jazz. With a longer history than rock and roll or hip-hop, country has produced a powerful pantheon of memorable artists, albums, and songs.
Growing up, I pretended not to like country music, even though it was the music I heard my dad listen to the most (while my mom turned me on to the incredible pop and rock of the ‘60s and ‘70s). Nowadays, I’ve shaken that youthful pretension and will admit to enjoying most types of country’s many subgenres.
I also have to admit that compiling a list of the best country songs of all time is a daunting task. Such a long list of classics makes it tough to narrow down what stands head and shoulders above everything else. But I’ve managed to come up with a list that captures the best that country music has to offer.
You’ll notice that modern country music doesn’t really make this list. That was a tough decision for me, partially because so much of what’s popular in country today pales in comparison to the classics. But I also wondered if even the best of modern country – the Zac Brown Bands and Chris Stapletons of the world – have endured long enough to warrant a spot on a list like this. We may think so later, but not yet. Here’s the list, and I hope you enjoy it.
12. “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in L.A.)” — Glen Campbell (1975)
I’m going to get what might be the most controversial choice on the list over with now. “Country Boy” isn’t a provocative entry on this list because of the artist, because Glen Campbell belongs on any list of the best in country music. In fact, nobody embodied that sweet spot between country and pop/adult contemporary in the ‘60s and ‘70s quite like he did.
“Country Boy” might be a strange choice because Campbell had so many great songs – “Galveston,” “Gentle on My Mind,” and of course “Rhinestone Cowboy” come to mind. I chose “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in L.A.)” because it embodies one of country music’s overriding themes: the choice between staying true to one’s country roots and giving in to the lure of modern urban life. Here, Campbell explores the tension of who he has always been versus the trappings of success, and the song sets the stage for so many other “fish out of water” songs that country music has to offer. Besides, it’s an irresistible tune!
11. “Ain’t That Lonely Yet” — Dwight Yoakam (1993)
Dwight Yoakam delivered an appealing injection of the Bakersfield sound, inspired by Buck Owens, into a stagnant country scene when he emerged in the mid-1980s. Nobody sounded like he did, and legions of fans took to the new old-fashioned style.
By his fifth album, This Time, Yoakam had perfected his sound even further. The single “Ain’t That Lonely Yet” is proof of what he was able to do at this point in his career. The song, from a point of view of a man who is determined not to fall into the trap of the woman who did him wrong, is a sophisticated “countrypolitan” track with clever lyrics and a lush sound. Of course, Yoakam’s vocal performance is spot on as well. “Ain’t That Lonely Yet” and the album it came from demonstrate one of country’s most unique artists at his best.
10. “King of the Road” — Roger Miller (1965)
Wanderlust is another common theme in country music. Listeners can find the whole “I can’t stay in one place too long” narrative littered throughout the country and southern rock genres. One of the best classic takes on this theme is Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.”
By 1965, Miller had begun to make a name for himself with his country songs infused with his unique sense of humor. He had plenty of crossover success on the pop and adult contemporary charts as well by the time he recorded “King of the Road.” He based the single on a hobo he had encountered, along with an ad he had seen for “trailers for sale or rent.”
The song’s protagonist revels in the freedom he has in his iterant life. He has no responsibilities or anchors, and he’s completely happy.
“King of the Road” gave Miller his second number one hit on the country charts. He also topped the adult contemporary charts and made the top five of the Hot 100. The song won him a whopping five Grammy awards and became his signature hit. He may not have been the first to create a song about a man with no roots, and he certainly wasn’t the last, but Roger Miller perfected the template.
9. “The Dance” — Garth Brooks (1990)
It’s tough to imagine a time when Garth Brooks wasn’t a superstar, but until he broke through at the end of the ‘80s, he was a struggling young performer. His self-titled debut album gave him four top ten hits – including two number ones – and that last single was Tony Arata’s “The Dance.”
Brooks admitted several years later that “The Dance” is his favorite of his songs, which is a good thing because it has become one of his signature tunes. The tender song that reflects either the end of a relationship or the end of an era, depending on your perspective, is made especially poignant by Arata’s powerful lyrics and a hauntingly beautiful melody. Brooks sings it perfectly, of course, so much so that it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing it justice.
“The Dance” is one of those songs that stops you in your tracks when you hear it, and it certainly helped launch Garth Brooks into the stratosphere of country artists.
8. “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)” — Waylon Jennings with Willie Nelson (1977)
By the ‘70s, the strain of the American dream had begun to show on the faces of plenty of families, and music began to reflect this trouble in society. Legendary producer Chips Moman had co-written the song “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)” about a couple who seeks a simpler life away from the rat race in a small town. It’s also a nice tribute to classic country music, referencing several artists and songs.
Moman offered the tune to Waylon Jennings, who didn’t really like the song but knew it would be a hit. He recorded it, and Willie Nelson came in to sing on the last verse. The rest is country music history.
Jennings knew the song would resonate with people because he believed that everybody wants to get away from stress sooner or later. The public loved the song, and it topped the country charts and even crossed over into the top 40 and adult contemporary charts. Jennings and Nelson collaborated even more after the song became a hit, and as so many of the artists of country music’s 20th century glory days are passing away, the song takes on greater poignancy.
7. “Stand By Your Man” — Tammy Wynette (1968)
A memorable vocal performance and heartfelt lyrics should’ve endeared “Stand By Your Man” to pretty much everybody, but naturally, the feminists didn’t take too kindly to it. Hillary Clinton even made fun of it in the early ‘90s. Here’s the thing: the feminists are wrong – it’s a great song.
When Wynette finished writing the song with her producer Billy Sherrill, she didn’t like it for herself because she didn’t like the high notes. But she cut it as a single, and it became her signature hit and even made the top 20 of the pop and adult contemporary charts.
On the surface, “Stand By Your Man” sounds like an odd sentiment to express in the politically charged late ‘60s, but Wynette wasn’t suggesting that women stay subservient to men. She told interviewers that the theme of the song was staying faithful to your man despite his faults. Take a look at the last line of the verse: “After all, he’s just a man.” That doesn’t sound submissive at all.
Knowing what we know now, how can you resist hearing Tammy Wynette sing her best known hit?
6. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” — George Jones (1980)
So much of country music deals with lost love, but none so much as the song that revived the career of George Jones and gave him his first chart-topper in six years.
Jones hated “He Stopped Loving Her Today” when his producer first sent it to him. He said it was morbid – and maybe it is – but two years of rewrites shaped the lyrics and turned it into a song Jones could record. When he did release it, it revitalized a career that had been in the doldrums thanks to alcohol and cocaine.
The story of a man who holds onto the hope that the woman he loves will come back to him until he dies resonated with country music fans. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” won Jones a Grammy and became one of his best-loved singles. The song became so synonymous with Jones that his family featured it at his own funeral. It’s easy to see why fans gravitate to such a sad song, even when they haven’t experienced that kind of heartbreak, because Jones sang it with so much power.
5. “Amarillo by Morning” — George Strait (1983)
For many years, country artists have mythologized the rodeo life. It’s easy to see why there’s a certain mystique around the lifestyle of the traveling competition cowboy, even though, like so many other lines of work, it’s far less glamorous than it seems.
George Strait covered the song a decade after it first became a minor hit, and he naturally made the tune his own. The simple paean to the life of the traveling rodeo star seemed tailor-made for Strait’s traditional country style. It’s hard to believe that “Amarillo by Morning” wasn’t a chart-topper for Strait in the States, although it did hit number three on the charts and went to number one in Canada.
Strait made “Amarillo by Morning” one of his signature songs, and it was one of the early hallmarks of his long career that has given him countless more hit songs. But few of them are as enduring as this one has been.
4. “Jolene” — Dolly Parton (1973)
It’s tough to pick one Dolly Parton song for this list – heck, I could do an entire list of Dolly Parton songs and have a hard time deciding. Songs like “I Will Always Love You” and “Here You Come Again” could easily stand on this list, but none of Parton’s music has the power that “Jolene” possesses.
Just one of many in Parton’s string of incredible hits, “Jolene” bridges the gap between modern country and Appalachian folk. The song tells a first-person story better than just about any tune out there – one in which the protagonist pleads with Jolene not to steal the boy she loves from her. It’s hard to imagine Parton having to compete with another woman in real life, but in the song, the listener can feel just how fearful Parton is of losing her love to such ravishing competition.
“Jolene” has become one of the most enduring songs of Dolly Parton’s career, and with all her other hits, that’s saying something. The fact that it has stood the test of time in so many ways proves that it belongs on this list, as well as plenty of other “best of” lists.
3. “Crazy” — Patsy Cline (1962)
Patsy Cline had already established herself as a country hitmaker – and even crossed over on the pop charts a couple of times – when she recorded Willie Nelson’s “Crazy.” It was the crowning achievement of a beautiful but short career.
Cline walked a tightrope between traditional country and the gorgeous pre-rock era female vocalists. Her phrasing suggested the sophisticated sounds of singers like Jo Stafford, while the production of her records remained rooted in the Nashville sound. “Crazy” was no exception.
Willie Nelson’s lyrics and melody are majestic enough on their own, but Cline interprets the song in a way that draws the listener into the anguish of love gone wrong. Legendary producer Owen Bradley arranged “Crazy” in such a way that it became the high point of the “countrypolitan” sound that bridged country’s twang with lush pop textures.
“Crazy” not only added another huge hit to Cline’s repertoire, but it also made Willie Nelson into a star – so we have plenty of reasons to be grateful for the song. Patsy Cline’s career was cut far too short by her death, but she left behind one of the finest moments in the history of country – and pop – music.
2. “Ring of Fire” — Johnny Cash (1963)
Few voices embody more what country music is all about than the rough, world-weary baritone of Johnny Cash. While he straddled the line between early rock and roll and country for years, his greatest contribution to music was to add a certain swagger and edge to country sounds.
In 1963, Cash took a song that June Carter (whom he would marry five years later) wrote for her sister Anita and made it his own. He dreamed of hearing “Ring of Fire” with “Mexican horns,” so he added a mariachi-style horn line to his signature musical style. While in Cash’s hands the song sounds like an expression of regret or helplessness that his love has trapped him, June Carter always meant for the tune to reflect the irresistibility of love.
While Anita Carter couldn’t get any traction with her version, Johnny Cash made “Ring of Fire” a bona fide hit and one of his signature songs. It’s a testimony to Cash’s enduring legacy that artists as diverse as Social Distortion, Frank Zappa, and Olivia Newton-John have covered the song, but nobody could do it justice quite like Cash did.
1. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” — Hank Williams (1949)
Country music often has a reputation for its sad subject matter. This stereotype is unfair, of course, and it’s often meant as a joke as much as anything else. But the all-time best country song proves that country music’s reputation has a grain of truth to it.
“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” earned its fame in a circuitous way. In 1949, it wasn’t even an A-side of a single, and upon a 1966 rerelease, Hank Williams’ original version was a mid-level hit at best. (In fact, the most successful version on the country charts was by NFL quarterback Terry Bradshaw, while B.J. Thomas made the top ten of the pop charts with his cover.) But the tune has rightly become a legendary moment in the history of country music.
The direct, unadorned lyrics tell the unvarnished truth about the singer’s loneliness, and when Williams wrapped his plaintive voice around the song, he set the standard for what country music would become in the second half of the 20th century and beyond. It’s the template for an untold number of heartbroken love songs in any genre.
That’s the list! What songs do you think belong on this list? Let us know in the comments below.