Home Music Music Lists

100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time

From “Blue Moon of Kentucky” to the Paisley croon of modern Nashville

100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time

Getty Images

What makes a great country song? It tells a story. It draws a line. It has a twang you can feel down to the soles of your feet. Some get mad, some get weepy, some just get you down the road. But these are 100 essential songs that map out the story of country music, from Hank Williams howling at the moon to George Jones pouring one out for all the desperate lovers to Taylor Swift singing the suburban cowgirl blues.

Listen to Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Country Songs

Play video
50

50. Steve Earle, ‘Guitar Town’ (1986)

Fueled by drugs, booze and a nasty divorce from his third wife, Steve Earle delivered this road anthem with a croon and a bark, snarling his way through lines about speed traps and truck stops with the authority of a rock & roll rebel who, at 31 years old, had already seen (and snorted) it all. Years of hard living eventually took their toll on Earle, who released three follow-ups to Guitar Town before spending the first half of the '90s in a heroin-addled haze. By the time he cleaned up his act in 1995, the alt-country movement was in full swing and Earle joined a new generation of musicians – many of whom had strummed along to a Guitar Town cassette – in the effort to tear down the boundaries between country and rock. By Andrew Leahey

Play video
49

49. The Louvin Brothers, ‘The Christian Life’ (1959)

A highlight of the Louvins' second gospel album, 1959's Satan Is Real, "The Christian Life" adds a homespun fire-and-brimstone attitude to the sort of Depression-era country harmonizing picked up from earlier sibling acts like the Delmore Brothers: "My buddies shun me since I turned to Jesus / But I still love them, they burden my heart," Charlie and Ira sing in close harmony over a waltz rhythm. Almost a decade later, the Byrds went on to cover "The Christian Life" on their 1968 country-rock masterpiece Sweetheart of the Rodeo, with Roger McGuinn's voice dubbed over Gram Parsons' original lead vocal. By Richard Gehr

Play video
48

48. Willie Nelson, ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain’ (1975)

Fred Rose wrote it in the Forties, and everyone from Roy Acuff to Hank Williams took a shot at it, but the true purpose of "Blues Eyes Crying in the Rain" was to finally launch a long-striving, industry-beleaguered, 42-year-old Willie Nelson into orbit as the stark, startling centerpiece of his 1975 smash Red Headed Stranger. Michael Streissguth's 2013 study Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville has a great scene where skittish label suits, fearful that the album "sounds like it was recorded in Willie's kitchen," frantically arrange a press listening session at Nashville hot spot the Exit/In, and then marvels as "Blue Eyes" triggers a standing ovation. "Nobody was more shocked than we were," then-CBS Records President Rick Blackburn once conceded. "It didn't have… the bells and whistles. It wasn't the way you went about making a record in Nashville in those days." Result: His first country Number One. By Rob Harvilla

Play video
47

47. Bobbie Gentry, ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ (1967)

Innuendo has always played a role in folk and country music. But few songs piqued the pop crossover crowd's curiosity more than Mississippi-born, Los Angeles-schooled Bobbie Gentry's 1967 debut, in which an adolescent narrator and her family sit around the dinner table passing biscuits and gossiping about Billie Joe McAllister's descent from the Tallahatchie Bridge. McAllister threw something else off it a day earlier and Gentry never reveals what it was. "The song is sort of a study in unconscious cruelty," she once said of the family's nonchalant attitude to the suicide. Released as the B-side to "Mississippi Delta," "Ode" is a sultry country blues that drifts downstream on Gentry's ominous acoustic guitar. Arranger Jimmie Haskell added dramatic strings, and three minutes were edited from her seven-minute original. Saxophonist Lou Donaldson's funky 1967 instrumental version was sampled on dozens of hip-hop songs. By Richard Gehr

Play video
46

46. Roy Acuff, ‘Wabash Cannonball’ (1936)

Complete with choo-choo sound effects and the harmonica solo of some long-imagined cowboy, Acuff's version of "Wabash Cannonball" was an early instance of country culture rising to meet the needs of city entertainment – the band even changed their name to the Smoky Mountain Boys once they made the Grand Ole Opry, presumably to retain that rural flavor. No surprise that he soon got into publishing and later ran for office – his moves always did seem a little strategic. But these are milestones, too; moments of friction in the development of a style as it took shape within the listening public at large. By Mike Powell

Play video
45

45. Lefty Frizzell, ‘Long Black Veil’ (1959)

This 1959 saga of sacrifice is arguably the most persuasive primer on the pitfalls of infidelity. The hero of Frizell's saga was wrongly executed for murder; he declined to give an alibi because was spending time "in the arms" of his best friend's wife, a lethal indiscretion he takes to the grave. Since covered by Joan Baez, the Band, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen and plenty of others, "The Long Black Veil" has become a country-folk standard, a grim, haunting evocation of forbidden love and all its consequences. By Amanda Petrusich

Play video
44

44. George Jones, ‘The Grand Tour’ (1974)

In "The Grand Tour," the Possum sings the part of a deserted husband and father leading a stranger through a memory-filled house that is no longer a home. The genius lies in the way Jones's voice evokes that ghostly feeling amid the lush excess of producer Billy Sherrill's strings, guitars and chorus. Written by Norro Wilson, Carmol Taylor and George Richey, "The Grand Tour" is the lead and title track of Jones's masterful 1974 album. Although Jones was an admitted heavy drinker when he recorded it, "The Grand Tour" contains no clue to its protagonist's crime. Instead, there's only Jones's impossibly detailed, syllable-by-heartbreaking-syllable performance of a shell of a man condemned to life in a haunted abode that is full of stuff but devoid of love. By Richard Gehr

Play video
43

43. Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, ‘Act Naturally’ (1963)

According to Owens' autobiography, Buck 'Em!, songwriter Johnny Russell stumbled into "Act Naturally" when a last minute Los Angeles recording session forced him to break a date with his Fresno girlfriend. When she asked what he would be doing, Russell gave her the line that would eventually open the song: "They're gonna put me in the movies, and they're gonna make a big star out of me." Two years and several rejections later, Owens heard Russell's demo and decided to record "Act Naturally" as part of the first sessions that brought his full road band, the Buckaroos, into the studio. Here, the group sounded tight and alive, the promise of that first line making the second – "We'll make a film about a man that's sad and lonely, and all I gotta do is act naturally" – all the more cutting. A Beatles cover helped a younger generation discover his music but Owens recalls a flight during which his neighbor explained to him how she loved the Beatles but hated country music. "As hard as I tried," he said, "I couldn't convince her that 'Act Naturally' was a country song." By Nick Murray

Play video
42

42. Loretta Lynn, ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ (1970)

This autobiographical reminiscence was a gear-shift for Lynn, who'd made her name by feistily fending off hordes of honky-tonk homewreckers out to bed her man. The song originally rambled for six minutes and eight verses before producer Owen Bradley got out his red pen, excising a scene of Lynn's mother hanging movie magazines on their cabin wall as well as other homey details. It's country music's definitive started-from-the-bottom anthem, climaxing with one of popular music's most stirring key changes. Though Lynn is proud of her family's hardworking decency, she never pretends that her life would've been better if she'd never left Butcher Holler and poverty behind. By Keith Harris

Play video
41

41. Townes Van Zandt, ‘Pancho and Lefty’ (1972)

Leave it to the poet laureate of Texas country to not only tell a story of betrayal, but to make the turncoat a sympathetic character. "Pancho and Lefty" is The Great Gatsby of country songs, conveying more about friendship, duplicity and guilt than most novels. In the song, the bandit Pancho Villa has been dispatched by the hangman's rope, but at least his suffering is over. His sidekick Lefty, who set him up, has to die a thousand deaths, trying to live with what he's done while hiding out in cheap hotels up north. Or as Van Zandt puts it, "The dust that Pancho bit down south/Ended up in Lefty's mouth." Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard's cover ended up topping the country charts in 1983. By David Menconi

Play video
40

40. Gram Parsons, ‘$1000 Wedding’ (1974)

Devotees have been puzzling over the meaning of this enigmatic masterpiece for 40 years, but it has yet to yield up a definitive interpretation. Parsons' protagonist is a none-too-bright bridegroom at a low-rent (possibly shotgun) wedding, where he is stood up for reasons unknown. Maybe the bride died, maybe she ran off with someone else – it's never specified. So he and his groomsmen go on a drunken bender so epic, "It's lucky they survived." Wedding seems to morphs into funeral, leading to the saddest closing line in all of country music: "It's been a bad, bad day." For all that the words leave unspoken, there's no mistaking Parsons' tone of stoic, bemused resignation. Duet partner Emmylou Harris blesses the proceedings with the perfect note of angelic sadness. By David Menconi

Play video
39

39. Kacey Musgraves, ‘Follow Your Arrow’ (2013)

"Even if [people] don't agree with the girls-kissing-girls thing or even the drug reference," Musgraves said about her breakthrough song, "I would hope that they would agree that no matter what, we all should be able to love who we want to love and live how we want to live." The heart of her drama lies in waiting for the establishment to catch up. Censored at the Country Music Association Awards and lionized by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, 25-year-old Kacey Musgraves has become one of the loudest symbols of young country musicians embracing progressive values. But like most of her debut Same Trailer, Different Park, "Follow Your Arrow" isn't an attack on conservatism so much as an attack on any system that keeps us from being who we are, gay or straight, sober or stoned. By Mike Powell

Play video
38

38. Patsy Montana, ‘I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart’ (1935)

The first million-seller by a female country artist, this yodeling paean to the Wild West mythos made an icon of Arkansas-born singer-songwriter-actress-fiddler (and Jimmie Rodgers fan) Ruby Blevins, a.k.a. Patsy Montana. After stints in Los Angeles and New York working in radio, TV and film, Montana joined the Kentucky string band the Prairie Ramblers and adapted the early Western standard "Texas Plains" as "Montana Plains" and then as "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart," establishing her gun-totin' cowgirl image (she later sang of being a "man-hatin' lassie" on "The She-Buckaroo"). "Cowboy's Sweetheart" has been covered consistently from Patti Page to the Dixie Chicks, even showing up on The Voice as the audition song for Gracia Harrison. By Charles Aaron

Play video
37

37. George Jones and Tammy Wynette, ‘Golden Ring’ (1976)

Here's why this is country's finest duet of all time: Country's Greatest Singer and Most Feckless Drunk vs. Country's Greatest Actor and Crankiest Pill-popper. Prediction: Heartbreak wins again, in the most bluntly theatrical way possible. The couple's screwy marriage on the outs, they sound like they're about to wrap their hands around each other's throats. Inspired by a made-for-TV movie about a handgun's history – going from cop to murderer to little kid – genius co-writer Bobby Braddock subs a wedding ring for the gun. But the narrative is no less gritty, working you over like a Cassavettes flick, moving from the mundane (the intro's inexplicably frisky guitar) to the devastating (in the song's crowning scene, Wynette voices the man's palpable hurt, while Jones intones grimly, "She says one thing's for certain, I don't love you anymore"). The ring ends up back in the Chicago pawn shop from whence it came. Our protagonists, meanwhile, remain a dizzy gospel-invoking mess. By Charles Aaron

Play video
36

36. Hank Williams, ‘Lost Highway’ (1949)

The song that possibly best articulates the doomed country mythos that Hank Williams' life and death epitomize wasn't written by Hank himself. The blind country singer-songwriter Leon Payne wrote and recorded "Lost Highway" just a year before. Payne wasn't just waxing spiritually metaphorical: He was indeed lost along the highway, struggling unsuccessfully to hitchhike from California to Texas to visit his ailing mother, forced instead to seek food and shelter in a Salvation Army. By Keith Harris

Play video
35

35. The Everly Brothers, ‘Bye Bye Love’ (1957)

Recorded with an all-star band that included Elvis' piano player, the Opry's house drummer and guitarist Chet Atkins, "Bye Bye Love" catapulted the Everly Brothers into the stratosphere, becoming a Top Five hit on the country, pop and R&B charts in 1957. Apart from the song's introductory guitar riff, which Don Everly lifted from an earlier tune called "Give Me a Future," the brothers didn't write "Bye Bye Love." They did give the song its identity, though, beefing up a relatively standard chord progression with equal doses of Tennessee twang and their iconic harmonies. By Andrew Leahey

Play video
34

34. The Carter Family, ‘Wildwood Flower’ (1928)

Originally an 1860 parlor song titled "I'll Twine 'Mid the Ringlets" (a raven-tressed maiden's plucky response to being unceremoniously abandoned), "Wildwood Flower" was revived by Virginia "song catcher" A. P. Carter. He arranged it for his family trio including singer-autoharpist wife Sara and her lead-guitarist cousin Maybelle, who turned 19 the day the group recorded the song outside Philadelphia. Its opening lyrics were mondegreened, pursuant to the mishaps of oral tradition. "I'll twine mid the ringlets of my raven black hair" became "Oh, I'll twine with my mane, golden weeping black hair," and would continue to alter as numerous others recorded it – including Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris and Reese Witherspoon. No version, however, is quite so outlandish as country comedian Dan Bowman's hallucinogenic 1964 variation, "Wildwood Weed." By Richard Gehr

Play video
33

33. Porter Wagoner, ‘A Satisfied Mind’ (1955)

"One day my father-in-law asked me who I thought the richest man in the world was, and I mentioned some names," says co-writer Red Hayes. "He said, 'You're wrong, it is the man with a satisfied mind.'" Porter Wagoner's demo of this pious lament, first recorded at a Missouri radio station in 1954, would end up becoming the version that would hit Number One on the country charts the following year. In the ensuing decades, the most famous song by the man once known as Mr. Grand Ole Opry would go on to become an unlikely standard amongst a slew of rootsy country-rock revivalists: the Byrds, Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons, David Allan Coe, Lucinda Williams and Jeff Buckley have all taken their turn at the song. By Jonathan Bernstein

Play video
32

32. Mississippi Sheiks, ‘Sitting on Top of the World’ (1930)

Not so much straight "country" as the blues seasoned with rural fiddle, "World" percolated through the western swing circuit as covered by Bob Wills and Milton Brown; became Fifties blues in the hands of Howlin' Wolf; and then Sixties rock via the Grateful Dead and Cream – a history that, if nothing else, cements the song as a kind of Rorschach test that ultimately filtered back to Chet Atkins, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Willie Nelson. More recently, the Mississippi Sheiks became a cause for Jack White, who is reissuing their entire catalog through his Document label – presumably lured by that "real-thing" feel in their gritty but obscure sound. By Mike Powell

Play video
31

31. Hank Williams, ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ (1953)

Did Hank Williams write perhaps his greatest "heart" song to spite his first wife, while joyriding in a convertible and eating ice cream with his second wife? Wife No. 2 says so, but she probably would. At any rate, Williams was in full flail at the time, caught in a matrix of loves: Audrey (ex-wife-manager, mother of his son); Bobbie (pregnant girlfriend contractually promised child support); Billie Jean (19-year-old new wife). It's not hard to imagine that the owner of the cheatin' heart was the guilt-wracked singer himself. While Don Helms' mournful pedal steel pierces the air, Williams sorrowfully laments a cheater's fate. Completed in a single take during his last recording session, it was released posthumously and went straight to Number One. By Charles Aaron

Play video
30

30. Faron Young, ‘Hello Walls’ (1961)

Lore has it that "Hello Walls" songwriter Willie Nelson once met up with Lefty Frizzell for a collaborative session, but when Frizzell took a break and left the garage where they were sitting, Nelson got the idea for his first major hit. When voiced by friend Faron Young, a.k.a. the "Hillbilly Heartthrob," the song took on a particular elegance, going to Number One on the country chart, and even becoming a Number 12 pop hit. In the storied country-song tradition, "Hello Walls" possesses a wit that makes you wince: Like a character in a one-act play, the heartbroken singer literally speaks to the walls, window and ceiling of an empty room, asking pitifully, "I bet you dread to spend another lonely night with me." By Charles Aaron

Play video
29

29. Jimmie Rodgers, ‘Blue Yodel No. 1 (T For Texas)’ (1928)

A phenomenon that created country music's very first superstar, the first of 13 yodeling records by "the Singing Brakeman" Jimmie Rodgers began three months after a middling session in Bristol, Tennessee with a traveling record exec named Ralph Peer – the sessions, in a former hat factory, also captured the Carter Family for the first time. Jimmie Rodgers tracked Peer to New York and he soon ended up in Camden, New Jersey, where he recorded the song that defined his legacy. What was it about Rodgers' yodel? Slippery but controlled, despairing but casual, refined but so strange it seemed to have been beamed him from some distant star – it was the sound of pain made charming, even sweet. If he was really planning to buy a pistol and shoot poor Thelma "just to see her jump and fall," he would probably need to pick up the pace. By Mike Powell

Play video
28

28. Hank Williams, ‘I Saw The Light’ (1948)

Hank Williams was better known for seeking earthly pleasures in Saturday night honky-tonks than for belting out promises of salvation on Sunday morning. But this gospel redemption number was his longtime show-closer, an upright happy ending to the pageant of sin and sorrow that preceded it. Fans so strongly identified Williams with the song that when a 1953 Canton, Ohio crowd waiting for the star's long overdue arrival disbelieved the announcement of his death, "I Saw the Light" was what Hawkshaw Hawkins sang in tribute to convince them that the sad news was indeed true. By Keith Harris

Play video
27

27. Johnny Cash, ‘Ring of Fire’ (1963)

Country music rebel Johnny Cash was at his best when taking extreme measures: all-black clothing, performing for felons, and singing about unbridled love with flames to illustrate his point. Written by songwriter Merle Kilgore and June Carter (or Cash himself, according to less savory accounts about the lyrics’ meaning) the song was originally recorded as an acoustic folk tune called “(Love’s) Ring of Fire” by June’s sister, Anita Carter. When it didn’t net her a hit, Cash retooled the arrangement with mariachi horns, electric guitar and his barreling voice – backed by Mother Maybelle and the Carter sisters. After its 1963 release, the Number One reign of “Fire” on the country charts lasted seven weeks. Kilgore, who later managed Hank Williams Jr., tried to place “Ring of Fire” in a Preparation H ad in 2004, but Cash’s surviving family wisely nixed the idea. The song lives on more reverently in the hands of rock bands like Eric Burdon & the Animals (who scored a Top 40 single in 1969) and SoCal rockabilly punks Social Distortion. By Reed Fischer

Play video
26

26. Dixie Chicks, ‘Goodbye Earl’ (1999)

This domestic abuse revenge tale caused minor controversy when it was released, but songwriter Dennis Linde shrugged it off: "I thought I was writing a black comedy like Arsenic and Old Lace or The Trouble With Harry," he told the Los Angeles Times. Long story short: He gives her a black eye, she poisons his black-eyed peas – but it's ultimately a love song since she reunites with her high school BFF by song's end. Dixie Chick Emily Robinson undercut the brouhaha with a little sarcasm, telling the media, "We’re not promoting murder, and we even say that in a disclaimer on our album. Besides, is there a gentler way to go than with black-eyed peas?" By Nick Murray

Play video
25

25. Johnny Paycheck, ‘Take This Job and Shove It’ (1977)

In the whole of recorded music, there's no more pithy a summation of the psychic turmoil of long-term employment than "Take This Job and Shove It," Johnny Paycheck's 1977 declaration of autonomy. Although the two-and-a-half-minute track was written by David Allen Coe, Paycheck was destined (by both name and temperament) to animate it, and there's something about the way he hollers "Shove it!" – you can hear his creeping smirk; you can feel his slowly burgeoning elation – that makes this jam the perfect coda to whatever shift you've been stuck on for a day too long. Paycheck knows: Sometimes it's worth a couple months of peanut butter sandwiches to hurl your metaphorical apron across the room and dance out the door. Later, his job as a country singer was effectively shoved by a prison sentence for shooting a man. By Amanda Petrusich

Play video
24

24. Taylor Swift, ‘Mean’ (2010)

On the frolicking "Mean," Taylor Swift sounds like she has queen bees, bullies, I'ma-let-you-finishers and corrosively cruel music critics in her banjo machine-gun's sights. From 2010's Speak Now, the song was an eventual Number Two country hit – and Number 11 on the Hot 100 – partly because it captures the sting of "words like knives." It's real power lies in giving enough ammo to empower victims of bullying even worse than those Swift suffered (i.e., getting mixed reviews for a Grammys duet with Stevie Nicks). This is 19-year-old Swift balancing her sound to pull in country fans while also opening the palace gates for the still-greater pop stardom to come. By Reed Fischer

Play video
23

23. Lefty Frizzell, ‘If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time’ (1950)

Arkansas-bred Frizzell had a gentle drawl that made even his rowdiest songs go down sweet. His debut single – covered by George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Willie Nelson – taught an entire generation of country vocalists how to sing. The honky-tonker was immediate hit, selling a whopping 500,000 copies in two months. Frizzell was barely 22 when he co-wrote the song with A&R man Jim Beck, who first discovered the young Arkansas singer in Texas. Lefty came up with the idea for the lyrics when one of his friends tried to convince Frizzell to go out with him one night. "He said, 'Lefty, do you want to go?' And I said, 'Well if you got the money, I got the time,'" says Frizzell. "It dawned on me this would be a beautiful idea for a song." By Jonathan Bernstein

Play video
22

22. Ernest Tubb, ‘Walking the Floor Over You’ (1941)

Tubb started his career as a Jimmie Rodgers mimic but lost his yodel in 1939 when a doctor took out his tonsils. He soldiered on and became one of pop's first great terrible singers, with a voice so wooden that even he made fun of it. But like basically every successful youth-oriented musician of the last century, he had the keen idea to quicken the pace and firm up the beat, making the song as much about the accompaniment as the lead. "Walking" was an early instance of country music's fascination with the electric guitar, a rude instrument used in places of questionable morality. If anything, Tubb's voice only helped foster the idea that he was authentic – a regular dude who made good on his shortcomings and sold millions. By Mike Powell

Play video
21

21. The Carter Family, ‘Can the Circle Be Unbroken’ (1935)

A.P. Carter, patriarch of country music's First Family, took a rather severe Christian hymn dating back at least to 1907 (when the sheet music for "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" was first published), altered the title slightly, changed the lyrics substantially, and produced a stirring, stoic, nondenominational expression of collective sorrow in the face of death on a 78 rpm disc. It would become a harmony-powered, genre-transcending standard, at funerals and elsewhere, in gospel, folk, country and country-rock. Notable in the latter is the pioneering version by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on their all-star 1972 triple LP Will The Circle Be Unbroken, featuring vocals by "Mother" Maybelle Carter herself. By Will Hermes

Play video
20

20. Kenny Rogers, ‘The Gambler’ (1978)

"I thought that one was a home run the minute I heard it," Kenny Rogers has said of the most famous story-song in country history. Don Schlitz wrote most of the gambling allegory in 1976 while walking home from a meeting on Music Row, but it took the songwriter six weeks to come up with the inconclusive final verse. Producer Larry Butler gave the song to both Johnny Cash and Kenny Rogers to record, but he placed his faith in Rogers. "I got a funny feeling," Butler told the singer, "that if you do this, you will become the Gambler." Butler's prophecy proved true, as the classic country narrative quickly became Rogers' signature tune, earning him a Number One spot on the country charts, a Grammy and a series of television movies, starring Rogers as the Gambler. By Jonathan Bernstein

Play video
19

19. Loretta Lynn, ‘Don’t Come Home A’ Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)’ (1966)

"We didn't have much money for entertainment," Loretta Lynn wrote in her 1976 autobiography Coal Miner's Daughter. "I never went out much because we couldn't afford a babysitter. Besides, Doo [Oliver Vanetta Lynn, her husband of nearly 50 years] liked to go out with the boys and have a few beers." Cue this prickly 1966 smash, her first Number One, co-written with sister Peggy Sue ("My bank account loves that song as much as I do"), a spritely rejection of whiskey-dick'd marital overtures. It touched off a feud via Jay Lee Webb's cold-blooded 1967 answer record "I Come Home A Drinkin' (To a Worn-Out Wife Like You)," but the best cover version is a 2010 rave-up from Gretchen Wilson. By Rob Harvilla

Play video
18

18. George Strait, ‘All My Ex’s Live in Texas’ (1987)

George Strait stands tall as the most influential country star of recent decades – a dashing but down-to-earth Texan stud in a white hat, keeping the old-school verities alive without getting lost in show-biz glitz or folkie purity. His white hat was such a signature that Strait could fire up insane amounts of fan controversy any time he put on a black one. Over his amazingly long-lived career (he's currently on his farewell tour), he's avoided pop crossover like the plague, yet this 1987 smash (written by Sanger D. Schafer – with his fourth wife) became his most famous song. Strait laments that all his exes live in Texas – with the punch line, "That's why I hang my hat in Tennessee." By Rob Sheffield

Play video
17

17. Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, ‘New San Antonio Rose’ (1940)

The western swing pioneer wrote "Spanish Two-Step" in his early days of entertaining Mexican audiences, created the original "San Antonio Rose" at a 1938 session by playing the its bridge backwards, and added new lyrics two years later to score his first national hit. Uptight traditionalists have criticized innovative country stars for deviating from some imaginary idea of "real country" for just about as long as there have been country stars to criticize, and Wills was no exception, outraging the cranks when he played his signature tune at the Opry with drums and horns. By Keith Harris

Play video
16

16. Glen Campbell, ‘Witchita Lineman’ (1968)

The romantic story about "Wichita Lineman" is that Jimmy Webb wrote it after seeing a lonely guy working at the top of a telephone pole while driving through the voids of rural Oklahoma. The truth is that Webb's last song for Glen Campbell, "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," had been a hit, and Capitol Records had called to demand more. "I really sat down to write something that would please them mostly," Webb confessed to the Dallas Observer in 2006. The sound – a haze of soapy violins and expensive chord changes – had more to do with the onset of soft rock than the rudiments of country, but the subject matter was a new spin on an old story. Country calls it individualism; Webb called it loneliness. By Mike Powell

Play video
15

15. Kitty Wells, ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’ (1952)

There's a great history in American music of answer songs that trump their targets – "This Land Is Your Land," "Roll with Me, Henry," "Sweet Home Alabama," "Roxanne's Revenge" – and this includes Kitty Wells' riposte to Hank Thompson's 1952 hit "The Wild Side of Life." The original condemned an ex-fiancée (whom the singer appears to have stalked) as a common floozy. Wells' revved-up reply (via songwriter Jay Miller, with husband Johnnie Wright on bass!) indicted unfaithful men for making their own empty beds, and scored the first Number One country hit for a solo female artist, inspiring generations to resist submissive stereotypes. As testament to Wells' groundbreaking courage in recording the song, NBC Radio banned it and the Grand Ole Opry forbade her from performing the song on its hallowed stage. By Charles Aaron

Play video
14

14. Hank Williams, ‘Settin’ the Woods on Fire’ (1952)

While Hank Williams' down-and-out singles tend to get more attention (see "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "Your Cheatin' Heart"), the giddy songs from Williams' up-cycle swings were phenomenal too. That goes for this fight-for-your-right-to-party invitation to date night, a weekend call to arms for the honky-tonk set that perfectly predates modern country bonfires-and-booze songs by Florida Georgia Line and Brantley Gilbert. "Settin' the Woods on Fire" is Williams at his goofiest, rhyming "silly" with "dilly" and "chili" while working "a little time to fix a flat or two" into the evening's itinerary. By David Menconi

Play video
13

13. Bill Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys, ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ (1947)

As the master builder of bluegrass, Bill Monroe took the fiddle music he learned on the Kentucky farm of his childhood, tricked it out with blues, gospel and swing, then stepped on the gas with his meticulously on-point band the Bluegrass Boys (led by Earl Scruggs). But his signature tune was timeless, beyond genre, a waltz featuring Monroe on mandolin and falsetto testifying, speaking straight to country folk about a blue moon guiding him back home, not bestowing bad luck. As Monroe told NPR in 1983: "It's got Baptists and Holiness and Methodists singing in it and Scotch bagpipe and the old Southern blues… It really touches your heart, and it's a good, clean music." Ironic, then, that Elvis Presley's jacked-up 4/4 version seven years later jet-propelled his taboo-busting career, and by extension, rock & roll itself. By Charles Aaron

Play video
12

12. Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, ‘I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail’ (1964)

This hilarious tune about a hard-partying woman is powered by a wiry guitar style that influenced the Beatles and the Byrds. An essential example of the spunky Bakersfield sound that toughened up Sixties country. The idea for the single came to the singer during a drive with legendary songwriting partner Harlan Howard. Upon noticing a sign with the Esso gas slogan "Put a Tiger In Your Tank," Owens said to Howard, "How about 'Tiger by the Tail' for a title?" Howard jotted down some lyrics in the backseat, Owens improvised a melody on the spot, and the song was complete before the trip was over. Howard, who considered "Tiger" a novelty tune, was skeptical of the song's potential, but "Tiger" proved to be Owens' biggest hit to date, quickly reaching Number One on the country charts and eventually providing the Nashville establishment outsider with the first (and highest charting) crossover pop single of his career. By Jonathan Bernstein

Play video
11

11. Stanley Brothers, ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ (1951)

With likely origins as a 19th-century Baptist hymn, "Man of Constant Sorrow" was revived by the Stanley Brothers in 1951; covered by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Judy Collins in quick succession a decade later; and launched a full-on Americana revival with its prominent placement in the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? in 2000. Its ambiguous provenance can be attributed to blind Kentucky fiddler Dick Burnett, who published it in 1913 as "Farewell Song" and, when asked its origin, replied, "I think I got the ballad from somebody… I dunno. It may be my song." Ralph Stanley heard his daddy sing a version, which he and brother Carter added words to and transformed into a high, lonesome landmark of post-breakup misery and transient unease. By Richard Gehr

Play video
10

10. Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, ‘Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys’ (1978)

The best buddy team in country history took the cowboy song tradition of Roy Rogers into the Seventies, with a front-porch charisma that any doctor or lawyer would be lucky to have. Songwriter Ed Bruce's version of this cautionary tale, released in late 1975, became a minor country hit. But shortly thereafter, Waylon and Willie took the song to Number One. Their combined star power and road-weary charm romanticized the emotionally inaccessible male drifter more powerfully perhaps than any country song had before. Despite the combined efforts of the singers' and countless mammas, however, the years since have seen no marked decline in baby-to-cowboy transformations. By Keith Harris

Play video
9

9. Dolly Parton, ‘Jolene’ (1973)

Inspired by the sight of her husband flirting with a bank teller, "Jolene" is Parton's most heartrending triumph and the most devastating cheating song of them all. These days, contemporary country charts are overloaded with blustery assertions of self-sufficiency – from Marina McBride to Miranda Lambert – which makes it even more heartbreaking to hear one of country's most beloved matriarchs sounding so vulnerable. "Jolene," a hit for Parton in 1973, sees her imploring another woman to leave her man alone. By Amanda Petrusich

Play video
8

8. Merle Haggard, ‘Mama Tried’ (1968)

No one could write a prison number like ex-con Merle Haggard. Despite its humble origin as a commission for Killers Three, a B-movie produced by and starring Dick Clark, this 1968 Platonic ideal of a country song turned out to be the Hag's most autobiographical statement. With its James Burton dobro vamp and haiku-like Roy Nichols Fender solo, "Mama Tried" is a celebration of cussed stubbornness disguised as an apology. Haggard was indeed sent to San Quentin in 1957, but "instead of life in prison I was doing one-to-15 years," he told a reporter. "I just couldn't get that to rhyme." Oddly upbeat compared to his earlier "Sing Me Back Home," "Mama Tried" was adopted by perennial band-on-the-the-run the Grateful Dead, who performed it at Woodstock and on more than 300 subsequent occasions. By Richard Gehr

Play video
7

7. Ray Charles, ‘You Don’t Know Me’ (1962)

This Cindy Walker-penned gem was pulled from about 250 country tunes Ray Charles considered for his 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Backed by a chorus and sumptuous strings, Charles constructs a lump in his throat and an ache in his heart while working his jazz and R&B expertise into "hillbilly" material. "[T]he words to country songs are very earthy like the blues, see, very down," he once told Rolling Stone. "Country songs and the blues is like it is." Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson all went on to cover what became a Number Two pop hit for Charles, but a somber version by Richard Manuel of the Band comes closest to reliving this version's woes. Modern Sounds galvanized racial integration in the music industry, made Nashville songwriters the hottest of the time, and showed Charles exercising artistic control unprecedented for black artists at the time. By Reed Fischer

Play video
6

6. Tammy Wynette, ‘Stand By Your Man’ (1968)

A family-values tract with its share of contradictions (Wynette was a four-time divorcée). But there’s no mistaking the power in her voice or the beauty in Billy Sherrill’s lush production. Many heard her signature tune, written with producer Billy Sherrill, as a reactionary riposte to the then-emerging women’s liberation movement, rendering the song inextricable from the Baby Boomer culture wars. In 1992, Hillary Clinton even referred to it disparagingly when a 60 Minutes interview confronted her with questions about her husband’s infidelities. Wynette later said she spent 20 minutes writing this and 20 years defending it. By Keith Harris

Play video
5

5. Jimmie Rodgers, ‘Standing on the Corner (Blue Yodel #9)’ (1930)

By 1930, the tuberculosis-stricken former railroad worker and blackface performer Jimmie Rodgers was a certified star, his "blue yodels" selling millions. But the "Father of Country Music" was also a mercurial, try-anything entertainer, so this seemingly unlikely country-jazz summit with trumpet sensation Louis Armstrong (and Louis' pianist wife Lil Hardin) doesn't come as a shock. As Armstrong's languidly hypnotic horn intuitively follows, Rodgers plays the bluesy, possibly sloshed raconteur – when the Memphis po-lice grab him by the arm, he insolently replies, "You'll find my name on the tail of my shirt/I'm a Tennessee hustler and I don't have to work." Thank goodness Armstrong's there to get him home. By Charles Aaron

Play video
4

4. George Jones, ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ (1980)

"Nobody will buy that morbid son of a bitch," George Jones told producer Billy Sherrill as he left the studio. Instead, "He Stopped Loving Her Today" was his first Number One in six years. If there's a bottom under the bottom, where humor mixes openly with despair, Jones knows it. By 1980 he was so lost he'd started speaking in split personalities, one of them Jones, another called the Old Man and a third called Dee-Doodle the Duck. It took him 18 months to finish "He Stopped Loving Her Today" on account of his speech being so slurred. The song's protagonist swore he'd love her 'til the day he died, Jones tells us, with Sherrill's string section rising behind him like some horror-movie hand shooting out of its grave. Then one day, he dies. Jones hated the song – he thought it was miserable and overly dramatic. It was. But country music often depends on the kind of hyperbole that real life can't bear. By Mike Powell

Play video
3

3. Hank Williams, ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ (1949)

No matter how one first encounters this song – Bob Dylan in Don't Look Back, Sandra Bernhard in her one-woman-show Without You I'm Nothing, Johnny Cash duetting with Nick Cave, even Pittsburgh Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw plodding through a 1976 effort – its wrenchingly poetic majesty remains undiminished. But the original stands as one of pop music's most masterfully controlled wails of emotion. Williams bemoans his failing marriage to wife Audrey, unveiling a series of deathly images (a whippoorwill too blue to fly, the moon hiding behind the clouds, a falling star silently lighting up a purple sky), which seesaw on the melody, until the singer concludes that he's "lost the will the live." Less than four years later, Williams was found dead in his Cadillac on New Year's Day. By Charles Aaron

Play video
2

2. Patsy Cline, ‘Crazy’ (1961)

Written for Billy Walker, this jukebox jackpot got to Patsy Cline through husband Charlie Dick, a Willie Nelson crony from Tootsie's Orchid Lounge on Nashville's Music Row. After hearing Nelson's demo (am emulation of Floyd Tillman's "I Gotta Have My Baby Back"), Dick immediately drove the songwriter home to wake up Cline. She initially judged Nelson's tune too slow, too mannered and unflattering but nonetheless nailed her heart-stopping, self-interrogating vocal in a single. Floyd Cramer played the spare, walking-after-midnight piano riffs and Elvis Presley's Jordanaires served as Greek chorus. "Crazy" went on to become Cline's signature tune, a hallmark of the Great American Songbook and 1992 independent presidential candidate Ross Perot's campaign anthem. By Richard Gehr

Play video
1

1. Johnny Cash, ‘I Walk the Line’ (1956)

The defining moment for country's most iconic figure. What makes "I Walk the Line" a great song? Johnny Cash's transcendent baritone ("A voice from the middle of the Earth," recalled Bob Dylan), the Tennessee Two's austere rhythms, the lyrics' puppy-dog romanticism and the goofy hums that telegraph the key changes. But what makes it a great country song? The fact that Cash wasn't always walking said line. At least not in a secular sense: Written on the road (most likely in East Texas) and released in 1956 (Sun Records boss Sam Phillips insisted on picking up the tempo), the tune is largely a reassuring love letter to Vivian Liberto Cash, his first wife – but, given that the 2005 biopic named after the song chronicled Johnny's subsequent eternal love affair with June Carter Cash… well, yeah. Robert Hilburn's 2013 biography quotes Cash conceding that he was partly singing to God, too: "Sam never knew it, but 'I Walk the Line' was my first Gospel hit." By Rob Harvilla

Show Comments