100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time – Rolling Stone
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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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