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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68

John Prine, ‘Angel from Montgomery’ (1971)

When John Prine wrote "Angel" he'd been working as a mailman in the suburbs of Chicago, sketching out ideas as he made the rounds, playing open mics on weekends. At the time, country was cross-pollinating with the distinctly un-country sounds of pop and soft-rock, but Prine presented himself as something more stripped down: A regular guy with a plain voice playing simple music, no shoulder pads necessary. But it was his ear for detail – the flies buzzing around the sink, the rodeo poster that sends a woman on a daydream that she knows will never get fulfilled – that made his songs quietly complicated. Country music rendered with the sharpened eye of an author. By Mike Powell

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67

Loretta Lynn, ‘The Pill’ (1975)

Recorded in 1972 but released in 1975, Lynn's ode to reproductive rights turned out to be a difficult pill for many country stations to swallow – one of nine Lynn songs banned during her career. Written by Lorene Allen, Don McHan and T. D. Bayless, "The Pill" uses a chicken-coop metaphor ("I'm tearin' down your brooder house") to warn a straying cock that his hen may start exchanging her maternity-wear "garbage" for clothes that "won't take up so much yardage." Lynn, who birthed four babies by age 20, employs her throaty chuckle-growls to even the scales over funky chicken-scratch guitars. "They didn't have none of them pills when I was younger," Lynn wrote in Coal Miner's Daughter, "or I would have been swallowing 'em like popcorn." By Richard Gehr

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66

Rosanne Cash, ‘Seven Year Ache’ (1981)

When Cash recorded "Seven Year Ache" at age 25, it was with the soulful, seen-it-all purr of someone who'd endured the game for decades. And she had: Growing up with dad Johnny's drug addiction, touring absences, divorce from her mom Vivian and second marriage to June Carter which forced her dual Tennessee/California identity; not to mention cultivating her own career, sustaining her first marriage to hotshot singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell and having their first child. Yet the mood on this career-defining Number One country hit – which chronicled a man's wanderlust and apparently traced to a spat with Crowell (who produced the song!) – was an almost breezy reasonableness, as if the singer almost pitied the poor schnook. The melodic tick-tock was "Mellow Mafia" with a twangy moan, and Rosanne's tart aphorisms were some of the genre's most poetic. By Charles Aaron

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65

Merle Haggard, ‘Okie from Muskogee’ (1969)

Not to be confused with Jimmy Patton's 1959 rockabilly track "Okie's in the Pokie," this megahit kicked Merle Haggard into the top tier of country performers. A Bakersfield-born son of Okie farmers, Haggard co-wrote this condemnation of pot smokers, sandal-wearers and draft-card burners on his tour bus with Strangers drummer Roy Edward Burris. Both parody ("pitching woo"? "Manly footwear"?) and counter-counterculture anthem – Hag once said its 24 lines contain "about 18 different messages" – "Okie" remains an undeniable a manifesto of ethnic pride.Haggard followed his relatively mellow Los Angeles studio original with a more truculent live version, then doubled down in January of the following year with his borderline-jingoist "The Fightin' Side of Me." Yet as he told a journalist decades later, "I didn't intend for 'Okie' to be taken as strongly from my lips as it was." By Richard Gehr

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64

Patsy Cline, ‘I Fall to Pieces’ (1961)

Recorded as a single in 1961 and included on Patsy Cline Showcase that same year, this track has became a country ballad standard – but it almost wasn't. Producer Owen Bradley initially envisioned the track recorded by baritone Roy Drusky. According to Ellis Nassour's biography Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, Cline was standing in the hallway when she overheard Drusky turn it down because it wasn't manly enough. It ended up being his loss: Bradley agreed to let Cline take it over and she allegedly sang it so tenderly during sessions that it caused every man in the studio to cry. It became one of the first of several pop/country crossovers for Cline and charted for over six months. By Cady Drell

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63

George Jones, ‘The Race Is On’ (1964)

A Top Five country hit in 1965, George Jones knew the ironic, upbeat number would be a hit the minute he heard it: "'The Race Is On' was pitched to me," he later told Billboard, "and I only heard the first verse, [sings] 'I feel tears welling up cold and deep inside like my heart's sprung a big leak,' and I said, 'I'll take it.'" Eight years later, the song took on new meaning when it became the first to be broadcast by New York's WHN, the crossover-friendly radio station that would set audience records and define the sound of pop country in the late-Seventies. By Linda Ryan

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62

Emmett Miller, ‘Lovesick Blues’ (1928)

Obviously, the blackface aspect of Emmett Miller's act will forever shadow his legacy, but covers by everyone from Little Richard to Etta James to Ryan Adams to LeAnn Rimes are keeping "Lovesick" alive. Hank Williams didn’t learn everything he knew from Miller, but the sweet-singing 1920s minstrel performer did play a significant role inspiring country music's founding father. A couple decades before "Lovesick Blues" became Williams' first number one hit in 1949, Miller and his melancholy yodel were in love with a beautiful gal too. Miller’s version comes with a spoken intro in which he explains that he’s got "every known indication of being in that condition" before dappling the show tune, from the 1922 Tin Pan Alley musical Oh, Ernest, with some octave vaulting. For another take on Miller, hear David Lee Roth covering "Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)" on Van Halen’s Diver Down. By Reed Fischer

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61

Ray Price, ‘Crazy Arms’ (1956)

After periods emulating both smooth Eddy Arnold and honky-tonkin' Hank Williams (whose Drifting Cowboys band he led after Hank's death), Ray Price (a.k.a. "the Cherokee Cowboy") returned to his Texas roots with this 1956 megahit that spent 20 weeks at the top of Billboard's country chart. Co-writer Ralph Mooney penned the tune after his wife left him due to his drinking, and its lyrics suggest deep emotional delirium and paranoia. The music, however, reflected Price's new shuffle style, with single-string fiddle, pedal steel guitar, and doubled acoustic and electric basses. Six months after Price's release, Jerry Lee Lewis's first Sun Records side was a more blatantly delirious rock cover that turned many heads. By Richard Gehr

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60

Tennessee Ernie Ford, ‘Sixteen Tons’ (1955)

With its theatrical vocal, finger-snapping rhythm and a haunting clarinet hook seemingly borrowed from a Brecht/Weill musical, Tennessee Ernie Ford's excoriation of the evils of debt bondage was an unlikely country-pop smash. Although folksinger George Davis claimed to have written an original "Nine-to-Ten Tons" in the Thirties, Merle Travis countered that he wrote the more productive "Sixteen Tons" about his father's life in the coalmines of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. The opening lines, meanwhile, came from a letter Travis's soldier brother wrote during World War II, and the Sisyphean refrain – "I owe my soul to the company store" – from his father's experience being paid in store tokens rather than cash. A blend of machismo and melancholy, "Sixteen Tons" has been covered by Elvis Presley, the Weavers, Stevie Wonder, Tom Morello and countless others. By Richard Gehr

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59

Marty Robbins, ‘El Paso’ (1959)

Arizona native Marty Robbins' unusually long (4 minutes, 40 seconds) story-song is a barreling Greek tragedy adapted from the Mexican waltz-time ranchera country style. In what might be country's most cinematic hit, a narrator enamored of "wicked" Feleena shoots down a "dashing and daring" young cowboy who's hitting on her. Past tense becomes present as the narrator returns to El Paso, is shot himself by a vengeful posse and dies in Feleena's arms. Grady Martin's nylon-stringed guitar provides eloquent, flamenco-influenced instrumental commentary. A longtime staple of the Grateful Dead's cover repertoire, "El Paso" caught another cultural wave decades later when Feleena was transformed into "Felina," the anagrammatically allusive title of Breaking Bad's 2013 finale. By Richard Gehr

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58

Jeannie C. Riley, ‘Harper Valley P.T.A.’ (1968)

"That song was my novel," songwriter Tom T. Hall once said of the epic "Harper Valley P.T.A." In this sassy 1968 takedown of small-town hypocrisy, a mini-skirted widow "socks it to" the titular busybodies – in its way, it was as innocence-ending as Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" the previous year. Indeed, when singer Margie Singleton asked Hall to write her a similar song, the aspiring novelist took note of the Harpeth Valley Elementary School in Bellevue, Tennessee and found artistic inspiration in Sinclair Lewis's religion-mocking novel Elmer Gantry. Jeannie C. Riley's recording, however, made her the first woman to top both Billboard's Hot 100 and country-singles charts. Barbara Eden starred in both the 1978 comedy based on the song and in a 1981-82 TV show spun off the flick. By Richard Gehr

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57

Eric Church, ‘Springsteen’ (2011)

It's not really about Bruce Springsteen, first of all. Though stadium-filling bad boy Eric Church's iPhone-lighter-app-waving triumph details "a love affair that takes place in an amphitheater between two people," the Boss was not the performer in question. Church politely but firmly declines to reveal the actual inspiration, which means the best country song of the 2010s thus far might have more accurately been titled "Nugent" or "Anka" or "Fogelberg." Cowritten by Church with Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tyndell, it's a dreamy, nostalgic weeper (tough as our man talks, he's a softie at heart) and drove 2011's Chief to dizzying heights. It even earned Church a handwritten thank-you note from Springsteen himself – scrawled on the back of a Fenway Park set list. By Rob Harvilla

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56

Carrie Underwood, ‘Before He Cheats’ (2006)

This crossover smash emerged from circumstances as prefabricated as country music gets – written and produced by men whose credits include Lady Antebellum and Rascal Flatts, sung by an American Idol winner and sporting a literal-interpretation video. And yet the popcraft of "Before He Cheats," as rendered by Carrie Underwood in the key of frosty rage, is nearly perfect. Even a certified alt-country critical darling like Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards is not immune to its seductive charms. "The rhythm of it, the metric of the lyrics, the chord changes, the play on words and unconventional patterns, the way she says 'Shania karaoke' – it's genius," Edwards said in 2009. "Fuck, I wish I'd written that!" By David Menconi

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55

The Flatlanders, ‘Dallas’ (1990)

Perpetually unsung, the Flatlanders were a Lubbock trio who sounded like – well, there was Jimmie Dale Gilmore's flat, twangy voice; the warble of a singing saw; the lyrics that made sutras of psychedelic complexity sound like they were something Grandma crocheted into a throw pillow. Small-town, but more importantly, sensitive enough to address even the most routine insults of life in the 20th century, the big city didn't repulse them, but it did give them the willies. And yet in song, they are somehow always the eye of a storm: unchanging, know-nothing, happy to breathe deeply and just watch the show unfold. Would you be surprised to learn that they sank like a stone? By Mike Powell

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54

Brad Paisley, ‘Alcohol’ (2005)

He rarely touches the stuff himself, but Brad Paisley's way with a booze anthem is unparalleled, and such range, too: "Whiskey Lullaby," a grim, suicide-haunted duet he cut with Alison Krauss in 2004, is basically Leaving Las Vegas in miniature, whereas this bawdy, self-penned waltz unleashed just a year later comes on like Animal House. A boastful first-person rundown of hooch's seductive powers – "I can make anybody pretty," it begins – that claims credit for everyone from Hemingway to the thoroughly soused best man at your wedding. It's a longtime live-show staple that inspires superfans to bring their own lampshades (seriously). "The song somehow seems to make the entire audience feel something in common," Paisley has marveled. "We're all out there together. We've all done it. We're all one big collective idiot. And there's nothing better than feeling that way." By Rob Harvilla

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53

Charley Pride, ‘Kiss an Angel Good Mornin” (1971)

Charley Pride's 1971 recording of Ben Peters' "Kiss an Angel Good Mornin'" remains the definitive version of this a slightly naughty love song attempted by Conway Twitty, George Jones and Alan Jackson. The piano-driven arrangement here is classic early-Seventies countrypolitan, propelling the singer's only crossover Top 40 pop hit. Pride's métier has always been an easygoing effortlessness, which perfectly suits this ode to the pleasures and virtues of "Drunk in Love"-style domesticity. By David Menconi

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52

Flatt and Scruggs, ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ (1949)

If sparks flying off metal could sound sophisticated, they'd sound like Earl Scruggs' three-finger, five-string, five-alarm-fire banjo picking on this instrumental classic, which enshrined the banjo as a lead instrument in bluegrass. A stoic virtuoso from the western North Carolina boonies, Scruggs peppered the air with rippling eighth-note ragtime rolls on "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" (a song derived from an earlier track, "Bluegrass Breakdown," that he wrote for Bill Monroe), trading solo breaks with fiddler Benny Sims. Despite its innovative panache, the song only hit the country (and pop) charts after appearing as accompaniment to the car-chase scenes in Arthur Penn's scintillating, taboo-flaunting 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde. By Charles Aaron

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51

Johnny Cash, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ (1955)

California's second oldest state prison was a brutal place before the state implemented much-need penal reforms in 1944. Johnny Cash learned of that dark period at a screening of the 1951 film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, while serving with the U.S. Air Force, stationed in Germany. Cash initially recorded the song for Sun Records in 1956, but the version he performed 12 years later for Folsom's inmates became the iconic hit. It's said that the raucous cheers following, "I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die" were actually added in post-production, but who really wants to believe that? By Keith Harris

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