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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.

Listen to Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Country Songs

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94

94. Dwight Yoakam, ‘Guitars, Cadillacs’ (1986)

Yoakam is often painted as a critic of Nashville, but in "Guitars, Cadillacs" the hillbilly music that Tennessee once produced becomes the only thing that makes Tinsel Town tolerable for this "naive fool who came to Babylon and found out that the pie don't taste so sweet." Of course, despite his posturing, L.A. was the perfect place for the Ohio transplant. A home for country rock since the Byrds and the Burrito Brothers, the ambitious singer found his match in local roots-oriented post-punk acts like the Blasters, Lone Justice and the Knitters. The biggest influence on "Guitars, Cadillacs," however, the one who lent the song its crisp guitar and walking bassline, remained two hours north. His name was Buck Owens, and two years later Yoakam would give him his 21st chart-topper with "Streets of Bakersfield." By Nick Murray

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93

93. Tom T. Hall, ‘Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine’ (1972)

In 1972, country music's consummate storyteller traveled to Miami Beach to perform at the Democratic National Convention that nominated George McGovern and returned to Nashville afterward with a soon-to-be-hit. A janitor, a month away from his 66th birthday, shared his impressions of the only three things worth a damn in life, while casting aspersions on the loyalty and value of lovers and friends – and Hall took it all down. The resulting hit, though sentimental on the surface, has a cynical flipside, its distrust of all but the simplest things in life imparting an aftertaste of sour Seventies disillusion. Nixon won, by the way. By Keith Harris

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92

92. Juice Newton, ‘Queen of Hearts’ (1981)

Originally a member of the short-lived band Silver Spur, Juice Newton had been releasing a steady output of solo pop and rock material for two years – to decent reviews but few sales. When she shifted to a more country sound for 1981's Juice, she scored three Top 10 hits. The breakout track was "Queen of Hearts," the irresistibly catchy, Fleetwood-esque country-pop cut written by Hank DeVito. Newton had been playing the song at her live shows for a year before Richard Landis produced it for the LP. It was all up from there: The LP went platinum in the U.S. and triple platinum in Canada and earned her two Grammy nominations that year. By Cady Drell

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91

91. Garth Brooks, ‘Friends in Low Places’ (1990)

With a voice stirring together the low end of Johnny and the high whine of Hank, Garth Brooks was just beginning his historic superstar run. A couple dozen folks – including "Low Places" songwriters Dewayne Blackwell and Earl "Bud" Lee – partied in the studio to create the bar-storming romp heard on the final refrain. But the party was just starting. The hit helped Brooks' second album, No Fences, ship 17 million copies in the U.S. – still one of the 10 best-selling albums of all time. When Brooks performed "Friends in Low Places" on the Grammys in the early Nineties, the stage was set up like a posh black-tie affair. Just as the song says, the Oklahoma native showed up in boots – as well as a vertical striped shirt, black cowboy hat, and a thumb jabbed into the pocket of his jeans. Eventually the onstage glitz got pushed away to reveal a down-and-dirty saloon, like the ones blasting his song nationwide. By Reed Fischer

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90

90. Ray Wylie Hubbard, ‘Redneck Mother’ (1975)

This second-tier Texas outlaw still writes, performs and records, but he dreamed up his only classic tune (recorded most famously by Jerry Jeff Walker, though Nineties alt-rockers Cracker do a killer version), early in his career, while kicking around in New Mexico. "Redneck Mother" flips a popular slogan among revolutionaries (as in, "Up against the wall…") and flips the bird to country's mother-worship. Never mind what Merle said – mama didn't try hard enough, Hubbard suggests. If she had, maybe there wouldn't be so many good-for-nothing drunks out there "kickin' hippies' asses and raisin' hell." By Keith Harris

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89

89. Gary Stewart, ‘She’s Actin’ Single, I’m Drinkin’ Doubles’ (1975)

A hurtin', cheatin', drinkin' trifecta, Gary Stewart's only Number One would pass for a honky-tonk parody if the Kentucky singer's trembling tenor weren't so convincing. A hardcore-country home run at a time when the genre was heading uptown, "She's Actin' Single" finds Stewart living a perpetual nightmare in which "she pours herself on some stranger" while "I pour myself a drink somewhere." The Wayne Carson–penned tune was the third hit from Stewart's excellent Out of Hand, and the record features both John Hughey playing tear-jerking pedal steel and a mournful chorus from Elvis-affiliated gospel quartet the Jordanaires. An unreconstructed Southern rocker when he wanted to be, Stewart's version of a self-pitying coward struck a chord with a jukebox crowd who sometimes, as Stewart sang elsewhere, "got this drinkin' thing, to keep from thinkin' things." By Richard Gehr

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88

88. Jerry Jeff Walker, ‘Desperados Waiting for a Train’ (1973)

Even back in 1970, Austin was getting weird, and Jerry Jeff Walker, a New York transplant backed by a band called the Lost Gonzos, was leading the transition. On his 1973 live-in-Luckenbach ¡Viva Terlingua! LP, he became the first to record "Desperados Waiting for a Train," a track that another Austin transplant, Guy Clark, wrote while working at a dobro factory in California. Moonlighting as a songwriter, he came up with the title phrase and built around it the story of a grandfather figure to whom he had once been close. "He ended up in west Texas working for Gulf Oil," recalled Clark. "To me, as a kid, he was a real desperado, the real deal. You can't make this shit up." By Marissa R. Moss

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87

87. Lyle Lovett, ‘If I Had a Boat’ (1988)

In the mid-Eighties Lyle Lovett emerged on the bookish, folkie fringe of a new traditionalism that reacted against the pop leaning of the Urban Cowboy era. Consisting of little more than guitars – a finger-picked acoustic and a welling slide – "If I Had a Boat" is nothing to ride a mechanical bull too. And the abstract lyrics, which imagined Roy Rogers as confirmed bachelor and Tonto losing patience with the Lone Ranger, demanded concentration. Absurdist and meditative as it is, "If I Had a Boat" arose from a true story. Lovett claims he once tried to ride a pony across a pond. He wished he'd had a boat. By Keith Harris

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86

86. Donna Fargo, ‘The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.’ (1972)

Triumphant, hopeful and as corny as Kansas in August, North Carolina native Donna Fargo took this self-composed paean to young newlywed bliss to the top of the country charts. There's no tortured dark-end-of-the-street sentiments for Fargo, who seems to mean every last "skippidy do da." All that honky-tonk ne'er-do-well stuff about drinkin' and cheatin' and carryin' on? That's for middle age. For the two-and-a-half minutes that this lovers' anthem lasts, it can wait. By David Menconi

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85

85. O.B. McClinton, ‘Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You’ (1972)

After failed attempts at R&B, country pastures were far greener for Osbie Burnett McClinton. Once the Mississippi native became the "Chocolate Cowboy" in the early Seventies, he rolled out a string of charting country hits featuring his rich baritone voice, able backup singers and a wry sense of humor. ("The Other One" corrected anyone mistaking him for Charley Pride.) McClinton's biggest song, off 1972's Obie From Senatobie (via Stax subsidiary Enterprise) was a twangier remake of R&B hit "Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You," which notched Number 37 on the country charts. Originally an early Wilson Pickett single, the perspective of an about-to-be-jilted lover trying to spark that old flame resonates in any genre. By Reed Fischer

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84

84. Neko Case, ‘People Got a Lotta Nerve’ (2009)

Who cares that the song's two protagonists – a killer whale and an elephant – were two unusual subjects for a country song? "I realized that it's OK to admit that no matter who your characters are, you're writing about yourself," Neko Case told the New York Times. The first single from 2009's Middle Cyclone, "People Got a Lotta Nerve" sent a stern warning to anyone foolish enough to tie the singer down. "I'm a man-, man-, maneater," went the chorus, delivered with such poppy playfulness that it was easy to gloss over the song's sinister undertow. By Andrew Leahey

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83

83. Bobby Bare, ‘Streets of Baltimore’ (1966)

This tragic tale of a man who gave up his entire life to make his woman happy in Baltimore (and who gets subsequently dumped there) was originally recorded by Bobby Bare, a singer most famous for working with a young Kris Kristofferson. But, as Bare told Rolling Stone in 1980, "Most of my hits would have been hits for anybody, I just got to 'em first." So it was with "Streets of Baltimore," penned by Tompall & the Glaser Brothers, who wanted to release the single themselves in September of 1966. Unfortunately for them, Bare got to it first (in June) and scored a hit, reaching the Number Seven spot on the country charts. The joke ended up being on Bare, though: For many, Gram Parsons' 1973 version is widely considered the song's most essential incarnation. By Cady Drell

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82

82. Reba McEntire, ‘Fancy’ (1991)

Written and recorded for Bobbie Gentry's 1969 album of the same name, "Fancy" tells a rags-to-riches tale of a young girl whose mother sends her into prostitution. McEntire had wanted to record the song for years, but producer Jimmy Bowen argued against it – not because of the subject matter, but because he felt