17 Country Songs That Would Make Great Movies - Rolling Stone
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17 Country Songs That Would Make Great Movies

From Billie Joe to Jolene, country’s greatest casts of characters, along with our wish list for actors to play them

keith urban dolly parton robert earl keen

Kevin Winter/ACMA2014/Getty Images for ACM; Valerie Macon/Getty Images; Erika Goldring/WireImage

From Glen Campbell’s performance in the original True Grit to Dwight Yoakam’s creepy, critically-applauded turn in Sling Blade, country stars have a long history of appearing in the movies. They also have an equally lengthy history of writing songs that could be adapted into screenplays. Maybe it’s the stories they tell, or the way the bright twang of a Telecaster guitar can evoke images of wide-open landscapes and rundown, roadside saloons, but country music can sound downright cinematic when it wants to. Most of these songs haven’t received the silver screen treatment — yet — but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve it.

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The Highwaymen, “Highwayman”

Talk about an ensemble cast. The Highwaymen — Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings — took their name from this Jimmy Webb tune, which spins four different tales of adventure, death and intergalactic space travel. Trippy! All four of the song's characters wind up dying, but their spirits live on, making "Highwayman" the perfect choice for moviegoers who really, really love Bill Cosby's "Ghost Dad."

Suggested actors: Woody Harrelson as Willie Nelson, Jeff Bridges as Waylon Jennings, Gerard Butler as Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson as Kris Kristofferson

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Eric Church, “Lightning”

A guilty convict reflects on his life — including the robbery of a liquor store and the murder of its young attendant — during his final moments in jail. At first, you think he's about to be set free, only to realize he's actually being taken to the electric chair. "I'd take it all back, but there's nothing I can do/They've covered my face and the order's coming through," he admits in one of the final verses, repenting just a little too late. In five quick minutes, the song packs a sad-eyed punch. Imagine what it could do as a 90-minute movie.

Suggested actors: Bryan Cranston as the death row inmate

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Robert Earl Keen, “The Road Goes On Forever”

Sonny is a quiet, introverted pot dealer who's older than the rest of the crowd that hangs out in Sherry's diner. Sherry is a party-loving waitress with a weakness for bad boys — which is why she falls for Sonny one night, after he knocks out an unruly customer in her bar. Fueled by love and liquor, the two skip town and drive to Miami Beach, where all manner of R-rated things ensue. By the song's end, an incarcerated Sonny is on his way to the electric chair, while Sherry — who escaped the Florida cops with a suitcase full of money — is back home, driving a brand new Mercedes Benz around the same town where she met once Sonny. The road goes on forever.

Suggested actors: Colin Farrell as Sonny, Blake Lively as Sherry

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Porter Wagoner, “Carroll County Accident”

Carroll County is a sleepy, slow-moving town. When a car crashes just inside the county line, all the locals visit the accident to check out the carnage… including the narrator, who finds evidence that his father, who was riding shotgun, was having an affair with the female driver. His father dies in the crash, and the narrator throws the incriminating evidence into the river, promising to keep safe the very secret that killed his dad. Heavy!

Suggested actors: Adam Driver as the narrator, Dylan McDermott as his father, Cameron Diaz as the mistress

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Kacey Musgraves, “Merry Go Round”

It's no coincidence that Kacey Musgraves lifted the title of her debut album, Same Trailer, Different Park, from this career-making single. "Merry Go Round" spins a cyclical tale of boredom and lost horizons in the Bible Belt, with a cast of characters — gossip queens, cheating husbands, pot-smoking brothers, doomed newlyweds barely out of high school — who pop up throughout the entire album. Most country songs celebrate the small-town lifestyle; this song skewers it.

Suggested actors: Anna Kendrick as the narrator, Paul Dano as her brother, Celia Weston as their mother, Beau Bridges as their father

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Marty Robbins, “El Paso”

They don't make 'em like they used to. This cowboy-worthy country song could've been lifted from a John Wayne film, with its lyrics about a tragic romance that begins in a West Texas cantina and ends in a bloody shootout. Although the narrator dies, he does so in the arms of Felina, the "Mexican maiden" that stole his heart long before he was a wanted man. Add some tumbleweeds and a score by Ennio Morricone, and you've got the best western movie never made.

Suggested actors: Viggo Mortensen as the narrator, Mila Kunis as Felina

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Dolly Parton, “Jolene”

Dolly Parton pleads with a raven-haired bombshell to leave her man alone, afraid she won't be able to compete with someone whose "beauty is beyond compare." The whole song is essentially a monologue, delivered by a lovesick woman who knows she can't count on her boyfriend to stay faithful. The fact that we never "see" the boyfriend — he's always off-camera, so to speak — makes "Jolene" the perfect source material for a twisted chick flick about loyalty and desperation.

Suggested actors: Jessica Chastain as Jolene, Jennifer Connelly as the narrator

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Steve Earle, “Copperhead Road”

John Lee Pettimore comes from a long line of bootleggers and moonshine distillers. He volunteers for the Army after his father dies during an illegal liquor run to Knoxville, only to return to Copperhead Road following two tours of Vietnam. Back at home, John expands the family business by growing pot in the same hollow that once contained his granddad's moonshine still. Written after some of Steve Earle's own brushes with the law, "Copperhead Road" is a song about the circular nature of crime in rural America, making it the country-rock equivalent of a "Boardwalk Empire" episode… or the hillbilly version of a Godfather movie.

Suggested actors: Billy Crudup as John Lee Pettimore, Bruce Dern as Grandfather Pettimore

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Garth Brooks, “The Thunder Rolls”

Garth Brooks originally wrote a third verse for this minor-key rocker about a housewife who realizes her husband has been having an affair. In that verse — which didn't make the final cut for Ropin' the Wind, but did show up on Double Live — he leaves little to the imagination."She runs back down the hallway and through the bedroom door," he sings. "She reaches for the pistol kept in the dresser drawer/Tells the lady in the mirror 'he won't do this again'/'Cause tonight will be the last time, she'll wonder where he's been." Hell hath no fury — or firepower — like a woman scorned.

Suggested actors: Carey Mulligan as the wife, Michael Fassbender as the husband, Scarlett Johansson as the mistress

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Travis Tritt, “Modern Day Bonnie & Clyde”

This 2002 hit opens and closes with the same shot: a single car headed north on I-95, beating down the blacktop all the way to Richmond, Virginia. At the beginning, that car is Tritt's Pontiac Firebird, filled with firearms, stolen goods and a woman he met at a Johnson City truck stop. At the end, it's a cop car, filled with a handcuffed Tritt and bound for the county jail. The moral? Never look for love at a truck stop.

Suggested actors: Matthew McConaughey as Clyde, Emma Stone as Bonnie, Randy Quaid as the police officer

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Whiskeytown, “Houses on a Hill”

A tale of long-distance love during wartime, "Houses on a Hill" begins with the narrator stumbling across a box of letters written to his girlfriend's mother. Those letters are from the mother's former flame, a soldier who fought for his country in WWII and died with his girlfriend's "picture in the pocket that was closest to his heart… [which] must've been a target for the gunnerman." While stars shine in the sky, the mother grieves his loss — often with the help of pain pills.

Suggested actors: Keira Knightley as the younger version of the grandmother, Matt Damon as the young soldier

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Keith Urban, “Til Summer Comes Around”

Keith Urban is the maintenance man at an oceanside amusement park. It's a lonely job during the off-season, and the only thing that keeps him going is the promise of summer — specially, the return of an old flame who stole his heart beneath the boom and blast of July 4th fireworks. That was "five long years" ago, though, leading Urban to tell his story in a series of flashbacks. The rest is just a brokenhearted present, with Urban counting down the days 'til summer comes around once more. Moviegoers: don't expect a happy ending with this one.

Suggested actors: Aaron Paul as the narrator, Mélanie Laurent as the girlfriend

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Bobbie Gentry, “Ode to Billie Joe”

There's already one movie about Billie Joe's deadly dive off the Tallahatchie Bridge, directed by the guy who played Jethro Bodine on "The Beverly Hillbillies" and starring the guy who voiced the Beast in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." In that mid-Seventies film, Billie is a sawmill worker who kills himself after sleeping with a man. The best thing about Bobbie Gentry's 1967 crossover hit isn't the suicide, though; it's the way the narrator's parents react — or don't react, rather — to the news. Movies like "River's Edge" have focused on teenagers' indifference to death. Maybe it's time to turn the tables on the adults?

Suggested actors: Emma Roberts as the narrator, Nicholas Hoult as Billie Joe, Holly Hunter as the mother, Jeff Daniels as the father

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Drive-By Truckers, “Decoration Day”

Jason Isbell finds himself caught up in a bloody family feud that started years before he was born. He's got enough hatred — for himself, for his family's violent acts and especially for the Hill boys who gunned down his dad — to keep the fight going once he becomes the head of the family. Like an updated version of the 19th century battle between the Hatfields and the McCoys, "Decoration Day" is an action movie waiting to happen. Killer soundtrack, too.

Suggested actors: John Hawkes as the narrator, Tom Hardy as Holland Hill

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Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers, “Switchblade”

A slow-building epic about a heist in the American southwest, "Switchblade" feels like the Arizonan equivalent of Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City." In the Peacemakers' song, though, the narrator has already pulled off the crime. He keeps a low profile for a year, waiting for his two accomplices to come out of hiding, only to learn that they were killed by the very same weapon — a cheap, Mexican switchblade — that helped them commit the crime in the first place. Hey, Cormac McCarthy: wanna write this screenplay?

Suggested actors: Daniel Day Lewis as the narrator

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Jeannie C. Reilly, “Harper Valley PTA”

Who doesn't like a good revenge story? Released in 1968, Jeannie C. Riley's signature song topped the pop and country charts with its tale of a minidress-wearing housewife who confronts the PTA of her daughter's high school, blasting them for scrutinizing her child-raising techniques. It's Mermaids meets Mean Girls, laced with enough attitude and suggestive clothing to warrant at least a PG-13 rating.

Suggested actors: Sarah Jessica Parker as the mother, Elle Fanning as the daughter, Bryce Dallas Howard as the PTA head

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