What is the best country song ever recorded? That’s a heck of a question. Part of the problem is, how do you define “best”? Best lyrics? Most talented musicians? Catchiest tune? Or does it have to do with how has that song / artist influenced other songs and artists? Different decades and different generations of artists have all produced good songs, so how do you decide on what is “best”?
Personally, I enjoy everything from classical to bluegrass, and from classic rock to gospel, but for many folks, country is all that they listen to or like. My dad used to joke that he only listened to two kinds of music – country, and western. His favorite artists were Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Hank Williams, Sr., Jim Reeves, and Ray Price, and that was what we grew up listening to.
I have been doing a little survey – VERY unscientific – and asking folks whose opinions I respect for their choices for the “All-Time Best Country Songs.” I received a LOT of nominations, but some patterns did emerge. For one thing, I noticed that people tended to prefer songs of whatever decade they grew up in – folks who grew up in the 40s and 50s tended to mention songs from Hank Williams, the Carter Family, and Gene Autry, while folks who grew up in the 70s and 80s talked about George Jones, Merle Haggard, Don Williams, or Charlie Rich.
For this list, I’m looking at a song’s “listenability,” its impact and influence, as well as the overall career and legacy of that artist. Obviously, personal taste is also involved. And while I deeply appreciate all those who shared their thoughts with me, these are my opinions, so if you don’t like this list, I’m the one to blame. So, rushing in where angels fear to tread, here we go.
5. San Antonio Rose. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys were true pioneers in Western Swing and in translating the Big Band sound of the 30s and 40s into the world of hillbillies and honky-tonks. Wills had major success with this tune and re-recorded several different versions of it – some that were more country sounding, some with more brass and other instruments. And I’m not sure about this, but I think Bob Wills was the first country artist ever to include a drummer in his band. My dad’s favorite of his was “Faded Love,” but for this list, we’ll go with this “song of ol’ San Antone.”
4. I Walk the Line. Johnny Cash was just getting started in the music business when he wrote this song for his first wife, Vivian. It features very sparse instrumentation – in some ways, the opposite of the large band that Bob Wills used. This particular song was Cash’s first number one single. He once said in an interview that the humming that he does at the start of the verses was necessary for him to be on the right pitch – a result of the song’s unusual chord pattern and frequent key changes.
3. Crazy. Patsy Cline was a once-in-a-generation talent with a string of great hits, who was gone much too soon, dying in the crash of a small plane. But this song, written by Willie Nelson, is maybe the best of the best of hers. Recorded in 1961, this song features the Jordanaires singing harmony and Floyd Cramer on the piano – nice backup if you can get it. There’s a legend that says when Willie first wrote the song, the title was “Stupid” – just doesn’t have the same hook.
2. I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry. Hank Williams, Sr. might be the best songwriter in country music history. “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “You Win Again,” “Half as Much,” and “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love with You,” are just a few of the dozens he cranked out, but I think this is his best. Lines like, “the moon just went behind a cloud / to hide his face and cry” absolutely stay with you, long after the song is over.
1. He Stopped Loving Her Today. The stormy relationship between George Jones and Tammy Wynette has been well documented, but this song perfectly captures the sweetness and despair of lost love. The fact that George (also known as “the Possum”) could pour out his heart to us in that song and work through his personal demons to do it, shows us the heart of a true musician and artist.
Comments? Questions? Quibbles? You’re welcome to drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, if you want to discuss it further. Meanwhile, I’m going to listen to some more Patsy and Hank.