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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.
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.
“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.
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.
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!”
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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?