Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time — 60-51

Click here to see 100-91, 90-81, 80-71, 70-61

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?

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Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time — 100-91

100. Brad Paisley, ‘Welcome to the Future’ (2009)

Mainstream country’s most prominent liberal ambitiously overloads this nearly six-minute single from 2009’s American Saturday Night, explaining that he wanted “to serve up a little multigenerational truth with a strong sense of hope and possibility.” In this bright “Future,” Paisley marvels at car DVD players and mobile-phone videogames, imagines how trans-Pacific commerce might amaze his WWII-vet grandfather and then brings his mid-tempo country-rocker down a notch to appreciate the racial progress that has occurred in his own lifetime – he debuted the song live at the White House. Basically, it’s a typical Brad Paisley A.D.D. special, mixing synth lines with steel guitar, fiddle breaks with speed riffs and sense with sentiment.

99. Harry Choates, ‘Jole Blon’ (1946)

One of Bruce Springsteen’s lesser-known influences is the late, hard-drinkin’ Texas fiddle player Harry Choates. After playing for spare change as a teenager in the Thirties, Choates started making records by his early Twenties, and his aching 1946 reworking of the so-called “Cajun National Anthem” hit Number Four on the Billboard charts. “Jole Blon,” a traditional cajun waltz with nearly indiscernible lyrics about a pretty blonde, rode commercial success via several reinterpretations and continued in country lore throughout the decade. It passed through the hands of Roy Acuff, Warren Zevon, Springsteen (who recorded an early-Eighties version with Gary U.S. Bonds) among many others. Fame and fortune never made it back to Choates, however. According to legend, he sold “Jole Blon” for $100 and a bottle of whiskey and died at the age of 28.

98. C.W. McCall, ‘Convoy’ (1975)

This loving, jargon-filled novelty song took the insular world of trucker culture to the tops of both the country and pop charts in 1976. “Convoy,” an ode to C.B. radio, gave Iowa singer C.W. McCall the only Number One hit of his career, sold two million copies, started a C.B. radio fad and even spawned a successful action movie of the same name. “The truckers were forming things called convoys and they were talking to each other on C.B. radios,” explained McCall, who co-wrote the song with Chip Davis. “They had a wonderful jargon. Chip and I bought ourselves a C.B. radio and went out to hear them talk.” That’s a 10-4, good buddy.

97. Gretchen Wilson, ‘Redneck Woman’ (2004)

Originally a collective of Nashville outcasts and outsiders known for their open-minded open mic night, the MuzikMafia went mainstream with the twin successes of Big & Rich’s “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” and Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman.” With its upbeat swing and beer-drinking, Walmart-wearing identity politics, “Redneck Woman” quickly rose up the charts. Following a breakthrough performance at the 2004 Country Radio Seminar, “Redneck Woman” became the fastest rising Number One since Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart.” Though Wilson herself was never able to repeat its success, the song paved the way for rocking female bad-asses like Miranda Lambert and Kimberly Perry.

96. Ronnie Milsap, ‘Smoky Mountain Rain’ (1980)

This story of returning home from the city was told through thunderous piano playing (inspired by Milsap’s session work on Elvis’ “Kentucky Rain”) and producer Tom Collins’ spiralling strings. Of course, “Smoky Mountain Rain” wouldn’t be on this list if the words weren’t equally chilling: Note, for instance, that before the protagonist heads back to North Carolina, he has not change of plans but a “change of dreams.” Written by Kye Fleming and Dennis Morgan, who were instructed by Collins to come up with a song about his actual home state, “Smoky Mountain Rain” was Milsap’s fourth Number One of 1980 alone.

95. Bellamy Brothers, ‘Old Hippie'(1985)

These irresistibly slick opportunists always had a keen eye for cultural shifts: “If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body Would You Hold It Against Me” treated country’s late-Seventies transition from the honky-tonk to the singles’ bar as a forgone conclusion and 1987’s “Country Rap” is pretty self-explanatory. “Old Hippie” is the Brothers’ astute take on how onetime counterculture rebels, alienated by disco and new wave, turned to country music in the Eighties with an age-worn weariness: “He ain’t tryin’ to change nobody/He’s just tryin’ real hard to adjust.” Ten years later, “Old Hippie (The Sequel)” brought us into the Clinton era, and in 2007, on “Old Hippie III (Saved),” our hero was born again. Meanwhile, contemporary country is providing a similar escape for many aging Nineties rock fans. Who’s going to write “Old Slacker”?

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.”

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.

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.

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.

Shaky Boots Festival Lineup Announced

Anyone who is anyone in Country Music , including Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton,Dierks Bentley and Rascal Flatts, will converge on Atlanta, Ga. this May for the first-ever Shaky Boots Festival.

Set to descend on the KSU Sports and Entertainment Park on May 16 and 17, the jam-packed two-day festival will also feature appearances from The Band Perry, Dwight Yoakam, Jason Isbell, Joe Nichols, Justin Moore, Kip Moore, the Eli Young Band, Jana Kramer, the Cadillac Three, Sara Evans, Amanda Shires and Old Crow Medicine Show. See the full lineup below and go to the website to purchase tickets!

shaky boots festival lineup

This Day in Music History — November 8

1957 : Elvis Presley’s third movie, Jailhouse Rock, opens nationally. It had a premiere a few weeks earlier at the Memphis theater where Elvis was once an usher.

1964 : Judy Garland and Liza Minelli perform together at the London Palladium, a performance recorded for American television and the LP Live At The London Palladium.

1968 : Diana Ross leaves The Supremes to begin her solo career, and is replaced by Jean Terrell.

1994 : Sonny Bono, half of Sonny and Cher and former mayor of Palm Springs, California, is elected to the US House of Representatives, representing the 44th district in California.

2004 : Brad Paisley, Chris DuBois, Neil Thrasher, and Emmylou Harris and EMI Music Publishing are the top honorees at the 42nd Annual ASCAP Country Music Awards, held at Nashville’s Opryland Hotel.

First-Ever County Music Festival Set For New York City

farmborough_2015

Live Nation Entertainment and Founders Entertainment recently announced that they will launch the first-ever country music festival in New York City. FarmBorough is set to take place on Randall’s Island June 26-28, 2015 and will feature Dierks Bentley, Luke Bryan and Brad Paisley at the top of the all-star line up.

The first additional artists to be announced for the three-day festival include Wade Bowen, Brandy Clark, Maddie & Tae, Kip Moore, Ashley Monroe, Randy Houser, The Cadillac Three and Dwight Yoakam with more to be revealed over the coming weeks. . For more information and pricing information, visit: farmboroughfestival.com.

“We’ve been dreaming about bringing a country festival to New York for a long time, and we feel like the time is right now. We have the perfect partner in Founders and the perfect location on Randall’s Island to really bring fans and artists something special,” said Brian O’Connell, Live Nation President of Country Touring. “New York City is a global destination. Country fans from all over the world can come to the city and take advantage of all it has to offer, while enjoying three days of the best country music acts too.”

“We’re thrilled to bring our hometown of New York City its first-ever Country music festival. This has been many years in the making, and we couldn’t be more excited to launch FarmBorough in June,” said Co-founder and Partner at Founders Entertainment, Jordan Wolowitz. “Brian O’Connell and his team at Live Nation are the ideal partners for this venture, and together we form a festival dream team. With Governors Ball, and now FarmBorough, New York City is host to premier, world class, music festivals.”