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.