Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time — 50-41

Click here to see 100-91, 90-81, 80-71, 70-61, 60-51

50. Steve Earle, ‘Guitar Town’ (1986)

Fueled by drugs, booze and a nasty divorce from his third wife, Steve Earle delivered this road anthem with a croon and a bark, snarling his way through lines about speed traps and truck stops with the authority of a rock & roll rebel who, at 31 years old, had already seen (and snorted) it all. Years of hard living eventually took their toll on Earle, who released three follow-ups to Guitar Town before spending the first half of the ’90s in a heroin-addled haze. By the time he cleaned up his act in 1995, the alt-country movement was in full swing and Earle joined a new generation of musicians – many of whom had strummed along to a Guitar Town cassette – in the effort to tear down the boundaries between country and rock.

49. The Louvin Brothers, ‘The Christian Life’ (1959)

A highlight of the Louvins’ second gospel album, 1959’s Satan Is Real, “The Christian Life” adds a homespun fire-and-brimstone attitude to the sort of Depression-era country harmonizing picked up from earlier sibling acts like the Delmore Brothers: “My buddies shun me since I turned to Jesus / But I still love them, they burden my heart,” Charlie and Ira sing in close harmony over a waltz rhythm. Almost a decade later, the Byrds went on to cover “The Christian Life” on their 1968 country-rock masterpiece Sweetheart of the Rodeo, with Roger McGuinn’s voice dubbed over Gram Parsons’ original lead vocal.

48. Willie Nelson, ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain’ (1975)

Fred Rose wrote it in the Forties, and everyone from Roy Acuff to Hank Williams took a shot at it, but the true purpose of “Blues Eyes Crying in the Rain” was to finally launch a long-striving, industry-beleaguered, 42-year-old Willie Nelson into orbit as the stark, startling centerpiece of his 1975 smash Red Headed Stranger. Michael Streissguth’s 2013 study Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville has a great scene where skittish label suits, fearful that the album “sounds like it was recorded in Willie’s kitchen,” frantically arrange a press listening session at Nashville hot spot the Exit/In, and then marvels as “Blue Eyes” triggers a standing ovation. “Nobody was more shocked than we were,” then-CBS Records President Rick Blackburn once conceded. “It didn’t have… the bells and whistles. It wasn’t the way you went about making a record in Nashville in those days.” Result: His first country Number One.

47. Bobbie Gentry, ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ (1967)

Innuendo has always played a role in folk and country music. But few songs piqued the pop crossover crowd’s curiosity more than Mississippi-born, Los Angeles-schooled Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 debut, in which an adolescent narrator and her family sit around the dinner table passing biscuits and gossiping about Billie Joe McAllister’s descent from the Tallahatchie Bridge. McAllister threw something else off it a day earlier and Gentry never reveals what it was. “The song is sort of a study in unconscious cruelty,” she once said of the family’s nonchalant attitude to the suicide. Released as the B-side to “Mississippi Delta,” “Ode” is a sultry country blues that drifts downstream on Gentry’s ominous acoustic guitar. Arranger Jimmie Haskell added dramatic strings, and three minutes were edited from her seven-minute original. Saxophonist Lou Donaldson’s funky 1967 instrumental version was sampled on dozens of hip-hop songs.

46. Roy Acuff, ‘Wabash Cannonball’ (1936)

Complete with choo-choo sound effects and the harmonica solo of some long-imagined cowboy, Acuff’s version of “Wabash Cannonball” was an early instance of country culture rising to meet the needs of city entertainment – the band even changed their name to the Smoky Mountain Boys once they made the Grand Ole Opry, presumably to retain that rural flavor. No surprise that he soon got into publishing and later ran for office – his moves always did seem a little strategic. But these are milestones, too; moments of friction in the development of a style as it took shape within the listening public at large.

45. Lefty Frizzell, ‘Long Black Veil’ (1959)

This 1959 saga of sacrifice is arguably the most persuasive primer on the pitfalls of infidelity. The hero of Frizell’s saga was wrongly executed for murder; he declined to give an alibi because was spending time “in the arms” of his best friend’s wife, a lethal indiscretion he takes to the grave. Since covered by Joan Baez, the Band, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen and plenty of others, “The Long Black Veil” has become a country-folk standard, a grim, haunting evocation of forbidden love and all its consequences.

44. George Jones, ‘The Grand Tour’ (1974)

In “The Grand Tour,” the Possum sings the part of a deserted husband and father leading a stranger through a memory-filled house that is no longer a home. The genius lies in the way Jones’s voice evokes that ghostly feeling amid the lush excess of producer Billy Sherrill’s strings, guitars and chorus. Written by Norro Wilson, Carmol Taylor and George Richey, “The Grand Tour” is the lead and title track of Jones’s masterful 1974 album. Although Jones was an admitted heavy drinker when he recorded it, “The Grand Tour” contains no clue to its protagonist’s crime. Instead, there’s only Jones’s impossibly detailed, syllable-by-heartbreaking-syllable performance of a shell of a man condemned to life in a haunted abode that is full of stuff but devoid of love.

43. Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, ‘Act Naturally’ (1963)

According to Owens’ autobiography, Buck ‘Em!, songwriter Johnny Russell stumbled into “Act Naturally” when a last minute Los Angeles recording session forced him to break a date with his Fresno girlfriend. When she asked what he would be doing, Russell gave her the line that would eventually open the song: “They’re gonna put me in the movies, and they’re gonna make a big star out of me.” Two years and several rejections later, Owens heard Russell’s demo and decided to record “Act Naturally” as part of the first sessions that brought his full road band, the Buckaroos, into the studio. Here, the group sounded tight and alive, the promise of that first line making the second – “We’ll make a film about a man that’s sad and lonely, and all I gotta do is act naturally” – all the more cutting. A Beatles cover helped a younger generation discover his music but Owens recalls a flight during which his neighbor explained to him how she loved the Beatles but hated country music. “As hard as I tried,” he said, “I couldn’t convince her that ‘Act Naturally’ was a country song.”

42. Loretta Lynn, ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ (1970)

This autobiographical reminiscence was a gear-shift for Lynn, who’d made her name by feistily fending off hordes of honky-tonk homewreckers out to bed her man. The song originally rambled for six minutes and eight verses before producer Owen Bradley got out his red pen, excising a scene of Lynn’s mother hanging movie magazines on their cabin wall as well as other homey details. It’s country music’s definitive started-from-the-bottom anthem, climaxing with one of popular music’s most stirring key changes. Though Lynn is proud of her family’s hardworking decency, she never pretends that her life would’ve been better if she’d never left Butcher Holler and poverty behind.

41. Townes Van Zandt, ‘Pancho and Lefty’ (1972)

Leave it to the poet laureate of Texas country to not only tell a story of betrayal, but to make the turncoat a sympathetic character. “Pancho and Lefty” is The Great Gatsby of country songs, conveying more about friendship, duplicity and guilt than most novels. In the song, the bandit Pancho Villa has been dispatched by the hangman’s rope, but at least his suffering is over. His sidekick Lefty, who set him up, has to die a thousand deaths, trying to live with what he’s done while hiding out in cheap hotels up north. Or as Van Zandt puts it, “The dust that Pancho bit down south/Ended up in Lefty’s mouth.” Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s cover ended up topping the country charts in 1983.

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Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time — 70-61

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

In the two decades Lee Ann Womack has been making music, she’s never made a splash like the one she made with this 2000 song. It charted at Number One on both the country and adult contemporary charts, won “Song of the Year” at the CMAs, ACMs, ASCAP awards and took home a Grammy for “Best Country Song.” Plus, between the years of 2000 and 2007, you couldn’t throw a rock at a high school graduation without hitting it. But according to the song’s co-writer Tia Sillers, it was actually less about how the children are our future and more about her rough divorce. Still inspirational, just more depressing.

Country music’s most parodied anthem (see Homer and Jethro paean to a doomed sow, “B-A-C-O-N & E-G-G-S”) began, unpromisingly, as “I-L-O-V-E-Y-O-U, Do I have to Spell It Out for You?” Songwriter Bobby Braddock found a juicier subject and song-plugger Carly Putman suggested a sadder melody. Producer Billy Sherrill brought the finished product to Tammy Wynette, whose achingly sincere limning of a mother spelling out the “hurtin’ words” in front of her four-year-old made the song her third Number One and the title track of her first gold album. “I hated myself for not writing that song,” the five-time divorcée later said. “It fit my life completely.”

When John Prine wrote “Angel” he’d been working as a mailman in the suburbs of Chicago, sketching out ideas as he made the rounds, playing open mics on weekends. At the time, country was cross-pollinating with the distinctly un-country sounds of pop and soft-rock, but Prine presented himself as something more stripped down: A regular guy with a plain voice playing simple music, no shoulder pads necessary. But it was his ear for detail – the flies buzzing around the sink, the rodeo poster that sends a woman on a daydream that she knows will never get fulfilled – that made his songs quietly complicated. Country music rendered with the sharpened eye of an author.

 

Recorded in 1972 but released in 1975, Lynn’s ode to reproductive rights turned out to be a difficult pill for many country stations to swallow – one of nine Lynn songs banned during her career. Written by Lorene Allen, Don McHan and T. D. Bayless, “The Pill” uses a chicken-coop metaphor (“I’m tearin’ down your brooder house”) to warn a straying cock that his hen may start exchanging her maternity-wear “garbage” for clothes that “won’t take up so much yardage.” Lynn, who birthed four babies by age 20, employs her throaty chuckle-growls to even the scales over funky chicken-scratch guitars. “They didn’t have none of them pills when I was younger,” Lynn wrote in Coal Miner’s Daughter, “or I would have been swallowing ’em like popcorn.”

When Cash recorded “Seven Year Ache” at age 25, it was with the soulful, seen-it-all purr of someone who’d endured the game for decades. And she had: Growing up with dad Johnny’s drug addiction, touring absences, divorce from her mom Vivian and second marriage to June Carter which forced her dual Tennessee/California identity; not to mention cultivating her own career, sustaining her first marriage to hotshot singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell and having their first child. Yet the mood on this career-defining Number One country hit – which chronicled a man’s wanderlust and apparently traced to a spat with Crowell (who produced the song!) – was an almost breezy reasonableness, as if the singer almost pitied the poor schnook. The melodic tick-tock was “Mellow Mafia” with a twangy moan, and Rosanne’s tart aphorisms were some of the genre’s most poetic.

Not to be confused with Jimmy Patton’s 1959 rockabilly track “Okie’s in the Pokie,” this megahit kicked Merle Haggard into the top tier of country performers. A Bakersfield-born son of Okie farmers, Haggard co-wrote this condemnation of pot smokers, sandal-wearers and draft-card burners on his tour bus with Strangers drummer Roy Edward Burris. Both parody (“pitching woo”? “Manly footwear”?) and counter-counterculture anthem – Hag once said its 24 lines contain “about 18 different messages” – “Okie” remains an undeniable a manifesto of ethnic pride.Haggard followed his relatively mellow Los Angeles studio original with a more truculent live version, then doubled down in January of the following year with his borderline-jingoist “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” Yet as he told a journalist decades later, “I didn’t intend for ‘Okie’ to be taken as strongly from my lips as it was.”

Recorded as a single in 1961 and included on Patsy Cline Showcase that same year, this track has became a country ballad standard – but it almost wasn’t. Producer Owen Bradley initially envisioned the track recorded by baritone Roy Drusky. According to Ellis Nassour’s biography Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, Cline was standing in the hallway when she overheard Drusky turn it down because it wasn’t manly enough. It ended up being his loss: Bradley agreed to let Cline take it over and she allegedly sang it so tenderly during sessions that it caused every man in the studio to cry. It became one of the first of several pop/country crossovers for Cline and charted for over six months.

A Top Five country hit in 1965, George Jones knew the ironic, upbeat number would be a hit the minute he heard it: “‘The Race Is On’ was pitched to me,” he later told Billboard, “and I only heard the first verse, [sings] ‘I feel tears welling up cold and deep inside like my heart’s sprung a big leak,’ and I said, ‘I’ll take it.'” Eight years later, the song took on new meaning when it became the first to be broadcast by New York’s WHN, the crossover-friendly radio station that would set audience records and define the sound of pop country in the late-Seventies.

Obviously, the blackface aspect of Emmett Miller’s act will forever shadow his legacy, but covers by everyone from Little Richard to Etta James to Ryan Adams to LeAnn Rimes are keeping “Lovesick” alive. Hank Williams didn’t learn everything he knew from Miller, but the sweet-singing 1920s minstrel performer did play a significant role inspiring country music’s founding father. A couple decades before “Lovesick Blues” became Williams’ first number one hit in 1949, Miller and his melancholy yodel were in love with a beautiful gal too. Miller’s version comes with a spoken intro in which he explains that he’s got “every known indication of being in that condition” before dappling the show tune, from the 1922 Tin Pan Alley musical Oh, Ernest, with some octave vaulting. For another take on Miller, hear David Lee Roth covering “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)” on Van Halen’s Diver Down.

After periods emulating both smooth Eddy Arnold and honky-tonkin’ Hank Williams (whose Drifting Cowboys band he led after Hank’s death), Ray Price (a.k.a. “the Cherokee Cowboy”) returned to his Texas roots with this 1956 megahit that spent 20 weeks at the top of Billboard’s country chart. Co-writer Ralph Mooney penned the tune after his wife left him due to his drinking, and its lyrics suggest deep emotional delirium and paranoia. The music, however, reflected Price’s new shuffle style, with single-string fiddle, pedal steel guitar, and doubled acoustic and electric basses. Six months after Price’s release, Jerry Lee Lewis’s first Sun Records side was a more blatantly delirious rock cover that turned many heads.

RollingStone’s 100 Greatest Songwriters 80-71

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See Part 1 and Part 2

80- R. Kelly

The mercurial singer-writer-producer’s 25-year track record stands on its own: writing or co-writing 30 Top 20 R&B singles for himself or with the Chicago-based group Public Announcement, chart-topping assistance for Puff Daddy, Sparkle and Kelly Price; and the first song to ever debut at Number One on the Hot 100, Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone.” His ballads fly higher than anyone else’s, his sex jams started evocatively naughty (1993’s “Bump N’ Grind”) and ended up evocatively surreal (2005’s “Sex in the Kitchen” and, of course, the 30-part “Trapped in the Closet”). “My talent is more than just sexual songs,” said the only man who wrote for the Notorious B.I.G. and Celine Dion. “There was a time I desperately needed for the world to know that I was no-category guy. My whole goal in life was to reach that certain success where people will say, ‘Hey, that guy can do anything. He’s the Evel Knievel of music. He’s jumping over 15 buses!'”

79- Lucinda Williams

Raised in Louisiana, Lucinda Williams grew up listening to Hank Williams and reading Flannery O’Connor and emerged in the late Eighties as the great Southern songwriter of her generation. Yet, unlike most artists with a literary bent, she focuses on sensual detail just as much writerly scenes and imagery. Few songwriters use repetition as skillfully as Williams: on 1988’s “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad,” she ramped up the song’s sexual obsession by restating the title after every other line, and the title track from her 1998 masterpiece Car Wheels on a Gravel Road captures the peculiar rhythms of childhood memory by restating the song’s title at the end of each stanza. Williams learned her sense of concision from her father, poet Miller Williams. “Dad stressed the importance of the economics of writing,” she has said. “Clean it up, edit, edit, revise!”

78- Curtis Mayfield

At a time when most songwriters were still talking about love and heartbreak, Curtis Mayfield was penning sweet, subtle Civil Rights epistles like 1964’s “Keep on Pushing” and 1965’s “People Get Ready” (the latter a favorite of Martin Luther King). As leader of the Impressions, Mayfield’s low-key demeanor matched his lithe tenor and restrained, spacious guitar playing that influenced fellow chitlin’ circuit veteran Jimi Hendrix’ “Little Wing.” He kept his empathetic light touch even when he transitioned to the realist street tales of the 1973 Superfly soundtrack. Beyond hits for himself and the Impressions, Mayfield’s music provided no shortage of Top 10 songs for generations of artists, including Gladys Knight and the Pips (“On and On”), the Staple Singers (“Let’s Do It Again”), Tony Orlando & Dawn (“He Don’t Love You [Like I Love You]”) and En Vogue (“Giving Him Something He Can Feel”). “Everything was a song,” Mayfield said in 1994. “Every conversation, every personal hurt, every observance of people in stress, happiness and love . . . If you could feel it, I could feel it. And I could write a song about it. If you have a good imagination, you can go quite far.”

77- Allen Toussaint

No one outside of Leiber & Stoller better combined the commercial verities of pop with the deeper-than-dirt hoodoo of the blues than Toussaint did on songs like “Lipstick Traces (on a Cigarette),” “Ride Your Pony” or “Fortune Teller” (covered by the Stones, the Who and a host of other British Invaders). Writing and producing for Irma Thomas (“Ruler of My Heart,” or “Pain in My Heart” when Otis Redding cut it), Benny Spellman (“Mother in Law”), Lee Dorsey (“Working in a Coal Mine”) and Aaron Neville (“Hercules”), he helped define the sound of the city that helped define the sound of rock & roll: New Orleans. “There are some ingredients we share,” Toussaint once said of New Orleans’ unique mix of rhythmic and melodic traditions. “That second line brass band parade thing. The syncopation. The humor. . .We take longer to get to the future than anywhere else in America. . .So we have held on to the old world charm more.”

76- Loretta Lynn

If the personal is political, Loretta Lynn was Nashville’s down-home feminist revolutionary. “I looked at the songbooks and thought that anyone could do that,” she told American Songwriter, “so I just started writing.” Lynn was also a self-taught guitarist, whose earliest songs were in keys seldom used by Nashville session pros. She always took more pride in her writing than in her perky singing, and much of the lyrical material in her 16 country chart-toppers was drawn from her difficult marriage to Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn, whose alcoholism and infidelities inspired domestic dramedies like “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind).” “I had to have a real reason to write a song,” Lynn said. “I wrote them about true things.” These included the benefits of contraception (“The Pill”) and the plight of divorcees (“Rated X”), which were banned by many country stations but became huge sellers nonetheless.

75- Isaac Hayes and David Porter

“David approached me with the intention of selling me an insurance policy,” Isaac Hayes recalled of his first meeting with the man who would become his songwriting partner — although Porter has vehemently denied that anecdote. Insurance or no, they became an in-house songwriting team at Stax Records, and their collaboration yielded 30 R&B chart hits between 1966 and 1971. (Sometimes Hayes played keyboards on songs they’d written together, or Porter sang backup.) In particular, they were the songwriting masterminds behind Sam and Dave, writing “Soul Man,” “I Thank You,” “Hold On! I’m Comin'” and other classic duets. The team fell apart once Hayes became a hot buttered soul star in his own right, but they were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame together in 2005, three years before Hayes’ death. “We had no set pattern and just each came up with melodies, lyrics and hook lines and phrases,” Porter said, describing a process that could a produce a life-altering balled like “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” in just 15 minutes. “I’m no musician but I was able to relate to Isaac, we could communicate together.”

74- Patti Smith

“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,” went the opening line of Smith’s 1975 debut, Horses, proclaiming her belief in music as provocation and redemption. A gender-bending poet who kicked open the door for punk while retaining a faith in rock’s Sixties idealism, she drew on her love of Dylan, garage rock and French symbolist poetry (as well guitarist Lenny Kaye’s encyclopedic knowledge) to rewrite rock history in her own image. A collaboration with Bruce Springsteen, “Because the Night,” became a Top 20 hit in 1978, and after a long absence she returned in 1988 with “People Have the Power,” and then again in 1996 with “About a Boy,” a tribute to Kurt Cobain as well as her departed husband Fred “Sonic” Smith and friend Robert Mapplethorpe. The deep passion of her work since shows she’s never lost her faith in what she once called “the right to create, without apology, from a stance beyond gender or social definition, but not beyond the responsibility to create something of worth.”

73- Radiohead

Singer Thom Yorke, guitarist/electronics whiz/orchestral composer Johnny Greenwood and their Radiohead mates, always credited collectively, have produced some the modern era’s most glorious songs. Veering away from the pop success of “Creep,” the group began deconstructing and abstracting songforms. Yorke and Greenwood have called their process “defacatory,” and Yorke suggests his lyrics are as much stream of consciousness flow, gibberish and “just sounds” as anything confessional. (“It’s like you’re getting beamed it,” Yorke has said, “like with a ouija board”). Yet there’s a reason Frank Ocean, Vampire Weekend, Gillian Welch, Mark Ronson, Regina Spektor, Gnarls Barkley, the Punch Brothers and others cover their compositions: because the best —from the acoustic ballad “Fake Plastic Trees” to the digital kaleidoscope of “Everything in Its Right Place” — are indelible.

72- Fats Domino and Dave Barthomolew

Singer/pianist Antoine “Fats” Domino and producer/bandleader Dave Bartholomew started working together in 1949. Over the next 14 years, they collaborated on more than 50 charted singles — mostly written by one or both of them — and became the architects of the New Orleans rock & roll sound: two-and-a-half-minute jewels featuring effervescent piano boogie, in-your-face rhythms and lyrics that drew on local vernacular. (“I used to write songs mostly from things you hear people say all the time,” Domino said.) Bartholomew also wrote scores of hits for other New Orleans artists, many of which became rock standards: “I Hear You Knocking,” “One Night,” “I’m Walkin’.” Dr. John told Rolling Stone that, after Lennon and McCartney, Domino and Bartholomew were “probably the greatest team of songwriters ever. They always had a simple melody, a hip set of chord changes and a cool groove.”

71- Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

When Walter Becker and Donald Fagen met as students at Bard College during the late Sixties, they hit it off over a shared love of jazz, Dylan and the sardonic, post-modern humor of writers like Kurt Vonnegut and John Barth. Thus began the symbiotic relationship that produced a string of sophisticated, acerbic songs that still felt at home amidst the laidback mood of Seventies FM radio — hits like “Do It Again,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Peg.” Setting wry and cryptic, yet oddly poignant, lyrics to music that combined elements of rock and jazz, complex musicianship and smooth melodies, Steely Dan went on a run of near-perfect albums from 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill to 1977’s Aja. “I would come up with a basic musical structure, perhaps a hook line and occasionally a story idea,” Fagen once said, recalling their process. “Walter would listen to what I had and come up with some kind of narrative structure. We’d work on music and lyrics together, inventing characters, adding musical and verbal jokes, polishing the arrangements and smoking Turkish cigarettes.” Though they rarely left the studio during the Seventies, they tour a surprising amount today, playing sets dedicated to their classic albums.

This Day in Music History — November 20

1947 : Eagles’s Joe Walsh; Born Joseph Fidler Walsh on Nov. 20, 1947 in Wichita Kansas.

1966 : The Kander-Ebb musical Cabaret, featuring Joel Grey and Bert Convy, opens on Broadway.

1984 : Michael Jackson is awarded a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame directly in front of Mann’s famous Chinese Theatre, creating the largest-ever crowd for such an unveiling.

2003 : Famed “Wall of Sound” producer Phil Spector is formally charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of b-movie actress Lana Clarkson at his Los Angeles home. Spector enters a plea of “not guilty.

2013 : Loretta Lynn is honored at the White House with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The singer is awarded as “one of the first successful female country music vocalists in the early 1960s, courageously breaking barriers in an industry long dominated by men.”