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.

Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Songwriters 60-51

rolling stone

 

See Part 1Part 2,Part 3 and Part 4

60- Willie Nelson

Nelson was a struggling Music Row pro when Faron Young cut his ode to an empty room, “Hello Walls,” in 1961. A string of undeniable classics followed — “Night Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and “Crazy,” immortalized by Patsy Cline — and Nelson began his own recording career, to fair results. But in the early Seventies he moved to Austin, Texas, and reinvented himself as a link between Nashville’s tradition and rock’s imperative of personal freedom, making concept albums like Phases and Stages and Red Headed Stranger, helping pioneer the stripped-down Outlaw Country movement and rising as the greatest interpreter of American song outside Frank Sinatra. No one except Dylan has embraced the endless highway with more artistic success — as explained by Nelson in “On the Road Again,” a Top 20 Grammy-winning hit in 1980 — and his studio career is just as endless, ranging from Texas swing to reggae to standards with strings. “Willie sort of creeps up on you,” Keith Richards once said. “Those beautiful mixtures he has between blues and country and mariachi, that Tex-Mex bit, that tradition of a beautiful cross section of music. . .He’s unique.”

59- Tom Petty

“The words just came tumbling out of me,” Petty said of “American Girl,” his greatest song and first hit single. He began as the Seventies and Eighties most commercially potent inheritor of the Sixties songwriting tradition, knocking out hit after hit of compact, hard-jangling rock & roll – from “I Need to Know” to “Refugee” to “The Waiting.” As he’s aged, Petty has movingly explored relationships (1999’s divorce chronicle Echo) and the dark side of the American dream itself (2014’s Hypnotic Eye), always rooting his music in a sense of our common experience (Johnny Cash told Petty that the title track from 1985’s Southern Accents should replace “Dixie” as the region’s unofficial anthem). “When young musicians ask me what the most important thing is, I always say it’s the song,” Petty told Rolling Stone in 2009. “You know, you can chrome a turd, but it’s not going to do any good.”

58- George Clinton

For all of pioneering funk radical George Clinton’s subversive use of hard grooves, distortion, jamming, Afro-futurism and arena-wowing spaceships, the vast P-Funk canon was built on traditional songwriting chops. Parliament was born as a doo-wop group in the Fifties led by Clinton, a young Leiber and Stoller fan who worked briefly in the Brill Building and later spent time as a Motown songwriter. After his exposure to Hendrix, Vanilla Fudge and copious amounts of psychedelics, Clinton’s pop-wise sense of puns and wordplay helped drive home his interstellar philosophizing. “It was a way of bending people’s minds and showing them that what they took for granted might not be the truth at all,” he wrote in his bio. “In other words, it was classic psychedelic thinking in the sense that you didn’t take no — or yes — for an answer, instead tunneling down a little bit to see what else might be there beyond the binary.” Eventually, Clinton’s songwriting became a foundation for the G-Funk of the Nineties, including songs like Dr. Dre’s “Dre Day” and Snoop Dogg’s “Who Am I (What’s My Name?).”

57- Joe Strummer and Mick Jones

It isn’t a stretch to call Joe Strummer and Mick Jones the Lennon and McCartney of the U.K. punk explosion. Between their roaring debut in 1977 and their split in 1983, the duo wrote at a feverish pace, often in Jones’ grandmother’s flat in a high-rise council estate, bashing out finished songs together as a full band in their rehearsal space. The Clash’s 1980 watershed London Calling, which Rolling Stone declared the best album of the Eighties, became a double album not by design but because they were writing so many songs so quickly at the time. “Joe, once he learned how to type, would bang the lyrics out at a high rate of good stuff,” Jones recalled. “Then I’d be able to bang out some music while he was hitting the typewriter.” Strummer was the band’s social conscious, taking the lion’s share of the vocals, while Jones came up with the band’s most memorable pop moments — 1980’s “Train In Vain” and their 1982 smash “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” Though they didn’t work together for years after Strummer fired Jones from the Clash, the pair was back collaborating on songs shortly before Strummer’s death in 2002. “We wrote a batch,” said Jones. “We didn’t used to write one, we used to write a batch at a time — like gumbo.”

56- Madonna

Before she was a star, Madonna was a songwriter with a sharp ear for a hook and a lyrical catchphrase, playing tracks like “Lucky Star” for record companies in the hope of scoring a contract. Her earliest hits honed the electro beats coming out of the New York club scene into universal radio gold. But songs like her greatest statement, “Like a Prayer,” can also summon an anthemic power to rival Springsteen or U2. Madonna has enlisted numerous collaborators en route to selling more than 300 million albums — she started working with longtime writing partner Patrick Leonard after he brought her “Live to Tell” in 1986, and from Shep Pettibone and William Orbit in the Nineties through Diplo, Avicii and Kanye West on 2015’s Rebel Heart, she’s worked successfully with producers across many genres. Through it all, her songs have been consistently stamped with her own sensibility and inflected with autobiographical detail. “She grew up on Joni Mitchell and Motown and. . . embodies the best of both worlds,” says Rick Nowells, who co-wrote with Madonna on 1998’s Ray of Light. “She is a wonderful confessional songwriter, as well as being a superb hit chorus pop writer.”

55- Tom Waits

Waits began as a throwback, a beatnik jazzbo singing the praises of old cars and barflies and looking for the heart of Saturday night. His early period produced gems like “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)” and “Jersey Girl,” made most famous by Bruce Springsteen. But with 1983’s Swordfishtrombones and 1985’s Rain Dogs he blossomed into what he called his “sur-rural” period, drawing on old blues, German cabaret and street-corner R&B to create songs populated by dice-throwing one-armed dwarves, men with missing fingers playing strange guitars and phantom truck-drivers named Big Joe. “You wave your hand and they scatter like crows,” he sang in his rusted plow-blade voice to a Brooklyn girl about her suitors. “They’re just thorns without the rose.” It would be his biggest hit — Rod Stewart took “Downtown Train” to Number Three on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1989. “The creative process is imagination, memories, nightmares and dismantling certain aspects of this world and putting them back together in the dark,” said Waits. “Songs aren’t necessarily verbatim chronicles or necessarily journal entries, they’re like smoke.”

54- Kurt Cobain

Nirvana’s skull-crushing noise assault would have meant little if not for the deceptively brilliant pop craft underpinning it. Kurt Cobain was raised on Beatles LPs, which you can hear in songs like “About a Girl” and “Something in the Way.” And he employed Dylan-style love-and-theft to left-field pop as well, masterfully distilling indie-rock icons Pixies in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and U.K. post-punks Killing Joke in “Come as You Are.” Lyrically, songs like “Rape Me” and “Stay Away” (with its memorable “God is gay” declaration) brought deep gender studies provocations to a mass audience — one of the most astonishing subversive achievements in rock history. And if lines like “I feel stupid and contagious/here we are now, entertain us” became generational epigrams, it’s in their cryptic ability to nail inarticulate pain. “I don’t like to make things too obvious, because it gets stale,” Cobain said. “It’s the way I like art.”

53- Stevie Nicks

Fleetwood Mac blew up in the Seventies thanks to three top-notch singer-songwriters — guitarist/producer/mastermind Lindsey Buckingham, bluesy songbird Christine McVie and the gypsy queen herself, Stevie Nicks. Her “Rhiannon,” “Sara” and “Gold Dust Woman” were full of post-hippie witchy imagery, but under the gossamer surface, they were deceptively tough-minded accounts of heartbreak and betrayal in the L.A. heyday of free love and hard drugs. She and Buckingham were a couple when they joined Fleetwood Mac, but some of her greatest songs came out of the wreckage of their relationship — including the Number One “Dreams.” “We write about each other, we have continually written about each other, and we’ll probably keep writing about each other until we’re dead,” she told Rolling Stone last year. She remains undiminished as a writer, as she proved on her 2011 gem In Your Dreams. But her most famous song is still “Landslide,” her acoustic lament for children growing older, written before she’d even turned 30. “I was only 27,” she said. “It was 1973 when I wrote it, about a year before I joined Fleetwood Mac. You can feel really old at 27.”

52- The Notorious B.I.G.

The greatest rapper ever balanced gangsta realness and R&B playfulness, proving that a self-described “black and ugly” corner kid from Brooklyn could blow up to become a pop superstar through sheer brilliance and charisma. At the heart of Biggie’s music was a gift for rolling off scrolls of buoyant lines that were as singable as they were quotable — “Birthdays were the worst days, now we sip champagne when we’re thirsty,” “Poppa been smooth since days of Underoos” and on and on. Working with pop-savvy producer Sean “Puffy” Combs, Biggie raised his game throughout his brief career —from the social realism of “Things Done Changed” to the euphoric rags-to-riches celebration “Juicy” to effortlessly virtuosic performances like “Hypnotize” and “Ten Crack Commandments,” both from his 1997 swan song Life After Death. “I wanted to release music that let people know he was more than just a gang­sta rapper,” Combs said later. “He showed his pain, but in the end he wanted to make people feel good.”

51- Willie Dixon

Dixon was a fine performer and bass player, but he made his greatest contribution as house songwriter at Chess Records in the 1950s. Dixon was essential in shaping the sound of post-war Chicago blues, supplying masters like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf with riffs as crisp as the creases in a new suit and lyrics so boastful that they’d be terrifying if half-true. By the early Sixties, as a new generation discovered the blues, plenty of young white men were learning to exaggerate their sexual prowess from Dixon’s songs. It’s possible that no blues writer other than Robert Johnson had had as profound an impact on the development of rock music: Mick Jagger acquired his strut from “Little Red Rooster,” which the Stones faithfully covered in 1964; the Doors did a leering L.A. version of “Back Door Man” on their 1967 debut; and Led Zeppelin belatedly admitted the debt “Whole Lotta Love” owed to Dixon’s “You Need Love” and “Bring It on Home” when they settled a copyright dispute in the Eighties. “He’s the backbone of postwar blues writing,” Keith Richards has said, “the absolute.”

Watch Willie Nelson & Lyle Lovett Perform “Funny How Time Slips Away” on Austin City Limits

Austin City Limits will air the last episode of the 40th season on Feb. 14, and the show has planns that feature highlights from the first-ever Austin City Limits Hall of Fame.

The special Hall of Fame episode is hosted by Texas’s own Matthew McConaughey and will also feature appearances by inductees Emmylou Harris, Buddy Guy, Robert Randolph and more.

This Day in Music History — November 10

1958 : Lou Rawls, who is fronting a group called the Travelers, is badly injured in a car accident in Marion, Arkansas that also involves Sam Cooke, who is headlining the tour. The driver, Edward Cunningham, dies in the accident.

1975 : Queen shoots the video for Bohemian Rhapsody, which according to director Bruce Gowers, takes about four hours. It airs repeatedly on the British show Top Of The Pops and helps the song become one of the most popular in UK history.

2002 : Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Tom Petty, Elvis Costello, Lenny Kravitz, and Brian Setzer guest star on The Simpsons in an episode where they run a rock and roll fantasy camp. The first rule of the camp: There are no rules! Second rule: No outside food.

2003 : An emotional tribute to the recently-deceased Johnny Cash is held at Nashville’s famous Ryman Auditorium, featuring classic Cash songs performed by Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Kid Rock, and Steve Earle, among others.

Well This is Awkward — President Obama (sorta) Sings Along to “On the Road Again” with Willie Nelson

 

Yesterday (November 7), the White House honored American troops with a concert featuring performances from Willie Nelson, John Fogerty, Mary J. Blige, Common, and others.

Willie invited President Obama to join in on the sing-along of “On the Road Again”. The only problem? The President didn’t seem to know the song’s lyrics and just kind of snapped along to the music.

Watch in horror below.

This Day in Music History — October 1

1962 : Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show makes its debut. The theme song was written by Paul Anka, but Carson wrote the drum part at the beginning so he could get some royalties from the song.

1966 : Jimi Hendrix makes his UK stage debut when he jumps onstage to jam with Cream at London Polytechnic.

1991 : The world’s most valuable golf glove – the original, crystal-studded one Michael Jackson wore – is stolen from the Motown Museum in Detroit. Police recovered the glove two days later. MC Hammer set up a phone line and offered a $50,000 reward for the glove’s return.

1995 : Farm Aid 8 takes place in Louisville, Kentucky, with Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young, Hootie & the Blowfish and The Dave Matthews Band raising over $1 million to support American farmers.

This Day in Music History — September 18

1970 : Jimi Hendrix is found dead in his basement. He had taken 9 pills of the barbiturate vesperax, that along with alcohol, caused a fatal overdose.

1984 : At the very first MTV Video Music Awards, Madonna performs Like A Virgin in a white wedding gown accessorized by her famous “Boy Toy” belt.

1998 : On the Grand Ole Opry, Jett Williams pays tribute to her late father, Hank Williams, who would have been 75 the day before. Daughter salutes father by performing Your Cheatin’ Heart, a song released after his death on New Year’s Eve, 1952. “He never sang the song on the Opry. He never sang it live,” Williams tells the audience.

2006 : Willie Nelson’s tour bus is stopped near Lafayette, LA, and Nelson, along with four members of his band, are arrested for possession of marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms.