Everyone has their own way of judging a classic country song, but ultimately it comes down to characteristics that separate them from the rest. The following classic country songs are by no means the only ones; however, they had an enormous influence on the genre and all of them stand out from the crowd.
Ronnie Milsap – Smoky Mountain Rain (1980)
Thanks to a combination of passionate piano playing, an unforgettable string arrangement, inspirational lyrics and a vocalist who is more than able to interpret the meaning behind it all, Smoky Mountain Rain is nothing less than a country classic. The collaboration between Milsap and Tom Collins (producer) ensured a fourth hit for Milsap in 1980 alone. Credit is also due to the writers of this “going home” song, namely Key Flemming and Dennis Morgan. Going back to the place where you come from is something special, and Smoky Mountain Rain captures it perfectly.
Tom T. Hall – Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine (1972)
Hall is regarded as one of the greatest “storytellers” in country music history. This particular song comes across as very sentimental and almost sweet, when in fact it retains something more cynical. From the viewpoint of an old janitor, life is placed under the microscope in all aspects. The loyalty of friends and lovers along with truth that can only be found in the simple things life has to offer. Ultimately Hall called out the illusions everyone had in the 1970’s.
Garth Brooks – Friends in Low Places (1990)
Garth is blessed with a great vocal range, giving him the ability to go down and deep or to reach that good old country high and whining tone. Friends in Low Places was a song that helped Garth to establish himself as a country superstar, earning him respect and popularity. For a touch of authenticity they had a few guys party in the studio, including song writers Dewayne Blackwell and Earl “Bud” Lee. The fun time they had can be heard on the last section of the song
Donna Fargo – The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A (1972)
If there ever was a happy and completely optimistic country song regarding love and getting married then it has to be this self-composed song by Donna. The greatness of the song resides in the simplicity. One can even say the naïve lyrics based on the ideas of “happily ever after” and the way she carries the song as a whole makes it a tune for the classic books. More importantly, her true Kansas style is written all over the song.
Reba McEntire – Fancy (1991)
The original song was recorded by Bobbie Gentry in 1969 and it tells the story of a girl who becomes a prostitute due to her mother. Luckily it has a happy ending when the girl goes from rags to riches. Reba’s producer was fearful of doing a cover version of the song, mainly because he thought the public wouldn’t buy into her interpretation. However, the producer of her 1991 album (Rumor Has It), Tony Brown, decided that she is more than capable. The outcome was a pure country classic unique to the one and only Reba.
Roger Miller – King of the Road (1964)
Apart from the fact that it’s one of countries most played songs in history, Miller was able to write a story that never gets old. It sees the journey of a guy who doesn’t like to be tied down, who will open “unlocked” doors when nobody is around and who is ultimately a charming socialite. This loveable character has captured the hearts of millions and once again, it’s the simplistic phrasing and detailed lyrics that made it such a great hit.
Lucinda Williams – Passionate Kisses (1988)
Even though it was Mary Chapin Carpenter who took the song to new heights in the early 1990’s, it’s Lucinda’s edgy voice that made it a great song in the first place. Up until the time of recording, Lucinda had some great acoustic blues albums under her belt, but her true audience waited for this single. For many it’s an anthem, representing the right to a soft bed and emotional stability. It was this song that gave her a permanent footprint in country music.
Alabama – Music Mountain (1982)
This band ruled the country music scene during the 80’s, but this particular song proved that country musicians didn’t need Nashville’s professional musicians for recordings. It looks back on the childhood of Randy Owen (band member) and where he spent most of his time. To the tune of classic rock riffs, a country harmony and colorful fiddle breaks, Alabama produced a pretty clear-cut country classic.
Patsy Cline – I Fall to Pieces (1961)
Roy Drusky turned down the chance to record the song and Patsy was more than happy to take over. Apparently she made every guy in the studio cry when she recorded it. Her brilliant and elegant manner in singing a song that wasn’t manly enough for Drusky stayed on the charts for no less than 6 months straight. It also saw her making her first crossover to songs with a little more pop. I Fall to Pieces became the benchmark for country ballads and rightfully so.
Tennessee Ernie Ford – Sixteen Tons (1955)
Stevie Wonder, Elvis Presley, The Weavers and Tom Morello covered this very unlikely country classic. Ford ventured into the dark side of debt, basing the song mostly on the situation of his father. Letters from his brother, sent during World War II, also added some extra inspiration in terms of lyrics. The rhythm is catchy and Ford’s vocals are melodramatic without being overdone. Nobody anticipated the influence this song would have, but when it came out nobody could stop it.
Charley Pride – Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’ (1971)
It’s a song that has been covered by several artists such as Alan Jackson, Conway Twitty and George Jones, but when Charley Pride took hold of this Ben Peter song nobody could recreate the same magic. Pride’s natural talent with love songs like this was a statement that sometimes you are just born with it. The song itself has a daring side if you listen closely and the driving piano arrangement has a definitive impact.
Johnny Cash – Folsom Prison Blues (1955)
“I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” was followed by an inspiring cheer from Folsom Prison inmates after Cash performed the song for them. Recorded as one of the most brutal prisons in American history, Cash wrote the song after discovering the true nature of the prison through a movie called “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison”. Few people can write such honest songs and Johnny smashed it right out of the park with this number.
Willie Nelson – Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain (1975)
The song was about 20 years old when it reached the talent of Willie. Before this happened many other tried to do it justice, but Willie was the only one who managed to successfully utilize its potential. It’s almost as if Fred Rose wrote it specifically for someone like Willie. When Willie recorded it they didn’t think much of the sound, because according to them it sounded like they recorded it in Willie’s kitchen. It wasn’t exactly up to Nashville standards, but it did launch the legacy that is Willie Nelson and provided his first big hit.
Loretta Lynn – Coal Miner’s Daughter (1970)
The original song was much longer than the recorded version and it placed Lynn in a very different light compared to the songs people loved her for. It is sentimental, stirring and most of all inspirational. Lynn’s honesty about her family’s history has been an anthem for many who endured the same circumstances. Life is tough and most of us have to work hard and build everything from the ground up. Eventually we get there and thanks to songs like these, we stay motivated.
Everly Brothers – Bye Bye Love (1957)
The Everly Brothers were lucky enough to have a combination of musicians with a great amount of skill to record Bye Bye Love, which included Chet Atkins and a piano player that jammed with Elvis. However, nothing should be taken away from the brothers, because their harmonizing ability definitely helped to launch it into a big hit. They also tweaked the chord progression a little by adding more country twang so-to-speak.
Hank Williams – Your Cheatin’ Heart (1953)
It was recorded on the first take and it was part of Hank’s last recording sessions. It was also during a time in his life when women were all around him. Everybody knew who the song was for and with brutal honesty Hank conveyed the fate a person who cannot stay monogamous. The pedal steel played by Don Helm is sincere and this is decorated by a man who knew more than he probably should have. Your Cheatin’ Heart was released after his death and automatically went to number 1.
Kenny Rogers – The Gambler (1978)
Everyone who knows Kenny Rogers knows this song and it gave him much more success than he bargained for. It took the writer, Don Schiltz, six weeks to write that final verse and he handed the end result to both Rogers and Cash. However, Schiltz stated that he believed Kenny would make magic with the lyrics and tune. This is exactly what happened. Kenny’s reputation as the Gambler took him from the Grammy Awards into movies.
George Strait – All my Ex’s live in Texas (1987)
The down to earth George could make large crowds swoon just by smiling broadly enough. This isn’t a song about regret so much as it is about staying away from the past. This explains the punch-line “That’s why I hang my hat in Tennessee”. The song was written by Sanger D. Schafer while he was with his fourth wife and it went on to become Strait’s greatest song ever.
Waylon Jennings & Willie Nelson – Mammas don’t let your Babies grow up to be Cowboys (1978)
Two of the original outlaws came together and brought out the true potential in a song people didn’t really notice. Ed Bruce wrote it in 1975, but could only manage to make it a minor hit. Thanks to the combined talent of Jennings and Nelson, the song shone brighter than the sun and became an instant country classic.
Dolly Parton – Jolene (1973)
Not too long ago Miley Cyrus did a very nice cover version of the song, but Dolly is still the queen. Jolene was inspired when Dolly saw a bank teller flirting with her man and it’s very different from typical “cheating” songs. In essence, the song is an outcry towards “Jolene” to stay away from her man. There are no threats of murder or assault. It’s just a beautiful way of asking nicely.
Tammy Wynette – Stand by your Man (1968)
Wynette wrote the song along with producer Billy Sherrill and she was quoted saying that “I spent 20 minutes writing it and 20 years defending it.” It’s a mixture of family values and some contradictions, but ultimately the song meant a great deal during the time of female liberation. Controversy and art truly came together with this brilliant song.
Jimmy Rodgers – Standing on the Corner (1930)
He was indeed the father of country and on this song the great Louis Armstrong contributed with a magnificent trumpet. It was part of his “blue yodels” collection and probably one of his greatest. This bluesy style country song is at the deepest part of country music roots and it’s as entertaining as Rodgers always tried to be.
George Jones – He Stopped Loving her Today
It was no secret that Jones hated the song. The speech problems he had meant that it took 18 months just to finish the song and when it was done Jones didn’t think anybody would listen to it, much less buy it. As it turned out, it became his first number one in a period of six years. As for the subject matter of the song, it’s very depressing and dramatic, something that tends to define country music.
Patsy Cline – Crazy (1961)
Willie Nelson is the proud owner and it became Patsy Cline’s signature song. It was originally meant for Billy Walker, but when Patsy’s husband heard Willie’s demo he didn’t waste any time playing it to his wife. After making some changes to the original demo, Patsy became more famous than she anticipated. It’s only natural that the song was included in the Great American Songbook as well.
Johnny Cash – I Walk the Line (1956)
According to Cash the song was partly written as gospel, and the other part still remains a mystery. Some say it’s a kind of love letter to his first wife while others believe it was aimed towards his love affair with June. Either way, I Walk the Line is regarded as one of the most definitive moments in a country icon’s singing career and Cash’s baritone voice only made it better.