That's a real tease of a title, because these are my ten greatest country hits of all time. Okay, I couldn’t settle on ten, so it’s my 13 greatest country hits of all time. There is a chance that your greatest country hits are a little different from mine, a big chance – probably 13 chances, but that’s the fun of it, isn’t it, to come up with your favorites and laugh about what a moron I am.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine had a Pandora station playing on his iphone, and after listening to it for an hour, I realized that I absolutely loved every song that was playing. I asked him what channel he had entered, and he said it was David Allen Coe radio. Now, David Allen Coe isn’t for everyone, but Pandora matches up most of his contemporaries for a great playlist, and I started thinking about these wonderful old classic country songs that I hadn’t heard in years.
Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Jr.; those guys wrote the book on country. You could have a country music party and never play anyone else. And the history behind them - do you realize that Willie Nelson has been making music for seven decades! Hank Williams Jr. was nominated for Entertainer of the Year six years in a row – he won it three years in a row! Johnny Cash just released a new album, and the guy passed away ten years ago. How great are you when you can still put out new music ten years after you die?
So, I plugged in my own "Classic Country" playlist last weekend and enjoyed songs that I haven't heard in years, and in the process started making a list of the songs that I consider the greatest country songs ever. I looked at a few sites along the way, just to jog my memory, but discovered that although I didn’t disagree with Rolling Stones’ top 100 of all time, they weren’t necessarily mine. I generally like high tempo songs where the singer has to give it all up on the vocals, like Travis Tritt’s “Here’s a Quarter” and Martina Mcbride’s “Independence Day”. But I also love those with a great melody, like Willie and Merle’s “Pancho and Lefty”. Come to think of it, I don’t know that there is a common theme to my favorites, except that they all remind me of a great place and a great time. I guess that’s exactly what country music is supposed to do.
And so, here’s my list, with a short comment after each. I’d love to see your suggestions - you’ll probably make me up my list to 14.
1. ‘Friends in Low Places’, Garth Brooks, 1990
From one of the ten best-selling albums of all time – ‘No Fences’. At our annual New Year’s Eve party, my sister, brother and our spouses always ask the band play this. We dance around in a big circle, flapping our arms and singing along as loud as we can, oblivious to the old folks around us. Of course, they think we're the old folks.
2. 'Take This Job and Shove It', Johnny Paycheck, 1977
Written by David Allen Coe, when Paycheck says “shove it”, there’s much more than words at work, and who among us hasn’t dreamed of hiring a band to play it for our boss on some bright Monday morning.
3. 'Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys', Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, 1978
Okay, if you don’t know the words to the first line of this chorus, you’ve been in a refrigerator for the last 30 years.
4. 'I Walk the Line', Johnny Cash, 1956
His music was so simple, yet so compelling. The song is basically a promise to his first wife, Vivian, that he’s staying true while he’s on the road, when he was actually in the middle of courting June Carter. Now that’s country music! Watch him sing it in his prime:
5. ‘Lukenbach, Texas’, Waylon Jennings, 1977
This is probably not on anyone’s list but mine, but there’s something about the words and the melody that makes it the perfect tune to sing by yourself after twelve beers at 1:30 in the morning on the back porch, know what I mean?
6. ‘All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down’, Hank Williams Jr., 1981
A thoughtful party song that most of us can relate to at some point in our lives, a reflection of our early rambunctious lifestyles that are now just good memories. Being the theme song for Monday Night Football didn’t hurt either.
7. ‘You Never Even Called Me by My Name’, David Allen Coe, 1975
Yes, I know this is the third time I’ve mentioned his name, but I’m not really a big fan. He has the perfect country music voice, but many of his songs are filthy, like, wash your hands after you hear this kind of filthy. This one, however, is fantastic. At the University of Georgia, we could never leave Papa Joes bar without singing it with our hands over our hearts, while crunching the peanut shells under our feet. Here is a rare performance preserved on video:
8. ‘Red Dirt Road’, Brooks and Dunn, 2003
Written by Ronnie Dunn, the song is an homage to his life. That’s not really unusual for country music writers, but when it’s sung with such conviction, the listener feels like he’s a part of it. I put on my earbuds, go to the outdoor utility room, and sing along as hard as I can. I’ve found that as long as the music is really loud, you sound like a superstar.
9. ‘Blame it on Your (lying, cheating, cold dead beating, two-timing, double dealing, mean mistreating, loving) Heart’, Patty Loveless, 1993
This one brought me back to country. One of the younger ladies working for me changed our radio station to country one day, over my objections, and I loved this song so much that I watched CMT until the video came on, and then I fell in love with Patty Loveless, literally. I joined her fan club and started writing fan letters for the only time in my life. Something about redheads, they do me in. This song is so good, they made a movie around it – ‘The Thing Called Love’, starring River Phoenix and a nobody-newcomer named Sandra Bullock.
10. ‘Pancho and Lefty’, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, 1982
In 1982, both of these guys were at the top of their game, and this ballad of two renegades is the perfect vehicle for two guys that were always seen as outsiders to the Nashville establishment. The song's production enhances its power; it is polished without being slick, in the wrong hands, this could easily have become a bombastic, over the top performance, but with them, it’s perfect.
11. ‘Tennessee Waltz’, Patti Page, 1950
Originally stamped as the B-side to the long forgotten ‘Boogie Woogie Santa Claus’, Patti Page was number one for nine weeks. It’s the first song I sang to my son when it was my night to stay up with him, and he was mesmerized by my perfect voice. Then he heard someone else sing.
12. ‘Independence Day’, Martina McBride, 1994
How can this little woman belt this song out the way she does? A story of shame and revenge, it does what any great song should do – it makes you think.
13. ‘Drive South’, Suzy Bogguss, 1992
What is this song, you say? This is my list, remember, and I love it. It’s the biggest hit Suzy ever had, and it is a perfect vehicle for her smooth-as-silk vocals. A wonderful blend of sassy, sexy and attitude, watch the video if you’ve forgotten it.