50 Country Songs Everyone Should Know

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

20. “A Good Year for The Roses”

Written by Jerry Chesnut.

Recorded by George Jones. Released 1970.

Another breakup song, this one capturing the dumbfounded shock of a man left behind, standing in a house as his wife walks out the door. “I can hardly bear the sight of lipstick on the cigarettes there in the ashtray,” Chesnut writes.

21. “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down”

Written by Harlan Howard. Recorded by Charlie Walker. Released 1958.

Harlan Howard was working as a forklift driver in a California factory when he penned the first in a career of country classics. Delivered by Walker as a hard-charging honky-tonker, “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down” manages to convey resentment, sympathy and wisdom. “As you tumble to the ground, pick me up on your way down.”

22. “I Still Miss Someone”

Written and recorded by Johnny Cash. Released 1959.

Cash wrote so many wonderful songs, many of which could be slotted here (or slotted much higher). And it’s hard for us to separate the lyrics and music here from his frayed, disconsolate, legendary vocal performance. But there is so much here to admire, including the way Cash writes words that convey emotion both in what they mean and in how they sound. “I go out on a party/To look for a little fun/But I find a darkened corner/ ‘Cause I still miss someone.”

23. “City of New Orleans”

Written by Steve Goodman.

Recorded by Arlo Guthrie. Released 1972.

Country is the train song-heaviest of all genres, and “City of New Orleans” is among the most memorable of those train songs. Goodman’s train passes the graveyards of automobiles, the very vehicles that are dooming the train to oblivion. Fast fact: ABC’s Good Morning America program took its name from the chorus of this song.

24. Coal Miner’s Daughter

Written and recorded by Loretta Lynn. Released 1970.

A song so powerful that it changed the name of a town: There was no such thing as Butcher Holler until the song came out. Lynn thought Butcher Holler sounded better than Webb Hollow‚ or the municipality of Van Lear. We love Lynn’s peculiar language (“I remember well the well where I drew water”) and her plainspoken truths.

27. “Do You Believe Me Now”

Written by Max D. Barnes and Vern Gosdin.

Recorded by Vern Gosdin. Released 1988.

Woman finds her old lover on the troubled side of town, awash in booze and shame. “Don’t you think you should have called to tell me you were coming down?” the man asks, before claiming that his sorry state is proof of his love. “Do you believe me now?” he questions. “Look at the living, dying proof/I ain’t nothing without you.”

28. “I’ve Always Been Crazy”

Written and recorded by Waylon Jennings. Released 1978.

One of country’s finest and most consistent writers, Jennings penned so many wondrous works. For our purposes here, we’ll go with this one, in which ‘ol Waymore proclaims, “I’ve always been crazy, but it’s kept me from going insane.”

29. “Blue Umbrella”

Written and recorded by John Prine. Released 1973.

Prine is a national treasure, even if some folks aren’t aware that they have a stake in that treasure. I spent a vacation week last year listening to nothing but Prine, and at the end of the week I was haunted by so many lines but especially “Blue Umbrella’s” end-of-chorus prayer: “Just give me one extra season/So I can figure out the other four.”

30. “Good Ole Boys Like Me”

Written by Bob McDill. Recorded by Don Williams. Released 1980.

Though tied to a specific time and place, this childhood remembrance manages universality thanks to McDill’s breathtaking imagery. He writes of “the smell of cape jasmine through the window screen,” and of a gin-breathed, Bible-holding father who would “talk about honor and things I should know/Then he’d stagger a little as he went out the door.”

View #31-50 on pages 2 and 3 below.

17 Comments

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  1. Actually, “King of Broken Hearts” originally appeared on Jim Lauderdale’s 1991 debut album– Planet of Love; the soundtrack for Pure Country was released in 1992.

  2. Peter –
    Really enjoying the list. I’m making a playlist of the songs as you go. Surprisingly, I only had one of these songs on my iPod, so it’s becoming a learning (and expensive) experience.
    Thank you!

  3. I really love Elizabeth Cook’s and Sunny Sweeney’s versions of “If I Could.” Especially live! I’m surprised Peter didn’t mention Elizabeth’s since I know what a huge fan he is. 🙂

  4. You nailed it with ‘Rose Colored Glasses’! I just bought the whole album and wonder if ‘Backside of Thirty’ will soon appear on your list. John Conlee was a bit before my time, so what a great experience to hear his music.
    Also, I wrote down what I assumed your top ten would be and I had Rosanne Cash’s ‘Seven Year Ache’ at #10.

  5. I looked at the songs first and thought “Wow, someone actually think alot like me” The I looked and the author and slapped my head. Peter know knows his stuff. I was glad to see he had TVZ and Todd Snider on there, but if you ever heard Peter’s own Clown Juice you would think that belongs in there, too! Would have like to see Gram Parsons there though also.

  6. I’m not sure I gather why you use “Ira Hayes” as evidence that country songs aren’t entirely conservative vehicles as that song is a very conservative idea. The idea of speaking truth to federal powers when that power aims to limit the freedom and liberty of someone is a very conservative idea, or more accurately described, a classic liberal idea. Perhaps you’re definition of conservative ideas are what is skewed about your description, at the very least modern day conservative ideas? Perhaps you believe that the idea that freedom applies to dark skinned people as it does to those with pale skin isn’t a very conservative idea? Perhaps in the fifties, but slavery, Jim Crow, internment and relocation were very statist ideas and hardly would be attributed to what modern day conservatives would support.

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