50 Country Songs Everyone Should Know

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

31. “Act Naturally”

Written by Johnny Russell.

Recorded by Buck Owens and the Buckaroos. Released 1963.

Russell’s clever bit of self-deprecation became Owens’ first chart-topper, and it later linked Liverpool to Bakersfield when the Beatles cut it (with Ringo singing lead).

32. “To Beat The Devil”

Written and recorded by Kris Kristofferson. Released 1970.

A stirring defense of art for art’s sake. “I ain’t saying I beat the Devil, but I drank his beer for nothing, and then I stole his song.”

33. “On Your Way Home”

Written by Matraca Berg and Ronnie Samoset

Recorded by Patty Loveless. Released 2003.

A jaw-dropper of a ballad. A wife confronts a wavering husband with a simple, direct and crestfallen question: “Where do you go on your way home?”

34. “‘Til I Can Make It On My Own”

Written by Tammy Wynette, George Richey and Billy Sherrill.

Recorded by Tammy Wynette. Released 1976.

This one sets a soulful melody to some of the most vulnerable lyrics Wynette ever sang. “‘Til I get used to losing you/ Let me keep on using you/ ‘Til I can make it on my own.”

35. “Boulder To Birmingham”

Written by Emmylou Harris and Bill Danoff.

Recorded by Emmylou Harris. Released 1975.

Harris’ gorgeous epitaph for her friend and mentor, Gram Parsons, penned with Bill Danoff (whose other two big hits were, get this: “Country Roads” and “Afternoon Delight”). “The hardest part is knowing I’ll survive.”

36. “Rose Colored Glasses”

Written by John Conlee and George Baber.

Recorded by John Conlee. Released 1978.

An absolute classic, written and performed at a time when country music was beginning to flounder towards urban cowboyness. The narrator knows he’s a fool, admits he’s being a fool and is resigned to continue hoping and believing. Conlee doesn’t have to tell us: we know how this ends.

37. “Single Girl, Married Girl”

Written by A.P. Carter.

Recorded by the Carter Family. Released 1927.

Well, old A.P. didn’t likely write this one, but he curated it. A crushing portrait of women’s plight. The single girl goes anywhere she pleases. The married girl has a baby on her knees. Sung from the married woman’s perspective, too.

38. “Seven Year Ache”

Written and recorded by Rosanne Cash. Released 1981.

The melody… the hooks… and the chilling reality of the narrator’s admonition, “Don’t bother calling to say you’re leaving alone/ ‘Cause there’s a fool on every corner when you’re trying to get home.”

39. “Busted”

Written by Harlan Howard.

Recorded by Johnny Cash. Released 1963.

If economies rose like helicopters, this one might go out of style, but I doubt it. Such a cool and clever song, and it gives me pause every time I hear Cash, Ray Charles, Patty Loveless or any other singer who has covered this sing saying, “I was just thinking of calling on you, I’m busted.” The insinuation being… that won’t work, either.

40. “Today I Started Loving You Again”

Written by Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens. Recorded by Merle Haggard. Released 1968.

Right to the point, and the point is problematic. “I’m right back where I’ve really always been.”

View #41-50 on Page 2 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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