50 Country Songs Everyone Should Know

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

41. “If I Could”

Written by Tim Carroll.

Recorded by John Prine. Released 1997.

This should be a catchy, country classic. It’s a good humored look at one of life’s nearly universal bummers: “If I could, then I would/make money doing something that I love/I’d thank my lucky stars above.” A monster hit waiting to happen.

42. “New San Antonio Rose”

Written and recorded by Bob Wills. Released 1940.

A dancehall staple for generations, this multi-generational classic has drawn decades to the dance floors.

43. “Just Someone I Used To Know”

Written by Cowboy Jack Clement.

Recorded by Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. Released 1970.

Clement has written numerous gems, including this one, in which the narrator clearly knows more than he is telling. “When they ask who’s in the picture with me/ I say ‘Just someone I used to know.’”

44. “He Rode All The Way To Texas”

Written by John Starling.

Recorded by The Trio (Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton). Released 1998.

Starling’s tribute to a loner is poignant and impactful. The narrator hears a carefree singer and admits, “The freedom that he sings about, I guess I’ll never know/ I just can’t shake the guilt or kill the pain.”

“He Rode All The Way To Texas” appears on the album Trio II.

45. “Walking The Floor Over You”

Written and recorded by Ernest Tubb. Released 1941.

This song launched the honky-tonk movement. It also remains a real-life portrait of sorrowful regret.

46. “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”

Written by Peter LaFarge.

Recorded by Johnny Cash. Released 1964.

Sometimes, people characterize country music as an inherently conservative vehicle. This song about a Pima Indian who was among those who held the flag at Iwo Jima was recorded by Johnny Cash and made it into the Top 5 of the country charts. LaFarge’s song illuminated the plight of native people.

47. “Beneath Still Waters”

Written by Dallas Frazier.

Recorded by Emmylou Harrris. Released 1979.

Frazier is an absolute master, and this is one of his finest creations. “The surface won’t tell you what the deep water knows,” Harris sings, before admitting that she knows “your love is gone.”

48. “Bells of Odilia”

Written and recorded by Chris Richards.

Released 2004.

This is a moving, precisely written companion piece of sorts to Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” “Lord, show your mercy on my poison past,” Richards sings. “I have all these rough edges/So I don’t slip your grasp.”

49. “Barroom Girls”

Written by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

Recorded by Gillian Welch. Released 1996.

Once, I asked Guy Clark for an example of a great modern song, and he pointed to this one. “The night came undone like a party dress,” it begins. Enough said, except you have to hear the rest.

50. “King of Broken Hearts”

Written by Jim Lauderdale.

Recorded by George Strait. Released 1992.

This was Lauderdale’s lyrical appreciation of George Jones and Gram Parsons, but it works even for those who haven’t heard those troubadours. “The king of broken hearts doesn’t ask much from his friends, and he has quite a few of them/ They know he will understand, that’s just the way it goes.”

“King of Broken Hearts” appeared on the soundtrack to the film Pure Country.

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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