8 Must-Listen-Again Country Classics

Some country classics you think you’ve heard enough of are worth another listen. Some songs grab us the first time we hear them. You all have certain songs that you remember exactly where you were the first time they came across the air. It’s amazing how visceral it can be when a song from your past comes on. You may not remember your mother-in-law’s birthday, but you can remember where you were, who you were with, and what you were wearing when that certain song came blaring out of a speaker somewhere.

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And then when you go back and listen again? After maybe a few years (a few decades?) away from it? Away from this song you forgot meant as much to you as it did, and does, to the millions who made it the legendary classic that it is? It can often be a completely new and exciting experience entirely.

1. “Your Cheatin’ Heart” by Hank Williams, written by Hank Williams   

Recorded during the last recording session the honky-tonk legend ever had, the song was captured in one take. Steel guitarist Don Helms shared the story years later. Williams showed the musicians the tune, and they worked up the arrangement. The next time Helms heard the song, he was standing over the casket of the deceased singer. The recording features Helms, Tommy Jackson on fiddle, Chet Atkins and Jack Shook on guitar, and Floyd “Lightnin'” Chance on bass. Cover versions of the song have been recorded by Frankie Laine, Ray Charles, Patsy Cline, and almost literally countless others.

2. “El Paso” by Marty Robbins, written by Marty Robbins

It’s a masterpiece story-song. Marty Robbins paints quite a picture with this four-minute and forty-second journey through the Southwest countryside. This was the first song over four minutes to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Robbins first conceptualized the song during a road trip from Nashville to his Arizona home. Cover versions of the song were performed by everyone from Elvis Presley to the Grateful Dead to Old 97’s.

3. “Husbands and Wives” by Roger Miller, written by Roger Miller  

Roger Miller first recorded this classic for his own Words and Music album. It continued the success he had achieved with “Dang Me” and “King of the Road.” The song reached No. 5 on the Billboard country chart and crossed over to the pop charts, too, reaching No. 27 on the Hot 100. If Neil Diamond, Brooks & Dunn, and Jamey Johnson, amongst many many others, can all cover a tune convincingly? It must be some kind of accessible tune.

4. “Ode to Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry, written by Bobbie Gentry  

What was being thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge in “Ode to Billie Joe?” Its singer and songwriter, Bobbie Gentry, never told. This moody narrative focuses on a family’s reactions, or lack thereof, as they learn the news of a suicide in their community. The song was recorded as a demo by Gentry with an acoustic guitar. A string section was overdubbed, and arranger Jimmie Haskell later said he wanted to treat it like a film score because the song was so cinematic.

The results were immediate. The song hit No. 1 within five weeks of its release and sold a million copies within six. Fun fact for songwriters: the song doesn’t contain a traditional chorus (but how many listeners actually care—or even notice?). In 1976, a feature film inspired by the song was made starring Robby Benson and Glynnis O’Connor. The movie reveals what is thrown off the bridge, but we’ll never really know unitl we hear it from Gentry herself.

5. “Harper Valley PTA” by Jeannie C. Riley, written by Tom T. Hall 

Another song that lent itself to a cinematic interpretation. Jeannie C. Riley sold over 6 million copies of this single. Songwriter Tom T. Hall said he had seen a situation as a student in the mid-Forties that provoked the lyrics. The mother of one of his classmates rubbed the school board the wrong way, and his teacher took it out on the woman’s daughter. Barbara Eden starred in the 1978 movie inspired by the song. Jerry Kennedy played the dobro guitar on the song, which resulted in the guitarist complaining that he became so in-demand as a dobro player that he was barely called on to play guitar anymore. Boo-hoo, Jerry! 

6. “Little Green Apples” by O.C. Smith, written by Bobby Russell

First recorded by country luminaries Roger Miller and Patti Page, it was O.C. Smith who ended up scoring the most successful version of Bobby Russell’s “Little Green Apples.” Smith’s version reached No. 2 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Billboard Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles charts. It’s forgivable the song was kept out of the top position on the pop hits list—the offending No. 1 in its way was The Beatles’ “Hey Jude.”

7. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” by George Jones, written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman

Producer Billy Sherrill first tried to get George Jones to record this song in 1978. Jones resisted. The singer felt the song was too “morbid.” Jones was having issues with the law at the time, and his career had stalled. The song took 18 months to record. When it was finally released, it shot to No. 1. The success of the song resurrected Jones’ career, prompting the Possum to muse, “A four-decade career was salvaged by a three-minute song.” 

[RELATED: Behind the Song: George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today”]

8. “Seven Year Ache” by Rosanne Cash, written by Rosanne Cash

Cash recounted in her 2010 biography how the album and its title song changed her life, “I was 24 years old when we made Seven Year Ache, and I was completely unprepared for the attention it would attract or the work expected of me as a result. The first single was the title song, probably the best song I had written up to that point, and it was a huge hit, reaching No. 1 in the country charts the week of my 25th birthday and crossing over to the pop charts, where it reached No. 22.”

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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