Top 8 Traditional Country Songs of the ’80s

Country music saw a surge of popularity in the 1980s thanks to crossover artists like Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, along with the arrival of the romantic western film, Urban Cowboy. Fans often regard songs from the 1980s and 1990s as some of the best country music has to offer, which is reflected in the many hits that defined said eras.

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From Rogers and Parton’s timeless duet “Islands in the Stream,” to more traditional standards like Randy Travis’ “Forever and Ever, Amen,” we look at eight of the biggest country songs from the ’80s below.

1. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” by George Jones (1980)

George Jones set the precedent for the next decade of country music when he released “He Stopped Loving Her Today” in 1980. Widely regarded as the best country song of all time, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” tells the story of a man who spends the rest of his life nursing a broken heart after he and the woman he loves part ways.

Jones gives away the ending in the opening line, he said “I’ll love you till I die,” the lyrics keeping the listener hanging onto every note. The song was Jones’ first solo single since 1974 and was inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2008. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” not only defined Jones’ career but the genre at large.

2. “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton (1980)

Dolly Parton gave a voice to women in the workplace with her catchy 1980 hit, “9 to 5,” which was the title track of the comedy film of the same name starring Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. As the sole writer of the track, Parton wraps progressive lyrics that call out sexism in corporate America. Want to move ahead / But the boss won’t seem to let me / I swear sometimes that man is / Out to get me, she sings wrapped around an instantly recognizable melody. “9 to 5” hit No. 1 across a string of charts, including the Billboard Hot 100, Hot Country Songs, and Adult Contemporary charts, serving as one of her many famous hits.

3. “Lookin’ for Love” by Johnny Lee (1980)

Country music started making its way into mainstream culture with the arrival of the John Travolta and Debra Winger-fronted film, Urban Cowboy, in 1980. Set at ’80s country star Mickey Gilley’s Texas honky tonk, Gilley’s Club, one of the most popular songs to come out of the film was Johnny Lee’s “Lookin’ for Love,” which he released as a single days after Urban Cowboy hit theaters. It spent three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and peaked at No. 5 on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100, solidifying it as Lee’s signature hit that also helped define a decade of country music.

4. “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool” by Barbara Mandrell (1981)

Barbara Mandrell certainly made country music cool with this hit 1981 single. Here, Mandrell celebrates all things country, from the fashion statements like cowboy hats and boots to listening to the Grand Ole Opry radio show while her friends opted for rock and roll music.

The song hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and proved to be influential in Mandrell’s career. The song’s success helped to solidify her win as Entertainer of the Year at the 1981 CMA Awards, making her the first artist to win the coveted award in two consecutive years.

5. “Islands in the Stream” by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton (1983)

It wouldn’t be a list of popular ’80s country songs if Dolly Parton didn’t appear twice. Rogers and Parton released their signature duet, and one of the most beloved duets of all time, “Islands in the Stream” in 1983. Written by hit disco group the Bee Gees, “Islands in the Stream” defined an era of pop-country music that arose in the 1980s. The song was a crossover success, hitting No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and Hot 100, along with the Adult Contemporary chart.

6. “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days” by The Judds (1986)

The Judds were one of the biggest acts to come out of country music in the 1980s, and “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days)” is one of the defining songs of the mother-daughter duo’s career. Its nostalgic lyrics such as, Grandpa, everything is changing fast / We call it progress, but I just don’t know / And grandpa, let’s wander back into the past / Then paint me the picture of long ago, struck a chord with fans across generations. The song hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and won The Judds a Grammy Award for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal in 1987.

7. “Forever and Ever, Amen” by Randy Travis (1987)

Randy Travis put his voice to one of his most career-defining songs when he released “Forever and Ever, Amen” in 1987. The song allows Travis’ rugged vocal pipes to shine alongside a traditional country melody. In addition to hitting No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, “Forever” was also named Best Country & Western Song at the 1988 Grammy Awards, and Single of the Year and Song of the Year at the 1987 CMA Awards.

8. “When You Say Nothing at All” by Keith Whitley (1988)

“When You Say Nothing at All” is synonymous with Keith Whitley’s name. Released in 1988 as the follow-up single to his previous hit, “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” Whitley stayed on his winning streak with “When You Say Nothing.” It reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, marking his fifth consecutive No. 1 single.

Though Whitley passed away in 1989, his legacy continues to live on through the timeless song. Alison Krauss and Union Station gave the song another life with their 1995 recording of Keith Whitley: A Tribute Album, which won Single of the Year at the 1995 CMA Awards, quickly becoming one of Krauss’ signature hits as much as it is Whitley’s.

Photo by Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

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