Top 100 country songs ever

country songs

What makes a great country song? It tells a story. It draws a line. It has a twang you can feel down to the soles of your feet. Some get mad, some get weepy, some just get you down the road. But these are 100 essential songs that map out the story of country music, from Hank Williams howling at the moon to George Jones pouring one out for all the desperate lovers to Taylor Swift singing the suburban cowgirl blues.

Listen to Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Country Songs

1/100

100. Brad Paisley, ‘Welcome to the Future’ (2009)

Mainstream country’s most prominent liberal ambitiously overloads this nearly six-minute single from 2009’s American Saturday Night, explaining that he wanted “to serve up a little multigenerational truth with a strong sense of hope and possibility.” In this bright “Future,” Paisley marvels at car DVD players and mobile-phone videogames, imagines how trans-Pacific commerce might amaze his WWII-vet grandfather and then brings his mid-tempo country-rocker down a notch to appreciate the racial progress that has occurred in his own lifetime – he debuted the song live at the White House. Basically, it’s a typical Brad Paisley A.D.D. special, mixing synth lines with steel guitar, fiddle breaks with speed riffs and sense with sentiment. By Richard Gehr

 

2/100

99. Harry Choates, ‘Jole Blon’ (1946)

One of Bruce Springsteen’s lesser-known influences is the late, hard-drinkin’ Texas fiddle player Harry Choates. After playing for spare change as a teenager in the Thirties, Choates started making records by his early Twenties, and his aching 1946 reworking of the so-called “Cajun National Anthem” hit Number Four on the Billboard charts. “Jole Blon,” a traditional cajun waltz with nearly indiscernible lyrics about a pretty blonde, rode commercial success via several reinterpretations and continued in country lore throughout the decade. It passed through the hands of Roy Acuff, Warren Zevon, Springsteen (who recorded an early-Eighties version with Gary U.S. Bonds) among many others. Fame and fortune never made it back to Choates, however. According to legend, he sold “Jole Blon” for $100 and a bottle of whiskey and died at the age of 28. By Reed Fischer

3/100

98. C.W. McCall, ‘Convoy’ (1975)

This loving, jargon-filled novelty song took the insular world of trucker culture to the tops of both the country and pop charts in 1976. “Convoy,” an ode to C.B. radio, gave Iowa singer C.W. McCall the only Number One hit of his career, sold two million copies, started a C.B. radio fad and even spawned a successful action movie of the same name. “The truckers were forming things called convoys and they were talking to each other on C.B. radios,” explained McCall, who co-wrote the song with Chip Davis. “They had a wonderful jargon. Chip and I bought ourselves a C.B. radio and went out to hear them talk.” That’s a 10-4, good buddy. By Jonathan Bernstein

 

4/100

97. Gretchen Wilson, ‘Redneck Woman’ (2004)

Originally a collective of Nashville outcasts and outsiders known for their open-minded open mic night, the MuzikMafia went mainstream with the twin successes of Big & Rich’s “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” and Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman.” With its upbeat swing and beer-drinking, Walmart-wearing identity politics, “Redneck Woman” quickly rose up the charts. Following a breakthrough performance at the 2004 Country Radio Seminar, “Redneck Woman” became the fastest rising Number One since Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart.” Though Wilson herself was never able to repeat its success, the song paved the way for rocking female bad-asses like Miranda Lambert and Kimberly Perry. By Nick Murray

 

5/100

96. Ronnie Milsap, ‘Smoky Mountain Rain’ (1980)

This story of returning home from the city was told through thunderous piano playing (inspired by Milsap’s session work on Elvis’ “Kentucky Rain”) and producer Tom Collins’ spiralling strings. Of course, “Smoky Mountain Rain” wouldn’t be on this list if the words weren’t equally chilling: Note, for instance, that before the protagonist heads back to North Carolina, he has not change of plans but a “change of dreams.” Written by Kye Fleming and Dennis Morgan, who were instructed by Collins to come up with a song about his actual home state, “Smoky Mountain Rain” was Milsap’s fourth Number One of 1980 alone. By Nick Murray

6/100

95. Bellamy Brothers, ‘Old Hippie’ (1985)

These irresistibly slick opportunists always had a keen eye for cultural shifts: “If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body Would You Hold It Against Me” treated country’s late-Seventies transition from the honky-tonk to the singles’ bar as a forgone conclusion and 1987’s “Country Rap” is pretty self-explanatory. “Old Hippie” is the Brothers’ astute take on how onetime counterculture rebels, alienated by disco and new wave, turned to country music in the Eighties with an age-worn weariness: “He ain’t tryin’ to change nobody/He’s just tryin’ real hard to adjust.” Ten years later, “Old Hippie (The Sequel)” brought us into the Clinton era, and in 2007, on “Old Hippie III (Saved),” our hero was born again. Meanwhile, contemporary country is providing a similar escape for many aging Nineties rock fans. Who’s going to write “Old Slacker”

 

7/100

94. Dwight Yoakam, ‘Guitars, Cadillacs’ (1986)

Yoakam is often painted as a critic of Nashville, but in “Guitars, Cadillacs” the hillbilly music that Tennessee once produced becomes the only thing that makes Tinsel Town tolerable for this “naive fool who came to Babylon and found out that the pie don’t taste so sweet.” Of course, despite his posturing, L.A. was the perfect place for the Ohio transplant. A home for country rock since the Byrds and the Burrito Brothers, the ambitious singer found his match in local roots-oriented post-punk acts like the Blasters, Lone Justice and the Knitters. The biggest influence on “Guitars, Cadillacs,” however, the one who lent the song its crisp guitar and walking bassline, remained two hours north. His name was Buck Owens, and two years later Yoakam would give him his 21st chart-topper with “Streets of Bakersfield.” By Nick Murray

8/100

93. Tom T. Hall, ‘Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine’ (1972)

In 1972, country music’s consummate storyteller traveled to Miami Beach to perform at the Democratic National Convention that nominated George McGovern and returned to Nashville afterward with a soon-to-be-hit. A janitor, a month away from his 66th birthday, shared his impressions of the only three things worth a damn in life, while casting aspersions on the loyalty and value of lovers and friends – and Hall took it all down. The resulting hit, though sentimental on the surface, has a cynical flipside, its distrust of all but the simplest things in life imparting an aftertaste of sour Seventies disillusion. Nixon won, by the way. By Keith Harris

 

9/100

92. Juice Newton, ‘Queen of Hearts’ (1981)

Originally a member of the short-lived band Silver Spur, Juice Newton had been releasing a steady output of solo pop and rock material for two years – to decent reviews but few sales. When she shifted to a more country sound for 1981’s Juice, she scored three Top 10 hits. The breakout track was “Queen of Hearts,” the irresistibly catchy, Fleetwood-esque country-pop cut written by Hank DeVito. Newton had been playing the song at her live shows for a year before Richard Landis produced it for the LP. It was all up from there: The LP went platinum in the U.S. and triple platinum in Canada and earned her two Grammy nominations that year. By Cady Drell

 

10/100

91. Garth Brooks, ‘Friends in Low Places’ (1990)

With a voice stirring together the low end of Johnny and the high whine of Hank, Garth Brooks was just beginning his historic superstar run. A couple dozen folks – including “Low Places” songwriters Dewayne Blackwell and Earl “Bud” Lee – partied in the studio to create the bar-storming romp heard on the final refrain. But the party was just starting. The hit helped Brooks’ second album, No Fences, ship 17 million copies in the U.S. – still one of the 10 best-selling albums of all time. When Brooks performed “Friends in Low Places” on the Grammys in the early Nineties, the stage was set up like a posh black-tie affair. Just as the song says, the Oklahoma native showed up in boots – as well as a vertical striped shirt, black cowboy hat, and a thumb jabbed into the pocket of his jeans. Eventually the onstage glitz got pushed away to reveal a down-and-dirty saloon, like the ones blasting his song nationwide. By Reed Fischer

 

 

11/100

90. Ray Wylie Hubbard, ‘Redneck Mother’ (1975)

This second-tier Texas outlaw still writes, performs and records, but he dreamed up his only classic tune (recorded most famously by Jerry Jeff Walker, though Nineties alt-rockers Cracker do a killer version), early in his career, while kicking around in New Mexico. “Redneck Mother” flips a popular slogan among revolutionaries (as in, “Up against the wall…”) and flips the bird to country’s mother-worship. Never mind what Merle said – mama didn’t try hard enough, Hubbard suggests. If she had, maybe there wouldn’t be so many good-for-nothing drunks out there “kickin’ hippies’ asses and raisin’ hell.” By Keith Harris

 

12/100

89. Gary Stewart, ‘She’s Actin’ Single, I’m Drinkin’ Doubles’ (1975)

A hurtin’, cheatin’, drinkin’ trifecta, Gary Stewart’s only Number One would pass for a honky-tonk parody if the Kentucky singer’s trembling tenor weren’t so convincing. A hardcore-country home run at a time when the genre was heading uptown, “She’s Actin’ Single” finds Stewart living a perpetual nightmare in which “she pours herself on some stranger” while “I pour myself a drink somewhere.” The Wayne Carson–penned tune was the third hit from Stewart’s excellent Out of Hand, and the record features both John Hughey playing tear-jerking pedal steel and a mournful chorus from Elvis-affiliated gospel quartet the Jordanaires. An unreconstructed Southern rocker when he wanted to be, Stewart’s version of a self-pitying coward struck a chord with a jukebox crowd who sometimes, as Stewart sang elsewhere, “got this drinkin’ thing, to keep from thinkin’ things.” By Richard Gehr

 

13/100

88. Jerry Jeff Walker, ‘Desperados Waiting for a Train’ (1973)

Even back in 1970, Austin was getting weird, and Jerry Jeff Walker, a New York transplant backed by a band called the Lost Gonzos, was leading the transition. On his 1973 live-in-Luckenbach ¡Viva Terlingua! LP, he became the first to record “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” a track that another Austin transplant, Guy Clark, wrote while working at a dobro factory in California. Moonlighting as a songwriter, he came up with the title phrase and built around it the story of a grandfather figure to whom he had once been close. “He ended up in west Texas working for Gulf Oil,” recalled Clark. “To me, as a kid, he was a real desperado, the real deal. You can’t make this shit up.” By Marissa R. Moss

 

14/100

87. Lyle Lovett, ‘If I Had a Boat’ (1988)

In the mid-Eighties Lyle Lovett emerged on the bookish, folkie fringe of a new traditionalism that reacted against the pop leaning of the Urban Cowboy era. Consisting of little more than guitars – a finger-picked acoustic and a welling slide – “If I Had a Boat” is nothing to ride a mechanical bull too. And the abstract lyrics, which imagined Roy Rogers as confirmed bachelor and Tonto losing patience with the Lone Ranger, demanded concentration. Absurdist and meditative as it is, “If I Had a Boat” arose from a true story. Lovett claims he once tried to ride a pony across a pond. He wished he’d had a boat. By Keith Harris

 

15/100

86. Donna Fargo, ‘The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.’ (1972)

Triumphant, hopeful and as corny as Kansas in August, North Carolina native Donna Fargo took this self-composed paean to young newlywed bliss to the top of the country charts. There’s no tortured dark-end-of-the-street sentiments for Fargo, who seems to mean every last “skippidy do da.” All that honky-tonk ne’er-do-well stuff about drinkin’ and cheatin’ and carryin’ on? That’s for middle age. For the two-and-a-half minutes that this lovers’ anthem lasts, it can wait. By David Menconi

16/100

85. O.B. McClinton, ‘Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You’ (1972)

After failed attempts at R&B, country pastures were far greener for Osbie Burnett McClinton. Once the Mississippi native became the “Chocolate Cowboy” in the early Seventies, he rolled out a string of charting country hits featuring his rich baritone voice, able backup singers and a wry sense of humor. (“The Other One” corrected anyone mistaking him for Charley Pride.) McClinton’s biggest song, off 1972’s Obie From Senatobie (via Stax subsidiary Enterprise) was a twangier remake of R&B hit “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You,” which notched Number 37 on the country charts. Originally an early Wilson Pickett single, the perspective of an about-to-be-jilted lover trying to spark that old flame resonates in any genre. By Reed Fischer

17/100

84. Neko Case, ‘People Got a Lotta Nerve’ (2009)

Who cares that the song’s two protagonists – a killer whale and an elephant – were two unusual subjects for a country song? “I realized that it’s OK to admit that no matter who your characters are, you’re writing about yourself,” Neko Case told the New York Times. The first single from 2009’s Middle Cyclone, “People Got a Lotta Nerve” sent a stern warning to anyone foolish enough to tie the singer down. “I’m a man-, man-, maneater,” went the chorus, delivered with such poppy playfulness that it was easy to gloss over the song’s sinister undertow. By Andrew Leahey

 

18/100

83. Bobby Bare, ‘Streets of Baltimore’ (1966)

This tragic tale of a man who gave up his entire life to make his woman happy in Baltimore (and who gets subsequently dumped there) was originally recorded by Bobby Bare, a singer most famous for working with a young Kris Kristofferson. But, as Bare told Rolling Stone in 1980, “Most of my hits would have been hits for anybody, I just got to ’em first.” So it was with “Streets of Baltimore,” penned by Tompall & the Glaser Brothers, who wanted to release the single themselves in September of 1966. Unfortunately for them, Bare got to it first (in June) and scored a hit, reaching the Number Seven spot on the country charts. The joke ended up being on Bare, though: For many, Gram Parsons’ 1973 version is widely considered the song’s most essential incarnation. By Cady Drell

 

19/100

82. Reba McEntire, ‘Fancy’ (1991)

Written and recorded for Bobbie Gentry’s 1969 album of the same name, “Fancy” tells a rags-to-riches tale of a young girl whose mother sends her into prostitution. McEntire had wanted to record the song for years, but producer Jimmy Bowen argued against it – not because of the subject matter, but because he felt too many people associated the song with its original performer. When McEntire turned to Tony Brown for her 1990 album, Rumor Has It, the pair gave the song a striking loud-quiet-loud arrangement that helped introduce it to a new generation. By Linda Ryan

 

20/100

81. Gary Allan, ‘Songs About Rain’ (2003)

The second single from Allan’s See If I Care tells of a downtrodden masochist who’s wasting a perfectly good night driving in circles, listening to a perverse radio station that for some reason keeps playing songs – “Rainy Night In Georgia,” “Kentucky Rain,” “Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” – that all tell of stormy weather. But where the heartbroken man wallows in these tracks, Allan is busy placing his own in their lineage, successfully conjuring a country classic that’s as heartbreaking as the sum of its references. Co-writer Liz Rose, who has since helped pen a handful of hits by Taylor Swift, would later recall how “Songs About Rain” changed her career: “It wasn’t until I had the Gary Allan single that I could really say I was a songwriter.” By Linda Ryan

21/100

80. John Anderson, ‘Wild and Blue’ (1982)

Inspired by a girl who “could party and rock harder than anyone I’d known,” John Scott Sherrill wrote this song while separating from his wife. The first country chart-topper for both singer John Anderson and Sherrill, “Wild and Blue” is a hauntingly beautiful account of a cheating woman, told from the POV of her cuckolded man. Anderson’s syrupy drawl and mournful wail is intensified by sister Donna’s Hill Country harmonizing. Lloyd Green’s pedal steel and twin fiddles paint a long, bleak evening of waiting for honey to come home, but in the end the singer’s resigned forgiveness is hardly cause for celebration. Big-voiced Sally Timms gave Anderson’s 1982 hit a straight, strong reading when British country-punks the Mekons covered it on 1991’s Curse of the Mekons. By Richard Gehr

 

22/100

79. Garth Brooks, ‘The Dance’ (1989)

The second Number One single off Garth Brooks’ debut LP, “The Dance” is a better-to-have-loved-and-lost slow jam that co-writer Tony Arata had been playing to open mic nights since he had moved to Nashville a few years earlier. “The only folks listening, however, were other songwriters,” remembers Arata. When Brooks first heard him play “The Dance,” he swore he would record the song if he ever got signed. By Linda Ryan

 

23/100

78. Roger Miller, ‘King of the Road’ (1964)

Inspired by a sign in Chicago that read “Trailers for Sale or Rent,” Roger Miller’s finger-snapping, bass-walking 1965 hit sold 2.5 million copies and became the Texas-born songwriter’s signature tune. Miller’s deliciously detailed masterpiece describes a happy-go-lucky vagrant’s existential tradeoff: “Two hours of pushin’ a broom / Buys an eight-by-12 four-bit room.” A perfectly modulated chorus sketches the hobo’s sunny familiarity with train engineers’ families before sneakily adding his similar acquaintance with “every door that ain’t locked when no one’s around.” Later in ’65, singer Jody Miller (no relation) answered with “Queen of the House,” a similarly ironic ode to domestic royalty. Roger released his own sequel of sorts in 1970 when he opened Nashville’s King of the Road Motor Inn. By Richard Gehr

 

24/100

77. Martina McBride, ‘Independence Day’ (1994)

Songwriter Gretchen Peters wrote “Independence Day” from the point of view of an eight-year-old girl who watched her mother get abused by her alcoholic father, until her mother burns down their house. Its popularity – intrinsically tied to its subject matter – helped McBride become a spokesperson for domestic abuse awareness and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity. But conservative host Sean Hannity wasn’t in on the track’s deeper meaning, using it as the theme song for his 2001 political radio show. “I know he [was] completely disregarding what the song’s about,” said Peters, “but… as long as they pay me, that gives me the wherewithal to support causes I believe in, and it all works out.” By Cady Drell

 

25/100

76. Jamey Johnson, ‘In Color’ (2008)

Addiction, divorce, despair: Jamey Johnson spilled his demons on 2008’s, That Lonesome Song, an album that positioned the Alabamian as an able heir to the outlaw country throne. “I was trying to reach that dude at the bar going through what I was going through,” he told Rolling Stone. But where he truly shines is on “In Color,” a bittersweet ballad about man trying to convince his grandson that his photos – and his life – were more vibrant than just black and white, displaying a delicate sense for narrative and an emotive voice that’s both calloused and vulnerable. Written with James Otto and Lee Thomas Miller, the song was originally cut by Trace Adkins, for whom Johnson had earlier penned the American-as-apple-bottom anthem “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.” “Trace was gracious,” Miller later explained. “He told me, ‘The guy wrote the song. What am I gonna do?'” By Marissa R. Moss

26/100

75. Charlie Rich, ‘Behind Closed Doors’ (1973)

Charlie Rich had been struggling to find a niche between his rocking, jazz-picker roots and the Music Row mainstream for two decades. Then “Behind Closed Doors” gave the so-called Silver Fox the biggest hit of his career. “The jocks had been complaining that [Rich] was too bluesy for country,” producer Billy Sherill explained to Billboard in September of 1974. “Others said he was too country for anything else. We just needed the right song.” To create that right song, Sherill and Co. started with a riff that writer Kevin O’Dell had been humming for years, and then balanced traditional country flourishes with the dramatic orchestral instrumentation of an 11-piece string section. Rich won two Grammys and his only CMA Entertainer of the Year award. By Marissa R. Moss

27/100

74. Lucinda Williams, ‘Passionate Kisses’ (1988)

After recording a pair of acoustic blues albums for Folkways, Lucinda Williams found her rightful audience with her eponymous 1988 Rough Trade debut. It contained this hoarse-voiced pop-rock anthem about not only wanting but deserving a comfortable bed, bath, and emotional beyond. Williams was broke and turning 40 when Mary Chapin Carpenter softened the song’s edges, added a stirring guitar arrangement and took “Passionate Kisses” close to the top of the Billboard country chart in 1993, winning Grammys for both herself and its author. By Richard Gehr

 

28/100

73. Dolly Parton, ‘Coat of Many Colors’ (1971)

Parton’s most homespun hit (and her frequently avowed favorite) effortlessly transplants the biblical story of Joseph to the postwar Tennessee of Dolly’s girlhood, celebrating the unselfconscious pride in a patchwork garment her mama fashioned out of rags. Parton wrote the song on Porter Wagoner’s tour bus – and on Porter Wagoner’s dry cleaning receipt, the only paper handy when inspiration struck. Wagoner later framed that receipt. The coat itself (or, as Coat Truthers insist, a latter-day recreation) hangs in the Chasing Rainbows Museum at Parton’s theme park, Dollywood. By Keith Harris

 

29/100

72. D.L. Menard, ‘The Back Door (La Porte en Arrière)’ (1962)

Born into a Cajun farming family in Erath, Louisiana, in 1932, Doris Leon Menard based this regional hit on “Honky Tonk Blues” by Hank Williams, to whom he always bore a musical resemblance. Written during his shift at a service station, and recorded with Elias Badeaux and the Louisiana Aces, Menard’s catchy two-step satirizes a Cajun stereotype, the hard-drinking spendthrift whose late-night escapades lead to an early-morning return through the back door (and ultimately prison). “La Porte d’en Arrière” sold out its initial 300-copy run within days, then sold half a million more while becoming Cajun music’s most frequently covered song not titled “Jole Blon.” Although Menard soon “came to where I couldn’t bear to even hear the name of that song, I got so tired of it,” he still manages to perform “La Porte” to this day. By Richard Gehr

 

30/100

71. Alabama, ‘Mountain Music’ (1982)

Years before his band become the most successful country group of the 1980s, Randy Owen spent his childhood days on Lookout Mountain, where his family ran a small cotton farm. 1982’s “Mountain Music” paid tribute to those southern roots, setting Owen’s adolescent hobbies – river-swimming, tree-climbing, raft-building – to a soundtrack of classic-rock guitar riffs, country harmonies and fiddle-fueled breakdowns. “We did ‘Mountain Music’ in two cuts,” he told CMT. “Back when we had a chance to rehearse and arrange stuff, we just went in and did the song like we’d rehearsed it.” Released during a time when country stars rarely played on their own records, “Mountain Music” was the work of a true band, and was proof that no one has to rely on the Nashville hit machine. By Andrew Leahey

31/100

70. Lee Ann Womack, ‘I Hope You Dance’ (2000)

In the two decades Lee Ann Womack has been making music, she’s never made a splash like the one she made with this 2000 song. It charted at Number One on both the country and adult contemporary charts, won “Song of the Year” at the CMAs, ACMs, ASCAP awards and took home a Grammy for “Best Country Song.” Plus, between the years of 2000 and 2007, you couldn’t throw a rock at a high school graduation without hitting it. But according to the song’s co-writer Tia Sillers, it was actually less about how the children are our future and more about her rough divorce. Still inspirational, just more depressing. By Cady Drell

32/100

69. Tammy Wynette, ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E’ (1968)

Country music’s most parodied anthem (see Homer and Jethro paean to a doomed sow, “B-A-C-O-N & E-G-G-S”) began, unpromisingly, as “I-L-O-V-E-Y-O-U, Do I have to Spell It Out for You?” Songwriter Bobby Braddock found a juicier subject and song-plugger Carly Putman suggested a sadder melody. Producer Billy Sherrill brought the finished product to Tammy Wynette, whose achingly sincere limning of a mother spelling out the “hurtin’ words” in front of her four-year-old made the song her third Number One and the title track of her first gold album. “I hated myself for not writing that song,” the five-time divorcée later said. “It fit my life completely.” By Richard Gehr

33/100

68. John Prine, ‘Angel from Montgomery’ (1971)

When John Prine wrote “Angel” he’d been working as a mailman in the suburbs of Chicago, sketching out ideas as he made the rounds, playing open mics on weekends. At the time, country was cross-pollinating with the distinctly un-country sounds of pop and soft-rock, but Prine presented himself as something more stripped down: A regular guy with a plain voice playing simple music, no shoulder pads necessary. But it was his ear for detail – the flies buzzing around the sink, the rodeo poster that sends a woman on a daydream that she knows will never get fulfilled – that made his songs quietly complicated. Country music rendered with the sharpened eye of an author. By Mike Powell

34/100

67. Loretta Lynn, ‘The Pill’ (1975)

Recorded in 1972 but released in 1975, Lynn’s ode to reproductive rights turned out to be a difficult pill for many country stations to swallow – one of nine Lynn songs banned during her career. Written by Lorene Allen, Don McHan and T. D. Bayless, “The Pill” uses a chicken-coop metaphor (“I’m tearin’ down your brooder house”) to warn a straying cock that his hen may start exchanging her maternity-wear “garbage” for clothes that “won’t take up so much yardage.” Lynn, who birthed four babies by age 20, employs her throaty chuckle-growls to even the scales over funky chicken-scratch guitars. “They didn’t have none of them pills when I was younger,” Lynn wrote in Coal Miner’s Daughter, “or I would have been swallowing ’em like popcorn.” By Richard Gehr

35/100

66. Rosanne Cash, ‘Seven Year Ache’ (1981)

When Cash recorded “Seven Year Ache” at age 25, it was with the soulful, seen-it-all purr of someone who’d endured the game for decades. And she had: Growing up with dad Johnny’s drug addiction, touring absences, divorce from her mom Vivian and second marriage to June Carter which forced her dual Tennessee/California identity; not to mention cultivating her own career, sustaining her first marriage to hotshot singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell and having their first child. Yet the mood on this career-defining Number One country hit – which chronicled a man’s wanderlust and apparently traced to a spat with Crowell (who produced the song!) – was an almost breezy reasonableness, as if the singer almost pitied the poor schnook. The melodic tick-tock was “Mellow Mafia” with a twangy moan, and Rosanne’s tart aphorisms were some of the genre’s most poetic. By Charles Aaron

36/100

65. Merle Haggard, ‘Okie from Muskogee’ (1969)

Not to be confused with Jimmy Patton’s 1959 rockabilly track “Okie’s in the Pokie,” this megahit kicked Merle Haggard into the top tier of country performers. A Bakersfield-born son of Okie farmers, Haggard co-wrote this condemnation of pot smokers, sandal-wearers and draft-card burners on his tour bus with Strangers drummer Roy Edward Burris. Both parody (“pitching woo”? “Manly footwear”?) and counter-counterculture anthem – Hag once said its 24 lines contain “about 18 different messages” – “Okie” remains an undeniable a manifesto of ethnic pride.Haggard followed his relatively mellow Los Angeles studio original with a more truculent live version, then doubled down in January of the following year with his borderline-jingoist “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” Yet as he told a journalist decades later, “I didn’t intend for ‘Okie’ to be taken as strongly from my lips as it was.” By Richard Gehr

37/100

64. Patsy Cline, ‘I Fall to Pieces’ (1961)

Recorded as a single in 1961 and included on Patsy Cline Showcase that same year, this track has became a country ballad standard – but it almost wasn’t. Producer Owen Bradley initially envisioned the track recorded by baritone Roy Drusky. According to Ellis Nassour’s biography Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, Cline was standing in the hallway when she overheard Drusky turn it down because it wasn’t manly enough. It ended up being his loss: Bradley agreed to let Cline take it over and she allegedly sang it so tenderly during sessions that it caused every man in the studio to cry. It became one of the first of several pop/country crossovers for Cline and charted for over six months. By Cady Drell

38/100

63. George Jones, ‘The Race Is On’ (1964)

A Top Five country hit in 1965, George Jones knew the ironic, upbeat number would be a hit the minute he heard it: “‘The Race Is On’ was pitched to me,” he later told Billboard, “and I only heard the first verse, [sings] ‘I feel tears welling up cold and deep inside like my heart’s sprung a big leak,’ and I said, ‘I’ll take it.'” Eight years later, the song took on new meaning when it became the first to be broadcast by New York’s WHN, the crossover-friendly radio station that would set audience records and define the sound of pop country in the late-Seventies. By Linda Ryan

39/100

62. Emmett Miller, ‘Lovesick Blues’ (1928)

Obviously, the blackface aspect of Emmett Miller’s act will forever shadow his legacy, but covers by everyone from Little Richard to Etta James to Ryan Adams to LeAnn Rimes are keeping “Lovesick” alive. Hank Williams didn’t learn everything he knew from Miller, but the sweet-singing 1920s minstrel performer did play a significant role inspiring country music’s founding father. A couple decades before “Lovesick Blues” became Williams’ first number one hit in 1949, Miller and his melancholy yodel were in love with a beautiful gal too. Miller’s version comes with a spoken intro in which he explains that he’s got “every known indication of being in that condition” before dappling the show tune, from the 1922 Tin Pan Alley musical Oh, Ernest, with some octave vaulting. For another take on Miller, hear David Lee Roth covering “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)” on Van Halen’s Diver Down. By Reed Fischer

40/100

61. Ray Price, ‘Crazy Arms’ (1956)

After periods emulating both smooth Eddy Arnold and honky-tonkin’ Hank Williams (whose Drifting Cowboys band he led after Hank’s death), Ray Price (a.k.a. “the Cherokee Cowboy”) returned to his Texas roots with this 1956 megahit that spent 20 weeks at the top of Billboard’s country chart. Co-writer Ralph Mooney penned the tune after his wife left him due to his drinking, and its lyrics suggest deep emotional delirium and paranoia. The music, however, reflected Price’s new shuffle style, with single-string fiddle, pedal steel guitar, and doubled acoustic and electric basses. Six months after Price’s release, Jerry Lee Lewis’s first Sun Records side was a more blatantly delirious rock cover that turned many heads. By Richard Gehr

41/100

60. Tennessee Ernie Ford, ‘Sixteen Tons’ (1955)

With its theatrical vocal, finger-snapping rhythm and a haunting clarinet hook seemingly borrowed from a Brecht/Weill musical, Tennessee Ernie Ford’s excoriation of the evils of debt bondage was an unlikely country-pop smash. Although folksinger George Davis claimed to have written an original “Nine-to-Ten Tons” in the Thirties, Merle Travis countered that he wrote the more productive “Sixteen Tons” about his father’s life in the coalmines of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. The opening lines, meanwhile, came from a letter Travis’s soldier brother wrote during World War II, and the Sisyphean refrain – “I owe my soul to the company store” – from his father’s experience being paid in store tokens rather than cash. A blend of machismo and melancholy, “Sixteen Tons” has been covered by Elvis Presley, the Weavers, Stevie Wonder, Tom Morello and countless others. By Richard Gehr

42/100

59. Marty Robbins, ‘El Paso’ (1959)

Arizona native Marty Robbins’ unusually long (4 minutes, 40 seconds) story-song is a barreling Greek tragedy adapted from the Mexican waltz-time ranchera country style. In what might be country’s most cinematic hit, a narrator enamored of “wicked” Feleena shoots down a “dashing and daring” young cowboy who’s hitting on her. Past tense becomes present as the narrator returns to El Paso, is shot himself by a vengeful posse and dies in Feleena’s arms. Grady Martin’s nylon-stringed guitar provides eloquent, flamenco-influenced instrumental commentary. A longtime staple of the Grateful Dead’s cover repertoire, “El Paso” caught another cultural wave decades later when Feleena was transformed into “Felina,” the anagrammatically allusive title of Breaking Bad‘s 2013 finale. By Richard Gehr

43/100

58. Jeannie C. Riley, ‘Harper Valley P.T.A.’ (1968)

“That song was my novel,” songwriter Tom T. Hall once said of the epic “Harper Valley P.T.A.” In this sassy 1968 takedown of small-town hypocrisy, a mini-skirted widow “socks it to” the titular busybodies – in its way, it was as innocence-ending as Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” the previous year. Indeed, when singer Margie Singleton asked Hall to write her a similar song, the aspiring novelist took note of the Harpeth Valley Elementary School in Bellevue, Tennessee and found artistic inspiration in Sinclair Lewis’s religion-mocking novel Elmer Gantry. Jeannie C. Riley’s recording, however, made her the first woman to top both Billboard’s Hot 100 and country-singles charts. Barbara Eden starred in both the 1978 comedy based on the song and in a 1981-82 TV show spun off the flick. By Richard Gehr

44/100

57. Eric Church, ‘Springsteen’ (2011)

It’s not really about Bruce Springsteen, first of all. Though stadium-filling bad boy Eric Church’s iPhone-lighter-app-waving triumph details “a love affair that takes place in an amphitheater between two people,” the Boss was not the performer in question. Church politely but firmly declines to reveal the actual inspiration, which means the best country song of the 2010s thus far might have more accurately been titled “Nugent” or “Anka” or “Fogelberg.” Cowritten by Church with Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tyndell, it’s a dreamy, nostalgic weeper (tough as our man talks, he’s a softie at heart) and drove 2011’s Chief to dizzying heights. It even earned Church a handwritten thank-you note from Springsteen himself – scrawled on the back of a Fenway Park set list. By Rob Harvilla

45/100

56. Carrie Underwood, ‘Before He Cheats’ (2006)

This crossover smash emerged from circumstances as prefabricated as country music gets – written and produced by men whose credits include Lady Antebellum and Rascal Flatts, sung by an American Idol winner and sporting a literal-interpretation video. And yet the popcraft of “Before He Cheats,” as rendered by Carrie Underwood in the key of frosty rage, is nearly perfect. Even a certified alt-country critical darling like Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards is not immune to its seductive charms. “The rhythm of it, the metric of the lyrics, the chord changes, the play on words and unconventional patterns, the way she says ‘Shania karaoke’ – it’s genius,” Edwards said in 2009. “Fuck, I wish I’d written that!” By David Menconi

46/100

55. The Flatlanders, ‘Dallas’ (1990)

Perpetually unsung, the Flatlanders were a Lubbock trio who sounded like – well, there was Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s flat, twangy voice; the warble of a singing saw; the lyrics that made sutras of psychedelic complexity sound like they were something Grandma crocheted into a throw pillow. Small-town, but more importantly, sensitive enough to address even the most routine insults of life in the 20th century, the big city didn’t repulse them, but it did give them the willies. And yet in song, they are somehow always the eye of a storm: unchanging, know-nothing, happy to breathe deeply and just watch the show unfold. Would you be surprised to learn that they sank like a stone? By Mike Powell

47/100

54. Brad Paisley, ‘Alcohol’ (2005)

He rarely touches the stuff himself, but Brad Paisley’s way with a booze anthem is unparalleled, and such range, too: “Whiskey Lullaby,” a grim, suicide-haunted duet he cut with Alison Krauss in 2004, is basically Leaving Las Vegas in miniature, whereas this bawdy, self-penned waltz unleashed just a year later comes on like Animal House. A boastful first-person rundown of hooch’s seductive powers – “I can make anybody pretty,” it begins – that claims credit for everyone from Hemingway to the thoroughly soused best man at your wedding. It’s a longtime live-show staple that inspires superfans to bring their own lampshades (seriously). “The song somehow seems to make the entire audience feel something in common,” Paisley has marveled. “We’re all out there together. We’ve all done it. We’re all one big collective idiot. And there’s nothing better than feeling that way.” By Rob Harvilla

48/100

53. Charley Pride, ‘Kiss an Angel Good Mornin” (1971)

Charley Pride’s 1971 recording of Ben Peters’ “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin'” remains the definitive version of this a slightly naughty love song attempted by Conway Twitty, George Jones and Alan Jackson. The piano-driven arrangement here is classic early-Seventies countrypolitan, propelling the singer’s only crossover Top 40 pop hit. Pride’s métier has always been an easygoing effortlessness, which perfectly suits this ode to the pleasures and virtues of “Drunk in Love”-style domesticity. By David Menconi

49/100

52. Flatt and Scruggs, ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ (1949)

If sparks flying off metal could sound sophisticated, they’d sound like Earl Scruggs’ three-finger, five-string, five-alarm-fire banjo picking on this instrumental classic, which enshrined the banjo as a lead instrument in bluegrass. A stoic virtuoso from the western North Carolina boonies, Scruggs peppered the air with rippling eighth-note ragtime rolls on “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” (a song derived from an earlier track, “Bluegrass Breakdown,” that he wrote for Bill Monroe), trading solo breaks with fiddler Benny Sims. Despite its innovative panache, the song only hit the country (and pop) charts after appearing as accompaniment to the car-chase scenes in Arthur Penn’s scintillating, taboo-flaunting 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde. By Charles Aaron

50/100

51. Johnny Cash, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ (1955)

California’s second oldest state prison was a brutal place before the state implemented much-need penal reforms in 1944. Johnny Cash learned of that dark period at a screening of the 1951 film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, while serving with the U.S. Air Force, stationed in Germany. Cash initially recorded the song for Sun Records in 1956, but the version he performed 12 years later for Folsom’s inmates became the iconic hit. It’s said that the raucous cheers following, “I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die” were actually added in post-production, but who really wants to believe that? By Keith Harris

51/100

50. Steve Earle, ‘Guitar Town’ (1986)

Fueled by drugs, booze and a nasty divorce from his third wife, Steve Earle delivered this road anthem with a croon and a bark, snarling his way through lines about speed traps and truck stops with the authority of a rock & roll rebel who, at 31 years old, had already seen (and snorted) it all. Years of hard living eventually took their toll on Earle, who released three follow-ups to Guitar Town before spending the first half of the ’90s in a heroin-addled haze. By the time he cleaned up his act in 1995, the alt-country movement was in full swing and Earle joined a new generation of musicians – many of whom had strummed along to a Guitar Town cassette – in the effort to tear down the boundaries between country and rock. By Andrew Leahey

52/100

49. The Louvin Brothers, ‘The Christian Life’ (1959)

A highlight of the Louvins’ second gospel album, 1959’s Satan Is Real, “The Christian Life” adds a homespun fire-and-brimstone attitude to the sort of Depression-era country harmonizing picked up from earlier sibling acts like the Delmore Brothers: “My buddies shun me since I turned to Jesus / But I still love them, they burden my heart,” Charlie and Ira sing in close harmony over a waltz rhythm. Almost a decade later, the Byrds went on to cover “The Christian Life” on their 1968 country-rock masterpiece Sweetheart of the Rodeo, with Roger McGuinn’s voice dubbed over Gram Parsons’ original lead vocal. By Richard Gehr

53/100

48. Willie Nelson, ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain’ (1975)

Fred Rose wrote it in the Forties, and everyone from Roy Acuff to Hank Williams took a shot at it, but the true purpose of “Blues Eyes Crying in the Rain” was to finally launch a long-striving, industry-beleaguered, 42-year-old Willie Nelson into orbit as the stark, startling centerpiece of his 1975 smash Red Headed Stranger. Michael Streissguth’s 2013 study Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville has a great scene where skittish label suits, fearful that the album “sounds like it was recorded in Willie’s kitchen,” frantically arrange a press listening session at Nashville hot spot the Exit/In, and then marvels as “Blue Eyes” triggers a standing ovation. “Nobody was more shocked than we were,” then-CBS Records President Rick Blackburn once conceded. “It didn’t have… the bells and whistles. It wasn’t the way you went about making a record in Nashville in those days.” Result: His first country Number One. By Rob Harvilla

54/100

47. Bobbie Gentry, ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ (1967)

Innuendo has always played a role in folk and country music. But few songs piqued the pop crossover crowd’s curiosity more than Mississippi-born, Los Angeles-schooled Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 debut, in which an adolescent narrator and her family sit around the dinner table passing biscuits and gossiping about Billie Joe McAllister’s descent from the Tallahatchie Bridge. McAllister threw something else off it a day earlier and Gentry never reveals what it was. “The song is sort of a study in unconscious cruelty,” she once said of the family’s nonchalant attitude to the suicide. Released as the B-side to “Mississippi Delta,” “Ode” is a sultry country blues that drifts downstream on Gentry’s ominous acoustic guitar. Arranger Jimmie Haskell added dramatic strings, and three minutes were edited from her seven-minute original. Saxophonist Lou Donaldson’s funky 1967 instrumental version was sampled on dozens of hip-hop songs. By Richard Gehr

55/100

46. Roy Acuff, ‘Wabash Cannonball’ (1936)

Complete with choo-choo sound effects and the harmonica solo of some long-imagined cowboy, Acuff’s version of “Wabash Cannonball” was an early instance of country culture rising to meet the needs of city entertainment – the band even changed their name to the Smoky Mountain Boys once they made the Grand Ole Opry, presumably to retain that rural flavor. No surprise that he soon got into publishing and later ran for office – his moves always did seem a little strategic. But these are milestones, too; moments of friction in the development of a style as it took shape within the listening public at large. By Mike Powell

56/100

45. Lefty Frizzell, ‘Long Black Veil’ (1959)

This 1959 saga of sacrifice is arguably the most persuasive primer on the pitfalls of infidelity. The hero of Frizell’s saga was wrongly executed for murder; he declined to give an alibi because was spending time “in the arms” of his best friend’s wife, a lethal indiscretion he takes to the grave. Since covered by Joan Baez, the Band, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen and plenty of others, “The Long Black Veil” has become a country-folk standard, a grim, haunting evocation of forbidden love and all its consequences. By Amanda Petrusich

57/100

44. George Jones, ‘The Grand Tour’ (1974)

In “The Grand Tour,” the Possum sings the part of a deserted husband and father leading a stranger through a memory-filled house that is no longer a home. The genius lies in the way Jones’s voice evokes that ghostly feeling amid the lush excess of producer Billy Sherrill’s strings, guitars and chorus. Written by Norro Wilson, Carmol Taylor and George Richey, “The Grand Tour” is the lead and title track of Jones’s masterful 1974 album. Although Jones was an admitted heavy drinker when he recorded it, “The Grand Tour” contains no clue to its protagonist’s crime. Instead, there’s only Jones’s impossibly detailed, syllable-by-heartbreaking-syllable performance of a shell of a man condemned to life in a haunted abode that is full of stuff but devoid of love. By Richard Gehr

58/100

43. Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, ‘Act Naturally’ (1963)

According to Owens’ autobiography, Buck ‘Em!, songwriter Johnny Russell stumbled into “Act Naturally” when a last minute Los Angeles recording session forced him to break a date with his Fresno girlfriend. When she asked what he would be doing, Russell gave her the line that would eventually open the song: “They’re gonna put me in the movies, and they’re gonna make a big star out of me.” Two years and several rejections later, Owens heard Russell’s demo and decided to record “Act Naturally” as part of the first sessions that brought his full road band, the Buckaroos, into the studio. Here, the group sounded tight and alive, the promise of that first line making the second – “We’ll make a film about a man that’s sad and lonely, and all I gotta do is act naturally” – all the more cutting. A Beatles cover helped a younger generation discover his music but Owens recalls a flight during which his neighbor explained to him how she loved the Beatles but hated country music. “As hard as I tried,” he said, “I couldn’t convince her that ‘Act Naturally’ was a country song.” By Nick Murray

59/100

42. Loretta Lynn, ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ (1970)

This autobiographical reminiscence was a gear-shift for Lynn, who’d made her name by feistily fending off hordes of honky-tonk homewreckers out to bed her man. The song originally rambled for six minutes and eight verses before producer Owen Bradley got out his red pen, excising a scene of Lynn’s mother hanging movie magazines on their cabin wall as well as other homey details. It’s country music’s definitive started-from-the-bottom anthem, climaxing with one of popular music’s most stirring key changes. Though Lynn is proud of her family’s hardworking decency, she never pretends that her life would’ve been better if she’d never left Butcher Holler and poverty behind. By Keith Harris

60/100

41. Townes Van Zandt, ‘Pancho and Lefty’ (1972)

Leave it to the poet laureate of Texas country to not only tell a story of betrayal, but to make the turncoat a sympathetic character. “Pancho and Lefty” is The Great Gatsby of country songs, conveying more about friendship, duplicity and guilt than most novels. In the song, the bandit Pancho Villa has been dispatched by the hangman’s rope, but at least his suffering is over. His sidekick Lefty, who set him up, has to die a thousand deaths, trying to live with what he’s done while hiding out in cheap hotels up north. Or as Van Zandt puts it, “The dust that Pancho bit down south/Ended up in Lefty’s mouth.” Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s cover ended up topping the country charts in 1983. By David Menconi

61/100

40. Gram Parsons, ‘$1000 Wedding’ (1974)

Devotees have been puzzling over the meaning of this enigmatic masterpiece for 40 years, but it has yet to yield up a definitive interpretation. Parsons’ protagonist is a none-too-bright bridegroom at a low-rent (possibly shotgun) wedding, where he is stood up for reasons unknown. Maybe the bride died, maybe she ran off with someone else – it’s never specified. So he and his groomsmen go on a drunken bender so epic, “It’s lucky they survived.” Wedding seems to morphs into funeral, leading to the saddest closing line in all of country music: “It’s been a bad, bad day.” For all that the words leave unspoken, there’s no mistaking Parsons’ tone of stoic, bemused resignation. Duet partner Emmylou Harris blesses the proceedings with the perfect note of angelic sadness. By David Menconi

62/100

39. Kacey Musgraves, ‘Follow Your Arrow’ (2013)

“Even if [people] don’t agree with the girls-kissing-girls thing or even the drug reference,” Musgraves said about her breakthrough song, “I would hope that they would agree that no matter what, we all should be able to love who we want to love and live how we want to live.” The heart of her drama lies in waiting for the establishment to catch up. Censored at the Country Music Association Awards and lionized by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, 25-year-old Kacey Musgraves has become one of the loudest symbols of young country musicians embracing progressive values. But like most of her debut Same Trailer, Different Park, “Follow Your Arrow” isn’t an attack on conservatism so much as an attack on any system that keeps us from being who we are, gay or straight, sober or stoned. By Mike Powell

63/100

38. Patsy Montana, ‘I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart’ (1935)

The first million-seller by a female country artist, this yodeling paean to the Wild West mythos made an icon of Arkansas-born singer-songwriter-actress-fiddler (and Jimmie Rodgers fan) Ruby Blevins, a.k.a. Patsy Montana. After stints in Los Angeles and New York working in radio, TV and film, Montana joined the Kentucky string band the Prairie Ramblers and adapted the early Western standard “Texas Plains” as “Montana Plains” and then as “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” establishing her gun-totin’ cowgirl image (she later sang of being a “man-hatin’ lassie” on “The She-Buckaroo”). “Cowboy’s Sweetheart” has been covered consistently from Patti Page to the Dixie Chicks, even showing up on The Voice as the audition song for Gracia Harrison. By Charles Aaron

64/100

37. George Jones and Tammy Wynette, ‘Golden Ring’ (1976)

Here’s why this is country’s finest duet of all time: Country’s Greatest Singer and Most Feckless Drunk vs. Country’s Greatest Actor and Crankiest Pill-popper. Prediction: Heartbreak wins again, in the most bluntly theatrical way possible. The couple’s screwy marriage on the outs, they sound like they’re about to wrap their hands around each other’s throats. Inspired by a made-for-TV movie about a handgun’s history – going from cop to murderer to little kid – genius co-writer Bobby Braddock subs a wedding ring for the gun. But the narrative is no less gritty, working you over like a Cassavettes flick, moving from the mundane (the intro’s inexplicably frisky guitar) to the devastating (in the song’s crowning scene, Wynette voices the man’s palpable hurt, while Jones intones grimly, “She says one thing’s for certain, I don’t love you anymore”). The ring ends up back in the Chicago pawn shop from whence it came. Our protagonists, meanwhile, remain a dizzy gospel-invoking mess. By Charles Aaron

65/100

36. Hank Williams, ‘Lost Highway’ (1949)

The song that possibly best articulates the doomed country mythos that Hank Williams’ life and death epitomize wasn’t written by Hank himself. The blind country singer-songwriter Leon Payne wrote and recorded “Lost Highway” just a year before. Payne wasn’t just waxing spiritually metaphorical: He was indeed lost along the highway, struggling unsuccessfully to hitchhike from California to Texas to visit his ailing mother, forced instead to seek food and shelter in a Salvation Army. By Keith Harris

66/100

35. The Everly Brothers, ‘Bye Bye Love’ (1957)

Recorded with an all-star band that included Elvis’ piano player, the Opry’s house drummer and guitarist Chet Atkins, “Bye Bye Love” catapulted the Everly Brothers into the stratosphere, becoming a Top Five hit on the country, pop and R&B charts in 1957. Apart from the song’s introductory guitar riff, which Don Everly lifted from an earlier tune called “Give Me a Future,” the brothers didn’t write “Bye Bye Love.” They did give the song its identity, though, beefing up a relatively standard chord progression with equal doses of Tennessee twang and their iconic harmonies. By Andrew Leahey

67/100

34. The Carter Family, ‘Wildwood Flower’ (1928)

Originally an 1860 parlor song titled “I’ll Twine ‘Mid the Ringlets” (a raven-tressed maiden’s plucky response to being unceremoniously abandoned), “Wildwood Flower” was revived by Virginia “song catcher” A. P. Carter. He arranged it for his family trio including singer-autoharpist wife Sara and her lead-guitarist cousin Maybelle, who turned 19 the day the group recorded the song outside Philadelphia. Its opening lyrics were mondegreened, pursuant to the mishaps of oral tradition. “I’ll twine mid the ringlets of my raven black hair” became “Oh, I’ll twine with my mane, golden weeping black hair,” and would continue to alter as numerous others recorded it – including Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris and Reese Witherspoon. No version, however, is quite so outlandish as country comedian Dan Bowman’s hallucinogenic 1964 variation, “Wildwood Weed.” By Richard Gehr

68/100

33. Porter Wagoner, ‘A Satisfied Mind’ (1955)

“One day my father-in-law asked me who I thought the richest man in the world was, and I mentioned some names,” says co-writer Red Hayes. “He said, ‘You’re wrong, it is the man with a satisfied mind.'” Porter Wagoner’s demo of this pious lament, first recorded at a Missouri radio station in 1954, would end up becoming the version that would hit Number One on the country charts the following year. In the ensuing decades, the most famous song by the man once known as Mr. Grand Ole Opry would go on to become an unlikely standard amongst a slew of rootsy country-rock revivalists: the Byrds, Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons, David Allan Coe, Lucinda Williams and Jeff Buckley have all taken their turn at the song. By Jonathan Bernstein

69/100

32. Mississippi Sheiks, ‘Sitting on Top of the World’ (1930)

Not so much straight “country” as the blues seasoned with rural fiddle, “World” percolated through the western swing circuit as covered by Bob Wills and Milton Brown; became Fifties blues in the hands of Howlin’ Wolf; and then Sixties rock via the Grateful Dead and Cream – a history that, if nothing else, cements the song as a kind of Rorschach test that ultimately filtered back to Chet Atkins, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Willie Nelson. More recently, the Mississippi Sheiks became a cause for Jack White, who is reissuing their entire catalog through his Document label – presumably lured by that “real-thing” feel in their gritty but obscure sound. By Mike Powell

70/100

31. Hank Williams, ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ (1953)

Did Hank Williams write perhaps his greatest “heart” song to spite his first wife, while joyriding in a convertible and eating ice cream with his second wife? Wife No. 2 says so, but she probably would. At any rate, Williams was in full flail at the time, caught in a matrix of loves: Audrey (ex-wife-manager, mother of his son); Bobbie (pregnant girlfriend contractually promised child support); Billie Jean (19-year-old new wife). It’s not hard to imagine that the owner of the cheatin’ heart was the guilt-wracked singer himself. While Don Helms’ mournful pedal steel pierces the air, Williams sorrowfully laments a cheater’s fate. Completed in a single take during his last recording session, it was released posthumously and went straight to Number One. By Charles Aaron

71/100

30. Faron Young, ‘Hello Walls’ (1961)

Lore has it that “Hello Walls” songwriter Willie Nelson once met up with Lefty Frizzell for a collaborative session, but when Frizzell took a break and left the garage where they were sitting, Nelson got the idea for his first major hit. When voiced by friend Faron Young, a.k.a. the “Hillbilly Heartthrob,” the song took on a particular elegance, going to Number One on the country chart, and even becoming a Number 12 pop hit. In the storied country-song tradition, “Hello Walls” possesses a wit that makes you wince: Like a character in a one-act play, the heartbroken singer literally speaks to the walls, window and ceiling of an empty room, asking pitifully, “I bet you dread to spend another lonely night with me.” By Charles Aaron

72/100

29. Jimmie Rodgers, ‘Blue Yodel No. 1 (T For Texas)’ (1928)

A phenomenon that created country music’s very first superstar, the first of 13 yodeling records by “the Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers began three months after a middling session in Bristol, Tennessee with a traveling record exec named Ralph Peer – the sessions, in a former hat factory, also captured the Carter Family for the first time. Jimmie Rodgers tracked Peer to New York and he soon ended up in Camden, New Jersey, where he recorded the song that defined his legacy. What was it about Rodgers’ yodel? Slippery but controlled, despairing but casual, refined but so strange it seemed to have been beamed him from some distant star – it was the sound of pain made charming, even sweet. If he was really planning to buy a pistol and shoot poor Thelma “just to see her jump and fall,” he would probably need to pick up the pace. By Mike Powell

73/100

28. Hank Williams, ‘I Saw The Light’ (1948)

Hank Williams was better known for seeking earthly pleasures in Saturday night honky-tonks than for belting out promises of salvation on Sunday morning. But this gospel redemption number was his longtime show-closer, an upright happy ending to the pageant of sin and sorrow that preceded it. Fans so strongly identified Williams with the song that when a 1953 Canton, Ohio crowd waiting for the star’s long overdue arrival disbelieved the announcement of his death, “I Saw the Light” was what Hawkshaw Hawkins sang in tribute to convince them that the sad news was indeed true. By Keith Harris

74/100

27. Johnny Cash, ‘Ring of Fire’ (1963)

Country music rebel Johnny Cash was at his best when taking extreme measures: all-black clothing, performing for felons, and singing about unbridled love with flames to illustrate his point. Written by songwriter Merle Kilgore and June Carter (or Cash himself, according to less savory accounts about the lyrics’ meaning) the song was originally recorded as an acoustic folk tune called “(Love’s) Ring of Fire” by June’s sister, Anita Carter. When it didn’t net her a hit, Cash retooled the arrangement with mariachi horns, electric guitar and his barreling voice – backed by Mother Maybelle and the Carter sisters. After its 1963 release, the Number One reign of “Fire” on the country charts lasted seven weeks. Kilgore, who later managed Hank Williams Jr., tried to place “Ring of Fire” in a Preparation H ad in 2004, but Cash’s surviving family wisely nixed the idea. The song lives on more reverently in the hands of rock bands like Eric Burdon & the Animals (who scored a Top 40 single in 1969) and SoCal rockabilly punks Social Distortion. By Reed Fischer

75/100

26. Dixie Chicks, ‘Goodbye Earl’ (1999)

This domestic abuse revenge tale caused minor controversy when it was released, but songwriter Dennis Linde shrugged it off: “I thought I was writing a black comedy like Arsenic and Old Lace or The Trouble With Harry,” he told the Los Angeles Times. Long story short: He gives her a black eye, she poisons his black-eyed peas – but it’s ultimately a love song since she reunites with her high school BFF by song’s end. Dixie Chick Emily Robinson undercut the brouhaha with a little sarcasm, telling the media, “We’re not promoting murder, and we even say that in a disclaimer on our album. Besides, is there a gentler way to go than with black-eyed peas?” By Nick Murray

76/100

25. Johnny Paycheck, ‘Take This Job and Shove It’ (1977)

In the whole of recorded music, there’s no more pithy a summation of the psychic turmoil of long-term employment than “Take This Job and Shove It,” Johnny Paycheck’s 1977 declaration of autonomy. Although the two-and-a-half-minute track was written by David Allen Coe, Paycheck was destined (by both name and temperament) to animate it, and there’s something about the way he hollers “Shove it!” – you can hear his creeping smirk; you can feel his slowly burgeoning elation – that makes this jam the perfect coda to whatever shift you’ve been stuck on for a day too long. Paycheck knows: Sometimes it’s worth a couple months of peanut butter sandwiches to hurl your metaphorical apron across the room and dance out the door. Later, his job as a country singer was effectively shoved by a prison sentence for shooting a man. By Amanda Petrusich

77/100

24. Taylor Swift, ‘Mean’ (2010)

On the frolicking “Mean,” Taylor Swift sounds like she has queen bees, bullies, I’ma-let-you-finishers and corrosively cruel music critics in her banjo machine-gun’s sights. From 2010’s Speak Now, the song was an eventual Number Two country hit – and Number 11 on the Hot 100 – partly because it captures the sting of “words like knives.” It’s real power lies in giving enough ammo to empower victims of bullying even worse than those Swift suffered (i.e., getting mixed reviews for a Grammys duet with Stevie Nicks). This is 19-year-old Swift balancing her sound to pull in country fans while also opening the palace gates for the still-greater pop stardom to come. By Reed Fischer

78/100

23. Lefty Frizzell, ‘If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time’ (1950)

Arkansas-bred Frizzell had a gentle drawl that made even his rowdiest songs go down sweet. His debut single – covered by George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Willie Nelson – taught an entire generation of country vocalists how to sing. The honky-tonker was immediate hit, selling a whopping 500,000 copies in two months. Frizzell was barely 22 when he co-wrote the song with A&R man Jim Beck, who first discovered the young Arkansas singer in Texas. Lefty came up with the idea for the lyrics when one of his friends tried to convince Frizzell to go out with him one night. “He said, ‘Lefty, do you want to go?’ And I said, ‘Well if you got the money, I got the time,'” says Frizzell. “It dawned on me this would be a beautiful idea for a song.” By Jonathan Bernstein

79/100

22. Ernest Tubb, ‘Walking the Floor Over You’ (1941)

Tubb started his career as a Jimmie Rodgers mimic but lost his yodel in 1939 when a doctor took out his tonsils. He soldiered on and became one of pop’s first great terrible singers, with a voice so wooden that even he made fun of it. But like basically every successful youth-oriented musician of the last century, he had the keen idea to quicken the pace and firm up the beat, making the song as much about the accompaniment as the lead. “Walking” was an early instance of country music’s fascination with the electric guitar, a rude instrument used in places of questionable morality. If anything, Tubb’s voice only helped foster the idea that he was authentic – a regular dude who made good on his shortcomings and sold millions. By Mike Powell

80/100

21. The Carter Family, ‘Can the Circle Be Unbroken’ (1935)

A.P. Carter, patriarch of country music’s First Family, took a rather severe Christian hymn dating back at least to 1907 (when the sheet music for “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” was first published), altered the title slightly, changed the lyrics substantially, and produced a stirring, stoic, nondenominational expression of collective sorrow in the face of death on a 78 rpm disc. It would become a harmony-powered, genre-transcending standard, at funerals and elsewhere, in gospel, folk, country and country-rock. Notable in the latter is the pioneering version by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on their all-star 1972 triple LP Will The Circle Be Unbroken, featuring vocals by “Mother” Maybelle Carter herself. By Will Hermes

81/100

20. Kenny Rogers, ‘The Gambler’ (1978)

“I thought that one was a home run the minute I heard it,” Kenny Rogers has said of the most famous story-song in country history. Don Schlitz wrote most of the gambling allegory in 1976 while walking home from a meeting on Music Row, but it took the songwriter six weeks to come up with the inconclusive final verse. Producer Larry Butler gave the song to both Johnny Cash and Kenny Rogers to record, but he placed his faith in Rogers. “I got a funny feeling,” Butler told the singer, “that if you do this, you will become the Gambler.” Butler’s prophecy proved true, as the classic country narrative quickly became Rogers’ signature tune, earning him a Number One spot on the country charts, a Grammy and a series of television movies, starring Rogers as the Gambler. By Jonathan Bernstein

82/100

19. Loretta Lynn, ‘Don’t Come Home A’ Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)’ (1966)

“We didn’t have much money for entertainment,” Loretta Lynn wrote in her 1976 autobiography Coal Miner’s Daughter. “I never went out much because we couldn’t afford a babysitter. Besides, Doo [Oliver Vanetta Lynn, her husband of nearly 50 years] liked to go out with the boys and have a few beers.” Cue this prickly 1966 smash, her first Number One, co-written with sister Peggy Sue (“My bank account loves that song as much as I do”), a spritely rejection of whiskey-dick’d marital overtures. It touched off a feud via Jay Lee Webb’s cold-blooded 1967 answer record “I Come Home A Drinkin’ (To a Worn-Out Wife Like You),” but the best cover version is a 2010 rave-up from Gretchen Wilson. By Rob Harvilla

83/100

18. George Strait, ‘All My Ex’s Live in Texas’ (1987)

George Strait stands tall as the most influential country star of recent decades – a dashing but down-to-earth Texan stud in a white hat, keeping the old-school verities alive without getting lost in show-biz glitz or folkie purity. His white hat was such a signature that Strait could fire up insane amounts of fan controversy any time he put on a black one. Over his amazingly long-lived career (he’s currently on his farewell tour), he’s avoided pop crossover like the plague, yet this 1987 smash (written by Sanger D. Schafer – with his fourth wife) became his most famous song. Strait laments that all his exes live in Texas – with the punch line, “That’s why I hang my hat in Tennessee.” By Rob Sheffield

84/100

17. Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, ‘New San Antonio Rose’ (1940)

The western swing pioneer wrote “Spanish Two-Step” in his early days of entertaining Mexican audiences, created the original “San Antonio Rose” at a 1938 session by playing the its bridge backwards, and added new lyrics two years later to score his first national hit. Uptight traditionalists have criticized innovative country stars for deviating from some imaginary idea of “real country” for just about as long as there have been country stars to criticize, and Wills was no exception, outraging the cranks when he played his signature tune at the Opry with drums and horns. By Keith Harris

85/100

16. Glen Campbell, ‘Witchita Lineman’ (1968)

The romantic story about “Wichita Lineman” is that Jimmy Webb wrote it after seeing a lonely guy working at the top of a telephone pole while driving through the voids of rural Oklahoma. The truth is that Webb’s last song for Glen Campbell, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” had been a hit, and Capitol Records had called to demand more. “I really sat down to write something that would please them mostly,” Webb confessed to the Dallas Observer in 2006. The sound – a haze of soapy violins and expensive chord changes – had more to do with the onset of soft rock than the rudiments of country, but the subject matter was a new spin on an old story. Country calls it individualism; Webb called it loneliness. By Mike Powell

86/100

15. Kitty Wells, ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’ (1952)

There’s a great history in American music of answer songs that trump their targets – “This Land Is Your Land,” “Roll with Me, Henry,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Roxanne’s Revenge” – and this includes Kitty Wells’ riposte to Hank Thompson’s 1952 hit “The Wild Side of Life.” The original condemned an ex-fiancée (whom the singer appears to have stalked) as a common floozy. Wells’ revved-up reply (via songwriter Jay Miller, with husband Johnnie Wright on bass!) indicted unfaithful men for making their own empty beds, and scored the first Number One country hit for a solo female artist, inspiring generations to resist submissive stereotypes. As testament to Wells’ groundbreaking courage in recording the song, NBC Radio banned it and the Grand Ole Opry forbade her from performing the song on its hallowed stage. By Charles Aaron

87/100

14. Hank Williams, ‘Settin’ the Woods on Fire’ (1952)

While Hank Williams’ down-and-out singles tend to get more attention (see “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart”), the giddy songs from Williams’ up-cycle swings were phenomenal too. That goes for this fight-for-your-right-to-party invitation to date night, a weekend call to arms for the honky-tonk set that perfectly predates modern country bonfires-and-booze songs by Florida Georgia Line and Brantley Gilbert. “Settin’ the Woods on Fire” is Williams at his goofiest, rhyming “silly” with “dilly” and “chili” while working “a little time to fix a flat or two” into the evening’s itinerary. By David Menconi

88/100

13. Bill Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys, ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ (1947)

As the master builder of bluegrass, Bill Monroe took the fiddle music he learned on the Kentucky farm of his childhood, tricked it out with blues, gospel and swing, then stepped on the gas with his meticulously on-point band the Bluegrass Boys (led by Earl Scruggs). But his signature tune was timeless, beyond genre, a waltz featuring Monroe on mandolin and falsetto testifying, speaking straight to country folk about a blue moon guiding him back home, not bestowing bad luck. As Monroe told NPR in 1983: “It’s got Baptists and Holiness and Methodists singing in it and Scotch bagpipe and the old Southern blues… It really touches your heart, and it’s a good, clean music.” Ironic, then, that Elvis Presley’s jacked-up 4/4 version seven years later jet-propelled his taboo-busting career, and by extension, rock & roll itself. By Charles Aaron

89/100

12. Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, ‘I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail’ (1964)

This hilarious tune about a hard-partying woman is powered by a wiry guitar style that influenced the Beatles and the Byrds. An essential example of the spunky Bakersfield sound that toughened up Sixties country. The idea for the single came to the singer during a drive with legendary songwriting partner Harlan Howard. Upon noticing a sign with the Esso gas slogan “Put a Tiger In Your Tank,” Owens said to Howard, “How about ‘Tiger by the Tail’ for a title?” Howard jotted down some lyrics in the backseat, Owens improvised a melody on the spot, and the song was complete before the trip was over. Howard, who considered “Tiger” a novelty tune, was skeptical of the song’s potential, but “Tiger” proved to be Owens’ biggest hit to date, quickly reaching Number One on the country charts and eventually providing the Nashville establishment outsider with the first (and highest charting) crossover pop single of his career. By Jonathan Bernstein

90/100

11. Stanley Brothers, ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ (1951)

With likely origins as a 19th-century Baptist hymn, “Man of Constant Sorrow” was revived by the Stanley Brothers in 1951; covered by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Judy Collins in quick succession a decade later; and launched a full-on Americana revival with its prominent placement in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? in 2000. Its ambiguous provenance can be attributed to blind Kentucky fiddler Dick Burnett, who published it in 1913 as “Farewell Song” and, when asked its origin, replied, “I think I got the ballad from somebody… I dunno. It may be my song.” Ralph Stanley heard his daddy sing a version, which he and brother Carter added words to and transformed into a high, lonesome landmark of post-breakup misery and transient unease. By Richard Gehr

91/100

10. Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, ‘Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys’ (1978)

The best buddy team in country history took the cowboy song tradition of Roy Rogers into the Seventies, with a front-porch charisma that any doctor or lawyer would be lucky to have. Songwriter Ed Bruce’s version of this cautionary tale, released in late 1975, became a minor country hit. But shortly thereafter, Waylon and Willie took the song to Number One. Their combined star power and road-weary charm romanticized the emotionally inaccessible male drifter more powerfully perhaps than any country song had before. Despite the combined efforts of the singers’ and countless mammas, however, the years since have seen no marked decline in baby-to-cowboy transformations. By Keith Harris

92/100

9. Dolly Parton, ‘Jolene’ (1973)

Inspired by the sight of her husband flirting with a bank teller, “Jolene” is Parton’s most heartrending triumph and the most devastating cheating song of them all. These days, contemporary country charts are overloaded with blustery assertions of self-sufficiency – from Marina McBride to Miranda Lambert – which makes it even more heartbreaking to hear one of country’s most beloved matriarchs sounding so vulnerable. “Jolene,” a hit for Parton in 1973, sees her imploring another woman to leave her man alone. By Amanda Petrusich

93/100

8. Merle Haggard, ‘Mama Tried’ (1968)

No one could write a prison number like ex-con Merle Haggard. Despite its humble origin as a commission for Killers Three, a B-movie produced by and starring Dick Clark, this 1968 Platonic ideal of a country song turned out to be the Hag’s most autobiographical statement. With its James Burton dobro vamp and haiku-like Roy Nichols Fender solo, “Mama Tried” is a celebration of cussed stubbornness disguised as an apology. Haggard was indeed sent to San Quentin in 1957, but “instead of life in prison I was doing one-to-15 years,” he told a reporter. “I just couldn’t get that to rhyme.” Oddly upbeat compared to his earlier “Sing Me Back Home,” “Mama Tried” was adopted by perennial band-on-the-the-run the Grateful Dead, who performed it at Woodstock and on more than 300 subsequent occasions. By Richard Gehr

94/100

7. Ray Charles, ‘You Don’t Know Me’ (1962)

This Cindy Walker-penned gem was pulled from about 250 country tunes Ray Charles considered for his 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Backed by a chorus and sumptuous strings, Charles constructs a lump in his throat and an ache in his heart while working his jazz and R&B expertise into “hillbilly” material. “[T]he words to country songs are very earthy like the blues, see, very down,” he once told Rolling Stone. “Country songs and the blues is like it is.” Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson all went on to cover what became a Number Two pop hit for Charles, but a somber version by Richard Manuel of the Band comes closest to reliving this version’s woes. Modern Sounds galvanized racial integration in the music industry, made Nashville songwriters the hottest of the time, and showed Charles exercising artistic control unprecedented for black artists at the time. By Reed Fischer

95/100

6. Tammy Wynette, ‘Stand By Your Man’ (1968)

A family-values tract with its share of contradictions (Wynette was a four-time divorcée). But there’s no mistaking the power in her voice or the beauty in Billy Sherrill’s lush production. Many heard her signature tune, written with producer Billy Sherrill, as a reactionary riposte to the then-emerging women’s liberation movement, rendering the song inextricable from the Baby Boomer culture wars. In 1992, Hillary Clinton even referred to it disparagingly when a 60 Minutes interview confronted her with questions about her husband’s infidelities. Wynette later said she spent 20 minutes writing this and 20 years defending it. By Keith Harris

96/100

5. Jimmie Rodgers, ‘Standing on the Corner (Blue Yodel #9)’ (1930)

By 1930, the tuberculosis-stricken former railroad worker and blackface performer Jimmie Rodgers was a certified star, his “blue yodels” selling millions. But the “Father of Country Music” was also a mercurial, try-anything entertainer, so this seemingly unlikely country-jazz summit with trumpet sensation Louis Armstrong (and Louis’ pianist wife Lil Hardin) doesn’t come as a shock. As Armstrong’s languidly hypnotic horn intuitively follows, Rodgers plays the bluesy, possibly sloshed raconteur – when the Memphis po-lice grab him by the arm, he insolently replies, “You’ll find my name on the tail of my shirt/I’m a Tennessee hustler and I don’t have to work.” Thank goodness Armstrong’s there to get him home. By Charles Aaron

97/100

4. George Jones, ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ (1980)

“Nobody will buy that morbid son of a bitch,” George Jones told producer Billy Sherrill as he left the studio. Instead, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” was his first Number One in six years. If there’s a bottom under the bottom, where humor mixes openly with despair, Jones knows it. By 1980 he was so lost he’d started speaking in split personalities, one of them Jones, another called the Old Man and a third called Dee-Doodle the Duck. It took him 18 months to finish “He Stopped Loving Her Today” on account of his speech being so slurred. The song’s protagonist swore he’d love her ’til the day he died, Jones tells us, with Sherrill’s string section rising behind him like some horror-movie hand shooting out of its grave. Then one day, he dies. Jones hated the song – he thought it was miserable and overly dramatic. It was. But country music often depends on the kind of hyperbole that real life can’t bear. By Mike Powell

98/100

3. Hank Williams, ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ (1949)

No matter how one first encounters this song – Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back, Sandra Bernhard in her one-woman-show Without You I’m Nothing, Johnny Cash duetting with Nick Cave, even Pittsburgh Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw plodding through a 1976 effort – its wrenchingly poetic majesty remains undiminished. But the original stands as one of pop music’s most masterfully controlled wails of emotion. Williams bemoans his failing marriage to wife Audrey, unveiling a series of deathly images (a whippoorwill too blue to fly, the moon hiding behind the clouds, a falling star silently lighting up a purple sky), which seesaw on the melody, until the singer concludes that he’s “lost the will the live.” Less than four years later, Williams was found dead in his Cadillac on New Year’s Day. By Charles Aaron

99/100

2. Patsy Cline, ‘Crazy’ (1961)

Written for Billy Walker, this jukebox jackpot got to Patsy Cline through husband Charlie Dick, a Willie Nelson crony from Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Nashville’s Music Row. After hearing Nelson’s demo (am emulation of Floyd Tillman’s “I Gotta Have My Baby Back”), Dick immediately drove the songwriter home to wake up Cline. She initially judged Nelson’s tune too slow, too mannered and unflattering but nonetheless nailed her heart-stopping, self-interrogating vocal in a single. Floyd Cramer played the spare, walking-after-midnight piano riffs and Elvis Presley’s Jordanaires served as Greek chorus. “Crazy” went on to become Cline’s signature tune, a hallmark of the Great American Songbook and 1992 independent presidential candidate Ross Perot’s campaign anthem. By Richard Gehr

100/100

1. Johnny Cash, ‘I Walk the Line’ (1956)

The defining moment for country’s most iconic figure. What makes “I Walk the Line” a great song? Johnny Cash’s transcendent baritone (“A voice from the middle of the Earth,” recalled Bob Dylan), the Tennessee Two’s austere rhythms, the lyrics’ puppy-dog romanticism and the goofy hums that telegraph the key changes. But what makes it a great country song? The fact that Cash wasn’t always walking said line. At least not in a secular sense: Written on the road (most likely in East Texas) and released in 1956 (Sun Records boss Sam Phillips insisted on picking up the tempo), the tune is largely a reassuring love letter to Vivian Liberto Cash, his first wife – but, given that the 2005 biopic named after the song chronicled Johnny’s subsequent eternal love affair with June Carter Cash… well, yeah. Robert Hilburn’s 2013 biography quotes Cash conceding that he was partly singing to God, too: “Sam never knew it, but ‘I Walk the Line’ was my first Gospel hit.” By Rob Harvilla