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The 200 Greatest Country Songs of All Time

From Hank to Shania, from George Strait to Beyoncé

Greatest country songs of all time


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. And these are the songs that map out the story of country music — from Hank Williams howling at the moon to Ray Charles giving “hillbilly” music an R&B makeover to Shania Twain taking her karaoke-cowgirl feminism worldwide, and much more.

In 2014, Rolling Stone launched Rolling Stone Country and inaugurated the new site with a list of the 100 Greatest Country Songs. Now, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of RS Country, we’re expanding the list to 200 songs. The new list gave us more room to go deeper into the music’s rich history, including some aspects that didn’t get enough attention the first time around. We’re publishing our updated list at a time when a classic Tracy Chapman folk song can become a country Number One, and Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter is shining a light on the legacies of Black country artists like Linda Martell. Nearly a century after artists like the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and DeFord Bailey helped get the story started, the tradition keeps growing.

CONTRIBUTORS: Joseph Hudak, Jon Freeman, Christopher Weingarten, David Cantwell, Brittney McKenna, Angie Martoccio, Michaelangelo Matos, Joe Gross, Jeff Gage, Rob Sheffield, Nick Murray, Will Hermes, Keith Harris, Jon Dolan, Maya Georgi, Richard Gehr, Reed Fischer, Jonathan Bernstein, Beville Dunkerley, Cady Drell, Marissa R. Moss, David Menconi, Linda Ryan, Andrew Leahey, Mike Powell, Charles Aaron, Rob Harvilla, Amanda Petrusich

From Rolling Stone US


Donna Fargo, ‘The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.’

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 chart. 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. —D.M.


Kris Kristofferson, ‘Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down’

Kris Kristofferson — country music’s resident rugby playing/movie star/Rhodes scholar/Army pilot/studio janitor — had amassed one of music’s most ridiculously badass resumes even before Johnny Cash agreed to cut “Sunday Morning Coming Down” in 1970. While Cash sounds steadfast and resolved singing this meditation to the physical and existential crash after a Saturday night of hard partying, Kristofferson gives the song a much darker feel, moaning the lyrics with a distinctly desolate sense of regret, as if the only thing that’s able to coax him out of bed that morning is the track’s weirdly insistent hi-hats. Maybe Johnny just handled hangovers better. —J. Gross


Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘What Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me)’

Jerry Lee Lewis’ career had been languishing for years when country producer Eddie Kilroy persuaded him to record in Nashville. It was a move that paid off. With “What Made Milwaukee Famous,” he scored his biggest hit since “Great Balls of Fire,” perfectly selling one of the great title parentheticals in the history of Music Row. Though he’d have future success with such downtrodden tunes as “She Still Comes Around (To Love What’s Left of Me),” “One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart),” and “When He Walks on You (Like You Have Walked on Me),” he never found a bottom quite as rocky as the guy in this song choosing Schlitz beer over his beautiful wife. —N.M.


John Denver, ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’

“Take Me Home, Country Roads” was named the official song of the Mountain State in 2014, some 43 years after John Denver’s easygoing voice and catchy chorus made it a Seventies anthem (it opens “Almost heaven, West Virginia”). Neither Denver nor the song had anything to do with the place. Written by New England native Bill Danoff, his D.C.-born partner Taffy Nivert, and Denver (who hailed from Roswell, New Mexico), “Take Me Home …” was conceived while Danoff and Nivert were driving down Clopper Road in Maryland, which caused Danoff to reminisce about his home state. But West Virginia seemed to fit the song better. —J. Gross


Maren Morris, ‘My Church’

Maren Morris’ 2016 debut single is a secular gospel gem that locates “holy redemption” in open highway car radio singalongs — a notion that, with its Hank Williams and Johnny Cash name-checks, would seem on its face cliché at best. But Morris sells it like the hungry singer-songwriter she was, and the result is stirring and irresistible. Co-written and produced by her brilliant polymath wingman Busbee (who died of glioblastoma in 2019 at age 43), it shows his sly talent for supersizing country rock, with its clipped drums and AM radio-style vocal compression. But it’s his partner leading the choir, and it rightly earned her a Grammy — for Best Country Solo Performance — straight out of the gate. And she hasn’t slowed down yet. —W.H.


Emmett Miller, ‘Lovesick Blues’

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 of 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. —R.F.


Vince Gill, ‘When I Call Your Name’

An affable Oklahoman with an angelic set of pipes, Vince Gill had flirted with pop success as the lead singer on Pure Prairie League’s 1980 Top 10 hit, “Let Me Love You Tonight.” And although he’d become one of the most sought-after harmony singers in Nashville, it would be a decade before he scored his signature country hit, claiming CMA Single of the Year honors and the first of 22 Grammys for this ballad, co-written with Tim DuBois. “When I Call Your Name” is dark and lonely enough with Gill’s mournful tenor leading the way, but, ironically, adding Patty Loveless’s haunting harmony turns a simple tale of abandonment into exquisitely expressed torment. —S.B.  


Chris Stapleton, ‘Tennessee Whiskey’

One of the great country-soul performances of the 21st century, Chris Stapleton’s breakout single from Traveler is an object lesson in how R&B and country music swap sounds and spirit. David Allan Coe made the song a minor hit in 1974, casting it as a honky-tonk weeper, and George Jones had one of his greatest latter-day hits with it in 1983. But it was an even bigger hit for Stapleton, who retooled the arrangement and melody into a near-mirror image of Etta James’ 1967 classic “I’d Rather Go Blind.” Stapleton celebrated the song’s genre-fluidity when Justin Timberlake joined him to sing it at the CMAs in 2015. It became Stapleton’s signature; his creaky, pained, acrobatic vocals — and honeyed electric guitar — branding him perhaps the greatest country soul man of his generation. —W.H.


The Flatlanders, ‘Dallas’

Perpetually unsung, the Flatlanders were a Lubbock, Texas, 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? —M.P.


Lynn Anderson, ‘Rose Garden’

Already a teenaged hitmaker and staple of The Lawrence Welk Show before she signed with Columbia Records in 1970, Lynn Anderson knew the value of a good song: Her mother, Liz, was the songwriter behind hits for Merle Haggard and Conway Twitty. So when Anderson heard Joe South’s recording of his own “Rose Garden,” she knew she had to cut it herself — even if her producer and then-husband, Glenn Sutton, objected. “It was a man’s song, and I didn’t wanna do it, but she kept bringin’ it in with her,” Sutton said. The song became Anderson’s first Number One, launching a decade of crossover hits for female country singers. —J. Gage


The Louvin Brothers, ‘I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby’

The Alabama-born brothers Ira and Charlie Louvin (né Loudermilk) were renowned for their close-harmony style of singing, an approach they had learned as children in their rural Sand Mountain church. Their uncannily perfect blends — hugely influential on the Everly Brothers, the Byrds, and generations of harmonizers — were often used to haunting effect in doom-laden, fire-and-brimstone country tunes. But their best recording is a sweet little number about love in jeopardy. The duo’s arrangement is simple, with Ira’s metallic mandolin licks providing a countermelody on top of Charlie’s rhythmic acoustic guitar. As usual, it’s their voices that are the star, with Ira’s freakishly high tenor underpinned by Charlie’s sturdy melody. For once, it’s a story that doesn’t end in some combination of murder or damnation. —J.F.


Linda Martell, ‘Color Him Father’

With a career that began singing R&B in a girl group dubbed Linda Martell and the Anglos, this under-appreciated pioneer pivoted to country in the early Seventies with “Color Him Father,” a filial love pledge that floats Martell’s agile Dionne Warwick alto over a two-step bounce and plumes of steel guitar. The song was a minor hit in 1969. But due to bad luck, management fumbles, and garden-variety industry racism/sexism, Martell’s striking country LP would be her last, despite performing well on the chart. The singer received belated flowers in 2024 when Beyoncé shouted her out, and platformed her spoken-word perspective on the vagaries of musical genre to Cowboy Carter. —W.H.


John Anderson, ‘Wild and Blue’

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. —R.G.


The Judds, ‘Why Not Me’

“I had been introduced to bluegrass … with the piercing, wailing harmonies since I lived in Kentucky, and moving to Marin Country in California, I started listening to Bonnie Raitt, Karla Bonoff, and Emmylou Harris,” Wynonna Judd told Cash Box in 1984. “We kind of brought it all in together.” Nothing brought it together as perfectly as the Judds’ second country Number One, ”Why Not Me,” which perfectly bottled the Judds formula. The young Wynonna’s combo of singer-songwriter forthrightness with rustic acoustic instrumentation, with her mother Naomi’s supporting harmonies in the background, would help spearhead Nashville new traditionalist boom in the mid-Eighties. —M.M.


Hank Williams Jr., ‘Family Tradition’

There’s personal, there’s autobiographical, and then there’s this incredible open letter of a song. Hank Jr., who began performing at eight years old, five years after his father died, had broken ranks with his past, increasingly foregrounding Southern rock starting in the mid-Seventies. This was his response to the caviling of longtime country purists. ”Why do you drink?/Why do you roll smoke?/Why must you live out/The songs that you wrote?”, he asks in the song’s instantly memorable chorus, appropriating the voice of his detractors, then responds “I’m just carrying on an ol’ family tradition” in a voice that’s the definition of rowdy garrulousness. —M.M.


Osborne Brothers, ‘Rocky Top’

Don your brightest orange, raise a glass of ‘shine, and get ready to sing along. “Rocky Top,” penned by the famed husband-and-wife songwriting duo Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, wasn’t originally intended to be the rallying cry for the University of Tennessee’s Volunteers. But its no-holds-barred celebration of “home sweet home” in East Tennessee inspired the school’s Pride of the Southland marching band to start playing the tune at sporting events in the early Seventies. It’s also one of Tennessee’s 10 state songs and has inspired a vast array of covers since its release nearly half a century ago. The Osborne Brothers initially made the song famous with their rollicking bluegrass version from 1957, and their “Rocky Top” still holds the peak of the mountain. —B.M.


John Prine, ‘Angel From Montgomery’

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. —M.P.


Little Big Town, ‘Girl Crush’

The controversy around Little Big Town’s 2014 single “Girl Crush” remains one of the stranger debates in contemporary country music. While the track takes the perspective of a woman longing for another woman’s man, the mere intimation of same-sex attraction was enough to enrage right-leaning fans, who angrily called radio stations that dared to play the track. It’s their loss, though, as “Girl Crush” boasts not only a fresh and relatable take on romantic jealousy — thanks to the lyrical genius of writing team “the Love Junkies” (Lori McKenna, Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose) — but a soulful, sultry arrangement made all the more gorgeous by the vocal group’s beloved harmonies. —B.M. 


Hank Williams, ‘Settin’ the Woods on Fire’

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. —D.M.


Jeannie C. Riley, ‘Harper Valley P.T.A.’

“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 miniskirted 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’ 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 big-screen comedy based on the song and in a 1981-82 TV show spun off the flick. —R.G.


Miranda Lambert, ‘The House That Built Me’

Miranda Lambert initially built her rap based on her feisty bravado, playing tough on tracks like “Kerosene” and “Gunpowder and Lead.” But on “The House That Built Me,” though, Lambert showcased her vulnerability, which turned out to be just as potent as her sass. Released as the third single off her excellent 2010 album, Revolution, the track is a co-write between Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin and immediately became a career watershed for the Texas artist. Her vocal is both emotional and understated, grounding a narrative that might’ve been treacly in less capable hands. And the line “My favorite dog is buried in the yard” is an all-time country best, sure to bring a tear to the eye no matter how many times you’ve heard the song. —B.M. 


Gary Allan, ‘Songs About Rain’

The second single from Gary 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.” —L.R.


Lee Ann Womack, ‘I Hope You Dance’

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 hit Number One on both the country and adult contemporary charts; won Song of the Year at the CMAs, ACMs, and ASCAP awards; and took home a Grammy for Best Country Song. Plus, between 2000-07, 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. —C.D.


George Jones, ‘The Race Is On’

A Top Five country hit in 1964, 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. —L.R.


Rosanne Cash, ‘Seven Year Ache’

When Rosanne 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 that 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. —C.A.


Patsy Cline, ‘I Fall to Pieces’

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. —C.D.


Sammi Smith, ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’

Kris Kristofferson was a struggling Nashville songwriter when he wrote “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” inspired by a quip from Frank Sinatra in an interview with Esquire magazine: “Booze, broads, or a bribe … whatever helps me make it through the night.” After singer Dottie West passed on the song because it was too risqué, he cut it himself. Sammi Smith’s 1971 version marked a turning point in country music, straddling the sultry strings of countrypolitan, the groove of country soul, and presaging the rebellion of the outlaws. Her subversive power came in her sensuous delivery, which so effortlessly captured the vulnerability of Kristofferson’s lyric. —J. Gage


Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, ‘Act Naturally’

According to Buck 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.” —N.M.


Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, ‘Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys’

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 Jennings and Willie Nelson 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. —K.H.


Tanya Tucker, ‘Delta Dawn’

Thirteen-year-old Tanya Tucker pushed producer Billy Sherrill hard to let her cut “Delta Dawn” as her debut single, having heard Bette Midler’s recording from the year before. The song, about an aging Southern belle obsessed with an old flame, had tragic roots: Co-writer Alex Harvey was inspired by the guilt he felt over his mother’s death in a car accident. Tucker had no problem accessing that profound sense of regret. Between the gravely edge in her voice and the church-choir breakdown that hearkens to “Amazing Grace,” her definitive reading blends the sacred and profane perfectly. “I thank the lucky stars and the good Lord for that song,” Tucker said in 1988. “If it hadn’t been for [‘Delta Dawn’], I probably would’ve been a rodeo queen or something.” —J. Gage


Carrie Underwood, ‘Before He Cheats’

This crossover smash emerged from circumstances as prefabricated as country music gets — written and produced by men whose credits include Lady A and Rascal Flatts, sung by an American Idol winner, and sporting a literal-interpretation video. And yet the pop craft 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!” —D.M.


Marty Robbins, ‘El Paso’

Arizona native Marty Robbins’ unusually long (four 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. —R.G.


Reba McEntire, ‘Fancy’

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. Reba 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. —L.R.


Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, ‘Uncle Pen’

An ode to bluegrass icon Bill Monroe’s uncle, a fiddler named Pendleton Vindover, “Uncle Pen” has been a standard for decades. Monroe sings his kin’s praises (“When the caller would holler, ‘Do-Si-Do’/They knew Uncle Pen was ready to go”) and even parks a bit of music criticism in there (“Greatest of all was the ‘Jennie Lynn’/To me, that’s where the fiddlin’ begins”). The song has had quite the afterlife: Ricky Skaggs had a Number One hit with it in 1984, and it’s even become a Phish live staple. Monroe once said he admired the way his uncle “got some wonderful Scots-Irish sound out of” his instrument, offering proof of how deep and far back these sounds go. —J. Gross 


George Jones and Tammy Wynette, ‘Golden Ring’

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 Cassavetes flick, moving from the mundane (the intro’s inexplicably frisky guitar) to the devastating (in the song’s crowning scene, Tammy Wynette voices the man’s palpable hurt, while George 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. —C.A.


Lefty Frizzell, ‘The Long Black Veil’

This 1959 saga of sacrifice is arguably the most persuasive primer on the pitfalls of infidelity. The hero of Lefty 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. —A.P.


Alabama, ‘Mountain Music’

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. “Mountain Music,” from 1982, 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. —A.L.


Roger Miller, ‘King of the Road’

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. —R.G.


Tammy Wynette, ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E’

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.” —R.G.


Eric Church, ‘Springsteen’

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 one of the best country songs of the 2010s might have more accurately been titled “Nugent” or “Anka” or “Fogelberg.” Co-written 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. —R.H.


Flatt and Scruggs, ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’

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. —C.A.


Johnny Paycheck, ‘Take This Job and Shove It’

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 Allan 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 of 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. —A.P.


Hank Williams, ‘I Saw the Light’

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. —K.H.


Johnny Cash, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’

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? —K.H.


Roy Acuff, ‘Wabash Cannonball’

Complete with choo-choo sound effects and the harmonica solo of some long-imagined cowboy, Roy 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 its 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. —M.P.


Alan Jackson, ‘Drive (For Daddy Gene)’

Great car songs abound in country as in rock or blues or pop — but few catch the pleasure of being behind the wheel quite so acutely as this one. Describing the thrill of his first driving lessons from his father, Alan Jackson keeps things humorous and light, though the song initially came from grief. “Even when I wrote the song when my daddy died years ago, that ‘Drive’ song, if you listened to it, you wouldn’t necessarily think it was a song you wrote for your daddy that died,” he told one interviewer. “I’ve written heartache songs over the years, too, that have been inspired by my own life, but you’d have to really be close to know it.” —M.M.


Bobbie Gentry, ‘Ode to Billie Joe’

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. —R.G.