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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


Lefty Frizzell, ‘If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time’

Arkansas-bred Lefty 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 singer in Texas. Frizzell came up with the idea for the lyrics when one of his friends tried to persuade the musician 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.” —J.B.


Ernest Tubb, ‘Walking the Floor Over You’

Ernest 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. —M.P.


Buck Owens, ‘I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail’

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 singer Buck Owens 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 back seat, 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 chart and eventually providing the Nashville establishment outsider with the first (and highest charting) crossover pop single of his career. —J.B.


The Carter Family, ‘Can the Circle Be Unbroken’

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 last style 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. —W.H.


Loretta Lynn, ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’

This autobiographical reminiscence was a gear-shift for Loretta Lynn, who’d made her name by feistily fending off hordes of honky-tonk home wreckers 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. —K.H.


Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, ‘New San Antonio Rose’

Western swing pioneer Bob Wills wrote “Spanish Two-Step” in his early days of entertaining Mexican audiences, created the original “San Antonio Rose” at a 1938 session by playing its bridge backward, 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 Grand Ole Opry with drums and horns. —K.H.


Glen Campbell, ‘Wichita Lineman’

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 expansive 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. —M.P.


Kitty Wells, ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’

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. —C.A.


George Strait, ‘Amarillo by Morning’

George Strait’s finest recording is one of his very few singles to never reach Number One — an anomaly, really, considering he’s in elite double-digit territory with his mountain of chart toppers. But “Amarillo by Morning,” written by Terry Stafford and Paul Fraser, is not your everyday radio fare. There’s the contrasting sense of desolation and self-determination that course through the lyrics, which center on an aging cowboy who’s forfeited everything in his life to the lure of the rodeo. There’s Blake Mevis’ production, which incorporates a gorgeously lonesome fiddle lick right from the top and conveys a sense of rootless melancholy that’s at odds with the song’s surprisingly brisk tempo. And then there’s Strait, whose elegant croon is the epitome of pathos and realness, sounding just like someone who knows the feeling of having to fold his broken body into the driver’s seat and haul ass through the long Texas night to make it to the next gig. —J.F.


Merle Haggard, ‘Mama Tried’

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 run the Grateful Dead, who performed it at Woodstock and on more than 300 subsequent occasions. —R.G.


Tammy Wynette, ‘Stand By Your Man’

A family-values tract with its share of contradictions (Tammy 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 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. —K.H.


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

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 Armstrong’s 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. —C.A.


Ray Charles, ‘You Don’t Know Me’

This Cindy Walker- and Eddy Arnold-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. —R.F.


George Jones, ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’

“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. —M.P.


Hank Williams, ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’

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. Hank 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. —C.A.


Patsy Cline, ‘Crazy’

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 (an 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. —R.G.


Johnny Cash, ‘I Walk the Line’

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, the singer’s 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.” —R.H.


Dolly Parton, ‘Jolene’

“Jolene” is Dolly Parton’s pinnacle as a singer, songwriter, and storyteller: the ultimate country heartbreak song. And after 50 years, it’s more iconic than ever. “I was telling my own stories, speaking my own feelings,” Parton told Rolling Stone in 1975. “I’m a pretty bold person.” While the world was falling in love with her self-described “Backwoods Barbie” image, she was fighting to make her way as a woman in Nashville, writing tough-minded tales like “Coat of Many Colors” and “Down From Dover.” In “Jolene,” she begs another woman not to steal her man, hitting high-lonesome notes straight from the Great Smoky Mountains. It was a Number One country hit in 1973, yet it feels both ancient and uncannily modern. “Jolene” has inspired great interpretations by artists from Miley Cyrus to the White Stripes to Beyoncé. But it’s the song that sums up Dolly Parton at her realest and greatest. —R.S.