Country music of the 1950’s can be described in three phases – the sound of the honky tonk artists, the invasion of rock and roll, and the development of the “Nashville sound.”  By 1950 country music had a solid foundation from its roots in the hillbilly music that had come out of Appalachia and the western swing that had emerged from the southwest.  The singing cowboy of the 1940’s gave way to the honkytonk star.

Pre-eminent among the honkytonk performers was Hank Williams.  By 1950 he already had a collection of nine top ten country hits, including one #1 (“Lovesick Blues”).  By 1953 he had added 26 more country top tens, eight #1’s.  Three of those #1’s came after his untimely death in 1953 at the age of 29.

In 1954 a new sound emerged from Sun records out of Memphis, Tennessee.  When Elvis Presley released “That’s Alright Mama” / “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” many radio stations were confused about its genre – Sun was recognized as a label producing both country and R&B records.  But this new sound was either neither or both.  Billboard decided it was country and Presley’s Sun releases found their way on to the country charts, with “I Forgot to Remember to Forget” reaching #1.  Sam Phillips sold Presley’s contract to RCA and his first release for the label, “Heartbreak Hotel” became a #1 on both the pop chart and the country chart.  That trend would continue and “Hound Dog” would actually occupy the top position simultaneously on the pop, country, and r&b charts. The new sound was dubbed “rock and roll” and rock and roll performers like The Everly Brothers, Ricky Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash soon populated the country chart with their hit recordings.  While country artists had sometimes crossed over to the pop chart, it had been less common for pop artists to have their records listed on the country chart.  Country music seemed to be losing its identity.

In order to recapture some of its audience, producers in Nashville began to create records that brought more orchestration, blending country music themes with jazz and big band elements.  They took the rough edges off of country.  Artists such as Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline produced hit records that easily crossed over to the pop chart.

listed in chronoligical order (click on column head to sort)
Title Artist Release Date Country Rank Hot 100 Rank My Rank
A White Sport Coat Marty Robbins 1957/4/20 1 2 5
Cold, Cold Heart Hank Williams 1951/2/2 1
Crazy Arms Ray Price 1956/3/1 1 27 24
Folsom Prison Blues Johnny Cash 1955/12/15 4
Four Walls Jim Reeves 1957/3/4 1 12 18
Gone Ferlin Husky 1957/1/3 1
Guess Things Happen That Way Johnny Cash 1958/5/15 1 11 25
I Can t Help It Hank Williams 1951/4/25 2
I Really Don't Want To Know Eddy Arnold 1953/11/13 1
I Walk the Line Johnny Cash 1956/5/1 1 17 1
It Wasn t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels
Kitty Wells 1952/6/23 1 27 16
Jambalaya Hank Williams 1952/4/19 1 20 21
My Special Angel Bobby Helms 1957/8/26 1 7 6
Mystery Train Elvis Presley 1955/8/1 11
Oh Lonesome Me Don Gibson 1957/12/10 8
Release Me Ray Price 1954/1/18 6
Sixteen Tons Tennessee Ernie Ford 1955/10/3 1 1 15
The Battle Of New Orleans Johnny Horton 1959/4/6 1 1 11
The Story Of My Life Marty Robbins 1957/9/30 1 15 14
The Three Bells The Browns 1959/6/3 1 14 8
There Stands the Glass Webb Pierce 1953/9/21 1
Walking After Midnight Patsy Cline 1957/2/11 2 12 2
White Lightning George Jones 1959/2/9 1
Young Love Sonny James 1957/1/10 1 1 7
Your Cheatin Heart
Hank Williams 1953/1/25 1
Title Artist Release Date Highest Rank Country Highest Rank Hot 100
Big River Johnny Cash 1958/4/5 4 14
Don t Take Your Guns To Town Johnny Cash 1958/12/5 1 32
Hey Good Lookin Hank Williams 1951/6/22 1
I Wanna Play House With You Eddy Arnold 1951/6/5 1
If You ve Got The Money I ve Got the Time Lefty Frizzell 1950/9/14 1
In the Jailhouse Now Webb Pierce 1954/12/5 1
Kawliga Hank Williams 1952/12/2 1
Long Black Veil Lefty Frizzell 1959/4/20 6
Waterloo Stonewall Jackson 1959/5/4 1 4
Why Don t You Love Me Hank Williams 1950/5/5 1

Hank Williams, Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash's "Tennessee Flat Top Box from 1961 was one of the early 45's I remember owning.

Born in 1947, I was too young to have experienced much of country music in the 1950’s.  One of the earliest I can actually remember hearing on the radio / television was “Sixteen Tons.”  My sister liked it, but my parents didn’t – they took exception to one of Ford’s favorite expressions: “Well I’ll be a dirty bird.”  I remember I especially liked the lyric, “If the left one don’t get you then the right one will.” By the end of the decade I was listening to top forty radio stations and remember cross-over hits such as “The Battle of New Orleans” and “The Three Bells.” Most of my exposure came in later life, either through movies such as 1964’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart” or 1985’s “Sweet Dreams,” or the 1969 – 1971 television show, “The Johnny Cash Show.” 

I have selected 25 songs as my favorites from the 1950’s.  Maybe “selected” is not the proper term.  For the other decades, I had to make choices; for the 1950’s it was more like looking for songs to include.  As noted before, my personal exposure to country music in the 1950’s was somewhat limited.  Of the 36 songs in the 1950’s collection, 27 were #1’s,  such as Webb Pierce’s “There Stands the Glass” which was #1 for 12 weeks in 1953.  Of those that didn’t reach the top of the country chart,  “Folsom Prison Blues” (#4) which was recorded by Johnny Cash and initially released in 1955, did reach the top in 1968 when Cash recorded a live version in for his album, “At Folsom Prison.”

Several of the songs on the list were major cross-over successes.  “My Special Angel” (#7), “Oh Lonesome Me” (#7), “Gone” (#4), and “A White Sport Coat” (#2) all made the pop chart top ten.  “Young Love,” “The Battle of New Orleans,” “Sixteen Tons,” and “The Three Bells” were all pop chart #1’s.

None of Elvis Presley’s RCA recordings were considered for the list as I categorize them rock and roll songs that crossed over to the country chart.  The same is true for Jerry Lee Lewis, and The Everly Brothers.  On the other hand, three Johnny Cash songs are included as I view them as country songs that crossed over to rock and roll.  Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train” is listed as being a product of Sun record. It initially appeared on the country chart.

Hank Williams and Johnny Cash are my two favorite country artists of the decade.  Williams has four songs on my list, while Cash has three.  Williams’ highest ranked is his signature song, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” which was released posthumously and was a #1 hit.  Johnny Cash’s signature song, “I Walk the Line” was a #1 song that crossed over to reach #17 on the pop chart.

The ranking of the songs is somewhat arbitrary and on any given day you might get a slightly different response.  And there might be a song or two I’ve inadvertently left off.  It’s possible that one or two songs from Cash (“Big River,” “Cry, Cry, Cry”) and Williams (“Hey Good Lookin’,” “Take These Chains From My Heart”) should have been included, but I felt I should have other artists represented.  Whatever the case, I can live with these 25 as my “1950’s Country Playlist.”  If you have a suggestion for one I should consider or one that definitely doesn’t belong, you can let me know ….. but remember, this is my list.

The 1964 movie, "Your Cheatin' Heart" starring George Hamilton, was my first introduction to the music of Hank Williams.