Are you a country music fan? Have you always been one or are you a convert? After watching the Ken Burns special, I reflected on my taste in music and how it has changed over the years. I concluded that I’m not exactly a country music fan, but the number of country songs I listen to has certainly increased over the years. My country music journey began in the 1950’s with country cross-overs that I heard on top forty radio. By the 1990’s I was actually listening to country radio stations and had some favorite songs that didn’t make the pop chart.
Since my memory of music choices over the years has faded, for some objectivity I looked at my personal music collection. It certainly reflects the change in technology over the last five decades of the twentieth century. I started with 45’s in the 1950’s. I have no physical evidence of those, but I distinctly remember owning a copy of Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans.” Examining my vinyl lp’s I discovered greatest hits collections of artists Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, and Waylon Jennings that I had purchased in the 1970’s among the mostly pop and rock and roll. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s cassettes were the medium and I found some country albums: The Dirt Band “The Real Nitty Gritty” (1987); Pam Tillis “Homeward Looking Angel” (1992); Trisha Yearwood “Hearts in Armor” (1992); Tanya Tucker “Greatest Hits 1990-1992” (1993). In the early 1990’s I began purchasing CD’s and country music is well represented (see list).
One of the challenges of picking country music favorites determining what qualifies as country music. One criteria is instrumentation. Country music was originally dominated by strings: fiddles, guitars, banjos, and mandolins. One of the country group Alabama’s songs from the 1980’s declares “If you’re gonna play in Texas you gotta have a fiddle in the band.” -- rock and roll in the 1950’s added bass guitars and drums and the “Nashville Sound” brought more violins and background vocals.
Another thing to look for in a country music song is the nasal tone of voice, sometimes called “twang.” Most country artists have it to one degree or anogher. Reba McIntire claimed her accent prevented more cross-over success. But some country artists displayed a smoother vocal especially as the “Nashville Sound” developed with artists such as Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline, and in later year with John Denver and Kenny Rogers.
Country music is also characterized by a tendency toward more adult subject matter. While much of pop music (especially during the early days of rock and roll) focused on youthful topics like teen dances and hot rod cars, country music was more likely to reference marriage breakups, drinking problems, and longing for home or a simpler time of life. Country music often emphasizes strong moral values rooted in rural America. Country music singers insist that their music is closer to authentic American values. Country music is often of the story telling variety, from Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” to Kenny Rogers’ “Lucille.” This was passed on to rock and roll with early examples such as The Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Susie” and later Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).”
And the simplest characteristic of a country song is that it is a song performed by a country artist. That seems somewhat arbitrary, but it is a reality. Recognized as one of country music’s greatest songs, and my #1 for the 1960’s, Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” has very few country characteristics, but Patsy Cline was well-recognized as a country star. This trait was put to the test when Elvis Presley and Sam Philips issued his Sun recordings. Sun studio was known as a country and r&b label. When “That’s Alright Mama” was issued, many radio stations didn’t know what to do with it – some country stations rejected it as being more r&b, some r&b stations rejected it as being too country – at the time there were no rock and roll stations. The mid 1950’s Billboard charts were equally confused as Elvis Presley’s early RCA recordings often reached the top of pop, country and r&b charts. Artists such as The Everly Brothers, Ricky Nelson, and Jerry Lee Lewis found their records in the country top ten. In the 1980’s Kenny Rogers had country / pop hits with with pop singers Sheena Easton (“We’ve Got Tonight”) and Kim Carnes (“Don’t Fall in Love With a Dreamer”). When John Denver released “Take Me Home Country Roads in 1971 he wasn’t yet recognized as a country singer and although the song is now often seen as a country classic, it only reached #50 on the country chart. Dolly Parton was a country star in the 1970’s who produced major pop hits in the 1980s such as “9 to 5.” By the 1990’s some country artists such as Shania Twain were deliberately targeting the pop audience. Even with all this ambiguity, this is still my #1 priority for determining if a song belongs as a country favorite – if it was issued by a country artist, it’s a country song (even in retrospect such as “Take Me Home Country Roads”).
That said, I have made some notable exceptions to the country artist = country song rule in my favorites collections. I have trouble with remakes of some songs. Both Micky Gilley’s “Stand by Me” and Randy Travis’s “It’s Just a Matter of Time” were not included even though both are among my favorite records. I decided although both were issued by a country singer, the best versions, my favorites, were issued by pop singers (Ben E. King and Brook Benton). Just the opposite is true of Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” It was originally a country song by Don Gibson, but I didn’t include it as a country favorite because I deem Ray Charles not a country artist.
While I committed to choosing 25, and only 25, on my list of top favorites, I included extras for each decade with no fixed number, but selecting the songs I would likely want to listen to even if they weren’t a top 25. As will be noted in each decade, the task of choosing a top 25 was easy in 1950 when I hardly listened to any country music (I had a difficult time finding songs to include) with only 35 in the collection, to more difficult by 1990 when 61 are in the collection.
I would wager there are songs in this collection that many of you might not recognize. Bobby Edward’s “You’re the Reason” was a song that caught my attention in 1961 when it was released. Researchers claim our musical tastes are defined by ages 10 to 31 with 14 being the most influential. This is borne out by an analysis of songs I included in my “Elvis Era” listings – 1961, the year I turned 14, has by far the most records listed. Of my top 25 country for the 1960’s the year with the most songs is 1961 with 6 (nearly 25%).
Many of the songs that made my top 25 of any decade were songs I discovered later in life. This is especially true of the 1950’s when for half the decade I didn’t even listen to music. The 1980 decade was heavily influenced by my 1990’s discovery of George Strait – 8 Strait songs are in the collection and 4 in the top 25 and I hadn’t heard any of them until the mid 1990’s.
One product of doing this project was the discovery of some new songs that made the collection. One primary example is George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” (1980). I’d seen it listed as a classic country song but had never listened to it – for a long time I had no use for the extremely nasal George Jones sound. But after finally really listening to it, I agree it’s a country classic. I’d also never heard “Highwayman” (1985) by The Highwaymen (Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson) but instantly became a favorite – how could it not with those four! “Bright Lights, Big City” (1971) by Sonny James was a song I was familiar with from a cassette “Everybody’s Rockin’” by Neil Young & The Shocking Pinks but had never heard the Sonny James original.
I enjoyed looking back at my experience in country music over the last five decades of the previous century. I continue to listen to country music with many country songs being among my favorites for any year. But I still have room on my playlists for songs from the “adult contemporary” chart. Many of my generation would say that they don’t care for today’s music. They reflect the sentiments of Bob Seeger: “Give me that old time rock and roll.” But modern pop sounds populate many of my playlists from artists Imagine Dragons, Coldplay, Pink, Harry Styles, and others.
The songs included in this collection and the rankings are based on impressions at the moment and admittedly could be different a week, month, or year from now. One thing is certain, there are a lot of country songs I like. But I guess if I asked myself if I’m a country music fan, I’d hesitate to answer. Some of that comes from a prejudice. Country music started out being called “hillbilly” music. I think that was my reference point as I was growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s – I didn’t want to be a “hillbilly;” I was more sophisticated than that. And then there were the outlandish outfits that were popular into the 1970’s, what Glen Campbell referred to as a “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Again, I was more sophisticated than that. At some point I overcame this prejudice and started listening to the music. There’s some country music that I don’t like – maybe it’s got too much “twang” (note above my resistance to George Jones), or the lyrics seem a bit hokey (hillbilly?). It’s probably not necessary to label myself. So I think I’ll go out to the porch and listen to some George Strait.