Forgive me Daily South readers, for I have sinned. My last confession was around the time when Garth Brooks became Chris Gaines. My sin is a simple but grave one. The only country music I’ve listened to since the birth and subsequent death of Gaines (by my own volition) is Taylor Swift. That’s right: The only country music I’ve heard since attending boy-girl parties is about boy-girl parties.
My colleagues at Southern Living are compendiums of knowledge regarding country music. We’ve sat on many a porch with the likes of Kacey Musgraves and Brett Eldredge, so I’ve got some catching up to do, lest I be struck silent during water cooler/craft cocktail conversations. So, with the CMA Music Fest approaching, I decided to do a little digging. It didn’t take long before my shovel hit country gold.
The genre’s certainly expanded in the past 50 years, at least according to the fest’s lineup. Lady Antebellum is country? The Charlie Daniels Band took on the devil in a fiddle contest to earn that branding. Uncle Kracker, who I remember from his Kid Rock collaborations, is apparently a country artist. I have mountains of music to learn, so I’ve begun with the following list of songs, one from each decade. These are my favorite country songs. Your job is to take these and tell me what I should be listening to, since I don’t know the genre’s deep cuts (I spent most of my time finding deep cuts for my imaginary Southern hip-hop blog GRILLZ).
“I Still Miss Someone” by Johnny Cash
Like a fine bourbon, Johnny Cash’s voice has gotten deeper and more complex with age. Though “I Still Miss Someone” was released in 1958, here he sings a version torched with regret in 1978. The Man in Black invented country. There are better Johnny Cash songs. There are more seminal Johnny Cash songs. But this is my favorite because the ghost of an old lover haunting him makes the song universal, which is country’s greatest asset.
“Crazy” by Patsy Cline
Travis, is this a list of your favorite country songs or just the most famous ones? Fair point, but “Crazy” is the epitome of the quiet country ballad. Willie Nelson penned it, but Patsy Cline gave it life. It also leads to an important question: Why are all country singers lovelorn?
I think Willie Nelson loved Patsy Cline and gave her the song as a hint, a pre-mixtape mixtape, if you will. Instead of loving him back, Patsy decided to become a superstar, a decision that served her well.
“Jolene” by Dolly Parton
It’s difficult not to take a song to heart after listening to hundreds (tens) of versions of it in order to create a compelling blog post of its 5 best versions. To quote me, “The title track of her 1974 album was released a year early to critical acclaim and the love of a nation. The song’s about a woman who would rather the beautiful Jolene not steal her boyfriend/husband/good male friend/whatever the guy in question is, even though Jolene is like a country music Siren and men will basically crash on the rocks at her feet. Who gets the unnamed male? Good question, and not one our lady Dolly is interested in answering.”
Not answering is what makes “Jolene” such an important song. It skips along, but there’s a wraith between the lines, and that invisible presence sticks to your spine.
P.S. My second pick for the seventies was, easily, “City of New Orleans” by Steve Goodman, a song about the train that runs from Chicago to New Orleans.
“All My Ex’s Live in Texas” by George Strait
Amid punk rock, heavy metal, and the death of disco, country music stood strong. And George Strait’s straightforward explanation of why he lives in Tennessee is the perfect representation of the twangy country music I grew up hearing when flipping around the radio. Plus rap star Drake mentions the song in one of his own, so the crossover appeal is obviously huge.
It should be noted that George’s wife Norma Ross is from Texas. And they’re still married. George, old boy, what were you thinking?
“Callin’ Baton Rouge” by Garth Brooks (written by Dennis Linde and originally recorded by The Oak Ridge Boys)
This one’s easy. I attended Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. I’ve never heard a song more times with less choice in the matter. Wherever I happened to be. This song feels like the soundtrack of a montage that goes from Jell-O shots to espresso shots.
So many unanswered questions. Why were you drinking “sweet red wine” in Baton Rouge? Who does that? Why is an operator involved in 1993 when you’re using a pay phone? Also, Garth, buddy, you’re never going to build a life with Samantha (girl in question) if you spend every last dime calling her. Invest in a cell phone, pal.
Here’s a karaoke version so you too can experience the joy of being an undergrad at LSU. Or anywhere in the South during that period, for that matter.
Or just watch the experience below, and call it my memoir. Envy or pity me, depending on your personal constitution. [Writer's Note: Can you spot the Teletubbies?]
“It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” By Alan Jackson featuring Jimmy Buffett
Because happy hour needed an anthem, and Jimmy Buffett needed a slice of country.
Bonus: Because without this video on the list, how are you going to crack a beer and have a boozy sing-along with the other camp counselors?
Now, please let me know how wrong I am in the comments below. This is your chance to school me in country music. I can’t wait! If we receive enough good suggestions, we’ll feature them in an upcoming post.