Published On: Wed, Feb 22nd, 2017

The 50 Greatest Classic Country Songs – 50 – 40

Let’s set our stall out here, shall we? These are the classic country songs (from before 1980) that we think are the best of all time – we’re kicking things off with 50-40…

50 Folsom Prison Blues

Johnny Cash
Composer Johnny Cash
Label Colombia Released 1955

‘I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.’ The chilling guilt of his narrator is probably what enabled Cash to get away with ‘borrowing’ this classic country song’s structure – and whole lines of lyrics – from Gordon Jenkins’ more innocent Crescent City Blues.

It was one of Cash’s earliest Sun recordings, and the 11th track on his debut album With His Hot And Blue Guitar; it was also his first crossover hit. But the standout version was the 1968 one, performed live at Folsom Prison itself – the atmosphere was electric. That album, At Folsom Prison, is credited with reviving the flagging star’s career.

As the title suggests, these are prison blues lyrics wearing country duds, so don’t be shocked that the cover single was by R&B star Slim Harpo. But the song has been covered on myriad country albums and in live sets, including those of Charley Pride, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings.

There’s also a great concert version on The Highwaymen Live, but hardcore fans will want the remastered 2CD+1DVD At Folsom Prison (Legacy Edition).

Other notable recordings Slim Harpo, Charley Pride, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings

49 The Battle of New Orleans

Johnny Horton
Composer Jimmie Driftwood
Label Columbia Released 1959

Prior to lyrics being added by former school teacher Jimmie Driftwood in 1936, this perennial country favourite first saw life as an old fiddle tune, Jackson’s Victory, or The Eighth Of January.

The song, in its various forms, celebrates the victory of Andrew Jackson over the English commander Packenham, but Jimmie Driftwood found that students in his elementary school were becoming confused over the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Civil War, so he formulated the now familiar storyline of The Battle Of New Orleans in 1936 to stimulate interest in his pupils.

It wasn’t until 1957, however, that the fabulous future of this song began to take shape in the hands of a publisher. Two years later the song was pitched to Johnny Horton, who subsequently recorded it and, on April 27, 1959, The Battle Of New Orleans reached the Billboard Country charts, peaking at Number 1 for 10 weeks and remaining in the charts for a total of 21 weeks. Horton’s version also became a pop hit and topped a million sales.

In Britain, the song enjoyed success with skiffle king Lonnie Donegan, who changed Jimmie’s words from ‘bloody British’ to ‘bloomin’ British’ to avoid offending the BBC and ears of sensitive listeners.

The late 1950s and early 60s saw a spate of what became known as ‘saga’ songs and included Johnny Reb, Tennessee Stud, Soldier’s Joy, Waterloo and Sailor Man, but
The Battle Of New Orleans has stood the test of time and will be fondly remembered as a fitting memorial to the great Ozark legend Jimmie Driftwood. Jimmie never quite came to terms with his fame but remained a genuine, honest human being.

Other notable recordings Hoyt Axton, Buck Owens, Jimmie Driftwood

48 Far Side Banks Of Jordan

Alison Krauss & The Cox Family
Composer Terry Smith
Label Rounder Released 1994

This classic country song was first performed on The Apostle movie soundtrack by The Carter Family. June Carter Cash, playing the lead character’s mother, sings the song at the close of the opening scene, and later in the film when her character dies, an instrumental version provides background music. Its first appearance on a studio album was on I Know Who Holds Tomorrow, featuring Alison Krauss And The Cox Family.

Terry Smith, who was voted by the Traditional Music Association as its Songwriter of the Year in both 1995 and 1996, wrote the song, and as he says himself: “Anyone who hopes to keep loving someone beyond this mortal life can relate to this song.”

It’s a gentle song, with an overt gospel message, and the Alison Krauss And The Cox Family version is sung superbly by Willard Cox. Terry is a former Nashville school teacher who has developed a truly superb writing technique, and Far Side Banks Of Jordan defies categorisation and must simply be viewed as an outstanding example of some sensitive musical creativity.

Anyone seeking an alternative to My Way for a ‘humanist’ funeral service should look no further than this folksy masterpiece with its moving story of hope beyond the grave. Alison Krauss took command of arrangements and production of the entire album, and she is to be congratulated for giving life to Smith’s song.
The pairing of Alison Krauss and elements of her Union Station band with Louisiana’s superb Cox Family was truly inspired.

Other notable recordings The Statler Brothers, George Hamilton IV, Johnny Cash & June Carter

47 Kiss an Angel Good Morning

Charley Pride
Composer Ben Peters
Label RCA Released 1971

No doubt Charley Pride’s wife Rozene will raise a smile whenever she hears this sun-blessed anthem, in which the singer reveals the secret behind his geniality: ‘You’ve got to kiss an angel good morning / And love her like the Devil when you get back home.’

But Pride himself will take a certain amount of satisfaction from it, too – Kiss An Angel Good Morning gave him the biggest hit of his long and illustrious career.
While Pride’s velvety vocal delivery and Gene O’Neal’s dreamy steel guitar riffs obviously take much of the credit for the song’s massive success, a substantial nod must also be given to the composer Ben Peters.

Peters had already written Number 1 country hits for Eddy Arnold (Turn The World Around) and Lynn Anderson (That’s A No No) when one day his wife reminded him to wake his daughter Angela – whose family nickname was Angel – with the words, “Go kiss your Angel good morning”. Peters thought the phrase had a nice ring to it, and shortly afterwards set about writing a song that featured it as the chorus. Given to the established country star Charley Pride, it became one of over 40 Peters tracks cut by the singer over the following decades.

Kiss An Angel Good Morning remains Pride’s signature tune – and a concert staple – to this day, and has also been covered by some of the biggest names in country.

With any luck, it’ll continue to inspire and educate would-be lovers for many more generations to come.

Other notable recordings George Jones, Alan Jackson, Conway Twitty

46 Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys

Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson
Composer Ed Bruce
Label Columbia Released 1978
Ed Bruce was one of those enigmas who should have achieved major stardom but failed to hit the dizzy heights as a performer and recording artist, despite his rugged good looks and rich baritone voice. As a writer, though, Bruce can stand proud for this one song alone, as it helped to propel the Waylon & Willie album to the top of the Country charts for 11 weeks in 1978, going double-platinum in the process.

Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson were both members of the country music supergroup The Highwaymen and spearheaded the ‘outlaw country’ and country-rock movement between 1985 and 1995. The duo were ably aided and abetted by Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson and, to a lesser degree, by Tompall Glaser and Johnny Rodriguez.

It’s significant, perhaps, that Waylon and Willie should select Ed Bruce’s latter-day Tin Pan Alley ballad, Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys for their Waylon & Willie venture, because it reflected a degree of rebellion, whilst pointing a finger at old attitudes prevalent in the days of the original cowboys.

The song’s sentiments are essentially an update of the famous Noel Coward song Don’t Put Your Daughters On The Stage Mrs Worthington, but with a stetson hat on. Nothing gets in the way of Waylon or Willie’s vocal performance and the backing is simple but tasteful.
Ed Bruce may be largely forgotten these days, but his song lives on as a reminder of what he could have been as an artist had fate not dictated otherwise.

Other notable recordings Ed Bruce, The Highwaymen

45 Me and Bobby McGee

Roger Miller
Composer Kris Kristofferson & Fred Foster
Label Smash (US), Mercury (UK) Released 1969

Although primarily associated with tragic legend Janis Joplin, Me and Bobby McGee was written, first recorded and first entered the charts as a country number. The principal songwriter was Kris Kristofferson. Fred Foster (Roy Orbison’s producer) seems to have come up with ideas for the song rather than, strictly speaking, co-written it.

Although he was not known as a performer at that stage, army veteran Kristofferson had already begun to see his compositions recorded by other artists. Flying helicopters around oil and gas installations in the Gulf of Mexico, he wrote songs in his downtime and used his full weeks off to hawk them around Nashville.

The song was picked up by multiple hit-maker Roger Miller, who parlayed it into a moderately successful single, though it was (at Country Number 12 and Billboard Number 120+) far from his biggest genre or crossover hit. Fans will argue that he made a good country foot-tapper; critics will say his version fails to express the melancholia and regret that lies at its heart.

Janis Joplin seems to have been unaware of Me And Bobby McGee until Kris Kristofferson sang it to her. Without telling the writer, she asked collaborator Bob Neuwirth to coach her to perform the song, then laid down a belting blues-rock studio take. Within days she had died of a heroin overdose, and Kristofferson learned of the recording only after her death. The posthumous single hit Billboard Number 1. The Grateful Dead caught the song’s mood well, but for the definitive slow, wistful country version, look no further than Kristofferson.

Other notable recordings Janis Joplin, Kris Kristofferson, Gordon Giltrap, Kenny Rogers

44 The Race Is On

George Jones
Composer Don Rollins
Label United Artists Released 1964

So the story goes, George Jones was holed up one evening with country guru Dewey Groom in the latter’s office at the Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas, Texas. Already a massive star, with no fewer than 18 Top 10 hits on the US Country chart to his name, Jones could basically pick and choose what he wanted to record – and tonight, he was wielding the axe.

He’d already dismissed a number of demos and was about to head home, when Groom took one last throw of the dice: the final song in his armoury was The Race Is On, a bittersweet collision of jaunty melody and raw break-up lyrics that Don Rollins had penned after a trip to the Turf Paradise Race Track in Phoenix, Arizona. The song was only a few seconds in when George exclaimed his blessing with the words “I’ll take it!”

It turned out to be a shrewd decision, as the song soared to Number 3 on the Billboard Country chart – the biggest hit of Jones’s career. “George imbued [the track] with a masterfully frenetic, on-the-edge vocal reading, full of whining emotional ambivalence and mock sadness,” wrote Bob Allen in his biography George Jones: The Life And Times Of A Honky Tonk Legend.

The Race Is On has since been covered by artists ranging from Jack Jones to Alvin and the Chipmunks. However, it’s Jones’s achingly melodic original version that takes pole position.

Other notable recordings Jack Jones, Grateful Dead, Sawyer Brown

43 Up Against The Wall, Redneck Mother

Jerry Jeff Walker
Composer Ray Wylie Hubbard
Label MCA Released 1973

Elsewhere, we feature Okie From Muskogee, which paints a picture of Oklahoma natives as anti-hippie but ultimately fun. Ray Wylie Hubbard’s Up Against The Wall, Redneck Mother, made famous by Jerry Jeff Walker, portrays Okies in a rather more brutal light.

Against a brooding bassline, Walker sings of a man who’s ‘not responsible for what he’s doin’ / His mother made him what he is’, before elaborating that ‘He’s 34 and drinkin’ in a honky-tonk / Just kickin’ hippies’ asses and raisin’ hell’, as the song breaks out into a full-on, belt-twanging barn dance.

While it’s one of our favourite country songs, it didn’t chart; and things haven’t got much better for Jerry Jeff, with only one
Top 10 (1977’s Leavin’ Texas, co-written with Dave Roberts) in his career. Still, he won’t mind too much: as the writer of Mr Bojangles, he’s earned a meal ticket for life.

Other notable recordings Cracker, The Porter Draw

42 D.I.V.O.R.C.E.

Tammy Wynette
Composer Bobby Braddock & Curly Putman
Label Epic Released 1968

Sad as it may sound, Tammy Wynette was the ideal candidate to handle this song about a married couple who decide to protect their young son from learning about their impending break-up by spelling out upsetting words. By the time D.I.V.O.R.C.E. was released, the singer had already endured two broken marriages – she would marry three more times before her tragic death in 1998 (ironically, her third husband, George Jones, was the only other artist to score a big hit penned by Braddock and Putman: He Stopped Loving Her Today).

Wynette’s delivery was heartfelt. Country music historian Bill Malone described it as “painfully sincere; there is no irony here, and if there is a soap-opera quality to the dialogue, the content well mirrors both her own life and contemporary experience”.

The public agreed and catapulted the song to the top of the Country chart – the third of six straight Number 1s for Wynette. Her next, perversely, was Stand By Your Man.

Other notable recordings Dolly Parton

41 I’m Moving on – Hank Snow

Composer Clarence E. Snow (Hank Snow)
Label RCA Released 1950
Rarely has there been a more ironic song title than the one given to Hank Snow’s self-penned country standard. With I’m Moving On spending 21 weeks at the top of the Country chart, the Canadian-born singer was clearly going nowhere. And his penchant for longevity didn’t end with that one song: over the next three decades, ‘the Yodelling Ranger’ recorded 140 albums and racked up more than 85 singles on the Country chart – a feat that transformed the life of a man who had spent his early years growing up in extreme poverty.

It’s obvious why I’m Moving On became such a big hit: its fiddle-driven stomp provided the perfect antidote to the post-war blues still being felt across America. Songwriting wasn’t Snow’s only talent. While he was a mainstay at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, he managed to convince the owners to allocate a slot on stage to a talented 19-year-old he’d previously seen perform. That singer’s name? Elvis Presley.

Other notable recordings Ray Charles, Tim Timebomb

40 Streets of Laredo

Tex Ritter
Composer Traditional
Label Capitol Released 1952

Like so many other traditional American ballads, this one has its roots in Britain. The earliest written reference to it was in 1790, when it was known as The Unfortunate Rake. It was one of countless songs that found their way from to the Americas during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and were adapted to suit their new environment.

It’s fitting that an artist of the calibre of Tex Ritter should include this song in his repertoire, because he was a folklorist as well as recording artist and movie actor. Ritter’s rich baritone voice was full of pathos and he was adept at story songs such as the funereal Streets Of Laredo.

Ritter didn’t so much sing songs as act them, and his renditions of Rye Whiskey, Blood On The Saddle and Sam Hall (another British ballad) are about as theatrical as they come, but Tex was no ham.

As an entertainer, he was up there with the best and, along with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, was one of the biggest Western movie stars of his generation, with more than 50 films to his credit and a string of hit recordings. Streets Of Laredo was never a hit for Tex, but it’s good to remember him for his contributions to the Western genre.

Other notable recordings Marty Robbins, Michael Martin Murphey



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