by Nathan Kanuch, Zackary Kephart & Julian Spivey
When I heard that famed documentarian Ken Burns was putting together a definitive history of country music for an eight-part series on PBS I knew The Word had to compile a list of the 100 Greatest Country Songs of All-Time. I also knew that I wanted to collaborate on such a list with Zackary Kephart of The Musical Divide and Nathan Kanuch of Shore2Shore Country, whom I’ve worked with a few times on other collaborations.
When coming up with the idea to collaborate on a list of the 100 Greatest Country Songs of All-Time I asked Zackary Kephart of The Musical Divide and Nathan Kanuch of Shore2Shore Country to make up their own personal list of what they considered to be the 100 greatest country music songs of all-time. I had done the same.
To get our definitive list I took songs that all three of us included on our lists and averaged those together. If a song was on all three lists, it automatically went to the top. So, if all three of us had a song ranked in the nineties on our list it could theoretically come out higher on the definitive list than a song that appeared very high on two lists but was left completely off the third (this did happen). Zack, Nathan and I were unanimous when it came to 32 songs.
This is where the methodology is a bit imperfect, but it’s the closest I could figure to get a definitive list of the greatest country songs of all-time.
If a song appeared on two out of the three lists, it would be averaged and slot in behind the 32 songs we all agreed should be in the top 100. There were 41 such songs.
The remainder of the list (27 songs) features songs that only appeared on one of the three lists and to get the most accurate ranking for the definitive list it was a “highest remaining song comes first” system.
10. "Long Black Veil" by Lefty Frizzell (1959)
The actual story of Lefty Frizzell’s fall from mainstream country prominence is one that’s often overlooked. In a nutshell, Frizzell essentially slipped away into the darkness, and no better song captures that lonesome, wandering troubadour spirit better than this song. Like many songs here, “Long Black Veil” has seen its fair share of covers, but none, not even Johnny Cash, could cut to the song’s deepest, darkest core like Frizzell. It’s a surprising feat, especially when none of Frizzell’s works had ever been this morose; this tale of forbidden love and its consequences offered just the right details to string out a coherent story worthy of being called a folk standard, yet also opened up mysteries and questions surrounding the content itself. Why was a friendship worth more than life itself? Why must this woman mourn her secret lover in private if he was, after all, a friend? Like some of the best country songs, it invites the listeners to fill in the blanks of this tragic tale. ZK
9. "Crazy" by Patsy Cline (1961)
“Crazy” was born to be a classic the moment it was released, if only for its excellent foundation. Take Willie Nelson’s gut-wrenching lyrics about finding love only to lose it all again, a complex melody and chord structure that country music hadn’t quite yet seen at that point, and then leave it all to Patsy Cline herself to deliver it with a breathtakingly gorgeous performance. If country music listeners and historians are looking for the defining moment of the Nashville Sound era, it’s this song. ZK
8. "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" by Johnny Cash (1970)
Not only did the song help give Kris Kristofferson his break, it entered country music history as a different kind of hit - something that didn’t follow the basic formula of country songwriting. Its downtrodden and out-of-luck point of view gets the listener sympathizing with the lyrics. People across the world wake up every Sunday feeling like the narrator describes and have done so for years. The beauty of a Kristofferson song is the ability he possesses to create these pictures and vignettes for the listener. He can take a simple concept and turn it into a poignant portrait. And that’s without even mentioning Johnny Cash’s legendary interpretation of the song. NK
7. "Folsom Prison Blues" by Johnny Cash (1955)
“Folsom Prison Blues” had two lives. The first came in 1955 when it was one of the first songs cut by Johnny Cash at Sun Records and became a top-five hit in 1956. Cash had written the song in the early ‘50s when stationed in Germany while in the Air Force and had seen the film “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison.” He was inspired to tell the tale of a man stuck in prison for the rest of his life after he “shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” (one of the most iconic lyrics ever written). Cash seemed to understand the plight of the incarcerated better than anyone and began performing for prisoners across the nation – with his songs, especially “Folsom Prison Blues” speaking to them. In 1968, Cash recorded a live version of “Folsom Prison Blues” to open his At Folsom Prison album. It’s this version of the song that topped the country music charts and became a top-40 crossover giving one of the greatest country songs ever written and recorded a second life. JS
5. "Sing Me Back Home" by Merle Haggard (1968)
More than any other singer/songwriter, Merle Haggard truly wrote from his own experiences. On “Sing Me Back Home,” he blends two of the things he knows best – prison and music – to craft something emotionally gripping. If anything, this song feels like a sobering experience for Haggard, especially with that crushing last verse. If “Mama Tried” was Haggard mockingly poking fun at himself, “Sing Me Back Home” was his most serious moment on record that will live on as an ambassador for the best of what the genre has to offer. ZK
4. "He Stopped Loving Her Today" by George Jones (1980)
“He Stopped Loving Her Today” helped revive George Jones’ career. The lyrics took unending love to a new level. Jones called it “morbid” and thought no one would buy the record. Perhaps the greatest vocal performance in country music history, the importance of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” cannot be overstated. It’s still hard to fathom how Jones was able to get in the studio and record the song, given his severe alcohol and drug problems. Severe being an understatement. The life of George Jones was truly spectacular. The Possum’s contributions to the greatest genre in music will never be forgotten, and “He Stopped Loving Her Today” plays such a massive role in the story of George Jones. NK
3. "El Paso" by Marty Robbins (1959)
“El Paso” by Marty Robbins is the greatest story song ever written and recorded. And, I’m not just talking country music, but any genre of music. Period. Robbins essentially wrote and sang an entire Western movie in the span of four and a half minutes and it’s perfection. The song, released in 1959, was included on Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, which was basically the first concept album in the history of country music. “El Paso” is the story of a cowboy who falls in love with an enchanting Mexican girl named Feleena, but kills another man out of jealousy when he notices he’s not the only one falling for her. After killing the man the song’s narrator flees the town, but his love for Feelena is too strong and he returns to El Paso to see her, despite it certainly meaning his own death. The vocal laid down by Robbins, one of the genre’s legendary voices, is among the greatest ever recorded anywhere. JS
2. "Mama Tried" by Merle Haggard (1968)
Merle Haggard essentially lived “Mama Tried.” Sure, the song adds some poetic liberties – Haggard only spent a few years in prison; he didn’t serve a life term like the narrator of the song – but he understood the feeling of losing a father at an early age and turning to a life of crime despite the solid upbringing from his mother. “Mama Tried” is only two minutes and 12 seconds long, but it’s absolute country music perfection with that twangy guitar lick that’s definitely one of the most memorable sounds in the history of the genre. “Mama Tried” would top the country music charts in 1968 and essentially give Haggard his lifelong theme song. JS
1. "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" by Hank Williams (1949)
It’s straight-forward but poignant. Somber and melancholy. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is the greatest country song of all-time. Hank Williams took visions of the American South to convey the feelings of loneliness and isolation he was dealing with in his own marriage; he was the master of conveying his own emotions and troubles in a manner in which every single person could relate. Williams has been called the “Hillbilly Shakespeare,” and it’s songs like this that exhibit why. The song is elegant yet plain-spoken, as the best country songs are. NK