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.
80. "Amanda" by Waylon Jennings (1974)
Originally recorded by “The Gentle Giant” Don Williams, the Bob McDill written “Amanda” was taken to beautiful, legendary heights by the greatest Outlaw country performer music has ever seen. Waylon Jennings stood out from all his contemporaries thanks to his ability to slow it down and sing slow tempo ballads from time-to-time. Not everything Jennings did was four on the floor Outlaw country-rock. The blend of Ralph Mooney’s steel and Waylon’s lead guitar complimented the weary, tired thematical elements and the ragged but tender vocal Jennings delivered. NK
79. "Stand By Your Man" by Tammy Wynette (1968)
If we’re looking at this song through a 2019 lens, let’s be honest, there’d be a lot of outrage on Twitter about the content of one of Wynette’s signature songs. And yet, there shouldn’t be. I’ve never viewed “Stand by Your Man” as a call to overlook every single thing that a woman’s husband does wrong - rather, I see it as a song written to paint the flaws of man as an inevitability. Should egregious sins go unpunished? Of course not. But can a woman love her husband and forgive him for smaller transgressions? Of course. What makes “Stand by Your Man” so controversial is also what makes the song one of the greatest of all-time. NK
78. "The Thunder Rolls" by Garth Brooks (1991)
“The Thunder Rolls,” co-written by Garth Brooks and Pat Alger, was the fourth single off Brooks’ 1990 sophomore release No Fences and became his sixth No. 1 hit off of just two albums. The fantastic story song tells the tale of a cheating husband driving home through a torrential storm late one night and his wife realizing he’s been in the arms of another woman, and in the “missing” fourth verse, you ridiculously won’t hear on country radio, gets her revenge. The “missing” verse is always performed live by Brooks and makes the version heard on his Double Live album the definitive one, in my opinion. Despite co-writing the song, it was actually first recorded by Tanya Tucker, but not released. JS
77. "Coat of Many Colors" by Dolly Parton (1971)
At her core, Dolly Parton is a fantastic storyteller first and foremost. Part of her everlasting appeal has been her connection with her fans, not just in her impressive social media usage, but in her songs which resonate to this day. “Coat Of Many Colors” is a prime example of what country music is all about, a true story about Parton’s upbringing in Sevier County, Tenn. Yet while Parton invites listeners freely into her world, she doesn’t aim to draw sympathy, but rather inspire optimism in the way she loved her life even if it wouldn’t be considered a dream to anyone else. That managed to resonate with poor, rural Americans when the song first debuted, and it still does to this day. ZK
76. "Rhinestone Cowboy" by Glen Campbell (1975)
Authenticity is a trademark feature for country music singers, but what happens when an artist manages to turn that concept on its head? Glen Campbell didn’t hide from the fact that he loved the calculated glitz and glamour brought on by the famous nudie suit, both for him and his heroes before him. In a way, “Rhinestone Cowboy” is Campbell’s most personal song (even if he didn’t write it) that also just so happens to be one hell of a great country-pop song. Not only did “Rhinestone Cowboy” give Campbell a career resurgence at the time, it’s also gone on to become his signature song. ZK
75. "Galveston" by Glen Campbell (1969)
The singer/songwriter combination of Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb never failed to give incredibly polished, beautiful sounding country tunes. “Galveston,” Campbell’s No. 1 from 1969, is the tragic tale of love affected by war with the narrator waiting to go into battle while thinking of the girl he loves back home and whether or not he’ll ever return to her. Webb had imagined the war to be the Spanish-American War, but released during the height of the Vietnam War many considered “Galveston” to be an anti-war ballad. Campbell’s guitar solo that finishes out the song is one of the finest in country music history. JS
74. "Together Again" by Buck Owens (1964)
The subject matter, though vivid and poignant, is not what makes this song great. Nor is it the vocal from Buck Owens, despite it being consistent and distinct as always. Rather, what makes “Together Again” an all-time classic is a short solo from one instrument - the steel guitar. Tom Brumley’s work on “Together Again” will never be replicated. It’s mournful yet contentedly satisfied. Never has so much been said by just a few licks of one instrument. NK
73. "Set 'em Up Joe" by Vern Gosdin (1988)
What happens when you get a song written by Dean Dillon, Vern Gosdin, Buddy Cannon and Hank Cochran? A musical explosion. “Set ‘Em Up Joe” is up there with “Midnight in Montgomery” as one of the greatest tributes to a legend in country music. The chorus is catchy and gives the listener a big pay-off. And the production is simple yet modern enough to make it a number one hit. A fitting tribute to the Texas Troubadour, Ernest Tubb. NK
72. "Highway 40 Blues" by Ricky Skaggs (1983)
It’s unfortunately sometimes easy to forget just what Ricky Skaggs meant to country music in the early-to-mid-‘80s with his traditional sound in a time when the pop-country sounds of the “Urban Cowboy” fad had taken over Nashville. “Highway 40 Blues,” Skaggs’ No. 1 hit from 1983, has always been my favorite song of his with its tale of life on the touring circuit and how it can take its toll on a musician. The infectious twang, both in Skaggs’ vocal and musicianship, just makes the Larry Cordle-penned song come to life. JS
71. "I'm No Stranger to the Rain" by Keith Whitley (1989)
Keith Whitley, sadly, will always be remembered for what might have been. “I’m No Stranger to the Rain” was ominously released as the last single during Whitley’s lifetime. Taken in a vacuum without being aware of the circumstances of Whitley’s life and death, a listener finds the song as a carefree and reconciled manifesto of a man who always seems to find trouble. And yet listeners who are familiar with Whitley find the song taking on a much sadder and troubled meaning. Whitley suffered from alcoholism his entire life until it killed him at just 34. NK