A Country Primer: Top 10 Country Songs and Singers

Sometimes I think that country is the single most maligned musical genre. Sure, death metal isn’t widely loved, but nobody feels the need to point out how much they dislike it on a regular basis. I find this very unfortunate. I have a theory that most people who say they hate country really just haven’t found their country groove yet. I am not a fan of the current crop of pop/bro/whatever country artists, but I love love love classic country and the indie acts that don’t get a lot of airtime. So, if you think you hate country, do me this one little favor and give these ten a listen. You might find something you really love.

  1. Sturgill Simpson: My favorite song on Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is “The Promise”. Take 80’s new wave pop and drag it into the 21st century by way of a 70’s outlaw country sound? Sure, why not. Simpson makes it more than work, as he does with his original songs. Some more favorites: “Turtles All the Way Down” if you don’t mind an unconventional negative stance toward organized religion and positive stance toward the world of mind-altering substances, and “Panbowl” for a nostalgic tune about the comforts of home.
  2. Johnny Cash: Does it get any better than the man in black? I love the perfect imperfection of one of the most recognizable voices in American music. My favorites include, of course “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Jackson” where he’s joined by the equally talented June Carter Cash, and “One Piece at a Time”, which reminds me of my grandpa.
  3. The Secret Sisters: Alabama natives and sisters Lydia and Laura Rogers have a knack for blending harmonies and a throwback style that you just might love. 2014’s sophomore album Put Your Needle Down is a great place to start
  4. Waylon Jennings: I really discovered Waylon Jennings when I watched 2009’s Crazy Heart featuring Jeff Bridges as a washed-up country singer/songwriter. The soundtrack includes Jennings’ “Are you sure Hank done it this way.” Perhaps it was the line “I’ve seen the world with a five piece band looking at the backside of me” that I found so intriguing, but in addition to that classic song, I’ve come to love “Good Hearted Woman”, and “Rainy Day Woman”.
  5. Patsy Cline: T-Swift wasn’t the first country-to-pop crossover success, nor is she the best. Patsy Cline proved that a woman could headline in country, and her rich tone and expressive phrasing pulled all the right emotional strings. Her life was cut short, but she left behind  some classic vocals in “Crazy”, “Walking After Midnight”, and “I Fall to Pieces”.
  6. Wanda Jackson: Jackson is a rockabilly wonder. She’s country with a rock ‘n roll edge, with big hair and a big voice and more fun than you’ll get out of anything on the radio today. “Let’s have a party” and “Hard-headed Woman” are good places to start.
  7. Willie Nelson: My mom loves Willie Nelson. We tease her about it, and we may have suggested more than once that my dad grow out some braids and smoke some dope. Tax-evasion and pothead status aside, he’s one of my favorite singer/songwriters. Highlights include “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”, “Blues Eyes Crying in the Rain”, and “Always on my mind”, which is a terrible sentiment and a lovely song.
  8. Alabama: I’m sure all of us who lived through the 80s and 90s have musical regrets. Yes, I was enchanted by Milli Vanilli, and I might still be able to sing all the lyrics to “More than Words”, but I feel zero shame about my enduring affection for the love songs of Alabama. If “Forever’s as Far As I’ll Go” or “Dixieland Delight” doesn’t make you want to snuggle up to your sweetheart, I just can’t help you. If romance is not your temperature, get your toe tappin’ to “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas” and “Mountain Music”, or get your cry on with “Angels Among Us”
  9. Hank Williams: He’s the granddaddy of them all, really, with a hard-living tragedy of legendary proportions outmatched only by his obvious talent. An alcoholic and morphine addict, he was also the first country superstar. He died at 29 in the back of a Cadillac on the way to a show, but left a treasury of classic songs like “Cold, Cold Heart” and “Hey Good Lookin’”.
  10. Kris Kristofferson: “Sunday Morning Coming Down” is one of my all-time favorite songs, as is “Help Me Make it Through the Night”. If all he’d ever done was write those two and “Me and Bobby McGee” he’d deserve to make all kinds of lists. He’s a prolific songwriter and an excellent performer in his own right. Also, you want to see a man who can wear a beard like a boss? Look not to Brooklyn early 2010s. Outlaw country, my friends. Too much alcohol, too many drugs, too many women–but they knew how to wear facial hair.

 

Then check out these: Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Kacey Musgraves, Glen Campbell, Lori McKenna, Buddy Miller, and Gillian Welch.

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