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The 25 Greatest Country Songs of the 1960s

still one the line

It is my unfortunate responsibility to inform you that “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose” by Little Jimmy Dickens did not make this list.

These songs did:

25. “A Week in a Country Jail,” Tom T. Hall. This one just sneaks in, having been released as a single in November in 1969, and reached #1 in early 1970. In Tom’s first chart topper, he drolly asks the jailer’s awful bologna delivering wife to skip town with him and leaves after the judge renders him penniless. Thirty minutes after being released from the pokey, he was out of state. Other ‘60s Tom to check out – “Ballad of Forty Dollars” (where a friend dies before repaying a loan) and “Homecoming” (when coming home is more painful than staying away).

24. “Tall Dark Stranger,” Buck Owens. Buck seemed a bit hokey to the 1970’s “Hee-Haw” generation, but how many artists pioneered a new genre of music? The twin Fender Telecaster attack of the Bakersfield Sound defined much of country music during the 1960s, with Don Rich providing the nimble lead guitar work, allowing Buck to focus on his frontman duties. Plenty of other great singles by Buck in the ‘60s – check out “Act Naturally,” “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” “My Heart Skips a Beat,” and “I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail.”

23. “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,” Waylon Jennings. The former Buddy Holly sideman hadn’t developed his outlaw image in the 1960s, he was still being straightjacketed into Nashville’s conservative business model when this song went to #2 in 1968. The assertive, gruff vocal mannerisms would make Jennings a true superstar in the ‘70s.

22. “Harper Valley PTA,” Jeannie C. Riley. Tom T. Hall penned this sassy number about judgmental small town hypocrisy, which struck such a nerve with the public that it inspired a movie and television series a decade after being released (both of which starred – yowsa! – Barbara Eden). This song was such a huge hit, going to #1 in both the pop and country charts in 1968, that Riley could never really produce an effective follow up. I mean, she did go country Top Ten five more times after this was released, but only 0.003 percent of the American public can name one of those other songs.

21. “I’ve Been Everywhere,” Hank Snow. This tune was written by Aussie Geoff Mack in 1959 to celebrate Down Under villages such as Muckadilla, Girraween, and, my favorite, Tuggerawong. Canadian country crooner slapped North American burgs into the tune and was rewarded with a #1 hit in 1962. It’s too bad that the Australian slang for carrying a sleeping bag, “humpin’ my bluey,” never hit the American mainstream.

20. “Don’t Come Home A’ Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” Loretta Lynn. According to the Butcher Holler, Kentucky native Loretta, this was one of many singers inspired by her husband/manager Oliver “Doolittle/Doo/Mooney” Lynn. Doo may have been the kind of guy that chased a few skirts after a few whiskey chasers while Loretta was chasing after the money onstage. He’s kind of my hero. Oh, stats – a #1 hit in 1966.

19. “Sweet Dreams,” Patsy Cline. There’s too much Patsy, and not enough George Jones on this list, but it’s difficult not to give the genre’s greatest female singer her due. After Patsy died in a plane crash in March of 1963, Decca released this Don Gibson composition, which both Gibson and Faron Young both took to the Top Ten in 1956. Patsy’s version went to #5 and Emmylou Harris took her version to #1 in 1977.

18. “Working Man Blues,” Merle Haggard. You may be thinking I’m only including this 1968 #1 hit because Merle’s grandmother and my wife’s great grandmother were sisters, but it’s not like the Hag invites us over to his Super Bowl parties or anything. This blue collar tribute would become a real show stopper in his live act, as Merle would let several instrumentalists take extended hot solos in the manner of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

17. “You Don’t Know Me,” Ray Charles. Brother Ray took the slick countrypolitan route on his 1962 Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music album. Despite the title, the singles didn’t make the country charts, but this version of the Eddy Arnold/Cindy Walker unrequited heartbreaker went #2 pop.

16. “Jackson,” Johnny Cash with June Carter Cash. Famed rock ‘n’ roll songwriter Jerry Lieber gets a co-writing credit on this one, hiding under the pseudonym Gaby Rodgers. The song peaks with its unforgettable opening line, “We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout,” then rides on Johnny and June’s momentum and chemistry. A #2 hit in 1967.

15. “Skip a Rope,” Henson Cargill. Those smelly hippies were making so much green stuff (as in money, not the other green stuff) off the whole social awareness hipster trend in the late 1960s that even Nashville couldn’t ignore the patchouli oil. Henson goes after racism and tax cheats on this 1968 #1 hit. Be sure to check out the cover by the Kentucky Headhunters. How bad was the rest of Henson’s career? He retired to OKLAHOMA CITY!

14. “Flowers on the Wall,” The Statler Brothers. This Virginia based quartet, whose roots were in gospel music, wrote a much better version of “Missing You” than John Waite would a few decades later. It’s no pulp fiction to note that the Statlers were one of Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite acts. Went #4 pop and #2 country in early 1966.

13. “She’s Got You,” Patsy Cline. Hank Cochran penned this country classic about a woman adding up all of her keepsakes from a relationship – pictures, records, memories, class ring. The only thing missing is the relationship. #1 for Patsy in 1962 and for Loretta in 1977. Rosanne Cash recorded a fine version on The List album, which you should also own.

12. “Success,” Loretta Lynn. “Success,” Loretta bemoaned, “has made a failure of our home.” The Coal Miner’s Daughter went to #6, her first Top Ten, with this 1962 number about a man whose career is more important than his relationship. Kind of like me when I played “Young Scrooge” in our high school’s version of A Christmas Carol and chose money over a hot babe. Not a bad choice.

11. “Six Days on the Road,” Dave Dudley. Dudley put some rock ‘n’ roll muscle into this trucker’s highway lament. Popping those little white pills with his husky baritone, Dave drove this up to #2 in 1963. He enjoyed the theme, later hits included “Truck Drivin’ Son-of-a-Gun,” “Trucker’s Prayer,” and “Keep on Truckin’.”

10. “Folsom Prison Blues,” Johnny Cash. Is there anything more spine-tingling in popular music than hearing a bunch of murderers, rapists, and serial jaywalkers go hog wild after The Man in Black proclaims that he “shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”? Sorry to pull the curtain back on this one, but the cheering wasn’t from the concert – it was added during the production process. The sad realizations of adulthood. Almost as disappointing as watching the 1970s sitcom Soap and discovering that Billy Crystal really wasn’t gay. In any event, a #1 hit from 1968.

9. “The Race Is On,” George Jones. The greatest singer in country music history is criminally underrepresented on this list, but 25 is a tough number to crack (look at poor Skeeter Davis and Jim Ed Brown weeping in the wings). Some nice tonsil calisthenics on this faux heartbreak country rocker. A #3 hit in 1964. My apologies to “Window Up Above,” “Tender Years,” and “She Thinks I Still Care,” among others.

8. “Crazy,” Patsy Cline. Patsy took this Willie Nelson jazz/pop/country ballad to #2 in 1961. Match this up with Gnarls Barkley and Seal to get the best three songs ever with the same title.

7. “Ring of Fire,” Johnny Cash. You can’t blame the general lack of mariachi-style trumpets in country music on Johnny Cash. Cash’s thundering baritone sounded like the voice of God (unless God is a falsetto), and he makes this 1963 #1 hit sound like an inferno. Check out the cover by Social Distortion.

6. “I Fall to Pieces,” Patsy Cline. Producer Owen Bradley, for better or worse, broadened the appeal of country music by replacing fiddles with string sections and adding soft background vocals. While Virginia native Cline preferred a harder edge, it’s her pop ballads that define her legacy. Although it was hard for Patsy to capitalize on this single due to a serious car wreck, “I Fall to Pieces” went #1 country and #12 on the pop charts.

5. “Hello Walls,” Faron Young. Shreveport, Louisiana native Faron Young hit the country charts regularly for over twenty-five years, but is seldom remembered as one of the great stars of the genre, which may mean that there have been better marketing strategies than “The Hillbilly Heartthrob.” In this Willie Nelson number, the walls, window, and ceiling receive all of the narrator’s attention, because the girl is gone. Like our last song, a #1 country and #12 pop hit in 1961.

4. “Mama Tried,” Merle Haggard. Although Haggard was never sentenced to “life without parole,” he did spend several years in the California prison system for offenses such as writing bad checks, robbery, and assault. Haggard has said that his number, about his mother trying to keep him on the straight and narrow path, is one of his most personal and emotional songs. A #1 hit in 1968.

3. “King of the Road,” Roger Miller. Miller was an eccentric songwriter (“My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died,” “Where Have All the Average People Gone,”) that became a major country star and pop culture celebrity. A celebration of the “he who has nothing has it all” lifestyle, “King of the Road” went #1 country and #4 pop in 1965.

2. “Stand By Your Man,” Tammy Wynette. While Loretta was feisty and Patsy was smooth, Tammy always sounded wounded. Her continual victimhood (“Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,” “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”) didn’t make feminists applaud, but she became an icon for patient, loving women stuck with Neanderthal mates. I may have erred in not placing this in the top slot, but after all…I’m just a man. #1 country, #19 pop in 1968.

1. “Wichita Lineman,” Glen Campbell. As a fourteen year old kid in Oklahoma, the first single Jimmy Webb purchased was Campbell’s minor 1961 hit “Turn Around, Look at Me.” Five years later, Johnny Rivers recorded the Webb composition “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and the young songwriter became extraordinarily successful in the late 1960s, even though he left his cake out in the rain. “Wichita Lineman,” with its staggering combination of love and loneliness, is a work of infinite beauty. #1 country, #1 pop in 1968.

And I need you more than want you. And I want you for all time.

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