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The 25 Greatest Country Songs of the 1970s


Country music went down a weird path in the ‘70s. Producer Billy Sherrill updated Owen Bradley’s countrypolitan sound by drowning George Jones and Charlie Rich in string sections. Pop stars like John Denver and Olivia Newton-John crossed over regularly onto the country charts and future chicken salesman Kenny Rogers became a superstar in the genre. Country music may have been moving from its traditional sound and subject matter in the‘70s, but we still had Waylon and Willie. And Loretta. And Dolly.

Without further ado… 

25. “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,”Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Conway Twitty! Not sure how I explain this choice to St. Peter, I bypassed Loretta’s “One’s on the Way” and “The Pill”among others to slot this at #25. Lighthearted, engaging country kitsch by two of the genre’s greats. 

24. “For the Good Times,” Ray Price. Thematically similar to “The Dance” by Garth Brooks in its don’t-be-sad-for-what-you-lost-be-happy-for-what-you-had relationship outlook. Price hits the wistful vocal with such perfection that you can overlook the sappy string arrangement. This Kris Kristofferson number has been covered by Al Green, Elvis, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lee Lewis, and, of course, Isaac Hayes. 

23. “Take This Job and Shove It,” Johnny Paycheck. Paycheck kicked off this working class kiss off with the chorus, which may mean he was Jon Bon Jovi’s most prominent influence. Paycheck’s outlaw image wasn’t manufactured – he spent time in a military prison in the‘50s and a civilian one in the ‘90s. The title remains a universal sentiment, expressed with a winning mixture of venom and pride. 

22. “One Piece at a Time,” Johnny Cash. Cash started the decade with the hungover“Sunday Morning Coming Down” and ended it with the mythic “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky,” but overall it was a lean decade for our hero. Cash’s last #1 on the country charts as a solo artist proved that we admire our visionary kleptomaniacs. 

21. “Rose Garden,” Lynn Anderson. Written by Joe South of “Games People Play” fame, this was a #3 pop hit and a country chart topper. Pardon beggar Lynn may have invented her own sub-genre – bubblegum country. 

20. “East Bound and Down,” Jerry Reed. Reed composed the Elvis hits “Guitar Man” and“U.S. Male” and was a respected guitarist in the clawhammer, finger picking tradition of Merle Travis and Chet Atkins. As a lyricist, Reed always went for the comical and this Smokey and the Bandit sing along hit has gained new life as a modern grease ball anthem. 

19. “Blue Skies,” Willie Nelson. After struggling in the music business since the ‘50s, Nelson broke through commercially with 1975’s Red Headed Stranger album, then freaked out Columbia Records by releasing an album of pop standards, Stardust, in 1978. One can assume that the label executives relaxed when this Rodgers and Hart composition followed his cover of“Georgia on My Mind” to #1 on the country chart.

18. “Coat of Many Colors,” Dolly Parton. Dolly’s first country hit was 1967’s “Dumb Blonde,” which properly asserted that she wasn’t. She reached back to her childhood memory of her mother made patchwork coat for this 1974 hit. Dolly was Americana before some marketing person invented the category. 

17. “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love),”Waylon Jennings. There isn’t much in Luckenbach – a post office, a general store, a saloon, and a dance hall. The latter two operations still do solid business. Jerry Jeff Walker put the Texas Hill country burg on the map in the 1970s and Waylon solidified Luckenbach’s theoretical timeless values with this hit. Bonus trivia – “Luckenbach” was penned by Chips Moman and Bobby Emmons. Moman also co-wrote Aretha’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” and James Carr’s “Dark End of the Street.”

16. “A Good Year for the Roses,” George Jones. George may have developed his no show Jones concert reputation during the ‘70s, but he did appear in the country Top Ten fifteen times during the decade. Not only does his woman leave him in this tearjerker, she didn’t even make his bed before she left. Hell hath no fury. 

15. “I Can Help,” Billy Swan. Cape Girardeau, Missouri native Swan wasn’t a rookie when he topped the country and pop charts with “I Can Help” in 1974; he had produced Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie” and played bass for Kris Kristofferson. Mining the rockabilly vein of country music, Swan even helpfully volunteers for baby daddy duty on this organ hooked gem.

14. “Good Hearted Woman,” Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. This Waylon and Willie composition, inspired by the less than harmonious relationship between Ike and Tina Turner, was a hit twice in the ‘70s – Waylon took it to #3 in 1972 as a solo hit and it went to #1 in 1976 as a Willie and Waylon duet. Include this in your “why women love bad boys” mix tape.

13. “(We’re Not) The Jet Set,” George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Like #25, a classic kitschy duet, as George and Tammy describe their low budget lifestyle. Any song that mentions Festus, Missouri, the hometown of my personal alt-country heroes The Bottle Rockets, is aces with me. Later covered with love by John Prine and Iris DeMent. 

12. “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train,”Billy Joe Shaver. Shaver’s rep is as a songwriter, not a performer – Bobby Bare, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Elvis, and Tom T. Hall have recorded his songs. A regular on the Texas music scene, Shaver covers poverty, sex, and salvation on “Georgia.” I’m honored to have shaken his hand. 

11. “Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half as Bad as Losing You),” George Jones. The world of country music would be much less interesting without the pen of Bobby Braddock, who wrote this painfully hysterical number. Other Braddock compositions: “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” “(We’re Not) The Jet Set,” “Golden Ring,” “He Stopped Lover Her Today.” Like MTV’s Jackass, this tune makes you simultaneously wince and laugh. 

10. “Jolene,” Dolly Parton. Dolly is an underappreciated songwriter. On “Jolene,” she doesn’t try to be clever to outwit a more beautiful woman, she just begs her to stay away from Dolly’s man. “Jolene” was not only a #1 country hit in the U.S. and Canada, but also went Top Ten in the U.K. pop charts. 

9. “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” The Oak Ridge Boys. The history of the Oak Ridge Boys dates back to the Oak Ridge Quartet, who sang gospel music in the Knoxville, Tennessee area in the 1940s. In the late ‘70s, the band decided there was more filthy lucre in secular music and became a mainstream country act. Rodney Crowell co-wrote “Leaving Louisiana” and Emmylou Harris recorded it in 1978, but didn’t release it as a single. A #1 hit for the Oak Ridge Boys, but, sadly it’s not the group’s signature song. 

8. “Me and Paul,” Willie Nelson. Paul English was Willie Nelson’s longtime drummer whose most important role in the organization may have been packing heat to ensure payment from unscrupulous club owners. Recorded four years before Willie became a major star with “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “Me and Paul”is a travelogue of country road shows and personal transgressions. 

7. ”Kiss An Angel Good Mornin’,” Charlie Pride. Pride had an astonishing run on the country charts between 1967 and 1987, hitting the top ten 51 times and with 29 number one singles. His best song had him kissing an angel and loving her like the devil. 

6. “The Year Clayton Delaney Died,” Tom T. Hall. The name Clayton Delaney was a pseudonym for Lonnie Easterly, an Olive Hill, Kentucky musician that Tom T. admired as a youngster. Reminiscent of the real life Rufus Payne or the imaginary Curtis Loew, “Clayton Delaney” is a mixture of blues, booze, and mentoring. 

5. “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles),” Gary Stewart. Stewart was too erratic for long term success. He enjoyed booze and drugs too much to be reliable and he was probably happiest when playing to small audiences at Texas honky-tonks. However, he plowed into this cheating and drinking song with his unique vibrato style and scored a #1 hit. Nobody ever did drinking songs better. 

4. “The Grand Tour,” George Jones. A divorce song that rips your heart out and stomps it into pieces. In George’s home tour, every piece of furniture, possession, and room reminds him of the woman that walked away. Somebody, get that man a drink! 

3. “Behind Closed Doors,” Charlie Rich. Since I wrote about this song in August, a copy and paste seems appropriate. “An instantly recognizable piano lick serves as the intro to the Silver Fox’s signature song. He glides into the huge sing-along chorus, then bears down on the payoff lines. I wondered whether this condescendingly sexist‘lady in the living room, acrobat in the bedroom’ number would be too offensive for modern listeners. Then I heard ‘Bubble Butt’ on the radio and this sounded positively quaint.” 

2. “If We Make It Through December,” Merle Haggard. Christmas is the happiest time of the year! Unless you are unemployed and you can’t buy your baby girl a present and you may have to move to find work. Then, it kind of sucks. 

1. “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Loretta Lynn. Loretta established her identity in the ‘60s with her feisty “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” attitude, but the autobiographical “Coal Miner’s Daughter” allowed audiences to relate to her in a more meaningful way. Her signature hit details a hardscrabble Kentucky existence, with a foundation in family sacrifice and spiritual beliefs. At the end of the tune, Loretta gets back, gets back, gets back to where she once belonged.

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