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The 25 Greatest Country Songs of the 80s

Steve Earle


Nobody would argue that the 1980s was a classic era for country music – the genre was filled with middle of the road soft dreck and popsickle production values.  John Anderson embodied the hard country aesthetic at the beginning of the ‘80s and Randy Travis carried the banner at the  decade’s end. Steve Earle and Rosanne Cash helped us through the tough times.

25.  “Copperhead Road,” Steve Earle.  A bit of a cheat selection since “Copperhead Road” didn’t make the country charts, but this power twang backwoods tale of moonshine and post-‘Nam pot distribution is in the tradition.  Never start a list with a whimper when a bang is available.

24.  “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Someday),” John Anderson.  Anderson is my favorite country singer, so I’ve showed restraint in not including my beloved “1959” or “She Just Started Liking Cheatin’ Songs” or “Would You Catch a Falling Star” or…etc, etc.  Enjoy the subtle Western swing instrumentation on this Billy Joe Shaver composition.

23.  “Born to Boogie,” Hank Williams, Jr.   I know, I know – you have to sift through a ton of schlock and shtick with Hank, Jr.   It must be written in his contract that he has to remind you who his daddy is 87 times per album.  On “Born to Boogie,” Jr.’s brassy overstatement is a pure pretentious pleasure.

22.  “Old Hippie,” The Bellamy Brothers.  The Bellamys hit #1 on the pop charts in 1976 with “Let Your Love Flow” and then transitioned into a country act by the end of the decade.  “Old Hippie” uses subtle Johnny Cash style guitar chords to tell the story about a Vietnam veteran who finds himself culturally adrift in the 1980s.  He eventually turns to jogging.  My name is Forrest Gump, people call me Forrest Gump.

21.  “Still Doing Time,” George Jones.  Cheating, drinking, loneliness.  Hard country delivered with unfettered conviction.

20.  “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” Willie Nelson.  The generous spirit of the lyric is offset by the pensive musical accompaniment.  Superlative songwriting and nice guitar work, to boot.

19.  “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me,” Rosanne Cash.  When a confused Rosanne Cash didn’t win a Grammy for the 1982 hit “Ain’t No Money,” she didn’t get sad, she got busy.  Inspired by her non-selection, she wrote “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me” with then husband Rodney Crowell.   And won a Grammy for it.

18.  “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried,” Rodney Crowell.  Singer, songwriter, producer Crowell hit struck gold with his 1988 album Diamonds & Dirt which had five (yes, five) #1 country singles.  Nicely arranged with lead and steel guitar solos, fiddle accompaniment, and a buoyantly optimistic sound.

17.  “When You Say Nothing at All,” Keith Whitley.  Did somebody say “traditionalism”?  Whitley was a childhood friend of Ricky Skaggs (whose “Uncle Pen” just missed this list) and has been described as having a “burnished” baritone, which may be a synonym for “bourbon soaked.”  Alison Krauss sang this prettier, but Whitley’s resonant voice is always a pleasure to hear.

16.  “Rose in Paradise,” Waylon Jennings.  Buddy Holly’s former bassist had an authoritative vocal style and a tough talking Telecaster.  This jealous lover mystery is a classic slice of Waylon and for his ‘80s work, also check out his Los Lobos cover – “Will the Wolf Survive” went to #5 in 1866.

15.  “Streets of Bakersfield,” Dwight Yoakam & Buck Owens.  Yoakam brought a rockabilly edge into the commercial mainstream with the hit singles “Honky Tonk Man,” “Guitars, Cadillacs,” and “Little Sister.”  Originally, “Streets of Bakersfield” was an album cut that Owens released in 1973; Yoakam added a Tex-Mex flavor to the song.  Not only was it a pleasure to hear Owens on the radio again, but I’m delighted to report that the songwriter was blessed with the name Homer Joy.

14.  “Always on My Mind,” Willie Nelson.  Willie’s songwriting catalogue is as deep as anyone in country music, so it’s almost unfair that he can be such a formidable interpreter as well.  “Always on My Mind” was recorded by Brenda Lee in 1972, but her version was eclipsed by Elvis Presley’s – the King ironically released the song shortly after breaking up with Priscilla.  Willie scored a #1 country hit, a #5 pop hit, and a Grammy with his version.

13.  “Midnight Girl/Sunset Town,” Sweethearts of the Rodeo.  Named after the classic Byrds album, Janis and Kristine Oliver took their superb sisterly harmonies into the country Top Ten seven times during the ‘80s.  On “Midnight Girl,” they beg the Lord to get them out of their one horse town.  A few years later, Hal Ketchum would have a major hit with the thematically and musically similar “Small Town Saturday Night.”

12.  “Callin’ Baton Rouge,” New Grass Revival.  A bigger hit for “Party On” Garth Brooks, Bela Fleck’s progressive bluegrass band snuck this into the lower reaches of the Top 40 in 1989, aided by Sam Bush’s red hot fiddle work.  Penned by Dennis Linde who also wrote “Burning Love” for Elvis and “Goodbye Earl” for the Dixie Chicks.

11.  “Amarillo by Morning,” George Strait.  Straight has had a ridiculous FORTY FOUR #1 country hit singles, but I have almost a complete deaf spot with him.  He is as bland as untreated grits, but lassoed a flawless performance with the understated “Amarillo by Morning.”  You may not know that the city of Amarillo was once known as “The Helium Capital of the World.”  I’m guessing a better nickname may have been “The Balloon Sucking Capital of the World.”

10.  “I Told You So,” Randy Travis.  Travis penned this 1988 #1 singled and let’s check in with Robert Christgau for some perspective on his singing.  “At the center of his music is a more resonant and capacious thing whose immense power Travis never, ever unleashes.  In any case, that’s the effect – a guy who could shake the rafters at the VFW or plumb the bowels of human misery, yet out of some combination of kindness and humility and innate good taste chooses not to.”  So, the guy is either really disciplined or he’s hiding something.  Hmmm…

9.  “Wild and Blue,” John Anderson.  Anderson’s first #1 was this hard edged Appalachian twang stomper.  Fiddle player Buddy Spichor, who also played on “Amarille by Morning,” adds that mule stomping factor.  “Wild and Blue” has been covered by two women of great taste –  Sally Timms of the Mekons and Lucinda Williams.

8.  “Pancho and Lefty,” Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson.  Townes Van Zandt’s signature song was beautifully covered by Emmylou Harris but her version was never released as a single.  Merle and Willie took this chronicle of outlaw betrayal to #1 in 1983.  Travel an hour east on I-20 out of Dallas and you’ll be in Van Zandt county –  named after Towne’s great grandfather, Isaac Van Zandt.

7.  “Seven Year Ache,” Rosanne Cash.  Rosanne’s first #1 was a self-penned heartbreaker about a husband working the bar scene instead of communicating with his wife.  Even with the weird, cascading steel guitar sound, this was Cash’s only hit to crossover to the pop charts.  Her marriage to Rodney Crowell outlasted the seven year ache by half a decade.

6.  “Guitar Town,” Steve Earle.  Not sure that you could get a lyric about a “Jap guitar” on radio today, but Earle’s breakthrough hit was a quintessential highway rocker.  If you look at the “Guitar Town” video and then a pic of Steve Earle today, you’ve got your “Just Say No” ad.

5.  “Forever and Ever, Amen,” Randy Travis.  Travis broke commercially in 1985 with “1982,” showing the increased speed of nostalgia in today’s society (I really miss last Tuesday).  From the mid-80s to the early 90’s, Travis had a run that was as good commercially and artistically as anyone in the history of country music.  He wasn’t flashy, but what a vocalist.

4.  “An Empty Glass,” Gary Stewart.  Stewart was perfectly happy doing speed all day in a Florida trailer with blackened out windows in the early ’80s, but some friends convinced him to get back into the studio and on to the Texas honky-tonk circuit.  Recording for the independent Hightone label, “An Empty Glass” only reached #64 on the country charts, but it remains one of the genre’s best drinking songs.  One of the last crazy spirits in country music, extinguished when he shot himself in 2003.

3.  “Highwayman,”  The Highwaymen.  Marty Stuart pitched this supernatural Jimmy Webb saga to the country supergroup composed of Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash.  “Highwayman” was originally released by Glen Cambell who lacked the gravitas to project the lyrics into another dimension.  Johnny Cash did not.

2.  “Swingin’”, John Anderson.  Forget Romeo and Juliet, Charlotte Johnson inspired the best love story ever.  John conveys the wondrous thrill of new romance and the band positively…um…swings in the background with horns and a rock inspired organ interlude.  #1 in 1983.  The Country Music Association Single of the Year.  The best selling country single in the history of Warner Brothers Records.  (Avoid John’s 1994 rerecorded version.  It don’t mean a thing, ‘cause it ain’t got…).

1.  “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” George Jones.  “He said I’ll love you ‘til I die.”  After two and a half decades of recording, the genre’s greatest singer got his signature song.  Jones didn’t fall immediately in love with the Bobby Braddock/Curly Putnam composition.  Producer Billy Sherrill, “He thought it was too long, too sad, too depressing and that nobody would ever play it.”  He probably liked it better after it won the CMA Song of the Year in 1980.  And again in 1981.

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