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The 30 Greatest Country Songs of the 1950s

The first rock and roll star

The Board of Directors at rock nyc typically restricts these lists to 25 songs, but I pushed this list to thirty so I wouldn’t have to artificially limit the number of Hank Williams entries.  I have enough to explain to St. Peter without adding that oversight to my resume.  OK, let’s start drinking and cheating, 1950s style.

 30. “Don’t Let the Starts Get in Your Eyes,” Skeets McDonald.  Greenway, Arkansas native Enos William “Skeets” McDonald had the second #1 country hit with this song in 1952; it first reached the top slot by composer Slim Willet with the Brush Cutters.  This strange, off meter ballad became such a standard in the ‘50s, it inspired the Homer and Jethro parody “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyeballs,” a novelty tune that my friend Tim McCluskey and I sang in grade school with endless enthusiasm.  Skeets remains the only artist to receive a chapter in Nick Tosches’ indispensable Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll that shares a final resting place in the same cemetery as my paternal grandfather.

 29. “This Ole House,”Stuart Hamblen.  Singing cowboy Hamblen, who as a recovering alcoholic ran for President in 1952 for the Prohibition Party, penned this 1954 hit about leaving a dilapidated home for one’s final resting place.  Hamblen’s version went to #2 on the country charts and Rosemary Clooney’s pop version went to #1 during the same timeframe.  “This Ole House” crossed the pond in the early ‘80s, giving Shakin’ Stevens  his first #1 in the U.K. with his rockabill cover version.

 28. “The Long Black Veil,”Lefty Frizzell.  Not exactly a party tune, “The Long Black Veil” is narrated from the perspective of a dead man that chose a hanging death when wrongly accused of a killing;  he didn’t want to admit  that he was busy bonking his best friend’s wife when the murder happened.  The two timing babe visits him at the graveyard.  This 1959 hit put Lefty back in the Top Ten after a five year dry spell.

 27. “Uncle Pen,” Bill Monroe.  Traditional bluegrass was too country for country radio, the irascible Mr. Monroe never had a hit record. Porter Wagoner cleaned up the production for his 1956 hoedown throw down version and Monroe disciple Ricky Skaggs, who first played with Monroe when he was six years old, took it to #1 in 1984.  Hear it talk.  Hear it sing.

 26. “Faded Love,” Bob Wills.  Wills was fading commercially in the 1950s, this would be his last hit for a decade.  Three Wills receive writing credit for the record – Bob’s father John wrote the melody and his brother (the legend of) Billy Jack provided the lyrics.  Later a Top Ten hit for Patsy Cline and included on the 1971 album Elvis Country.

 25. “You Win Again,”Jerry Lee Lewis.  During the late 1950s, many pop/rock artists (Elvis, the Everly Brothers, Ricky Nelson, etc.) were scoring huge hits on the country charts.  For this listing, if a song was a major pop hit by a rock identified act, I didn’t include it for consideration.  Jerry Lee’s self-assured cover of Hank Williams’ 1952 hit went #2 country and peaked at #95 on the pop charts.  “You Win Again” would be a highlight concert for Lewis for decades and Charley Pride took his version to #1 in 1980.

 24. “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” Kitty Wells.  Before Ray Charles cut his countrypolitan version of this Don Gibson standard, Kitty took her hard traditional take to #3 in 1958.  It sounds like the title in Kitty’s version should be, “I Cain’t Stop Loving You.”  Wells was the queen of finger wagging sin and salvation – check out some of her song titles “Repent,” “Thou Shalt Not Steal,” and, my favorite, “Will Your Lawyer Talk to God.”

 23. “Crazy Arms,” Ray Price.  In 1956, Ray Price took country music in a new direction with the 4/4 shuffle on this number, later known as the “Ray Price beat.”  The 4/4 shuffle became a staple of honky tonk music after this ode to insane appendages spent a ridiculous twenty weeks at the top of the country charts.

 22. “Making Believe,” Kitty Wells.  Kitty wasn’t glamorous, she looked more like a sewing circle organizer than a music star, but she put across this sad tale of not getting over a former lover with palpable heartbreak.  Some people don’t have the cheerleader gene.

 21. “Hey Good Lookin’,”Hank Williams.  Woman should either be attractive, good in the kitchen, or both.  I know this to be true because I watch Duck Dynasty.

 20. “Cash on the Barrel Head, “The Louvin Brothers.  Charlie and Ira Louvin had a choice to make on this ironically lighthearted bluegrass meets honky tonk tune – the judge gave the narrator the option of paying a fine or going to jail.  Living with empty pockets made the decision an easy one.

 19. “Release Me,” Ray Price.  “Release Me” was actually a b-side that only made it to #6 on the country charts in 1954, while the forgotten a-side “I’ll Be There (If You Ever Want Me)” went to #2.  Engelbert Humperdink’s 1967 cover impacted another famous double sided hit – it kept “Penny Lane/ Strawberry Fields Forever” from going to #1 on the U.K. charts.

 18. “ El Paso,” Marty Robbins. “El Paso” was the last #1 on the ‘50s and the first #1 of the ‘60s on both the country and pop charts.  With this entry, you get love, alcohol, murder, and south of the border Spanish guitar.  At four minutes and thirty seconds, a veritable rock opera for the timeframe.

 17. “Tennessee Waltz,”Patti Page.  Page was primarily a pop singer, but “Tennesse Waltz” had already been established as a country hit by Cowboy Copas in 1948.  Page’s version is lovely – a beautiful voice, a spare arrangement, and the proper dosage of anguish as she watched her darlin’ dance away with another.  I hope that the guy later refused to sell her a doggie.

 16. “Cold, Cold Heart,”Hank Williams.  Hank’s genius was in his simplicity.  On this #1 hit from 1951, Hank has residual heartbreak – a once bitten, twice shy woman won’t accept his love.  Listen to Hank’s original and Tony Bennett’s 1951 #1 pop hit cover version for a startling contrast of styles.

 15. “I’m Moving On,” Hank Snow.  Snow looked like the anti-Hank Williams, a boy scout leader tucked into flashy clothes because that was the custom.  This 1950 hit spent twenty- one weeks at the top of the country charts, maybe striking a chord with the public because a man has seldom sounded happier about leaving a woman behind.

 14. “The Wild Side of Life,” Hank Thompson.  Our triumvirate of Hanks is completed with Mr. Thompson, whose tale of a married barroom hussy spent fifteen weeks at #1 in 1952.  For the sheer weirdness factor, check out the 1976 glam pop cover by British boogie kings Status Quo.

 13. “Your Cheatin’ Heart,”Hank Williams.  Cheating songs don’t get any purer than this, which posthumously went to #1 in 1953.  A woman may have cheated on our hero, but her resultant jealously, loneliness, and sadness will be his revenge.

 12. “Sixteen Tons,”Tennessee Ernie Ford.   Merle Travis wrote and recorded this story of coal mining indentured servitude in the 1940s.  Merle’s version is as country as marrying your cousin, while Tennessee Ernie used a jazz pop arrangement for his endlessly catchy 1955 #1 hit.

 11. “Heartaches By the Number,” Ray Price.  Price enumerates his heartaches from an indecisive woman on this addictive, fiddle hooked gem.  While Ray Price was taking this to #2 on the country charts, Guy Mitchell took the same song to #1 on the pop charts.

 10. “It Wasn’t God Who Make Honky Tonk Angels,” Kitty Wells.  The answer song to “Wild Side of Life” emphatically makes the case that marital relationship woes are not due to powdered up jezebels; the blame can be directly cast upon men with wayward eyes.  With this number, combative Kitty became the first female solo act to have a #1 country hit.

 9. “Kaw-Liga,” Hank Williams.  What happens when two inanimate objects fall in love? Communication issues become impossible to overcome.  Those enchanting wooden Indians took Hank to #1 posthumously in 1953.

 8. “White Lightning, ”George Jones. Not originally titled “White Lightning/Heat Lightening,” this Big Bopper composition was George’s first #1 hit.  Jones had reportedly overindulged in a white lightning type refreshment before the recording and it took approximately 80 vocal takes to record the song.

 7. “Walking After Midnight,” Patsy Cline.  Cline strolled to #2 on the country charts, and #12 on the pop charts, with this 1957 release about seeking a former lover through wee morning jaunts.  Surprisingly, she didn’t have a follow up hit until 1961’s “I Fall to Pieces.”  Nashville session bassist Bob Moore played on Cline’s hits and later gave the world the intro to “King of the Road.”

 6.  “Why Don’t You Love Me,” Hank Williams.  Hank’s feeling both confident and neglected on this 1950 #1 hit – he seems to be proud of his looks and his consistent faults, but confused by his lover’s rejection.  Like many of Hank’s songs, this one was inspired by the tensions within his first marriage .

 5. “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time,” Lefty Frizzell.  Frizzell’s life wasn’t an easy one – he did a stint in jail for statutory rape before he became famous and his alcoholism most likely contributed to his death at the age of 47.  You can hear variations of Lefty’s unique note curling vocal style in traditionalist John Anderson and alternative country artist Hayes Carll.  Lefty often competed with Hank for country gold in the early ‘50s, scoring fifteen Top Ten hits with five hitting the top slot between 1950 and 1954.

 4.  “I Walk the Line,” Johnny Cash.  Cash’s statement of intense, almost scary, devotion was his first #1 country hit and his biggest pop crossover until 1969’s “A Boy Named Sue.”  I chose to leave “Folsom Prison Blues” off of this listing, since the superior live version was on my ‘60s list.  Probably not the best decision I’ve ever made.

 3. “There Stands the Glass,” Webb Pierce.  Webb looks like a flamboyant strutting rooster in video clips from his heyday and he enjoyed the good life – building a $30,000 guitar shaped swimming pool and paying twenty grand to customize a 1962 Pontiac with steer horns, silver dollars, and other flashy add-ons.  He’s better known for his cover of “In the Jailhouse Now,” but the medicinal “There Stands the Glass” stand tall as one of country music’s greatest drinking songs.

 2.  “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” Hank Williams.  Hank’s son of a gun great fun Cajun party tune was his biggest crossover hit, going to #20 on the pop charts and #1 country.  The melody came from the traditional Cajun folk song “Grand Texas” and, depending on your source, Moon Mullican either wrote the song and it was purchased by Hank, or he co-wrote the song but was uncredited due to his less than optimal publishing arrangement.  Let’s remember this wisdom from Hunter S. Thompson, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs.  There’s also a negative side.”

 1. “Mystery Train”, Elvis Presley.  Hey, did you know that our boy Elvis broke country nationally before becoming a minor rock ‘n’ roll star?  “Baby Let’s Play House” went #5 country, “I Forgot to Remember to Forget” was his first #1 on any chart, and “Mystery Train” went to #10 in 1955.  From Rock NYC’s close personal friend Greil Marcus, “If any individual of our time can be said to have changed the world, Elvis Presley is the one.  In his wake more than music is different.  Nothing and no one looks or sounds the same.  His music was the most liberating event of our era because it taught us new possibilities of feeling and perception, new modes of action and appearance, and because it reminded us not only of his greatness, but of our own potential.”  Not bad for a kid from Tupelo.

1 Comment

  1. Colleen on July 15, 2019 at 11:26 pm

    I remember and love all these classic’s. No country music where I live now, darn.

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