200 Essential 80’s Singles
“A Little Good News”
Murray took home CMA Single of the Year with her surprisingly topical record wishing for better, more uplifting news. It’s eerily timely listening to it today, with the opening line referring to fighting in Lebanon.
“Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good”
Williams mostly avoided spirituality on record, but had a huge smash with this plaintive prayer for a good day. Lee Ann Womack did an efficient cover on her I Hope You Dance album, but Williams’ original is still the definitive version.
“Two Story House”
George Jones & Tammy Wynette
Long after their marriage dissolved, Jones and Wynette reunited in the studio for this now-classic duet about a couple who spent so much time working to reach the top, that by the time they had their big two-story house that they dreamed of, the love between them was gone.
“I’d Just Love To Lay You Down”
A dirty little song about never-ending love. Twitty reassures his woman that he’ll always want to get it on with her, no matter how disheveled she looks in the morning or how old he gets. There’s a wry romanticism in his pre-Viagra era promise that “when a whole lot of Decembers are showing in your face, and your auburn hair has faded and silver takes it place, you’ll still be as lovely, and I’ll still be around, and if I can I know that I’ll still love to lay you down.”
“Eighteen Wheels & A Dozen Roses”
Mattea took home ACM & CMA Single of the Year for her classic hit about Charlie the truck driver, who is finishing his last run on the road and coming home to his wife for the last time – “after tonight, she’ll no longer be counting the days.” Their quaint retirement plans of getting back on the road in a winebago and seeing America together is just as sweet to listen to today.
Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson,
Waylon Jennings & Johnny Cash
A quirky tale of reincarnation becomes a collaboration of epic proportions when four legends decide to sing it together. Even then, Cash was the legend among legends. When they performed this song live, Cash would get by far the loudest ovation when his vocals began on the final verse.
“But You Know I Love You”
Alison Krauss & Union Station recorded this old Parton hit on their Live album, introducing a new generation to one of her most overlooked gems. A tender ballad about a person making their life on the road and justifying their absence to the one left at home – “you know we can’t live on dreams alone, got to pay the rent, so I must leave you all alone. But you know I feel so sad, down inside my heart, that the dollar signs should be keeping us apart, but you know that I love you, you know that I love you, oh, how I love you.” The sweet strains of Parton’s vocals add an extra ounce of heartbreak.
One of the most offbeat hits in Strait’s long catalog, he begins a conversation with a woman at a club by saying she’s in his chair. After he charms her with drinks and a dance, and they start to fall in love, he ‘fesses up in the end: “I like you too, and to tell you the truth, that wasn’t my chair after all.”
“Somebody Should Leave”
Harlan Howard invited Reba McEntire over to his house to pitch her material. This was long before she was a record-seller, though she’d had some sizable radio hits. He pitched, and she passed on song after song. Realizing she was looking for something special, he played his ace – “Somebody Should Leave”, a devastating song about a husband and wife who know that it’s over but aren’t sure who should be the one to go – “Somebody should leave, but which one should it be. You need the kids and they need me.” Those kids are what’s causing the difficulty – “If it was only you and me, goodbye might come more easily, but what about those babies down the hall?”
“I’m No Stranger To The Rain”
Another CMA Single of the Year winner, this one was posthumous. Released at the very end of 1988, Whitley’s confession that “I’m a friend of thunder, is it any wonder lightning strikes me?” ended up sadly prophetic. Whitley was one of the most gifted artists of any generation and a tremendous amount of potential died with him they day he drank himself into his grave. Still chilling to listen to, nearly twenty years later.
“Forty Hour Week (For A Livin’)”
A working class anthem if there ever was one, Alabama give a shout-out to all the firefighters, steel mill workers, auto assembly line builders, teachers and cops who work behind the scene, keeping America running smoothly.
“I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”
“Ain’t no woman gonna change the way I think, I think I’ll just stay here and drink.” Haggard chooses the bar and the booze over attempts at reconciliation. A drinking anthem for the ages.
“Streets of Bakersfield”
Dwight Yoakam & Buck Owens
Yoakam’s musical sound was strongly shaped by the influence of Buck Owens, and he brought the legend himself back to the top of the charts when they collaborated on a very old song from the Buck catalog. The quickest way to begin your education regarding the legendary Bakersfield music scene is to spin this record.
A pleasant Simon & Garfunkel folk song becomes a transcendant listening experience when Harris recasts it as a bluegrass plea. Harris finds depths of desperation in the lyrics that the original version only hinted at.
“That’s My Job”
Twitty’s eulogy for his father may be the most moving song written to honor a parent since The Carter Family’s “Can The Circle Be Unbroken.” Achingly beautiful.
If a song can save a marriage, this might be the one. In alternating verses, a husband and wife confess that they both left the house this morning planning to run away, “got as far as the edge of town, turned my car around and headed back to you.” The reconciliation in the chorus soars, as they implore each other, “don’t kiss me like we’re married, kiss me like we’re lovers.” A serious, realistic and mature song that demonstrates the sacrifices needed to make a marriage succeed.
“On The Other Hand”
When first released under the name Randy Traywick, it bombed. But after a name change and a hit single called “1982”, it was re-released and Travis had his first #1 hit. Cutting through the pop-flavored treacle dominating radio at the time, a simple guitar strum and Travis’ powerful baritone debates that on one hand, he could “stay and be your loving man”, but “on the other hand, there’s a golden band to remind me of someone who wouldn’t understand.” Classic country at its finest.
Forget “God Bless The U.S.A.” This is the definitive patriotic anthem. Jennings’ love for the country radiates through his performance. A glorious celebration of what makes America great and the beauty and strength that keeps it strong through adversity.
“Love at the Five & Dime”
Mattea found her voice with her cover of this Nanci Griffith song, a gorgeous folk ballad about the love of Rita, the Woolworth counter gal, and Eddie, a steel guitar player and a darn good dancer – “they married up in Abilene, lost a child in Tennessee, but still that love survived”, even after Eddie runs off with the bass man’s wife in the second verse. At the end, they’re a loving old couple dancing to the radio, as he sings to her “dance a little closer to me tonight.”
“Seven Year Ache”
Tense, nervy and bitingly bitter, Cash’s buttery vocal makes an angry message go down smooth. Her intention was to write the first great country “street song”, and she succeeded: “There’s plenty of dives to be someone you’re not,” she sneers at her cheating lover, warning him “don’t bother calling to say you’re leaving alone, ’cause there’s a fool on every corner when you’re trying to get home.”
“Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout The Good Old Days)”
A defining anthem for the 80’s, a decade in which Americans romanticized about good old days which never really existed. Grandpa is asked, “did lovers really fall in love to stay? Did daddies really never go away?” A truthful answer would probably let his granddaughter down, but the beauty of this record is we never hear from grandpa at all, just a warm list of wishful thinking from the young girl asking for wisdom from the older generation.
“Always On My Mind”
When Elvis Presley recorded it in the wake of his divorce, it was all regret and bombast, a belated admission of his failures as a husband. When Willie covered it in the early 80’s, it became a poignant tribute to the wife that he still loves but hasn’t always appreciated it. Nelson’s biggest hit, and a winner of the CMA Single of the Year, it’s still a powerful listen more than twenty years since being released.
“9 To 5”
A #1 country and pop hit, and nominee for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards, Parton wrote this to the beat of her clicking fingernails while waiting on the set of the movie of the same name. The pop flavor can make a casual listener miss the economic anger simmering under the surface – “They let you dream just to watch them shatter, you’re just a step on the boss man’s ladder” escalates to “9 to 5, they’ve got you where they want to you…it’s a rich man’s game, no matter what they call it, and you spend your life putting money in his pocket.” Parton’s feminism and support of the working class seeps through in some of her greatest songs, and this is one of them.
California country explodes all over again as Yoakam releases his progressive country debut album, which combines traditional themes and instruments with a forceful rock production. He manages to capture his entire musical philosophy – jilted lovers, loud guitars and hillbilly music – in one three-minute song, laying the groundwork for a dizzyingly brilliant musical career that has expanded on all of those themes in the twenty years since its release.
“He Stopped Loving Her Today”
“He said ‘I’ll love you till I die’, she told him ‘you’ll forget in time’.” And with that, the greatest country single of the 80’s, and one of the greatest of all-time, lays the groundwork for a heartbreaking twist in the chorus: “He stopped loving her today, they placed a wreath upon his door, and soon they’ll carry him away, he stopped loving her today.” Jones’ hillbilly twang plays beautifully against the wall of strings and choir of angels that sweep in mid-song. It’s an epic performance by a country music legend.