The ratio of classics to clunkers is getting better.
Waylon Jennings, “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line”
#2 | 1968
KJC: This is embryonic Waylon Jennings, where he’s laying the foundation for what his signature sound will be but hasn’t completely fleshed it out yet. I think that this list is way too Outlaws heavy, but this inclusion is About Right.
JK: It’s far from my favorite hit of Waylon’s, but on impact, this placement strikes me as About Right.
ZK: I’ve gone to bat for Jennings and the like more than my colleagues have, and while this does feel About Right on impact and placement, I must admit – it’s not a personal favorite of mine.
Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Down at the Twist and Shout”
#2 | 1991
JK: It’s strange to me that this became her recurrent staple at radio, but it’s also a perfectly constructed bit of escapism, so… It still sounds fantastic today, and I wouldn’t question this placement if “You Win Again” and “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” were still ahead of us. But they aren’t, obviously. Too High
ZK: See, the beauty of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s work is that, you go and listen to her absolute best songs more reflective of her softer, folk-oriented style, and you don’t think uptempo numbers would really suit her style. But they do anyway, and her performances on them were among the most charismatic of the entire decade. She had it all. This is likely one of my lesser favorites of those cuts, but still pretty damn good. Too High
KJC: The first indication that Chapin had a playful side, she’d go on to win the first of four consecutive Grammys for her uptempo hits with this classic. Folks, she namedropped BeauSoleil in the lyrics, then went ahead and had them back her up on the track and every high profile television appearance in the year that followed. Those performances helped Chapin connect straight with her audience despite resistance from radio, and set the groundwork for the multi-platinum Come On Come On and Stones in the Road. “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” is a top 100 record shamefully excluded from the list entirely, but I think this placement is About Right.
Luke Bryan, “Drunk On You”
#1 | 2012
ZK: I look at “Girl, you make my speakers go ‘boom, boom’ ” as a bit of foreshadowing for what mainstream country music would become in the 2010s. So Wrong (Doesn’t Belong)
KJC: This is, for me, the perfect distillation of what Luke Bryan is about, right down to the “boom boom”/”mmm hmm” rhyme. I don’t know that mainstream country had a weaker decade than the 2010s. I’d argue the current decade is already a big improvement. But this is about as good as this particular variant of bro country love song gets, and the understated production is appreciated. It belongs here, but not in the top 260. Too High
JK: I said I’d go to bat, reluctantly, for “Country Girl (Shake It For Me),” and for “Country Girl (Shake It For Me),” alone. So Wrong (Doesn’t Belong)
David Frizzell & Shelly West, “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma”
#1 | 1981
KJC: If I was crafting this list from scratch, I’d include as many of these late seventies/early eighties collaborations as possible. You know, where two B-list stars came together for a B+ record. Two birds, one stone. Too High
JK: I agree with Zack’s point below about their parents’ relative absences on this list, and I’ll add that West’s “Jose Cuervo” is also an obvious sin of omission. This is overranked in terms of some classics we’ve already covered, but I wouldn’t bump it back too far. Too High
ZK: A great (but inessential) song that reminds me these two have more songs here than their parents, and that’s a little sad. Too High
Alan Jackson, “Who’s Cheatin’ Who”
#2 | 1997
JK: Clever in its construction, yes, but absolutely no way it should be ranked here. Too High
ZK: A very fun ditty that’s clever enough to transcend that marker, thanks to Jackson’s wry delivery and the lyrical construction, but No. 256? I’m sorry, I can’t. Too High
KJC: This inclusion annoys me. The Charly McClain original, which actually went to #1, was so ahead of its time in 1980, and it has a…down and dirtiness to it that is lost completely when it goes through the “Alan Jackson uptempo record” filter. McClain’s original sounded like nothing else when it came out, like they were recording it in the garage while the clandestine affair was going on right next door. Jackson’s cover sounds like twenty other of his uptempo hits. Swap it out for the original. So Wrong (This Version of This Song)
Claude King, “Wolverton Mountain”
#1 | 1962
ZK: A classic to those in the know; a rare inclusion for the casual country fan. Either way, I can’t object to this placement. About Right
KJC: This would sound hopelessly paternalistic if released even a decade later, but it’s a fine slice of backwoods mountain woo in 1962. But what elevates it to classic status is leaving it open-ended. We hear about what keeps men away from the mountain, and we hear him decide to climb it anyway. Then the record fades…did he marry his love? Did he get killed? Pick your own adventure ending. About Right
JK: King’s is the classic, of course, but my favorite version of this is actually by Southern Culture On The Skids. Argument to be made that this is Too Low.
Rodney Atkins, “These are My People”
#1 | 2007
KJC: Rodney Atkins. God bless him. So earnest. He’s channeling one part Mellencamp, two parts McGraw on this hit. I wouldn’t have it in the top 300. But there aren’t many songs that have captured the disintegration of young man’s fantasy into life’s harsh reality better than the first verse here: “Got some discount knowledge at the junior college where we majored in beer and girls/It was all real funny till we ran out of money and they threw us out into the world/Yeah, the kids that thought they’d run this town ain’t a-runnin’ much of anything/Just lovin’ and laughin’ and bustin’ our asses, and we call it all livin’ the dream.” Too High
JK: As we’ve said every time his name has popped up: One song of his would’ve been plenty to tell the story of country music, and it wouldn’t be this song. So Wrong (Doesn’t Belong)
ZK: I’ll give him this – Rodney Atkins was always a likable presence in his heyday, enough to where I sort of buy this whole southern pride thing coming from him. “It’s not insufferable” is a compliment for these kinds of tracks. With that said, it’s also fairly generic and doesn’t need to be here. So Wrong (Doesn’t Belong)
Marty Robbins, “Singing the Blues”
#1 | 1956
JK: One of the finest vocalists in the genre’s rich history, Robbins is under-represented on this list. This isn’t my favorite single of his, but I think this ranking is About Right.
ZK: His catalog is versatile to the point of being scattershot, and I admit I’m the basic fan who worships Gunfighter Ballads and merely respects a lot of his other material, “Don’t Worry” not included. But he is one hell of a vocalist, and I won’t complain about seeing this here. Too High
KJC: Good Lord, that voice. Even over a rockabilly meets western saloon arrangement, it soars, seamlessly integrating a lonesome yodel into a pure pop melody. About Right
John Michael Montgomery, “Life’s a Dance”
#4 | 1992
ZK: “Sold” aside, I’ve never gotten much from Montgomery as an interpreter. This is the cheesy side of the ’90s. So Wrong (Doesn’t Belong)
KJC: Deciding that John Michael Montgomery deserved six songs on this list, and four of them should be in the top 300, results in the overly high placement of this worthy inclusion. This came out when I was fully immersing myself in the ‘round-the-clock CMT music video cycle, and I remember it vividly as being the first time a debut video left me saying, “Well, that’s gonna be a hit.” His music went in the direction of his second single, and I have a fantasy career arc for him where the third, “Beer and Bones,” didn’t stall in the twenties and he went full blown honky tonk for the rest of his career. But this one still holds up. Too High
JK: In terms of 90s “advice songs” that actually have a narrative behind them, I’d have David Lee Murphy’s “Dust On The Bottle” ranked well ahead of this one, and we covered that hit a while back. Too High
Jason Aldean, “Tattoos On This Town”
#2 | 2011
KJC: I mean, Jason Aldean kind of is the tacky lower back tattoo that country music gave itself in the 2010s. I look forward to the day when country music never goes out in public again without a long shirt to cover it up, but the bad decision it made during its teens will always be there. So Wrong (Doesn’t Belong)
JK: A decent central image that the songwriters didn’t actually bother to develop and that Aldean certainly didn’t bother to elevate with his performance. So Wrong (Doesn’t Belong)
ZK: Jason Aldean: Phoning it in since ’05 – ’07 if I’m being completely fair. So Wrong (Doesn’t Belong)