Category Archives: Classic Country Singles

Classic Country Singles: Patsy Cline, “Crazy”

Patsy Cline

Written by Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson once referred to it as the best song he’d ever written, and Linda Ronstadt, Kenny Rogers and Dottie West have recorded it, but “Crazy,” a smooth country-pop ballad for the ages, will always be linked to the late, great Patsy Cline.

Nelson wrote the song in early 1961; at the time he was a journeyman singer-songwriter who had written several hits for other artists but had not yet had a significant recording of his own. Cline, on the other hand, was a major superstar who had recently released the classic “I Fall to Pieces.” Nelson originally wrote the song for country singer Billy Walker, but Walker turned it down and Cline elected to record it. The song was released in late 1961, eventually becoming one of her signature tunes, and its success helped launch Nelson as a performer as well as a songwriter.

Nelson was a regular at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville, where he met Cline’s husband and pitched the song to him, who then played it for Cline. At first, she disliked the song due to its faster tempo, but Cline’s producer, Owen Bradley, disagreed. He arranged it as a ballad to compromise with Cline. Cline had difficulty reaching the high notes of the song at first due to an injury sustained in a recent major automobile accident, so they postponed the session until the following day. Then, she only needed one take to capture the raw emotion of loneliness and loss.

Loretta Lynn once noted that Cline received three standing ovations. Barbara Mandrell remembers Cline introducing the song to her audiences live in concert saying:

I had a hit out called “I Fall to Pieces” and I was in a car wreck. Now I’m really worried because I have a new hit single out and it’s called “Crazy.”

Cline’s pining ballad still strikes a nerve with country music fans and karaoke junkies, and has gained worldwide acclaim for the simple lyric penned by Nelson and the resonant voice of its singer.

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“Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” Freddy Fender

Before the Next Teardrop Falls
Freddy Fender

Written by Vivian Keith and Ben Peters

“Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” written by Vivian Keith and Ben Peters, is a timeless classic about the complications of unrequited love. The song was written in the late 1960s and was recorded more than two dozen times. The song had achieved modest success by other performers, but its most famous recording is courtesy of Freddy Fender.

In the late 1950s, Fender had a regional hit (as El Bebop Kid) with a Spanish version of “Don’t Be Cruel,” but in 1960, he was sentenced to 5 years for marijuana possession. After his release in 1963, he struggled to regain a foothold in the music industry. In 1971, Fender met producer Huey Meaux and signed with Crazy Cajun Records in yet another effort at musical success.

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Classic Country Singles: Willie Nelson, “Always On My Mind”

Always On My Mind
Willie Nelson

Written by Wayne Carson, Johnny Christopher and Mark James

By the time that Willie Nelson recorded “Always on My Mind,” it had already been tackled by several major pop and country acts. Brenda Lee took it to No. 45 on the country charts in 1972, and Elvis Presley soon followed, having a No. 16 country hit with it in 1973. Given the proximity of the song to Presley’s divorce, it was widely read as his confessional to Priscilla Presley, and in the King’s reading, it sounds like a broken man pleading for forgiveness from the woman that he’s lost.

But in Nelson’s hands, the song became something else entirely.   By 1982, Willie Nelson was already a superstar, and every time it seemed his career had peaked, he seemed to go one better.   Red-Headed Stranger, Waylon & Willie, The Outlaws, Stardust, and “On the Road Again” had collectively made him an icon. When he recorded “Always On My Mind”, he did so in his trademark idiosyncratic fashion.   Against a piano and light acoustic accompaniment, he read the song to a soft female voice who responded to him.   As he sang “If I made you feel second best,” she lovingly replies “You did, you did”, he tells her “Girl I’m sorry I was blind, but you were always on my mind.”

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Deana Carter, “Strawberry Wine”

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Deana Carter

Written by Matraca Berg & Gary Harrison

“Strawberry Wine”, written by Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, is a prime example of country radio’s ability to spin an unconventional song, becoming a #1 single despite its subject matter, its length and its distinctive sound and structure. It also exhibits the eloquent quality that marks many of the best songs in the genre. With “Strawberry Wine”, a song about a teenager’s first love and lost innocence at her grandparents’ farm, Deana Carter was able to establish herself as one of country’s brightest new stars in the late 1990s.

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Keith Whitley or Alison Krauss & Union Station, “When You Say Nothing At All”

When You Say Nothing At All
Keith Whitley or Alison Krauss & Union Station

Written by Paul Overstreet & Don Schlitz

Sometimes, silence says it best.

With “When You Say Nothing at All,” written by Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz, the magic is in the calm and the quiet. The song was a poetic ode to the desperately devoted, and countless people connected with the simple song of love’s mysterious ways. In the narrator’s view, love is often at its most powerful when no words are needed, and even the wordsmith Webster couldn’t define the divine emotion. The song’s multiple readings have resulted in uniquely different takes on the graceful lyric. The two most notable recordings sprung from a troubled singer whose music continues to impact audiences twenty years after his death, and a pure vocalist whose heavenly strains have enraptured country and bluegrass devotees for almost two decades.

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Classic Country Singles: Dixie Chicks, “Wide Open Spaces”

Wide Open Spaces
Dixie Chicks

Written by Susan Gibson

When songwriter Susan Gibson began writing “Wide Open Spaces,” she was living out the experiences of the girl described in the song. A forestry student in Montana, she began writing the lyrics while home for the holidays. Her mother found the notebook after she’d returned to school, and mailed it to her as part of a care package, inspiring her to complete the song.

Gibson began performing the song in the clubs around Montana while still in college, and when she became the lead singer of Americana band The Groobees, she included it on their debut album. The producer of those sessions was Lloyd Maines, who thought it would be a perfect fit for his own daughter’s band, who were getting ready to leave the Texas music scene for some broader horizons of their own.

The Dixie Chicks had been regionally popular for several years and had released three independent albums before Natalie Maines became their lead singer. The band already had a development deal with Sony when they made the switch, but Maines’ aggressive vocals and youthful energy made the band instantly more palatable for mainstream country music in the late nineties.

While recording their Sony debut, the assertiveness that would become their calling card first surfaced in relation to “Wide Open Spaces.”  The producers didn’t want the track on the album; the band insisted. They didn’t want to include banjo on the track; the band insisted. Far from burying the song on the album, they made it the title cut. After a top ten debut single and a #1 follow-up (“There’s Your Trouble”), it was sent to radio in August of 1998.

By the time it started garnering spins, the album Wide Open Spaces was already platinum. But the theme of a young girl going out into the world on her own struck a deep chord with listeners across the country, and album sales skyrocketed, selling a stunning seven million copies in the year that followed, en route to total sales of twelve million copies. “Wide Open Spaces” won CMA awards for Single and Video, just two of the five trophies the Dixie Chicks earned from the organization during the lifespan of the project. They also earned a pair of Grammys and two ACM Awards, including Album of the Year.

By the turn of the century, the Dixie Chicks commanded a following of young girls and women that has yet to be matched, and they did so without pandering to them. “Wide Open Spaces” was an anthem for that fan base, and has accrued an impressive legacy of its own, having been named among the RIAA’s “365 Songs of the Century” in 2002.

Meanwhile, the band that the song launched to superstardom has lived out the spirit of the song ever since, quickly leaving behind the conventional country of that first album and aggressively pushing the boundaries of the genre ever since. Fittingly, when the band launched their 2006 tour, the set list was fully comprised of songs from their more ambitious albums Fly, Home, and Taking the Long Way, with only one exception: “Wide Open Spaces.”

“Wide Open Spaces” is the latest in a series of articles showcasing Classic Country Singles. You can read previous entries at the Classic Country Singles page.


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Keith Whitley, “I’m No Stranger to the Rain”

I’m No Stranger to the Rain
Keith Whitley

Written by Sonny Curtis and Ron Hellard

With a whiskey-soaked voice and a traditional bent towards the modern sounds of Nashville, Keith Whitley was a brightly burning star in the country music constellation, one that fell dark far too soon. But his legacy as one of the preeminent singers of his generation is secure due to songs such as his 1989 classic “I’m No Stranger to the Rain.”

Written by Sonny Curtis and Ron Hellard, the song encourages perseverance over pain. In the song, Whitley openly admits that impending doom is a daily fixture in his life. As Whitley explains,

I’m no stranger to the rain
I can spot bad weather
And I’m good at finding shelter in a downpour
I’ve been sacrificed by brothers
Crucified by lovers
But through it all I withstood the pain
I’m no stranger to the rain

He goes on to give praise to God’s design, a plan that won’t allow for depression during the worst times. The old school-leaning Whitley displayed his gift for nuance, lending a confessional tone to the resilient tune. His pure vocal style was a perfect match to the poetic lyrics and understatedly skillful musical setting provided by producers Blake Mevis and Garth Fundis. The deft touch on display by Whitley gives a certain wisdom to lyrics about a man determined to “ride the wind and dance in a hurricane.”
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Classic Country Singles: Johnny Cash, “A Boy Named Sue”

A Boy Named Sue
Johnny Cash

Written by Shel Silverstein

“A Boy Named Sue,” written by the jack-of-all-trades Shel Silverstein and immortalized by Johnny Cash, is a story song of great tension and terrific drama that’s been a captivated piece of country songwriting since its release in 1969. Cash performed the song live at San Quentin State Prison in California as part of his second jailhouse album At San Quentin. The concert was also recorded for broadcast by Granada Television on February 24, 1969.

It tells the engaging tale of a young man’s quest for revenge on an absent father whose only contribution to his entire life was naming him Sue. The name was the cause of teasing and torment throughout the boy’s childhood. But Sue grew into a man who could easily fend for himself due to all of his childhood fights. In the last verse, Sue finds his father in a bar, and the two begin to brawl.

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Lee Ann Womack, “I Hope You Dance”

I Hope You Dance
Lee Ann Womack

Written by Mark D. Sanders & Tia Sillers

Although her traditional leanings are the cornerstone of her career, the most notable song of Lee Ann Womack’s career is the international smash “I Hope You Dance,” a message of belief that struck a chord with millions of country music fans and brought Womack’s music to a mainstream audience.

Written by Tia Sillers and Mark D. Sanders, it expresses the need to make positive choices and take chances in life, regardless of their consequence. As Sillers explained, “For ‘I Hope You Dance,’ I had written the opening line, ‘I hope you never lose your sense of wonder’. I had just broken up with someone, (and was) going through a brutal divorce.” During a vacation to the beach, Sillers was inspired by her surroundings and found the direction for the rest of the song, with lyrics such as “I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean/Whenever one door closes, I hope one more opens”.

The following week, Sillers returned to Nashville and collaborated on the song with Mark Sanders. Once the demo was recorded, Sillers’ publishing representatives played “I Hope You Dance” for Lee Ann Womack’s producer, Mark Wright. Wright then relayed the song to Womack, who loved the universal message of perseverance and built her third studio album around the Sillers-Sanders creation. Womack sang the song accompanied by harmony vocals from country group Sons Of The Desert, who provided the perfect stamp to the song about living life to its fullest and loving unconditionally with their harmony in the chorus:

Time is a wheel in constant motion always rolling us along, tell me who wants to look back on their years and wonder where those years have gone

“I Hope You Dance” was named the title of Womack’s album, and the single had an immediate impact at radio. The inspiring ballad soon turned into Womack’s first No. 1 single, and it eventually became the No. 2 country single of 2000 and the No. 1 adult contemporary single of 2001. Womack’s album of the same name went triple-platinum, and the song won the Triple Crown, the achievement of winning Song of the Year at the Grammys, the ACMs and the CMAs. It also claimed the Single of the Year categories from the ACMs and CMAs, and launched Womack into another level of her career, culminating in a victory as Female Vocalist of the Year at the 2001 CMAs.

Nashville book publisher Rutledge Hill Press asked the songwriters to write a book about the song, and it entered the New York Times bestseller list shortly after release. Also, Womack was asked to perform the song at the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. At any number of weddings, graduations and other lifetime milestone events, “I Hope You Dance” continues to be a popular anthem, rich with the ideas of faith, fight and fearlessness on life’s long and winding road.

“I Hope You Dance” is the latest in a series of articles showcasing Classic Country Singles. You can read previous entries at the Classic Country Singles page.


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Classic Country Singles: Charlie Daniels Band, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”

The Devil Went Down to Georgia
Charlie Daniels Band

Written by Charlie Daniels

A work of great electricity, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” is one of the most rousing songs in country music’s history, crossing genre lines and generating career-high milestones for the Charlie Daniels Band. With a wicked instrumental setting and a growling vocal from Daniel, it is an energetic story that continues to captivate audiences.

The song is the story of the devil, “way behind and “willin’ to make a deal” as he searches through Georgia in desperate need of his latest victim. He meets a young fiddle player named Johnny and challenges him to a fiddle duel. Johnny’s soul is the Devil’s possession if he were to lose, but a win would guarantee Johnny the Devil’s gold fiddle. Johnny accepts the Devil’s offer, proudly telling the Devil that he is “the best there’s ever been.”

The duel begins with the Devil performing a rapid-fire piece; however, Johnny matches him fiddle stroke by stroke. After a few rounds, The Devil is squarely defeated by the more talented Johnny after Johnny performs his last spectacular number, “Fire on the Mountain.” The Devil acknowledges being bested and, true to his word, presents Johnny with a gleaming, golden fiddle. As he turns to leave, Johnny tells the Devil that he can return for another battle at any time.

The Devil’s and Johnny’s performances are played as instrumental bridges during the song. Daniels has been approached by fans who felt the Devil played a better piece, and to this he says, “If you dissect it and listen to it, that’s the smoke and mirrors thing about the Devil. There’s just nothing there. I mean, there’s nothing. There’s no music involved.”

“The Devil Went Down to Georgia” was released on the band’s 1979 album Million Mile Reflections, which was prompted to multi-platinum status in the wake of the song’s success. It was the band’s biggest pop hit, reaching #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topping the country singles chart in August 1979. It was named the CMA Single of the Year at the 1979 ceremony, and also earned a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group in February 1980. Although Daniels (a Grand Ole Opry inductee in 2008) experienced even more radio and retail success in the 1980s and continues to perform and record today, his defining moment is this storming sensation of a song, equal parts devilish and divine.

“The Devil Went Down to Georgia” is the the latest in a series of articles showcasing Classic Country Singles. You can read previous entries at the Classic Country Singles page.


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