The list comes to a close with ten classic records from some of the era’s most commercially and critically successful stars.
It’s easy to be cynical about country radio these days, but unlike most of the songs on the lists we compile now, 1993’s best singles got a lot of airplay. All but one of our top ten entries reached the top five of the singles chart. If we could get a success rate today that was anywhere near that, it might be safe to turn on the radio again!
Enjoy the end to this list, and us writers will enjoy that rare downtime that comes between finishing the publication of one of these lists and starting another one!
“Nothin’ But the Wheel”
Written by John Scott Sherrill
#3 – BF | #7 – KJC | #24 – SG
Loveless’ brokenhearted narrator takes to the midnight highway with only the mournful sounds of fiddle and steel for company, sadly aware that she is not being missed at home. In a catalog rich with beautiful ballads, this is one of the finest. – Ben Foster
The list continues with big hits from Clay Walker, Neal McCoy, and Mary Chapin Carpenter, along with should’ve been hits from Carlene Carter and Merle Haggard.
“Daddy Never was the Cadillac Kind”
Written by Dave Gibson and Bernie Nelson
KJC #10 | JK #22 | SG #39
Confederate Railroad made it big by balancing party anthems with thoughtful songs about growing up in the south. This was their best “growing up” song, a thoughtful tribute from a son to his late father. As tends to happen, the lessons taught to us in our youth aren’t fully appreciated or understood until it’s too late to truly say “thank you.” – Kevin John Coyne
Countless albums were released in 2010, in mainstream country music, Americana, bluegrass, and all the other loosely associated sub-genres that make up the country universe. Of those albums, our writers particularly enjoyed the following twenty. All four writers submitted top ten lists for the year, and amazingly enough, there were exactly twenty different albums among them. So if you’re wondering if your favorite album just missed the list…it didn’t. But we’d love to hear why we were wrong in the comments.
Enjoy part one now, and look for the top ten on Friday.
A Crooked Road
Tomorrow’s hits today, should the current crop of hitmakers want something as good on the radio as “Long Time Gone” or “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive,” or just want to have an album cut for the ages like “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” Scott’s a singer’s songwriter, delivering his songs with enough personality to elevate them above demos but leaving enough room for improvisation, so that any singer can put their own spin on it.
This twenty-track collection is stunningly strong, with his observations about politics and religion and history intriguing, but his take on human relationships being downright enlightening. – Kevin Coyne Continue reading
Few songwriters in Nashville have reached the dizzying heights of Don Schlitz. His mantle full of awards and his prominence on the charts for the better part of three decades has made Schlitz an integral part of country music’s rich heritage of storytelling songs.
Don Schlitz was born and raised in Durham, North Carolina. He briefly attended Duke University before moving to Nashville in 1973. After his arrival, Schlitz served as a computer operator at Vanderbilt University, but continued to write songs for five years before his big break. With “The Gambler”, Schlitz’ career finally moved forward. The classic tale of a man learning how to “know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em” enraptured country music audiences upon its release in 1978. The story of a young man and a train-traveling sage earned the Grammy for Best Country Song in 1979 and received the CMA honor for Single of the Year later that year.
The pairing of Don Schlitz with fellow writer Paul Overstreet produced many classic songs of the late 1980s, with the two lyrical masterminds writing “On the Other Hand” and “Forever and Ever, Amen” for Randy Travis, and “When You Say Nothing at All” for Keith Whitley (later a hit for Alison Krauss & Union Station). At first, the two men were disappointed that then-newcomer Travis would be the recipient of “On the Other Hand”, intending the song to be recorded by a legend like Haggard or Jones, but Travis’ version impressed them greatly. Travis would soon become a constant source of success in their careers. Both the CMA and the ACM named “On the Other Hand” as Song of the Year in 1986, and “Forever and Ever, Amen” took the trophy at the CMAs in 1987. Schlitz was granted the award of ASCAP Songwriter of the Year an unprecedented four consecutive years from 1988-1991.
Written by Don Schlitz
Although responsible for one of country music’s most famous lines (“You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em…”), Don Schlitz’s premier story song, “The Gambler” is far deeper than what first appears. The game of poker is disguised as a metaphor for life and shows that it’s not what cards one is dealt, but how the player handles those cards, that is truly the secret of life. Kenny Rogers’ gruff and gritty vocal tells the story of two travelers, one barely living and one barely alive. It’s a strong connection between a couple of strangers, and shows that we may not be so different at all.
They travel on through the darkness, passengers at a crossroads, and the old man gives his secrets to survival because he’s “made a living reading other people’s faces.” The two men are heading to an unknown destination on an evening when the sage, aware of the distant sadness in the young man’s eyes, offers him some sound advice for some strong whiskey and a lit-up cigarette. He implores him to take charge of his fate, but to live presently in each moment because “there’ll be time enough for counting when the dealin’s done.” By the end, one man’s final moments may have led to another’s finest, as the narrator finds an “ace that he can keep” in the last words of his fellow voyager. The old man lives out his last wishes of dying in his sleep.
“The Gambler” resided at No. 1 for two weeks in December 1978, and earned Schlitz a victory for Best Country Song at the 1979 Grammys. The tune also proved victorious in the same category at the 1979 CMAs. A 1979 made-for-TV movie called The Gambler, which was inspired by this song, became the highest-rated TV film of the year. For Rogers, it’s the highlight of a considerable song catalog, and for Schlitz, it represented the start of a songwriting career filled with masterful storytelling.
“The Gambler” is the latest in a series of articles showcasing Classic Country Singles. You can read previous entries at the Classic Country Singles page.