Ten of the biggest country artists of all time are on this section of the list, an indication that we’re getting closer to the top.
Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three, “One Piece at a Time”
#1 | 1976
KJC: I love Johnny Cash, obviously. But he has ten entries in the top 200, a full 5% just for him. He didn’t make ten of the best 200 country singles of all time. This is a particularly ridiculous novelty record that reminds me of what Cash said upon the release of American Recordings in 1994: that for many years, he had been burlesquing Johnny Cash. It’s not a long way down from here to “The Chicken in Black.” So Wrong (Doesn’t Belong)
JK: A perfect representation of the wrong-headedness of this list: Ranked all the way at #190 is this utter throwaway of a Johnny Cash entry that shouldn’t have made anyone’s t1000 ballot. Lord. So Wrong (Doesn’t Belong)
ZK: The late ’70s through the early ’90s marked a fairly creative low period for Cash, with some noted exceptions. And while one can blame age on his commercial decline to an extent, his material just wasn’t at its best during this time. Like Kevin says above, he’s represented just fine overall here, so I’d say it’s OK to cut this. So Wrong (Doesn’t Belong)
Kenny Chesney, “There Goes My Life”
#1 | 2003
JK: For every Chesney entry we’ll see from here on out, the same maxim will apply: If it’s a ballad, swap the ranking for “Anything But Mine,” and if it’s an uptempo, cut it. Too High
ZK: For what it’s worth, I do think Chesney is an underrated balladeer. I can’t say it flowed consistently with his beach-inspired material, though. But, hey, a great song is a great song. Too High
KJC: Meanwhile, Kenny Chesney has seven songs in the top 200, less than Cash, but still 3.5% of the list. This is a beautiful song, so I’ll let this one pass and keep my knives sharp for what’s to come. Too High
Roger Miller, “England Swings”
#3 | 1965
ZK: Going to heavily disagree with Kevin’s statement below about the amount of Roger Miller here, but even I wouldn’t cite this as an absolutely essential cut by him. Too High
KJC: Again, four Roger Miller songs in the top 200 is overkill, unless you’re going to make the fourth one “Green Little Apples” or “Husbands and Wives.” This adorable record is way Too High
JK: I’m more aligned with Kevin here: 4 Miller entries in the top 400 or so? Sure. But even with that density of Miller’s hits, this one would still be far Too High.
Brooks & Dunn, “She’s Not the Cheatin’ Kind”
#1 | 1994
KJC: The poorly drawn female characters began with “Rock My World (Little Country Girl),” but this has always felt like the ultimate example of the B&D female archetype: a character that exists solely for the narrative purpose of fulfilling a country music hook. Too High
JK: She’s also not recognizably human; she’s the country music equivalent of the “women in refrigerators” screenwriting trope. They have several hits that should be in the top 200, but this sure as shit isn’t one of them. So Wrong (Doesn’t Belong)
ZK: I feel like with Brooks & Dunn, the most immediately recognizable hits are the best ones, which is usually how it should be, but … you know. But the ones that don’t immediately come to mind? They’re … fine. Too High
Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me”
#1 | 2010
JK: One of a rare group of obvious modern classics, it’s also obviously Lambert’s career record… But I’d still rank it as like her fifth or sixth best single, even though this placement is certainly About Right.
ZK: This is one of very few singles from the 2010s that I think will hold up as a classic. It’s sad that I have to go back 11 years to find something worthy of that distinction. For me, it was the best single release of the decade, Miranda Lambert’s best single to date, and just a gutting way of confronting a past defined by the memories made in a childhood home – a relatable sentiment, indeed. About Right
KJC: Lambert’s big breakthrough hit remains a poignant reflection on how time and place shape who we are, but you can only go back to the place as time marches on. About Right
Ray Price, “Heartaches By the Number”
#2 | 1959
ZK: Look, I know it’s become cliché to complain about song placement when we’re this high up on the list (and, oh, how we all need a drink), but come on. Too Low
KJC: A twin fiddle-laden, honky tonk masterpiece. The highest ranking Ray Price song on this list is ranked way Too Low
JK: I mean, what is actually the definitive rankdown of country music singles is literally named after this hit. Which is to say that if Sirius tried to publish this dumbfuck list in book form, they’d probably title it “Dirt Road Anthems” and think they were impossibly clever for doing so, and this is so obviously a top 30 record. Too Goddamn Low
Garth Brooks, “Unanswered Prayers”
#1 | 1990
KJC: How did Garth Brooks become a legend in one year? He released “The Dance,” then “Friends in Low Places,” then “Unanswered Prayers.” Too Low
JK: What a contrast this song is to the way that contemporary country artists invoke their faith in the most shallow, performative of ways to pander to an audience that has actively been cultivated by radio PDs to reject anything that’s in any way thoughtful or challenging. Grand scheme of things, I’d say this is Too High, but it’s one of the top 200 rankings I’m not super salty about.
ZK: Well, SoundScan helped, too, Kevin! Anyway, not a favorite ballad of mine from Brooks, but for as schmaltzy as that hook is, there’s some simple truth to it. And damn it, Brooks is too likable and convincing to think otherwise. Too High
Keith Urban, “Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me”
#1 | 2003
JK: Of his hits of this era, I’ll go to bat for “Better Life,” “Days Go By,” or “Somebody Like You,” and probably wouldn’t have been too mad to see one of them in the upper echelons of the list. But this one? Come every circle of Hell on. So Wrong (Doesn’t Belong)
ZK: Well, given what you’re releasing now, I wouldn’t want to be you, Keith Urban. Jokes aside, this is a fine early 2000s ditty, but not an essential cut. Heck, I’m not sure Urban really ever made essential music. So Wrong (Doesn’t Belong)
KJC: The highest ranked Keith Urban song is one of his weaker entries. It’s all groove and no substance. So Wrong (Doesn’t Belong)
Alan Jackson, “Don’t Rock the Jukebox”
#1 | 1991
ZK: Damn it, Kevin took my blurb again. But it’s not the least bit ironic that this heartache is framed joyously, not when there’s power and healing in leaning into the music nerds within us – especially the ones who lean on country music in hard times. And now I’m just overanalyzing it. I’m not sure it’s 100s worthy, but I’m happy to see it here. Too High
KJC: In his early years, Alan Jackson was the king of charming uptempo records that were clever and funny, but had too much depth to be called ditties. He’s struggling now to make the case for the power of country music that he so brilliantly distilled into this single that namedrops George Jones and the Rolling Stones. About Right
JK: “My heart ain’t ready for The Rolling Stones,” is such a different sentiment from the way country music has come to vilify anything beyond its self-imposed boundaries, even as it shamelessly co-opts and appropriates other genres. 2021 Jackson is all about that kind of gatekeeping; 1991 Jackson celebrated a time and place for different styles without the Get Off My Lawn attitude. I’d say this is Too High, but not by much.
Loretta Lynn, “You’re Lookin’ at Country”
#5 | 1971
KJC: Country identity songs have been done to death, but Loretta Lynn is one of the few artists in history who can claim to be fully country and be telling the full truth. This song’s use as a recurring plot device in the film adaptation of her biography may have elevated it a bit higher than it needs to be here. It’s a good song, for sure, but undermined a bit by the romantic angle she felt obligated to shoehorn into it. Too High
JK: As though every other song in her catalogue didn’t make that exact point with greater subtlety and wit. Terrific for what it is, but I’d have “Miss Being Mrs.” or especially “Rated X,” neither included on the list at all, ranked about here and would drop this one well back. So Wrong (This Song)
ZK: Cute, but a bit too on-the-nose to be one of Loretta Lynn’s absolute best, or one of country music’s absolute best, at that. Her best examinations of rural living have always had a dramatic subtlety to the details within. Too High
Previous: #200-#191 | Next: #180-#171
Re. “One Piece At A Time”: I admit this is definitely a novelty record of sorts; it is also a “spoken rap” song as well for the most part, in the manner of “A Boy Named Sue”. But I guess Sirius had an issue with some of Mr. Cash’s more topical songs, like 1970’s “What Is Truth?”, that are often overlooked in the MIB’s discography by such tastemakers. In any case, it was his last #1 C&W hit, and his last Top 40 pop entry (#28). Call me crazy, but I liked it.
Re. “The House That Built Me”: It’s probably as close to folk as Miranda ever got, and it lets go of the “homicidal” themes of some of her better-known hits. Her voice, however, probably prevents me from really ever becoming a fan–it’s way too wiry for my tastes.
Re. “Unanswered Prayers”: Given that Garth is the man who, among many other things, virtually brought bombastic, oversized arena-rock values to country, which seem now to be a permanent fixture in the genre (much to its detriment, in my humble opinion), I have to say that he can at least be given some credit, in my opinion, for channeling a more thoughtful singer/songwriter style here, likely influenced by James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg, even if it’s “schamltzy”. At least it’s nothing like the “Bromeister” crap the genre had to endure for most of the last decade.
Interesting set, generally unimpressive recordings by generally very impressive recording artists.
Don’t get me wrong – other than Keith Urban’s entry, I like all of these songs but only “Heartaches By the Number” would qualify as a classic and is much too low. The other songs here are, in varying degrees, too high.
Not a Miranda fan but I like the Tom Douglas- Allen Shamblin song.
other favorites here:
Heartaches by the Number and Unanswered Prayers.
I like all of these songs except for the Chesney song, which is painfully boring for me, but I agree that most of them don’t belong on the top 200.
I’d have Unanswered Prayers much higher. in fact its better than the #1 on this list, which is from the same album.
I’ve always loved “There Goes my Life” but it’s a little too High here.
I’m really glad to see “Heartaches by the Number” as Ray Price’s highest-ranked song here; with the exception of “I Won’t Mention It Again,” I far prefer has early honky-tonk music to the later countrypolitan stuff.
When I become Dictator-for-Life, “One Piece At A Time” is never going to get played again; in its place will go “Big River,” “Home of the Blues,” or his own great version of “Tennessee Flat Top Box.”
Not real sure Keith Urban belongs anywhere on this list, let alone anywhere near the top 200, but he released his best singles from 2002 to 2005. My personal favorites were this song and “Days Go By.”
Not much disagreement with the panel here. Heartaches by the Numbers is a bit low, but we’re in the 100’s so it’s not an outrage. One Piece at a Time is a pretty bad choice for Johnny Cash. He has 20 other more deserving songs that could go here.