This batch of ten is about as good as this list will ever get.
Hank Williams, “Your Cheatin’ Heart”
#1 | 1953
JK: I’d have it as his second or third highest entry, but I’m not chuffed that it’s his highest here. How-the-fuck-ever: That his highest entry is at #20 is, as so many things about this list have been, an affront to most of the things I value about country music. About Right in an absolute sense.
ZK: “Your cheatin’ heart will tell on you” … hot damn, the top 20 is off to an excellent start! Still feels a little Too Low, though, especially as his highest-ranked song.
KJC: It’s about right in its ranking on a normal list, but Too Low to be the highest-ranked single from Hank WIlliams.
Tim McGraw, “Live Like You Were Dying”
#1 | 2004
ZK: Considering we just talked about “Don’t Take the Girl” not that long ago, it’s worth noting how much McGraw grew as an emotive interpreter just a decade later. He sells this tale of mortality with grace and sincerity, and far from being overwrought, it’s anthemic. I wouldn’t say it’s a top 20 all-timer, but it definitely belongs in the top 100 or so. Too High
KJC: Songs like this feel over the top until life itself goes over the top. I didn’t fully grasp the power of this song until I watched my father react to the video after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. My dad never went skydiving or Rocky Mountain climbing, but I do believe that he loved deeper, spoke sweeter, and gave forgiveness he’d been denying. I’m eternally grateful for a song that was able to help him process what we aren’t designed to process. About Right
JK: I’ll play the contrarian on this one: This is well-intentioned and a fine enough sentiment for a country song, undone by hackneyed writing. The chorus is a mess from a compositional standpoint, and putting it ahead of something as pure and flawless in its construction as “Your Cheatin’ Heart” lays bare the sloppiness of the songwriting. McGraw emotes the hell out of it, as is his wont, which overcomes some of its limitations, but nowhere near enough to have it ranked here. I wouldn’t even have it in my personal top 200 for its decade, but I’d slot this somewhere in the 800s on impact and intent. Far Too High
Johnny Cash, “Ring of Fire”
#1 | 1963
KJC: I’m going to say this again, and I’ve said it already: Cash’s top one hundred entries are all correct. They’re just in the wrong order. That being said, if you bump “Sunday Morning Coming Down” to the top ten, I can sign off on this being About Right
JK: Remember like five years ago when genre purists lost their collective shit about Sturgill Simpson’s use of a brass section? That was neat. Not my favorite Cash, but this is as close to fine as they’ve come with ranking just work. About Right
ZK: I’m out of unique things to say about Johnny Cash … uh, Mariachi horns! Wooh! About Right
Alan Jackson, “Livin’ On Love”
#1 | 1994
JK: A lovely hit that I enjoyed in 1994 and still enjoy now and would put as maybe Jackson’s own 17th-best single and do not mean as a slight in this song or Jackson but absolutely mean as a slight against this baffling list. Too High
ZK: A bizarre choice for Alan Jackson’s highest-ranked song. I mean, I’m not mad about seeing a Jackson tune here, but it’s not “Remember When” or “Midnight in Montgomery.” Still a very nice song, though. Too High
KJC: My parents loved this song. “Hold Me” by K.T. Oslin was their “marriage is hard” song, while “Livin’ On Love” was their “all we need is each other” song. I’m not quite sure this is the right top twenty song for Alan Jackson – I’d probably go with “Remember When” or “Drive (For Daddy Gene)” – but even if it’s Too High, I’m still glad that it’s here.
Tammy Wynette, “Stand By Your Man”
#1 | 1968
ZK: Absolutely not. It’s iconic, I concede, but horribly dated in a way that’s always made it one of the few classics I just hate. Too High
KJC: Without question, one of the biggest and most important records of its day. It even topped the U.K. pop charts seven years after its stateside run. Tammy once said that she spent fifteen minutes writing the song and the rest of her life defending it, to the point where she even had to explain to a Chipmunk that “You only stand by your man if he stands by you.” I wouldn’t argue with its placement if it was even higher than this. About Right
JK: On impact and status as an iconic single? Fine. It’s About Right. But Candi Staton’s version blows Wynette’s out of the water and always has.
Kenny Chesney, “How Forever Feels”
#1 | 1998
KJC: It does Kenny Chesney as much a disservice as the rest of us to pretend that this Tim McGraw castaway is one of the top fifteen records of all time, when it clearly is So Wrong (Doesn’t Belong)
JK: With just 14 entries remaining above this one, you might think this would be the last time I’d give myself a migraine from clenching my jaw over the utter dumbfuckery of this list. Sadly, you’d be wrong. As wrong as including this nothing of a song on this list at all. So Wrong (Doesn’t Belong)
ZK: With all of the wack-ass entries we’ve gone through, we certainly do know how forever feels, Mr. Chesney. So Wrong (Doesn’t Belong)
Alabama, “Mountain Music”
#1 | 1982
JK: Whatever. Makes sense as their peak entry. Would still have their peak entry outside the top 100 on this list, barely in the top 500 on my personal version. Delighted not to have to consider them again. Too High
ZK: I co-sign what Kevin says below. This is my favorite song by country music’s biggest band, and I can’t quibble much with the placements between No. 50 and here, but this just feels a little Too High.
KJC: Totally appropriate for this to be the highest ranked song from Alabama. Completely inappropriate for it to be within spitting distance of the top ten. Too High
Willie Nelson, “On the Road Again”
#1 | 1980
ZK: It’s likely his most referenced and iconic single in modern popular culture, but if we’re going by what captures his aura best as an artist, it’s got to be “Always On My Mind” here, or “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” Too High
KJC: This is a great record that captures the spirit of Willie Nelson as well as anything that he’s ever done. But again, it comes down to an appropriate ranking of the canon, which places “Always On My Mind” and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” well above “On the Road Again.” Too High
JK: My fellow hostages to this list said what needed to be said. Too High
Garth Brooks, “The Dance”
KJC: I don’t think there should be two songs in the top ten from the same artist, and this has to be slotted below “Friends in Low Places,” so I suppose this is About Right
JK: Certainly. A gorgeously written and produced song that Brooks delivers with the kind of real pathos and restraint he’d quickly abandon. A deserved classic (that I want Kelly Clarkson to record a proper studio rendition of…). About Right
ZK: Given that – spoiler alert – we’ll be seeing Brooks top this list very soon, I’m not mad about this placement in context. A phenomenal song elevated by Brooks’ best-ever delivery. About Right
Patsy Cline, “I Fall to Pieces”
#1 | 1961
JK: My choice for Cline’s best is forever in flux, with “whatever I listened to last” usually pulling rank. I agree with what Kevin says below about how “Crazy” highlights Cline’s real interpretive gifts. But this is an exquisite record that’s certainly ranked About Right.
ZK: Second spoiler alert: Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” is one of the few records within the top 10 that feels correctly ranked, and like with the Garth Brooks selection above, I can’t argue with this placement when factoring context into consideration. Another iconic song by an iconic artist. About Right
KJC: You could swap this with “Crazy” and I’d be just as happy with where both records landed. I do think that “Crazy” is just a hair better because of what Patsy does vocally with Willie’s melody. But they both belong in the top eleven, for sure. About Right
I am with the consensus or majority comments on this list except I think “The Dance” is a bit too high (I would have it slotted around 125-150).
I like Candi Staton’s version of “Stand by Your Man” but country it’s not, and I certainly don’t think her version blows Tammy’s out of the water – it’s simply a different (and quite good) take
Re: Patsy Cline – like JK my choice for Cline’s best is forever in flux as there are about five of her songs that could be my favorite. Cline only made a little over 100 studio recordings in her life, half of which, the Four Star recordings, would be throwaways if sung by a lesser vocalist, but are worth listening to as sung by Cline. The other half, the Decca recordings, range from very good to sublime. At a minimum, everyone should own a copy of Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits or (better yet) a copy of The Patsy Cline Story. Heck – there is a 75 track collection for less than $20 you can get and you’ll probably want more anyway, so why not get the following:
I’ll take a moment now to thank the panel and Country Universe for the countdown. Great idea and execution.
Your Cheatin’ Heart…worthy of top 20 and I wouldn’t complain if it was #1. I’m with JK on Live Like. 800 or so would be fine. Ring of Fire doesn’t work for me. The JC sing/talk almost sounds like parody. Way too high. Stand By hasn’t aged well, but okay, this is all right. How Forever Feels? Like listening to all of your records. Unbelievable. 800 or whatever spots ahead of When I Call Your Name? Criminal.
Mountain Music is a couple hundred spots high and has no business here. I think On the Road belongs here. Fun, infectious, propulsive, sure, not as emotionally wrought as other Willie songs, but a lot more joyous. The Dance is beautiful and deserving. Ditto I Fall to Pieces.
Re. “Ring Of Fire”: I think this is where Mr. Cash started getting a lot of appreciation from the burgeoning folk music movement (or “scare”, if you will) of the time–and rightly so, in my opinion. Not only did it top the C&W chart (how couldn’t it?), but it got up to #17 on the Hot 100 as well.
Re. “I Fall To Pieces”: This, and, subsequently “Crazy”, helped define Patsy as perhaps the ultimate female vocal stylist in country music history, and someone who would transcend all the usual boundaries. (Trivia: the steel guitar player on Patsy’s recording, Ben Keith, went on to work with Neil Young on his many recordings of the 70’s and 80’s).
Re. “The Dance”: When the Garthmeister is a bit more on the subtle side, and not pandering to the massive Arena, he does stand out in great ways, as he does here (IMHO).
I would easily have “Stand By Your Man” in my top 5. It’s definitely in the top 10 if you were ranking most Iconic songs. What amazes me, is that to this day people still don’t understand the song. It’s a love song about forgiveness. It’s not a political statement at all.
This list has been HORRIBLE but it has been fun. Now that this is almost over ya’ll need to come up with a new one. Suggestion: Top 50 crossover country songs like 9 to 5, Need you Now, etc. Just a thought
Tom, that’s an interesting idea for a list!
Zack has a great series called Pop Goes the Country over at The Musical Divide. It’s featured some of the best crossover records through the years.
Tom P, I would love a countdown of crossover country songs. It’s my favorite kind of country music. Sounds fun.
Nice to see Hank Williams in the top 20. He deserves it. This probably deserves to be in the top 10. I almost cringe thinking about what these people will put in there. Hopefully there’s no Luke Bryan and the Bro Country bums.
I only liked three albums (and songs from those albums) from Tim McGraw: Everywhere, A Place In The Sun, and Set This Circus Down. Didn’t care for much before or since those albums. This is one of his better later songs. Top 100 – yes. Top 20 – definitely not.
Love Alan Jackson but not sure this song belongs in the top 20. But he definitely deserves to have one or two songs high on this list. There’s just too many great songs to choose from.
I don’t hate Kenny Chesney but I don’t feel that any of his songs belong in the top 100 much less the top 20.
I only like about 5 songs by Alabama: Old Flame, Feels So Right, The Closer You Get, Love In The First Degree, and There’s No Way. And I wouldn’t put any of those in the top 20, much less this song.
Good to see Tammy Wynette this far up the list. I thought Stand By Your Man would be in the top 10, but I’m fine with this placing.
Not a huge Garth Brooks fan. I feel, like Reba, he over-sings most of his songs unnecessarily. However, I LOVE The Dance. It is just beautiful. It stops me in my tracks anytime I hear it on the radio. It belongs in the top 10 IMO, but I’m happy to see it this high.
I have to admit that even if I might change the order of the rankings, I’m here for any Johnny Cash or Hank Williams on this dumb list.
‘I Fall to Pieces shoul be #4 or 5.
“How Forever Fells is several hundred spots (at least) too high.
I love Tim McGraw’s song, but it doesnt belong in the top 20. Same for “Mountain Music.”
i never could stand “Stand by Your Man.” Wrong Message.
Based on how big it was in the late 90s, and how it was the sort of stepping stone for Chesney to fully adopt the island persona, “How Forever Feels” needed to be on this list, though maybe at #715.
And the McGraw version shows how much certain songs are made for certain artists, as I can see why it wasn’t even an album cut for Tim. Especially when comparing to McGraw’s entry on this part of the list, which he sings the hell out of even though it’s Far Too High on a country song list (but only Too High on an AC list).
And now I’ve spent way too much thought on Chesney over the last few entries.
I’m surprised “Your Cheatin’ Heart” is Hank Williams’ highest-ranking song, but the placement is about right. I would have “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” in the Top 10.
“Live Like You Were Dying” is fine, but I wouldn’t have it in the Top 100.
I’ve never been a big fan of Kenny Chesney’s, but I do enjoy some of his songs. “How Forever Feels” is one of my favourite songs of his (I always liked the fiddle in this song), but it shouldn’t be anywhere near the Top 100.
I agree that “Always on My Mind” and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” should be ranked higher than “On the Road Again,” but it is a great song.
I’ve always loved “Mountain Music,” but it’s not a Top 20 song.
“Livin’ On Love” is a really enjoyable song, but it shouldn’t be Alan Jackson’s highest-ranking song.
“Livin’ On Love” has always been one of my top favorites from Alan, so I’m not too bothered by where it’s at. He has so many others as well that I’d be happy to see in this spot.
“I Fall To Pieces” is one of my favorite Patsy Cline songs, and one of my favorite songs of all time, so I’m pleased to see this one about right. Like Kevin, I wouldn’t have minded seeing it swap places with “Crazy.”
As someone who overall prefers Garth’s more traditional side over his contemporary side, I would’ve personally put either “If Tomorrow Never Comes” or “Unanswered Prayers” in this spot instead, but I can’t argue with the classic status of “The Dance” either or the impact it’s had on so many. I’m ok with this being his top pick.
“On The Road Again” is one of the first songs I think of when I think of Willie (It’s the first one I remember hearing on the radio with my step dad pinching his nose to imitate his voice), but I agree that he has better songs that should’ve gone here instead. “Always On My Mind” or “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” would’ve been fine.
“How Forever Feels” is actually one of my favorites from Kenny, and I consider it to be one of the last good straight country songs he had on the radio before his beach bum phase began. Like Frank The Tank, I’ve always really liked the fiddle playing on it, and it’s just an overall catchy feel good song. Not to mention, it brings back some great seventh grade memories for me! With all that said, no way would I have it anywhere near the top 20. Even top 100 would be a stretch. Another thing about this song that’s noteworthy is how the video is pretty much the first time we see Kenny embracing his “Beach Boy” image for the first time, before he fully took on that style in the following decade.
I would also consider “Mountain Music” to be Alabama’s signature song, and I’m fine with it being their top pick, but it’s definitely a bit too high.
I’m more with Jonathan when it comes to “Live Like You Were Dying.” I can understand the popularity of the song, and I can see how it’s touched so many, but it’s personally never done as much for me. I think he highlighted one of the problems I’ve always had with it, which is the chorus being kind of a mess and a bit too list like for my tastes. Still, I’d much rather see this as McGraw’s top ranked song over “Don’t Take The Girl” any day.
“Ring Of Fire” is about right. Another all time classic I simply never get tired of hearing, horns and all.
sad this countdown is drawing to a close