The journey comes to an end with the same maddening contrast of classics and clunkers that we’ve seen all along the way.
Marty Robbins, “El Paso”
#1 | 1959
ZK: One of the very best vocal performances in country music history from one of the best interpreters in country music history, included within one of the best and most ambitious concept albums in country music history. We are off to an excellent start here. About Right
KJC: A slam dunk top ten, and a glorious reminder of the days when this was “Country & Western” music. It’s a flawless story song that couldn’t have a better singer to deliver it. About Right
JK: The best exemplar of “& Western,” bar none, thanks to a narrative so simple but so masterfully constructed that it remains riveting more than 50 years on. It isn’t just the story, though, that makes “El Paso” one of the genre’s best recordings; Robbins’ performance is arguably the single finest vocal turn in all of country music history, a masterclass in tone, range, and control. At least until the 2000s, the men of country music could really and truly sing, but few could rival Marty Robbins. About Right or even just slightly Too Low.
Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem”
#1 | 2011
KJC: This is an important historical marker for the decline of country music. Indeed, “Dirt Road Anthem” was country music officially waving the white flag and declaring defeat, retreating into the shadows of popular music and away from contemporary relevance. This led to a decade of insularity and retreat, with the country music industry pretending its mediocre bumper crop of bro country stars were A-listers, despite tepid music and bored disinterest from critics and record buyers alike.
It seems appropriate that Aldean was awarded Artist of the Decade, the full realization of the deluded idea that he’d been the leader of a winning era for the genre. It was the equivalent of lionizing Robert E. Lee after he was humiliatingly defeated while fighting for a morally abhorrent cause. Have they built a Jason Aldean monument on Music Row yet? Too High
JK: Heinous. Jason Aldean is most notable for having country music’s all-time greatest disparity between popularity and actual recorded output or talent. “Dirt Road Anthem” panders to an audience that Aldean and every single one of his po-faced imitators do not respect as being capable of anything more than this. It’s a callow, artless record that typifies an entire career– Hell, that typifies countless copycat careers– built on a purposeful dumbing-down of an entire genre of vital popular music. If Sirius wanted a single in its top 10 to capture The Fall Of (Country’s) Man, they could’ve swapped this for “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” or “Cruise,” because at least those singles are catchy garbage performed by artists who can at least be chuffed to act like they mean it. Aldean just brays vacantly into the void. So Wrong (Doesn’t Belong)
ZK: And just like that, all of that goodwill goes from El Paso straight to Hell. I’ve had a rant built up inside of me for this song’s placement for so long, yet now that we’re here I just feel … tired; too tired to explain the obvious of why a Jason Aldean doesn’t belong in the top 10. It’s not the fusion of country and rap I’m against – it’s just that it’s done so badly here, and spurred a horrid trend of pasty white dudes attempting these crossovers without any sense of flow or knack for good song structure. Who really needed an anthem for a friggin’ dirt road?!? “Cruise” was stupid, harmless fun. This is the song I blame for turning bro-country – and mainstream country in general during this time – into a bad thing. Blowing a Gasket (For the Last Time … For the Good Times)
Roger Miller, “King of the Road”
#1 | 1965
JK: From a composition standpoint, this is diametrically opposed to the preceding entry: Miller’s joy in his wordplay is so palpable and makes him so obviously the cleverest guy in the room in a way that the likes of Wallen, Aldean, Gilbert, and Rice would probably call him a f—-t for laying bare their countless shortcomings. But this is the kind of songwriting that actually typifies country music at its best: It translates everyday experiences into poetry, whether of the heartbreaking and pensive or the witty and wry varieties. What a killer record this is. Lord. About Right
ZK: I … wholeheartedly agree with a top ten ranking for this. Roger Miller was known for penning some very strange, offbeat material that often veered into pure novelty, but this captures his true artistic ethos. Before he made it in Nashville, Miller was a victim of poverty, and bummed around most of his early adult life simply looking for a sense of purpose. But part of the genius was, he was a child at heart, and so hard times never defined him; optimism and a sense for adventure did. This turns the country music tradition of rambling songs into an upbeat celebration that’s personal, yet inspiring, all the same. About Right
KJC: Roger Miller was the wittiest and most clever songwriter of his era, not just in country music, but across genres. “King of the Road” was the pinnacle of his success as a singer and a songwriter, and it still sounds fresh and intelligent today. “I’m a man of means, by no means, king of the road.” Brilliant. About Right
Charlie Daniels Band, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”
#1 | 1979
ZK: Can’t recall if I’ve been consistent with my country music tent and what I have and haven’t allowed within it, but I’d allow this … even if it’s a bigger song in the context of general popular culture than it is a defining staple in country music history. In other words, not a top 10-worthy song for me, and while I guess I’d include it, I’m not sure where I’d have it. Too High
KJC: It wouldn’t be in my top ten, but would at least make the top twenty, so I’m not going to quibble with its placement here. It’s one of the few crossover records that centered country music instrumentation without compromising its appeal to pop and rock audiences, and that’s a tough nut to crack. About Right
JK: His still-going Twitter feed is an absolute caricature of everything wrong with contemporary politics– an old white man who is literally dead but who is still, somehow, capslocking about Benghazi multiple times per day. And that kind of thing matters in the sense that it will inevitably color the perception of Daniels’ work. But this record? As perfect an incorporation of trad-country instrumentation into a rock arrangement as has ever been recorded? It’s as important a single as– and a complement to– Run DMC’s and Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” in terms of its masterful marriage of genres, and it betters even that classic record with its mythology-driven narrative. An iconic record that will outlive Daniels’ conspiracy theory missives from the great beyond. About Right
George Jones, “He Stopped Loving Her Today”
#1 | 1980
KJC: This was the reflexive No. 1 choice for many years on lists like this, and it’s as good an example as any on why performance and production matter. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” blends a traditional vocal and country elements with a swelling string section that recalls the glory days of traditional pop. It never made it to release when Johnny Rusell recorded it, but George Jones and Billy Sherrill understood something about this song that elevated it into one of the best records of all time. It was the perfect trifecta of song, singer, and producer. Remember that point when we get to No. 4, please. About Right
JK: Do I get why this has been the default #1 pick for lists like this, pretty well since 1982? Of course. Its merits are bountiful and obvious, and it’s damn near impossible to go wrong with George Jones, whose performance on this record is truly one for the ages. But real talk: This is maybe my 10th-favorite Jones hit. Which is to say that it would still rank in my personal top 100 or so, and I’m not at all displeased to see it ranked here. But, in my heart of hearts, I’m pretending this is “The Grand Tour.” About Right, sure.
ZK: I’m somewhat surprised this isn’t their choice for the No. 1 slot, and yet so very not surprised that this shares a top ten slot with “Dirt Road Anthem” and the song above it. But what else is there to say? It’s an iconic weeper in country music history, and even if you see that twist coming from a mile away, it’s still effective each and every time, if wildly overpraised as an individual song. I’d probably have “A Good Year For the Roses” or “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me” here instead on a personal list, but it’s impossible to quibble with a top 10 placement. About Right
Eric Church, “Springsteen”
#1 | 2012
JK: Absolutely not. As a song and a single, this is fine. It’s one of the better– but not best– hits of its era. It’s thoughtful and goes for melancholy in a way that few of Church’s contemporary men ever are or do. But the fifth best record in the history of country music? It’s my fifth favorite song on its own parent album. I’ll concede that it’s the first time Church so nakedly grasped for rock cred and actually kind-of got his fingertips around it, but he’s always better when he’s less strident or when he goes more purposefully weird. “Creepin’” all day over this one, as far as I’m concerned, and even then, I’d have that as his top-ranked entry back somewhere in the 300s. Far, Far Too High
ZK: Look … I like it. I really like it. It’s one of my favorite Eric Church songs, and I’m not the type of person who says we can’t have anything modern in the top 100 – or even the top 50. But, doesn’t it feel weird to anyone that a list of the top country songs of all time includes a tribute to a rock legend within its top 10?!? Too High?
KJC: And will anyone ever acknowledge that this is a carbon copy of Taylor Swift’s “Tim McGraw,” with the artist and some smaller details changed to make it appeal to the aging Generation X demographic? Too High
Dolly Parton, “I Will Always Love You”
#1 | 1974
ZK: If “Coat of Many Colors” was above this, I’d say to push this to No. 11. But they got that so, so wrong, so with this as their highest-ranked Dolly Parton song, I can’t complain that much. While iconic for other reasons, this was her cry of independence that fueled one of the best careers in country music history. For this particular top five, this feels About Right
KJC: Nobody is happier (or more vindicated) than me about the recent collective realization that Dolly Parton is a national treasure worthy of veneration. I will say without hesitation that she is the most culturally significant and deeply talented artist in the history of country music, most especially because of her songwriting talent.
So I would endorse “Coat of Many Colors” or “Jolene” or “9 to 5” as a top five all-time country record. If this was a list of the best songs to ever come out of country music, I might even get on board with “I Will Always Love You” being in this slot.
But let’s get real. “I Will Always Love You” is here because of Whitney Houston’s legendary recording of it, which is the best selling song ever by a female artist. Remember what I said about “He Stopped Loving Her Today?” It’s even more true for “I Will Always Love You.”
Whitney Houston and David Foster understood the depth and conflicted emotions within this song in a way that Parton herself either didn’t fully contemplate or couldn’t effectively communicate on record. Her original recording is a gem, of course, plaintive and heartfelt and worthy of being on this list. But the Parton version is to Houston’s what the Carole King recording of “Natural Woman” is to Aretha Franklin’s: touching and well-done, but not the definitive version by any stretch of the imagination. And this is hardly a controversial opinion; it’s one Dolly wholeheartedly agrees with.
I go back and forth between Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” and Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” when contemplating the greatest pop record of all time. As for the greatest vocal performance I’ve ever heard put to tape, it’s this Houston record.. Some will argue that the Parton version is better for whatever reason, much like the argument is advanced on behalf of Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy” (understandable) or Vicki Lawrence’s “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” (batshit insane.) But what cannot be argued against is that, just like with the two Reba covers, we’re only discussing the original recording of “I Will Always Love You” all of these years later because of the cultural impact of Whitney Houston’s definitive version. Parton’s recording of the song would never have been in the top ten of a list like this without Whitney immortalizing it two decades later.
So thank you, Sirius, for acknowledging Dolly Parton, but the record you chose to represent her with here is another reminder of how you know next to nothing about country music. Even Rolling Stone knew to rank Parton’s recordings of “Coat” and “Jolene” alongside Whitney’s “I Will Always Love You.” There’s no excuse for getting this one so wrong, even though it does very much belong. Too High
JK: Thanks, Kevin, for putting my blurb below yours, as though there’s any possible way to top it. I agree with it full-stop. As I said ages ago, I’d have “Coat of Many Colors” at the top of my own list. Too High
Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues”
#4 | 1956
KJC: I think the live version is even more essential than the original recording, and I would probably follow Zack’s lead here and place “Sunday Morning Coming Down” in this specific slot on my own version of this list. Then again, “Folsom Prison Blues” includes the couplet: “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry.” So I just can’t bring myself to go below About Right
JK: I’ll always point to the, “I shot a man in Reno,” line as the obvious rebuttal to the genre’s authenticity fetishists who insist that the only artists who are worthwhile are those who trade exclusively in autobiography and who “paid their dues” at that very exclusive bank. Johnny Cash always knew that line of reasoning was utter bullshit: What matters isn’t authenticity but believability. His performance here is so larger-than-life that it allows for the suspension of disbelief needed for the record to work. And it works. I agree that I’d include the live version, and I also agree that “Sunday Morning Coming Down” is still the superior recording. But I’m not at all mad at this, and Sirius has made me plenty mad about Johnny Cash over the course of this list. About Right
ZK: I mean, this song has a complicated legacy of not even being much of an original Cash tune. I get why someone who knows nothing about country music history other than a few Cash tunes might feel inclined to put this here, but the song I’d have in this exact spot is “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” hands down. Too High
Patsy Cline, “Crazy”
#2 | 1961
JK: On the day, I might prefer “She’s Got You” or “I Fall to Pieces,” sure. And I’m not necessarily someone who believes that a genre steeped in heartbreak, struggle, and hardscrabble working-class sentiment should have a perfect recording held up as its “best.” But Patsy Cline’s recording of “Crazy” is truly perfect. Willie Nelson’s song, both for its narrative and its composition, is perhaps the template for what country songs can and should be at their best, and Cline’s flawless vocal turn leaves me grasping for superlatives. About Right
ZK: I don’t know what my personal No. 1 would be, and I’m not even sure what my top five would look like, but this just feels like one of the few dead-on correct placements in this entire section. Cline wasn’t here for long, yet she still left behind a discography full of iconic songs, and what she does to Willie Nelson’s ode to angst and loneliness … pure perfection. If nothing else, having this and “El Paso” here on respective performances alone just feels About Right.
KJC: A flawless recording of an idiosyncratic Willie Nelson composition that manages to showcase the pure talents of both singer and songwriter, and make it work as a unified record that really shouldn’t work as well as it does. This is as good as the Nashville Sound gets, and that’s pretty damn good indeed. About Right
Garth Brooks, “Friends in Low Places”
#1 | 1990
ZK: Well, this is it. The last selection. And honestly? I expected it to be far, far worse than this. This wouldn’t be my personal No. 1 pick, but on impact alone – where 30 years later, people still know every word to it – it’s a definite top 10 contender. It’s the ultimate barroom anthem that’s damn-near transcendent on pure charisma alone, and whether it’s meant to be seedy or just pure fun, it works either way. Too High for the No. 1 slot, but all in all, not a bad way to end this long exercise at all. We needed to let a little steam loose, and Lord knows the fine folks at Sirius had a few friends in low places to put this monstrosity together.
Man, I’m gonna miss it.
KJC: This is the signature song of the biggest star country music has ever seen, which set the stage for the best decade of music that Nashville ever produced, and can be sung along with by memory in every bar from Mississippi to Maine and from Carolina to California. How I wish this list had a better understanding of why this was such an enormous – an enormously important – record. They seem to think, looking at the rest of this list, that it was the prototype for bro-country or something. But even if they chose it for the wrong reasons, they made the right choice for No. 1. About Right
JK: For all of this list’s flaws– and it would take perhaps another 100 posts to enumerate all of them– its emphasis on the reactive sense of defensiveness the genre has cultivated over the past twenty-five years– at the expense of diversity of thought and sound– is the most damning to me. And there is certainly an uncharitable read of “Friends in Low Places” that it perpetuates unhelpful stereotypes about perceptions of class: That country music can only be by and for the type of person who would lash out when made to feel less worthy than those around them.
The overall tone of the Sirius list, taken as a whole, is one that seems to champion that mindset. And it does a disservice to the history of country music by amplifying the limited points of view of the likes of Aldean, Bryan, Young, and their ilk at the expense of artists who are neither more nor less “country” but whose work is less reactionary and insular. And it does a disservice to “Friends in Low Places” for exactly the reason Kevin suggests: I’m not willing to give this list the benefit of the doubt that it recognizes the ways that Brooks’ signature hit is more than the predecessor to “Hicktown.”
But it is, and it always has been. For one thing, it’s clear from the shit-eating grin you can actually hear in Brooks’ delivery that he’s in on the joke, and that he knows his song is one that even the people at the “black tie affair” would rowdily sing along to. Yes, he’s been rejected by the upper crust in this particular social milieu, but he isn’t even mad about it, and the song’s open-hearted chorus suggests that if anyone from the high class party made their way down to the Oasis, he’d be the first one to buy them a beer.
Because even when he’s been stung by rejection, Garth’s narrator here is still fundamentally decent. That matters. And, as this list has made apparent so many times over, that decency is something country music has lost along the way. “Friends in Low Places” is a rejection– a perfectly constructed pop-country rejection, at that– of what was to come and of what this list has chosen to elevate. I guess I don’t belong, either. And I’m good with that: Guess I’ll slip on down to the Oasis, too. Who’s with me? About Right