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10 Essential Country Songs
Two iconic country music institutions share their
picks for the top all-time tunes.

 

A close-up view of a person playing a guitar

   

 

Choosing 10 essential country songs is tougher then curing heartache with a whiskey bottle — but the legendary Johnny Cash once tried. When his daughter Rosanne Cash decided to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter, he gave her a list of 100 essential songs to guide her country music education (she recorded 12 of those tunes for her 2009 album, The List). But given country’s rich history, from Jimmie Rodgers to Taylor Swift, picking just 10 songs is hard. How hard? Staying Sharp asked the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame for their top picks, and their two lists had just one classic in common. It’s the final selection in this list of 10 must-hear tunes.

From Dan Rogers, vice president and executive producer of the Grand Ole Opry:

1. “Can the Circle Be Unbroken,” Carter Family (1935)

“ ‘Circle’ is quite simply the past, present and future of country music in one piece of music. Listening to the instrumentation on the Carters’ 1930s’ recording transports you back to the sounds of some of country music’s earliest recordings. Hearing multiple generations perform the now-anthemic song perfectly illustrates the ties that bind the artists and fans of yesterday with those of today.” (The song was later recorded under its now more familiar name, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”)

2. “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” Hank Williams (1953)

“Sets the gold standard for describing some of country music’s most expressed themes, including loneliness and heartbreak. Williams himself is said to have described this composition to a friend as ‘the best song I ever wrote.’ Who are we to argue with the Hillbilly Shakespeare?”

3. “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Loretta Lynn (1970)

“At its core, country music is honest storytelling by and for real people. You don’t get any more real than groundbreaker Loretta Lynn. Her signature song tells not just her story, but that of millions of others from her generation in less than four minutes.”

4. “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” George Jones (1980)

“If country music is great storytelling, this may be the greatest country music ever told. You sense the heartache of a man after ending a relationship with his sweetheart and the realization of only at his death could he finally stop loving her.”

5. “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” Vince Gill (1995)

“If you asked me to make a bet on which country song of the last few years would be widely known 100 years from now, I’d best my last dime on this one. Vince Gill began penning the song following the passing of his friend singer Keith Whitley and finished it after the death of his brother. I think of ‘Go Rest High’ as an anthem that’s bigger than its lyrics, instrumentation and vocals separately as it helps thousands of people through tough times.”

From Jay Orr, executive senior director for research, editorial and content at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum:

6. “Apartment #9,” Tammy Wynette (1966)

“On Wynette’s first single, she harmonizes with her own vocal, and pianist Pig Robbins and steel guitarist Pete Drake provide masterful backing. ‘Apartment #9’ only reached number 44 on the charts, but it served notice that there was a new voice in Nashville.”

7. “The Grand Tour,” George Jones (1974)

“Kentucky native Norro Wilson wrote this masterpiece, which described the emotional devastation and physical chaos created by the departure of the woman of the house. When the song went to number 1 in 1974, it was the first number 1 for Jones as a solo artist (without Tammy Wynette) in seven years.”

8. “Holding Things Together,” Merle Haggard (1974)

“Often, home is not a happy place. ‘Today was Angie’s birthday / I guess it slipped your mind,’ the great Haggard says, taking the voice of a father left by a mother. Haggard released the song in 1974, an era when women were gaining more independence. ‘Holding things together,’ Merle sings, ‘ain’t no easy thing to do,’ and ‘it’s a job, meant for two.’ ”

9. “Amarillo By Morning,” George Strait (1983)

“Cowboys and country music make for a nice complement. Strait is both a genuine rodeo cowboy [he competed in team roping as a member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association] and a singer of country songs. Here he’s an aging, heartbroken rodeo rider hard-pressed to reach Amarillo by sunup to compete again, instead of riding off into the sunset. A classic, opened by beautiful fiddle.”

10. “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” Johnny Cash (1970)

The is the one song that appeared on both lists. “This song is perfect in that the words by Kris Kristofferson found their way to the perfect artist to sing them,” says the Grand Ole Opry’s Rogers. Adds Orr: “The greatest hangover song ever. Cash puts his gravelly baritone and the boom-chicka beat to Kristofferson’s masterpiece, and the last chorus sounds as schizoid as country music itself — miserable and glorious all at once.”

Additional selections from Rogers:

“Blue Moon of Kentucky,” Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys (1947)
“Faded Love,” Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys (1950)
“I Will Always Love You,” Dolly Parton (1974)
“Good Ole Boys Like Me,” Don Williams (1980)

Additional selections from Orr:

“Steel Guitar Rag,” Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys (1936)
“Black Jack David,” Carter Family (1940)
“Lost Highway,” Hank Williams (1949)
“Guitar Town,” Steve Earle (1986)
“I Just Lived a Country Song,” Robbie Fulks with Linda Gail Lewis (2018)

—Laura Daily

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