Thu 25 Jun 2009
Country music is a uniquely American style of music that doesn’t seem to be as well liked as it used to be in popular American culture anymore. MyComputerNinja.com owner and chief contributor Jon Steege has something to say about that. Jon was raised listening to country music, and although his musical taste now differs significantly, he still maintains a collection of Country Music that even the most “Country Music Averse” should find entertaining. Some of the songs in the list may not quite fit the country music genre precisely, with Rockabilly or Honky Tonk possibly being a better description for some of the songs, but most are distinctly country music and are performed by distinctly country music artists. Below is his collection of 20 songs that even non-country music fans can get into. But first, a small history of where country music came from.
Many say that origins are related to the real cowboys of the old west, herding cattle long distances, over dangerous terrain to take them to market. At night, the cowboys would sing to their cattle to help keep them calm. Over time, these songs evolved, and some of them made it to the new-for-the-time radio stations that sprung up across the United States. Stations in the south seemed to have the most success with country music, with Nashville, Tennessee eventually rising to the center of the country music world. Stars Like Hank Williams, Roy Clark, Jimmy Dean, and Patsy Cline all helped move the genre into the mainstream, where it still resides as one of the major genres in the United States. Without further adue, here is the MyComputerNinja.com 20!
Take Me Home, Country Roads – John Denver Be prepared to cry on this one, It is a folky country song that will make you feel sentimental if you moved from somewhere small to somewhere big. The song is about the return of a person to his or her hometown after being gone a long time, and the beauty of the area in which the person is traveling through to get home. John Denver and a woman named Taffy Nivert are the vocalists in the original song, which garnered a 5 minute standing ovation the first time it was ever played live. While most readers of this list may have heard this song before, it stands as one of the all time country greats in my mind, so it has to be included.
John Deere Green – Joe Diffie. This song is probably the most “Redneck” song on the list, using “Redneck” in an endearing way. The story goes that a man named “Billy Bob”, in order to profess his love to his sweetheart Charlenne, climbed a water tower in the town and painted a giant heart on the tower with “Billy Bob Loves Charlenne” in white letters. The only minor problem is that the heart was painted in John Deere Green instead of a much more widely acceptable and traditional red color. Everybody in the town poked fun at Charlenne because of her boyfriend’s color choice, but she simply said she kinda liked it. The inclusion of this song in the list was a tricky one. It is easily the newest song on the list, and newer country tends to be pretty, how do you say… slimy. If you can get past the slime factor, you will probably enjoy this song simply for what it is.
It’s Only Make Believe – Conway Twitty. Alright, firmly into the older country that makes up most of the rest of this list is Conway Twitty with a great country love song of sorts. I don’t know whether it is accurate to call this a love song, because it is more of an infatuation song. In it, Twitty sings of a woman who he likes very much, but doesn’t actually have a relationship with. It’s a really sad song if you think about it too hard, but its a great song with a great country piano part going in the background otherwise. In the beginning of the song, the piano kicking in is a great hook. It’s like the piano is crying right along with the lead singer.
Jolene – Dolly Parton. You may have heard the name Dolly Parton a time or two, but how many of you know she was a country singer, first and foremost? Not only that, she was a very popular country singer, with one of her first big hits being this song. “Jolene” is about a girl and her girlfriend who have some issues over who has “rights” to a particular man. In the song, Parton sings that the other woman is much prettier than she is. The jealousy that permeates this song is a good contrast to the Conway Twitty song above, because it’s one that I am sure the ladies can relate to on some level. Dolly Parton’s career kinda died out in the ’80′s around when breast implants were invented and country music started to become strongly commercialized and watered down, but this song stands as one of the great country songs none the less.
Fancy – Reba McEntire. This song was originally performed by Bobby Gentry, an extremely popular artist in the 60′s on through to the late 70′s. This particular version, however, was made popular by Reba McEntire in 1990 and in my humble opinion, this version of the song is a whole lot better than the original. This is probably one of the newest songs on the list, aside from John Deer Green, though I think it warrants a place on this list because it is a great story of triumph for the main character in the song, despite horrible upbringing circumstances. The song is pretty scandalous as well, because in it the main character could be described as a courtesan of sorts. It is one of the few country songs from the late ’80s and early nineties that kinda stuck with me in theme to some extent all these years. That theme being no matter what your roots or where you came from, you can make something of yourself. Of course, being an escort by the name of “Fancy” is not what I am referring to in this context, but you get the point.
The Ride – David Allen Coe. David Allen Coe is certainly one of the more controversial artists on this list. Coe was part of the country outlaw movement that came out of the 60′s and 70′s. Country outlaw is a style of country music which glorifies drug use, running from the law, and other themes not typically found in the popular country of the day. The lyrics in this sub-genre of country would be at home in any punk band’s repertoire. More popular singers in the country outlaw movement include Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristopherson, and Willie Nelson, among many others. While not readily evident in this particular song, the outlaw theme is alive and well in the opening few lines of the song, where Coe mentions “thumbing from Montgomery”, hitchhiking being a common undertaking amongst those adverse to the danger of such an activity. Well, in the song, Coe then sings about a mysterious man in an antique Cadillac that picked him up. He and the stranger exchanged a few words about how to be a success in country music, and also the emotion that goes into writing a good song. Well, the stranger in the Cadillac had a sudden change of heart in his direction of travel, and drops Coe off. Before the stranger left, Coe expressed his thanks for the ride, in which the stranger replies “You don’t have to call me Mr., Mr, the whole world calls me Hank”, a reference to the then deceased Hank Williams, one of the most famous country singers of all time. Coe often used associations to other famous Country singers of the time, which is evident in many of his songs. One of the more famous songs by Coe is one in which he refuses to call Hank Williams Jr. “Junior” any more because his father had recently passed and Hank Junior was a much bigger man than Coe himself.
Smoky Mountain Rain – Ronnie Milsap. Just like previous song, hitchhiking is a big part of this song. In the beginning we come to hear the words of a person trying to get from Knoxville, TN. It is raining outside and the singer runs to a phone booth to call the woman he is going home to after being gone a long time, in order to let her know he is coming home, but she is gone. Not just gone, but no forwarding address, long gone type of gone. The singer is overcome with sadness, losing the person he clearly wants to be with, and to boot it is raining. It’s pretty much the worst scenario I could imagine, and Milsap really makes you feel it in this song. It is probably one of the saddest country love songs I can think of.
Coal Miners Daughter – Loretta Lynn . Coal mining and mining in general are popular themes in Country songs, and this is one of the best mining songs. Loretta’s father was employed by the Van Leer coal mine in Van Leer, Kentucky, and in the song she sings about how hard her father worked to make sure the family was taken care of. A strong theme in country music is how hard people work to earn a living, and this song benefits strongly from it. Loretta Lynn has a beautifully distinct voice, a haunting combination of southern drawl and crystal clear tone. Interestingly, she is the sister of country singer Crystal Gayle, and is also cousin to country singer Patty Loveless.
Mama Tried - Merle Haggard Mothers are a common topic of country songs, and this one is about a man’s mother trying to keep him on the straight and narrow and out of trouble, a task she ultimately fails at. The singer in the song reminisces about his mother trying to keep him on the right track, and recognizes it is not her fault for the direction his life took. Merle Haggard is one of the many Country Outlaws on this list, and this song is true to that theme. This song has the best beginning few measures of any of the songs on this list, instantly recognizable even in the loudest of environments. My favorite line? “I turned 21 in prison, doin’ life without parole. No one could steer me right, but Moma tried.”
Big Iron – Marty Robbins. Outlaw themes were very popular in earlier country music, and one of the best among them is the story of the man with a “Big Iron” on his hip. The story goes that a stranger rode into the town Agua Fria with a large pistol at his side and not much else. The townsfolk, not knowing who this guy was at first, thought the man was an outlaw, though he didn’t cause much commotion. Some time elapses and people of the town learn that he is not an outlaw, but an Arizona Ranger. He has come to town after a well known outlaw named Texas Red. Texas Red is known to have 20 notches on his pistol, one each for the men he has killed even though he himself is only 24 years old. Well, there is an epic gun fight at the end of the song, and I won’t give it away, but one of the men drew so fast, that the other man didn’t even get his gun out of the holster before he was killed!
Starkville City Jail – Johnny Cash In the first of a few songs on this list sung by Johnny Cash, the country outlaw theme is alive and well. In it, Cash describes getting wrongfully arrested in Starkville, MS for violating curfew and picking flowers. This song was recorded for the first time in a performance at San Quentin Prison, one of many performances Cash made in prisons around the country, as part of his advocacy for the proper treatment of prisoners. The song makes a few digs at the police for throwing him in jail without taking his name, and then giving him the flower he picked back in the morning, all of which surely got the prisoners Cash was singing to a little riled up. Starkville, MS now has a flower picking festival in Cash’s honor, which many see as a posthumous pardon for the incarceration of Cash.
Crazy – Patsy Cline. Patsy Cline was one of the earliest popular female country stars. The song Crazy helped rocket her to stardom in the late ’50′s. The song, mostly of a woman lamenting how she is crazy for loving her partner, has a tone that makes it seem as though things aren’t so great between the 2 lovers. This is yet another great country Piano song, with not many other instruments beside the iconic singers voice and some drums. It is one of those songs that has more than one meaning to different people. Some people see the song as a triumph of the woman’s spirit and loyalty to her companion, while likely many more feel the song is more of an “I told you so” sort of song. All around, it is just unfortunate that Cline had a very short and horribly unlucky life. She was nearly killed in a car crash in 1961, and eventually died in a plane crash only 2 years later in Camden, TN at the age of only 30. Cline and Loretta Lynn were great friends in life, and Loretta owed much of her early success to the promotion on behalf of Patsy Cline.
Big Bad John – Jimmy Dean. In keeping with Country songs with a mining theme, Big Bad John is one of my personal favorites. The story goes that every morning a very sturdy, somewhat intimidating man by the name of John would arrive at the local coal mine. No one seemed to talk to Big Bad John, and there was some speculation that he killed a man over a woman in New Orleans. Regardless of his background, everyone seemed to be afraid of him. Well, one day, the miners hear a rumble in the mine, which usually meant death or entrapment and starvation were soon to follow. Well, the mine started to collapse, but before it did, Big John was able to prop up the roof of the mine long enough for 20 miners to escape. The miners, at this point realize that only big john is left in the bottom of the mine, but they could do nothing to save him. The mine collapsed further, and Big Bad John never made it out. The miners just placed a tombstone in front of the entrance of the mine. Jimmy Dean has many classic country hits, and this is one of my all time favorites, by far.
Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys – Willie Nelson Willie Nelson is one of the greats in country music that hasn’t made it on this list yet. So here he is, with one of my most favorite songs. The song is a a brooding tune, warning mothers not to let their children become cowboys. It isn’t expressly a warning to forbid them from becoming cowboys, it is simply an explanation of the attributes that cowboys sometimes express in their personality that may or may not be desirable. In my opinion its a great song because it hits close to home. The influence was strong in my family to become a cowboy or farmer of some sort early on, but this song helps clarify that it may not be for everyone. My favorite line is “If you don’t understand him, and he don’t die young, he’ll probably just ride away “.
White Lightning – George Jones What can I say about this song. I love it, for one. It is all about a farmer making “White Lightning”, a form of moonshine, from his corn crop. People came from all around to try out this powerful stuff, and most had a rough go of it. This particular song was actually written by the man known as “The Big Bopper”, J.P. Richardson, who can be heard singing harmony in the chorus. As with most of the music crowd at the time, George Jones had his battles with drugs and alcohol. At one point, he earned the nickname “No Show Jones” because he missed 54 live performances in a single year. Jones has been repeatedly voted one of the best country music voices of all time, and deserves at least one spot on this list. I love George Jones older music, and some of his newer stuff is pretty good and ballad-y, but for me, nothing can replace the rockabilly style of early George Jones.
Sixteen Tons – Tennessee Ernie Ford. Some may think that Johnny Cash had the deepest voice in all of country music. Whether or not he did is not for me to decide, but I can tell you the man that would give Cash some competition in that area would be Tennessee Ernie Ford. Ford had a deep bellowing voice that provided this song with an aggressive and haunting tone. Once again we see the “coal mining as occupation” theme in this song, but this time there are some underlying Pro – Labor themes as well. The chorus from the song is “You load 16 tons and what do you get, another day older and deeper in debt, St. Peter don’t you call me cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store.” This is a protest to the old days when companies provided housing and food to its workers. The workers would work for low wages, and end up needing food that was purchased at the company store. During hard times, the company store may allow the workers credit to get what they need until the next paycheck. You can see how this becomes a vicious cycle that isn’t easily broken without a increase in pay that may never come.
Your Cheatin’ Heart - Hank Williams Sr. No top country music chart would exclude the man who really got the country seen kicked off. In this song, a classic done by many others, but never equaled, the main character talks of his significant others tendency to be unfaithful and the guilt that may well ensue as a result of that unfaithfulness. Released post-mortem, the song quickly rocketed to the top of the country charts and stayed there for nearly 6 weeks. The song was recorded in the last recording session Williams ever had and was released after his death in 1953. The story of Williams death is intriguing as well. Having not been able to fly to a performance destination, Williams instead hired a chauffeur to get him to the performance. He was last seen leaving Knoxville, TN in a Cadillac, and the story goes just before leaving he took morphine and vitamin B12. The 17 year old chauffeur pulled over at a service station in the middle of the night and discovered Williams was rigid and unresponsive. Upon further inspection, it was discovered that he had actually died partway through the trip. To this day, there is a lot of controversy about the exact circumstances of his death, but they may never be truly known. Nevertheless, Williams was around long enough to have a couple kids, one of which grew up to be a famous country star under the same name, Hank Williams Jr.
Wreck of the old 97 - Johnny Cash. This song is great because it combines all the best elements of country with a folky upbeat tune, and a true story of the southern railway’s train by the name of “Old 97″, which crashed in Danville, Virginia on Sept 27th, 1903. As the story goes, the engineer Joseph A. “Steve” Broadey, en route to Spencer, North Carolina from Monroe, Virginia running the “fast mail” for the USPS, discovered he was over an hour late running the mail. The “fast mail” had a reputation for NEVER being late, and thus, the 1 hour had to be made up. Well, you can listen to the song to hear how the story unfolds, but the poor people on Old 97 didn’t make it out alive. This song is not a Cash original, but it is easily the best version by far.
City Of New Orleans - Willie Nelson This is one of the great country harmonica tunes, by one of the great Country singers of all time. This song is not a Nelson original, but he did help popularize it with his unique voice. In the song, the subject is a train ride on a train called the “City Of New Orleans”. The train ride travels through a large portion of the united states, starting in Illinois and winding its way south, where Nelson sings about the sights he observes along the way. The song is so full of imagery, it gives a good feeling of what it must have been like to ride on an old train back when it was a revolutionary form of transportation. Nelson has been one of the mainstays of country music since the very beginning. At 76 years old, he still tours frequently and is very involved in politics. He is one of the last few true original Country Outlaws left alive.
A Boy Named Sue - Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash is the greatest country music artist to ever roam this rock we call earth. Known as “The man in black”, his enchantingly deep voice coupled with his uncanny ability to write or sing a song in a way that just clicks with people, often containing memorable stories to a catchy beat are what makes Johhny Cash’s music the best. This song was actually written by famous poet Shel Silverstein, which is a somewhat unusual departure for Cash. In the song, a story is told by a man from his point of view, the man having an unusual first name “Sue”. In it, Sue talks about the hardship imparted on him by the strange name, and his search for his no good father who gave him that awful name. Lo and behold, he walks into a bar in Gatlingburg, TN and finds his father. Upon finding him, he exclaims “My name is SUE, HOW DO YOU DO? NOW YOUR GONNA DIE!”, and the two men start fighting. The fight was nearly over, when Sue’s dad finally tells him why he gave him that name. I won’t give away the resolution, in case you have not heard it, so click on the link and listen already!
Disclaimer: This list is by no means comprehensive! If you have a great country song you think I missed that you think would fit well in this list, post it up in the comments. I would love to hear them!