Roy Exum: Country Music’s Top 98

Friday, September 13, 2019 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

It was in the late ‘80s, not long before Auburn and Tennessee would play early in the year to set the early pace in the annual SEC race. I needed Auburn football coach Pat Dye to help me understand the early-season strategy of what the loser of the game between Tennessee and Auburn would need to do to stay viable in the home stretch of SEC play that year; it affected bowl invitations and that parlayed into the final Top 25, where a national champion must emerge. Dye was a skilled strategist, he learned it from his mentor when he was an assistant coach at Alabama, and we had scheming to do.

Every year the loser in the UT-Auburn game got a lot of excellent ideas from the other coaches in the SEC because, as the hidden wild card, I can remember two times when the ‘dog’ won a share of the conference title.

Pat, like Coach Bryant, was into all of that so he got a sack of sausage and biscuits, picked me up at the hotel, and down to his farm about 20 miles from Auburn we went to talk without interruptions. I was doing stories for the paper, but ABC needed a primer, so as Pat was breaking the speed limit, I was trying to make notes.

Auburn had started the season hot, and Pat knew he had some spectacular early talent. I had an Auburn player roster with me, writing in the margins. Dye was a football genius, I’m telling you, and suddenly he shared, “Randy Travis is the best that’s ever been. Nobody, no where will ever match Travis.” Oh my Lord, I thought we’d discovered the next Heisman winner and on several rosters, there was no Travis. “Pat, who is Travis? What position does he play! I can’t find him on my roster!”

“Fool! He’s singing the song about “pickin’ up bones!” Dye yelped. “You need to get outta’ the house more!”

That tells you all you need to know what a firm grip ‘country’ has on the South and those of us who wallow in it. Sometimes when you are drinking longnecks with the boys there are more songs you can sing along by heart than not. One day last month three dandy staff writers at the Nashville Tennessean took a turn, through ever impossible, at picking the 100 best hits. I copied them down, intent to share because this list was limited to one singer and one song … thus more of the best hits were included. At the same time, two of their selections seem to have avoided me, so this is my Top 98!

As you skim this, tell me why it is you get the same feeling when you are around so many old friends you think you’re at your high school reunion:

* * *


(Compiled by Matthew Leimkuehler, Dave Paulson and Cindy Watts, of the Nashville Tennessean, Aug. 24, 2019)

COUNTRY MILE: Artists, songs and lyrics take us through the rich history of country music

1. Dolly Parton — "Jolene": Evocative and woeful, Parton's marquee recording crosses genre and generations — a once-in-a-world song without boundaries. 

2. Tim McGraw — “Live Like You Were Dying”: McGraw's 2004 ballad reminds listeners to love deeper, speak sweeter and give forgiveness that you've been denying. 

3. Tammy Wynette — “Stand By Your Man”: Five decades removed from hitting airwaves, and country music faithful still stand tall for Wynette and her booming chorus. 

4. Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss — “Whiskey Lullaby” : It's known for its layered, mournful instrumentation, but it's the ballad's devastating storytelling and Paisley's ability to softly serenade that makes "Whiskey Lullaby" one of country's best modern cuts. 

5. Alan Jackson — “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” : The country music Class of 1989 returns to the all-time list, this time asking a question in the shadow of a generation-defining event. 

6. Patsy Montana — "I Want to be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart": In 1935, this jaunty tune became the first country song by a female artist to sell more than 1 million copies. It's since been covered by everyone from Patti Page to Cyndi Lauper and Phish.

7. Clint Black — "Killin’ Time": On his 1989 chart-topper, Black tried — and failed — to drink a woman off of his mind.

8. Eric Church — “Springsteen”:Church expertly captures a fleeting feeling chased by all musicians — like the chorus says, “Sometimes a melody sounds like a memory.” 

9. Chris Stapleton — "Tennessee Whiskey": With a rough but welcoming warmth, Stapleton croons a rendition of this country classic that’s worth toasting for years to come.

10. George Jones — “He Stopped Loving Her Today”: The years go slowly by, but Jones still preys upon our minds. 

11. Deanna Carter — "Strawberry Wine": A commercial and critical success still filling Lower Broadway taverns with a chorus that offers "My first taste of love, oh bittersweet."

12. Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton — “Islands in the Stream”: One of the biggest pop-country crossovers in history, the beloved duet has lived on through remixes and constant karaoke rotation.

13. The Judds — “Why Not Me”: With the title track of their debut album, mother and daughter Naomi and Wynonna Judd made their case for being the biggest country duo of the ‘80s.

14. Conway Twitty — "Hello Darlin' ": This self-penned tune became Twitty’s signature song, about a guy who can’t get over the woman he wronged and lost. 

15. Loretta Lynn — “Coal Miner's Daughter": A song, a film and a way of life for a generation raised on Lynn's working-class honesty.

16. Kris Kristofferson — “Sunday Morning Coming Down”: Cash made it famous, but no song may better exemplify the power and impact of  Kristofferson's pen. 

17. Don Williams — “Good Ole Boys Like Me”: During the song's 1980 release and beyond, Williams explains why "we're all gonna be what we're gonna be." 

18. Jimmie Rodgers — “Blue Yodel (T for Texas)”: Recorded more than 90 years ago, "T for Texas" is considered by many to be the premier song from a blue yodelin' father to the genre. 

19. Carter Family — “Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By)”: A torch-bearing call for country music that’s still celebrated on stages today.

20. Ray Price — “Heartaches by the Number”: It spent 40 weeks on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart and 60 years at the top of mind for 1950s country classics. 

21. Rosanne Cash — “Seven Year Ache”: Covered in drum loops and 1980s synthesized production, it's Rosanne Cash's sorrow that stands the test of time.

22. Steve Earle — “Guitar Town”: A foot-stomping country-rock tribute to wanderlust down a lost highway. 

23. Old Crow Medicine Show — “Wagon Wheel”: Sure, Darius Rucker made it a hit, but little comes close to experiencing Old Crow howling this singalong for thousands of invested onlookers.  

24. Jeannie C. Riley — “Harper Valley PTA”: A fictional Tennessee scandal that took Riley to the top of Billboard's Hot 100 chart. 

25. Miranda Lambert — “The House That Built Me”: The fastest-rising single of Lambert’s career remains a haunting exploration of her music's ability to resonate for repeated listens.

26. Kitty Wells — “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”: Two-and-a-half minutes of truth that launched a career for this Tennessee legend. 

27. Jerry Reed — “Eastbound and Down”: Country music's best addition to soundtrack canon? Maybe — it's the most lively, at least. 

28. Roger Miller — “King of the Road”: A soft tap on the bass, a snap of the finger, and Miller's off to croon listeners with his 1964 vagabond tale. 

29. Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson — “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”: Two of the genre’s finest unite for a heartfelt warning that cowboys “never stay home and they’re always alone, even with someone they love.” 

30. George Strait and Alan Jackson — “Murder on Music Row”: "Someone killed country music/ Cut out its heart and soul,” Strait laments on the seething duet. It was released in 2000, but the sentiment still strikes a chord today.

31. Bobbie Gentry — “Ode to Billie Joe”: What did Billie Joe throw off the bridge? Regardless of the answer, Gentry captivates with every word. 

32. Vince Gill — “Go Rest High on That Mountain”: An awe-inspiring musical eulogy from Gill, delivered best during times when something moving needs to be heard. 

33. Johnny Cash — “I Walk the Line”: Cash released his ode to temptation in 1956, cementing words in musical history that hold true in 2019.

34. Marty Robbins — “El Paso”: Complemented by Spanish picking, "El Paso" offers a bloody romance worthy of western songwriting. 

35. Keith Whitley — “I’m No Stranger to the Rain”: The last single released during Whitley's lifetime shows the singer peacefully reminding listeners that "I've fought with the devil, got down on his level/ But I never gave in, so he gave up on me." 

36. Eddy Arnold — "The Cattle Call": The Tennessee Plowboy yodels his lonesome call, a sound that would shape country to come.

37. Reba McEntire — “Fancy”: Written by Bobbie Gentry in 1969, the almighty Reba unleashed fire with her show-closing 1990 version of this song. 

38. Buck Owens — “Act Naturally”: A love song for the starry-eyed dreamers wishing about one day being put in the movies. 

39. Trisha Yearwood — “Walkaway Joe”: Zeal turns awry in the beloved 1990s ballad from Yearwood. 

40. Lady Antebellum — "Need You Now": Behind the band's gorgeous harmony, Lady A sings of a longing some may know too well. 

41. Shania Twain — "Man! I Feel Like a Woman": The 1990s country anthem passed from Generation X mothers for millennial daughters to make their own. 

42. Taylor Swift — “Mean”: In a characteristically triumphant move, Swift turns a tune about scathing critics into the brightest addition of her country music catalog.

43. Vern Gosdin — “Chiseled in Stone”: A tear-jerking ballad worthy of the Country Music Association's Song of the Year award in 1989. 

44. Blake Shelton — "Ol' Red": Before it was a chain of bars, Ol’ Red was the prison dog that helped Shelton’s character bust out (thanks to his cousin’s bluetick hound.)

45. Ronnie Milsap — "Smoky Mountain Rain": Homecoming leads to heartbreak on Milsap's 1980 chart-topper, wherein the singer "thumbed my way from L.A. back to Knoxville," only to find his love has moved on.

44. Tom T. Hall — "Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine": "The Storyteller" drew from a real-life encounter for one of his greatest tales. During a trip to Miami, he met a janitor at his hotel, who told him there were "three things in this world that's worth a solitary dime."

45. George Strait — “Amarillo By Morning”: The King of Country Music subtly parades his royal status with a crisp story from the road.

46. Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys — “Stay a Little Longer”: A taste of traditional western swing that simply asks listeners to dance all night and stay a little longer. 

47. Alabama — “My Home's in Alabama": Country music's 6½-minute calling card to the South. 

48. Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons — “Love Hurts”: Nearly 60 years since being initially released — and 45 years since Harris and Parsons' duet — yes, love can still hurt. 

49. Ricky Skaggs — “Country Boy”: A slick-picking piece of country music (and No. 1 hit) from one of the finest to pick up an instrument. 

50. Ernest Tubb — “Walking the Floor Over You”: A 1941 entry in which Tubbs shares a restlessness in a simple chorus: "I'm walking the floor over you/ I can't sleep a wink, that is true. I'm hoping and I'm praying as my heart breaks right in two/ Walking the floor over you."

51. Glen Campbell — “Rhinestone Cowboy”: "Rhinestone Cowboy" defined Campbell's career. It was a country-pop hit that kept the singer balanced between each world.

52. Carrie Underwood — “Before He Cheats”: Country music has its share of anthems for scorned women, but Underwood’s signature song is the gold standard. An instant classic upon its release in 2006.

53. Charley Pride — “Kiss an Angel Good Morning”: With the biggest of his dozens of hits, the Country Music Hall of Famer shared the key to marital bliss: “Kiss an angel good morning/ And love her like the devil when you get back home.”

54. David Allan Coe — “You Never Even Called Me By My Name”: John Prine didn’t want credit when he co-wrote this kiss-off to Music Row. But it was the perfect message to be delivered by Coe, perhaps country music’s most infamous outsider.

55. Willie Nelson — “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”: The Red Headed Stranger narrates a story of emotional messiness with soothing clarity. 

56. Johnny Paycheck — “Take This Job and Shove It”: It spawned an eternal catchphrase, but don’t forget there’s another layer to Paycheck’s lone chart-topper: “My woman done left and took all the reasons I was working for.”

57. Tanya Tucker — “Delta Dawn”: Recorded when she was just 13, Tanya Tucker’s first haunting hit is ironically about an aging Southern belle, one who's under the delusion that a long-gone suitor is still coming for her.

58. Patsy Cline — “Crazy”: It’s been covered by the likes of Neil Young, LeAnn Rimes and Linda Ronstadt, but no artist captured Willie Nelson’s lyrical poignancy the way Cline did with her 1961 version. 

59. Keith Urban — “Somebody Like You": Urban sounds unstoppable on his 2002 chart-topper, a love song that's also wrapped up in his personal redemption.

60. Garth Brooks — “The Dance”: What one song could possibly capture the career of this country music giant? How about the 1990 entry showcasing Brooks’ unparalleled ability to embody a story worth singing for decades to come? 

61. Charlie Rich — “Behind Closed Doors”: Country love songs didn't get much more suggestive than Rich's 1973 hit.

62. Tennessee Ernie Ford — "Sixteen Tons": It may be one of country’s most depressing songs, and in this genre, that’s saying something. Ford’s beyond saving in his 1955 recording, as he’s “sold my soul to the company store.” 

63. Dwight Yoakam — “Guitars, Cadillacs”: When he found himself in Hollywood with a broken heart and shattered dreams, Yoakam clung to hope with his "guitars, Cadillacs (and) hillbilly music." Soon enough, it made him one of country's biggest stars.

64. Hank Williams Jr. — “Family Tradition”: While he explained that he was only following in his dad’s rowdy footsteps, “Bocephus” also truly stepped out of Hank Sr.’s shadow with this 1979 smash. 

65. Oak Ridge Boys — "Elvira": Giddy-up! We dare you to name a song that’s more fun to sing than this Oaks “oom-poppa” classic (named after an East Nashville street).

66. Ray Charles — "You Don't Know Me": Charles’ heartbreaking spin on the Eddy Arnold/Cindy Walker song is the pinnacle of his landmark album “Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music.”

67. Kenny Rogers — “The Gambler”: Raise a glass to timeless advice. 

68. Little Big Town — “Girl Crush”: Some radio programmers were terrified of this 2014 song — in which Karen Fairchild sings of wanting to “taste (the) lips” of the woman who has her love interest’s attention — but listeners, critics and Music Row gave it a full embrace.

69. Lee Brice — “I Drive Your Truck”: Brice’s powerful 2012 hit was inspired by a true story of a father who found comfort in driving the truck once owned by his son, who’d been killed while serving in Afghanistan. 

70. Lacy J. Dalton — "16th Avenue": Several years after she found country stardom, Dalton made sure to tip her hat to those still chasing their dream on Nashville’s Music Row — aka 16th Avenue South.

71. Porter Wagoner — “The Green, Green Grass of Home”: Before Tom Jones, Elvis and dozens of others put their spin on Curly Putman's classic, Wagoner first made it a hit. In a devastating twist, it turns out he's dreaming of his hometown while on death row.

72. Merle Haggard — “Mama Tried”: A slippy lead guitar, Haggard's sketched storytelling ... California country with "Mama Tried." 

73. Randy Travis — “Forever and Ever, Amen”: Travis lays out his devotion in his signature song, and listeners haven't stopped loving it since its release in 1987.

74. Roy Acuff — “Wabash Cannonball”: This folk song about a mighty train had already been passed down for generations when Acuff cut it in 1936, and his version helped the "Wabash" legend spread around the world.

75. Guy Clark — "Desperados Waiting for a Train": Clark penned a beautiful tribute to his grandmother's boyfriend, Jack Prigg, "an old school man of the world" who would sing "Red River Valley" with the budding songwriter.

76. Brooks & Dunn — "Believe": The country duo won multiple awards for this soulful ballad of unwavering faith.

77. The Highwaymen — "Highwayman": Only songwriting great Jimmy Webb could conjure up an epic theme worthy of country's greatest supergroup, composed of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson.

78. Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers — "All the Gold in California": In soaring three-part harmony, the Gatlins issued a warning to all who head west with stars in their eyes: "It don't matter at all where you've played before/California's a brand-new game."

79. Charlie Daniels Band — "The Devil Went Down to Georgia": In 1979, Daniels found the perfect showcase for his fiery fiddle technique — a familiar tale about a boy named Johnny who makes a bet with the devil (and wins).

80. Joe Diffie — “John Deere Green”: “Against all odds, tractors have nothing to do with Diffie's 1993 song. Instead, "John Deere Green" is the color used to paint "Billy Bob loves Charlene" on the town's water tower.

81. Earl Thomas Conley — "Holding Her and Loving You": It doesn’t have a chorus, but “Holding Her and Loving You” has quite a hook. Conley counts down the hardest things he'll ever do, and the song's title tops the list.

82. Dixie Chicks — "Wide Open Spaces": With the title track of their breakthrough album — about a young woman who's ready to spread her wings — the Dixie Chicks truly took flight.

83. Kacey Musgraves — "Follow Your Arrow": On top of taking mainstream country into new territory with its "Kiss lots of boys/ Or kiss lots of girls" line, "Follow Your Arrow" was a powerful mission statement from Musgraves, as she's proven to have great artistic instincts. 

84. Patty Loveless — "How Can I Help You Say Goodbye": "Time will ease your pain," Loveless sang. That may be true, but this tearjerker about carrying on after a move, a divorce and the death of a parent still stings 25 years later.

85. Sugarland — “Stay”: What if "Jolene" could have given her side of the story? On Sugarland's massive 2007 hit, Jennifer Nettles sings from the perspective of a mistress, who begs her lover to stay before deciding she's tired of waiting.

86. Martina McBride — "Independence Day": It's often falsely assumed to be a patriotic song, but McBride's triumphant anthem is actually about a woman breaking free of an abusive relationship.

87. Lee Ann Womack — "I Hope You Dance": Whether you're singing it to your kids, a loved one or yourself, Womack's plea to live life to the fullest and take chances truly resonates.

88. K.T. Oslin — "80's Ladies": Oslin rocketed through the decades on her 1987 hit, which fittingly sounds very much like a product of its time. "Now we're 80's ladies/ There ain't been much these ladies ain't tried."

89. John Anderson — "Swingin’":  Sure, it's about swinging on the porch (is it really, though?), but few country hits have strutted the way Anderson's feisty, horn-spiked 1983 hit does. 

90. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band — "Fishin’ in the Dark": "You and me going fishing in the dark/ Lying on our backs and counting the stars." NGDB's classic is all about simple pleasures, and listening to it is one, too.

91. Kenny Chesney — “The Good Stuff”: Kenny's bartender teaches him a valuable lesson: "The good stuff" isn't booze; it's the memories you make with your loved ones.

92. George Jones and Tammy Wynette — "Golden Ring": George and Tammy's greatest duet explains that "only love" can transform a "cold metallic thing" into something more.

93. Luke Bryan — “Drink a Beer”: Bryan didn't write this song, but he made a powerful connection to it, relating it to the deaths of his brother and sister. He sings about learning of the death of a friend and going to the pier they would sit at to "watch the sunset disappear and drink a beer."

94. Lefty Frizzell — "If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time": Some things never change. In 1950, Frizzell kicked off his celebrated career with this No. 1 tune about painting the town red and going "honky tonkin.'"

95. Toby Keith — "How Do You Like Me Now": Keith was already an established star, but he didn't really crank up the attitude until this 1999 hit, in which he rubs his success in the face of an unrequited love.

96. Waylon Jennings — "Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line": "Everybody knows you've been stepping on my toes/ And I'm getting pretty tired of it." The outlaw legend is barely holding it together on his seething 1968 hit.

97. Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt — "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues": The iconic trio finds exquisite harmony on a Rodney Crowell composition. 

98. Hank Williams — “Your Cheatin’ Heart”: Some consider this Williams entry, a can't-miss in country music history, to define the genre. 

99 - 100: What happened?!? I ran out of songs before I did numbers. So when It comes to the full 100 Best Country Songs ever, insert your best two right here! My votes would be "Desperado" by the Eagles and “Here We Go Again” by Dolly Parton. Years ago I’d been asked to do an interview with her and she is evermore a dynamic personality. I was sitting on the set with her during a brief rehearsal before a show at the Tivoli and suddenly she told me to sit still, her band thundering up “Here We Go Again” in a once-in-a-lifetime serenade I'll take to my grave. What a kick, and that’s why I adore country music to this day.

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