The Music Enthusiast’s Favorite Country Songs

Pictured – Bobbie Gentry walking across the Tallahatchie Bridge before it collapsed (later rebuilt). 

Sure, I know what you’re saying. What the fuck?! In five years this guy has barely acknowledged country music much less done a whole post on it. (Well I did do one on Glen Campbell.) So what’s all this about?

Well, I have a long, interesting non-history with country music. I grew up in Philly and was fed a steady diet of pop, Motown, R&B, doo-wop, and rock and roll. Other than a few country songs that made their way into the Top 40, country was known but hardly popular in the US outside of the South.

It’s only been in (relatively) recent years that country radio sprung up and with it the “hat” boys, Garth Brooks and all those guys. And now – or at least when the good times return – you can find stadiums-full of shit-kicking country lovers at weekend festivals, Kenny Chesney shows, and the like in New England.

For me, I’d always been disdainful of country and country-rock. And while I would hardly call myself a big fan of country, things do change over time. Rock bands like the Eagles, Allmans and Stones (all of whom love country) got me into country-rock. I couldn’t deny that. And I also very much dug Ken Burns’ country documentary even if some of the music left me cold.

But I was driving around the other day listening to the radio, heard a country song and thought, boy, you know I’ve always liked that tune. And then I thought back over the years and realized that there were other tunes I liked. For the most part, they tend to lean towards the pop side of country as opposed to the “Your Cheatin’ Heart” shit.

So, you might as well enjoy this post because this is my “get it out of my system” post. I’ll post a half-dozen, put the entire list on Spotify.

First up, the song that inspired this post, “Ode to Billie Joe,” by Bobbie Gentry. This one was all over the airwaves in 1967. It’s got a nice loping feel to it and distinct air of mystery.

As to what Billie Joe a girl threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge, Gentry says.”the most named items were flowers, an engagement ring, a draft card, a bottle of LSD pills, and an aborted fetus. Although she knew what the item was, she would not reveal it, saying only ‘Suppose it was a wedding ring.'” Suppose it was:

Spotify link

Roger Miller was a fairly ubiquitous presence on pop radio in the Sixties. He was quite the accomplished guy. Wikipedia: In addition to 11 Grammy Awards, Roger Miller won Broadway’s Tony Award for writing the music and lyrics for Big River, which won a total of 7 Tony’s including best musical in 1985.  He was voted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 197 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1995.

Sometimes he was funny like in “You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd,” and sometimes cool like in, what else, “King of the Road.” Bob Dylan would have killed to write these lyrics:

Third boxcar, midnight train, destination, Bangor, Maine.
Old worn out clothes and shoes,
I don’t pay no union dues,
I smoke old stogies I have found short, but not too big around
I’m a man of means by no means, king of the road.

Spotify link

What don’t we know about Dolly Parton? She is truly a legend in country music. I don’t know when I first heard “Jolene” but it was definitely not on Top 40. It’s another of those stay-the-fuck-away-from-my-many songs. I found it haunting.

Parton wrote it and said, it was “inspired by a red-headed bank clerk who flirted with her husband Carl Dean at his local bank branch around the time they were newly married.” In an interview, she also revealed that Jolene’s name and appearance are based on that of a young fan who came on stage for her autograph.

Spotify link

How can you have a favorite country song list without Johnny Cash? You cannot. I cannot exactly swear to this but I think there may actually be a Federal law against it. (Cash is represented on my Spotify list more than anyone else.)

Cash wrote “Folsom Prison Blues” and eventually recorded it at Folsom Prison. The lyrics about the guy in Reno are some of the greatest of all time. I’m fond of quoting them to people I’ve just met to see their reaction:

When I was just a baby my mama told me, “Son
Always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns”
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die
When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry

Spotify link

Maybe Glen Campbell was as much – or more – of a pop artist as he was a country artist. But as a guitar player, he was a member of the studio-based Wrecking Crew who escaped that factory and broke out as a big star. And ‘Wichita Lineman” has a great feel and again, great lyrics courtesy of Jimmy Webb. And Glen’s backed here by the Crew:

Spotify link

And so there’s gotta be an instrumental in here somewhere, yes? Let’s all kick up our heels to “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by the late, great Earl Scruggs:

Spotify link

37 thoughts on “The Music Enthusiast’s Favorite Country Songs

  1. I am not really a country music fan – I grew up and lived in the UK most of my life (and they don’t really ‘do’ Country over there).
    However, there is some interesting stuff out there which I love, and which ‘draws on’ country music, along with cuban/latino stuff\, and other influences.
    Give a listen to the Mavericks if you haven’t already. They are a bit ‘genre-defying’, but they have a good time and put on a great live show…

    Like

    1. I have heard of the Mavericks and will give them a spin. Maybe country was more of a Northern phenomenon over there. The Beatles in general and Ringo in particular liked it. Whenever they did a country song in the early days it was usually Ringo singing it. And he put out an album in 1970 called ‘Beaucoups of Blues’ that was largely country

      Like

  2. Bobbi Gentry was the country queen back in 67-68, although she was more Delta bluesy than country, her tight association with Glen Campbell and a duet album with him, kicked her right to the top. Ode to Billy Joe and Fancy were her big hits. I gave a listen to her on YouTube a while back and came away disappointed. I forgot that she has, or had, a thick country drawl that didn’t mix with certain songs. Noticeably the most beautiful gal in music back then, she still looks amazing for her age. My parents caught her act in Las Vegas around 69-70 and said she was best when it was her and her 3/4 size guitar. Glen Campbell was more country than people thought. He got his start playing with his uncles Hillbilly band in Albuquerque New Mexico in the early fifties. A teenager at the time, he was a standout guitar player even then. I believe the band was ” The Sandia Mountain Boys” or something along that line and they played The Chesterfield Club and the Paradise Club.

    Like

  3. I, too, had a hard time with country. Growing up in a small city on the prairies, country music was in the air we breathed, so it was pretty much a rite of teenage passage to rebel against it. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate that roots country has contributed to rock & roll, and eventually rock in general. And there are some pretty mean country guitarists out there. For a hoot, check out Chet Atkins “Yakety Axe” from 1965; I think many folk are familiar with this.

    Like

    1. Some years ago i had to travel to Texas regularly on business. It got to the point that when I went to my regular BBQ place I had to have country music playing. So, context. And yeah, while I’ll never be a country fan per se, I’ve long outgrown the “it all sucks” phase. Yakety Axe? Sure. Have you heard the Knopfler/Atkins version?

      Like

        1. I was surprised to find that my US girlfriend – and her Father – were big Benny Hill fans… I thought it was a pretty UK-centric form of homor !!!

          Like

  4. If Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins can dig this music so can the Doctor. The tune I attached is no novelty. It swings into high gear. You never heard “country” like this before. Sonny looks pretty comfy in that western getup. So would you.

    Like

    1. You know, that rings a bell. I either heard some of this album before or read about it. So surprising. Jazz guys love a good melody. They play it for three seconds then go someplace else. Don’t forget to check out the Knopfler/Atkins collaboration on another comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes they have the ” 3 second” rule (I like that). I’m very familiar with ‘Neck and Neck’. Guys like Chet played it pretty safe. They had a formula down there that worked. This album with Knopfler was a nice surprise. Hey the guy can play.

        Like

        1. Well, not as much as you might expect. I gave it a spin and while yeah, they are high-quality players I admit the music didn’t do a whole heck of a lot for me. Too country, too laid-back. I then went right over to the Peter Green Mac stuff and said, Yeah I like it this way.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Mark Knopfler is one of the best… Love his style… I saw him a couple of years ago and he was stunningly good – my first time seeing him since the 1996 ‘Golden Heart’ tour…

          Liked by 1 person

        3. I saw him on a tour with Clapton, God, years ago. I was expecting fireworks but for whatever reason, Knopfler took a quiet back seat.

          Like

        4. I saw the same thing – Clapton at the Albert Hall in London in 1989… Eric’s band was Mark K.on rhythm, and Phil Collins on drums – amongst others.. Clapton also played with a ‘reformed’ Dire Straights at the Nelson Mandela concert at Wembley – probably in about 1988, so they have some history……

          Like

        5. Yeah, ’88 for us in what was then Great Woods or something and is now Xfinity. So did Knopfler and Clapton go toe-to-toe? Did I just see an off night? Because if Knopfler’s only on rhythm – as he appeared to be that night – then that is a supreme waste of talent and they could have put anybody up there.

          Like

  5. My gateway into country, probably not unusually for a rock fan, was Gram Parsons and The Byrds. Probably a lot of the countryish stuff I like, is probably closer to Americana – Gillian Welch, Townes Van Zandt.

    Like

What would you say?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.