The country genre is one that often gets bad press, sometimes for good reason. When asked what their favorite type of music is, many people say they like all music except country. It’s a common criticism that all songs in the genre are about beer, hot girls, and trucks, or that all songs are particularly jingoistic like Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue”. Actor Bo Burnham wrote a parody of these songs, Tom Small called contemporary country “bad rock with a violin” and Steve Earle called the genre “hip-hop for people who are afraid of black people”. Other criticisms include songs of the genre having nothing to do with country and being just pop with a southern accent, or the excessive use of hook tracks to create a beat instead of using real drums.
But, like any other genre, the most popular songs don’t always represent the entire genre. Country music can be varied and diverse. It also blends into other genres such as Americana and bluegrass. Below is a list of a few songs that even the most diehard country music haters might enjoy.
“Stay on the Sunny Side”
This song is quite old. Its words were written in 1899 by a hymn, Ada Blenkhorn. It was popularized in 1928 by The Carter family. The group was called “Country Music’s First Family” because they collected and popularized many different folk songs and ballads. The song itself is simple and upbeat without being overly so.
“In Jail Now”
“In jail nowbegan as a vaudeville song and was popularized by Jimmie Rodgers. It has a humorous tone and tells the story of a man named “Ramblin’ Bob” who gets into trouble while gambling and is thrown in jail. The narrator himself meets the same fate after taking a girl named Susie to town, getting into trouble, and responding to the judge.
This song is named after a train. Like the other songs listed so far, it has been covered many times. The song praises the train, listing the places it passes through and what people think of it.
“Ignite the Woods”
Sung by Hank Williams, “Set fire to the woods” is a catchy song about a couple having a good time in the city before having to go back to work in the morning.
Originally written and sung by Merle Travis, “Sixteen Tonsis based on Travis’ father. The song protests the conditions of coal mines and company towns in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. The lyrics of the chorus come from Travis’ brother, while the line “I owe my soul to the company store” comes from a remark made by Travis’ father, a coal miner. Because of the red scare, Travis’ song caused a lot of controversy and made him a communist sympathizer with the FBI.
This song is about a man in love who follows a woman down the Mississippi River and misses her at every stop. When Johnny Cash wrote it first, he wanted it to be sung slowly. However, the final product was more “up-tempo”. The song follows the entire length of the Mississippi River, from the top of Minnesota to the bottom of New Orleans.
“The Battle of New Orleans”
The most popular version of “The Battle of New Orleanswas sung by Johnny Horton. The song is a comedic and slightly nonsensical account of the titular battle: it tells how the Americans drove back the British using their guns – and an alligator they used as a makeshift cannon.
“Flowers on the Wall”
“Flowers on the Wall” by the Statler Brothers is sung from the perspective of a man who has become locked up. All he does is smoke, watch TV, and play with a game that’s missing a card. The tune sounds upbeat, but the lyrics read like a man trying to convince himself and everyone that he’s fine. Interestingly, “Flowers on the Wall” was an attempt to psychedelic country song.
“Forty Dollar Ballad”
This song is fast and based on real events. The singer, Tom T. Hall, worked as a caretaker at a cemetery. He often attended funerals while he was working, and it occurred to him that if a dead man owed someone money, there would be no way to get it back. In “Ballad of Forty Dollars”, the singer laments that the deceased owed him $40. He will never get that money back, because it would be a faux pas to ask the widow. There is a heavy sense of irony in the lyrics of “Ballad of Forty Dollars”.
“Coal Miner’s Daughter”
In “coal miner’s daughterLoretta Lynn recalls the sacrifices her parents made for the family. The end of the song indicates that the family home is no longer there and implies that neither are the parents. But it also shows that the love remains.
“Take Me Home, Country Roads”
This song enjoyed a resurgence in popularity after being featured in Fallout 76. The song is one of West Virginia state anthems. John Denver captures a sense of homesickness and nostalgia with lyrics like “all my memories, gather around her” and “I should have been home yesterday”.
“You’re not going anywhere”
The Lyrics were originally written by Bob Dylan after a motorcycle accident. Dylan was stuck inside afterwards, and the title alone captures the restless feeling of not being able to go anywhere. The imagery of certain lines, such as “tie yourself to a tree with roots” and “Genghis Khan couldn’t keep all his sleeping kings supplied” also gives the song a surreal feel.
“Joleneis Dolly Parton’s most covered song. It tells the story of a woman who fears that her husband will be unfaithful because she is no match for the other woman. Parton portrays the image of Jolene beautifully with lines like “your smile is like a breath of spring” and “your voice is soft like summer rain”.
On the surface, Emmylou Harris‘ is an upbeat song about drinking wine and having a good time. But it also appears to be a song dedicated to someone — a person Harris calls “Baby” who pulled her off the freeway, “learned [her] a different way of thinking” and “does [her] put [her] money in the bank.”
“One Piece at a Time”
“One Piece at a Time” is another comedic song. The speaker is a man who works on the Cadillac assembly line. He wants one for himself but has no money. So, rather than saving up, he starts stealing the coins he needs. Because this process takes several years, and because the design of the Cadillac changes over time, the man ends up with a kind of Franken-car when he is finally able to put it together. It has a tail fin and three headlights and laughs at anyone who sees it.
Kenny Rogers’ best-known song tells the story of two men meeting on a train. One of them is a player and gives advice to the narrator in exchange for his whisky. Shortly after, the player[breaks] same” and dies in his sleep. The narrator decides to take his advice to heart.
“The Devil Has Come Down to Georgia”
“The Devil Has Come Down to Georgia” is a story about the Devil challenging a young man named Johnny to a violin contest. If Johnny wins, he gets a golden violin. But if Johnny loses, he loses his soul. The song references older tracks such as “House of the Rising Sun” and “Fire on the Mountain”. The plot of the song too refers to older stories, such as “The Devil and Daniel Webster”. Johnny ultimately wins, although some believe that Johnny actually lost; he may have beaten the devil, but he gave in to greed and pride.
“Pancho and lefty”
Written and sung for the first time by Townes Van Zandt, “Pancho and Leftyis considered one of the greatest western songs of all time. In the song, Pancho is betrayed by fellow outlaw Lefty and dies alone in the desert. Pancho is immortalized by his infamy (“the poets tell how Pancho fell”) while Lefty leaves the West, unknown (“Lefty lives in a cheap hotel”). The song became more famous with Merle Haggard’s 1983 recording.
“Amarillo in the morningis about a man who travels to Texas to work at a rodeo. He says that “all that [he’s] i have just what [he’s] mounted. He then recounts the hardships he faced: breaking his leg, losing his saddle, and losing his wife and girlfriend. Despite all this, the narrator maintains a positive attitude. He states that although he is not rich, he is happy to be free.
“wagon wheel‘, like many other country songs, has been covered by various artists. The lyrics were written by Bob Dylan but the melody came later. In the song, the narrator talks about hitchhiking in southern New England to meet his lover. Lyrics like “Look at the road and pray to God that I see headlights” show the narrator’s desperation to get where he is going.
“The Devil wears a suit and tie”
Coulter Wall’s “The Devil Wears a Suit and Tie” refers to the rumor that the blues singer Robert Johnson sold his soul in exchange for musical talent. The song is dark and gothic and is enhanced by the singer’s hoarse and mournful tone. The imagery of cotton fields, knives and a deserted highway in July along with the singer’s mournful voice set the song’s bleak tone.
Orville Peck’s Song is about a whirlwind romance that ultimately doesn’t work out well. Peck maintains a dark, brooding tone with his low vocals and instrumentals. The first stanzas speak of accomplices who live fast. The last stanzas open with “Six summers… you are not by my side”. Peck really captures the sadness present in many country songs and the bitterness of losing love.
All genres have good and bad songs, and country music is no exception. Notably, many popular country songs tell stories. Whether it’s ending up in jail after a night on the town or beating the heck out of a fiddle competition, country music songs are all about painting a picture and being imaginative.