(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
If you ever want to start a fight, make a list of the best. The best of anything. Cars, wine, beer, cowboy boots, chili, ribs, music. Especially music. There’s something really territorial about favorite music that can set people off, even people not ordinarily given to temper tantrums.
I, myself, have lost friends who are artists — who I thought were friends — by not ranking them high enough on my yearend best-of lists or — God forbid — leaving them off entirely. Such “best of” lists, many people say, are elitist at worst and ignorant, at best. They are a lot of fun, though, and irresistible.
The latest entry in the country music best-of list is the new book Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles by Bill Friskics-Warren and David Cantwell (Vanderbilt University Press/Country Music Foundation Press). I disagree with some of what they do, but it’s an eminently worthy premise and a greatly entertaining book (I gave them a cover blurb, I should add).
To begin with, there’s a real good argument to be made about whether to judge country’s best by singles, rather than by songs. Singles were long the country music delivery system: they were initially physical entities — on large 78 rpm discs, smaller 45 rpm discs, cassettes or CDs — that were sent to radio and in many cases sold at retail. Throughout country’s developing years, it was a singles, rather than an album format. (In recent years, though, many singles have been merely album cuts that were adopted by radio). Friskics-Warren and Cantwell argue, though, that a “lousy-to-good song” can be turned into a great record and that it’s the impact of the record rather than the song that matters. And that “greatest” does not necessarily mean “best.” Which can be very true. George Jones ’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is not the best country song ever written, but it is often cited as the greatest country song ever, because of its emotional vocal delivery and stunning production. It’s one of those stop-the-car-and-pull-off-the-road-the-first-time-you-hear-it-on-the-radio songs. It’s rated here as No. 147.
There are other considerations. Singles selection by country record labels and their adoption at country radio has also been a process tainted by payola. It’s also colored by focus groups who can have the attention span and critical judgment of a meth junkie in the throes of a Twinkies withdrawal. Ballads are routinely shunted aside by a — as Alan Jackson ’s song is aptly titled — “Three Minute Positive Not Too Country Uptempo Love Song.” (That song, incidentally, was played on radio as an album cut single, but it does not make this 500 list). I personally — as an elitist — would rather pick country’s best by songs, rather than by singles. But, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
The authors sometimes undermine their singles thesis with such selections as Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay” (No. 136). There’s no disputing that “Dock of the Bay” is a good song (not necessarily Redding’s best), but it was never a country single. Plain and simple. Arguing that it’s a “downright country” song doesn’t make it a country single, no matter how you parse it. And Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” (No. 68) is another example of a song that they wish could have been a country single. Solomon Burke never charted country, but the great R&B singer has a way with a country song that is undeniable, so he makes it here at No. 223 (for “Just Out of Reach (of My Two Open Arms)”. Is that a country single? Should the obscure 1929 single “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live,” by Blind Alfred Reed , be No. 58 because “its question remains relevant — as long as some people struggle in poverty while others prosper”? Does political correctness determine a great country single?
But it also becomes an emotional issue and I got suckered into that. The Sir Douglas Quintet’s “At the Crossroads” is one of my favorite songs ever. It was never even close to being a country single (in fact Doug Sahm — the Sir Douglas of the Quintet — only hit the country singles chart once, with “Cowboy Peyton Place”) — but I wish it could have been a country single. It’s at No. 287 here. So I find myself agreeing with that pick. Hey, it’s (still) a free country.
But I didn’t write this book, so it’s very easy for me to critique it. Do I agree with the No. 1 pick? (No. 1 is “Help Me Make It Through the Night” by Sammi Smith ). No. Do I agree with the No. 500 choice? (No. 500 is “I Hope You Dance” by Lee Ann Womack ). No. Do I love arguing about these things? Yes. Let a thousand arguments bloom from this worthy book.