NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Picking the greatest country songs ever recorded is a tall order but it’s a very rewarding pursuit in one major way. It’s a powerful reminder of the main strength of country music, which is its ability to tell a story.
And great country songs manage to tell a story in just a few words, in the process creating a believable world, one that’s peopled with genuine characters who can evoke deep, credible emotions. Country songs hold in their collective consciousness much of the ethos and the social history and mindset of the country music audience. Read over these few opening lines of some classic country songs: “Well, she seemed all right by dawn’s early light,” “When all our tears have reached the sea, part of you will live in me,” “Almost heaven, West Virginia,” “Well, I was born a coal miner’s daughter,” “A long time forgotten are dreams that just fell by the way,” “Have I told you lately that I love you,” “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine,” “In the twilight glow I see her,” “Blue moon of Kentucky, keep on shining,” “He said ‘I’ll love you ’til I die,’” “Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone,” “If I should stay, I would only be in your way,” “Hear that lonesome whippoorwill? He sounds too blue to fly.” Do the songs suddenly sweep into your mind?
Consider the following eight words that lay out the introduction to one incredibly powerful song: “Love hurts, love scars, love wounds and mars.” A universe of emotions is delivered in those first, simple, eight words of “Love Hurts,” written by the great team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant . As the definitive WSM-AM DJ Eddie Stubbs says after playing such a killer song: “Are there any questions?”
CMT’s current 100 greatest country songs list is an eye-opener in many ways. It’s very revelatory as much for the songs that aren’t on the list as for the ones that are. “Gentle on My Mind” is one of the most-played songs ever — but is it really one of the greatest country songs ever? What about “Achy Breaky Heart”? Or “The Fightin’ Side of Me”? Where does Elvis fit in? Occasionally, a song will become an instant classic — such as “He Stopped Loving Her Today” or “When I Call Your Name.” Others grow and mature throughout the years, like a “Chiseled in Stone” or a “There Stands the Glass,” as songs that attain a certain majesty for the ages. Settling for only 100 greatest songs is painstakingly difficult, but it also serves to remind us of just how many great songs there have been. The CMT list was selected by a large panel of people who work in and around country music nationally and worldwide, and their choices reflect a wide range of interests with one common thread: the heritage of country music is an unbroken historical timeline, in which newer songs can equally stand alongside the best from the past. I hope many song debates are inspired by the CMT list.
And there are all sorts of greatest sub genres of country songs that it could be fun to explore: greatest country love songs, greatest train songs, greatest drinking songs, greatest truck songs, greatest songs about murder, cheating songs, food songs, dog songs, dead baby songs, war songs, prison songs, one-hit wonders … and on and on.
And there’s also the category of favorite song titles. Johnny Cash recorded “Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart.” Some of my other favorites are: “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles),” “I’d Rather Have a Bottle in Front of Me Than a Frontal Lobotomy,” “I’m Under the Table (To Get Over You),” “Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone to Kill,” “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed,” “My Wife Ran Off With My Best Friend and I Sure Do Miss Him,” “She Got the Gold Mine (I Got the Shaft),” “She Got the Ring and I Got the Finger,” “Thank God and Greyhound She’s Gone,” “When You Leave Walk Out Backwards, So I’ll Think You’re Walking In,” “You Can’t Have Your Kate (And Edith Too),” “Don’t Make Me Pregnant,” “My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink and I Don’t Love Jesus,” “Drop Kick Me, Jesus, Through the Goal Posts of Life,” “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw” and “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.”
Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty actually did a nice duet on that last one.