In his 1950 hit, “My Son Calls Another Man Daddy,” Hank Williams was able to channel some intense fatherly emotions into the tune. Full of stark regret and intense pathos — as is just about every Williams song — it’s both a prison ballad and cautionary tale, and his vocals make you wonder if he’s about to break down and cry or if he already has.
That he died only three years later gives the song an extra dose of heartbreak, especially around Father’s Day. Not every country song about dads is quite so devastating, thank goodness. Some are achingly sincere, others playful and fun. While this isn’t intended as the definitive list, here are 10 classic songs from country artists that run the gamut from bright and happy to dark and dour.
“A Boy Named Sue,” Johnny Cash
Sometimes dads pass along beloved heirlooms, like a family Bible or a gold watch. (I have my father’s old fountain pen sitting on the desk in front of me right now.) Other times they give you something you don’t want, as in this tale of a boy whose father bestowed him with a feminine name. Many years later, the son learns it was a tough-love lesson to steel him against a cold, mean world. Chastened, he promises, “And if I ever have a son, I think I’m gonna name him … Bill or George anything but Sue. I still hate that name.”
“Daddy Frank,” Merle Haggard
Daddy Frank may have played a mean guitar, but his wife never knew. She was deaf, and he was blind. “Frank and Mama counted on each other,” Hag observes in this single from 1971. “Their one and only weakness made them strong.” Together, they had all five senses, made ends meet and provided a shining example of how a strong family supports one another.
“Daddy What If,” Bobby Bare With Bobby Bare Jr.
A cute puppy dog of a song, “Daddy What If” first appeared on Bare’s 1973 album Lullabies Legends & Lies as a duet between the singer and his 5-year-old son Bobby Jr. Some 37 years later, Junior passed the song to another generation, singing it with his daughter Isabella for Twistable, Turnable Man, A Musical Tribute to Shel Silverstein.
“Family Tradition,” Hank Williams Jr.
Eschewing all sentimentality, Williams turns in an ornery ode to family tradition, which means living without apology and playing whatever the hell he pleases. He may have only been a year old when Hank Sr. passed, but he knows the man well enough: “I am very proud of my daddy’s name, although his kinda music and mine ain’t exactly the same.” Hank Jr. passed the name and that ornery independence on to his incredibly talented kids as well.
“Love Without End, Amen,” George Strait
Strait’s sentimental hit from 1990 is a meditation on what it means to be a father — namely, that you love your child in the good times and bad. That last verse turns into a theological inquiry as Strait stands at the Pearly Gates and learns the same rule applies to the Heavenly Father as well as to earthly fathers.
“My Daddy Is Only a Picture,” Eddy Arnold
Just try to get through these three minutes without tearing up a little bit. Sure, Arnold’s 1948 hit is a shameless tearjerker about a kid who talks to his dead dad’s photo on the mantle, but Arnold gives that kid a sense of dignity and determination despite the tragedy.
“Papa Won’t You Let Me Go to Town With You,” Bobbie Gentry
Gentry drew on her own Mississippi upbringing for this track off her groundbreaking 1967 debut, Ode to Billie Joe. She begs her father to take her into town, where she can buy chocolates and fabric for a dress, but the underlying idea is that she just wants to spend some time with her beloved pa.
“That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine,” Gene Autry
Seventy years ago, Autry all but created the dad song subgenre with this nostalgia tune about his patient father and all the gray hairs he earned raising a rambunctious boy. The sentiment has proved durable over the decades, and the song has been covered by, among many others, Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, Doc Watson, Slim Whitman and even Simon & Garfunkel.
“They Don’t Make ’Em Like My Daddy Anymore,” Loretta Lynn
A daughter celebrates her dignified and stalwart daddy with a 1974 song that proves as warmly reminiscent and as carefully sketched as Lynn’s other big daddy hit, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” He slaves long hours in that dark mine to put food on the table for his family but made sure they never thought of themselves as poor.
“You Comb Her Hair,” George Jones
This one can get a little weird. A wife asks her husband if there’s another woman, and he says, “I’ve finally met a girl who turns me inside out.” He’s got a younger woman. A much, much younger woman. It’s his daughter, in fact. The chorus veers away from the cheater’s anthem into a father’s heartfelt declaration of love, and Jones sells the sentiment beautifully.