Daddy Songs: Memorable Salutes to the Old Man

Brad Paisley, Gary Allan Make the List, but Who's Singing About Him Lately?

Am I missing something or have songs about daddy gone out of fashion? Look at the charts, listen to the radio and you’ll find few current examples of this once pervasive genre.

Daddy apparently carried more emotional weight when he was around the house a lot, hoeing corn or washing off coal dust rather than commuting to a distant job that enables him to buy pickup trucks and cellphones for everybody else in the family.

In truth, dad has become a rather eclipsed subject, songwise. But how long can we lyrically fixate on beach parties and babes in bikinis? Let me rephrase that. Can’t we pause occasionally in our understandable fixation on beach parties and babes in bikinis to give a nod to the old man? After all, he helped make us who we are.

Unlike moms, who are generally presented as admirable figures in country songs, dads are distributed almost equally between the “staying” and the “straying” kinds. The former are resolute sustainers of hearth, home and homilies, while the latter tend to be susceptible to “neon fever” and the attendant pleasures of the flesh.

Be that as it may, I want to recommend the 12 daddy songs I’ve listed below. They’re arranged in no particular order, but each has passed my “jukebox test,” which can be summarized thusly:
If I were time-warped to a bar that had a jukebox, would I pay good money to listen to this song even though I can already hear it playing in my head?

Yes I would — and here they are:

“Ford Fairlane,” Bobby Pinson (never charted, 2005, written by Pinson and Kris Bergsnes) — This is pure poetry in which a battered old car serves as a vivid chronicle of a dad’s love for his son and vice versa. I’ll go out on a limb (where I have extensive real estate holdings) and say that Stephen Sondheim, that master jeweler of American lyricists, never wrote a more profound or moving song than this one. Alan Jackson‘s “Drive (For Daddy Gene)” (2002) covers much the same territory but with a lighter touch.

“The Greatest Man I Never Knew,” Reba McEntire (No. 3, 1992, written by Richard Leigh and Layng Martine Jr.) — The last lines say it all about this dutiful but emotionally distant father: “He was good at business/But there was business left to do/He never said he loved me/Guess he thought I knew.” Reba’s will always be the definitive version of this song, but give a listen to the inimitable Billy Dean‘s interpretation, as well. It reveals its own set of wounds.

“I Loved Her First,” Heartland (No. 1, 2006, written by Walt Aldridge and Elliott Park) — Here we have the soliloquy of a conflicted father who, while happy to see his daughter deeply in love, is sorry to lose to marriage the “freckle-faced kid” he remembers. It is a tear-jerker of the first order and will be the soundtrack at wedding receptions for ages to come.

“That’s My Job,” Conway Twitty (No. 6, 1988, written by Gary Burr) — Without boast, complaint or breast-beating, this father simply accepts that it is his “job” to keep his son safe, whether he agrees with his choices or not. George Strait‘s “Love Without End, Amen” (1990) pursues the same theme.

“To Daddy,” Emmylou Harris (No. 3, 1978, written by Dolly Parton) — This is such a gentle-sounding song, especially the way Harris does it, your head almost snaps back when you get to the part where the apparently docile mother walks out on the insufferably self-centered daddy. Serves him right, the bastard! And best of luck to you, ma’am.

“Brand New Mister Me,” Mel Tillis (No. 8, 1971, written by Ron McCown) — “Do my children call you daddy?/Is my darlin’ good to you?” the singer wonders, as he drives each morning past the house that was once his home. “If I’d shown the love she needed,” he laments, “she would still belong to me.” Even repentant, he sounds a mite possessive, don’t you think? You may notice this is the same drive-by surveillance approach that Toby Keith takes in “Who’s That Man,” 1994, except Keith doesn’t assign blame for the breakup.

“He Didn’t Have to Be,” Brad Paisley (No. 1, 1999, written by Paisley and Kelley Lovelace) — Stepfathers don’t have the adjective “wicked” attached to them as reflexively as stepmothers do, but they don’t carry the reputation of being angelic, either. Well, this one is — a stepdad who embraces his wife’s child as completely as if he were his own. Paisley says Lovelace is the stepfather who inspired the song.

“Daddy Never Was the Cadillac Kind,” Confederate Railroad (No. 9, 1994, written by Dave Gibson and Bernie Nelson) — While junior squanders his money and stretches his credit on flashy cars, his coalmining daddy tries to talk some sense into him, but with little success. Daddy finally does take a ride in a Cadillac — on his way to the grave. Watch the original music video on this one. The last scene will have you wiping your eyes.

“Papa Loved Mama,” Garth Brooks (No. 3, 1992, written by Brooks and Kim Williams) — Papa conveys his distress at Mama’s straying by driving his 18-wheeler through the motel room where’s she’s cuckolding him. The upshot: “Mama’s in the graveyard, Papa’s in the pen.” If this isn’t the most savage daddy song ever recorded, it’s certainly the most colorful one.

“Tough Little Boys,” Gary Allan (No. 1, 2003, written by Harley Allen and Don Simpson) — This is the sweetest daddy song of them all, particularly given the tender, understated way Allan sings it. No matter how much bravado a guy exhibits on his way to becoming a man, the lyrics observe, it all melts when he has a child. As the refrain says, “When tough little boys grow up to be dads/They turn into big babies again.”

“I’m Doing This for Daddy,” Johnny Wright (No. 53, 1966, written by Gene Crysler) — Here’s a tale that unfolds in that uncomfortable territory between copious weeping and uncontrollable giggling. A young lad marches into a bar to retrieve his mother from the clutches of a bounder who’s putting the moves on her while daddy is “away in Vietnam.” Talk about a spoilsport! The song brings to mind two other effusions of daddy sentimentality: Molly O’Day’s “Don’t Sell Daddy Any More Whiskey” (date uncertain), the recording of which, believe it or not, includes the sound of an infant crying, and John Denver‘s “Please Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas) (1974). Both songs deal with brutish, abusive dads. But they are so shamelessly manipulative that you react more to how the message is delivered than to what the message is.

“My Daddy Is Only a Picture,” Eddy Arnold (No. 5, 1948, written by Tommy Dilbeck) — Let’s end this parade of papas with one more tear-jerker. Here’s what a little boy tells a visitor who asks to see his father: “My daddy is only a picture/In a frame that hangs on the wall/Each day I talk to my daddy/But he never talks at all.” Since the dad died when the boy was “going on 3,” he has had to construct a father from a photo rather than memories. It’s very sad but was also very common to a generation of “war babies” whose fathers were killed in World War II, not long after which this song was recorded.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.