Starting April 11, thousands of country music fans will put on their cowboy boots and hike all the way to Canyon Moon Ranch in Florence to hear the likes of Chris Stapleton, Tim McGraw, and hometown hero Dierks Bentley, among others. To mark the occasion, we’ve put together a lil’ somethin’ for y’all. The following songs don’t include anyone on the festival’s lineup, but we do believe they are among the most iconic in country music history, and that this list is meant as an educational tool for those not so well-versed in the genre.
Now, please do keep in mind that we did not attempt to please everyone with this list, and we could not include everything we wanted to. Carrie Underwood’s “Before She Cheats” was unfortunately left behind, and we nearly included a track by one Mr. Jeffrey Williams just to get some of y’all’s goat! My, wouldn’t that have been a laugh! Nevertheless, we think we’ve got a good ’lil list right here, and if y’all do have any complaints, feel free to send them to us care of the nearest garbage receptacle. Yippie ki-yay, country lovers!
Hank Williams — "Your Cheatin' Heart" (1953)
Thinking about the early recording days of country, so many faces come to mind: Marty Robbins (born here in Glendale, baby), Johnny Horton, Conway Twitty, Charley Pride, Merle Haggard, Ray Price, George Jones — way too many to list here. But Hank Williams, many must agree, is probably the most influential player in both kinds of music — country and western. He’s the Hillbilly Shakespeare (not a great nickname, but it gets the point across), a fixture of Nashville and Grand Ole Opry history, and the author of the cuckold classic “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
This B-Side to “Kaw-Liga” (another jam) was written toward the end of his life and released a few weeks after his death at 29. He was inspired to write the less-than-three-minute song from talking with then fiancée, later wife, about his first marriage to the infamous Audrey Williams. It cuts so deep, you can’t believe someone who never saw 30 penned the lyrics. It’s a hex on a former partner, cursing her to sleepless, guilty nights and woeful days. And all while comparing this state to his own with the haunting line, “You’ll walk the floor, the way I do.”
Williams may have died young, but his offspring have had plenty of influence on country music as well. The rough and rowdy star Hank Williams Jr. is a hard force to ignore, having spawned outlaw anthems like “A Country Boy Can Survive” and “Family Tradition” after all. Lauren Cusimano
Glen Campbell — “Wichita Lineman” (1968)
Sure, we probably could’ve picked “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” but who are we kidding: This follow-up is the Rhinestone Cowboy’s most iconic song. In fact, if one had to choose a single tune to sum up the American experience, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example than this stunning ballad of road-weary resignation to duty. The lineman is far from home. He misses his beloved. He needs a vacation. Yet he stays on the road for the sake of others, so that they can communicate freely. So long as work forces us away from those we love, this song will have resonance.
Campbell recorded “Wichita Lineman,” with the famed Wrecking Crew production band, which he himself played in on iconic records such as The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. The glitzy production on the track — strings, electronic embellishments to represent the “singin’ in the wire” — serves as a memento from the height of the American recording industry, when sumptuous, expensive, analog audio was standard. Douglas Markowitz
Loretta Lynn — “Coal Miner's Daughter” (1970)
The voice and viewpoint of a female takes country music to a whole new level. The sorrow cuts deeper, the warbling is more beautiful than birdsong, and the tales of liberation are highly inspiring. Just take a moment to think about Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells, Crystal Gayle, June Carter, Dolly, Reba, Tanya, and the first lady of country music, Tammy Wynette.
But Loretta Lynn may just beat them all out when it comes to living the life. By 1970, she was established and safe, and she knew it was time to get real. "Coal Miner’s Daughter" is her biography, hitting on memories about shoeless summers, coal oil lights, and the hard work needed from parents of a large family. Plus, the beautiful, melodic tune shines even brighter compared to more fiery tracks like "Fist City" and "Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man" with Conway Twitty. It was a chart-topper, a new title for Lynn, and the best thing to happen to Sissy Spacek since Stephen King. LC
Johnny Cash — “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (written by Kris Kristofferson) (1970)
This is a country music story so incredible it was covered by Drunk History.
Kris Kristofferson — decorated scholar and Army helicopter pilot — had been disowned by his family for chasing his dream of being a singer-songwriter. He was working as a janitor at Columbia Records in Nashville when he met Johnny and June Carter Cash. June would often help deliver his demo tapes to Johnny, who usually threw them out the window, but “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” a tale of drunken loneliness that Kristofferson wrote in the depths of poverty, was different. He hand-delivered the demo tape to Cash, landing an Army Reserve helicopter on his front lawn.
Cash later performed the song on his ABC variety show, preceded by a monologue about the isolation of the road. “Many who have drifted,” he said, “including myself … have found themselves no closer to peace of mind than a dingy backroom, on some lonely Sunday morning, with it comin’ down all around you.” According to Kristofferson, ABC asked Cash to censor the iconic chorus line “Wishin’ Lord that I was stoned.” Cash played it verbatim. The song became a minor hit for him, another number one, but it was Kristofferson’s big break. He would go on to give Janis Joplin her final, posthumous hit with “Me and Bobby McGee” and star opposite Barbra Streisand in the 1976 version of A Star Is Born. DM
Dolly Parton — “Jolene” (1974)
Second only to “I Will Always Love You” in public acclaim (and written on the same day), “Jolene” is Dolly Parton’s finest moment, and as she is arguably the greatest female country singer of all time (and certainly the most famous), it may just be one of the finest moments in American music. That might seem excessive, but the high drama of the song, about a woman’s fear of having her man stolen by the beautiful title character, is utterly captivating. Parton describes The Girl He Told You Not To Worry About with such sensuality, we wonder if she’s actually the one in love: “Your smile is like a breath of spring / Your voice is soft like summer rain.” And the chorus, with its rising call of “Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene!” displays the all-consuming nature of the obsession.
That the song remains just as relevant today despite its old-fashioned plot speaks to the timelessness of inadequacy. For most of us, there will always be someone better than us at what we do best: a faster runner, a more delicate painter, a more perfect body on Instagram that we feel we can’t possibly measure up to. “Jolene” puts that sense of impostor syndrome into a tangible fear, that our betters have the power to take away what we already have. DM
David Allen Coe — “You Never Even Called Me by My Name” (1975)
The outlaw-caricature that is David Allan Coe was no conformist — give the underrated “Longhaired Redneck” a listen and you'll understand why immediately. But on the last track on Coe’s fourth album, Once Upon A Rhyme, he bites the hand that feeds him, directing a big middle finger to the Nashville scene of the time.
Both Coe and Steve Goodman, who wrote the song, felt they were getting ignored by the conformists on Music Row, and designed "You Never Even Called Me By My Name" as a transparently formulaic country dressing-down of the industry. Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and Charlie Pride all get roped in. But as Coe admits in the spoken interlude, he confided in Steve that there was something missing. "I told him it was
Not the perfect country and western song because he hadn't said anything at all about" — get your counting fingers ready — "Mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or gettin' drunk."
Goodman took the challenge. The next verse flows forward like a wild-ass mad lib: "Well, I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison / And I went to pick her up in the rain / But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck / She got run over by a damned old train."
Today, Coe’s biggest single is a group participation song — only you wouldn’t know it till you put it on in a certain type of bar. Like Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” people know when to “Bomp, bomp, bomp!” even though it’s not in the song. Same with “You Never Even Called Me by My Name” — people just know when to “Let me, let me, let me.” LC
The Highwaymen — “Highwayman” (1985)
“Highwayman” checks a lot of boxes as an iconic country song. It’s performed by the similarly named supergroup of Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash. It was originally written by Jimmy Webb and covered by Glen Campbell, but it wasn’t until the four Nashville heavy-hitters made it their first album’s title track did it fly to the top of the Billboard charts, earning Webb a Grammy Award for Best Country Song the following year.
But beyond the stats, the song succeeds because of the journey it takes listeners on. The narrative follows four souls through various hazardous occupations — a highwayman, a sailor, a builder on the Hoover Dam, and a starship captain. Nelson starts us off, Kristofferson takes us further, and by the time Jennings falls into wet cement, getting permanently entombed in the dam (a nod to the many men with matching fates), our throats are feeling a little froggy. Yet none of our characters are truly gone. Cash acts as the anchor in this relay race, taking us into the future and the great unknown. His starship doesn’t meet an untimely end; it simply fades out into the universe. "Perhaps I may become a highwayman again," Cash sings, "or I may simply be a single drop of rain." You’d have to be made of stone to not be misty by then. LC
Alan Jackson — “Chattahoochee” (1992)
Purists have their opinions, but country hits from the 1990s were simple and a lot of fun: "Boot Scootin' Boogie" from Brooks & Dunn, "Should've Been a Cowboy" by Toby Keith, "Any Man of Mine" from Shania Twain, "I Like It, I Love It" from Tim McGraw, John Michael Montgomery’s "Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident).” We could go on.
But if it’s simplicity and fun you want, the best overlap in this Venn diagram is definitely the mega-single off Alan Jackson’s third studio album. “Chattahoochee” is the country equivalent to Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It,” a super catchy song about fun Friday nights.
The lyrics are half of what makes this song so iconic. You may not know all the words, but you definitely have that first line memorized — “Way down yonder on the Chattahoochee / It gets hotter than a hoochie coochie.” Plus, the music video’s got more dangerous water-skiing than Jaws 2, and is a great glimpse of country music-fan life in the early ‘90s. LC
Garth Brooks — “Friends In Low Places” (1990)
Sure, arena country is middle of the road, mainstream in many ways. But some songs are meant to be sung by 50,000 people. Cue “Friends In Low Places.” Go to a certain part of town and everyone knows every word, no mumbling or pretending while confirming and denying.
“Friends In Low Places” spent four weeks sitting comfortably atop the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and pretty much made Brooks’ career. The accompanying album, No Fences, went multiplatinum with the help of the killer track “The Thunder Rolls” and the honky-tonk “Two of a Kind, Workin’ On a Full House.”
But “Friends” is the killer: It’s a drinking song, a breakup song, and a song about friendship, classism, and being kind of badass (come on, he just takes that Champagne out of the dude’s hand at some fancy event? Your man could never). It’s now the quintessential country bar song, even if a little overplayed by now. But even if some patrons are deep in conversation, beers held close to their chest, they still may break to yell-sing “YO-ASIS!” LC
Dixie Chicks — “Not Ready To Make Nice” (2006)
If there is anything that should have been an early indication that American culture doesn’t follow its own principles, it was the fate of the Dixie Chicks, a “cancellation” before we even had a word for it. It began after the Dallas trio’s lead singer Natalie Maines criticized then-President George W. Bush shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. During a concert in London, she declared “We do not want this war, this violence, and we are ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.”
Of course, Maines was correct then, and she remains correct years later. The Iraq War was an astonishing catastrophe that saw millions of people dead, and the fact that Bush is not in The Hague being tried for war crimes is a disgrace. But at the time, with much of the country still whipped into a patriotic frenzy post-9/11, reactions were vicious. Country radio blackballed them. Death threats were plentiful, even with Twitter still three years away. Toby Keith used Maines’ image in a concert backdrop next to Saddam Hussein.
“Not Ready To Make Nice” is the group’s anti-mea culpa, a post-controversy anthem that puts the trio’s bravery and defiance in the face of American jingoism. The song, which won three Grammys, including Song of the Year and Record of the Year, explicitly addresses the death threats: “And how in the world can the words I said / Send somebody so over the edge / That they’d write me a letter saying I’d better / Shut up and sing or my life will be over?” Forget Waylon and Willie: If you really want to know what “outlaw country,” looks like, it’s right here. DM
Country Thunder Arizona 2019. Thursday, April 11, to Sunday, April 14, at Canyon Moon Ranch, 20585 East Price Road, Florence; countrythunder.com. General admission tickets are $75 for one day and $190 for the full weekend via countrythunder.com.