Imagine yourself front row center at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s a hot summer’s evening in June of 1949, and Luke the Drifter, otherwise known as Hank Williams, takes to the Grand Ole Opry stage to sing his big hit, Lovesick Blues. Williams would perform the same song six times that evening after the audience demanded encore after encore. Finally, the crowd had to be asked to stop asking for another encore, so that other scheduled singers could perform.
Williams, along with other artists such as Roy Acuff, and later Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, and George Jones, helped usher in a contemporary era of American music, often performing at the Opry, otherwise known as the Mother Church Of County Music. Among the scores of hits performed by these country music superstars, we offer the greatest of these contemporary country songs of all time.
List of Top 10 Best Contemporary Country Songs of All Time till in 2017
10. OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE – Merle Haggard
In 1959, Merle Haggard sat in a captive audience and watched a live performance from Johnny Cash. This was no ordinary concert and no ordinary venue. Haggard was an inmate at California’s Folsom Prison, where he’d been incarcerated for numerous petty crimes. Inspired by Cash, Haggard joined a prison country music band, and a year later was released on parole. He would go on to music stardom, writing and performing an impressive string of hits, including his signature Okie From Muskogee, penned during the Vietnam War era. In the song, Haggard panned hippies, pot smokers, and war protestors, proclaiming himself a proud “square.”
9. STAND BY YOUR MAN – Tammy Wynette
The greatest country songs are said to be filled with heartaches and troubles. Amidst plentiful songs about heartbreak over cheatin’ spouses, Wynette’s anthem instructs dutiful women everywhere to remain faithful to their men, no matter what he’s done. If you love him, you’ll forgive him, she counsels. After all, he’s just a man. Indeed, Wynette, often called “The queen of country music” had real life, and public marital discord with then-husband George Jones, their combative relationship being the stuff of country music legend. While Wynette’s standard remains intact, her own marriage to Jones ended in 1975.
8. LOVESICK BLUES – Hank Williams
Rarely has an artist accomplished more in a shorter period of time. Alabama native Hank Williams often referred to as the father of country music had a hard start in life. Forced to help provide for his family from a young age, Williams would sing outside a small radio station with a Sears and Roebuck guitar, playing for tips. After winning a talent contest, he began to get exposure on local radio, eventually hosting his own show. Williams eventually performed regularly on the Louisiana Hayride until finally appearing on the Grand Ole Opry, singing six encores of this song. Tragically, Williams died in the backseat of his Cadillac at the young age of 29.
7. CRAZY – Patsy Cline
In the early days, country music was the domain of men. All this changed with the appearance of Kitty Wells, and the golden contralto voice of Patsy Cline. Cline shattered the glass ceiling with hits such as Walkin’ After Midnight, I Fall To Pieces, She’s Got You and her grand finale, Sweet Dreams. Working as a soda jerk at a small Virginia diner, Cline went to a local radio station and asked to perform on the air. Her performance was well received, and Cline began appearing in nightclubs. It would not be long before she was headlining her own shows. Tragically, Cline’s life was cut short at age 30 in a plane crash 90 miles from Nashville. The Willie Nelson-penned Crazy remains a country music standard.
6. A COUNTRY BOY CAN SURVIVE – Hank Williams, Jr.
The only son of country legend Hank Williams answered his father’s success with his 1982 smash A Country Boy Can Survive. It took Hank’s son many years to escape his father’s impressive shadow, but Hank Jr. eventually forged his own way with his own music, reaching the pinnacle of success with the groundbreaking tune which declared the hardscrabble determination of backwoods living, pickup truck driving, gun-toting and fishing country boys everywhere to any city slicker who might be listening. I can plow a field all day long / I can catch catfish from dusk til dawn. A Country Boy Can Survive endures as the anthem for country boys from north California to south Alabama, and little towns all across this land.
5. THE DANCE – Garth Brooks
The Dance helped catapult Brooks to the top of the charts, and country music, in 1990. The song’s theme centers around anyone who lives their dreams, no matter the cost. The accompanying video included segments from Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, and the crew of the space shuttle Challenger which exploded in 1986, just over a minute after liftoff. The song, which declares Our lives / are better left to chance / I could have missed the pain / but I’d have had to miss the dance. Brooks accurately refers to the song as his signature tune, once calling it his greatest success. This is one amongst the Top 10 Best Contemporary Country Songs of All Time until 2017.
4. RING OF FIRE – Johnny Cash
No one left a greater impression on country music than Johnny Cash. With a string of successful hits, movies, and his own television variety show, Cash recorded Ring Of Fire in 1963, and it would become his biggest hit. The song, penned by his eventual wife June Carter, perfectly described the tumultuous events surrounding their complicated love affair. Carter, a member of the legendary Carter Family, pioneers in country music, ultimately joined forces with her talented husband, and together, they recorded several more country hits. But it was Ring Of Fire which solidified Cash’s position as a pillar of contemporary country music.
3. COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER – Loretta Lynn
The definitive signature song, Coal Miner’s Daughter is the Lynn-penned autobiographical ode to her impoverished childhood. Raised with her siblings in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, Lynn tells the story of parents who worked tirelessly in fields and coal mines, to provide the barest of necessities. Loretta Webb would eventually meet and marry Doolittle Lynn at the tender age of 15 and move to Washington state, where, at her husband’s insistence she began singing in local venues in the late 1950’s. A string of hits would soon follow, her breakout hit being “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl.” But no song defines any performer’s career as Coal Miner’s Daughter does Lynn’s.
2. HELLO DARLIN’ – Conway Twitty
In 1969, Conway Twitty penned the song that would match, if not surpass his epic 1958 hit It’s Only Make Believe. In the studio, Twitty found singing the opening lines difficult, so his producer suggested he speak them. The rest is history as Twitty apologizes and asks forgiveness from a former love, offering to be waiting for her should she find it in her heart to forgive him. Hello Darlin rocketed up the charts, becoming Twitty’s fourth number one country hit, singing the song to open his shows.
1. HE STOPPED LOVING HER TODAY – George Jones
Jones’ tour de force was almost never recorded. When he first heard it, Jones rejected the song as being “too long, too sad, too depressing, and nobody will ever play it.” The song tells the story of a man who never stops loving the woman who left him, waiting and hoping that she will one day return. Eventually, the man stops loving her on the day he dies, and she returns for his funeral. Jones observes all this tragedy with his mournful narrative: I went to see him just today / Oh, but I didn’t see no tears / All dressed up to go away / First time I’d seen him smile in years.
He Stopped Loving Her Today is the epitome of a country song, reaching through the radio to break your heart as you reach for your handkerchief. The song is the crown jewel of Jones’ impressive career, and the ultimate country masterpiece, an easy number one selection for our list, or any list.
So, these above are the Top 10 Best Contemporary Country Songs of All Time until 2017. The greatest contemporary country songs of all time share a common thread: a compelling story, full of tragedy, heartbreak, loss and gain. The songs pull at the most cynical critic’s heart, for they meet people where they live, in a real world full of such elements.