The origins of country music go back to the 1920s in southern US – over the years, this form of music has evolved and diversified into numerous sub genres like country rock, country pop, alternative, fusion, mainstream and many more, expanding its reach globally. The immense popularity and success of the genre is not only because of the unadulterated relatability of the songs, but also because of the artistry, poetry and charm of those iconic country singers.
I thoroughly enjoy country music as there’s always a compelling story told in a way that is charismatic, yet so closely associated with life. And the more I can relate to them, even within my contemporary surroundings, the more euphoric they make me feel.
With that said, here are 10 classic old-school country songs that I have been adoring through ages.
10. Always on my mind by Willie Nelson
My first exposure to this song was through the Elvis Presley version. However, it was the Willie Nelson version that got stuck with me. The sheer demeanor of his voice mixed with “guilty-as-charged” emotions makes this song a classic.
9. Man of constant sorrow by Stanley Brothers
I first heard this song in the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou”. Ever since, this song has been one of my favorites. The song takes you on a folklore-ish journey and the way it ends, with the lines:
“But there is one promise that is given,
I’ll meet you on God’s golden shore”
Makes this song a timeless classic for me.
8. The Gambler by Kenny Rogers
This song paints such a clear picture, as if you are inside the train with the gambler. For some whiskey and cigarettes, the mysterious man cuts a deal for an “Ace-of-spade” of an advice. The metaphoric aura of the song conveys a philosophical wisdom, with lyrics like:
“You got to know when to hold ’em,
Know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away, And know when to run”
“Cause every hand’s a winner,
And every hand’s a loser,
And the best that you can hope for
Is to die in your sleep.”
My interpretation of the song is that philosophically, life is compared to a game of cards, where it is critical to have an action plan as well as a contingency plan. To win or to lose is situational depending on the perspective of the beholder. Every situation in the game of life has the probability of success and failure. And at the end of the entire process or game, somewhere in the darkness, lies salvation –cryptically referred in these lines of the song:
“And somewhere in the darkness, the gambler he broke even”
With such creative lyrics, the song delivers one of the greatest musical storytelling experience.
7. Me and Bobby Mcgee by Kris Kristofferson
This is one of my all-time favorite songs. Across many genres and styles of music, I think
“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”
is one of best lines ever written.
Moreover, this song is not only about freedom but also about friendship, love and the immortal wisdom of simplicity as reflected in the lines:
“Feelin good was easy, Lord. When bobby sang the blues. And buddy, that was good enough for me. Good enough for me and Bobby McGee”
The lonesome, longing tune painting a story about Bobby Mcgee – a drifter, free spirited woman in search of home (quest to re-discover her roots), and freedom (a hypothetical concept, chasing which at times costs everything including love)
I will put it this way. This song was just good enough for me.
6. My heart skips a beat by Buck Owens
Now what is country living without some romancing. This classic country song is all about the feelings for that special someone, who would make the heart skip a beat.
The promise of sweet romance associated with this song makes my heart skip a beat whenever I hear these lines:
“You came into my life without a warning
And you turned my cloudy skies from grey to blue
You’re my sunshine that comes up every morning
Yes you are my every dream come true
And my heart skips a beat”
5. King of the road by Roger Miller
This song is about the stoical celebration of the vagrant way of life. With punch lines like:
“I’m a man of means by no means, king of the road”
And jazz-influenced undertones this song ignites my desire to wander.
It neither asks for sympathy nor portrays any bitterness. The song dovetails nicely into my delusional sense of hobo adventure, my own vagabond way of life:
“No phone, no pool, no pets, I ain’t got no cigarettes”
The song evokes a prodigious hope which manifests into the line “nothing can be better than everything”
I think this song never lost a bit with age. An evergreen country classic, especially recommended for road trips.
4. Mama tried by Merle Haggard
This song is an ode to all the bad boys out there who loved their moms, but never listened to them. One of Haggard’s most iconic and enduring songs, this country classic was also covered beautifully by “Grateful Dead”. Both the versions are brilliant.
The fascinating thing about the song is the way simple conversational words are weaved together to deliver an autobiographical story. The bad boy charm oozes out of the song with nostalgic references of hardships of a single mother in a not-so-long-ago patriarchal world. Moreover, the self-actualization of the legendary protagonist delivers an important lesson in life.
“Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading, I denied
That leaves only me to blame ’cause Mama tried”
And the undeniable perfection of voice, tone and pitch makes this song an inspiration for all musicians.
3. A boy named Sue by Johnny Cash
I love this song, not only for the obvious reasons like superb storytelling, the style and flair of Johnny Cash which makes you admire his awesome sense of humor, but also because one of the themes of the song is a critical take on the classic gender roles of our society.
This is a song about a young man named Sue and his quest for revenge on his father for naming him so. Right from the first three lines, the song establishes two main characters and the raging tension between them. As the song progresses it gives us revealing details, motives, tensions and legendary dialogues between Daddy and Sue. My favorite is:
“My name is Sue. How do you do? Now you’re gonna die!”
2. Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash
This song is emblematic of Cash’s status as the country outlaw archetype, we also know him as “The Man in Black” as he always wore a signature black trench coat during live performances. In his song “The Man in Black” he says:
“I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.”
“Folsom Prison Blues” is not reckless badassery. It is a beautiful song which succinctly conveys the dangers to the society for allowing a man with no hope. Circumstantially no hope becomes no fear, and then curiosity can indeed become the governing principle of life.
Whether we feel trapped by a bad relationship, a boring city, a crappy job, a cramped apartment, or simply some bad decisions we’ve made, we all know what it feels like to be “prisoners” in our own lives. The Folsom Prison Blues does not encourage crime, rather it’s song about a human emotion (emotional prison) and a person who wants to break free from it, but can’t. In the closing lines of the song we find hope where the protagonist wants to do something good with his life that will give him happiness and take his sadness away.
“Well, if they freed me from this prison
If that railroad train was mine
I bet I’d move out over a little
Farther down the line
Far from Folsom Prison
That’s where I want to stay
And I’d let that lonesome whistle
Blow my blues away ”
1. Country roads, take me home by John Denver
Home is where heart is. That is why we sometimes find ourselves longing for that place where we can be rooted, a place where a man feels at home, a place where we can be ourselves. “Home’s where you go when you run out of homes.” (as quoted by ― John le Carré )
This song is about a man’s desire to get back to his roots. This song has all the authentic ingredients a country song needs to conjure, to acquire iconic status. The archetypal country accent along with a heart melting voice, euphonious acoustic guitar playing in the background and the lyrics – which are like words of wisdom to me, always inspires me to run back home. Inevitably the song evokes nostalgia and makes you imagine your very own “Almost heaven”
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