The country genre is one that often gets a bad rap, sometimes for a good reason. When asked what their favorite type of music is, many people answer that they like all music — except for country. It is a common criticism that all the songs in the genre are about beer, hot girls and trucks, or that all the songs are especially jingoistic like Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue.” Comedian Bo Burnham wrote a parody of such songs, Tom Petty called contemporary country “bad rock with a fiddle” and Steve Earle called the genre “hip-hop for people who are afraid of black people.” Other criticisms include songs in the genre having nothing to do with country and just being pop with a Southern twang, or the excessive use of snap tracks to create a beat instead of using actual drums.
But, like every other genre, the most popular songs don’t always represent the entire genre. Country music can be varied and diverse. It also blends into other genres such as Americana and bluegrass. Below is a list of some songs that even the staunchest country music hater might enjoy.
“Keep on the Sunny Side”
This song is a fairly old one. Its lyrics were written in 1899 by a hymnist, Ada Blenkhorn. It was popularized in 1928 by The Carter Family. The group has been called “Country Music’s First Family” because they collected and popularized many different folk songs and ballads. The song itself is simple and upbeat without being overly so.
“In the Jailhouse Now”
“In the Jailhouse Now” started out as a vaudeville song and was popularized by Jimmie Rodgers. It has a humorous tone and tells the tale of a man named “Ramblin’ Bob” who gets in trouble while gambling and is thrown in jail. The narrator himself meets this same fate after taking a girl named Susie out on the town, getting in trouble and talking back to the judge.
This song is named after a train. Like the other songs listed so far, it has been covered many times. The song praises the train, listing the places that it passes through and what people think of it.
“Settin’ the Woods on Fire”
Sung by Hank Williams, “Settin’ the Woods on Fire” is an upbeat song about a couple having a good time in town before they have to go back to work in the morning.
Originally written and sung by Merle Travis, “Sixteen Tons” is based on Travis’ father. The song protests the conditions of the coal mines and company towns of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. The chorus’s lyrics came from Travis’ brother, while the line “I owe my soul to the company store” came from a remark made by Travis’ father, a coal miner. Because of the Red Scare, Travis’ song generated a lot of controversy and made the FBI label him a Communist sympathizer.
This song is about a smitten man following a woman down the Mississippi River and missing her at every stop. When Johnny Cash first wrote it, he intended it to be sung slowly. However, the final product was more “up-tempo.” The song follows the length of the entire Mississippi River, from the top in Minnesota to the bottom in New Orleans.
“The Battle of New Orleans”
The most popular version of “The Battle of New Orleans” was sung by Johnny Horton. The song is a comedic and slightly absurd account of the titular battle: It talks about how the Americans made the British retreat with the help of their guns — and an alligator that they used as a makeshift cannon.
“Flowers on the Wall”
“Flowers on the Wall” by the Statler Brothers is sung from the point of view of a man who has become a shut-in. He does nothing but smoke, watch television and play with a deck that’s missing a card. The tune sounds upbeat, but the lyrics read like a man trying to convince himself and everyone else that he’s doing fine. Interestingly, “Flowers on the Wall” was an attempt at a psychedelic country song.
“Ballad of Forty Dollars”
This song is fast-paced and based on real events. The singer, Tom T. Hall, worked as a caretaker at a cemetery. He often saw funerals as he worked and it occurred to him that, if a dead man owed somebody money, there’d be no way to collect it. In “Ballad of Forty Dollars,” the singer laments that the deceased owed him $40. He’ll never get that money back, as it would be a faux pas to ask the widow. There’s a heavy sense of irony throughout the lyrics of “Ballad of Forty Dollars.”
“Coal Miner’s Daughter”
In “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Loretta Lynn remembers the sacrifices that her parents made for the family. The end of the song states that the family’s house isn’t around anymore and implies that the parents aren’t either. But it also shows that the love remains.
“Take Me Home, Country Roads”
This song experienced a surge in popularity after it was featured in Fallout 76. The song is one of West Virginia’s state anthems. John Denver captures a feeling of homesickness and nostalgia with lyrics like “all my memories, gather ‘round her” and “I should have been home yesterday.”
“You Ain’t Going Nowhere”
The lyrics were originally written by Bob Dylan after a motorcycle accident. Dylan was stuck inside afterward, and the title alone captures the restless feeling of not being able to go anywhere. The imagery of certain lines, such as “strap yourself to a tree with roots” and “Genghis Khan could not keep all his kings supplied with sleep” give the song a surrealistic feel as well.
“Jolene” is Dolly Parton’s most covered song. It tells the story of a woman who fears that her husband will be unfaithful because she doesn’t measure up to the other woman. Parton paints the picture of Jolene beautifully with lines like “your smile is like a breath of spring” and “your voice is soft like summer rain.”
On the surface, Emmylou Harris’ song is an upbeat tune about drinking wine and having a good time. But it also appears to be a song dedicated to somebody — a person who Harris refers to as “Baby” who took her off the highway, “taught [her] a different way of thinking” and “made [her] put [her] money in the bank.”
“One Piece at a Time”
“One Piece at a Time” is another comedic song. The speaker is a man who works on the factory line assembling Cadillacs. He wants one for himself but doesn’t have the money. So, rather than saving up, he begins to steal the parts he needs. Because this process takes several years, and because the Cadillac design changes over time, the man ends up with a sort of Franken-car when he is finally able to put it together. It has one tail fin and three headlights and is laughed at by everyone who sees it.
Kenny Rogers’ most well-known song tells of two men meeting on a train. One of them is a gambler and gives the narrator advice in exchange for his whiskey. Shortly after, the gambler “[breaks] even” and dies in his sleep. The narrator decides to take his advice to heart.
“The Devil Went Down to Georgia”
“The Devil Went Down to Georgia” is a story about The Devil challenging a young man named Johnny to a fiddle contest. If Johnny wins, he gets a golden fiddle. But if Johnny loses, he loses his soul. The song references older tunes such as “House of the Rising Sun” and “Fire on the Mountain.” The song’s plot also references older stories, such as “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” Johnny ultimately wins, though some speculate that Johnny actually lost; he may have beaten the devil, but he gave into greed and pride.
“Pancho and Lefty”
First written and sung by Townes Van Zandt, “Pancho and Lefty” is considered one of the greatest Western songs of all time. In the song, Pancho is betrayed by his fellow outlaw Lefty and dies alone in the desert. Pancho becomes immortalized through his infamy (“the poets tell how Pancho fell”) while Lefty leaves the West, unknown (“Lefty’s living in a cheap hotel”). The song became more famous with Merle Haggard’s 1983 recording.
“Amarillo by Morning”
“Amarillo by Morning” is about a man heading down to Texas to work in a rodeo. He says that “everything that [he’s] got is just what [he’s] got on.” He then recounts the hardships he’s faced: breaking his leg, losing his saddle and losing his wife and girlfriend. Despite all this, the narrator maintains a positive outlook. He states that, while he’s not rich, he’s glad to be free.
“Wagon Wheel,” like many other country songs, has been covered by various artists. The lyrics were penned by Bob Dylan but the tune came after. In the song, the narrator speaks of hitchhiking down south from New England to meet his lover. Lyrics like “Staring up the road and pray to God I see headlights” show the narrator’s desperation to get to where they’re going.
“The Devil Wears a Suit and Tie”
Coulter Wall’s “The Devil Wears a Suit and Tie” references the rumor that blues performer Robert Johnson sold his soul in exchange for musical talent. The song is dark and gothic and is enhanced by the singer’s scratchy, mournful tone. The imagery of cotton fields, knives and a barren highway in July along with the singer’s mournful voice create the song’s dreary tone.
“Dead of Night”
Orville Peck’s song is about a whirlwind romance that ultimately doesn’t work out well. Peck maintains a gloomy, moody tone with his low voice and instrumentals. The first few stanzas are about partners in crime who live quickly. The last few stanzas open with “Six summers down…you’re not by my side.” Peck really captures the sadness present in many country songs and the bitterness of losing love.
All genres have good and bad songs, and country music is no exception. Notably, many well-liked country songs tell stories. Whether it’s about ending up in jail after a night on the town or beating the devil in a fiddle contest, the songs of country music are all about painting a picture and having an imagination.