While there have been some awesome songs that have come from country music artists these past few years, nothing really beats the classic, old country songs that were released years and even decades ago. From Dolly Parton’s infamous cheating song “Jolene,” to Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line,” there’s only a number of tunes that can be called the best old country songs out there. Check out our list of what we think are the best, old country songs, below. They’re in no particular order, of course.
10. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1970), Loretta Lynn
“Coal Miner’s Daughter” is an autobiographical 1969 country music song written and performed by Loretta Lynn. Released in 1970, the song became Lynn’s signature song, one of the genre’s most widely known songs. It also provided the basis for both her autobiography and a movie on her life.
“Coal Miner’s Daughter” tells the story of her life growing up “in a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler”, while her father, Melvin “Ted” Webb, worked all night in a local coal mine. The song depicts the real story of Lynn’s life growing up in rural Kentucky, and discusses how she and her seven siblings lived off of a coal miner’s salary (“Daddy loved and raised eight kids on a miner’s pay”), and that her father always made sure there was love in the Webb household.
Subsequent verses recall Lynn’s other childhood experiences and hardships, such as her mother reading the Bible by a coal-oil light or having bloody fingers from constantly doing the laundry using an abrasive “warsh”board (this pronunciation was reflective of her Appalachian Kentucky roots), ordering shoes from a mail-order catalog, and working so hard every day that everyone slept because “they were tired.”
In the song’s final verse, the now-adult Lynn returns to her homestead, which has since been abandoned (“Not much left but the floor; nothing lives here anymore …”). However, she remarks that the “memories of a coal miner’s daughter” remain.
Learn more about “Coal Miner’s Daughter” here.
Learn more about Loretta Lynn here.
Read the lyrics for “Coal Miner’s Daughter” here.
9. “Always On My Mind” (1982), Willie Nelson
“Always On My Mind” is an American country music song by Johnny Christopher, Mark James and Wayne Carson, recorded first by Gwen McCrae and Brenda Lee in 1972.
AllMusic lists over 300 recorded releases of the song in versions by dozens of performers. Willie Nelson recorded and released the song in early 1982. His version raced to number one on Billboard magazine’s Hot Country Singles chart, spending two weeks on top and total of 21 weeks on the chart. At the end of the year, it was Billboard’s biggest country hit for 1982. This version also charted in a number of other countries.
Nelson’s version resulted in three wins at the 25th Grammy Awards in February 1983. He performed the number with Johnny Cash on the 1998 release of VH1 Storytellers: Johnny Cash & Willie Nelson. The song was also featured on a December 2009 ASPCA commercial. In 2008, the single was inducted to the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Learn more about “Always On My Mind” here.
Learn more about Willie Nelson here.
Read the lyrics for “Always On My Mind” here.
8. “Your Cheating Heart” (1952), Hank Williams
“Your Cheatin’ Heart” is a song written and recorded by country music singer-songwriter Hank Williams in 1952. It is regarded as one of country music’s most important standards. Country music historian Colin Escott writes that “the song – for all intents and purposes – defines country music.”
Williams was inspired to write the song while driving with his fianceé from Nashville, Tennessee to Shreveport, Louisiana. He described his first wife Audrey Sheppard as a “Cheatin’ Heart.” The tune was released in January 1953. Propelled by Williams’ death during a trip to a New Year’s concert in Canton, Ohio, the song became an instant success. The song became synonymous with the myth of Williams as a haunted, lonely figure who expressed pain with an authenticity that became the standard for country music. The name of the song was used as the title of Hank Williams’ 1964 biopic, Your Cheatin’ Heart.
In the 2003 documentary series Lost Highway, country music historian Ronnie Pugh commented, “It’s Hank’s anthem, it’s his musical last will and testament. It’s searing, it’s powerful, it’s gripping. If you want to say this is his last and best work, I wouldn’t argue with that.”
AllMusic.com described the track as the “signature song” of Williams and an “unofficial anthem” of country music. Rolling Stone magazine called it “one of the greatest country standards of all time”, ranking it at number 217 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The song ranked at number five in Country Music Television’s 100 Greatest Songs in Country Music in 2003.
Learn more about “Your Cheating Heart” here.
Learn more about Hank Williams here.
Read the lyrics for “Your Cheating Heart” here.
7. “Amarillo By Morning” (1982), George Strait
“Amarillo by Morning” is a country music song written by Terry Stafford and Paul Fraser, and recorded by Stafford in 1973. Several cover versions have since been made, and the most popular one is probably a major 1983 hit from George Strait. It appeared on Strait’s 1982 album Strait from the Heart.
The song was written after Stafford played with his band at a rodeo in San Antonio, Texas, and then drove back to his home in Amarillo, Texas. The song is regularly played at rodeos and was named “#12 country song of all-time” by Country Music Television. Development Counsellors International and USA Today named the song one of the top ten songs about a place. Members of the Western Writers of America chose it as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time.
Learn more about “Amarillo By Morning” here.
Learn more about George Strait here.
Read the lyrics for “Amarillo By Morning” here.
6. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” (1980), George Jones
What’s an old country music song list without some George Jones? “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is a song recorded by Jones. It has been named in several surveys as the greatest country song of all time.
“He Stopped Loving Her Today” was released in April 1980 as the lead single from his album I Am What I Am. The song was Jones’s first number one single in six years. The somber tune was written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman.
The week after Jones’ death the song re-entered the Hot Country Songs chart at number 21. As of November 13, 2013, the single has sold 521,000 copies in the United States. And since 2008 it has been preserved by the Library of Congress into the National Recording Registry.
Country music singer Alan Jackson sang the song during Jones’ funeral service on May 2, 2013.
Learn more about “He Stopped Loving Her Today” here.
Learn more about George Jones here.
Read the lyrics for “He Stopped Loving Her Today” here.
5. “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” (1979), The Charlie Daniels Band
“The Devil Went Down to Georgia” is a song written and performed by the Charlie Daniels Band and released on their 1979 album Million Mile Reflections.
The thing that’s the makes this song such an old country classic is that the song’s verses are basically spoken rather than sung. They tell the story of a boy named Johnny, in a variant on the classic deal with the Devil. The performances of Satan and Johnny are played as instrumental bridges. The song was the band’s biggest hit, reaching number three on the Billboard Hot 100. It is also featured in the 1980 film Urban Cowboy.
Learn more about “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” here.
Learn more about The Charlie Daniels Band here.
Read the lyrics for “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” here.
4. “The Gambler” (1978), Kenny Rogers
“The Gambler” is a song written by Don Schlitz, recorded by several artists, most famously by American country music singer Kenny Rogers. Although recorded by other artists such as Johnny Cash, the song was released by Rogers in November 1978 as the title track from his album The Gambler which won him the Grammy award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance in 1980.
The song itself is a country music classic because it tells the story of a late-night meeting on a train “bound for nowhere” between the narrator and a man known only as the gambler. The gambler tells the narrator that he can tell he is down on his luck by the look in his eyes and offers him advice in exchange for his last swallow of whiskey. After the gambler takes the drink (and a cigarette), he gives the following advice:
“You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run. You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table, there’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.”
Learn more about “The Gambler” here.
Learn more about Kenny Rogers here.
Read the lyrics for “The Gambler” here.
3. “Jolene” (1974), Dolly Parton
When you think of “the best of country music,” Dolly Parton’s name definitely comes up. Not only did she pen and record the hit “I Will Always Love You,” but her song “Jolene” is easily one of the best country songs, too.
Parton released “Jolene” in October 1973 as the first single and title track from her album of the same name. The song was ranked number 217 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” in 2004. According to Parton, “Jolene” is the song most-recorded by other artists of all the songs she has written.
“Jolene” is unique simply because of it tells the tale of a woman confronting Jolene, a stunningly beautiful woman, who she believes is trying to steal away her lover and begging her “please don’t take my man.” Throughout the song, the woman implores Jolene, “please don’t take him just because you can.” According to Parton, the song was inspired by a red-headed bank clerk who flirted with her husband Carl Dean at his local bank branch around the time they were newly married. In an interview, she also revealed that Jolene’s name and appearance are based on that of a young fan who came on stage for her autograph.
Learn more about “Jolene” here.
Learn more about Dolly Parton here.
Read the lyrics for “Jolene” here.
2. “I Walk The Line” (1957), Johnny Cash
Although this list is in no particular order, “I Walk The Line” could easily really be number one on a “best of country” list. The song was written and recorded in 1956 by Johnny Cash. It became Cash’s first number one hit on the Billboard charts and was also the title song for a 1970 film.
The unique chord progression for the song was reportedly inspired by backward playback of guitar runs on Cash’s tape recorder while he was in the Air Force stationed in Germany. Later in a telephone interview, Cash stated, “I wrote the song backstage one night in 1956 in Gladewater, Texas. I was newly married at the time, and I suppose I was laying out my pledge of devotion.”
After the writing of the song Cash had a discussion with fellow performer Carl Perkins who encouraged him to adopt “I Walk the Line” as the song title. Cash originally intended the song as a slow ballad, but producer Sam Phillips preferred a faster version, which Cash grew to like.
The song’s lyrics refer to marital fidelity, personal responsibility, and avoiding temptation and criminal behavior. The song is included in “The 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll”, a permanent exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked the song at #30 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Learn more about “I Walk The Line” here.
Learn more about Johnny Cash here.
Read the lyrics for “I Walk The Line” here.
1. “A Country Boy Can Survive” (1982), Hank Williams Jr.
Who doesn’t know the song “A Country Boy Can Survive?”
It’s a song written and recorded by American country music artist Hank Williams Jr. The song was released as a single in January 1982 and reached a peak of number two on the Billboard Hot Country Singles charts in March 1982. It is considered one of Williams’ signature songs even though it never reached number one. The song is about the many things that detail the everyday life of country dwellers. The notable second verse mentions the narrator’s relationship with a New York City businessman. Despite their differing backgrounds, the two become good friends and exchange gifts. However, the businessman is “killed by a man with a switchblade knife/for $43 my friend lost his life.” Williams then replies that he would like to personally shoot the mugger himself, but not before “(spitting) Beech-Nut in that dude’s eyes.”
Shortly after September 11, 2001, Williams re-wrote and re-recorded “A Country Boy Can Survive” with a patriotic theme under the name “America Will Survive.”
Learn more about “A Country Boy Can Survive” here.
Learn more about Hank Williams Jr. here.
Read the lyrics for “A Country Boy Can Survive” here.
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