Country is one of those genres that people name-check all the time. Unfortunately, it’s usually preceded by “I like all music except…” But country music is as wide-ranging as any other genre, so we’re sure you’ll find something to like in this special playlist of country songs for people who say they don’t like country.
“Jolene” by Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton has been an icon so long, some people might forget how she earned that title with great songs like “Jolene”. The arrangement of the song is so haunting, it sucks you right in. The story of the woman pleading with Jolene, the most beautiful woman in town, are absolutely heartbreaking; Dolly’s delivery makes you believe every word, even though Dolly herself is pretty gorgeous herself.
“Sad Songs and Waltzes” by Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson’s a talent like Harry Nilsson; someone whose biggest hits have been covers (Willie’s “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” written by Ed Bruce and Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin'”, written by Fred Neill), but have written the biggest hits for other artists (Willie wrote “Crazy” for Patsy Cline; Nilsson wrote “One” for Three Dog Night). This song should have been a bigger hit — it wasn’t even the A-side of a single, but the flip to “Shotgun Willie”, which only reached #60 on Billboard — but I guess Willie’s right about “Sad Songs and Waltzes” not selling that year.
“Streets Of Bakersfield” by Dwight Yoakam and Buck Owens
Good lord, “Streets Of Bakersfield” is just a perfect song, and the duet between Dwight Yoakam and Buck Ownes is delivered with the proper smirk that it deserves. If you read the lyrics without hearing the song, it comes off as a sad song about a drifter who just wants to be someone — but it’s only on hearing the song where you realize that, sure, it’s a drifter who wants to be someone… but he doesn’t particularly care if you don’t think he’s anyone, because, well, HE knows that’s not true. And if you disagree, well, that’s just your opinion, man.
“Good Ole Boys Like Me” by Don Williams
Don Williams was a phenomenal vocalist, and “Good Ole Boys Like Me” is such a beautiful song. Gentle and kind, but with a wistfulness that almost borders on sad — but not quite… maybe just a single tear accompanied by a smile. I think Don Williams gets forgotten in this day and age, which is an absolute tragedy. Honestly, his name should be whispered in the same breath as many of the greats. He did so many great songs, and they all have this warmth — like he’s the world’s surrogate grandpa. He was only 41 when he recorded this song, but his voice has a lived-in quality that adds years without taking away the purity of his voice. He’s still touring today, too.
“I Must Be King” by Jonathan Richman
This list includes a few cuts from people who don’t do country music normally, but still did legitimate examples of the genre. Jonathan Richman, like Ween, put out an outstanding country album, Jonathan Goes Country. While Ween’s 12 Golden Country Greats was all original, Richman’s album is a mix of originals and covers (including an instrumental version of “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad”, famously performed by Tammy Wynette) — and it’s saying something that his originals hold up just as well as the covers. When it came out this album probably turned a few JoJo fans onto country… and completely alienated others.
“Hard Rock Bottom Of Your Heart” by Randy Travis
It’s very sad most non-country fans today think of Randy Travis as a punchline, given his recent legal troubles. Travis has always had a magnificent voice, and this is one of his very best. “Hard Rock Bottom Of Your Heart” is such a sad song, and it’s a little rare that the lyrics (written by Hugh Priestwood, by the way) put the narrator as the one who made the mistake. This isn’t a “you done me wrong” song, it’s an “I done you wrong” song. But beyond that, the music and lyrics are absolutely sublime; honestly, you can’t beat the bridge with the “I need your love, I miss it/I can’t go on like this it/hurts too much” line break. That’s not even talking about the harmonica subtly driving the song. This is what we should think of when we think of Randy Travis.
“We Can’t Have Nice Things” by Kelly Hogan
Until now, most of the music on this list has been on the older side; this is an outlier. “We Can’t Have Nice Things,” written by Andrew Bird, is from Kelly Hogan’s most recent album, I Like To Keep Myself In Pain, is not just new, but on the soulful side of country. In fact, that’s the legendary Booker T. on organ… as if you couldn’t tell. The “ba ba ba ba” part of the song might not be the most country sounding thing in the world, but it’s still catchy as hell.
“L.A. Freeway” by Jerry Jeff Walker
Like Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker wrote a LOT of really great songs, including “Mr. Bojangles” (made most famous by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band)… but probably the most famous song he recorded is Guy Clark’s “LA Freeway.” As good as Clark’s original is, Jerry Jeff owns this song. The arrangement is perfect and makes it into this anthem about getting the hell out of Dodge. Or rather, Los Angeles.
“The Cheapest Key” by Kathleen Edwards
Kathleen Edwards is often grouped in as a folk singer rather than a country artist, but her music is clearly in the country idiom of folks like Mary Chapin Carpenter — and like Carpenter, does a particular brand of feminist country that’s absolutely refreshing. This is from her 2008 album Asking For Flowers, and there’s about 11 other songs from that album I could have chosen. Her newest album, Voyageur is likewise worth picking up if you like good music.
“Weightless Again” by The Handsome Family
The Handsome Family are one of the only country bands that are known for using a drum machine. You may have heard their music as the theme to the first season of True Detective; “Far From Any Road” from the Singing Bones album. If you haven’t heard them before, though, you’re in for a treat. Brett Sparks’ baritone voice is so rich, and Rennie Sparks’ lyrics are as exquisite as any Flannery O’Connor story. Not only that, but this is one of the few songs of any genre referencing the tragic true story of a rainforest tribe that forgot how to make fire. Sure, it’s a metaphor, but what a metaphor.
“Flowers on the Wall” by The Statler Brothers
“Flowers On The Wall” was the debut single from the Statler Brothers; it’s rare for the first song a band does to become an essential song of the genre. Despite being a huge hit, the song feels decades ahead of its time. “Flowers” is a very mature, sophisticated song with a sharp edge that is a bit unexpected for 1965. The tone of the song is perfect — the verses are so sarcastically cheery. Country is often dismissed as being a simplistic genre, but this song puts the lie to that. If that doesn’t sell you, Vonnegut was a fan too — in Palm Sunday, he wrote that it was “yet another great contemporary poem by the Statler Brothers… It is not a poem of escape or rebirth. It is a poem about the end of a man’s usefulness”.
“You Were The Fool” by Ween
Though not a popular album on its release, Ween’s album 12 Golden Country Greats is one of their best. If you don’t believe it, you’ll have to take it up with Dean Ween who’s said it’s one of his favorite things they’ve done. The pedigree on the album is amazing — merely one example: The Jordinaires sing backup on the record. The title made people think they were bashing country (there’s only 10 tracks), but it didn’t refer to the songs, but the twelve Nashville greats who made the album with them. “You Were The Fool” is one of many outstanding tracks — honestly, it was a very tough choice to choose but one to represent this album.
“Diggers of the ANZAC” by John Williamson
For Americans, “Diggers of the ANZAC” may seem particularly interesting; it’s got all the trappings of country music, including a sense of patriotism… except that instead of the US, it’s patriotism for John Williamson’s home country of Australia. It’s also an incredibly catchy song. Want proof? I first first heard this when I was 13 on a trip to Australia, and it took me about 20 years to find it again… And yet, for those 20 years, I had “This is Gallipoli/And don’t you forget/We are the diggers of the ANZAC” running through my head. That’s what they call a hook.
A quick Aussie history lesson: “Digger” is slang for soldier, and “ANZAC” is the “Australia and New Zealand Army Corps”; the song is about the Gallipoli Campaign of WWI, fought by many Australians and New Zealanders, and is often tied to the formation of the two nations’ national identities.
“There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis” by Kirsty MacColl
Kirsty MacColl is one of the most underrated singers and songwriters in pop music. She was at home crossing genres, with electronic pop on Titanic Days, to the latin-inspired Tropical Brainstorm, and her country-tinged debut Desperate Character. “There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis” is from that album, and uses its unwieldy title as the hook of a song about a woman who’s not sure if her man is true. She recorded a version of this song for the US market with “Chip Shop” swapped out for “Truck Stop”, but sadly, it wasn’t enough to get the American public on board.
“He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” by Mary Chapin Carpenter
Mary Chapin Carpenter has long been one of my favorite artists. Her new records continue to be great, even though she (inexplicably) doesn’t get the commercial rewards she deserves and once had. The title of this one refers to an awful, sexist Geritol ad where the slogan was “She eats right, exercises and she takes Geritol. My wife… I think I’ll keep her!” Carpenter twists it around and uses it to tell the sad story of a doomed relationship, one that started too young and petered out.
“Old Downtown” by Laura Cantrell
They Might Be Giants fans know Laura Cantrell as the voice of “The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)”, and WFMU listeners know her as the proprietress of the Radio Thrift Shop. She’s also put out a lot of great records of her own (No Where There From Here came out at the end of January), but Humming By The Flowered Vine is particularly wonderful. This is the last track from that album, and it’s a great closer for this list, too.