What makes a great country song? It has to have a melody that just makes you want to sing along and lyrics that mean something. The final essential ingredient is that little dose of country magic, be it from an incredible songwriting partnership, a powerful autobiographical narrative or a tone of voice that takes the listener’s experience to another level.
We’ve ranked fan favorites and consulted various lists to compile the ultimate rundown of the best country songs of all time.
25. ‘I Will Always Love You’ By Dolly Parton
“I Will Always Love You” has been covered by everyone from Whitney Houston to Beyoncé, but Dolly Parton‘s original is by far the best. Parton wrote and recorded it in 1973 as a farewell to her former partner and mentor, Porter Wagoner, before she embarked on a solo career. In 2007, Parton serenaded Wagoner with the song on stage at the Grand Ole Opry, to help celebrate his 50th anniversary as an Opry member.
The song was a huge commercial success and has actually reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart twice: once in June 1974 and then again in October 1982. “I Will Always Love You” remains one of Parton’s signature songs and the closing number of most of her live shows.
24. ‘There’s Your Trouble’ By Dixie Chicks
The best-selling female band of all time — of any genre — as well as the best-selling country group in the U.S., the Dixie Chicks (Martie Erwin Maguire, Emily Erwin Robison and Natalie Maines) released “There’s Your Trouble” in April 1998 as the second single from their album “Wide Open Spaces.” It was their first No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and won the group a Grammy Award for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal in 1999.
The story attached to “There’s Your Trouble” is a sweet one: Mark Selby and Tia Sellers wrote it about “two people who can’t seem to figure out [if] they should be together,” as they put it to Tennessean. They were just friends at the time; five years later, they were together.
23. ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ By Johnny Cash
“Folsom Prison Blues” was a hit for Johnny Cash twice: first in 1956 and then again in 1968. But before it entered the charts, Cash was performing the song for inmates at a prison in Huntsville, Texas.
He wrote it after watching the movie “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison” while he was in the Air Force, but it wasn’t all his own work. He used the melody and some of the lyrics of “Crescent City Blues,” a song written by Gordon Jenkins and sung by his wife Beverly Mahr. After Jenkins heard “Folsom Prison Blues” he sued Cash for copyright infringement and got $75,000.
22. ‘Hello Darlin” By Conway Twitty
Written and recorded by Conway Twitty, “Hello Darlin'” was first released in March 1970 and was Twitty’s fourth No. 1 on the Hot Country Singles chart. Instantly recognizable from the spoken opening line, “Hello darlin’, nice to see you,” it was Conway’s standard concert opener and when he performed it with Loretta Lynn, he sang it directly to her.
Like all great country songs, “Hello Darlin'” has been covered by many artists, including Wanda Jackson, Daniel O’Donnell, Scotty McCreery and Charley Pride.
21. ‘Can The Circle Be Unbroken’ By The Carter Family
A 1935 hit for The Carter Family, “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” was an adaptation of an old hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” believed to date back to at least 1907. A.P. Carter changed the title and the lyrics and created what Rolling Stone describes as “a stirring, stoic, nondenominational expression of collective sorrow in the face of death.”
Since then, it’s been covered by a long list of artists across all music genres, most of whom revert to the title of the original hymn. One notable cover is the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 version, which features vocals by “Mother” Maybelle Carter herself.
20. ‘Amarillo By Morning’ By George Strait
“Amarillo by Morning” was written by Terry Stafford and Paul Fraser, and recorded by Stafford in 1973, but it’s George Strait’s 1983 version that Ranker voters love — so much so, it’s No. 4 on their list of the best classic country songs. It peaked at No. 4 on the Hot Country Songs chart for Strait and became one of his signature tracks.
Reviewer Kevin John Coyne of Country Universe said that with “Amarillo by Morning” Strait had “finally found his niche as a performer” and called the “simple arrangement and understated delivery … the defining elements of just about every Strait record since.”
19. ‘Wichita Lineman’ By Glen Campbell
Glen Campbell’s version of “Wichita Lineman,” written by Jimmy Webb in 1968, reached No. 3 on the U.S. pop chart and topped the country music chart for two weeks. As well as taking the No. 16 spot on Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest country songs of all time, it was described as “the first existential country song” by Dylan Jones in The Independent and “the greatest pop song ever composed” by British music journalist Stuart Maconie.
Webb’s inspiration for the lyrics came when he noticed the silhouette of a solitary telephone lineman on a pole in Washita County in rural southwestern Oklahoma. His words immediately struck a chord with Campbell, who told BBC Radio 4 in 2011, “When I heard it, I cried. It made me cry because I was homesick.”
18. ‘Ode To Billie Joe’ By Bobbie Gentry
Mississippi singer/songwriter Bobbie Gentry was a relative unknown when her song “Ode to Billie Joe” hit the U.S. chart in 1967, knocking The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” off the top spot. The haunting first-person narrative sharing the news of Billie Joe McAllister jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge won Gentry three Grammy awards and it regularly features in “best songs” lists — of all genres.
As for Gentry, she’s never received the recognition she deserves for being a pioneer — in more ways than one. She produced “Ode to Billie Joe” herself, was the first woman to host a variety show on the BBC and later spent a decade creating and starring in shows in Las Vegas that included a tribute to Elvis Presley designed to challenge traditional notions of gender.
17. ‘Jackson’ By Johnny Cash And June Carter
Johnny Cash and June Carter, one of country’s best-loved couples, released “Jackson” in February 1967; a few months later, it was also released by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood. However, it’s the Cash/Carter version that has endured, partly due to the ongoing popularity of Johnny Cash and the reprisal of the song by Joaquin Phoenix (as Cash) and Reese Witherspoon (as Carter) in the 2005 Oscar-winning biopic “Walk the Line.” The couple’s mutual love and adoration gives the iconic duet — about a married couple that has lost the spark from their relationship — another layer.
16. ‘The Gambler’ By Kenny Rogers
One of Rolling Stone’s greatest country songs of all time is “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers, of which Rogers himself said in an interview with The Record, “I thought that one was a home run the minute I heard it.”
Other artists, including Bobby Bare and Johnny Cash, recorded versions of the story of a late-night card game on a train, but it’s Rogers’ 1978 release that reached No. 1 on the country charts and also crossed over to the pop charts — a rarity at the time. It also earned Rogers a Grammy award for best male country vocal performance in 1980 and the role of the “Gambler” in a series of television movies.
15. ‘El Paso’ By Marty Robbins
Before the Grateful Dead added it to their regular setlist, “El Paso” was recorded by country singer Marty Robbins. It topped both the country charts and the pop charts at the beginning of 1960, won the Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Recording in 1961 and became Robbins’ signature song.
“El Paso” is a classic example of a first-person narrative; in this case, the story is told by a cowboy in El Paso, Texas, in the days of the Wild West, who dies in the arms of his love at the end of the song.
14. ‘You Don’t Know Me’ By Ray Charles
“You Don’t Know Me” was written by Cindy Walker for Eddy Arnold in 1955, and first entered the charts as Jerry Vale’s version the following year. However, the best-selling version is by Ray Charles, which reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1962.
Since then, it’s been performed or recorded by hundreds of artists, including Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Kenny Rogers, Van Morrison and Michael Bublé. It was sung by Meryl Streep in the 1990 film “Postcards from the Edge” and by John Legend in a 2007 episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Robert Downey Jr. sang it in the 1998 film “Two Girls and a Guy,” and the song was used in the 1993 comedy film “Groundhog Day.”
13. ‘Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys’ By Waylon Jennings And Willie Nelson
First recorded by Ed Bruce, who wrote the song with his wife Patsy Bruce, “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” went to No. 15 on the country charts. But it’s the version by best friends and regular collaborators Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson that went to No. 1.
It also won the 1979 Grammy Award for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. Wide Open Country describes the duet as “one of the best hits produced by the outlaw country movement.”
12. ‘Jolene’ By Dolly Parton
When it comes to cheating songs, “Jolene” is unbeatable. Inspired by the sight of a bank teller flirting with her husband, Dolly Parton’s 1973 hit — one of her most recognizable songs — continues to strike a chord with millions, thanks to its vulnerable lyrics and captivating melody.
The title, however, has no connection to the real-life bank teller. In an interview with NPR, Parton revealed that she signed an autograph for a little red-haired girl named Jolene and said to her, “That is pretty. That sounds like a song. I’m going to write a song about that.”
11. ‘Standing On The Corner’ By Jimmie Rodgers
The so-called “Father of Country Music,” Jimmie Rodgers, was most famous for his “blue yodels,” which were based on the 12-bar blues format and featured Rodgers’ trademark yodel refrains. “Standing on the Corner” (“Blue Yodel #9”) was recorded in 1930 with none other than Louis Armstrong on trumpet and his wife Lil Hardin Armstrong on piano.
In 1970, Armstrong performed the song with Johnny Cash on “The Johnny Cash Show” and in 2004 it was included in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.”
10. ‘Always On My Mind’ By Willie Nelson
Over 300 versions of “Always on My Mind,” which was written by Johnny Christopher, Mark James and Wayne Carson, have been released since B.J. Thomas first recorded it in 1970. One of the most notable is Elvis Presley’s 1972 release (a few weeks after his separation from his wife Priscilla), but for country fans, it’s all about Willie Nelson, whose version won three Grammy Awards in 1983: Song of the Year, Best Country Song and Best Male Country Vocal Performance.
In 2013, Nelson’s son Lukas showed that the country vibe is in his blood with an impressive cover of “Always on My Mind” while aboard a Sandy Beaches Cruise.
9. ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ By Loretta Lynn
Loretta Lynn’s autobiographical 1970 hit “Coal Miner’s Daughter” formed the basis for both her autobiography and the 1980 movie about her life (starring Sissy Spacek as Lynn and Tommy Lee Jones as Lynn’s husband).
The song tells the story of Lynn’s life growing up “in a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler” in rural Kentucky — with her seven siblings — while her father worked nights in a coal mine. Although it was a departure from Lynn’s usual spritely style, “Coal Miner’s Daughter” became one of her signature songs.
8. ‘Mama Tried’ By Merle Haggard And The Strangers
Inspired by the pain he caused his own mother when he was incarcerated in San Quentin in 1957, Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” was his biggest hit to date, spending four weeks at No. 1 on the country charts in 1968. It won the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999 and has been covered hundreds of times, most frequently by the Grateful Dead, who performed it at Woodstock.
“Mama Tried” was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry for its “cultural, historic or artistic significance” on March 23, 2016, just 14 days before Haggard died of complications from pneumonia.
7. ‘I Fall To Pieces’ By Patsy Cline
Classified as a country music staple, Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Piece” was her first No. 1 hit on the country charts and remains one of her most recognizable songs. Luckily for Cline, the song was turned down by several other artists, including Brenda Less and Roy Drusky, before Cline reportedly asked Decca producer Owen Bradley if she could record it.
In 2014, Rolling Stone ranked “I Fall to Pieces” — in which Cline laments the difficulty of keeping herself together in the presence of an old love who just wants to be friends — 40th on its “40 Saddest Country Songs of All Time.”
6. ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ By Hank Williams
According to country music historian Colin Escott, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” by Hank Williams “defines country music.” Listeners certainly embraced the story of Williams’ turbulent first marriage to Audrey Sheppard (the “cheatin’ heart”), as the song sold millions when it was released in the wake of his death in January 1953.
In the 2003 documentary series “Lost Highway,” country music historian Ronnie Pugh said of “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “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.”
5. ‘Stand By Your Man’ By Tammy Wynette
The 1968 release “Stand by Your Man” was Tammy Wynette’s most successful hit, but also her most controversial. When she was asked by Melody Maker about criticism from the women’s liberation movement who claimed the song’s lyrics were anti-feminist, Wynette said, “A woman should be equal to a man for anything she’s capable of doing, but I still feel there’s a lot of things she isn’t capable of doing. Physically.”
But aside from all that, “Stand by Your Man” was a huge pop/country crossover hit, reaching No. 1 in the U.K., the Netherlands and the U.S., and nabbing the top spot on CMT’s 2003 list of the Top 100 Country Music Songs.
4. ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ By Hank Williams
Elvis Presley hit the nail on the head when he introduced “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by saying, “I’d like to sing a song that’s … probably the saddest song I’ve ever heard.” Presley’s version is great — as are Bob Dylan’s and Johnny Cash’s — but the original can’t be topped. Hank Williams wrote it about his failing marriage to his wife, Audrey, and his 1949 recording has all the agonizing intensity you’d expect from an iconic heartbreak song.
As the B-side to the bluesy “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” (a decision based on the fact that up-tempo numbers were deemed more suitable for the jukebox industry than wistful ballads), the single peaked at No. 4 on the country chart.
3. ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ By George Jones
In 1980, George Jones got his first No. 1 in six years with “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Although Jones hated the melodramatic, heart-wrenching ballad about a man who never stops loving his ex until he dies, which was recorded at one of the lowest points in his life following years of substance abuse, there’s no denying the effect it had on his career.
It earned him a Grammy Award in 1980 for Best Male Country Vocal Performance, was the CMA Song of the Year for 1980 and 1981, and — as Jones himself wrote in his autobiography — salvaged a four-decade career in three minutes.
2. ‘Crazy’ By Patsy Cline
Willie Nelson’s ballad “Crazy” has been recorded by many artists across pretty much every genre, but most notably by Patsy Cline, whose version was a No. 2 country hit in 1962. As a follow-up to Cline’s No. 1 hit, “I Fall to Pieces,” “Crazy” spent 21 weeks on the chart and is Wurlitzer’s No. 2 of the most-played jukebox songs of all time.
Although Cline’s music career was cut short (she died at the age of 30 in a private airplane crash), she paved the way for future generations of female country singers. She was the first woman to headline her own shows above her male tour mates, the first female to anchor her own Las Vegas residency, the first woman in country music to perform at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall and the first woman inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
1. ‘I Walk The Line’ By Johnny Cash
Written and recorded in 1956, “I Walk the Line” was Johnny Cash’s first No. 1 country chart hit. His promise to his first wife, Vivian, to stay faithful and out of trouble while he was on the road, it later inspired the title of the 2005 Cash biopic “Walk the Line,” starring Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Ginnifer Goodwin as Vivian (for whom he couldn’t, ultimately, walk the line).
If you’ve ever wondered the purpose of the humming at the beginning of each verse, Cash reportedly said it was to help him get his pitch; the song required several key changes. As one of the most poetic, poignant songs from one of the most distinctive voices of all time, it’s no surprise that “I Walk The Line” tops numerous lists of the best country songs.