Howdy, partners! Like life, country music is a wondrous, varied thing. There’s classic country, modern Nashville, outlaw country, cowpunk, alt.country and so much more. Hence, getting it down to just 25 amazing tunes that define the genre is a difficult task indeed. But somehow we’ve managed it. Here are the very best country songs of all time – now pull on your cowboy boots and get honky tonking to them.
Well, it’d be rude not to include ‘Jolene’, wouldn’t it? One of the all-time greats, The White Stripes, Dolly’s goddaughter Miley Cyrus and Laura Marling are amongst the many artists who’ve covered the classic track.
The Gambler (1978)
Country songs are all about telling stories, and ‘The Gambler’ is one of the finest tales there is – about a gambling man’s tragic tale. The song was so successful that a five part movie series was based on it, starring Kenny Rogers, the first of which came out in 1980.
Always On My Mind (1982)
Everyone from Elvis to the Pet Shop Boys have done ‘Always On My Mind’, but Willie’s is the greatest – netting him three Grammy Awards. If you want a heartfelt weepie, then this is your song.
Written by Willie Nelson, ‘Crazy’ is a perfect country standard. Patsy Cline – who died in a plane crash in 1963 – lends the song a stunning depth with her vocal, one of the purest and most soulful there ever was.
Walk The Line (1956)
Recorded at Memphis’s legendary Sun Studio, this proto-rock’n’roll tune is bare-bones and back to basics with a rollicking skiffle beat, but all the better for it. The sound of one man with a mission.
I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive (1952)
Struggle, strife and your woman running off with another man ‘I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive’ encapsulated troubled country music hero Hank Williams’ world of heartache and jaunty way with melancholy. It reached Number 1 in the US Billboard chart the week of Williams’ death on January 1, 1953 at the age of 29.
These Boots Are Made For Walking (1966)
Frank Sinatra’s spawn made a serious go at stealing her daddy’s crown with this het-up honky-tonk tune, which mixes up the perky sound of 1960s French ye-ye with the classic country sound and was written by actual genius Lee Hazlewood.
Johnny Cash and June Carter
One of the great country duets, this song of dampened passion is made all the more fun by the fact that Johnny and June were so very much in love. Josh Homme and Florence Welch’s version is also worth checking out.
Return Of The Grievous Angel (1974)
Recorded with Emmylou Harris and Elvis Presley’s very own TCB band, Gram Parsons invented alt.country on this lonesome ballad, which plugged into early folksy Americana as well as the country tradition. The song was released after his 1973 death from a drug overdose.
David Allan Coe
You Never Even Called Me By My Name (1975)
This slow-shuffling glorious slice of 1970s country – which baits pompous music execs from Nashville – had to make the Top 25, not least because it calls itself “the perfect country and western song” in the lyrics. Country music as stand-up comedy.
Ode To Billie Joe (1967)
The gothic side of country music, this semi-sinister song is moodier than a humid summer’s day in Mississippi. Bobbie Gentry is the country singer as femme fatale, crooning over softly picked guitar like a film noir come to life.
Wichita Lineman (1968)
A sweeping, majestic song, this super emotive tune is a country ballad of the highest order – mixing up lovelorn lyricism with an evocative picture of a lonesome man working atop a powerline. A touch weird, but totally epic.
Mama Tried (1968)
Merle Haggard was country music’s bad boy gone good. Imprisoned in San Quentin jail, Merle saw Johnny Cash perform and decided to turn his life around. This sprightly tune sees him looking back on his wayward youth.
The Carter Family
Can The Circle Be Unbroken (1935)
The OG American country stars, the Carter Family begat a huge musical legacy. This, a reworked hymn, became their signature song and country music’s very own theme tune, as it were. As powerful today as it was back in the day.
Broken Hearted People (1976)
A softly strummed, dimly lit barroom ballad – and with extra added Emmylou Harris backing vocals for good measure – this loose and boozy heartbreak tune goes well with tears and whiskey and late nights. You’ve been warned.
Luckenbach Texas (1977)
“The only two things in life that make it worth living/Is guitars that tune good and firm feeling women,” sang outlaw country don Waylon in this rabble rousing tune, which shouts out his pal Willie Nelson, as well as Hank Williams.
Hold On, Hold On (2006)
She might have been banned from country music’s mother church the Grand Ole Opry, but alt.country firebrand Neko Case is the real deal. With it’s twanging guitar ‘Hold On, Hold On’ is a stark and dark modern classic.
Townes Van Zandt
Pancho and Lefty (1972)
The talented but tragic Townes Van Zandt is one of country music’s most intriguing figures. ‘Pancho and Lefty’ is his most well known song, a storytelling tune about Mexican bandits. Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard covered it in 1983, but the original is the by far the best.
Stand By Your Man (1968)
One of the most iconic country songs ever recorded, the sentiment of Tammy Wynette’s might seem a bit iffy at first, but there’s a deeply subversive bent to this karaoke classic – especially seeing as she was married five times.
There’s Your Trouble (1998)
Forgive them their awful name and revel not just in the fact that they told George W Bush where to stick it, but also this 1990s pop country banger, complete with some excellent fiddle playing.
The Rubber Room (1972)
Country isn’t afraid of getting a little weird every once in a while. Full of spooky reverb, this is a doomy insight into the troubled mind of one of country music’s most familiar faces. Nick Cave’s essentially based his whole career on this song.
I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts (1983)
One of the more WTF genres born of the 20th century was cowpunk, a riotous mixture of country and punk. LA band X did it very well indeed. This brilliantly rowdy track from their fourth album was produced by The Doors’ keys man Ray Manzarek.
Old Crow Medicine Show
Wagon Wheel (2004)
Using an old bootlegged Bob Dylan chorus, Old Crow Medicine Show finished the song off for the great man, and in doing so created an tune that sounds totally timeless – and will do for a very long time.
Justin Townes Earle
Son of singer-songwriter Steve Earle and named after his pal Townes Van Zandt, country music is in Justin Townes Earle’s blood. ‘Yuma’ is as delicate as it is sad – the perfect acoustic fingerpicking Americana ballad.
Unknown Legend (1992)
Neil Young has always skipped around the fringes of country music, but never fully been considered a country artist. However, tunes like this beautifully soaring early 1990s number prove he’s got a pretty serious claim to the genre.