Top 40 Unique Country Songs

Long before Kenny Rogers died last night, I’ve been pondering the status of country music — how it’s hard to find a truly unique new song in this era of homogenized, corporately centralized radio airplay. By that, I mean a song that someone old enough to have heard the country music of the ’70s and ’80s newly played can, the first time you hear it, had this reaction: “Wow, I’ve never heard anything like this before, and it’s really good.” As for a younger listener, the analogous reaction would be hearing it for the first time recently and thinking, “Wow, I don’t hear anything like this today, and it’s really good.”

A few more of recent (<10 years) vintage are very nearly alone in their sound, and have come close to my “top 40” uniqueness list; don’t get me wrong. But it’s an exclusive, subjective, opinionated set for a reason. My reason is this: I listen to each attentively, for the countless Xth time, and still can’t think of another quite like it.

Some of the tunes below you’ve at least heard peripherally, if not a country fan. A couple will require some digging even for die-hards. All at least charted on the country hit lists (regardless of where else in crossover realms), and got good radio airplay at the time. Some were megahits. Most indeed are oldies, but not all.

But as someone who has listened to thousands of hours of country on a life-long basis, I’ll hold these up as a cross-section of unique country songs that either set a standard, or emerged so different from the rest that they stand alone in their sound, still today. Because I value uniqueness married with quality, these represent the creative edges of the country soundtrack of my life (even those that predate my birth, but later heard on the radio).

I’ve also left a ton of favorites off this list that are songs I love, in some cases even more than a few of these. For example, much as I like some songs by Patsy Cline, Toby Keith, Ronnie Milsap, Hank Williams (Sr. and Jr.), and the Oak Ridge Boys, they’re just not distinctive enough from their own other material to make the cut. By contrast, Johnny Cash is the only artist with some part in three of these, and it could be more, even as a few of his unlisted songs do sound similar to each other.

Omissions are songs similar to others from the same artist, different artists, or not quite as distinctive and genre-flexing as these.

Look ’em up and take a listen. These are in alphabetic title order, not order of preference:

Amarillo by Morning (George Strait)

Big Bad John (Jimmy Dean)

Big Iron (Marty Robbins)

Blown Away (Carrie Underwood)

Changes in Latitudes (Jimmy Buffet)

Class of ’57 (Statler Brothers)

Coal Miner’s Daughter (Loretta Lynn)

Convoy (C.W. McCall)

Country Bumpkin (Cal Smith)

Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue (Crystal Gayle)

Ghost Riders (Johnny Cash)

Good Ol’ Boys Like Me (Don Williams)

Grandma’s Song (Gail Davies)

Highway 40 Blues (Ricky Skaggs)

Highway Patrol (Junior Brown)

The Highwayman (Nelson, Kristofferson, Jennings, Cash)

I Loved ‘Em Every One (T.G. Sheppard)

If We Make It through December (Merle Haggard)

I’ve Been Everywhere (Hank Snow)

Jolene (Dolly Parton)

Lady (Kenny Rogers)

Midnight in Montgomery (Alan Jackson)

Mona Lisa (David Allan Coe)

New San Antonio Rose (Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys)

Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine (Tom T. Hall)

Po’ Folks (Bill Anderson)

Rhinestone Cowboy (Glen Campbell)

Rocky Mountain High (John Denver)

Roll on Mississippi (Charley Pride)

Seminole Wind (John Anderson)

Smoky Mountain Memories (Mel Street)

Song of the South (Alabama)

Snowbird (Anne Murray)

The Streak (Ray Stevens)

Sunday Morning Coming Down (Johnny Cash)

A Thousand Miles from Nowhere (Dwight Yoakam)

Time Marches On (Tracy Lawrence)

Wildfire (Michael Martin Murphey)

Wurlitzer Prize (Waylon Jennings)

You’re My Favorite Star (Bellamy Brothers)


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