Country musicians choose the one song that best represents their genre

December 28, 2019 • 2:00 pm

Although Ken Burns has now removed the free episodes of his “Country Music” series from his website, there are still extra features you can watch.

One of them is a half-hour clip of country musicians, producers, and writers being asked to name the one song that they think best represents country music. At first Burn’s crew just asked people to name their favorite song, but found that it worked better to ask people if (like Carl Sagan) they were going to send one country song into space for aliens to hear, which song would best represent the genre. To me that means not the “best” country song, but the one that best combines all the elements that define country music.

There was far more unanimity of opinion than I expected, but if you have some time, go listen to their answers (click on the screenshot below).  If I were to name one song, I suppose my choice would be “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams, and indeed, several people chose that one.

But there was another song that blew all the others away. Try to guess; I’ll put the answers below the fold. I’m sad to say that before I saw Burns’s documentary, I’d never even heard of that song.

And, if you know at least a little about country music, put your choice in the comments.

So click on the screenshot, watch the video, and then click “more” to go below the fold. 

The winner: He Stopped Loving Her Today, sung by George Jones.

94 thoughts on “Country musicians choose the one song that best represents their genre

    1. I don’t mean the Charlie Daniels song either. Cain’t stand that loudmouth song. Singers, don’t be a loudmouth. We can hear you, you got a microphone for cryin out loud.

      1. Unless it’s opera. I can get behind a loudmouth opera singer. Don’t get in front of them though if you value your hearing.

    1. A college girlfriend had the album Red Headed Stranger. I’d never really listened to Willie much before that. She put the record on her turntable the first time we spent the night together, and I fell in love.

  1. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is the answer I expected as it seems the big one most country music people point to but I always thought “Do You Believe Me Now” by Vern Gosdin was a much better song and more iconic.

  2. LYRICS: A 3- to 6-minute mini-soap opera.

    MUSICAL QUALITY: Doesn’t really matter much.

    WHO’S THE ARTIST: Does, especially sex appeal. If pic is going into space, maybe not really.

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  3. My submission for the song that epitomizes country is Towns Van Zandt’s “Poncho and Lefty”. It leaves out country women, but the bond between the two main characters defines country relationships in a way that is unique and special.

    1. Yes, I second “The Ballad of Poncho and Lefty,” as much for the lyrics as anything else. Wallace Steven once wrote “The poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully,” and Van Zandt’s metaphors do just that:

      “Now you wear your skin like iron,
      And your breath’s as hard as kerosene”

      “His horse was fast as polished steel.
      He wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel.”

      Also love that minor chord at the end of each verse and chorus. Great stuff.

      1. First time Willie Nelson heard “Pancho and Lefty,” he woke up Merle Haggard with a middle-of-the-night phone call to say he’d just found the song they’d long been looking for on which to perform a duet.

  4. John Prine is one of the best country writers – all that intelligence, but not typical of the genre. My favourite JP might be “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore“, thus I must go for Hank’s lonesome whippoorwil of course.

    1. Prine’s the best at bridging country and folk. I’ve thought so since his first, self-titled album in ’71, the one with “Your Flag Decal” and “Sam Stone” and “Illegal Smile.”

      1. Good points. And I hadn’t considered JP as a folky. He writes simple, but good lyrics that mostly avoid the usual country cliched phrases & situations.

  5. I vote for “Folsom Prison Blues”

    But country encompasses so many kinds of music. “Simple Man” was not considered country when written, but would fit right in these days. And it is a great song, even though Skynyrd fandom is out of favor these days.

    Patsy Cline/ Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” should be on the list as well.

  6. I have to agree with Leslie Fish (Comment number 1 and 2), which, after looking it up, hits the nail on the head x 4 (or 5 or more including the guy who wrote the song and the many who performed it) before it got to the 4 who were all, each of them, legendary country singers, song writers, and performers!

  7. I loved the one suggestion that any Kris Kristofferson song would work and second ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ as the song to go into space. I heard that song first sometime between ’68 and ’72 on a KC, MO FM station that played nothing but great music. I didn’t even realize until years later that Kris was considered a country musician. Loved the song the first time I heard it and it’s only gotten better as I’ve gained more age and life experience.

    1. Kris Kristofferson has called country “the white man’s soul music.”

      I once heard a whiteboy bluesman name o’ Jimmy Ley wale the livin’ shit outta Kris’s “For the Good Times” on harp and piano in a little basement bar out in the middle of nowhere. Made it plain what Kris was talkin’ ’bout.

    2. Such as poignant song, experienced many a Sunday morning like that in my younger days of drinking and broken hearts. Great choice.

  8. I can’t decide but I would pick something performed in the 1050s or earlier, preferably as early as possible. Perhaps Roy Acuff singing Wabash Cannonball.” He performed it throughout his career but I’m referring to this 1940 version

  9. George Jones classic who’s going to fill their shoes, it would make people research the other artists that he brings up in the song and learn more about the genre.

    1. I’d suggest it as the incumbent’s campaign tune for next year’s presidential election, but Ross Perot used it already – with less justification, although we didn’t know that back in ’92!

  10. Not much of a country and western fan here. I like a few, and George Jones, and Hank Williams are the best at it. My favorite is kind of a western that my father used to mumble while drinking home brewed beer. If I can classify it with the genre, I submit: “Twilight on the Trail” from the 1930s. I don’t know who first sang it, but I found several versions. Here’s one from 1936.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=30&v=7pJh1JY0XfM&feature=emb_logo

  11. Hers’a good one. But you have to squint to see the tiny letters that say who it’s from. I don’t know whose idea it was to have tiny letters on a huge white background. How is anyone supposed to know who they are?

  12. I’d have to agree. It’s a song that goes from sad, where she leaves him and he wishes that she’d come back, to dark where we find him at the funeral home ( and ” First time I’ve seen him smile in years ) , to peace where all of his pain and heartache are over and he can finally rest.

  13. I don’t have a song in mind along the suggested parameters , I would just mention one of the more recent songs I like is Bruises by Train. It nicely captures a simple story and sweet sentiments. I always feel good hearing it.

  14. I’ma go with Mr. Cash’s “I Walk the Line,” maybe because I heard it this morning and haven’t been able to get it outta my head all day.

    1. You and Larry Gatlin – he made a good point, though I think the significant other he refers to might have a few words about what he’s thinking – the relationship itself perhaps folded back up into a country song of its own.

  15. I expect this will get me laughed out of the group, but I’ve always liked John Denver’s “Country Roads, Take Me Home”. I’m actually more of a classical guy into folks like Beethoven and Mahler.

    1. Yep, that would be my choice, and it’s even got ‘Country’ in the title.

      BUT, of all the other songs mentioned in the comments, I’ve only ever heard of three – I Will Always Love You, I Walk The Line, and Sunday Morning Coming Down – which shows exactly how knowledgeable I am about country music. 😉

      1. … three in the comments up to this one, that is. Obviously I know Rocky Mountain High, and Ode to Billy Joe.

        How about Blue Bayou (not my favourite Linda Ronstadt one, but probably her best-known Country one – or isn’t it ‘Country’?)

        cr

        1. I chose the other two to go into outer space for the soaring quality of the music and lyrics. ‘Thank God I’m a Country Boy’ would definitely be on my list for a good ole shindig at home.

    1. When my kids were very small, my wife would sometimes sing-
      “Out in the West Texas town of El Paso
      I fell in love with a Mexican girl.. Daddy will finish!”

    2. It occurs to me that Marty Robbins probably falls under the Western category of Country & Western, so maybe I’d choose Ode to Billie Joe, by Bobbie Gentry, or is that more Blues?

  16. I didn’t think much of the George Jones, wordy more than musical. I would pick almost any popular song by Hank Williams. ‘May You Never Be Alone Like Me’ immediately comes to mind.

  17. I have to admit that I got a little excited about the prospect of launching country music into outer space. At least all the crap they play at my local gas station.

  18. My choice is Hank Williams’s “Your cheatin’ heart.”

    My runners-up would be Johnny Cash “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Seven Spanish Angels” by Willie Nelson, and “Harper Valley PTA”

    1. Hank Williams, either your pick or “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” or even “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love with You.” Other possibilities, Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You,” Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” Very partial to Carter/Cash version of “Jackson,” but am ruling out duets.

  19. This is very interesting- I’m only half way through but – is Neil Young in this?

    I never heard of this top pick – I like how a number of the musicians honed right in on it. I might have to learn it…

    I wonder though- how the generations overlap- it must have something to do with it. In addition to the music industry producing these hits. This is in contrast to really old music which predates the industry- for example, Aura Lee comes to mind – that’s a damn beautiful piece of music, and from the “country”, perhaps- the south US… I’ll have to re-read about it….

    The categorization of music will be confusing to aliens though.

    In case readers are interested – check out “No Country For Old Men” recorded by John Scofield’s trio – country songs by jazz trio. I’ll try to find a link.

      1. Too bad, Neil Young at least deliberately sings off key for artistic effect.

        Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson don’t even realize when they’re a mile away from hitting the notes accurately. But charisma, my goodness, life stories, better than Coronation Street! Instructive to listen to Cash and Gordon Lightfoot, crooning together several decades ago on stage, to hear how dreadful the former really is as a singer by comparison.

        1. Kristofferson has in interesting bio – reading about it now – a Bachelors of Philosophy (a post-graduate degree) from Merton, and completed Ranger School.

        2. Cash and Bob Dylan pretty much surround the melody on their duet of “Girl From the North Country” on Dylan’s Nashville Skyline album. 🙂

          1. “..surround the melody..”
            I’m assuming that means one sings a bit too high, the other too low.
            To me, that would be a form of musical art akin to the recent visual art with the sausage or whatever duct-taped to the wall. But there’s no accounting for taste in art, in music, in humour, in Nobel Prizes for certain categories (viz Bob D.), etc.!

    1. here’s info about “Aura Lee” – also apparently originally titled “Aura Lea” :

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aura_Lea

      published in 1861

      Wikipedia says :

      “The Civil War began shortly after the song’s release, “Aura Lea” was adopted by soldiers on both sides, and was often sung around campfires.[1]”

      … not sure it’d be a “country song”… I’m thinking “country music” would then have to be an era – just like “classical”, “baroque”, “early”…

  20. Although I do think the George Jones song was a great choice, I think that Great Speckled Bird by Roy Acuff would be representative.

  21. I was a country music fan for one summer, that of 1980, when I was stuck doing mundane work in a lab all day and the local rock station sucked. The winner, along with a surprising number of recommendations from this comments thread, was then in heavy rotation.

  22. “The Song into Outer Space”
    Perhaps that’s just to orient the contest.

    Otherwise, I’d need to modify my opposition to stationing weapons in outer space meant shoot down satellites and similar! If purported aliens actually should learn something about humans, crass juvenile lust, loneliness and related emotions shouldn’t be at the top of the list.

    Maybe this will finally get a rise out of someone who assumes I’m deadly serious!! I suppose I’d be more serious if it came to defending Schubert, Wagner, Mahler, Richard Strauss … songs against the onslaught, but this thread is more light-hearted surely. And there is even worse than C&W: e.g. “How much is that Doggy in the Window”, #1 from about 1950.)

    Seems like almost a record response, a surprise to me a bit like the one I got when Drumpf got 180 million USians not to oppose his being elected.

    1. ““The Song into Outer Space”
      Perhaps that’s just to orient the contest.”

      the best part of the video is the very end – it must be viewed – the improvised nature of the conversation is priceless.

  23. True country singer and true country song .I met mr.jones several times in my hometown and he was just a hometown guy like everyone else and Nancy and her sister were so very sweet and polite

  24. Have never attended a Country concert nor do I listen to Country radio; BUT! I love this song & almost play it daily. My Mother loved Country & played all the greats. It impacted my genre preferences: Jazz, Classical, Hip-Hop, Rock, R&B, Opera and COUNTRY! This George Jones work is an incredible masterpiece that belongs in the anals of great music!

  25. Late to this one but happy to see that my immediate choice is also the winner. I once read/heard somewhere that the Ol’ Possum, aka No-Show George didn’t much care for the song when it was first presented to him.

    Other choices, besides the obvious like most anythhing by Hank Williams, but which surely would not have come anywhere close, and not in any particular order are Asleep at the Wheel’s cover of Bob Wills’ “Yearning Just for You”

    Or Carl Smith’s I Overlooked an Orchid

    And then there’s the Texas Troubador (Ernest Tubb)’s Another Story. Also his Walking the Floor Over You

    Since no female artists above, Patsy Cline’s Walking After Midnight, Emmylou Harris’ Queen of the Silver Dollar and Together Again, Kitty Wells’ Honky Tonk Angels, Tracy Nelson’s Hard to be a Woman (better than Tammy Wynette’s version, which was also a cover – IIRC the original was by a guy), and most everything else on TN’s Country album. I’ve listened to that CD continuously on a 400mi trip more than once.

  26. (Previous attempt had a wrecked HTML. Use this one.)

    Late to this one but happy to see that my immediate choice is also the winner. I once read/heard somewhere that the Ol’ Possum, aka No-Show George didn’t much care for the song when it was first presented to him.

    Other choices, besides the obvious like most anythhing by Hank Williams, but which surely would not have come anywhere close, and not in any particular order are Asleep at the Wheel’s cover of Bob Wills’ “Yearning Just for You”

    Or Carl Smith’s I Overlooked an Orchid

    And then there’s the Texas Troubador (Ernest Tubb)’s Another Story. Also his Walking the Floor Over You

    Since no female artists above, Patsy Cline’s Walking After Midnight, Emmylou Harris’ Queen of the Silver Dollar and Together Again, Kitty Wells’ Honky Tonk Angels, Tracy Nelson’s Hard to be a Woman (better than Tammy Wynette’s version, which was also a cover – IIRC the original was by a guy), and most everything else on TN’s Country album. I’ve listened to that CD continuously on a 400mi trip more than once.

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