As for country music these days, well, it’s mostly more of the same, with maybe a little more talk about beer and pickup trucks and the previously unspoken details of the intimacies between men and women. And now, there’s also more hair product and make up, which you might think would appeal to rock fans, but no. It’s still country — only now, it’s a commodity, and that’s the absolute antithesis of rock and roll.
But really, when you give country music a fair listen, you recognize that a lot of it is just a less aggressive form of rock with slightly different instrumentation. Instead of the flying V’s and the double bass drum pedals and all of the distortion and feedback, banjos and fiddles make regular appearances. There are still guitars, even electric ones, but they sometimes have a slide, and they’re sometimes pedal steel. And while kit drums are still an important presence in country music, they’re more spare and, in some cases, more elegant.
Best of all, an overwhelming number of country songs that really rock have a part near the end where all the guitars, the bass, and the other instruments just cut out to let the vocals and drums shine. Is there a more appealing and raw moment than that one in music? It’s doubtful. If you’re vehemently against listening to country music, we implore you to at least give these ten classic country sounds a listen. They really do rock.
# 10 – Why Have You Left the One You Left Me For (Crystal Gayle)
Crystal Gayle, with her Rapunzel-length brown tresses, is the OG of the long-hair-don’t-care attitude. It’s a little distracting, if you’re into that sort of thing, but once the chorus of 1978’s “Why Have You Left the One You Left Me For” opens the song, what she looks like means nothing. It’s a clap-along, sing-along, stomp your foot-along groove with great patter and an irresistible melody. The lyrics put a fun twist on the broken relationship theme, too, as Gayle raises an eyebrow when her ex shows up at her door, only to relent and tell him to “come on in.” She is, after all, only human, and we can only suspect that he returned because he was drawn to this song.
# 9 – Diggin’ Up Bones (Randy Travis)
Randy Travis broke through on country radio, and one of his earliest hits was 1986’s “Diggin’ Up Bones.” It starts with Travis’s southern accented baritone singing about old wedding rings and other objects from a relationship gone bad, and it’s all very entertaining, but then the chorus comes in and things really pick up. Travis’s voice comes through loud and clear amid a sea of backup singers, and the melody is as catchy as anything on rock radio. By the time the song is done, you have nary a good thought about any of your exes and can’t understand why fiddles aren’t used more often in rock music.
# 8 – Queen of Hearts (Juice Newton)
Juice Newton’s career has always straddled the line between pop and country, but when she released “Queen of Hearts” in 1981, the concept of genre seemed completely irrelevant. Was it rock? Pop? Country? Really, who cares? The song is amazing; it has a driving beat, great acoustic strumming, clever lyrics, and a chorus that honestly never gets old. Newton’s voice was always among the less twangy of the female country music entertainers, and playing it straight works well for her on this track. If you close your eyes, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine ‘80s-era Ann and Nancy Wilson (of Heart) singing this one. They don’t have to, though — Juice Newton rocks it out just fine all on her own.
# 7 – Louisiana Saturday Night (Mel McDaniel)
You might be the biggest rock and roll fan on the planet, but let’s just put this out there: if Mel McDaniel’s “Louisiana Saturday Night” doesn’t make you tap your feet, if not get up and start stomping, then you need to check your pulse. It’s gritty, raw, two step fun, filled with phrases that evoke backwater imagery (single shot rifle, possum in a sack, among others) and a melody that’s over way too soon. You can line dance to it if that’s your thing, but it probably isn’t. That’s OK, though, because the song rocks all on its own.
# 6 – A Lesson in Leavin’ (Dottie West)
Upon first listen, West’s 1980 hit “A Lesson in Leavin’” doesn’t even sound like a country song. There’s no fiddle, no pedal steel guitar, and no 2/4 time signature. Instead, there’s a funky bass line, some electric piano, a guitar or two, and a steady beat behind West and a few other vocalists looking for a little comeuppance regarding a “fool hearted man” who loves ’em and leaves ’em. It was a strong woman song before strong women songs were even a thing. And while you won’t find West wearing combat boots or dying her hair blue or playing into the whole riot grrrl ethos (how could she possibly?), what you will find is a beautiful woman who can belt out a tune, look hot, and not take any of your crap, mister.
# 5 – The Gambler (Kenny Rogers)
It’s a song about playing cards, of course, but the “know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em” lesson is widely applicable and completely timeless. Kenny Rogers’s 1978 hit recounts a conversation between the singer and a long time gambler that takes place “on a train bound for nowhere.” Musically, the song is little more than drums and thick acoustic strumming, but the melody and the lyrics fit together in one of those perfect synergies that all great singles have, and the doubled vocals on the chorus encourage everyone to sing along between shots of whiskey.
# 4 – If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band) (Alabama)
Alabama puts forth more of a Southern rock image than a country image, with their mullets and mustaches, their electric guitars and big drums, their blue jeans and cowboy boots, and especially their Confederate flag imagery. And despite their penchant for ballads, they’ve also never been a band to shy away from a blistering guitar solo or a driving 4/4 beat. Their 1984 hit “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)” pokes fun at the so-called requirements of country instrumentation while simultaneously stretching the genre musically. It’s a great pop melody, and yes, after some deft electric guitar lines, the fiddle does come in at the end.
# 3 – Come On In (Oak Ridge Boys)
One of the biggest appeals of this vocal quartet was the huge range of their voices, from high tenor to deep bass, but the other big draw was their looks. They project country western casual, with wide collar shirts, leather vests, cowboy boots, and big belt buckles. But if you could get past the hokeyness of what they looked like and the heavy wink associated with a lot of their hits (“Elvira,” anyone?), you realize that 1. They sound great together, and 2. They sing really good songs. “Come On In” from 1978 is a perfect example of this. It’s got an irresistible hook, it’s easy to sing along with, and the two step beat behind it helps it to rock in the most upbeat way possible.
# 2 – Seven Year Ache (Rosanne Cash)
Cash’s 1981 hit “Seven Year Ache” rocks in a more cerebral way: it’s just such a beautiful tune, and the longing that Cash is able to convey in her voice matches the swagger that her father is able to convey in his. The melody of the chorus draws you in, but then you notice the subtle brilliance of the verses, and how well the guitar breaks complement the vocals, and it’s not too long before the whole thing lodges itself in your head and you have to admit to yourself (and anyone who hears you singing) that yes, you love a country song. There’s no shame in it, though. This one is thoughtful and wonderful.
# 1 – Folsom Prison Blues (Johnny Cash)
We couldn’t end our list of country songs that rock without at least one track by the Man in Black. Let’s face it: even if you’re not a fan of country music, you have to admit that, alright, Johnny Cash is a bona fide bad ass. We could have chosen any of his tracks for this list, from the ever popular “Ring of Fire” to the more serious “I Walk the Line” to the totally hilarious “One Piece at a Time.” We could have made the whole list about him. So why “Folsom Prison Blues”? It’s sort of the perfect intersection of country sensibility and rock attitude. Really, is there any line more tough, more deadpan, more brutal in all of music than when Cash sings, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”? The song may be a two step, but that perspective is straight up rock and roll, friends.
Updated Nov 10, 2020