Monday, July 7, 2014

The 10 Best Hillbilly Songs of All Time

The Carter Family
The 10 Best Hillbilly Songs of All Time
by Robert A. Waters

Rolling Stone magazine recently released its list of top 100 country songs of all time.  Their selections were predictable: songs by Brad Paisley; the Dixie Chicks; Taylor Swift; Carrie Underwood; etc.  Then there is Eric Church’s great country anthem, “Springsteen.”  WHAT!?!  (While the magazine did actually list some old tunes, the modern stuff spoiled it for me.)

I can’t list a hundred songs—not enough time—but here are the ten best hillbilly songs of all time.
Your Cheatin’ Heart – Hank Williams
The Nashville establishment hated Hank because he was “too country.”  By his own reckoning, he’d walked barefoot in chicken manure, had been hungry, had been saved by Jesus, and had been broken-hearted.  He drank and drugged and sinned himself to death—and told about it all in his music.  “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” reputed to be about his wife Audrey’s promiscuous ways, lives on in CDs, DVDs, front porch picking sessions, and even television commercials.  It may be the quintessential country song of all time.
Hobo Bill’s Last RideJimmie “The Blue Yodeler” Rodgers
Images of the Great Depression seethe in the lyrics of this song.  When I was almost too young to remember, my grandfather would rock me on his knee and sing about Hobo Bill.  For me, this song came to be a metaphor for all the homeless, unemployed souls who perished during that terrible time.  Even those who survived, like my grandparents, were scarred for life.  I still picture this old railroad bum lying dead in a boxcar, alone with rain pouring in on him, and yet with a gruesome smile across his face.  If you want real country music, “Hobo Bill’s Last Ride” is a good place to start.
No Depression in Heaven – The Carter Family
For the intelligentsia who like to make fun of religious fundamentalism, listen to this song.  It provides a rationale for wanting something better than what we have in this world.  The Carter Family left a legacy of great songs, and this one, to me, is their best.  A. P. and Sara Carter, who recorded in the 1920s and 1930s—before Nashville’s ascendance as the country music capital of the world—were too “hillbilly” for the big city.  God doesn’t fit much into country music anymore, but in Depression-era Appalachia, people longed for the misery to end and sang of God and Heaven:
“In that bright land there'll be no hunger,
No orphan children crying for bread,
No weeping widows’ toil or struggle,
No shrouds, no coffins, and no dead.”
Chain Gang Blues – Riley Puckett
This 1920s tune has a hundred clones: “Cocaine Blues,” “Cocaine Habit Blues,” “Little Sadie,” “Take a Whiff on Me,” etc.  I like the Riley Puckett version best.  A native Georgian, Puckett was blinded when still an infant.  He recorded many of his songs with Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers.  “Chain Gang Blues” tells the story of a cocaine addict who murders his gal-pal, then makes a run for it.  He’s caught, convicted and sentenced to 99 years.  In the final verse, the sentencing judge tells the prisoner: “I don’t believe you’ll ever kill a woman again.”
Lost Highway – Hank Williams
“Just a rolling stone all alone and lost,
For a life of sin I have paid the cost.
When I pass by, all the people say,
‘Just another guy on the Lost Highway.’”
Sin no longer exists, at least not among Nashville’s yuppie crooners.  But this song is all about addiction, betrayal, and consequences.
“Just a deck of cards and a jug of wine
And a woman’s lies make a life like mine.
Oh the day we met, I went astray,
 Started rolling down that Lost Highway.”
Wild Side of Life – Hank Thompson and It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels – Kitty Wells
Cheatin’, drinkin’, and honky-tonkin’ were past-times of many country boys (and girls) in the South.  “Wild Side of Life” tells that story from a man’s perspective.  The song contains a line that resonated among hillbilly fans: “I didn’t know God made honky-tonk angels.”  The tune became Thompson’s biggest hit, and the subject of an “answer” song by Kitty Wells.  Her response became an even bigger hit than Thompson’s:
“It wasn’t God who made honky-tonk angels
As you wrote in the words of your song.
Too many times married men think they’re still single.
That has caused many a good girl to go wrong.”
Folsom Prison Blues – Johnny Cash
This is one of the most well-known songs ever written.  And rightfully so.  With  Luther Perkins picking his Fender Esquire, Marshall Grant plunking a stand-up bass, and W. S. Holland on snare drums, Cash hammers this song home in 1950s rockabilly style.  The prisoner, who “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” longs for the freedom represented by a train that rumbles past Folsom Prison every day.  
Mama Tried – Merle Haggard
Haggard knew about prisons.  He served seven years.  After getting out, he turned his life around and became one of the most beloved country musicians ever.  Best-known for his anti-hippie anthem, “Okie from Muscogee,” his prison songs form a significant part of hillbilly music.  While listening to “Mama Tried,” many country people identify with the headstrong “rebel child” who refuses to follow the rules.  Haggard laments: “I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole/No one could steer me right but Mama tried…”  The simplicity of this song masks a profound poignancy.
Cold, Hard Facts of Life – Porter Wagoner
Revenge songs have long been a staple of country music.  Why?  Because country people don’t take kindly to their wives or husbands cheating.  The husband in this song returns home from a business trip earlier than expected and finds his wife partying.  What happens next is predictable, but true in so many real-life cases.  After killing his wife and her lover, the husband sings: “I guess I’ll go to Hell or rot here in this cell, but who taught who the cold, hard facts of life?”  Many of Wagoner’s early songs told tragic stories common to country life.
Ragged Old Truck – Billy Joe Shaver
Shaver is as country as you get these days.  A gun-totin’ Texan who doesn’t mind using his .38 when he needs to, he’s also a honky-tonkin’ poet with a sadistic streak in his songs.  You won’t find no New York City in Shaver.  “Ragged Old Truck” is true redneck rock, not the watered-down doggerel you hear on today’s country radio.  Like many of the other singers on this list, Shaver has lived on the fringes of polite society and found it wanting.


Zack said...

I can't fault you for any of your Top Ten choices, but since music affects each person differently, I'd like to add two possible additions with reasons.

"The Long Black Veil" - Too many of us live with regret for taking the easy way out. The woman refused to save her lover at trial, but walks by her lover's grave at night wearing a long black veil.

"The Battle of New Orleans" - since country boys often do a fair share of their Country's fighting in wartime, and with the folk song tradition in early country music, I think this one should be included. Johnny Horton's version of this song was a MONSTER hit, based on a folk song by Jimmy Driftwood, I think.

Robert A. Waters said...

Zack: I had to leave out so many great songs, and the two you mention are tunes I considered. I don't expect anyone to agree totally with my selections, since we all have our own likes and dislikes. Bob

Anonymous said...

Pretty decent list. And while I agree with you when you say, "I don't expect anyone to agree totally with my selections, since we all have our own likes and dislikes." I'll respectfully put in my two cents.

I'd replace "Hobo Bill's Last Ride" with Rodgers' "Waiting on a Train" and The Carter Family's "No Depression in Heaven" with their "John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man"... but that's just me. Still, your choice of "Hobo Bill's Last Ride" is a better choice than Rolling Stones' pick, "Blue Yodel #9". Sure, Louis Armstrong plays on the record, but Rodgers didn't need Armstrong to make a classic record, and his catalog bears that out.

If I were to make a top 25 list off the top of my head, I'd most definitely add:

"Wreck on the Highway" - Roy Acuff
"Cash on the Barrelhead" - The Louvin Brothers
"Each Night at Nine" - Floyd Tillman
"Back Street Affair" - Webb Pierce
"Walkin' The Floor Over You" - Ernest Tubb
"I Hear A Sweet Voice Calling" - Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys
"Funny How Time Slips Away" - Willie Nelson
"Banks of the Ohio" - Blue Sky Boys

... and here's where my mind starts to fade. Maddox Brothers and Rose? Loretta Lynn? Bob Wills? Ray Price? Marty Robbins? Buck Owens? Wanda Jackson? Jimmie Skinner? There's some great hillbilly songs buried in all that dust.

BTW, (and apologies for my lack of brevity) have you ever heard Eddie Noack's "Psycho" (written by Leon Payne, who also wrote "Lost Highway")? If you're a true crime buff and country music fan, it's right up your alley.


Mister DNA

Robert A. Waters said...

Thanks for your excellent list. I actually debated whether to put "Waiting for a Train" on the list in place of "Hobo Bill." But what finally did it for me was remembering my grandfather's great renditions and love of the song of "Hobo Bill." Your selections for the top 25 list are right on the money, too. All great songs.