It’s always interesting investigating earlier years in country music for these features. They’re easier to assemble than you may think, mostly because the best songs of the year were also the biggest hits (which is sadly an extinct concept today).
Culturally, 1968 was a year that shattered American history. It was a year filled with tensions rivaled only by well … now, and even then, to a significantly smaller extent compared to then. Between the Vietnam War, racial struggles and a rebellious youthful generation starting to take the reigns in a new world of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, the times were certainly changing.
It’s not like that didn’t cross over into country music either. The Byrds were busy exposing country music to a world of rock ‘n’ rollers. Meanwhile, Johnny Cash was playing Folsom Prison to folks deemed worthless by the rest of the world, and Loretta Lynn was shattering traditional boundaries. Even artists themselves were split politically.
Truthfully, there was also a lot of mediocre music that stemmed from this year, and the top 10 I had originally assembled from previously known songs was rarely shaken by new discoveries. On the other hand, the best songs of 1968 are some of the best in country music, period.
I should mention one thing, however. Last time I counted down the best hit songs (from 1987), I took a more objective glance at the year. This didn’t work out as well as I had hoped it would, so for this feature, I’m going back to my original method of simply choosing my 10 favorite hits of the year. I invite you to do the same.
As always, for these older years, I used Wikipedia’s listing of the biggest hits for my criteria for picking these songs. Let’s get started!
First, a few honorable mentions!
- Glen Campbell, “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”
- Merle Haggard, “The Legend Of Bonnie and Clyde”
- Conway Twitty, “Next In Line”
- Waylon Jennings, “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line”
- Tammy Wynette, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”
No. 10 – Glen Campbell, “Gentle On My Mind”
It may sound cliché to say that a song can “take you someplace,” mentally, but if it was ever true for a song, it’s this one. “Gentle On My Mind” is one of those songs that’s over before you know it, perfectly executed from start to finish in every way. The writing is oddly poetical without being cheesy, and it’s bolstered by Glen Campbell’s smooth delivery and earthy, calm production. It’s a simple love song that’s smarter than well … pretty much all other love songs.
No. 9 – Loretta Lynn, “Fist City”
You could say that Loretta Lynn didn’t act like anyone wanted her to in her prime. Her legacy is all the more better because she did what she wanted. “Fist City” is fairly straightforward and simple for songs in this vein from Lynn, but it’s delivered with the same fiery passion that was missing from most songs this particular year. In a year bogged down by vanilla production and lyricism, “Fist City” was the kick in the you-know-where that would go on to revolutionize country music.
No. 8 – Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, “The Last Thing On My Mind”
There have been many versions of this song, but it rarely got better than this one. Beyond Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton’s impeccable (as ever) charisma and chemistry, they deliver this song exactly the way it was intended. Both parties simply move on with regrets, but not disdain for one another. It’s wistful and oddly upbeat, but it’s because the end of the journey is for the best overall. Country music may not be a very “hook” focused genre (and it certainly wasn’t then), but I guarantee you’ll have the chorus to this stuck in your head once you hear it again.
No. 7 – George Jones, “Say It’s Not You”
In a sense, “Say It’s Not You” is a classic George Jones song – a tear-jerking country song that pulls no punches. It’s short, but it says so much. Jones perfectly plays the role of a naive man who can’t believe his lover would cheat on him, effectively taking the listener by surprise in a short amount of time.
No. 6 – Henson Cargill, “Skip A Rope”
“Skip A Rope” remains one of the guttiest choices for a debut single. As mentioned before, tensions were high in America during this time, and “Skip A Rope” was the perfect reminder to be cautious of the kind of world we’re leaving for the next generation. It’s sharp, biting, and all too true. The dobro and piano combination bolstered by Henson Cargill’s baritone recalls the best of Tennessee Ernie Ford. If you want one of the best examples of a country song that actually says something, you’d be hard pressed to find something better than “Skip A Rope.”
No. 5 – Jeannie C. Riley, “Harper Valley PTA”
This stems from a point in time when country-pop crossovers actually had some depth. Beyond exposing Tom T. Hall to the world, “Harper Valley PTA” also carried the right amount of sharp imagery and detail that showed why Jeannie C. Riley originally wanted to be a journalist. It was another song that spoke to a sign of the times, showcasing how a true story could be further brought to life by Riley’s uncanny, fierce delivery.
No. 4 – Merle Haggard, “Mama Tried”
What can I say that hasn’t already been said about this iconic song? The first line of the chorus is one of the most instantly recognizable ones in country music history. Merle Haggard also manages to make what is a heartbreaking song on paper turn into an actual delight through his humorous delivery. It’s unabashedly sincere and filled with enough self-awareness to be one of the best reflections in the history of the genre.
No. 3 – Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues”
No, it wasn’t the first time “Folsom Prison Blues” made its way onto the country charts, but this time around, Johnny Cash was better than ever. In an otherwise tumultuous year, 1968 was a fantastic year for Cash. This would mark the beginning of his triumphant return to the top, and while the controversy over “Folsom Prison Blues” may linger, there’s no denying that Cash made the song his own when he sang for those inmates. It’s as much an anthem for them as it was for him – a cry for freedom that wasn’t captured through studio trickery, but through a live performance where Cash gave his all to prove he wasn’t done quite yet.
No. 2 – Glen Campbell, “Wichita Lineman”
I can’t think of a better example of a song that says so much in so few words, and that’s been a running theme of this list. It’s the story of the lonely troubadour set to a beautiful, lush arrangement that only serves to add to the track rather than override it. Not enough can be said too about Glen Campbell’s powerful, emotional delivery where he sings this song as if he wrote it. By the time the outro kicks in, it feels like one of the rarest kinds of musical nirvana that truly marks one of country music’s best ever songs.
No. 1 – Merle Haggard, “Sing Me Back Home”
If I were to compose a list of the best ever country songs, “Sing Me Back Home” would still challenge for that No. 1 spot. Songs like this just don’t get written anymore. More than any songwriter, Merle Haggard truly wrote from his own experiences. Here, he blends two of the things he knows best – prison and music – to craft something emotionally gripping. It’s the type of song that gives you the feeling this was a sobering experience for Haggard, especially with that heartbreaking final verse. If “Mama Tried” was Haggard mockingly poking fun at himself, “Sing Me Back Home” was Haggard’s most serious moment on record that will live on as an ambassador for the best of what the genre has to offer.