In a special turn of events, this edition of The Musical Divide’s “best hit songs” feature will feature a second opinion! This week, I’m joined by Nathan Kanuch of Shore2Shore Country to help count down what we believe are the best hit songs of 1973.
As an aside, I will say that two songs on this list previously appeared in my “Best Hit Songs Of 1972” feature. Due to some incorrect information, I placed those two songs on the list when I (apparently) shouldn’t have. They made this list, but because the focus is to showcase forgotten gems, my personal list will have 12 songs instead of the usual 10.
As always, this feature takes a look at the best “hits” of any given year, with the criteria usually being that the song had to be a top 20 hit (or sort of close to it even if I rarely follow the rules). For more information on the contenders, click here. Without further ado, let’s get started!
First, some honorable mentions from both of us!
- Barbara Mandrell – “Midnight Oil” (Zack)
- Tom T. Hall – “(Old Dogs, Children) And Watermelon Wine” (Nathan)
- Don Williams – “Come Early Morning” (Zack)
- Conway Twitty – “You’ve Never Been This Far Before” (Nathan)
- Bobby Bare – “Ride Me Down Easy” (Zack)
- Don Williams – “Shelter of Your Eyes” (Nathan)
- Tanya Tucker – “What’s Your Mama’s Name, Child” (Zack)
- Waylon Jennings – “You Ask Me To” (Nathan)
On with the list!
No. 12 – Tammy Wynett, “‘Til I Get It Right” (Zack)
“Til I Get It Right” is just one those well-written songs that’s brought to life by a breathtaking performance. Tammy Wynette nails the perspective of someone who’s wounded, but not completely down and out. Country songs said a lot with very few words back in these days, and this is an example of a poetic wonder that’s simply captivating.
No. 11 – Cal Smith, “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking” (Zack)
Country music usually likes its drinking songs filled with sorrow and regret, but every now and again, something like this defies expectations. “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking” is the kind of layered song that’s witty, comical and still sad all at the same time. It’s a track filled with self-awareness and the guts to call out a hypocrite judging a drinking man when, really, they came to that bar to do the exact same thing. This is one of those tracks that could zip right over your head if you’re not careful.
No. 10 – Waylon Jennings, “You Can Have Her” (Nathan)
“You Can Haver Her” features a blending of Waylon’s past sounds with some of the earliest outlaw elements. There are strings in the second verse, but also that driving backbeat with some pedal steel throughout the song. Lyrically, it’s a great kiss-off to a former lover. Dylan-esque, even. But what really makes this song memorable is the big chorus with a gospel sounding group in the background.
No. 10 – Tom T. Hall, “Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine” (Zack)
Ah, a philosophical song from Tom T. Hall? Yeah, I can dig this. In all seriousness, there’s such a kind warmness to this I really enjoy. There’s something magical about an old, experienced man sharing his wisdom on life by talking about three unusual things in life, further pointing out how they bring some of the most good out in life. The line “God bless children when they’re still too young to hate” particularly resonates today.
No. 9 – Conway Twitty, “She Needs Someone to Hold Her (When She Cries)” (Nathan)
I like to think of Conway as the shining example of country gold. He never went full countrypolitan but never really explored any of the outlaw country elements either. He just recorded tried and true country songs with a lot of steel guitar and real, honest lyrics. “She Needs Someone to Hold Her” finds Conway dealing with the regret of driving a lover away. It’s a self-aware look at how the narrator has failed with a hope that in the future his ex-love can find a man who treats her better than he did.
No. 9 – Eric Weissberg & Steve Mandell, “Dueling Banjos” (Zack)
Yes, a track from Deliverance was a hit on the country charts, and yes, it made my list. There really isn’t much to say about an instrumental track like this. The technical ability on display is a rare moment of magic. Really, the early ’70s were some of the most creative years in country music history, and on a list as packed as this, even something as oddly as fascinating as this could resonate with a mainstream audience.
No. 8 – Dolly Parton, “My Tennessee Mountain Home” (Nathan)
That voice. Damn. Dolly is a master of nostalgic songs about her upbringing, and her ability to write a chorus is vastly underrated. Indeed, Dolly has to go down as one of the best songwriters in country’s storied history.
No. 8 – Tanya Tucker, “Blood Red And Goin’ Down” (Zack)
Cheating and murder ballads are not surprising finds in country music, but it’s also no surprise to hear Tanya Tucker handle one with ease. “Blood Red And Goin’ Down” is the kind of song where you can see what’s going to happen from a mile away, yet the continuity of the story keeps pulling you back in until that final verse. Tucker also delivers the song with a fiery passion, making for one of the best hooks of this particular year.
No. 7 – Jeannie Seely, “Can I Sleep In Your Arms” (Nathan)
Written by the great Hank Cochran, “Can I Sleep in Your Arms” finds Jeannie Seely at her most vulnerable. She’s lost her love and is looking for comfort and just the slightest bit of happiness. Songs like this are what’s missing from mainstream country today. There’s no vulnerability and very little heartbreak. Even the Americana world finds itself unable to fully express lost love without reaching into the melodramatic. What distinguishes so many of the great country artists like Jeannie Seely from their modern peers is their ability to unleash the full emotions of their heart while maintaining their dignity and pride.
No. 7 – Johnny Cash, “Any Old Wind That Blows” (Zack)
Johnny Cash’s triumphant return to the top after Live at Folsom Prison didn’t last nearly as long as it should have, but at least 1973 brought out this hidden, underrated gem. The horns and strings give this a smooth flourish without overtaking its simplistic beauty. Cash also perfectly plays the role of a man who’s sad to see his lover go even if he knows it’s for the best, if not for him then certainly for her.
No. 6 – Waylon Jennings, “We Had It All” (Nathan)
Speaking of vulnerability. Here comes Waylon dealing with his own heartbreak. Outlaw country often is misunderstood from many, many angles. But outlaw country wasn’t just about musical freedom. There *was* an attitude associated with it. Much of it was about living life fast and hard. But the best outlaw country artists, and most specifically Waylon Jennings, were able to stop and record songs that stopped the listener in their tracks thanks to the pure emotion and poignancy of the lyrics. “We Had It All” is short and sweet. But packs a tough punch.
No. 6 – Loretta Lynn, “Rated X” (Zack)
Here comes Loretta Lynn challenging gender norms in a smart, witty, and effective way. Now, she didn’t do this just once this year, however “Rated ‘X’” is the punchier version of these tracks, throwing in some crunchier guitar riffs to open up into a song that challenges the concept of divorce. Basically, it’s an ode to not give a damn what anyone says about you and not feel like marriage is something that always has to work out. It’s brilliant.
No. 5 – Charlie Rich, “Behind Closed Doors” (Nathan)
One of the greatest of those countrypolitan records of the ’70s. Charlie Rich may be most well-known today for a certain incident at the CMA Awards, but if you’re not familiar with him beyond that, “Behind Closed Doors” is the best place to start. It’s lush, warm, and inviting. The steel guitar and those strings work so well behind Rich’s distinctive voice.
No. 5 – Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” (Zack)
A fellow writer I respect recently said that vocals don’t matter when critically discussing elements in music. I disagree, and one of many pieces of evidence I’d use is the power of a good duet in country music. Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn are legends in their own right, but together, they were damn near unstoppable. This song is just a blast, plain and simple. Their chemistry on this song is some of the best in country music history, and in terms of memorable choruses, “Lousiana Woman, Mississippi Man” is one of the most recognizable country songs ever.
No. 4 – Merle Haggard, “If We Make It Through December” (Nathan)
I’ve said it many times before. But I’ll say it again- the hardest thing to do in country music is write simple songs that leave an impact. Too many songwriters today try to overdo it. Try to impress their East Nashville peers with overly-complex ideas and out-there themes. But Merle didn’t overthink it. He wrote straight-ahead, vivid vignettes about working class people. You see, songwriters like Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard were as different as could be. But at the end of the day, both styles are trying to tell a story with meaning. Their songs get somewhere. Kristofferson’s songs were meant for the listener to think. The Hag’s were an escape and featured a certain sense of relatability. Kristofferson used language. The Hag used the speech of the common man. But both truly *said* something. And that’s where many artists today need a lesson.
No. 4 – Charlie Rich, “Behind Closed Doors” (Zack)
As Nathan said earlier, it’s a shame that Charlie Rich is remembered mainly for that unfortunate CMA moment. Rich was a master of many genres, but it happened organically, and when he was on the country charts, he set them ablaze. There’s a smoothness to it that’s reminiscent of the best of countrypolitan. The buildup to the hook is inviting, and the overall warmness of the song is handled well by Rich’s excellent, gentle vocal touch.
No. 3 – Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” (Nathan)
I don’t know if this is the greatest duet in country music history, but it’s certainly one of the best two or three. Conway and Loretta by themselves are legends enough. Put them together … magic. “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” is such a fun song, and the chorus just screams out to be sung at the top of the lungs.
No. 3 – Kris Kristofferson, “Why Me” (Zack)
The only downside to counting down only the best “hit” songs in these features (instead of best songs overall) is that it still excludes some of country music’s finest. Kris Kristofferson wasn’t exactly known for notching No. 1 single after No. 1 single, but he came around at just the right moment in country music history. This type of raw, emotive cry for help was almost too sad even for the country charts, but it remains a masterpiece nonetheless. Beyond his impressive lyrical ability, Kristofferson was like Willie Nelson in a way – a singer who, despite lacking an excellent technical ability, could still rip out your heart through a performance.
No. 2 – Kris Kristofferson, “Why Me” (Nathan)
Okay, here’s the honest truth. Kris Kristofferson is the greatest songwriter music has ever seen. I truly believe there’s no artist who can come close to touching his lyrics. It’s poetry. From the first lines of “Why Me” the listener is in for an incredible journey. I’m religious, but you don’t even have to be to enjoy this song. “Why Me” is a full-throated, emotional cry of a man who’s been down to the bottom with nowhere left to turn. What makes this song truly special, like all of Kristofferson’s material, is his vocal. Kristofferson’s voice is nowhere near perfect. But it’s rough. It’s road-weary. And it’s filled with all the damn feeling in the world. God bless Kris Kristofferson.
No. 2 – Merle Haggard, “If We Make It Through December” (Zack)
The greatest asset of Merle Haggard’s saddest songs was their reflective moodiness. Even at his lowest, Haggard never wanted you to sympathize with him. He was an observer who almost took solace in being that low. That’s what makes his drinking songs oddly philosophical despite their intended simplicity. On “If We Make It Through December” though, Haggard is found simply hoping for the best since there’s nothing he can do anyway. He’s got a family to think about and no options left. Once again, it’s a song that makes you think, as one of the happiest times of the year isn’t always so happy for everyone else. I know you can say this about pretty much every other Haggard song out there, but God, what a masterpiece this is.
No. 1 – Don Williams, “Come Early Morning” (Nathan)
There will never again be an artist like Don Williams. “The Gentle Giant,” as he was known, recorded material that was warm, friendly, and familiar. Relatable without seemingly dumbed down. Intelligent without seeming aloof. “Come Early Morning” is maybe his best song. The theme is simple – being reunited with his loving wife or girlfriend. But he sings as though he’s been waiting years to see her again. The production is that classic Don Williams sound. Lots of steel. Some harp. A simple beat. A Don Williams song is one of the best friends country music has ever had.
No. 1 – Dolly Parton, “My Tennessee Mountain Home” (Zack)
Ultimately, of course the No. 1 spot was going to go to something as deeply personal as this. This is one of those songs that plays like a movie in your head, with Dolly Parton taking you through her childhood and making you feel like you’re right there with her. No, it wasn’t a glamorous life, but for Parton, it was everything, and you can feel that from listening to this. There’s something so oddly captivating about hearing Parton sing about the little joys she found in life and her excitement behind them. To top it all off, the chorus is incredibly powerful and passionate, making it catchy without overshadowing the tender beauty behind all of it.