The ’80s were a strange time period for country music. In some ways, I’d argue it mirrors country music today, namely in how it’s all over the place. The outlaw movement was over, and with country music’s Hollywood exposure through movies such as Urban Cowboy, Honeysuckle Rose, 9 to 5 and Coal Miner’s Daughter, country music was caught in the middle of a transitional phase in 1981 as it morphed into something glitzier and more accessible. Certain legends were on the verge of comebacks while others were aging out of the mainstream country climate.
If anything, 1981 is a melting pot of country music at its best, worst and sometimes most mediocre. Of course, this feature only focuses on the “best” portion of that music, and once again, 1981 can be only described as strange. There are a lot of great contenders for this list, but most of the songs here feel like old familiar friends rather than instantly recognizable classics. As such, out of any year I’ve explored for this feature, I expect this year to draw the most disagreement in terms of what was “the best” music of this particular year.
As always, this is the only feature where Wikipedia is a handy source, as I’m counting down the best “hit” songs of 1981 (basically top 20 or close to it). Also, these are of course only my personal picks and preferences. I invite you share yours either through The Musical Divide’s social media accounts or in the comments below!
Let’s start with some honorable mentions:
- Emmylou Harris & Don Williams – “If I Needed You” (these two together simply equals pure bliss)
- Waylon Jennings & Jessi Colter – “Storms Never Last” (what a pretty sounding song)
- Willie Nelson – “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground” (movie soundtrack songs were abound in 1981!)
- Merle Haggard – “I’ll Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” (it’s not the most imaginative drinking song, but it was a pivotal part of Haggard’s comeback)
- Gary Morris – “Headed For Heartache” (what a catchy riff)
- George Strait – “Unwound” (good song, and it was Strait’s entry to the country music world, but the competition was too tough for a top 10 placement)
Further honorable mentions can be found here. On with the list!
No. 10 – Mel McDaniel, “Louisiana Saturday Night”
As I said in the introduction, many of these songs aren’t necessarily recognizable classics. With that said, many tracks here feel like old familiar friends, and “Louisiana Saturday Night” is included in that category. We all know that chorus. It’s a Cajun, foot-stomping good time backed by a swampy rhythm. Country music may love its hard-edged, sorrowful tunes, but it also knows when to have a damn good time.
No. 9 – Dolly Parton, “9 to 5”
Yes, it’s a bubbly hit from a movie soundtrack, but only Dolly Parton could get away with it. Underneath the sunshine personality, the song is a bold indictment of corporate culture and its exploitation of workers, only furthered by the movie from which it stems. It’s fun and has substance, and it’s handled by one of country music’s finest.
No. 8 – Barbara Mandrell, “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool”
As I said before, by 1981, country music was largely a melting pot. Just as the history books have recorded the genre’s constant shifts, they’ve also recorded the responses to these changes. Message songs can be hit or miss depending on the personality behind the microphone, but “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool” never feels like a pure chest-pumping brag. It’s a message that kindly reminds everyone how country music was, and still is, an American art form worth paying attention to, especially when the glitz eventually fades away (and it always does). It’s personal, but it’s also a statement for many fans who felt like country was getting away from its roots, and that’s enough to earn it a place here.
No. 7 – Tammy Wynette, “Crying in the Rain”
What a devastatingly beautiful song. This understated piano ballad is just the perfect fit for Tammy Wynette’s achingly sad, beautiful delivery. When that hook comes in, it’s apparent that this Everly Brothers tune is now hers.
No. 6 – Johnny Cash, “The Baron”
The ’80s were not kind to Johnny Cash in the slightest. That’s a shame, because as evidenced by “The Baron,” his quality hadn’t declined. Yes, it’s the same father-son confrontation that Cash had utilized before on “A Boy Named Sue,” but the situation feels more serious, and it’s still different enough to stand on its own. Cash may not have wrote the song, but “The Baron” combines Cash’s witty delivery with lyrics that fit right in his wheelhouse. If nothing else, it was a fitting final top 10 hit for him.
No. 5 – George Jones, “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)”
To be honest, I’m well aware country music isn’t necessarily made for “critical” discussions. There’s a timeless familiarity to it that houses elements that separates it from other art forms. “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me … ” is a classic country bar-weeper, and there isn’t much to say about it other than that. There’s no one else in this entire world, living or dead, that could touch something like this and perform it with the same raw power or emotion that George Jones does.
No. 4 – Hank Williams Jr., “All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)”
If you need any actual proof of how country music was in a transitional phase, well … here it is. “All My Rowdy Friends” spells it out clear as day in a way that’s personal to Hank Williams Jr. and filled with witty charm. This song is Williams’ self-aware observation of a changing landscape in the country music genre. His friends, Waylon Jennings, Jones, Cash, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, have all literally settled down, leaving Williams to carry the torch. It’s also a song that carries a phrase quite familiar to Williams’ catalog of hits, and it’s an iconic statement on the year as a whole.
No. 3 – Merle Haggard, “My Favorite Memory”
When cycling through the hits of this year, I was surprised at how much a revisitation of Merle Haggard’s “My Favorite Memory” managed to floor me. During the early ’80s, Haggard experienced a career rejuvenation, and “My Favorite Memory” proved he still had “it.” Backed by equally tender production, the song’s simplistic sentiment manages to resonate loudly. There’s something so oddly poetic about framing a person, rather than an experience, as a memory worth preserving.
No. 2 – Rosanne Cash, “Seven Year Ache”
Equally complex and true to the genre, Rosanne Cash debuted in a big way with “Seven Year Ache.” Through quirky framing, the song is a both a biting indictment of a man’s careless ways and also a surrender made by the narrator. In other words, there’s frustration present, but it’s of a tired variety, and Cash’s detailed depiction of the entire scene is a reason it remains such an iconic hit.
No. 1 – John Anderson, “1959”
As I said already, a number of songs could have taken the No. 1 spot for this year, but ultimately, there’s something so achingly depressing to the story of John Anderson’s “1959.” While the ’80s should have been the decade where Anderson became a mega star, instead, we settled for the occasional hit every now and then. Anderson rips your heart out in this song through a story with real, grounded sincerity. The song even pulls a fake-out, setting itself up as a sentimental love song where the listener expects the outcome to be a reflection on the hardships these lovers endured. Instead, the listener finds out that these good times are just memories the narrator shares, and in the end, she married someone else while he was on service leave. All of a sudden, Anderson’s sweet delivery turns into one of the most somber ones in country music history, and like with all good country songs, we’re left to shed a tear at a beautifully done song.