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.
4 thoughts on “The Best Hit Country Songs Of 1981”
First off, I love this idea for a feature! I’m looking forward digging into some of the other years that you have featured. I also really love the playlist as this has led me to some previously unknown (to me) albums and songs.
I’m not going to come up with my own ranked list as there are too many good songs to choose from, but I have a few comments:
– John Anderson is in my top 5 favourite artists of all time and I love this song. As someone who was not yet born/very young during his prime, when I look back on his career, it always seems to me that he should have been a bigger star than he was (not that he hasn’t had a very solid career, both critically and commercially), but that’s just how it goes, I guess.
– I’ve always assumed that “All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down” is an answer song or a sequel to “All My Rowdy Friends are Coming Over Tonight”, but I just looked it up and “Settled Down” came out first. If I were to do a ranking, this would probably be #1 for me for 1981.
– “My Favourite Memory” is a great song and I also really enjoyed Courtney Patton’s homage to this with “The Words to My Favourite Memory” form her most recent album.
– I can’t say that I was familiar with the George Jones song prior to reading this, but it is excellent.
– I discovered “Louisiana Saturday Night” many years ago, but I wasn’t familiar with Mel McDaniel’s other work. Thanks to this article, I listened to his “I’m Countryfied” album and discovered that “Right in the Palm of Your Hand” is on this album as well. I became familiar with this song from Alan Jackson’s “Under the Influence” album, but I had no idea that Mel McDaniel had done it (I think this was the version that influenced Alan Jackson). Anyways, it’s a great album!
Beyond your top 10 (and honourable mentions) and the playlist, I scanned through the list of top hits of 1981 from the linked Wikipedia page and I also really love these songs:
– But You Know I Love You (Dolly Parton)
– Dixie on my Mind (Hank Williams Jr.)
– Hillbilly Girl with the Blues (Lacy J. Dalton)
– I Still Believe in Waltzes (Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty)
– I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (John Anderson) – this would be in my top 10
– Miss Emily’s Picture (John Conlee)
– My Baby Thinks He’s a Train (Rosanne Cash)
– Pickin’ Up Strangers (Johnny Lee)
– Still Doin’ Time (George Jones)
– What I Had with You (John Conlee)
– You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma (David Frizzell & Shelly West)
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Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Frank! I’m glad you like the feature.
You know, when people reflect on George Strait and Ricky Skaggs righting country music’s course in the early ’80s, John Anderson’s name always gets left out of the conversation, which is a shame. He’s definitely an underrated legend.
I’m glad you found a few new songs from this – I’m always happy when that happens! I myself sometimes discover some unheard gems when going through this series. It’s always fun. I like the songs you linked as well – what a great year overall!
“Underrated legend” is a perfect descriptor for John Anderson!
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