Since John Anderson had my favorite hit song of 1981 with “1959,” I figured we should rewind the clock to see what his soundtrack was for that particular year.
1959 is an example of country music being caught in the midst of it all – honky tonk, western, rockabilly and the Nashville Sound. In some ways, 1959 represented a transitional year for the genre. Buck Owens debuted with his first two hits, Dolly Parton recorded for the first time, and George Jones scored his first No. 1 hit. Alongside these events, there was a bigger focus on storytelling, and that’s reflected on this list in quite a big way.
As always, this is the only feature where Wikipedia is a handy source, as I’m counting down the best “hit” songs of 1959 (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:
- Webb Pierce – “I Ain’t Never”
- The Louvin Brothers – “The Knoxville Girl”
- Flatt & Scruggs – “Cabin In The Hills”
- Lefty Frizzell – “Cigarette & Coffee Blues”
- Johnny Cash – “Five Feet High and Rising”
- The Browns – “The Three Bells”
Further honorable mentions can be found here. On with the list!
No. 10 – Ray Price, “Heartaches By The Number”
“Heartaches By The Number” is just one of those songs you identify with country music. If anything, this song reveals that underneath the joyous melodies and fiddles, country artists need to embrace their sorrows. It’s not that country music enjoys pity parties, it’s that certain artists have to stare at the darkest corners of their souls to find something worth holding on to. Maybe I’m over-analyzing it, but it’s a running theme in some of the best country songs out there, including this one.
No. 9 – George Jones, “White Lightning”
Telling you all that George Jones can nail a sad country song is like telling you that water is wet. Ironically, both of the hits featured here today are among Jones’ most jovial tracks. How can you listen to this and not immediately crack a smile? Of course, we don’t want Jones getting too much of that ol’ white lightning, but heck, at least he’s having fun.
No. 8 – Johnny Horton, “When It’s Springtime In Alaska (It’s Forty Below)”
If 1959 was known for two things, it was story songs and crossover hits. “When It’s Springtime In Alaska” is an example of the former, a southern-gothic tale with banjo work that foreshadows Deliverance of all things. Of course, country music loves its tragic heroes, both on and off the stage, and it’s hard not to be gripped by the story of this poor, naive fellow. The weather is almost as cold as his punishment.
No. 7 – Johnny Cash, “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town”
Before we had “The Devil’s Right Hand,” we had “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town.” Like with other songs here, it’s easy to see where the roots were planted for many of country music’s common archetypes. “Heartaches By The Number” was an endearingly corny song for the heartbroken, “White Lightning” covered country music’s love of alcohol, and “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” is the classic tale of the outlaw who seals his own fate (not unlike the previous entry). Johnny Cash was on fire in the 50s, and this tune remains one of his most underrated.
No. 6 – George Jones, “Who Shot Sam”
If “White Lightning” was the result of a goofball off his rocker, “Who Shot Sam” is the aftermath of it all, showcasing consequences while still being incredibly fun. That saloon piano is enough to reel me in, but so is a story where even Jones himself can admit that poor Sam had what was coming to him.
No. 5 – Skeeter Davis, “Set Him Free”
It’s honestly been tough to write about most of these songs at length thus far. They’ve all been stellar songs that speak for themselves. “Set Him Free” earns a place here though simply for its uniqueness. Not only does the story take place in a courtroom (the best country music and law matchup next to Randy Travis and Matlock), but it frames itself under the call-response technique, an underused tactic for country songs. The judge wants to hear the outside narrator’s perspective in a domestic dispute, but it doesn’t end with a definitive conclusion. I guess the jury never reached a verdict, but Skeeter Davis certainly made her case.
No. 4 – Marty Robbins, “The Hanging Tree”
“The Hanging Tree” wasn’t on the original Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs track list, but it certainly fits. On the surface, “The Hanging Tree” is a western ballad from a movie of the same name, but it stands up as one of Marty Robbins’ best. The horns signal an imminent danger, but the rollicking bass groove supplemented by Robbins’ lush voice make this a treat for the ears. Can you believe it isn’t even his best hit of this year?
No. 3 – Kitty Wells, “Mommy For A Day”
“Mommy For A Day” was the kind of the song you just didn’t release in 1959, and yet it’s the kind of bold statement that makes this one of Kitty Wells’ most overlooked songs. Not only does this song tackle the controversial subject of divorce, it also explores the psychological impacts it carries for the child, split between two worlds and too young to understand. The song just goes the extra mile by having Wells plead for her ex-husband to take her back, if only for the sake of the child.
No. 2 – Lefty Frizzell, “Long Black Veil”
I consider this and my No. 1 selection two of the best songs in country music ever, so ranking them wasn’t easy. There’s a reason this song was recently added by the Library of Congress. Unfortunately, “Long Black Veil” can almost read as a commentary of Lefty Frizzell’s career in 1959. He was on the verge of capturing his final hits before slinking away into the darkness, and that’s exactly how this haunting tune ends. It’s the kind of story that’s made to be an instant classic, and in terms of story songs, it rarely got better than this.
No. 1 – Marty Robbins, “El Paso”
Something like Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs was almost unheard of in country music for its time. Barely anyone cared about an “album” at this point, let alone a concept album. Yet for as strong as that album is, “El Paso” is a pure masterpiece all its own. Like with “Long Black Veil,” this is a song where you find yourself hanging on to every word. Even “El Paso” itself broke barriers for country music. No one released songs to radio quite as long as this one, let alone songs where every word mattered to understand its context. In short, “El Paso” is a masterpiece story where my words can’t do it justice, and it’s also one of the best country and western songs ever.