By 1965, country music was caught in an interesting whirlwind. The Nashville Sound era was beginning to grow stale, and with the rise of acts like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard (who released his breakthrough single this year), not only was the Bakersfield Sound underway, but the emergence of younger artists like Loretta Lynn also signaled a turn for the better for country music.
As always, this feature is meant to count down the best hit songs of a particular year, in this case 1965. This is also the only feature where Wikipedia is a handy source. Also, these are, of course, only my personal picks and preferences. I invite you to share yours down below!
Lastly, if you’re curious as to what other years I’ve looked at for this feature, click here.
First, some honorable mentions:
- Any other Roger Miller song not included on this list, and trust me, there’s a lot on this list today.
- Buck Owens – “Buckaroo” (I wouldn’t put an instrumental in the top 10, but this is so great to listen to, and, to date, the final instrumental song to reach the top of the country music charts)
- Marty Ribbons – “Ribbon Of Darkness” (Robbins wore many hats throughout his career, and it was nice to hear him sing this folk-inspired tune)
- Buck Owens – “I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail” (a classic, for sure)
- Tennessee Ernie Ford – “Hicktown” (one of country music’s underappreciated elements is its self-awareness of its cornball humor. Hee-Haw is, of course, the most obvious example, but there’s also this song)
Further honorable mentions can be found here.
On with the list!
No. 10 – Johnny And June Carter Cash, “It Ain’t Me Babe”
Admittedly, I’ve always wished this song included a more prominent role from June Carter, but this Bob Dylan-penned tune easily fit Johnny’s repertoire. As his world continued to spiral out of control throughout the mid-1960’s due to drug usage, a song where the narrator humorously admits to not being the knight in shining armor his lover probably deserves only served as somewhat of a dark confession for Johnny. “It Ain’t Me Babe” is, more or less, the musical equivalent of having that angel and devil on both sides of your shoulders and knowing which route you’re likely going to pursue.
No. 9 – Roger Miller, “Engine, Engine #9”
Roger Miller was often dismissed as a novelty singer, but to call him that would largely be a disservice to his career. Yes, this is the man who once told Randy Travis, “Never keep your pills and your change in the same pocket. I just swallowed thirty-five cents.,” but to misunderstand a zany personality as having no substance at all is heresy. Still, it’s hard not to love something like “Engine, Engine #9” for its more subtle moments – the great acoustic groove, the bouncy tones, or watching Miller gleefully accept a breakup. There’s not much to say about this song because it speaks for itself. That, and we’ll be discussing Miller plenty more later on down the list.
No. 8 – Merle Haggard, “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers”
Merle Haggard’s breakout hit would come to define him as an artist, not just in the name of his band, but thematically as well. Of course, part of Haggard’s enduring success was due to his frank honesty, and there’s nothing quite like accepting a love is over and never trusting anyone again. In the wrong hands, this song could have easily become overwrought, especially for its time. But in Haggard’s hands, you can’t help but laugh as he flips that metaphorical finger into the air. And let’s face it, we’ve all been there.
No. 7 – Roy Drusky and Priscilla Mitchell, “Yes Mr. Peters”
If you’re unfamiliar with the above names, that’s totally understandable. “Yes Mr. Peters” was Roy Drusky’s only No. 1 single and Priscilla Mitchell’s only country hit in general. Yet it’s a song like this that makes me angry whenever people say country music is a backward-thinking genre. I mean, this is a song where the execution is flawless – a husband takes a call from his lover, and while we, the listeners, hear the whole conversation, to the man’s wife, she can only hear him talking to “his boss.” It’s the kind of country song that, no, doesn’t reach the darkest depths of its many (many) murder ballads, but it showed country music handling a taboo, controversial subject (for its time) with ease. An underrated classic if there ever was one.
No. 6 – Buck Owens, “Before You Go”
In terms of cultural influence, you can’t talk about Buck Owens without discussing “I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail,” but in terms of my pure favorite songs from this year, it’s this little ditty that takes the cake for the best of Buck in my book. “Before You Go” is the kind of song Dwight Yoakam would perform 30 years later – a hillbilly shuffle that experiments and alternates between fast and slow tempos to bridge that gap between a new sound in country music with past traditions. And apparently I liked a lot of songs from this year where the narrators act like goofy smart-asses – mea culpa?
No. 5 – Loretta Lynn, “Blue Kentucky Girl”
As I said before, country music was caught in somewhat of a transitional year for the better in 1965, and the budding career of Loretta Lynn was all the proof needed. “Blue Kentucky Girl” isn’t among Lynn’s most well-known songs, but there’s always been something oddly progressive about this song, even to this day. Normally, bidding adieu to a lover who needs to find himself in the city would signal the end of a chapter, but Lynn knows for sure that he’ll be back, if only because their love is too strong. Perhaps there’s a sense of disillusionment to this, or perhaps there’s just a mature progressive sentiment to the message, as I said before. You decide, but I have my answer.
No. 4 – Eddy Arnold, “Make The World Go Away”
A natural talent, for sure, but Eddy Arnold’s relationship with country music was tenuous at best. With that said, if there’s a song that stands as a late classic to the Nashville Sound era, it’s this one right here. There’s always just been something so powerful about that one line – “make the world go away” – and how much weight it carries when you really stop to think about it. There’s drowning in one’s misery, but this is a whole other level. I’d be remiss not to mention how part of the song’s emotional gut-punch comes courtesy of Arnold’s powerful performance, too.
No. 3 – Roger Miller, “One Dyin’ And A Buryin’”
Hey, remember what I just said about “Make The World Go Away?” Well …
When I said before that Miller had a zany personality, I wasn’t just talking about the sunshine and rainbow portion of it. In truth, Miller was the kind of person who could say something and either make you laugh or be taken aback with the most shocked look on your face depending on what was said. No one ever knew if he was serious or not, which no doubt has contributed to any unfair characterizations. In truth, the only person who did know that was Miller himself, and even that might not be true. But what is true is that “One Dyin’ And A Buryin’” stands as one of those times where you hear Miller say something and aren’t quite sure how to react. The narrator in “Make The World Go Away” simply wants some peace and quiet for who knows how long, but the narrator here wishes for a more permanent solution. The jubilant revelation this narrator makes as he realizes what he needs to do to escape his pain maybe isn’t delivered in the most hard-hitting manner, but still carries that somber, disturbing air to it like any good country song.
No. 2 – Roger Miller, “King Of The Road”
Of course, we all enjoy having fun and laughing more than we do thinking about death, so it’s no surprise “King Of The Road” is one of country music’s biggest hits to date. Truthfully, I’m not quite I can say what hasn’t been said already. That chorus is guaranteed to get stuck in your head, but the song’s greatest asset just may be Miller’s perspective on life shown throughout; that is, making the best out of any situation or adding your own fun twist on it to make it bearable. It’s subtly inspirational, if nothing else.
No. 1 – Porter Wagoner, “Green, Green Grass Of Home”
As Waylon Jennings once said, Porter Wagoner couldn’t go “pop” even with a thing of firecrackers in his mouth. For my money, Wagoner was one of the purest country performers we’ve ever had, The year after this one, Wagoner would have a hit called “Skid Row Joe,” a character who he’d revisit in the form of several concept albums. “Green, Green Grass of Home” predates the character, but it’s hard not to see this as a prequel of sorts (or the distant end if we’re talking in terms of the timeline). Perspective is often a tool well used in country music, and despite this song focusing on an inmate in death row, it’s hard not to feel anything but sympathy for him. As he awaits to meet whoever he thinks he’s meeting for that final ride, it’s unclear if his plea to go back home comes as an epiphany after a life of wrongdoing or if he’s simply wrongly convicted. Actually, part of the song’s beauty is that we don’t know where the title character really is until that final verse. Up until that point, the listener thinks they’re taking a virtual tour of someone’s hometown with them until it’s all torn asunder. Yet it still ends on that optimistic note, that despite this being the end for our narrator, physically, he’s still going “home.” An absolute classic country music not just for 1965, but of all time.