Most country music fans remember 1980 as the year country music went Hollywood. Between the release of movies like Urban Cowboy, 9 to 5, and Honeysuckle Rose, country music was “cool” in popular culture.
Well, I should say the “facade” of country music was cool. Images of cowboy and cowgirl attire were abound, but the actual music would suffer in the coming years (and spoiler alert: Johnny Lee’s “Looking For Love” didn’t make this list).
That doesn’t mean, however, it was hard to fill out this list. Honestly, I’m not sure this year had that one instantly recognizable classic like other years, but in terms of sheer quantity, this year is more stacked than others.
For some reason, this year also had more than a few artists releasing covers of old time country classics and even songs that went beyond that time frame (which we’ll explore later, of course). Therefore, I might have more to say about certain songs than others, but as always, this feature is meant to count down the best hit songs of a particular year, in this case 1980. 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!
First, some honorable mentions:
- Kenny Rogers – “Lady” (This isn’t really a country song, but it’s damn good. It’s also a future subject of ‘Pop Goes The Country’)
- Willie Nelson- “On The Road Again” (speaking of country songs from movies … this isn’t Willie Nelson’s best song, of course, but the pure infectiousness of its delivery is easy to like)
- Alabama – “Tennessee River” (I’ve never liked how this song starts, but by its end it’s an absolute jam-and-a-half)
- Waylon Jennings – “Ain’t Living Long Like This” (I hate to say it, but Waylon Jennings didn’t even make my favorite version of this song, but don’t worry, he’ll be well-represented on this list)
- Merle Haggard – “Misery and Gin” (Merle Haggard’s best asset is his simplicity. At its core, this is your standard “drinking to cure a heartache” song, but in Haggard’s control, it becomes one of the saddest songs you’ve ever heard)
- John Anderson – “She Just Started Liking Cheatin’ Songs” (one of the most unique perspectives for a song I’ve ever heard)
On with the list!
No. 10 – Ed Bruce, “The Last Cowboy Song”
As most country music fans know, plenty of excellent songwriters have stepped out from the shadows to pursue their own solo careers. Some are more well-known than others, and if you don’t recognize Ed Bruce’s name right away, that’s certainly understandable. But if you’ve heard Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson’s “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” or Tanya Tucker’s “Texas (When I Die),” you’ve heard Bruce. One of Bruce’s most underrated compositions of his own, however, is the one up above. “The Last Cowboy Song” is a protest song, but not the kind you’d expect. Instead, the song laments the cowboy lifestyle and the time when it was called “country and western.” But the song reads as a poem, acting as a wistful farewell to the great American dream with the optimistic sentiment that, at the very least, someone got to live that life at one point. If you’re familiar with the artists Bruce is associated with, you’ll recognize that chord arrangement right away, and you may even recognize a few of the voices that join him on this song.
No. 9 – The Oak Ridge Boys, “Leaving Louisiana (In The Broad Daylight)”
Not to take away from the Oak Ridge Boys’ excellent version of this song, but the best version of this song may have actually been released last year by the writer, Rodney Crowell (and, as a bonus, Emmylou Harris has an excellent version too that I’d place second in this tiny list). Still, it’s hard to screw up storytelling as good as this, which reads almost like a teenage love story, only without the clichés and with some added grit and dirt to it. Yet the most fascinating part about this song is that it’s always had the kind of arrangement that could suggest it was an old folk song from the 1800’s if one were to walk into this song blind. And it bears repeating that Crowell is one hell of a songwriter, with this only being one of many testaments to that.
No. 8 – John Anderson, “Your Lying Blue Eyes”
And speaking of songs that sound like they could be hits from an earlier age, I swear I always have to make sure this wasn’t an old Lefty Frizzell song whenever I think about it. But that also speaks to John Anderson’s power as a performer. Among the class of country artists who represented a return for tradition in country, which also included George Strait and Ricky Skaggs, Anderson is the underrated member of that group. And a song like “Your Lying Blue Eyes” really speaks for itself, a song where the hook is there and evolves over time with a key change to boot! What more could you ask for, really? An underrated classic if there ever was one.
No. 7 – Emmylou Harris, “Wayfaring Stranger”
After talking about songs that could have been older hits, “Wayfaring Stranger” is an actual older song. It wasn’t exactly a hit, but it’s an old folk standard from the 1800s that’s been covered several times. It should come as no surprise, however, that Emmylou Harris has one of, if not the, best version of the song. By adding darker tones and supplementing the song with that lonesome cry of dobro and fiddle to carry the song, Harris truly brings out the best of a song speaking to a plaintive soul ready to move on for good. Oh, and she absolutely kills this, vocally.
No. 6 – Brenda Lee (feat. The Oak Ridge Boys), “Broken Trust”
Here’s another song that, for some reason, isn’t as well-remembered as it should be. I mean, it has that strong hook evident in some of the genre’s best songs, and the Oak Ridge Boys provide excellent background harmonies. And when it comes to the lyrical content, it speaks to facing consequences just as any good country song does. And yet it’s the execution and framing where “Broken Trust” truly shines – a look at two lovers who thought they’d be together forever only for time to say otherwise. They grow up, drift apart, he cheats, and just like that, those memories don’t matter anymore, or are, at the very least, tainted. It’s a gutting country song that has all the excellent trademarks of a classic.
No. 5 – Waylon Jennings, “Clyde”
Considering these are just, after all, lists of my favorite country songs from a particular year, it’s no surprise that I throw around the word “underrated” quite casually. “Clyde” isn’t Waylon Jennings’s masterpiece by any means, and it really is built around an atmosphere more than anything else. But this song’s monstrous groove can’t be denied, taking Jennings’s trademark bass lines and giving them more texture and presence than ever before. It’s the kind of song where, when played in the live show, would have brought the house down (and maybe one of you out there can attest to that). The biggest service Jennings did to this song was leaning into its corniness. It may be just a “ditty” in the larger context of his discography, but it’s a damn good one.
No. 4 – Merle Haggard, “The Way I Am”
As I said in the honorable mentions section, the key to every Merle Haggard song is its simplicity. You never have to search for that hidden meaning because he lays out exactly what he’s feeling to the listener. Yet there’s still an odd poetic wisdom to much of what Haggard says, and “The Way I Am” is no exception. No, Haggard didn’t write this, but it fits his demeanor – a look into the fantasies we all dream of, yet knowing those will never come without hard work, and even then, there’s still often a sense of content to our current situation we often take for granted. Even the standard glossy ’80s production can’t ruin an incredible song.
No. 3 – Dolly Parton, “Old Flames Can’t Hold A Candle To You”
Ironically, one of the best gateways into this forgotten gem is through Kesha (her mother, Patricia Rose Sebert, had a hand in writing this song, and Kesha released her own version on 2017’s Rainbow). Yet it’s the acknowledgement of that outside perspective on this song that gives its most striking asset. Country music loves reminiscing on past lovers, often in ways that end badly for the narrators of those tales in question. Yet “Old Flames … ” takes on a different perspective, finding the character caught in that situation and thinking nothing of it because, at the end of the day, she’s moved on. Not that I don’t love a good country song that embraces its darkness (that will be very obvious in just one second), but it’s nice to hear the rare kind of song where the character ends up happy and content with where she is now. Not every happy ending is a cliché, after all.
No. 2 – George Jones, “He Stopped Loving Her Today”
Before you drag out the pitchforks, let me say that I know it’s sacrilegious to have this song not top this list. If I were to rank these based on influence, this would be the easy winner. But truthfully, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” isn’t even my favorite song on the album it stems from, let alone my favorite George Jones song. With that said, however, it’s not hard to see its universal appeal. More than that, though, it was the huge comeback for Jones he needed at the time, even if he didn’t want to release it. It’s hard to believe that Jones, of all people, would think of a song as too sad, and make no mistake, that lyrical twist is some of the best writing in country music ever. But thankfully, he was wrong, and it’s since gone on to earn every bit of acclaim it’s received.
No. 1 – Kenny Rogers, “Coward Of The County”
“Coward Of The Country” is one of those songs that’s so brilliant in its execution and framing that, while critics may find “The Gambler” to be Kenny Rogers’s best work, I know my answer. It’s the kind of song that goes in a completely different direction than one would expect, exploring several country music tropes and piecing them together to form a cohesive story that stands among the genre’s best. It’s like a mini-movie exploring nearly every emotion – happiness, sadness, revenge, hatred, lust, honor, loyalty and bravery – and letting the listener take away from it what they will. Yet it’s never meant to call anything controversial into question. While we, of course, want to honor our parents’ wishes for us, especially their dying ones, there’s a difference between what they say and what they mean sometimes. Tommy’s father in prison didn’t want him exploring a life of crime for the sake of doing it, but that doesn’t mean we can go through life avoiding tough situations. There’s a hidden meaning to his father’s advice where, even when Tommy is confronted to do what he has to do to defend his significant other, you don’t get the feeling his father would cast any judgment in the slightest, and instead would be proud of his son for what he did.