In the early 1980s, country music benefited from the release of the film Urban Cowboy, enough to where one could label it a boom era for the genre.
Commercially, the movement was great, but stylistically, artists may have dressed the part (almost too much), but the actual music was too syrupy and glossy to resemble anything close to country music; many “stars” would come and go, too.
But this feature isn’t meant to focus on the worst elements of country music then. As always, this feature is meant to count down the best hit songs of a particular year, in this case, 1982, a year that was all over the place for the genre, stylistically. This is also the only feature where Wikipedia is a handy source. Also, this may be entirely too late, but this is the last edition of a string of Twitter requests to look at particular years for this feature, with this edition dedicated to Nathan on Twitter.
First, some honorable mentions (in no particular order):
- Merle Haggard – “Big City” (from Haggard’s debut for Epic Records, it’s as blunt and honest as anything else he cut)
- Reba McEntire – “I’m Not That Lonely Yet” (very few artists can pull off bitter self-awareness of their situations like McEntire can)
- Emmylou Harris – “Tennessee Rose” (simple, yes, but as always, Harris possesses one of the most heavenly voices in country music, period)
- Gene Watson – “Fourteen Carat Mind” (Watson’s only No. 1 hit, and a good example of why he’s well-respected among traditional country fans)
- George Strait – “Fool Hearted Memory” (In this writer’s opinion, the first song to demonstrate Strait finding his literal voice, and a good example of why that confidence ensured his longevity to come)
Further honorable mentions can be found here.
No. 10 – David Frizzell & Shelly West, “Another Honky-Tonk Night On Broadway”
For as much as I don’t, admittedly, care for that quintessential ’80s production on country singles, if there’s a rare case where it works, it’s this song. “Another Honky-Tonk Night On Broadway” perfectly captures the appeal of big dreams and facing the reality that comes with them. Sometimes, as is the case here, it costs everything, and the only thing to show for it is the thought of knowing better days are ahead. Yet the song is never meant to be downcast; if anything, between the strings, horns and glitzier textures, it’s meant to capture the appeal of exploring the big city (presumably Nashville). In other words, a cheesy song for the dreamers out there that succeeds in execution.
No. 9 – Alabama, “Mountain Music”
Alabama may have one of the most inconsistent discographies in country music, but they always seem to capture their full potential when they sing about … well, loving music. “Mountain Music” is probably the best song, though, to capture Alabama – the band. Randy Owen’s song, inspired by his memories of growing up in the shadow of Lookout Mountain, Alabama, paints an idyllic picture of a rural southern childhood while keeping the details rich and specific to his own experience. The harmonies are good as they ever were, and even if it is Owen’s song, Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook get a few solo lines to boot. Plus, when the song goes from a stomping country-rock number to a full-on fiddle hoedown, it’s clear that all the musical influences are there in one of the band’s most charming songs.
No. 8 – George Jones & Merle Haggard, “Yesterday’s Wine”
Merle Haggard’s favorite country singer was George Jones, and Jones’ favorite was Haggard; thankfully, we have “Yesterday’s Wine” as proof of that. The song came from an earlier time, when Nashville still tried to control Willie Nelson’s career (how foolish), and in the context of its release here, it reads as bragging rights from two legends who earned them. Jones would later claim he didn’t need anyone’s rocking chair, and it’s that friendly assurance from two aging artists that marks “Yesterday’s Wine” – a slow-rolling, classic country song that never ceases to be bright and endearing.
No. 7 – Lacy J. Dalton, “Everybody Makes Mistakes”
“Everybody Makes Mistakes” just may be one of the coolest sounding songs of the ’80s. From the drawn-out interplay between the warped pedal steel and piano, “Everybody Makes Mistakes” sounds as sad as it should, but also finds Lacy J. Dalton frustrated with herself, if only for falling as hard for her lover as she had and letting herself believe in something more. And with her full-throated growl, Dalton may be caught in the pessimism of the moment, but she’s in astoundingly raw form as she vents her frustrations with everything.
No. 6 – Jerry Reed, “She Got The Goldmine (I Got The Shaft)”
“She Got The Goldmine (I Got The Shaft)” is overdone and a completely corny, satirical look at divorce – and that’s why it’s a masterpiece. It’s customary, of course, for country artists to be at their lowest points in their best works, and even if that’s the case here, it’s not like Reed doesn’t secretly earn it. Actually, for as fun as it is to hear how much he gets screwed in the proceeding, it’s Reed himself who sells the song, with a seedy disposition that also finds him taken aback at everything – enough to where he can even laugh about it! A masterclass of charisma with a catchy country-funk-driven beat, “She Got The Goldmine (I Got The Shaft)” is quintessential Reed.
No. 5 – Don Williams, “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good”
It’s a song like this that helped Don Williams cement himself as the “Gentle Giant” of country music. Like it suggests, “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good” isn’t sold with anger or contempt, or even with any frustrated desperation; it’s a plea to never stray off course. More than that, though, it’s a plea to make sense of the world around Williams, with a focus on wanting “a little less crime” speaking as much to his personal situation as it does to the outside world. Sometimes trying to figure out the right thing to do comes that overbearing sense of confusion, and Williams reminds us that’s alright.
No. 4 – Dolly Parton, “I Will Always Love You”
In 1974, “I Will Always Love You” cried as Dolly Parton’s assurance to her friend Porter Wagoner that, while she was professionally separating from him to pursue her dreams, she’d never forget him. Here … well, I can’t say its impact isn’t a tad diluted from its re-release as part of The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas soundtrack (hence a slightly lower slot for this list), but it’s still one of the finest country songs ever. Setting aside its background in either scenario, “I Will Always Love You” is arguably Parton’s best vocal performance, where, even if she’s looking forward to forging her own path ahead, still shows the pain of leaving her past behind; it’s subtle and hushed, yet emotionally powerful. And the song walks a fine line between being incredibly personal to Parton while also offering the universal sentimentality that’s helped the song endure for her, Whitney Houston and so many more artists who see the same appeal in this masterpiece.
No. 3 – John Anderson, “I Just Came Home To Count The Memories”
“I Just Came Home To Count The Memories” carries the kind of anthemic hook that would have guaranteed its slot as a country standard in a previous decade. Sadly, it’s but one of many sorely underrated tunes from John Anderson, but also one of his best. The strings creep up then recede for great effect, and Anderson shows, once again, why he’s one of the genre’s most gifted vocalists. Yet even if “I Just Came Home To Count The Memories” is fundamentally about loss, it reads more as an insight into Anderson’s decaying mental health most of all. Surely neighbors wouldn’t be surprised that a neighbor, whose battered house sports a “broken window pane” with “roses choking in the grass flaking paint,” wouldn’t be doing well, and surely that little Johnson boy would know better than to ask, too. Yet it’s the mystery of just what happened that remains the song’s greatest appeal, as it really is Anderson’s destiny to keep those painful memories to himself.
No. 2 – Rosanne Cash, “Blue Moon With Heartache”
This was the original B-side to “Seven Year Ache,” which isn’t meant to discount that classic single, but rather show how unstoppable Rosanne Cash was when she debuted. For as simple as “Blue Moon With Heartache” is, it’s its gutting delivery that makes it one of Cash’s finest singles. The relationship in this song died a long time ago, and Cash can only respond with melancholic defeat, starting by claiming how both parties are to blame only for her to surrender later on. It seems almost too perfect that “maybe I’ll just go away” is the line that repeats itself and lingers on into the distance, and when the production is as subdued as it is, “Blue Moon With Heartache” speaks to a low level of depression that seems like too much for anyone to handle, even country artists.
No. 1 – Lacy J. Dalton, “16th Avenue”
“16th Avenue” is often hailed as one of the best celebrations of Music Row songwriters ever, but a line like “One night in some empty room, where no curtains ever hung, like a miracle some golden words rolled off of someone’s tongue” rips away the veneer to reveal the harsher reality. It’s a story that so many songwriters can understand and immediately relate to. This isn’t the naive idealist talking about becoming an artist – this is the songwriter who knows that if you’re not writing singles you’re not getting paid, even if you pour your soul into it. And yet even if you get that hit single, not only does it not last, but in a town like that, the relationships are flaky, and at the end of the night you might end up in that empty room again. “God bless the boys who make the noise on 16th Avenue” isn’t just an empty statement; it’s a reserved symbol of respect for those who toil away in nameless darkness while the artist basks in the spotlight. The production, too, is reserved, carrying only that distinct acoustic riff, firm bass and lingering harmonica to salute those writers who don’t get the recognition they deserve, if only because an industry town like Nashville is always impossible to predict.