There’s a sense of finality that comes with the end of a decade; a chance to start anew, even if it’s just one year spilling into the next, as always. For country music, in 1979, a curious phenomenon spread.
Sure, that could refer to the growing number of Willie Nelson wannabes in Texas, but I’m referring to country music’s placement in the movies. Just one year later, in 1980, Urban Cowboy would produce a boom period for the genre it hadn’t seen yet.
In 1979, though, country music still grappled between the rough-edged, progressive stance of the fading outlaw movement and the growing number of pop artists entering the genre. The famous “insider” versus “outsider” debate certainly lived on this year, and that’s reflected in the year’s biggest hits. As always, this feature is meant to count down the best hit songs of a particular year, in this case, 1979. This is also the only feature where Wikipedia is a handy source.
First, some honorable mentions:
- Tom T. Hall – “Son Of Clayton Delaney” (A fitting sequel, and a fitting observation of generational gaps)
- Waylon Jennings – “Amanda” (I’m a bigger fan of the Don Williams version, but it’s a song like this that showed how adept Waylon Jennings was at handling tender material)
- The Statler Brothers – “How To Be A Country Star” (It plods at a snail’s pace, but despite its corniness, this is a fun novelty song)
- Loretta Lynn – “I Can’t Feel You Anymore” (Loretta Lynn had recorded this kind of song better before, but this is still an excellent performance)
No. 10 – George Jones and Johnny Paycheck, “Maybellene”
I’m not sure where to begin with this one. For starters, neither George Jones nor Johnny Paycheck capture the original spirit of Chuck Berry’s recording. Second, this cover stems from a collaborative record that was absolutely panned by critics, with the major issues coming through in technical ability (mostly off-key singing). Yet for as unhinged as both artists were (especially during this time), there’s something oddly fascinating hearing them at their rowdiest. Sure, the technical criticisms still ring valid, but what both artists lack in a fine performance, they make up for in simple, harmless fun.
No. 9 – Tanya Tucker, “Texas (When I Die)”
In the wrong hands, this song could scan as cloying and cliché. Where Tanya Tucker gets it right, however, is never painting her fantasy of a Texas heaven as anything other than her own personal, joyous end. There’s an ache and sense of homesickness in her delivery, but by the time the barroom chorus joins in, it feels like a fun, simple salute to her home state. No, she didn’t write it, but she sings it as if she did.
No. 8 – Anne Murray, “Broken Hearted Me”
The key to “Broken Hearted Me” is its straightforwardness. It plays out just as any broken-hearted weeper does, but Anne Murray does a fantastic job selling the desperate angst of feeling like it’s the literarl end of the world for her. Actually, the fact that she even underplays the song gives it a sinking sadness, and that’s helped by the murkier production and swell of strings and piano for a darker, yet elegant, presentation. It’s a familiar formula for a country song, but when it works – it works.
No. 7 – Hank Williams Jr., “Family Tradition”
And so would begin the dawn of a new Hank Williams Jr. – one who would step out from his father’s shadow to declare independence from everyone. If country music was caught between two sides in the ‘70s, “Family Tradition” represents the hard-edged, rougher half, devoid of polish. I’d also call it devoid of commercial appeal if it wasn’t for that instantly recognizable chorus. Irony or not, for as much as Williams wanted to distance himself from his father’s music and legacy, he’d go on to become one of many faces for the genre over the next decade, just as his father had done before him.
No. 6 – Merle Haggard, “My Own Kind Of Hat”
Yes, Merle Haggard has sung this anthem of independence many times before, in better ways. But “My Own Kind Of Hat” resonates anyway for its lighthearted take on the subject. Maybe it’s the gentle sway of the melody, maybe it’s the way that fiddle always cuts in at the right time, or maybe it’s that the songwriting has almost too much fun with all of those double entendres – it’s simply a reminder that Haggard always marches to the beat of his own drum.
No. 5 – Lacy J. Dalton, “Crazy Blue Eyes”
Lacy J. Dalton’s debut single immediately captured her as an artist with a powerful, raspy edge to her voice, and as someone who could pen a great melody. Dalton’s greatest material always had a quiet, understated nature, and while that skittering acoustic guitar deserves some credit, it’s Dalton herself who carries the track. Her forceful presence on the chorus screams as an actual desperate plea to herself to stop falling for these playboys, and then she comes back down to quietly ask for advice from her mother on the verses. On the surface, it’s a simple song, but Dalton knows how to command the performance to her own benefit.
No. 4 – Don Williams, “Tulsa Time”
Right from that opening groove, it’s clear why “Tulsa Time” endures as one of Don Williams’ best songs. For its time, “Tulsa Time” stood as an outlier in his catalog – a stomping, rocking, infectious song that didn’t carry the same warm, gentle touch associated with a typical “Gentle Giant” work. And sure enough, Williams proves to be no hell-raiser here, but the nonchalant attitude he carries toward his dreams of stardom and the disillusionment that comes with it still provides that same upbeat, humorous atmosphere. He’s living on his own terms, and at least he’s having fun with it along the way.
No. 3 – Hoyt Axton, “Della and the Dealer”
Hoyt Axton may have been a folk musician and television actor over a country star, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t record his own set of excellent tunes. Perhaps the biggest testament to that is “Della and the Dealer,” a song that spoke to Axton’s passion for western-inspired stories by leaning into unwieldy theatricality. It is, quite literally, a love story involving the titular characters and their accompanying cat and dog, all of whom play some part in the story. Della falls in love with another man, the dealer dies trying to get his revenge, the dog has a gun ready, and the cat has a shot of rye … but he’s never saying a mumbling word about any of the events taking place. Along with being relentless catchy, “Della and the Dealer” turns an average outlaw tale on its head by being endlessly fun and lighthearted.
No. 2 – Charlie Daniels Band, “The Devil Went Down To Georgia”
Whether you’re a country fan or not, you’ve either heard this song, or heard of it – a duel between a fiddler named Johnny and the devil himself. Some have likened it to the famous legend of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil, only in this story, the prize won is a golden fiddle for Johnny, not for Satan. Beyond that, though, “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” is a fine masterclass in musicianship – the sizzling fiddle licks, the stomping rhythm, the whirlwind solos (to be honest, I’d have to give it the devil on that one), or even Daniels’ fast-paced narration, as if he’s the referee for the event. The song’s true meaning has been analyzed to far greater extent before, but it’s certainly one of the most rousing songs in music history.
No. 1 – Gene Watson, “Farewell Party”
For as much as country music is supposed to champion authenticity, leaning into melodrama has also resulted in some of the genre’s finest performances. In fact, I’d argue this is one of the finest performances from a country singer ever. Honestly, the details of “Farewell Party” are scarce – what happened between these two ex-lovers to cause such a bitter resentment between them? Is the narrator actually dying, or is this just a bitter fantasy of what he imagines life will be like after he’s gone? What is known, though, is that whatever love was there is long gone and had its own farewell party. And with the way the song hints at the narrator’s possible suicidal tendencies, there’s a much darker subtext to this song than what may initially appear, especially on Watson’s final cry of “I know you’ll be glad when I’m gone.”