In these troubled times, it’s become both more and less important to have those little distractions that keep us from our daily routines. I haven’t written one of these features in a little while, but since now is as good of a time as any, let’s take a look back at another transitional point in time.
Well, transitional for country music, that is. In 1971, country music’s placement in popular culture suffered when CBS slashed rural-themed programming, which included heinous cuts like Johnny Cash’s forward-thinking television show. On a positive note, this was also an industry on the burgeoning edges of the outlaw movement, and that transition into more thoughtful material can certainly be heard through the year’s hits.
Speaking of, as always, this feature is dedicated to counting down the best hit songs of a particular year (top 20 or close to it), in this case, 1971. This is the only feature I operate where Wikipedia is a handy source, and I invite you to share your own favorites of the year down below. Also, if you’re curious to know what other years I’ve examined for this feature, you can that list here, or in a more organized fashion at the bottom of this page.
Before we begin, here’s a few honorable mentions:
- Johnny Paycheck – “She’s All I Got” (I’m not sure which version between Paycheck’s and Tracy Byrd’s is more recognizable, but it’s smooth as butter either way)
- Charley Pride – “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” (It’s a bit too low-key to make it into the top 10, but as Pride’s signature hit, I had to recognize it somewhere)
- Jerry Reed – “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” (As always, a fun tune from Reed)
- Stonewall Jackson – “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo” (It’s lighthearted escapism that’s surprisingly relatable and certainly sweet)
- Merle Haggard – “Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man)” (like Haggard says, the song explains itself)
Now, on with the top 10!
No. 10 – Dolly Parton, “Joshua”
As I said in a recent piece, the beauty of Dolly Parton’s writing is that she always imbued a sense of optimism through her tales of tough times. “Joshua” is more or less another example of that, though it’s a bit more playful than Parton’s more personal material. The core essence of what marks Parton’s writing, however, is very much intact here – a story with real characters who feel misunderstood in a town where everyone thinks they know each other. With the shuffling percussion and punchy bass rhythm, it’s easy to see the song will end with a positive spin, and that’s what makes it an easygoing, fun listen.
No. 9 – Kenny Price, “The Sheriff Of Boone County”
This is the sort of song that’s unbelievably corny at first – even grating until it unfolds a bit more – and then becomes endearing, if only because Kenny Price is aware of all of this (in other words, it’s not surprising to hear he was a Hee Haw regular). And then there’s the sunnier acoustics and barroom piano that unfold into a story of a crooked sheriff who runs the town on his own terms. Again, on paper it’s a concept that would fail if played seriously, but one can tell how much Price is enjoying himself in the role, and its ending is definitely a highlight. Oh, by the way, you in a heap of trouble!
No. 8 – Johnny Cash, “Man In Black”
It’s not his biggest or flashiest hit, but “Man In Black,” for obvious reasons, is Johnny Cash’s signature song. An album like 2018’s Forever Words truly revealed the darker parts of Cash’s mind he kept hidden away for so long, and “Man In Black” is like a precursor to it, an exploration into his dim, yet understandable perspective of the world around him. And to think, this came a few years after his own triumph, in which he turned his professional and personal life around for the better. It’s a song that could come across as preachy in the wrong hands, but when it’s Cash, who truly lived by the words of the song, it’s a reminder of how not everyone has that easy path to “success,” whatever that is anyway. And when the examples he uses are varied and disappointingly relatable, this, arguably, is Cash at his best and most thoughtful.
No. 7 – Waylon Jennings, “Cedartown, Georgia”
Given the timing, it’s easy to hear “Cedartown, Georgia” as a bridging of the gap between Waylon Jennings’ pre-outlaw career and his glory days. The smoother tones are there, evident in the strings and weedy horns that have more bite to them than otherwise expected, and that muted bass riff that continuously emerges is an understated key element of the song’s tension. But Jennings’ tone, as always, is gruff and straightlaced, perfect for selling the sinister undertones of this murder ballad. It’s a song that progresses with the finest of touches, where even though that twist coming is obvious, it doesn’t cease it from being a masterclass in uneasy tension.
No. 6 – Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn, “After The Fire Is Gone”
Right from the opening notes of “After The Fire Is Gone,” both Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty are recognizable powerhouse vocalists. But beyond the technical elements, what’s always made “After The Fire Is Gone” an indisputable classic is its framing. Country music isn’t afraid to look at the darker perspective of a situation, and an activity as scandalous as “cheatin’ ”(especially for its time) is nearly an everyday occurrence for its singers. And yet it’s more complex than simply condoning those actions, showcasing two loveless, relatable people giving into their vices, even when they both know they shouldn’t. Like the genre’s best tracks, the song doesn’t ask for any sympathy, but it manages to paint these characters as desperate and burnt-out enough to conjure it anyway. It’s a true country duet if there ever was one, and one of the best, at that.
No. 5 – Sammi Smith, “Help Me Make It Through The Night”
Arguing over the “definitive” version of a song is never pretty, especially when the songwriter behind it develops an impressive collection of recorded music of their own. But if there’s one example where it feels alright to go ahead with it, it’s Sammi Smith’s take on Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night.” The song had been recorded a few times before – including an oddly upbeat version by Ray Price – but Smith’s version, however, would both define and overshadow her career. On a pure compositional level, Smith’s huskier delivery just works for the airy tension of the track, and the touches of strings and crisp acoustics only add to that elegance. It’s a commanding performance that speaks for itself, and while it may have unfortunately overshadowed Smith’s career, it also provided country music with one of its most excellent performances yet.
No. 4 – Marty Robbins, “The Chair”
I’d like to consider “The Chair” an underrated gem in Marty Robbins’ discography – a song recorded long after the days of Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, but still filled with the same storytelling wit and tension of Robbins’ best material. And this song, told from the perspective of an inmate on death row, doesn’t shy away from its heavier drama: Robbins’ performance only grows huger and more frantic as the song progresses, and the orchestral flourishes take a similar lead. And the ending line is devastating, giving in to the obvious conclusion we all know is coming, but filling it with one last note of suspense as the guilty man feels every surge of pain. Again, like other songs on this list, the moral ambiguity doesn’t make for an easy listen, but it manages to conjure sympathy for a character who really doesn’t deserve it.
No. 3 – George Jones, “A Good Year For The Roses”
There’s a simple formula to what made George Jones’ ‘70s and ‘80s singles so excellent, and believe me, that’s not a slight. The big layers of strings and backing vocalists always added a heightended sense of drama to Jones’ maudlin efforts, but not to the point where Jones wasn’t still at the front of the mix. “A Good Year For The Roses” is one of many singles where one could make a case that it’s Jones’ saddest moment on record, but the turnaround of its hook is what’s most exceptional, adding a bittersweet, sarcastic optimism to mask Jones’ pain. And in all cases, his pain is definitely our pain too.
No. 2 – Tom T. Hall, “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died”
To this day, I find it amazing that “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died” – a song Tom T. Hall wrote to reconnect with his love for music about a man he knew – managed to become such a huge hit. But beneath the actual text, those lessons learned in the subtext really do speak profoundly and are relatable, especially for anyone who’s ever had a childhood icon to cherish. And “Clayton Delaney” certainly sparks inspiration for the average country fan – a man Hall basically characterizes as an aimless drifter with a passion for music, but not the means necessary to carry out that dream. It’s a song about making sure dreams carry on in another form instead of dying, and with the sunnier blend of acoustics and old-fashioned horns supplementing the mix, it’s a fond remembrance of man none of us knew, but knew all too well through Hall.
No. 1 – Dolly Parton, “Coat Of Many Colors”
We begin and end this list with Dolly Parton, and as mentioned before, Parton’s most striking element of her songwriting was her way of imbuing optimism into dire situations. Even by the time she was a legitimate country music superstar, Parton still looked at her childhood with wonder; warm enough to make for good nostalgia, but self-aware enough to understand the bigger picture of that past. The production is simple, carried only by firm acoustics and an organ to carry the mix, letting Parton’s serious delivery take hold of the story, in which a shoddy, beaten-down coat from her mother provides an inexplainable joy from her, more for the love behind it than the item itself. It’s touching without sanding down the rougher edges of her family’s financial situation or the humiliation she faced from wearing it to school, showing that while poverty is an unassailable reality for some, it need not define who you are.