Believe it or not, country music is about a whole lot more than just pickup trucks, cowboys and smashing shot-after-shot at whiskey bars. Flashback to the era of Willie Nelson, Hank Williams and Tammy Wynette, and you'll find the true deep-seated tenets the genre was built on: values of overcoming hardship, familial pride and heartbreak, born of life in the early 1900's American south. Our list of tunes runs the historical gamut from classic artists like George Jones to modern-day superstars (and yes, if we could have included all the best Taylor Swift songs, we would have). Peruse the collection below and head out to the best country concerts in NYC to hear these tunes live in-person.
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Cash’s first No. 1 hit on the Billboard chart managed to keep itself on the radar for 43 weeks. Cash said the song was his “pledge of devotion” to new wife Vivian Liberto, and, oh, it was written backstage in one night. NBD.
Songwriting duo Dewayne Blackwell and Earl Bud Lee handed this song off to a then-unknown Brooks, who took the tune to a No. 1 chart spot and wound up making a fairly big name for himself in country.
Known in the last decades of his life as the greatest living country music singer, Jones had no shortage of chart-toppers during his musical career. This 1999 cover track stands out as one of Jones’s most meaningful vocal performances.
Telling the heart-wrenching story of a young girl living in a hellish world of abuse, McBride’s smooth and high-reaching vocals wrap this 2002 song in emotion and ferocity. It took her girl-power anthems to a new level with its sobering message, and it’s just a damn good song.
Few Americans don’t have an answer to the question Jackson poses in this song: Where were you on September 11, 2001? Jackson reportedly felt conflicted about profiting from the tragedy but wrote the song in an attempt to process his associated emotions—and survivors and listeners thanked him for doing so.
Despite its inherently somber topic, this feel-good, hip-swaying tune finds McGraw waxing poetic over the ability to truly live life to the fullest. The track and video both cleaned up at the 2004 CMAs and ACM Awards, and it has some solid bucket list advice (just ignore the part about bull riding, maybe).
This Parton hit was her second chart-topper and even crossed into mainstream music’s territory. It’s one of her most covered songs, now being sung by artists who weren’t even alive when it came out in 1973, and she’s revealed in interviews that the real Jolene is a composite of her bank teller and a fan she met at a show.
Songwriters Mark Sanders and Tia Sillers’ heartfelt, emotional ode became the soundtrack to father-daughter dances at weddings across the country. Womack first performed the vocals in 2000 before taking home a Grammy for it.
This 1971 ode to West Virginia became Denver’s best-known opus and his signature song. Nowadays, it’s the perfect Instagram caption for snapshots of any old winding road, but in its prime it reached the second spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and inspired dozens of covers in homage.
Ironically, Cline wasn’t a big fan of this song written by Alan Block and Donn Hecht at first, yet it went on to become her first chart-topping hit in 1956. Cline’s held-back vocal performance is a poetic complement to the sorta-somber lyrics about a lonely woman’s search for the real deal.