(Classic Cuts is a regular feature in which I recommend a handful of older country songs that I believe are worthy of your attention. I use a liberal definition of “classic.” Basically any song that I consider good from country music’s past is eligible, from the early days of the 1930s to stuff that’s as recent as last year. No distinction is made between singles and non-singles, mainstream and non-mainstream artists, pure country and fringe country artists, etc. It’s all just music to me. I’m going to try to cover as many artists, subgenres, and eras as possible and as regularly as possible.
CMM usually covers music from an album perspective, but there’s a couple reasons why I’m talking about individual songs here. Firstly, country music was slow to become an album genre compared to rock, and for the most part, pre-’70s country music is very song-oriented. Furthermore, a lot of the greats predate the advent of the album entirely. As a result, much of the music of that era is available today only as part of compilations. Note that in pretty much every applicable instance, I recommend you check out the entire album if you’re so inclined.)
Johnny Cash – Belshazzar
(written by Johnny Cash)
From The Original Sun Sound Of Johnny Cash (1964)
One of my lifelong music listening goals is to digest Johnny Cash’s entire discography. I’m normally not one to do something like this because every long-running artist will record their share of mediocrities or worse, but what the hey, I’d like to do it for at least one country legend. Anyway, over the past year or two, I’ve been working my way through Cash’s early Sun Records material, and while this era is replete with iconic classics like “Folsom Prison Blues”, “I Walk the Line”, “Big River”, “Get Rhythm” and so forth, it’s this relatively obscure gospel song that’s my favorite. “Belshazzar” is Cash’s retelling of the Biblical story of the rise and fall of the arrogant King Belshazzar – it’s my understanding that this is where the expression the “writing on the wall” originates. It’s a badass rockin’ tune that showcases Cash’s signature sound and tells a very entertaining story. Not to mention “Belshazzar” is very fun to say.
Marty Robbins – You Gave Me a Mountain
(written by Marty Robbins)
From It’s a Sin (1969)
There’s no question that Marty Robbins is one of country music’s most talented and versatile vocalists. While his masterpiece Gunfighter Ballad and Trail Songs gets all of the attention, he has a huge discography chock-full of greatness. This gem from 1969’s It’s a Sin is a stunning ballad, telling of a hard-luck man who had endured incredible hardships in his childhood when his mother died while giving birth to him and his father blamed him for her death. Now as an adult, he finds himself in a hopeless situation that he has no way to overcome. While plenty of other great artists, including Gene Watson, Ray Price, and Johnny Bush have delivered worthy cover versions, it’s hard to beat the original. The album this song originates from leans heavily towards the traditional pop/easy-listening side and thus won’t be to every country fan’s taste, but I quite like it.
Martina McBride – Whatever You Say
(written by Ed Hill and Tony Martin)
From Evolution (1999)
You might be wondering what I’m doing talking about a song like “Whatever You Say” that was an enormous hit single by a popular mainstream artist. Sure, I like to shine a spotlight on lesser-known artists and underrated album cuts, but it’s always been my intention to cover a wide variety of songs and artists, and sometimes that’s going to mean covering well-known stuff. Anyway, “Whatever You Say” showcases Martina at her very best in my opinion. While the lyrics that tell of a couple experiencing a communication breakdown are compelling enough, it’s easily that intense, soaring chorus and Martina’s impeccable vocal performance that make this one of my very favorite mainstream country songs of the late ’90s. Yeah it’s pop-country, but the good kind.
John Anderson – You Already Know My Love
(written by Marcel, Trevor Rosen, Kevin Savigar)
From Easy Money (2007)
After his career resurgence in the early ’90s, John Anderson kind of went through a creatively fallow period, releasing a string of tepidly-received albums (although I happen to be a big fan of 2001’s Nobody’s Got It All, but I seem to be in the minority opinion.) After a long break, he returned in a big way in 2007 with the release of Easy Money, which received rapturous critical acclaim. It was produced by John Rich of Big & Rich of all people, but thankfully it’s mostly John Anderson doing his own thing, and represents the best set of material he had to work with in years. I’ve long held than Anderson has never met a ballad he couldn’t slay, and this highlight “You Already Know My Love” is further evidence of that. It’s a theme that’s been explored in country music before – the trepidation that comes with starting a romantic relationship – but seldom this well (or catchy).
Ashley Monroe – If The Devil Don’t Want Me
(written by Ashley Monroe, Jessi Alexander, and Chris Stapleton)
From The Blade (2015)
Yeah, a track from an album that’s barely two years old can hardly be called a “classic”, but whatever. While The Blade was a great album from start-to-finish, this neotraditional stunner had to be one of my favorite tracks. It’s got an excellent hook (“if the devil don’t want me, where the hell do I go?”), a strong vocal performance from Ashley, and the kind of traditional instrumentation and production that drives me wild. It’s another great song in the pantheon of country songs that warn you that excessive drinking and partying may make you feel better in the short run, but ultimately only make your life empty and hollow.