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.
Kitty Wells – Making Believe
(written by Jimmy Work)
From Kitty Wells’ Country Hit Parade (1956)
“Making Believe” is a country standard if there ever was one – it’s been recorded by numerous artists, including giants like Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Jim Reeves, Eddy Arnold, The Louvin Brothers, Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb, Don Gibosn, Lefty Frizzell – heck, the list of legends who haven’t recorded this song is probably shorter. But it’s Kitty Wells’s chart-topping version that is the most famous. “Makin’ Believe” features the straightforward and relatable lyrics traditional country is known for, poignantly describing the pain that comes with unrequited love. I’ve been listening to Kitty Wells a lot lately and she’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite ’50s artists.
Del McCoury – True Love Never Dies
(written by Gary Scruggs and Kevin Welch )
From A Deeper Shade of Blue (1993)
I realized while making this list that I somehow haven’t spotlighted any bluegrass songs yet, and it’s time to correct that. Del McCoury seems to have a lower profile nowadays, but when I was first getting into non-radio country in the late ’00s, he was coming off a string of highly-acclaimed albums and was very popular in the blogosphere. Del is a disiciple of Bill Monroe and his high lonesome vocals are bound to be polarizing by nature, but I think they’re splendid. This track from earlier in his career has a great melody and features some great singing and picking – not much more to say about it than that.
Doug Supernaw – You’re Gonna Bring Back Cheating Songs
(written by Tom Shapiro and Chris Waters)
From Red and Rio Grande (1993)
Doug Supernaw has been in the news a lot lately for returning to music after a long hiatus beset by personal problems. “I Don’t Call Him Daddy” was one of my favorite songs of the ’90s, but I’ve never gotten around to listening to him further for whatever reason. However, I recently checked out his debut album on the recommendation of CMM friend southtexaspistolero, and I’m sure glad I did, because outside of one weak filler track, it’s excellent country music through and through. “You’re Gonna Bring Back Cheating Songs” is a very catchy honky-tonk shuffle with clever and funny lyrics describing a man realizing he’s been cheated on, and remarking that his wife/girlfriend’s behavior is liable to start a new trend of cheating songs in country music. With great lines like “You never call to tell me where you’re at, you wear a cocktail dress to the laundromat,” it’s right up there with other great cheating songs with a humorous bent like “She Just Started Liking Cheating Songs”, “This Ain’t My First Rodeo”, and “Cheater, Cheater.”
Jamie O’Neal – There is No Arizona
(written by Lisa Drew, Jamie O’Neal, and Shaye Smith)
From Shiver (2000)
A woman’s husband/boyfriend leaves for Arizona, promising to start a better life out there and send for her when things get situated. The lyrics describe the woman’s growing realization that he fed her a bunch of lies, and that there is, in fact, no Arizona. What an awful way to dump someone. With an original premise, unforgettable chorus, and a fine vocal performance by the underrated Jamie O’Neal, it’s probably one of my favorite songs of this era. This song is in the more pop-country style that began to dominate in the late ’90s, but it tells a good story with meaningful lyrics.
Charlie Robison – El Cerito Place
(written by Keith Gattis)
From Good Times (2004)
There a lot of country songs I’ve heard that are about looking for or chasing down a lost love, but none I like better than Charlie Robison’s “El Cerrito Place.” With its wistful lyrics, provocative imagery, melancholy production, intense chorus, and an earnest vocal performance by Robison, it’s a song that has the to potential to move me greatly. Songwriter Keith Gattis and Kenny Chesney would later record their own versions and do a fine job, but Robison’s take on it is by far my favorite. I’ve been listening to the album this song is from a lot lately, and while there’s nothing that can match “El Cerrito Place” (which would be very difficult to do for me), it’s very solid.
Lee Ann Womack – The Bees
(written by Natalie Hemby and Daniel Tashian)
From Call Me Crazy (2008)
Now that it’s been announced that Chris Stapleton is releasing his own version of “Either Way” from his upcoming album, a lot of people are going back to listen to Lee Ann Womack’s original cut of it from 2008’s Call Me Crazy either to rediscover it or hear it for the first time. Well, I hope they don’t stop there because that album is fantastic in my opinion. This album was less traditional overall than its predecessor, 2005’s There’s More Where That Came From, so it was a bit divisive, but it’s one of my favorites in her catalog personally, bizarre cover art notwithstanding. “The Bees” is a major reason why – with its unique sound, great melody, and fantastic imagery, it’s one of my favorite songs by Womack. While its offbeat lyrics and progressive production will understandably not be to everyone’s taste, it’s one I took to instantly. It was co-written by Natalie Hemby, who released her debut album recently.