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.
Connie Smith – I Don’t Love You Anymore
(written by Bill Anderson)
From Connie Smith (1965)
Connie Smith burst onto the scene in the mid-’60s with a mighty big voice, and to this day many people consider her one of the very best vocalists in country music history. No less than Dolly Parton is reported to have said “There’s only three real female singers: Barbra Streisand, Linda Ronstadt, and Connie Smith. The rest of us are only pretending.” That’s some high praise.
“Once a Day” was Connie’s smash hit, but her entire debut album is a gem, successfully blending the raw honky-tonk sound with ’60s era country-pop sensibilities. “I Don’t Love You Anymore” is a very enjoyable track that showcases Connie’s sound and style well. The lyrics feature some clever wordplay and misdirection, as is typical of a Bill Anderson composition. I believe some other artists recorded this song, including Charlie Louvin, George Jones, and Bill himself, but Connie’s take is the version I heard first and remains my personal favorite.
Connie Smith seems to be largely forgotten today, which is a shame (although Merle Haggard name-dropped her on a great protest song on his final solo album). That might be because she abruptly went on a recording hiatus in the ’70s that lasted for around two decades, but in any case, she’s definitely an artist whose discography is well-worth exploring.
Vern Gosdin – Mother Country Music
Songwriting credits could not be found
From Till the End (1977)
Speaking of great singers, any serious list of the best country vocalists of all-time is incomplete without Vern Gosdin. The man known as “The Voice” is highly revered among traditional country fans, and for good reason. While Chiseled in Stone is easily his most celebrated album, I’ve never heard a Gosdin LP that didn’t have a lot to offer. This track from his debut album Til the End is an excellent testament to the power and beauty of country music. No matter who you are or what you’re going through, there is a country song for you. If country music means a lot to you (which is almost surely the case if you’re reading this site), you will be able to relate to this song.
Ronnie Milsap – She Keeps the Home Fires Burning
(written by Mike Reid, Don Pfrimmer and Dennis Morgan)
From Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 (1985)
You know what’s something I disagree with? When people use the term “pop country” as a pejorative, as if pop-country is inherently bad or inferior. In my view, pop-country isn’t a problem. Bad pop-country is. I do strongly think that pop-country is a legitimate form of country music, and that it’s entirely possible for pop-country music to be creative and intelligent, even if so much of it isn’t. (Although I do think over the last decade or so, mainstream pop-country has increasingly stopped being pop-country and has pretty much become pure pop, but that’s a topic for another day…)
I might lose some country cred in some people’s eyes when I say this, but I’m a big fan of Ronnie Milsap. Sure, outside of some of his earlier stuff, his music generally doesn’t feature much in the way of fiddles or steel guitar, and the production and arrangements are not what you’d traditionally call country. But so what? His voice is terrific and his songs typically have great melodies and well-written lyrics. “She Keeps The Home Fire Burning” is one of favorite tunes of his. It revisits a common theme in country music (relying on a good woman’s love to get you through long days), but I love the melody and Ronnie’s very charming vocal performance. It’s one of those songs that never fails to instantly make me happier.
Kathy Mattea – Where’ve You Been
(written by Don Henry and Jon Vezner)
From Willow in the Wind (1989)
It’s a well-worn cliche among country fans that hearing a great song for the first time can “stop you in your tracks”. Well, I’m sure I’ve been guilty of overusing that expression a time or two, but Kathy Mattea’s “Where’ve You Been” is an instance where it really does ring true. I won’t say too much about the subject matter of this song because it’s better to go in blind, but trust me when I say it’s brought many, many people to tears, including yours truly.
Admittedly, this song uses the “three verse story, multiple meaning chorus” structure that was extremely overused throughout the ’90s, and was arguably the song that was responsible for starting that trend in the first place. But regardless, this is easily among the better examples along with timeless classics such as “Love Without End, Amen”, “That’s My Job”, and “How Can I Help You to Say Goodbye.” This song took home the Grammy for Best Country Song in 1990 and it absolutely deserved it. I also highly recommend Country Universe’s excellent retrospective from many years back.
Radney Foster – A Fine Line
(written by Radney Foster)
From Del Rio, TX 1959 (1992)
Radney Foster’s Del Rio TX, 1959 is hands down one of the best debut albums in country music history, and arguably among the best overall. The popular radio recurrent “Nobody Wins” is easily the most famous track on this album, but it’s far from the only great song here. Take “A Fine Line”, for instance. The melody and production are bright and engaging enough that you could easily mistake it for a particularly good radio-friendly uptempo ditty if you don’t pay attention to the lyrics, but that would be a mistake. The lyrics are highly substantive, telling the story of a married truck driver who makes a colossal blunder while on the road, and now has to go home and confess to his wife and kids. The song has a great message with some killer lines, and is from a time when mainstream country music was for adults and was about real life.
Vince Gill – Real Mean Bottle
(written by Vince Gill)
From Next Big Thing (2003)
Earlier this month was the one-year anniversary of Merle Haggard’s death. I probably should have marked the occasion by doing a Classic Cuts devoted exclusively to songs about Merle Haggard, but that chance is gone (maybe next year). But I will do one song. If you ask me, Vince Gill in traditional country/bluegrass crooner mode is one of the things that makes life worth living, and this sincere, delightful tribute to the Hag is one of my favorite songs he’s ever recorded. It’s got a great melody and lyrics that really speak to Haggard’s uniqueness and authenticity as an artist. It’s a must-listen from one great to another.