Sunday, December 16, 2007

The "Perfect" Country Song?

If all of country music were distilled down into one song, what would it be? I'm not talking about the "best" song or your personal favorite, but about a representative piece. In other words, the most country country song, or, as David Allan Coe might say, "the perfect country song."

According to Coe, the key ingredients to the "perfect" country song are "mama, trains, trucks, prison, and gettin' drunk." Check it out here: David Allan Coe - You Never Even Call Me By My Name (buy album).

Steve Goodman (who, along with John Prine, co-authored Coe's hit) would expand Coe's list to include "farms," "dead dogs like Old Shep," and "Christmas": Steve Goodman - You Never Even Call Me By My Name (Live) (buy album).

Putting aside the cliches (but not too far away) I'd say there are four key elements to the perfect country song:

(1) Clever lyrics (a pun, a joke, or a play on words, preferably in the title of the song);

(2) A storyline based, at least in part, on regret (good for fostering tears in beers);

(3) A stalwart, but flawed, protagonist; and

(4) A peddle steel guitar.

Two other extra-credit elements would be:

(5) Alcohol (thanks to David Allan Coe and a host of others); and

(6) Reverence for the land, especially the South.

I'll reveal my choice at the end of this post. But first, let's first consider some contenders...

A popular pick surely would be this twangy classic: Tammy Wynette - Stand By Your Man (buy album) (But I say no because it's missing too many key elements.)

Here's a nice one from Ms. Wynette's ex-husband that really nails the regret angle, voiced by the stalwart, but flawed, protagonist: George Jones - She Thinks I Still Care (buy album).

Hag's relocation-to-premanent-residence-in-the-bar song is a solid choice: Merle Haggard - Swinging Doors (buy album).

We've got to include this great one from the master: Hank Williams - Your Cheatin' Heart (buy album).

Finally, here's a fairly obscure one from the 1980's that I've always loved. It hits almost all of the key elements (plus extra credit for both alcohol and love of Dixie): Dwight Yoakam - South Of Cincinnati (buy album). (But it's just not well-known enough to take the crown.)


George Jones - He Stopped Loving Her Today (buy album).

This one speaks for itself, and it's a real tear-jerker. Our protaganist pines in vain for years and years over a lost love only to finally stop loving her when.... Well, I'll just let George tell the rest of the story. [Read the AMG review.]

What ingredients do you think the perfect country song must include? More importantly, what's your choice for the perfect country song?


Clay Eals said...

Good to see your post mentioning "You Never Even Call Me by My Name" and Steve Goodman. He often doesn't get his due. You may want to know about my new 800-page biography, "Steve Goodman: Facing the Music." The book delves into the origin of "You Never Even Call Me by My Name," debunking the notion that David Allan Coe had anything to do with writing the song. For more info, check my Internet site below. Just trying to spread word about the book. Feel free to do the same!

Clay Eals
1728 California Ave SW #301
Seattle, WA 98116-1958

Home phone: 206-935-7515
Cell phone: 206-484-8008

Anonymous said...

Barely country, but I'll go with Steve Earle's "Copperhead Road," which includes the following:

a) Granddaddy's moonshine, and the lawman that didn't come back from the raid on the holler;

b) Daddy running whiskey in a big black Dodge that he bought at an auction at the Mason's lodge;

c) Mama's tears;

d) and a drug-dealing Vietnam vet who has plans for the holler on Copperhead Road.

Good lyrics, a story arc, strong Southern feel, and a nice mandolin intro when done live.

Much more country is Earle's "Harlan Man." Coal, Kentucky, generations of union members, hard work, and the men vs. the company. And how can you not love the closing line: "‘Cause I'm a Harlan Man / A coal minin' mother ‘til the day I'm dead."

Earle has experimented with a bunch of styles (try his theme from this season's "The Wire"), but I like his country/bluegrass-inflected stuff the best.

Enjoyed this post -- thanks!

Paul said...


Your book looks interesting. I'll be sure to get a copy.

I'm pretty sure I first heard about Steve Goodman in the David Allan Coe song. (If not that it might have been through the City of New Orleans). So, if nothing else, Coe's cover is probably good exposure for Goodman. Anyway, I've been a Goodman fan for a long time.

I don't know if you saw my recent post on John Hartford. Apart from the disease they both fought, Goodman and Hartford had a lot in common. Both wrote a truly classic American songs (Gentle on My Mind/City of New Orleans). Both had an engaging sense of humor. And both do not always "get their due."

If anybody reading this isn't familiar with Goodman, I recommend the No Big Surprise anthology ("buy album" link in post). And check out these tracks to get a feel for what Goodman is all about: Between The Lines (mp3) (from No Big Surprise), Winter Wonderland (Live) (mp3) (from No Big Surprise).


Paul said...


Unfortunately, I can't edit my previous comment. Note that "Winter Wonderland" is NOT on No Big Surprise. It's from the album "Artistic Hair." (I pushed the "publish comment" button too soon.) Anyway, Goodman is worth checking out.



Dave said...

Great topic. "Good Ole Boys Like Me" by Don Williams comes pretty close to matching your criteria in terms of lyrics.

I don't think of it as the prototypical country song, although it is a damned good one. This is going to take a little more thought before I cast a vote.

Paul said...


Don would have been there if he just put a peddle steel into that song!!! (And it would have fit in perfectly.)

Thanks for the video.

Ted Barron said...


"Good Year For The Roses" ?

"The Window Up Above" ?

Paul said...


George Jones is definitely the man when it comes to this game.

I've always slightly preferred Haggard, but Jones has a ton of great classics that go right to the heart of country music (and a great nickname). Gotta go with "the possum" as the prototypical country star of the 20th century.

Paul said...


I've got about half of the Steve Earl catalog. My favorites are "Guitar Town" and "My Old Friend the Blues" from the first album and I love his cover of "I'm Looking Through You" (again with the mandolin intro).

Dave said...

Good Year for the Roses came right to mind for me, too, Ted.

Georgia Hard by Robbie Fulks nails all six of the criteria, but also falls into the category of too obscure.

Anonymous said...

Paul, if you haven't heard "The Mountain," try it. Really, really good stuff, a nice extension of "Train' a Comin'" in the bluegrass vein. I am coming around to "Washington Square," though it has taken several listens to do so.

I was also thinking about another non-country country song, Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." The Del McCoury Band does a great cover and I very much like Reckless Kelly's version of it, too. Classic motorcycle, a redhead, a life of crime, a shotgun blast and a bad end to a bad hat, weeping girl at his side. Good stuff. So well written that it's impossible to mangle, and does well in the hands of other artists.

brendan said...

^^^ "red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme.."

good call, anon.
great post today paul!

Dave said...

Almost cast a write-in for "I'm the Only Hell (Mama Ever Raised)", but it's gotta be "He Stopped Loving Her Today."

Paul said...

The fact that the guy dies gives "He Stopped Loving Her Today" some extra punch, but my favorite dead guy country song has to be Lefty Frizzell's "Long Black Veil" becausee that one's actually sung by the dead guy, which is impressive.

Ted Barron said...

"I've Been To Georgia on A Fast Train" by Billy Joe Shaver.

paul said...

Billy Joe Shaver = Country.

Paul said...


Your Steve Goodman book arrived today. All I can say is "wow." It's huge. Tons of information and pictures. It's got to be about the most fact-filled book I've ever seen about any musician. Good work!

Anonymous said...

Feelin' Good Again by Robert Earl Keen, Jr. What a great song.
I like your blog. Thanks.

dan said...

Are you ever coming back with a new posting? I sure hope so! Thanks.

Paul said...

Hey dan, it's only been two days.

This is just a hobby.

Thansk for checking in.

Anonymous said...

johnny cash would take the cake for me. even his first hit, hey porter, shows off a perfect quality of country you didn't mention: longing.
he is so sentimental about getting home that you can feel the words singing straight out of his heart. he becomes jubilant at the end of the song, singing that he didn't even mind the fare, cause he gets to set his feet on southern soil..and breathe that southern air.
the man is pure country, every single song. a great later example is I hung my head. i love johnny so much i could list 50 of his songs as the 'perfect country song'. great post, and great pic in swinging doors by merle. now, anyone wanna talk some hank III ??

Mick Bordet said...

An inspiring post... I just about managed to include all the ingredients according to David Allan Coe, Steve Goodman and your good self in one song.

The Ballad of Rufus Amos Adams