Tonight the Country Music Association (CMA) hosts the 48th edition of its annual industry awards. Country music has changed a lot since the CMA Awards began in 1967, but one thing hasn’t changed much: The winners of the awards inevitably represent a snapshot of country music for any given year.
It wasn’t always so. In the days before the CMAs, and awards shows in general, songs of the year and entertainers of the year weren’t ballot results. Back then, the only way to measure the impact of songs and entertainers was to see how many copies a record sold over a given period of time, and how big of a draw performers were at concert appearances. Time would tell which songs and artists endured and which faded. The ones that lasted the longest became more valued as time passed, and eventually, the most rarefied of this group became iconic – the songs and artists that distilled the essence of country music.
As a preamble to the CMAs, Bio takes a look at a handful of some of the most iconic songs in the history of country music, both pre- and post-awards. Today, Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton rule the charts; time will determine how well their efforts endure. There’s no doubt, though, that the songs below, and the artists who performed them, have endured and will endure as long as country music is played and sung.
1. Vernon Dalhart, “The Wreck of the Old 97”
The beginnings of modern country music can be traced to the moment when it first began to be recorded. Although some fiddle tunes were issued by 1923, country didn’t make a splash on the national scene until 1924, when this song, coupled with its flipside “The Prisoner’s Song,” sold over a million copies. In fact, it probably sold more, given how ubiquitous its interpreter was.
Vernon Dalhart (born Marion Slaughter) was a professional, conservatory-trained singer from Texas who began recording pop and light opera in 1916. Dalhart had a taste for the folksy, however, and he liked a disaster song he’d heard by Henry Whitter, a song about a fatal 1903 train wreck in Virginia. On August 13, 1924, he recorded a new version for Victor Records (he’d already recorded it once for Edison Records that May) along with “The Prisoner’s Song,” a mournful lament about a man on his way to jail.
Dalhart’s plaintive delivery, combined with the tragic subject matter (train wrecks were decidedly less uncommon in the early years of the 20th century), turned the record into a sensation. Notorious for recording under different names for many labels, Dalhart maximized the market for the song by recording it for nine other companies under pseudonyms like Bob White, Mack Allen, and Dick Morse. It’s almost impossible to know, but the sales of these records, combined with the Victor hit, made it not only one of the biggest hits in country music history, but also one of the biggest hits of the era, period.
Dalhart would capitalize on the record’s phenomenal success by recording hundreds of “hillbilly” songs throughout the 20s, many of them tales of disaster and death. This type of song would become a country standby for years to come, as would tales of prison inspired by the flipside. “The Wreck of the Old 97” has since been recorded by everyone from Hank Snow to Hank Williams III.
2. Jimmie Rodgers, “Blue Yodel (T for Texas)”
3. The Carter Family, “Wildwood Flower”
As Vernon Dalhart proved, country music could reach a sizeable audience not only in the South, but also in the Northern cities. Victor Records, who put out Dalhart’s million-seller, decided to get serious about discovering new country music. In 1927, under the stewardship of record man Ralph Peer, Victor set up a temporary recording studio in Bristol, a town that straddled the border between Tennessee and Virginia. That August, two of the most influential country artists of all time would record their first songs there: Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.
Jimmie Rodgers was a genial railroad worker from Mississippi who suffered from tuberculosis and moved to North Carolina for the mountain air. Always musically inclined (he won amateur talent shows as a kid and toured around as a vagabond musician), he became involved with a group of musicians who heard about Victor’s presence in Bristol. The group decided to head there for an audition.
The Carter Family – A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and her cousin Maybelle – began playing together as a natural extension of a large musical family. In fact, it was Sara’s autoharp playing that first attracted A.P. to his future wife. In 1926, they auditioned for Brunswick Records. They were not invited back, but rather than getting discouraged, they decided to try again. They drove their crumbling Model A Ford to Bristol in the hot summer of 1927.
Ralph Peer recorded both Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, and he felt instantly that they could be very big sellers. He was right. Their first records were modest hits, but shortly thereafter, both would release game-changing songs.
On November 30, 1927, Jimmie Rodgers recorded his song “Blue Yodel” in Camden, New Jersey. The song, which was essentially a blues song with yodeling on the choruses, became a massive hit. Unlike most country singers before him, Rodgers had an easygoing, personable style, and he sang fewer songs about train disasters and more songs about personal hard luck. Audiences could identify with him, and his strong personality and relatable subject matter set a template that future country singers would follow.
The Carter Family also set a template for future country artists. Their mountain harmonies and Maybelle’s distinctive fingerpicked guitar style made them instantly recognizable. Many of their records were hits, but maybe the most indelible was their reworked version of a song that dated from the 1860s. Retitled “Wildwood Flower” (the original title was “I’ll Twine ‘mid the Ringlets”), the dark lament about mourning a lost love became a country standard not long after its May 10, 1928 recording and subsequent release. Its guitar line in particular became a kind of archetype for future country guitar pickers.
After their initial round of hits, the Carters would continue through the ensuing decades in various forms, establishing themselves as the “First Family” of country music. Daughters Anita, June, and Helen would join the group and have their own careers, as would a subsequent generation that included Roseanne Cash and Carlene Carter. Sadly, Jimmie Rodgers, afflicted by TB, would not enjoy the same longevity. In his five years as a recording artist, however, he recorded a wide variety of music, including pop and jazz (one of his “Blue Yodel”s was recorded with Louis Armstrong). He even recorded a novelty record with his friends and label mates, the Carter Family. Had he lived beyond 1933, he might have had an even more profound impact on the course of country music. As it was, his songs would profoundly influence future artists like Ernest Tubb and Merle Haggard.
4. Hank Williams, “Your Cheatin’ Heart”
If there is one artist who could be said to embody what country music is all about, that artist would be Hank Williams. More than any other figure in the history of the music, Hank Williams defined the parameters of country songwriting, established the lifestyle most often identified with country performers, and influenced every single artist who followed him with his hard-bitten, honky-tonk style.
Born and raised in Alabama, Hiram Williams made spotty attempts to hold a regular job, but he was wedded to the idea of being a musician. His persistence paid off with a radio show on WSFA in Montgomery, as well as a record contract with Sterling Records in 1946. His early recordings were promising enough to land him a contract with the much larger MGM Records, and it was there that he would record his massive post-war hit, “Lovesick Blues.” Charting in March of 1949, it would stay at number one for over three months.
“Lovesick Blues,” for all of its popularity, was not a typical Hank Williams hit in that he didn’t write it. Most of his hits were composed by Hank and his manager Fred Rose. It’s difficult to choose one song from his catalogue as the most iconic; Hank Williams wrote and recorded more soon-to-be standards than anyone else in the history of the music: “Move It on Over,” “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” “Hey, Good Lookin’,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Honky Tonk Blues,” and dozens more. But released shortly after his premature death on New Year’s Day, 1953, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” may be the supreme expression of his art. Written out of disenchantment with his estranged wife and recorded on September 23, 1952 at one of his final recording sessions, it contains all of the Williams trademarks: a clever lyric, an impassioned performance, and a simple but perfectly thought-out arrangement.
Hank Williams lived a hard life, rife with physical pain, substance problems, and rocky personal and professional relationships. What emerged from that turmoil, however, were some of the greatest country songs ever created. “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” since recorded innumerable times by other artists, is one of the best.
5. Johnny Cash, “I Walk the Line”
If a group of people were asked to identify one man that they most associated with country music, some might answer Hank Williams. Some might even answer Eddy Arnold, who was the bestselling country artist for decades. But chances are, most people if asked this question would think of one man and one man only: Johnny Cash, “The Man in Black,” whose 50-year career and strong personal image made him one of the most identifiable faces in country music.
An Arkansas farm boy, Johnny Cash grew up listening to country music on his family’s radio (including the music of the Carter Family, a family he would eventually marry into). After school and a stint in the Air Force, he formed a trio and landed his own radio spot in Memphis. In short order, he snagged a recording contract with upstart independent label Sun Records, who had just had enormous success with Elvis Presley. One of his first hits with the label, “Folsom Prison Blues,” a tale of being imprisoned for a senseless crime, followed a grand country tradition established many years before by Vernon Dalhart and Jimmie Rodgers.
It was Cash’s follow-up to “Folsom Prison Blues,” however, that would become the song of a lifetime. “I Walk the Line,” recorded April 2, 1956, was a song that Cash wrote to pledge his fidelity to his wife. The unusual song, which changes key five times and features Cash humming between the verses, became one of his biggest hits and a theme song for him throughout the rest of his career. (He played the song at almost every concert he performed from that time forward.) The song came to be seen as a badge of Cash’s integrity, despite his turbulent personal life and struggles with addiction, and as Cash’s stature became increasingly monolithic, so did the reputation of the song most closely identified with him.
Today, Johnny Cash’s status as an icon transcends country music; he became bigger than the music that he did so much to popularize in his long recording, television, and film career. In a similar way, “I Walk the Line” has become a standard as iconic as its composer.
6. Loretta Lynn, “Coal Miner’s Daughter”
There was a strong female presence in country music before Loretta Lynn. The Carter Family, of course, was dominated by Sara and Maybelle Carter, and in subsequent years, artists like Molly O’Day, Kitty Wells, and Patsy Cline expanded the role of the female vocalist in country. Loretta Lynn came along in 1960 and added her voice to the others with one major difference: Loretta was often singing songs she wrote herself.
Born in Butcher Holler, Kentucky, Loretta Webb grew up in a log cabin and was married by age 14 to a man she met at a pie-baking contest. Relocating to Washington State, Loretta quickly became a mother several times over. Her husband encouraged her natural desire to sing and Loretta was performing at small local venues by her early 20s. The newly christened Loretta Lynn landed a recording contract with an independent label out of Vancouver, Canada and recorded her debut single, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” the very first song she ever wrote. The success of the single resulted in a recording contract with Decca Records. Soon, her straight-talking songs, often laced with humor, were becoming big hits on the country charts.
By 1969, Loretta Lynn was an established country music star. She was the CMA’s first female vocalist of the year and had a string of brassy, self-penned hits like “Your Squaw Is on the Warpath” and “You Ain’t Woman Enough.” The strongly autobiographical “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” recorded in October of that year, marked a turning point in her writing. Its bittersweet account of growing up poor in Kentucky and then returning as an adult to find nothing left of her childhood home struck a chord with the country audience, who turned it into Lynn’s biggest hit when it was released in 1970.
The song eventually became the basis for Lynn’s 1976 autobiography, which in turn inspired the 1980 film of her life, both called Coal Miner’s Daughter. Loretta Lynn became a household name, even in houses above the Mason-Dixon line. When she sang “When you’re lookin’ at me, you’re lookin’ at country” a little later on, she may have meant her raising, but she could have been singing about the whole of country music. It wouldn’t have been far from the truth.
7. Willie Nelson, “On the Road Again”
By 1980, country music had been through many changes. In many ways, it had become more commercially minded, with traditional country artists like Dolly Parton and Conway Twitty recording more pop-oriented music. Some country artists, like Dolly, Kris Kristofferson and Jerry Reed, even began to appear in Hollywood movies. Not your typical movie star, Willie Nelson also made his way into several films at the turn of the decade including The Electric Horseman with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, and Honeysuckle Rose with Dyan Cannon and Amy Irving. The soundtrack to Honeysuckle Rose would produce one of Nelson’s most iconic hits, a song that has since entered the larger culture: “On the Road Again.”
Willie Nelson was deep into a 25-year career by the time of Honeysuckle Rose. Born in Texas, he had his first success as a Nashville songwriter, penning huge hits for Patsy Cline (“Crazy”), Faron Young (“Hello Walls”), and Ray Price (“Night Life”). He made his first recordings in the late 50s while working as a DJ before moving to Nashville and getting signed to Liberty Records in 1962. Stints at Monument and RCA resulted in few hits, and by 1970, Nelson was through with Nashville. He returned to Texas to regroup and fell in with the hippie counterculture. Growing his hair long and playing an annual picnic he organized, Nelson soon caught the attention of Atlantic Records, and he became Atlantic’s first country artist. Although his albums were critical successes, they did not sell well until he moved to Columbia Records and scored a big hit with “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” a song written by Hank Williams’s co-writer Fred Rose in 1945. Nelson had many hits after that, including several with his friend Waylon Jennings. He was the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year in 1979.
“On the Road Again” did not have very auspicious beginnings. Nelson wrote it at the instigation of Sydney Pollack, one of the producers of Honeysuckle Rose. He made up the lyrics about the traveling life of a musician off the top of his head; Pollack was not impressed. Only when he married those lyrics to music a few weeks later did the producer feel they had a song. And they did, indeed: Not only was it a number 1 country hit, but it reached the Top 20 on the pop chart and was even nominated for a Best Song Oscar. Today it stands as a kind of anthem, constantly recycled in different pop culture contexts.
Now in his 80s, Willie Nelson himself has become a living icon, a survivor who has weathered any number of storms. He still climbs on his tour bus to go somewhere and perform, and he still makes new records (his latest, Blood Brothers, was released earlier this year). His connection to the golden age of country music, combined with his restless need to keep creating, ensures that few living musicians embody the spirit of country music as completely as “Shotgun Willie.”