Top 10 Country Songs of the ’70s
In the 1970s, the country music charts were filled with artists who first found fame during the previous decade(s) — to name a few, Glen Campbell, Charley Pride, Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, Loretta Lynn — and promising newcomers such as Emmylou Harris, Tanya Tucker and Tom T. Hall.
Many of these artists landed a No. 1 hit (or hits), of course. But even those that didn’t contributed albums and songs that helped steer country music into the 1980s (and beyond). Some of this music even endures today, thanks to savvy pop culture placement.
Below, The Boot rounds up the Top 10 country songs of the 1970s.
“Convoy” was an unlikely hit song. First off, C.W. McCall doesn’t even exist — it’s an alias used by advertising executive Bill Fries, who co-wrote the song. (Another co-writer? Jingle composer Chip Davis, later famous with Mannheim Steamroller.) The tune grew out of an ad campaign for Old Home Bread company, and tells the story of a low-voiced, CB radio slang-slinging truck driver who rails against government meddling. Although ostensibly a novelty, the song hit No. 1 — and, as NPR points out, “It’s also an improbable protest song — an asphalt fable of workers pushing back at a system that always seems to lean on them the hardest.” The song inspired the 1978 film Convoy, which stars Kris Kristofferson and Ali MacGraw.
This David Allan Coe-penned tune remains an anthem for anyone disgruntled with their job, whether related to a boss, workplace or co-workers. Wiry pedal steel provides a deceptively jaunty counterpoint to Paycheck’s vocal delivery, which possesses the right balance of weariness, anger and irritation. “Take This Job and Shove It” hit No. 1 on the country charts in 1978, and ended up as Paycheck’s lone chart-topper.
The No. 1 “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” was written by Richard Leigh, who had previously composed several hits for Gayle. This particular tune describes a heartbroken woman who realizes that she only has herself to blame for an ex leaving and finding someone new. Mournful piano and orchestration, as well as Gayle’s downtrodden vocals, only add to the song’s melancholy. “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” which also hit No. 2 on the pop charts, won Best Female Country Vocal Performance at the 1978 Grammy Awards.
“Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”
Many artists have covered this song, including Chris LeDoux and Ed Bruce, the latter of whom actually co-wrote the tune with his wife, Patsy; however, it took Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings tackling the tune to make it a hit. Lyrically, “Mammas” highlights a cowboy’s contradictory traits — liking “smoky old pool rooms and clear mountain mornings / Little warm puppies and children and girls of the night” — and establishes that he’s not the kind of guy you want to marry. However, the country legends add empathy to the song thanks to slightly mournful, earnest vocal performances. Naturally, Nelson and Jennings’ take nabbed Best Country Performance By a Duo or Group With Vocal at the 1979 Grammy Awards.
Campbell has no shortage of memorable songs, although this 1975 single ranks among his best. Accompanied by legendary Los Angeles session players the Wrecking Crew, who contribute gorgeous and panoramic orchestration, Campbell sings of a starry-eyed man who isn’t giving up his dream of a shot at glittery fame and fortunes. The perseverance of the aspiring cowboy is portrayed without snark or disdain, making “Rhinestone Cowboy” a sweetly optimistic tale.
The Charlie Daniels Band’s most famous song is the sonic equivalent of a battle between good and evil. The titular bad guy challenges a hotshot fiddler named Johnny to a duel, trying to call his bluff. Although hesitant, Johnny takes him up on the bet — he’ll give up his soul if the devil wins, but will gain a golden fiddle with a devil loss. Unafraid, Johnny then proceeds to run circles around the stunned baddie, who slinks away amidst taunts. The bluegrass-inspired song is, of course, marked by Daniels’ frenzied fiddle playing and dramatic singing, both of which bring the tune to life.
In 2016, Parton talked to the Tennessean about writing this song, which she penned to explain her decision to leave The Porter Wagoner Show and strike out on her own: “‘How am I gonna make [Wagoner] understand how much I appreciate everything, but that I have to go?'” Parton says she thought to herself. “So I went home and I thought, ‘Well, what do you do best? You write songs.’ So I sat down and I wrote this song.”
The straightforward, raw emotion of the lyrics of “I Will Always Love You” — which assert a woman’s need to move forward, while still expressing gratitude for her past — underscores Parton’s strength as a songwriter. Of course, the song is ingrained in pop culture thanks to Whitney Houston’s star-making version from The Bodyguard.
A No. 1 hit on the country and pop charts, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” is Denver at his best. Composed by John Martin Sommers, an instrumentalist who played with with the late musician, it’s a joyous ode to living a simple life. The narrator lives on a farm, where he relishes small pleasures (playing a fiddle, “cakes on a griddle”) and eschews fancy things such as limousines. Denver’s enthusiastic vocals and acoustic guitar strumming only add to the tune’s exuberance.
“The Gambler” contains what might be country music’s most famous advice: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em / Know when to fold ’em / Know when to walk away / And know when to run.” That wisdom, passed on by a mysterious figure known as “The Gambler” to a stranger on a train, applies to myriad situations — something Rogers, with his conspiratorial vocals and fatherly presence, captures perfectly. In fact, it took Rogers covering the song to make it a hit; versions by Bobby Bare and Johnny Cash didn’t make a dent.
Lynn’s signature song is culled directly from her life story as a girl growing up in Kentucky. As buckling banjo and pedal steel waltz in the background, she pulls out scenes from childhood — getting a new pair of shoes each winter, her mom reading the Bible by coal oil light — and reminisces about how things changed when she visited again as an adult. The pride that Lynn has in her upbringing, as well as the respect that she has for her parents and how they cared for the family, shines through loud and clear. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” also named a 1980 movie about Lynn’s life, and has been covered by Miranda Lambert, Sheryl Crow and Margo Price.