The 25 best country rock songs of all time

A photograph of the Allman Brothers on stage in the 70s
(Image: © Getty Images)

25) Elvis Costello And The Attractions – Good Year For The Roses

A star of the punk and new wave eras, Costello took a left turn with 1981’s Almost Blue, an album comprised entirely of covers of country songs, stickered with a warning to “narrow minded listeners”. Good Year For The Roses, first recorded by George Jones in 1970, gave Costello an unlikely Top 10 hit in the UK. It’s a desperately sad song, and he sang it beautifully. PE

24) The Jayhawks – Two Angels

Minneapolis’s alt.country pioneers The Jayhawks swam upstream through the 1980s before signing with Def American Records and scoring an unexpected hit with 1992’s Hollywood Town Hall album. Two Angels defines their sound: the Stones’ session man Nicky Hopkins plays spectral piano, while frontman Mark Olson serves up weeping harmonica and a spiky vocal underpinned by his bandmates’ sweet harmonies. Think: country music for Nirvana fans. MB

23) Kings Of Leon – Wasted Time

With their model looks and impeccable backstory, the Followill clan seemed too good to be true – until this third single confirmed there was substance behind the style.Bloodshot-eyed and malevolent, driven by a nagging shuffle beat and a frankly indecipherable vocal, this is country rock in skinny jeans, thrillingly rebooted for the post-millennium. HY

22) Whiskeytown – 16 Days

Before he set out on what became a prolific solo career, Ryan Adams was the frontman with alt.country types Whiskeytown. The band’s major-label debut, 1997’s Strangers Almanac, featured this wonderful treatise on romantic despair. Lead guitarist Phil Wandscher brings the twang, and a pedal steel sighs softly as Adams sings of sleepless nights and ribbons of the heart. RH

21) Todd Rundgren & Utopia – Forgotten But Not Gone

Introducing this track from Utopia’s self-titled 1982 album, Rundgren once said: “In the long history of Utopia, we’ve poked our noses into every musical nook and cranny we could find, and it looks like there’s only place left to go: Nashville.” Bakersfield would’ve been more accurate. The revved-up twang and two-part harmonies of Forgotten are pure Buck Owens And His Buckaroos. BDM

20) Pink Floyd – Country Song (The Red Queen theme)

Sharing the soundtrack for the film Zabriskie Point with the Grateful Dead and Jesse Colin Young nudged Pink Floyd toward a novel country flavour. Atop a horse-clop rhythm and cowboy chords, they conjure their own idiosyncratic desert moonscape: lyrics that reference mythology, blasts of Gilmour’s guitar and a chorus that plays like an early draft for Hey You. BDM

19) Glen Campbell – Witchita Lineman

Yes, it’s schmaltzy, but this 1968 masterpiece written by Jimmy Webb is a timeless slice of country. All swooning strings, sublime melody and cowboys-at-sunset longing, it’s been dubbed both “the first existential country song” and “the greatest pop song ever composed”. It’s also arguably the first real bridge between country sweetness and mainstream rock balladry. PG

18) Blackberry Smoke – Holding All The Roses

After the sugar-sweet likes of Six Ways To Sunday, Holding All The Roses, the title track of the Georgia quintet’s fourth album presented a more pensive, arguably more powerful form of countrified rock. The song’s bluegrass-tinged foundations of acoustic guitar and heart-racing violin, however, are pure country – the sound of a band simultaneously at their heaviest and their most rootsy. One of their most commanding moments. PG

17) Emmylou Harris – Luxury Liner

This rollicking Gram Parsons cover, and the title track from Harris’s fourth album, kept the flame burning for her old duet partner who’d passed away three years earlier. Brian Ahern and the great Albert Lee double up on guitars on an expert fusion of bluegrass and rockabilly, Harris cutting through the heartache with her crystal-pure voice. RH

16) Emerson Lake & Palmer – Hoedown

There was always something of the rodeo rider in Keith Emerson’s wrangling of wild Hammonds. And what better soundtrack for a Yorkshire cowboy than Aaron Copland’s Hoedown? Inspired by the an old Kentucky fiddle tune, the 1942 orchestral piece conjured up the mythic Wild West in broad strokes, here given DayGlo colour by ELP’s switched-on take. BDM

15) Ronnie Lane and Pete Townshend – Annie

Country music is like an old Martin guitar passed between the British Isles and the USA in a continuous transatlantic pull. So if Ronnie Lane’s ode to a kindly babysitter (co-written with his wife Kate and Eric Clapton) has the lilt of a 19th-century Scottish folk song, it also sounds like everything from Hank Williams to Dolly Parton to Gillian Welch. BDM

14) Lucinda Williams – Drunken Angel

The Louisiana-born queen of country rock recorded her breakthrough album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road twice from scratch. Collaborator Steve Earle allegedly said it was “the least amount of fun” he’d had working on a record. Her perfectionism paid off, however, in slices of alt.country heaven such as Drunken Angel, which is the sunset-drenched pick of the lot. PG

13) Little Feat – Rock And Roll Doctor

Lowell George’s decision to collaborate with old Hollywood High schoolmate Martin Kibbee – trading under the name Fred Martin – wasn’t a universally popular move within Little Feat. But the pair served up this 1974 classic with spoonfuls of greasy swamp-country, a deep groove and lyrics that suggest a decent southern boogie is all the medicine you’d ever need. RH

12) Van Zant – My Kind Of Country

The title track from the fifth collaboration between Lynyrd Skynyrd singer Johnny Van Zant and .38 Special-fronting brother Donnie (both younger siblings of late Skynyrd mainman Ronnie). The project allowed the pair to play a more country style of music than their respective day jobs, with a message that didn’t always translate easily outside of the God-fearing, gun-toting southern states. But with lines such as ‘We got Johnny Cash, Back In Black, southern rock’n’roll’ there’s no disguising the rowdy good-time nature of this belter of a track. (See boxout, left.) JE

“A great country song has to be the truth” – Donnie Van Zant tells us about the making of My Kind Of Country

“A lot of people couldn’t believe we [Van Zant] did a country record but, to be truthful, it wasn’t that big of a leap for Johnny and myself. My father was a truck driver, my mother was the manager of a doughnut shop. And we grew up with the old country: guys like George Jones, Merle Haggard and Hank Williams. But we were the first ones to really jump from the rock genre to country.

“Everything you hear in that song is all true. We just started writing down the things we do. We love bass fishing. We love the outdoors. We love hunting. We love little-league baseball, hanging out with family and cooking out. I live very simply, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It actually wrote itself. If we have to struggle to write a song, it’s not worth messing with it.

“We wrote that song in Nashville, Tennessee. We recorded it at night – you’re talking two o’clock in the morning. Then we’d leave the studio, and Johnny and myself were both so wired up that we couldn’t go to sleep. So we’d actually ride around Nashville at four in the morning, listening to what we’d recorded that day, all hyped up.

“A great country song has to be the truth, because people can see through it. I believe that if I can touch you, emotionally and spiritually, then I’m gonna have a hit song there. You never know for sure, but you have a gut reaction. My Kind Of Country really took off for us. We were just doing it to see basically if we could break into a different genre of music. But we had a gold record on our wall before we knew it.” HY

Red, White And Blue (Live) is out now via Loud & Proud Records.

11) Creedence Clearwater Revival – Lodi

On their classic late-60s albums the San Francisco band dug deep into the roots of American music, blending rockabilly, blues, R&B and country. The latter was most powerfully evident on Lodi, from CCR’s 1969 album Green River. It’s a melancholy song in which singer John Fogerty ponders an alternative reality of small-town obscurity. PE

10) Steve Earle – Copperhead Road

Steve Earle’s music had been growing progressively rockier with each release, but his third album’s mix of heavy metal and bluegrass cemented his reputation as one of America’s brightest country rockers and a leading inspiration for the Americana boom a decade later. On this ballsy title track Earle’s storytelling comes to the fore with a tale of illicit moonshine and marijuana, equally highlighting his views on drugs, the influence of which would almost derail his career as swiftly as Copperhead Road skyrocketed it. JE

9) Led Zeppelin – Hot Dog

A squirt of ketchup on the rained-out picnic of 1979’s In Through The Out Door, Hot Dog was pure joy, and pure rockabilly country circa 1957. American buzzwords such as ‘dungarees’ and ‘U-Hauls’ gave it a southern flavour, while Jimmy Page tapped into his first formative influence for the riffage: Ricky Nelson 45s with James Burton on guitar. BDM

8) Eagles – Take It Easy

The Eagles’ debut single celebrates two great cornerstones of rock and country music – women and automobiles. With Bernie Leadon’s mellow banjo picking and vocalist Glenn Frey’s plea not to let ‘the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy’, this was country music repurposed for the post-Woodstock 70s generation, and for every generation thereafter. MB

7) Metallica – Mama Said

James Hetfield bared his soul on Mama Said, from 1996’s Load. Hetfield had previously written of his mother’s death from cancer on the doomy The God That Failed. By contrast, Mama Said was an elegiac country ballad, carrying, as Hetfield said, “a realisation that lots of questions were unanswered”. PE

6) Robert Plant & Alison Krauss – Please Read The Letter

Theirs was an unlikely union, but bluegrass fiddle player/vocalist Alison Krauss loved Led Zeppelin and Robert Plant loved country. This single from their 2008 hit album Raising Sand was originally on Plant and Jimmy Page’s reunion studio LP Walking Into Clarksdale. But Krauss’s charming voice breathed new life into a song that built to an almost Zeppelin-style climax, with Plant oohing and aahing like a randy old hillbilly goat. MB

5) The Byrds – One Hundred Years From Now

In his brief tenure as a Byrd, Gram Parsons commandeered the band’s sound, pushing them to move to Nashville and slipping three of his originals onto the resulting Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. One Hundred Years From Now had a fractious birth – Roger McGuinn buried Parsons’s lead vocal; the country star claimed he’d “fucked it up” – but with its swoon of pedal steel and cascade of harmonies it’s the moment when the Californians truly fit their new clothes. HY

4) Neil Young/Waylon Jennings/Shooter Jennings – Are You Ready For The Country

Originally written by Neil Young, and featured on his classic 1972 album Harvest, this song was picked up by outlaw country singer Waylon Jennings for his 1976 album of the same name, his more overt country version giving him a big hit. Jennings and Young would later work together on Young’s 1985 country album Old Ways. Waylon’s son Shooter Jennings got in on the act, reworking the song as the title track of his 2005 debut solo album Put The O Back In Country (see boxout above), lending it a much harder edge. JE

“I felt that country needed a shake-up” – Shooter Jennings on his reworking of Are You Ready For The Country

“The song Are You Ready For The Country was one of the benchmarks of rock‘n’roll country.

“The title Put The O Back In Country was something that a bunch of people I knew had already been kicking around. In retrospect it set a marker for the album [2005’s Put The O Back In Country] and was supposed to come out like a fighting piece. It was cool for what it was, but it was just me and the band trying to make a hard-rock country record, which at the time wasn’t territory that had really been explored. I’d felt that country music needed a shake-up for a long time. When I was a kid growing up in Nashville I wanted to get the hell out of there, because country meant Garth Brooks and all that stuff. And by the time we came to do Put The O Back In Country, Garth Brooks was a country saint and there were bands around like Rascal Flatts – a lot of this pansy country stuff.

“It’s so weird to look back at that and compare it to now. I don’t mean people like Chris Stapleton, but the whole bro country thing. It was the beginning of a downhill slide that just kept going. So country felt very stale and we were just doing something that we liked. That was essentially the deal.” RH

3) The Rolling Stones – Dead Flowers

On the Stones’ 1971 masterpiece Sticky Fingers were two great country-influenced songs: love-and-death ballad Wild Horses, and the swinging, stinging Dead Flowers, the bitter tale of a socialite and a junkie. The latter is the Stones’ purest country song, inspired in part by Gram Parsons, maverick country rock innovator and Keith Richards’s drug buddy, who died, aged 26, in ’73. PE

2) Lynyrd Skynyrd – The Ballad Of Curtis Loew

The most beautifully observed of all Ronnie Van Zant’s story songs, this highlight of Second Helping spins the tale of a vagrant musician idolised by a 10-year-old boy, pulled together from strands of the frontman’s childhood in Jacksonville. With its themes of wasted lives and inglorious death, this is country to the core. HY

1) The Allman Brothers – Ramblin’ Man

More than any southern band, the Allmans distilled the very essence of American music into their freewheeling sound. This salute to the open road name-checks Nashville, Tennessee, but plays out with some 70s rock guitar heroics. Listening to it you can almost see that tour bus, with its rebel-flag bumper sticker, disappearing over the horizon in a haze of exhaust fumes and weed smoke. (See boxout, right.) MB

“The song needed to be ‘Allmanised’” – Ramblin’ Man: country rock at its best

The death of guitarist Duane Allman in 1971 might have been the end of the Allman Brothers Band, but their outstanding 1973 single Ramblin’ Man proved there was still plenty of gas in the tank.

Ramblin’ Man was written by Allmans guitarist Dicky Betts. He had hopes of selling the tune in Nashville, but any plans for a songwriting sideline were dashed when the Allmans needed material for their new album, Brothers And Sisters.

“The song, as I originally wrote it, had a country flavour and needed to be ‘Allmanised’ – given that rock-blues feeling,” Betts told the Wall Street Journal. The band tried to disguise the tune’s country leanings with some twin-guitar duelling, but the result was an unmistakable truck driver’s lament.

The Allman Brothers’ biggest hit, Ramblin’ Man became the template for country rock. EM

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