The greatest country songs of all time
Authors offer 500 'Heartaches by the Number'
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- It's easy to make fun of country music. The stereotypical country song is about the tough life of the common person: drinkin' and lovin' and fightin' and ridin', tributes to dogs and trains and America and Mama.
But, notes author David Cantwell, that cliché ignores the tremendous influence country has had on pop music in general -- and vice versa.
Cantwell and co-author Bill Friskics-Warren have tried to remedy that oversight with "Heartaches by the Number: Country Music's 500 Greatest Singles" (Vanderbilt University Press/Country Music Foundation Press). The book, modeled on rock critic Dave Marsh's classic "The Heart of Rock and Soul," features essays on 500 key songs in the development of country and pop music.
Some of the songs are shoo-ins: Hank Williams tunes pop up nine times, including "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "Your Cheatin' Heart," and there's plenty of Hank Snow, Loretta Lynn and Buck Owens, too.
But Cantwell, who has written about music for Salon, the Oxford American and alt-country bible No Depression, and Friskics-Warren, who has contributed to The New York Times and the Washington Post, veer off the traditional lost highway with a number of inspired choices, including the Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville," Otis Redding's "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay," and Los Lobos' "Will the Wolf Survive?"
That's because country, soul and rock are part of the same thread, Cantwell says, all manifestations of American music.
"When my co-writer and I were growing up, our parents listened to country radio, but we listened to pop. But we realized they played some of the same music," he says in a phone interview from his home in Kansas City, Missouri. "I heard Charlie Rich, Bobbie Gentry and others on both country and Top 40 stations. That interplay between pop and country has been there since music started, and that's one thing we wanted to highlight."
Relevance and crossing over
No. 1 on the pair's list -- because it's a perfect starting place, not necessarily because it's the greatest song in country music history -- is Sammi Smith's 1970 version of "Help Me Make It Through the Night." The song combines several elements they wanted to spotlight throughout the book, says Cantwell, including the importance of female singers and the power of arranging.
"It's an example of great songwriting [by Kris Kristofferson], it's by a woman, and it's clearly a record -- not just words and melody, but a performance. It's greater than the sum of its parts," he says.
The Smith record was also sexually frank for its time: "Take the ribbon from my hair," it starts, and its boldness was doubly striking contrasted with the original, male-sung version, in which the narrator says "Take the ribbon from your hair." That turn gave the song cultural relevance in a time when feminism was becoming prominent in American culture, Cantwell says.
Finally, the song was a hit -- distinctly country, but with elements of pop and soul in its arrangement, and a top 10 pop song to boot.
"It emphasizes the importance of the crossover element," Cantwell says. "It's a country record, but it's willing to open its arms to soul music."
Cantwell and Friskics-Warren also show how pop music influenced country. One of the looming presences in the book is Bing Crosby, rarely identified with country but actually one of the genre's most important practitioners.
"He's one of the heroes of the book," Cantwell says. "He was a huge influence on any number of country singers, and he also listened to country music. ... He played a big part in popularizing country songs." Crosby is represented by two tunes -- "Pistol Packin' Mama" (his version of the Al Dexter hit, which reshaped the song considerably) and "Don't Fence Me In" (written by, of all people, the urbane Cole Porter).
Food for thought
Cantwell and Friskics-Warren, who are both in their early 40s, started their list with between 2,000 and 3,000 songs. Narrowing the group to 500 was rather taxing, Cantwell says.
"The artist had to be great, and we wanted to say something about [the importance of the selection]," he says. "We may have had 10 more Hank Williams songs, but we didn't have 10 more Hank Williams essays in us."
They also wanted to be expansive. The book includes songs from every decade from the 1920s to the present, and ranges from huge hit singles (Billy Swan's No. 1 pop hit "I Can Help," Roger Miller's legendary "King of the Road") to obscurities such as Nathan Abshire's 1949 "Pine Grove Blues" and the Sir Douglas Quintet's 1969 "At the Crossroads."
The Country Music Foundation expressed interest in the work, agreed to publish it, and was indispensable to its completion, Cantwell says.
"They gave us access to their archives, and they also lent credibility," he says. "If we misstated something, the people [there] editing were able to say, 'That's wrong.' "
Also gratifying has been reader reaction, he adds. "People have understood what we're getting at," Cantwell says.
That includes some major country stars, including Dolly Parton -- who provided a blurb -- and Merle Haggard, who asked the authors to fax over his entries.
These days, with country music radio having hit another dead spot -- full of "emotionally simplistic ditties that are scarcely discernable from ... the frothy jingles sponsored by the station's advertisers," the pair writes in the book's introduction -- Cantwell hopes that the book starts a discussion as to what country music (and popular music, for that matter) really is all about.
"We wanted it to be revisionist," he says. "We're not arguing that the traditional version is wrong, but that there are other ways of seeing it."