Or I should say the 10 darkest country songs in my lexicon. One of the primary appeals of country music for me is that even some commercially successful songs delve into some of the darkest, seediest places of the soul with haunting stories and scenarios that manage to hit you in a place that music ordinarily doesn't....and sometimes in a way that you really don't know how to respond. Some of the alternative country artists like Steve Earle and Chris Knight really have a knack for these kinds of songs, but I'm gonna limit this list to songs that had at least some level of commercial success. As I was perusing likely candidates for this list, I was struck by how many of the songs came from the last 20 years. I tend to prefer older country songs and have generally found them to be lyrically gutsier and less restrained by the Nashville suits than the newer stuff, but for whatever reason, I found that most of the darker-leaning songs from the country legends didn't quite reach the depths of darkness that the newer stuff did. Without further adieu, onto my list....
Before I start the official top-10, I have to give honorable mentions to a couple of great dark country classics that were unfortunately sung by singers whose right-wing politics prevented me from putting on a top-10 list in good conscience...
The Legend of Wooley Swamp--Charlie Daniels Band
Despite having one of the most neanderthal worldviews of just about anybody that's ever been successful in the entertainment business, there's no denying Charlie Daniels is a talented guy, and my favorite of his songs is one of the most deliciously dark ghost stories ever set to music. Set to a southern rock groove that fit perfectly with the swampy setting, Charlie proves himself an outstanding narrator as he tells the story of money-grubbing hermit Lucius Clay and the white trash hooligans who meet an unsavory demise while robbing him.
Why They Call it Falling--Lee Ann Womack
Lee Ann Womack could sing the phone book and it would sound like heaven, but when she gets her hand on a particularly great song, there is nobody else in country music in her league. One such song that qualifies was this schizophrenic love-turns-to-heartbreak ballad which starts out like a flowery, sweet-as-sugar love song asking a rhetorical question. By the song’s ending, that rhetorical question gets answered in the form of crushing heartbreak and some of the darkest imagery ever evoked in a hit country song, particularly "it's like a knife to the heart...when it all comes apart...it's like someone takes a pin to your balloon....it's a holler...it's a cave...it's kind of like a grave....when he tells you that he's found somebody new". Womack’s vocals combined with the intelligently written lyrics make this one of the best songs in her lengthy rolodex.
Now onto my official top-10....
#10. The Thunder Rolls--Garth Brooks
After more than a decade of releasing downright lousy songs, it's sometimes hard to remember that early in his career, Garth Brooks had some genuinely impressive country songs, and none more impressive than the dark cheatin’ song extraordinaire "The Thunder Rolls", unprecedented in its time for lyrical and musical darkness, not to mention its violent video featuring a scorned wife shooting her cheating husband in cold blood. It set the stage for a more risk-taking country music scene in the very near future.
#9. The Way We Make a Broken Heart--Rosanne Cash
One of the most consistently great commercial country artist in the genre’s history is the versatile and unpredictable Rosanne Cash, daughter of Johnny, who carved out her own identity with cerebral songwriting, and incredibly memorable and often daring, outside-the-box melodies. One of her many classics was this brutally cruel cheatin’ song featuring a married man and his mistress getting off on infidelity as if it’s a game, but ultimately coming to recognize the human toll and the vicious cycle of it all. The midtempo melody provides an ironic contrast with the viciousness of the lyrics, and the chorus line at the song’s conclusion really brings it home.
#8. House of Cards--Mary Chapin Carpenter
One of the most impressive and consistent country artists of the 90s was folk-leaning Mary Chapin Carpenter who brought an Ivy League sensibility to country music. One of the best songwriters in the genre’s history, Carpenter really hit the nail on the head with this dark uptempo and decidedly nontraditional-country-sounding homage to the perfect suburban family that is in reality dysfunctional to the point of nearly coming apart at the seams. The song was great by itself, but the video was a perfect complement and one of the most memorable of its era.
#7. He Would Be Sixteen--Michelle Wright
Most American country music fans are likely to think Michelle Wright was a one-hit wonder, fading into oblivion after her one top-10 hit "Take it Like a Man", but in Canada Wright is a superstar responsible for dozens of hits over a nearly 20-year span. But it was Wright’s second most successful song on American charts that left me breathless. "He Would be Sixteen" is a chillingly dark tale of a middle-aged would-be mother constantly haunted by the memory of the son she gave up for adoption. Like most dark and depressing tearjerkers, the song had its core of support but never burned up the charts the way it deserved to. The song is explosively powerful enough that just about anybody female artist of stature could have pulled it off, but Wright’s husky voice fit the lyrics like a glove.
#6. Independence Day--Martina McBride
As is all too often the case, the epicness of the song that would become Martina McBride’s career record didn’t hit nearly enough people when the song was on the charts in the summer of 1994. In fact, it was a bit of a fluke that the song ever climbed out of the 30s on the charts as the early reviews from too many radio stations was that this song was simply too hot for country radio to touch. But the explosive and emotional video had such an impact on enough viewers that radio slowly came around. Of course, it wasn’t just the video, it was the stellar quality of this piece of music that refused to be ignored, from the addictive uptempo melody to the intensely dark lyrics about domestic violence told in the eyes of a young girl. We had a taste of Martina’s raging pipes in her previous singles, but it was on "Independence Day" that we were finally able to appreciate the depth of her vocal power.
#5. A Boy Named Sue--Johnny Cash
One of the most simultaneously fun and edgy story songs ever recorded, Johnny Cash made one of the best records of his career doing a live performance at a prison, which lended the song a level of atmosphere that managed to heighten its appeal. The offbeat tale features an embittered man with a feminine name who vows to kill the absentee father who gave him the name if he ever meets him....and then one day he does. It was the 1960s equivalent to the Dixie Chicks’ "Goodbye Earl" (a song that just missed my list), darkly humorous and unpredictable with Johnny’s vocals lending just the right credibility to pull off the outraged son gambit.
#4. When You Leave That Way You Can Never Go Back--Confederate Railroad
Confederate Railroad is a group from the early-to-mid 90s best known for corny and irreverent uptempo hits, but they had a knack for homespun, slice-of-life story songs that left a much more lasting impression on me. The best song of their career was this chilling of a young man making an endless litany of mistakes and alienating everyone in his life who cares about him. As riveting as the song is in the first two verses, it moves into an entirely new zone when the narrator commits murder and gets one final chance at redemption by the preacher in the moments before his execution...and rejects it. Hard to imagine a song this dark making the top-10 on country radio, but it nonetheless happened back in 1993.
#3. Whiskey Lullaby--Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss
The modern country song most closely associated with epic darkness is this duet the begins with a heartbroken guy drinking himself to death in the absence of the love of his life who cheated on him. The second verse features the perspective of the woman, so overcome with grief on destroying the guy's life that she ultimately drinks herself to death as well. I gotta say that the context seemed a little melodramatic to me when I heard the song without seeing the accompanying video, but the amazingly produced video made the song hit home for me, set in the context of a man returning home from World War II to start his family and seeing his wife/girlfriend in bed with another man and triggering the meltdown.
#2. One Last Time--Dusty Drake
Another song that chills me to my core. Far as I know the singer of this song was a one-hit wonder, but he left a lasting impression at least on me with the one song he had on the charts. Another of those country songs that teases your expectations in its early stages, featuring a phone conversation between a married couple who we're led to believe are facing the inevitability of their imminent separation. But the intensity of their dialogue gets increasingly urgent before the final revelation in the closing lyrics that the husband is telling his wife goodbye in the last moments before his plane crashes.
#1. She Thinks His Name was John--Reba McEntire
I've never been a big Reba fan as I've never felt her typically generic material warrants the power vocals she applies to them, but she wisely takes a subdued vocal approach to this mellow and haunting story song. It’s easy to gloss over the incredible story being told the first time one listens to this song, but once the listener dedicates themselves to hearing out the narrative, it hits you like an anvil to the chest. The first two verses lead the listener to believe the song is a melancholy profiling of a woman’s lost love who she can’t get off of her mind...until the final verse cryptically confirms that the woman’s lamentations for the man she "thinks was named John" are really the deathbed thoughts of a woman who is dying of AIDS contracted through a one-night stand with this dark-haired stranger. While not one of the biggest hits of her long career, it’s hands-down her best song and still sends a chill down my spine today.
I know there probably aren't too many country fans here on Daily Kos, at least not too many willing to admit it(!), but for those who can tolerate it, are they any dark country classics I left off my list that deserve to be on there? Even since I started writing this list, I thought of a couple more favorites including Suzy Bogguss' "Hey Cinderella" and Tanya Tucker's "Blood Red and Going Down". I'm sure there are plenty more worthy songs not on my list that should be.
Update: I've added links to the songs on my list for those curious. In some cases, I was able to find the original videos, which I found generally added to these songs