The gambling trope is as old a storytelling device as any in country music history. The gambling song is classic because of its heavy reliance on well-known idioms and expressions. Over the years, songwriters have been enamored with using gamblers, card decks and losing streaks to symbolize the hard times in their own lives. Often these metaphors push forward the cautionary tales of the rambling drifter or the heartbroken lament of love lost.
Despite becoming a cliche from time to time, gambling idioms remain relevant because of their comfortable familiarity. Here are 15 of the greatest gambling songs in country music.
15. “Jackpot,” Nikki Lane
Nikki Lane pushes all of her chips in with “Jackpot” on her latest album, Highway Queen. She compares falling in love to winning it all from a slot machine on this honky-tonking rambler.
14. “Kentucky Gambler,” Merle Haggard
Written by Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard took “Kentucky Gambler” to the top of the charts in 1975. This cautionary tale tells of a miner who leaves his wife and children for the shimmering casinos of Reno, Nev. When his streak of good luck runs out, leaving him broke, he longs to return home only to find he’s been replaced by another.
13. “A Good Run of Bad Luck,” Clint Black
The highlight of 1994’s soundtrack to the Western comedy Maverick, Clint Black‘s “A Good Run of Bad Luck” thrives on the doubling down of love. Despite coming out on the losing side ever time, Black nevertheless remains determined to win, knowing that he can’t win if he doesn’t play the game of love.
12. “I Feel Lucky,” Mary Chapin Carpenter
Mary Chapin Carpenter‘s “I Feel Lucky” takes a different path when it comes to gambling. Instead of cards, dice or slot machines, Carpenter tries her luck with the lottery. Naturally, she wins a cool $11 million, relying on self-confidence instead of superstition.
11. “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” Jerry Reed
Jerry Reed’s 1971 crossover hit “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” is as straightforward as it is catchy. It’s not soaked with metaphor or bogged down with trying to be larger than it is. Reed’s storytelling of an illegal game of back-alley craps is one of the most engaging, but it’s the simple chorus line of “when you’re hot, you’re hot and when you’re not, you’re not” that remains the largest sticking point.
10. “Fall Out of Love,” Turnpike Troubadours
Found on Turnpike Troubadours‘ 2015 self-titled album, “Fall Out of Love” creates one of sharpest images with a single verse. Written by R.C. Edwards, the second verse finds him throwing out each card suit to symbolize the attempt at a relationship only for it to leave both parties dealing with paying the cost of losing. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking all at once.
9. “Amarillo Highway,” Terry Allen
The opening verse of Terry Allen‘s “Amarillo Highway” happens to be where all the card playing imagery takes place. With one clean swoop, Allen throws out high straight, a side bet, fresh deck, high hand and low hand all with corresponding towns in dusty West Texas.
8. “Two of a Kind, Working on a Full House,” Garth Brooks
On the 1991 hit “Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House,” Garth Brooks neatly wraps up his clever card playing double entendre all within its title. The catchy upbeat tune plays on the fact that the narrator and wife are complement one another perfectly and are humorlessly planning on having children in the near future.
7. “From a Jack to a King,” Ned Miller
While many gambling ballads speak only about the runs of bad luck and loss, Ned Miller‘s “From a Jack to a King” is quite the opposite. It’s all about falling in love. He uses the parallel of advancing from a jack to a king in a game of cards to winning the heart of his prospective sweetheart.
6. “Ballad of Spider John,” Willis Alan Ramsey
Willis Alan Ramsey‘s “Ballad of Spider John” is probably the most subtle on the list with its card playing references. But, it’s one of the most effective. With just the mentioning of once having a royal flush in his hand, Ramsey’s Spider John lets you know his world is inevitably going to crumble before it’s all over.
5. “Ace in the Hole,” George Strait
Unlike many others, George Strait‘s 1989 classic “Ace in the Hole” is filled with sound advice on how to stack life’s deck in your favor rather than avoid gambling altogether. When life is already a gamble, you have to learn to play your cards right. To avert crisis, Strait suggests always having a few tricks up your sleeve to stay ahead of the curve and the competition.
4. “Dust of The Chase,” Ray Wylie Hubbard
Ray Wylie Hubbard‘s “Dust of The Chase” is a classic take on the rambling drifter. He’s a tortured gambler fighting between knowing what he shouldn’t do and what he ultimately does. Hubbard’s tale is chock full of playing card terms that parallel his trek across Texas as he seeks to find any kind of gambling trouble he sets his eyes upon.
3. “In The Jailhouse Now,” Jimmie Rodgers
Often credited to country music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers, “In The Jailhouse Now” is one of the foundational storytellers that rely on gambling as its main plotline. It details the misadventures of Ramblin’ Bob. Even when he’s advised to quit shooting dice and playing cards time and again, the cheating Bob ignores the suggestion, only to find himself in jail downtown.
2. “The Gambler,” Kenny Rogers
Kenny Rogers‘ “The Gambler” may come across as cliche due to its overexposure, but it’s one of the quintessential gambling songs. Written by veteran songwriter Don Schlitz, its chorus lines of “you have to know when to hold ’em, know when to ’em” is as iconic a line as any in country music.
1. “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold,” Townes Van Zandt
“Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold” is one of Townes Van Zandt‘s greatest songwriting achievements. It’s a complex, high-speed allegory detailing the events of a game of five-card stud where face cards become personified. Their own feelings dictate and influence the legendary game between the two poker players. Van Zandt blazes through as he throws out poker and card jargon with precision on nearly every line.