Ok, so there’s only five, but these tribute songs connect the history of country music in the style of classic party game.
It is a long-standing country tradition to pay tribute to your heroes by singing songs about them. The golden age of country tribute songs is perhaps the 60s and 70s, when Waylon and Willie and the boys were all writing songs and dropping each other’s name like there was no tomorrow.
There are still plenty of tribute songs and albums around (check out the 15 Best Songs About Hank Williams), but these days a lot of them ring false, almost like the singers are paying tribute to an artist who they don’t even know (“1994”? Come on, Jason Aldean: Can you teach my how to Diffie, really?) Ok, actually, he does include a lot of references to Diffie songs, similar to one of the songs on this list, so we’ll cut him some slack.
But all these tribute songs gets you thinking; would it be possible to trace the history of country music, Back to Bacon style, using only tribute songs? And how long would the list have to be? Well, it turns out yes, yes you can. And in a surprisingly swift (get it?) list. Here is the history of country music in five songs.
5. “Taylor Swift” – Tyler Dean
In 2009, Dean came out with this semi-parody song about longing for T-Swift. It goes to show how young Dean is (was?) when he says that the first time he heard her he was only 13. Considering Swift was only 20 herself in 2009, it speaks about how young Swift herself was when she rose to fame.
It would have been perfect if this was Dean’s debut single, but alas, it is not to be as he had several other failed singles before. “Taylor Swift,” though essential for our list, is a forgettable song that sounds suspiciously like “Jessie’s Girl.” Dean even sings his phone number at the end of the song.
4. “Tim McGraw” – Taylor Swift
Ok, so this song isn’t actually about Tim McGraw, but I’m going to say it works as a tribute all the same. It’s actually a little disappointing that Swift launched her incredible career on what was basically a name-dropping debut single in 2006. After all, Taylor begs him to think of her favorite song, but never actually mentions it. This song is more “Strawberry Wine” than actual tribute to McGraw, but if his music was the catalyst for the lovers in the song, that’s good enough for our list.
3. “Give It to Me Strait” – Tim McGraw
Unlike the previous song, McGraw’s tribute mentions just about every one of Strait’s hits up until that point. And he works them all into the lyrics so well that a casual listener might not even realize that he is talking about songs, and not just bemoaning the loss of his girlfriend.
Consider the chorus: “Give it to me Strait/sing “Am I Blue?” while I sit here and cry/tell me how my “Baby’s Gotten (so) Good at Goodbye”/it’s gonna take a “Fireman” to put “This Old Flame Out/so come on give it to me Strait/before I come “Unwound.”
Of course this has nothing on Kyle Park’s “Fit for a King,” in which EVERY WORD is a title of a George Strait song, but Park also had 20 more years of songs to work with. Anyway, McGraw’s 1994 song is one of the best tribute songs there is. Which brings us to…
2. “Lefty’s Gone” – George Strait
Strait’s own 1985 tribute is from one blossoming legend to another. Lefty Frizzell – Hank Williams’ only real competitor for most influential country music artist of all time – is the man behind standards like “Long Black Veil,” “If You’ve Got the Money” and “Always Late (With Your Kisses).” In Strait’s tribute, he credits the legend with inspiring him to sing. And because country singers have never been able to resist a pun, Strait sings, “It’s not right, but Lefty’s gone.”
1. “California Blues (Blue. Yodel #4)” – Lefty Frizzell
Our list takes a giant leap backwards in time here, completely skipping two decades. While the 60s and 70s had plenty of tribute songs, they didn’t fit into this list. However, in 1951 a young Lefty Frizzell released a tribute album to Jimmie Rodgers. Besides possibly being country music’s first ever tribute album, it was Frizzell’s first album, period. So Taylor Swift was actually following directly in Lefty’s footsteps by releasing a tribute as her debut song. How do like that?
Frizzell would tour with Hank, and the two would flip a coin to see who would go on first. Frizzell also is credited with influencing Elvis’ stage presence, shaking his hips five year’s before Elvis ever released a song.
So this brings us to Jimmie Rodgers, one of country music’s pioneers. Before Rodgers there was…not much. If you can think of a Rodgers’ song that extends this list, or have an alternative list, I’d love to know!