We all know the legacy achieving No. 1 status on the charts can give a song. With country music in particular, the quest for radio glory is fraught with peril and ripe with rewards. Well, you get your very own “Number 1 party” at least.
In fact, nowadays we have plenty different ways to determine No. 1 status. There’s the “Hot Country Songs” chart, the “Country Airplay” chart, and even the “Country Streaming” charts. And those are just for individual songs. Albums get other charts for themselves as well.
But here’s the thing: some downright legendary classic country songs never reached that pinnacle. We’re talking timeless songs that strike up nostalgic admiration at first note. Does that make them any less worthy? Heck no. In fact, it’s more impressive.
And also very surprising.
Let’s take a look at 10 iconic classic country songs that never made it to No. 1 on good ol’ fashioned American country charts.
In the 1960s, Bobbie Gentry floated back and forth between poppy soul and country, finding success in both. Her song “Fancy” tackled the stinging subject of a mother pressing her daughter into prostitution in order to keep the family afloat.
Nowadays that iconic chorus reels any listener in. And if you’ve ever been to a karaoke bar, you know the enthusiasm with which every person sings the line, “I might’ve been born just plain white trash, but Fancy was my name.”
Though controversial, the subject matter resonated with country audiences enough to actually get the song on radio in the first place. In the early 1970s, Gentry took it to No. 26 on the country chart and No. 8 on the Adult Contemporary chart.
So surely Reba’s 1990 redux could take it to the mountaintop, right? Not exactly. Conservative audiences struggled with the song and even with Reba’s massive star power, the song still peaked at No. 8. But it’s a staple of Reba’s shows and one of her most iconic songs ever.
The Marshall Tucker Band originally wrote and released “Can’t You See” in 1973, though it nary made a mark. But Waylon Jennings — himself flirting consistently with a rockin’ vibe — saw immense potential in the song and cut his own version in 1976.
That song, with its classic gospel-style chorus, still resonates in the heart of every blue blooded American. And though you’d swear it proliferates the American music culture, the song amazingly stopped shy of hitting No. 1 in the U.S. It peaked at No. 4.
The next year, Marshall Tucker Band re-released it, hoping to capture Jennings’ huge success with the tune. But it floundered at No. 75 on the Hot 100 charts.
As amazing and iconic as “Gentle On My Mind” is, no artist ever took it to No. 1. Now, bare in mind Alison Krauss just did her own version as well, so perhaps it could be in the cards. But even The Band Perry, who won a Grammy for their performance of the tune, only ever brought it to No. 29.
Which, to be fair, is one better than Glen Campbell got it. His 1967 version of the song did, however, propel him forward and prepare him for his next big hit (though still only a No. 2), “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.”
“Gentle On My Mind’s” inability to reach No. 1 really is surprising. It’s a beautiful, award-winning song and Campbell notched more than 5 million plays of it on radio. Originally written and performed by John Hartford, other artists who recorded and released it as a single include Aretha Franklin and Dean Martin.
Ok, so at 1989, this tune doesn’t necessarily hit the “classic” country mark per se. But as Garth Brooks’ first ever single and a song he still plays at every live show, “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” holds a special place in country music worthy of mention.
After all, Brooks is the closest thing to a modern-day Elvis we’ve got. And that’s not an exaggeration. So his first single holds a very important place in country music. But despite his humongous success in the very same year with “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” this tune only made it to No. 8 on the carts.
But perhaps more important, it reintroduced the world to a Chris LeDoux, who at the time was an underappreciatedg cowboy talent.
“(Ghost) Riders In The Sky” enjoyed plenty of success in 1949, when five different artists released it. That in part led to Vaughn Monroe’s orchestral version reaching No. 1 on Billboard‘s nascent chart. The publication eventually named it the top song of 1949.
Which makes it particularly hard to believe that Johnny Cash couldn’t take the song to No. 1 on country radio. Though he got it ever so close, peaking at No. 2 in 1979. Today, the foreboding “Yippie yi oh, yippie yi ay” refrain feels as American as cowboy movies and apple pie.
The song continues to be one of the most popular country western songs in the world. More than 100 different acts recorded their own version of the song from all across the globe. That galloping horn melody line brings goosebumps just about every time. But nobody took it closer to No. 1 on the country chart than the Man In Black.
Yes, really. The man with 60 No. 1 singles and counting can’t count “Amarillo By Morning” as one of them. Which is really bizarre, considering it may be the first song you ever think of when you think George Strait.
Ok, that’s subjective and debatable, but it’s definitely top 3. Strait’s 1983 version was a massive hit (especially over the 1970s original), but it still never made it to No. 1. In fact, it peaked at No. 4.
And then proceeded to make just about every list of “Best Country Songs Ever.”
Similar to King George, Dolly Parton is no stranger to international success. She counts a fair number of No. 1’s herself, not to mention recognition as an American cultural icon.
But one of her most poignant, personal songs — which has so far spawned not one, but two TV movies — didn’t win radio stations over enough to make it to No. 1. “Coat Of Many Colors” peaked at No. 4 in the early 1970s.
Known as one of the most controversial country songs ever, “The Pill” established Loretta Lynn as something of a feminist icon. The song advocates women’s sexuality and praises the concept of birth control, an idea that in 1975 got a bunch of Baptist britches all in a twist.
The weird part, is more people may actually remember the controversy behind “The Pill” more than the song itself. Which is really a shame, because it’s so well written. But either way, many doctors attributed the song to spreading awareness and advocacy of birth control in poor and rural areas.
In spite of the controversy, “The Pill” made it all the way to No. 5 on country radio.
Despite consistently ranking among the most important country songs of all time, Hank Williams’ version of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” isn’t even technically the most popular on country radio.
His 1949 version only ever reached No. 43 on the country singles chart. B.J. Thomas eventually took it to No. 8 on the pop charts in 1966 and Terry Bradshaw took it to No. 17 in country in 1976.
But the fact that perhaps Williams’ signature song peaked so low seems shocking even to stalwart fans. And that’s why it rates so high up on this list.
Yes, one of Willie Nelson’s best songs and the tune that most people associate with country legend Patsy Cline, “Crazy” never made it to that coveted No. 1 spot. The tune peaked at No. 2 and actually felt like a moderate disappointment, considering it was sandwiched by two No. 1 songs from elsewhere in Cline’s repertoire.
But no good Patsy Cline impersonation is complete without an attempt at the amazing singer’s woeful belt on “Crazy.” Simply put, nothing else in country music compares to her performance.
That’s part of the reason Nelson called it his favorite performance ever of one of his songs. So No. 1’s be damned! These songs maintain legendary status with or without that little footnote.