Music

10 Country Songs Turning 40 in 2020

Country singer George Jones poses with the Grammy he won for best male country vocal performance of "He Stopped Loving Her Today", at the awards at Radio City Music Hall in New York, Feb. 25, 1981. (AP Photo)

Before the '80s brought us The Judds, Reba McEntire, Randy Travis, Keith Whitley and Garth Brooks, established names ruled the Billboard charts with some of their best and most pop-accessible material.

At the time, blockbuster films (Urban Cowboy) and network television (The Dukes of Hazzard) helped bring mainstream credibility to country music. Things got so Hollywood that Merle Haggard sang a well-aged duet with Clint Eastwood titled "Barroom Buddies." Added exposure for the genre equaled memorable hits for established names (Barbara Mandrell, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, Mickey Gilley, Crystal Gayle, Anne Murray) and upstart groups (The Bellamy Brothers).

The following 10 songs offer a cross-section of the sounds, styles and stars atop country music 40 years ago.

10. "I'd Love to Lay You Down," Conway Twitty

One of the genre's masters continued his '70s hot streak with this love song filled with requited lust and unexpected key changes. It teased the talent of songwriter Johnny MacRae a decade before his finest work, Doug Stone's 1990 single "I'd Be Better Off (In a Pine Box)."

9. "Old Flames Can't Hold a Candle to You," Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton's best song from the year that brought us the film 9 to 5 was co-written by Kesha's mom, Patricia Rose Sebert, and entered the top 15 two years prior after being recorded by the late Joe Sun.

8. "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight," The Oak Ridge Boys

Before Exile and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band crossed over to country music, the Oak Ridge Boys normalized chart-toppers by harmonizing groups. With this hit, the quartet introduced new ears to a song co-written by Rodney Crowell and first recorded two years earlier by Emmylou Harris.

7. "Lookin' for Love," Johnny Lee

The often vilified Urban Cowboy soundtrack introduced soft rock influence to the country charts. That's an okay thing, since it brought us not just this classic by Lee but also future hits by Dan Seals.

6. "Smoky Mountain Rain," Ronnie Milsap

A decade after playing piano on Elvis Presley's Eddie Rabbitt-penned hit "Kentucky Rain," Ronnie Milsap scored his own instant classic about regional precipitation. It's a definitive song for an artist with a lengthy list of '80s country hits.

Read More: 10 Underrated, Pop-Friendly Country Songs From the '80s

5. "Coward of the County," Kenny Rogers

Kenny Rogers' complete transition from singing TV movie theme songs about cowboys, cowards and poker players hits hadn't happened just yet, as heard on this cinematic championing of turning the other cheek.

4. "I Believe in You," Don Williams

"I'm Just a Country Boy" singer Don Williams brought more old-fashioned common sense to the country charts with his first great hit of the '80s. Only George Strait's "Forever and Ever, Amen" ranks ahead of "I Believe in You" when it comes to well-aged sentimentality.

3. "Tennessee River," Alabama

Alabama began its first full decade as mainstream stars in grandiose fashion, scoring number ones with not just this song but also "Why Lady Why." The pair of hits began an absurd run of 21 straight chart-topping country songs.

2. "On the Road Again," Willie Nelson

This massive hit won a Grammy award and made the short list of songs that truly define the sound of modern country music. It gets the nod over "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys," a song Nelson's running buddy and fellow Texas country renegade Waylon Jennings contributed years prior to Wanted! The Outlaws.

1. "He Stopped Loving Her Today," George Jones

Ten years after kicking off the '70s with "Good Year for the Roses," George Jones began a new phase of his career with a single worthy of country song of the year, decade and century consideration.

Now Watch: '80s Country Artists You Forgot You Loved

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10 Country Songs Turning 40 in 2020