Amid the cultural and global shifts that shook the world in 1968, a string of essential country songs brought about a different kind of radical change. From April 20 to the end of the year, eight different number one hits turned seven stars into household names. In the process, each artist helped modernize the sound and image of Nashville.
Two pop-accessible hit-makers in Conway Twitty and Glen Campbell introduced their own brands of country class to broad audiences. That same year, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash sculpted an outlaw image that’d shake up mainstream country in the following decade. Most importantly, 1968 was a pivotal year when women in country music boldly spoke their minds, pushing the boundaries of rigid social norms in the genre.
As these songs near their 50th anniversaries, consider the lasting impact of 1968’s genre-shaping string of number one hits.
Loretta Lynn gets quoted as saying she was there when country music went uptown. A time when Nashville’s Broadway might as well have been in the Big Apple began unofficially when one of Lynn’s most defiant hits burst her through a glass ceiling first cracked by Kitty Wells.
As one of the great female voices in country music history, in the talent sense and when it comes to genuine empathy for listeners’ struggles, Tammy Wynette offered a blunt, gut-wrenching take on the bitter end of matrimony. Wynette sadly brought a voice of experience to this and other heartbreaking songs in her repertoire. She endured five marriages during her tumultuous life.
The rough-around-the-edges image of the Man in Black and his various sonic children, from his friend Waylon Jennings to such modern-day miscreants as Eric Church, dates back to his live prison albums. The first of these albums, At Folsom Prison, opened with the seminal recording of a song that’d opened Cash’s sets for years.
Merle Haggard set the template for songs sympathizing with hell-raising outlaws with arguably his greatest single. A few years later, the country stars themselves would cast a similar shadow as Haggard’s wayward mama’s boy.
Although she lacked the staying power as others on this list, Jeannie C. Riley made as bold a musical statement as anyone in 1968. Her song “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” written by Tom T. Hall, tells of a widowed mother with no intention to allow small town hypocrites to dissuade her wardrobe choices. It simultaneously topped the country and pop charts, making it an all-time classic “one hit wonder.” Ten years later, the song’s popularity led to a cult classic film starring Barbara Eden.
Only George Strait owns more No. 1 country hits than versatile rocker turned country crooner Conway Twitty. His first of 40 chart-toppers dealt with matters of the heart, a topic Twitty would take down lustier roads in the 1970s. Twangy jukebox favorite “Next in Line” casts Twitty as a hopeless lover, longing for a woman with a different man in her sights.
Tammy Wynette didn’t invent the sad country song by any means. However, nothing quite captures raw desperation as effectively as her vocal performance on “Stand By Your Man.” It’s not about playing second fiddle to a man, as some assume. Instead, Wynette captures the emotional strain behind accepting a partner’s flaws when others might cut ties.
For a time in the late 1960s, Glen Campbell enjoyed cross-genre fame as the most famous country boy amid the Los Angeles jet set. Among the hits that catapulted him to international stardom was “Wichita Lineman,” one of several career-defining, pop-friendly interpretations of Jimmy Webb compositions.