Country music in the early '80s gets dismissed by some as a post-Urban Cowboy landscape where pop-accessible acts dominated Nashville while a portion of the genre's audience waited patiently for someone like Reba McEntire or Ricky Skaggs to find success with something other than adult contemporary hits.
That broad overview glosses over the tradition-honoring contributions of new acts (John Anderson's "1959" came out in the fall of 1980 and reached the Top 5 in '81) and old favorites (the same can be said of Merle Haggard's "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink"). Also, many of the better pop-friendly singles of the time came via such established country greats as Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton and Crystal Gayle.
So really, 1981 was a pretty great year for hard country throwbacks and pop chart-ready crossover tunes, as evidenced by these five songs that turn 40 in 2021. Picks are listed alphabetically by artist.
"Old Flame," Alabama
Alabama's third hit in a string of 21 straight No. 1's sits aside "Tennessee River" and "Mountain Music" on the list of early career classics that reflect the music cousins Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook heard and loved while growing up on Sand Mountain. It's co-written by another Alabama native, Mac McAnally.
"I Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool," Barbara Mandrell and George Jones
Songwriters Kye Fleming and Dennis Morgan addressed the Urban Cowboy craze with this anthem for the veteran singers and longtime fans who didn't need to jump on any bandwagon. Barbara Mandrell and unlisted guest vocalist George Jones brought the song credibility as two of the genre's established faces and voices.
"(There's) No Getting Over Me," Ronnie Milsap
Ronnie Milsap lived rock, pop and blue-eyed soul history before a 1974 recording of Eddie Rabbitt's "Pure Love" became the first of Milsap's 40 No. 1 country hits. While some artists' crossover moments seem a little too calculated in retrospect, this Top 5 hit on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100 comes across as Milsap transcending genre labels without even trying.
"Elvira," The Oak Ridge Boys
Dallas Frazier wrote and first recorded the song, which he named after a street in East Nashville, in 1966. Rodney Crowell tried to introduce the song to the masses in 1978, but his cover barely cracked the country chart's Top 100.
As happens sometimes, a great song needed the right recording act for it to connect with a broad audience. Oak Ridge Boys members Joe Bonsall, Duane Allen, William Lee Golden and that deep voice behind the familiar line "giddy up, oom papa mow mow," bass singer Richard Sterban, fit that role en route to a beloved country hit that still helps define a decade.
"All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)," Hank Williams Jr.
Country Music Hall of Fame member Hank Williams Jr.'s cheeky, namedrop-filled "All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down" tells how many of his rough-around-the-edges friends from the '70s had toned down their outlaw ways, musically and otherwise, by the early '80s.
Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Jones had cleaned up their acts, which was a good thing for three artists with plenty more to contribute to popular culture. Kris Kristofferson's renaissance man credentials included his movie star achievements by then, and even ole Bocephus himself had "done rowdied on down."
Williams stopped short of calling Willie Nelson out for smoking less weed, but who would've believed that?