Holler Country Music

The Best 80s Country Songs

April 13, 2022 10:00 am GMT
Last Edited June 19, 2023 1:48 pm GMT

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Ah, the 80s! While everyone was pulling on neon leg warmers, donning their spandex and hitting play on keep fit videos, country was having a huge impact on the decade.

To celebrate 10 years of big hair and blue jeans, Holler decides on the 50 best country songs from the 80s:

Epic | 1983

Merle Haggard & Willie Nelson - Pancho & Lefty

For some reason, Willie and Merle’s take on the Townes Van Zandt classic begins like a perky theme tune to a lighthearted 80s cop show before truly getting into the groove.

Nelson recorded the song with his band in the middle of the night, before waking a sleeping Haggard to record his vocal part.

Listening back in the morning, Haggard asked if he could record his vocal again because it sounded like he was half asleep, but it was already too late. Good job he didn't, ey?

- Jof Owen

Viva | 1983

Shelly West - Jose Cuervo

One of country’s great accidental gay anthems, 'José Cuervo' sounds as powerfully butch today as when it landed in 1983.

Impressively rowdy even by country music standards, the song gave Shelly West her only solo No. 1 radio hit and remains a cult favorite among problem drinkers of all identities.

- Will Groff

MCA Records Nashville | 1987

George Strait - All My Ex's Live In Texas

If you’ve ever spent time in a karaoke bar with even the slightest hint of a Western theme, you're likely familiar with this good-timing George Strait classic.

This ‘87 chart-topper offers the King of Country at his best. With velvety vocals and even smoother production, it's swing rhythm makes it a stand-out choice on the dance floor.

- Carena Liptak

1984 | MCA

Reba McEntire - How Blue

Stripped back to fiddle and acoustic guitar, this milestone Reba McEntire song was a departure from her previous hits, yet still soared straight to the top of the charts.

Reba wisely chose relatable lyrics about reaching rock bottom at the end of a love affair, and her delivery and perm are equally sublime.

- Helen M Jerome

Asylum Records | 1980

Jackson Browne - Call It a Loan

Nearly lost as the seventh track on an eight-song album, Browne’s bittersweet ballad references a romantic relationship relative to a financial transaction (“paid in full” / “debt that I owe” / “what your heart cost”) he hopes works out.

The soaring melody propelled by David Lindley’s tender guitar licks and Browne’s affectionate vocal makes it one of his finest recordings.

- Hal Horowitz

MCA | 1987

Patty Loveless - If My Heart Had Windows

Loveless had a quiet way of tearing out your heart. A top 10 hit, ‘If My Heart Had Windows’ (a cover of George Jones) served as the title track to her 1988 LP.

The craftsmanship of melody is delicate but carries the weight of the world. Loveless is a songbird and delivers heart-rending lyrics with grace.

- Jason Scott

MCA | 1987

Lyle Lovett - If I Had A Boat

Lovett has always claimed that this song is based on a true story, and that he once actually tried to ride a pony while sailing on a boat across the ocean.

Whether it’s apocryphal or not, this jolly party piece from ‘Pontiac’ is Lyle Lovett at his absolute finest.

- JO

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab | 1987

John Hiatt - Memphis In The Meantime

The rocking opening to Hiatt’s breakthrough album finds him mining the greasy, swampy, country soul and blues that the Tennessee city is famous for.

The all-star band features Ry Cooder’s twisting slide lines which mesh with Hiatt’s growling vocals for a classic the singer admits Ronnie Milsap will never record.

- HH

MCA | 1987

Nanci Griffith - From A Distance

Best known as a storytelling songwriter, Griffith also had a great ear for covers material, and this is her finest discovery.

Written by Julie Gold and turned down many times, Griffith went on to record ‘From A Distance’ in many languages; its dynamic crescendo really showing off her range.


UMG | 1977

Jimmy Buffett - Margaritaville

Ok, the debate about whether Jimmy Buffett is country or not is at least as old as this song, and we aren’t going to solve it now.

However, the crossover between Parrotheads and country fans is well known and, let's be honest, this is just an absolute classic.

Why don’t we sit down and discuss it over a few margs and let Jimmy take us away to his island paradise.

- Baylen Leonard

MCA | 1981

The Oak Ridge Boys - Elvira

With its easy saunter and sing-along chorus, ‘Elvira’ appeared to be an homage to a vixen who finds her suitors captive to her charms.

In truth, this remake of Dallas Frazier’s original 1966 recording was inspired by a street in East Nashville. Nevertheless, its resemblance to Leiber and Stoller’s classic ‘Searchin’ is instantly apparent.

- Lee Zimmerman

Warner Bros Nashville | 1987

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band - Fishin' in the Dark

Not their biggest song, but certainly their most influential.

Covered by countless artists like Garth Brooks and The Swon Brothers and referenced by even more, this still is one of the best country metaphors for sexy time out there.

- BL

Sony | 1980

Dolly Parton - 9 to 5

‘9 to 5’ has enough giddy-up to jolt your body awake.

The centerpiece to the iconic 1980 film, this anthem to blue-collar workers also anchored Dolly’s 1980 LP 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs, and led to a host of award hardware, including two Grammys.

Listen to this and it’s like drinking a cup of Joe.

- JS

RCA | 1985

Keith Whitley - Miami, My Amy

This dreamy ballad about a long-distance love was Keith Whitley’s breakthrough on country radio in 1985, kicking off a short-lived but influential chart run that continued even after Whitley succumbed to alcoholism in 1989.

On 'Miami, My Amy', perhaps more than any other song (and yes, that includes 'Don’t Close Your Eyes'), Whitley imbues his vocal with such a powerful sense of longing that listening becomes almost unbearable.

- WG

Warner Bros. Nashville | 1987

Randy Travis - Forever and Ever, Amen

The ideal wedding song, this heartfelt homage to eternal love, penned by veteran songwriters Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz, became Randy Travis’ third no.1 single and one of his most beloved signature songs.

Granted, it’s unapologetically sentimental and, for a cynic, seemingly naive - but when it comes to courtship, the dedication can’t be denied.

- LZ

MCA | 1985

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers - Southern Accents

Petty’s poignant tribute to his Florida roots was written on piano, the instrument that leads off this title track ballad which has become an anthem of sorts for those from that region.

Producer Dave Stewart captures Petty at his most tender and emotive, but it’s Jack Nitzche’s sumptuous string arrangement that seals the deal.

- HH

RCA Nashville | 1984

Alabama - If You're Gonna Play In Texas

It’s important when you're traveling that you understand the local customs, just so you aren’t immediately run out of town.

This is especially true in the Lone Star state - Alabama learned their lesson early on and don’t want you to make the same mistake. Thank you, Alabama!

- BL

Warner Bros Nashville | 1987

Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt - To Know Him Is To Love Him

Possibly the finest vocal supergroup, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt made their eponymous album after years of trying to coordinate diaries.

This is the standout single, a cover of Phil Spector’s song that layers and foregrounds the gal pals’ voices in turn, which topped the charts.


F-Beat | 1981

Elvis Costello - Good Year for the Roses

Few expected the angry young Costello to triumph on an album of county covers, but he does George Jones’ 1970 hit proud, singing the thoughts of a man as his wife leaves him.

The sweet strings and somewhat schlocky female backing vocals can’t sink Costello’s emotional vocal which resulted in surprise a Top 10 UK hit.

- HH

EMI America | 1985

Dan Seals & Marie Osmond - Meet Me In Montana

Marie had always been pitched as the “Country Osmond”, and with her soft countrypolitan sound and hits like ‘Paper Roses’ and ‘Who’s Sorry Now’, she looked right at home in the country charts.

By the early 80s though, she’d pretty much converted to full-on pop, so her 1985 album There’s No Stopping Your Heart was a welcome return to the fold.

This duet with Dan Seals was its sweet, yearning centrepiece.

- JO

Sony | 1982

Willie Nelson - Always On My Mind

Willie Nelson wasn’t the first to record ‘Always on My Mind' - his version follows those by Brenda Lee and Elvis Presley.

But, the title track to his 1982 album, Nelson’s rendition may be the most well-known, and for good reason. He sculpts the lyrics with such deep yearning, you truly feel his pain.

- JS

RCA Victor | 1983

The Judds - Mama He's Crazy

Sure, the stats on this song are historic - It was The Judds’ first no. 1 at country radio; only the second time a female duo had ever topped that chart.

But what truly keeps 'Mama He’s Crazy' in heavy rotation for listeners today is its emotional depth, warm production and effortlessly satisfying vocal harmony. What more could you ask for.

- CL

MCA | 1986

Steve Earle - Guitar Town

“Hey pretty baby are you ready for me?” asked Steve Earle on the title track to his debut.

The following riff answers that question in the affirmative and Earle was off “following that voice down the lost highway”.

Kick-starting your career like the determined, hardscrabble protagonist in ‘Guitar Town’, indicated the similarly styled singer/songwriter was in it for the long haul.

- HH

Epic | 1984

Ricky Skaggs - Country Boy

The incredible video for this turbo-charged bluegrass banger was filmed in New York City and features a guest appearance from the one and only Bill Monroe as “Uncle Pen”.

Dismayed at what Bill finds there, Ricky picks up a guitar and drags him around the city trying to convince him he’s still just a down-to-earth “country boy at heart”. That's all until they end up street dancing on the subway.

- JO

MCA Records | 1985

George Strait - The Chair

Apart from the genius concept of one man’s chat-up line being that a woman he meets in a club is sitting in “his chair”, the other remarkable aspect of this Strait-talking song is that it has no chorus, just a melody that builds as the singer makes his moves.


Elektra | 1980

Eddie Rabbitt - I Love A Rainy Night

Eddie Rabbit bloody loves the rain! He just has trouble putting exactly what it is he loves about it into words.

Written one thundery night in the late 60s, it took him 12 years to finish the song. After coming across it again in an old box of tapes, he transformed the demo into a swinging slice of finger-clicking country boogie.

- JO

Virgin | 1987

Roy Orbison & k.d. lang - Crying

On paper, this duet is an unlikely matchup of two all-time great crooners in their genres.

Yet lang’s mezzo soprano voice and Orbison’s dramatic vibrato complement each other so perfectly they won the Grammy for a song Orbison first recorded 26 years earlier.

It was the Big O’s final Grammy before his untimely death in late 1988.


Sony | 1985

The Highwaymen - Highwayman

The third time was the charm for this resilient 1977 Jimmy Webb penned track about a soul that takes on different forms, one in each verse.

Glen Campbell recorded it in 1979 but it took a dusky performance by outlaw country veterans Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings (who derived their collective moniker after the title) for it to become a belated classic.

- HH

Mercury | 1987

Kathy Mattea - Eighteen Wheels and A Dozen Roses

Kathy Mattea’s voice is intoxicating. Chart-topping hit ‘Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses,’ from her 1988 Untasted Honey record, trips along with the pitter-patter of an 18-wheel tractor trailer.

You both feel the urgency and desperation to get back home, a smooth concoction for the perfect love song.

- JS

Ritz | 1988

Charley Pride - I'm Gonna Love Her On The Radio

A decidedly emphatic offering, Pride’s top 15 hit was a remake of a song originally recorded by David Allan Coe.

Pride provided the name change — from ‘I’m Gonna Hurt Her on the Radio’ to the title used to score success — and a welcome reboot of Coe’s boastful, vengeful attitude.

- LZ

Sony | 1982

Sylvia - Nobody

You know what it’s like - you answer the phone and the woman on the other end asks to speak to your boyfriend and then when you ask who's calling, she just hangs up?! WTAF?!

Sylvia had a huge crossover hit with this slinky country pop cut in 1982, taking home the Female Vocalist of the Year trophy at the ACM Awards. Who’s the nobody now eh?!

- JO

BMG | 1992

Clint Black - Killin' Time

Black got the idea for this song while he waited to release his first album, and 'Killin’ Time' was more than worth the wait.

Not only was it one of the biggest hits of Black’s career, but as a vital part of the storied "Class of '89", helped to herald a new country style - just as the ‘80s flipped over into the next decade.

- CL

Sun | 1989

Chris Isaak - Wicked Game

Credit director David Lynch for rescuing Isaak’s moody, haunting composition from near obscurity when he used it in 1990’s gritty Wild at Heart movie.

Isaak’s Roy Orbison-inflected vocals - and that unforgettable guitar lick - created a timeless noir masterpiece that falls between the gloomier cracks of country, rockabilly and even jazz.

- HH

Capitol | 1983

Kenny Rogers & Sheena Easton - We've Got Tonight

Already a Bob Seger hit, this duet was the brainchild of Rogers himself, who pitched the idea to the Scottish pocket rocket of pop over the phone, and they recorded and released it within days.

The result is a karaoke classic, and became one of the biggest hits in both their careers.


Rough Trade Records | 1988

Lucinda Williams - Passionate Kisses

Mary Chapin Carpenter turned this track from Williams’ third album into a 1992 radio hit, but Lucinda’s original is tougher and more direct.

Her gritty voice infuses a sensitive yet challenging, self-assured edge when repeating “Shouldn’t I have this”, emphasizing the theme of empowerment from a woman who knows she deserves more than she’s getting.

- HH

MCA Records | 1982

George Strait - Amarillo By Morning

Terry Stafford’s fervent tale of a cowboy who suffers personal and financial setbacks in his pursuit of rodeo glory was already well-known in Texas by the time Strait covered it in 1982.

But it was Strait’s version that cemented the song as a country standard, pairing a sober vocal with understated production that perfectly balances polish and twang.

- WG

UMG | 1981

Barbara Mandrell - I Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool

If ever there was a song that asserted country’s credibility, this swaying, seemingly autobiographical ballad does the trick.

With an uncredited cameo by George Jones on backing vocals and prerecorded applause to simulate a live performance, this single rose to no.1 by touting tradition as a means of creating contemporary connection.

- LZ

Capitol Records | 1989

Garth Brooks - If Tomorrow Never Comes

Garth lies awake at night, gloomily mulling over what would happen if he was to just suddenly drop down dead in the morning.

He starts to panic that his daughter won’t know how much she means to him, turning this heart-string-tugging power ballad into Garth’s signature songs.

It's a poignant reminder for everyone to “tell that someone that you love / just what you're thinking of / if tomorrow never comes”.

- JO

Sony | 1982

Dolly Parton & Kenny Rogers - Islands In the Stream

Duets are forever a staple in country music. A collaboration between Dolly and Kenny Rogers, ‘Islands in the Stream’ appeared on Rogers’ 1983 studio set, Eyes That See in the Dark.

It’s the gold standard of duets, displaying the gentle give and take in the vocal lines. Silky production drapes around a soaring, unmistakable melody.

- JS

Sony | 1980

George Jones - He Stopped Loving Her Today

Hailed by some as the greatest country song of all time, this tender ballad shares the story of a man who pines for his lover, only to be reunited when she attends his funeral.

It reignited Jones’ career after many had written him off, garnering him a Grammy and sustaining his lingering legacy.

- LZ

Capitol Nashville | 1981

Juice Newton - Queen of Hearts

Written by Hank DeVito - the pedal steel player in Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band - ‘Queen Of Hearts’ was originally included on Rodney Crowell’s But What Will The Neighbours Think album.

Nevertheless, it was Juice Newton who picked it up and turned it into an international pop smash.

It's very much a “bop”, as the kids probably don’t actually say anymore.

- JO

MCA | 1986

Reba - Whoever's In New England

No one delivers a ballad quite like Reba. ‘Whoever’s in New England’ marked a significant turning point in her career, especially as the song was accompanied with her first-ever music video in 1986.

Dressed over tearful production, the song details a wife’s suspicions her husband is having an affair and delivers a declaration that she’ll remain by his side regardless.

- JS

Concord | 2019

Ronnie Milsap - Smoky Mountain Rain

This brooding story song from 1980 has all the elements to make a lasting country anthem; it's got trucks, heartbreak and misty rainy mornings over the mountains in East Tennessee.

'Smoky Mountain Rain' became a signature song for Milsap, who borrowed elements of breezy ‘70s country and Elvis Presley-style rock ‘n’ roll to write this classic.

- CL

1987 | BMG

K.T. Oslin - Hold Me

It’s a testament to K.T. Oslin’s incredible skill as a songwriter and performer that 'Hold Me', a bracingly intimate story song with an irregular structure and nearly five-minute runtime, became a no.1 country hit in early 1989.

Oslin had moved to Nashville from New York only a few years prior, becoming one of the era's unlikeliest country stars (she was in her mid-40s at the time) and penning several of the decade's defining songs.

- WG

Sony | 1989

Dolly Parton - Why'd You Come in Here Looking Like That

Turning the usual country troupe of guys at the bar going googly-eyed at a pretty girl wearing daisy dukes on its head, you can picture Dolly wolf-whistling at the cowgirl’s dream in painted-on jeans that’s just walked in.

She has often demurred from the feminist label, but this adds to gender equality in its own way.

- BL

Warners Bros Nashville | 1986

Randy Travis - On The Other Hand

Randy’s living up to his name on this Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz song from his Storms Of Life album.

He’s just about to get frisky with a bit of fluff he’s hooked up with, when the wedding ring on his finger reminds him of his wife back home and gives him a reason to keep little Randy in his pants.

- JO

Curb | 1984

The Judds - Why Not Me

Session player Bobby Ogdin created the iconic, thumping backbeat for 'Why Not Me' by wrapping a rag around the strings of a guitar and striking his thumb against the body. 

It's this element of musical ingenuity, in combination with the Judds' striking harmonies, that makes this 1984 hit one of the most enduring in their catalog.

- WG

Uni Records | 1988

Steve Earle - Copperhead Road

A country-rock live staple with outlaw appeal, 'Copperhead Road' tells the vivid and often grisly story of a family’s multi-generational moonshining business in the Tennessee backwoods.

Finally, the original moonshiner’s grandson serves two tours of duty in Vietnam and returns home to repurpose the family land to grow marijuana. Outlaw, like we said.

- CL

Warner | 1986

Dwight Yoakam - Guitars, Cadillacs

Released in the sweaty summer of 1986, you’d assume this stone-cold classic went straight to no.1, but it actually only made the top five.

It still absolutely slaps, and I’m not just talking about that six-string bass.

- BL

Columbia | 1981

Roseanne Cash - Seven Year Ache

Rosanne Cash's signature hit may be the surest evidence that 80s country-pop crossover has been unfairly maligned.

Sure, the Urban Cowboy craze birthed more than its share of insufferable schmaltz, but it also gave us 'Seven Year Ache', Cash's ambivalent tale of a nightcrawler seeking deliverance from his marriage in the form of endless nights out. 

Inspired by singer-songwriter Rickie Lee Jones’ self-titled 1979 debut, Rosanne Cash set out to write a “country song about street life", which she figured would be a first for the genre. The result is one of the most hypnotic tracks of the decade, a surprisingly seamless marriage of new wave and honky tonk sensibilities driven by an expertly warped pedal steel riff.

"Don't you know heartaches are heroes when their pockets are full", Cash sighs in the first verse, her ironic detachment only deepening the song's powerful sense of romantic despair.

- WG

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Written by Ross Jones
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