Another decade has started, and it’s the best time we cook up the ultimate list of the best ’80s country songs ever.
Some may remember this decade for its hard rock, heavy metal, and synth-pop instead of its country music, but any fans of honky-tonk out there will stand one’s ground that the ‘80s was one of the greatest decades for the genre.
From Randy Travis to Kenny Rogers, country musicians have made quite a name for themselves with classic hits reigning the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart’s top spot. Many of these songs keep on enjoying success even in today’s digital age, reaching hundreds of thousands of streams and downloads.
So, keep on reading below as we bring to you 40 of the most popular country songs of the 1980s.
1. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” by George Jones
After years of struggling with alcoholism and trouble with the law, George Jones came back with “He Stopped Loving Her Today” – a song that tells the tale of a man who spent his whole life loving a woman and only stopped on his death.
The touching song gave Jones a big career boost, especially when it took home Single of the Year during CMA awards and earned Jones a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance.
But did you know that when Jones recorded this song, he did not believe it would be a hit? Well, Jones did not even hold back when he told his producer Billy Sherill about it.
“I looked Billy square in the eye and said, ‘Nobody will buy that morbid son of a bitch,’” Jones recollected in his autobiography, I Lived to Tell It All.
But the Nashville star changed his mind the moment it became a No. 1 hit on Billboard Hot Country Singles. “To put it simply, I was back on top,” he added. “Just that quickly. I don’t want to belabor this comparison, but a four-decade career was salvaged by a three-minute song.”
2. “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood
It may take thirty-six years, but “God Bless the USA” finally arrived at its final destination. Released in 1984, the patriotic favorite finally hit No. 1 on Billboard Magazine’s Digital Song Sales chart in July 2020. The Fourth of July holiday that year has definitely helped boost the song’s achievement.
“I’m always humbled to see how ‘God Bless the U.S.A.’ resonates with the American spirit of pride and love of country,” Greenwood said and is pleased the song serves that purpose. “Thank you, proud Americans, for using ‘God Bless the U.S.A.’ as you celebrated our wonderful country — It is still the best place on earth!”
Greenwood wrote the song “about America in a time of peace, and I wanted to unite the country,” and it quickly became an anthem for Americans.
3. “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton
Perhaps Dolly Parton never expected her song “I Will Always Love You” to be a monumental piece the moment she wrote it. Released as a single in 1974, it became one of Parton’s biggest hits – reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart two-times.
But did you know the song is not a love song? Parton actually wrote the song as a farewell to her mentor of seven years, Porter Wagoner, when she decided to end their professional relationship and kick start her solo career.
“It’s saying, ‘Just because I’m going don’t mean I won’t love you,'” Parton explained. “‘I appreciate you, and I hope you do great, and I appreciate everything you’ve done, but I’m out of here.'”
While Parton and Wagoner remained not on good terms for most of their careers after their professional split, they made up in 2007. Parton once again sang “I Will Always Love You” for her one-time partner during the special ceremony at the Grand Ole Opry – a few months later, Wagoner passed away. Parton also reportedly sang the timeless tune to Porter one final time, on the day he died.
4. “Always on My Mind” by Willie Nelson
Recorded and released by Willie Nelson in early 1982, “Always on My Mind” raced all the way to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart and was a crossover hit, peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Nelson’s version also won big during the 25th Grammy Awards bringing home Song of the Year, Best Country Song, and Best Male Country Vocal Performance.
While the song has been one of Nelson’s signature tunes, he is actually just one of the many artists who achieved success with “Always on My Mind” – Elvis Presley, Brenda Lee, and the Pet Shop Boys hit the charts with the song too.
5. “When You Say Nothing at All” by Keith Whitley
“When You Say Nothing at All” was the second of five consecutive chart-topping singles for Keith Whitley; however, he did not live to see the last two due to his untimely passing from alcohol poisoning.
Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz wrote the song at the end of a somewhat unproductive day. Though they thought the song was nothing special, Keith loved it and did not want to let it get away. “Keith did a great job singin’ that song,” Schlitz said. “He truly sang it from the heart.”
This also became a hit song for two more different performers: Alison Krauss and Ronan Keating.
6. “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool” by Barbara Mandrell
The song became a major hit shortly after Barbara Mandrell released it as the lead single from the album Barbara Mandrell Live, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs.
Though you will hear audience applause on the track, it was just actually a sound effect inserted on various sections of the song to fit into the upcoming live album’s context. It also featured an uncredited guest appearance by George Jones, who sang background vocals on the chorus.
7. “Forever and Ever, Amen” by Randy Travis
“Forever and Ever, Amen” was heavily lauded, not only in the country community but also on a mainstream level.
It is one of the sixteen chart-topping singles Randy Travis has earned all through his glorious career. The song has helped the country icon achieve several awards – this includes both an Academy of Country Music Awards and a Country Music Association Awards for Single of the Year in 1987.
The song also took home the Best Country & Western Song award during the 30th Annual Grammy Awards.
8. “I’ll Still Be Loving You” by Restless Heart
Restless Heart’s “I’ll Still Be Loving You” skyrocketed from a No. 1 country song to a top 40 pop hit. The song also helped the country music band earned their first Grammy nomination.
However, when the song first landed in Restless Heart’s grasps, the group encountered many problems to make the song work. It was even described by one of the band’s members as “the song that did not want to be recorded.” Still, they did their best and refused to give up on it. Everyone involved exerted an abundance of effort just to make it work – and it was paid off handsomely.
9. “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” by George Strait
George Strait has been releasing hit songs nonstop since the early 1980s, and “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” is one of them.
Released as the second single from Strait’s album Ocean Front Property, it tells the tale of a man who lived most of his life in Texas. However, while he was in that state, he went through a string of failed relationships that ended disastrously. This prompted him to run away to Tennessee.
Strait also earned a Best Male Country Vocal Performance nomination for the song during the 1988 Grammy Awards.
10. “Islands in the Stream” by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton
Without a doubt, this one is among the most timeless duets of all time, bringing together two of the most talented and iconic singers in country music. Released in 1983, “Islands in the Stream” became an iconic hit, reaching the top spot in several charts – not only in America but all over the world.
What’s even interesting is that – aside from the fact that Bee Gees wrote this song – Rogers almost scrapped recording “Islands in the Stream,” but Parton saved the day. In one interview, Rogers revealed that after singing the song for four days, he finally told songwriter Barry Gibb of Bee Gees, “I don’t even like this song anymore.” To which Gibb answered, “What we need is Dolly Parton.”
Luckily, Parton was just around the area. “So I said, ‘Go get her and bring her back,'” Rogers explained. What happened next is the magic that only Rogers and Parton can ever make.
11. “Looking for Love” by Johnny Lee
Can you believe that two school teachers originally wrote this hit song? Later on, they sent “Looking for Love” to songwriter Bob Morrison who – after doing a “high-level editing job” – looked for someone to record it.
Unfortunately, the song got turned down more than twenty times until it found its way to nightclub singer Johnny Lee. The song was then heavily featured in John Travolta’s film, Urban Cowboy, and has catapulted Lee to fame.
12. “I Believe in You” by Don Williams
“I Believe in You” was another No. 1 hit for Don Williams, but it’s his only Top 40 entry, peaking at No. 24. The song was also a hit in many other countries, especially in New Zealand, where it peaked at No. 4.
Co-written by Roger Cook, the first British songwriter to get into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, he describes it as an “honest” song with “simple lyrics.”
13. “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton
The song has been a worker’s anthem across decades as it exposed a gender inequality in the workplace. Though it was done for laughs for it to reach a mass audience, the song still made a strong statement.
Interestingly, Parton revealed in a 2009 interview the far-fetched inspiration for the song – which is actually her fingernails. While writing for a movie of the same name, Parton was absentmindedly rubbing her very long acrylic nails. Then she realized she could make a beat that sounded like a typewriter out of it. And since the movie highlights the life of secretaries, she used that sound to write the song.
14. “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” by Kathy Mattea
It’s quite unlikely to hear songs about years of dedicated service that leads to a happy retirement, but that’s what’s about to happen here. “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses,” tells the tale of a truck driver named Charlie who is finally retiring and planning to spend the rest of his life with his wife after three decades of being on the road.
The song will take us through his one final run.
15. “Theme From the ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ (Good Ol’ Boys)” by Waylon Jennings
Fans may easily recognize this song as the theme to the CBS action-comedy television series The Dukes of Hazzard.
In addition to spending seventeen weeks on the Billboard Hot Country Songs charts, the song is also Jennings’ biggest hit on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 21. It also got into several different music charts.
16. “Elvira” by The Oak Ridge Boys
The Oak Ridge Boys fell in love with Rodney Crowell’s version of “Elvira” so much that they decided for it to be part of their album Fancy Free released in 1981. Their version quickly reached the top of the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart and was also their biggest pop hit, reaching No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100.
17. “Seven Year Ache” by Rosanne Cash
“Seven Year Ache” is Rosanne Cash’s first No. 1 hit on the country charts. Cash once recalled how the song changed her life and introduced her to country music’s certainties being the daughter of a superstar Johnny Cash.
She wrote in her 2010 biography Composed, “I was twenty-four years old when we made Seven Year Ache, and I was completely unprepared for the attention it would attract, or the work expected of me as a result. The first single was the title song — probably the best song I had written up to that point.”
18. “Killin’ Time” by Clint Black
This is the title track of Clint Black’s debut album, Killin’ Time, and it is absolutely the most enduring and recognizable song among the ten songs released from that project. But what most people don’t know is that the song was actually the last one to be added to the record.
In fact, the singer only came up with the song’s idea while he and his longtime collaborator were in the car, and they started “talking about how slowly things were happening. It just seemed like it was taking forever to get to the goal line,” Black recalled.
He added, “I said, ‘I hope it gets going soon because this killin’ time is killin’ me!’ And we looked at each other, and we knew we had a song idea.”
19. “Queen of Hearts” by Juice Newton
“Queen of Hearts” had its highest-profile rendition thanks to country-rock singer Juice Newton’s version released from her 1981 album Juice. “I did [‘Queen of Hearts’] live for about a year…Then I brought it to [producer] Richard Landis when we started the Juice album,” Newton recalled. “He wasn’t convinced at that point that it was a breakout song, but I told him I think this is a real cool song … so we cut it.”
And Newton proved herself right! The song was not only a big hit in the United States but as well as in several countries like Australia and Canada.
20. “Seven Spanish Angels” by Ray Charles and Willie Nelson
“Seven Spanish Angels,” tells the tale of a Mexican outlaw traveling with his wife while trying to escape a posse sent to take them back to Texas. It was released as a single from Ray Charles’ 1984 album Friendship and was the most successful song among his eight hits on the country chart.
More Country Songs Of The 1980s:
- “I’d Love to Lay You Down” by Conway Twitty
- “Swingin'” by John Anderson
- “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Ole Days)” by The Judds
- “A Country Boy Can Survive” by Hank Williams Jr.
- “Fishin’ in the Dark” by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
- “Dixieland Delight” by Alabama
- “Guitars, Cadillacs” by Dwight Yoakam
- “Could I Have This Dance” by Anne Murray
- “Bop” by Dan Seals
- “Smoky Mountain Rain” by Ronnie Milsap
- “I Love a Rainy Night” by Eddie Rabbitt
- “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On” by Mel McDaniel
- “The Church on Cumberland Road” by Shenandoah
- “Copperhead Road” by Steve Earle
- “Redneck Girl” by The Bellamy Brothers
- “Whoever’s in New England” by Reba McEntire
- “Nobody” by Sylvia
- “Lady” by Kenny Rogers
- “You and I” by Eddie Rabbitt + Crystal Gayle
- “Highwayman” by The Highwaymen
So, there you have it, the best ’80s country songs ever. I hope you enjoyed this list!