10 Best Story Songs in Country Music History

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Thanks to acts like Carrie Underwood and Brandy Clark, the story-song is making a resurgence in modern country music. But the format’s history is rich with real-life narratives and often southern gothic-inspired tales of revenge, murder and mystery. There is typically a three-verse structure, but that’s not always the rule. The likes of Johnny Cash and Bobbie Gentry helped define the sub-genre and forever solidified the idea behind well-crafted stories in the American songbook.

10 Best Story Songs in Country Music History:

10. “Three Wooden Crosses,” Randy Travis (from 2002’s Rise & Shine)

This inspirational hymn may be one of the most visceral and revealing of the bunch. A story of four very different individuals (a farmer, a teacher, a hooker and a preacher) taking a midnight bus bound for Mexico, the material world falls away for the spiritual. As the story unwraps, a far more significant, necessary message is revealed.

 

9. “Red Headed Stranger,” Willie Nelson (from 1975’s Red Headed Stranger)

A dusty Western tall-tale of a stranger who rides into town on a bay horse leads to murder of an unsuspecting woman. To be fair, she did try to steal his horse, and Nelson’s larger-than-life character is framed with honky-tonk instrumentation and a pointed lead vocal.

 

8. “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” Jeannie C. Riley

As one of the defining polaroids of small-time life and societal hypocrisy, this little ditty has a stretch of mainstream influence, as you can certainly see in the work of Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves today. The fully developed characters live and breath on their own, while also pointing to stereotypes in the American heartland.

 

7. “Midnight in Montgomery,” Alan Jackson (from 1991’s Don’t Rock the Jukebox)

On his way to Mobile, Alabama for a New Year’s Eve show, the narrator makes a visit to a grave in Montgomery. There, he encounters Hank Williams’ troubled ghost, smelling “whiskey in the air.” The haunting guitar structure is one of Jackson’s finest and most iconic contributions to the greater storytelling cannon.

 

6. “A Boy Named Sue,” Johnny Cash (from 1969’s At San Quentin)

Somewhat a coming-of-age story about a boy named, well, Sue, the song chronicles is journey through life facing ridicule and harassment. He travels from town to town, and as he gets older, he toughens up and learns how to cope. He professes if he ever tracks down his deadbeat father — who abandoned him when he was 3 years old, he will kill him. Eventually, he stumbles across his father in a tavern and a brawl ensues. The revelation of his father’s heartfelt intentions in giving him a traditionally-female name strikes a chord with the titular character.

 

5. “Bobby,” Reba McEntire (from 1991’s For My Broken Heart)

The story of one man’s guilt for, allegedly, killing his wife and then going to prison for his crimes is utterly moving. With the typical three-verse structure, the truth soon reveals itself, and if you aren’t moved to tears, you have no heart. Reba’s powerful portrayal of the story, too, is complex and riveting.

 

4. “Fancy,” Bobbie Gentry (from 1970’s Fancy)

Yes, that Reba song, which was covered for the red-head’s 1990 album Rumor Has It. Gentry’s original, though, is more resonating, earthy and soulful. We’ve all heard the story a million times over through the years, but it just never gets old. There is something absolutely magical about the rags-to-riches story (by any means necessary). Fancy is the antihero; she wears her flaws on her skin and ultimately, that’s why she comes out on top. Well, she ain’t done bad, has she?

 

3. “Delia’s Gone,” Johnny Cash (from 1994’s American Recordings)

This harrowing acoustic is one of Cash’s most cutting and gruesomely vivid tales. If you thought Underwood singing about a black cadillac running over her lover was chilling, just wait until Cash strategically brings down a woman named Delia by tying her to a chair and then shooting her. The simplicity of production is even more terrifying, while Cash’s nuance is sinister and powerful.

 

2. “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” Vicki Lawrence (from 1973’s The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia)

Yes, the actress had a music career. While her solo album is packed with must-hear songs on love and loss, it is this standout cut which has become one of country’s most alluring and darkest stories. What is even more perplexing is the sunny, light hearted music video (below). It was later famously covered by Reba McEntire in 1991 on her For My Broken Heart album, with an appropriately sinister video.

 

1. “Ode to Billie Joe,” Bobbie Gentry (from 1967’s Ode to Billie Joe)

This is the gold standard when it comes to story songs. Gentry’s soft but focused phrasing unravels one of the most fascinating character studies on small town living. Given Gentry’s seclusion in Mississippi, we may never know what was thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge that third of June…