The JOAT 50 Song Countdown is a blog series where every weekday for 10 weeks I am posting a brand new long form essay where I have ranked and written about my 50 favorite songs of all-time. From Adele to Zac Brown Band, Patsy Cline to Plasma Canvas, Ludacris to Rise Against, this series offers a personal essay about the 50 songs that hit me the absolute hardest.
With a small handful of outliers – Zac Brown Band, Sturgill Simpson, and country-adjacent acts like Ryan Bingham and Nathaniel Rateliff – my fondness for country music ends in the heyday of Outlaw Country. I love Johnny, Willie, Waylon, Merle and the like with ferocity. Once we roll around to the 80s, and the benevolent dictatorship of Garth Brooks, I’m out. And when it comes to up-to-the-minute contemporary country music – frequently referred to as “Bro Country” – I am EXTREMELY out. I’m not going to burn any calories eviscerating this music (largely because I’ve heard very little of it), but based on my handful of interactions with modern country music, I can confidently say I don’t think I’ve ever heard a genre of American music I find less interesting. If you like it, cool. Live and let live. Just please don’t make me listen to any of it.
Here’s where I reveal myself to be a Basic Bitch when I tell you that I grab onto the rich texture of old school country music because it reminds me of punk rock. Sonically they couldn’t be much further apart, but thematically and spiritually they’re cousins. Where so much of modern country feels like pandering to dominant white hegemony, outlaw country was proudly defiant and anti-authority. Born out of blue collar struggle and steeped in frustration at the intransigence of the recording industry, country music of this era feels vital, interesting, and most importantly to me, unique.
A song like “El Paso” by Marty Robbins is one of the most exciting action movies you could dream of disguised as a lovely guitar-picking ditty. “Still Doing Time” by George Jones is like a Charles Bukowsky story about the narrator’s addiction and the self-inflicted wounds they’ve caused on both himself, and the one he cares about most. It’s sad and beautiful. My favorite songs are those that hit one way on the surface level, and then hit totally different on a deeper one. Like “Hey Ya!” by Outkast. Or any number of Reel Big Fish songs.
Then there’s Patsy Cline. If you find a grown ass adult who won’t or can’t at least appreciate a Patsy Cline song, congratulations, you’ve found an alien. Patsy Cline paints a bullseye right on your heart, then effortlessly shoots an arrow square through it. It’s Honkytonk Heartbreak 101. Patsy Cline conjures such intense feelings of wholesome romance in me, I just want to comfort her deeply and make all this pain go away. Think about the longing of “I Fall to Pieces” or the anguish and regret of “Crazy” and tell me you don’t feel the same. Her very first single was called “A Church, A Courtroom, Then Goodbye” which would be a badass title for an empowerment anthem from a different point-of-view, but when sung by Patsy, is just an achingly poignant depiction of a relationship gone sour.
You can’t talk about Patsy Cline without talking about that voice. My god, that voice. Incredible power and control that hints at deep vulnerability. There’s no wasted movement from Cline. She inflects each syllable and sound with heart and intent. She’s credited as influencing basically every single artist in the genre that came after her, and was the first solo woman inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973. Patsy Cline, in so many ways, is just the fucking O.G.
“Walkin’ After Midnight” reads to me as Patsy Cline at her most self-possessed. Yeah, the walk after midnight has proved fruitless so far, but that hasn’t stopped her. She’s on this mission of her own accord, and maybe she’ll bump into the one out there walkin’ and searching for her. Maybe not! Either way, Patsy reads as unaffected and the tone of the song seems to indicate that the walk, ultimately successful in its ostensible goal or not, has value on its own merits. Too often in life we focus on the destination and not the journey. The vibe this song offers is: Take that walk, and if it didn’t get you what you set out to do, hell, at least you tried and got a good walk out of it!
When I think about Patsy Cline, my mind often wonders to what her legacy would have been had she not died in a plane crash at the age of 30 in 19 fucking 63. And what the hell was with airplanes killing so much great music talent in the 1960s? How much more great music would we have gotten? Would she have evolved into that elder stateswoman role in the industry like Dolly Parton? Would the country music I’ve known and loathed since the 80s been fundamentally changed with Patsy around? These are unanswerable questions, although Willie Nelson is still alive and modern country sounds the way it sounds, so I suppose her influence would be as limited as his.
What I do know is that Patsy Cline is unimpeachable. Her star shone bright, but all too brief. I’ve listened to her with both my mom and my dad. I’ve listened to her with my wife. I’ve listened to her all by myself. And no matter how brief your time with Patsy Cline is, that moony feeling of taking in her sorrow, her beauty, and her power is one that lingers. Much like a walk you take by yourself, finding that joy in the journey is a feeling you can take with you forever.
Up next: Where the cruelty is the point (but not like that).