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Our Songs for America

Want to understand our country and its people? Start with these selections

six classic country music song album covers by george strait ray charles kenny rogers miranda lambert dolly parton and kris kristofferson

Public domain images, “The Gambler”: Alamy; “Jolene”: Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty; Ray Charles’ “You Don't Know Me”: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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“The Gambler”

Don Schlitz wrote this hit for Kenny Rogers. “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em / Know when to fold ’em” has become life advice.

“(Old Dogs, Children and) Watermelon Wine”

Tom T. Hall wrote this after he met a man cleaning up in a Miami airport lounge. The man told him that only these three things held true in the world.

“Amarillo by Morning”

Cowboy culture is a major part of America. Terry Stafford and Paul Fraser wrote this song, and George Strait made it a hit. Here, the cowboy is broken, but his spirit is indomitable.

“Will the Circle Be Unbroken”

In the 1930s country music’s first family — the Carter Family — recorded this song of eternal renewal as “Can the Circle Be Unbroken.” It’s now country music’s anthem.

“Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”

A down-and-outer’s tale of a lonely Sunday morning in Nashville, written by down-and-outer (at the time) Kris Kristofferson.

“America”

Waylon Jennings is known as an outlaw, but this song, written by Sammy Johns, is a call for inclusion and an acknowledgment of the U.S.’s multicultural roots.

“The House That Built Me”

Miranda Lambert heard this song, by Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin, and was determined to record it. It’s about how we all are molded by our childhoods.

“Fox Chase”

In 1927, Black harmonica player DeFord Bailey became a star of the Grand Ole Opry in a time of Southern segregation and rancor.


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“Jolene”

Dolly Parton wrote this song in a moment of emotional frailty, wondering if another woman might take her husband.

“He Stopped Loving Her Today”

The world’s saddest love song was a hit for George Jones. Written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman, it is considered by many to be the greatest country song of all time.

“You Don’t Know Me”

Cindy Walker, one of the first prominent female country songwriters, wrote this with Eddy Arnold. Ray Charles recorded the most famous version for his 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.

“Friends in Low Places”

A celebration of tavern life over the black-tie scene. Written by Earl Bud Lee and Dewayne Blackwell, the song went to number 1 for Garth Brooks in 1990.


Peter Cooper is a former music journalist for The Tennessean who now works for the Country Music Hall of Fame.


Listen to these songs on AARP’s Country Music Playlist on Spotify.