The 23 Most Nashville Songs of All Time
It’s a tall order to list the most noteworthy music about Music City. Where does one start? Luckily, given the sheer number of songs recorded, inspired by, or frankly just played here, a better question might be to ask where does one finish? So feel free to add your favorites in the comments, for it may never end...
Most Nashville line:“Nashville cats, play clean as country water / Nashville cats, play wild as mountain dew”
For Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful, the band aimed to record songs in a variety of styles. “Nashville Cats” was a country tribute to the group of session musicians known as the Nashville Cats who recorded with artists from Neil Young to Leonard Cohen and Simon & Garfunkel. (Charlie Daniels was a Nashville Cat.) Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs later covered the song “Nashville Cats” while artists like Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton covered many other songs from the band.
Most Nashville line: “Old Hank wouldn't have a chance on today's radio / Since they committed murder down on music row”
Originally recorded by bluegrass group Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time, “Murder on Music Row” is a criticism of the genre crossover trend putting traditional country crooners off the radio. A similar distaste for “bro country” remains a heated debate today.
Most Nashville line: “I was born a lonely singer / And I'm bound to die the same / But I've gotta feed the hunger in my soul / And if I never have a nickel / I won't ever die ashamed / ‘Cause I don't believe that no one wants to know”
If you walk into any given bar in Nashville, you’re likely to hear a very talented bartender belt out “Me and Bobby McGee.” But for a Nashville song, it doesn’t get better than Kristofferson’s “To Beat the Devil.” It’s an anthem for never selling out or compromising to play what others say will get you on the radio. Kristofferson is arguably one of the best storytellers out there and doesn’t apologize for always telling his side. What’s more cowboy than that?
Most Nashville line:“I could feel a change a comin' / I left my hometown a hummin' / With my ol' guitar a strummin' / Songs that I had wrote / I was on my way to Nashville”
The songs plays on the idea that, back in the day, beating down the doors on Music Row got you a record deal. Although she’s an East Tennessee gal, Dolly is a Nashville institution, playing on the Grand Ole Opry stage from the age of 10.
Most Nashville line: “Guitar strings grow on shrubs and maple trees / Guitar picks stumble out of gumball machines / Record deals fly in and out like happy bumblebees / The cops carry capos, in case you want to change your key / In Nashville Tennessee”
The born and bred Nashvillian and music legacy -- his father is country legend Bobby Bare Sr. and his neighbors growing up were Tammy Wynette and George Jones -- couldn’t have pegged the access to music in this city any better. Guitar strings really do grow on trees. Gibson sponsors them. (Also, listen to “Music City USA” by Bobby Bare Sr.)
Most Nashville line: “The voice upon the stage / Is the heart inside a cage / And they’re singing like a bluebird in the round.”
When Foo Fighters set out to produce Sonic Highways to commemorate the band’s 20th anniversary, one could only hope they would write their spin on our hallowed music capital. “Congregation” was recorded at Zac Brown’s Southern Ground Studio in the heart of midtown. While in town filming the docu-series Sonic Highways, Grohl performed a surprise, hour-long acoustic set before an unassuming audience at The Bluebird Café, introducing himself by simply saying, “My name is Dave Grohl. I’m a drummer.”
Most Nashville line: “Going back to Nashville, laughing at a bad break / What's the use in wondering why / Maybe I'm a storm front rolling through the valley / Tearing up a good July”
There’s just something about this love song by singer-songwriter David Mead. Many songs have been written about breakups, makeups, and second chances with the reoccurring theme of all roads pointing back to Nashville. Fellow pop artist and former Nashville resident Taylor Swift is also a fan of it, even once tweeting, "I have 'Nashville' by David Mead stuck in my head." Her performance of the song is featured on an extended DVD version of Speak Now World Tour-Live.
Most Nashville line:“I've been living on the wrong side of Memphis / I'm really breaking away this time / A full tank of gas and a '69 Tempest / Taking me to that Nashville sign.”
For many dreamers, Nashville is to musicians what Hollywood is to actors. Artists always talk about the moment they knew that if they could just get to Nashville, they’d be on their way. Thankfully, Trisha felt the same.
Most Nashville line:“One of these days I'm gonna settle down / And take you back with me to the Guitar Town”
An ode to life on the road, the song also serves as a testament to Nashville being where many artists choose to lay down their roots.
Most Nashville line:“I’ll be a star tomorrow, but today I’m a Nashville bum”
The song was a part of the soundtrack for the film Nashville Rebel, starring Jennings as a wayward traveller who comes to Nashville to play the Opry stage. The film didn’t do much, but featured stars Loretta Lynn and Porter Wagoner (playing themselves) and perhaps foreshadowed Jennings’ transition to a more rock-infused country sound and his outlaw image in the '70s.
Most Nashville line: “You know, she came to see him one last time, Aww, and we all wondered if she would, And it kept runnin' through my mind, ‘This time he's over her for good’"
You can’t have a list about Nashville music and not include “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” arguably one of the best country songs of all time. Although Jones hated the song at first -- he found it too depressing and confused the melody with Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” -- it was a Grammy Award-winning, number-one hit for the Possum and resurrected his career when it was at its lowest point.
Most Nashville line:“I know every crack in these dirty sidewalks of Broadway / Where hustle's the name of the game”
“Rhinestone Cowboy” was written by Larry Weiss about a country singer’s struggle to make it big. Campbell was one of many country stars who got their rhinestone suits from Nashville’s own Manuel. Another client was the original rhinestone cowboy David Allan Coe. A relatively unknown artist at the time, Coe would hang out backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. He wore a rhinestone suit given to him by Mel Tillis and people began would ask for his autograph. He signed, “The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy.” Weiss is said to have originally offered Coe the song, but he turned it down, apparently not wanting to singing about himself.
Most Nashville line: “They caught me way up in Nashville / They locked me up and threw away the key”
Originally recorded by Stonewall Jackson, “I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water” isn’t a song necessarily about Nashville (even though the guy does end up in a Nashville jail) but represents the long history between Presley and Nashville’s famous RCA Studio B. He recorded more than half his catalogue in Nashville, including nine number-one hits starting with “Heartbreak Hotel” in 1956.
Most Nashville line:“It'd be just another river town / Streets would have a different sound”
“Nashville Without You” celebrates the city’s country music heritage and the artists who made it what it is today. The song pays homage to the legends who came before with references to the man in black (Johnny Cash), hey good lookin’ (Hank Williams), the gambler (Kenny Rogers), Jolene (Dolly Parton), crazy (Patsy Cline), fancy (Reba McEntire), Galveston (Glen Campbell), and so on.
Most Nashville line: “Folks down there they drinks a lots of booze / You can suggest what you choose / I have got those Nashville women's blues”
The Tennessee native and “Empress of Blues” worked on several songs with Louis Armstrong, including her more popular “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle” and the lesser known “Nashville Woman’s Blues” with Armstrong on the cornet. Many of her songs surrounded the theme of alcohol. Perhaps she was singing about the saloons and speakeasies down Printer’s Alley. Her song “Back-water Blues” was supposedly written about the Nashville flood on Christmas day 1926.
Most Nashville line: “Gotta get back to Nashville / 'Cause that's where the good times are / Ever since I left Nashville / The kicks ain't been up to par”
This was The Everly Brothers' first album after signing with Warner Bros. Records in a million-dollar contract, the first in music history.
Most Nashville line: “It's a quaint, old mystical city / Where legends and idols have stood / It's a place, where dreams come to harbor / A country boy's Hollywood"
Nashville holds a special significance to musicians, a sense of nostalgia for those who came before, and Stuart speaks fluently to that.
Most Nashville line:“We pull out of Nashville right on time/The Blue Grass special heads down the line”
From his first audition in 1939, the father of bluegrass was a mainstay on the Grand Ole Opry stage. The genre itself was named after his band, The Blue Grass Boys, which included Monroe on the mandolin, Earl Scruggs on banjo, and Lester Flatt on guitar.
Most Nashville line: “I came to you with a half-open heart, Dreams upon my back, Illusions of a brand new start, Nashville”
Amy Ray wrote the song when she was a student at Vanderbilt University in the ‘80s, but never found it to be a fit for an album 'til Rites of Passage. It’s sort of a breakup song with Nashville in speaking to the overflow of musicians and competitive industry that the young songwriter faced at the time. But she came back around, they always do.
Most Nashville line:Instrumental
In the ‘60s Dylan came to Nashville to record Blonde on Blonde and returned to record his next three records including his country project Nashville Skyline. His work in Nashville generated national attention and opened the doors for artists of other genres to want to record here. If Nashville could be summed up into a melody, this would be pretty close.
Most Nashville line:“Let's give old Tennessee credit for music / As they play it up in Nashville every day / Let's give old Tennessee credit for music / As they play it in that old Hillbilly way”
A rockabilly pioneer, Perkins brought national attention to the rock & roll style being created in Tennessee with his 1956 hit “Blue Suede Shoes,” recorded at Sun Records in Memphis. Shortly after, he followed his label mate Johnny Cash to Columbia Records in Nashville.
Most Nashville line: “I wish I was in Nashville, guitar on my back / Maybe someday I will / Ride in the back of a big Cadillac, uh huh”
Don Williams is classic Nashville songwriter. During the '70s, the “Gentle Giant” (country music loves nicknames, if you haven’t guessed) was one of the most successful country artists in the world. Unlike the song, however, he preferred his ’56 Chevy.
Most Nashville line:“This old heart can't believe that you're gone from sight / There'll be no more joy and songs for me you were the only one / And there'll be tears at the Grand Ole Opry tonight”
The “Queen of Rockabilly,” Jackson was a driving force for women in rock & roll. She blended many styles and genres, including a crossover to country in the ‘60s. She recorded a total of 45 studio albums, including The Party Ain’t Over (2009), which was produced by Jack White at Third Man Records.
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Kendall Gemmill is a Nashville writer who really just wanted to be Dolly when she grew up.