When I posted about the most covered pop songs and artists of all time, other than the unavoidable Hank Williams, there are not any other names from Country Music. This is understandable as the Pop music category is so broad, meaning that any specific type of music would not stand out on it’s own. For this list I went to my source of Secondhandsongs.com to see what was up if I just focused my research on the one genre. Now I did not skip over any Country Songs on my prior post so I know I’m going to be well outside of the top 100 most covered songs. As with the previous lists, these numbers exclude Christmas songs. Because songs get adapted, by that I mean perhaps the words get changed in a substantial way or it was originally in French but was translated to English, the line for credits and covers is not always so straight.
However, I have found that most adaptations come by way of copying the melody of another song, this is where we see two avenues; one is taking the melody from a foreign language tune and putting new words to it, the second being melodies from older English language songs. Many times the author is unknown, which makes reusing the tune a lot easier, at least from a copyright standpoint. Here we use the word ‘Traditional’ in a more technical context to refer to these songs. Basically we are talking about old tunes updated with new lyrics. I gave the example in the Pop songs post of “Aura Lee” being adapted to make “Love Me Tender” by Elvis Presley.
If you thought that controversy over song credits and the use of a melody or words is something new to music than you might want to reconsider your outlook as you read on. Right off the bat we have an adaptation, followed by a song credit mystery, and more surprises. Thanks again to Secondhandsongs.com who make it easier for me to connect these songs to their origins. It does not make for a clean list of Song Title/Artist/Writers all of the time but if credit is due I hope to make sure I mention it.Read more: The Top 20 Most Covered Country Songs of all time (#1-5)
The Top 20 Most Covered Country Songs of all time (#1-5)
At #1 is “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” written and first performed by Hank Williams (and his Drifting Cowboys). Recorded in June and then released in July of 1952. The melody for this song was adapted from a Cajun song recorded as “Gran’ Texas”, which itself was also adapted from a Traditional refrain. That one was first released by Chuck Guillory and His Rhythm Boys in 1948. That’s were the Wikipedia reference ends. However, while it is true that “Jambalaya” is based on that Traditional Cajun melody, there is an earlier, nearly identical recording from 1940 titled “Gran Prairie“. Both of theses songs were recorded in Cajun French. The latter was first recorded by Happy Fats and His Rayne-Bo Ramblers. Happy Fats real name was Leroy Leblanc and he is accompanied on the fiddle by another Cajun Music pioneer named Harry Choates. Know as “the Father of Cajun Music”, Choates is well known for his adaption of ” Jolé Blon”. There is little doubt this song was familiar to Hank Williams but it is when he heard these traditional songs and talk about Cajun food while on the Hadacol Caravan music tour in Southern Louisiana in 1950 that the inspiration came for his song. We will avoid that rabbit hole but long story short it was very likely written with the help of fellow recording artist Moon Mullican who may have been paid directly so his name could be kept off the song credits and hence the publishing rights. Mullican was the first artist to ‘cover’ “Jambalaya” and released it just a week after Williams. Still a popularly performed Cajun song, there are currently only six documented renditions of “Gran Prairie” bringing it to a gran’ total 476 versions, making “Jambalaya” the 174th most covered song of all time and the most covered Country Song.
At #2 is “You are My Sunshine“, first recorded by The Pine Ridge Boys in August and then released in October of 1939. The song publishing credits (copyright date is January 30, 1940) and perhaps incorrectly (many believe) also the writing credit now belongs to Jimmie Davis, the one time Governor of Louisiana. However, it is believed that Davis did not write the song. He actually purchased the song. Among the several theories is that it was originally written by either Paul Rice (Rice Brothers Gang) as he claimed in 1937, yet he was the second to record it. Perhaps it was Oliver Hood who some say performed it as early as 1934. It seems the song was around a long time before Davis who was indeed a bona fide nationally known singer and songwriter claimed to have composed it. There is not an adequate paper trail and no one alive seems to know for sure, but it appears that Rice sold the song to Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell for $35 and since then they would have made millions off the song publishing rights. In Davis’s defence he did write some pretty great songs such as “Nobody’s Darlin’ but Mine” and others that have been collectively covered into the hundreds of times. There are currently 446 versions of this Louisiana State song including about 100 instrumentals. This is a beautiful little lullaby and most everyone knows at least some of the words. This 2016 Youtube video from Jasmine Thompson has over 34 million views. The vocal version of the song continues to be recorded at least once almost every year.
At #3 is “Help Me Make it Through the Night” which was written by Kris Kristofferson and recorded in October of 1969. It appeared on his 1970 eponymous album Kristofferson. However the most well known and successful version is by Sammi Smith, also released in 1970 but it was actually the third cover, preceded by Percy Sledge and Ray Price. Smiths version hit #1 on the US and Canadian Country chart and it went to #8 on the Hot 100. Willie Nelson covered this on his 1972 album The Willie Way but it was a re-recording from a Kristofferson tribute album in 1980 that reached #4 on the US Country chart and #1 in Canada. There are 426 versions of this song. The names that have recorded this song is impressive to say the least, Tammy Wynette, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, LeAnn Rimes, Tom Jones, Tina Turner and so many more big names. Perhaps inspired by the two #1 chart appearances, Canadian artists Anne Murray, Bryan Adams and Michael Bublé have covered the song as well. Even my next door neighbour recorded his song. Wait, what? Yes it is true my neighbour and one of the nicest guys you will even meet is the six time Juno Award winning Larry Mercey. Before embarking on a successful solo career and still going strong I might add, he was the lead writer and singer for The Mercey Brothers. The song appears on their 1972 album Mercey Brothers Country.
4. “Crazy” was of course written by Willie Nelson, whose name appears in several spots on this Top 20 feature. Nelson wrote the song at least three years before it found its way to Patsy Cline who’s original recording hit #2 on the Country chart in 1961. Cline actually disliked the song and did not want to record it (or any Nelson song for that matter) but over time and with encouragement from her husband, her manager and Hank Cochran she agreed to try it. Willie Nelson was actually waiting in the car while Hank was inside try to convince her and was called into Patsy’s home to help teach her the very difficult to sing song. It was a crossover hit reaching #9 on the Hot 100 and #2 on the Easy Listening chart. It was her most successful song and in addition to becoming an Americana Standard, it is widely regarded as one of best songs of all time (#195 Rolling Stone Magazine 2021) and ranked on the 100 Greatest Country Songs by The Tennessean. Willie’s would be the first cover of the now 382 versions of the song when he recorded it in 1962.
5. “I Can’t Stop Loving You” was written by Don Gibson in 1957 and he released it in December of that same year. While Wiki reports 700 versions of this song I am working with Secondhandsongs.com which has 354 verified versions. Many of these songs may conflict with other reported numbers. While Don Gibson is not stranger to having hits with many #1’s and dozens and dozens more top 10’s and top 40’s, however the song is more well known by the cover by Ray Charles. It was smash worldwide hit going to #1 on The Hot 100, R&B and Easy Listening charts in the US and #1 in the UK, Sweden, Finland and Australia.
I will be posting the next five songs in the coming days.
4 thoughts on “The Top 20 Most Covered Country Songs of all time (#1-5)”
Interesting post! I would have had no idea which the top 5 would have been, but I’m at least a little familiar with all 5.
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I think most will recognize most of the songs as I work through the top 20 . Knowing what I do about covers I wouldn’t have guessed a lot of these myself.
Number 1 and 2 don’t surprise me but #3 does…not because it isn’t great but because it’s more modern. I would have guess She Stopped Loving Her Today would be on there but it would be hard to top the Jones version.
Good post Randy…
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I was a bit surprised at #3 also. There are a couple more surprises to come as I work through the top 20. Glad you liked it!
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