There are countless great country songs out there, and in a town full of the finest country writers, you’ll get three dozen differing opinions on which one takes the cake.
A quick Google search will lead you to believe that “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “Ring of Fire,” “Friends in Low Places,” “I Hope You Dance,” “You’re Still the One,” “Strawberry Wine,” and “Tennessee Whiskey” are the leading candidates. So in other words, Google’s metadata metrics will lead one to believe that the greatest country songs are the same ones you hear at weddings and down on Broadway.
Sure, there’s some validity in that web crawling, but it’s also the low hanging fruit. They’re the $20-$100 requests every honky tonk player knows frontwards and back. They’re insipid offerings in service of a lead that’s meant to be fun and quirky.
Which leads me to my humble opinion on one of (but not necessarily) the greatest country songs of all-time is the queen mother of country, Barbara Mandrell’s “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool.”
Is it a cool song? No. In fact, it’s arguably one of the hokiest songs ever written in country music. But it bites. It looks at the world of country music circa 1981 and undercuts it with the most playful of simplicity. It’s referential (“I was listening to the Opry…”) and has its own version of a country music callback - “I remember circling the drive-in/Pulling up and turnin’ down George Jones” - and lo and behold, The Possum himself has one music’s greatest uncredited features, coming in at the tail end for a handful of seconds.
Oddly enough the song itself is applicable to the modernized country scene, which has taken over the glossy pages of GQ and Vogue, for better or for worse. Americana and its general country pastiche has opened up another channel for those not-so-inclined to embrace a true country music mindset to be “country adjacent.”
And you know what? More power to them. To each their own. [INSERT CLICHE PHRASE ABOUT DIFFERENT PEOPLE FEELING OKAY ABOUT THEMSELVES]. But let’s not forget that before some of the more recent, vaguely country music converts (I will refrain from naming any), there are the flag bearers who were in fact “country” when country wasn’t cool. The luminaries who preceded the celebutantes. People like Kendell Marvel.
Real talk (lol), Kendell Marvel is one of the country music OG’s. Long before outlaw, Americana, dirt road anthems, etc. were en vogue, Marvel was walking the floor. Now, that’s not to say Marvel is some token of a bygone era, quite the opposite, in fact. Kendell Marvel is a testament to the fortitude of what the full embrace of country music can do.
For more than twenty years, Marvel’s written for everyone from Strait to Stapleton, and held down one of Nashville’s greatest residencies at Exit/In. But how come he’s not a household name like the folks he write for? Who knows? Sometimes the world just isn’t fair. But then sometimes, it is. At his most recent stop at The Basement East, back in Nashville off a month-long tour with Chris Shiflett and Elizabeth Cook, Marvel let the cat out of the bag - he’s found himself a new writing partner, Dan Auerbach (I would say what you should know Auerbach from, but if you don’t look it up yourself). That’s a step in a new direction.
But again, that’s not to discount the inroads Marvel has made in town prior to this most recent collaboration. Through observational analysis, Marvel was the one who brought arguably the most significant portion of the crowd out to The Basement East, and it wasn’t even a full band show. In fact, it was kind of a short set, but damn did it stick. For a guy who put his first record out at forty-six, he’s got a whole lot of runway ahead, and unlike a lot of those who jumped into the country music game just because they could, Marvel is here to stay, as long he so pleases to stay country, no matter how long it stays “cool.”