Country music has been long associated with phenomenal storytelling. But on the list of the genre’s perennial lyrical themes–Mama, trucks, cheating, small towns, Jesus, and drinking–one is often neglected, possibly because it can be linked to multiple other tropes. That theme is death.
The sheer range and versatility of country music’s long-standing tradition of songs about death–including near-death–is astounding. There is no genre with as rich a history of songs about many forms of death–death by natural causes, murder, suicide, war, automobile accidents, and so on–than country.
For Halloween, I decided to curate and rank a list of the greatest country songs about death. Many others could have made this list, but ultimately, these 25 are among my favorite country records about any theme. The list features classic country, bluegrass, mainstream “Wal-Mart country”, alternative country, Americana, and more, allowing one song per artist.
It does not diminish country’s greatness to say that the genre is a commercial category more than a specifically musical one: its musical features have evolved so much that the genre has never been one static set of sounds. Yet, the durability of themes of death has been remarkable across many different eras and styles of country music since its first recordings a century ago.
Each song contains at least one example of death or near death central to the song’s narrative. Thus, a number of masterpieces did not qualify: Reba McEntire’s classic 1990 cover of Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy”, for example, mentions the mother’s death almost in passing. But many other outstanding records did qualify, and these are the top 25. For a playlist of over 100 songs that I considered for this list, you can listen to my Country Songs About Death playlist on Spotify.
25. Randy Travis – “Three Wooden Crosses”
In the 1980s, when Randy Travis emerged onto the national stage of country music, he had maybe the finest male country voice of that decade–with no disrespect to George Strait, Keith Whitley, Dwight Yoakam, or John Anderson. This 2002 hit marked a career resurgence for Travis. “Three Wooden Crosses” continues Travis’s new traditionalist trajectory into the 21st century with a country gospel song about the aftermath of a fatal bus accident. From the beginning, the story’s construction is stunning, and the acoustic guitar-led production and Travis’s earnest, understated vocals make this a classic.
24. The Band Perry – “If I Die Young”
To my ears, the Band Perry’s “If I Die Young,” which won the 2011 Single of the Year award at the Country Music Association awards (CMAs), is one of the most clever and lyrically sophisticated country songs ever, both worldly and spiritual as well as moving. The song has also helped many listeners cope with death in their lives. Kimberly Perry’s lead vocal is full of intense, youthful longing, and the spare arrangement amplifies the message in lines like, “Funny when you’re dead how people start listenin’.” Though the group has since disbanded, the legacy of this song lives on and deserves many a listen from succeeding generations.
23. Brad Paisley feat. Alison Krauss – “Whiskey Lullaby”
One of the most gut-wrenching story songs in the genre’s history, “Whiskey Lullaby” joined two of the brightest stars in early 21st-century country on a hushed, acoustic-based tale of two lovers’ alcohol-fueled suicides. Co-written by country legend Bill Anderson, this song is exceptionally moving, but the 2003 recording is still stronger. At the time, Paisley was the bigger star–later making at least another masterpiece about death, “When I Get Where I’m Going” with Dolly Parton–but Krauss’s pristine, stunningly clear voice and harmonies helped launch this record into the stratosphere.
22. Steve Wariner – “Holes in the Floor of Heaven”
This 1990s smash–it won Single of the Year and Song of the Year at the 1998 CMAs–begins with a death and ends with a wedding, with rain following the events as a symbol of “tears [that] are pouring down” from the heavens. This song is masterfully sung and performed, with Wariner’s tender, restrained vocal and guitar work putting the story centerstage and, despite potential sentimentality, the strings echoing the presence of the dead, coming in on the line, “Grandma’s watching you today.” This is one of the best, most moving country records of its time.
21. Marty Robbins – “El Paso”
Marty Robbins is considered to have had one of the greatest voices in country’s history, and his trembling but smooth vibrato appealed to many country, rock ‘n’ roll, and pop fans in the 1950s and 1960s. This 1959 story song was a massive crossover hit despite lasting nearly five minutes, an unheard-of length for radio. With the recording’s romantic Tex-Mex guitar, lilting rhythm, urbane Nashville Sound backing vocals, and the story of a cowboy’s love for a “Mexican maiden” named Felina, the commercial success of “El Paso” was unsurprising. The saga of rivalry and murder contrasts with Robbins’s romantic voice, which is given heavy reverb and a pleasantly inviting atmosphere. “El Paso” is a deserved country classic.
20. Jason Isbell – “Elephant”
Americana singer-songwriter and former Drive-By Truckers frontman Jason Isbell made a masterpiece with his 2013 album Southeastern, and “Elephant” is the album’s punch-in-the-gut centerpiece. Disarmingly vulnerable and unfailingly moving, Isbell’s story of losing a friend to cancer begins with moody minor chords and climaxes with the lines, “There’s one thing that’s real clear to me: no one dies with dignity.” With the song detailing the woman’s use of drugs to numb pain and her overwhelming loneliness, the intimate specificity of this song has resonated with thousands. Though he has written other great songs about death, including “If We Were Vampires” and “When We Were Close”, “Elephant” is a highlight in a strong career.
19. John Prine – “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore”
A crucial figure to Jason Isbell and many others, John Prine was one of the greatest singer-songwriters that folk and country music have ever had, and his stellar self-titled 1971 debut album yielded several inestimably classic songs, including “Angel from Montgomery”, “Sam Stone”, “Paradise”, and “Hello in There”. But my “prime Prine” choice for this list, from that legendary debut, is an overlooked jaunty satire of religiously informed American nationalism. “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore” provides some of its era’s sharpest social protest, including by bringing needed levity to serious issues.
18. The Chicks – “Travelin’ Soldier”
The Chicks were the best act in country when they released their third album, the rootsy, acoustic-based Home, in 2002. They made some of the greatest country recordings ever in their initial five-year run, and “Travelin’ Soldier,” their last hit before their career got trashed, might be my favorite. Though the death in the last verse is predictable, the song is moving nonetheless. With spare but lonesome fiddle and dobro solos and close harmonies, “Travelin’ Soldier” showcases the Chicks’ vocal and instrumental prowess at its most subdued and moving. I wouldn’t let the sexist backlash against the Chicks make me forget the greatness of this recording, and neither should you.