10 best country piano songs you need to know

22.12.2021 Ben Maloney Piano

Country music has been a major player in the recording industry for the better part of a century. Below you’ll find a list of ten of the finest country songs of all time, each having left a lasting impression on a genre that’s tied as much to a lifestyle as it is to a sound. 

But make no mistake - country isn’t just for cowboys and Tennesseans. It’s a tradition that has deep-rooted connections to musical styles and cultures across the globe. 

From the pioneering music of Hank Williams to the Hollywood success of Faith Hill, you’re soon to discover a varied selection of excellent country music. Hopefully these tunes can inspire you to be a part of the genre’s grand lineage. 

You might notice that few of them really put the piano in the spotlight. Country is a genre that typically foregrounds other instruments such as guitars, fiddles and choruses. Even so, the piano arrangements available on nkoda, which you can access below, retain that essential country spirit - while offering an easy way to access this amazing music.
 

Best country songs to play on piano
 

  1. ‘Jolene’ by Dolly Parton
  2. ‘King of the Road’ by Roger Miller
  3. ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’ by Tom Jones
  4. ‘Ring of Fire’ by Johnny Cash
  5. ‘Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue’ by Crystal Gayle
  6. ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ by Hank Williams
  7. ‘Love Will Turn You Around’ by Kenny Rogers
  8. ‘There You’ll Be’ by Faith Hill
  9. ‘Have You Ever Been Lonely?’ by Patsy Cline
  10. ‘On the Road Again’ by Willie Nelson

1. ‘Jolene’ by Dolly Parton

Exposing country music to a wider audience and boosting its reputation, crossover hits were a big deal for the genre in the 1970s. ‘Jolene’ is a crossover hit if ever there was one. Coming up on fifty years after its release, it remains an instantly recognisable song that appeals to all lovers of music, whether or not they’re country fans.

Vying only with ‘9 to 5’ for the title of Dolly Parton’s signature tune, ‘Jolene’ is one of the genre’s true anthems. It appeared on her 1974 album of the same name, confirming that she had what it takes as a solo artist after years collaborating with fellow country-music legend Porter Wagoner.

The track’s brisk, fevered texture is built by acoustic guitar, bass and pared-back drums, but it lends itself perfectly to the keyboard. Faber’s arrangement instils the country feel with a classic pattern - the alternation of bass notes on the strong beats with chords on the weak ones. 

2. ‘King of the Road’ by Roger Miller

Roger Miller put ‘King of the Road’ on wax in late 1964, and it went straight to the heart of the country-music canon. Everyone who’s anyone in the genre has turned their hand to it, from Merle Haggard to the Statler Brothers. It’s also found its way elsewhere in the world of music, covered by the likes of R.E.M. and even Alvin and the Chipmunks. 

1960s country music evolved to the tune of the ‘Nashville sound’ - polished singing and softer textures took the place of the genre’s edgier, traditional style. Epitomising not only Miller’s style but also these developments, ‘King of the Road’ adopts an altogether more breezy feel, sporting finger-clicks, gentle guitar, and smooth vocal harmonies.

And there’s room for piano. It joins in for the second verse, supporting with a light chordal accompaniment before playing repeating triplets as the song gathers momentum. In this piano-voice arrangement by Faber, the left hand takes the strolling bass line, while the right works through syncopated chords that augment Miller’s famous melody.

3. ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’ by Tom Jones

‘Green, Green Grass of Home’ was written by Curly Putman, first recorded by Johnny Darrell and popularised by Porter Wagoner. But it was Tom Jones who made it the song it is today. He released his cover version in 1966, hitting the top spot on song charts around the world. 

Although Jones, a Welshman, was less immersed in country-music culture than the other artists who interpreted the song, his version still engages with the genre’s tradition. He includes a honky-tonk piano and he’s supported by backing singers, but above all his balladic singing style channels country music’s heart and soul.

The song’s lyrics are especially moving. In the opening verses, Jones sings of a belated, nostalgic return to his hometown, and the pleasant touch of the ‘green green grass of home’. But in the final verse, it becomes clear that the protagonist is actually singing from a prison cell, and that the vision he describes is only a dream.

4. ‘Ring of Fire’ by Johnny Cash

Few artists are more widely known and respected as ambassadors of country music than Johnny Cash. A range of factors combine to create his great reputation as a musician: the stylistic experiments of his later years, the prominence of his story as told in the film Walk the Line, and the sheer success Cash enjoyed in the 1950s and 1960s.  

Many associate the artist most closely with his 1963 smash, ‘Ring of Fire’. Co-written by June Carter - another legend of the genre and Cash’s future wife - and Merle Kilgore, the song is a true country classic. Anita Carter’s original version failed to make a commercial impact, but it left a real impression on Cash. 

Cash awoke one morning having dreamed of the song, performed with a mariachi-style trumpet accompaniment. When he came to record the song months later, he added the horns, which became the song’s hallmark. Their bright timbre is a stark contrast to Cash’s rich baritone voice, but it works. Watch out for the time signature changes in this one.

5. ‘Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue’ by Crystal Gayle

Crystal Gayle’s career was simmering through the 1970s. She put out a string of albums with the Decca label, trying out a few different musical approaches, but none really took off. When Gayle’s producer heard a new song that Richard Leigh had written for singer Shirley Bassey, he demanded that Gayle be allowed to record it. 

That song was ‘Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue’, and it was Gayle’s breakthrough hit. Recording it in one take, Gayle released the song on her 1977 album, We Must Believe in Magic. It charted internationally, and to this day it’s regarded by most as the singer’s trademark song.

‘Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue’ opens with a swung piano riff, marked by distinctive chromatic grace notes. The song utilises a diverse harmonic range, featuring colourful chords that sound almost jazzy on the electric keyboard. 

6. ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ by Hank Williams

The ‘Hillbilly Shakespeare’ Hank Williams was the first superstar of country music, his career blossoming at a time when major growth in the recording industry caused the genre to surge. Williams was the embodiment of country-and-western until his career was cut tragically short by his death at the age of just 29. 

‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ was recorded in September 1952 at Nashville’s Castle Studios. It turned out to be Williams’ final sessionm, as he died just three months later. The song, released posthumously, became entwined with his legacy. Its themes of heartbreak and suffering would shape memories of Williams the artist as well as country music in general.

Williams’ emotive singing on the recording, combined with the rougher timbre of the fiddle in particular, represents the kind of feel that the Nashville sound steered away from. But, it’s still got all the typical country ingredients - slide guitar, tonic-dominant bass figures, and arching melodies.

7. ‘Love Will Turn You Around’ by Kenny Rogers

One of the highest-selling artists of all time, Kenny Rogers is another musician extremely popular beyond the bounds of country. Although it’s stylistically diverse, Rogers’ music is characterised by emotional songwriting and his smooth, soft singing style. ‘Love Will Turn You Around’, ranks among his very best tunes while typifying these traits.

As the main theme of the 1982 film Six Pack, the song also serves to represent Rogers’ great success as an actor, another crucial dimension of his celebrity. The song was also the lead single on Rogers’ album of the same name, also released in ’82. It’s an upbeat number, centred on a bright acoustic-guitar riff and a nimble vocal melody.

Despite the activity in the recording’s texture, the harmonic progressions that Rogers uses are relatively straightforward. The arrangement also simplifies things rhythmically, bringing the music to an easier level, accessible enough for beginner players.

8. ‘There You’ll Be’ by Faith Hill

Faith Hill is a country icon of a later generation, rising to prominence in the 1990s with albums such as Take Me as I Am and Breathe. So when producers of the 2001 film Pearl Harbor were looking for a contemporary star to interpret the song ‘There You’ll Be’ for the film’s soundtrack, Hill seemed the perfect choice. 

It was a sound decision. Released on the soundtrack, as a single, and on a greatest hits compilation album, the song was hugely popular and garnered positive responses from music critics. The song’s topic of comfort in grief resonates powerfully with the narrative of the film it featured, and Hill realises them in a striking but sensitive vocal performance.

‘There You’ll Be’ was written by prolific songwriter Diane Warren. As instructed in Faber’s arrangement, her opening arpeggiated riff needs to be played carefully using the pedal, but the rest of the song requires more energy in performance. This title will probably best suit intermediate players.  

9. ‘Have You Ever Been Lonely?’ by Patsy Cline

Another country musician whose promising career ended far sooner than it should have, Patsy Cline was one of the brightest lights in the formative years of the popular genre. ‘Have You Ever Been Lonely?’ is one of the songs she's best remembered by. 

Written by Peter De Rose and Billy Hill, the song has been covered by a range of artists, but this classic country love ballad is arguably most closely associated with Cline. It appears as the closing track on her 1961 album, Showcase. Her crisp tone and vocal control is completely in evidence on the recording, complemented effectively as ever by her backing singers, the Jordanaires. 

The song repeats a distinctly satisfying melodic pattern. Every sung phrase consists of a series of swinging quavers, before settling on a sustained note or pair of notes. As De Rose’s harmonies work their way around the progression, each phrase resolves a little differently. Note that Cline’s recording omits the extra verse included in this title.

10. ‘On the Road Again’ by Willie Nelson

Recording his first single in 1956 and still going strong over six decades on, hardly anyone’s been in the game as long as Willie Nelson. Picking one great song from his big, star-studded song collection is tough, but ‘On the Road Again’ seems most fitting. It’s a phenomenal track, and an apt number to close the list with.

Nelson is renowned for his part in the ‘outlaw country’ scene in the late 1960s, a musical response to the refined Nashville sound. ‘On the Road Again’, which first appeared in the 1980 film Honeysuckle Rose, embodies everything the movement championed - a more folk-influenced style and back-to-basics imagery. Country came back to its roots.

The rhythmic pattern established by the drums, bass and guitar, while owing a debt to bluegrass music, are reminiscent of wheels turning on the open road. This arrangement for piano gives the left hand the guitar’s riff, while the right hand traces Nelson’s melody. It’s one of the easier titles to play on the list, appropriate for absolute beginners. 

Your next steps for country piano music


Crazy for more country? Ten tunes won’t occupy you for long, so take a look at the other country piano sheet music that’s available on the app. Discover similar content by Floyd CramerConway Twitty, and others. 

There’s plenty of songs in that playlist - enough to keep the state of Texas busy. Don’t forget that you can upload your own country-music PDFs to nkoda as well. 

If, like Parton, Rogers and Hill, you’re keen to do some crossing over of your own, then check out this guide to the easy piano songs. Songs from this list make an appearance, alongside others from a range of different genres.

Nelson sings in ‘On the Road Again’ that ‘the life I love is making music with my friends’. That just about sums it up. Let this music inspire you to do what it is you love. 

Happy trails!

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