David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren started toward that goal more than four years ago. The result of their work was published Thursday as "Heartaches by the Number: Country Music's 500 Greatest Singles."
In a time where one can find lists about everything, including the best of the best lists, readers might expect to find 500 country singles neatly laid out in a row in this book. Instead, "Heartaches by the Number" becomes as much a history lesson as an encyclopedia of country music.
The reason "Help Me Make It Through The Night," recorded by Sammi Smith, earned the No. 1 spot in the book has as much to do with what the single says about women's lib, and ultimately about the fear of being utterly alone, as it does about becoming a crossover hit in 1970, according to the authors.
"We chose that (single) because we thought it was a good selection for starting the argument, the debate," Cantwell said from his home in Kansas City, Mo.
Before the authors begin counting songs, they explain in eight pages of detail about their points of view, what they are trying to accomplish and how to use the book.
Probably the most important distinction to understand is Cantwell and Friskics-Warren are writing about singles, not albums and not songs. A single is the product of many people, including producer, musicians, singer, songwriter.
"So much of what a record means is not just in the words or the melodies," Cantwell said. "How the singer sings them, what the guitar player is playing, the arrangement -- all of that contributes. Even, what the particular time is socially."
So when the authors discuss a record, they might reference the drummer's part or a bit of applicable news of the day or how the vocalist sings a specific line.
"Heartaches by the Numbers" spans country music history from "The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane" in 1923, the oldest song in the book, to Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance" from 2000.
One might expect to find songs from Hank Williams (Sr. and Jr.) in the book, as well as a couple from Garth Brooks. Of course, Merle Haggard and Bob Wills have plenty of entries -- Haggard has the most with nine solo entries and one he shares with Bonnie Owens -- as well as Waylon Jennings and The Carter Family.
The surprises come when you find Bing Crosby's "Pistol Packin' Mama" slipped in at No. 70 between Martina McBride's "Independence Day" and "Ommie Wise" by G.B. Grayson in 1927, or Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City" sitting proudly at No. 68.
"We want people to read the book and say 'wait a minute, that's not country,'" Cantwell said. "Two of the heroes of the book are Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley who have been immensely important to the country story but aren't immediately thought of as country."
As the authors write in the book, "Bing Crosby did for music in the first half of the 20th century what Elvis Presley did in the second -- he changed it all."
"Bing was a huge influence on so many country singers -- Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves," Cantwell said. "We felt if we wanted to tell the country story completely, and how it has been touched by outside music and how it has touched other music as well, we had to include Bing and Elvis Presley."
He notes, "A few years later, Elvis created the template for the Nashville Sound. 'Don't Be Cruel' was similar to Patsy Cline's and Jim Reeves' music. They were trying to compete with Elvis, and often were made in the same studio with the same producers and musicians."
Compressing all of the singles in country music over eight decades to a mere 500 -- plus 100 runners-up -- was quite a feat, but Cantwell and Friskics-Warren had a few ground rules.
"Right from the start," Cantwell said, "we felt (the single) had to be musically and emotionally compelling. Then, do we have anything interesting to say about it?
"It's supposed to be 500 short essays," he said. "Each can stand alone, but they also add up if you read them together. One entry will speak to the ones around it."
In fact, there is much more to this book than stories about a few hundred country songs.
"It's definitely a story of the white working class country audience during the 20th century," Cantwell said. "People moving from the country to the city, from the delta, from the mountains -- those kind of developments. Hopefully it's not just a book about country music."
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