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Heartaches by the Number: Country Music's 500 Greatest Singles [Paperback]

David Cantwell , Bill Friskics-Warren

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Book Description

31 Mar 2003
This volume constitutes a populist history of country music. Its interwoven essays showcase the music's myriad roots and influences: stringband stomps and western swing, hillbilly boogie and honky-tonk, the Nashville sound and the neo-traditionalist movement, plus everything from blues and bluegrass to rockabilly and country-rock, even soul. It focuses on the records that defined the music to generations of fans, as well as the singers, songwriters, producers and pickers who made them. It takes the reader all the way from Patsy Montana's "I Want to be a Cowboy's Sweetheart" to Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried".

Product details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press; 1 edition (31 Mar 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0826514243
  • ISBN-13: 978-0826514240
  • Product Dimensions: 28.2 x 21.5 x 1.7 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,330,712 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


Any country music fan who has ever had an achy, breaky heart should add this volume to his or her library.
--True West Magazine

About the Author

David Cantwell and his wife live in Kansas City, Missouri, where he was born and raised. His writing has appeared in Salon, No Depression, Country Music, Journal of Country Music, Pitchweekly, Rock & Rap Confidential, and The Oxford American. A native of Chicago, Bill Friskics-Warren lives in Nashville with his wife and elevan-year-old son. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, The Oxford American, Nashville Scene, Journal of Country Music, and No Depression, among other publications.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
"Help Me Make It through the Night" begins like the releasing of a breath-Junior Huskey's bass, Jerry Carrigan's cymbal, Chip Young's guitar, all playing one warm note that will return like a pulse. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

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Amazon.com: 3.6 out of 5 stars  18 reviews
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 5 stars for research, 3 stars for selections, equals 4 stars 14 April 2003
By James E. Bagley - Published on Amazon.com
Ain't debating musical favorites fun? Especially stuff like what are the greatest songs or albums, who are the all-time greatest singers or performers. Recently, CMT aired specials on the 40 Greatest Men and 40 Greatest Women of Country Music that certainly stirred up some discussions. Now there's a new book Heartaches By The Number that is bound to create even more heated deliberations.
Using Dave Marsh's The Heart Of Rock And Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made as a model, music critics David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren selected what they felt were the 500 most important country singles. In the introduction, these writers point out that their love affair with music began during the "crossover years" of 1967 to 1973. This helps to explain the hefty numbers of selections from this period, starting with their number one ranked single Sammi Smith's rendition of "Help Me Make It Through The Night": a 1971 country hit that also crossed over to the pop top 10.
Country superstars of the '60s and '70s show up a lot of this list, George Jones with twelve entries and Loretta Lynn with nine, for instance. Of course, Jones and Lynn would undoubtedly be featured a lot in this type of book regardless of who wrote it. But Glen Campbell meriting four entries, Sammi Smith three, and Charlie Rich a staggering six (including the non-hit remake of Sinatra's jazzy "Nice 'n' Easy") while two of the most acclaimed artists in modern country Vince Gill and Mary Chapin Carpenter received none is clearly biased.
The crossover period of country music also seems to have influenced the authors to stretch the boundaries in order to classify different types of popular music as country. Gladys Knight and the Pips' "Midnight Train To Georgia," Joe Simon's "The Chokin' Kind," and Otis Redding's "Sittin' On the Dock Of The Bay" are some soulful numbers whose country setting helps to make their selection somewhat plausible. But the Monkees "Last Train To Clarksville" and the Rolling Stones "Honky Tonk Woman?" To quote Jimmy Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life: "you're screwy!"
There are only 16 recordings selected from the 1990s and merely one (Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance") since 2000. Responsible at least in part for this dearth is the authors' decision to omit recordings not released commercially as singles. In recent years, most singles have been marketed only to radio to promote an album and are not available in stores. But since the average country listener isn't aware if their favorite radio hit by, say, Tim McGraw or Toby Keith was available as a commercial single, they don't know if it was snubbed by the authors or omitted on the technicality.
Okay, I've been pretty picky. This book does actually have a lot going for it. The entries are informative, concise, and well-written. The selections from the '20s through the early '40s are particularly interesting to read about and it is hard to find fault with the authors' choices from this era (including The Carter Family's "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" and "Wildwood Rose," Jimmie Rodgers "T For Texas" and "Waitin' On A Train," Patsy Montana's "I Want To Be A Cowboy's Sweetheart" and Lead Belly's "Midnight Special" - the latter a landmark fusion of country with the blues).
Ultimately, the book provides plenty of material to debate and teaches the reader a lot about music (not just country) history. This alone makes it a worthwhile purchase.
18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very enjoyable 'Heartaches' 1 Mar 2003
By "bipolar3" - Published on Amazon.com
Although its subtitle ("Country Music's 500 Greatest Singles") presents this book as a list of great recordings, it's only nominally a countdown. Grumbling that your favorite single didn't crack their Top 200, while always entertaining, is largely beside the point. These two authors even admit in their introduction that they have bigger fish to fry here. Heartaches By The Number wants to define, offer a history of, illustrate the influence of, and revel in the pure sonic joys of country music. The amazing thing is that David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren manage to do all of these simultaneously--and do them well.

There's lots to learn here. The two authors are obviously well-versed in country's history--equally comfortable discussing Dock Boggs' 1927 "Country Blues" or Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance"--and are able to share their knowledge, when appropriate, without slipping into a textbook-style lecture. And that's good because more than explaining history, this book slowly begins to reveal and argue for an aesthetic, a conception of what country music is and why it has a place in the lives of its listeners.

This aesthetic is going to trouble and confuse some listeners, downright anger others. Cantwell and Friskics-Warren conceive of a country music that includes The Stones and Dusty Springfield as well as Hank and Lefty. Why, in their Top 10, Elvis is flanked by Ray Price and The Carter Family. But it's this broad definition that provides much of the fun and the challenge here. How do these two have the gall to even call the Monkees country music, let alone include them among the creators of its greatest singles? Since when has Chuck Berry (or Otis Redding, or Lynyrd Skynyrd, or Fats Domino, or CCR--all here) been redesignated "Country"? It's exactly this default categorization that the authors want to challenge. Much of their discussion attempts to show how fluid the boundaries are between country and almost every other style of music.

And that's what it finally comes down to in this book: the music, what's actually down there in the grooves, or in the binary code. As much as anything, Cantwell and Friskics-Warren are great listeners, and they share a rare knack for translating the experience of listening into words. In a stunning discussion of Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors," Cantwell reveals himself as a guy who has listened to this song enough times to identify with the singer AND with the song's narrator (he distinguishes between the two) from the inside. Vulnerable but not maudlin (just as the song is), he refuses to slip into cheap emotionalism, but shares a clearly heartfelt love and appreciation for the entire experience of this single--singer and song, meaning and music. Likewise, Friskics-Warren, in a tour-de-force discussion of three singles--G.B. Grayson's "Ommie Wise (1927), The Blue Sky Boys' "Banks of the Ohio" (1936), and The Louvin Brothers' "Knoxville Girl" (1959)--sees thematic and musical traditions stretching from 18th Century English ballads right up to rapper Eminem. Not surprisingly, the entry appears amid a stretch of several, all addressing themes of murder and prison ("Pistol Packin' Mama," "Life To Go," "Green Green Grass of Home," "Sing Me Back Home"). Theirs is a world of connection, not dissection.

This impulse for connection is seen most vividly in the context the authors create for their discussions throughout. They encourage readers to listen to, and think about, this music here in the real world, a world that includes Betty Friedan and Horatio Alger, Harlan County USA and The Daily Worker, LBJ and V-E Day and POW's and TM, Dorothy Allison and Carson McCullers, Jim Crow and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., The Beatles and the Buddha and Bonanza, Times Square and Teamster Strikes, Designing Women and Smokey & the Bandit. For Cantwell and Friskics-Warren, music, like the rest of the world, affects our hearts AND our minds, our outer lives AND our inner lives. Great singles allow us a glimpse at what Friskics-Warren describes as "the point at which the personal and the political converge."

And lest this all sound a bit too heavy, let me assure you that Heartaches By The Number is a FUN read as well. The counting format offers bite-size portions that read well on their own (sort of intellectual bathroom reading) but are always part of the larger discussion. And these guys can be FUNNY (and cynical), too. Complimenting the musicians backing Tennessee Ernie Ford on "Shot Gun Boogie," Cantwell notes, "Then again, Henry Ford could swing with this group behind him!" And introducing Glen Campbell's signature single, Friskics-Warren asks, "'Gentle On My Mind' might have played well during the Summer of Love, but was its load of bull for real?" Like many of their musical heroes here, these two are straight-shooters.

About the best compliment I can pay this book is that it makes you want to go back and listen to the recordings. The authors encourage us to return to these singles--sometimes songs you didn't think you liked, songs you didn't even think were country--and listen again. They encourage us to really open our ears--and as a result, our hearts and minds.

My biggest problem with Heartaches By The Number: I don't own all of these records. Next step: the Time/Life Heartaches By The Number companion box set. Bear Family Records, are you listening?
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Reads well as a book but probably overreaches a bit 16 Oct 2006
By Greg Brady - Published on Amazon.com
Several things you need to know first: If you're looking for a "countdown", that's not what Cantwell and Friskics-Warren were after here. In fact they state "The choices we've made aren't necessarily the country singles we believe are the 'best' (that would've made for a very different book-TWO very different books, in fact), though of course we're convinced that every record included here is emotionally powerful, musically compelling, or both." They even go so far as to say if they couldn't say something NEW about a single..no matter how good it was...it didn't make the list.

The authors used Dave Marsh's "Heart of Rock and Soul" as the template for their book so it tries to be readable as a BOOK..entries aren't RANKED so much as ordered. For example, thematically linked 'cheating' songs "Back Street Affair" by Webb Pierce, Leroy Van Dyke's "Walk on By", "slipping Around" from Floyd Tillman and Randy Travis' more recent "On the Other Hand" (a rejection of adultery) all sit akimbo at positions 154-157 respectively. They also place songs together that they argue advance a narrative as in the argument for Cajun influence in country music for "Fais Pas Ca" by the Hackberry Ramblers at #235 and "One Step des Chameaux" next door to it.

There's a good reason to go for a more song-based approach: country tends to not 'play well' in album form. For every truly "great" country album there are probably 5 others that, though popular and high-selling, constitute little more than 1 or 2 indelible singles, a few pieces of decent filler, and perhaps a song or two of festering hackwork. (Much like your average pop or R&B album...lest you think I single country out.)

Since these are all "singles", keep in mind many great album tracks..or even songs that were never put out as 45's even if they were heavily played on radio..won't be here.


In arguing for a more inclusive country definition, Friskics-Warren and Cantwell recognize both the streams that helped feed into country like Cajun, blues, bluegrass, and Southern gospel, but also the branches it led to such as rock and roll and R&B.

The entries written are usually enlightening, mostly entertaining, and will probably help the average reader get a better understanding of country music even if they don't agree with all the choices.


In some ways the desire for inclusiveness weakens the book: I love the Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville" and might even argue it would belong among a list of 500 or 1000 greatest singles, but I can't really think of it as "country". Same goes for Chuck Berry and "Maybellene" though I believe it's unquestionably one of the greatest songs ever recorded.

Also, several more modern numbers chosen are iffy at best: Mark Chesnutt's "Bubba Shot the Jukebox" might fit Friskics-Warren and Cantwell's aesthetic but it's gonna be hard for me to agree that it's "emotionally powerful, musically compelling, or both." Likewise, Faith Hill's frothy "This Kiss". If they needed to place more songs from the 90s and later on there, I'm sure they could have found weightier tunes, perhaps by considering "alt-country" folks like the Jayhawks who don't have enough of a presence here. (Only Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle are here from the alt-country movement.)


If you have any interest in country music, this is worth your time and money. I'm using it as a list of 'suggested listening' to widen my country vistas a bit..particularly for pre-1950 material.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars This is not Country Music's 500 greatest! 27 April 2012
By Comac - Published on Amazon.com
If you want to include the following records in a list of Country Music's 500 greatest singles:
Atlantic city by Bruce Springsteen
Honky Tonk Women by the Rolling Stones
Queen of Hearts by Juice Newton

and various other songs listed by Bing Crosby, the Monkees,Los Lobos,Merilee Rush and other "pop" singers, then this is the book for you. Otherwise I don't think the authors have a clue about "real country music". Texas musicians and records are virtually non-existant in this book and the authors like to "sound" politically correct on every review (who cares if a Jimmie Rodgers song was racist?).

This book is full of "fake" country records and the reviews are weak. There is a book called "The Stories behind Country Music's all time greatest 100 records" by Ace Collins, it is all this book fails to be. Try out Ace's book if you want a good book on Country music singles. Skip this fluff.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Comprehensive, but a bit too academic? 1 Sep 2003
By Frank Gaertner - Published on Amazon.com
I'm a huge fan of classic country and I purchased this book and read it as soon as it came out. I found both authors to be highly qualified for the daunting task of picking the top 500 country singles of all time. Their comments are insightful and always interesting. My main complaint was that the majority of the singles they chose are from the very early years of country music - 1920 to 1940. I'd never heard any of them (although I had heard of many of them) and so it sort of felt like a museum exercise to read entry after entry about songs I'd never heard. And there are very few songs from the 1991-1996 period, when I feel country music made a huge comeback in terms of quality. It's still an interesting read, but it might have been even more effective if they had been able to include a CD or two of the songs they chose so you could actually hear why some of their early choices are so important.
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