Of all the music genres that come up at meetings with clients, country is the one that people we meet with are most scared of including at their event. Often it’s not because they hate it, but because they like it – some a little, some a lot – but are afraid to admit it. We’ve found that most people don’t lead with their affinity for anything country because they don’t have much confidence that it could be added to an event’s playlist in a way that won’t “kill” the party. They think that as soon as a country song is played, the guests are going to rush from the dancefloor, fearing the MC will begin an annoyingly enthusiastic announcement on how to do square dance moves as he puts on a red gingham western shirt and a cheap plastic cowboy hat.
It's understandable. Most people who only know a little about country fear that obnoxious, campy, Hee-Haw image and the corny country sound that they associate with it, one of blistering banjoes and hillbilly drawls. But from DJ-ing events for many years, we're familiar with country both old and new and know that there's plenty of great country tunes out there – especially vintage ones (some you've likely never heard, some you've likely forgotten you liked) – that have nothing corny about their sound at all. Instead, the much more understated twang of these country songs can add a charm and some can even add an edgy, badass feel to celebrations.
While it is true that in and around New York City country isn’t the most popular type of music requested or played, most clients we work with usually have a few country artists they want to hear. These tend to be vintage country artists whose songs and reputations have aged well, like Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson, or artists that have some “indie cred” or have veered into pop music, like Lyle Lovett or Ryan Adams. But often, too, we get the request for full-on, pure country – from the intimate, unpolished heartache of Patsy Cline, to the big, slick sing-a-long anthems of Alan Jackson.
Just because clients around our metropolitan area tend to be selective about their taste in country music, however, doesn’t mean it has to be quarantined to a single song played at a slightly lesser volume at a time in an event when a particular song choice is less noticeable, like a cocktail hour or dinner. At most events, a few country requests both old or new can be played at any time – even during the prime dancing time of the event.
But with country music, at least here in New York City, consider your guests a bit if you’d like to hear more than a few songs here and there. If you’re thinking you’d like a lot of country at your event and you’re not sure if your guests are also country fans (and country isn’t an overt event theme), it likely will exclude more guests than other more generally universal genres of music such as Top 40, indie pop/rock, hip-hop, Motown, or soul. So, just make sure to think about your guests' tastes, and, if you have and you’re still not sure, do a little field research and ask them if they’d enjoy it. You might find more country fans that are coming to your event than you thought.
If, like many clients we work with, you want only a few country songs of varying intensity played throughout the night (say, a few sentimental, and a few that are more danceable), you should not be shy to insist these be on your playlist. They key here is, unlike with types of music that are more universal in the city and the surrounding area, make sure to ask the DJ if he or she is comfortable DJ-ing country. Ask the DJ if they know it well, and if they know a certain country music era more than another. Some DJs know newer, very popular country “party” songs, but know little of vintage country tunes that can also get a crowd movin.'
If you have a DJ who does know country, he or she will know what other country songs (or, sometimes a bluegrass song, an alt-country song, a southern rock tune, or even a pop song with a country influence) to put around it in the moment they're playing it so that you and your crowd will be pleased and the song(s) won't sound out of place. If your DJ doesn’t know country as well as you do (and if you know how your guests will react to certain songs), you may have to do a little coaching, such as dictating what songs on your list you want played approximately when. For example, you might explain that certain country “flashback” songs from the '70s work great for dancing toward the end of the night, when people have had some drinks and have loosened up, but these won't go over that well at the start of prime-time dancing – at least around these here parts.
Another thing that prevents clients we've met with from including country in their events is they simply don't know enough of it that they like beyond a few songs. So, to help introduce you to some accessible, fun, and often simply just cool and badass country music, I've made an iMix of 30 songs of vintage country tunes that contains a wide variety of artists and moods from the genre, from roughly 1950 to 1980. (A post about, and a list of, newer country songs will be coming soon.)
I’ve tried to exclude songs you already probably know would go over well for guests, like many hits of Johnny Cash (“Ring of Fire,” “I Walk the Line”) and Hank Williams (“Hey, Good Lookin’”), Tammy Wynette (“Stand By Your Man”) as well as some later hits that are often played at events, like “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band. But some of the aforementioned artists’ lesser-known songs are included in the mix, such as Cash’s rockabilly-tinged “Get Rhythm,” the ramshackle swing of Williams’ “Move It On Over” (which would be covered more aggressively later by George Thorogood), and Wynette’s equally sly, sweet and sexy “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,” the chorus of which I hope will pleasantly stick in you head and make you wonder with me why it’s not a more of a first-tier country classic. But there's also some songs are from artists you may not be very familiar with, like Faron Young or Buck Owens, but don't let that scare you. These lesser-known songs have been carefully picked because I think they'll be very instantly likeable to even non-country fans – most of these tight retro tunes have a rockabilly or pop influence, and will grab you right away since they have fun lyrics, catchy melodies, and infectious rhythms.
Now, anyone who is even remotely familiar with country knows that it has a long and proud history of capturing, among many other things, lovin' gone bad, cheatin' hearts, the truck drivin' life, lamenting crappy jobs, and the solace found in drinkin' until your tears drop into your beer. In this mix, though, I’ve tried to keep those subjects – that, not suprisingly, result in largely downbeat songs – to a minimum. This mix showcases country songs of a variety of upbeat moods – whether it be swingin,' rockin,' tender, whimsical, jubilant, and some that blend some of these moods together.
That said, it's hard to put together a list of country songs and not include any songs about break-ups, infidelity, 18-wheelers, ungrateful bosses, and beer, so these subjects do make their appearance here and there – but with a tempo that will make you tap your toes or dance. Rest assured, though: In this mix, there are no ballads about the loss of a beloved pet dog, loving one’s truck more than a woman, or, most fortunately, ballads about the loss of a beloved truck.
Finally, I've included, especially toward the bottom of the mix, some vintage country songs from the early to mid '70s that we've found work great for dancing during the end of events, often at ones even where country music isn't featured much. Keep in mind, though, that the end of an event is the time when you have had a few (or more) drinks, have been bonding with friends or family or both for several hours, and it’s often the late evening. All this tends to take away the desire to act cool and aloof, and instead makes it easier for some guests to get in touch with their childhood love for Smokey and the Bandit when they hear a certain theme song about heading eastbound, or to display their inner hoe-downer when the fiddles of a famous bespectacled singer from Colorado kick in and he starts expressing his gratefulness to the Lord that he's a rural youth.
Overall, hopefully this mix will introduce you to – and maybe re-introduce you to – some excellent, very likable vintage country songs that will add just the right dash of sexy drawl, festive twang, and outlaw attitude to your event.
Listen to the mix here.