20 Top War and Soldier Songs
War. It is the central issue of contemporary American political debate. It is also an unfortunate and deeply personal part of the American culture. War affects the way we see our place in the world, our duty to our nation and our role within our communities. It can bond families in solidarity and it can tear families apart. And although most of us will never be called to serve–and will, therefore, never have to witness the horror of the front-lines–the effects of war remain palpable in our everyday lives.
Since country music is, in so many ways, about the stark truths of everyday life, the genre (fittingly) has a long history of songs that tell stories about wars and the soldiers caught up in them. In this, the second installment of The 9513′s monthly playlist series, I list what I consider 20 of the top songs following in that tradition.
There are a number of noteworthy omissions from this playlist. I’ve avoided including songs that read like propaganda (even when those songs have been highly popular or commercially successful), instead focusing on songs that deal with the very real conflicts that war produces–conflicts of the heart, or morality, or mortality, or fear. “The Ballad of The Green Berets,” for example, undeniably an extremely popular song, has been omitted because it portrays a naive and mostly one-sided viewpoint. In the same sense, this playlist attempts to avoid “novelty” songs–a term which here means those songs that focus on a single detail, specific event, or isolated conflict, rather than on the human stories born from those situations. Marty Robbins’ “Battle of the Alamo,” an excellent song, falls into this category.
Likewise, many contemporary “patriotic” songs have been omitted. These include Darryl Worley’s factually debatable “Have You Forgotten,” and Toby Keith’s boot-in-your-ass anthem “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.”
Finally, many of the artists who have, historically, recorded songs appropriate for this playlist made a habit of doing so. Johnny Horton, for example, has three or four songs that arguably deserve to be listed here. In an effort to create a diverse playlist which covers a broad spectrum of attitudes and viewpoints, I have limited each artist’s appearance to one song.
This list is not meant to be definitive–all rankings and opinions are, of course subjective and based on my own interpretations. Special thanks to Brody, Brady, and Matt for their contributions to this project.
20 Top War and Soldier Songs
- 20. “8th of November” (Live Rolling Stone Version) – Big & Rich
A stark reminder of how the brutality of war stays with a person forever. Big Kenny’s lead vocals, more colorful on this live version than on the duo’s studio recording, are hauntingly appropriate for the story of the man who gave him his top-hat.
- 19. “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town” – Kenny Rogers
One of the most poignant songs of Rogers’ stellar career, “Ruby” dares to tell the hard truth about an extremely sensitive issue. The physical injury that threatens the narrator’s relationship is both a literal comment on the cost of war and symbolic reference to the mental torment faced by many who experience extreme violence.
- 18. “Come Home Soon” – SHeDAISY
SHeDAISY’s Kristyn Osborn is an excellent songwriter who often doesn’t receive the recognition she deserves because of her band’s sometimes poppy sound. “Come Home Soon” never says the word “war,” never talks about the conflict in Iraq, never mentions Afghanistan, and never invokes the usual images of camouflage-clad soldiers or American flags. It doesn’t have to. The lyric is mature and immensely intimate, and the plea, “come home soon,” is so simple that it’s heartbreaking.
- 17. “Rich Man’s War” (Live Version) – Steve Earle
What I love about this song is that it illustrates the very real dichotomy between the expectations that young men and women have when enlisting in the armed forces and the violent reality that they are ultimately faced with. More than an “anti-Bush” or “anti-Iraq conflict” song, Earle twists the ending in a way that sharply makes his ultimate point–that the poor end up as willing pawns in a rich man’s game. Whether you agree or disagree, it’s a compelling message.
- 16. “The Bumper of my S.U.V.” – Chely Wright
“Support the troops” has become one of the most buzz-worthy phrases when talking about America’s current involvement in world affairs, and many in politics and the media would like to paint all Americans into one of two camps–those who “support the troops,” and those who don’t. “The Bumper of My S.U.V.” brings to light the complexity behind that issue–the fact that we are tied by blood and by love to our men and women in uniform (but that doesn’t mean we don’t question certain things about our nation’s foreign policy).
- 15. “Belleau Wood” – Garth Brooks
“We can hardly believe that we’ve been firing at them for the last week or two — it all seems so strange,” an unknown British soldier writes in a letter about the 1914 Christmas Truce. Brooks’ handles the narration of the scene (a true story) perfectly, and although he is not, by any means, the first artist to comment on the stillness of that Christmas Eve, his performance on “Belleau Wood” is the most moving.
- 14. “Riding With Private Malone” – David Ball
The one semi-novelty song on this playlist–”Riding With Private Malone,” aside from being a splendidly crafted song, speaks to a certain solidarity between veterans.
- 13. “Galveston” – Jimmy Webb
Webb’s 1972 version of the hit he penned for Glen Campbell (1969) is very much a period piece. The individual parts of Webb’s “Galveston”–lyrics, melody, production–do not equal the sum value of a record which brilliantly captures the tone and social desperation associated with the later parts of the Vietnam War.
- 12. “Heather Are You With me Tonight” – Elizabeth Cook
Few of us could live with ourselves if we were made to kill another human being, yet we ask our warriors to do that very thing. “Heather Are You With Me Tonight,” about a bomber pilot’s internal moral struggle, is chilling as delivered by Cook’s undeniably country vocals. “Aint it funny how winnin’ feels just like sinnin’,” she sings.
- 11. “Arlington” – Trace Adkins
Reaching only #16 on the Billboard charts, “Arlington,” is one of the most under-appreciated songs on this list. Adkins’ calm and mature voice fits this song perfectly.
- 10. “If I Don’t Make It Back” – Tracy Lawerence
If you’ve been wondering why Tim McGraw’s, “If You’re Reading This,” isn’t found on this playlist, here’s your answer. “If I Don’t Make It Back,” co-penned by Bobby Pinson, covers the same ground but is considerably more well crafted and moving. Whereas McGraw’s single, written with The Warren Brothers, relies on the popular trend of spiritual personification (“I’m up here with God and we’re both watching over you”) in an attempt to comfort the family and friends of the fallen, “If I Don’t Make it Back” makes no such attempt. The result is a hook that resonates much more soundly because of the way the song’s characters tangibly interact with the loss of their friend.
- 09. “Soldier’s Last Letter” – Merle Haggard
Merle’s cover of this Ernest Tubb classic, also similar but superior to “If Your Reading This,” is a personal, vivid, and honest story which showcases a voice that is one of the genre’s truest gifts.
- 08. “Johnny Reb” – Johnny Horton
“Johnny Reb” forgoes the slick and overly commercialized tendencies of Horton’s considerably more popular songs, “Battle of New Orleans” and “Sink The Bismark”.
- 07. “American Soldier” – Toby Keith
Not just another chest-pounding patriotic song. Despite his Big Dog Daddy persona, Keith is, at times, a deeply sensitive and insightful writer, and “American Solider” has both of those characteristics. “I don’t want to die for you,” in the context of this lyric, is profoundly resonating.
- 06. “Dear Uncle Sam” – Loretta Lynn
If I had to choose one artist to hold up as an example of what country music was, is, and should be, I would choose Loretta Lynn. Sung by any other artist, this poignant but average song would earn a far lower place on the list.
- 05. “Didn’t I” – Montgomery Gentry
Wynonna once said that one important thing missing from contemporary country music is subtlety. For the most part, I agree with her. “Didn’t I,” however, is anything but subtle–and rightfully so. Aside from painting a truly frightening picture of war with lines like, “I’ve seen boys fall to pieces/Grown men cry out to Jesus/’Till their black and blue,” “Didn’t I” exudes the anger and frustration of so many soldiers who struggle with reintegration at war’s end.
- 04. “Ballad of Ira Hayes” – Johnny Cash
Classic Cash, “Ballad of Ira Hayes” (1964) remains one of the most historically compelling songs in his catalog. Hayes is emblematic of the post-war turmoil faced by many survivors, and although the story is directly related to his service in WWII, the song’s timing–released on the cusp of LBJ’s escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam–adds greatly to its poignancy.
- 03. “Travelin’ Soldier” – Dixie Chicks
Written and originally recorded by Bruce Robison, “Travelin’ Soldier,” never reached the heights of success that it deserved, because, in an ultimate example of irony, it was the Chicks’ single at the time of “the comment.” One of the best story songs I’ve ever heard, Natalie delivers one of the best vocal performances of her career on a song that’s not so much about travelin’ soldiers as it is about the people they leave behind.
- 02. “Letters From Home” – John Michael Montgomery
Even three years after it’s release, this song, an eerily accurate portrayal of life on both sides of the soldier/civilian divide, still gets me a bit choked up. Penned by Tony Lane and David Lee, “Letters From Home,” more than any song on this playlist, has a humanizing effect on our image of the soldier. We see him laugh, we see him cry, we see him proud, and this, I think, is a reality often overlooked in favor of the popular stereotype.
- 01. “Another Side” – Sawyer Brown
You’ve probably never heard this song. And that’s a shame. Peaking at #55 (from a splendid album, Six Days On The Road) in 1998, the story of “Another Side” is narrated from the perspective of a Confederate soldier fighting in the Civil War. While every song on this playlist details some aspect of the pain and conflict brought on by war, none do so as holistically as “Another Side,” and none are as directly relative to our current conflicts. “I guess my daddy would be proud/But my mama, she’s ashamed,” Mark Miller sings–one example of how this song’s lyrics illustrate our social and political divisions. We are often stratified into two groups–those for war and those who are against war. But the issue is always considerably more complex than that. In the case of the soldier in “Another Side,” that complexity is brought on by many things, but none more than the fact that, as we learn in the song’s final verse, his brother has fought for the North.
Listen: 20 Top War And Soldier Songs
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