Let's start with the very beginning of the decade, when Kenny Rogers' "Coward of the County" claimed the top spot for three weeks to kick off the year. This may be such a crossover track that it can barely be characterized as country, but it does feature remarkably strong narrative songwriting. Even better, the lyrics boast a reasonable amount of ambiguity, which mainstream country music often avoids like the plague, with usually eye-roll worthy, on-the-nose results. I was never certain if the song's protagonist shot or killed the villainous Gatlin boys or simply beat them senseless, and I have to say I enjoy the fact that the story doesn't reveal too much at one time.
Later in the same year, popular country pop artist Ronnie Milsap earned the distinction of three weeks at the top of the charts, strangely with what I would call one of his lesser singles, "My Heart." This tune probably wouldn't make my short list of the North Carolina native's finest efforts, but that doesn't change the fact that it remains his biggest hit of all time. The song's simplistic melody and romantic lyrical sentiment don't really do it for me, but chart statistics don't lie. Still, I'll stick with "Smoky Mountain Rain" any day.
The phrase "urban cowboy" swept American pop culture in 1980, owing as much to the popular film of the same name as the style of slick country pop that reached its commercial zenith that year. Johnny Lee's "Lookin' for Love" may be far from the most authentic country music you'll ever hear, but the song's distinctive melodies (particularly in the verses) became iconic for good reason as well. Lee took a lot of heat for the song's massive accessibility - backlash was inevitable for this pop music flashpoint, I suppose - but widespread popularity is not always an indicator of low artistic quality. Not always.
Several years passed before country music produced another (relatively) long-term top hit, and by 1987 the New Traditionalists from Dwight Yoakam to Lyle Lovett to Randy Travis had injected a much-needed blast of freshness into the genre. Rejecting most of the pop music impulses that had most recently dominated the country charts, these artists embraced honky tonk roots and seemed to approach their music regardless of what anyone might anticipate in terms of broad commercial appeal. "Forever and Ever Amen" remains one of the signature singles of the late '80s, and Travis helped create that success with his earnest, traditional vocal performance.