A List of History's Best Country Gospel Songs

Guitar player
oonal / Getty Images
01
of 20

20. Louvin Brothers: 'The Christian Life'

satan is real album cover
Image courtesy of Capitol Records

The Louvin Brothers sing about the simple pleasures of leading a moral existence on "Christian Life." It's certainly less fire-and-brimstone than the album's title track, "Satan Is Real." In 1968, the song was given a modern update by the Byrds on their country-rock breakthrough "Sweethearts of the Rodeo."

Religious Song Lyric: "I won't lose a friend by heeding God's call. For what is a friend who'd want me to fall?"

Listen

02
of 20

19. Merle Haggard: 'Pray'

the bluegrass sessions album cover
Image courtesy of Hag Records

Merle Haggard doesn't quote scripture in "Pray." He simply implores us to think beyond our daily cares and consider those who are struggling. The song's simple message has impressed singer-songwriter Greg Brown, who now covers it in concerts. It ranks among Haggard's finest efforts in the gospel department.

Religious Song Lyric: "Get your mind off yourself. Think of somebody else and pray. And pray."

Listen

03
of 20

18. Tammy Wynette: 'Precious Memories'

tammy wynette inspirational favorites album cover
Image courtesy of Ramwood Records

Tammy Wynette performs the definitive version of the gospel standard "Precious Memories." The country singer's knockout vocals are backed up by the Masters V gospel group.

Religious Song Lyrics: "Precious memories how they linger. How they ever flood my soul. In the stillness of the midnight, precious sacred scenes unfold."

Listen

04
of 20

17. Billy Joe Shaver: 'If I Give My Soul'

tramp on your street album cover
Image courtesy of Volcano Records

"If I Give My Soul" is perhaps better known for its rendition on "Victory," Billy Joe Shaver's 1998 collection of religious songs. However, it was recorded earlier in 1993 for "Tramp on Your Street," a collaboration between Shaver and his guitarist son Eddy Shaver -- who later died of a heroin overdose. Its more rocked-out arrangement includes a line destined to shatter the hearts of fathers everywhere.

Religious Song Lyric: "If I give my soul, will He stop my hands from shaking? If I give my soul, will my son love me again?”

Listen to 1993 version
Listen to 1998 version

05
of 20

16. Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton & Linda Ronstadt: 'Farther Along'

trio album cover
Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

"Farther Along" has been recorded by Brad Paisley, Johnny Cash, and others. But this version of the gospel standard is a triple threat. It was included on the much-anticipated "Trio," a group collaboration between vocal powerhouses Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. The results are pure fireworks.

Gospel Song Lyrics: "Farther along, we’ll know more about it. Farther along, we’ll understand why. Cheer up my brother, live in the sunshine. We'll understand it -- all by and by."

Listen

06
of 20

15. Willie Nelson: 'Uncloudy Day'

the troublemaker album cover
Image courtesy of Columbia Records

Willie Nelson dreams of a place where there's shelter from the storms of earthly life. "Uncloudy Day" sounds like a gospel standard, but the song is actually a Nelson original that was recorded in 1973 for the album "The Troublemaker." It didn't see release until 1976 because of doubts about its commercial prospects. He proved music execs wrong with his multiplatinum "Red Headed Stranger," and it was an uncloudy day in 1976 when "The Troublemaker" and "Uncloudy Day" topped the charts.

Religious Song Lyric: "O they tell me of a home far away. O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise. O they tell me of an uncloudy day!"

Listen

07
of 20

14. Johnny Russell: 'The Baptism of Jesse Taylor'

rednecks white socks and blue ribbon beer album cover
Image courtesy of RCA Records

A town hell-raiser finds the Lord in this 1973 song from Johnny Russell. The tune was written by Sanger D. Shafer, who co-wrote Lefty Frizzell's "I Never Go Around Mirrors." The revival feels of "The Baptism of Jesse Taylor," in which the narrator forecasts the ways in which Jesse is sure to change his ways, took it to No. 14 on the country charts. It was later recorded by The Oak Ridge Boys and Tanya Tucker.

Religious Song Lyric: "They baptized Jesse Taylor in Cedar Creek last Sunday. Jesus gained a soul and Satan lost a good right arm."

Listen

08
of 20

13. Red Foley: '(There'll Be) Peace in the Valley (for Me)'

red foley album cover
Image courtesy of Castle Records

Pardon the word choice, but Red Foley performs the hell out of this spiritual. His nuanced phrasing is backed up by a perfect backing chorus. In 1951, the song was an unprecedented hit -- selling more than a million copies. Foley's rendering of "(There'll Be) Peace in the Valley (for Me)" shaped the later, even more, popular version recorded by Elvis Presley.

Religious Song Lyric: "And the beasts from the wild, shall be lit by a child. And I'll be changed, changed."

Listen

09
of 20

12. Garth Brooks: 'Unanswered Prayers'

no fences album cover
Image courtesy of Capitol Nashville Records

Garth Brooks uses a story about a man losing the girl of his dreams to illustrate an important lesson: Sometimes prayers that appear to have been unanswered really aren't. The material might seem a little lightweight compared to the other gospel songs included here, but "Unanswered Prayers" rocketed to No. 1 on the country charts. In 2010, it was adapted into a Lifetime TV movie, in which the protagonist feels considerably more temptation than his musical counterpart.

Religious Song Lyric: "Remember when you're talkin' to the man upstairs, that just because he may not answer, doesn't mean he doesn't care."

10
of 20

11. Ferlin Husky: 'Wings of a Dove'

ferlin husky greatest hits album cover
Image courtesy of K-Tel Records

Ferlin Husky took gospel music to the pop charts with his No. 1 country hit "Wings of a Dove." Written by Bob Ferguson, the song uses a dove as a symbol of hope -- a usage borrowed from the book of Genesis: "And he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated." The crossover hit peaked at No. 12 on the pop charts and stayed at the top of country charts for 10 weeks. It continues to be Husky's best-known song. Beware of sub-par re-recorded versions.

Religious Song Lyric: "On the wings of a snow-white dove, He sends His pure sweet love. A sign from above! On the wings of a dove."

Watch Grand Ole Opry performance

11
of 20

10. Randy Travis: 'Three Wooden Crosses'

rise and shine album cover
Image courtesy of Curb Records

A parable in song form, "Three Wooden Crosses" tells the story of a roadside tragedy that claims three lives -- and saves one. In 2003, it was named Song of the Year at the CMA Awards and peaked at No. 1 on the country singles charts. "Three Wooden Crosses" continues to be one of Randy Travis' most enduring songs.

Religious Song Lyric: "It's not what you take when you leave this world behind you. It's what you leave behind you when you go."

Listen

12
of 20

9. Waylon Jennings: 'I Do Believe'

the road goes on forever album cover
Image courtesy of Capitol Records

Faith isn't something the man in the song advertises. He doesn't think he's been the best of believers, but then he doesn't feel a lot of commonality to those who preach hatred or feel they know what God knows. This remarkable song actually came from the Highwaymen's 1995 reunion album. Kris Kristofferson liked it so much that he sang it on the Waylon Jennings tribute album "Lonesome On'ry & Mean."

Religious Song Lyric: "I do believe in a higher power. One that loves us one and all. Not someone to solve my problems. Or to catch me when I fall."

Listen

13
of 20

8. Vince Gill: 'Go Rest High on That Mountain'

when love finds you album cover
Image courtesy of Geffen Records

Vince Gill began writing this song after the death of his friend Keith Whitley from alcoholic poisoning. He didn't complete it until the death of his own brother, Bob, years later. In 1993, "Go Rest High on the Mountain" won a Grammy for Best Country Song.

Religious Song Lyric: "Go rest high on that mountain. Cause, son, your work on earth is done. Go to Heaven a-shouting. Love for the Father and the Son."

Listen

14
of 20

7. Johnny Cash: 'The Man Comes Around'

american iv album cover
Image courtesy of American Recordings

Johnny Cash has performed plenty of exemplary religious songs. Some of the best were collected in "My Mother's Hymn Book," which was released as part of the posthumous box set "Unearthed." But "The Man Comes Around" was a song he actually wrote, and it appeared late in his career, on "American IV," and showed the Man in Black was a powerful songwriter. The tune borrows its imagery from the Book of Revelation and builds to a powerful climax.

Religious Song Lyric: "Voices calling, voices crying. Some are born and some are dying. It's alpha and omega's kingdom come."

Listen

15
of 20

6. Josh Turner: 'Long Black Train'

long black train album cover
Image courtesy of MCA Nashville Records

Josh Turner wrote the eponymous song from his debut album, and it did a lot to catapult him and his subsonic baritone to fame. Trains have frequently taken on a religious significance in songs, from Tom Waits' "Down There by the Train" to Bob Dylan's "Slow Train Coming." Here, the train doesn't symbolize deliverance to heaven, but twin rails to hell.

Religious Song Lyric: "There's a long black train, comin' down the line. Feeding off the souls that are lost and cryin'. Rails of sin, only evil remains."

Watch music video

16
of 20

5. Roy Acuff: 'The Great Speckled Bird'

roy acuff album cover
Image courtesy of Columbia Records

Roy Acuff's "The Great Speckled Bird" shares its melody with "Tonight I'm Thinking of My Blue Eyes," Hank Thompson's "The Wild Side of Life" and Kitty Wells' "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels." Acuff's song is dense with Biblical imagery; the title comes from Jeremiah 12:9. "My heritage is to me as a speckled bird, the birds round about are against her; come you, assemble all the beasts of the field, come to devour." In his book "Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock 'n' Roll," Nick Tosches called it "one of the few truly mystical country records ever cut." It became Acuff's first hit in 1936.

Religious Song Lyric: "What a beautiful thought I am thinking, concerning a great speckled bird. Remember her name is recorded, on the pages of God's Holy Word."

Listen

17
of 20

4. Porter Wagoner: 'A Satisfied Mind'

a satisfied mind album cover
Image courtesy of RCA Records

"A Satisfied Mind" was Porter Wagoner's first No. 1 country song. Its sentiment recalls the verse from Matthew: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." Written by Red Hayes and Jack Rhodes, the song went on to be covered by everyone from the Blind Boys of Alabama to Bob Dylan.

Religious Song Lyric: "The wealthiest person is a pauper at times. Compared to the man with a satisfied mind."

Watch performance

18
of 20

3. Kris Kristofferson: 'Why Me'

jesus was a capricorn album cover
Image courtesy of Sony Records

The last song on Kristofferson's 1972 album "Jesus Was a Capricorn" became the best-selling single of his career. The singer had plied religious territory more delicately in "Sunday Morning Coming Down." But this song is a straightforward gospel tune about a man surprised by God's grace. The song, which Kristofferson wrote, was recorded by many other artists, most notably Johnny Cash.

Religious Song Lyric: "Why me Lord? What have I ever done to deserve even one of the pleasures I've known?"

Listen

19
of 20

2. The Carter Family: 'Can the Circle Be Unbroken'

can the circle be unbroken album cover
Image courtesy of Sony Records

The Carter Family sings the definitive version of this Christian hymn about the loss of a loved one. It dips its ladle in the buckets of hope and despair and finds spiritual transcendence in the image of the unbroken circle of life. Its searching quality (the song is one large question) makes it stick in the mind. The song's title is really a question. Johnny Cash was clearly a fan -- he later raided the lyrics for his own "Daddy Sang Bass."

Religious Song Lyric: "Will the circle be unbroken, by and by, Lord, by and by? There’s a better home a-waiting, In the sky, Lord, in the sky."

Listen

20
of 20

1. Hank Williams: 'I Saw the Light'

i saw the light album cover
Image courtesy of MGM Records

Hank Williams' song about a religious experience feels like one. It builds to a rousing gospel chorus about a man who has wandered off the lost highway and into the light. The song is relevant to Williams' life, in which he struggled between religion and the honky-tonk lifestyle. While he tried to split his drinking and church-going halves with his Luke the Drifter persona, "I Saw the Light" was released under his own name in 1948.

Religious Song Lyric: "I wandered so aimless, life filled with sin. I wouldn't let my dear savior in."

Watch performance with Roy Acuff