Choosing 25 moments from sixty years and thousands of contenders is a no-win challenge, as such lists are always subject to change and personal taste. But if you’ve seen all of these shows and performances, you’ve certainly witnessed some of the most memorable instances where TV and country music put on their Sunday best.
25. The Monkees perform “What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round?” (1967)
Besides Gram Parsons and The Flying Burrito Brothers, two of the most gifted pioneers of country rock, or countrypolitan, both got their starts on television–Rick Nelson and The Monkees’ Mike Nesmith. Here (in the episode “It’s a Nice Place to Visit”), one year before The Byrds’ released the seminal Sweethearts of the Rodeo album, is Nesmith and the Monkees playing a country-pop classic written by Michael Martin Murphy.
24. Crossroads: Martina McBride and Pat Benatar (2003)
The most famous teaming from this wonderful series is probably Kelly Clarkson and Reba McEntire, and that should be seen as well. But it’s hard to top the amazing vocal chemistry and obvious musical admiration on display when two of music’s biggest belters joined forces in 2003.
23. Charlie Rich Burns an Envelope at the Country Music Awards (1975)
This one’s more of an infamous moment, but one that those who were watching still talk about. John Denver won the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year in 1975, but he was a little too far outside the Nashville mainstream for presenter Charlie Rich, who burned the envelope on stage after opening it. Denver, who accepted the award via satellite, was unaware of what had just happened as he delivered his acceptance speech.
22. Miranda Lambert on Nashville Star (2003)
Buddy Jewell won the inaugural season of the American Idol-gone-country competition Nashville Star, while Miranda Lambert placed third. Ten years later, she’s more famous than the talent judges who critiqued her performances of “Texas When I Die” and “Greyhound Bound for Nowhere.”
21. Flatt & Scruggs Introduce The Beverly Hillbillies
Today if a basic cable show draws 3 million viewers it’s considered a hit. In its heyday, The Beverly Hillbillies had an audience of 60 million, who received a bracing bluegrass introduction to the characters courtesy of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, who also appeared in several series episodes.
20. Dancing With the Stars Finals (2006)
Dancing With the Stars has presented 16 seasons of rumbas, quicksteps, and paso dobles, and the dance still remembered as the series’ best happened when season two-time champion Drew Lachey danced a high-energy, acrobatic freestyle routine with partner Cheryl Burke to Big n Rich’s “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy.”
19. Toby Keith Wrestles (2002)
Wrestling has seen its share of stunt casting, from Mike Tyson and William Shatner to Snooki from Jersey Shore. But fans were still surprised when TNA founder Jeff Jarrett interrupted Toby Keith’s performance of “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” at the company’s first pay-per-view event. Jarrett immediately became the new promotion’s biggest heel, and Keith got his revenge the following week when he prevented Jarrett from getting a world title shot.
18. Mary Chapin Carpenter Salutes the Opening Act (1990)
Every year, the country music award shows present great performances from the genre’s top stars. But in 1990, it was a still relatively unknown Mary Chapin Carpenter who stole the show with a song she wrote about how opening acts are treated like dirt by headliners. It earned her a standing ovation.
17. Loretta Meets “Loretta” (1979)
After Sissy Spacek’s triumphant, Oscar-winning performance as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter(1980), she joined the real Loretta on stage at The Grand Ole Opry Live for a duet on “You Ain’t Woman Enough.” Spacek more than held her own on country music’s most hallowed stage, and even Loretta seemed a little surprised at how much she sounded like the real thing.
16. “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning” (2001)
At a time when the national wound from 9/11 was still raw, Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning” expressed both the nation’s heartache and its hopeful spirit. Jackson performed the song live at the 2001 Country Music Awards, by which time it has already become part of the healing process.
15. Roy and Dale Wish Us “Happy Trails” (1951-1957)
The stories may have been somewhat interchangeable, but it was always worth tuning in to the final moments of The Roy Rogers Show to hear Roy, Dale, Buttermilk and Bullet say goodbye with one more rendition of “Happy Trails to You.”
14. The Porter Wagoner Show (1960-1981)
One of country music’s longest-running TV series has disappeared from syndication, and no DVD sets have been forthcoming. Still, in its day The Porter Wagoner Show delivered a reliable mix of heartfelt musical performances and very loud suits—and also introduced the world to Dolly Parton.
13. “…And Waylon Jennings as the Balladeer”
The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-1985)
All 145 episodes of The Dukes of Hazzard were introduced by Waylon Jennings with that familiar theme song about two good ‘ol boys, never meanin’ no harm. Jennings then provided narration for each story, giving these rural tales the flavor of classic American folklore. The series also boosted country music exposure through Boss Hogg’s Celebrity Speed Trap, which caught several stars over the years like Donna Fargo, Mel Tillis, Dottie West and Johnny Paycheck. They had to sing or pay a speeding ticket.
12. Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters (1980-1982)
Country music acts don’t come more telegenic than the Mandrells–Barbara, Louise and Irlene, whose variety show became a hit at a time when television variety was on its last gasp. The sisters sang (well, Irlene just pretended, but she was the sexiest drummer since Melody on Josie and the Pussycats), danced and played enough different instruments to stock a Sam Ash store. Barbara even insisted on and got a gospel music segment in every episode, something that sadly would be almost unthinkable on a network series today.
11. This is Garth Brooks (1992)
Who was this singer in the two-tone shirts who was selling out stadiums? Anyone who wasn’t sure before January 17, 1992, got an answer when NBC aired Garth Brooks’ first television special. Brooks delivered high-voltage versions of “Shameless,” “The Thunder Rolls” and “Friends in Low Places,” and when he took a running leap and swung over the audience like Tarzan, grasping one of the stage’s electrical cables, it seemed like country music had entered a new era.
10. Carrie Underwood Wins American Idol (2005)
American Idol has introduced country audiences to Kellie Pickler, Scotty McCreery, Lauren Alaina, and Bucky Covington, but no one could have anticipated how a comely blonde from Checotah, Okla., would become the show’s best-selling artist, not to mention the winner of 118 music awards in less than ten years.
9. Hee Haw (1969-1993)
Every week for more than 20 years, viewers made a bargain with Hee Haw – we’ll put up with the terrible cornpone jokes in exchange for performances from the greatest country music stars of the era. This is where Charley Pride made his national television debut (singing Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It”), where Tammy Wynette sang “Stand By Your Man” and Waylon Jennings duetted with Jessi Colter. And maybe all the jokes weren’t so bad.
8. The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour (1969-1972)
From his opening (and oft-parodied) greeting of “Hi! I’m Glen Campbell!” to his easygoing personality and virtuoso guitar playing, Campbell seemed the perfect host for a variety series that was embraced by both rural and urban audiences. Lame Dom DeLuise comedy sketches aside, Glen’s Goodtime Hour created many classic musical moments, including performances from Linda Ronstadt and Stevie Wonder.
7. Farm Aid (1985)
The success of Live Aid and USA for Africa inspired a similar marathon concert, this time with proceeds staying home to help one of America’s greatest natural resources–family farms. The entertainment lineup included Alabama, Johnny Cash, John Denver, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Charley Pride and many more. More than $9 million was raised, and many mortgages were saved.
6. Nashville (2012)
Too high of a ranking for a still new show? Perhaps. But the first season has already created a remarkable number of indelible musical moments, including some from actors we never knew could sing. If they can maintain the level of quality that already produced “If I Didn’t Know Better,” “No One Will Ever Love You” and “When the Right One Comes Along” for another few years, Nashville may become the quintessential country music television series.
5. Tammy Wynette’s Memorial Service (1998)
What do Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Tammy Wynette have in common? They all left us too soon, and their memorial services were carried live on CNN, a distinction usually afforded only to former presidents and world leaders. The country music community said goodbye to Nashville royalty, and Wynonna Judd wondered why radio wasn’t playing Tammy’s records anymore.
4. Hank Williams on TV (1952)
It’s hard to imagine two singers more different in look and style than the gaunt, hillbilly Hank Williams and zaftig belter Kate Smith. But when Williams appeared on The Kate Smith Evening Hour, it would be the first time most of America–at least those who could afford television–would hear his iconic voice and songs (he performed “Hey, Good Lookin’” and “Cold, Cold Heart”). It might have been the last time as well, as the troubled troubadour would be dead just one year later at the age of 29.
3. The Johnny Cash Show (1969-1976)
What made The Johnny Cash Show so great, besides the opportunity to listen to the legendary Johnny Cash every week, was how it combined the traditional sounds of country music with the rebel streak that had always been in there as well. This was never more apparent when Cash was ordered to clean up the line about getting stoned in Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and then sang it anyway.
2. Patsy Cline on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts (1957)
In his day, genial host Arthur Godfrey introduced more talent than American Idol would muster in ten years. His standards were so high that both Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly failed the audition. But Patsy Cline passed, and performed “Walkin’ After Midnight” in her national television debut on April 26, 1957.
1. Are You Ready for Some Football? (1991-2011)
For 20 years, in which Monday Night Football evolved from just another televised sporting event to a national passion, Hank Williams, Jr. opened each show with a rollicking rendition of “All My Rowdy Friends.” It was a prized tradition that ended unceremoniously; he said he quit, ESPN said he was fired, but either way the game goes on, and the legacy of Bocephus has been passed on to Faith Hill, who now introduces the Sunday night games with her own country-pop anthem.