Behind the Numbers: Country Music Hits and the Odds of Trains, Prison, Mama, and Tears

What does it take to write a hit country song? Judging by some of country’s most beloved tunes, it seems one needs to include lyrical references to your Mama ( Mama, He’s Crazy), trains ( I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry), prison ( Folsom Prison Blues), tears ( He Stopped Loving Her Today), and/or alcohol ( Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’).

But what are the actual odds that a country song will feature these references? Judging by Country Music Television’s list of the Top 100 country music songs of all time, the odds are quite high. The odds a Top 100 country song will refer to alcohol are 1 in 5. The odds one of these songs will contain a reference to “mama” are 1 in 7.14. The odds one will contain a reference to the word “train” are 1 in 11.11 and the odds one will contain a reference to the word “prison” are 1 in 33.33. Least surprising, the odds one of the songs will contain a reference to tears or crying are 1 in 3.23.

At first glance, it’s surprising that the number one song on the Top 100 list, Stand by Your Man, has no references to these country music buzzwords. But closer examination reveals that Tammy Wynette wrote the song with Billy Sherrill, the record producer who discovered her in 1966. Sherrill was raised on R&B and jazz and came to country music fairly late in his career. Being a newcomer to the genre, he apparently wasn’t well versed in the lexicon.

Johnny Cash, on the other hand, was steeped in it. His Folsom Prison Blues, #25 on the Top 100 list, comes close to touching on all the hallmarks. In the first two stanzas of the song, Cash refers at least once to train, prison, mama, and crying. Shel Silverstein’s A Boy Named Sue, which Cash also recorded and which placed #71 on the list, topped the chart in its number of references to alcohol with six (honky-tonks, bars, brew, saloon, bottle of booze, and beer).

According to the New York Times, Cash would not have been surprised to find that he ranked high on the list of traditional references. In the liner notes to Grammy-winning album, “Unchained,” the singer-songwriter wrote, “I love songs about horses, railroads, land, Judgment Day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother. And God.”

Judging by the odds, Cash might have been overestimating the scope of his favorite music.

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