Many would scramble to describe what exactly gives American country music its distinctive sound in a few words. However, there is one common element most of us would agree on in an instant—the banjo.
As indispensable as the guitar and fiddle to folk music development within the United States, the banjo has always been a central piece in the country genre and is a critical piece in many popular tunes.
But not all country songs feature the banjo prominently. Wouldn’t it be helpful to have a list of the country songs that not only have a banjo, but also feature masterful banjo licks and playing? This list will try to do exactly that! Below, I explore some of the songs that I believe are exceptional pieces where a banjo plays a central role.
Put on your headphones or turn up the volume on your speaker, as we explore the 15 best country songs with a banjo:
Gentle On My Mind – Glen Campbell
Originally written and performed by John Hartford—who will appear later on the list—Gentle On My Mind rose to popularity through Glen Campbell’s cover from 1967 and its re-release in 1968. It topped the charts for weeks and eventually earned four Grammys; two for Campbell and two for Hartford.
Instrumentalization for the track came by the hand of The Wrecking Crew, with legendary Doug Dillard taking charge of the banjo, an instrument which undoubtedly takes the spotlight alongside Campbell’s melodic vocals.
Would You Go With Me? – Josh Turner
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A romantic and joyous tune that showcases the contemporary flavors bluegrass can take, Would You Go With Me? showcases Turner’s signature baritone voice with a perfect string arrangement led by the banjo, guitar, dobro, and mandolin.
For the album version of the track, Ron Block took charge of the banjo. Winner of 14 Grammy Awards and a notorious member of bluegrass band Alison Krauss & Union Station, his expertise with the instrument will be recognized in further entries within this list.
Blacktop – Alan Jackson
When Alan Jackson released in 2013 his first bluegrass album—aptly titled The Bluegrass Album—he gave the generally underappreciated genre the spotlight it frankly deserves within mainstream charts.
Blacktop is one of the original tracks in the album and, while Alan Jackson’s vocals are unparalleled, the show’s true star is the impeccable instrumentalization, as it often happens with bluegrass.
Sammy Shelor’s banjo particularly stands out, showcasing his expertise with the instrument and the perfect harmony between the performers.
If That Ain’t Country – David Allan Coe
Country enthusiasts can agree that David Allan Coe is one of the genre’s most notorious yet controversial stars—befitting his Outlaw Country style. His contributions to music are notable yet always give something to talk about.
One of his most thought-provoking songs is the emblematic If That Ain’t Country, a piece that primarily relies on a melodic narration during each verse to convey its poignant lyrics.
In the background, a rhythmic banjo lurks closely as a companion to Coe’s voice, becoming the undoubted star during the instrumental solo segment.
Highway 40 Blues – Ricky Skaggs
An energetic and delightful tune with a fast tempo, Highway 40 Blues by Ricky Skaggs is primarily recognizable by its extensive instrumental break—a segment where the guitar, dobro, and banjo take the spotlight.
The prominence of the banjo within the composition is not a surprise, as none other than virtuoso Béla Fleck played the instrument for the song’s studio version. The final result is an unforgettable performance that earned Skaggs his well-deserved fifth number one single in the country charts.
Mama Tried – Merle Haggard
The title track of the eponymous album, Mama Tried is perhaps one of the best songs ever released by Merle Haggard and The Strangers. It defined the genre for quite some time and nowadays can be considered a signature song for all performers.
In recognition of its excellency, Mama Tried received the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999. Seventeen years later, in 2016, the song was included in the National Recording Registry to acknowledge its profound impact on culture and music history.
Beyond Haggard’s emotional vocals, the instrumentalization is unparalleled, with The Strangers’ guitar and banjo shining through.
Catfish John – The Country Gentlemen
A song originally written by Bob McDill and Allen Reynolds and famously performed by Johnny Russell, Catfish John is a wonderful piece of musical storytelling that multiple artists have performed through the decades.
However, I’d like to highlight for this list the underrated bluegrass masterpiece that is The Country Gentlemen’s cover. The vocalists’ flawless harmonization with the impeccable banjo accompaniment is simply unparalleled.
High Lonesome Sound (Bluegrass Version) – Vince Gill
Released in 1996, High Lonesome Sound is the title track of the album by Vince Gill, and it has two different recorded versions with their corresponding arrangements.
In this list, I want to highlight the bluegrass version, interpreted by Vince Gill with an orchestration provided by Alison Krauss & Union Station. Once again, the banjo is the responsibility of Ron Block, who showcases his proficiency without shame.
His expertise shines through the track, making it perhaps the most captivating take of the song.
Just to See You Smile – Tim McGraw
Tim McGraw’s record-breaking song topped the country charts for nearly a year during its release, and it’s not hard to see why.
The song is a perfect example of the country-pop crossover. Naturally, it boasts the merit of making traditional instrumentalization more accessible to mainstream audiences and charts without discarding that distinctively country sound. The banjo, in particular, is sublime—a performance by notorious string genius Mark Casstevens.
Take Me Home, Country Roads – John Denver
What can I say about this song that hasn’t been discussed before? John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads is not only one of the best country songs with a banjo—it is one of the best songs ever recorded, regardless of genre.
John Denver’s soulful lyrics and the song’s masterful composition have made them an emblematic track for West Virginia. Still, the banjo’s important role in the song is quite often overlooked.
For the studio version, the banjo was the responsibility of none other than Eric Weissberg of Dueling Banjos fame. The result is a polished and heartfelt sound that remains timeless.
Cumberland Blues – Grateful Dead
Released in the 1970 Workingman’s Dead album, Cumberland Blues is a perfect representation of Grateful Dead’s Americana experimentation—a sound that oozes country and folk-rock through each song.
Slightly underrated amidst the album’s other tracks, Cumberland Blues features beautiful and layered harmonies that were brand-new for the group at the time. The original recording had Jerry Garcia playing the banjo, yet it was left out of the release.
However, music prevails, and modern re-releases of the song include Garcia’s excellent banjo sound intertwining with Nelson’s guitar.
Let Him Go On, Mama – John Hartford
Few men are as multitalented as John Hartford, and his 1976 Mark Twang album is further proof of that—a bluegrass masterpiece recognized with the Grammy for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording.
What makes the album stand out, however, is the fact that it is entirely acoustic and near completely made by Hartford on his own. Indeed, he’s responsible for songwriting, composition, vocals, and performing every single instrument used in each song, including the banjo.
Although each song is a masterpiece, Let Him Go On, Mama is my personal pick for this list, a cheery-sounding piece that is slightly eccentric and exceedingly fun to listen to.
Eight More Miles to Louisville – Sam Bush / Grandpa Jones
Released in 1946, Eight More Miles to Louisville is the second single by Louis Marshall Jones, better known as “Grandpa Jones”. It is an emblematic song performed by an exemplary singer, whose banjo displays the best sounds of “old-time” country music.
The song has undergone multiple adaptations and performances and is considered a quintessential classic for the genre. However, I believe Sam Bush’s cover deserves special attention alongside Grandpa Jones’ original version.
Whether it is performed with the original banjo sound or with a mandolin, it remains one of the most emblematic country pieces for banjo players to try across the country.
Wagon Wheel – Old Crow Medicine Show
Old Crow Medicine Show is an Americana band that focuses on old-time and folk sounds. Their music seems straight from a different era, and that distinctively dated sound is unarguably one of their strongest points. Wagon Wheel is proof of this.
Composed in halves across different times, Wagon Wheel was made in sections. The chorus and melody were made by Bob Dylan in 1973, while Ketch Secor from Old Crow Medicine Show wrote the rest of the song around the demo. After its release in 2004, the piece became the band’s signature song and one of the most popular alt-country and bluegrass songs of our times.
The banjo in particular came from Mike Harris and Ketch Secor—and they did a phenomenal job.
Choctaw Hayride – Alison Krauss & Union Station
Second time Alison Krauss & Union Station appear on the list, and it is deservedly so, as the band remains one of the quintessential bluegrass and country acts.
Unlike other entries, Choctaw Hayride—released in 2001—is a completely instrumental piece, which allows the exceptional band’s performance to shine through. Again, the banjo is played by Ron Block, showcasing his masterful control over the strings in this happy-go-lucky tune.