By Mickey Dunaway

You and I have come to the end of my exercise in logic and priorities applied to the music of my life up to August 2021. I hope it has made some sense to you, and I genuinely would like for it to spur a logic and priority exercise for you. If you follow up, write it down, and send it to me, I will post it on Southern Exposures for others to ponder.

Until we meet again down music road, here is the top 13 musical artists of my lifetime that I consider standing above all the others.



Getting the artists into categories was hard, but not nearly as migraine-inducing as deciding who made the cut to 13. Who didn’t? And why? Who were the top five? Who was #1?

Below, is The Baker’s Dozen in reverse order. Those who didn’t make the top five, were all grouped together at #6.

Blind Boys of Alabama

The Blind Boys of Alabama is largely gospel group but featured often by blues musicians as backups on albums. The BBA attended the Talladega School for Deaf and Blind in Talladega, Alabama (yep, that Talladega). For many years it was the only school for students with these disabilities. A residential school in a small mid-Alabama town, life was often not easy for the students. Along their educational journey, four students with musical talents heard a black gospel group on the radio and decided this was going to be their path in life. And what a path it has been. Looking for the best Christmas album you have ever heard, find the BBA’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. You might wear out listening to the wonderful gospel sounds of these unique musicians.

Bob Dylan
Folk-Rock-Storyteller Rock Royalty

Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature says all that needs to be said about his ability as a songwriter. Dylan’s popularity has continued as he has continued performing into his 70s. His voice is more gravely than ever, but I find that I like those voices. Dylan’s 39th studio album was released just after his 79th birthday! 

Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo`ol
Island music —Hawai’ian

Vocally in a class by himself. “IZ” was a BIG man, weighing around 600 pounds when he died in 1997 at the age of 38. A generous man who exemplified Hawai’i and its gentle people. NPR named him one of their top 50 voices. You have no doubt heard his version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. 

Jim Croce
Rock – One of a Kind

Jim Croce, in my mind, has always been associated with New Orleans and all of Louisiana. As I researched each of these artists, I found out that Croce was a Philadelphia Italian! There were two things that associated him with Louisiana in my mind. He died in a plane crash in Nacogdoches, LA, and his songs have a Cajun flair to them in their melodies and lyrics. It could also be the verse from his song, You Don’t Mess Around with Jim:

Well outta south Alabama come a country boy
Say he’s lookin’ for a man named Jim
I am a pool-shootin’ boy, my name is Willy McCoy
But down home they call me Slim
Yeah I’m lookin’ for the King of 42nd Street
Driving a drop-top Cadillac
Last week he took all my money and it may sound funny
But I come to get my money back

Regardless of this misconception I have been carrying around with two of his LPs, Jim Croce was a unique talent with hit songs that just grabbed you, made you smile, or tugged at your emotions:

I’ll Have To Say I Love You In A Song
Time In A Bottle
Bad, Bad Leroy Brown
Cats In The Cradle
I Got A Name
You Don’t Mess Around With Jim
One Less Set Of Footsteps
Photographs And Memories
Alabama Rain

Johnny Cash
Country Royalty

Whether you are a Country Music fan or not, you must recognize that he was and still is Royalty with the genre. Cash was a mentor to the likes of Kris Kristofferson and Hank Williams, Jr., although it seems his direct influence on the current form of country music has been lost on today’s generation of singers.

There are a set of albums that every Cash fan should have on your playlist. Late in his career, super producer Rick Rubin heard Cash sing at a Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert and thought Cash remained a vital American musical voice. He approached Cash later with a proposal that they record a series of albums where Cash had a very high level of control. They became good friends and what emerged was Johnny Cash sitting and singing songs considered American standards from most all musical genres.

The result was six albums:

American Recordings, 
American III: Solitary Man
American IV: The Man Comes Around 
American V: A Hundred Highways 
American VI: Ain’t No Grave

Leonard Cohen
Jazz: An Original

Sandy and I discovered Leonard Cohen in a motel room in Springfield, Missouri where the family had taken a side trip on the way to the Air Force Academy to visit the Bass Pro Shop. (There was only one back then). We were scanning channels on the small motel TV and came across Cohen singing on Austin City Limits. Christian, my oldest son, almost yelled out that this was the guy that his classmate Tommy Wilson had told him about.

Many readers will not know Leonard Cohen. But would immediately recognize his song, Hallelujah, sung by fellow Canadian, KD Lang at the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Developing a taste gravelly-voice Cohen is like learning to enjoy a fine single malt Scotch. His remarkable lyrics are poetry paired perfectly with his often-simple melodies. His backup singers bring striking counterpoint to his voice. This contrast is a very like Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan who are also on this list. Great singers, they are not. They will not hit a sour note, but no one would ever call them songbirds as one might an Emmylou Harris.  As composites of all their skills, there are few performers who come even close to being their equals. 

I classified him as Jazz-Original because he wrote a song called The Jazz Police where he says he has been hounded by the jazz police who think they determine who is and isn’t a jazz musician. Regardless, Leonard Cohen was an original.

Meryl Haggard
Country Royalty

Meryl Haggard is perhaps the easiest voice to listen to in all of country music.  Old school Royalty, he died in 2016 at age 70.  Haggard was a songwriter, guitarist, and fiddler. Born in Oildale California, he spent much of his youth in the prison system but turned his life around after being released from San Quinton in 1960. Amazingly, Haggard had 38 number one hits on the country charts. Some of his most famous are: 

Mama Tried
Okie from Muskogee
Daddy Frank
Pancho and Lefty 
(with Willie Nelson)
Yesterday’s Wine 
(with George Jones)
The Fightin’ Side of Me

Silver Wings was not a #1 but is probably my favorite as his words and melody can make one feel what the singer was feeling when his lover left on those silver wings.

I can see right now that I must search a bunch of Merle Haggard LPs for my collection.

Willie Nelson
Country Royalty

Willie was a celebrated songwriter long before he gained the stardom as singer that he has today.  The song that he wrote that made him a hit as a song writer was Crazy released by Patsy Cline in 1962 reaching #2 on the Country Charts. 

Willie Nelson has had 25 songs reach #1 status. Probably his most famous are:

Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain 
Good Hearted Woman with Waylon Jennings
If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time) 
Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys with Waylon Jennings
Georgia On My Mind 
Blue Skies 
My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys 
On the Road Again

Between 1985 and 1995, Willie performed with the supergroup, The Highwaymen, with Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash. 

His remake of standards by the likes of Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, and Duke Ellington on his Stardustalbum in 1978 brought him a brand new noncountry music audience.  

Dolly Parton
Country Royalty– The Queen 

Dolly Parton, to her fans, is always Dolly. Not in the same way as first-name artists are today whose surnames are unknown to us. We know Dolly’s surname is Parton. But just mention the name Dolly in any crowd of people regardless of musical tastes, and they know you are talking about the blonde wig-sporting, super tight sequined outfits wearing country singer from the backward hills of Tennessee. Dolly has had ample opportunities to become a cartoon character of herself, but she remains true to her country-self.

Dolly-the-Singer is only equaled by Dolly-the-Songwriter. Dolly’s voice is straight out of the hills—not polished—and we are thankful for that. Whether she is singing Jolene or Coat of Many Colors or any of her other 25 number one Country hits, the real Dolly comes bursting through the music with the lyrics. Never more so than her #1, I Will Always Love You written to her musical partner Porter Wagoner when she decided to go out on her own. Remade into another #1 by Whitney Houston, it did not carry the passion of Dolly’s from-the-heart version. It is my favorite of all of Dolly’s songs.

One list (not the list) of top ten Dolly songs might be:

It’s All Wrong, But It’s All Right
Two Doors Down
Here You Come Again
Islands in the Stream
Coat of Many Colors
9 to 5 
I Will Always Love You

Kris Kristofferson
Country Royalty

His songwriting skills—lyrics and music—are unequaled in any genre. Kristofferson grew up in a military family and moved all over eventually settling in Pomona, California where he graduated with honors with a B.A. in literature. His studies did not stop there as he was appointed as a Rhodes Scholar to Oxford, attending Merton College where he earned a master’s in English Literature. 

Fulfilling family expectations he joined the military, flew helicopters and rose to the rank of Captain. And the end of his tour of duty in Germany he was offered the position of teaching literature at West Point but declined the offer to pursue his musical career.

Without any doubt, Kristofferson’s academic pursuits gave him the background to write lyrics unequaled in country music. A favorite lyric of mine that has become part of my personal philosophy and leadership beliefs was the chorus from the song with Rita Coolidge:

‘Cause I’ll never know ’til it’s over
If I’m right or I’m wrong loving you,
But I’d rather be sorry for something I’ve done
Than for something that I didn’t do.

The gravelly voiced country singer had only one #1 of his own, but half dozen or so of his songs released by other artists reached #1.  His most memorable songs include:

To Beat the Devil 
They Killed Him 
My Heart Was the Last One to Know 
Help Me Make It Through the Night 
Why Me 
Sunday Morning Coming Down 
Me & Bobby McGee 

Some readers may look at Me & Bobby McGee and think to themselves, “I thought Janis Joplin did that song.” Well, she did. And she took it to #1 on the pop charts. But, Kristofferson wrote it with his friend Fred Foster.

Perhaps Kristofferson’s most celebrated country song is Sunday Morning Coming Down. It tells the story of a country music singer who has landed at the bottom and is comfortable there. However, a walk down the quiet street takes him (and most listeners) back home to a time gone by. 

Hank Williams
Country Royalty– The King

Unequaled as a writer and The King of country music, Williams probably had the greatest influence on musicians in other popular genres than any other artist of any other musical form. Yet Williams, unlike Kris Kristofferson, was uneducated, dropping out of high school. Yet his songs with simple lyrics and a blues-laced guitar, had the ability to touch listeners’ emotions.

Williams grew up in rural Butler Country, Alabama and much of his source material for his songs came from his rural background. 

One of my favorite songs, Kaw-liga, is about a wooden Indian that stood at a storefront in the community of Kowaliga, Alabama on the shores of Lake Martin, just north of Montgomery. He wrote the song while staying at a cabin he owned at Kowaliga. Interestingly, it was on the flipside of Your Cheatin’ Heart. Kaw-liga was #1 on the Country Charts for 14 weeks and Your Cheatin’ Heart for six weeks.

Hank Williams #1 Country hits are:

Lovesick Blues
Long Gone Lonesome Blues
Why Don’t You Love Me
Moanin’ the Blues
Cold, Cold Heart 
Hey, Good Lookin’
Jambalaya (On the Bayou)
I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive
Your Cheatin’ Heart
Take These Chains from my Heart

Mark Knopfler
Rock (Storyteller, Guitarist, Movie Composer)

Mark Knopfler is an English songwriter, a guitarist of exceptional skills, and a composer of soundtracks for movies. These days Knopfler writes and tours with multi-national backup group that together plays 49 different instruments. This is one of the reasons it is so hard to place his music in a typical genre. 

In one of those special moments, we all have when you can place hearing a song for the first time with exactly where you were at the time. For the song was Money for Nothing by Dire Straits, the rock group Knopfler had formed, the place was driving up the driveway to Benjamin Russell High School where I was starting the second year of my 11 years as principal in the small and unique mill town of Alexander City, Alabama, home of Russell Corporation. Sometime afterward, I bought the CD—this was same time I had moved away from LPs—and rest is history.

Knopfler was born in Glasgow, Scotland and grew up in the historic Northumberland area of England. Following his graduation from University of Leeds, he taught English for three years as a university lecturer before forming Dire Straits with his brother. The band’s name came from its financial situation. Dire Straits’ album, Brother in Arms, gave the band  international recognition with its several memorable songs:

Dire Straits stayed together for another ten years before Knopfler began his solo career.

So Far Away   
Money for Nothing     
Walk of Life
Your Latest Trick       
Why Worry
Ride Across the River 
The Man’s Too Strong            
One World      
Brothers in Arms

After the release of Brother in Arms, Knopfler played lead guitar for Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming, composed Tina Turner’s comeback hit, Tiny Dancer. 

While Money for Nothing was the group’s only #1 in the U.S. and Canada, Walk of Life is so melodic I can play it over and over. My personal #1 Dire Straits’ song is the sad homage to Shakespeare and lost-love-that-might-have-been, Romeo and Juliet. I have seen Knopfler in concert twice, and this is the song the audience most longs to hear and rewards with the biggest applause. The guitar riff at the beginning is as unforgettable as are the lyrics.

As a solo performer, Mark Knopfler decided (from my perspective) to become a musical teller of stories where his lyrics frequently—no, usually—has a historical perspective such as Done with Bonaparte where a soldier tells why he deserted from Napoleon’s army. Or If This is Goodbye, his duet with Emmylou Harris, tribute to lovers who lost their loves in 9/11 where he imagines love’s expressions in those final phone calls. There is Sailing to Philadelphia, a duet with James Taylor that tells the story of Jeremiah Dixon and Charlie Mason who surveyed the Mason-Dixon Line in early America. And, neither last nor least, Privateering, the story of privately owned and crewed English sailing ships whose captains were given a commission from the Queen to raid the ships of enemy nations. Perhaps his most notable storytelling song was the Song For Sonny Liston—a poignant story of the abuse that Liston suffered growing up and his rise to fame in the boxing ring to suffer again at the hands of others.

My top Mark Knopfler (and Dire Straits) songs, with no regard to Billboard listing as this is a useless reference for Knopfler fans who listen for the elegance of his stories, the excellence of backup players and their flair for Celtic, and his guitar as a guitar master, perhaps equaled by the likes of Eric Clapton but not surpassed.

Romeo and Juliet
Golden Heart
Done with Bonaparte
If This is Goodbye
 (with Emmylou Harris)
Darling Pretty
Sailing to Philadelphia 
(with James Taylor)
Nobody’s Child
Piper to the End
Are We in Trouble Now?
Secondary Waltz
Madame Geneva’s
Haul Away
Why Aye Man
Hill Farmer Blues
Do America
Baloney Again
Last Laugh 
(with Van Morrison)
Prairie Wedding

Mark Knopfler has given me hours upon hours of listening pleasure. YouTube provides several approved concert videos, but nothing is like seeing this consummate professional and his bandmates play and sing for two hours without the need for any theatrics except the number of instrument changes and the rare quip my Knopler. Best I can tell, he is not there to put on a “show,” and thank goodness he doesn’t. 

Simply, he is one of a kind and there is not another like Mark Knopfler. 

The Band
Rock Group Royalty 

I am not sure of the date or why I was at the main branch of the Mobile Public Library. However, that library always had an upbeat effect on my attitude that dated back to my early school years when my brother Bill and I would ride from our small home on that Wilmer, Alabama sandy dirt road with my daddy who worked at McConnell Pontiac which was in those days still located downtown a few blocks from the Library.  Bill and I would mess around at the dealership for a few minutes probably drinking a highly sugared and creamed cup of coffee then walk to the library so that we arrived when the doors opened at 9:00 a.m. We would walk back to meet daddy for lunch and then return to the magic world of the library until it was time to meet daddy when he got off at 5:00 p.m. 

So, I was back into my “younger days” and I guess I was cruising their record collection for new LPs. When I found an LP that had not been scratched up, I would check it out and bring it home and transfer it to a cassette tape for me and Sandy to play in our cars on the way to work. This day I came across a white multi-record album that clearly had only been in the stacks for a few days and had never been checked out. I checked it out in the hopes I might find some songs that I liked. Little did I know what I had found. It wasThe Last Waltz by The BandI didn’t just copy a track or two, I recorded every one of the 30 tracks on the four LPs.


The Band was a Canadian-American group formed in Toronto with four Canadians (Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Robbie Robertson) and one American (Levon Helm from Arkansas). 

Perhaps what made the group one of a kind in Rock and Roll of its era was that they combined elements of Americana, folk, rock, jazz, country, and R&B. The creative driving creative force and leader was Robbie Robertson.

Because, in my opinion, The Band was composed of the greatest conglomeration of matchless musicians and writers of their era, their songs remain as fresh today as they were during their run of success from 1968 to 1978.

The Band’s greatest hits are noted below. There was not a #1 Billboard hit among the bunch. However, if you listen to them, I think you will agree with me that it makes not a whit of difference in the group’s greatness.

All Songs were written by Robbie Robertson except as noted in italics.

The Weight
Tears of Rage 
(Bob Dylan, Richard Manuel)
Chest Fever
I Shall Be Released 
(Bob Dylan)
Up on Cripple Creek
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down*
Rag Mama Rag
King Harvest 
(Has Surely Come)
The Shape I’m In
Stage Fright
Time to Kill
Life Is a Carnival 
(Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson)
When I Paint My Masterpiece (Bob Dylan)
It Makes No Difference
Acadian Driftwood
Ain’t Got No Home
 (Clarence Frogman Henry)

*I should not need to talk a bit about The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down written by Canadian, Robbie Robertson. However, given today’s climate of South-disgust, I sense the need to tell the rest of the story as Paul Harvey used to say.

Robbie Robertson in a conversation with Southerner, Levon Helm, told Helm that he did not understand the deep reverence that Southerners held for their homeland given the history of Civil War.  Helm invited him to take a trip through the South, and on his journey, Robertson was intensely affected by the emotional ties the people had to the land and to the Southern legends of the Civil War. 

Robertson returned to his home in Woodstock, NY and spent eight months writing The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. In his 1993 autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire, Helm wrote, “Robbie and I worked on ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ up in Woodstock. I remember taking him to the library so he could research the history and geography of the era and make General Robert E. Lee come out with all due respect.” (

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down is the favorite song about The War for Southerners, even more that the traditional Dixie which was written by an Ohioan for Northern minstrel shows. Why?

After much research and input from Levon Helm, Robertson wrote a song that Southerners adopted—not because it glamorizes the conflict—but because it does exactly the opposite. It is the story of the Kane family who has felt the profound losses they experienced with the death of a younger brother.  This is a song of a dirt-poor white Southern family loving the South even when the Confederate money was useless, and he (Virgil Caine) was reduced to chopping wood and hoping to eke out enough vegetables to eat in the last year of The War. But even Virgil’s love for the South cannot bring back his young brother, and clearly The War was pointless as the excerpts from the lyrics demonstrate by this Canadian songwriter and Levon Helm’s vocals.

Interestingly, it was 245 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.  Pitchfork Media named it the forty-second best song of the Sixties.  The song is included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll” and Time magazine’s All-Time 100.( 

Ralph J. Gleason , music critic (in his review in Rolling Stone of October 1969, explained why the song has such an impact on listeners:

Nothing I have read … has brought home the overwhelming human sense of history that this song does. The only thing I can relate it to at all is The Red Badge of Courage. It’s a remarkable song, the rhythmic structure, the voice of Levon and the bass line with the drum accents and then the heavy close harmony of Levon, Richard and Rick in the theme, make it seem impossible that this isn’t some traditional material handed down from father to son straight from that winter of 1865 to today. It has that ring of truth and the whole aura of authenticity. (

Excerpts from The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

…In the winter of ’65
We were hungry, just barely alive

Now, I don’t mind chopping wood
And I don’t care if the money’s no good
You take what you need
And you leave the rest
But they should never
Have taken the very best

Like my father before me
I will work the land 
And like my brother above me
Who took a rebel stand

He was just 18, proud and brave
But a Yankee laid him in his grave
I swear by the mud below my feet
You can’t raise a Kane back up
When he’s in defeat

-Robbie Robertson


The Last Waltz was The Band’s final concert held on American Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1976, at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Starting at 5:00 p.m., the audience of 5,000 was served turkey dinners and there was ballroom dancing with music by the Berkeley Promenade Orchestra. Somewhere about the middle of night, there were two spur-of-the moment jam sessions held with band members and invited musical guests.

The Last Waltz concluded when The Band came back to the stage to perform an encore at around 2:15 a.m. It was the last time they would perform as a group under the moniker, The Band.

The Band invited some special guests to join them on the stage in this final concert:

Bob, Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Muddy Water, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Ringo Starr, Neil Diamond, The Staples Singers, Emmylou Harris, Dr. John, and Stephen Stills.

Many people in this group of guests are what today might be called influencers of The Band’s music. Others were contemporaries. Each of the musicians played their own songs, played The Band’s songs, and played with individual members of The Band. At one point when Eric Clapton was playing a solo on “Further on Up the Road,” and his guitar strap came loose. Clapton yelled to Robbie Robertson “Rob!” and Robertson picked up the solo without missing a beat.


It was sometime much later that I discovered that a well-known movie director had put the entire concert on video including jam sessions and interviews with the participants. 

The number of times I have watched Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz must number in the dozens and dozens. It never gets old.


There is a lot of music I have listened intently to in my 74 years. There are many songs that will play as ear worms in my head on any given day, and I will return with another blog down the way about my favorite songs. But my purpose here, the #1 spot in Music My Way  it is the  Americana, folk, rock, jazz, country, and R&B group, The Band.


By the way, the first LP I purchased when I got my new turntable last Christmas was The Last Waltz. And I paid pretty penny for it, too! This hobby ain’t cheap once you have scarfed up all the good ones at Goodwill!

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