Creating debates by the number

Independence Day is still almost four months away, but authors David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren are already gearing up for fireworks. They know they'll trigger plenty with their new book, "Heartaches by the Number: Country Music's 500 Greatest Singles" ($27.95, Vanderbilt University Press/Country Music Foundation Press), to be published Friday.

They've not only dared attempt for country music what rock critic Dave Marsh did for rock, pop and R&B; in his 1989 book "The Heart of Rock & Soul: 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made," they've formulated a top 10 without a record by Johnny Cash. Or Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Bob Wills or Loretta Lynn, to say nothing of such contemporary superstars as the Dixie Chicks, Garth Brooks or Shania Twain.

But their top 10 does include "Born to Lose" by Ted Daffan's Texans (No. 10) and Elvis Presley's "Don't Be Cruel" (No. 5). There'll be skyrockets over Nashville for their No. 1 choice alone: Not George Jones' perennial country-fan poll-topper "He Stopped Loving Her Today" (which is on their list--at No. 147), nor Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" (No. 47), but Sammi Smith's 1970 version of Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night."

The two contributors to No Depression country music magazine know they're stirring the hornet's nest. They view it as a tool to initiate rather than end debates.

"We wrote the book in a spirit of dialogue, and hopefully that's the spirit in which it will be received," says Friskics-Warren, 43. "One reviewer thought our choices were baffling. They couldn't understand how a Monkees record ["Last Train to Clarksville," No. 326] or a Rolling Stones record ["Honky Tonk Women," No. 458] could make it into a country book. But we're emphasizing the fluidity of the music's boundaries."

Friskics-Warren said the reason there are fewer recent singles in the book is that some of those records haven't stood the test of time. Still, Brooks is represented twice, while Twain, Jackson and Faith Hill placed a song apiece on the list, which ends with Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance."

Mostly, Friskics-Warren says, people shouldn't get too caught up in the numbers game. "The ordering of the records was fairly painstaking," he says, "but basically we viewed this as a project designed to help us tell the story of the music."

-- Randy Lewis

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