What: John Prine’s heartsick 1971 ballad “Angel from Montgomery.” Here is its greatest version, a live performance by Bonnie Raitt, in support of the recording on her 1974 album Streetlights:

Why: Like gospel music doesn’t hedge on which gospel it’s referring to, country music is not shy about declaring which country it’s about. Sometimes it’s garish, thick-skulled, or sentimental. But on the increasingly rare occasions when it’s great, it’s uniquely empowered to hit an American’s heart. Take “Angel from Montgomery,” a ballad by a male troubadour that begins “I am an old woman.” She isn’t the titular angel, as she’d be in a song about someone’s mom. Instead, the angel is the one thing she needs to see so she can justify watching another year just flow by like a broken down dam. It isn’t so much that she misses her cowgirl days; it’s that she wants her present days to mean anything at all. It’s a crushing song, but you still want as good a life as she’s had, even if it’s going to end in deafening silence.

Impact: “Angel from Montgomery” was the standout song on John Prine’s eponymous debut album in 1971. He was one of many songwriters dubbed the “next Dylan,” which was a strange thing to be when Dylan was still recording songs as good as “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” He wasn’t the next Dylan, and he never wanted to be. Prine just composed “standard songs for average people,” per the title of his latest album. But “Angel from Montgomery” became far better known than its writer, being recorded by Raitt, Jackson Browne, Dave Matthews, Tanya Tucker, and many others.

Personal Connection: At an early age, “Angel from Montgomery” taught me the difference between the songwriter and the character he’s singing about. I’ve written many songs from other people’s points of view since. I almost never write them from my own. To paraphrase the song, I’d have nothing to say.

Other Contenders: the other beautiful “angelic” song, Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning”; Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”, the best song Willie Nelson ever wrote; Maura O’Connell and Nanci Griffith’s farming lament, “Trouble in the Fields”; Woody Guthrie’s riveting “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)”, here performed by son Arlo and Emmylou Harris; Elvis Presley’s bleak “Long Black Limousine”; The Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me”—a country song from France.