Today I’m picking a fight with…well, potentially every single one of you. Because today we’re taking on the most subjective of outdoor topics.
Today I’m power ranking the best campfire songs of all time!
All of us, from those who practically live in the backcountry to the folks who have dabbled in car camping at least once, have had the experience of sitting outside around a campfire, having a few drinks or roasting marshmallows when that one person in your group brings out the acoustic guitar.
It's a make or break moment not only for the evening but for the trip at large. If the guitar playing camper can strum with confidence, carry a tune and has a deep repertoire of tunes everyone can sing along with, that person's spot on the invitation list to future camping trips is assured.
Or do they monopolize what otherwise would be a pleasant evening out of doors with hamfisted covers or lame originals playing much longer than anyone actually wants. In that case, they’ll be the punchline of the rest of the trip and invitations to future outings will be cast in doubt.
‘Do we really want to invite Bill? He’s a great hang while we’re on the trail, but fuuuuuckk…I don’t know if I want to sign up for another one of his concerts.’
You hear that Bill? No one wanted to hear you try to pull off a full acoustic version of INAGODADAVIDA!
While we’re here, for all the Bill’s out there, don’t just assume everyone wants to have a sing along. Unless you were asked to play a song, when you bust out your axe, ask the group, ‘hey do you mind if I play a song’. Everyone will always say yes to be polite.
Have a crowd pleaser ready in your back pocket and maybe then they’ll ask you to play more. If not, take the win of single tune and just sit there and noodle on the guitar to provide some soft background music. It could be that most of the group is happier chilling out and chatting.
Have some goddamn self awareness, Bill. Christ. Fuckin’ bill, man, amiright?
Anyway, today we’re putting out the first ever rock fight campfire song power rankings. These tunes are guaranteed crowd pleasers that can be played by a beginner level guitar player. A lot of G Em C D’s on this list.
Here’s the criteria on which this list was built.
Classics. There are a handful of agreed upon classics that everyone knows and everyone who has yet to be born will know. These are unassailable and I make no apologies for their inclusion regardless of how cliche they may be. Sometimes the obvious/cliche choice is simply the right choice. Getting everyone to sing along around the campfire is the goal here.
Known tunes that you wouldn’t necessarily think of but will kill every time.
A handful of personal choices that I definitely want to see get the attention they deserve.
And lastly, I’ve tried each of these tunes personally. Yeah, that’s right, I’m Bill. I’m a shitty guitar player who relies on basic chords and I can carry a tune. So campfire guitar guy is the perfect role for my musical sensibilities and I can guarantee that the songs on this list that you may not know are slam dunks.
While it definitely could be longer I capped the inaugural list to just 20 songs. When the selection committee gathers together in 2024 to update these power rankings we’ll discuss adding more songs but for the first go at this 20 seems about right. So let’s get started!
#20: Horses by Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers
This is a personal favorite, short, sweet and western themed. This is the warm up you play off by yourself to get everyone's attention. If you haven’t heard of RCPM from the great state of Arizona I suggest you schedule a deep dive. Lots of potential for the campfire in their catalog.
#19: Ball & Chain by Social Distortion
It’s a well kept secret that punk and ska tunes translate beautifully to a solo acoustic performance. More people know Ball & Chain than you realize and the edgy vibe of the song will resonate with anyone.
#18: Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash
This song is on everyone’s best campfire song list and it’s a banger for sure but Johnny Cash is one of a couple of artists with multiple songs on this list and I have what I think is the better Cash tune higher up. But Ring of Fire is a sure fire hit.
#17: Leaving on a Jet Plane by John Denver
The other artist with multiple songs on the list but again this is a can’t fail tune. A classic no one knows the verses but everyone knows the chorus so when you start playing it you’ll get the ‘wait, wait I know this one’ reaction and then the aha moment when you hit the first chorus.
#16: Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) by Green Day
Another punk band and another easy cover that will get everyone singing along. A no brainer.
#15: Free Fallin by Tom Petty
Free Fallin is like Melt With You by Modern English or Africa by Toto. You’ve heard it in more places and more times than you’ll ever be able to count. The reason it’s not in the top 10 of these power rankings is because it’s not an easy song to sing. If you can pull it off you’ll be a campfire legend. If you can’t and you try anyway…blame the whiskey.
#14: New Slang by The Shins
A modern classic that will change your life when you listen to it, New Slang may not be as universally known as Free Fallin but it’s getting pretty close and also requires the right voice to be able to pull it off. But the upside of playing New Slang to the right crowd is super high.
#13: Take It Easy by The Eagles
Most people have Hotel California on their campfire song list and those people are wrong. For one thing it’s too long and much harder to pull off than Take It Easy. Also, Take It Easy is a total campfire vibe and guaranteed to get everyone going during the chorus.
#12: Campfire Song Song by SpongeBob Squarepants
Whether you grew up with SpongeBob or discovered the show when you had kids of your own, SpongeBob Squarepants is the modern looney toons and Campfire Song Song is a classic that is fun to sing and see how fast your group can go and still hold it together. Plus you need one tune that any kids in attendance will be pumped about.
#11. Every Rose Has It’s Thorn by Poison
Probably the most underrated song on this list that comes with the highest upside if you play it. Everyone knows it, everyone wants to go ‘yeah it does’ during the part of the song where Bret Michaels goes ‘yeah it does’ and it has one of those choruses that you can pick up on the fly even if you’re not that familiar with it.
Alright, let’s get into the top 10.
#10: The Gambler by Kenny Rogers
Just an all timer, a chorus that everyone knows. Even my kids sing along to this song thanks to its inclusion in season 3 of The Office. Save this one for the nights when everyone around the campfire is feeling the live music and bust this one out near the end of the night. Guaranteed to make your circle smile.
#9: American Pie by Don McLean
You probably thought this one would be in the top five and certainly deserves its place there but the length and amount of lyrics you need to memorize to be able to pull it off is a tough one. It’s a really easy song to play but think of how many pop culture references of screwing up the lyrics to American Pie have been made over the years (another moment from The Office, this time season 4). That said, if you know this song, and you can handle it, this is your closer. Every time. Everyone will sing.
#8: Thunder Road by Bruce Springsteen
The studio version of Thunder Road is one of our greatest songs ever. But it can be dumbed down into a killer acoustic version that builds to a great finish almost as good as listening to the E Street Band. Plus the subject matter of Thunder Road always speaks to the ‘not all who wander are lost’ vibe you get with just about any outdoor tribe.
#7: Sweet Caroline by Neil Diamond
I’m sorry, but I’m also not sorry. You can claim that you hate this song and there likely is no one out there who will put this song on while driving in the car. But even the biggest hater can’t resist going ‘BA BA BA!’ when this song gets played in a group. This is the song where you start playing it, there are immediate groans and by the end of the first chorus everyone is on board.
#6: Wanted Dead or Alive by Bon Jovi
A super simple but pleasing classic and like the Every Rose Has Its Thorn ‘yeah it does’ everyone wants to unleash a ‘WANTED!’ at the right part. This song can be your opener, closer it can be the only song you play, it’s super versatile, but it definitely plays the best when you have a crowd that is a little less than sober. Just a tip.
#5: Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash
The second and superior Johnny Cash song on this list. You want your campfire song to have a propulsive quality to them, songs that sound good being strum, and Folsom Prison Blues works much better in that regard than Ring of Fire. Plus Ring of Fire is also a term that they use for crowning during childbirth and honestly once I learned that I couldn’t look at that song the same way again. But regardless, Folsom Prison Blues might be a legends’ most legendary song and it always works around the fire.
#4: By and By by Caamp
The most recent release on the list and charting at number 4. An amazing feat from the Ohio band Caamp who judging by their band name was predestined to be near the top of this list and potentially will have multiple songs on it down the road (we have our eyes on Hey Joe). This song just exudes outdoor vibes. I’m expecting a long stay in the top 5 for By and By.
#3: Me & Julio Down by the Schoolyard by Paul Simon
The dark horse to eventually ascend to number one in a future power ranking. I’ve played this song at open mics, family gatherings and around the campfire and it never fails to land. This is the quintessential ‘I never think about this song but when I hear it I freaking love it’ song. Like just put this song on in the car, it’s an absolutely timeless bop. The perfect song to kick off the campfire especially if you only have one to play. Also, check out the cover of this tune by Streetlight Manifesto…it’s sick.
#2: Wagon Wheel by Old Crow Medicine Show
Wagon Wheel missed being number 1 by a razor’s margin. The song checks all of the boxes: easy to play, a chorus that you can sing along to even if it’s the first time you’re hearing it and Old Crow Medicine Show is a bluegrass band (they say they’re an Americana string band, but c’mon they’re a bluegrass band) which is the most outdoorsy genre of music we have. If someone is playing songs around a campfire there is a greater than 90% chance you’ll hear either this song or the number one song on our list. Wagon Wheel has a long list of great covers by artists like Darius Rucker and Chris Pureka, it’s a modern classic.
So what song could beat it out to be number one on the first ever Rock Fight campfire song power rankings? Well if you’ve made it this far there is no doubt of a song title you’ve been expecting and you haven’t seen yet.
#1: Take Me Home, Country Roads by John Denver
John Denver deserves credit in creating the modern outdoor industry and lifestyle with songs like Take Me Home, Country Roads. Denver's ode to the mountains and streams of West Virginia is a classic around the campfire.
Country Roads works as a chill tune in the car, a kids song that parents use as a lullabye and of course, at least for 2023, it is the greatest song you can play around the campfire.
This concludes this year's campfire song power rankings. Please send your feedback for next year’s rankings to email@example.com. Also, this essay was originally featured on THE ROCK FIGHT podcast and is available to listen to in the player below.