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The Top 100 Albums in Country Music History: The Top 10

Written by Adam Sheets on . Posted in Articles - Southern Heritage

Welcome to the final edition of The Top 100 Albums in Country Music History. I want to begin this week by thanking all of you for coming back week after week and for your kind words and comments. Secondly, I do want to point out that a lot of time, thought and effort was put into this list and the rankings (although, in my mind, the rankings aren't nearly as important as the albums featured). While you are free to say whatever you like on this site, I do ask that you read and consider these following questions and answers before simply informing me that I'm full of shit.

Q: Why aren't there any modern albums?

A: Roger Alan Wade's Deguello Motel came out in 2010 and is featured on the list. Admittedly, I chose that album not only for it's brilliant songwriting, but because it featured only a man and his acoustic guitar, a performance and production style that has not went out of style since the dawn of the recording business. The problem with including newer albums is that we have no perspective of how those albums will hold up over the years or how they will rank in the artist's overall catalog. There are country records- even underground country records- that ranked among my favorites back in the 2000s that are already beginning to sound dated. Maybe in ten years I'll revise the list and it will look a bit different.

Q: Why so little bluegrass?

A: There are many fine bluegrass albums and if I had chosen to go that route, they would have almost dominated the list. So I chose instead to point out five or six of the best bluegrass albums for people who may be new to the genre. If I were making a list of the best bluegrass albums, I would have a completely different criteria than I had for this country list and the list may have been more to the satisfaction of a bluegrass fan.

Q: Why no Western swing?

A: Hank Thompson's At the Golden Nugget is a Western swing album and there is quite a bit of Western swing on many of the albums listed here, from Ray Price's Night Life to George Strait's Strait from the Heart. However, the golden age of Western swing was in the '30s and '40s well before the dawn of the album format. I did strongly consider Bob Wills' For the Last Time, but ultimately decided that doing so would be more for historical purposes than actually representing anything close to Wills' best work.

Q: Where is Wanted: The Outlaws and the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack?

A: These two albums rank among the most important of their respective eras and I would recommend them to anybody with an interest in country music. With that said, Outlaws is a compilation and, as such, was not even considered. I did have a tougher time dismissing O Brother Where Art Thou, as it is made up of mostly new recordings produced by T Bone Burnett. However, the inclusion of several songs dating back to the 1950s and earlier means it is technically a compilation as well.

Q: What about Sweetheart of the Rodeo, American Beauty and Nashville Skyline?

A: All three are fantastic country rock albums, but I stated from the beginning that I would only include albums from artists that were primarily associated with country or had had success on the country charts. The Byrds, the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan clearly did not have the latter and, as for the former, go ask 100 people on the street what genre the artists belong to and I'll bet my bottom dollar that every single person will say rock (and, in Dylan's case, some would probably still say folk). I did include bands featuring members of the Byrds and the Dead (the Flying Burrito Brothers and Old & In the Way). I also included Elvis Presley, Charlie Rich, the Everly Brothers and Ray Charles because all of them had success on the country charts but I intentionally stayed away from their non-country efforts. I'll admit that I did briefly toy around with the idea of including Elvis's debut album because he was known as a "hillbilly" singer at the time and because the album influenced most of the music that followed, including country. But ultimately I decided that adding it would open Pandora's box.

Q: Why isn't my favorite artist on the list?

A: Some of my favorites aren't here either. There are a variety of reasons why this could be the case. Maybe they were around and reached their peak prior to the rise of the album in the mid-'50s. Maybe they focused more on making great singles than making great albums. Maybe they are modern artists, in which case you should see the first question presented here. Either way, it is probably not meant as a slight.

Q: What other albums did you consider for the list?

A: That's too long to answer here, but if enough people want to see it, I will consider posting the honorable mentions. They will be unranked (I will put them in alphabetical order for your convenience) and will not be accompanied by a write-up. Let me know and I'll get it done.

Q: OK, but what are the top 10?

A: Here you go...

10. Tom T. Hall- In Search of a Song (1971)

I've said it before and I'll say it again: any songwriter in Nashville who currently has a song in the top 40 should be forced to take a one-year sabbatical and sign a legal document stating that they will listen to nothing but Tom T. Hall records in that period of time. When it comes to writing about real people and real life, Tom most likely has everybody in the history of the genre beat. His songs do not deal with just the lonely barrooms on Saturday nights, the church on Sunday morning and the occasional heartache in between, nor is he of the "mama, trains, trucks, prison and gettin' drunk" school of country songwriting. No, his songs tell of the everyday life of common folks with the precision of a journalist, the wit of a great American humorist such as Clemens, and the honesty of somebody who has lived it.

In Search of a Song is damn near the best portrait you will find of the America between the coasts and it's people back in the early '70s. There is plenty of humor to be found here on tracks like "Tulsa Telephone Book" and "The Little Lady Preacher," but he also has plenty to say about death and dying, as on "The Year that Clayton Delaney Died" and "Second-Handed Flowers." But, more importantly, there is plenty of social commentary and a healthy cynicism (and not just the good-natured hippie-chiding of "L.A. Blues"). Look at "Trip to Hyden," for instance. Hyden, Kentucky had been the site of a 1970 mining disaster that killed 39 people and Hall chronicles his visit to the town with a sort of bewildered honesty. For example, the lines "Every hundred yards a sign proclaimed that 'Christ is coming soon'/I thought, 'well, man, he'd sure be disappointed if he did." Later on we get the description of the mine itself as "deadly silent like a rat hole in the wall," and, more tellingly, hear from one of the ladies in town that because of the settlements and lawsuits, "they's worth more money now than when they's a-livin'."

But how about the dying man in "Who's Gonna Feed them Hogs?," who could lose his entire livelihood because of the type of neighbors who no longer look out for one another? Best of all is "Kentucky, February 27, 1971" where a visit with an old man leads into a discussion of why simple country living was already disappearing. The old man tells Hall: "You know, son, people used to tell their kids/'Now I don't want you to have to work the way I did'/They don't and some will tell you that it's a shame/But you have to think before you place the blame."

But perhaps the two best songs here are the bittersweet childhood memories of "A Million Miles to the City" and "It Sure Can Get Cold in Des Moines," which depicts the lonely life of a stranger in town as good as any song I've ever heard.

I've sometimes heard Merle Haggard referred to as "the Woody Guthrie of country music," but with all due respect to Merle, I believe that title should actually go to Tom T. Hall. On this album, he paints a detailed portrait of an America that is mostly gone these days and was slowly dying even then, drowned in a sea of mass-produced pop culture and busy, cluttered lives without the time to enjoy even the simplest things without a cell phone in your hand. It's not all fun and games, but it is a reminder of a time when people worked hard and took time out for living. Today, it's a snapshot of a better time and place and an example of a true national treasure at his very best.

09. The Everly Brothers- Songs Our Daddy Taught Us (1958)

The country music business has always had a somewhat complicated relationship with the first generation of rock and rollers. On one hand, rock and roll was viewed as a threat to the Nashville monopoly at the time, but on the other hand singles by Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and others often topped the country charts, many established country stars gave rockabilly a go, and some early rockers became regulars on the Opry and The Louisiana Hayride. Not to mention the future generations of country stars who would cross over from rock and roll (Conway Twitty, Buck Owens, Bobby Bare, Jerry Reed, etc.), those like Waylon who cut their teeth playing in rock bands, and others such as Ricky Nelson who would prove to be important forerunners to country-rock. By the '70s, Elvis and Jerry Lee had been fully accepted by the Nashville establishment that once feared them and by the next decade they would be joined by Roy Orbison and Ray Charles. But regardless of how great the music these early rockers made was (and the '50s and early '60s is still my favorite era for rock), there is no denying that none of them ever got nearly as close to the roots of country music as the Everly Brothers did on Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. Of course, that shouldn't be a surprise given the fact that their daddy also taught Merle Travis how to play guitar.

Rock critics will tell you that without the Everly Brothers we would have never heard the Beatles, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel and any other notable group that made significant use of vocal harmony. I couldn't agree more, but on the other side of the coin I will say that without this album there would not have been a '60s folk revival or the country rock movement of the late '60s and '70s. On the surface the album is the definition of simplicity, featuring just two acoustic guitars, a stand-up bass and the most beautiful vocal harmonies ever captured on record. But below the surface, this was a history lesson on the roots of rock and roll geared towards the Everly Brothers' young audience. Thousands of young music fans were introduced to traditional Appalachian ballads, country standards by Charlie Monroe, the Bailes Brothers and Bradley Kincaid, as well as Western singers like Gene Autry and Tex Ritter. They heard songs of love, songs of home, songs of murder and of prison. They heard the premier rock duo of the time forsaking the music that had made them popular to pay tribute to their roots. Elvis had done Red Foley's "Old Shep" on an album two years earlier, but no rock artist had ever attempted something like this for a whole album. In the short term, it may have been seen as the rare "rock album" that even parents could enjoy (although there's no rock to be found here anywhere). In the long term, we can see that it planted the seeds for a return to the roots of American music that would happen off and on throughout the '60s. Over fifty years later, I think it's safe to say that it was the very first alt. country album.

08. Kris Kristofferson- Kristofferson (1970; later reissued as Me and Bobby McGee)

Imagine for a minute that you are a country fan in 1970. You've been hearing a lot about some guy named Kris Kristofferson and you've read his name on the songwriting credits of albums by people like Roger Miller, Johnny Cash, Ray Price and Bobby Bare. So you're at the record store and you come across his album and decide to pick it up and see what all the fuss is about. You take it home, curious to hear his own takes on "Me and Bobby McGee," "For the Good Times," and "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down." You get home, remove the shrink wrap and put it on the turntable. The first thing you hear is a heavy electric guitar and lyrics damning vast segments of upper-middle-class suburbanites and praising the Rolling Stones. And not only that but a chorus parodying the Christian hymn "Bringing in the Sheaves"! Was this something new in country music or simply a return of the rebellious, authority-questioning streak present in the genre since the days of Roy Acuff's "The Old Age Pension Check" and the Louvin Brothers' "The Great Atomic Power"? Either way, it was far from the typical way to open a country album back in the heyday of "Okie from Muskogee."

If they weren't scared off by "Blame It On the Stones," country fans would have found plenty of great songs on this self-titled debut LP. There were tales of Nashville ("To Beat the Devil" and "Just the Other Side of Nowhere"), run-ins with authority ("The Best of All Possible Worlds" and "The Law is For Protection of the People"), broken hearts ("Duvalier's Dream" and "Darby's Castle"), and, of course, the beginning chapters of Kris's constant search for happiness and freedom ("Me and Bobby McGee" and "Casey's Last Ride").

Kris Kristofferson is the rightful heir to the throne of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams and nowhere is that more apparent than on this album. He is an outcast, a drifter just searching for freedom and light. And he is blessed with the ability to write iconic songs of the things he's seen and done, the people he's met and the times he lives in. Is this the first outlaw country record? Probably, but we'll save that discussion for another day. What can be said is that this is Kris's finest album, one of the best expressions of freedom in American music and the primary hymn book for any country music outsider.

07. Marty Robbins- Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs (1959)

To understand the commercial success of this album, one needs to look at the American pop culture of 1959. My favorite film, Rio Bravo, was one of the top box office hits of the year (and with no CGI!) and the top 10 TV programs included Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train, and Wanted Dead or Alive. If you expand that to include the top 20, you could add Maverick, The Lawman, Cheyenne, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, The Rifleman, and Rawhide. (Bonanza was still in it's first season and was still finding it's footing.) Which is not to imply that an album of cowboy songs was a safe bet. Far from it, actually. Tex Ritter and Roy Rogers had last hit the country charts in 1950 and Gene Autry in 1951.

But Marty and his producer understood why Western music was out of favor, despite the prevalence of Western films and TV shows. Roy, Gene and even Tex (at least until High Noon) were primarily actors in B-movies geared toward children and their inoffensive songs about riding the range reflected this. While Marty does pay homage to this school of songwriting a few times on the album, for the most part Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs is a gritty, serious affair aimed at the adult audiences who were watching Gunsmoke and Rio Bravo.

As an Arizona native who grew up hearing his grandfather's tales of the Old West, Marty Robbins was the perfect artist to make this album. That he also happened to be one of the best vocalists working at the time didn't hurt and with the help of top-tier musicians including Grady Martin and vocal backing by Tompall and the Glaser Brothers, he made this the best achievement of his career and the single best Western album ever made.

The best-known songs here (the epic "El Paso" and the morality tale "Big Iron") deserve every bit of their reputation, but the album goes much deeper with tales of men dying from thirst in the desert ("Cool Water"), mean horses ("Strawberry Roan"), finding salvation in the midst of a cattle stampede ("The Master's Call"), outlaws ("Billy the Kid" and "Running Gun"), and even love ("In the Valley") and happiness ("A Hundred and Sixty Acres"). But my favorite here by far is "They're Hanging Me Tonight," a sinister twist on the classic country music cheating song.

In 2014, the cowboy has mostly disappeared from American culture and certainly from country music, but if you want to find out why he was such a strong symbol of this nation for well over 100 years or simply want to hear one of the greatest albums ever made, this LP needs to be in your collection.

[Note: I always recommend buying on vinyl if possible, but if you absolutely must buy on CD be extra careful that you are getting the original album on this one. It has been repackaged many times over the years, often in incorrect order, with songs omitted and other songs from Marty's later Western-themed albums added.]

06. Waylon Jennings- Honky Tonk Heroes (1973)

It's sometimes easy to forget just how successful Waylon Jennings had been prior to "outlaw country." Between 1966 and the release of Lonesome, On'ry and Mean in early '73, he racked up 22 top 20 hits (getting as high as #2), won a Grammy, and starred in a motion picture for the independent, but very successful American International Pictures. All of this makes his transition into an outlaw even more noteworthy. Unlike the alleged outlaws in country music today, he did not come into town and proclaim he was different just to sell more records. Instead he risked a highly successful career as a mainstream country artist to make the music he wanted to make.

Waylon had met Billy Joe Shaver in Texas and had told him he would record one of his songs. After months of attempting to track down Waylon and maybe even a death threat or two, Shaver finally convinced Waylon to not only record that song but a whole album of his compositions. In a stroke of luck, Waylon's regular producer Chet Atkins refused to participate and for the first time Waylon produced himself (with the help of Tompall Glaser) and his long-time road band the Waylors, making only their second appearance on a Waylon album, finally got to show what they could bring to the table. The result is an outlaw country masterpiece in every sense of the word.

The album opens with Shaver's autobiographical title track and Waylon turns it into a representation of the complete history of country music. He begins with a simple acoustic guitar reminiscent of Jimmie Rodgers, then a swinging fiddle comes in bringing it into Bob Wills territory, then the songs speeds up, the Waylors come in, and Waylon gives it everything he's got, resulting in a sound that was equal parts Ernest Tubb and Buddy Holly. On songs like "Old Five and Dimers Like Me," "Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me," "Black Rose," "Low Down Freedom," "Ain't No God in Mexico," "Omaha," and "Ride Me Down Easy," Waylon and the band perfectly capture the spirit of the modern-day cowboy with lyrics of extraordinary honesty and a very sparse production that showcases them at their best. The only song here not written by Shaver is the album-closing "We Had it All," which is a bit more polished but just as good at showing a completely different side to Waylon's music.

Ultimately, I wouldn't go as far as to call this the "best" Waylon album. I think it's about equal with Dreaming My Dreams. But I feel safe in calling it the most important album of his career and the one that paved the way for everything that came later.

05. Roger Miller- Roger and Out (1964; later reissued as Dang Me)

Simply stated, Roger and Out is 21 minutes of raw, unfiltered country-and-western anarchy that resulted in the most distinctive performer in the history of the genre being introduced to a larger audience, the birth of "punk country" years before "punk rock" even existed, and one of the best listening experiences you will ever have. And what about the songwriting? I've made it no secret that I consider Roger second only to Hank Williams in that department and, while it's true that I base some of that on his ballads and pure honky tonk numbers, as somebody who knows first-hand how difficult it can be to compose a "fun" song, this is a major reason as well.

Side one kicks off with the hit "Chug-a-Lug," an ode to homemade liquor, and the album gets even better as it goes along with "The Moon is High (And So Am I)," the satirical Cold War paranoia of "Private John Q," the ultimately optimistic "Lou's Got the Flu," and the hilarious "It Takes All Kinds To Make a World". The side ends with the serious, but still eccentric "Feel of Me."

Side two opens with "Dang Me," one of Roger's signature tunes. Next up we get a heartbreak number disguised as a math lesson in "Got 2 Again," an almost-rockabilly number in "I Ain't Comin' Home Tonight," a great love song composed almost entirely of nonsense syllables and out-of-place words in "That's Why I Love You Like I Do," possibly the first ever reference to "hipsters" in a country song in the funny "Squares Make the World Go Round," and, to close the record, a somewhat darkly humorous song about love in "If You Want Me To."

As far as the style and performance goes, this was as stripped down as country got back in the era when Chet Atkins was putting strings, horns and the Anita Kerr singers on every single record. This is a completely acoustic album, featuring just guitars and bass for the most part, with drums on a few tracks and piano on one. This loose, stripped-down band allowed Roger to be himself in a way that his earlier singles for RCA and Starday had not and he takes full advantage of it, accenting his folksy delivery with improvised scat singing in between verses. As a result, this sounded like absolutely nothing else on radio at the time and since nobody has been able to replicate the sound since, it's still just as fresh 50 years later.

Of course, it would be easy for those who don't pay too much attention to dismiss Roger's best-known songwriting as immature and unrefined, but they're missing the whole point. The songs here come from a man known to his friends for his quick wit and easygoing nature. If you want to dismiss him for not compromising his unique voice to squeeze in cliches that were rampant in country music even then, be my guest. Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and I will still be keeping our copies of this album in the living room right next to the King James Bible.

04. Johnny Cash- At Folsom Prison (1968)

When Johnny Cash performed at California's Folsom Prison is January 1968, he hadn't had a major hit in four years. To fully appreciate that fact, consider that most country artists back then released three to five albums a year with at least two singles from each one. Maybe it was his outspokenness on a variety of issues, his refusal to take even a single step toward the polished "Nashville sound," his association with members of the '60s folk revival, or his not-so-secret substance abuse issues. Regardless of the reasons, radio was not playing Johnny Cash in early 1968 and Columbia couldn't have been expecting much when they released the album in May with little promotion. A year later he had won the CMA Award for Best Album along with two Grammys, had recorded another live album from another prison that was outselling the Beatles, and was about to start hosting a prime time network TV show.

So what was it about this album and this performance that revived Cash's career? I think it's because he found freedom to be himself and let loose his pent-up emotions in front of an audience that didn't mind songs about drugs and murder, didn't care if he used words like "bitch" or "shit," and who gave him a more enthusiastic reception than he'd had in years.

The other key to the album's success lies in the strength of the material. He does his own hits like "Folsom Prison Blues," "I Still Miss Someone," and "Orange Blossom Special," tackles country classics by Merle Travis and Lefty Frizzell, as well as more recent hits like Porter Wagoner's "Green Green Grass of Home." He does novelty songs from writers like Shel Silverstein and Jack Clement, gospel numbers written by inmates of Folsom, he sings by himself, accompanied by the Tennessee Three, and with soon-to-be-wife June Carter and, frankly, covers the whole scope of country music without forsaking his own signature sound.

In short, this was the album that reminded country fans why they had loved Johnny Cash in the first place, while also attracting a significant number of rock fans to his music (and, by extension, country music) for the first time since the Sun years. But when you pull the record out of the sleeve, none of that means shit. Instead, your full attention is focused on, as Kristofferson said, the "walking contradiction of Johnny Cash: the anger and darkness, but also the love. The gospel singer who shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. The dude who shot that bad bitch down and sings a song about a toilet just a few minutes later. In other words, every facet of one of American music's true masters.

03. Gary Stewart- Out of Hand (1975)

This isn't the album Luke Bryan listens to as he dances in the back of his truck in a field somewhere. It's really not even the type of album you play on the jukebox in some crowded bar room. This is dark music meant to be listened to alone, perfect for the afternoons when you wake up with a hangover knowing full well you'll be doing the same tomorrow, perfect for the early morning hours when you're driving home alone knowing you've had a few too many to be driving at all, perfect to accompany a nice game of Russian roulette. You see, the late Gary Stewart was many things but above all else he was a master of the art of self-destruction, a man who used his own heartbreak and pain as his canvas to paint haunting pictures that convey all of the tragedy of broken dreams and broken people with an intensity bordering on insanity. And although this album produced three top ten hits, including the #1 "She's Acting Single (I'm Drinking Doubles)," both the artist and his masterpiece were long-forgotten by most country fans long before he put a gun in his mouth in 2003.

Quite frankly, this is the album that Gram Parsons always wanted to make, drawing equally from true country heavyweights like Hank Williams, George Jones and Faron Young, the hillbilly boogie of Jerry Lee Lewis, the West Coast country of the Buckaroos, and the Dickey Betts brand of Southern rock. Things get started with "Drinkin' Thing" and his delivery on this song alone should be enough to scare off anybody looking for an album to play at their next party. Gary didn't do fun. Even on uptempo numbers like "Honky Tonkin'" and "Sweet Country Red" he can't quite hide the pain in his voice. Elsewhere we get absolutely fantastic cheating songs like "I See the Want to in Your Eyes" and the title track, the prison tune "Draggin' Shackles," and heartbreaking ballads such as "This Old Heart Won't Let Go" and "Backsliders' Wine."

To put it simply, when it came to conveying pain and heartache in a song, Gary Stewart was in a class with Hank Williams and George Jones. When you listen to this album you are hearing the whiskey-soaked voice of a man who felt every single syllable of every word. This is not the safe and sterile world of tailgate parties and truck songs. This is a month-long bender on cheap liquor presided over by the most underrated artist in all of country music. And not only that, but it's the greatest honky tonk album ever recorded.

02. Willie Nelson- Phases and Stages (1974)

If you want to know why vinyl is better look no further than Phases and Stages, an album that simply doesn't work on CD or a digital format without something getting lost in transition. Recorded at Muscle Shoals during Willie's brief but extremely important stint on Atlantic Records, this is a concept album about divorce. The most interesting thing about this album is not only that Willie gives both the husband and wife a complete side of the album to tell their side of the story, but how he gives them their own distinctive personalities and characteristics. Like a great short story, the more we get to know these characters the more the pieces begin to fall into place.

Side A tells the woman's side of the story beginning with the title track that recurs again and again throughout the album before moving onto "Washing the Dishes," where we meet a woman stuck in a dead-end relationship with "someone who don't care anymore" and spends her time "ironin' and cryin'." Eventually she leaves ("Walkin'" and "Pretend I Never Happened"), returns to her family ("Sister's Comin' Home"), begins living again ("Down at the Corner Beer Joint"), and finally finds somebody new ("I'm Falling in Love Again"). Yet she remains suspicious of love and afraid of "making mistakes again."

Side B (the man's side) begins with the albums best-known and most uptempo track ("Bloody Mary Morning") before the album's theme song kicks in and he discovers that his wife is gone ("No Love Around"). He then wonders why she would leave him on "I Still Can't Believe You're Gone," questions her decision in the masterful "It's Not Supposed to Be That Way" ("Like the other little children, you're gonna dream a dream or two/But be careful what you're dreamin'/Soon your dreams will be dreamin' you"), and finally decides to make the best of it with some questionable activity ("Heaven and Hell" and "Pick Up the Tempo").

The genius of this album is it's understanding of human psychology. By the end of this album we know why neither of these individuals find the happiness they're looking for and, unfortunately, most of us can relate to them in some way. In the end, this stands as Willie Nelson's greatest achievement as an artist and the greatest concept album in country music.

01. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band- Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1972)

Sometimes in order to fix what's broken you need to bring in a new set of eyes. Back in 1972, a major problem in country music was the rise of a style of pop country that owed more to Bobby Darin and Tony Bennett than Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest Tubb while the folks who had built the genre were being pushed aside.

In this case, the solution came in the form of a long-haired folk-rock band from L.A. who loved and respected the honesty and beauty of the older strains of country music and understood it's importance. But despite their name being on the record label and the fact that they do some excellent instrumental work throughout and sing lead on four of the 38 songs that comprise these three LPs, it's hard for me to call this a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album. You see, the masters they wished to pay tribute to were still around and still had plenty to say, so perhaps the best thing the band does here is step out of the way and give the legends a platform to show the music-buying audience how it's done.

The folks on this album include country music's matriarch, Mother Maybelle Carter, the King of Country Music Roy Acuff, the King of Bluegrass Jimmy Martin, three of the most influential guitarists in the history of the genre (Carter, Merle Travis and Doc Watson), the most important banjo player of all time (Earl Scruggs), Acuff's longtime dobro player Bashful Brother Oswald, multi-instrumentalist Norman Blake, fiddle virtuoso Vassar Clements, legendary Nashville session bassist Junior Huskey, and, of course, the Dirt Band themselves who were not amateurs by any stretch. With all due respect to the Highwaymen, this album represents the biggest gathering of country music legends on one album.

But it's more than just the names here that make this the greatest country album of all time, but the presence of those who are missing. Despite the fact that Bill Monroe turned down the opportunity to appear on the album, as soon as Jimmy Martin kicks things off with "The Grand Ole Opry Song," you get the feeling that the ghosts of Jimmie Rodgers, A.P. Carter, Hank Williams, Uncle Dave Macon, Cowboy Copas, Carter Stanley, Red Foley, Ira Louvin, and so many others are right in the room with them and having one hell of a good time. That feeling only grows stronger when Maybelle begins playing "Keep On the Sunny Side."

I could write pages and pages about every single track here, but I'll spare you the reading. From the hauntingly beautiful voice of Roy Acuff to the folk guitar mastery of Doc Watson, from Maybelle singing "Wildwood Flower" for the millionth time to the Dirt Band performing "Lost Highway," from the between song conversation that gives you a rare glimpse of the personalities of some of country's biggest legends to the completely instrumental side B of record two, this is not only the greatest country album ever made but also the best album in all of American music. It's a bittersweet document of a particular form of music and the people who made it, both now long gone, but also indisputable proof of the power of that music to create a bond between young and old, conservative and liberal, country and city.

In closing, if (God forbid) America is ever to go the way of the Ancient Greeks and Romans and the archaeologists of the future are only able to find two items to tell the world who we were as a people, what we did and what we stood for, it is my sincerest hope that those two items will be a working record player and a mint condition copy of this album.


The Top 100 Albums in Country Music History: 20-11

Written by Adam Sheets on . Posted in Articles - Southern Heritage

Thank you for coming back this week for another edition of The Top 100 Albums in Country Music History. Before we begin looking at the top 20, I want to make one thing very clear: the albums you are going to see listed here this week and next week are the absolute best of the best. This list was built by countless revisions and repeated listening and, although number one was never in doubt, there is very little difference quality-wise between number 20 and number two. In fact, every album you will see listed this week was ranked in the top 10 at one time or another as I perfected this list (in my opinion). In other words, if you want to tell me that some of the albums this week should have been ranked higher, I do ask that you consider waiting until next week but you'll probably get very little argument from my end.

20. Buck Owens & His Buckaroos- Carnegie Hall Concert (1966)

With the classic lineup of Don Rich on lead guitar and harmony vocals, Doyle Holly on bass, the underrated Tom Brumley on pedal steel, Willie Cantu on drums, and, of course, Buck Owens playing rhythm guitar and singing lead, the greatest band in the history of country music went to New York City in March of 1966 and gave the city slickers a show they would never forget. Not to mention a first-rate lesson in country music, not from some polished Nashville star out of Chet Atkins' stable, but direct from the streets of Bakersfield.

From the opening notes of the band's signature song "Act Naturally" to the last notes of the show-closing "Truck Driving Man," the Buckaroos play some world-class country and absolutely ooze confidence, enthusiasm and professionalism. They get the crowd on their side with plenty of good-natured humor in between tracks, but more importantly, with outstanding versions of uptempo hits like "I've Got a Tiger By the Tail," "Foolin' Around," "Waitin' in Your Welfare Line," and "I Don't Care (Just as Long as You Love Me," classic ballads such as "Together Again," "Cryin' Time," and "Don't Let Her Know," and great instrumentals like "Buckaroo." Then Buck turns the mic over to Doyle Holly for a stunning rendition of "The Streets of Laredo" that absolutely brings down the house. Don't let the country charm fool you. These boys knew damn well that they were the hottest band in town that night, by far.

In short, this album is a master's course in live performance that should be considered essential listening for any artist (country or not) and one of the two best live LPs in the genre's history.

19. Hank Williams, Jr.- The New South (1977)

Hank Williams, Jr. made his recording debut in 1964 when he was just 15 years old and while this early music created several hit singles and even a few great albums (Live at Cobo Hall and Eleven Roses), he had very little creative control and it's certainly not what we generally think of when his name comes up in conversation. Then, finally, in 1975, he recorded Hank Williams, Jr. and Friends, the first album in his own style and one that just barely missed the cut for this list.

Then tragedy struck. His life nearly ended when he fell from a mountain in Montana and this would have a profound impact on his subsequent career. It took months for him to learn to sing again and when he did his voice was deeper, his now-signature hat, sunglasses and beard became necessary stage apparel to cover up extreme scarring, and, in the short term, any momentum he had built with the album and it's hit single "Stoned at the Jukebox" was stopped dead in it's tracks by his physical inability to record a follow-up. When he did finally record another album in early '77, it was the good but not great One Night Stands, which failed to produce any sizable hits and was hampered by (among other things) an understandable lack of confidence.

Many lesser artists, when faced with the same situation may have given up or perhaps went back to Nashville to follow the paint-by-numbers approach to success. But instead of doing that, Hank called up Waylon Jennings and Richie Albright, brought them down to Muscle Shoals to cut an album and created the Bocephus we all know and love.

The slow country blues "Feelin' Better" opens the album with a lyrical reminder of where Hank had been over the past few years and, more importantly, an indication of where he was headed musically. The next track, "Montgomery in the Rain" (one of two songs here by the great Steve Young) is one of the best performances of his career. He does straight takes on the Bill Monroe standard "Uncle Pen" and even Gordon Lightfoot's "Looking at the Rain," transforms his father's "You're Gonna Change (Or I'm Gonna Leave)" into a classic piece of Southern rock boogie, delivers exceptional ballads with "Once and For All" and Jessi Colter's "Storms Never Last," does pure honky tonk on "How's My Ex Treating You," and explores Southern rock with "Tennessee" and "Long Way to Hollywood." And we have to mention the title track. It deals with a subject Hank would revisit time and time again over the years, but never as fully or honestly as he does here.

I'd love to say that this is the album that put Bocephus at the top of the charts, but the fact is that it charted lower than One Night Stands and it's only single barely cracked the top 40. But it did signal a change in the direction of his music and one he has stuck with up to the present day. This is his best album and, along with the Charlie Daniels Band's Fire on the Mountain, one of the finest concoctions of country and Southern rock you will ever come across.

18. Bobby Bare- Lullabys, Legends and Lies (1973)

He may not be a household name to outsiders and rock critics, but as a forerunner to outlaw country Bobby Bare was every bit as important as Johnny Cash. Like Cash, he rode into country music in the '50s on the rockabilly wave and later became one of the genre's most reliable storytellers and one who has never shied away from a controversial song. All of this made him a perfect fit for the songs of the multi-talented Shel Silverstein.

This double album of Silverstein songs was produced by Bare and recorded live in the studio with a gang of his rowdy friends hanging around. In the opening track, Bare pledges to tell us of "murder and blueberry pies, and heroes and hells and bottomless wells, and lullabies, legends and lies." Not to mention mermaids, beans, lovin' machines, and warm sunny skies. For the remainder of the album he makes good on the promise with unique twists on American folk tales on "Paul" and "Marie Laveau," hilarious tracks like "The Winner," "The Mermaid," "True Story," and the slightly twisted "Bottomless Well," sentimental numbers such as "Daddy What If" (featuring the recording debut of alt. country favorite Bobby Bare, Jr.), and more "serious" songs dealing with Civil War widows ("In the Hills of Shiloh") and lonely bikers ("Rest Awhile"). And let's not forget "Rosalie's Good Eats Cafe," where he paints a masterful portrait of a diner and it's patrons at two in the morning. It's sometimes funny, sometimes sad, always honest and at eight minutes was far too long for the radio. And that is a real shame because it's every bit as good as his signature tunes like "Detroit City," "Streets of Baltimore," and "Margie's at the Lincoln Park Inn."

Although Bare had still been a consistent hitmaker before this album was released, it still feels somewhat like a comeback, or perhaps just a reminder that he could still give the artists he influenced a good run for their money. All these years later it stands as an enduring testament to both Bare, one of country music's great performers, and Silverstein, one of American culture's truly unique minds.

17. Don Williams- Expressions (1978)

Bruce Springsteen once made a very astute observation on Creedence Clearwater Revival, saying "They weren't the hippest band in the world, just the best." In the world of country music the same statement can be applied to Don Williams in the late '70s and early '80s. While it's true that Willie and Waylon were at their commercial peak in the late '70s, their best music had came earlier in the decade. The same can be said for Dolly Parton and once the '80s rolled around, Don's only true competition was Hank Jr. So I'll say it again: Don Williams was the best country artist in the world when Expressions came out and he gained that title by making music his only focus rather than attempting to cash in on the outlaw or urban cowboy movements or attempting an acting career (although his cameo as himself in Smokey and the Bandit 2 is easily the best part of the movie). As a result, he may not have had the broad name recognition or crossover appeal of some of his contemporaries, but what he did have was one of the finest catalogs in all of country music, of which this is the premier example.

Expressions is essentially the type of album country music could use right now in early 2014. A production that is casual and laid-back almost to the point of sounding effortless, top-shelf songs of love, life, joy and heartbreak, and, most importantly, a singer so country that he's never had to brag about his goddamn truck. This album is consistent above all else. The hits are well-known classics like "Tulsa Time," "It Must Be Love," and "Lay Down Beside Me," but literally every song here had the potential to be a number one hit and most of them probably would have been if Nashville had been following today's album release schedules back then.

Some of the most honest (and catchy) heartbreak songs in the country music canon are here with "I Would Like to See You Again," "You've Got a Hold On Me," "Not a Chance," "All I'm Missing is You," and "Tears of the Lonely." But Williams was also a master of more upbeat material such as "Give It To Me," "When I'm With You" (one of the great forgotten love songs), and the aforementioned "Tulsa Time," perhaps the most uncharacteristic signature song of any major country artist.

Ultimately, Expressions finds one of country's all-time great performers at the top of his game and demonstrating everything that made him great: the ability to keep things simple and not sacrifice his sound to chase trends, being able to pick (and write) some absolutely fantastic material, and sing it better than just about anybody else in the business. While Don Williams may not have much of the "cool" factor that, unfortunately, seems to be the chief determining factor in what older country artist remain popular, true country fans know that he is a national treasure and one of the best artists the genre ever produced.

16. Dolly Parton- Coat of Many Colors (1971)

Full disclosure: I am in love with Dolly Parton and specifically the Dolly Parton of the '60s and '70s. Smart, extremely talented, great sense of humor, a wonderful, giving person, beautiful, and a lover of country music. What more could you ask for? But, unfortunately, for most folks Dolly's iconic image has long ago eclipsed the truly remarkable songwriter and performer. They think of her as a caricature who brings to mind images of wigs and breasts. But you can bet your ass that they'll sing along to inferior cover versions by Whitney Houston and The White Stripes, having no idea as to the origins of the material. But let's make one thing clear: if they ever listened to just one of her albums front-to-back (and this includes the pop years), they would have no doubt that she is one of the very elite artists of 20th century music.

If you've somehow dismissed Dolly for her image or just haven't gotten around to exploring much of her catalog, Coat of Many Colors is the place to begin. The opening title track will erase any prevailing images of high heels and fancy dresses from your mind as you hear the true story of a mountain girl "with patches on [her] britches and holes in both [her] shoes" who is laughed at by her classmates when she wears a homemade coat to school. But the song is ultimately one of love, family, and an undying optimism. With all due respect to David Allan Coe and Steve Goodman, this is the "perfect country and western song," containing in three minutes everything country music is and can be at it's very best.

The rest of the album may not match the level of the title track, but it is astonishing how close it comes. On the country funk of "Traveling Man" (lyrically the polar opposite of the title track), the near-gospel "A Better Place to Live," the soul-infused "Here I Am," the country tearjerker "She Never Met a Man (She Didn't Like)," the deceptively simple "Early Morning Breeze," and the traditional mountain folk-flavored "My Blue Tears" (where Dolly's harmony vocals prove to be one of the best uses of overdubbing in all of music), she proves why she is (sorry Loretta!) the best female songwriter the country genre has ever seen. And on the three songs by her boss at the time Porter Wagoner, (most notably "If I Lose My Mind," a great country song dealing, she proves why she is among the genre's all time great performers as well.

Ultimately this album will not give you a complete portrait of an artist who is nothing if not surprising and consistent, but as the best non-compilation LP ever released by a female country performer, it's a damn good place to start.

15. Waylon Jennings- Dreaming My Dreams (1975)

Dreaming My Dreams may come just shy of being Waylon's best album, but it is definitely the one I would reach for if I were ever presented with the questions "Who is Waylon Jennings?" and "What is outlaw country?"

Bookended by two tributes to musical idols ("Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way" and "Bob Wills is Still the King"), this album- produced by the great Jack Clement- is ultimately about exploring the many facets of Waylon's style. He does soulful ballads like the title track and "She's Looking Good." He delivers fantastic outlaw country with "I Recall a Gypsy Woman," "High Time (You Quit Your Lowdown Ways)," and, especially "Waymore's Blues" and "Let's All Help the Cowboys (Sing the Blues)." And he even covers "Let's Turn Back the Years" and "I've Been a Long Time Leavin' (But I'll Be a Long Time Gone" so brilliantly that you'll forget for just a moment that they come from the pens of the two greatest songwriters in the world of country music (Hank Williams and Roger Miller).

But the true genius of this album is it's presentation of an artist with nothing more to prove but still at the top of his game. It is an absolutely flawless portrait of both Waylon and the outlaw movement when both were at their absolute peak.

14. Ray Price- Night Life (1963)

I sometimes feel that people like me often do a disservice to both Ray Price and our readers when we merely list him as one of country music's greatest and most influential performers. It's not that the sentiment isn't true, but like many great artists Ray was able to perform in many different styles and, frankly, albums like Danny Boy and For the Good Times are not the place to start for pure country fans, although they do have a brilliance all their own for those already familiar with his music. If you're looking for the Ray Price who seamlessly blended the best elements of honky tonk and Western swing into a style all his own while also serving as the biggest booster to country's next generation of songwriting talent, Night Life is the album you want.

Perhaps signaling his later transition into a polished pop-country crooner, this album almost seems like a country version of Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours. The world Price creates here is one filled with broken dreams, broken hearts, desperate people, seedy places, and, as one song says, "Bright Lights and Blonde-Haired Women."

Both Price and the Cherokee Cowboys are at their best here and, as always, he picks top material from the top writers, including the title track and "Are You Sure" (both written by Willie Nelson), Hank Thompson's "A Girl in the Night," Hank Cochran's "If She Could See Me Now," Charlie Rich's "Sittin' and Thinkin'," the country standard "Wild Side of Life," Ray's own "The Twenty Fourth Hour," and "Lonely Street," the LP's best track.

This is one of the best honky tonk LPs ever released and a concept album before the term was even invented, but it's also ample proof that Ray Price was perhaps the key link on the chain between Hank Williams and Willie Nelson.

13. Willie Nelson- Red Headed Stranger (1975)

Despite being set in the year 1901 and containing the simplest production techniques and instrumentation imaginable, Red Headed Stranger still seems ahead of it's time nearly 40 years after it's release and the fact that it became a smash success is all the proof I need to say that, despite a questionable trend or two, mainstream country fans were simply smarter back then or at least more willing to embrace creativity and substance in their music.

This is one of the most well-known albums on the entire list and plenty has been written about it elsewhere, so I won't spend too much time describing it's story of a preacher-turned-outlaw in the dying days of the old West or how he found love and happiness on side B. I won't talk too much about the unique way the album is crafted from original compositions, Christian hymns, and long-forgotten country tunes. I won't even tell the interesting story of how the album came to be, how it made Willie a household name or how it's still largely responsible for his image and reputation decades later. I'll just say that you need to get it if you don't already have it.

12. Merle Haggard- Back to the Barrooms (1980)

Although Merle Haggard was already a living legend with nearly 20 years of performing under his belt by 1980, he wasn't content to just rest on his laurels. Instead, he delivered the best record of his career. This is the ultimate Merle album, featuring tales of life on the road ("Make-Up and Faded Blue Jeans"), songs of loneliness and longing ("Our Paths May Never Cross"), tributes to old friends ("Leonard"), and, as the title suggests, some of country music's all-time great drinking songs (the title track, "I Think I'll Just Sit Here and Drink," "Misery and Gin," and "I Don't Want to Sober Up Tonight"). Hell, there's even a Bocephus cover ("I Don't Have Any More Love Songs").

This is ultimately a very personal album, though, showing how far he had come from the days of "Branded Man" and "Sing Me Back Home," while also showing that money and fame isn't necessarily a cure for heartbreak. It's also among the very best pure honky tonk LPs, with a production by Jimmy Bowen that brings to mind nearly-deserted bars right before closing time. This is as real as music gets and will probably turn out to be one of the best drinking buddies you'll ever meet.

11. Willie Nelson- Shotgun Willie (1973)

After penning some of the most enduring country classics of all time and recording 13 albums in a span of nine years for RCA, Willie Nelson left Nashville and the music business in April 1972 and went back to Texas. Luckily for us, his retirement didn't last long and by the following February he was back in the studio, but this time with a different label, a different look, more creative freedom, and a band of legendary Texas musicians that included Doug Sahm, Johnny Gimble and Waylon Jennings. Although Willie had written a few (slightly) better songs previously and although his next two albums would be more ambitious, this flawless LP finds him at his peak as a performer and gives a more complete portrait of the man's many talents than any other album.

There is a definite funk vibe going on throughout much of the album and nowhere is it more pronounced than on the opening title track, where Willie is joined by a horn section. Elsewhere, we get the best song of his career in "Sad Songs and Waltzes" and some more early outlaw country on the brilliant "Devil in a Sleeping Bag." Meanwhile, "She's Not For You," "Local Memory," "So Much to Do," and "Slow Down Old World" are the type of classic country he had been writing for years, with the latter showing that even outlaws can find good use for a string section every now and then.

But the originals are only half of the story. Johnny Bush's "Whiskey River" is definitely the most notable cover tune here and it has become so associated with Willie over the years that few know it's a cover at all. But we're also treated to two covers each of Bob Wills and Leon Russell, including the stunning solo acoustic version of "A Song for You" that closes the album.

But maybe the best thing about the album is simply hearing a great artist being able to make the record he wanted to make. Although this wasn't the commercial breakthrough, he would repeat the same formula of doing things his way again and again throughout the years eventually forcing Music City to catch up (or at the very least catch on). In other words, Willie Nelson, the man and the songwriter, had written dozens of classic tunes long before this album was released and even recorded a great LP with Yesterday's Wine, but Shotgun Willie was the true beginning of Willie Nelson, the American icon.

So... I guess the big question now is whether or not the albums presented this week can be topped. You'll have a chance to decide for yourself next week when I present the final installment of this list. As always, any comments or feedback are appreciated.


The Top 100 Albums in Country Music History: 30-21

Written by Adam Sheets on . Posted in Articles - Southern Heritage

Welcome back for another edition of The Top 100 Albums in Country Music History. I hope everybody had a Merry Christmas. This week we will cross the 3/4 threshold and beyond. As I've said before, this has been a long process but an enjoyable one for me (and hopefully those of you reading, as well). I may not attempt anything quite this large in scope for a while, but it is always great to write about some of my favorite albums and artists. If you're just joining us, you can find the previous installments of this list elsewhere on the site. For the rest of you, step this way...

30. Charlie Rich- Behind Closed Doors (1973)

I consider Charlie Rich to be perhaps the most underrated artist in American music. Please note that I did not say country music. That's because while he did make some damn fine country records in the 1970s, at other times he was a master of rockabilly, jazz, soul, R&B, rock and even straight-up pop on occasion and none of these diverse styles were very far below the surface on any of his recordings, no matter which chart they happened to land on. And, best of all, his music happened organically. There was never an attempt to fit into an existing mold or to reach for a hit and, in fact, he sometimes went entire decades without one. So if (as some claim) the infamous incident at the 1975 CMA Awards was prompted by traditionalist sentiments, it really doesn't make much sense. But if it was to protest what he saw as a lack of honesty in John Denver's current music, he was among the most qualified people in the room to comment on the subject.*

In case you missed the purpose of the preceding paragraph, it was to state the Charlie Rich was not the most traditional country artist, nor was Behind Closed Doors the most traditional country album. But it did win Album of the Year at both the CMA and ACM Awards and contained two of the most iconic country hits of the decade in the Floyd Cramer-esque title track and the countrypolitan classic "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World." Elsewhere we get the steel-guitar drenched soul of "If You Wouldn't Be My Lady," the slightly rock-flavored gospel tune "Peace on You," the jazzy country blues "I Take It On Home" (which display's Rich's exceptional piano playing at it's finest), pure country like "'Til I Can't Take It Anymore," the Tin Pan Alley pop of "We Love Each Other," and even (and I say this in the best possible way) what sounds like a snipped of the coolest Vegas lounge act of all time in "You Never Really Wanted Me."

So is this the best Charlie Rich album? No. It's simply his best from the era when he was a mainstay on the country charts and, as such, would make a great introduction to the artist for any country fan. But you will definitely want to explore further and, unfortunately, much of his best work doesn't fit the criteria for this list.

* Since his isn't the type of music we normally cover around here, I'll take a moment and talk about John Denver. He was a talented folk singer-songwriter who penned several memorable songs and I have a ton of respect for him for standing up to Tipper Gore's Music Gestapo a decade after the CMA incident. With that said, his country crossover singles like "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" are among his worst music, partly because they seem like a conscious effort to ride the coattails of a genre then in a commercial upswing. Still if Mr. Rich were here today, I'm sure he would agree with me that a thousand John Denvers at their worst (known today as "Americana"**) are preferable to just one Luke Bryan at his best.

** Just kidding (maybe)...

29. Marty Stuart- The Pilgrim (1999)

Marty Stuart's career can be divided into three distinct phases: first, the young musician who spent the '70s and '80s backing such legends as Lester Flatt, Johnny Cash and Doc Watson, next, the Nashville hitmaker of the '90s, and, finally, the greatest promoter of traditional country music we have in this early part of the 21st century. The Pilgrim marked an end to the second phase, but Marty did not go quietly. Instead, he delivered the most ambitious album to come out of Nashville in the '90s.

Based on a true story from Marty's hometown that is much too complicated to elaborate on here, this album should have marked the beginning of a new era for country music. Instead it was the album that got Marty removed from radio station playlists permanently. Even with such musicians as Earl Scruggs, Josh Graves, and Tom Petty's underrated guitarist Mike Campbell and guests like Ralph Stanley, George Jones, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris and Pam Tillis, this is ultimately Marty's show. He wrote every song here (except for a Tennyson recitation by Cash) and produces it as if he were directing an audio movie.

Like Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger, this album is ultimately about a life of sin and hopelessness redeemed by love. This was what country music needed back at the dawn of the new millennium and it's what country music needs now. It's a shame that mainstream audiences are yet to hear "Hobo's Prayer," easily one of the best country tunes of the past thirty years.

28. Kris Kristofferson- The Silver Tongued Devil and I (1971)

With the title track, "Jody and the Kid," "Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again)," "The Taker," and "The Pilgrim- Chapter 33," Kristofferson's second album contains almost as many of his most iconic songs as the previous year's debut album. While all of these songs are undeniable classics of country songwriting, some of the best tracks here never got airplay or a cover by more commercially-successful artists. Among these are "Billy Dee," about a young man's self-destruction, the ballads "Breakdown (A Long Way from Home)" and "When I Loved Her," and, best of all, the Janis Joplin tribute "Effigy (Black and Blue)" which still damn near brings me to tears every time.

27. The Flying Burrito Brothers- The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969)

Decades after his untimely death, the name Gram Parsons is still among the biggest in the world of alt. country and that's as it should be. But let's not give him all of the credit for Gilded Palace of Sin, arguably the greatest country-rock album ever made. Chris Hillman (formerly of the Hillmen and the Byrds) was every bit as important to the band and the album as a writer, musician and vocalist. Not to mention the fuzztone pedal steel of "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow, which manages to steal the show in many places. From the Louvin Brothers-inspired classic "Sin City" to the country soul of "Hot Burrito #1," "Do Right Woman," and "Dark End of the Street," socially aware numbers like "My Uncle" and "Hippie Boy," to the full fledged country rock of "Christine's Tune" and the biker anthem "Wheels" (maybe the coolest song ever made), this album is a natural extension of Buck Owens' Bakersfield sound and a great document of a band that has often been imitated, but never quite equaled even by Gram Parsons' later solo efforts.

26. Hank Williams, Jr.- The Pressure is On (1981)

Although Bocephus would continue to make great music through 1987 (and sometimes beyond; I consider his most recent album to be his best in 25 years), 1981's The Pressure is On is his last album that was truly phenomenal from beginning to end, with not even a hint of filler. It also marked the end of his spectacular run of six classic albums in the span of just over three years.

Many of the best elements of his five previous albums are present here, but this has, by and large, a more polished production than any Hank Jr. album since 1974. He starts things off with his signature tune "A Country Boy Can Survive," does a rocking version of Jimmy Driftwood's "Tennessee Stud," touches on politics with "The Coalition to Ban Coalitions," teams up with Boxcar Willie on the Dixieland jazz-inspired "Ramblin' In My Shoes," hits the top of the country charts again with "All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down," and brings in George Jones to duet on a cover of Hank Sr.'s "I Don't Care (If Tomorrow Never Comes)." Last but not least, he is joined by the legendary Don Helms of the Drifiting Cowboys for the hilarious "Ballad of Hank Williams." But as with any Hank Jr. album, some of the best material here is the type he is least known for. In this case, the soulful title track and the Southern rock power ballad "Weatherman."

In short, we all wish Hank would make an album like this one just one more time (and I, for one, think he still has one in him), but no matter how disheartening the Kid Rock duets and songs like "Fax Me a Beer" may be, there is no denying that when he made this album he was easily the most dynamic and exciting performer in the world of country music.

25. Billy Joe Shaver- Old Five and Dimers Like Me (1973)

First impressions can be hard to overcome. Simply because most of us first encountered four of the best tracks from Billy Joe Shaver's debut on Waylon's most iconic album, Shaver's own versions can take just a bit of getting used to at first. But upon further listen, you will find that these versions of the title track, "Black Rose," and "Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me" are nearly as good as Waylon's and that "Low Down Freedom" is even better. But it's the other songs on this LP that keep me coming back. From outlaw anthems like "Ride Cowboy Ride" and "Serious Souls" to the acoustic blues of "Bottom Dollar," from the story songs such as "Jesus Was Our Savior and Cotton Was Our King" and "L.A. Turnaround," the gospel of "Jesus Christ, What a Man," and the classic original version of "I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train," Shaver seamlessly mixes honky tonk, blues and rockabilly to create one of the best album's of country music's outlaw era.

24. George Jones- I Am What I Am (1980)

George Jones was hands-down the single greatest vocalist in the history of country music, but he was rarely an album artist. In fact, if I were to recommend just one of his LPs, it would be the two-record compilation Anniversary: Ten Years of Hits. But with all of that said, this 1980 set comes very close and it's easily one of the best honky tonk records ever made. Side A begins with his most iconic performance in "He Stopped Loving Her Today" and doesn't let up from there with "I've Aged Twenty Years in Five," "Brother to the Blues," and "If Drinkin' Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)," ranking among the best of his career. It would be nearly impossible for side B to equal this and, truth be told, it doesn't. But despite an unnecessary cover of "Good Hearted Woman," there are plenty of bright spots, including the spectacular "I'm Not Ready Yet" and more uptempo numbers such as as "A Hard Act to Follow" and "Bone Dry." In truth, this isn't a flawless album but the many highs are high enough to effectively cancel out the few lows and make this an essential purchase.

23. Waylon Jennings- This Time (1974)

If the 1973 albums Lonesome On'ry and Mean and Honky Tonk Heroes were the beginning of a new sound in country music, here the sound emerges fully formed and ready for it's short but memorable stint at the top of the charts (the self-penned title track was Waylon's first #1 hit). From J.J. Cale's "Louisiana Women" to Billy Joe Shaver's "Slow Rollin' Low," to Jessi Colter's "Mona" (one of the best ballads of Waylon's career), he shows why he was a master song stylist. But the album was at it's best when he sings four songs from co-producer Willie Nelson's then-new concept album Phases and Stages, particularly his take on "It's Not Supposed to Be That Way." Ultimately, this may not quite be Waylon's best album but it's definitely in the top three and for the outlaw era in general it is easily one of the most important.

22. John Prine- self-titled (1971)

John Prine's music often blurs the somewhat arbitrary line between country and folk, so it's really not surprising that he's been much more influential in alt. country and Americana than he ever was in Nashville. Still, I can't recommend this album highly enough to any aspiring songwriter or any fan of a great story song. "Paradise," "Sam Stone," "Hello in There," and "Angel from Montgomery," are all undisputed classics and have been recorded by countless country artists over the years, but they are only part of the story. "Far From Me" is not only the best tune on this LP, but also the best of Prine's career. And the irreverent "Pretty Good," "Spanish Pipedream," "Donald and Lydia," and "Six O'Clock News" are every bit the equal of the album's better-known tracks.

Opening with a song on the joys of marijuana ("Illegal Smile"), it's easy to see why this album didn't go over too well (or at all) in a genre that was still three years away from the outlaw movement becoming a full-blown insurrection. But looking back, it's hard not to see this album as the logical extension of country music at the time. The genre had always featured a healthy sense of humor and songs that told of real life and real people and John Prine did that better than just about anybody else back in 1971. That's why this is still among the best albums to listen to late at night when everybody else is asleep.

21. Johnny Cash- Bitter Tears (1964)

This concept album was quite possibly the most controversial LP of Johnny Cash's career. Featuring eight songs about the plight of the American Indian, both at the time and throughout history (mostly written by folk singer Peter LaFarge but with a few from Cash, as well). From the celebration of Custer's death in "Custer," tp the thinly-veiled threat of an Indian takeover on "Drums," to the angry listing of countless broken treaties on the six-minute album opener "As Long as the Grass Shall Grow," the bitter breakup song "White Girl," and the salute to a fallen hero on "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" (which went to #3 on the charts despite being banned by some stations), this album finds Cash at his most focused and his most rebellious.

But Cash's appreciation for Native American people and their culture went beyond mere protest songs, as seen on self-penned numbers such as "Apache Tears," "The Talking Leaves," and "The Vanishing Race." Simply put, it took a lot of balls to release an album like this one back in 1964 and, while Cash did pay a bit of a price for it at the time, in the long run, we see that not only was he on the right side of history but that the album that resulted stands as an enduring testament to an artist who did things his own way, no matter what the establishment thought best.

That's it for this week. Everybody have a happy New Year and please come back next week when we begin looking at the top 20.