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.