Hello and thank you for joining me for another edition of The Top 100 Albums in Country Music History. I took a break from this list last week in honor of Thanksgiving, so if you need to refresh your memory on where we're at or if you missed the three previous editions, they can be found elsewhere on this site.
While everybody else was killing each other to save a few bucks at Wal-Mart on Friday, I managed to finalize the order for the rest of the list and, although I'm sure people will have disagreements (especially next week, but more on that below), I'll stand by it 100%. But for now, let's move on to more important matters...
70. Hank Williams, Jr.- Rowdy (1981)
Some of you these days may only know Hank Jr. for his Kid Rock duets, his Obama-bashing, and his past role on Monday Night Football, but I can't emphasize enough how great he was back in the day. In the three-year stretch between 1978 and 1981 alone, he released six phenomenal albums in a row, five of which are on this list. While his previous album, Habits Old and New, found Bocephus in a bit of a reflective mood, Rowdy is (as the title suggests) a straight-up party record. From the Southern pride of "Dixie On My Mind" to the odes to the opposite sex found in "You Can't Find Many Kissers" and "Texas Women" (where he responds to a then-current trend in country music by stating flatly "I'm a country plowboy, not an urban cowboy"), from the self-proclaimed "gospel song" "Give a Damn" to the blues number "Ain't Much More," Hank fills side A with some absolutely classic originals. But when you flip the record over, you get to hear Hank's prowess as an interpreter of other people's songs with covers of his father, The Allman Brothers, Merle Haggard, and Alabama (?!), all given the unique Bocephus twist both musically and lyrically. And to cap it all off, Waylon joins him for one hell of a version of "Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way." If you're new to Hank Jr., it would probably be best to ease yourself in with something like The New South or Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound, but if you're already a fan, Rowdy is absolutely essential listening.
69. Vern Gosdin- Chiseled in Stone (1988)
If the name Vern Gosdin isn't familiar to you, you should correct that as soon as possible. In some ways Chiseled in Stone marks the end of an era. It was among the last pure honky-tonk masterpieces in the tradition of Merle Haggard and George Jones to be released by one of Nashville's major labels and become a smash success. Maybe it was because he didn't embark on a solo career until his mid-40s (he was 54 when this album came out), but Vern Gosdin was a major exception to the rule for country stars of the late '70s and '80s in that his label never made an attempt to turn him into a crossover success. As a result, he had honed his craft while his contemporaries appeared on network TV shows and played stadiums and by the time 1988 rolled around, he was ready to record his masterpiece. The uptempo "Set 'em Up Joe" and the Western swing-flavored "Tight as Twin Fiddles" are both excellent, but Gosdin really excels on the pure country ballads like the title track, "Do You Believe Me Now," "Is It Raining at Your House," and "There Ain't Nothing Wrong (Just Ain't Nothing Right)." With the help of writers like Dean Dillon and Hank Cochran, Gosdin made one of the best country albums of the '80s and cemented his place alongside other criminally-forgotten honky tonk singers like Gene Watson and Gary Stewart.
68. Jessi Colter- Diamond in the Rough (1976)
In the last installment of this list, I talked a bit about underrated country artists and Jessi Colter certainly belongs in that conversation. While even casual fans of outlaw country know who she is, I suspect that very few of them have taken time to actually explore her catalog. If you're in that category, Diamond in the Rough is the perfect place to start. From the jazzy title track that opens the album to slightly pop-flavored ballads like "Would You Leave Me Now" and "You Did Hang the Moon (Didn't You Waylon)," from the two outstanding Beatles covers to country both traditional ("I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name") and contemporary ("A Woman's Heart is a Handy Place to Be" and "Ain't No Way"), Jessi proves here that she is an excellent writer, a song stylist who can put her own stamp on any song she decides to cover, a damn fine piano player, and, above all, a true artist whose music stands very well on it's own with or without the help of an iconic spouse. But speaking of that, some credit does need to go to Waylon, who produced this record and had the awareness not only to not chase the trends of the time, but also the skill not to make his wife's record sound like a carbon copy of one of his own, even with his bandmates Richie Albright and Ralph Mooney adding their unique touches.
67. Ricky Skaggs- Highways and Heartaches (1982)
One name that is rarely mentioned when the "new traditionalist" movement of the '80s comes up is that of Ricky Skaggs. Perhaps it's because he hasn't released a straight-up country album in decades, but who knows? Regardless, his album Highways and Heartaches and George Strait's album Strait from the Heart (released the same year) were the two LPs that began driving the nails in the "urban cowboy" coffin.
At 28, Skaggs had already lived a life most musicians twice his age could only dream of, having played with Flatt & Scruggs on TV at age 6, joining Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys in his early teens, continuing his career with such bluegrass heavyweights as The Country Gentlemen and J.D. Crowe & the New South and eventually crossing over into (slightly) more mainstream country with a stint in Emmylou Harris's Hot Band. So by the time this album (his sixth, not counting two collaborative albums with Keith Whitley and Tony Rice) came out, he had more than paid his dues and was finally ready for stardom. He produced it himself and his cover of Guy Clark's "Heartbroke," the phenomenal "Highway 40 Blues," and the Texas honky tonk number "I Wouldn't Change You If Could" all went straight to #1, while the best track on the album ("You've Got a Lover") stalled at #2. Perhaps the best thing about this record is Skaggs' uncanny ability to seamlessly meld traditional Nashville country ("Nothing Can Hurt You" and "Let's Love the Bad Times Away") with shades of Emmylou's brand of early alt. country (the Rodney Crowell-penned "One Way Rider"), while never straying too far from his bluegrass roots ("Don't Let Your Sweet Love Die"). Skaggs would release many damn fine country LPs throughout the '80s and with his return to bluegrass, he remains one of the best musicians around. But he's yet to make another album quite as great as this one.
66. Willie Nelson- Stardust (1978)
Wanna talk about "outlaw country"? It doesn't get much more outlaw than Stardust, where a long-haired country singer-songwriter who was then at the peak of his commercial success teams up with legendary Memphis soul man Booker T. Jones to cut an album made up entirely of covers of the type of material usually associated with Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Dean Martin. Willie sings and picks better than ever here and the band is exceptional, particularly the rhythm section of Bee Spears and Paul English and harmonica player Mickey Raphael, whose solo on "Georgia on My Mind" is perhaps his finest moment in a recording studio. The end result is an album that makes for perfect late-night listening made up of some of the finest country soul this side of Charlie Rich.
65. Old & In the Way- self-titled (1975)
Featuring Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead on banjo, frequent Garcia collaborator John Kahn on bass, "hillbilly jazz" virtuoso Vassar Clements on fiddle, and bluegrass legends David Grisman and Peter Rowan rounding things out on mandolin and guitar, this is among the best and most influential of all of the albums released during the "newgrass" movement of the '70s. With musicians of this magnitude, it goes without saying that the solos and jams are the real selling point here and that the instrumental "Kissimmee Kid" is the standout track. Like Garcia's other band, these guys had a knack for covering songs in a way that makes you forget they are covers in the first place. That goes for the traditional numbers "Pig in a Pen" and "Knockin' On Your Door," the Stanley Brothers' "White Dove," San Francisco songwriter Jack Bonus's "Hobo Song," and even the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" (probably the best Stones cover you will ever hear that isn't performed by Otis Redding). But the originals by Rowan and Grisman are some of the real highlights here, especially the title track, "Midnight Moonlight," and "Panama Red." (Side note: Since the Grateful Dead's catalog is so large, some people find it difficult to find a good starting place. If you're a country fan, I suggest becoming a fan of Jerry Garcia before you even buy a Dead record. Start here, then try his other albums with Grisman, then the country-rock group New Riders of the Purple Sage, and, finally, the Dead albums American Beauty and Workingman's Dead. From there you should be ready for Europe '72.)
64. Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty- Lead Me On (1971)
Star duos were a big thing in country music back in the late '60s and '70s. You had Johnny & June, Porter & Dolly, George & Tammy, and many that haven't been as well-regarded as years went by (Buck Owens & Susan Raye, Johnny Paycheck & Jody Miller, Bobby Bare & Skeeter Davis, Mel Tillis & Nancy Sinatra, etc). Of these duos, none were as successful or worked quite as well together as Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty. (Conway was actually Loretta's second star duet partner following three albums with Ernest Tubb.) Between 1971 and 1988, they released 11 albums together and Lead Me On was the second. As always, they harmonize beautifully and the title track, "When I Turn Off My Lights (Your Memory Turns On)," "Playing House Away from Home," "I Wonder if You Told Her About Me," and "How Far Can We Go" are some of the finest cheating songs in a genre filled with them. Elsewhere, their cover of Freddie Hart's "Easy Lovin'" trumps the original in every possible way and "You Blow My Mind" finds two of country music's all-time best having the time of their lives. Two artists of this caliber teaming up doesn't always equal the sum of the individual parts, but in this case Loretta and Conway's very different styles of country music work off of one another brilliantly to create the best album either of them would ever release.
63. Merle Haggard- Same Train, Different Time (1969)
In 1969 Merle Haggard was at the absolute peak of his career, having scored eight number one singles in less than three years and, more importantly, having been labeled by the media as a spokesman for the "silent majority" during that turbulent period in American history due to songs like "The Fightin' Side of Me" and "Okie from Muskogee." But for his third album of 1969 (he released six that year, not counting an instrumental LP by the Strangers), he went back to his roots with a 2-LP tribute to Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of Country Music. When paired with the following year's A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (Or, My Salute to Bob Wills), it's impossible to overstate how important Haggard was in keeping the music of older legends alive and passing it on to a new generation at a time when their original works were long out of print, eBay and Amazon didn't exist, and, for most listeners, these artists were seen as legendary figures rather than mortal men whose work could be heard and purchased (especially in rural areas unaffected by New York's folk revival). That alone is enough to make this album a strong contender for this list, but it's far from the only reason it's here. As I've already mentioned, both Haggard and his band were at their best at the time and these are easily the best Jimmie Rodgers covers you will ever hear. And, in case you're wondering: yes, in addition to being one of the finest singers and songwriters in the history of the genre, Merle is one hell of a yodeler as well.
62. Bill Anderson & the Po' Boys- Bright Lights and Country Music (1965)
Nashville has always had it's share of problems and there's been a lot of changes over the years, but at least one thing has remained constant for the past 55 years: Bill Anderson is one of the best songwriters and most distinctive performers in town. Unfortunately, Luke Bryan isn't interested in songs like "City Lights," "Still," "The Cold Hard Facts of Life," or even more recent Anderson compositions like "Whiskey Lullaby" and "Give It Away" and as a performer, his unique delivery style had always made him a bit underrated. That's a shame because his '60s Deccaa LPs are like an introductory course in everything country music is and can be at it's best and Bright Lights and Country Music is easily the greatest album he's ever made. With his road band backing him (a rare thing in those days), this album is like 30 minutes in your favorite bar, with plenty of drinking ("Wine," "Cocktails," and "I'm Gonna Go Down Swinging"), a few sad stories (the hit recitation "Golden Guitar" and "The Stranger's Story"), and a skilled country band covering some classics ("The Wild Side of Life," "Mountain Dew," and "Truck Drivin' Man").
61. Porter Wagoner- Skid Row Joe: Down in the Alley (1970)
If there's an artist who is more country than Porter Wagoner, I've yet to find them. If you don't believe me, ask Waylon Jennings who once weighed in on the subject by stating, "Porter couldn't go pop with a mouthful of firecrackers." Back in 1965, he had a hit with a song called "Skid Row Joe" and he would revisit the character several times over the years in a series of bleak concept albums, crafting Joe into an alter ego much like Hank Williams' Luke the Drifter. But while Luke (like Porter) was a morally upright and respectable citizen of the community who was always there with some great advice (usually taken straight from the King James Bible), Joe was a wino and outcast, an unrepentant sinner who reveled in his own misery and hopelessness.
The genius of this album extends to the front cover. While Porter was known for his flashy rhinestone suits almost as much as his music, here he is seen on the back steps of the Ryman Auditorium in worn-out and ill-fitting coat and pants, cigarette in hand, and a mostly-empty bottle of cheap wine behind him, looking at least 20 years older than his 43 years at the time. And once you take the record out of the sleeve, you'll hear Porter (or Joe) perform numbers about parental abandonment ("Here's a Toast to Mama"), making a tough decision between eating and buying a bottle of wine ("Sidewalks of Chicago"), life inside homeless communities ("The Silent Kind" and "The Alley"), broken homes ("Mama"), the empty pleasure of drinking when you have absolutely nothing else ("When I Drink My Wine"), and, finally (perhaps inevitably), death ("I Judged a Man"). It goes without saying that this is some extremely dark stuff and it's easy to see why RCA didn't see fit to release any singles from it.
So, to sum it up, there's no such thing as a bad Porter Wagoner LP, but this one is near the top. There are plenty of country albums that are primarily about drinking (some even featured on this list), but the genre has never produced a portrait of alcoholism more brutal or dark than this one.
Ok, that's it for now. I hope y'all enjoyed the list again this week and thank you for reading. Next week's edition will be one you do not want to miss, as it will contain what I believe to be the most controversial selection on the entire list. Tune in next Tuesday to see if you agree.