FT5: Classic Country Albums
For today’s Top 5, I figured it was about time I give our readers a little Country Music 101. For starters, not an album on this list was recorded after 1975 and I’m not putting in more than one album per artist. I acknowledge that country music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m writing this to potentially open a few eyes (and ears) towards a genre that not everyone quite understands or appreciates. So pop open that bottle of Jack and allow me to educate you on what country music is really all about.
In the immortal words of the late Waylon Jennings, “It don’t matter who’s in Austin, Bob Wills is still the king.” Born outside of Kosse, TX in 1905, Mr. Wills popularized the western swing movement along with legendary vocalist Tommy Duncan and The Texas Playboys. Most of you have probably heard a Bob Wills tune before, but never even realized it. Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” was based on a Bob Wills song, and his legacy is found all over the recordings of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Asleep at the Wheel (to name a few). If that’s not enough, Austin was a mecca for western swing music in the 1970’s, making Bob Wills an essential starting point as you begin explore the music of our great state.
Song Pick: Stay A Little Longer
One of my lifelong dreams is to sit around an East Texas campfire and listen to Willie play this album in it’s entirety. Listening to it is like reading a classic western novel. Although it was hard to pick this album over other favorites such as “Phases & Stages” and “Shotgun Willie“, Red Headed Stranger marked the first time Willie was granted complete creative control over one of his albums. As a result, it still stands as one of the most ambitious and creative albums in the history of country music. Telling the tale of the mythical American hero, Red Headed Stranger is a must-have for any Austinite’s music collection.
Song Pick: Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain
Where it all began. To say that Hank Williams is an influential country artist would be the understatement of the century. The man is a legend. Dead by the age of 29 from a broken heart, the legend of Hank Williams is only rivaled by that of Robert Johnson. I can also guarantee that you will never experience the kind of heartbreak and loneliness that you feel from listening to this man sing. I could go on and on about the influence he had on modern music, but I’ll let a much better writer than myself sum it up:
“When I wrote about Hank Williams ‘A hundred floors above me in the tower of song’, it’s not some kind of inverse modesty. I know where Hank Williams stands in the history of popular song. ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, songs like that, are sublime, in his own tradition, and I feel myself a very minor writer.” – Leonard Cohen
Song Pick: I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
This album punches in at number two for two simple reasons: The style of Waylon Jennings & the songwriting of Billy Joe Shaver. The duo collaborated to create the most important album in the outlaw country movement. A movement that influences just about every country artist coming out of Texas today. I’ve written about Waylon before but I will add this: Waylon Jennings bridged the gap between country and rock music like no other artist has ever done. Honky Tonk Heroes came at a time when the honky-tonk sound was beginning to hit rock-bottom, and I feel this is the perfect album for those who never thought they could enjoy country music.
Song Pick: Black Rose
What can I possibly say about this album that hasn’t already been said a million times? The Rick Rubin-led revival of The Man In Black has taken the Johnny Cash legend to heights that other artists can only dream about. And rightfully so. If you’re going to discover country music, this is the place to start. But I will leave you with this. If Folsom is the only classic Johnny Cash album you’re familiar with, shame on you. You owe it to yourself to check out the equally important At San Quentin, Orange Blossom Special, Johnny Cash With His Hot & Blue Guitar, his Gospel songs, etc. Hell, I’ve sat and listened to Johnny Cash read the complete New Testament just because I can’t get enough of that voice.
Song Pick: Folsom Prison Blues