FT5: Classic Country Albums

0717top5coverFor 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.

bobwills5. Bob Wills: Anthology 1935-1973

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

redheadedstranger4. Willie Nelson: Red Headed Stranger (1975)

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

hankwilliams3. Hank Williams: 40 Greatest Hits

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

honkytonk2. Waylon Jennings: Honky Tonk Heroes (1973)

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

atfolsom1. Johnny Cash: At Folsom Prison (1968)

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


  • Raygun,
    Bravo! Here’s your award for best top 5 ever. Insightful, researched, and true. I don’t care if you’re a fine connoisseur of death metal, if you live in Texas, country music has shaped the world you live in. At some point in your life you just have to open your arms arms and say “Ya, I like Country’.

    One record that should have been mentioned:
    Townes Van Zandt – For the Sake of the Song 1968
    Marks the world’s introduction to the best songwriter of our modern times

    Honorable mention:
    Marty Robbins – Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs 1959
    Jimmie Rogers – Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas) 1927
    George Jones – Love Bug 1966

  • I might not be much of a country fan, but even I can appreciate guys like Cash, Williams, and Nelson. Nice list.

  • You could argue that Willie, Waylon, and Cash are not really “classic” country. I mean Lefty Frizzell, Hank Thompson, Buck Owens, Earnest Tubb, Bill Monroe, Roy Acuff, and Webb Pierce are predate those guys and helped shape country music more than the others. Not that i don’t dig me some Willie, Waylon and Cash but I don’t really see them as “classic country” And to Kyle I would say that Townes as much as I love him is more folk even though the Hag and Willie did a cover.

    That is all


  • @ Kyle

    Thanks, I had a lot of fun writing this.. and you pretty much summed up what I was getting at, “If you live in Texas, country music has shaped the world you live in.” If there’s one thing that we Texans have more than any other state, it’s state pride. And country music plays a big part of that.

    I tend to agree with Corey on TVZ (although I firmly believe that Pancho & Lefty might be the greatest country song ever written). Live From the Old Quarter is probably my favorite album of his.

    I also tend to prefer the later George Jones works (I Am What I Am, Same Old Me). His early stuff hasn’t aged very well and really didn’t showcase his voice as much, IMO.

    @ Corey

    Yeah, you could argue what “Classic” is for any musical genre. I mean, how ambiguous is Classic Rock nowadays? I wouldn’t be surprised to find a radio station touting Nirvana as classic rock.

    But to clarify, this was really a Top 5 Country albums of all-time list for me. I just noticed that everything was older than 30 years, so I tacked on the word “Classic”. “Golden Age” might have been more appropriate… but most classic country as I understand can be as broad as the early 20’s to the late 70’s. I guess what I’m getting at is “Classic Country” doesn’t really have any kind of set definition.

  • “…just because I can’t get enough of that voice.”

    Cash by Johnny Cash is the best read there is due to that voice. His book takes you through his life as if your grandfather were telling you the story while sitting on the back porch on a perfect summer afternoon. Peaceful and inspiring. A must read.

    Another great FT5. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *