Urban Cowboy was released 40 years ago this summer, and both that John Travolta film and its soundtrack quickly came to define an entire era of country music. The double album actually included as much pop and rock as country: Johnny Lee, Charlie Daniels, and Mickey Gilley mixed with Jimmy Buffett, the Eagles, Bonnie Raitt, Boz Scaggs, Joe Walsh, and Linda Ronstadt. But you might say the same about country music of the period generally. Indeed, after 1980, people would keep saying it for a couple of decades. This country-pop-rock approach brought millions of new listeners to the format, if only temporarily.
But, as had almost always been the case, old stars and sounds persisted in 1980 right alongside the new stuff. Also staying the same was the genre’s continued penchant for lifting all variety of black sounds, including but not limited to rock, while all but lacking any actual black artists. As ever, the great Charley Pride, who began the new decade with two more country chart-toppers, was exceptional in every way.
1980’s best country releases were as numerous as any other year but distinctive in one unexpected respect: The year was chock-full of concept albums. Pride released a Hank Williams tribute, for example, while a number of other acts released albums that explored specific themes (as Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard did) or drilled down on uncharacteristic stylistic approaches (Think: Emmylou Harris goes bluegrass). Topping them all on the concept album front, Kenny Rogers even released a kind of rock opera, country style.