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12 Classic Country Albums Turning 40 in 2020

From Emmylou Harris to Willie Nelson and Charley Pride to Hazel Dickens, a dozen must-hear country albums from 1980

Must-hear albums by Charley Pride and Emmylou Harris turn 40 this year.

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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.

Kenny Rogers, ‘Gideon’

Gideon finds story-song master Kenny Rogers spinning an album-length tale about a “No Good Texas Rounder” who’s looking back on his life while somehow watching his own funeral. “Some say I was a good man, some disagree,” he growls, in his characteristically soulful delivery. All through, Rogers is backed by smoothly bluesy and gently funky arrangements — it’s all an example, really, of that black-indebted white style known as Yacht Rock, with some twangy color instruments and a choir of white folks doing their damnedest to conjure a black church. In other words, Gideon is both Kenny Rogers’ most ambitious album and his most Kenny Rogers. The best moment is “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer,” a slow-burning and, finally, outright testifying duet with equally husky-voiced Kim Carnes, who wrote the entire album with husband Dave Ellingson.

Razzy Bailey, ‘Razzy’

People forget how big a country star Razzy Bailey was for just a minute there, with five Number One hits and eight more Top Tens in just four years. On Razzy, he predicts adulterous danger ahead on the Outlaw-disco hybrid “Loving Up a Storm,” pledges aching electric-piano devotion in “I Can’t Get Enough of You,” and writhes and rues to some seriously sexy smooth grooves on “I Keep Coming Back.” And he could rock it too: The closing “9,999,999 Tears” is silly but self-aware, sadness stylized for fun. A soul-music-influenced storyteller and a hirsute lover man, Razzy sang husky and warm in a Kenny Rogers kind of way: He even slips a quick Rogers impersonation here into “True Life Country Music.” But he was a fantastic singer in his own right and long overdue for re-appreciation.

Lacy J. Dalton, ‘Hard Times’

The list of women country artists who were underappreciated in their time, or who’ve been altogether overlooked ever since, is depressingly long. Though mostly forgotten today, at least Lacy J. Dalton had a moment with Hard Times (and its follow-up, Takin’ It Easy). Dalton’s sound was a brand of country deeply indebted to R&B and R&B-influenced rock, her voice was scratched and juke-joint smoky: As one of the album’s three Top Ten singles summarized, she was a “Hillbilly Girl with the Blues.” The two others, “Hard Times” and “Whisper,” are blue-collar anthemic and not-so-Quiet Stormy, by turns. Here’s to a Lacy J. revival, and soon.

Willie Nelson and Ray Price, ‘San Antonio Rose’

Willie Nelson was everywhere in 1980. He co-starred in two big Hollywood films, The Electric Horseman and Honeysuckle Rose, and helmed their soundtracks (featuring crossover hits “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” and “On the Road Again,” respectively). He also released Family Bible, a too-little-known gospel set with pianist sister Bobbie. But Nelson’s best album of the year was San Antonio Rose, a Western Swing-themed duet effort with his old boss Ray Price. Singer’s-singer Price shows how everyone would croon it if only they could while the idiosyncratic Nelson nails down a way of doing it if you can’t. The pair’s elegant rendering of “Faded Love,” a Number Three hit, tenderly recalls tears that dried long ago. In “Night Life,” they fall off stools, bang into walls, tumble to the floor and up again. Their “Funny How Time Slips Away” is bitter and brutal but always keeps the beat. Forty years on, this one sounds like a classic.