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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.

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.