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50 Country Albums Every Rock Fan Should Own

Johnny Cash’s ‘American Recordings,’ Loretta Lynn’s ‘Van Lear Rose,’ and more essential country LPs

Late-period albums by Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn are among the 50 essential country LPs for rock fans.

(from left) Michael Putland/Getty Images; Robert Gauthier/"Los Angeles Times"/Getty Images

For decades, rockers have looked to country music when they grew tired of brash flash or deafening volume — or they simply heard a George Jones record that blew their hair back with its sheer devastation. Country’s core strengths — intimate storytelling, realistic adult emotion, accomplished musicianship — have appealed to artists from the Rolling Stones to Elvis Costello to Bruce Springsteen, who’ve created their own convincing versions.

So, here are 50 country albums for any rock fan looking to explore the genre’s vast library of sorrow, rebellion, monster chops, and whiskey-drinking attitude.

[This list was originally published in 2014.]


Glen Campbell, ‘Wichita Lineman’ (1968)

Son of an Arkansas sharecropper who left home after high school to join his uncle’s country band, Campbell ended up in Los Angeles as a guitarist with the legendary session group the Wrecking Crew (providing back-up on records by everyone from Elvis to Phil Spector to the Monkees). As a result, he could play or sing almost anything and give it a neighborly heartland twang, making him an ideal voice for Nashville’s countrypolitan Sixties pop move (though he recorded in Hollywood). And the title track, songwriter Jimmy Webb’s masterwork of cinematic longing, is the country-pop era’s pinnacle, with Campbell’s steady-but-weary croon and lonesome bass solo. A conversational everyman observer, Campbell almost seemed to allow listeners to eavesdrop on the stories he narrated. Here, despite cloying production from Wrecking Crew vet Al De Lory, he empathizes tenderly with dreaming housewives and gives a haunting reading of Rod McKuen and Jacques Brel’s “If You Go Away.” C.A.


Tammy Wynette, ‘Stand by Your Man’ (1969)

“Tammy taught me how to sing,” Melissa Etheridge once said. Wynette’s 1969 LP, Stand by Your Man, is a veritable lesson on how to emote without being exact: with every somber break, breathy vowel or choked yodel, she created a lexicon of ways to speak with the mere sound of syllables, let alone words. Clocking in at less than 30 minutes, the Billy Sherill-produced Stand by Your Man owes a lot to a title track that schooled everyone from Elton John to Etheridge to Florence Welch on how to layer subtext beneath a love song — after all, the album was released the year before her ill-fated marriage to George Jones. “It’s honest music,” Wynette told NPR about her beloved genre. “[Country] tells a story. . .it’s what people live. It’s what a lot of rock artists don’t write about.” But, because of Wynette, many of them started to. M.M.


Dwight Yoakam, ‘Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.’ (1986)

As recounted in the 2012 biography A Thousand Miles From Nowhere, Blasters main man Dave Alvin caught one of Dwight Yoakam’s early shows in Los Angeles and was so blown away that he told him, “Order the limousine now! You’re gonna be a star.” Yoakam was opening for the Blasters, X and other Angelino punks in short order, which had him looking like he’d be a classic victim of the too-rock-for-country/too-country-for-rock divide. But Alvin’s prediction ultimately came true with Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. — his debut album and first of three consecutive Number One Country LPs. Between Yoakam’s Kentucky drawl and Brantley Kearns’ looping fiddle on the breakthrough hit “Honky Tonk Man,” the album had more than enough honest twang for Nashville. But it had rock bonafides, too, especially producer/guitarist Pete Anderson’s stinging six-string leads and Yoakam’s way with a put-down. Breezy arrangement aside, it takes a big streak of rock star to pen a love-’em-and-leave-’em anthem as cold as “I’ll Be Gone.” D.M.


Emmylou Harris, ‘Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town’ (1978)

As Gram Parsons’ muse and duet partner, Harris was central to country-rock’s birth — but that’s not why she is listed here. On Quarter Moon and other albums that spanned decades, she inhabited songs with a voice that concentrated tenderness, strength and worldliness into a powerfully fragile moan that left fans and artists of all genres thunderstruck. Her versions here of Delbert McClinton’s “Two More Bottles of Wine” and Rodney Crowell’s “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight” and “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” rock with a remarkably breezy ache. With exquisite backing from her Hot Band (including guitar legends James Burton and Albert Lee, bluegrass whiz Ricky Skaggs, the Band’s Garth Hudson and Rick Danko, et al.), she never settled for folkie earnestness or pretty trilling. A tough-minded wisdom always lurked, especially on Dolly Parton’s “To Daddy,” which Harris channeled like an O. Henry short story. C.A.


Steve Earle, ‘Copperhead Road’ (1988)

Steve Earle called Copperhead Road, his third album and first aimed squarely at the rock audience, “heavy-metal bluegrass.” It more than lives up to that description, hitting a just-right synthesis of acoustic strumming and electric-guitar power chords (not to mention the occasional bagpipe). He told Rolling Stone in 1989 that he saw little difference between the attitudes of rock and country: “It’s about your life and the way you live — which isn’t about living up to the stereotypes and having to be fucked up.” With politically charged songs about guns and Reagan-era “Snake Oil” to go with Earle’s sympathetic narratives about war veterans, “Copperhead Road” established Earle as country’s left-wing conscience. D.M.


Dixie Chicks, ‘Taking the Long Way’ (2006)

The Dixie Chicks’ Taking the Long Way was the trio’s first studio album since the “shot heard ’round the world,” when singer Natalie Maines told an English audience that she was, “ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” By this time, the trio was ostracized from country music, and deliberately turned their attention to a wider, pop-oriented audience. Produced by Rick Rubin, Taking the Long Way sees a softening of the trio’s sound, both in instrumentation (more violins, less fiddles) and in Maines’ thick Texas twang. In a post break-up interview with Rolling Stone, the singer confessed, “I can’t listen to our second album,” referring to the Chicks’ 1999 breakthrough, Fly, “because I was really, like, embracing country and really waving that country flag. My accent is so out of control on that album.” L.R.


George Jones & Tammy Wynette, ‘Golden Ring’ (1976)

Married in 1969, George Jones and Tammy Wynette toured together in a bus that had “Mr. & Mrs. Country Music” emblazoned on the side. When their chaotic marriage reached its inevitable D-I-V-O-R-C-E in 1975, their popularity was still so huge they were forced to keep publicly performing the fantasy by touring as a couple. Released in 1976, a year after their split, Golden Ring is an incredible example of heartbreaking music reflecting heartbreaking reality. The title track follows the life cycle of a wedding ring and the doomed couple who buy it in a Chicago pawnshop. The album proceeds to explore intimacy’s cold reality on songs like “Crying Time,” the fast-paced warning shot “If You Don’t, Somebody Else Will” and the hilariously honest innuendo-fest “Did You Ever.” Wynette sings with incredible emotional force, and Jones’ imperious vocal polish gives off the sense of someone trying to power through rocky times (or pretend they don’t exist), adding another layer of drama to an album that remains a breakup apocalypse masterpiece. J.D.


Wanda Jackson, ‘Queen of Rockabilly’ (2000)

The title says it all. Wanda Jackson’s years on Capitol Records in the late Fifties and early Sixties produced undiluted rockabilly singles marrying her Oklahoma roots with a lyrical appetite for partying. (There’s “Let’s Have a Party,” “There’s a Party Goin’ On” and “Man, We Had a Party.”) Emboldened during years touring with Elvis Presley, Jackson’s barnstorming rock & roll singles got hotter than the center of a tiki torch due to her raspy voice. Largely ignored by U.S. radio, but beloved in Europe, Jackson took songs like Elvis-popularized “Hard Headed Woman” and R&B classic “Riot in Cell Block #9” and dominated them. This 2000 compilation by British label Ace Records collects 30 classics that predated everyone from Nancy Sinatra to the Runaways to eventual studio-mate Jack White. “I never realized that what we were creating then would have such a big impact and go on to be listened to decades later,” Jackson told the Guardian. “Elvis, Buddy [Holly] and I — we were just kids having a good time. Now I have the Cramps and Paul McCartney singing my songs. Finally I can say, ‘I was right!'” R.F.


Kris Kristofferson, ‘Kristofferson’ (1970)

According to country patriarch Bobby Bare, Kris Kristofferson made “the hippies and the long-haired funky people acceptable” to Nashville. Kristofferson definitely meant to send a counterculture message with “Blame It on the Stones,” the ironic opener of his recording debut. But country had little trouble accepting a bearded weirdo who could deliver crossover hits like “For the Good Times,” Janis Joplin’s posthumous hit “Me and Bobby McGee,” the Johnny Cash chart topper “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” and “Help Me Make it Through the Night” (written as Kristofferson sat in a helicopter atop an oil platform while on his day job). Recorded in a hurry, Kristofferson emphasizes songwriting over performance. R.G.


Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, ‘The Essential Bob Wills 1935-1947’ (1992)

Born in 1905, fiddling bandleader Bob Wills picked up country music from his family and the blues from the African-Americans who picked cotton alongside him in Texas. He formed the Texas Playboys — a deeply swinging blend of country, jazz, blues, hillbilly, Hawaiian and much more — in 1934, and they took off after moving to Tulsa, Oklahoma the following year. “America’s most versatile dance band” bridged the “race music” era and the rockabilly Fifties. “Rock & roll?” Wills said of the subject, “Why, man, that’s the same kind of music we’ve been playing since 1928! . . .The rhythm’s what’s important.” Wills mythologized his musicians onstage, encouraging master players like Junior Barnard (electric guitar), Leon McCauliffe (steel guitar) and Al Stricklin (piano) with jiving commentary and falsetto ah-has. Chuck Berry would refashion Wills’s 1938 version of “Ida Red” into “Maybellene.” Wills was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as an Early Influence in 1999. R.G.


Garth Brooks, ‘Ropin’ the Wind’ (1991)

Early Nineties Garth Brooks is best known for the hard-rock attitude and pop production that turned country music into arena spectacle. However, Ropin’ the Wind, the first country album in history to debut at Number One on the Billboard Top 200, had Brooks evoking Seventies singer-songwriter influences like James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg, especially in ballads like “What She’s Doing Now” and a cover of Billy Joel’s “Shameless.” The move truly set Brooks apart and helped transform country music itself. And from the frisky “Papa Loved Mama” to the urgent, southern noir of “Rodeo” to prayerful closer “The River” (all three Top Five hits), Brooks moves from the barstool to the bedroom to the church pew with the ease of George Jones. S.R.


Buck Owens and His Buckaroos, ‘Carnegie Hall Concert’ (1966)

When they boot-scooted onto the vast Carnegie Hall stage, Buck Owens and the Buckaroos were bursting with next-level rock & roll rumble (thumping backbeat, crackling Telecasters) and cornball cowboy shtick (“You talk about people that don’t know nothin’, here’s an ol’ boy don’t even suspect nothin’!” cracked Buck when introducing steel guitarist Tom Brumley). They were also effortlessly road-tight, with Buck and his “right arm,” lead guitarist Don Rich, chiming and twanging through indelible barroom dust-ups “Act Naturally,” “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” “Waitin’ in Your Welfare Line,” “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail,” as well as a couple of hit-and-run medleys. A coronation for the Bakersfield honky-tonk sound, which rattled Nashville’s cozy pop cage in the early Sixties, the Carnegie Hall gig enshrined Owens as its avatar, a singularly ebullient and savvy bandleader whose music shook up artists ranging from Ray Charles to the Beatles. C.A.


Loretta Lynn, ‘Van Lear Rose’ (2004)

Loretta Lynn released the women’s lib anthem “The Pill” in 1975, the same year that White Stripes frontman Jack White was born. Nearly three decades later they teamed up on Van Lear Rose, a collaboration where the coal miner’s daughter’s gritty country storytelling fit perfectly with his unpolished garage-rock production. “I’d play tambourine on this record, if that’s it,” White told CMT. “I don’t care. I just want to be in the same room with her and to be able to work on this.” From the title track detailing how her parents met, to the aching “Miss Being Mrs.,” these are some of the sharpest lyrics of Lynn’s career. Recorded in just 12 days, Van Lear Rose rightly won the Grammy for Best Country Album, and notched Best Country Collaboration with Vocals for “Portland, Oregon,” Lynn and White’s riotous, dobro-enhanced duet extolling sloe gin fizz. R.F.


Johnny Cash, ‘American Recordings’ (1994)

Johnny Cash had been lost in the commercial wilderness for a decade before Rick Rubin relaunched his career with this stark, bare-bones set of train songs, murder ballads and late-night confessionals. American Recordings is just acoustic guitar and that epic voice on the songs you’d expect — traditional numbers, tunes by Kris Kristofferson and Cash himself — plus some radically recast covers of Tom Waits, Nick Lowe and even Glenn Danzig. Rubin was less producer than tour guide, catching Cash up while reminding everyone of just how cool the Man In Black still was. “I discovered my own self and what makes me tick musically and what I really like,” Cash told Rolling Stone in 1994. “It was really a great inward journey, doing all these sessions over a period of nine months and Rick sitting there not so much as a producer but as a friend who shared the songs with me.” D.M.


Miranda Lambert, ‘Revolution’ (2009)

Baroness, Converge, SunnO))). . .nobody in 2009 came up with anything half as heavy as Miranda Lambert’s delightfully vicious, genuinely deranged cover of John Prine’s “That’s the Way That the World Goes ‘Round,” which joins the swaggering, hard-swinging, hilarious “Only Prettier” in bookending her supernova third record. Revolution reins in her coarser shotgun-shells-and-arson inclinations, but only barely; there’s plenty here that punches harder than either her bro-country brethren or the classic hair metal those guys are wanly imitating. That this record peaks with “The House That Built Me” — possibly our young century’s single best country song to date — is only the icing on a cake catapulted directly into your face. R.H.


Waylon Jennings, ‘Honky Tonk Heroes’ (1973)

Waylon Jennings’ boisterous, soothing, cheerfully virile baritone is a national treasure, the imitable mark of a man who has, at some point, probably used a pool cue as a weapon and a pool table as a lovemaking surface. This 1973 beast — gruff but warm, arena-caliber raucous but corner-booth intimate — was a major boon to the “outlaw country” phenomenon that even genre-averse rock & rollers would come to revere; its co-MVP is songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, who initially could be found in the studio shouting, “You’re fucking up my song” and nearly coming to blows with Waylon himself. (This according to Michael Streissguth’s shaggy, splendid Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris and the Renegades of Nashville.) Shaver came to love the result soon enough, and it’ll take you nowhere near as long. That the highlights here are essentially waltzes (“Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me,” the Eric Church-beloved “Ride Me Down Easy”) somehow only makes the whole thing tougher. R.H.


George Jones, ‘The Best of George Jones 1955-1967’ (1991)

What with the brawling and the drinking and the drunken lawnmower-riding and the Axl Rose-esque approach to concert etiquette (they didn’t call him “No-Show Jones” for nothing), there is no single human in country history more rock & roll than George Jones, for both good and profound ill. This is the good stuff, a chronological spin through his first big decade, taking in such highlights as the rockabilly-flavored “White Lightnin’,” the pathos-bomb shuffle “She Thinks I Still Care,” the one with the chorus of “One drink/Just one more/And then another,” the one called “I’ve Got Five Dollars and It’s Saturday Night.” Every track here is essential whether you know what white lightnin’ is or not. R.H.


Merle Haggard, ‘I’m a Lonesome Fugitive’ (1967)

Titled after the song that became the Hag’s first Number One single, Lonesome Fugitive cemented his image as a regretful bad boy caught between the angel and devil perched on either shoulder. Fugitive teeters between weepies like “Whatever Happened to Me” and defiant warnings like my “My Rough and Rowdy Ways.” And it rocks from its title-track get-go, with Elvis Presley guitarist James Burton laying down chicken-scratch guitar that will inspire countless imitators. Haggard was steeped in what Tommy Collins called the Bakersfield “redneck, scared-to-death, honky-tonk, skull orchard” scene. You can hear it in the rollicking “Mixed Up Mess of a Heart,” the bluesy “If You Want to Be My Woman” and in every hot lick played by guitarists Burton, Glen Campbell and pedal-steel master Ralph Mooney. R.G.


Dolly Parton, ‘Coat of Many Colors’ (1971)

In 1971, despite a Number One country hit the year before (with the quirky romp “Joshua”), Dolly Parton was still trying to wriggle out of her role as stalwart duet partner and TV sidekick for Nudie-suit-sporting hitmaker Porter Wagoner. But with her eighth solo album, she became a visionary One-Name Artist, writing seven of the album’s 10 bluntly expansive songs, exploring death, betrayal, class, love’s brutality and God’s mysteries with a mix of hard-case country, pop gospel, country-rock and aching folk. Two Top 10 singles revealed the album’s craft and depth: On the title track, which would become Parton’s signature statement, she sang of proudly wearing a coat made by her mother from scraps, despite painful jeers; and on “Traveling Man, she watches her mama run off with a salesman who’d also seduced the singer with dreams of escape. Parton brashly relates the story with no bitterness, as if she’s acknowledging every poor person’s desire to flee society’s dead ends. C.A.


Patsy Cline, ‘The Definitive Collection’ (2004)

Before she died in a plane crash in 1963, Cline established herself as arguably the greatest female singer in the history of country music, reaching beyond country’s core audience and crossing over into pop with a voice that was rich, sophisticated and deeply soulful. “Even though her style is considered country, her delivery is more like a classic pop singer,” Lucinda Williams told Rolling Stone. “That’s what set her apart from Loretta Lynn or Tammy Wynette. You’d almost think she was classically trained.” The emotive elegance of songs like “Crazy” and the Top 20 pop hit “Walking After Midnight” has been echoed by artists such as Linda Ronstadt and Norah Jones. But it’s shown up in less obvious places as well, like the coolly forlorn trip-hop torch songs of Portishead and the goth-folk ballads of Mazzy Star. J.D.


Willie Nelson, ‘Red Headed Stranger’ (1975)

In the early Seventies, Willie Nelson blazed an outlaw trail that led to classics like 1975’s Red Headed Stranger, an ambitious concept album about murder and infidelity that plays like a John Ford western. The music is relaxed and stripped down, and the lyrics paint a vivid picture rooted in the essential loneliness at the core of America’s frontier mythos. (The idea for the album came from Nelson’s wife, who helped him compose the lyrics). Bob Dylan, Neil Young and the Band, among many others, were rooting around the same territory at the time, but there’s something about the matter-of-fact clarity, as well as the intimacy and warmth, that makes Red Headed Stranger feel especially lived in and natural. Plus, it has “Blues Eyes Crying in the Rain,” one of the greatest flood songs ever written. J.D.


Ray Charles, ‘Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music’ (1962)

Inventing soul music as a combination of blues sensuality and gospel fervor, as Ray Charles did, would be enough to put him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s inaugural class. But Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music is even more audacious, quite possibly the ultimate crossover move. Running country standards by the likes of Hank Williams and Eddy Arnold through his inimitable soul-man filter, Charles won over both audiences — and even beat Frank Sinatra at his own big-band game. That’s a mighty big tent, but they didn’t call Charles “the Genius” for nothing. Astoundingly, Modern Sounds and its Volume Two follow up (the rare sequel that’s just as good as its predecessor) took a grand total of five days in the studio. Even more astoundingly, Charles’ label tried to talk him out of doing it. As Charles remembered it in Rolling Stone a decade later, ABC-Paramount’s brass told him, “You can’t do no country-western things. . .You’re gonna lose all your fans!” Instead, Modern Sounds became ABC-Paramount’s first million-selling album.


Hank Williams, ’40 Greatest Hits’ (1978)

At this point, the greatest country artist of all time holds an equally important place in the rock canon too. “The words, the melodies and the sentiment are all there, clear and true,” Beck wrote when Williams was included in Rolling Stone‘s list of 100 Greatest Artists. “It takes economy and simplicity to get to an idea or emotion in a song, and there’s no better example of that than Hank Williams.” Williams fused hillbilly music with elements of blues and gospel to become country’s first superstar, directly influencing Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, among scores of other artists in many genres. The songs on 40 Greatest Hits have been covered by artists from Al Green to the Breeders, and run the gamut from the class-conscious angst of “Mansion on the Hill” to the bottomless desolation of “Lost Highway” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” to the lit-up giddiness of “Hey, Good Lookin'” and “Settin’ the Woods on Fire.” The last 60 years of American music are unthinkable without this music. J.D.


Johnny Cash, ‘At Folsom Prison’ (1968)

“I just wanna tell ya that this show is being recorded for an album release on Columbia Records and you can’t say ‘hell’ or ‘shit’ or anything like that,” Johnny Cash said to the inmates assembled for At Folsom Prison. Having curbed his bad behavior IRL, on this night the Man in Black became a smirking, good-for-nothing rapscallion. A chorus of whistles and cheers cascade from the crowd as he and a cracking country band bashed out proto-gangsta rap tales like “Cocaine Blues,” “Busted,” and the one about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die. Then his soon-to-be-wife June Carter put the cuffs on for the duet “Jackson.” The un-manicured album documented the longtime couple’s budding love — “I like to watch you talk,” a smitten Cash blurted at one point — and jump-started his career after a commercial lull. “I knew this was it, my chance to make up for all the times when I had messed up,” he told Los Angeles Times‘ Robert Hilburn. “I kept hoping my voice wouldn’t give out again. Then I suddenly felt calm. I could see the men looking over at me. There was something in their eyes that made me realize everything was going to be okay. I felt I had something they needed.”