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12 Classic Country Albums Turning 50 in 2020

From classics by Dolly Parton and Kris Kristofferson to overlooked gems by Lawrence Reynolds and Linda Martell

Dolly Parton's 'Fairest of Them All' is one of the great country albums turning 50 this year.


1970 was a for-the-ages year in country music, generating a ridiculously long list of radio singles that continue to define the genre half a century later. Most obviously, 1970 was when that quartet of Kris Kristofferson-written standards — “For the Good Times,” “Help Me Make It through the Night,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and “The Taker” —  were released by Ray Price, Sammi Smith, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, respectively. Other 1970 country hits that still resonate widely: Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Conway Twitty’s “Hello Darlin’,” Lynn Anderson’s “Rose Garden,” Merle Haggard’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” Anne Murray’s “Snowbird,” Dolly Parton’s “Muleskinner Blues” and Charley Pride’s “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone.”

But while these singles have all long been accepted as part of the country canon and repeatedly anthologized as you’d predict, the albums that first included them were typically less impressive. Many of the very best country albums of 1970 weren’t all that popular upon release and remain, so far at least, non-canonical — a couple aren’t even in print or available now on the major streaming services but are more than worth tracking down. 1970, in other words, was an even richer year for country music than our collective memory tends to allow.

Sammi Smith, ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’

Then as now, Sammi Smith is all but entirely identified with her indelible countrypolitan version of the Kristofferson title track. But here’s what still amounts to Breaking News: The rest of her debut is every bit as great. Smith’s husky alto and her intimate, almost spoken phrasing, framed by unfussy country-soul rhythms and doom-saying strings, marks her throughout as among the most underrated vocalists of her time. On the album’s first single, “He’s Everywhere” (the original title track before “Help Me…” took off and the album was renamed), Smith, abandoned by her lover, discovers she’s worse than alone; she’s haunted. Her reading of another of Kristofferson song, 1970’s ubiquitous “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” is notably bleary-eyed and weary-hearted, and her versions of three fantastic Jeanette Tooley songs — “Saunders Ferry Lane,” “When Michael Calls,” and “This Room for Rent” — plumb scary depths of isolation: “She’s heard no word from God,” Smith sings of the teary, prayerful woman in the album’s final word. “Nothing seems to matter anymore.”

Charley Pride, ‘Charley Pride’s 10th Album’

That less-than-inspiring album title aside, this is one of the era’s very finest straight country efforts, a showcase of Pride’s gift for selling smart, understated songs. The nervous-twitching “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone” was the hit-the-road hit, but Pride is running all through the album. On “I Think I’ll Take a Walk,” he decides to disappear rather than fight for the woman he loves. On “Able-Bodied Man,” he needs a job so he’s catching a bus to Missouri where he’s heard they’re hiring — the unspoken worry being that “able-bodied” may need to intersect with white. The album closer devastates even more subtly. Stuck in a rut of a marriage — he’s no longer sure his wife wears perfume or not; she never noticed he quit smoking — Pride explains that he spent all last year day-dreaming of how wonderful a new life alone in California might be like. The song is called “This Is My Year for Mexico.”

Linda Martell, ‘Color Me Country’

With her sweet version of the Winstons’ “Color Him Father,” which today feels like the prototype for Brad Paisley’s “He Didn’t Have to Be,” Linda Martell became the first black woman ever to crack the country charts. In addition, Martell and hit machine Charley Pride combined in the fall of 1969 to mark the first moment in country radio history when listeners could have, at least theoretically, heard two African-American singers in something like regular rotation. Her Color Me Country album followed the next year and should have launched a significant career. She yodel-coos on “Bad Case of the Blues,” aches for a long-gone lover in the hard shuffle “I Almost Called Your Name,” nails an early version of “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.” In the marvelous “Old Letter Song,” she rolls her eyes at some corny radio song but is fighting back tears by its end. Now that, friends, is country!

Lawrence Reynolds, ‘Jesus Is a Soul Man’

In some ways, Lawrence Reynolds’ first and (until a posthumous 2003 release) only album was very much of its time. Like hits from Edwin Hawkins and Norman Greenbaum, Reynolds’ “Jesus Was a Soul Man” popularized a gospel sound and theme, and like Joe South and Henson Cargill, both of whom he covers here, Reynolds preferred even his non-religious tunes to preach a positive socio-political message. The album’s sounds, too, were pure circa 1970: country funk, but with whorls of plush strings mixed in, and country-rock harmonies and CCR guitar chords, too, all adding up to an unduly forgotten gem of a record. Fans of all varieties of country soul, listen up: This is your new favorite album.

Dolly Parton, ‘The Fairest of Them All’

Parton wrote ten of the eleven songs here, a collection of southern gothics including “Chas,” a kind of hillbilly Chatterley’s Lover; “Daddy Come and Get Me,” sung from a mental institution; “I’m Doing This for Your Sake,” about a woman who feels compelled to give up her newborn; and “Down from Dover,” whose narrator loses both lover and child. That last stands with “Coat of Many Colors” and not too many others as one of Parton’s finest songs, an increasingly common assessment, however many decades overdue. Still not often enough noted, however, is the track’s rolling and roiling, cautiously building and building, and finally crushing, rhythm track from drummer Jerry Carrigan, bassist Roy Husky, and company that helped make Parton’s great song into a great record.

Loretta Lynn, ‘Writes ‘Em and Sings ‘Em’

Granted, this one’s a bit of a cheat for a best albums list: Four tracks here (including the hits “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” “Wings Upon Your Horns,” and “Your Squaw Is on the Warpath”) had already appeared on earlier Loretta Lynn albums. But the rest of the album collects previously unreleased numbers that more than make the case for Loretta Lynn, singer-songwriter. Just one example: The spunky, zig-zagging riot-act “Deep As Your Pocket” was never a hit but is quite possibly the most-perfectly-Loretta record ever. For certain, Writes ‘Em and Sings ‘Em is as great as any album she’s made.

Ray Charles, ‘Love Country Style’

Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music sets were far more influential to how the genre would sound and be marketed going forward, and his Nashville recordings in the early 1980s, a few of which actually cracked country radio, were more historically important. But when it comes to choosing the best of Charles’ country albums, don’t forget Crying Time from 1966 and the least-heralded of this group, Love Country Style, where the rhythms are country soul and the arrangements the highest countrypolitan: The strings routinely limp in on old-fogey charts, then pop through to the stratosphere, and Brother Ray grounds his readings of Leon Payne and Mickey Newbury songs in messy, bittersweet reality. Charles’ go at “Ring of Fire” plummets deeper and burns hotter than even that more famous version you’ve heard.

Bobbie Gentry, ‘Fancy’

Bobbie Gentry bounces all over the board on Fancy, applying her unmistakable rusty drawl to songs by Bacharach and David, James Taylor, George Jackson and Laura Nyro, but typically coming off best of all when she sings her own. Gentry’s “Delta Man” allows her to play a Delta woman as seductive and sensual as the record’s shifting southern soundscape. And, all these years later, “Fancy” can still shock, her calling out of bigotry is so straightforward and remains so uncommon. Gentry is at once accepting, rejecting and then transcending of the stereotypes another class of people have deployed to keep her down: “I may have been born just plain white trash but ‘Fancy’ was my name!”

Johnny Cash, ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash’

The Man in Black’s best-selling 1970 release was The Johnny Cash Show, a collection of performances from his TV series. It included Cash’s famous and influential version of Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” but was dragged down by a pair of nearly side-long medleys that worked better on screen than your turntable. Far better was Hello, I’m Johnny Cash from earlier in the year. It does at all the Johnny Cash things, and excels at them: preaches the gospel, sings about poverty and hitting the road, spins out story songs and cuts up. Highlights include Cash’s first go at a Kristofferson song, “To Beat the Devil,” plus the little-known two-sided single “Blistered” and “Ruby Falls.” The album’s not-so-secret weapon, though, is June Carter Cash. She duets with John on “If I Were Carpenter” and “Cause I Love You” and keens wordless vocals throughout that’ll make you smile even as the hairs walk around on your neck.

Kris Kristofferson, ‘Kristofferson’

Kristofferson collects all of his early masterful early songs — the ones that made him a star when they were cut in better versions by, you know, singers. The rest of the album features the nearly as strong “Best of All Possible Worlds,” as well as a pair of “Okie from Muskogee”-answer songs, the less-ambiguous-than-“Okie” “Blame It on the Stones” and the less-funny-than-“Okie” “The Law Is for Protection of the People.” What makes it all work anyway, in spite of Kristofferson’s weaknesses as a vocalist and despite his sometime purple poetry, are the soul-baring settings — nothing but chamber strings with a Nashville Cats pulse. And, of course, those songs help too, the unspooling melancholy of his melodies every bit as key as his philosophizing. Kristofferson’s version of “Sunday Morning Coming Down” is perfectly imperfect, a little down-on-the-ground masterpiece.

Tammy Wynette, ‘The Ways to Love a Man’

Here’s the Wynette and Billy Sherrill partnership at its sonic peak, notching a couple more chart-topping co-writes (the title track and “Singing My Song”) and widening like never before the already spacious distances between their record’s layered and clamorous crescendos and their naked and hushed verses. Sherrill could do that with Wynette to a degree he couldn’t with his other famous collaborators because of what Sherrill termed the “teardrop” in her voice. Tammy could sustain power and complexity, whether whispering in your ear or shoving you up against a wall of sound. Even when Wynette espouses the most romantic domestic ideals, when her words are all about the ways to love and stand by a man, her voice still sings unmistakably of what she knows she’s going to lose — and of all the ways she is already losing it.

Hank Williams Jr., ‘Singing My Songs, Johnny Cash’

The early line on Hank Williams, Jr. was that he was nothing but a Hank Sr. copycat, either singing the songs his daddy wrote or singing repeatedly about his daddy in the songs he wrote himself. That take’s not entirely untrue, so it may come as a surprise that hands down the best album Jr. made before he reinvented himself as a southern-rocking country outlaw in 1975, and still among the best albums of his career, is this Johnny Cash tribute. Focusing on Cash’s Tennessee Two Sun period, though finding room for “Ring of Fire” and “Understand Your Man,” too, Bocephus’ takes on the Man in Black’s songbook are by turns boisterous and tender. And they each walk a wholly distinctive line, from circa-1970 honky tonk to country rock, then back again. They anticipate, in other words, his later transformation, in the process launching whole new family traditions.