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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.

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.