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10 Classic Country Albums Turning 40 in 2019

From Dolly Parton’s ‘Great Balls of Fire’ to Merle Haggard’s ‘Serving 190 Proof,’ the best country albums of 1979

Classic Country Albums Turning 40, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard

Dolly Parton's 'Great Balls of Fire' and Merle Haggard's 'Serving 190 Proof' are two classic country albums turning 40 in 2019.

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1979 was a transitional year for country music. The Outlaw sound that had taken the genre both back to its roots and on to the pop charts was clearly in decline, but the next-big-thing, Urban Cowboy, had yet to take hold. Caught in between, people were trying all sorts of unexpected sounds and approaches. On her second album, future star Janie Fricke included a lounge version of “Got My Mojo Working.” Larry Gatlin released what amounted to a Southern gospel concept album, while George Jones duetted with everyone from Elvis Costello to Dr. Hook to Mavis and Pops Staples. There were plenty of disco beats, too, as well as trad-country standards, plus covers of old-time rock & roll and of what would now be called “classic rock,” even a bit of calypso. It was a strange, weird year, in other words. But like any year, 1979 was not without it share of country keepers. Here are 10 of the best.

Hank Williams Jr., 'Family Tradition'

Hank Williams Jr., ‘Family Tradition’ (Elektra/Curb)

“Family Tradition,” the single, stands among the more consequential records in country history. Before “Family Tradition,” Jr. hadn’t cracked the Top Ten in half a decade. Afterward, he ruled the Eighties. Taking an even longer view, the song’s chip-on-its-shoulder attitude and rowdy sound predicted all manner of country futures, from “Friends in Low Places” to a decade’s worth of pissed-off small-town anthems, post 9/11.

Family Tradition, the album, couldn’t demonstrate this shift more starkly. Searching for a hit, the album covers all sorts of pop ground, including the three failed-but-fun-as-hell singles that preceded “Family Tradition”: a pub-rockin’ cover of “I Fought the Law,” a country-soul barn-burner called “Old Flames, New Fire,” and a strings-and-drama reading of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody.” And how’s this for career pivot points: Side 1’s “We Can Work It Out,” in which a chamber quartet backs a Bocephus dream where “Arab and Jew, and me and you” live in peace, does unsuccessful battle with Side 2’s all too on-brand “I Got Rights,” in which Jr. buys “one of them Smith & Wesson Magnum .44s” to shoot down the guy he says murdered his wife and boy. Straight ahead: Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound, A Country Boy Can Survive and the world in which we live.

Anne Murray, 'New Kind of Feeling'

Anne Murray, ‘New Kind of Feeling’ (Capitol)

These days Anne Murray has mostly been written out of the country narrative, but for 20 years, from 1970’s “Snowbird” to 1990’s “Feed This Fire,” Murray was a nearly constant radio presence, landing nine country Number Ones alongside another 15 Top Tens. Anticipating the folkie vibe and bright-yet-pensive tone of stars to be like Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kathy Mattea, Suzy Bogguss, and the late Holly Dunn, Murray possesses an immediately recognizable voice and her deceptively easy-does-it phrasing is instantly agreeable. New Kind of Feeling was the most successful country album of her career, thanks to chart-toppers “Shadows in the Moonlight” and the lovely “I Just Fall in Love with You.” Even lovelier is her reading of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s old Buddy Holly hit, “Rainin’ in My Heart.”

Charlie Daniels Band, 'Million Mile Reflections'

The Charlie Daniels Band, ‘Million Mile Reflections’ (Epic)

This is the CDB in full-on AOR mode. “Passing Lane” cops a Deep Purple lick, then turns into a Little Feet boogie-woogie. “Jitterbug” is blues-rock, “Blue Star” is Southern rock — and, like seven-and-a-half minute album closer “Rainbow Ride,” they go on jam-band style with brass, B-3 and jazzy ‘lectric licks. The dreamy “Behind Your Eyes,” meanwhile, sounds as if Jefferson Starship’s contemporaneous Earth album had been cut in Nashville instead of San Fran, while the string-cushioned and lighter-aloft “Reflections” eulogizes Elvis, Janis and Ronnie Van Zant.

Of course, all this buries the lead: “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” for a fiddle contest, and from there crossed to the pop charts. By rockist AOR standards, ol’ Scratch and his inventive atonal solo were robbed, but both the country and pop crowds gave the crown to Johnny’s traditional fiddle. So much better for dancing.

Emmylou Harris, 'Blue Kentucky Girl'

Emmylou Harris, ‘Blue Kentucky Girl’ (Warner Bros.)

Harris’ most critically lauded recordings — the solo albums Wrecking Ball and Spyboy, say, and of course her harmony work with Gram Parsons — have always leaned more to country-rock and Americana than country proper. To my ears, though, nearly all of her best albums are the ones she cut as a mainstream country hitmaker in the second half of the 1970s. The last of those was perhaps her best of all, what with its Loretta Lynn-cover title track and its near-tears, mandolin-driven version of “Save the Last Dance for Me,” each a Top Ten country hit. And her gulping version of “Beneath Still Waters,” which topped the country countdown in 1980, is harrowing: Emmylou staring, helpless, as her heart’s desire sinks forever beyond her reach beneath a pretty, placid surface.

Merle Haggard, 'Serving 190 Proof'

Merle Haggard, ‘Serving 190 Proof’ (MCA)

Serving 190 Proof is a jazzy-guitar-and-electric-piano-spiked testament to individualism — or, rather, to a host of individualism’s attendant burdens and anxieties. On the funky opener “Footlights,” Merle feels obligated to slap on an “insto-matic grin” for another show, and he’s sick to death of it. Throughout, he presents himself as desperately, even existentially, lonely, depressed and addicted, in therapy and on the run from life: “I Can’t Get Away,” he cries, in one Steely Dan-soundalike track. It’s only when he seeks out others at the album’s close — his kin, in “Sing a Family Song”; a lover, in “Roses in Winter” — that the Hag finds a little peace.

The best country album of 1979, and arguably the best ’79 album, period.

The Kendalls, 'Just Like Real People'

The Kendalls, ‘Just Like Real People’ (Ovation)

Maybe nothing illustrates the eclectic charms of country music in 1979 as well as daughter Jeannie and daddy Royce Kendall’s Just Like Real People. Seeming contradictions abound — but are each revealed as no contradiction at all. The entire album wears a high-gloss pop sheen, yet its intense vocal and instrumental twang remains unobscured. The Kendalls’ sound speaks fluent Southern gospel but sings, on Number Five hit “I Had a Lovely Time,” of “superstar” sexual satisfaction. Sure, those shiny, overalls-clad mannequins make for one of the worst album covers you’ve ever seen. But just note that cheesy, after-hours-at-the-Limited image is there to highlight a title track that’s one of the most gut-punching middle-class-aspiring ballads in country music history.

Charley Pride, 'You're My Jamaica'

Charley Pride, ‘You’re My Jamaica’ (RCA Victor)

Partly because of his genuinely old-fashioned country bona fides and partly to counteract the perceived liability of being a black man in a white-folks format, Charley Pride found a successful traditional sound and stuck with it — or at least that’s been the conventional wisdom. The truth is that Pride became steadily interested in country-pop styles as his chart career proceeded. Pride’s Countrypolitan highpoint, You’re My Jamaica, embraces disco high hat, Casey Kasem choruses, and dizzying dancefloor strings. Its calypso-rock title track (the first country chart-topper ever cut in England) makes Jimmy Buffett sound like a first-time island tourist. What marks it all as country is Pride’s Mississippi twang and grown-ass stories. “[I] say I’ve come to see the children when I know they’re still in school,” Pride confesses to his ex-wife as she answers the door in “What’re We Doing Doing This Again.” Strings and backing vocals swell behind him and, it seems, a disco ball begins to twinkle and twirl. She invites him in, again.

'Willie Nelson Sings Kris Kristofferson'

Willie Nelson, ‘Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson’ (Columbia)

As singer-songwriters go, Kris Kristofferson is nearly always at his best when someone else is doing the singing. As high as his idiosyncratic picking and phrasing can send him, Willie Nelson only ever really soars when he has material worthy of the effort. In other words, Nelson Sings Kristofferson couldn’t be more perfect — nine singular takes on exactly the classic Kris cuts you’d predict, including “Me and Bobby McGee,” Help Me Make It through the Night,” “Why Me,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “For the Good Times,” and perhaps the best ever “Loving Her Was Easier” on record. Bonus: A couple times you can even catch Kristofferson croaking gamely along in the background.

Dolly Parton, 'Great Balls of Fire'

Dolly Parton, ‘Great Balls of Fire’ (RCA Victor)

Great Balls of Fire is one of Dolly Parton’s most unfairly overlooked efforts. Its hit single, the Carole Bayer Sager ballad “You’re the Only One,” topped the country charts but barely registered on the pop formats where it was presumably aimed. The title track is updated old-time rock & roll while her version of “Help” bluegrasses the Beatles not unlike the way she’d later twang up Blackfoot and Collective Soul. Top Ten hit “Sweet Summer Lovin’” bounces between banjo backing and a flute solo, and whispered closer “Sandy’s Song” finds Parton uploading her own words onto the melody for “Greensleeves.” The album’s an all-over-the-board mess, in other words, but consistently delightful and revealing. As she declares in the set’s straight-up-disco opener, she can do it all and so isn’t quite sure what she wants to do: Whatever it is, she’ll for sure be “Star of the Show.”

Dottie West, 'Special Delivery'

Dottie West, ‘Special Delivery’ (United Artists)

Coming on the heels of Dottie West’s initial duet hits with Kenny Rogers, Special Delivery features “Lesson in Leavin’,” which is the best of her solo sides, a country Number One, and one of country music’s greatest singles, period. But the entire album showcases West’s husky soul delivery — listen to her phrasing and use of texture, particularly at the high, wailing end of her range, on ballads like “It’s Too Late to Love Me Now” or the concluding cover of Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight,” and you can hear the best example going of how the country-soul style of Aretha Franklin’s early hits was absorbed into mainstream country vocalizing.

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