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10 Classic Country Albums Turning 50 in 2019

From Johnny Cash’s ‘At San Quentin’ to a gem from Jeannie C. Riley

Johnny Cash, Jeannie C. Riley

Johnny Cash's 'At San Quentin' and Jeannie C. Riley's 'Yearbooks and Yesterdays' are on our list of classic country albums turning 50 in 2019.

ITV/REX/Shutterstock & David Magnus/REX/Shutterstock

Lists of the best albums celebrating 50th anniversaries all but inevitably focus on rock albums. Country music is almost always omitted from such backward glances — unless, that is, an act has been identified as “country rock” or at least has some obvious rock & roll connection. And even then (Hello, Johnny Cash!), the acknowledgment typically comes only sparingly. This negligence isn’t mostly because of any rigid genre segregation, either. Rather, it’s simply because many if not most of country music’s best albums weren’t recognized, let alone lionized, to begin with. Instead, then as now — and this tends to go double for women artists — country albums were dismissed out of hand as surely nothing more than being “hits plus filler” or “old-fashioned,” “hackneyed” or “conservative,” or any number of other hackneyed themselves country-music-aimed bigotries.

Just as with last year’s piece devoted to 1968’s best country albums, this 1969 edition hopes to reclaim at least a few of these overlooked country music gems.

Porter Wagoner 'The Carroll County Incident'

Porter Wagoner, ‘The Carroll County Accident’ (RCA)

On the one hand, this is a standard issue late-Sixties country LP. It’s also perfect. The hit-single title track is one of the genre’s preeminent story songs, and the inevitable covers of recent hits by other acts are reimagined here into pure-Porter (a lovely “Sing Me Back Home,” a muscular “Rocky Top”). Several new tracks were shoulda-coulda-been hits for Porter (including the Mel Tillis gut-punch “Your Mother Eyes” and Dolly’s sweet and dour “I’ve Lived So Fast and Hard”), and Wagoner’s rockin’ read on murder ballad “Banks of the Ohio” is the definitive modern version. Bonus: That rhinestone-and-sweat cover portrait is perfect for framing.

Dolly Parton 'In the Good Old Days'

Dolly Parton, ‘In the Good Old Days’ (RCA)

Her second RCA solo album finds Dolly Parton coming into her own as a songwriter. That includes the title track most of all, her first great country composition, as well as several merely excellent songs, like the opening kiss-off “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind” and a kind of “No Scrubs” for grownups called “He’s a Go Getter.” But the real secret weapon here is Parton’s singing, particularly on one she didn’t write, the country-soul “Fresh Out of Forgiveness,” a track which should go down as exhibit “A” for Porter Wagoner’s claim that, for a while there, what Dolly really wanted to be was Aretha Franklin.

Charley Pride 'In Person'

Charley Pride, ‘In Person: Panther Hall, Fort Worth, Texas’ (RCA)

In Person is famous for Pride’s story about a white woman attending one of his shows who loved his records and, therefore, didn’t believe her favorite singer could possibly be black; she shrieked “It’s true, it’s true!” when she saw Pride sing standing right there in front of her. But the album is full of even higher highs: Pride following that story with best-ever versions of ol’ Hank’s “Lovesick Blues” and “Kaw-liga,” a “Crystal Chandeliers” that became a Pride signature even though it was never a radio hit, all the nifty licks and solos from MVP pedal-steel man Lloyd Green, and a closing “Cotton Fields” that Pride introduces with an even better story: “It reminds me of what I don’t ever want to go back to doing.”

Merle Haggard 'Pride in What I Am'

Merle Haggard and the Strangers, ‘Pride in What I Am’ (Capitol)

In 1969, Merle Haggard released four masterpiece albums. You could argue each deserves a spot here, but three of them include Hag music already widely known: A Portrait of Merle Haggard collects some of his most treasured singles (“Working Man Blues,” its B-side “Silver Wings,” plus “Hungry Eyes”); Same Train, A Different Time, Hag’s encomium to father figure Jimmie Rodgers, is already a consensus pick for country’s greatest tribute album; and Okie From Muskogee is a frequent short-lister for greatest country live set.

So, instead of those, lets seize a chance to cheerlead for Hag’s lesser-known other release from 1969, Pride in What I Am. The set is remarkable for its hushed and sprightly acoustic arrangements, but with plenty of noisy electric color, swinging drums and pulse-throbbing bass all way up in the mix. And Merle’s songs here — the weirdly beautiful “The Days the Rains Came,” the wild and weary “I Can’t Hold Myself in Line,” a joyous middle-finger dance party called “I’m Bringing Home Good News,” and so on — are among his iconoclastic best. With apologies to Nashville Skyline and The Gilded Palace of Sin (a couple of other great 1969 country albums you probably already know), this was the best country-rock album of its year — and maybe the year’s best country album, period.

Wanda Jackson 'Many Moods'

Wanda Jackson, ‘The Many Moods of Wanda Jackson’ (Capitol)

Far and away the best thing to follow from the gimcrack The Party Ain’t Over, Wanda Jackson’s Jack White-directed 2011 comeback, was that it pointed new fans to her back catalogue, much of which is now available for streaming or download. As its title predicts, The Many Moods… foregrounds Jackson’s knowing, acid twang on a variety of mostly pop and country standards. She’s deservedly heralded for her rockabilly wildness, but she’s an even stronger ballad singer. Her go here at “Memphis,” for example, doubles down on the heartbreak most versions of that Chuck Berry song only wink at. Her “Walk Right In” is both seduction and warning (“Do you wanta loo-ooze your mind?”), and her prickly reading of Merle Haggard’s “I Started Loving You Again” reveals a Wanda royally pissed at her own damn foolishness.

Jerry Lee Lewis Linda Gail Lewis 'Together'

Jerry Lee Lewis and Linda Gail Lewis, ‘Together’ (Smash)

Country music’s most ferocious duet, Jerry Lee and Linda Gail Lewis ignite country standards like “Milwaukee, Here I Come” and “Gotta Travel On” with sanctified shimmy and piano-pounding Pentecostal fervor. Their wailing sibling harmony on “Jackson” makes Johnny and June’s more famous fevered elopement sound studied, and their “Roll Over Beethoven” seemingly raises the dead for the sole purpose of forcing Ludwig to watch them dance on his grave. Most impressively, all the way through but especially on an in-heat “Don’t Let Me Cross Over,” Linda Gail becomes the first human ever to out-sing her big brother.

Billie Jo Spears 'Mr Walker It's All Over'

Billie Jo Spears, ‘Mr. Walker, It’s All Over’ (Capitol)

Billie Jo Spears was never a big country star, and today she’s barely known at all, which is too bad. The title track single, for instance, tracks a #MeToo moment 50 years ahead of its time. She plays a young Kansas transplant “tired of the New York secretary’s life” because of “an old familiar” story: all these white-haired corporate bosses dodging their wives and hitting on her. “That’s a lot of hands a-reachin’ out to grab the things I consider mine,” she declares, fed up. Spears’ voice has a hard twangy texture similar to Tammy Wynette’s — but with less pitch perfection which leads, now and then, to greater, or at least different, poignancies. When Wynette sings “Stand by Your Man,” for example, it’s an anthem for women everywhere, whereas Spears’ version makes her sound like she’s engaging in some self-talk that hasn’t quite taken yet. By the time she gets to anthems she can call her own, though — “That Man,” as in “That man doesn’t love you, girl,” and the closing “Price I Pay to Stay,” as in it ain’t worth it — she’s made up her mind: He’s using her, his lips are cold, she’s outta here.

Johnny Cash 'At San Quentin'

Johnny Cash, ‘At San Quentin’ (Columbia)

Like most sequels, At San Quentin pales a bit next to its predecessor. It’s a little less wild than At Folsom Prison, a little more patronizing of its captive audience, and a little more formulaic, too, because now, a year after Folsom, there is a formula. The edits are clunkier here as well: These days, the full-show and two-disc San Quentin Legacy Edition, from 2014, is the way to go. But those are quibbles. On the original album’s opening Dylan cover, “Wanted Man,” Cash talks of being hounded but feels like he’s having a hoot, and “A Boy Named Sue” still captures the Man in Black at his metaphorical folktale best: hilarious, grim, generous.

Jeannie C. Riley 'Yearbooks and Yesterdays'

Jeannie C. Riley, ‘Yearbooks and Yesterdays’ (Plantation)

There needs to be a Jeannie C. Riley revival. Everyone who’s heard her “Harper Valley P.T.A.” likely already adores Riley’s distinctive, husky alto. What’s mostly overlooked is in addition to being no one-hit wonder — five more Top Ten hits followed her signature song — she was also a concept album artist. Just as her breakthrough album chronicled a whole town’s worth of Harper Valley citizens, her follow-up, Yearbooks and Yesterdays, was a set of songs themed to recalling the high school years of its characters. Like a lot of reunions, things begin rose-colored, then rapidly fall apart: In “What Was Her Name,” a teen bride dies violently, and in “Whatever Happened to Charlie Brown,” a boy flees town after getting his girlfriend pregnant. “The Girl Most Likely,” the best of her subsequent hits, finds her bemoaning the reputations poor girls get precisely because they’re poor. Her giddiness when it turns out to be another girl in trouble is cruel, sure, but her schadenfreude is understandable enough. Catchy, too.

Charlie Rich 'The Fabulous Charlie Rich'

Charlie Rich, ‘The Fabulous Charlie Rich’ (Epic)

Those who pick this as Charlie Rich’s best have likely never heard 1992’s Pictures and Paintings, and may also want to revisit Behind Closed Doors, but that only acknowledges the breadth and depth of a catalog that’s still not received its proper due. For sure, The Fabulous… was Rich’s first masterpiece, an album that warranted all those frequent comparisons of Rich to Elvis but that in hindsight also deserves consideration alongside beautiful bummers like Frank Sinatra’s For Only the Lonely and In the Wee Small Hours. The peak here, of course, is the country-soulful “Life’s Little Ups and Downs,” the song Margaret Ann Rich wrote about her depressive husband, the disappointments of his musical career and their domestic dreams, and their still-struggling-but-hanging-on marriage. Be warned: On The Fabulous Charlie Rich, that’s the happy song.