Country music’s love affair with rock music has been an open secret for a long time, but now that lyrics sport influences like concert T-shirts, the honky-tonk has gone heavy. Lady Antebellum sings about a Def Leppard song (“Damn You Seventeen”), Kenny Chesney sneaks in a reference to John Cougar Mellencamp (“American Kids”) and distortion-pedal-blazing outlaw Eric Church wrote a whole song around Bruce Springsteen (“Springsteen”) — not to mention the genre opened its arms to rock ex-pats like Bon Jovi and Darius Rucker. Here are 50 rock albums that should be rattling around inside a pick-up’s glove compartment or blasting from the pocket of a blue jean.
A Sixties landmark every bit as epochal as Sgt. Pepper's or The Velvet Underground & Nico, the Byrds' 1968 masterpiece pretty much invented the notion that longhaired rock guys could play country music with dedication, skill and emotion. The band had dabbled a little with country in the past but by adding Georgia-born Gram Parsons to their lineup in 1967 they went all in, recording in Nashville and following Parsons' notion of "Cosmic American Music" towards a sound that seamlessly incorporated Dylan ("You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," "Nothing Was Delivered"), the Louvin Brothers ("The Christian Life"), Woody Guthrie ("Pretty Boy Floyd"), George Jones ("You're Still on My Mind"), Merle Haggard ("Life In Prison") and Stax soulman William Bell ("You Won't Miss Your Water") into a honky-tonk-steeped music played with rock & roll drive. The most stunning moments are "Hickory Wind," Parsons' loving remembrance of home, and "One Hundred Years From Now," which pushes beyond traditionalism and reverence into their own heraldic vision of country-rock. "Would anybody change their mind?" they sang, wondering towards a future where America's class and regional biases melted into high-harmony bliss. Taking that vision to the Grand Ole Opry after Sweetheart's release, they learned how far their utopian ideas were from reality when a condescending audience booed them off the stage. J.D.
Tony Joe White turned the swamps and cotton fields of his Louisiana surroundings into a thrilling, immediately recognizable songwriting vernacular. The bayou character descriptions in "Polk Salad Annie," which reached Number Eight on the Billboard Hot 100, felt almost scientifically detailed without sacrificing any fun. As for the racial complexities of "Willie and Laura Mae Jones" — later adapted by Dusty Springfield — White's emotional delivery conveyed more vital information than any of the lyrics. Adding to Black and White's cinematic quality was White's loose, unrefined slang and rich, thick-cut voice, full of his trademark spontaneous grunts. Dude was no slouch on harmonica either. R.F.
John Fogerty's inflections on "Proud Mary," off the California band's second album, weren't exactly country — but they certainly seemed possessed by the South, as "burning" became "boynin'" and Fogerty told of a man fleeing big-city life for the virtues of a blue-collar existence along the river. George Jones took note, covering the song with Johnny Paycheck on 1980's Double Trouble. However, the album's triumph was capturing a certain kind of swampy Delta soul with swinging vamps that made modern roots-rock possible and showed it was OK to send your heart to Mississippi or Tennessee even if your true ancestries lay elsewhere — something the likes of Australian Keith Urban and ex-Arizonian Dierks Bentley later took to heart. M.M.
The late Gram Parsons was a rock star, and a good one, but what made him a great country singer was his obsession with guilt and sin. Flying Burrito Brothers, who started up after Parsons and Chris Hillman left the Byrds, featured Parsons at his most anguished, combining jittery rock with the most haunted country drawl this side of Hank Williams. "Sneaky Pete" Kleinow's steel guitar sounds thoroughly acid-drenched throughout, especially on the album-opening groupie lament "Christine's Tune (Devil in Disguise)." But the takeaway is Parson's morning-after "Sin City" piety: "On the 31st floor/A gold-plated door/Won't keep out the Lord's burning rain." D.M.
Instrumentally, this was Bob Dylan's most country album, featuring a top-notch Nashville band — the serenading pedal steel of Pete Drake, the rolling thunder of drummer Kenneth Buttrey and Charlie Daniels, yes, that Charlie Daniels, on bass guitar. It was also undisputed proof that Dylan could sing clear as a bell when so inclined. Given its historical context — the generational bard abandoning strident political songwriting to pal around with Johnny Cash in Music City — this was also one of his most rebellious career statements (though the twangy departure still reached Number Three on Billboard's album chart). "Lay Lady Lay" was the album's centerpiece, but "I Threw it All Away," "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here with You" and the reworking of "Girl from the North Country" (featuring Cash), remain three of his most reverent, beautiful songs. R.F.
That the best-ever song about the Civil War came from a four-fifths Canadian outfit (at least Arkansas native Levon Helm took lead vocals) is an embarrassment to America as a whole (and the Confederacy in particular). But don't hold that against the almighty "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," which radiated wounded Southern pride more effectively than any Toby Keith attempt. The Band's sophomore set was a one-stop tool kit for jovial quasi-hippie Americana, rich in Actual History and lush rural pornography, from "Look Out Cleveland" (eh, rural enough) to the eerily funky "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)." Blake Shelton's jovial ribaldry or Tim McGraw's aw-shucks anthemia can be traced back here; and it's still the best-case scenario as a template when somebody like Dierks Bentley tries a stripped-down rootsy thing. R.H.
Raised in rural Georgia, Johnny Jenkins was a hard-driving guitarist with a bellowing voice who played with a young Otis Redding in a blues group called the Pinetoppers. Jenkins' raw, firebrand vocals and enviable guitar-picking gave his solo debut, Ton-Ton Macoute!, a wallop that might've made him a star — if only slide guitarist Duane Allman and several other members of his backing band hadn't left to form the Allman Brothers. In Jenkins' capable hands, Bob Dylan's "Down Along the Cove" and Dr. John's "I Walk on Guilded Splinters" (later sampled by Beck for "Loser") can get even the stiffest legs shakin'. R.F.
Country music, strictly speaking? No. The approach is too funky, the lyrics too ruminative and obscure. But the basic themes — 10 variations on "I'm home," "I'm comin' home" and "Lord, what tribulations stand between me and my home?" — certainly fit. And the sound is about as close as they got, leaving behind the black-hole explorations of the previous year's Live/Dead for something acoustic and pure. The wildest thing here, aside from the suggestion of words that glow like sunshine, is the twang of a pedal-steel guitar, which Garcia had bought on a tour stop in Denver. Lest you forget that Merle Haggard was from Oildale and Buck Owens settled in Bakersfield, the band reminds you: California, for all its coastline, is an agricultural state that can be as country as Texas. M.P.
Elvis recorded country music throughout his career — from classics at Sun sessions in the Fifties to unrepentant schlock. 1971's Elvis Country isn't as famous as his 1968 comeback landmark From Elvis In Memphis but it's one of his most consistent, thematically tight albums, showing off his voice in boundless, effortless form and taking on a set of songs he had a deep connection with. Recording at Nashville's RCA Studios with greats like guitarist James Burton and drummer Jerry Carrigan, he does honky-tonk, bluegrass, countrypolitan, Western swing and Sun Records rock & roll (a blazing version of Jerry Lee Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," recorded in one take, when Elvis and producer Felton Jarvis realized they were short of material). His moving version of Willie Nelson's "Funny How Time Slips Away," a song Al Green covered two years later, might be the album's capper but he even throws some soul into Anne Murra. J.D.
From the beginning, the Rolling Stones reveled in distinctly American genres like folk and the blues, so it wasn't totally surprising when steel guitar and a bit of country honk began creeping into the band's late-Sixties records. Their 1971 masterpiece, Sticky Fingers, contains the group's most heartfelt country ballad, the soaring "Wild Horses," as well as its most comically disingenuous — "Dead Flowers," in which Mick Jagger affects his best southern accent to sing about a broken relationship amidst honky-tonk piano and slippery sliding guitar. Elsewhere, country lurks in the shadows of the album's epic closing track "Moonlight Mile" and the tragic folk song "Sister Morphine." When heard side-by-side next to blues songs like "You Gotta Move" and hard rockers like "Bitch," the album's country moments are all the more poignant. "Keith [Richards] has always been country," Jagger told Rolling Stone in 1968. "That's what his scene was." K.G.
Emerging from the same San Francisco folknik scene that spawned their Acid Test and Fillmore compatriots the Grateful Dead, New Riders of the Purple Sage found a fellow traveler in Jerry Garcia, who stuck around long enough to contribute exquisite pedal steel guitar to the group's lilting and charmingly naïve 1971 debut. Named after a camp Zane Grey novel, NRPS seemed more infatuated with the idea of country than the real deal — and that's OK. Who could resist the bucolic psychedelia of "Whatcha Gonna Do" or the two-stepping underground-comix vibe of cult hit "Henry," a pot-smuggling sibling to the Dead's "Casey Jones"? R.G.
No less a country-poet icon than Kris Kristofferson was credited with discovering this Illinois mailman-turned-songwriter's-songwriter whose 1971 debut made him one of the precious few "New Dylan" types to actually earn the distinction. If you flipped for Brandy Clark's 12 Stories and its wry, empathetic tales of aging hippies living lives of quiet despair, Prine's warm, tough "Hello in There" and "Angel From Montgomery" are gold standards. The coal-mine-choked "Paradise" is likewise in the permanent record (see Johnny Cash's cover). The politics here don't quite line up with, say, Charlie Daniels — see the hilariously self-explanatory "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore" — but the shattering "Sam Stone," one of the best songs about an American war veteran ever written, can't be denied. Don't let the hay bale on the cover fool you — or, actually, go ahead and let it. R.H.
For decades, Eat a Peach has been a favorite of both country musicians and a defining influence on generations of Southern rock groups sitting on its fringes. These days, jam-ready pop acts like the Zac Brown Band have set the LP firmly in the country canon, influenced equally by its direct songwriting ("Melissa") and open-ended guitar heroics ("Mountain Jam"). Earlier this year, Brown and Vince Gill played a central role in a Gregg Allman tribute concert, and Eric Church took on Peach's "Ain't Wastin' Time No More" in similarly-themed CD. "I try not to think about it just directly," the surviving Allman said of these gestures. "It's pretty overwhelming." N.M.
Harvest, the first album that Neil Young recorded in Nashville, is abundant with pedal-steel ambience as well as a bucolic back-to-the-country vibe. It still stands as his commercial high-water mark, thanks to the mellow-rock standard "Heart of Gold," Young's sole U.S. Number One hit. And yet even at his most accessible, Young shows flashes of edge on "Alabama" (a Red State call-out rebutted a year later by Lynyrd Skynyrd) and the odd orchestrated ode to domestic help, "A Man Needs a Maid." But what lingers most is that Harvest shows Young at the top of his songwriting game. Lines as good as "Every junkie's like a setting sun" usually come one per career, but there's plenty more where that came from throughout these 10 tracks. D.M.
Talk about outlaw music: The core of what is arguably the Rolling Stones' finest album — a loose-limbed yet powerful excursion through Fifties rock, gospel country and African-American soul — was recorded in Keith Richards's steamy chateau basement by the strung-out rhythm guitarist and his fellow British tax exiles. But there's a hell of a lot more American South than South of France in these 18 tracks, most of which were subsequently polished in less louche surroundings. Hard-rocking songs like "Rip This Joint" and "Let It Loose" are rooted in Elvis Presley's bluesy country covers, while "Shine a Light" and magnificent Exile centerpiece "Loving Cup" share origins in the country credibility that Gram Parsons conferred upon Jagger and Richards (see "Wild Horses"). Recorded over three years and released in 1972, Exile only improves with age. R.G.
One of Elton's more intriguing early Seventies personas was a young man torn between rural and urban living: Think "Country Comfort," much of 1970's Western-themed Tumbleweed Connection or even "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" ("Should've stayed on the farm, should've listened to my old man"). In his rollicking 1972 barrelhouse-piano boogie-woogie "Honky Cat," he reflects on a youth of "boppin' in the country, fishin' in a stream," puts his "redneck ways" behind when lured by city lights, but knows he needs to get back. The album — his first to go Number One, and first to feel like rock & roll — had banjos and mandolins to go with trombones, congas, "rhino whistles" and tap-dancing. Not to mention songs about bullwhips on an antebellum plantation, Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters welcoming him to the New York jungle, a teen suicide preventable only by Bridget Bardot, and a rocket man in space missing his wife. C.E.
Spartanburg, South Carolina's Marshall Tucker Band were southern-rock pioneers, along with the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. And while all three bands shared blues, boogie and jazz influences, MTB's chief songwriter/guitarist Toy Caldwell also drew heavily from country and bluegrass. On the band's self-titled debut, the fiddle-friendly song "Hillbilly Band" was a genuine barn-burner, with Caldwell openly professing his love for country music; the rolling, acoustic guitar and gentle, AM-friendly harmonies of "AB's Song" could pass for the latest from the Zac Brown Band; and with MTB's sprawling improvisations, it's not that difficult to draw a line to jam bands such as Phish — or back to Zac Brown again, who regularly covers MTB's 1977 hit "Heard It in a Love Song." L.R.
Doesn't every little boy want to grow up to be a cowboy? With their sophomore effort, the Eagles' rodeo-wrangler fantasy came true on this hazily conceived concept album, which featured dusty gunslinger outfits (on the cover) and Wild West-sounding song titles ("Doolin-Dalton," "Outlaw Man," "Tequila Sunrise"). But when Desperado was first released, Rolling Stone's Paul Gambaccini wrote, "The beautiful thing about it is that although it is a unified set of songs, it is not a rock opera, a concept album or anything pretending to be much more than a set of good tunes that just happen to fit together." In any case, these tunes allowed the band to twang it up on the banjo-and-Dobro-tickled "Twenty One," and the melancholy, sleepy-eyed harmonica of "Doolin-Dalton." The Eagles' body of work is now so closely associated with classic rock and AOR, it's often overlooked just how country their sound was. Though never released as a single, the title track was the one that found favor in Nashville, covered by Kenny Rogers, Clint Black and Johnny Cash, among others. L.R.
The music is uptempo blues rock, but the lyrics tell a different tale: "Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers" tells the story of a guy heading to "his favorite honky tonk" to hear that "steel guitar crying through the night." Recorded in Tennessee and repping Texas roots, the tune and its parent album, Tres Hombres, have been fully embraced by the country establishment. Earlier this year, the band performed before many of the acts that they've influenced — Big & Rich, Florida Georgia Line, Miranda Lambert — when they opened the CMT Awards. "ZZ Top just dominated rock & roll when we were coming up through the ranks," Ronnie Dunn told the network. Added his partner Kix Brooks, "Their music made you want to lock yourself in a room and see if you couldn't figure out just a couple of those guitar licks." N.M.
After Gram Parsons linked up with legendary singing partner Emmylou Harris for his solo debut, 1973's GP, the alt-country pioneer was not long for this world. Between the booze, drugs and partying with Keith Richards, Parsons' life was a crazy country song unto itself. Plus, the Eagles-obsessed market of the early Seventies largely ignored his visionary combination of pop songwriting with traditional Nashville tools while he was alive. Released posthumously, Grievous Angel cobbled together covers and miscellany from his final recording sessions just months before he died at 26. The harmonies with Harris on "Hearts on Fire" and Boudleaux Bryant's "Love Hurts" burned white-hot, and proved Parsons was a master of mood. Even more famous friends — Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles' Bernie Leadon among them — helped make "In My Hour of Darkness" Grievous' emotional crusher. R.F.
Not quite heavy metal, not quite boogie blues, but within chaw-spitting distance of both, Bad Company's self-titled supposed supergroup debut is some golden blow-the-man-down mean of Seventies butt-rock, cock-rock, whatever you wanna call it. Jason Aldean's built on his career on this band's chug whether he knows it or not; "Faster Gun" on the new Little Big Town album is an expert imitation. And on a Walmart box set he put out last Christmas, Garth Brooks covered "Bad Company" itself, an outlaw song about being born open-carrying a six-gun. Truth is, modern Nashville power country might be at least as indebted to Bad Company's slightly more compromised later hits. But "Can't Get Enough," "Rock Steady," "Ready for Love," and "Movin' On" all in one place, so you can finally confirm they're really not all the same song? Yep, here's where to start. C.E.
Newman spent his early childhood in New Orleans, before moving to Los Angeles and growing into the greatest comic ironist in the history of rock & roll. On Good Old Boys he set lyrics about white Southern culture to some of the most beautiful melodies of his career. He's unsparingly cutting but sympathetic too; album opener "Rednecks" has lines like "We got college men from LSU/Went in dumb, came out to dumb too" but it still puts its emotional weight behind a guy who gets mad when he sees segregationist Georgia ex-governor Lester Maddox mocked by condescending liberals on a talk show. That kind of tangled tenderness and loving ambivalence is all over Good Old Boys — from "Kingfish," a campaign ad for Huey P. Long; to "Birmingham," which makes the citadel of reactionary Sixties racism sound like a down home Arcadia; to "Wedding In Cherokee County," a heartsplitting backwoods processional. The capper is the staggeringly lovely "Louisiana 1927," a fucked-over little-guy's lament about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which was the Katrina of its day. With swelling strings and warm, comfy Southern California backing (the Eagles join Randy on a version of the Kingfish-penned 1935 song "Every Man A King"), the album became the most successful of Newman's career to that point. It reached Number 36 on the American charts and, as Greil Marcus notes in his classic book Mystery Train, won Randy a gold record In Holland. "I think they like me there because they think I hate America," Newman noted. "How depressing." J.D.
There was a time when the mark of a good country song was how smartly its lyrics resonated through clever wordplay and dramatic twists. Croce's posthumous greatest-hits collection, Photographs & Memories, illustrated just how keenly the singer-songwriter constructed a story, expertly setting you up for an unexpected emotional one-two punch. On the poignant "Operator," a man tries to place a call but the number on his matchbook cover has faded; it's only when he offhandedly sings that "she's living in L.A. with my best old ex-friend Ray," that we begin to feel the tune's depth. On uptempo boogie-woogie numbers "Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown" and "Don't Mess Around with Jim," skiffle rhythms and honky-tonk piano help put across stories of bad guys getting their comeuppance. Country artists Josh Turner, Donna Fargo and Ty Herndon have covered "Jim," lured, no doubt, by the lyrics' down-home wisdom. L.R.
On their debut LP, Seattle's Ann and Nancy Wilson mash up folk and metal, weaving intricate lyrics and acoustic guitar lines between big Robert Plant shrieks and heavy electric riffs. At the 2007 CMA Awards, the band would play track three, "Crazy on You," with Gretchen Wilson, but the 1976 version is still the one to seek out — it's what Kenny Rogers and the First Edition might sound like if they each downed a fifth of Fireball. N.M.