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.
Every "tonight we're gonna throw a huge, rad, drunken party in a field a few miles out of town" bro-country song nods to the title track of Jailbreak; the way Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott growls, "Hey, you good-lookin' female/C'mere" could coax any blue-jean cutie into his dirt-splattered pickup. Each arena-touring country superstar is contractually obligated to hire two ornately tattooed hot-shit guitarists to replicate the duel-axe virtuosity of "The Boys Are Back in Town," which has the joyous-but-wistful air of top-shelf Music Row product; and Taylor Swift's Shakespearean "Love Story" owes an enormous debt to the surprisingly sweet "Romeo and the Lonely Girl." But the pick to click here is "The Cowboy Song," in which Lynott sang, "It's okay, amigo, just let me go/Ridin' here in the rodeo" with total conviction. R.H.
"When you're on a roll, the road ahead can take you anywhere," soul singer Bobby Womack explained of the country detour he originally wanted to call Step Aside Charlie Pride Give Another Nigger a Try. "I wanted to explore that new territory. I wanted to say what I found and say it the way my people would understand it." To accomplish this, the singer added his raspy vocals to country classics like Eddy Arnold's "Bouquet of Roses" and some Southern twang to songs like Sam Cooke's "Tired of Living in the Country." Falling in between the cracks of the country and R&B canons, the album remains underappreciated. N.M.
So Kid Rock = Bob Seger + rap; and modern country = Kid Rock – some of the rap. All of this makes old Bob (the real king of Detroit) the inadvertent godfather of Jason Aldean, Eric Church, Brantley Gilbert and countless other slimmer and less-hirsute cartoon roughnecks who rock hard but grin harder. This cheerfully rollicking 1976 jam — his first platinum album — peaked with the title track and "Mainstreet," which remain national treasures, bringing Wonder Years-caliber nostalgic pathos to tales of furtive teenage sex and chaste infatuation with a semi-exotic dancer, respectively. Like the best 21st-century CMT staples, they interrogated young blue-collar lust through a slightly older, immensely sadder man's wistful perspective: All those "sweet sixteens turned 31," as Seger put it. If that's too emo for you, though, the honky-tonk-soul goof "Sunspot Baby" is a wry she-done-me-wrong lament (Seger loses both his pride and his American Express card) with the pain of George Jones and the wit of Brad Paisley. (Bonus: His aversion to digital music is matched only by Garth Brooks.) R.H.
As a young girl in Arizona, Linda Ronstadt listened to what she termed "Mexican bluegrass," but her vision of music changed after hearing Hank Williams, whose songs she covered early on. Her ability to blend country and rock led to a gig singing with Los Angeles folk trio the Stone Poneys — their 1967 hit, "Different Drum," written by the Monkees' Mike Nesmith, showcased the 21-year-old's big, dramatic voice. But it was her self-titled 1972 solo album, which included several country covers and featured three members of the Eagles as her backing band, that defined Ronstadt's career. Not long after, her Greatest Hits stayed on the Billboard Country chart for almost three years. L.R.
It's one thing to "name names" Taylor Swift-style in your bitter pop-song broadsides, but it's quite another to target people who were standing to your immediate left or right onstage while you vent your spleen directly at them. By virtue of selling eight bazillion copies, the caustically beautiful Rumours has infected everyone and everything; the best country duets give you a taste of that sorta love-hate thing, whether you're talking Johnny and June or George and Tammy or Tim and Faith. Meanwhile, there's a whole soft-rock wing of the genre devoted to those sumptuous harmonies alone, from the love-drunk Lady Antebellum to the drunk-drunk Little Big Town to the fresh-faced and presumably sober Hunter Hayes (this is his favorite album of all time). Tune most suitable for hayrides: "Never Going Back Again." R.H.
Kings of New South identity politics who'd matured almost too fast through the middle Seventies, happy that peanut-farming Georgian Jimmy Carter had just been inaugurated but mostly clairvoyant about the smell of death around them, Skynyrd saw three members killed in a plane crash only three days after this LP hit the stores (the original album art, which depicted them surrounded by flames, suddenly seemed in poor taste and was quickly amended). The record begins at "8 O'clock in Boise, Idaho," space-time coordinate of "What's Your Name," both one of history's most rambunctious Stones rips and a peerlessly groupie-groping pinnacle of me-decade road-dog male privilege. It ends with a no-way-out blues called "Ain't No Good Life," preceded by a honky-tonking Merle Haggard cover. None of the country artists who worship it have touched it, though many have tried: Physically, Kentucky Headhunters probably came closest; spiritually, perhaps Montgomery Gentry. C.E.
With three guitars aflail, Danny Joe Brown's biker-stepdad growl and Frank Frazzetta's marauding Viking album cover, Molly Hatchet hawked grimy southern-rock with a heavy-metal glint. On 1979's triple-platinum Flirtin' with Disaster, produced by rock vet Tom Werman (Ted Nugent, Cheap Trick), that meant faster, heavier and gnarlier — Eric Church and Randy Houser would be crouched in a corner, awestruck. The riff-lash of "Whiskey Man" revved the engine and "One Man's Pleasure" got furiously funky like Florida-Georgia Line wished they could; but the title track's ferocious jailbreak clinched it, with the FTW edge of Brown's existential lyrics deepening the band's switchblade choogle. Plus, Brown could've been addressing bro-country's smalltown throwdown when he barked, "Come on, heeeah!" during the gleeful stomp of "Boogie No More." These boys knew how to make a stadium as homey as a honky-tonk. C.A.
The future Mr. Mellencamp opened up Nashville's ears a few years later with his Scarecrow/Farm Aid period — "Jackie Brown" charted country in 1989, and a 2004 Travis Tritt collaboration did even better. But mostly his eventual influence was retrospective: Above all "Jack & Diane," the national anthem of the Midwestern bread basket whose heartland kids sucking chili dogs behind the Tastee-Freez and Mick Ronson-assisted riffs, baby rattles and handclaps have served as a template for country hits from Sawyer Brown's 1992 "Some Girls Do" to Randy Houser's 2013 "Runnin' Out of Moonlight." No shock, given that Southern Indiana is basically Kentucky. And with three pop hits plus the big-beat AOR bulldozer "Thundering Hearts" pushing it to five weeks at Number One in 1982, American Fool's still the Coug album most folks remember — even if its maker turned more respectable under a subsequent surname. C.E.
This was the West Coast punk band's major-label debut, and it crackles with just as much revved-up abandon as its predecessors, 1980's Los Angeles and 1981's Wild Gift. But the country-roots influences (which would become even more pronounced on their mid-Eighties side project, the Knitters) come through in John Doe and Exene Cervenka's keening voices, which take the Carter Family's Appalachian vocal harmonies for a spin in Billy Zoom's Chuck-Berry-at-warp-speed guitar riffs. "The Hungry Wolf" sounds like an unholy mix of murder balladry and death metal. D.M.
Springsteen’s instincts as a storyteller, echoing quiet blue-collar desperation, are distinctly country; and, naturally, countless country stars have covered his work — Eric Church even named a hit song after him! But Nebraska, recorded without the E Street Band’s feverish, sax-enriched bluster, stood out for its stark restraint; in fact, Springsteen simply released his original four-track demos. With nothing more than acoustic guitar and wearied voice, he conveyed the chilling beauty of “Atlantic City” (“Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact”), the shuffling drone of a paranoid criminal (“State Trooper”) and the tragic fate of a laid-off auto worker (“Johnny 99”). The latter was covered by Johnny Cash on his 1983 album of the same name. R.F.
Long before Uncle Tupelo defined a new country-punk hybrid, Meat Puppets' Curt and Cris Kirkwood were experimenting with weird backroads music (and acid) in their Arizona lab. The Puppets' second album also had a psych-rock tinge — Kurt Loder aptly called it a "cultural trash compactor" in his Rolling Stone review — but there was plenty of humorous twang too. "Climbing" dripped with slacker sarcasm, as Curt took a piss on Nashville's need to shine up deadbeat excuses with a team of songwriters' flowery words. His realizations, set to an upbeat acoustic shuffle, actually sounded like they were coming from someone who was deliriously adrift: "And I know this doesn't rhyme/But the clutter on the table is getting out of hand." How about an 18-wheeler anthem that truly resembled too many amphetamines and not enough sleep? "Lost" was it. And yes, an otherwise pleasant instrumental with intricate finger-picking was dubbed "I'm a Mindless Idiot." R.F.
"Somebody that I admire, somebody that I look up to musically," Jason Aldean said of Bryan Adams when they shared the stage for a CMT Crossroads special a couple of years ago. In the early Eighties, Adams wrote songs for everyone from Kiss to Juice Newton and he brought the competence and concision of a Nashville pro to his blockbuster 1984 LP. On Reckless, Adams gave us one of America's most beloved small-town vignettes in "Summer of '69," which has been covered by Taylor Swift among many others, and his ability to give Foreigner and Loverboy-style pop-rock a Springsteen-y heartland tug hit home with a generation of artists and producers who grew up with MTV in the living room and country radio in their parents' car stereos. J.D.
Produced by T-Bone Burnett, the East Los Angeles combo's 1984 major-label debut is an especially inclusive Americana landmark. Border crossings abound: Los Lobos effortlessly put their original stamp on bluesy northern rock ("Don't Worry Baby"), Western swing ("Our Last Night"), Cajun swing ("The Breakdown") and a waltzing country instrumental ("Lil' King of Everything"). But even more audaciously, at least for a group that flourished amid L.A.'s vibrant punk scene, the band honors its Mexican country-music heritage in the pumping accordion strains of "Corrido No. 1" and the suave Spanish-language "Serenata Norteña" — something they still do three decades later. R.G.
Formed in 1977 by a loose assemblage of British art students, the Mekons didn't hit their stride until 1985's bleak yet spirited Fear and Whiskey. According to singer-guitarist Jon Langford, that was when "the difference between the three chords of country and the three chords of punk became blurred." Inspired by an ill-fated UK coal miners strike that echoed countless Appalachian laments, the Mekons rocked a new kind of resistance. Susie Honeyman's back-porch fiddling added a fresh element to the group's shambolic essence. Last waltzes, two-steps and a warped cover of Hank Williams's "Lost Highway" comfort those afflicted with "darkness and doubt." Hoping for the best while expecting the worst, the ever-idealistic Mekons celebrate failure and loss. It's the sound of both country music and the country of England falling apart. R.G.
New Jersey's second- or third-finest didn't officially "go country" until 2007's Lost Highway, but this magnificently feathered beast from more than two decades earlier featured three Reagan Era classics with plenty of Nashville DNA. "Wanted Dead or Alive" was as outlaw country as you could get without actually committing armed robbery; the candy-coated angst of "You Give Love a Bad Name" was sentimentally and aesthetically fixed halfway between Hank Sr. and Hank III; "Livin' on a Prayer" was an epochal blue-collar fist-pumper that Luke Bryan would kill for. But the secret weapon here might be the slow-dance prom weeper "Never Say Goodbye," which made small-town inebriation and backseat infatuation seem like a life-or-death affair. You could build a whole genre on that foundation. R.H.
"Until Hell freezes over/Maybe you can wait that long/But I don't think Ronnie Milsap is gonna ever record this song," John Hiatt sings on "Memphis In the Meantime," a funny, heartfelt anthem for every grumpy struggling Nashville cubicle jockey. Hiatt knew of which he sang; he'd tried his hand in a number of career guises (Seventies sensitive guy; rootsy, post-Elvis Costello toughie). But by the mid Eighties his hard drinking and record label-alienating ways had led to a career dead end that he miraculously fought his way out of on 1987's Bring The Family. With Nick Lowe on bass, Ry Cooder on guitar and Jim Keltner on drums, Hiatt found a middle ground between Nashville neo-traditionalism, adult-oriented rock and Southern blues and soul to come up with a top-notch early-VH-1-tinged singer-songwriter record. Bonnie Raitt had a hit with her take on the tastefully grinding "Thing Called Love" and the piano ballad "Have A Little Faith In Me" has become a small-level standard, with covers by Joe Cocker, Mandy Moore and Jon Bon Jovi, who cut a heart-tugging country-rock version in 2011. J.D.
Let's start with half-man, half-amazing super-producer Mutt Lange, who made this 20-million-plus-selling pop-metal behemoth sound like 12 different summer blockbusters playing in 12 different IMAX theaters simultaneously. Title track aside, maybe, there wasn't a ton of Nashville in this thing, but every hard-rocking country dude who name-checks Guns N' Roses or AC/DC comes closer in practice to evoking Hysteria, with its echoing drum sound, bubblegum melodies and ungodly huge choruses. Taylor Swift famously tapped Def Lep for her CMT Crossroads episode, but the only current star capable of making such a racket — or, more to the point, the only star with a voice powerful enough to withstand it — is Carrie Underwood. Still, this album's populist bombast electrified everyone, and at least one current country A-lister likely lost his or her virginity to "Love Bites." R.H.
They still look totally poofed out on the back cover, so at the time nobody much noticed under all that Aqua Net and Max Factor, but here's where hair-metal found its roots — which, oddly enough for suburban Philly boys, turned out mainly to be in Seventies Southern rock. On the inner sleeve, one guy's wearing a cowboy hat, and live they'd taken to covering "Sweet Home Alabama." Tom Keifer, who 14 years later would sing on a Top 10 country album by Andy Griggs, plays some acoustic guitar, some National Steel, some harmonica. And all the hits — "Coming Home," "The Last Mile," "Don't Know What You Got (Till It's Gone")," the perfectly propulsive "Gypsy Road" — are somehow about trying to get back home again, one of country's eternal themes. Which might explain why you can still hear echoes of "Gypsy Road" in songs by guys like Randy Montana and Toby Keith. C.E.
Long before the modern neo-folk revival made its way to the quaint burgs of Brooklyn and London, these safety-pinned Brit-punk acolytes from southern California realized they had more in common with country's outlaws than a penchant for brown liquors. Social Distortion's third album, and major-label debut, made their devotion to an evolving "cowpunk" scene evident by covering Johnny Cash's classic "Ring of Fire"; but there's a swing on songs like "Ball and Chain" and "Story of My Life" that suggested what Cash could've become if he'd grown up in the L.A. punk scene, power chord-crunching that rockabilly romp. Even frontman Mike Ness' lyrics — "I'm lonely/And I'm tired/And I can't take any more pain" — moaned like a forlorn country lament. M.M.
When you get right down to it, country music wants to be sad. And there's no more forlorn sound in modern twang-rock than the vocal harmonies of Jayhawks main men Gary Louris and Mark Olson, which could only sound more grief-stricken if Emmylou Harris herself were to sing along. The Jayhawks' big-league debut is a stately affair, evoking shades of Gram Parsons' Flying Burrito Brothers. It suggests how Tom Petty might have turned out if he'd come up playing country music in Minnesota rather than rock in Florida, with a loose country-soul sound conjured by Black Crowes producer George Drakoulias. Petty sideman Benmont Tench contributes his distinctive keyboards to leadoff track "Waiting for the Sun," which should have been a hit — and it kind of was a year later for Petty, whose "Mary Jane's Last Dance" kicks off with the same stuttering riff. D.M.
From the Louvin Brothers resuscitating a British tale of woe for "Knoxville Girl" to Johnny Cash wanting to grab a "submachine" to kill his wife in "Delia's Gone," the murder ballad has long been one of the strongest vertebrae in country's backbone. Perennially morbid singer-songwriter Nick Cave and his band of Bad Seeds tried their hands at the form in the mid-Nineties, assassinating more than 60 men, women and children in ways both comic and tragic over the course of an hour on their ninth studio record. Most impressive is the fact that the majority of the songs were originals, save two beefed-up traditional numbers ("Henry Lee" and his extra-profane take on "Stagger Lee") and a Dylan cover ("Death Is Not the End"). By the time he was done with the record, he told Rolling Stone in 1996, "I'd exhausted my interest in murder as a metaphor for things." K.G.
While Louisville, Kentucky's My Morning Jacket is now more likely to fill arenas with spiraling psychedelia, their 1999 debut album was a dreamy, restless take on the foundations of country life without any pretense of embodying them literally. This is a record of the in-between and the sideways, with Jim James' "cocaine smile" ballads emanating from a cavern of reverb (evoking legendary Nashville studio the Quonset Hut). There's the bare-bones harmony of "Old Sept Blues" and the haunting, ethereal twang of "Nashville to Kentucky" that fans of Sturgill Simpson would sidle up to. MMJ masterfully exploited the volatile, diverse capabilities of country instrumentation, taking pedal steel to distant, inspired places. M.M.
Southern Rock Opera wasn't Drive-By Truckers' first great record, but it was the first to make clear just how massively ambitious these guys from Sweet Home Alabama really were. The story centers on the rise and untimely fall of Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose Seventies Southern rock pretty much created the template for 21st-Century arena country, with the Truckers providing a sonic demonstration via one triple-guitar epic after another. "Southern Rock Opera" forges a Yellowhammer State version of Mount Rushmore, placing Skynyrd's Ronnie Van Zant alongside Crimson Tide football coach Bear Bryant and the patron saint of segregation, Gov. George Wallace. Guitarist Patterson Hood sings the closing "Angels and Fuselage" as the doomed Van Zant, howling that he's "scared shitless of what's coming next." Just immortality, and enshrinement as one of "The Three Alabama Icons." D.M.
Shiny leather jackets aside, there's no doubt that the Followills are true country folk — brothers Caleb, Jared and Nathan grew up the poor sons of an itinerant preacher (later joining cousin Matthew in Nashville to pursue their rock dreams) — and even put their rural origins on full display in the documentary Talihina Sky. It's here on the band's third LP that the Kings' southern roots formed a perfect crest with their newfound slickness. The songs explode like a shaken can of soda, no longer confined by the constraints of religion or small-town life, especially on the drunken waltz of "The Runner" and the booming "Knocked Up," which was driven by Caleb's sing-scatting about a talk-of-the-town pregnancy. M.M.
This shockingly great comp from boutique crate-digger imprint Light in the Attic delivered on the simple majesty of its title, crisscrossing America geographically (the first three songs were about viewing big bad Los Angeles through the prism of Memphis, Texas, Birmingham and/or Georgia) and stylistically, with room for Louisiana legend Bobby Charles' phenomenally laid-back "Street People" and Kentucky-born wild man Jim Ford's frenzied shouts of "I'm gonna make her love me till the cows come home!" Bobbie Gentry sang "He Made a Woman Out of Me"; Gray Fox sang "Hawg Frog." Most country music nowadays valorizes small-town life in an Anytown, U.S.A. sense; the very best imbues it with this level of spunk and regional specificity. Don’t sleep on the 2014 sequel, either. R.H.