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10 Classic Country Albums Turning 40 This Year

From Tanya Tucker’s decidedly Outlaw ‘T.N.T’ to Waylon Jennings’ romanticizing ‘I’ve Always Been Crazy’

Tanya Tucker, Waylon Jennings

Seminal albums by Tanya Tucker and Waylon Jennings turn 40 years old this year.

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In country music history, 1978 goes down as something like the commercial peak of the country-rockin’ Outlaw movement. I’ve Always Been Crazy, by Waylon Jennings, for example, became that year the first country album ever to ship Gold, and duet album Waylon & Willie, behind the success of crossover single “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” quickly went Platinum, as did Willie Nelson’s collection of pop standards, Stardust.

What gets downplayed, though, is that 1978 was just as big a year for the sorts of pop country typically portrayed as Outlaw’s mortal enemy. Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler launched the process of turning him into a superstar, while Dolly Parton’s Heartbreaker was the most pure-pop album she’d released to date.

This is typically how it’s always been in country music. Hardcore and softshell sounds compete, with one or the other styles dominant in any given moment, but both ever present. Forty years later, thank goodness, we can see that the main country storyline in 1978 wasn’t hard v. soft, but, rather, both please.

Hank Williams Jr., ‘The New South’ (Warner Bros)

A too-little-appreciated Outlaw country masterpiece, The New South was Hank Jr.’s first album after nearly killing himself tumbling off a mountain. He leaves room here to really country-funk up one of his old man’s old hits, but mostly this one shines a light on Hank’s softer side, with thoughtful, even touching versions of songs by Steve Young, Jessi Colter and Gordon Lightfoot. Best of all is one of Jr.’s own, the opening “Feelin’ Better,” a kind of declaration of independence from expectations that underscores its key points with wailing harmonies from co-producer Waylon Jennings. From here on out, Jr.’s music is going to be “homegrown,” he’s going to be “bending them strings” and he “don’t feel like ‘Lovesick Blues.'” Next up: that country game-changing “Family Tradition.”

Willie Nelson, ‘Stardust’ (Columbia)

At first listen, Stardust, Willie Nelson’s spare and jazzy take on the Great American Songbook, might not seem to qualify for the Outlaw Country category at all or, for that matter, even as country music. Then again … Nelson, who’d been heading in this direction for a few years already, well knew that Marty Robbins, Ferlin Husky, Ray Price and Skeeter Davis, among other country legends, had long since pulled pop standards into the country repertoire. Plus, if not at the time then at least in retrospect, hit versions of “All of Me” and “Blue Skies” come off as pretty spot-on models for early Nelson compositions like “Crazy” and “Night Life.” When we keep in mind that the Outlaw revolt was less about sound than it was about artistic control – the ability to record what you wanted and with whom – then the Booker T. Jones-produced Stardust stands as about as outlaw as they come. 

Crystal Gayle, ‘When I Dream’ (United Artists)

Peak, late-Seventies Countrypolitan, emphasis on the -politan. Loretta Lynn’s little sister followed up crossover smash “Don’t It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue” from the year before with “Talking in Your Sleep,” a queasy piano-and-strings ballad that speaks of more blue eyes on the way, and then with the gauzy, show-tuned title track, which feels like she’s walking around in her sleep – the better to keep from taking to her bed forever. This contrast is always front and center in Gayle’s best work. Her dulcet voice shimmers and floats easily atop loping rhythms, but then it goes dull behind the eyes and smashes like glass. The embittered “Why Have You Left the One You Left Me For” isn’t disco, but its line-dance beats could still move the crowd – and quiet readings of Ian Tyson’s “Someday Soon” and Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” could move you to tears. Call it Crystalpolitan, emphasis on the Crystal. 

Merle Haggard, ‘ I’m Always on a Mountain When I Fall’ (MCA)

In the “almost been a winner” title track, which right on cue climbed all the way to only Number Two on the country singles chart, Merle Haggard sings a version of the blues that likely shows up way more often in human hearts than it ever does in songs: “I hate to say I’m giving up, but I believe losing’s just become a way of life for me.” From there, Merle proceeds to count losses that walk arm-in-arm with all the little reasons he’s not giving up after all. In “It’s Been a Great Afternoon,” another Number Two hit, a lover helps him combat a hangover with a “rowdy afternooner,” and on “Love Me When You Can,” one more Number Two, he begs another lover to please just fit him in once in a while. On “The Immigrant,” Merle even praises illegal Mexican workers who can’t win for losing but who are also key for “helping America grow.: Merle says he knows the feeling.  

Ronnie Milsap, ‘Only One Love in My Life’ (RCA Victor)

Milsap is a bit like fellow country-soul pianist Charlie Rich in his phrasing and range, but he sings more like, say, piano man Mickey Gilley, with less texture and intensity – that is, until he doesn’t. He tends to start quiet, conversationally, but by the end he’s shouting his broken heart at the top of his lungs, as he does here on the pedal-steel filigreed hit “Back on My Mind.” Either that or he’s blaring his romantic devotion, a real Milsap specialty, as on the chart-topping power ballad title track. Along the same lines, “Let’s Take the Long Way Around the World” is like an updating of M.O.R. country classics “Take Me” or “Walk Through This World with Me,” except that Milsap is singing long after vows have been exchanged and when the long-haul labor of love is just getting started. “I Got the Music in Me,” Milsap declares on the disco-country closer. “I got the good ol’ country music…in me!”

Tanya Tucker, ‘T.N.T.’ (MCA)

Tanya Tucker turned 20 the month before T.N.T. was released, and it does feel like a young woman coming of age. About half the album features playful, exuberant versions of songs that were already oldies but goodies when she’d scored her first hits as a 14-year-old. She covers Chuck Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” and, featuring an especially impressive performance from harmonica man Mickey Raphael, Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.” She also honors the late King with a bumpy-grindy go at “Heartbreak Hotel.” Yet far from feeling nostalgic, T.N.T. regularly sounds like Tucker is looking to engage in an arena-rocking heart-to-heart with A.O.R. radio sisters like Linda Ronstadt, Pat Benatar and Heart. On “If You Feel It,” she even works in bits of groove borrowed from Fleetwood Mac. Her “Angel From Montgomery” is the best by someone not named Bonnie Raitt, and her “Texas (When I Die),” a Top Five single, is a fantastic cowboy-loving Outlaw number, albeit one that never, ever gets pegged as Outlaw because it’s by someone named Tanya Tucker.

Waylon Jennings, ‘I’ve Always Been Crazy’ (RCA Victor)

“Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand,” Waylon half asks his fans, and half accuses them, on I’ve Always Been Crazy. You can kind of see his point. The songs here are once again incessantly self-referential and self-romanticizing, albeit in that nearly-always-charming Outlaw way. Other “Outlaw Bits”: The jokes all remain of the decidedly in-variety; the Waylors’ famously burping-bass rhythm tracks are, on the chart-topping title track and on Number Five hit “Don’t You Think…,” burping their way damn-near to disco; and his seventh album in two years is padded out with Haggard and Cash covers as well as a medley of Buddy Holly hits. On the other hand, those covers are amazing and that medley lets Waylon mark his territory during that year’s big-screen-sparked Buddy Holly revival. That medley also reminds us, in part, of what’s contributed to all that title-track craziness: “Don’t ask me who I gave my seat to on that plane…,” he sings at one point. “I told you that a long time ago.”

The Kendalls, ‘Old-Fashioned Love’ (Ovation)

Cheapo greatest-hits sets aside, the Kendalls’ catalog isn’t downloadable or available for streaming. This isn’t surprising – most of their albums never even made it to compact disc – but it’s more than a shame. Father Royce Kendall and daughter Jeannie updated classic country themes and traditional sounds for a time when country radio was beginning to transition from beloved pop-country Outlaws to too-easily-maligned pop-country Urban Cowboys. Old-Fashioned Love is the Kendalls’ finest album and among the best of its era. On “Pittsburgh Stealers” (not about the NFL franchise), Royce and Jeannie trade illicit lines as they play blue-collar cheaters. More typically, as on “It Don’t Feel Like Sinning to Me” or the chart-topping “Sweet Desire,” Jeannie sings lead, abetted by Royce’s sympathetic close harmony, in a voice that splits the difference between guilt and joy, bluesy power and airy delicacy. Seriously, Jeannie Kendall is one of the best singers you’ve likely never heard.  

Gene Watson, ‘Reflections’ (MCA)

Alongside George Jones and Merle Haggard, it was the unsung Gene Watson who helped make sure old-school country still had a voice in the radio conversation in the late 1970s – and then kept that part of the tradition alive on the charts until the arrival of New Traditionalists like Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam. On Reflections, probably his best album in an ongoing career, “old school” points to Watson’s twangy croon and to loads of pedal steel, but also to a preference for songs about life’s losses, those of the marital variety most of all. On “One Sided Conversation,” for example, one of the album’s trio of Top 10 singles, Watson mourns a dying relationship (“If I must live alone, I’d rather do it by myself”), and on “Farewell Party,” his signature performance and one of the genre’s greatest-ever sad ballads, he imagines his own funeral: “Oh you’ll be glad when I’m gone,” Watson accuses his wife at the record’s crescendo. Even heaven-bound, he sounds as if he’ll never get over the hurt.  

Rodney Crowell, ‘Ain’t Living Long Like This’ (Warner Bros)

Rodney Crowell’s debut is a roots-rocking, outlaw marvel. The musicians are first-rate, of course, including several of Crowell’s fellow bandmates in the Hot Band – including Hot Band boss Emmylou Harris, who throughout reminds why she’s country-rock’s most affecting harmony singer. Crowell’s reading of Dallas Frazier’s “Elvira,” all humid, sweaty sex, kicks things off and is still capable of making you forget the all-novelty Oak Ridge Boys’ version. A cover of “(Now and Then There’s a) Fool Such As I” honors both the rockabilly influence of Elvis Presley, dead only a year, and Nashville Sound-man Hank Snow. Crowell’s own songs, crafted to highlight his charisma, played rocking but tight, do the same. The best of those originals – “Voila (An American Dream),” “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” the in-danger-but-still-living-it-up title track – predict as well big parts of country music’s future.