10 Classic Country Albums Turning 50 This Year - Rolling Stone
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10 Classic Country Albums Turning 50 This Year

From Johnny Cash’s ‘At Folsom Prison’ to Dolly Parton’s ‘Just Because I’m a Woman’

10 Excellent Country Albums Turning 50 This Year

Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton both released albums now regarded as classics in 1968.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images, 2

With a string of highly influential releases, 1968 was a great year for albums. Yet when those albums, all now celebrating their 50th anniversaries, get namechecked, country sets don’t usually make the cut. Country albums, especially ones from before the rise of Outlaw Country in the middle Seventies, tend to get dismissed as “Hits plus filler,” a single or two padded out by an LP’s worth of decades-old country standards, plus maybe a couple of versions of someone else’s recent hit. This was true sometimes, but not always. More to the point, these dismissals are deaf to all the times when an old song, delivered by a new singer in a new arrangement, allowed listeners to hear that old song as if for the first time – or to discover new meanings altogether.

Listening today, 1968 stands out as an especially great year for country albums. The best tended to be interested in different sounds, and in different parts of the human experience, than Electric Ladyland or Lady Soul, Beggars Banquet or The White Album. But in that excellent company is exactly where the country albums below belong. 

Merle Haggard Mama Tried (Capitol)

Merle Haggard, ‘Mama Tried’

When it made its chart debut in the fall of 1968, Mama Tried (Capitol) became Haggard’s third album of year. But where Sing Me Back Home and The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde were strong, distinctive efforts with unforgettable hit singles and other strong cuts forced to share space with a couple of stray forgettable originals, Mama Tried was Merle’s first masterpiece. The subtle concept album, which works an acoustic-electric blend that would get tagged country-rock if it were by almost anyone but Merle Haggard, explores a prison theme. Some of the prisons are literal: On the classic title track Hag expresses guilt for letting his mother down so badly while also beaming and boasting that he couldn’t be corralled by anyone – not even his mom. More often, though, the prisons here are in his head. The closing version of “Too Many Bridges to Cross Over” finds Merle sneer-smiling a Dallas Frazier line that reads like a thesis statement for the rest of his career: “Like an eagle, I’m a prisoner of the wind.”

Jeannie C. Riley Harper Valley PTA (Plantation)

Jeannie C. Riley, ‘Harper Valley PTA’

Written by Tom T. Hall, riding country-soul rhythms and Jerry Kennedy’s whiplash Dobro, and delivered indelibly by husky-voiced Jeannie C. Riley, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” was an enormous hit: The single climbed to Number One on Billboard’s country survey, succeeding “Mama Tried,” and on its pop chart, preceding “Hey Jude.” Like those records, it was era-defining. It also launched a great concept album. Several tracks here find Tom T. fleshing out stories for characters already told off by the single’s famous, mini-skirt-wearing narrator. We learn, for instance, that “Widow Jones” needs “to keep her window shades all pulled completely down” because she likes to run around the house naked, and she’s a widow because her husband drowned under questionable circumstances. Hall’s songs aside, it’s Riley who makes the album a country masterpiece. On “The Ballad of Louise,” she’s one frightening scorned lover. In “The Cotton Patch,” she’s a class warrior, weighing limited options and taking no shit.

Willie Nelson Good Times (RCA Victor)

Willie Nelson, ‘Good Times’

This is a somewhat odd Willie album, but also a strong one that illustrates how Nashville sometimes cobbled together albums for acts, particularly ones like Nelson who weren’t yet hitmakers. Side One finds Willie backed by a hushed acoustic rhythm section; Nelson originals like “December Day” come off spare and haunting. Side Two, meanwhile, includes numbers cut a few years earlier with choir and strings by Anita Kerr, arrangement choices that Nelson has complained about in the years since. The final decisions had been made not by Willie but by label boss Chet Atkins, so fair enough. On the other hand, those still-hushed Side Two tracks, including Nelson originals like “Did I Ever Love You,” come off as haunted, even a little surreal. The backing vocals talk back to Nelson (sometimes they downright mock him), and the results reinforce the self-awareness and irony that are keys both to Nelson’s songs and his angular vocal attack. 

The Byrds Sweetheart of the Rodeo (Columbia)

The Byrds, ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’

As you’d expect from a bunch of country-loving rock & rollers, the Byrds’ country-rock masterpiece includes plenty of troubled-mind covers: a Merle Haggard prison song, a George Jones bender, a Woody Guthrie outlaw ballad. Less predictable are the gospel songs, played straight, and that lonesome paean to a lost homeplace, “Hickory Wind,” an original from the set’s legend-in-waiting guest star, Gram Parsons. But the album’s secret weapon is Nashville Cat Lloyd Green, especially on Parsons’ “One Hundred Years From Now,” where his pedal steel adds the drama that launches each earnest, hippie chorus, then boot-scoots into a brief, crazy solo that makes you want to laugh and dance in the here and now. It’s a pretty straight stretch of road from here to the sounds of later country hitmakers like Desert Rose Band and Midland

Jerry Lee Lewis Another Place, Another Time (Smash)

Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘Another Place, Another Time’

The wider world knows Jerry Lee Lewis primarily, perhaps even entirely, as a first-gen rock & roller, but country fans know that his later Nashville work is every bit as amazing. The singles here, “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous” and the title track, have long since proven iconic, and the rest of his country album debut shows Lewis to be one of American pop’s great midtempo ballad singers, period. His cover of ol’ ET’s “Walking the Floor Over You” doesn’t walk over anything; it flies, courses, fleeing the scene of some crime. His version of “The Fugitive” isn’t scared or lonely or cagey like Merle’s; Jerry Lee’s man on the lamb is a scofflaw braggart, eager for whatever trap or adventure the next city springs. Each track of the way, Jerry Lee manages to be present in the typically forlorn moment of the specific lyric while also highlighting his absolutely distinctive, lyric-be-damned Jerry Lee-ness. 

Dolly Parton Just Because I’m a Woman (RCA Victor)

Dolly Parton, ‘Just Because I’m a Woman’

On her second album, and first for RCA, Dolly Parton presents herself as a worldly woman, intimate with the strategies she may need to get by in a world run by men. She puts on her makeup and puts on a front. She wishes her husband made her feel as good as her lover does. She marries for money in “I’ll Oilwells Love You,” then steps in to save a “Baby Sister” from selling herself in some tavern. The bulk of the material here is written by such Nashville masters as Curly Putman and Harlan Howard. But the album’s best songs – “The Bridge,” which echoes “Ode to Billie Joe” and anticipates Dolly’s own “Down From Dover”; and the title track, where she argues for a woman’s equal right to fuck up – are credited, even this early, to “Dolly Parton.”

Tammy Wynette D-I-V-O-R-C-E (Epic)

Tammy Wynette, ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E’

The chart-topping title track, about a mom trying to keep her little J-O-E from knowing, for as long as that’s possible, that his parents are splitting up, is sometimes mocked as kitsch by country haters while being heard by country fans as closer to a kind of realism, tricked out with rhythm and melody. That’s for sure how Wynette sings it and most everything else here. On “Gentle on My Mind” and “Honey (I Miss You),” she gender-switches the lyrics of recent hits; on “Sweet Dreams” and “Lonely Street,” she successfully rides war-horse standards; on everything she manipulates what producer Billy Sherrill called the built-in “tear” in her voice to embody each song’s joy or pain or, more typically, both at once. Bonus: Though she would become best known for her slow balladry, D-I-V-O-R-C-E also includes “When There’s a Fire in Your Heart,” the kind of speedy, sexy anthem that, at least early in her career, was Tammy’s secret specialty. 

Connie Smith Sunshine and Rain (RCA Victor)

Connie Smith, ‘Sunshine and Rain’

Connie Smith gets called “The Rolls Royce of Country Singers,” but that’s way too high-falutin’. If we must compare her to an automobile, Smith’s vocal approach –powered by a steady vibrato, mostly on the beat and with very little in the way of note-twisting embellishments – is closer, thank goodness, to an old-school domestic sedan: always comfortable and reliable whether passing easily on the highway or purring invitingly out in the drive. Sunshine and Rain (one of three 1968 Smith LPs) opens with her running down a no-good man to his face while laying on the horn charts in Jerry Reed’s “Natchilly Ain’t No Good.” Her version of Harlan Howard’s always harrowing “Deepening Snow” is the most harrowing “Deepening Snow.” Her “Only Mama That’ll Walk the Line” winningly flips gender on a Waylon hit from the year before. There are no hits here, no innovation to speak of, nothing fancy, but Smith gets us where she’s going. 

Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison (Columbia)

Johnny Cash, ‘At Folsom Prison’

This famous live set was one of 1968’s best albums and, arguably, country’s best live album ever. After some lean years, it launched the first of Cash’s comebacks: “Boy Named Sue” and a TV series are both just ahead. It also firmly and widely established the Man in Black persona so that, two decades later, Cash could have another comeback with producer Rick Rubin. The sincere gospel numbers and the gallows humor, the drug songs and work songs, the prison songs and murder ballads all bumping up against silly novelties that have rockabilly bite. All this, plus wife June Carter, who outperforms him on “Jackson.” It’s all here. You know: Johnny Cash. 

Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton Just the Two of Us (RCA Victor)

Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, ‘Just the Two of Us’

This Porter and Dolly set is about as grim as country music gets. On the pair’s second album, couples stay stuck in relationships that have long since died (“Holding on to Nothing”), struggle with work and fight over money (“We’ll Get Ahead Someday”), and they cheat on their spouses repeatedly, waiting for discoveries they’re already predicting will shatter the hearts of everyone involved (a scary beautiful “Dark End of the Street,” just for example). In “The Party,” one of two dead baby songs Parton contributes, the parents tell a story in which they believe it was their own selfishness that killed their kids in a fire. And you know Porter and Dolly are fully committed to exploring country’s dark and troubled side of life when the one light of hope found here is the eternal flame placed on a grave in Parton’s other dead baby contribution, “Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark.” In a country era known for male-female duets, this duet album might be the best.

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