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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. 

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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