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50 Country Albums Every Rock Fan Should Own

Buck Owens, Bocephus and Brad Paisley: 50 LPs that will twang your head

Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash

For decades, rockers have looked to country music when they grew tired of brash flash or deafening volume — or they simply heard a George Jones record that blew their heads back with its sheer devastation. Country’s core strengths — intimate storytelling, realistic adult emotion, accomplished musicianship — have appealed to artists from the Rolling Stones to Elvis Costello to Bruce Springsteen, who’ve created their own convincing versions. So, as the genres become more indistinguishable in too-often superficial ways, here are 50 country albums for any rock fan looking to explore the genre’s vast library of sorrow, rebellion, monster chops and whiskey-spitting attitude.

Brad Paisley, 'American Saturday Night'
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Brad Paisley, ‘American Saturday Night’ (2009)

Released in 2009, Brad Paisley's American Saturday Night was the star's most far-reaching album to that point, taking on such subjects as technology, fatherhood and, in the wake of President Obama's election, hope for the future. Paisley's sense of humor and cleverly worded handling of complicated topics gave his album solid footing beyond country — not to mention his penchant for complex, boisterous guitar solos. "Then" is a Bic-worthy power ballad, heartland rocker "Welcome to the Future" is propelled by Mellencamp-style drums and "She's Her Own Woman" is slinky, bluesy rock with some shred-tastic guitar. L.R.

Charlie Poole, 'You Ain't Talkin' to Me: Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country Music'
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Charlie Poole, ‘You Ain’t Talkin’ to Me: Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country Music’ (2005)

Packaged in a vintage-looking cigar box with a liner booklet made to look cracked and yellowing, this incomparable three-disc item lovingly assembles the 1925-to-1930, originally-on-78-RPM recordings of banjo picker, string-trio bandleader and incorrigibly word-slurring drunkard Charlie Poole, whose old-timey proto-bluegrass presages the four-decades-later folk-rock of the Band, Holy Modal Rounders and Grateful Dead (all of whom covered him) while shuffling verses and mannerisms from ragtime, vaudeville, Al Jolson, antebellum blackface minstrel shows and remote Appalachian hollers. In fact, several tracks here, dating back as far as Arthur Collins's 1902 "Didn't He Ramble," aren't Poole at all but his antecedents and contemporaries. Not only the proto-Elvis miscegenation of black and white styles anticipates rock & roll: After the Great Depression forced Poole to return to mill-working, he cashed it in at 39 with an alcohol-fueled bender that lasted three months. C.E.

david allan coe
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David Allen Coe, ‘The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy’ (1974)

If rock & roll is mostly attitude, biker ex-con and outlaw country pioneer David Allen Coe might be the most rock & roll artist on this list — when a Rolling Stone writer questioned the veracity of a story Coe told about killing a fellow inmate over sexual advances, Coe replied with the song "I'd Like to Kick the Shit Out of You." This major-label debut, which reflected a time when Coe wore rhinestone duds, wigs and a mask onstage while living in his car (a white hearse), posits him as a doomed, lonely troubadour of the lost-cause South ("I Still Sing the Old Songs," "Old Man Tell Me," "The Old Grey Goose is Dead"). "A Sad Country Song" is a last-call classic; and "Atlanta Song" is a passive-aggressive stripper lament that Drake would feel. A disaster as a role model, Coe still possesses scary musical skills. After this album he would tour with Grand Funk Railroad, record with Pantera, live in a cave when the IRS took his money and release an offensive album of joke songs that included the worst racial slur there is. C.A.

Randy Travis, 'Storms of Life'
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Randy Travis, ‘Storms of Life’ (1986)

A life-long purist whose clean-cut and lonesome Eighties neo-traditionalism exuded steadfast small-town Protestant ethics and avoided the raunch of immediate predecessors like John Anderson, North Carolina-born Randy Travis nonetheless exhibited an almost goth-like morbid streak on his blockbuster debut, which in decades since he's never really topped — "exhuming things better left alone," as he puts it in "Digging Up Bones." In "Send My Body," he's facing the gallows, and "On The Other Hand" weighs pros and cons of philandering. Between barely avoiding a long jail stint as an adolescent delinquent and even more reckless run-ins in recent years (public intoxication and nakedness, assault in a church parking lot, that sort of thing, soon followed by heart failure and stroke), Travis has never been the goody-goody his image implies. On Storms of Life, an emotionally reserved surface barely conceals the bad conscience simmering just below.

Joe Ely, 'Live Shots'
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Joe Ely, ‘Live Shots’ (1980)

The Clash are all over the inner sleeve of the vinyl version of this West Texas renegade's toughest album, released a year later in the States than in the U.K., where it was recorded during shows opening for Joe Strummer and Company alongside reggae toaster Mikey Dread. London pub crowds reminded him of rowdy roadhousers back in cowboy country, he told Trouser Press at the time — except they gobbed more. Mere years removed from his stint with eight-track-only existentialist proto-alt-country cult trio the Flatlanders, he also spent early Eighties time touring with the Kinks, Stones and Tom Petty. But musically Ely was shuffling norteño, zydeco, rockabilly and the hardest honky-tonk, setting country sentiments to an R&B beat, as he explained it: lyrics about escape via boxcars, women working the midnight street, untrimmed fingernails enhancing piano skills and — inevitably — life viewed through a shot glass. C.E.

Guy Clark, 'Old No. 1'
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Guy Clark, ‘Old No. 1’ (1975)

Despite mentoring/supporting Nashville wannabes across five decades and writing two Number One country hits himself, Guy Clark told Texas Monthly last year, "I wasn't country. I was a folk singer from Texas." Well, call him the consummately stoned bullshit artist too because his debut album Old No. 1 is country music defined, all fingerpicking and gravelly vocals and welfare winos and mourning ladies of the night. The vast romantic empathy of Clark's vision remains stunning. "L.A. Freeway" wistfully closes the book on urban/rural restlessness; "She Ain't Goin' Nowhere (with Emmylou Harris) gorgeously gasps for air; the Leonard Cohen-esque death poem "That Old Time Feeling" warms you like a fire; while "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train" and "Texas 1947" are exquisitely palpable post-war dioramas of busted dreaming. There's a reason he's one of Bob Dylan's favorites. C.A.

Townes Van Zandt, 'The Late Great Townes Van Zandt'
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Townes Van Zandt, ‘The Late Great Townes Van Zandt’ (1972)

It takes a certain kind of fatalist humor to name your album posthumously when you're still alive, and Van Zandt, on this 1972 LP produced by Cowboy Jack Clement, perfectly expressed his world of deep sadness often sweetened by a whiskey-wrung smile. Though it comprised several covers, the originals, like "Pancho and Lefty" and "If I Needed You," became classic windows into the tormented poet's mind, paving the way for the likes of Elliot Smith, Conor Oberst and Bill Callahan to plunge folk into its darkest corners. "His voice, his delivery, is so real," My Morning Jacket's Jim James has said — there are echoes of MMJ's dramatic arrangements all over "Silver Ships of Andilar," and the way Van Zandt's quiver hovers above the delicate plucks of "Snow Don't Fall" lays the blueprint for nearly every James ballad. "He doesn't sugarcoat it at all." M.M.

Faith Hill, 'Cry'
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Faith Hill, ‘Cry’ (2002)

Faith Hill's gargantuan 2002 chart-topper is so defiantly un-country it nearly scans as punk. As with Taylor Swift's world-conquering 1989 a decade and change later, it's a full-blown pop-star monolith with nary a cursory banjo or grudging twang in sight. Instead you get white-funk struts, surly guitar solos, gospel-choir moans, a sexy-menacing speak-singing interlude or two that almost conjures up PJ Harvey and enough monster power balladry that this thing oughta come with its own wind machine. Our young century's masters of stadium bombast — from Kings of Leon to Imagine Dragons — can't hold a candle to Hill's pomp and power-chord circumstance here. Her most rock-star-worthy exploit of that year, though, was a Jane magazine cover-story fiasco that got so raw the cover line was, "'Why Would You Ask Me That?!' Faith Hill Snaps." R.H.

Johnny Paycheck, 'Take This Job and Shove It'
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Johnny Paycheck, ‘Take This Job and Shove It’ (1977)

A lot more blunt than Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Paycheck sang the workingman's blues with a spitting fervor. "Take This Job and Shove It," written by fellow outlaw David Allen Coe, became his signature, but it's songs like his cover of Dizzy Gillespie's "The 4-F Blues," which opens with what could be a simplified Jerry Garcia riff, that prove he's more than just a middle finger. Produced by Billy Sherrill, 1977's Take This Job and Shove It debuted only four years after he'd filed for bankruptcy, making the success that came from the title track (his only Number One hit) line up potently with the lyric. He could take Music Row or leave it, which he did, when he was shoved out by Epic in the early Eighties. "I sing about the little guy who's been kicked around by the big guy," Paycheck said, making the iconic song perfect material for rappers (see Canibus and Biz Markie's 1999 tribute) and punks (see the Dead Kennedys' blazing 1986 cover) alike. M.M.

Bobbie Gentry
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Bobbie Gentry, ‘Chickasaw County Child: The Artistry of Bobbie Gentry’ (2004)

If Bobbie Gentry had showed up at any moment during the past six decades, she still would've been a peerless innovator. Her bio seems apocryphal — a Mississippi farm-girl child of divorce, studies philosophy at UCLA and composition at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, dances in Las Vegas, then scandalizes the pop world with a song, "Ode to Billie Joe," that unseats the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" at Number One (not to mention a chart-topping country hit and Number Five R&B hit). From 1967 to 1972, she also released a series of fascinating, sophisticated, if at times uneven, albums that distilled folk, soul, gospel, country, orchestral pop and rock. Her voice was swaggering, vulnerable, conversational, defiant. She wrote and produced her songs, spotlighting a brashly Southern-tinged feminist voice. This compilation comes closest to conveying her multitudinous talent. C.A.

Jimmie Dale Gilmore, 'Spinning Around the Sun'
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Jimmie Dale Gilmore, ‘Spinning Around the Sun’ (1993)

Jimmie Dale Gilmore's high, lonesome drawl has always been one of the purest instruments in country music. And yet Gilmore's clearest antecedents are rock musicians — he's a missing link between Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly, a high-plains drifter evoking a primal sense of wonder that can seem almost childlike. On Spinning Around the Sun, Gilmore covers Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and his Flatlanders mate Butch Hancock, doing right by them all thanks to stellar arrangements from producer Emory Gordy, Jr. (a man who knows a good bit about beautifully fragile voices, thanks to his time with Emmylou Harris). Like any good savant, Gilmore figured he was just doing what he does. He even told Rolling Stone in 1994 that he sang so distinctively because he wasn't "a good enough musician" to copy anyone else. "It's as if I'm an expressive actor," he said, "and the songs are my lines." D.M.

Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt & Emmylou Harris, 'Trio'
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Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt & Emmylou Harris, ‘Trio’ (1977)

"Dolly Parton is to Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris what Chuck Berry was to the Rolling Stones and the Who," wrote Seventies rock critic Barbara Charone. And this multiplatinum, Grammy-winning classic by the so-called "Queenston Trio" backs up that claim, with the two best country singers produced by the Sixties folk/rock scenes going deep into Parton's Appalachian roots and starkly intimate Nashville virtuosity. Trio opens with Harris and Parton's trembling harmonies on the latter's "The Pain of Loving You" and Parton tenderly soaring on the mournful bluegrass standard "Making Plans." Ronstadt sings lead on three tracks (most notably an exquisite reading of Jimmie Rodgers' "Hobo's Meditation"), and the three are downright hypnotic on Phil Spector's "To Know Him Is to Love Him." But Parton carries the day, with her subtle liberation tale "Wildflowers," traditional poetic lament "Rosewood Casket" (arranged by her mother Avie Lee) and the immersive lonesome wail of "These Memories of You." C.A.

Waylon Jennings & Willie Nelson, 'Waylon & Willie'
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Waylon Jennings & Willie Nelson, ‘Waylon & Willie’ (1978)

These old stoner compadres teamed up with startling purpose for this consistently poignant, pleasingly loopy Number One country smash. A last call of circular barroom logic, it evenly splits primo world-weary Willie (the quivering waltz "If You Can Touch Her at All" and bewildered end-of-the-line lament "It's Not Supposed to Be That Way") with top-tier wobbly Waylon (his chilling cinéma vérité version of Fleetwood Mac's "Gold Dust Woman" and the light-touch pathos of "The Wurlitzer Prize [I Don't Want to Get Over You"]). But the duets are the payoff: "Pick Up the Tempo" is outlaw country at its most lovable; Kris Kristofferson's "The Year 2003 Minus 25" lets the boys trade quasi-political WTFs; and on all-time jewel "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," they bare their road-ravaged souls with a high-plains-drifter conceit. It's since been covered by Karen O, Black Lips and Alvin and the Chipmunks. C.A.

Jimmie Rodgers, 'RCA Country Legends'
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Jimmie Rodgers, ‘RCA Country Legends’ (2002)

Were Jimmie Rodgers and Louis Armstrong the original Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith? In 1930, the pair (helped by Armstrong's pianist wife Lil Hardin) combined "hillbilly" and jazz on their joint "Standing on the Corner." And when the sounds of country and rock & roll began to crystallize, this song — as well as the other 16 included on the RCA Country Legends comp — ended up at the center of both. Decades later, many of the songs collected here reappeared on a tribute LP assembled by Bob Dylan. "The most inspiring type of entertainer for me has always been somebody like Jimmie Rodgers, somebody who could do it alone and was totally original," Dylan said in the liner notes for his Biograph box set. "He was combining elements of blues and hillbilly sounds before anyone else had thought of it." N.M.

Rosanne Cash, 'Seven Year Ache'
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Rosanne Cash, ‘Seven Year Ache’ (1981)

Within a decade her music would go intimate to the point of introversion, but early on Johnny Cash's daughter conceived her niche as post-pub-rock/ borderline New Wave — at least in the sense of Tom Petty and Steve Forbert, whose material she interprets, or Linda Ronstadt's turn-of-the-Eighties Costello-covers period, which this record clearly taps into. Supposedly it was even marketed as "punktry," and in the inner-sleeve photo Rosanne looks ready to join the Pretenders even if she told BAM that year that she'd spent her adolescence locked in her bedroom studying Joni Mitchell and Tom Rush LPs while composing journal poetry. She became a mom just before recording Seven Year Ache, but the irresistible Top-25-pop title track and the songs that she and husband-producer Rodney Crowell surround it with suggest their marriage was already rocky — a theme she'd stick with long after abandoning her most energetic album's hooks, humor and electro-handclaps. C.E.

Kenny Rogers, 'The Gambler'
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Kenny Rogers, ‘The Gambler’ (1978)

The phenomenal, chart-topping success of the ballads "She Believes in Me" and "The Gambler" on both the country and pop charts firmly established Kenny Rogers as a country star with enormous crossover appeal. In fact, the Grammy-winning song "The Gambler," which Rolling Stone once referred to as, "the one song even non-country fans know by heart," told such an earnest story that it was adapted into a made-for-television movie. On the occasion of album's 36th anniversary, Rogers told Rolling Stone "The Gambler" was, "a career-building song," adding, "The song's not about gambling; it's a metaphor for life and picking yourself up." It's a metaphor that has resonated to the tune of 35 million copies of its corresponding album sold worldwide. L.R.

Eric Church, 'Chief'
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Eric Church, ‘Chief’ (2011)

"We played Lollapalooza and I was stunned at how pussy 90 percent of those bands were," Eric Church told Rolling Stone back in 2012 about the current state of rock & roll. "Nobody's loud." Chief, his Jay Joyce-produced third LP released the year prior, absolutely is. It might be the obvious choice to point to the nostalgic, name-dropping "Springsteen" as the track that could boast the most crossover appeal, but album cuts like "Keep On," with its Joe Perry-inspired guitar groove and the thunderous percussion of "I'm Gettin' Stoned," are equally capable of inspiring raised lighters (or at least iPhones) across any music festival, any genre. After all, he did make a certain proclamation on his 2006 debut single: "I like my country rockin', how bout you?" M.M.