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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.

Gary Stewart, 'Out of Hand'
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Gary Stewart, ‘Out of Hand’ (1975)

Though Florida-reared honky-tonker Stewart scored his share of country hits in the Seventies — including three Top 10s from this debut alone — he was just as much a rocker at heart. He'd first charted with a cover of "Ramblin' Man" by his buddies the Allman Brothers; Jerry Lee Lewis was his most obvious role model; and his rhythms and inflections were frequently infused with mid-Sixties Dylan. However, Stewart's rowdy juke-joint piano-pumping did not stint on pathos. His two great themes were drinking and cheating, often at the same time: In Out of Hand's title track, he's the hard-loving guilty party, but in both "Drinkin' Thing" ("to keep from thinkin' things") and the ingeniously titled "She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin' Doubles)" he's a cuckold drowning sorrows.

Glen Campbell, 'Wichita Lineman'
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Glen Campbell, ‘Wichita Lineman’ (1968)

Son of an Arkansas sharecropper who left home after high school to join his uncle's country band, Campbell ended up in Los Angeles as a guitarist with the legendary session group the Wrecking Crew (providing back-up on records by everyone from Elvis to Phil Spector to the Monkees). As a result, he could play or sing almost anything and give it a neighborly heartland twang, making him an ideal voice for Nashville's countrypolitan Sixties pop move (though he recorded in Hollywood). And the title track, songwriter Jimmy Webb's masterwork of cinematic longing, is the country-pop era's pinnacle, with Campbell's steady-but-weary croon and lonesome bass solo. A conversational everyman observer, Campbell almost seemed to allow listeners to eavesdrop on the stories he narrated. Here, despite cloying production from Wrecking Crew vet Al De Lory, he empathizes tenderly with dreaming housewives and gives a haunting reading of Rod McKuen and Jacques Brel’s "If You Go Away." C.A.

Tammy Wynette, 'Stand by Your Man
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Tammy Wynette, ‘Stand by Your Man’ (1969)

"Tammy taught me how to sing," Melissa Etheridge once said. Wynette's 1969 LP, Stand by Your Man, is a veritable lesson on how to emote without being exact: with every somber break, breathy vowel or choked yodel, she created a lexicon of ways to speak with the mere sound of syllables, let alone words. Clocking in at less than 30 minutes, the Billy Sherill-produced Stand by Your Man owes a lot to a title track that schooled everyone from Elton John to Etheridge to Florence Welch on how to layer subtext beneath a love song — after all, the album was released the year before her ill-fated marriage to George Jones. "It's honest music," Wynette told NPR about her beloved genre. "[Country] tells a story. . .it's what people live. It's what a lot of rock artists don't write about." But, because of Wynette, many of them started to. M.M.

Dwight Yoakam, 'Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.'
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Dwight Yoakam, ‘Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.’ (1986)

As recounted in the 2012 biography A Thousand Miles From Nowhere, Blasters main man Dave Alvin caught one of Dwight Yoakam's early shows in Los Angeles and was so blown away that he told him, "Order the limousine now! You're gonna be a star." Yoakam was opening for the Blasters, X and other Angelino punks in short order, which had him looking like he'd be a classic victim of the too-rock-for-country/too-country-for-rock divide. But Alvin's prediction ultimately came true with Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. — his debut album and first of three consecutive Number One Country LPs. Between Yoakam's Kentucky drawl and Brantley Kearns' looping fiddle on the breakthrough hit "Honky Tonk Man," the album had more than enough honest twang for Nashville. But it had rock bonafides, too, especially producer/guitarist Pete Anderson's stinging six-string leads and Yoakam's way with a put-down. Breezy arrangement aside, it takes a big streak of rock star to pen a love-'em-and-leave-'em anthem as cold as "I'll Be Gone." D.M.

Emmylou Harris, 'Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town'
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Emmylou Harris, ‘Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town’ (1978)

As Gram Parsons' muse and duet partner, Harris was central to country-rock's birth — but that's not why she is listed here. On Quarter Moon and other albums that spanned decades, she inhabited songs with a voice that concentrated tenderness, strength and worldliness into a powerfully fragile moan that left fans and artists of all genres thunderstruck. Her versions here of Delbert McClinton's "Two More Bottles of Wine" and Rodney Crowell's "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight" and "I Ain't Living Long Like This" rock with a remarkably breezy ache. With exquisite backing from her Hot Band (including guitar legends James Burton and Albert Lee, bluegrass whiz Ricky Skaggs, the Band's Garth Hudson and Rick Danko, et al.), she never settled for folkie earnestness or pretty trilling. A tough-minded wisdom always lurked, especially on Dolly Parton's "To Daddy," which Harris channeled like an O. Henry short story. C.A.

Steve Earle, 'Copperhead Road'
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Steve Earle, ‘Copperhead Road’ (1988)

Steve Earle called Copperhead Road, his third album and first aimed squarely at the rock audience, "heavy-metal bluegrass." It more than lives up to that description, hitting a just-right synthesis of acoustic strumming and electric-guitar power chords (not to mention the occasional bagpipe). He told Rolling Stone in 1989 that he saw little difference between the attitudes of rock and country: "It's about your life and the way you live — which isn't about living up to the stereotypes and having to be fucked up." With politically charged songs about guns and Reagan-era "Snake Oil" to go with Earle's sympathetic narratives about war veterans, "Copperhead Road" established Earle as country's left-wing conscience. D.M.

Dixie Chicks, 'Taking the Long Way'
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Dixie Chicks, ‘Taking the Long Way’ (2006)

The Dixie Chicks' Taking the Long Way was the trio's first studio album since the "shot heard 'round the world," when singer Natalie Maines told an English audience that she was, "ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas." By this time, the trio was ostracized from country music, and deliberately turned their attention to a wider, pop-oriented audience. Produced by Rick Rubin, Taking the Long Way sees a softening of the trio's sound, both in instrumentation (more violins, less fiddles) and in Maines' thick Texas twang. In a post break-up interview with Rolling Stone, the singer confessed, "I can't listen to our second album," referring to the Chicks' 1999 breakthrough, Fly, "because I was really, like, embracing country and really waving that country flag. My accent is so out of control on that album." L.R.

George Jones & Tammy Wynette, 'Golden Ring'
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George Jones & Tammy Wynette, ‘Golden Ring’ (1976)

Married in 1969, George Jones and Tammy Wynette toured together in a bus that had "Mr. & Mrs. Country Music" emblazoned on the side. When their chaotic marriage reached its inevitable D-I-V-O-R-C-E in 1975, their popularity was still so huge they were forced to keep publicly performing the fantasy by touring as a couple. Released in 1976, a year after their split, Golden Ring is an incredible example of heartbreaking music reflecting heartbreaking reality. The title track follows the life cycle of a wedding ring and the doomed couple who buy it in a Chicago pawnshop. The album proceeds to explore intimacy's cold reality on songs like "Crying Time," the fast-paced warning shot "If You Don't, Somebody Else Will" and the hilariously honest innuendo-fest "Did You Ever." Wynette sings with incredible emotional force, and Jones' imperious vocal polish gives off the sense of someone trying to power through rocky times (or pretend they don't exist), adding another layer of drama to an album that remains a breakup apocalypse masterpiece. J.D.

Wanda Jackson, 'Queen of Rockabilly'
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Wanda Jackson, ‘Queen of Rockabilly’ (2000)

The title says it all. Wanda Jackson's years on Capitol Records in the late Fifties and early Sixties produced undiluted rockabilly singles marrying her Oklahoma roots with a lyrical appetite for partying. (There's "Let's Have a Party," "There's a Party Goin' On" and "Man, We Had a Party.") Emboldened during years touring with Elvis Presley, Jackson's barnstorming rock & roll singles got hotter than the center of a tiki torch due to her raspy voice. Largely ignored by U.S. radio, but beloved in Europe, Jackson took songs like Elvis-popularized "Hard Headed Woman" and R&B classic "Riot in Cell Block #9" and dominated them. This 2000 compilation by British label Ace Records collects 30 classics that predated everyone from Nancy Sinatra to the Runaways to eventual studio-mate Jack White. "I never realized that what we were creating then would have such a big impact and go on to be listened to decades later," Jackson told the Guardian. "Elvis, Buddy [Holly] and I — we were just kids having a good time. Now I have the Cramps and Paul McCartney singing my songs. Finally I can say, 'I was right!'" R.F.

Kris Kristofferson, 'Kristofferson'
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Kris Kristofferson, ‘Kristofferson’ (1970)

According to country patriarch Bobby Bare, Kris Kristofferson made "the hippies and the long-haired funky people acceptable" to Nashville. Kristofferson definitely meant to send a counterculture message with "Blame It on the Stones," the ironic opener of his recording debut. But country had little trouble accepting a bearded weirdo who could deliver crossover hits like "For the Good Times," Janis Joplin's posthumous hit "Me and Bobby McGee," the Johnny Cash chart topper "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" and "Help Me Make it Through the Night" (written as Kristofferson sat in a helicopter atop an oil platform while on his day job). Recorded in a hurry, Kristofferson emphasizes songwriting over performance. R.G.

Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, 'The Essential Bob Wills 1935-1947'
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Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, ‘The Essential Bob Wills 1935-1947’ (1992)

Born in 1905, fiddling bandleader Bob Wills picked up country music from his family and the blues from the African-Americans who picked cotton alongside him in Texas. He formed the Texas Playboys — a deeply swinging blend of country, jazz, blues, hillbilly, Hawaiian and much more — in 1934, and they took off after moving to Tulsa, Oklahoma the following year. "America's most versatile dance band" bridged the "race music" era and the rockabilly Fifties. "Rock & roll?" Wills said of the subject, "Why, man, that's the same kind of music we've been playing since 1928! . . .The rhythm's what's important." Wills mythologized his musicians onstage, encouraging master players like Junior Barnard (electric guitar), Leon McCauliffe (steel guitar) and Al Stricklin (piano) with jiving commentary and falsetto ah-has. Chuck Berry would refashion Wills's 1938 version of "Ida Red" into "Maybellene." Wills was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as an Early Influence in 1999. R.G.

Garth Brooks, 'Ropin' the Wind'
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Garth Brooks, ‘Ropin’ the Wind’ (1991)

Early Nineties Garth Brooks is best known for the hard-rock attitude and pop production that turned country music into arena spectacle. However, Ropin' the Wind, the first country album in history to debut at Number One on the Billboard Top 200, had Brooks evoking Seventies singer-songwriter influences like James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg, especially in ballads like "What She's Doing Now" and a cover of Billy Joel's "Shameless." The move truly set Brooks apart and helped transform country music itself. And from the frisky "Papa Loved Mama" to the urgent, southern noir of "Rodeo" to prayerful closer "The River" (all three Top Five hits), Brooks moves from the barstool to the bedroom to the church pew with the ease of George Jones. S.R.

Buck Owens and His Buckaroos, 'Carnegie Hall Concert'
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Buck Owens and His Buckaroos, ‘Carnegie Hall Concert’ (1966)

When they boot-scooted onto the vast Carnegie Hall stage, Buck Owens and the Buckaroos were bursting with next-level rock & roll rumble (thumping backbeat, crackling Telecasters) and cornball cowboy shtick ("You talk about people that don't know nothin', here's an ol' boy don't even suspect nothin'!" cracked Buck when introducing steel guitarist Tom Brumley). They were also effortlessly road-tight, with Buck and his "right arm," lead guitarist Don Rich, chiming and twanging through indelible barroom dust-ups "Act Naturally," "Love's Gonna Live Here," "Waitin' in Your Welfare Line," "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail," as well as a couple of hit-and-run medleys. A coronation for the Bakersfield honky-tonk sound, which rattled Nashville's cozy pop cage in the early Sixties, the Carnegie Hall gig enshrined Owens as its avatar, a singularly ebullient and savvy bandleader whose music shook up artists ranging from Ray Charles to the Beatles. C.A.

Loretta Lynn, 'Van Lear Rose'
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Loretta Lynn, ‘Van Lear Rose’ (2004)

Loretta Lynn released the women's lib anthem "The Pill" in 1975, the same year that White Stripes frontman Jack White was born. Nearly three decades later they teamed up on Van Lear Rose, a collaboration where the coal miner's daughter's gritty country storytelling fit perfectly with his unpolished garage-rock production. "I'd play tambourine on this record, if that's it," White told CMT. "I don't care. I just want to be in the same room with her and to be able to work on this." From the title track detailing how her parents met, to the aching "Miss Being Mrs.," these are some of the sharpest lyrics of Lynn's career. Recorded in just 12 days, Van Lear Rose rightly won the Grammy for Best Country Album, and notched Best Country Collaboration with Vocals for "Portland, Oregon," Lynn and White's riotous, dobro-enhanced duet extolling sloe gin fizz. R.F.

Johnny Cash, 'American Recordings'
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Johnny Cash, ‘American Recordings’ (1994)

Johnny Cash had been lost in the commercial wilderness for a decade before Rick Rubin relaunched his career with this stark, bare-bones set of train songs, murder ballads and late-night confessionals. American Recordings is just acoustic guitar and that epic voice on the songs you'd expect — traditional numbers, tunes by Kris Kristofferson and Cash himself — plus some radically recast covers of Tom Waits, Nick Lowe and even Glenn Danzig. Rubin was less producer than tour guide, catching Cash up while reminding everyone of just how cool the Man In Black still was. "I discovered my own self and what makes me tick musically and what I really like," Cash told Rolling Stone in 1994. "It was really a great inward journey, doing all these sessions over a period of nine months and Rick sitting there not so much as a producer but as a friend who shared the songs with me." D.M.

Miranda Lambert, 'Revolution'
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Miranda Lambert, ‘Revolution’ (2009)

Baroness, Converge, SunnO))). . .nobody in 2009 came up with anything half as heavy as Miranda Lambert's delightfully vicious, genuinely deranged cover of John Prine's "That's the Way That the World Goes 'Round," which joins the swaggering, hard-swinging, hilarious "Only Prettier" in bookending her supernova third record. Revolution reins in her coarser shotgun-shells-and-arson inclinations, but only barely; there's plenty here that punches harder than either her bro-country brethren or the classic hair metal those guys are wanly imitating. That this record peaks with "The House That Built Me" — possibly our young century's single best country song to date — is only the icing on a cake catapulted directly into your face. R.H.

Waylon Jennings, 'Honky Tonk Heroes'
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Waylon Jennings, ‘Honky Tonk Heroes’ (1973)

Waylon Jennings' boisterous, soothing, cheerfully virile baritone is a national treasure, the imitable mark of a man who has, at some point, probably used a pool cue as a weapon and a pool table as a lovemaking surface. This 1973 beast — gruff but warm, arena-caliber raucous but corner-booth intimate — was a major boon to the "outlaw country" phenomenon that even genre-averse rock & rollers would come to revere; its co-MVP is songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, who initially could be found in the studio shouting, "You're fucking up my song" and nearly coming to blows with Waylon himself. (This according to Michael Streissguth's shaggy, splendid Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris and the Renegades of Nashville.) Shaver came to love the result soon enough, and it'll take you nowhere near as long. That the highlights here are essentially waltzes ("Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me," the Eric Church-beloved "Ride Me Down Easy") somehow only makes the whole thing tougher. R.H.

George Jones, 'The Best of George Jones 1955-1967'
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George Jones, ‘The Best of George Jones 1955-1967’ (1991)

What with the brawling and the drinking and the drunken lawnmower-riding and the Axl Rose-esque approach to concert etiquette (they didn't call him "No-Show Jones" for nothing), there is no single human in country history more rock & roll than George Jones, for both good and profound ill. This is the good stuff, a chronological spin through his first big decade, taking in such highlights as the rockabilly-flavored "White Lightnin'," the pathos-bomb shuffle "She Thinks I Still Care," the one with the chorus of "One drink/Just one more/And then another," the one called "I've Got Five Dollars and It's Saturday Night." Every track here is essential whether you know what white lightnin' is or not. R.H.

Merle Haggard, 'I'm a Lonesome Fugitive'
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Merle Haggard, ‘I’m a Lonesome Fugitive’ (1967)

Titled after the song that became the Hag's first Number One single, Lonesome Fugitive cemented his image as a regretful bad boy caught between the angel and devil perched on either shoulder. Fugitive teeters between weepies like "Whatever Happened to Me" and defiant warnings like my "My Rough and Rowdy Ways." And it rocks from its title-track get-go, with Elvis Presley guitarist James Burton laying down chicken-scratch guitar that will inspire countless imitators. Haggard was steeped in what Tommy Collins called the Bakersfield "redneck, scared-to-death, honky-tonk, skull orchard" scene. You can hear it in the rollicking "Mixed Up Mess of a Heart," the bluesy "If You Want to Be My Woman" and in every hot lick played by guitarists Burton, Glen Campbell and pedal-steel master Ralph Mooney. R.G.

Dolly Parton, 'Coat of Many Colors'
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Dolly Parton, ‘Coat of Many Colors’ (1971)

In 1971, despite a Number One country hit the year before (with the quirky romp "Joshua"), Dolly Parton was still trying to wriggle out of her role as stalwart duet partner and TV sidekick for Nudie-suit-sporting hitmaker Porter Wagoner. But with her eighth solo album, she became a visionary One-Name Artist, writing seven of the album's 10 bluntly expansive songs, exploring death, betrayal, class, love's brutality and God's mysteries with a mix of hard-case country, pop gospel, country-rock and aching folk. Two Top 10 singles revealed the album's craft and depth: On the title track, which would become Parton's signature statement, she sang of proudly wearing a coat made by her mother from scraps, despite painful jeers; and on "Traveling Man, she watches her mama run off with a salesman who'd also seduced the singer with dreams of escape. Parton brashly relates the story with no bitterness, as if she's acknowledging every poor person's desire to flee society's dead ends. C.A.

Patsy Cline, 'The Definitive Collection'
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Patsy Cline, ‘The Definitive Collection’ (2004)

Before she died in a plane crash in 1963, Cline established herself as arguably the greatest female singer in the history of country music, reaching beyond country's core audience and crossing over into pop with a voice that was rich, sophisticated and deeply soulful. "Even though her style is considered country, her delivery is more like a classic pop singer," Lucinda Williams told Rolling Stone. "That's what set her apart from Loretta Lynn or Tammy Wynette. You'd almost think she was classically trained." The emotive elegance of songs like "Crazy" and the Top 20 pop hit "Walking After Midnight" has been echoed by artists such as Linda Ronstadt and Norah Jones. But it's shown up in less obvious places as well, like the coolly forlorn trip-hop torch songs of Portishead and the goth-folk ballads of Mazzy Star. J.D.

Willie Nelson, 'Red Headed Stranger'
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Willie Nelson, ‘Red Headed Stranger’ (1975)

In the early Seventies, Willie Nelson blazed an outlaw trail that led to classics like 1975's Red Headed Stranger, an ambitious concept album about murder and infidelity that plays like a John Ford western. The music is relaxed and stripped down, and the lyrics paint a vivid picture rooted in the essential loneliness at the core of America's frontier mythos. (The idea for the album came from Nelson's wife, who helped him compose the lyrics). Bob Dylan, Neil Young and the Band, among many others, were rooting around the same territory at the time, but there's something about the matter-of-fact clarity, as well as the intimacy and warmth, that makes Red Headed Stranger feel especially lived in and natural. Plus, it has "Blues Eyes Crying in the Rain," one of the greatest flood songs ever written. J.D.

Ray Charles
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Ray Charles, ‘Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music’ (1962)

Inventing soul music as a combination of blues sensuality and gospel fervor, as Ray Charles did, would be enough to put him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's inaugural class. But Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music is even more audacious, quite possibly the ultimate crossover move. Running country standards by the likes of Hank Williams and Eddy Arnold through his inimitable soul-man filter, Charles won over both audiences — and even beat Frank Sinatra at his own big-band game. That's a mighty big tent, but they didn't call Charles "the Genius" for nothing. Astoundingly, Modern Sounds and its Volume Two follow up (the rare sequel that's just as good as its predecessor) took a grand total of five days in the studio. Even more astoundingly, Charles' label tried to talk him out of doing it. As Charles remembered it in Rolling Stone a decade later, ABC-Paramount's brass told him, "You can't do no country-western things. . .You're gonna lose all your fans!" Instead, Modern Sounds became ABC-Paramount's first million-selling album.

Hank Williams, '40 Greatest Hits'
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Hank Williams, ’40 Greatest Hits’ (1978)

At this point, the greatest country artist of all time holds an equally important place in the rock canon too. "The words, the melodies and the sentiment are all there, clear and true," Beck wrote when Williams was included in Rolling Stone's list of 100 Greatest Artists. "It takes economy and simplicity to get to an idea or emotion in a song, and there's no better example of that than Hank Williams." Williams fused hillbilly music with elements of blues and gospel to become country's first superstar, directly influencing Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, among scores of other artists in many genres. The songs on 40 Greatest Hits have been covered by artists from Al Green to the Breeders, and run the gamut from the class-conscious angst of "Mansion on the Hill" to the bottomless desolation of "Lost Highway" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" to the lit-up giddiness of "Hey, Good Lookin'" and "Settin' the Woods on Fire." The last 60 years of American music are unthinkable without this music. J.D.

Johnny Cash, 'At Folsom Prison'
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Johnny Cash, ‘At Folsom Prison’ (1968)

"I just wanna tell ya that this show is being recorded for an album release on Columbia Records and you can't say 'hell' or 'shit' or anything like that," Johnny Cash said to the inmates assembled for At Folsom Prison. Having curbed his bad behavior IRL, on this night the Man in Black became a smirking, good-for-nothing rapscallion. A chorus of whistles and cheers cascade from the crowd as he and a cracking country band bashed out proto-gangsta rap tales like "Cocaine Blues," "Busted," and the one about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die. Then his soon-to-be-wife June Carter put the cuffs on for the duet "Jackson." The un-manicured album documented the longtime couple's budding love — "I like to watch you talk," a smitten Cash blurted at one point — and jump-started his career after a commercial lull. "I knew this was it, my chance to make up for all the times when I had messed up," he told Los Angeles Times' Robert Hilburn. "I kept hoping my voice wouldn't give out again. Then I suddenly felt calm. I could see the men looking over at me. There was something in their eyes that made me realize everything was going to be okay. I felt I had something they needed."

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