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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.

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.