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.
Perhaps inspired or pissed off by the deification of his dad's historically haunted legacy, Hank Jr. took his enormous familial talent and rebelled against, well, being a reputable country star. Here he moves past half-assed Nashville nostalgia, roiling, simmering and integrating Southern rock's bluesy oomph (see the fierce Allman Brothers cover) with songwriting that makes you deeply feel how his thuggishness became so entrenched. The rampaging cover of "White Lightnin'" (amped by the Muscle Shoals horns) snatches it from George Jones, and the ballads are finely wrought heart-rippers: He's drunk, stoned, coked-up, self-pitying, bewildered and talking to ghosts. On biker jukebox standard "Outlaw Women," Bocephus even sees himself reflected in those independent, rowdy ladies who "don't give a damn about society." C.A.
The revisionist western swing of Junior Brown is a mix of the academic (he's done stints in Asleep at the Wheel and as an instructor at an Oklahoma's Rogers State University) and the quirky. For starters, he plays a custom "guit-steel," a bespoke instrument of his own co-creation that joins an electric guitar and a pedal steel into a double-necked mutant straight out of Cheap Trick's Nashville road case. But, more importantly, his songs have a cheeky quality that's as timeless and infectious as his picking, evidenced in songs off his 1990 debut like "My Baby Don't Dance to Nothin' But Ernest Tubb" and "Hillbilly Hula Girl" ("corn don't grow in lava dirt"). "The lighthearted [songs] I don't think of as comedy writing," Brown told the Chicago Tribune in 1994. "There's a style of lighthearted, wise-guy country music that went out of style. People just didn't want to laugh at themselves. I think they were scared to be corny or whatever. But I don't care. I enjoy it." C.W.
Having enjoyed his biggest single ever earlier in 1983 with "Swingin'," John Anderson recorded more uptempo pop-country boppers for his fifth album in three years. "Black Sheep," the best of these, is a contentious working-class-vs.-yuppies chart-topper co-written by director Robert Altman. Bill Puett's saxophone adds an R&B scream to Anderson's redoubtable drawl in the title track, "Things Ain't the Same Down on the Farm," Fifties cover oddity "Haunted House" and future M.A.D.D. public service announcement "Let Somebody Else Drive." For Anderson at his hangdog classic-country best, however, don't miss the whiskey-sozzled "Blue Lights and Bubbles" and the sorrowfully regressive "Look What Followed Me Home." R.G.
Texas troubadour Hayes Carll is the sort of self-described "drunk with a pen" who can rock out one night with his band the Poor Choices and deliver an intimate acoustic country set the next. Hence this admittedly "bipolar" album that staggers between elegant Ernest Tubbs-ian tearjerkers like "Chances Are" and the hopped-up title track. The titular acronym of Carll's fourth album stands for "Kiss my ass, guys, you're on your own," and the song itself — a blistering account of a soldier racing over the desert in a Humvee and doing acid in a space vehicle — has the electricity of early Bob Dylan, his idol. Fellow country-rocking lefties Todd Snider and Corb Lund join him for "Bottle in My Hand," but it's Cary Ann Hearst, playing Ann Coulter to Carll's ornery liberal, who helps create a hate-fuck duet for the ages. R.G.
The Mavericks were two albums deep into their signature Latin-tinged honky-tonk, but on 1993's What a Crying Shame, they indulged a love for everything from Roy Orbison to Bruce Springsteen to the Skatalites. Enlisting NRBQ's Al Anderson and original Tom Petty drummer Stan Lynch for co-writes, country music is just the core of songs like "The Things You Said to Me," which sounds like a lost Buddy Holly Nashville boogie. And the title track has both a twangy appeal and mid-tempo peppiness that could almost play up against Nineties alt-rock like the Gin Blossoms. "If you ask 10 different people what the Mavericks mean to them," vocalist Raul Malo told Rolling Stone about their genre- and border-spanning identity, "you're going to get 10 different answers." M.M.
Despite finding most of his commercial success on the country charts, Lyle Lovett has always been a far broader stylist. He was already fully formed on his elegantly assured 1986 debut, which moved seamlessly from country to jazz to pop. And the rock comes in when he seems on the verge of losing control with pissed-off poison-pen letters like "If I Were the Man You Wanted" and "God Will," which he's introduced as "the only song I ever wrote about true love. . .because it's the shortest song I ever wrote." In 1988, he told Rolling Stone that he doesn't hate women, "I just hate it when they let me down." Like any good Southerner, this native Texan can convey withering contempt through politeness — and chill you to the bone without raising his voice. D.M.
Jerry Reed was, as Brad Paisley said, "a true master of his instrument," one of the greatest country guitarists of all time and a fount of blazing licks equal parts Earl Scruggs and Django Reinhardt. But during his hitmaking days — from 1967's hard-grooving "Guitar Man" to the post-trucksploitation crash of the early Eighties — Reed was a one-of-a-kind pop star living in the nexus of country, funk, furious fingerpicking and novelty song. This collection of 20 hits features his most iconic characters: the mean-as-a-snake, one-handed alligator hunter ("Amos Moses"); the misunderstood, monkey-meat-eating swamp man ("Ko-Ko Joe"); and the paranoid poker loser with a razor in his hand ("The Uptown Poker Club") — told with Reed's funky lilt. "Folks these days don’t realize what a great guitar picker Jerry was nor his incredible sense of groove," said Les Claypool, whose alt-metal band Primus covered "Amos Moses" in 1998. "To me it's like some sultry swamp funk. Plus, how many guitar players do you know who were immortalized in a Scooby-Doo episode?" C.W.
Jerry Lee Lewis' Sun recording contract expired in 1963, and like many of his early rock & roll peers, the success — and total domination — of the British Invasion left Lewis' fiery brand of piano-bashing sounding dated. The controversial singer spent a number of years recording second-rate rock songs trying to re-establish some of his early prowess, but it was a foray into country that reignited the singer's career. Released in 1969, Another Place Another Time saw both the honky-tonk-driven title track and the barroom ballad "What's Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me)" hit the Top Five on the Billboard country chart. In February of 1969, Rolling Stone writer Andy Boehm wrote, "For rock aficionados Another Place Another Time is an interesting representation of an early rock & roll star's transformation. For country music lovers, this album introduces another great and moving singer." L.R.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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'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.
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.
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'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 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.