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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.

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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