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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.

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."