Ten important country albums

21:46, Sep 09 2010

I started this thing a while ago where I decided I was going to name 10 albums important to me (and important for me) in a particular musical genre. I started with hip-hop (see here). And then I decided to do my list of seminal metal albums (see here). And most recently it was a tricky task picking 10 electronica albums (see here).

Each time I write one of these lists up for Blog on the Tracks the aim is to create a series of lists. My list - obviously. And then you get to add your list. It's not about one list being correct - it's about all of them being correct for the individual who created them. The point of it, I guess (and I hope), is that it gives people a chance to compare and contrast. And from there to discover and/or rediscover classic albums from a genre as well as antecedents, reference points...

Each time I write one of these lists up for Blog on the Tracks there are comments about how safe it is or arguments over the genre definition and whether the album belongs. And I would expect it to be no different with today's attempt - given that I'm going to try to pick my 10 influential/important Country albums.

And each time I write one of these lists up for Blog on the Tracks I quote the opening paragraph from the first Ten Important Albums post - so I'm going to do that again now:

We all know that lists are subjective - that is the point of them. So I've decided to do a series of top 10 albums across genres. They'll appear sporadically. And rather than call them "Top 10" I will call them 10 of the most important - sorry if that sounds pretentious. It's not meant to.

We could also think of these lists as the gateway-drugs - the vinyl/CD/cassette/Mp3s that turned you on to the sound, which gave you context, understanding of the genre. And - presumably - promoted you to find more in that style.

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So - country music; I'm ignoring alt-country, Americana and other names - well, I'm not ignoring them, I'm interpolating them. Albums that make the list are the country albums that opened my ears - that got me interested in country and in some cases kept me interested or rekindled an interest.

Growing up, country music was never flavour of the month in our house. Thinking about it now I have to blame my grandparents for playing Anne Murray and Charley Pride records - for also introducing Kevin Bloody Wilson's crude country satires to my ears. But it wasn't so much that my grandparents' music made a negative impact on me. I was too young to really recognise a lot of it. It definitely made a negative impact on my parents and so I can honestly say that there was not a lot of country in the house. Dad had an Alabama tape that would do the rounds in the car. The Charlie Daniels Band was on rotate for a while but apart from The Eagles nothing - really - even came close.

So I had a late start to country music. I avoided it (probably without really knowing I was avoiding it) right through school and for most of university. A Johnny Cash compilation would make its way into my CD collection. A chance to hear Willie Nelson's acoustic guitar playing; an appreciation of Albert Lee's abilities, playing The Gambler at parties and in pubs with a covers band...there were a few touchstones - but it was all hip-hop, rock, pop, metal, jazz, blues, soul and funk really. No country. Not for a long time.

Then for a while it was more country than anything else. Country, roots, blues, folk, Americana, alt-country, cow-punk and some impossible-to-categorise-except-for-under-the-veil-of-country indie/alternative bands.

So - how did that happen? Well, at various points, I like to think it was because of the albums below (and of course many others). So here now are the 10 important country albums in my life.

1. Willie Nelson, Teatro

This wasn't my introduction to Willie Nelson - but it was the first album of his (apart from Stardust) that I listened to the whole way through, as an album. And it was, very quickly, my favourite album. Check out I Never Cared for You. The lineup involved is stunning. Emmylou Harris contributing backing vocals and harmonies, Daniel Lanois producing and offering his great composition, The Maker. And the band features harmonica great Mickey Raphael. It's an album I still listen to regularly. And while it sent me back to investigate Nelson beyond the hundreds of sub-par compilations that don't at all do him justice, it is also the reason I keep looking forward - no matter how selective you need to be - to collecting bits and pieces from his post-90s output.

2. Dolly Parton, Little Sparrow

It's a similar story for me with Dolly as it was with Willie. I knew of the legend but had never heard a full album all the way through - so I'm going to choose Little Sparrow - since it was the first. I love the two albums that bookend this to make a bluegrass trilogy, The Grass Is Blue and Halos & Horns - and the 2004 double live album, Live and Well. From there it was back through the discography to so many classic albums and cherry-picking some of the material from recent years. Little Sparrow was the one that started it for me though.

3. Ray Charles, Modern Sounds in Country and Western

I picked this up as a Ray Charles fan - knowing and loving his versions of Bye Bye Love, I Can't Stop Loving You and You Don't Know Me. The album was helpful in supplying songs to find other versions of - and it made me realise I had actually listened to more country music than I was probably aware of. Again, still a favourite to play regularly.

4. Emmylou Harris, Wrecking Ball

It might not be the most country of Emmylou's albums but following the cheap vinyl best-ofs I picked up, this was the album that made me a fan of Harris. I had heard so much of her work as a backing vocalist but the compilations made me want to hear the original albums. The first thing I heard - and loved - was the duo record with Linda Ronstadt - The Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions. But I'd argue that is a folk record, if anything. So Wrecking Ball readied me for Red Dirt Girl and sent me back to the wonderful albums she made in the 1970s and in some cases the 1980s.

5. Johnny Cash, American Recordings

I probably could name At Folsom Prison but American Recordings was the start of a real interest for me in Cash as an icon.

6. Ryan Adams, Heartbreaker

I actually bought Gold first. And I loved it instantly. All the musical-magpie moments were fun to spot, a little piece of Neil Young or Bob Dylan, some song intros lifted from The Band. I think it was a day later (maybe two) that I had to get Heartbreaker. If Ryan Adams released a new album tomorrow I'd probably want to hear it. But I haven't really cared hugely for any of his work since the first two albums. And it's Heartbreaker that feels like a real record to me.

7. Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

That was a good run Lucinda had from 1992's Sweet Old World through to 2007's West. I got on board with this album in 1998, then dipped back to Sweet Old World and further back to the early blues and folk covers. Lucinda Williams albums are a bit like Joni Mitchell or Suzanne Vega albums for me, as listening experiences. I'm not comparing the sound - merely the fact that any of them could be a favourite, so I usually consider the favourite to be the one I happen to be listening to at that time. Essence is patchy - for a lot of people, but it has a lot of my favourite Lucinda Williams songs on it. World Without Tears was superb. I liked West a lot too. But I'm choosing this because a) it's great and b) it makes sense, since it's when and where I got on board.

8. Uncle Tupelo, 89/93: An Anthology

It was worth collecting up all four Uncle Tupelo original albums when they re-released them with a few bonus tracks but certainly this single-disc collects the gems. I loved the early Wilco releases - particularly Being There - so it was nice to finally find out where they were before they got there.

9. Hank Williams, The Ultimate Collection

I have a bunch of Hank Williams best-ofs and collections - so I'm just going to choose this double-disc that does the basic business and does it well. Finding Hank Williams' Ultimate Collection was like finding The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson or hearing Daniel Johnston for the first time. Or John Jacob Niles and Odetta. Just one of those voices you know you are never going to forget. And it was also like hearing Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3, in that I was almost overwhelmed by the brilliance and sophistication of the writing, by the standards set (and covered); by the magnitude of it - and of him. There for me to hear. For me to return to again and again, always marvelling at that high, lonesome sound, at the honky-tonkin' and the sadness that informs the party-time posturing.

10. Patsy Cline, Patsy Cline's Greatest Hits

This is, as far as I'm concerned, a perfect record. I know it's another compilation - but it's how I first heard Ms Cline. And her voice, on Walkin' After Midnight, on Crazy, on Back in Baby's Arms - is perfect to me. Works every time. Any time is a good time to listen to Patsy Cline. My favourite song - if I had to pick one - She's Got You.

So that's the list of 10.

I realise in pulling out those names and albums that my first forays into country came via the artists that straddled country and rock or folk and rock (Dylan, Neil Young, The Band, The Byrds). From there I connected with some of the country greats and with some of the new blood. This is just a list of 10, drawn from hundreds.

But I'm curious to know what your 10 important country albums are. I'll be reading your lists - it'll send me back to my collection, back to the shops and the library too, no doubt.

Already I know I could have included so many others...ah, but you know what, I couldn't! I could only pick 10. And so I did.

So, what would your list of 10 essential/important country albums look like?

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