It's well established that commercial country music is unlistenable. The amount of variety played in contemporary country music is minimal; Tim McGraw sounds a lot like Toby Keith, and Faith Hill sounds a lot like Shania Twain. The music repeats the same themes over and over: I like to drink; I am a faithful woman; you are a cheating man; let's go to the rodeo; let's work on the farm. Add to this the use nearly identical chord progressions and what sounds like the same exact production values on every mainstream country album, and what you have is a pastiche of sameness.
By doing this, country music has backed itself into a corner where it becomes extremely difficult to grow their audience beyond where it is right now because of uninteresting, repetitive themes and elements that never change.
But once you get past this outer veneer, there is good country music.
I submit for your perusal twenty five albums that show the huge variety of cultures, sounds, and perspectives represented by country and western music. Check your stereotypes at the door; we're going to take a look at worlds of sound that modern mainstream country music does not even approach. I strongly invite you to research these albums, listen to some samples on Amazon, perhaps download an mp3 or two, and open your eyes and ears and mind and soul to the gorgeous tapestry of the less commercial side of country and western music. I will attempt to move chronologically through these recordings (I've noted the label and ASIN of the most available release of each one), but I invite you to give a listen to even the oldest of these; there is magic in all of them.
Various Artists, The Bristol Sessions
(original release: 1927; Country Music Foundation; ASIN: B000000QIP)
The only thing that needs to be said about this comes from the quote from Johnny Cash on the cover: "the single most important event in the history of country music." The Bristol sessions were the result of Victor trying to find new markets for their musical recordings, so they set up shop in Bristol, Tennessee for a few weeks in 1927 and invited Appalachian musicians to come and play and likely get recorded. This two disc set is the cream of the crop; the first recordings by The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers (grandparents of the country world to come), as well as the folk protest singer Blind Alfred Reed.
That's not what makes this set transcendent, though. It is almost as if you're offered an ear into another world, a world that no longer exists. Alfred Karnes sounds like some sort of nightmarish, fire and brimstone preacher from the turn of the century; he plays a homebrewed combination instrument that's a fusion of a harp and a guitar. B.F. Shelor shows us the state of Appalachian blues at the time, using a five string banjo and a modified twelve bar blues that fans of Mississippi John Hurt will recognize. The Tenneva Ramblers sound almost like a slightly countrified Squirrel Nut Zippers.
For musical variety, and for a portal into another place and time, The Bristol Sessions can't be beat.
The Carter Family, Can the Circle Be Unbroken?
(original release: 1935-1940; Sony; ASIN: B00004RC8J)
This album collects miscellaneous singles from The Carter Family at the peak of their popularity in the late 1930s. The Carter Family consisted of Sara, Maybelle, and A.P. Carter; Sara and Maybelle were sisters, and A.P. was married to Maybelle. A.P. spent most of his time collecting the folk music popular in Appalachia and occasionally reworking it to fit Sara's wonderful alto voice.
This collection is twenty songs in length and essentially covers the highlights of Depression-era Americana. The major gems here include Keep on the Sunny Side (heard on O Brother, Where Art Thou?), I'm Thinking Tonight of my Blue Eyes (literally about Sara having an affair outside of her marriage with A.P. -- would you have guessed such material from 1930s-era country and western?), and Worried Man Blues (a very depressing tale about a desperate man during the Great Depression).
This is just a sweet sampler; most of the singles released by the Carter Family are still available in one form or another.
Hank Williams, Sr., 40 Greatest Hits
(original release: 1948-1952; Polygram; ASIN: B000001F76)
Hank Williams represented the next step in the evolution of country music by fusing blues music into the heart of the Appalachian folk sound that was the core of country and western sound to that point. It could easily be argued that Hank Williams was actually a blues musician; he lived like one, spending much of his adulthood in a desperate battle against alcohol and amphetamine addiction which would eventually lead to him being thrown out of the Grand Ole Opry.
But what we have from Hank is the music. At this point, the music industry was still singles-oriented; the concept of albums was just developing. Thus, this is a collection of every relevant single ever released by Hank, and there are some truly seminal works on here: Lovesick Blues is one of the most transcendent pieces of music I have ever heard in my life, I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry defines the fusion of the Appalachian sound with the blues, and I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive is as much of a musical suicide note as Nirvana's All Apologies.
Hank is the sound of depression and loneliness and pain; his music transcends the format to express these feelings in a way that no one else before or since has matched.
Ray Charles, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music
(original release: 1962; Rhino; ASIN: B0000032B4)
By the early 1960s, the genre had grown enough and diversified enough that great musicians were experimenting with the genre, and there is no better example of this experimentation than Ray Charles, who released a piece of genius in 1962. This album is nothing but Ray, his piano, and some big band elements, in which he reworks a big handful of standard country and western songs from the 1950s and earlier.
Several songs stand out here: I Can't Stop Loving You became a rather large mainstream hit, crossing over from the "country" charts; Hey, Good Lookin' is a marvelous reworking of a true standard (Hank Williams was known for it, for example) into a big band explosion; and I Love You So Much It Hurts melts in your ears like you might expect from Ray Charles.
Ray gave the country some funk that day, and he showed that the music can cross all boundaries.
Buck Owens, Together Again/My Heart Skips a Beat
(original release: 1964; Sundazed; ASIN: B000003GY6)
This album comes from a period of time in which the country and western genre was nearing a peak of mainstream acceptance (and as you'll soon see, musicians crossed over both ways), and Buck Owens was at the top of the genre at the time, to the point that The Beatles covered him at the peak of their commercial success.
Together Again/My Heart Skips a Beat shows off Buck's mastery of different country and western sounds and how effortlessly he fused them with rock and roll elements better than any other recording of his. The album includes his signature number, Act Naturally (which appeared also on The Beatles' Help!), which is simply a genius moment in music. Several other tracks are fantastic, though; the two title tracks are both gems, as is Truck Drivin' Man, which is one of those songs that you feel as if it's about ready to explode off of the record player.
Buck Owens was so effortless at combining genres that no one saw him as a crossover performer when he would appear on musical charts outside of the country and western genre. He incorporated the new rock sound as it grew throughout the early 1960s.
The Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo
(original release: 1968; Sony; ASIN: B000002AHB)
This group evolved and changed so much and produced so much amazing music in such a short time that their brief foray into country and western sound is often overlooked. For Sweethearts of the Rodeo, the band recruited Gram Parsons to replace the outgoing David Crosby; Parsons was somewhat established as a country and western songwriter at this point in his own unique way (he called it "cosmic American music"), and thus this new flavor had a tremendous impact on the group.
So what do we get here? We get the mellow psychedelic pop of the earlier Byrds melted into a country sound, producing something interesting and new. Buck Owens had earlier shown how pop and rock could be effortlessly incorporated into country; these guys went the other way, effortlessly incorporating country elements into mellow rock. Hickory Wind and The Christian Life are the two big winners from this album, truly showing that a rock band can use country elements with success.
Gram Parsons left The Byrds in the middle of recording this album; we'll catch up with him again soon, though.
Bob Dylan, Nashville Skyline
(original release: 1969; Sony; ASIN: B0000C8AV7)
So, now we have Bob Dylan. The quintessential folk musician of the early 1960s became a rocker in the mid 1960s, then seemed to move in a country direction with his previous album, John Wesley Harding. Just a year later, Dylan completely embraces the genre and brings his songwriting along for the ride.
Here, Dylan alternates between writing songs utilizing every stereotype of the genre (Peggy Day) to writing stuff that harkened to his earlier stuff (Lay Lady Lay) with everything in between (I Threw It All Away is a good example). In essence, Dylan dove into the dustbin of country music; he has more in common here with the Appalachian troubadours than the "Rhinestone Cowboy" movement that was about to swallow country and western whole.
We would get to see Dylan jump headfirst into a genre ten years later, when he dove into gospel with Slow Train Coming, further proving that Dylan can make any kind of music move like puppets on a string.
The Flying Burrito Brothers, Gilded Palace of Sin
(original release: 1969; Edsel; ASIN: B0000011SS)
You can tell this album is going to be something different just by glancing at the cover. The band is wearing bright multicolored Nashville-styled suits standing in front of an outhouse with a fluorescent band logo using funky lettering floating in the white sky above. The music on the inside doesn't let the cover down, either; the first song, Christine's Tune (Devil in Disguise), drives along like a well-crafted pop tune using some instruments tuned to a country sound along with a rock electric guitar, which works tremendously for this uptempo number.
Further instrumental mixing fills the rest of the album: My Uncle is a bluegrass war protest song, then Dark End of the Street comes off like a soul number. Again, as before, it is as if half of the group is playing within the strict rules of the genre while the other half is treating it as a country and western number.
All of the Flying Burrito Brothers albums are excellent, as are Parsons later solo albums, but this one sets the standard.
The Statler Brothers, The World of the Statler Brothers
(original release: 1972; Sony; ASIN: B0000024Z1)
The best way I can describe the early Statler Brothers records is this: what would have happened if Jefferson Airplane came out of Missouri rather than the San Francisco area? This is psychedelic country or, as I like to see it, The Kinks in America.
Rather than using some of their psychedelic pop records for examples (notably, Flowers on the Wall or Pictures of Moments to Remember, which was to America what The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society was to Britain), this compilation from 1972 does a fantastic job of capturing their psychedelic and eventually retrospective sound. The entire collection is strong, but Flowers on the Wall is a masterpiece, and Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott is an amazing nostalgic and wandering number.
Following this, the band largely changed direction and eventually became a gospel group, which seems amazing for a group who released psychedelic records in the 1960s.
Neil Young, Harvest
(original release: 1972; Sony; ASIN: B000002KD1)
Neil Young is one of those folks, like Bob Dylan, who often zigs when you expect him to zag. This was his follow up to After the Gold Rush, a decidedly rock album featuring the classic Southern Man. From this, he took a detour into country and western sounds and came up with Harvest. The second side of the album proclaimed the purpose with Are You Ready For The Country?, as Young showed everyone how the elements of the country sound could be utilized to tell the grim folk tales he told.
From this album, Heart of Gold was a major hit on both the country and mainstream music charts, but the rest of the album is just as strong: Old Man sounds like an outtake from Dylan's Nashville Skyline, Needle and the Damage Done is an acoustic nightmare, and A Man Needs A Maid is pure lyrical genius.
Neil Young would reprise this album with 1992's Harvest Moon, which feels like a slightly darker version of this.
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Will the Circle Be Unbroken
(original release: 1972; Capitol; ASIN: B000063686)
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band were, in the words of Roy Acuff, "a bunch of long-haired West Coast boys." In actuality, they were from Colorado, an earthy rock band whose music often came off like a rock revolution to the old timey jug band music. This album features the band detouring to Nashville and performing with a veritable who's-who of bluegrass and traditional country, including Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family, Earl Scruggs, and dozens of others.
If you've ever wanted to hear what's "right" with the traditional country sound, you could not do much better than this album. Pretty much every "standard" in the genre is performed here by a mix of a rock band and authentic bluegrass performers, making some of the highly "countryfied" numbers as smooth and pure as they can be. The Grand Ole Opry Song, Dark As a Dungeon, Lost Highway, and I Saw The Light are all almost otherworldly, and the rest of the album keeps up with this pace.
This album is a demonstration of the power that can happen when musicians from different worlds who respect each other come together to combine their genres, jam together, and enjoy the product.
Willie Nelson, Red Headed Stranger
(original release: 1975; Sony; ASIN: B00004U2G7)
Willie Nelson tried here to make a concept album about the Old West, but explaining it through the character of the red-headed stranger, espousing themes of loneliness, pain, and depression. In doing this, he showed us all the transcendent possibilities of the western half of the country and western sound.
This entire album is stripped down to the point of bare starkness, leaving little besides Willie Nelson and that voice of his. Only the barest musical accompaniment comes through, and when it does, it has meaning, like when Willie performs Bach's Minuet in G on an acoustic guitar. What you're left with is a bare tale of a wanderer in the old West, someone whose heart and soul are broken.
This album spawned the career-defining song Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, but in the context of the album, it comes off as one of the weakest parts.
Emmylou Harris, Elite Hotel
(original release: 1976; Warner Brothers; ASIN: B000002KDE)
Emmylou Harris is another artist who, like Buck Owens, found her heart in the country but walks across genre boundaries as if they didn't exist. This is her second album, and it's genius from beginning to end: she sings a few originals, as well as covering The Beatles and covering three Gram Parsons tunes as something of a tribute.
Two tracks in particular stand out: the opener of the album, Amarillo, which is a driving , and the gorgeous One of These Days, a plea for redemption and a future as dark and rich as anything you've heard anywhere.
Most of Emmylou's work is strong, but this one needs to be heard just to hear her soaring voice sing There's gonna be peace of mind for me ... one of these days.
Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska
(original release: 1982; Sony; ASIN: B0000025T6)
This album is almost like a mirror of Red Headed Stranger, except that Bruce Springsteen is telling the tale of a lost modern man in America's heartland. This entire album sounds like a demo tape, recorded on the back porch of a falling down house three miles outside of Omaha, and in that, Springsteen records a country and western masterpiece.
The title track, Nebraska, is one of the darkest and most haunting tunes I've ever heard; it is the sound of the small town American dream being ground up and tossed aside without a second thought. It is this eternal theme of something lost that makes this album great; Bruce brings his songwriting chops to an alternative world where country and western music didn't get trapped in the same old pedal steel tricks and songs about drink and adultery, but instead said something about the destruction of the heart of America.
The Ghost of Tom Joad is a later Springsteen album where he tackles a more folk-oriented direction, but it is just as earthy as this bare-bones country masterpiece.
The Jayhawks, Blue Earth
(original release: 1989; Twintone; ASIN: B0000018VH)
The arrival of The Jayhawks on the scene in the late 1980s, when country music was about to be inundated with the overproduced pop stylings of such musicians as Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson, showed that the spirit of Gram Parsons still lived on in the undercurrents of American music. This is the debut of the group and it sets down the mix of pop and rock with strong country elements that they would continue to produce for the next two decades.
The opening track, Two Angels, sets it off perfectly: it's a unique pop sound that seems to be the result of modern rock and traditional country put into a blender. I like to think of the sound as Sweetheart of the Rodeo aged twenty years with a big shot of Tabasco sauce to liven up the flavor.
As the band progressed, they gradually began to de-emphasize the traditional country influences in their sound, eventually sounding something like John Wesley Harding-era Bob Dylan. Rainy Day Music, their 2003 release, is a perfect example and a wonderful album.
Uncle Tupelo, Anodyne
(original release: 1993; Rhino; ASIN: B00008DCSZ)
This is the most eloquent audio capturing of a time and place that I've ever heard. That place is rural downstate Illinois and the time is the early 1990s.
What you have in this place and time is the American dream grinding to a halt. Factories are closing, people are out of work and desperate and turning to drugs and drink to cure their ailments, and God seems to have cursed the very earth with plagues from the New Madrid earthquake to the 1993 Mississippi River floods. This is the landscape that is painted in its entirety by the country/rock fusion of Uncle Tupelo here on their final album.
Everything that you can find by Uncle Tupelo is otherworldly, especially their debut, No Depression, which kickstarted the 1990s alternative country phenomenon, but their final record paints such a clear, stark picture of rural America at that moment in time, using the tools of country and rock to do it, that this is their defining moment.
Johnny Cash, American Recordings
(original release: 1994; American; ASIN: B000062X9D)
Johnny Cash had been an outsider for most of his career, largely following his own path that sometimes intersected with Nashville and sometimes didn't. With the boom of the "country pop" of the early 1990s, Johnny was unceremoniously dumped from his label. Luckily for all of us, rock producer Rick Rubin caught wind of this, Johnny signed to the independent American label, and the two of them created a masterpiece.
Rubin selected a set of covers for Johnny to transform, setting them down with just Cash, a microphone, and a guitar, and the end result is a stark album from a man who has seen the world and come back around again. He covers Danzig, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits in creating this painting of a dark and dry America, a timeless vision that resonates as much today as the instant he recorded it. Cash made these songs his own, and created something dark and yet majestic out of them, much like the Man in Black himself.
Johnny Cash would follow this with three more albums on American: Unchained, American III: Solitary Man, and American IV: The Man Comes Around. Each one continued the stark flavor of the original and yet each one has its own charm.
Son Volt, Trace
(original release: 1995; Warner Brothers; ASIN: B000002N1V)
After the end of Uncle Tupelo, the two main songwriters went their separate ways. Jeff Tweedy went on to found Wilco, which would go down a progressive path into experimental pop; on the other hand, Jay Farrar founded Son Volt, which maintained much of the sound of Uncle Tupelo but with a strong nostalgic touch for a past long since lost.
This nostalgic vision comes to life on Trace, Son Volt's first and best album, and this entire message is compressed into one amazing burst of an anthem, Windfall, which is one of the great moments in recorded music. Farrar sings, It sounds like 1963, but for now... it sounds like heaven and Two feet on the floor, both hands on the wheel; let the wind take your troubles away and somehow we understand the transcendent power of music, how it can carry you to another place.
Son Volt would produce a few more albums, but nothing as starkly beautiful as this debut.
Wilco, Being There
(original release: 1996; Warner Brothers; ASIN: B000002N7G)
Wilco, on the other hand, was the more experimental half of the Uncle Tupelo split, and this experimentalism begins to really come through on their second album, the double opus of Being There.
This album really has something for everyone: pop, rock, punk, folk, blues, country, and even a bit of electronica all are found on this album, and are often mixed together in ways you won't expect. From the opening techno medley at the start of Misunderstood to the closing fiddle and piano duel of Dreamer in My Dreams, the entire album challenges the lines between countless genres and mixes them like a painter at work.
Wilco would go on to release the stunning pop/rock album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in 2001; if you like Being There or want to see where the country aesthetic can lead when infused with lots of experimentation, it's an exciting album.
Whiskeytown, Strangers Almanac
(original release: 1997; Outpost; ASIN: B000002RBZ)
Someone asked me to describe this album, and I all I could say was this: imagine if Hank Williams recorded Beggar's Banquet. In other words, this is what you get when you take a healthy dollop of The Rolling Stones' mix of blues and rock and insert it straight into the very foundations of country music.
Several songs stand out here: Avenues sounds like a long lost song by The Replacements; Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart shows the power of strings in a larger context (think Eleanor Rigby or Tonight Tonight); Waiting to Derail sounds like a lost number from Exile on Main Street. This is Americana: the history of rock and blues blended together with the roots of Appalachia. Be prepared to be surprised and to rock a little.
Each of Whiskeytown's albums are good, but this one really stands out.
Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
(original release: 1998; Polygram; ASIN: B000007Q8J)
This is another album that challenges genres, and only reveals itself to be connected to the heart of country through the shared elements in the songs: Jackson sounds like gospel; Still I Long For Your Kiss is pure blues rock; Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is catchy pop.
So, what connects all of these songs? An understanding of the fundamental musical elements of the country and a willingness to incorporate these elements through several different genres, almost like thread through cloth. Two things stand out here: Lucinda brings a strong woman's perspective to the genre - she's almost an alt-country version of Ani DiFranco, and she's a strong songwriter. Together, they're genius.
Lucinda's follow ups to this, Essence and World Without Tears, are both strong, but this one is simply essential.
Ryan Adams, Heartbreaker
(original release: 2000; Bloodshot; ASIN: B00004XSKU)
After the demise of Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams and the rest of the group went their separate ways, and this is what came out of Ryan's solo musical work. I think that things can be best explained like this: it's a country album that starts off with an argument about Morrissey.
This album is a bit uneven, but when it hits peaks like Oh My Sweet Carolina (a desperately beautiful duet with Emmylou Harris) and To Be Young (some kind of Smells Like Teen Spirit if written by a Kentucky boy), the album becomes something special, almost showing a rebirth of sorts of what country music can actually be and what it can express.
Adams' later albums are not even in the same league as this one; this is one of the greats.
Dwight Yoakam, dwightyoakamacoustic.net
(original release: 2000; Warner Brothers; ASIN: B00004TAZ4)
Dwight Yoakam, like some of the others mentioned here, is one of those people who never really fit in with the mainstream crowd, even after scoring a few country hits in the late 1980s. You see, rather than adopting the glossy pop country sound, Dwight's sound is the child of Buck Owens and a bit of Gram Parsons, and that never sat too well with the country establishment. Here, he tosses out everything but an acoustic guitar and proceeds to jam seventy nine minutes of purely acoustic renditions of some of his earlier songs onto one disc, and it is mesmerizing.
Yoakam's gift has always been his voice: a plaintive yodeling sound that could make people cry and hard men feel pain in their heart. This entire album does nothing but accentuate that around the simple rhythms of the songs he's written, even going so far as to end the album with an a capella rendition of his biggest hit Guitars, Cadillacs. The one that has stuck with me for years, though, is A Thousand Miles From Nowhere, which sounds like it is coming from a desperate troubadour with an angel in his mouth.
All of Dwight's albums are fantastic, but nothing compares to these acoustic renditions.
Gillian Welch, Time (The Revelator)
(original release: 2001; Acony; ASIN: B00005N8CQ)
This is a studio recording of what sounds like a punk rock genius woman who spent ten years after that phase finding love and sadness in the deepest parts of Appalachia, and has come back to tell the tale.
Time (The Revelator) is something else. Just when you believe that you've heard every trick that can be mined from a genre, this album teaches you something new. I Want To Sing That Rock And Roll is a folk rock paean straight from the heart of Virginia, and Elvis Presley Blues sounds like the King in an ode to him. It closes with what can best be described as a musical dreamworld, I Dream A Highway, in which Gillian wanders through a pastiche of changing images and sounds, all within the framework of a single song; it's fourteen minutes long, but all of it works.
Gillian Welch is hard to easily describe; to many, her sound is unappealing because she doesn't really compare to anything else that's around today. Her closest modern comparison would be the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, but that doesn't properly demonstrate the very thin but very sharp edge her music can have. She's a special genius that shows yet another facet of the country sound.
Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose
(original release: 2004; Interscope; ASIN: B0001XASDA)
So, what happens when you take Jack White of The White Stripes and let him produce an album by one of the legends of mainstream country, Loretta Lynn? You get Van Lear Rose, something that is so well-crafted and such a perfect mix of elements that fans of garage rock and of the country sound will find things to love.
This album goes from traditional country (Family Tree, about her family history) to complete garage rock (Have Mercy) and everywhere in between, yet what carries this thing off is the clear enjoyment of the entire musical process that shines through from Loretta, regardless of whether she's sounding like a coal miner's daughter or she's working to keep up with edgy rock. It is this seemingly boundless musical joy coupled with her skill in adding a personal countryfied touch to everything she sings that makes this album work.
If you enjoyed this, you'll likely find something to enjoy on The White Stripes' White Blood Cells, or on most of the things from this list.
Try one of these albums. Discover that there is some good country. You won't regret it.