Music industry revenues reached about $5.5 billion a year last year, as new revenue sources begin to lift sales again. Country music accounted for one-third of that, making its share worth close to $2 billion per year. The question is, as a music fan and perhaps an avid one, where should you spend your own dollars when there is more music available in more formats than ever before? While we’re excited about the possibilities of streaming (particularly when it’s low cost), there’s undeniable satisfaction in exercising discretion and informed choice regarding your valued listening time. And of course, new and inexpensive aren’t always ideal; in fact, it often requires months, if not years, to distinguish between product and artistry.
We offer this advice: there are a few albums every fan should own, and we proffer here our selection for the ten essential country albums of all time. While several are established classics, recorded decades ago, there are a few surprises here: some of the greatest country music was performed and recorded by unlikely sources: Ray Charles, Leon Russell, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Gram Parsons, to name a few.
Each of the following albums is worth a complete audition. We have also compiled a suggested playlist taken from these essential albums that will keep you intrigued, rocked-out and moved for years to come.
Hank Williams 40 Greatest Hits released 1990
The original singer-songerwriter, Hank Williams lived fast and hard, dying at the early age of 29, with a recording career than spanned a stupefyingly short six years. More covers of Hank Williams’s large catalogue of 400 or so songs have been recorded by more artists than any other 20th century composer you care to name. And make no mistake, this man was a composer, the one who famously said “if a song can’t be written in 15 minutes, it ain’t worth writing”. Hank Williams was a complex character, as devoted to music as he was to alcohol. His manager, Fred Rose, one of the most powerful men in the music industry, pronounced his charge to have “a million dollar voice and a ten cent brain”. Well, Fred Rose got it dead wrong, for only a genius could have come up with the material that Hank wrote. This album of 40 Greatest Hits contains so many essential tracks that it’s almost an embarrassment to the other artists mentioned here. No songwriter ever has produced the treasure trove that Hank did in a similar six year period. Lennon and McCartney came close in the rock/pop genre, but then there were two of them, and neither were saddled with the preoccupations of troublesome women, good whiskey and questionable health that dominated Hank’s life.
Our favourite tracks here: “Long Gone Lonesome Blues”, “Honky Tonk Blues” “Ramblin’ Man” and the haunting “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive”, recorded just a few days before his death. And, of course, the genre-bending hit that opened up his career: “Move It On Over”. If you choose only one album from this list, make it this one. You’ll be listening to it for the rest of your life.
Marty Robbins Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs released in 1959
This album is chiefly remembered for Marty Robbins’s signature song, “El Paso”, a self-penned number that is one of the greatest story songs ever written, a tale of a young man’s foolish infatuation for a cantina temptress named Felina. It’s a passionate and memorable number, and a worthy reminder that the word passion itself comes from the Latin “passio”, which means “to suffer”. The album, though, is far more than the sum of its parts, and deserves wider recognition. It was the first country album ever made to be based on a concept, and as such is the forerunner of Willie Nelson’s more famous 1975 creation The Red-Headed Stranger. It’s also one of the greatest achievements of a wonderful producer named Don Law, the head of country music at Columbia Records, a man who brought many talents to the Columbia studios, including Robert Johnson. The album is a particular delight for several key tracks: “Cool Water”, which has never received a better reading, and “They’re Hanging Me Tonight”, a melodramatic weeper that displays Robbins’s tenor/baritone to great advantage, and best of all the full-length version of “El Paso”, which contains a couple of extra verses.
Robbins was influenced heavily by the movies of his boyhood idol Gene Autry, as well as the tales of the wild Old West told to him by his grandfather, Bob Heckle, who had been a Texas Ranger. Though his early success in pop music came to him through such hits as “Singin’ The Blues” and “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation”, Marty never lost his interest in things Western. When he had some recognition with the theme from the Gary Cooper western movie “The Hanging Tree”, Marty began writing a series of period songs based on the stories he had heard from his grandfather. The producer Don Law believed strongly in the project and assembled a first-rate group of musicians including the Glaser Brothers on backup vocals and the guitar virtuoso Grady Martin. The resulting album was recorded in one day!
“El Paso” clocked in at an astonishing four minutes, 39 seconds, double the length of the average radio hit of the time. It was awarded the first Grammy ever given to a country record.
Ray Charles Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music released 1962
In the early 1960s Ray Charles was known primarily for his achievements in jazz and rhythm and blues. He had burst onto the music scene in the early 1950s as a pianist and erstwhile vocalist with a focus on his own talent as an arranger. HIs first real hit was a collaboration with his good friend Guitar Slim on “The Things I Used To Do”, and from that he went on to record such classics as “I Got A Woman” and his trail-blazing triumph in 1959 with “What’d I Say”. That was hardly the accepted background to taking on country music, but when Ray moved from Atlantic Records to ABC Paramount he also signed a contract that gave him considerable artistic freedom. Who knew he would take up with material straight from Nashville? His record company didn’t like the idea one bit and told him he would lose some of his fans. After all, Ray was a soul singer supreme, and what the dickens did that have to do with country music? Well, the resulting record spent two years on the Billboard charts, including fourteen weeks at No. 1, and revolutionized country music. You see, what Ray did with this material flavoured it with soul that no one knew it had. No one, that is, except for Ray himself, one of the three greatest musical geniuses of the twentieth century. (Who were the other two? – in the view of noted producer John Hammond, the other two were Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan). The recording session produced two volumes.
Sid Feller, the artistic director of ABC-Paramount, had this to say about the album in retrospect: “He understood country music. He loved the simple and plaintive lyrics and wanted to give it a new approach. He felt that by giving the music a lush treatment, it could be different from what country singers would do with the material.”
Key tracks on the album include “Born To Lose”, “You Win Again”, “You Don’t Know Me”, and the timeless version of the Don Gibson classic “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” It’s no coincidence that each of these key tracks was arranged by Marty Paich, the gifted arranger whose life work included more than 2000 studio dates. Paich only played on, but arranged and produced, numerous West Coast jazz recordings, including albums by Ray Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Terry Gibbs, Stan Kenton, Shelly Manne, Anita O’Day, Dave Pell, Art Pepper, Buddy Rich, Shorty Rogers, Toni Harper and Mel Tormé.
Then there’s the jazzed-up approach that Ray brought to Hank Williams’s “Half As Much” – it’s an understated and eloquent barnburner that completely reinterprets Hank’s original, and the true glory of it is that Ray and the band swing harder at half-speed that many another tune does at double-time. Hank would have loved it, just as millions of new country fans have in the past fifty years. This is an indispensable recording, still sounding as passionate and emotion-drenched as the day it was made.
Patsy Cline 12 Greatest Hits released 1967
One of the greatest losses to music was the death of Patsy Cline in a plane crash on March 5, 1963. Patsy was only thirty years old, and was country music’s greatest star at the time of her death. She possessed an exceptional country-blues voice and in the space of her brief recording career of a mere eight years, she recorded many classics. Her 12 Greatest Hits serves only as a starting point, since her entire catalogue is a experience not to be missed. She is the one female country singer truly embraced by pop, jazz and blues fans alike.
She had a penchant for the songs of the noted writer Hank Cochran, and delivered hallmark renditions of many of his songs, four of which were chosen for this particular album, including “I Fall To Pieces”, “She’s Got You”, “Why Can’t He Be You”, and “You’re Stronger Than Me”.
Her first big success came with “I Fall To Pieces” in 1960 and was followed by “Crazy” (Willie Nelson’s first big songwriting success) and “Walkin’ After Midnight”. What made her recordings so special was not only her vocal interpretations, but the palpable excitement and sophisticated expertise of the finest group of musicians Nashville has ever assembled at one time, among them being Floyd Cramer on piano, Grady Martin on electric guitar, Hargus “Pig” Robbins on bass, Hank Garland on guitar, and The Jordanaires on backing vocals. In addition, Patsy was a superlative live performer, who possessed an uncanny ability to replicate exactly the phrasing and emotion behind her best studio performances. Or rather, the recording engineers under the genius of producer Owen Bradley were able to capture Patsy’s talent in the studio. Ask any recording artist and they’ll tell you the experiences are almost always mutually exclusive.
It’s no wonder that countless singers have attempted to capture the magic that Patsy Cline embodied, and it’s tempting to think that the most successful of her admirers, k.d. lang, came close. That is, until one listens to Patsy and Ms lang in succession. k.d. lang’s masterwork Absolute Torch and Twang ranks high on the scale on modern country music, but Patsy Cline is simply unmatchable.
What further distinguished Patsy’s remarkable career is that almost every one of her many hits scored as well on the pop charts as they did in country circles. Some of that success was no doubt due to Bradley’s inspired replacement of country twang by what was then called the “countrypolitan” approach of strings and piano, but in the end it’s the endearing and enduring quality of her voice that has kept music listeners enthralled for decades.
Johnny Cash Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison released 1968
This is a legendary record, both for its explosive live quality and for the bravado Johnny Cash exhibited by daring to put on a show in a high-security prison. For years only the performance of Cash and his band was marketed, but recently the powers that be put together a 2CD set coupled with a DVD that reveals two sides of the event: the performances of Carl Perkins, his wife June Carter and The Statler Brothers were also worthy of audition. The Statler Brothers are hardly remembered at all these days, except for their recording of “Flowers On The Wall”, but they were a force with which to be reckoned.
There’s not a reflection to be offered up about Cash himself that hasn’t been said countless times before, but I’ll emphasize: this event was one of the great live shows of all time, and the recording barely contains, but certainly reveals, both the depth of Cash’s talent and his truly exceptional connection with his audience.
The one essential track is “Folsom Prison Blues”, of course, which sounds even better here than it did on his 1955 studio recording, the title of which was a memorable With His Hot and Blue Guitar. Worth noting is that the prison audience did not actually applaud at the lines “I shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die” – the whistling, clapping and cheering of those two lines were added in post-production. This changes my mind a bit about the authenticity of the recording process, but then again one must consider that the prisoners were understandably hesitant over guard reprisals should they cheer the wrong words at the wrong time. No doubt they were cheering on the inside. Other notable tracks include “Orange Blossom Special”, the Merle Travis classic “Dark As A Dungeon”, and the chilling but appropriate “Green Green Grass Of Home”.
The album sold 500,000 copies within three months and was enthusiastically received by critics, most of whom had written Cash off due to his widely-known drug problems and undependability in live concerts. Cash himself credited the album with his creative resurgence. Without it, he may never have become The Man In Black.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Will The Circle Be Unbroken released 1972
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band started up as a jug band in 1966 and played out of the Paradox Club of Southern California, with one of the original members being Jackson Browne. The local music scene included such future stalwarts as David Lindley Ry Cooder and LInda Ronstadt. The group played acoustic instruments exclusively and focused on old-timey music, but it was the understated showmanship of Lindley on electric guitar that convinced the band to go electric. Eventually they ended up in Colorado where their manager Bill McEuen helped them produce a fusion of rock, bluegrass and country. They made a terrific series of albums in the late 60s and early 70s.
McEuen got the brilliant idea to take them to Nashville in 1971 and record a 3-record acoustic set with the country performers he most admired. He lined up Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs, Mother Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson, Merle Travis and a host of others. The result was “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”, which eventually became a 3 volume series (and a Grammy winner) with additional volumes being made every few years. The authenticity of the performances is undeniable, the scope of the project vast, and the recordings a national treasure. When the band showed up in Nashville with their long hair, their mustaches, beards and hippie accoutrements the Nashville group were apprehensive to say the least; then the boys played for them and all reservations were set aside. The Dirt Band were alright, said Nashville. “If you could hire musicians like them around here to go with on the road, there’s no tellin’ what you’d be able to do” was the verdict from one local notable.
Many of the songs on the album were recorded on the first or the second take, and as the tape was constantly running throughout the sessions, informal conversation between the musicians was captured. Doc Watson’s first encounter with Merle Travis is rendered, as is Mother Maybelle Carter’s offering of how she came to write and record “The Sunny Side Of Life.”
Highlights: Doc Watson with “Tennessee Stud”, Roy Acuff’s “A Precious Jewel”, Merle Travis with “Dark As The Dungeon” and a young, unknown Vassar Clements with his brilliant take on “Orange Blossom Special”. Oh, and about thirty others you’ll just have to hear for yourself.
Bill McEuen was heard to comment to Clements, “You must be the greatest fiddle player on earth. How do you do what you do to a fiddle?”
“Aw, I don’t know”, said Clements in discomfort.
“Most fiddle players just fool around through most of that song, leading up to the fast part at the end, and then disappoint you when they finally get to it,” McEuen said, “but you grabbed it on the first bar and just kept going harder and harder. Where did you get those two little melodies you stick in there in the middle of it, anyway?”
“Aw, that was just little bit of ‘School Days’ and a little bit of ‘Dragnet’,” said Clements.
Oh, and as for the Dirt Band: here’s what the son of noted Nashville picker Jimmy Martin had to say about them – “Good Lord, Daddy, they’re good!”
Leon Russell Hank Wilson’s Back! released in 1973
I love the concept of an established artist’s adoption of another persona in order to present an entirely different aspect of his/her art to the unsuspecting public. Writers do it all the time, some of them having more than one nom de plume, each of which accounts for a separate interest, but musicians? Hardly ever. When it works, though, it’s a revelation, and it’s cause for celebration. Such was the case with the totally unexpected release of Hank Wilson’s Back!, an album of country standards put out by Leon Russell at the height of his success in rock music. And what an album it is! Leon had long been known as a session man extraordinaire, and as a rock and roll firecracker, and was beginning to acquire a reputation as a compelling songwriter with a mixture of quirkiness and emotional sincerity. But country? – not since Ray Charles had taken on Nashville material in 1962 had an established musician ventured so far from familiar ground. It turned out that Leon’s persona, Hank Wilson, may be the real Leon Russell, so convincing is this album.
Leon’s singing voice never sounded better in his entire career than it did on this album, and while there are a few absolutely-necessary-and-highly-appreciated country weepers on this album (“Am I That Easy To Forget?” and “The Window Up Above”, there is a feeling of joyous exuberance throughout this production. The opening track “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” is one you’ve known all your life, until that is, you hear Hank Wilson and his henchmen put the pedal to the metal on this number. The henchmen? – simply the best that Nashville has to offer. Hank offers up no less than four Hank (Williams numbers) and truly reinvents every one of them. The best tracks, though, are his stunning take on “Goodnight Irene”, and “In The Jailhouse Now”, two chestnuts one would think could not ever be revitalized. However, Hank Wilson’s back! And he is truly, truly, great.
Gram Parsons Grievous Angel released 1974
Gram Parsons may be the single most surprising entry on this list of The Top 10 Country Albums you should own. He made very few recordings, dying at the early age of 26 of a drug-fuelled prayer session in the desert. But there may not have been a Sweetheart of the Rodeo album from The Byrds without him, as Gram joined that band when he was a mere 22, and inspired them to move away from the songs of Dylan toward a new fusion of country and rock. There may not been a “Country Honk” or a “Wild Horses” from The Rolling Stones, as Gram forged a new and significant friendship with Keith Richards and brought forth countless records from his own collection for The Stones to hear, though Mick Jagger was both jealous of and grateful for Gram’s vast encyclopedic knowledge of Americana.
Most importantly, Emmylou Harris may have spent her adult life as a part-time folkie in Washington, DC. She admits that it was Gram who taught her everything she knows about country music, and that it was he who convinced her to move out west with him and go out on tour with the songs of The Louvin Brothers, Boudleaux Bryant and yes, the lyrics and tunes of Gram himself, who is one of the great unheralded country music writers. The album Grievous Angel was Gram’s last; he never lived to see its release. On it are several duets with Emmylou, as well as the instrumental backing of some heavy talent, including Glen D. Hardin on piano, Herb Pederson on guitar, Byron Berline on mandolin and fiddle, the one and only (and immediately recognizable) James Burton on guitar, and Bernie Leadon (The Eagles). Oh yes, and backing vocals by Linda Ronstadt too. A more eclectic, electric and exciting country lineup you’ve never heard.
It’s not overstating the case to say that The Eagles, The Byrds, Poco, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams and yes, even today’s New Country artists owe a great debt to the vision of Gram Parsons. You can hear Gram’s influence in Emmylou’s seminal country albums Elite Hotel and Pieces Of The Sky, in which she brought an entirely new country sensibility to such material as The Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere”, and their “For No One”, as well the Boudleaux-Felice Bryant “Sleepless Nights”. What this meant was that a country interpretation could be taken from any source, and that the result would intrigue music fans of every stripe, including Jack White of The White Stripes, who in 2010 recorded “Rated X” on the Loretta Lynn Tribute album Coal Miner’s Daughter. Such is the legacy of Gram Parsons.
It all started with Gram’s two greatest albums GP and Grievous Angel, the latter being the greater of the two for its revelatory qualities and for the highly influential track “Love Hurts”, a Boudleaux Bryant composition made famous earlier by Roy Orbison. Once you hear what Gram and Emmylou bring to this song, you’ll realize how strong the song is, and how it comes much more alive as a duet, when you hear the two lovers suffering together with the same lament. It’s truly and deeply ironic that Emmylou was smitten beyond measure with Gram, with his music, his voice, and his personality, and you’ll hear all that and more in this rendition, especially if you’re acquainted with Emmylou’s subsequent masterwork “Boulder To Birmingham”, in which she expresses her sorrow at his passing.
Other notable tracks on the album: “Return of The Grievous Angel”, and The Louvin Brothers classic “Cash On The Barrelhead”. Also not to be missed are “Hickory Wind” and lastly “Hearts on Fire”, a Walter Egan minor pop miracle that Gram and Emmylou turn into a showstopper. Finally, there’s their duo on “Oh Las Vegas”, a number that Gram wrote with Rik Grech (of Blind Faith fame) that was featured on the GP album.
There is more feeling and passion in this album than in any dozen contemporary recordings of country music and when one contemplates what the music world lost with the untimely passing of Gram Parsons in his mid-twenties, it’s enough to bring one to tears. It’s no wonder his shadow dominates Emmylou’s latest (2011) album Hard Bargain , and that his self-proclaimed invention of “Cosmic American Music” continues to loom large over the Americana genre. He was a major talent, perhaps a genius. On further thought, let me rephrase that. There’s no perhaps about it.
Poet: A Tribute To Townes Van Zandt released 2001
Steve Earle famously called Townes Van Zandt “the greatest songwriter ever”, and while the statement landed Steve in a pickle of trouble with critics who called him out, Steve later backed down on the claim somewhat, qualifying it by saying Townes was “one of the greatest”. There’s no doubt of that in the mind of countless musicians who have been influenced by the hard-drinking Texas troubadour who died in 1997 of a heart attack, brought about by the DTs in a poorly-advised attempt to detoxify the lifelong alcoholic loner, misfit and manic depressive. Townes was the outlaw musician extraordinaire, wanting nothing to do with big record labels, who to their credit (or less charitably, their greed) sought him out regularly and offered their services. Townes died more or less penniless, though he was earning close to $100,000 per year from the royalties from such classic songs as “Pancho and Lefty” and “If I Needed You.” Music was easy for him. Living was hard. Townes often spoke of picking songs out of the air; they were everywhere, he said.
There’s an apocryphal story of Bob Dylan’s showing up in Texas and seeking out Townes so he could hear him play. A private audience ensued. Townes was later heard to remark that he appreciated the gesture, but what was important to him was whether his songs would be sung and studied centuries from now.
He made half a dozen or so albums in the 70s, and a few live recordings, the most notable being Live From The Old Quarter in Houston, and the notable and also essential Together At The Bluebird Cafe, which also featured Steve Earle and Guy Clark. Townes was a talented finger-picking guitarist, but not much of a singer, though his relationship with audiences were legendary. Grown men would weep openly listening to Townes sing his tales of misery, low life, and the camaraderie to be found on the road. All of these albums, studio and live, are worth seeking out, but the ultimate collection of this man’s songs came about in 2001, when several stellar country performers recorded Poet: A Tribute to Townes Van Zandt. When I say stellar, I’m talking Willie Nelson, Delbert McClinton, Nanci Griffith, Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, The Cowboy Junkies, Steve Earle, Billy Joe Shaver, John Print and more. Each of them (16 in all) offered up a rendition of a Townes song. The results are 16 key tracks; they’re all essential, they’re all mysterious, moving, and brilliantly performed.
Tribute albums are usually a haphazard affair, but not this one. Poet may well be the best tribute album ever made. This is not mainstream country music, but as someone once said about Townes, “this man’s music runs deep”. You may not know most of these songs at the moment, but you will. Trust us. You will.
Dwight Yoakam Hillbilly Deluxe released 1987
This is one of those records, straight-forward, unadorned and stunning, that we’ll be talking about for some time to come. It was Dwight Yoakam’s second album, and featured several tunes penned by Dwight himself.
He is a formidable songwriter (“Little Ways”), a first-rate vocalist, and he is obsessed with music of the 1960s. Listen to his take on Lefty Frizell’s “Always Late with Your Kisses”, as well as his memorable cover of the Elvis tune “Little Sister”.
Dwight was called “too country for rock stations”, and “too rock for country stations”. However, in retrospect, his approach to country presaged all that is good in today’s so-called New Country. It was no coincidence that Brooks and Dunn named their 2005 album “Hillbilly Deluxe” as well. That album went platinum.
Why not go back to the real thing? Dwight’s second outing still sounds as fresh today as it did back in 1987.
The Playlist from our Top Ten Country Records Of All Time
1. “Move It On Over” by Hank Williams – covered numerous times, notably by George Thorogood, but Hank’s version remains the definitive one. Wicked lyrics, a rockabilly feel, and a terrific guitar solo make this a great lead-off track. “She warned me once, she warned me twice, but I don’t take no one’s advice” – Hank may have been the exemplary “cry in your beer” writer, but he was also one of the wittiest lyricists in any genre.
2. “El Paso” – the full-length version, by Marty Robbins. This song never fails to stir the emotions and set up a movie in the mind of the listener. And if you think Bob Dylan didn’t steal the Spanish guitar lines from this tune and transplant them into his masterwork “Desolation Row”, well then you’ve simply never listened to the magnificent playing here of Grady Martin. This song also inspired the Hal David/Burt Bacharach pop tale of “Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa”, in which Gene Pitney fell under a similar cantina enchantment. And check out “El Paso City”, the late-career followup by Robbins. The mystery of the original song never left him, and it may well do the same for you.
3. “Half As Much” by Ray Charles. A big band approach to one of the most moving country tunes ever written. Man, does this one swing! Must have kicked off every bit of dust in the Nashville studios for decades to follow. Has that magical soul quality of making you simultaneously happy and sad at the same time. It wasn’t easy picking a track from this album; this recording is of a whole from beginning to end. It’s almost criminal to choose only one Ray Charles track for a playlist. His artistry is sublime, and moving from one track to the next is a transformative experience that, believe me, was thoroughly planned by Ray himself.
4. “Sweet Dreams (Of You)” by Patsy Cline. A country operatic masterpiece written by Don Gibson, recorded dozens of times by lesser artists, and never better than by Patsy. Songs about dreams and lost love are a dime a dozen, and the emotion of regret famously dominates all of Western music. This one says it all, and the vocal performance is a wonder of understatement, control and revelation.
5. “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash. Yes, his rendition of “Cocaine” on this album is a nasty one, and deserves to be in your library too. But outlaw country started here with this song, and Johnny’s composition is a great reminder that not only was he one hell of a singer, but a national treasure as a songwriter. He had a simple formula, with his plain lyrics, chick-a-boom guitar, and unaccompanied vocals, but no one ever projected more authenticity, and more admirable male qualities, than The Man In Black. The song tells the tale of a man going wrong, taking the blame and facing up to it all, sitting in prison and hearing that San Antonio train go rolling by. “When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry”. And then, in the very next verse, a humorous outlook with these words: “I bet there’s rich folks eating in a fancy dining car/ they’re probably drinking coffee and smoking big cigars”.
6. “Tennessee Stud” by Doc Watson from Will The Circle Be Unbroken. Known more as a roots artist than a country performer, Doc Watson was renowned for his flat-picking wizardry and his way with Appalachian mountain ballads. He was, however, one of the finest, most natural and gifted of singers ever to grace a stage. The live performance here of “Tennessee Stud” is revealing for his direction to other musicians, how quickly they picked up on his intentions, and how exhilarating it is for great talents to feed from it all. And the song? – well, it’s a story of true love, between horses. That will never get old.
7. “In The Jailhouse Now” by Leon Russell. Take an old song that everyone knows somewhat, and turn it into a showpiece of musicianship, vocal artistry, and oh, yes, be sure that it’s about women, gambling and losing it all. This tune closed out the album Hank Wilson’s Back! and for good reason: it’s five minutes of musical satisfaction that leaves a lasting impression, leaving one to wonder, wtf is Leon Russell doing in the world of rock music when he so clearly belongs here. Not just belongs. Absolutely kills.
8. “Las Vegas” by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. James Burton on guitar, Glen D. Hardin on piano, with Gram and Emmylou on wild and unrestrained vocals. Cosmic indeed. Emmylou recorded this one again on her solo album Elite Hotel in the mid 70s with Burton and Hardin again, and that version is definitely worth the search. The one with Gram, though, on the Grievous Angel album is terrific. The song was written by Parsons and Rick Grech and contains the memorable lines “Well the Queen of Spades is a friend of mine/ The Queen of Hearts is a bitch/ Someday when I clean up my mind/ I’ll find out which is which”.
9. “Nothin” by Lucinda Williams from Poet: A Tribute to Townes Van Zandt. Shimmering blues guitar and a haunting, ghostly vocal from the Queen of Blues/Country. Makes one wish Lucinda would do more covers, despite the fact that she’s one of our best songwriters. Her feeling for this material is extraordinary. “Sorrow and solitude / These are the precious things/ The only words worth remembering”. One of her finest performances. Note that our sample playlist below features the Townes Van Zandt original version, but please be sure to check out Lucinda’s version when you get the chance.
10. It’s gotta be “Little Ways”. This is New Country at its best and Dwight was there first. Brilliant songwriting, great vocals, and truly stunning playing by a superb group of backup musicians.