The Country Music Awards, Nashville’s annual convocation of craven mediocrity, will be broadcast into the homes of millions of Americans Thursday night. If the Carrie Underwoods and Brad Paisleys of the world make you want to strap on a belt buckle and rev up your American made pickup, tune into ABC at 8 PM and prepare to have your cranium flooded with glitz, glitter, and forced southern charm. If, however, modern mainstream country leaves you as cold as your ex-wife’s heart, put on one of these albums. I present to you:
10 Country Albums for People Who (Think They) Hate Country!
This list defines “Country” much more broadly than most people, using an essentially genealogical classification scheme. Simply put, these are 10 great albums that would not exist without the Carter Family (Ask your parents. Well, ask your grandparents. Just Google it).
1. Willie Nelson, Red Headed Stranger.
This album launched Willie Nelson as a major country star, and launched the sub-genre of Outlaw Country as a force to be reckoned with. Outlaw Country is both more traditional and more rough-edged than mainstream country, and is centered more in Texas than in Tennessee. Red Headed Stranger represents all these impulses, telling a story of God, love, and murder stretched across the canvas of wide Texas skies. The backing is rarely more substantial than some light drums and fiddle, allowing Nelson’s trademark whine to carve deep, emotional pathos out narratives of mythic scope and tragedy. Featuring a mix of traditional songs and Nelson originals, this is the place to start for reevaluating country music.
If Willie Nelson is a sleeper agent of hard-edged realism within the often superficial establishment of country, Gram Parsons is the guerrilla revolutionary, taking pot shots at country through a culture of hippies, protesters, and hard-core weed aficionados. Parsons, who often wore cowboy shirts in which the traditional flowers and horses were replaced with marijuana leaves and naked women, first rose to fame as a member of the Byrds, but truly came into his own on Grievous Angel and GP. These albums are billed as solo discs, but the presence of Emmylou Harris on backing vocals makes a good case for considering them as essentially duet collections. Parsons was no simple hippie interloper, and you can hear the deep love he harbored for country on cuts like “Hearts on Fire” and “$1000 Wedding,” in which the voices of Parsons and Harris intertwine like song birds flying high above a precipice of darkness and decay.
Townes Van Zandt, the third Texan on our list, represents the dense musical landscape of his home state perhaps more completely than either Parsons or Nelson. On High, Low and In Between, Van Zandt reminds us that Texas is not just a country state, but also a state infused with deep legacies of blues, folk, gospel, and rock and roll. Van Zandt takes as his subject matter the tropes of country, including poker, Jesus, and the hardships of love, but in his able pen these tropes become heartbreakingly immediate. Take the song “To Live is to Fly,” in which Van Zandt entreats a lover to stay a while, drawling “You’re as soft as glass, and I’m a gentle man / and we’ve got the sky to talk about and the world to lie upon.” With these lines, Van Zandt conveys both the fragility of intimacy and the sweet succor of tender moments. The listener knows, and knows the singer knows, that these moments never last, but that in their ephemeral brilliance they become the stuff of life.
Prine, like Parsons, is an outsider. He writes songs against the Vietnam War, the criminalization of marijuana, and the media’s culture of fear, but he really shines when he takes on more personal material. His self-titled debut contains many songs that would become Prine classics, including the breathtaking ballads “Hello in There,” “Angel From Montgomery,” and “Donald and Lydia.” With the first, Prine writes from the perspective of an old man looking back on a his life and listing off all the ways he lost track of people he loved. It’s told in simple biographical style, with few emotional embellishments, but Prine, even early in his career, understood the power of delivery. The second is written as “An old woman named after (her mother)” and contains a similar mix of stark biography and deep-felt emotion, with the plaintive chorus ending with the line, “To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.” The third uses a third person narrative to tell the story of two loners who find brief moments of love with the aid of a transistor radio. Every song is great.
Uncle Tupelo was the first band from the 1990s alt. country revolution to make it big outside of the scene. Featuring songwriters Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy (later of Son Volt and Wilco), this was a band equal parts Johnny Cash and Johnny Rotten. Their music focuses on the economically and psychologically depressed communities of Southern Illinois, but the title of the album points to their major point of divergence with other country songwriters in dealing with these themes: Uncle Tupelo are pissed off. These songs about graveyard shifts, draft dodgers, and liquor, rock harder than anything you’ll find at your local bar and pack more emotional punch than the guys you find at the coffee shop. No Depression is the sound of a band who knew country in and out but wanted to rock you under the table.
No discussion of alt. country would be complete without considering the work of Alejandro Escovedo. Escovedo has written great songs for decades, and Real Animal is one of his best records. This is country music tinged with punk, glam, and disco, and every song works. Rarely in alt. country do sweeping strings, angular guitars, and lyrics about the Chelsea Hotel go together so well. Real Animal considers the music of the 1970s 30 years on, and Escovedo’s ambivalence about its legacy is palpable. He recognizes both that to be young in New York in 1977 was an incredible experience, but also that most of the people who formed the bands he lionized didn’t make it to old age. If you have a friend who loves Nick Cave and David Bowie and you want to get her into country, show her Real Animal.
I hesitate to put this album on the list, not because it isn’t country, but because it’s hard for me to believe someone still hasn’t heard it. Ryan Adams had already enjoyed some success with his earlier band Whiskeytown, but Heartbreaker was his true breakout. Adams very consciously channels Gram Parsons on this album, even bringing in Emmylou Harris to sing backing vocals on the gorgeous “Oh My Sweet Carolina.” Heartbreaker ranges from the four-on-the-floor rock of “To Be Young” to the torch balladry of “Come Pick Me Up” to the wistful melancholy of like every other song on the album. This is an album that earns its title.
Lucinda Williams had been recording great albums for years by the time alt. country came onto the scene, but was not recognized as the genius she is until 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. This album took a notoriously long time to make, and the hard work Williams put in on it shows off. Every sound and lyric on the album sounds carefully planned. Williams, like Zan Vandt, deeply appreciates the rich mosaic of influences active in every country song, and her appreciation of blues, rock and roll, and gospel goes much deeper than name-checking Robert Johnson and Loretta Lynn. Car Wheels on a Gravel Road took years of recording and a lifetime of living to create.
Given the stately grace of Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris, it’s easy to think that all women in country have to play pretty; Those Darlins do not agree. Similar to Uncle Tupelo, Those Darlins are as deeply indebted to The Sex Pistols and the Clash as they are to Hank Williams. They start their album not with whining fiddles, but with a chugging, surfy guitar lick, and it never looses momentum. When Those Darlins write about drinking, for example, they depart from the traditionally mournful nature of drinking songs and do what most young people do when the drink; they tell funny stories, in this case a story about getting drunk and eating an entire chicken. This is country for people who are not done making bad choices.
This album may be the least country on the list, but it is still deeply indebted to country styles. A particularly important influence on The Silver Jews is the carefully crafted poetry of songwriters like Townes Van Zandt and John Prine. When the first song, “Random Rules,” opens with the lyric “In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection,” the listener immediately knows she is not listening to her dad’s country. More likely, she is listening to her stoner cousin’s. Stephen Malkmus of Pavement was for a time, including the recording of American Water, a member of the Silver Jews, and his noodly guitar lines provide constantly refreshing counterpoint to David Berman’s morose and dense lyrics. Berman isn’t above countrified silly, however, and one of the most entertaining songs on the album is called “Honk if You’re Lonely.” Berman clearly is, but his ability to transform pain into melody and even joke mark him as a true heir to Willie Nelson and the best of the Outlaw Country tradition.