Country Music Roundup: Essential Country Vinyl Records

Country Music Roundup: Essential Country Vinyl Records

With nearly 100 years of history, country music has come a long way since the 1927 Bristol Sessions that birthed the genre. In its early days, country music was inspired by folk tunes and bluegrass music, but gradually began to incorporate elements of blues and other musical traditions. As the genre became more and more popular, subgenres began developing, from its fusion with Western culture, through the Outlaw days, all the way to the twangy pop music that dominates radio airwaves today. With the Country Music Awards set for November 8th, we thought we'd use that as an excuse to explore some of our favorite country vinyl records. 

At Folsom Prison (1968) — Johnny Cash

Let's begin with the Man in Black. There are few more recognizable names in country music than Johnny Cash, whose stoicism, deep baritone voice, and style made him an icon of the genre. Cash began his career as a gospel singer, but began writing more personal songs, with themes surrounding relationships, the trials of the working class, and mournful ballads. At Folsom Prison finds Cash performing for the inmates of Folsom Prison, the namesake for one of his early hits. Cash performed for prisoners frequently, adding to his Outlaw Country bona fides. 

Golden Hour (2018) — Kacey Musgraves

With Golden Hour, we pivot to one of country music's greatest modern songwriters. Musgraves approaches her music with incredible confidence, unafraid to blend in elements of '70s soft rock and even disco. Golden Hour is a ton of fun, featuring sing-along worthy tracks fit for an awesome road trip, but Musgraves saves the best for last. "Rainbow," the record's closing track, is a showstopper, a delicate ballad that showcases Musgraves' vocal talent. 

Red Headed Stranger (1975) — Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson began his storied career singing traditional country tunes throughout the 1950s and '60s, but pivoted to Outlaw Country with 1973's Shotgun Willie. He built on that success with Red Headed Stranger, a concept album about an outlaw on the run. Nelson weaves folk tales throughout the album to tell its story and the sparse production style, featuring just Willie and a small band, adds to its authenticity. Willie Nelson is perhaps country music's greatest living ambassador, drawing sellout crowds even at the age of 90. 

 

Fly (1999) — The Chicks

The Chicks burst onto the scene in the '90s with a unique take on the genre. They emerged before the large-scale pop-ification of the genre in the mid aughts, but delivered a combination of bluegrass, country, and pop that just worked. Fly is an unabashedly feminist album, featuring themes of women's empowerment and misbehaving men getting, well, let's just say, what they deserve. "Goodbye Earl" is a darkly humorous ballad that has stood up as a modern country staple. 

Traveller (2015) — Chris Stapleton

As country music became more and more influenced by pop, Chris Stapleton took it back to its roots with Traveller. Stapleton is an adept storyteller, capturing the spirit of the heartland with a throwback vibe. His voice, however, is his defining trait. At his core, Stapleton is a soul singer, mixing in bluesy stylings that tug at your heartstrings with each sustained note. His cover of "Tennessee Whiskey" dominated the charts and remains one of his signature songs. 

Jolene (1974) — Dolly Parton

Ask virtually any country singer for a list of their biggest influences and there's almost sure to be mention of Dolly Parton. Parton achieved recognition at an early age as a unique songwriting talent and was already a star by the time she released Jolene. The title track has become iconic, and Dolly embarked on a legendary career that saw her become an international superstar, complete with lookalike contests and her own theme park. 

Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962) — Ray Charles

By the time the early 1960s rolled around, Ray Charles was one of the biggest musicians in the world. His virtuoso pianism and soulful voice made him almost universally popular, even as he battled with racism and segregation. Charles decided to take on country music at a time when racial tensions in the United States were reaching a boiling point. The result was one of his greatest efforts, though Charles faced expectant racist backlash for experimenting in a genre that was largely perceived as "white" music. Modern Sounds was a tremendous hit, a fusion of R&B and country that helped to bring the genre into mainstream Americans' home. 

Fearless (Taylor's Version), (2021) — Taylor Swift

When Taylor Swift began her effort to re-record material after her masters dispute, Fearless was the natural starting point. Though she is now more well known in the realm of folk-pop, Taylor began her career as a country singer. Fearless contains some of her most well-known material, from "Love Story" to "You Belong With Me." The re-recorded version features the same arrangements, but listeners will detect the difference in Taylor's voice, a certain level of maturity and experience now present. 

John Prine (1971) — John Prine

Until his death in 2020, nobody embodied the Americana subgenre of country music better than John Prine. Prine approached country music with the sensibility of a folk artist, able to spin a yarn using humor, metaphor, and wordplay better than anyone in the business. His storytelling ability was second to none, with a particular standout being "Angel from Montgomery," an oft-covered track that has become one of his most recognizable. 

Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (2014) — Sturgill Simpson

If a musical genre boasts a nearly century-long history, odds are that most things have already been done. Sturgill Simpson evidently took that as a challenge. The singer-songwriter released Metamodern Sounds in Country Music in 2014, a record that saw him approach topics such as world religions and metaphysics with Outlaw Country sensibilities. Simpson tapped into psychedelia and noise art during the record's production, but deftly managed to toe a line of tradition and experimentation that has made him one of the genre's most exciting artists.