A couple of years ago, I asked Emmylou Harris her opinion of Steve Earle’s music and the state of country music in general. The Nashville-based singer-songwriter, known for shooting from the hip, didn’t mince words. “Steve is so understanding of all that great core tissue that is the real pulse of country music, and that is completely invisible in what is happening in country music right now, at least on that hugely successful scale,” she said, noting Earle’s talent for honoring tradition while challenging the Nashville status quo. “You know, that generic, bloodless stuff that is churned out? I’m completely mystified by it. We’ve now become musical producers of what is comparable to the Big Mac—you know what you’re going to get every time you open up the wrapper.”
She paused and then added with a chuckle, “Actually, it doesn’t even taste as good as a Big Mac.”
To anyone who has followed country music long enough, the “generic, bloodless stuff” can be chalked up to amnesia. This year marks the 30th anniversary of two of country music’s most influential debuts. Steve Earle’s singer-songwriter-oriented Guitar Town and Dwight Yoakam’s twangy, guitar-driven Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. launched the neotraditionalist country movement and helped save country music at a time when sales were slumping and top acts were scrambling to appeal to pop audiences. (Remember Eddie Rabbitt with his carefully coiffed hair, gold chains, and disco-era silk shirts?) The neotraditionalist movement sprouted in the mid-80s as a refreshing antidote to such other tepid pop-flavored country acts as Kenny Rogers, Juice Newton, Marie Osmond, and Ronnie Milsap, artists that dominated the country charts. They soon would be replaced by Earle, Yoakam, Lyle Lovett, K. D. Lang, and Randy Travis, to name a few.
It didn’t take long for city slickers to realize something new was brewing in Music City. “After half a decade of slumping sales and stifled creativity, country music has turned itself around,” The New York Times opined just a year after the 1986 release of Yoakam’s Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. and Earle’s Guitar Town. “Today, the nonupholstered, acoustically based sound of the so-called new traditionalists has captured the ears of a new young audience. . . . Record companies here in Nashville are frantically competing to sign young singers and songwriters who look back to the great honky-tonk tradition of the 1940s and 50s.”
But the neotraditionalists were a diverse bunch: the rock-influenced twang of Earle’s Guitar Town delivered a nod to the Outlaw Country of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser, as well as Merle Haggard. Lovett wrote gentle front-porch, country-folk ballads, often with tongue planted firmly in cheek; Lang turned heads with vocal gymnastics and rockabilly rave-ups; and Yoakam delved into the rich honky-tonk tradition of Bakersfield, California, the spiritual home of Buck Owens.
The neotraditionalists didn’t emerge from a vacuum. Nor has their influence faded—their cowboy boots helped kick down the door for Kacey Musgraves, Luke Bell, and a host of other roots-oriented Americana and contemporary country acts.
Here are 15 essential country albums—including many that have been remastered and some that are available on audiophile vinyl—that trace the roots of the movement and its contemporary impact.
Gram Parsons: Grievous Angel. Reprise. 1974. This former member of the Byrds helped transform that folk-rock band with the seminal 1968 country-rock classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo. He called his own fusion of folk, gospel, soul, country, and blues “cosmic American music.” He teams up with Emmylou Harris on all of these tracks, including the aching country ballad “Love Hurts.”
Emmylou Harris: Elite Hotel. Reprise. 1975. Harris was a well-established singer-songwriter when this collection of mostly covers debuted (there’s one original track, “Amarillo,” co-written with Rodney Crowell). Aside from a single foray into pop (the Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere”), she covers songs by the Flying Burrito Brothers (“Sin City,” “Wheels”) and Gram Parsons (“Ooh, Las Vegas”). Harris tears it up on Wayne Kemp’s “Feelin’ Single, Seein’ Double”—a song that lays the foundation for Kacey Musgraves.
Rodney Crowell: Ain’t Living Long Like This. Audium. 1977. Following his stint in Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band, Crowell blazed the neotrad trail with a lineup that included Ry Cooder, Dr. John, and Ricky Skaggs. This album of strong originals features the rockabilly-charged title track and simmering covers (the album opens with a dark, blues-soaked rendition of Dallas Frazier’s “Elvira,” which went on to become a huge hit for the Oak Ridge Boys).
Joe Ely: Honky Tonk Masquerade. MCA. 1977. Recorded in Tennessee but rooted in Texas, this landmark album captures one-third of the Flatlanders laying down tracks saturated with rock, swing, folk, and polka-beat norteño accordions, not to mention Lloyd Maines’ stellar pedal-steel work. Few took notice at the time, but this album (which also features fellow Flatlander Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s “Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown”) serves as a template for much of the great music to emerge from the Lone Star State a decade later.
George Strait: Strait Country. MCA. 1981. The spirit of Merle Haggard’s music infused this debut album, which was steeped in the 1950s honky-tonk tradition and bucked the country-pop trends. The album spawned the Top 10 hit “If You’re Thinking You Want a Stranger (There’s One Coming Home),” but Strait made few concessions to the pop side of the country charts. Case in point: the rollicking “Honky Tonk Downstairs.”