Sure, streaming music is convenient, but there’s just something about dropping the needle on your favorite country album on vinyl. There’s no mindless skipping through songs; vinyl records invite you to really listen and maybe even discover something new about your favorite albums.
As part of our month-long celebration of vinyl records and record stores, the Wide Open Country staff rounded up some of our favorite country albums to listen to on vinyl.
And if you’re looking to add some more vinyl to your collection, don’t forget to visit your favorite local record store on Record Store Day on Saturday, April 23.
Bobbie Jean’s picks:
Bobbie Gentry — Ode to Billie Joe
Simply put, Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 debut Ode to Billie Joe is a vibe. Beyond the Southern Gothic storytelling of the timeless title track, the album is a stellar showcase for the Delta queen’s smooth as silk voice and worldbuilding. The album kicks off with “Mississippi Delta,” a swampy ode to Gentry’s raising, then takes us through a day in the life with “Chickasaw County Child” and “Bugs.” The slinky “Niki Hoeky” is another of the album’s standouts. If you’re looking for a record to get lost in on a slow as molasses summer evening, look no further than this gem from Gentry.
(If you’re looking to expand your Bobbie Gentry library: The Delta Sweete, Fancy and Patchwork are not to be missed.)
Linda Ronstadt — Prisoner of Disguise
As I’m in the process of collecting every Linda Ronstadt album, it’s difficult to pick just one from the Queen of L.A. But for now, I’ll go with 1975’s Prisoner of Disguise, which kicks off with Ronstadt’s stellar recording of the Neil Young-penned “Love is a Rose” and is a perfect reminder of Ronstadt’s skill as one of the best interpreters of songs of the last century. There’s her swaggering rendition of Little Feat’s “Roll Um Easy,” steel-laden “Hey Mister, That’s Me Up on the Jukebox” (James Taylor) and West Coast country ballad “Prisoner of Disguise” (written by J.D. Souther). Another gem? Ronstadt’s cover of her friend and frequent collaborator Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.”
Emmylou Harris — Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town
Emmylou Harris’ Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town is a must-buy for any country fan. No matter how many times I listen to the Carlene Carter and Susanna Clark composition “Easy From Now On,” I still get hung up on this perfect line (and Harris’ perfect delivery of it): It’s gonna be easy to fill the heart of a thirsty woman/ Harder to kill the ghost of a no good man.
The all-killer-no-filler tracks just keep comin’: Emmylou’s bluesy rocker “Two More Bottles of Wine” (penned by Delbert McClinton), the heartwrenching “To Daddy” (written by Dolly Parton) and standouts written by her Hot Band collaborator Rodney Crowell: “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight” and “I Ain’t Living Long Like This.”
Another note for collectors: the album’s cover is a painting by artist and songwriter extraordinaire Susanna Clark, who also created the cover for her husband Guy Clark’s Old No. 1, Willie Nelson’s Stardust and Nanci Griffith’s The Dust Bowl Symphony.
The Chicks — Fly
The Chicks were my very first country music concert so, for me, there’s always been something special about this album. In my opinion, the Fly album is The Chicks at their finest and listening to it on vinyl not only showcases Natalie Maines’ iconic voice perfectly but really enhances the twang of Martie Maguire’s fiddle. Classic songs like “Ready to Run,” “Cowboy Take Me Away,” and “Goodbye Earl” are the epitome of why people continue to love 90s country music and are prime examples of some of the incredible storytelling The Chicks are capable of.
Kacey Musgraves — Pageant Material
As much as I love her newer albums, Kacey Musgraves’ second album is what turned me into a fan for life. She co-wrote nearly all of the songs on the album which range from catchy hits like “Biscuits” and “Dime Store Cowgirl” to a memorable duet with Willie Nelson, “Are You Sure.” It was nominated for Album of the Year at the CMAs and the Grammys and for a good reason. It makes for such easy listening with Musgraves’ breezy vocals and creative storytelling and it offers a bit more country twang than her two subsequent albums. It’s one of the albums I reach for the most whether it’s as background for late-night cocktails or Saturday morning coffee…it really works for anything.
Willie Nelson — Stardust
It seems Willie Nelson has released about a million albums over his lengthy and legendary career, but one of my favorites is Stardust. In the late ’70s, the studio thought the country star was crazy for wanting to record an album of some of his favorite hits with his signature country sound. Did we really need a country version of “Unchained Melody” or “Georgia On My Mind?” I’m here to tell you that we definitely did. Nelson sings all of these classics like they’re his own and recorded them in a living room…it makes the album feel like you’re sitting down being serenaded by a friend. It’s a perfect listen for fans of old standards as well as classic country because it lives somewhere in the middle — in the best way.
Linda Hargrove — Love, You’re the Teacher
A rewarding record-shopping strategy favors purchasing relatively cheap, often obscure releases not readily available digitally over spending big bucks for the latest repressing of one of the usual suspects’ most ballyhooed albums. For example, scoring a gently-used copy of Love, You’re the Teacher, a start-to-finish masterclass in country storytelling by “Tennessee Whiskey” co-writer Linda Hargrove, will expand your vinyl horizons for no more than half the price of most freshly-pressed titles.
John Hartford — Aereo-Plain
Country music has always been a singles-driven business, meaning that specific songs define current and classic stars more so than cohesive albums, which dominate other genres’ lore. For instance, Conway Twitty fans have favorite Twitty songs while Pink Floyd fans have favorite Pink Floyd albums. Still, if you look beyond hitmakers and incorporate folk and bluegrass-inspired outsiders like John Hartford into your country rotation, you’ll find such multi-song musical statements as this 1971 cross between hippie free-spiritedness and bluegrass precision.
Buck Owens and His Buckaroos — I Don’t Care
Few artists’ prime years led to as much great music as Buck Owens’ run with the Buckaroos on Capitol Records. The Bakersfield legend and his backing band cranked out 12 straight Top 5 country albums in just under five years (Nov. 1963 to July 1968) while relying less on album filler than the average Nashville star. For an entry point to prime Owens, consider 1964’s I Don’t Care for not just its classic title track but also the Owens and Rose Maddox duet “Loose Talk” and interpretations of contemporary hits by Roger Miller (“Dang Me”) and Johnny Cash (“Understand Your Man”).
Mel Tillis — I Believe in You
If you’ve spent any time browsing through discount bins, you might’ve noticed that Mel Tillis releases can seem about as devalued and common as LPs by Barbra Streisand, Andy Williams and other artists that aren’t exactly sought after by collectors. Price tags and quantity don’t always equate quality at record stores, as evidenced by Tillis’ 1978 album I Believe in You. If you need more incentive to skim the dollar section, it’s one of several fantastic Tillis albums from the 1970s that’s currently unavailable on Spotify.
Porter Wagoner — The Bottom of the Bottle
Two of the many appeals of classic country vinyl from the 1960s and ’70s –ridiculous in the best way cover art and stellar versions of era-defining tunes– up the collectability factor of all things Porter Wagoner. For an entry point, consider The Bottom of the Bottle. Beyond looking delightfully campy, it’s a stacked collection of drinking songs, highlighted by Bill Howard’s “She Burnt the Little Roadside Tavern Down” and Merle Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down.”
As a related aside, you already know to grab anything by Dolly Parton that’s fairly priced. Albums by Norma Jean, one of Parton’s predecessors on Wagoner’s television and road shows, tend to sell for cheap and never disappoint.
Fleetwood Mac — Rumors
Released in February of 1977, Rumors is the 11th studio album by Fleetwood Mac. The album revolves around break-ups among the band members, which is what attracted a lot of the audience due to its raw and emotional lyrics. Rumors became the band’s first No. 1 album on the UK albums charts and topped the U.S. Billboard 200. “Dreams,” “You Make Loving Fun,” “Go Your Own Way” and “Don’t Stop” were all released as singles and reached the U.S. Top 10, with “Dreams” reaching No. 1. The album was an instant success, selling over 10 million copies worldwide within a month of its release. It won a Grammy Award in 1977 for Album of the Year, has received Diamond certification in several countries, and has been certified 20x platinum in the United States. Plus, who doesn’t love some good Stevie Nicks on a Saturday morning while drinking some coffee and enjoying the nice weather?
Kacey Musgraves — Golden Hour
Kacey Musgraves released her 4 studio album, Golden Hour, on March 30, 2018. It quickly became one of her best works, due to its experimental country-pop feel and bold lyrics. The album debuted at No. 1 four on the U.S. Billboard 200 and received critical acclaim. The album was nominated for several Grammy Awards, winning Album of the Year, Best Country Album, Best Country Solo Performance for “Butterflies” and Best Country Song for “Space Cowboy.” The album is so good that it even ranks at No. 270 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Plus, belting out “Slow Burn” will always be a top-notch moment.
Neil Young — After The Gold Rush
After The Gold Rush is Neil Young’s third studio album. Released in September of 1970, the album consists of beautiful country-folk music. The album peaked at number eight on the Billboard Top Pop Album chart, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2014. The album was certified double platinum in the UK and the US, making it one of Young’s brilliant creations. There is just something about listening to “Only Love Break Your Heart” on vinyl. Young’s voice touches your soul.
Johnny Cash — At Folsom Prison
By FAR one of my favorite albums to listen to on vinyl, or honestly in any form, is Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison. There is something about live music that makes me want to dance around the house. Plus, it helps that Cash’s voice is so soothing and low. This was Cash’s first live album released on May 6, 1968. He performed two shows at Folsom State Prison in California on January 13, 1968, backed by Carl Perkins, Tennessee Three and June Carter. The album has 15 songs from the first show and 2 from the second show. Cash knew what he was doing; the album hit No. 1 on the country charts and top 15 on the national album charts. It was certified triple platinum in 2013, exceeding $3 million sales in the United States.
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