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11 Essential Country Albums

If you're feeling curious about exploring country music further than Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, these are some quality album that will definitely do you no wrong. If Country isn't your thing, take a moment to try to appreciate what's going on with the music before you dismiss it out of hand.
1George Jones
I Am What I Am

This is the most pure, unadulterated example of everything this genre is supposed to be. If you only ever listen to one Country album after Cash and Hank Williams, make it this one. Read the review for this if you want more info.
2 Buck Owens
I've Got A Tiger By The Tail

This album put the Bakersfield Sound on the map. Buck Owens was one of the first Country artists to incorporate the electric guitar into his sound, and when played along with his upbeat, jaunty brand of western Country music, he created something unique. The tracks just blaze by on this one, fast little honky tonk numbers that will have your toe tapping along within an instant. The title track is undoubtedly the best choice on the album, but there?s a great cover of Chuck Berry?s ?Memphis? and while nobody can match the great Marty Robbins, ?Streets of Laredo? is excellently done. This is the very root and core of ?50s honky tonk, and while it might sound dated to some ears, it is essential for really getting to know the genre.
3Dwight Yoakam
Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.

Dwight Yoakam took the Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens, added some rock n roll and Rockabilly and made it into a streamlined, modernized and driving form of country music that sounds just as fresh as it did in ?86. Dwight?s brand of Country is stomping, rockin? good time music that, once you get past the pronounced twang of Dwight?s voice is nearly impossible not to like. This album isn?t quite his best, that award going to either ?Buenos Noches? or ?This Time? but it?s a perfect introduction to his signature style, with the title track being an especially enjoyable number, along with a rocking cover of ?Ring Of Fire?.
4George Strait
Strait From The Heart

George Strait has a way of making his songs sound so smooth and effortless that they just glide right by without you noticing them. You almost don?t notice the legitimate Pop brilliance of his songwriting, just because he doesn?t need to make big, bold statements with his music. His songs have always been assured, confident, no reliance on gimmicks or giant hooks, but they have a way of working their way into you until you know them all by heart. George Strait isn?t a groundbreaker or a rebel, but he?s written some of the absolute most quality music in the genre without sounding like he was even trying to. Strait From The Heart is his first truly excellent album, and a string of quality output would follow throughout the 80s.
5Guy Clark
Old No. 1

Most of the albums on this list are great for listening too while hanging out with friends, getting quietly blitzed while bullshitting about life, philosophy, etc. This isn?t one of those albums. It?s just too god damn sad, really. Guy Clark has this really wistful, world weary tone to his voice that doesn?t really lend itself to anything but solitude and quiet contemplation and the songs fit his vocals perfectly. Guy?s lyrics are more poetic in nature than most Country singers, more literary in their approach. Sometimes it?s too his detriment as some of the similes seem slightly out of place, and the music sometimes toes the line between profoundly heartfelt and cheesy but Guy sings with enough conviction, whiskey and dust to make the album near perfect. ?LA Freeway? is the undoubted top pick here, with a chorus that you?ll be singing for weeks and possessing just the right amount of grit tempered with melancholy.
6Jerry Jeff Walker
Viva Terlingua

Regardless of genre, this is one of the greatest live albums of all time. On the first listen, you might not even catch that it even is a live album up until ?Up Against The Wall?. There?s very little audience noise for most of the album, giving excellent clarity to the band, who are just playing their hearts out on this one. The energy of the band on some of these tracks has to be heard to be believed. And when the audience does start making noise on ?Up Against the Wall?, whooping, yelling and singing along to the chorus it?s a god damn treat to listen to. Other highlights are ?Little Bird? and the classic ?Sangria Wine?, a song with one of the best shout-along, pound the bar choruses in country music.
7Steve Earle
The Mountain

I tried to stay away from alt-country artists on this list, but Steve is just too much of a badass to be ignored. The hallmark of great country singers, it seems, is how well they can grapple their demons and put them on record and Steve does it like few others can. That seems to be what most of the modern pop-country artists don?t seem to get. Steve?s never been a stranger to dabbling in other genres while remaining true to his roots, and that holds especially true here. On The Mountain he throws himself completely into bluegrass and in doing so he makes the finest album in a career of quality music. Features from Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch are just perfect in their placement (Emmylou especially is one of the great harmonizers of all time), the instrumentation is flawless and Steve himself sounds as rough and inspired as ever.
8Merle Haggard
Mama Tried

Gritty, honest, blue collar country very nearly on the level of the best of Cash?s output. The title track is one of the greatest honky-tonk songs ever recorded and everything after is very nearly as good, especially the classic ?Little Old Wine Drinker Me?. On this album Merle does a couple songs that Cash made famous and easily matches or surpasses their better know counterparts. Merle?s always had one of the best singing voices in the genre, and it?s definitely at its best here
9David Allan Coe
Longhaired Redneck

The outlaw, the crassest man in Country, and one of its biggest badasses. And on this album he gives us Coe at his most human and heartfelt. The guy known for penning songs about Linda Lovelace gagging on his junk could also write a damn emotional tribute to his father, as well as songs about family, the harm of revenge and just living life as a free man. On this album Coe features a pretty heavy Gospel music influence. Don?t interpret that as saying that this is a remotely Gospel album, this is still Outlaw Country through and through. A listen to the title track will tell you that much, with Coe singing about beating up hippies and generally living rowdy. And as if to counterpoint the rowdiness of the first track, on Spotlight he dials it back and gives us the dark underbelly of his mindset with lines like, ?Spend my nighttimes in mournin'/I spend my mornings alone/You spent your money to see me tonight/Yea, I spent all mine getting stoned/Everyone?s lyin? about livin?/ I?m tired of livin? a lie?.
10Steve Young
Rock Salt And Nails

Steve Young?s voice brings to mind a coyote howling out it?s loneliness in the desert. This isn?t the most essential album on this list, but it?s got a unique quality to it that I found hard to define. This album almost sounds like the desert, not in the way that Kyuss does, obviously, but instead grasping the loneliness and emptiness and the vast stretches of sand. There are some brilliant, subtle touches on this album, such as the strings on ?Seven Bridges Road ? and the sheer bleakness of the title track. This is a cold, lonely sounding album, another one I don?t usually break out when with friends.
11Marty Robbins
Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs

I first heard this when I was 5 years old, a worn out cassette that my dad played for me on the way to grandma?s house. I was immediately enthralled with the tales of desperadoes, gunfights, cowboys generally doing cowboy things and it became something I listened to constantly throughout the next year or so, rewinding and flipping the tape over and over again. Soon after my dad?s death I went out and bought this album again (the tape had worn out years before). Relistening to that album with the appreciation of music I?d gained since my pre-adolescent years and with the impact of my dad?s life and influence was one of the most emotional musical experiences of my life. Up until that moment I hadn?t given two flying fucks about country music. This album is so much more than a nostalgia trip however. Marty Robbins is incomparable as a story teller and his singing ability is second to only a few. The songs are among the catchiest I?ve ever heard and the instrumentation is dynamic and full-hearted. The cowboy themes can get a little cheesy at times but it?s easily forgiven with songwriting of this quality.
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