The 1980s are often seen as a dry decade in country music. But nothing could be further from the truth. In the days before No Fences kicked contemporary country into the mainstream marketplace, there were great albums being made. While the rest of pop music went glossy, country music looked to its roots with new traditionalism. Here are the best country albums of the '80s, in chronological order.
1. George Jones - 'I Am What I Am' (1980)
With this album, George Jones showed he could still put out top-notch country in the age of the synthesizer. After going years without a hit, Jones put together a great collection of songs to ring in the 1980s. It includes such classics as "He Stopped Loving Her Today," "If Drinkin' Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)," and "I've Aged Twenty Years in Five." It runs just over 28 minutes and doesn't waste a second.
2. George Strait - 'Strait County' (1981)
This was George Strait's debut and signaled a prodigious talent that would be around for decades to come. The title says it all: This was straightforward, sincere country music that helped launch the new traditionalist movement. The backing was pure Texas honky-tonk but it was Strait's sincere vocals that told the story. The breezy "Blame it On Mexico" is a great south-of-the-border song and "Every Time You Throw Dirt on Her (You Lose a Little Ground)" is another solid track.
3. Ricky Skaggs - 'Highways and Heartaches' (1982)
Ricky Skaggs's second album showed that bluegrass-inspired music couldn't just survive in the pop landscape, it could thrive. Highways and Heartaches went platinum several times over and yielded the number one hits "Heartbroke" (written by Guy Clark), "I Wouldn't Change You if I Could," and "Highway 40 Blues." All the album's songs are keepers that manage to sound both traditional and up-to-date.
4. Reba McEntire - 'My Kind of Country' (1984)
While some of her earlier albums were obnoxiously over-produced, My Kind of Country extracted the homespun essence of Reba McEntire. The singer selected such classic tunes as "Don't You Believe Her" and "He's Only Everything" as well as the great new songs "How Blue" and "Somebody Should Leave," penned by Harlan Howard. It's no wonder that My Kind of Country became Reba's first album to go platinum.
Steve Earle's Guitar Town helped launch the alt-country movement. The title song is a blistering jolt of energy that opens the debut album. Later tracks like "Think It Over," which nods toward rockabilly, don't let up. In Earle's later work he strayed further away from the traditional country fold, but this one has an old-new feel that's still bracing.
With a smooth singing voice that was reminiscent of George Jones, Randy Travis was a central figure in New Traditionalism. This was his debut, and it surprised many in the music biz by going triple platinum. One of the best songs is "On the Other Hand," about a man trying to stay faithful in the face of temptation. More heartbreak is in store for listeners with the deceptively upbeat "1982" and "Digging Up Bones" -- both about dredging up the past.
Dwight Yoakam proved you didn't have to follow the rules of Nashville to be a success on the charts. Based in Los Angeles, Yoakam released his debut Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc in 1986 and had a hit with Johnny Horton 's "Honky Tonk Man." The album resurrected the Bakersfield sound with an added edge -- and, of course, Yoakam's high-whining voice. Old standards like "Heartaches by the Number" and "Ring of Fire" stand well beside new songs such as "It Won't Hurt" and "Bury Me."
8. The Judds - 'Greatest Hits' (1988)
The Judds were inescapable in the 1980s, and not just for their big hair, odd family dynamics, and the inability to tell mother from daughter. The duo mixed traditional country sounds with Nashville pop. Although some may argue the merits of either of their first two records, Wynonna & Naomi and Why Not Me, you can't do much better than this compilation which came out in 1988. It has all the hits, including the timeless "Grandpa Tell Me Bout the Good Ol Days" and "John Deere Tractor."
9. Keith Whitley - 'I Wonder Do You Think of Me' (1989)
This was Keith Whitley's final album. He died of alcohol poisoning shortly before its release. His passing gave boozing tales such as "Brother Jukebox" and "I'm Over You" a grave resonance. Whitley was one of the most talented singers of the 1980s, and this is among his best albums, alongside 1988's Don't Close Your Eyes. Top cuts include the brokenhearted "I Wonder Do You Think of Me" and the more upbeat "Talk to Me Texas."
Country music was put back on the commercial map with Clint Black's decade-closing debut. The hit record was a platinum-selling sensation that paved the way for megastars like Garth Brooks. Killin' Time had a polished sound that retained enough roadhouse sawdust to appeal to honky-tonk purists. "A Better Man" and the title track are standouts.