While the founders of country music made their cultural impact on singles, later generations of artists used the full-length album as their medium. Their records broke open new ground and paved the way for future musicians. Here's the country music that made all the rest possible.
Nelson's gritty album proved that you didn't need the studio polish of Nashville to reach listeners. While music execs were doubtful of the commercial prospects for the bleak record, the singer proved them all wrong. Refusing to re-record the album in a more pop-friendly guise, and without a clear-cut single, Red Headed Stranger became a crossover sensation. The unconventional album went platinum. "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" and "Time of the Preacher" remain spare but powerful classics.
Breaking musical and racial barriers with his album of country covers, Ray Charles infused honky-tonk standards with show-stopping soul. What might have been a mere novelty album became one of the strongest records of the Charles' career. It also pushed the boundaries on how far country could go while still retaining its distinctive character. "You Don't Know Me," "I Can't Stop Loving You," and "You Win Again" remain some of the singer's most enduring tunes.
The Dixie Chicks' fourth album blended bluegrass and contemporary country into a seamless mix, engaging both mainstream listeners and traditionalists with its rootsy pop sound. Wide Open Spaces was also The Dixie Chicks' commercial breakthrough. The eclectic record rocketed up the charts on the strength of "I Can Love You Better," "There's Your Trouble," and the irrepressible title track. The group helped open the door for commercial artists to incorporate more bluegrass stylings into their sound. Meanwhile, the trio's success at playing their own instruments showed that female country artists could be more just than singers.
Some claim Sweetheart of the Rodeo invented country rock. If it didn't, it should have. It remains the signature example of the hybrid form and the perfect meshing of contradictory styles. Made with Gram Parson -- who later launched The Flying Burrito Brothers -- the album's hippie-meets-cowboy ethos seems completely natural. The Byrds take an old gospel number such as "The Christian Life" and make it, well, sexy. Meanwhile "You Don't Miss Your Water" transforms the William Bell R&B standard into a mournful country weeper.
Kris Kristofferson's poetic lyrics influenced a generation of singer-songwriters. Hewing to tradition but avoiding cliché, "Me and Bobby McGee" and "Sunday Morning Coming Down" are indisputable classics with finely honed lyrics and gravelly vocals. After the album's release, Kristofferson soon found himself christened "the Bob Dylan of country music." Proof of his songs' power came when Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Gordon Lightfoot covered some of the album's tracks.
Parton stepped out from the shadow cast by mentor Porter Waggoner with this superb effort that comes straight from the heart. It securely staked Parton's claim to being not only one of country's finest singers -- but also one of the genre's finest songwriters. Penning the majority of the album's songs, Parton showed she didn't need a man to stand beside to be a potent creative force. The moving autobiography of "Coat of Many Colors" (her first solo hit), and the wistful "My Blue Tears" continue to stir listeners.
One of the opening salvos in the Outlaw Country movement, Honkytonk Heroes by Waylon Jennings isn't just an influential album -- it's one of the greatest country albums ever made. A slap in the face to the Nashville establishment, this furious long-player blazed with songs that had the raw energy of early rock, fused with the storytelling talents of songwriter Billy Joe Shaver (who wrote all but one track). With Jennings's baritone voice and pulsing arrangements, Honky Tonk Heroes opened the floodgates for a more dangerous kind of country singer.
Loretta Lynn wasn't afraid to talk about sex or tell her man what's what. Lynn's self-reliant spirit is at its most fearsome in this accomplished record that includes many of her best songs: "Tommorow Never Comes," "There Goes My Everything," and the classic title track. It's not likely the battle between the sexes will end anytime soon. But as long as we have Lynn as a commentator, everything will be just fine.
Killin' Time provided the blueprint for mainstream country as it emerged in the 1990s. The album took FM radio by storm and showed that country music was still a vital force in mainstream music. Clint Black's album was also the rare debut that shot to the top of the charts. The songwriting was pure old-school but the upbeat arrangements had plenty of appeal to the pop listener. And while Garth Brooks' No Fences -- the Thriller of country music -- sold millions more copies the next year, Brooks couldn't have done it without Black paving the way.
Released the year before Woodstock, At Folsom Prison allowed some rebel spirit back into the country corral. Sure, Cash didn't light any guitars on fire (he does smash a water glass). But the live album's blistering guitars and defiant spirit pretty much sum up its influence. Recorded as part of a series of jailhouse tours, Cash showed a social engagement rare among commercial country acts. The Man in Black's performances, meanwhile had a direct impact on at least one inmate: a young Merle Haggard. Incarcerated at San Quentin, Merle Haggard said the jailhouse concert inspired him to pursue a career in country music.