Country Recordings to Hear Before You Die

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Old No. 1

Guy Clark

When Guy Clark’s debut rolled out in 1975, it looked like the start of a promising career. One original song, “L.A. Freeway,” had already been a big hit for Jerry Jeff Walker. The personnel included a cluster of fast-rising performers, among them Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, both of whom considered Clark’s wry storytelling to be part of the Nashville future.

Despite critical raves, Old No. 1 didn’t connect with a sizable audience—the liner notes to a reissued edition speculate that Clark didn’t receive the blessing of country radio airplay because “his voice was too rough and gravelly to appease the commercially minded radio stations.”

That weathered voice is, of course, integral to Clark’s sharply observed vignettes, which follow the not necessarily noble exploits of wandering souls. The singer and songwriter grew up in the small West Texas town of Monahans, and was raised by his grandmother, who operated a hotel. Clark said later that several of these songs were inspired by characters who passed through—most likely the wildcat oilman of “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” and the good-time gal “Rita Ballou.” Unlike many of the facile one-hit-plus-filler albums Music City was cranking out at the time, Old No. 1 is genius from beginning to end, with each sketch offering sharply observed, short-story glimpses into human nature.

GENRE: Country.
KEY TRACKS: “Rita Ballou,” “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” “Like a Coat from the Cold,” “Desperados Waiting for a Train.”

Mama Tried

Merle Haggard

Country singers love their mamas. Country singers also love whiskey, and when they love whiskey too much, they get into trouble. When they get into trouble, they let mama down. This makes them feel worse, so they find their way back to whiskey.

Such is the cycle of life Merle Haggard sketches on his inspired Mama Tried. Not all the songs talk about running afoul of what mama taught was right—“In the Good Old Days” fondly remembers a hardscrabble youth spent walking miles to school carrying lunch in the bib of his overalls, and “Run ’Em Off” is the directive of a man worried about his wife being too friendly with the milkman.

But many of the originals are set in prison cells, with the young Haggard, who’d only been recording for four years when he made this, looking back. In the straightforward, affectation-free singing style that remains his trademark, he recalls nights of drinking that went sour and the horrible deeds that ensued, lamenting how, as his mama well knew, “I Could Have Gone Right.” Even before the cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” (see p. 151), Haggard has laid out a detailed profile of the roughneck rogue—who only now, with the benefit of hindsight, has regret about what he’s done.

The songs of Mama Tried are drawn, at least partly, from experience. Haggard’s family fled the dust bowl of Oklahoma in the 1930s and settled in Bakersfield, California. His father died when he was nine; the trauma propelled young Merle to a life of petty crime that landed him in prison several times. He returned to Bakersfield (from San Quentin) in 1960, and began performing—aligning himself with the assertive, honkytonk sound then blossoming in the region. This and other recordings for Capitol—including the hit “Okie from Muskogee”—established Haggard as an articulate and passionate torch carrier for traditional country and its working-folks values.

GENRE: Country.
RELEASED: 1968, Capitol. (Reissued 2006.)
KEY TRACKS: “Mama Tried,” “In the Good Old Days,” “Teach Me to Forget.”

Coat of Many Colors

Dolly Parton

With “Coat of Many Colors,” an autobiographical recollection of her hardscrabble girlhood, Dolly Parton made a huge leap. She’d been well known for years, as the duet partner of hit-maker Porter Wagoner. But this song—and really the entire album—cast her in a different light: It revealed the bubbly entertainer as a sharp-eyed country auteur, a gifted storyteller who, without dropping a beat, could set a vivid scene, quote relevant Scripture, and gossip a little bit, too.

Parton was the fourth of twelve children born in a one-room cabin in the east Tennessee foothills. When she was young, her mother sewed her a coat made from hand-me-down rags. She wore it to school, and as she recalls in the song, the kids made fun of her. Yet she never stopped being proud of her mother’s resourcefulness: “I know we had no money, but I was as rich as I could be/In my coat of many colors my mama made for me.”

The song became Parton’s signature. It reached the Top 10 on the country charts in 1971, and it paved the way for a series of pure country albums that are all worth hearing, especially when compared with the high-gloss country-pop crossover Parton pursued later in the ’70s. The stylistic range is itself impressive: “Traveling Man,” a steamy account of a young girl’s flirtations with an older man, chugs along like a ripping Texasroadhouse rocker, while “She Never Met a Man (She Didn’t Like)” is a weepy hymnlike ballad. Parton wrote seven of the songs (Wagoner the other three), and though subsequent records yielded bigger hits (Jolene, from 1974), none quite match the poignant stories and fervent feeling Parton put into Coat.”

GENRE: Country.
KEY TRACKS: “Coat of Many Colors,” “Traveling Man.”

Sweet Old World

Lucinda Williams

Texas-based singer and songwriter Lucinda Williams spent eight years writing her self-titled third album—a relationship chronicle that yielded hits for Mary Chapin Carpenter (“Passionate Kisses”) and others, and contained one of the all-time great expressions of love’s bitterness, “Changed the Locks.” Having gone so deeply into that realm, it was probably inevitable that Williams would seek something different for the follow-up, Sweet Old World, which arrived four years later.

And what a difference: These eleven originals (and a version of Nick Drake’s “Which Will”) amount to an extended meditation on death, from someone who has obviously grieved a few times. When Williams sings, “See what you lost when you left this world” on the title track, her subsequent list of the little things worth celebrating is delivered in cracked and aching tones, like she’s trying to remind herself, not the departed, about what pleasure means. Williams’s voice is well suited to this emotional place: She can sound wracked and vulnerable even when she’s belting out an up-tempo blues.

Telling stories about unexpected suicides, breakups, and lesser tragedies, Williams manages to convey loss without wallowing in despair. There’s anger bubbling inside these songs, and resentment, and also that fragile minute-to-minute hope shared by survivors. The themes are mostly dour, sure, but because Williams’s eye is so sharp and her voice so believable, Sweet Old World is the good kind of downer.

GENRE: Country.
RELEASED: 1992, Chameleon.
KEY TRACKS: “Six Blocks Away,” “Pineola,” “Sweet Old World.”