Here is a list of five albums most influential to a listener's comprehension of modern country music's stylistic developments. Check it out, and feel free to join the discussion by adding your own favorites to the comments section.
5. Smokey and the Bandit Soundtrack (1977)
You've already heard Jerry Reed's 'Eastbound and Down' in a variety of recent ads and television programs, but you may not be overly familiar with country music's Shaft. Smokey and the Bandit places the musical style firmly in the mainstream, impressing audiences with true musical flair and inspiration. Main performer Jerry Reed had spent decades under the tutelage of legendary guitarist and country-jazz pioneer Chet Atkins, and the album's jazz connections are evident on such foot-stomping mood setters as 'And the Fight Played On!', 'Ma Cousin Plays Steel,' and 'March of the Rednecks.'
The film's absurdist humor is well represented, as the one-off charisma of cover tune 'Orange Blossom Special' steamrolls. Bits of country humor, Southern dialect, and light comedy allow listeners to relish in a truly unique experience. The production is laced with high-quality jamming, instead of the intensive song doctoring that results from the usual constraints of Hollywood film music production, and such performance-oriented material remains challenging to replicate yet easy to consume. As a result, the album's mass appeal is somewhat wider than what is present on the majority of country albums recorded during any era.
4. Charley Pride - Essential Charley Pride (1997)
Today, listeners are largely unfamiliar with the work of Charley Pride, but the singer heard on this quite extensive best-of compilation owes his unique voice and presentation to an affable personality that easily cuts through the mix. Subtle vocal charm is the key to Essential Charley Pride, and a variety of settings easily display the depth of his overall talent level. He is initially cast in a traditionalist context akin to the music of either George Jones or Buck Owens ('Just Between You and Me,' 'Please Help Me I'm Falling'), and, in succeeding years, adapts to changes in music trends smoothly ('It's Gonna Take A Little Bit Longer,' 'Is Anybody Going to San Antone.')
Later recordings are more experimental, as country fuses with classical landscapes, '80s synthesizers, and, in a few cases, Polynesian instrumentation, but Pride's controlled vocals always win out. Such diversity is totally absent within the great majority of subsequent country music discographies, and is refreshing when heard.
3. The Byrds - Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968)
Somewhat controversial in 1968, Sweetheart of the Rodeo eventually transformed the country rock genre into a form from which it has rarely deviated. Musicians include Flying Burrito Brother Chris Hillman, legendary session guitarist Clarence White, and Gram Parsons - a musician widely cited as the 'Father of Country Rock.' Parsons' imprint peppers the golden-throated 'Hickory Wind,' the semi-theist 'The Christian Life' (which introduces the Louvin Brothers to an all-new generation of listeners), and pierces straight-ahead covers of Merle Haggard's "Life in Prison" and the popular standard 'You're Still on My Mind.' His composition 'One Hundred Years From Now' soon became a musical prototype for such groups as the Allman Brothers, the Black Crowes, and the Rolling Stones; In fact, Parsons inspired many of the subsequent musical creations that the Stones released ('Dead Flowers,' 'Honky Tonk Women,' 'Wild Horses'), and, without this record, neither Let it Bleed nor Exile on Main Street would have existed.
Sweetheart's true legacy, though, is as a mirror by which many other artists received access to an area of American regional music once perceived as limited in scope to the Southern portions of the United Stated. Interpretation, not social discourse, was tantamount - even if many of the tunes had been conceived with such discourse in mind, and this is Parsons' best recorded effort. It proves that, in the absence of purity, outsiders have the potential to set trends and replace classic notions of tradition with both evolution and revolution.
On its surface, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music does not resemble any other country music album. Familiar sonics that had, previously, dominated cuts like 'What I'd Say,' are still central to the concept of Ray Charles. However, this is the best vocal effort that the artist's name would ever be associated with, and his vocal edge pushes the compositions past stylistic boundaries that artists such as the Everly Brothers and Hank Williams, Sr. were unable to transcend ('Bye Bye Love,' 'You Win Again.)
The cultural shock of witnessing a black artist perform tunes that had previously been viewed as a sacred province of white America propelled this collection to the top of the U.S. charts, and was, in its day, responsible for having sparked a country music revival. Yet, it should have also regenerated interest in jazz music, which had been largely fading from its earlier commercial fortunes at the time. Charles' country experiment was no true deviation from the jazz variance that had defined him and others who had performed in the popular 'big-band' style, such as Frank Sinatra. However, these lush, orchestral dynamics cradle cuts that had originally been recorded in a minimalist fashion due to the technological limitations of the era in which the tunes were written.
While the emphasis on big-bands featuring horns and strings, electronic advances in the recording medium, and the racial sub-context would have been enough to stamp Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music as a landmark release, even more tantamount to its continuing appeal and distinction as a legendary platter was that 'Brother Ray' was capable of achieving such a breakthrough at such a late point in his lengthy career.
1. Johnny Cash - At Folsom Prison (1968)
Praised for its ramshackle live performances and heartfelt verbal ramblings that still deviate from the status quo, At Folsom Prison's singular brand of mourning allows listeners to hone in on the visual images portrayed by lyrics depicting all segments of persecuted society as culturally iconic outlaws. It is possible that fans of today's auto-tuned country music stars may recoil at this album's rancor, rawness, and lack of precision, but the music's thrust increases as listeners connect with the fact that they are listening to a live album that was not recorded in either an arena, bar, or nightclub.
Religious invocations have an effect opposite of what is usually expected, as, in Cash's world, the depths of Hell lead to an exorcism of personal demons that both the artist and the inmates comprising his audience shared. While light-hearted moments exist ('Jackson,' 'Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog'), the unforgettable triple aura of cell wall stench, death, and human waste remains ('Dark as a Dungeon,' 'Folsom Prison Blues,' 'Greystone Chapel.')
The album is the antithesis of today's celebrity image - one to which outward perfection is crucial. Cash, as an artist and a man, apparently did not care about the public's perception of him, and forged ahead with a diehard, 'take no prisoners' attitude from which all segments of society can derive inspiration.
Featuring cover versions of compositions written by several artists mentioned in this article, Marcus Singletary's own country music album, Marcus Singletary Sings Country Music Standards, is available at Amazon.com and iTunes.com.