So many people think they’re just too cool for country music. Sure, we’re not all Fireball-swiggin’, truck-drivin’ lovers of cutoff jeans, but the roots of country music were hardly built around the tropes that so often condemn it. Country music is actually rooted in Anglican song traditions, and over the years, the genre has been influenced by pop, rock, hip hop and more. While every album on this list won’t appeal to the same person, each record points to a subset of standout releases in a genre that’s as nuanced and as any other.
There’s a bevy of reasons George Jones is hailed as one of country’s all-time greats, and several of them are on this 1980 release. The album opens with “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” the melancholy, oft-covered classic that chronicles a friend who never gave up on his lost love. Regarded by many as one of the greatest country songs of all time, the single spent 18 weeks at the top of the country charts. Jones’ entire discography is timeless (just ask artists like Phosphorescent and Robert Ellis or, hell, flip on the CMAs) but with songs like “Bone Dry” and “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)” along with a nod to contemporaries Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings on “Good Hearted Woman,” I Am What I Am may be the best introduction to an artist who continues to shape music within and beyond the genre.
Hailed as a savior of the genre by an ever-growing and emphatic cult following, Sturgill Simpson’s vocals conjure the ghost of Waylon Jennings while his lyrics pay homage to classic blue-collar country themes alongside psychedelic imagery. This was the sophomore album from Kentucky-born, Nashville-based Simpson, but its employment of the band’s live chops and marked range, from ballad “The Promise” to the hard-partying “Life of Sin,” catapulted his entire body of work into the spotlight for country purists upon its release last year, ushering in a renewed devotion to country’s classic sounds that has influenced some of radio’s biggest names, even if Simpson himself isn’t getting much airplay.
Fist City isn’t the most obvious introduction to Loretta Lynn for those hesitant to jump on the country bandwagon (her 2004 release Van Lear Rose with Jack White may be more accessible to the indie rock set) but from the opening licks of the title track to the dazzling rendition of Tammy Wynette’s “I Don’t Want to Play House,” Fist City celebrate’s Lynn’s contemporaries while serving as a rollicking introduction to Lynn’s wise-cracking, ass-kicking take on ladylike behavior.
One branch of a whole family tree of country music royalty, Hank, Jr. has never been afraid to tout his lineage, lyrically calling on dad in beloved tracks like “Family Tradition” and “Dinosaur.” But The Pressure Is On stands tall on its own, with songs like “A Country Boy Can Survive” and “All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)” becoming mainstays in his setlist and popular songs to cover far beyond the confines of the country genre. Appearances from Boxcar Willie and George Jones on the record only add to the album’s pedigree, and Williams Jr.’s take on Senior’s “I Don’t Care (If Tomorrow Never Comes)” offers a deeper delve into country’s—and Williams’—rich history without changing the dial.
If pop anthems are more your speed, Shania Twain’s got more than your due dose of singable refrains. Ruling radio in the ‘90s with hits like “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” and “That Don’t Impress Me Much,” 1997’s Come On Over debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and hung out at the top for 50 consecutive weeks. It wasn’t just country fans that bought into the hype: Twain was praised for ditching the honky-tonkin’ that had one characterized country music, giving it a pop and rock appeal that reached an audience who wasn’t necessarily well-versed in twang before. The track list is punch after punch of iconic singles for Twain, from “Honey I’m Home” to “Don’t Be Stupid” and ballad “From This Moment,” and it’s required listening for anyone looking to go deep on just how country music got so huge.
Johnny Cash knew how to make one hell of an impression, and his 1957 debut was no exception. The 12-song release included enduring iconic singles “I Walk The Line,” “Cry! Cry! Cry!” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” but it also held cuts written by other artists, keeping in line with a generation of storied songwriters who weren’t afraid to borrow and re-work material from their peers and predecessors. Album opener “Rock Island Line” adds two verses to a decades-old folk song that had been recorded half a dozen times before Cash had his go at it; “The Wreck of Old 97,” too, adds Cash’s arrangement to a song that already had its share of history. With His Hot and Blue Guitar is as much a jumping off point for Cash’s future work as it is a road map for a previous generation’s folk and blues tradition.
Eric Church may have an easy time making radio and playing awards shows now, but he built his following in dingy basements and dirty bars before he ever appealed to the mainstream country audience. His rock roots are evident in Chief tracks like “Creepin’” and “I’m Getting’ Stoned,” and his deliberate departure from the common radio fare coupled with a loyalty to his own sound helped usher in a refreshing return of artistry to the genre. Chief delivers ubiquitous hits “Springsteen” and “Drink In My Hand” alongside country fan favorites like “Over When It’s Over” and “Like Jesus Does,” varying tempo and instrumentation in a way that shows off Church’s eclectic influences as much as country music’s.
Don’t let the backwoods Barbie look and the charming drawl fool you: Dolly Parton’s influence on popular music has never been confined to country. Her work has been recorded by top-selling recording artists of multiple genres (including a standout cover by her own goddaughter Miley Cyrus), and Jolene as a whole is a convincing argument bullet point on the laundry list as to why. “I Will Always Love You” may join title track “Jolene” at the top of Parton’s most renowned hits, but numbers “When Someone Wants to Leave” and “Early Morning Breeze” along with a cut of Porter Wagoner’s “Lonely Comin’ Down” signify the well-roundedness that has lent Parton an enduring relevance and a spot among music’s most well-respected songwriters and performers.
Powerhouse vocals may have been what pushed Miranda Lambert into the spotlight—she initially gained fame in the early 2000s on talent competition Nashville Star—but deft song choice and a spitfire attitude in her writing and performances is what’s kept her there. With an indisputably rock’n’roll stance towards everything from tabloid rumors to small-town status quo, 2009’s Revolution was Lambert’s third full-length release, solidifying her increasing status as country music royalty with bold singles like “White Liar” and “Only Prettier” alongside the more tender “House That Built Me.” Lambert is one of the boldest and most consistent voices in country music right now, and Revolution is strong evidence as to what propelled her there.
Chris Stapleton’s debut LP may have just been released in May of this year, but it’s already a shoo-in recommendation for the newcomer to country. Stapleton solidified himself as a performer by fronting bluegrass band The Steeldrivers and short-lived rock band The Jompson Brothers, in at the same time he found his footing in mainstream country as a writer, penning hits for top-sellers like Kenny Chesney and Darius Rucker. Stapleton drew from an epic catalog when plucking tracks for Traveller, blending songs he’d written for other artists (“Whiskey and You”) with mainstays from his live show (“Fire Away”) and even a few covers (“Tennessee Whiskey” and “Was It 26.”) The release felt like a long time coming for most Nashville industry insiders, who had known Stapleton for years as the unsung hero behind many of radio’s biggest hits. But with Stapleton’s recent sweep at the CMAs, this big-bearded singer-songwriter is helping critical acclaim meet mainstream notoriety in a way that can’t help but raise the bar for years to come.
Check out our 2015 interview with Chris Stapleton and his wife, Morgane, below:
Originally published in November of 2015.