Willie Nelson – Red Headed Stranger (1975)
The story goes like this: Outlaw country singer tells Columbia he wants to record a concept album, an old-fashioned Western on wax. When they hear Red Headed Stranger, they ask him why he’s turned in a demo, to which he replies, that’s the album. The songs are spare, indeed, buoyed at times only by acoustic guitar or piano. The lyrics are impressionistic, disconnected, documenting loneliness, despair, regret; meanwhile, there is an undercurrent of violence throughout the album, which lingers in the past that the outlaw’s running from.
This tension between the despair and violence of the album’s protagonist, central to outlaw country and the 19th century Western, both important sources of inspiration for Willie Nelson, doesn’t always make for an easy listen. However, the brilliance of Red Headed Stranger lies in the way certain moments exist simultaneously inside and outside of their context; take the desperate yearning for love, forgiveness, and rest on “Can I Sleep in Your Arms” (originally recorded by Jeannie Seely in 1973), which achieves universality while drawing pathos from its place in the narrative. This is due, in part, to the skeletal nature of these songs, both lyrically and musically — maybe it’s for the best that they sound a bit like demos. –Tyler Dunston
Most Country Lyric: “The bright lights of Denver are shining like diamonds/ Like ten thousand jewels in the sky/ And it’s nobody’s business where you’re going or where you come from/ And you’re judged by the look in your eye” (“Denver”)
Uncle Tupelo – Anodyne (1993)
In the early ’90s, Uncle Tupelo, a band with roots in punk and alternative rock, did the most punk rock thing a band could do: they made some country music. By the time of the release of their fourth and final album, Anodyne, the band was at its breaking point. The result was a defining example of what has become known as alt-country as well as a breakup that led to the creation of two bands: Wilco and Son Volt.
Anodyne, whose title in Greek translates to “without pain,” is permeated by tension, frustration, and doubt, from “Slate”, which sets off the album with woozy strings, and the refrain, “working in the halls of shame,” to “New Madrid”, a song about an earthquake in Missouri in 1811 that opens with banjo and a classic Jeff Tweedy couplet right up there with Wilco’s best: “All my daydreams are disasters/ She’s the one I think I love.” Elsewhere on the album, the band makes reference to the Civil War (“Chickamauga”), total stagnation (“The Long Cut”), and the commercialism plaguing the music industry (“We’ve Been Had”). The band stated that they took inspiration from country music of the ‘50s and ‘60s, an influence apparent in songs like “Give Me Back My Heart”; however, the album owes just as much to punk and alternative rock. The music, too, oscillates between the country tradition and the punk ethos, as the band tests the boundaries of both genres with fiery results. –Tyler Dunston
Most Country Lyric: “Give back my TV/ It don’t mean that much to me/ While you’re giving back my things/ Give me back the key to my heart” (“Give Back the Key to My Heart”)
Lucinda Williams – Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998)
Lyrically, Lucinda Williams songs often resemble impressionistic short stories, and her 1998 masterpiece, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, features some of her best — from the unflinching character sketch of “Drunken Angel”, in which Williams describes “a derelict in [his] duct tape shoes” who “let go of everything”, to “Metal Firecracker”, in which the speaker processes an ended love through memories of riding in a tour bus listening to ZZ Top. Each story, memory, and emotion is carefully evoked through Williams’ magnetic vocal delivery and phrasing — not to mention expert songcraft and a healthy dose of instantly memorable guitar riffs, from the warmth that opens “Right in Time” to the gritty, rollicking licks of “I Lost It”.
Musically, Car Wheels draws in part from ‘90s alternative rock and grunge while at the same time being utterly steeped in country music’s roots — folk, blues, and gospel. The album’s closing track, “Jackson”, is essentially a gospel elegy for lost love, with its repeated refrain: “Once I get” — to Lafayette, to Vicksburg, to Jackson — “I don’t think I’ll miss you much.” It’s the perfect closing track on what may be a perfect album, and it’s a testament to Williams’ unparalleled ability for evoking pain through song — and catharsis thereby. –Tyler Dunston
Most Country Lyric: “Sittin’ in the kitchen, a house in Macon/ Loretta’s singing on the radio/ Smell of coffee, eggs, and bacon/ Car wheels on a gravel road” (“Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”)
Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park (2013)
2013 was high season for bro-country — a stomach-churning brew of country twang, rap verses, and electronic beats. Along came Kacey Musgraves, whose classic yet progressive take on country music felt like a much-needed hangover cure. While last year’s Golden Hour made her a household name — and deservedly so — she’d established herself as someone to watch five years earlier with Same Trailer Different Park. Even on her major label debut, Musgraves was writing smart and catchy songs that breathed new life into country music, either by challenging its conservative norms (the LGBTQ-friendly “Follow Your Arrow”) or offering a darker look at the people it depicts (“Merry Go ‘Round”). But good luck keeping a dry eye while listening to “Keep It to Yourself”, the best Taylor Swift song that she never wrote: “When you’re drunk, and it’s late/ And you’re missing me like hell/ Just keep it to yourself.” Musgraves would only get better, but at the same time, the fact that Same Trailer Different Park is so close in quality to Golden Hour speaks to what a consistently great artist she’s been all along. –Jacob Nierenberg
Most Country Lyric: “Kelly caught that outbound bus for Vegas/ We’re all out here talking trash, making bets/ Lips wrapped around our cigarettes/ She always thought she was too good to be a waitress” (“Blowin’ Smoke”)
Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (2014)
Sturgill Simpson is one of the most exciting songwriters working within the sphere of country music today, mixing the sounds of soul and psychedelia in his work. But you probably could have guessed that just by looking at the title (a clear homage to the Ray Charles album that kicked off our list) and album cover of Simpson’s breakthrough sophomore album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. Hallucinogenics are not required to enjoy the gorgeous interstellar drift of songs like “Turtles All the Way Down” and “Voices”, but should you decide to turn on, you’d be forgiven for mistaking Simpson’s voice — an instrument that’s as burly as it is soulful — for the voice of God. He throws a few curveballs, including a countrified cover of When in Rome’s synthpop ballad “The Promise” (he’d cover Nirvana’s “In Bloom” on his next outing) and the acid-fried barn burner “It Ain’t All Flowers”. It’s the rare country album that your friend who gets high and your friend who gets religion can agree on. –Jacob Nierenberg
Most Country Lyric: “Every time I take a look/ Inside that old and fabled book/ I’m blinded and reminded of/ The pain caused by some old man in the sky” (“Turtles All the Way Down”)