What is the best country music?

That is a request from Bill Russell, a loyal MR reader, and yes I will get soon to more of your requests.  I’m no expert, but my picks are as follows:

1. Hank Williams Sr., get both discs and don’t look back.

2. The Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, The Flying Burrito Brothers (the first two albums), plus Gram Parsons’s Grievous Angel.

George Jones and Bob Willis and Merle Haggard are all in my view somewhat overrated.

3. Louvin Brothers, Tragic Songs of Life (some call it bluegrass), Dolly Parton, Dock Boggs, Patsy Cline, the essential Johnny Cash (there’s lots of it), and the country/gospel of Elvis Presley.  Dylan’s country music is good but is not his strongest suit.

Arguably the best songs of Ryan Adams (alas they are scattered but "Amy" and "La Cienega Just Smiled" are two places to start; does anyone know a more general sourcing?) are as good as anything in the genre.  I like Lucinda Williams as well plus Shelby Lynne, most of all I Am Shelby Lynne.

Alternatively, the best collections from the 20s and 30s are mind-blowingly good; for instance try American Primitive on John Fahey’s Revenant label, or the Harry Smith collections.  That’s some of the best American music period though in some ways the blues shouts are closer to rock and roll than to country.

I might add the whole list comes from someone who was initially allergic to country music, so if that is you give some of these recommendations a try.  Just think of it as White Man’s Blues.

Comments

What, no love for "G.P."? I think it's Parsons' better album, if only marginally. The first five tracks are about as near to perfection as a country album can get.

Do you ever find it strange that people look to you for your wisdom on such a variety of subjects? Just curious.

As someone mostly country-averse, I really dig Guy Clark (especially The Dark) and Jim White.

Townes Van Zandt - e.g. Delta Momma Blues.
Patsy Cline

If Adams is game, I would look more to his work before he went on his own - Whiskeytown is great. Also, early Wilco? Jayhawks? Son Volt?

Hank goes without saying.

Dwight Yoakam, especially his first album, as well as If There Was a Way, This Time, and Population Me. His recent Buck Owens album is also very good. Early Buck is also a must.

I second the Marty Robbins recommendation. The other albums I would especially recommend would be Johnny Cash - Live at Folsom Prison, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band - Will the Circle Be Unbroken (the first one, although Vol. 3 is very good too), and Willie Nelson - Red-Headed Stranger.

Otherwise go for individual songs on iTunes. Favor the 40s and 50s. Don't miss Ted Daffan's "Born to Lose" or Ray Price's "Crazy Arms." Lefty Frizzell had some great songs too.

Other than Merle Haggard and Willie, the 70s are generally a wasteland.

Don't forget Kris Kristofferson.

Robert Earl Keene. James McMurtry.

Townes van Zandt & his buddy Guy Clark
Johns Hiatt, Gorka, Prine, Stewart
Alison Krauss,Nanci Griffith, Laurie Lewis, Patty Griffin,Gillian Welch
Pure Prairie League, Doug Sahm
Barry & Holly Tashian, Tim & Mollie O'Brien
I like Waylon better than Willie

You might give the "alt.country" genre a try. It goes by a lot of other names but essentially it captures the classic country "feel." I'll second the Drive By Truckers nomination and throw in props for Hank III (Who sounds eerily like his granddad in voice and song.)

I like your concept of "White Man's Blues" btw.

Adolf Hofner; and the Tom Waits song "Blind Love."

I'm genuinely surprised you didn't include Bill Frisell's "Nashville."

Also, nobody has raised the name of Iris Dement, who is most definitely deserving of mention.

Sorry, but the phrase "best country music" is an oxymoron.

"George Jones and Bob Willis and Merle Haggard are all in my view somewhat overrated."

Wills, not Willis. And this sentence proves that not only are you no expert, you're an idiot.

Yes, I agree that you absolutely can NOT leave out Marty Robbins.

Also....doesn't Jim Reeves count as country? "He'll Have To Go" is one of the best songs ever.

How about Blue Rodeo, give those Canadian some love. http://www.bluerodeo.com/

Tammy Wynette
Willie Nelson
Buck Owens
Patsy Cline
Hank III
Eddy Arnold
Ernest Tubb
Just to name a few...

I like Ryan Adams, but any list of modern country that includes Ryan Adams and not Uncle Tupelo (which gave birth to Wilco) and Son Volt has grievous shortcomings.

Two of the best and definitely the two most underrated of all time have to be:

Jerry Jeff Walker
Robert Earl Keen, Jr.

In addition, George Strait is amazing (although he could have written a few songs...) as is Willie Nelson, the two of them if for nothing else than for their longevity

I will not put down anybody else's list, but I am joining in because at least one person should mention the two other Hanks, Hank Thompson and Hank Snow.

Both have influenced a wide array of rock 'n roll and country musicians. Hank Snow in particular has been memorably covered by everyone from the Rolling Stones ("I'm Movin' On") to Bob Dylan ("90 Miles an Hour") to Johnny Cash ("I've Been Everywhere"). But the originals are still the best.

In general, rock fans who think they don't like country will like Hank Snow.

I'll second the Corb Lund recommendation. Much more than "the Truck Got Stuck."

I like Lyle Lovett and Dixie Chicks too.

Unknown Hinson.

What is the best country music? Anything you can turn off.

Aside from some obvious "necessities" (like Hank Sr. etc.) in the above lists, most of the people on all the above lists are really "country music acceptable to non-country folks". In other words for poseurs who want to "appropriate the inherent hipness of the underclass" (in Daniel Clowes' words) without actually stooping to listening to what the masses really listen to.

So allow me to stand up for Hank Jr., Billy Ray Cyrus, Alan Jackson, Charlie Daniels, Garth Brooks, Shania Twain and that's just the 90's. It's definitely not "best country music ever" but let's face it, Top 40 Country is a hundred times better than Top 40 Rock (which is pretty much unlistenable in its vapidness).

"Wills, not Willis. And this sentence proves that not only are you no expert, you're an idiot."

Heh heh. Hear, hear.

How one can make the "White Man's Blues" connection and not put Haggard in the pantheon is beyond me. It's like he's trying to be some kind of redneck scene kid who puts obscurity over quality.

That said, The Louvins' praises are definitely undersung.

--Obs, That list also needs it some Ray Price, Charlie Rich, and Gary Stewart.

I heartily second Hank Williams Sr., who was the greatest of all. And I also love me some Louvin Brothers, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, and Lucinda Williams, among others. (Is Lucinda considered country, though?). I'm also a Dolly Parton fan and recently posted a tribute to her on my blog:
http://thegspot.typepad.com/blog/2008/04/weekend-diva--3.html#more

I have a bone to pick with Tyler, though, on an issue that divides us far more than our (considerable) differences concerning politics and economics, and that's George Jones. The man is the greatest living singer, in any genre. And among country singers, the only one even in the same league with him is Hank Sr. Even Frank Sinatra called George Jones the second greatest male singer in the world, fer chrissakes. Tyler, you need to listen to him some more. Or clean the wax out of your ears. Or something!

These posts are great, because I can copy and paste in Napster and find great new stuff. Anyone know anything a Shooter Jennings fan would like- the good southern rock with a good fun sexy rock jam? Napster has not yet really helped me find much along his lines. (And no making fun, Shooter is great).

The two best voices and songwriters, male and female respectively, who are still under 40 and who've come out of country/roots music are:

Shawn Mullins - http://www.myspace.com/shawnmullins

Kim Richey - http://www.myspace.com/kimrichey

I agree with the first comment that Gram's GP is just as good as Greivous Angel. Horray for mentioning the Louvin Bros. Others that ought to have gotten their due here (and that I dont think I saw in the comments): Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys, Emmylou Harris (though the stuff I like best is her 90s LPs that took her country voice and threw it in a Daneil Lanois setting); the alt-country female duo Freakwater; Kelly Willis; Jimmie Dale Gilmore (at least his 'Spinning Around the Sun' LP); Loretta; and Rose Maddox and the Maddox Bros. Tyler, if you liked American Primitive and the Harry Smith thing, you should also seek out Goodnight Babylon. One of the best tracks will play when you visit this MySpace page. It's Brother Claude Ely's "There Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down" -- it's startlingly great.

To be more specific:
Iris Dement--good narrative songs. I'd recommend "Hotter than Mojave", "Quality Time", "Wall in Washington", and "Fifty Miles" as four excellent songs.

The Tractors, "The Tractors"--good country blues. Try "Everything We Got Is Falling Apart" and "Blue Collar Rock."

The Stanley Brothers--country gospel/bluegrass/proto-country.

Martina McBride--modern country blues. Try "Anyway", "Concrete Angel", "House of a Thousand Dreams", and "Independence Day"; then try to tell me, with a straight face, that country is saccharine music.

Also, particular songs:
Stuart Hamblen's version of "Ain't Gonna Need this House No Longer."

Hank Jr, "All my Rowdy Friends"; note the shout-outs to 60's rock-and-roll.

Johnny Horton's cover of "Battle of New Orleans".

Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue"--remember, it's a fight song; also, for amusement, his "Weed with Willie".

So let me start by saying, yes, I do reside in Austin, TX, home to some great music of all genres. Just take a peak at the Austin City Limits music festival to see the wide range of music offered over a three day weekend. We like music of all kinds here.

I think the phrase "Country Music" is not understood to the rest of the world, because it carries floating signifiers based on where you are. In Texas, its is commonly observed that every 20 or 30 years, we send a bunch of our artists up to Nashville to save country music. In fact, we don't call what we listen to as country. We call it "Texas Music". Its a blend of: blues, bluegrass, cultural southwest, southern rock, and story time. Its not uncommon to listen to one artist and hear a blues song, followed by a banjo-fiddle bluegrass number, then a tejano song, followed by some rockabilly/roadhouse jam, to a guest appearance duet all in about 30 minutes.

Since this is a somewhat math related blog lets go with:

(Country Music + Nashville = pop radio = terrible = no soul )
The prime example is Garth Brooks or any of his ilk (shania twain for the female set). Vapid, commercial, sold at Wal Mart.
For those people who equate Garth Brooks with country music, then yes I agree, its terrible and not worth listening too.

or

(Country Music + (Texas or Canada) - Nashville Influence = songwriting/storytelling = narrative/soul = greatness)

I have to give some props to the two posters who pointed out Corb Lund, good music, "5 dollar bill", "time to switch to whisky", etc.

My Texas 12 Pack:
Adam Carroll
Hays Carll
South Austin Jug Band
Roger Creager
Robert Earl Keen (my alltime favorite, and generally cool dude)
Ray Willie Hubbard
Bruce Robison
Waylon Jennings (especially, "Waylon Live")
Willie Nelson (Red Headed Stranger Medley)
Max Stalling
Scott Miller and the Commonwealth
and the aforementioned Corb Lund

so come to austin, have a good time, drink some shiner, eat some tacos and listen to "Texas Music", you will thank me later

JB

I'm not the first to mention them, but Freakwater is absolutely the best new country there is.
Neko Case's first two albums are good country music are very good. And if you like countrypolitan, the albums of her collaborator Jon Rauhouse, can't be beat. I would also recommend Jesse Dayton (especially if you're thinking "I like country music, but I want it to be studly"), Hank Williams III, The Wilders. Or another dozen bands I can think of - just let me know and I'll open the floodgates.

First off, Im a Country Musician myself, and I have to put up with a lot of people's ignorance about the genre. They think its all one thing. Country is as diverse and broad a genre as you can name- moreso even than Rock or Pop.

Its not just one thing. There are so many different styles and stylists. Its not just about trucks or losing your dog, or whatever people think it is.

That being said, I highly reccomend REAL COUNTRY and older Country Pop music
Such as: The Carter Family, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams Sr (not Jr), Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Jim Reeves, John Denver, Elvis Presley, Bob Wills, etc.

Western Swing is a great genre in Country. Also Rockabilly is part of Country too

If it werent for Country- there would be no Rock n' Roll!

No mention yet for Faron Young, Ferlin Husky or Conway Twitty? Twitty had 42 #1 hits on Billboard's Country Music List (55 total #1 hits on various national music charts). Only George Strait has had more #1 hits on the Billboard Country Music List.

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