I recently retired a group of CDs that have lived primarily in my car for the past year or so, and thus have been greatly overplayed. While flipping through my collection for albums to replace them with, I had one of those rude awakening moments when I came across one album in particular and realized that it has been almost twenty-five years since its release. I’ve had it since it first came out, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it’s been that long. It’s an album that I can’t imagine ever being without, and it inspired me to put together a list of other albums that I’ve had for longer than I care to admit, that I’ve always enjoyed and still play all the way through on a regular basis.
In putting together the list, I decided to limit it to studio albums that I’ve had for at least twenty years. I’ve been listening to country music for much longer than that, but in the beginning when I was still too young to earn my own money, I was somewhat limited in what I could buy so my purchases in those days tended to be hits compilations. For that reason, some of the usual suspects — Haggard, Jones, Wynette and Parton don’t appear on the list. So, without further adieu, here are my selections, in no particular order, for the ten most essential albums in my collection:
1. Keith Whitley — Don’t Close Your Eyes (1988). I had heard a few of Keith Whitley’s songs on the radio prior to the release of this album, but I wasn’t really aware of who he was until the title track became his breakthrough hit. Up to that point, his material wasn’t always worthy of his considerable vocal talent, but everything about this album was just perfect. The follow-up, I greatly prefer it to his follow-up album, the posthumously released I Wonder Do You Think of Me.
2. Randy Travis — Storms of Life (1986). All that needs to be said about this album is that it changed the course of country music. It’s arguably the greatest country album released during my lifetime, and indisputably the most important. What more needs to be said?
3. Anne Murray — Let’s Keep It That Way (1978). I didn’t actually get this one in 1978, but I did buy it on cassette sometime in the early 80s and later bought it again when it was released on CD many years later. While never primarily a country artist, Anne was one of my gateways to country music back in the days when country radio stations were virtually non-existent in the north. The album included “You Needed Me”, one of the biggest hits of Anne’s career, and her only record to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US. Aside from that, however, it is one of her more overtly country efforts. It was the first of ten Murray albums to be produced by Jim Ed Norman, who later went on to run Warner Bros’ Nashville division.
4. Barbara Mandrell — I’ll Be Your Jukebox Tonight (1988). By the late 80s, the New Traditionalist movement was in full force and many veteran acts had been swept off the charts. Many of the artists who had enjoyed great success with crossover material tried to adapt by releasing more traditional material. After a lengthy dry spell, Mandrell looked as though she were poised to defy the odds and reclaim her throne at the top of the charts. Her excellent cover of Ray Price’s “I Wish That I Could Fall In Love Today” reached #5, but unfortunately it was her last appearance in the Top 10. Though it doesn’t contain any of her signature hits, I’ll Be Your Jukebox Tonight is the finest album of her career.
5. Willie Nelson — Always On My Mind (1982). Prior to the release of this album, I wasn’t much of a Willie fan, but he won me over with the title track, which had previously been recorded by both Elvis Presley and Brenda Lee. Willie’s version was one of the biggest hits of 1982 (has it really been 30 years?!?) and became his signature tune. The album also includes excellent cover versions of “Let It Be Me”, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and a remake of his own “The Party’s Over”.
6. Reba McEntire — Whoever’s In New England (1986). It’s hard to pick a favorite Reba album from this era, because all of her work during this period was excellent. Whoever’s In New England marked a move back to a slightly more contemporary sound, following two ultra-traditional albums, 1984’s My Kind of Country and 1985’s Have I Got a Deal For You. Whoever’s In New England became her first gold album and the beautiful title track earned her a Grammy award.
7. Tanya Tucker — What Do I Do With Me (1991). I’ve been a Tanya Tucker fan for longer than I can remember. I can remember singing along to “Delta Dawn” when I was about four years old, though it was probably the Helen Reddy version that was getting played on local radio stations at the time. I bought and wore out quite a few of her hits compilations on cassette, and I also won an autographed copy of 1982 LP Changes, her only release for Arista Records. She had been a guest on a late-night syndicated radio show called Hot Country Nights. I remember trying to stay awake for it but I fell asleep before her segment of the program aired. She left some copies of her album, however, which were offered as prizes in a contest the next night. I got mine for correctly identifying Charlene Tilton as the spouse of Johnny Lee. However, it is her platinum-selling 1991 album that is her finest and the one that I play all the way through most often. It seems like it was released only yesterday, but on the other hand, it does seem like a very long time since music this good was heard regularly on country radio.
8. George Strait — Livin’ It Up (1990). As with many of the other artists on this list, most of my early George Strait albums were hits packages. The first studio album of his I ever had was a homemade copy of 1987’s Ocean Front Property, which a friend had given me. I got a CD player for Christmas in 1988 and got his If You Ain’t Lovin’, You Ain’t Livin’ album through Columbia House shortly thereafter. But it is Livin’ It Up that I come back to most often.
9. Patty Loveless — Honky Tonk Angel (1988). This was the first Patty Loveless album I ever owned. At the time it seemed like her commercial breakthrough — it contains her first two #1 hits “Timber, I’m Falling In Love” and “Chains” — but it was really only scratching the surface of what was to come in the following decade following her switch from MCA to Epic. My favorite track on this album and the reason I bought it was “Don’t Toss Us Away”, which features harmony vocals by Rodney Crowell. MCA had thought this would be her first #1, but it only got to #5. Despite its more than respectable chart performance, it’s not one of her better remembered records today.
10. Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn — Making Believe (1988). Conway and Loretta stopped recording together in the early 80s when Conway moved to Elektra Records, which was later absorbed by Warner Bros. At that time, it was still relatively uncommon for artists on different labels to record together. When Conway rejoined MCA in 1987, it was announced that he and Loretta would once again record together. This album was their one and only reunion in the studio. It consisted of five previously released tracks and five newly recorded cover versions of country standards such as “Release Me”, “Half as Much”, “Please Help Me, I’m Falling”, “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)” and the title track. But despite being only half a new album, the magic was still there. This is another album I wore out on cassette before buying it on CD.
What are some of the albums in your collection that you consider to essential listening, and that you can’t imagine being without?