Do you remember the time of physical media back before we had record collections at our fingertips? Think a little further back to a time before the internet. You couldn’t really read reviews for an album unless you happened to track it down in a newspaper or magazine. Other than word-of-mouth, the easiest way to know if you’d like an album was to buy it and give it a spin. Do you remember how much more important album cover art was then?
No matter the genre of music, good cover art captures something about what you can expect to hear when you put on the album. At the very least, the album’s cover lets you know what kind of tunes are going to come from your speakers. Of course, bluegrass and country albums are no exception to this.
In fact, they may be the prime example of that representation of sound. They display a battle of two sides of a coin, one tidy and buttoned-up, another fun and rambunctious. In a recent interview with Outsider.com, Sturgill Simpson’s drummer Miles Miller reflected on the beauty and parody present in the singer’s recent album art for “Cuttin’ Grass”.
With a chuckle, Miller explained how the band selected Sturgill Simpson’s recent art. “We just talked about it because a lot of bluegrass and country records have somewhat cheesy covers, but also super bada–.” He continues, adding a reference to a classic country music icon, “If you see any Conway Twitty album cover, he’s in this kinda uncomfortable pose, but his hair is perfect, and he’s got on the nicest suit you’ve ever seen.”
Miles Miller says Simpson has a word for the balance-beam between tacky and hard-core; between uncomfortable and fancy: “Sturgill calls it a cornbread flash sometimes. It’s just got this thing to it.”
Since the early days, country and bluegrass album covers have been unafraid to shout ‘I Walk The Line’ between goofy and hardcore. This combination of the two different identities helps to set the albums apart from everything else on the shelf. This common thread, and balancing act, continues today.
The Early Days of Cover Art
While today we may take for granted that an album will have perfectly-designed and thought-out cover art, this wasn’t always true. In fact, album art didn’t become popular until the 1940s. The first album to be packaged with art on the sleeve was “Smash Hits by Rodgers and Hart” and was released in 1940. It was designed by Columbia employee and now-legendary graphic artist Alex Steinweiss.
One of the earliest examples of a country album cover that walks that tightrope between cheesy and badass is Marty Robbins’ “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs” from 1959. This classic country album features a red field and a gunfighter dressed in black reaching for the big iron on his hip. Beside him is black text containing the album title and tracklist.
There’s no denying the cover is cheesy. It’s also pretty badass. Sure, the gunfighter looks like something straight from a low-budget spaghetti western. But, you have to admit though, those movies were always cool to their core.
Looking a little further ahead we have Porter Wagoner’s “Carroll County Accident” from 1969. The cover features a portrait of Wagoner in which we see that his suit jacket is heavily embellished. The jacket features rhinestone encrusted embroidered wagon wheels. Between his attire and the dramatic angle of the shot, the cover can’t help but be pretty cheesy. The look on Porter’s face and his intense eyes push the whole thing into that rebel territory. There might be a shooting iron tucked under that rhinestone coat.
Bluegrass Album Covers
The entire genre of bluegrass as a whole is a pretty good example of balancing tough-as-nails grit and relaxed silliness. It’s only natural that the album covers follow suit.
It may have its roots in Irish, African, and English musical traditions but bluegrass is as American as it gets. Apple pie wishes it was as American as bluegrass music. It’s an oral history of the mountains and lowlands set to traditional instruments. There are songs about love, loss, murder and the Good Lord Above. Bluegrass is badass.
It can, however, seem hokey to some. The banjos and mandolins seem a little outdated to many music fans. Even those who are steeped in the music can agree that it’s a little cheesy. More on that later.
When looking at bluegrass cover art, a great example is the Stanley Brothers’ discography. Not only do they have some great examples, but it’s hard to talk about bluegrass without bringing them up. Their music and album covers haven’t changed much over the years.
The cover of their 1959 album “Hymns and Sacred Songs” features the duo on a mountain path in sharp suits with their instrument cases. They’re both happily looking skyward. Compare that to their 1991 release “On Radio,” which features the duo in close-up. They’re smiling, holding their instruments, and wearing matching suits.
A good example of the consistency of their album art is 2016’s “16 Greatest Hits” It also features the duo with big smiles and matching suits holding their instruments. This one features a white background and banner with an illustrated guitar and banjo.
Not only do their album covers walk the fine line between cheesy and bada– they also capture the spirit of the music.
Conway Twitty: King of Country Cover Art
So, onto Miles Miller’s prime example of the ‘cornbread flash’: Conway Twitty. Twitty’s career spans four decades and includes 58 studio albums and forty-four number ones here in the States. Most of his cover art walks that fine line like no one else.
When Miller mentioned the uncomfortable pose but perfectly combed hair and spiffy suit, he wasn’t kidding. Conway Twitty has many shining examples of that cornbread flash element in his cover art.
Firstly, let’s look at his debut album “Sings”. Twitty kind of looks like a greaser on the cover. Think about The Fonz. He was cheesier than a plate of Wisconsin nachos. He was also pure grit and raw as h-ll. I’m sure there’s a rhinestone-encrusted switchblade hidden in Twitty’s suit somewhere.
Next, we can look at his 1981 album “Mr. T.” The cover features Conway in the foreground dressed for a day on the links. He’s cradling a golf club in his elbow, putting on a glove, and shooting the camera a look that is both sensual and menacing. He kind of looks like the villain from a movie on the Lifetime Network. His band and a classic convertible are in the background and slightly out of focus. All in all, it’s pretty BA.
However, the picture combined with the album title turns the whole thing into the worst kind of dad joke pun. Of course, this is the cheese that balances it all out perfect.
The Eighties Are a Goldmine
In recent years, many people have looked back on the fashion from the 80s and 90s with mixed reactions. Some long for the styles of yore while others just cringe. Both reactions are appropriate. Country music gave us some great album covers in that period. These walked the line between cheesy and badass in a way that could have only come from that era.
Let’s start in 1980. The seventies were slowly letting go, and a whole new era of art, music, and style was taking shape. In that year, Merle Haggard dropped “Back to the Barrooms,” and George Jones released “I Am What I Am.” These albums find their balance in opposite ways.
The cover of “Back to the Barrooms” features the Hag with a stoic look on his face. You can see the classic 70s wood paneling behind him and he’s wearing a t-shirt. He looks every bit as BA as you’d think. The enormous cowboy hat he’s rocking is fairly cheesy, though.
There is none of that nonchalant working man charm on Jones’ album cover. “I Am What I Am” features the country legend in white slacks and a suit jacket over a floral print shirt with an enormous collar. His outfit combined with his relaxed stance, easy smile, and immaculate hair really strike the balance.
Twitter Reacts to Vintage Country Album Art
If you can poke fun at it and it’s on the internet, Twitter users will find it. Rick Skaggs’ 1983 album “Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown” might have had this coming. At the same time, it looks like Ricky Skaggs might be the leader of some kind of post-apocalyptic honkytonk gang.
Miles Miller isn’t the only one to point out Conway Twitty’s album art. This tweet hits the nail on the head.
Twitty apparently had a thing for looking like the villain in Lifetime movies.
The Tradition Continues
There are plenty of albums coming out today with covers that are both goofy and gritty. It’s only appropriate to look at a couple from Sturgill Simpson and his contemporaries.
The cover of Simpson’s “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” is a pretty good example. Not only does this cover capture what he calls “cornbread flash,” but it also bridges a gap seen with many artists like Sturgill. It’s a little hippie and, simultaneously, a little cowboy.
The cameo portrait of Simpson looks like something out of the Old West while the backdrop features a psychedelic space scene. Yeah, it’s a little cheesy, but you can’t say it’s not bada–. Miles Miller was right.
Billy Strings’ 2018 album “Home” has that same quality. The longer you stare at the psychedelic art that adorns the cover, the more you see. There are subtle references to the song’s album itself but many won’t get them until a few listens. Sure, modern art is a different kind of cheesy but this album cover is really cool.
Why Is Album Cover Art Like This?
There may be an answer to this question in a story about Doc Watson. While the story is focused primarily on bluegrass, the sentiment works for country music as well.
Firstly, you have to understand who Doc Watson was. Doc was undoubtedly a musical pioneer. He is one of the musicians credited with the invention of the Flatpicking guitar. Until Watson and a few others came along, the guitar was solely a rhythm instrument. All of the melodies and solos were done by mandolins and fiddles. He got to thinking that he could play all the same notes on a guitar, so why not take a solo?
In short, Doc Watson is a big deal.
Now, to get into the story. In the early sixties, there was a huge folk music movement in Greenwich Village, New York. They were in love with old American music while searching for the “mountain sound.”
Music historian Ralph Rinzler came across a record by Clarence Ashley. That record contained the sound they were all looking for so Rinzler and a friend traveled to North Carolina in search of Ashley and authentic mountain music. They found both Ashley and Watson.
At the time, though, Watson was playing in a western swing band. Rinzler was unaware of his connection to Appalachian music. One day, Rinzler and Watson were in the back of a flatbed truck and, being a musician, the New Yorker had his banjo on hand. Watson asked to play it, and at that moment, Rinzler was blown away.
To Watson, bluegrass was just something that he played with family and friends. He had no idea there was an audience for the music. In his mind, everyone was listening to Elvis and the like. He was unaware of the numerous people who craved real, authentic mountain music.
For that reason, Watson traveled to New York and his journey to being an innovative bluegrass legend began. He would go on to record several live and studio albums with a number of other bluegrass greats.
The Moral of the Story
In both country and bluegrass, there lies a bit of cheese. This is especially true to outside observers. The jeans, boots, Stetson hats, steel guitars, and banjos tend to seem a little hokey. At the same time, the music is unapologetically authentic, which is, in and of itself, badass. So, if that means embracing some of the cheesiness, so be it.