There I was, thumbing through the $2 vinyl at my favorite Nashville record store on Sunday when I heard it: “I wanna get into country music, but I don’t know where to start.”
Music to my ears. Unfortunately, the 30-something-year-old patron wasn’t addressing me. Then, I heard someone start to rattle off names like Garth Brooks, Kenny Chesney, and the Dixie Chicks. I bit my tongue. The someone—it couldn’t have been an employee, right?—moved on, while the patron began shuffling through a stack of T.G. Sheppard records. Fact: every record store on earth has an abundance of T.G. Sheppard vinyl.
I waited a beat, trying to decide if I was about to become my dad in a Dr. Rick/Progressive Insurance commercial.
I was. The stakes were too high to ignore.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having Garth, Kenny, and the Chicks in your vinyl collection (I do), but that’s not where you start.
Start Your Country Collection
I remember a dozen or so years ago when I was in a Chattanooga, Tennessee, record store. I posed the same question about jazz. Fortunately, the record store owner was a jazz geek, and he started me on a journey filled with Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Grant Green, Wes Montgomery, and more.
So, in that Nashville record store on Sunday, I interjected myself into that patron’s life—against the wishes of Dr. Rick. I was about to become my dad.
“Excuse me, I heard you mention that you were looking to get into country music,” I said.
“Yes,” he replied. “Do you have some recommendations?”
“Put down the T.G. Sheppard and follow me.”
The patron—we’ll call him Shepp—told me he had a C-note and wanted to invest it in a handful of country albums. I ran through my mental Rolodex, and then I picked out five albums. And they aren’t necessarily my personal favorites (Dwight Yoakam’s Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. is).
But these five albums will create a solid foundation for any country newbie.
One quick note: the record store didn’t have Waylon Jennings’ 1975 album, Dreaming My Dreams, which I believe is his best album. So I moved on without Waylon, despite the fact that 1973’s Honky Tonk Heroes was available.
1. Johnny Cash – ‘At Folsom Prison’
Cash’s 1968 album At Folsom Prison is as close to perfection as a live album can be, at least in my opinion (Buck Owens’ 1966 Carnegie Hall Concert is a close second). The energy of the 16-song collection is palpable. It’s electric, pardon the chair pun. The album revitalized Johnny’s career, and “Folsom Prison Blues” earned him the Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance – Male. It’s Cash at his finest.
2. Willie Nelson – ‘Stardust’
I know, I know, Willie’s 1975 concept album, Red Headed Stranger, gets all the love atop lists like this. It is a must-own album, no question. But Willie’s 1978 collection of pop standards, Stardust, is a welcome mat for newbies. It represents everything great about country music—Willie’s unmistakable voice interpreting classic songs almost everyone is familiar with. It’s comforting for folks new to the country genre.
3. Dolly Parton – ‘Coat of Many Colors’
There are underlying reasons why 1972’s Coat of Many Colors is such a classic album (Dolly was in the midst of establishing her solo career, outside of her Porter Wagoner connection). More importantly for listeners, though, Dolly’s 10-song album is a lyrical and sonic journey, from her autobiographical opening title track to her hopeful closer, “A Better Place to Live.” There’s never been a more recognizable female voice in country music.
4. Ray Charles – ‘Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music’
Firmly established as a pop/R&B star, Ray Charles dropped an ankle-breaking crossover in 1962: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. The album featured 12 country songs—including “Bye Bye Love,” “Hey, Good Lookin’,” and “You Don’t Know Me”—recorded as big-band ballads. With one album, his first to reach No. 1, Ray had single-handedly expanded country music’s reach.
5. Merle Haggard – ‘Mama Tried’
Merle’s catalog of must-own records is seemingly perpetual, from I’m a Lonesome Fugitive in 1967 to Big City in 1981—and many more. But for starters, I lean toward 1968’s Mama Tried. The album’s title track solidified Merle’s moniker as the Poet of the Common Man. The greatest county artist of all time singing his greatest song? Owning the album is a prerequisite.