Urban Cowboy was released 40 years ago this summer, and both that John Travolta film and its soundtrack quickly came to define an entire era of country music. The double album actually included as much pop and rock as country: Johnny Lee, Charlie Daniels, and Mickey Gilley mixed with Jimmy Buffett, the Eagles, Bonnie Raitt, Boz Scaggs, Joe Walsh, and Linda Ronstadt. But you might say the same about country music of the period generally. Indeed, after 1980, people would keep saying it for a couple of decades. This country-pop-rock approach brought millions of new listeners to the format, if only temporarily.
But, as had almost always been the case, old stars and sounds persisted in 1980 right alongside the new stuff. Also staying the same was the genre’s continued penchant for lifting all variety of black sounds, including but not limited to rock, while all but lacking any actual black artists. As ever, the great Charley Pride, who began the new decade with two more country chart-toppers, was exceptional in every way.
1980’s best country releases were as numerous as any other year but distinctive in one unexpected respect: The year was chock-full of concept albums. Pride released a Hank Williams tribute, for example, while a number of other acts released albums that explored specific themes (as Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard did) or drilled down on uncharacteristic stylistic approaches (Think: Emmylou Harris goes bluegrass). Topping them all on the concept album front, Kenny Rogers even released a kind of rock opera, country style.
The Kendalls’ Just Like Real People made the 1978 version of this list series. Ditto for the daughter-father team’s Old-Fashioned Love for 1979. Both albums were out of print at the time, so the good news is that they’re now both available to stream from the obvious sources. The bad news is that Heart of the Matter (which cracked the country album charts a few days before Christmas 1979 and was the pair’s final release for tiny Ovation Records) just might be their finest but remains AWOL. Its tracks — including Number Five hits “You’d Make an Angel Want to Cheat” and “I’m Already Blue,” and Top Ten single “Put It Off Until Tomorrow” — are all available but, spread across various collections, you’ll have to create your own playlist. It’s worth the effort, though, to hear the duo’s signature bluegrassy harmonies, Southern-gospel arrangements, grown-ass themes and, most of all, Jeannie Kendall’s lithe, keening leads.
On her third album, Carlene Carter was produced by her then-husband Nick Lowe when he used to rock and roll, and she was backed by Lowe and Dave Edmunds’ beau idéal of a roots-rock band, Rockpile (whose proto-Americana masterpiece, Seconds of Pleasure, was a couple of months away). The single was “Baby Ride Easy,” a generous rom-com of a duet with Edmunds, and on both “Foggy Mountain Top” and a disco-fied “Ring of Fire,” Carter pays rowdy respect to her famous family traditions. But Carter’s own stories dominate — like the one about a brokenhearted boy she comforts cheerily on the chugging “Cry” (“Heartache’s a bitch!”) and especially the one she tells on herself: “Let ’em stare, I don’t care/Cause mama didn’t raise no fool/They’re only jealous cause I’m so cool.” Ain’t it the truth.
The innervating title track was a success on both movie screens and radio playlists, so it’s sometimes missed that here it functions as a kind of thesis statement for a Dolly Parton concept album about working-class struggle. The album’s also a great example of how Parton values tradition, placing old themes and songs in modern settings. She updates Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee” and does the same for country classics “Detroit City” and “Dark As a Dungeon.” On a synth-resplendent “House of the Rising Sun,” she tinkers with the lyrics so instead of it being about the “ruin of many a poor boy,” it’s sung from the point of view of the poor women who must work there. Even the album’s sweet love-song second single, a cover of the First Edition’s “But You Know I Love You,” underlines that lovers still “got to pay the rent.”
Hard Hitting Songs… is the career-best effort from one of the most powerful singers, and most searing political performers, in all of American music. Backed by an all-star acoustic band that includes Norman and Nancy Blake, Lloyd Green, Buddy Spicher, and Tony Trischka, Hazel Dickens’ voice here is as twangy as they come — she makes Iris Dement sound Ivy League — and as beautiful. Her opening go at “Busted” makes plain that the Harlan Howard song, typically rendered as novelty, is about desperation, not laughs. In “Out Among the Stars,” about a liquor-store robbery, Dickens’ voice encompasses middle-class bigotry, working-class shame, and everyone’s dreams. Essential.
The autobiographical title track, written by John Schweers at the singer’s request, was hardly breaking news. Pride has been singing Hank Williams songs in concert for years. Usually these were novelties — a live “Kaw-Liga” was a major hit in 1969 — but on this tribute, Pride favors the sad-and-sentimental sections of the Williams songbook, including the not-often-covered gems “Low Down Blues,” “I Could Never Be Ashamed of You,” and “My Son Calls Another Man Daddy.” And the album’s concluding track pays sly tribute to another of Pride’s country forebears. A lush reading of ol’ Hank’s “You Win Again” kicks off with strings that mimic the vocal chorus that begins Ray Charles’ version on Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music.
Back to the Barrooms is an on-the-downlow concept album devoted to wine, women, and song — and to their attendant anxieties for working musicians, evidenced most obviously in “Leonard,” Merle’s tribute to mentor Tommy Collins, a.k.a. Leonard Sipes. Produced by Jimmy Bowen and performed by a band of Music City pros, the album’s also one of Merle’s glossier efforts: packed with Don Markham sax parts, gritty yet polished performances from guitarist Reggie Young and pianist Larry Muhoberac, and loud, loud, loud Larry London drums. The opening “Misery and Gin” features an enormous string section. The closing “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” is a pristine studio jam, and the fatalistic “Our Paths May Never Cross” one of the finest ballads of Merle’s career.
A pretty, and pretty straightforward, Emmylou Harris bluegrass album, featuring backing from old New South members Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas and Ricky Skaggs, among others, on songs by Flatt & Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, the Carter Family and even Paul Simon. The highlight, though, is a bit of a surprise: Harris, whose ethereal voice nearly always works best with others, sings a solo and not-quite a cappella version of the Jimmie Rodgers-associated “Miss the Mississippi and You,” one of the just-loveliest performances of her career.
A simultaneous exemplar of old school country and Urban Cowboy-era Countrypolitan, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” gifted George Jones, already considered country’s greatest-ever singer, with a belated signature hit as he was about to turn 50. It’s iconic, for sure, but might not even be the album’s best single. “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory will)” is a portrait of alcoholism, with Jones delivering tragicomic punch lines that bounce between exaggeration (“With the blood from my body, I could start my own still”) and understatement (“I trip on the floor and I lightly touch down”). And “I’m Not Ready Yet,” about a man who can’t find the courage to exit a miserable relationship — in concert, Jones liked to compare it to Hank Williams’ “You Win Again” — makes “He Stopped Loving Her Today” seem like a happy ending.
Gideon finds story-song master Kenny Rogers spinning an album-length tale about a “No Good Texas Rounder” who’s looking back on his life while somehow watching his own funeral. “Some say I was a good man, some disagree,” he growls, in his characteristically soulful delivery. All through, Rogers is backed by smoothly bluesy and gently funky arrangements — it’s all an example, really, of that black-indebted white style known as Yacht Rock, with some twangy color instruments and a choir of white folks doing their damnedest to conjure a black church. In other words, Gideon is both Kenny Rogers’ most ambitious album and his most Kenny Rogers. The best moment is “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer,” a slow-burning and, finally, outright testifying duet with equally husky-voiced Kim Carnes, who wrote the entire album with husband Dave Ellingson.
People forget how big a country star Razzy Bailey was for just a minute there, with five Number One hits and eight more Top Tens in just four years. On Razzy, he predicts adulterous danger ahead on the Outlaw-disco hybrid “Loving Up a Storm,” pledges aching electric-piano devotion in “I Can’t Get Enough of You,” and writhes and rues to some seriously sexy smooth grooves on “I Keep Coming Back.” And he could rock it too: The closing “9,999,999 Tears” is silly but self-aware, sadness stylized for fun. A soul-music-influenced storyteller and a hirsute lover man, Razzy sang husky and warm in a Kenny Rogers kind of way: He even slips a quick Rogers impersonation here into “True Life Country Music.” But he was a fantastic singer in his own right and long overdue for re-appreciation.
The list of women country artists who were underappreciated in their time, or who’ve been altogether overlooked ever since, is depressingly long. Though mostly forgotten today, at least Lacy J. Dalton had a moment with Hard Times (and its follow-up, Takin’ It Easy). Dalton’s sound was a brand of country deeply indebted to R&B and R&B-influenced rock, her voice was scratched and juke-joint smoky: As one of the album’s three Top Ten singles summarized, she was a “Hillbilly Girl with the Blues.” The two others, “Hard Times” and “Whisper,” are blue-collar anthemic and not-so-Quiet Stormy, by turns. Here’s to a Lacy J. revival, and soon.
Willie Nelson was everywhere in 1980. He co-starred in two big Hollywood films, The Electric Horseman and Honeysuckle Rose, and helmed their soundtracks (featuring crossover hits “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” and “On the Road Again,” respectively). He also released Family Bible, a too-little-known gospel set with pianist sister Bobbie. But Nelson’s best album of the year was San Antonio Rose, a Western Swing-themed duet effort with his old boss Ray Price. Singer’s-singer Price shows how everyone would croon it if only they could while the idiosyncratic Nelson nails down a way of doing it if you can’t. The pair’s elegant rendering of “Faded Love,” a Number Three hit, tenderly recalls tears that dried long ago. In “Night Life,” they fall off stools, bang into walls, tumble to the floor and up again. Their “Funny How Time Slips Away” is bitter and brutal but always keeps the beat. Forty years on, this one sounds like a classic.