Gone Country: The Best Country Albums by Non-Country Artists

I fell in love with country music just a few years ago. Before that, I was an ignorant young lady who just didn’t understand the depth and beauty of that musical genre that is so elemental to the foundation of the music I love so much: Rock and Roll. What is rock & roll, if not a merge between rhythm & blues and country? Yes, there are elements of blues, jazz and gospel, but the main ingredients are clearly r&b and country.

I fell for country music by way of Ray Charles. It was the following line in his 2004 biopic that intrigued me: “[about his love for country music] I love the stories. You know about fallin’ in love and have love knock you around, and then the pressures of the world on you so tough, it makes you feel small. You just want to give your soul to God.You might as well, your ass belongs to Him.”

Since I got into this musical genre through an r&b artist, I decided to compile a list of the top 3 country albums, by “non-country” artists. I’m deliberately excluding all Country rock albums (more on that in a future post); this list is strictly for artists who’ve gone out of their comfort zone and released that one album of western bliss, then went back to their respective genres. In recent years, many pop and rock stars from Sheryl Crow to Kid Rock and Bon Jovi, have taken a run at country music, but I’m happy to say none of them made my list.

1. Ray Charles, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962)

Ray Charles’ musical career began with a southern hillbilly band called The Florida Boys, but his real breakthrough in the country world came with this album. Charles took full advantage of his newly signed contract with ABC Paramount, giving him full artistic freedom to record this collection of revamped country classics à la Ray. Willie Nelson once said that album “did more for country music than any one artist has ever done.” What makes the album all the more special is its crossover appeal and the breaking of racial barriers. Billy Joel noted the album’s racial and social impact in an article for Rolling Stone, stating “here is a black man giving you the whitest possible music in the blackest possible way, while all hell is breaking loose with the civil rights movement.”

Standout tracks: You Don’t Know Me; Careless Love; You Win Again.

2. Bob Dylan, Nashville Skyline (1969)

Dylan has ventured into country-esque territory before with John Wesley Harding, but never as wholeheartedly as he did on this album. Recorded in the ‘Mecca’ of country music with the city’s finest musicians, Nashville Skyline is a full-fledged country album complete with steel guitars, “simple” song structures, and a duet with Johnny Cash! What truly makes this album stand out; however, is the singer’s soft, smooth, country-tinged vocals, which he attributes to quitting smoking. His voice never sounded so good or so sweet. Maybe that’s why it’s become one of his best-selling albums! Dylan’s performances on The Johnny Cash Show must have helped promote the album too. It’s interesting to note Dylan and Cash recorded an entire album’s worth of duets of country standards during the Nashville Skyline sessions. Although theses recordings were never officially released, bootlegs are available!

Standout tracks: I Threw it All Away; Lay Lady Lay; Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.

3. Elvis Costello and the Attrations, Almost Blue (1981)

Elvis Costello never hid his admiration for country music; his 1979 duets with country legend George Jones are proof of that! So it’s no surprise he recorded an entire album of classic country covers in Nashville. Costello got none other than legendary Nashville producer Billy Sherrill (former engineer at Sun Records and the man who wrote and produced Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man) to produce his album. Released at the height of the new wave era, Almost Blue appeared with a label that read, “WARNING: This album contains country & western music and may cause offence to narrow minded listeners.” Often regarded as a vanity project, Almost Blue is really Costello’s brave attempt at introducing this often underrated genre to an audience that would’ve never taken the time to listen to it otherwise. (For those interested, there’s an excellent Youtube video of the album’s making of, complete with interviews and recording studio footage.)
Standout tracks: I’m Your Toy (Gram Parson’s originally titled Hot Burrito No.1); Sweet Dreams; A Good Year for the Roses.
 Your comments are welcomed.
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