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Classic country music of the 1950s,’60s, and ’70s has always been a boy’s club. Ask many fans of the era for their favorites and you’ll get some familiar names: Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, John Prine, etc. But that time period also bred a crop of feisty, hard-living women who could simultaneously down a shot of whiskey, bounce a baby on their arm and verbally decimate a man—all while keeping that big hair perfectly intact. Below are the essential classic country albums to own on vinyl by the women who were never content to just let boys be boys.
Kitty Wells is heralded as the Queen of Country, and for good reason. With her thoughtful hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” a feminist response to a Hank Williams song that insinuated women were to blame for their unhappy, philandering partners, Wells became the first woman to top the country charts and paved the way for female country stars for decades to come. That kind of tenacity gives way to the moon-eyed charm of Winner of Your Heart, an album about a woman who vocally wants out of her current situation in order to be with a new man. They say that if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with, but Wells’ perfectly pouty bitterness about that outcome makes this album all too real, and all too great.
Easily one of the most iconic records by the most iconic woman to grace country, Jolene is the first breath of liberation for Dolly Parton. By this point she had severed ties with long-time musical partner Porter Wagoner, reclaimed her discography and was ready to move on to a solo career—and thank goodness she did. Jolene features two of her most famous tracks, “Jolene,” and “I Will Always Love You,” but it’s also a testament to Parton’s incredible and lasting talent. Between the smooth-groovin’ “Randy,” to the vulnerable, Angel of the Morning-channeling “Lonely Comin’ Down,” to the almost hymnal “River of Happiness,” there’s no filler to be found. Jolene effortlessly takes all of Parton’s musical inspirations—country, folk, Southern gospel, and pop—and blends them into the best butterscotch pie this side of Sevierville, Tennessee.
One of the feistiest women of country, who would call you “fucker” and “darlin’” in the same breath, Loretta Lynn has a no-bullshit resolve that makes her both intimidating and loveable. On her sixth album, yes, she covers Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, but she really puts her foot down, demanding her husband work harder in the home on “Two Mules Pull This Wagon,” warning any woman that might try to come between them on “The Home You’re Tearin’ Down,” and even getting political, voicing her opposition for the Vietnam War on “Dear Uncle Sam.” It’s a record that’s angry, sad, determined, and sassy—quintessential Loretta.
The beauty of this album is that Suffer Time is the only title it could have ever had. The dinner bell has rung, misfortune is on the menu and every character on this record is getting a heaping plate of it. Dottie West was born in Tennessee and eventually made it to Nashville, where she struggled to find her place and power in the male-dominated country recording industry. Her disillusionment gave way to an acute wisdom, which shows on tracks like “Before the Ring on your Finger Turns Green,” in which she counsels a friend to stay away from the playboy she’s soon to wed, a man who’s “fickle, cheap, and phony too; just like the ring he gave to you.” That kind of indelicate honesty is actually what makes West so likeable—her disinterest in misleading and being misled is the larger theme of the record, and rightfully so. In the world of Suffer Time, West is the woman you meet in the bar bathroom who saves you with just the right amount of Jack Daniel’s-soaked advice from a fate she knows all too well, making this a necessary album for those late-night adventures.
Adored by those who don’t even claim themselves to be country fans, Sentimentally Yours is the perfect slice of 1960s heartbreak. It’s a vanilla milkshake with one straw; it’s the drawer of yellowing letters that still smell faintly of Jolie Madame. Though the record leans more doo-wop in sound (in an attempt to crossover from the country audience she built with her 1957 self-titled debut to a more pop-loving crowd), Cline has her country credentials in tow—many of the record’s tracks are covers of Hank Williams standards. An early mentor to fellow jaded crooner Dottie West, Cline recorded Sentimentally Yours about a year before her untimely death in a plane crash, leaving her forever, sentimentally, ours.
A spitfire Oklahoma gal with that distinctly shrill singing voice and a toy pistol in her pocket, Wanda Jackson smartly took her country roots and love of rock ’n’ roll to create her idiosyncratic rockabilly sound. Rockin’ With Wanda is a toe-tappin’, hip-shakin’ little record that travels from the wild barnburner to Makeout Point and back to the afterparty, after a few tussles with the town greaser gang, of course.
All of Tammy Wynette’s albums are essentially long-form diary entries, and this installment finds Wynette post-breakup, wiser, enlightened and very much over it. Like any other woman, Wynette just wants the one she loves to, you know, love her back, and the struggle to build a solid foundation with a shaky-footed partner leaves her exasperated. On the titular track and Wynette’s biggest hit from the record, she reaches a point of desperation where—in the most relatable move of all—she changes everything about herself in a final appeal to her husband. As she defiantly says, “If you like ’em painted up, powdered up, then you oughta be glad / because your good girl’s gonna go bad.” Much like Olivia Newton-John’s character Sandy in Grease, Good Tammy becomes Bad Tammy, but it’s still not enough, and perhaps it never would have been. Despite all that, her plucky, sassy optimism in the face of destruction makes this record a keeper.
This record may have been released in 2016, but it would have been put out in 1966 if only Price had been born 30 years earlier. Recorded at renowned Sun Studios (where Howlin’ Ray, BB King, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison had previously graced its halls) in Memphis for the price of Margo’s pawned wedding ring, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is clearly the product of a woman who shares the hard-livin’ authenticity of her predecessors. From the gleefully Fist City-esque takedown in “About to Find Out” (“Tell me, what does your pride taste like honey / Or haven’t you tried it out? / It’s better than the taste of a boot in your face / Without a shadow of a doubt”) to “Weekender,” where she talks candidly about her brief time in county jail, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is an album that already feels like a classic, and in 10 years, will have been a great investment.
Before “You’re No Good” hit the charts in 1974, Linda Ronstadt was actually known for her folksy, country tunes. Surprisingly, her self-titled 1972 record was considered a major failure upon its release, but fortunately time occasionally reconciles injustice and the album is now recognized as a country classic. Unassuming and honest, Linda Ronstadt is exactly that. Her rich voice shines on every song, complemented by her talented backing band, which included Glenn Frey, Don Henley and Randy Meisner just prior to the formation of the Eagles. Most impressive is her inclusion of soul superstar Merry Clayton on backing vocals. This album may have been overlooked back then, but it’s certainly not one to miss now.
I know what you’re thinking—Nancy Sinatra is a pop singer; she doesn’t do country. And you’d be right. But Sinatra also does whatever she wants, and when she wants to do a country album, that’s precisely what she gets. The second song, “Get While the Gettin’s Good,” sets the standard for this record, which is primarily her putting her spin on big country hits, including a brighter version of Skeeter Davis’ “End of the World,” a rolling Lee Hazelwood duet of “Jackson,” and “Oh Lonesome Me,” and the George Jones classic “Walk Through This World with Me.” The originals on this album, “Lay Some Happiness on Me” and “Help Stamp Out Loneliness,” definitely give Sinatra enough country clout to make the album less of an anomaly in her discography. Country, My Way is certainly a niche album, just classic Sinatra wearing a new pair of cowboy boots, but it’s also a hell of a lot of fun and every collection needs a wildcard.
Erika Paget is a writer, curator and DJ living in Los Angeles. Obsessed with cover songs, she has so far compiled a 9-hour playlist of them—and yes, she's already heard that one.
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