A look back at the most ambitious undertakings of country & western music.
Country often gets a bad rap for being repetitive and formulaic, but it’s just not that simple. Many country, western and Americana artists have put together pretty high-minded fare. The themes range from death to society to history, and many of them never really got their due. Here are some of the best concept albums the genre has to offer.
13. Gideon – Kenny Rogers
Gideon, the main character in Rogers’ 1980 hit record, clearly didn’t heed Waylon & Willie’s advice. The Old West-themed album centers around a cowboy looking back on his life – the good, the bad, and the ugly. The twist? He’s doing so from beyond the grave. Its only single, “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer,” is a duet between Gideon and his former lover, played by Kim Carnes Ellingson. Her husband, David Ellingson, wrote a couple of Gideon’s cuts. The album is country in name only, as it has the signature Kenny Rogers-in-the-1980s sheen.
12. Hotel California – The Eagles
The eponymous track from The Eagles’ wildly successful Hotel California is one of the most heavily debated pieces of music ever. Its themes of American excess and superficiality actually run throughout the entire album. Don Henley explains, “This is a concept album, there’s no way to hide it. But unlike Desperado it’s not set in the old West… It’s more urban this time. It’s our bicentennial year, … so we figured since we are the Eagles and the eagle is our national symbol, that we were obliged to make some kind of a little bicentennial statement using California as a microcosm of the whole United States.” Whether or not the message got across, it’s a little more obvious in songs like “Life in the Fast Lane.” Some of the cohesion may have been lost during the nine months it took to record. The album peaked at #1 on six separate charts worldwide, sold 22
It’s our bicentennial year, … so we figured since we are the Eagles and the eagle is our national symbol, that we were obliged to make some kind of a little bicentennial statement using California as a microcosm of the whole United States.” Whether or not the message got across, it’s a little more obvious in songs like “Life in the Fast Lane.” Some of the cohesion may have been lost during the nine months it took to record. The album peaked at #1 on six separate charts worldwide, sold 22 millioncopies internationally, and won five Grammys.
11. Phases and Stages – Willie Nelson
Nelson’s first concept album wasn’t actually Red Headed Stranger. It was this heartbreaking story of the seemingly trivial moments that break up marriages. After Nelson’s highly successful Atlantic debut, Shotgun Willie, he wanted to try something a little different. He got Jerry Wexler onboard to produce, and they made a then-controversial decision to record in Muscle Shoals, instead of Nashville. Producing two Hot 100 singles and peaking at #34 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums, it somehow still managed to be a success despite Nelson’s R&B proclivities. Fun fact: clocking in as bassist was David Hood, Swampers regular and father to Drive-By Truckers lead Patterson Hood.
10. Punch – The Punch Brothers
Nickel Creek’s 2006 decision to call it quits did not slow down leader Chris Thile. He initially went solo, then formed The Punch Brothers. Thile wanted to push bluegrass further, and to him, its next logical progression was to partner with classical music, as both genres rely on complex instrumental interplay. Thus, Punch was born. A few tracks surrounding a forty-minute suite called “The Blind Leaving The Blind”, was based on Thile’s 2003 divorce. They weren’t exactly a screaming success at first. The documentary How To Grow A Band captures their first tour, in which audience members were so confused by the new sound that many booed or left mid-set. They persevered and created three other stellar albums and became a successful touring act.
9. In The Life of Chris Gaines – Chris Gaines, aka Garth Brooks
We all love Garth Brooks, but the guy can be a tad eccentric. Never more so than when he created this Australian rock alter-ego, in order to pull a Taylor-Swift-like switch from country to pop. It was his only album under the pseudonym and was generally accepted by critics. It remains his only album to hit the pop charts. The album greatly puzzled his fans, however, most of whom literally weren’t buying it. The album’s release was coupled with a tongue in cheek Behind The Music, in which Gaines was exposed as a sex addict and discussed his facial reconstruction surgery. The whole promotional stunt may have genuinely been Brooks’ attempt to go in a different musical direction, but it seems more likely that he was bored and wanted to do something different. After the quasi-fiasco, Brooks only recorded one more record, as himself, before going on his decade-long retirement. Now that Brooks is back, we can only pray that Gaines comes with him. Or not?
The album’s release was coupled with a tongue in cheek Behind The Music, in which Gaines was exposed as a sex addict and discussed his facial reconstruction surgery. The whole promotional stunt may have genuinely been Brooks’ attempt to go in a different musical direction, but it seems more likely that he was bored and wanted to do something different. After the quasi-fiasco, Brooks only recorded one more record, as himself, before going on his decade-long retirement. Now that Brooks is back, we can only pray that Gaines comes with him. Or not?
8. The Pilgrim – Marty Stuart
The best concept albums are based on true stories. Stuart’s The Pilgrim tells the naturally ill-fated tale of a love triangle from Stuart’s hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi. Town weirdo Norman marries town sweetheart Rita, but he grows paranoid and jealous over the years, pushing Rita into the arms of the eponymous Pilgrim. Poor Pilgrim doesn’t know Rita is married and falls in love with her. Norman figures out what’s going on when his increasingly distant wife leaves home.
He tracks them down at the hospital where they both worked, and soon learned the man who broke up his relationship wasn’t even aware of the marriage in the first place. Norman shook the Pilgrim’s hand and then shot himself in the head. The Pilgrim then developed a bit of the ol’ Irish Disease and travels the country, eventually coming back to Rita to raise a family with her.
The album interprets this soap opera in its entirety and was pretty short of being commercially successful, but Stuart’s fans and critics had nothing but praise for the album.
7. Southern Rock Opera – Drive-By Truckers
Speaking of Civil War concept albums, the modern poster boys of southern rock truly began their career with this double concept record paralleling the demises of the South and Lynyrd Skynyrd. It featured a heavy rock sound, which departed from the band’s first two records, Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance, whose lineups didn’t yet include the critical, and now ubiquitous, drumming of Brad “EZB” Morgan.
Sides one and two lace the mythology of Lynyrd Skynyrd – their insane practice ethos, their “feud” with Neil Young, the tragic plane crash – with snapshots of deadbeat southern living produced by the post-Reconstruction collapse of the southern economy. Closing track “Angels And Fuselage” hauntingly envisions the band’s final moments as their plane’s engines fail. Like any great rock and roll band, DBT recorded and released Southern Rock Opera independently and literally sold copies from their car trunks – over 10,000 copies of it.
6. From Sea to Shining Sea – Johnny Cash
In 1968, Cash released From Sea to Shining Sea, a love letter to and auditory map of America – so feel free to take its title literally. He recorded it in a little over a month, and as per usual, Carl Perkins and the Carter Family are listed in the liners. After announcing “America, it’s time to be refreshed, recalled to memory,” shouts-out are given to at least a quarter of U.S. states. Smartly, the music becomes increasingly Tex-Mex as Cash’s story moves toward the golden coast. Shame on anyone who listens to anything else during a cross-country road trip.
5. White Mansions – Waylon Jennings and friends
White Mansions was the 1978 preface to The Legend of Jesse James. It examined the stories of white southerners during the Civil War. Paul Kennerley thought it up as a way to explore southern pride while acknowledging the horrors of slavery, and the South’s need to find a different economic and cultural path. Four fictional characters interweave their stories, offering a variety of views and motivations that were present during the war. The characters are far from perfect, but many are relatively innocent and caught in a larger political crossfire. In the end, it’s a timeless retelling about being sold an abstract glory whose practical application involves disillusionment and misery.
4. The Legend of Jesse James – Waylon Jennings & friends
The 1980 album The Legend of Jesse James was in some ways an extension of 1978’s White Mansions, but it included many more heavy hitters. Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton, Levon Helm, Roseanne Cash and Charlie Daniels appeared on the album. Like White Mansions, Paul Kennerley conceived and wrote most of the record. It told the infamous outlaw’s tale from a series of perspectives. The chronicle begins with James’ mother concernedly asking her son what he’s been up to lately, and it ends with James facing down karma’s gun. It is often packaged with White Mansions, as the projects were heavily related to each other.
3. Ride This Train – Johnny Cash
Cash’s eighth studio record was 1960’s Ride This Train, a low-key confrontational retelling of American progress. Each song begins with a train ride to a different cit, and a monologue spoken from a different perspective. The monologues included John Wesley Hardin, a humble farmer who relies on county farms to get by. Throughout the album, Cash uses these entities to express how his heart breaks at the thought of native peoples pushed to extinction by big business ideology. He also describes the plight of the desperately poor rural folk who slave away to keep the business cycle going. With subsequent releases, such as Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian and America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song, this wouldn’t be the last time Cash explored the themes of American travel and Native American maltreatment.
2. The Ballad of Calico – Kenny Rogers
Kenny Rogers formed his side band, The First Edition, in 1968. Their eighth effort The Ballad of Calico is a double album centered entirely around the town of Calico, California, a silver mining boom-turned-bust town. Each member of The First Edition contributed vocals to create different characters, such as like Diabolical Bill, and Dorsey, the Mail-Carrying Dog.
Many have never heard of the town of Calico, but it could easily be a stand-in for the dozens of ghost towns that litter the west. Given the album’s somewhat niche appeal, it didn’t do as well as the band’s 1969-1971 releases. It is only available in the form of rare original pressings, so it’s exceedingly hard to track down.
1. Red Headed Stranger – Willie Nelson
It is, perhaps, the most famous album in this category, and it almost wasn’t released. Red Headed Stranger is Nelson’s startlingly popular story about a loner who murders his cheating wife and lover, and spends the rest of his life seeking redemption. The songs were so bare and scant, many at his then-label CBS vehemently protested against it. Fortunately, Nelson’s manager had negotiated a complete creative control clause, so CBS had no choice. It went double platinum in its first decade. Not too shabby.