12 classic country albums that will turn 40 in 2020

Urban Cowboy released 40 years ago this summer, and this John Travolta film and soundtrack quickly defined an entire era of country music. The double album actually featured as much pop and rock as it did country: Johnny Lee, Charlie Daniels and Mickey Gilley mixed in with Jimmy Buffett, the Eagles, Bonnie Raitt, Boz Scaggs, Joe Walsh and Linda Ronstadt. But the same could be said of the country music of the time in general. Indeed, after 1980, people kept saying it for twenty years. This country-pop-rock approach has drawn millions of new listeners to the format, if only temporarily.

But, as it almost always had been, the old stars and old sounds persisted in 1980 right next to the new stuff. The genre’s continued penchant for lifting all varieties of dark sounds including, but not limited to rock, while lacking true black performers, also remained the same. As always, the great Charley Pride, who started the new decade with two more tops of the country charts, was exceptional in every way.

The best country releases of the 1980s were as numerous as any other year, but stood out in an unexpected way: the year was rich in concept albums. For example, Pride released a tribute to Hank Williams, while a number of other groups released albums exploring specific themes (as did Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard) or deepening unusual stylistic approaches (Think : Emmylou Harris becomes bluegrass). Outdoing them all on the concept album front, Kenny Rogers even released some kind of rock, country style opera.

Toya J. Bell