Let’s turn an Instagram trend into a blogging trend.
The basic premise is to list 20 albums that have influenced your musical tastes over the years, and for something lighthearted and fun, I’m sharing my list today. Note, however, that these are not critical reviews of the following albums, nor are they my favorite albums, necessarily; some of these aren’t even my favorite albums from the artists in question. I’ve chosen to list these albums in order of when I first heard them, because, as Brandy Clark says, “your life is a record.” If anything, consider this a sequel to my introduction post for Country Universe.
I wouldn’t quite *love* country music until the next decade, but Shania Twain helped plant the seeds for that love early on for me. Later, I’d connect more with my grandfather’s taste in country music – more on that later – but as a kid, I owe that early connection to my mother, a rock ‘n’ roll fan who converted to country music during the Garth Brooks and Twain ‘90s boom period. I’m not sure how much the actual Up! album plays into my early connection, though – I remember watching Twain music videos with my mother more than I do listening to an actual CD. But it’s the album that features two of her singles that are among the first songs I remember loving as a kid – the title track and “I’m Gonna Getcha Good!.” Even just typing the titles out lodged those hooks and melodies into my brain. Kevin once described Twain’s music as “Twain Cocaine,” and I can’t think of a better description, really.
Let It Go (2007)
Two albums in, I feel like I’m once again cheating with this selection, given how the actual album is only kinda-sorta relevant to the whole point of this discussion. I wouldn’t listen to the actual album until several years later, but as I explained in my introductory post, this album still holds a special meaning to me in other ways. My grandfather and I obsessed over “Last Dollar (Fly Away,” every time it came on the radio, and I’ll never forget the day he picked me up from school and had the CD featuring it in his hand. It is, admittedly, a very stupid song, but as a kid, I had too much with it to care. If anything, Let It Go is probably the first album to show me how music can connect us, cheesy as that sounds.
This feels like an odd selection, but one I’d have to place here, if I’m being honest. I don’t know, maybe it was just the middle schooler in me who gravitated toward Aldean’s stoicism and thought it was “cool” at a time when I didn’t really fit in anywhere. Granted, Aldean’s material hasn’t resonated with me in years, but even now, I’d gladly defend his earlier work – “Back In This Cigarette,” “Not Every Man Lives,” “Laughed Until We Cried”,” these were all great cuts. I wish he’d held on to the sound that made him stand out then, rather than give in to utterly stupid trends that made him one of the worst hit-makers of the 2010s.
Modern Day Drifter (2005)
Here’s another story that involves my grandparents, only I’ll admit it’s not quite as heartwarming … if only because I may have stolen this from their CD collection. As a kid with only a passing interest in country music then, I didn’t really care how you defined it. If anything, I didn’t care much for the older artists at this point in my life, and though I’d heard country music was about “real life,” I thought it was just a hokey way for people to try and define a genre too hard to actually categorize with a simple sentence; I just liked the way it sounded.
Dierks Bentley, then, may have been the first performer to show me what people meant when they said that. The album I, uh, “borrowed” was a deluxe edition that came with a DVD, which acted as somewhat of a “behind the scenes” look into the making of Modern Day Drifter. In it, Bentley takes listeners (viewers?) on a trip through Nashville and all the places he started out at, and he comes across as genuinely humble, regular person through it all – and someone appreciative of his place within the genre. And I think that hangdog charisma extends to this album itself, where he’s just a rambler on “Lot Of Leavin’ Left To Do” and the title track. Bentley was the first artist I discovered who positioned himself on the same level as his fans, and that, to me, is one way we define a true country artist.
Lee Ann Womack
Call Me Crazy (2008)
I realize most of these discussions have focused more on events other than the actual album in question. Well, here it is – the first album I remembering loving for the music itself. I was a picky kid who used to decide if I liked a song 10 or 20 seconds in, so while my mother bought Call Me Crazy for “Last Call,” I played it every chance I could and was surprised that I liked every song on it. Lee Ann Womack is easily one of my favorite vocalists in country music, and while I didn’t yet quite understand the fallen country legends she sang about in “I Think I Know,” I loved listening to her sing about them anyway. Granted, I can admit it’s not quite her best album, but it is one of her moodiest; and that, even now, is an easy sell for me.
Hello, my name is Zackary Kephart, and I am one of maybe five or so people who actually likes this album. In all seriousness, this album probably awakened the nerdy, critical side of me more than I likely realized at the time, where my discussions and album reviews would move away from dissecting songs track-by-track and revolve more around a general discussion. After all, what does one say about an album that relies almost solely on its presentation to work? If I’m thinking about why I liked this then, though … heck, “Clusterpluck” and “Cliffs Of Rock City” inspired that “middle schooler waving around an air guitar” phase that we all go through at some point. That wasn’t just me, right?
I must admit that, with only a few notable exceptions, for the longest time, I – a country music fan – couldn’t have cared less what the artists were actually singing about. “The House That Built Me” is probably one of the first songs I really *listened* to, if only because I was in the process of moving from my childhood home when this was on the airwaves. I hadn’t connected to a song quite like that, well, ever. Like with Dierks Bentley, I was finally understanding what people meant when they said country music was about real life. Granted, the album this song stems from is a bit bloated and messy as a whole, but I didn’t think that at the time. Lambert quickly became one of my early country music favorites just from this album alone.
That Lonesome Song (2008) /The Guitar Song (2010)
I’m lumping these two together and counting them as one entry because, truthfully, I can’t remember which Jamey Johnson album I listened to first. I do, however, remember “In Color” being one of only a handful of modern country singles my grandfather seemed to like, which, given the “outlaw savior” narrative surrounding Johnson during this time, made too much sense. Granted, I didn’t think much of that debate then; I was a kid who readily admitted to not caring for older country music. Both of these albums changed my perception. They were both certainly different from anything I had ever listened to before – I knew that. But I remember being floored by the title track of That Lonesome Song, which I always loved for the fast-paced tension to its locomotive-esque precision before ending as slow as it began. On the other hand, I’m not even sure how I made myself care about a double album at this point in my life – and for my money, both discs are pretty equally dark and moody, no matter what the packaging says – but I found a weird fascination with “Heartache”; I remember that.
Of course, this is also an album that, because of the press and marketing behind it, made me care about country music more than I ever did before, for better and worse: better, in that, I started to care more about what I was listening to and foster a greater appreciation because of it; worse, in that, I bought into the savior narrative surrounding Johnson and probably became a stingy old man before I even became a teenager. Not that there isn’t merit to that everlasting debate – I just find the truth to be somewhere in the middle.
Under The Influence (1999)
If you’ve read one of my most recent posts, you won’t be surprised to see me feature Alan Jackson. He was a favorite of mine then, and a favorite now; but not necessarily for a specific album. I believe I first heard this album my freshman year of high school, where even though I didn’t know many of the names associated with this album, I respected Jackson’s choice to salute his musical heroes. Of course, I swore, too, to do my research and listen to artists like Merle Haggard, Charley Pride and Gene Watson, but time slipped away – more on that later.
Smoke Rings In The Dark (1999)
If Jason Aldean was the moody country act I gravitated toward in middle school, older (and wiser) me traded him in for Gary Allan in high school. For a while, I counted Allan as my favorite artist – the first I ever obsessed over, where I spent an entire summer collecting his albums and other sorts of memorabilia. And if that sounds weird for what would have been 2012 or so, I’ll admit I’m the weird guy who still enjoys collecting CDs – I’m not alone in that, thankfully. I like Tough All Over just a bit better, but Smoke Rings In The Dark was the first Allan album I listened to and loved. Granted, I can hear the influences pretty well now, but it’s another case where I hadn’t yet heard a country album sound as cool and lush as that album did; and this would have been around 15 years after its initial release. I loved the imagery of the title track; the brutal, aching agony of “Don’t Tell Mama”; and the murky “Lovin’ You Against My Will” that sounds like it’s drowning in its own darkness. Allan’s demons sounded like the real deal, which, not to enter into a debate surrounding authenticity, was important to me.
Zac Brown Band
Growing up, I didn’t understand why my friends teased me for liking country music. I didn’t associate with any of the rural stereotypes surrounding it, but as bro-country entered the fold … well, it felt like I spent more time defending the genre I loved than I did explaining the good I saw (heard?) in it. And it’s tough for certain acts, like, say, the Zac Brown Band; where, upon explaining why I liked them, my arguments turned to rubble when my opponents brought up “Chicken Fried.”
If I may explain why to you fine folks, though, Uncaged is one of those albums that reminds me why I love music to begin with. It’s a bright, colorful listen that fuses so many different genres together and makes it seem effortless, where the country material mostly shines, but doesn’t solely define them. They’d fly off the rails with subsequent albums, but I’ll forever remember being excited when my metal-loving friend told me he loved “Natural Disaster.” Finally, a kindred spirit!
Greatest Hits (2009)
My “country music homework” began, in a sense, when I saw Glen Campbell’s Goodbye Tour in 2012 at the University of Buffalo Center for the Arts. I previously stated I had always intended to start digging through those older songs and albums, and as I geared up to see Campbell for my first and final time, I began with a simple greatest hits collection. I instantly fell in love with the warm, inviting melodies and stories of songs like “Galveston” and “Wichita Lineman.” Campbell became another artist I obsessed over up until – and after – the show, and I can safely say I wouldn’t know or care as much about country music and its history had it not been for both Alan Jackson and Campbell. This got the ball rolling for me in the best way possible.
Van Lear Rose (2004)
To piggyback off of my Glen Campbell story, I switched from someone who kept up with current country charts and hits to someone more concerned with finding out where country music had been. I loved listening to country radio as a kid, but the same magic I felt from hearing a song I loved just wasn’t quite the same for me by 2013. I didn’t immediately dislike bro-country or modern country as a whole, mind you – it was targeted to my age demographic, after all – but I became increasingly dissatisfied with it.
Plus, I wasn’t sure how many more chances I’d get to see the country music legends. I was all geared up to see George Jones in June of that year … only he died in April. All of a sudden it hit home for me to take every chance and opportunity I could to see these artists. I saw Loretta Lynn in 2013, and displayed in the merch booth was – as of then – her most “recent” album, Van Lear Rose. I wasn’t aware of the importance and impact that album carried; I just played it and was won over immediately. It was one of the coolest projects I’d ever heard, too; “Portland, Oregon” still has a magic to it that delights me every time I hear it. I still didn’t know an awful lot about the genre I claimed to love then, but I was having fun figuring it out.
Perhaps the most obvious inclusion, but in December 2013, I stumbled upon former Entertainment Weekly writer Grady Smith’s “Best Country Albums Of 2013” post … in which I recognized only a few names: who was Lindi Ortega? The Lone Bellow? Sturgill Simpson? Jason Isbell? I thought maybe I’d stumbled upon the wrong list.
And then I saw Kacey Musgraves, Gary Allan and Brad Paisley. And then I realized there was an entirely vast world of country (or country-adjacent) music I didn’t know about. In hindsight, Southeastern probably wasn’t the best starting point from that bunch of albums, but it was an emotionally draining listen that felt more rewarding than anything I’d heard on the radio in quite some time. I had already spent the majority of the year digging into older country music, and now it seemed like I had more homework.
I Feel Alright (1996)
Here’s the most unexciting discovery story: I found Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” through a YouTube recommendation, and then I dug into the rest of Earle’s discography. He became my next artistic obsession, as I found his whole, um, “story” interesting.
A fitting one, too, given that I had begun digging into the world of alternative country music around that time. Granted, I Feel Alright is far from my favorite Earle album, but it was one of the first ones of his I’d heard. Little did I understand then what it meant for him – what feeling “alright” really entailed. I now find great joy from hearing him howl the title track’s hook whenever I revisit this album.
One of my favorite discoveries in 2015 was Gretchen Peters, though I must admit the first album I ever heard from her will always hold a special meaning for me. Her mantra is “sad songs make me happy,” and Blackbirds is no exception to that rule. It may even be among her darkest works, spanning themes of depression, abuse, PTSD, and, to no one’s surprise, death. It was released in February 2015; I heard it in June, arguably the last time of year anyone would want to listen to something as dark and dreary as this. It was my senior year of high school – I had lost a friend to a car accident, so something like “Everything Falls Away” immediately floored me. This album, too, offered a great counterpoint for when people asked me why I liked to listen to sad songs. Through them, I believe we find relief and joy, thereby offering a greater reward than any happy song ever could.
I credit my college Macroeconomics professor for introducing me to two things: Squidbillies and Lucero. He recommended Tennessee as a great starting point, and I couldn’t agree more. I have a weird fascination with the ‘90s/early 2000s alternative country movement, where the blend of country with a punk sensibility just works for me, and this is where that all started. And hey, I’m always up for more sad songs.
With His Hot and Blue Guitar (1957)
I’m not sure how cheesy or cliché this will end up sounding, but I may owe my fascination with writing about music to this album. As I explained in my introductory post, my grandparents largely sparked my initial interest in country music. Sadly, and without going into too much detail, my grandfather suffered a stroke in 2010. He remained essentially bedridden in his house until 2015, and one of my favorite activities to enjoy with him during this time was to listen to old records. There was one particular instance where I visited him with a Johnny Cash box set – his favorites were, after all, Cash, Charley Pride and George Jones. I had planned to visit and play Cash’s debut album for him while I worked around the house, and not even 30 seconds into the first song, “The Rock Island Line,” he asked me to stop and listen with him. My grandmother also eventually stopped what she was doing to listen. Truthfully, it felt weird just sitting there and listening, but it taught me to really appreciate what I’d heard. It’s one thing to enjoy music, but I believe we find ultimate joy from it by loving and appreciating it, and I didn’t know what that meant until that moment.
Mr. Misunderstood (2015)
I had always liked Eric Church, but it was hard to enjoy his music without being put off by his obnoxious attitude sometimes. When Mr. Misunderstood came out, it was like watching a complete rebirth of an artist – someone who went from thinking he was an outlaw on the edges of Nashville to someone who revealed himself to be a total music nerd that namedropped Ray Wylie Hubbard in a mainstream country single; which, really, is more “outlaw” anyway. By the time this album was released, I had been writing about music for approximately five months, offering rudimentary observations and ranting about Sam Hunt along the way. Good times.
I credit this album for shaping how I frame my writing – to look beyond a simple track-by-track basis when assessing a complete album and look at the bigger picture of what it represents, both for the artist and the genre in question.
Dave Cobb & Various Artists
Southern Family (2016)
By 2016, the fragmentation I alluded to in my Jason Isbell blurb regarding mainstream country and its independent counterpart was widely noticeable; Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price and Isbell were more likely to draw attention than your average C-list radio act (a sentiment only amplified today). And it’s weird, as a fan, being caught somewhere in the middle – still caring about what country music represents while knowing you’re more likely to find inspiration elsewhere. Elitist as it sounds, that’s how it was.
But I do think it’s important to care, as we’re not going to make any progress anywhere simply by complaining about things or ignoring them. To me, then, Southern Family was – and still is – an incredibly important project. Here was an album that clearly displayed how to bridge that divide – where independent darlings like Isbell and Holly Williams could join forces with legitimate mainstream stars like Miranda Lambert and Chris Stapleton while making it sound cohesive and work excellently. It didn’t garner as much attention as I had always hoped it would, but it’s another album that, simply put, inspired me to care.
I should note, too, that while my most recent entry for this list is four years old, I’m constantly inspired all the time by new music that I hear. This was just my roundabout way of asking, “So, how about you?”