HITSVILLY'S BEST ALBUMS OF THE SEVENTIES
We here at Hitsvilly aren't copycats. If one Googles the best country albums of the seventies, the usual suspects appear ~ Waylon, Willie, Dolly, the cringingly boring Will The Circle Be Unbroken ~ you get the picture. Apparently that arbiter of good country music, Rolling Stone Magazine, was heavily consulted.
Well, we were there. We bought and listened to country albums in real time. The seventies were a strange time for country. Lots of pop-country hit the radio waves, sixties icons were trying to extend their relevancy a little bit longer, Chet Atkins' iron grip was gradually loosening. Savvy record execs were searching for fresh artists. And boy, were there new artists to be found.
Throughout the decade, the long-playing album still ruled. Cassettes were beginning to dip their toe in the waters, but cassettes were only one step above eight-track tapes in sound quality. And an LP had some heft. It refused to be ignored. It wasn't portable. One's record collection was right out there in the open, for every visitor to admire or denigrate (but those people didn't count anyway, because they were insufferable snobs). And one didn't need to slide a little booklet out of the cover to find out who wrote the songs and which musicians played on which tracks. Just flip the album over and there it all was. And sliding the black disc out of its paper cocoon and placing it gently on the turntable was a sacred ritual. "Here comes something great," it signaled.
Each of our "bests" delineate a moment in time; often a musical turning point. Music adheres to our brain synapses, and really, that's why we love it. Many of the albums featured here unearth personal stories. If the stories seem indulgent, please pass them by and simply eyeball (and click on) our recommendations.
Love In The Hot Afternoon ~ Gene Watson
By the summer of 1975 I'd already quit my first full-time job due to a psychotic supervisor and had begged Mom and Dad to re-employ me in my previous (lofty) high school position as a motel maid.
I didn't mind the work at all, I'd done it during the summers for years, and now at least I had no crazy people to deal with. I pushed my maid's cart from room to room and serenely swished toilets and flung off bed sheets like a pro. I was even used to lugging the hulking Kirby vacuum from room to room.
The one personal item I took with me to each unit was my portable radio. I think it may have been early fall when the DJ played a new track, one that made me pause with my toilet brush and stand up and listen. I had no idea who the singer was ~ his voice was unfamiliar ~ but he and the song were...different. Refreshingly different.
It's hard to pinpoint why certain artists punch you in the gut. Some of it is newness, sure, but there are lots of new artists who sound a whole lot like other artists, albeit not as good. Gene Watson was entirely original and damn good. I didn't know in 1975 that he'd go on to become a country legend; I just liked Love In The Hot Afternoon. This debut album, though, demonstrated that Watson revered country. His long-stalled indie career proved that. He wasn't in the business to make a quick buck. If he'd not been discovered and signed to Capitol Records, he'd no doubt still be singing in Houston nightclubs, just for the joy of singing.
Standout tracks on the album include (obviously) the title song, as well as For The First Time, Where Love Begins, You Could Know As Much About A Stranger, and Through The Eyes Of Love. Gene's sweet spot is ballads, as his subsequent hits hammered home (Farewell Party, anyone?)
It's a damn shame Gene Watson will probably never be inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame. There's just too much backlog and too much political wheeling and dealing. But those of us who know country ~ we know.
Introducing Johnny Rodriguez ~ Johnny Rodriguez
I'd obviously never heard this voice before Pass Me By was released to radio in 1972 (it was his debut single, after all), but not only was the song a solid country ballad, written by Tom T. Hall, of all people, but the singer was, like Gene Watson, fresh and original.
(A latter-day performance)
Of course I bought the album. Stellar tracks include You Always Come Back (To Hurting Me), I Wonder Where You Are Tonight, and Jealous Heart, in which he inserted some beautiful Spanish phrases.
Hipster reviewers tend to like the gruff, sometimes off-key stylists. I like good singers. It's all well and good to appreciate attitude if that's your thing. Weirdly, I like nice sounds. Johnny Rodriguez has a nice sound.
Rocky Mountain Music ~ Eddie Rabbitt
I have no recollection of when Eddie Rabbitt hit my consciousness. It could have been when "Rocky Mountain Music" came on my car radio. The track was "good", but not exactly my taste. Then I heard a couple of stone country singles, "Two Dollars In The Jukebox" and "Drinkin' My Baby (Off My Mind), and that was it. This was exactly the kind of country I liked ~ it was ballsy, much like The Bakersfield Sound, yet not like it at all. Rabbitt must have been involved in this record's production ~ it's quintessentially Eddie.
Not all great country artists hail from Texas. Sometimes they come from New Jersey. Or Minnesota or Rhode Island. Country isn't a place; it's a place in the heart.
Misty ~ Ray Stevens
When Ray Stevens was elected to the Country Music Hall Of Fame, I read a lot of derogatory articles and I held my tongue and didn't comment. A lot of people are ignorant, I reminded myself. Even people who claim to know music. They only remember songs like The Streak and Gitarzan. They've never actually delved into Ray Stevens' catalog.
Let me tell you about the album "Misty". It's superb. In fact, it's one of my favorite albums of all time. What Stevens did was recreate classic pop songs from the 1920's to the 1950's and make them relevant to the contemporary country listener. Sure, it's poppish, but not in the way that makes "pop" a derogatory term nowadays, but "pop" as a classic style ~ don't overlook the country fiddles, though.
My dad had grown up poor, but in the late nineteen sixties he and Mom abandoned farming and somehow financed their own business, which. thanks to Mom, thrived. Dad had few cravings (drinking, unfortunately was one), but he loved getting a new car every couple of years. He'd always been a Ford man and thus once the dollars began rolling in, he upgraded to a Lincoln ~ a boxy yellow Lincoln that contained an eight-track player. Not being a music connoisseur, yet liking what he liked, he quickly acquired three ~ exactly three ~ eight-track cartridges. One was, inexplicably, Jerry Reed's Ko-Ko Joe. The second was much better ~ Tony Booth's Lonesome 7-7203. And the third was "Misty". I rode along with my dad to various destinations as he popped one eight-track out and another one in, and Misty got stuck in my head.
Growing up on the cusp (barely) of fifties doo-wop and on into the early sixties vocal groups, this was music I could wrap my heart around.
Sorry (not sorry), but this album is perfect.
Elite Hotel ~ Emmylou Harris
For one who didn't exist in the country music world of 1975, it's almost impossible to describe the force with which Elite Hotel landed. I barely knew who Emmylou Harris was. I'd heard a duet on the radio she'd done with Charlie Louvin, and I liked it enough to try to find out who the female singer was (I almost typed "search out", but alas, there was no internet in 1975, so actual searching was done physically, mostly by perusing the racks of record stores).
Country in '75 was pretty bad. I'd frankly almost had my fill of it. The singers themselves were fine, I guess, but the songs reeked. They were mostly poppish, and not in the classy style of Ray Stevens' album (above); more like "pandering pop". The top hits were watered-down rock, like Rhinestone Cowboy and Have You Never Been Mellow, and treacly novelty tunes like Convoy and I Like Beer. It felt like everyone in Nashville had suddenly forgotten what country music was.
I hadn't heard any of the tracks from Elite Hotel on the radio (maybe I'd heard Together Again), so buying the album was pretty much a fluke. And I truly thought the singer would be a one-off ~ one album and we'd never hear from her again. That's how most of the truly talented artists seemed to end up. So when I dropped the needle on the disc and Amarillo burst out of my speakers, I kinda tilted my head ~ "Am I really hearing this?" Nah, it's too country. Can't be real. And this wasn't "poor me; I'm gonna get D-I-V-O-R-C-E-d" music. It had attitude; it was sassy-sweet.
There's really not a clinker on this album. Emmylou curated the songs carefully, choosing ones penned by Chris Hillman, Gram Parsons, Rodney Crowell, Hank Williams, Don Gibson; even Paul McCartney and Buck Owens (although it's highly debatable if Buck wrote Together Again or bought it). Standouts are One Of These Days, Amarillo, of course her version of Together Again (whoever wrote it), and Wheels. This album saved country music for me, at least for a time.
Out Of Hand ~ Gary Stewart
Another stellar purchase by me, if I do say so myself. By '74-'75 I was starving for real country music. I'd most likely heard Drinkin' Thing or Out Of Hand on the radio and liked 'em, so off I went to Musicland or whatever the dominant record store of the time was. Right away I liked the cut of his jib on the album cover ~ I was always a sucker for piano players.
Aside from the afore-mentioned hits, plus She's Actin' Single, my favorite tracks on the LP are Honky Tonkin', Back Slider's Wine, and Sweet Country Red.
I always get a bit wistful when I think about Gary Stewart. His life ended prematurely and tragically. His music was such a force in my love of good (rare) seventies country. And if Bob Dylan could drive out of his way just to meet Gary, he had to be something special.
Luxury Liner ~ Emmylou Harris
Yes, two by Emmylou Harris. This isn't some "one from column A and one from column B" list. The best are the best. There are so many outstanding tracks on this album, and dang if Emmylou didn't have the absolute best taste. She did Townes Van Zandt's Pancho and Lefty long before Willie and Merle had a mega-hit with it. And she recorded a hoppin' version of Chuck Berry's C'est La Vie. I'm rather partial to Hello Stranger, an old Carter Family tune, and I'll Be Your San Antone Rose, a better version than the hit by Dottsy (no offense to Dottsy). And of course the title track, Luxury Liner.
Critics point to Pieces Of The Sky as Harris's best album. While good, it's missing the energy of both Elite Hotel and Luxury Liner, and sounds staid in comparison.
There are, of course, other good albums from the decade. They don't make our cut mostly due to inconsistency. But artists like Ronnie Milsap, Tanya Tucker, Johnny Paycheck, even the Oak Ridge Boys released enjoyable, albeit spotty LP's. The ones cited here are what we consider the best of the best.