If you want to see zombies with glazed-over eyes, just take a walk through a typical shopping mall during the holiday season. Maybe they’re not real zombies, but it sure seems that way as they sift through the merchandise before settling on a less-than-perfect gift for that special person.
But if that special person happens to be a country music fan, your dilemma may be solved by presenting them with the gift that keeps on giving — a boxed set of CDs. As most music lovers will openly attest, it’s always nice to get a single CD, but there’s something more impressive about the substance — the weight and size — of a box that contains three or more discs. For the giver, it reflects your thoughtfulness while proving that you were willing to shell out the extra money for something really good.
Boxed sets come in a variety of forms, from multi-artist compilations to truly expensive collections imported from places such as Germany and Japan. While this year’s most notable country boxed set is Dwight Yoakam ’s four-CD Reprise Please Baby: The Warner Bros. Years (Rhino Records), we’re highlighting five essential collections from years past. All contain booklets containing informative essays and historic photos — and all but one are widely available for less than $50.
Merle Haggard, Down Every Road, 1962-1994, Capitol
Considering some of his work in recent years for independent record labels, it’s clear that Merle Haggard has lost little, if any, of his artistic spark. However, Haggard secured his place in the Country Music Hall of Fame at Capitol Records with a string of ’60s hits including “Swinging Doors,” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “The Fugitive,” Branded Man” and “Sing Me Back Home.” And those are only among the songs on the first disc of this four-CD collection. The 100-song compilation highlights Haggard’s Capitol years, but it also includes “Skid Row” (his 1962 debut single for Tally Records) and prime material from his tenure at two other major labels. His time on the MCA roster is represented by tracks such as “It’s Been a Great Afternoon,” “Ramblin’ Fever” and “Rainbow Stew.” Featured recordings from Epic Records include “Big City,” “Are the Good Times Really Over” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star.”
Emmylou Harris, Portraits, Reprise
Emmylou Harris helped bring country music to a younger, hipper audience when she emerged from Gram Parsons ’ shadow with her 1975 album, Pieces of the Sky. Aside from maintaining her own artistic vision, Harris has also served as an educator and preservationist by introducing that audience to the music of country pioneers (the Louvin Brothers , most notably). Always surrounding herself with the best musicians around, Harris played a key role in the careers of Rodney Crowell , Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill . But the music is what matters, and there’s nothing but gems among the 61 tracks in this three-CD box. In addition to hits, including “One of These Days” and “Two More Bottles of Wine,” the collection features several tracks from her projects with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. Four songs with Parsons are featured, but Portraits also features Harris’ later collaborations with Don Everly, Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson , Don Williams , Earl Thomas Conley and the Band.
Buck Owens, The Buck Owens Collection (1959-1990), Rhino
It could be argued that Buck Owens is the most innovative country singer, songwriter and bandleader of the ’60s. Unlike most artists of the era, Owens’ talent as an artist was matched by his acumen as a businessman. While others paid little attention to such matters, Owens had the foresight to retain control of the master recordings he made. As a result, none of his classic recordings for Capitol Records were widely available on CD until he authorized Rhino Records to release this three-CD retrospective in 1992. Since then, other CDs have been issued featuring Owens and his stellar band, the Buckaroos, but the Rhino box remains the best compilation by far. Starting with his 1959 single, “Second Fiddle,” the compilation chronicles his career at Capitol. And what a career it was, too, with 15 consecutive No. 1 singles from 1963-67 alone. That was the band’s heyday in the studio and on the road, with a lineup that included steel Tom Brumley on steel guitar and Don Rich on lead guitar and harmony vocals. Owens acknowledges that his music never fully recovered after Rich was killed in a 1974 motorcycle accident, although there were some nice moments in the ’80s on duets — all included here — with Emmylou Harris, Dwight Yoakam and Ringo Starr.
George Strait, Strait Out of the Box, MCA
With the exception of a duet with Frank Sinatra on “Fly Me to the Moon,” George Strait has never strayed far from traditional country. And while other artists may feel the need to push musical boundaries, Strait demonstrates how much can be accomplished when you start with a great country song. And Strait did just that on 71 tracks of the four-CD set Strait Out of the Box. (Granted, the compilation includes 72 tracks, but one of them happens to be “Fly Me to the Moon.” It’s a great song, but not a great country song.) Strait Out of the Box covers Strait’s career from his 1981 debut single “Unwound” through “Check Yes or No,” the CMA’s single of the year for 1996. Strait has scored additional hits since the box was released in 1995, but this contains classics such as “Amarillo By Morning,” “You Look So Good in Love,” “The Fireman,” “The Chair,” “I Cross My Heart” and — well, more No. 1 hits than the law should allow.
Hank Williams, The Complete Hank Williams (Mercury)
If you plan to impress someone with this boxed set, it’s gonna cost you. The 10-CD set generally sells for $125-$150, but it’s first class all the way. In fact, the project was honored with two Grammy Awards — for best historical album and best boxed recording package. With the CDs and liner notes provided as two separate books nestled within the hard-bound box, the set is compiled from all existing session masters and all available non-session and demo masters recorded by Williams. It does not include all alternate takes or his many radio show performances. However, what it does include is more Hank Williams music than most people will ever want to hear. That shouldn’t be considered a derogatory comment, either. Collections like these are designed for discriminating fans. But as we approach New Year’s Day — the 50th anniversary of his death — nothing could be more timely than The Complete Hank Williams.