NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Jamey Johnson Carries on Concept Album Tradition

A Reason Why Albums Still Attract Country Fans

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

I think it’s good that country music listeners still buy and support albums, even as the overall music audience trend is toward cherry-picking singles via downloads. The Zac Brown Band‘s healthy first week sales of a quarter-million copies of their latest album, Uncaged, especially without a hit single pushing it, is a healthy sign.

Unlike career-developing albums, hit singles tend to be quick bursts of a trendy sound or sentiment that can quickly pass. And building an album around a hit single with 10 or so mediocre songs is what has been killing the album in other musical formats for many years. And which has also poisoned some country music artists’ careers, as well. Singles are about the song. Albums are about the artists.

I still like things like CDs and big vinyl albums that I can physically touch and handle and enjoy and read their liner notes and their songwriting credits and musician credits and look at the photographs. A music download has no emotional or aesthetic attachment or any personal involvement other than a quick listening experience, followed — usually — by many other such similar, quickie listening experiences. Just more disposable moments.

No tactical sensation, no emotional involvement, no lasting bond, no attachment to the musical work or the artist who created it. Just another aural popsicle.

Albums, though, and I mean the really good ones, stay with you. And concept albums can be the best. I mean concept albums that are based on worthwhile concepts and not just 10 songs about trucks and beer and babes. They can be very rewarding but can also be very risky. Who remembers the rock group Tired Pony’s country concept album?

The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is without a doubt the best example of why a concept album can be engaging and listenable and still remain a work for the ages. It will be around as long as people listen to music. But I can think of many other concept albums that stirred musical emotions and totally captured listeners’ attention.

What is generally considered to be the first concept album was Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads in 1940, which has inspired songwriters from Bruce Springsteen to Bob Dylan.

Country music concept albums have traditionally been considered by record label executives to be on roughly the same level as poisonous snakes. Their reasoning: Country music careers are driven by hit radio singles. Concept albums are not hit radio singles and don’t contain hit radio singles. Keep them out of the building. Nonetheless, some country artists have persevered with their dreams of creating concept works.

Jean Shepard recorded the first country concept album in 1956 with Songs of a Love Affair, consisting of 12 songs she wrote about the subject.

Johnny Cash‘s many concept albums have been critical successes and have sold fairly well, going back to such works as Ride This Train, The Ballads of the True West, Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian and on into his later life and career with his American Recordings albums and his gospel albums such as The Holy Land.

Traditional country artist Marty Stuart has recorded such critical successes as his dramatic concept album The Pilgrim, with guest appearances by Cash, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Earl Scruggs and Ralph Stanley.

No one has succeeded with country concept albums as well as Willie Nelson. His Phases and Stages was a critical, if not commercial success. Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger was initially rejected by his record label Columbia but became a huge hit. His Stardust album of traditional pop chestnuts reignited his crossover career.

Waylon Jennings‘ collection of songs by Billy Joe Shaver, Honky Tonk Heroes, sounds as good and relevant today as when it was recorded in 1973.

Emmylou Harris’ 1985 album, Ballad of Sally Rose, is a tender recall of a doomed love.

Dierks Bentley took a detour from his usual modern country fare with the bluegrass-y album Up on the Ridge, and it remains a critical success.

In 2006, Vince Gill took a large gamble by recording a quadruple album that purported to encompass the musical themes of romance, the honky-tonks, rock and acoustic music. But the four-record set, These Days, went on to win him a Grammy award.

Jamey Johnson‘s Hank Cochran tribute album, due for release Sept. 18, is a worthy concept saluting the late country songwriter. Cochran wrote such classic country songs as “I Fall to Pieces,” “A-11,” “Don’t Touch Me” and “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me.”

The album (the official title and release date still to be determined) includes duets Johnson recorded with Alison Krauss, Merle Haggard, Leon Russell and Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Ray Price, Asleep at the Wheel, Elvis Costello, George Strait, Ronnie Dunn, Bobby Bare, Willie Nelson, Lee Ann Womack, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Vince Gill and with the trio of Kristofferson, Nelson and Haggard.

I’ve been living with an advance copy of the CD, and I tell you, it is sheer musical bliss. It also happens to be a huge piece of country music history. I’ve heard nothing better this year.