Country Music’s Greatest Concept Albums of All Time

In the music world, some consider country as a creative lightweight. I guess they think you can’t get much imagination out of three chords and the truth. That was on display recently when the once mighty Rolling Stone could only find one true country record to include in their supposed best concept albums of all time.

But concept albums have been an integral part of country music history, with the release of certain projects completely reshaping the country music paradigm, including in recent memory. And with the way cohesive story lines are often used in concept albums—and the way story is so important to country songs—one could put country right up there with prog rock when it comes to the perfect genre for releasing a captivating song cycle.

So just in case you need an illustration of the breadth and importance of concept albums in country music, or want to complete your record collection with some of the best of them, find the Top 11 country concept albums below, along with a more detailed compendium of country concept records through the years below that.

PLEASE NOTE: Like every list, the intent is to fill in the gaps in your body of knowledge. If you think there is an album missing or you want to share top country concept albums, by all means, please pipe up in the comments section. But whiners saying “This list sucks because so and so is not included” or “This list sucks because so and so is included” can go kiss a duck. This is a list on the internet compiled and posted for free, not a “Where’s Waldo” exercise.

11. Slackeye Slim – El Santo Grial: La Pistola Piadosa (2011)

El Santo Grial is about a man, and a gun. It is a concept or theme-based album that follows Drake Savage, a man torn by religion, told since he was a boy that he was “The Chosen One,” but conflicted by his desire to see proof of a higher power. That proof is eventually bestowed one day in the form of a legendary gun for which the album is named. El Santo Grial is a masterpiece, exquisitely produced, arranged, and performed. This is a patient, uncompromising album. You can tell time was never introduced into this project as a goal. The goal was to flesh out Slackeye’s vision without ever settling for second best, and that goal was accomplished.

The music is a wild mix of Western, old-school Spanish, and cowboy narratives. In some spots it probably is better described as simply poetry with a music bed. Think of the score from the film The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, with some Dick Dale flair and Johnny Cash imagery. This album is full of textures and layers, yet conveys a tremendous amount of space at the same time. Many of the sounds of this album are harsh and biting—lots of percussion, gong bangs, horse braying—but it is a well-mixed mixed and mastered album to the point where the recording concepts become as important of an asset to the music as the words and instrumentation. The sharp sounds, the contrast, and the space is what transports you to the setting where the album transpires: in dusty, gritty, wide open spaces. You get completely immersed into the landscapes this album inspires in the human imagination. (read full review)

10. Paul Kennerley & Various Artists – White Mansions (1978)

Paul Kennerley wasn’t from the American South. He wasn’t even from North America. The North West England native was an advertising lackey living in London at the time he heard his first piece of country music at the age of 28. It was Waylon Jennings’ “Let’s All Help The Cowboys Sing The Blues,” and it changed his life. Two years later he would release one of country music’s most compelling, yet most overlooked concept albums with none other than Waylon Jennings himself in a lead role. Waylon’s wife Jessi Colter, along with Eric Clapton, and John Dillon and Steve Cash of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils also came along for the ride, telling the story of the South during the Civil War through the perspective of four white Southerners.

White Mansions isn’t Civil War music. There’s no field drums or fiddles or banjos. There’s a few moments that are inspired by the sounds of music from the mid 1800’s, including a choir of free slaves. But overall this is a late 70’s Outlaw country record at the height of that style and influence, especially in the style of Waylon Jennings. The bass guitar is extra loud on many tracks. There’s ample electric guitar. And the album has that warm feel of all those old school Outlaw country records from the period, including some songs set to half time beats.

Like all concept records, the songs together equal something greater than the sum of their parts. All of the tracks are entertaining, but some fulfill their role of forwarding the story thread first. The tracks in the center of the album are the ones that work best standing alone, from the up tempo and rowdy “Southern Boys” sung by Steve Cash, to the slow and droning “The Southland’s Bleeding,” which is a good example as any of Waylon’s classic sound from the period, enhanced by the presence of Eric Clapton on guitar who appears on numerous White Mansions tracks as part of the studio crew. (read full review)

9. Emmylou Harris – The Ballad of Sally Rose (1985)

The Ballad of Sally Rose is an important concept record for numerous reasons. First, it’s one of the few concept albums recorded by a woman in country music history. Second, it’s the only album in the career of Emmylou Harris where she wrote or co-wrote all of the songs. And third, the concept revolved around the character Sally Rose, who was a singer whose mentor and lover was a troubled, hard-living and alcoholic musician who died while on the road, mirroring Emmylou’s own experience with Gram Parsons.

The Ballad of Sally Rose came about when Emmylou Harris was married to British musician Paul Kennerley, who was also the mastermind of the critically-acclaimed concept record White Mansions from 1978, as well as the The Ballad of Jesse James from 1980. Kennerley once again was the visionary behind the project, both producing it, and co-writing all of the songs with Emmylou.

The album also featured an all-star cast of contributors that included fellow Trio members Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt on harmony vocals along with Gail Davies, and Vince Gill and Waylon Jennings on guitar. Yes, Vince Gill and Waylon did appear on a record together. Unfortunately for Emmylou, the album was considered a commercial flop, though the single “White Line” did decent at #14. It also received a Grammy nomination. But like so many concept records, time has considered The Ballad of Sally Rose more fondly than it was when it was released.

8. Willie Nelson – Phases and Stages (1974)

Many consider this the first definitive concept record of Willie Nelson’s career, and to some, it is Willie’s best. The album narrates the story of a divorce, with the first side telling the woman’s side, and the second side telling the man’s, with the “Phases and Stages (Theme)” mixed throughout the tracks, solidifying it as a truly conceptualized work.

The album came about after Willie Nelson was signed to Atlantic Records by producer Jerry Wexler, who was starting a country division for the label. Shotgun Willie was released right before Phases and Stages, and recorded in the same year as Atlantic’s first foray into country. Leaving RCA and the Chet Atkins Universe on Music Row is what allowed Willie Nelson the latitude to make Phases and Stages like he wanted to.

Phases and Stages was a commercial flop, despite “Bloody Mary Morning” becoming a signature song for Willie, and hitting #17 in the charts—his biggest hit up to that point in his career. After the album, Atlantic Records closed its country music division, and Willie signed with Columbia. But the album was the prototype to Red Headed Stranger, which would become Willie Nelson’s opus.

7. Hank Williams III – Straight To Hell (2006)

There are albums that are a hoot to listen to, and there are albums that sell lots of copies. And then there are albums that help completely reshape music into something different than what it was before they were released. Whether these records are recognized by the wide population or not, they’re the projects that change music as we know it, broaden possibilities, and become so influential that the music can be heard in the bones of countless other albums and songs spanning well into the future. Hank3’s Straight To Hell was one of those albums.

We talk today about how technology has put the power of music back in the hands of artists. Hank3’s Straight to Hell was arguably the first record to illustrate this truth in country music at large. Recorded on a piece of consumer electronics—a Korg D-1600 digital workstation—it put the power of budget and production into the hands of Hank3. Along with being the first truly DIY album to be released in the country music industry proper, it was also the first album released under the CMA umbrella to include a parental advisory sticker.

But the most lasting legacy of Straight to Hell is the music itself. Angry, raw, explicit, but also erudite in its own way, Straight to Hell set a creative high watermark that arguably has yet to be attained again in country. Many fans only focus on the candid and raw lyricism about drug use and other explicit themes. But Straight to Hell was a concept record through and through. The songs of hard living, while making an excellent gateway for escapism and character creation, lead to the last song on the first album, the 6-minute “Angel of Sin” that resolves in the wisdom of how the lives of it’s characters lead to a dead end. (read full review)

6. Marty Stuart – The Pilgrim (1999)

In 1999, Marty Stuart was at a crossroads. He still had his signature black hair and some semblance of a mainstream career, but the gray was filling in and he was quickly being forgotten by radio. He still was using The Rock & Roll Cowboys as his backing band. It wouldn’t be until his next album that Stuart would saddle up with his long-standing and current outfit The Fabulous Superlatives. The album was his last with MCA Nashville and an opportunity for Marty to do what he wanted, free of the commercial worry of a major label breathing down his neck about delivering on their investment. This brew of circumstances resulted in arguably the Philadelphia, Mississippi native’s crowning opus.

What some don’t know about The Pilgrim, even some of its apostles, is that the linear narrative of the album is based on a true story from Marty Stuart’s hometown. It begins with a man named Norman, characterized as “cross-eyed” but still able to land the town’s most beautiful woman by the name of Rita. When Norman becomes jealous and protective of Rita, she takes to the arms of “The Pilgrim,” who doesn’t know that Rita is married. When Norman finds out about the relationship, he commits suicide, and filled with guilt, The Pilgrim takes to traveling, ending up on the West Coast before returning eventually to be with Rita once more.

Along this journey, Marty Stuart takes the role of Norman, and other characters as he narrates the theme. Helping Marty unfurl the story of The Pilgrim is one of the most impressive collection of legendary country music names this side of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” session. The indelible voice of Emmylou Harris greets listeners early in the album, assuring that The Pilgrim will be full of surprises, turns, and towering contributions. Pam Tillis, George Jones, Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs, and Marty’s former boss and father-in-law Johnny Cash also contribute, with Cash helping to conclude the album with a haunting performance. (read full review)

5. Johnny Cash – Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian (1964)

Johnny Cash spent his career speaking out against injustices, and specifically when it came to the Americana Indian. There is no better example of this than his 1964 concept record that was ahead of its time, and highly influential in drawing attention to the plight of America’s native people. Many of the songs were written by folk singer Peter LaFarge, but Johnny Cash contributed a few of his own, along with a song he co-wrote with Johnny Horton.

Bitter Tears dealt directly with issues facing Native Americans such as the loss of Seneca nation land in Pennsylvania and New York State. Most popular from the album was the song “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” which became a hit, despite the initial reluctance of radio stations to play it. Johnny Cash took the ignoring of the song personally, reaching into his own pocket to pay for promotional records to be sent out to radio stations, and placing a print ad calling into question the credibility of radio for not playing it. The song eventually went to #3. Ira Hayes was a Marine of Pima descent that participated in the famous flag raising on Iwo Jima during World War II.

The album set a precedent in country music for concept records, and was one of numerous conceptualized efforts Johnny Cash released.

4. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (2014)

With Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Sturgill Simpson didn’t just capture our ears, he captured our imaginations. However misguided the notion may be, most every disenfranchised country music fan harbors the idea that at some point a country artist is going to come along that is so good and so important, they will tip tip the country music scales back in the right direction. This is exactly what Metamodern Sounds did. It gave the true country music listener hope beyond the happiness the music conveyed, and it resolved that ever-present conflict between sticking to the traditional sound of country music, but progressing it forward.

Metamodern Sounds was the greatest, and most influential record released in the last 10 years in country music—mainstream, independent, or otherwise. It had Keith Urban wearing a Sturgill Simpson shirt on American Idol. It very directly influenced Chris Stapleton to record Traveller, and the way he wanted. It launched Dave Cobb into the stratosphere as a producer. It shattered the ceiling for non radio-supported artists such as Tyler Childers, Cody Jinks, and Zach Bryan to come later and compete with their mainstream counterparts.

Sturgill Simpson defined the pinnacle and what was relevant in the here and now of independent country music for decades to come. And he did it from the sheer strength of this album. Metamodern Sounds also inspired a new generation of country music concept albums that would be recorded and released in greater frequency in the coming years. (read full review)

3. Marty Robbins – Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs (1959)

People take for granted that when Marty Robbins commenced his signing career, he was mostly known for his teeny bopper crossover material like “A White Sport Coat” and “She Was Only Seventeen.” But by the end of the 50s, Robbins had found enough success to be able to flex his creative muscles and do what he wanted, which was write and record songs in the Western traditions he grew up with in Arizona. So in a single eight-hour session on April 7th, 1959, Marty Robbins recorded Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, and not only delivered a country concept record for the ages, but one of the greatest country and Western albums of all time.

Unlike some other song cycles, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs had hits, especially “El Paso,” which became a #1 song in both country and pop, and ultimately, Marty’s signature song. “Big Iron” was also a big hit, and a song that is still widely covered today. So many of the songs of the album eventually became standards in the Western music canon, with the Western Writers of America including six of the songs in their Top 100 Western Songs of all time, including ones that Marty wrote himself like “El Paso” and “Big Iron.”

The album was so successful, More Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs was released as a followup the next year, which unfortunately failed to find the same traction or reception. Nonetheless, the original has gone down in history, and has almost single-handedly kept the Western influence in country music alive for generations.

2. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – Will The Circle Be Unbroken (1972)

The cultural and generational divide running right through the middle of country music has always been the ever-present point of hostilities between traditionalists and innovators for going on a century. In 1972, the progressive country rock outfit with a hippie look known as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band devised a way to bridge this generational divide, and the result was one of the most important albums in country music history.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band took a bunch of old standard country songs, and invited some of the most traditionally-minded oldtimers in country music still around to collaborate with them. This included Roy Acuff, Jimmy Martin, “Mother” Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Randy Scruggs, Merle Travis, Pete “Oswald” Kirby, and Norman Blake. Roy Acuff originally wanted no part of it, calling them “a bunch of long-haired West Coast boys,” but later relented and was happy for it. Bill Monroe held his ground, and refused to participate.

The result was a cross generational masterpiece that bridged the old with the new at a time when the Countrypolitan sound was all the rage in country music. In some respects, it was country music’s first “neotraditional” record. And since everything was recorded live with either the first or second takes with the studio banter left on the tracks, it came with a live feel that put the audience right in the room. Along with being an enjoyable listen, Will The Circle Be Unbroken is also the template of how to preserve country music tradition, while also pushing it forward.

Volume Two was released in 1989 and won the CMA’s Album of the Year and three Grammy Awards. Volume Three was released in 2002.

1. Willie Nelson – Red Headed Stranger (1975)

This is not only the greatest country music concept record of all time, it is the greatest country record of all time, period—at least according to many accounts and assessments over the years. Similar to many of the other most important country music albums, the magic of Red Headed Stranger was not just relegated to the music itself, but the impact it had on country music at large. Recorded on a shoestring budget at Autumn Sound Studios in Garland, Texas, Willie’s label Columbia Records initially regarded it as a demo. But since Willie had earned creative control over his music, he was able to release it as he wanted. It made Willie Nelson a superstar at the age of 42, and changed country music forever.

A cinematic tale about a red headed preacher who kills his wife and her lover before going on the run, Willie Nelson wrote it to be like a movie, which wouldn’t come about until 11 years later. But Red Headed Stranger also made Willie Nelson so popular, he was able to launch an acting career as part of its success. It also earned Willie Nelson his first ever #1 single in “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” written by Fred Rose. Willie had never even had a Top 10 single before. But it was the entire album that the public consumed in its cohesive story line, and fell in love with Willie.

Not only has Red Headed Stranger inspired scores of other concept albums in country music and beyond, it’s also inspired concept albums based upon Red Headed Stranger specifically—albums like Sturgill Simpson’s The Ballad of Dood and Juanita.

There was country music before Red Headed Stranger, and country music after Red Headed Stranger. And country music after Red Headed Stranger was better, more loose, more open, and it was all thanks to Willie.

More Country Concept Records

Ashley McBryde – Ashley McBryde Presents: Lindeville (2022) – You could consider Lindeville just as much like a stage production as you could a studio album, with the cast of characters unfolding before you as the songs transpire. Composed around the characters of a fictional town named after the influential songwriter Dennis Linde, Ashley McBryde is joined by songwriters Aaron Raitiere, Brandy Clark, Caylee Hammack, Connie Harrington, Benjy Davis, Pillbox Patti (Nicolette Hayford), and Brothers Osborne.

Brandy Clark – 12 Stories (2013) – Though not as overt of a concept record as many, Brandy Clark builds the album out via 12 vignettes of characters all trying to escape their lives. This is the album that codified Brandy Clark as a premier songwriter in mainstream country. (read review)

Corb Lund – Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier! (2007) – Alberta, Canada’s Corb Lund is one of the artists helping to keep the Western influence of country music alive, and in this concept record paying tribute to cavalry men throughout history, his bridges his love for horses and heroes into an immersive experience.

Dave Cobb (& Friends) – Southern Family (2016) – Partly inspired by the 1978 Civil War concept album White Mansions, Dave Cobb took the burgeoning stable of artists he was working with, and created an album that featured Morgane Stapleton (with Chris Stapleton), Holly Williams, Jamey Johnson, Miranda Lambert, Rich Robinson (The Black Crowes), Zac Brown, Jason Isbell, Anderson East, and Brent Cobb. The release of the album helped establish Dave Cobb as independent country and Americana’s premier producer.

Drive-By Truckers – Southern Rock Opera (2000) – Though more Southern rock than country, it nonetheless is considered the definitive work by many from the Drive-By Truckers. Tackling the duality of the Southern identity by both being proud of the heritage and conflicted by the history, this double album put the Drive-By Truckers on the map.

Hank Williams III – Ghost to a Ghost / Guttertown (2011) – Hank Williams III tried to revitalize the creative song cycle he achieved with Straight to Hell with mixed results. Centered around “Guttertown” and a voodoo lady named “Musha,” this 30-song album that also featuring Hank3’s dog Trooper and Ray Lawrence Jr. at times felt more like a hard drive dump than an album. But a few gems can be found from digging through.

Hellbound Glory – Streets of Aberdeen (2018) – Aberdeen, Washington is where Kurt Cobain is originally from, as is Leroy Virgil of Hellbound Glory. Also from Aberdeen was Billy Grohl—an alleged serial killer. Taking inspiration from the ghosts that lurk in his hometown, Leroy Virgil created this concept record showcasing his stellar songwriting.

Jason Boland and the Stragglers – The Light Saw Me (2021) – Made of three distinctive interlocking parts, the album follows a cowboy living in Texas in the 1890s who is abducted by aliens and ends up back in Texas in the 1990s. It’s partially inspired by the story of a rumored UFO crash in Aurora, Texas on April 17, 1897 before most folks even knew what a UFO was. (read more)

Johnny Cash – Songs of Our Soil (1959) – Considered by some as Johnny Cash’s first concept record of many, the premature death of his brother had Cash pondering the meaning of death, and weaving it into all of the songs of the album.

Johnny Cash – Ride This Train (1960) – Johnny Cash’s eight studio album became one of the first fully recognized country concept records, with spoken dialog before the tracks that featured different locations and people from around the United States in a travelogue narrative. Though these locations were all hypothetically visited by train, train songs aren’t what the album is about.

Johnny Cash – The Rambler (1977) – Another traveling concept album by Johnny Cash, but this one goes by car, including dialogue with hitchhikers picked up along the way. The Rambler is also significant because it was the last Johnny Cash album where he wrote every track.

Joshua Ray Walker – Wish You Were Here (2019), Glad You Made It (2020), See You Next Time (2021) – Though not exactly conceptualized individually, this three album concept revealed itself to be about the various characters one may encounter in a bar, and was an auspicious opening for this critically-acclaimed songwriter.

Kathy Mattea – Coal (2008) – Though all the songs on the album were covers, the West Virginia native decided to find the best songs about coal, and put them all into a concept album that won high critical praise. Recorded in tribute to her grandfathers who were both coal miners, and inspired by the Sago Mine disaster in 2006, Coal has come to be known as a defining piece of country music, produced by Marty Stuart.

Kenny Rogers and the First Edition – The Ballad of Calico (1972) – Based around the real-life town of Calico, California, all members of The First Edition took turns singing songs, portraying various characters from the town through songs written by Michael Martin Murphey and Larry Cansler. The album came with a 15-page booklet, with all the band members dressed in period, and a map of the town. It was recorded at Glaser Studios in Nashville, which later became known as Hillbilly Central, aka the home of Outlaw country.

Kenny Rogers – Giddeon (1980) – Some people strangely regard Kenny Rogers as a creative lightweight since he so successfully crossed over into pop. But an album like Giddeon turns that assessment on its head. Starting with the revelation that the main characters Giddeon is dead, it looks back on the life of a Texas cowboy in retrospect. It also includes the hit song “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer,” sung with the co-writer of the album, Kim Carnes.

Kris Kristofferson – Spooky Lady’s Sideshow (1974) – Though there has been some dispute over the years of whether to consider this a concept album or not, Kristofferson’s songs on the album were all about the decline brought about by drug and alcohol abuse. The album also saw a decline in Kristofferson’s commercial appeal, which often happens with concept albums.

Kyle Nix – Lightning on the Mountain (2020) – The fiddle player from the Turnpike Troubadours made an auspicious solo debut during the band’s hiatus with this ambitious concept record with interludes and elements inspired by the Spaghetti Western sounds of Ennio Morricone. It is an adventurous, varied, and diverse effort that keeps you on your toes for 17 tracks. (read review)

Lindi Ortega – Liberty (2018) – It isn’t just about Western scoundrels and bloodthirsty revenge. It’s about the struggles we all go through to arrest control of our own destinies, to face down demons sometimes of which exist just as much within ourselves as apparitions of the outside world, and ultimately prevail through the perseverance of our efforts, just as Lindi Ortega did in this sweeping epic. (read review)

Maddie & Tae – The Way It Feels (2020) – Though more of a “soft” concept record than a true song cycle, it follows the arc of a romantic relationship, from meeting, to falling in love, and eventually breaking up. Unfortunately, label Mercury Nashville broke the project up into two EPs first, but the duo finally got it to market the way they envisioned it.

Mamma Coal – Raven Haired Vixen (2016) – Singer and songwriter Carra Stasney previously of the duo Copper and Coal re-imagines Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger into an epic of her own, inspired by her true life love for her son, and the maternal bond that holds creation together and ensures that life moves forward. (read review)

Paul Kennerly – The Legend of Jesse James (1980) – Known best for his White Mansions concept album, Kennerly followed it up with this study into America’s most notorious bank and train robber. It features songs sung by Johnny Cash, Charlie Daniels, Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Albert Lee, Rodney Crowell, and Levon Helm of The Band.

Porter Wagoner – Confessions of a Broken Man (1966) – The Bottom of a Bottle (1968) – Skid Row Joe Down in the Alley (1970) – This was a series of records all portraying the otherwise dapper Porter Wagoner in the persona of Skid Row Joe, with songs about the downtrodden side of life. Though some of the songs on the albums were covers of previous country songs, they still deserve the concept distinction with the way Porter brought an entire character to life through them. Also interesting to note, Porter portrayed Skid Row Joe on the album covers himself. The fictional Skid Row Joe lived in the famous alley between the Ryman Auditorium, and the Lower Broadway honky tonks like Tootsie’s in Nashville.

Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth (2016) – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a record Sturgill Simpson wrote for his young son who was born right as Metamodern Sounds in Country Music was being released. He uses the record to directly impart wisdom and knowledge to his young son, as well as delve into a bit of his own history as a former member of the Navy, and his perils with drugs. (read review)

Sturgill SimpsonThe Ballad of Dood and Juanita (2021) – The culmination of Sturgill Simpson’s five album career was a return to his traditional country roots. Dood is a half breed whose father was a mountain man and mother was Shawnee. Juanita is the apple of Dood’s eye. Based loosely around Sturgill’s grandparents, it was Sturgill’s Red Headed Stranger in a career of concept records. (read review)

Terry Allen – Juarez (1975) – Few carried the creative spark of Lubbock, TX farther into a conceptualized version of country music than Juarez by Terry Allen. Just as akin to a Cormac McCarthy trilogy novel as Red Headed Stranger, it evoked the strange brew of the Texas border and all the intrigue that the region encompasses.

Waylon Jennings – A Man Called Hoss (1987) – A concept record that came together like an autobiography of Waylon’s life, it consisted of ten chapters (songs): “Childhood,” “Texas,” “First Love,” “Lost Love,” “Nashville,” “Crazies,” “Drugs,” “Jessi,” “Reflections,” and “The Beginning.” Though you do get glimmers of the Waylon Jennings backstory, his 1996 actual autobiography is much more complete.

Willie Nelson – Texas In My Soul (1968) – In a career full of concept records, this was officially Willie Nelson’s first. Built around paying tribute to Texas, it was part of his effort with producer Chet Atkins to draw attention to Willie’s recording career, which despite of his success as a songwriter for others, meandered in obscurity in the late 60s.

Willie Nelson – Yesterday’s Wine (1971) – Written and recorded during a tumultuous time in Willie Nelson’s life after a divorce and a move back to Texas, he showed up In Nashville with no material written, and no real plan. Over two day he wrote the album, and combined it with older songs of his like “Family Bible” to make the story of an imperfect man from birth to death. Willie had been reading a lot of religious and spiritual material at the time that inspired the album, including The Bible.

Woody Guthrie – Dust Bowl Ballads (1940) – Considered one of the first concept albums ever in any genre, and released at a time when singles an 78s dominated music, Woody centers all of the songs around the Dust Bowl period in the United States, and its effect on the country and its people. Though mostly considered a folk record, it’s influence on country was also significant.

Other Country Concept Albums:

Ben NicholsLast Pale Light in the West

David Allan CoeRequiem for a Harlequin

Drew KennedyMarathon (2022) and Fresh Water in the Salton Sea (2011)

The Heavy HorsesMurder Ballads and Other Love Songs (2012)

James SteinleWhat I Came Here For (2020)

Merle TravisFolk Songs of the Hills (1947)

Other Pseudo Country Concept Albums:

Willie Nelson’s Tougher Than Leather (1983) and Charley Crockett’s The Man From Waco (2022) were both sold as concept albums, but listeners have generally failed to recognize what the concept is, so their distinction as concept records are in dispute.

Marty Stuart‘s Way Out West (2017) was not sold as a concept album, but some consider it as one.

Rosanne Cash‘s 3-time Grammy winner The River and the Thread (2013) has been called a concept album by some.

Jamey Johnson‘s double album The Guitar Song dealt with darkness on the first disc, and light on the second, making it semi-conceptualized.

Though perhaps more rock than country, Desperado by The Eagles deserves honorary mention.

Black Ribbons by Shooter Jennings was definitely a concept album built around conspiracy theories, as was Sturgill Simpson’s Sound & Fury, but neither is exactly country.

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