Country Music Is Rich With Its Love of Concept Albums

From Willie Nelson to Emmylou Harris and Garth Brooks, concept albums are part of country music history.

Country Music Is Rich With Its Love of Concept Albums
Willie Nelson; Cover art courtesy of Columbia / Legacy; Johnny Cash; Cover art courtesy of Legacy; Garth Brooks; Cover art courtesy of Capitol

When fans think of concept albums in country music, Willie Nelson’s Red-Headed Stranger is probably one of the first to come to mind. The album is one format of a concept album, where the songs tell the entire story of a person or several people throughout the entire album.

The 1975 release was heralded with a huge party at Nashville’s Exit/In, where anyone who was anybody in Nashville’s music industry gathered to celebrate the story of a stranger who wanders the land after killing his wife and her lover. Before the story is over, the stranger kills another woman who he thinks is trying to steal his late wife’s horse (after all, who would blame a man for killing someone trying to steal his horse?). The album birthed a movie by the same name. It also gave Nelson his first number one single, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” and has also been selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress. Red-Headed Stranger is not Nelson’s only concept record. Texas In My Soul (1968), Shotgun Willie (1973) and Phases and Stages (1974) preceded it and Tougher Than Leather was released in 1983.

Concept albums are not new. Dust Bowl Ballads by Woody Guthrie, released in 1940, has been called music’s first concept album. The legendary folk singer followed the advice given to all songwriters – write what you know – and chose to write songs about moments in his life during the Dust Bowl days to pull together a powerful concept album.

Hank Williams Sr.’s alter-ego, Luke the Drifter, recorded several concept albums of songs that would fit into the concept album category about a particular subject. Williams chose to write and sing about the dark side of life. As Luke the Drifter, the singer gave his fans songs with definite morals to them. His publisher and record label weren’t so sure that was a good idea, but they let him run with it. There were several albums from Luke the Drifter in the early 1950’s, which included Be Careful Of Stones That You Throw and Pictures From Life’s Other Side. One of Williams’ favorite songs from those albums was “Men With Broken Hearts,” described once by the singer as “the awfullest, morbidest song you’ll ever hear in your life.”

Marty Robbins released his popular Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs in 1959. He had crossover hits with “Singing The Blues” and “A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)” but had always loved cowboy ballads. He convinced his label to let him record an album of western music and to everyone’s surprise it won the Grammy for Best Country & Western Recording in 1961. It also sold more than a million copies and a follow-up, More Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, was released in 1960. Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2017.

Confessions of a Broken Man, released in 1966, is the first of several albums Porter Wagoner recorded about a homeless man, Skid Row Joe, who conveys his life through recitations like “Men with Broken Hearts” and songs about the man Wagoner depicts on the cover of the first two albums. These album covers are some of the most interesting Wagoner did, as he portrays the Skid Row Joe character photographed in the alley between the Ryman Auditorium and the famous Nashville honky tonk, Tootsie’s. Others in the series are The Bottom of the Bottle, (1968) where Wagoner, the singer, looks into a wine bottle with Skid Row Joe inside, and Skid Row Joe Down in the Alley (1970).

Barry Sadler had a huge hit in 1966 with “The Ballad of the Green Berets” off his album by the same name. A Special Forces Medic who won many commendations including the Purple Heart Medal, Sadler wrote other songs about the Vietnam War that he recorded for that album. The songs were all about soldiers in Vietnam, the emotions they went through and the battles they fought, on the field and inside themselves. The single shot to the top of the Easy Listening album chart and number two on the country album chart and sold more than nine million copies.

The Ballad of Calico by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, released in 1972, was a full-fledged concept album about the people in the small western silver mining town of Calico, California. Songs were written by Michael Murphey (known today as Michael Martin Murphey) and Larry Cansler. It was a little different in that instead of Rogers telling the entire story, members of the First Edition took on different characters in the town as they sang the songs about them.

The Ballad of Calico was a double album, and when you open it there is a full-scale drawing of the town. Included with the album is a booklet that had pictures of the group in full dress of the era (1889). The song lyrics are handwritten, and Murphey shares stories about writing the songs. Rogers also released a second concept album, Gideon, in 1980.

Bobby Bare had been looking for someone to write a concept album for him, and he found that person in songwriter and author Shel Silverstein. Lullabys, Legends and Lies, with tunes written by Silverstein, was released in 1973, with hits including “Maria Leveaux” and “Daddy What If?,” recorded with his son Bobby Jr. There is no story line but having all these Silverstein songs together is priceless.

Bare’s Me and Bob McDill, an album that is not so well known but is well worth looking up, has Bare covering 11 songs by this great Nashville songwriter. It was released in 1977. The singer’s latest album, Great American Saturday Night, is more of a concept album in terms of one that carries through a complete thread. Instead of being about one person, however, the album is about an event, Saturday night, and all the things that can happen on that treasured night of the week. It too was written by Silverstein and was actually recorded in 1978 but not released until April 2020.

Johnny Cash had several concept albums of the themed kind, including Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, which focuses on the history of Native Americans through song. Released in 1964, Cash threw his heart into this project, partly because of his love of history and partly because of his respect for Native Americans. The singer believed in the project so much he took out advertisements challenging radio to play “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” the story of one of the three men who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima. His efforts took the song to number 3 on the Billboard country charts. More recently, this album was revisited in 2014 for its 50th anniversary, when a tribute album, Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited, was released with contributions by Emmylou Harris, Bill Miller, Kris Kristofferson, Normal Blake, Steve Earle, Rhiannon Giddens and more. A documentary by the same name follows the history of “Bitter Tears” and the making of “Look Again to the Wind,” a book about the making of the original album.

Other themed albums from Cash included The Rambler, (1977), about a man who decides to take a trip after his latest romance ends. He also recorded Ride This Train (1960), considered his first concept album, about visiting interesting places in the United States.   

Kris Kristofferson offered Spooky Lady’s Sideshow, in 1974. The album’s songs are all about making the wrong decisions when it came to drugs and alcohol. It was definitely not an up-beat offering and while the songs were great, the pop market did not welcome it at all, though it did chart Top 10 on the country album charts. The album could easily have been about one person, but it could also be seen as an album about what happens to anyone when alcohol and drugs take over one’s life. His wife at the time, Rita Coolidge, was one of the background singers, along with Herb Pederson of Desert Rose Band fame and John Beland of the Flying Burrito Brothers. The cover of a smiling Kristofferson in front of what looks like a carnival sideshow poster is in direct contrast to the darkness of the album. He also released a concept album titled Third World Warrior in 1990, an album about politics and his support of left-wing thinking.

White Mansions was a huge undertaking for songwriter Paul Kennerly. Released in 1978, it is an educational musical presentation about the Civil War. Various artists — Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, John Dillon and Steve Cash – take on the role of one of the characters depicted in the album. Rodena Preston’s Voices of Deliverance represents the slaves. The album studies how the life of each character was changed because of the war. Kennerly wrote or co-wrote all of the songs.

Kennerly released a second concept album in 1980, The Ballad of Jesse James. On this album he went to the Wild West to investigate one of its most notorious bank and train robbers. Taking part in vocals on this album were Levon Helm, Johnny Cash, Charlie Daniels, Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Albert Lee and Rodney Crowell.

Mac Wiseman was an artist who wasn’t hesitant to step out of the box with his music, and the Bobby and Sonny, the Osborne Brothers, were the same. When the two came together to record Osborne Brothers and Mac Wiseman: The Essential Bluegrass Album in 1979, there was no doubt it was going to be something special. The concept of the album was the brilliance of putting the two together and allowing them to create a wonderful double disc project.  While they certainly pay tribute to the traditional sounds of bluegrass, there is no surprise to find a taste of Western swing, traditional country and even the suggestion of Tex-Mex in the offering. Indeed, Wiseman was quoted as saying it was one of the favorite albums that he recorded.

Emmylou Harris and her then-husband Kennerly wrote all the songs for the two-disc set The Ballad of Sally Rose, released 1985. It follows the career of Sally Rose, a singer who hopes to become a singing sensation, but loses her mentor in a car accident. The storyline is recognizable as closely following Harris’ relationship with her mentor Gram Parsons, who she met through Chris Hillman in 1971. Parsons was struck by her vocals and invited her to tour with him. The album is remarkable because it is the first album where Harris wrote or co-wrote all the songs. Harris was nominated for a Grammy for Best Female Vocal Performance in 1985. Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt sang background vocals for the project.

Waylon Jennings’ nickname was Hoss, so it’s only fitting that when he decided to write an album about his life he would call it Hoss. Jennings knew the storyline of this concept album very well and the 1987 audio-biography is offered in 10 ‘chapters,’ with each song written with Nashville songwriter Roger Murrah. After the “Prologue,” Jennings takes the listener from “Childhood” and “Texas” to “First Love” and “Lost Love.” He continues with “Nashville,” “Crazies,” “Drugs,” “Jessi,” “Reflections” and “The Beginning.” It is great to hear the memories and reflections on his life through music. Jennings took the album on A Man Called Hoss Tour for a limited number of concert. The singer eventually did write a book, titled Waylon: An Autobiography, which came out in 1996.

There’s nothing like reading a set of diaries and realizing you have a wonderful story in your hands. Such was the case with Terry Allen, his wife Jo Harvey Allen, and Jo Carol Pierce, who were privy to diaries kept by a Texas prostitute in the 1930s. They wrote the theatrical presentation Chippy, which premiered at the American Music Theatre Festival in Philadelphia, PA in 1994.  The three of them just happened to be close friends with mega Texas singer/songwriters Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Wayne Hancock (not kin) and all pitched together to write the soundtrack, Songs From Chippy for the musical. All of these creative folks knew they had a gem of a story to tell through the music, and they carefully crafted the songs to catch the mood of the era as they tell the story of the hooker and her friends who worked in the Texas Panhandle.

Leave it to Garth Brooks to come up with a concept album that gave him the chance to take on a new persona, that of a fictional rock star named Chris Gaines. Released in 1999, Garth Brooks in … The Life of Chris Gaines had Brooks exchange his country band for one that rocked the tracks to portray a fictional rock star from Australia. The concept for the album was to introduce Gaines, and then the album would become the soundtrack for a movie, The Lamb. Brooks idea was to release the album under the name of Chris Gaines and not even be associated with it when it was came out. The record company was hesitant to do that, thus the title that included the singer’s name. And even though the project sold two million copies and the first single, “Lost in You,” went to number five in Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 Chart in September of 1999, Brooks was not encouraged to move forward with the movie. Despite all that, several of the songs from the album were recorded by other artists. Indie folk artists Rosie Thomas and Don Henley of the Eagles both recorded “It Don’t Matter to the Sun,” while Irish band Westlife and Childish Gambino recorded “Lost in You.”

One of the most interesting concept albums in country music came when Marty Stuart released The Pilgrim in 1999. It was based on an incident that happened in Stuart’s hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi, when a guy (The Pilgrim) fell in love with a woman who neglects to tell him she is married. The woman’s husband commits suicide when he finds out about the affair. The shock of discovering the woman he loves is married and her husband’s suicide sends The Pilgrim on a journey, only to realize despite it all he still loves her. Featured on the project are Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Connie Smith, George Jones, Ralph Stanley, Pam Tillis and Earl Scruggs. In 2019 Stuart released the story of the album in a coffee table book, complete with a copy of the album with songs that were not included on the original one.

In another case of singing what you know about, Kathy Mattea released Coal in 2008. Both of her grandfathers were coal miners, and when the Sago Mine Disaster happened in 2006, killing 12 West Virginia miners, it brought back a rush of memories to the singer about her history with coal mines. She brought in Marty Stuart to produce the album, and Patty Loveless, Mollie O’Brien and Tim O’Brien contributed background vocals. The songs were not written for the project but rather chosen because they told the story Mattea wanted to tell. The first song chosen was “Coal Tattoo,” a vintage Billy Edd Wheeler song. There is the emotional true story of “Lawrence Jones,” penned by Si Kahn, and Darrel Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” Through the album, Mattea brings the story of coal and the coal industry to people who might never have known the heart and soul of these miners who, in many cases, have no other way to take care of their families.

It is fitting that Rosanne Cash’s 2014 release, The River & the Thread is the final album in this overview of concept albums, because it comes full circle from Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads by taking listeners on a journey of places that have touched the singer’s life. Cash, who wrote all the songs with her husband John Leventhal, takes listeners through her travels in the south, from Memphis where she was born and her father began his career, to a visit with the widow of Marshall Grant, who was in her father’s band The Tennessee Two for. She also visited the area where her father was born in Arkansas and then went on down to Money, Mississippi where Emmett Till died, a tragic moment that basically began the Civil Rights movement. The songs are not all about one subject, but they are about travelling through life in song and learning from the journey. Guesting on the album are Allison Moorer, Amy Helm, John Prine, Kris Kristofferson Rodney Crowell, Tony Joe White and Derek Trucks.

Note: There are certainly more concept albums throughout country music history. Here we tried to present a good overview of the thread of concept albums that country artists have recorded over the decades of music that has been released. Special thanks to Kim Burns who helped pull together a list of more than 30 albums that had to be whittled down to these that are included in this story.