I haven't suggested things like Johnny Cash because I would hope and assume – and take as read – that people know them, even if they don't like country music, or know nothing about it. So I thought that maybe I would give you five that would give you a better rounded view that you could add to your collection...
Various Artists – The Bristol Sessions
The story here is that a record executive from New York City travelled down with his new-fangled recording equipment, and moved to Bristol Tennessee for a couple of weeks in 1927. He put ads in all the local papers offering to pay for people to come along and sing a song, and they came from all over – The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers all came down, and over the course over a couple of days they recorded all these songs. That became the foundation for country music. Johnny Cash actually called it 'The Big Bang of country music' and it's a real kind of 'founding fathers and mothers' of the whole sound.
Loretta Lynn – Van Lear Rose
If you'd like to see how classic country music can evolve and can work in other ways, get the Jack White-produced album, 'Van Lear Rose'. There's a great song where Loretta just tells a story – she doesn't even sing it – of a memory of her childhood about getting some little red shoes, and it’s set to music, and it puts you in the perfect mind frame for understanding where some of these country artists come from, and how their careers have developed.
Ray Charles – Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music
I see you raise your eyebrows at Ray Charles and country music – but it's a really pivotal album in terms of opening up the genre to other sounds such as jazz and blues. It's super well-regarded, so much so that Sturgill Simpson named one of his albums 'Metamodern Sounds in Country and Western Music' as a kind of homage. This is very much the type of album that would appeal to a lot of people who aren't so sure about country music.
Patsy Cline – Showcase
If you want to talk about the progression of country music and how the sound diversified, you'd have to include an album in there that typifies the Nashville Sound. This kinda developed as an alternative, or answer to, the rougher rawer sound of honky tonk, they brought in loads of lush strings and beautiful harmonies and gave it this big wall of sound, and 'Showcase' really defines that Nashville Sound. 'I Fall To Pieces' is on there, which is a perfect example.
Merle Haggard – Mama Tried
With the Bakersfield Sound, they were all "We don't want this smooth, mainstream sound, we want country to be what country is, and we wanna do country the way we do it over here in California", so it's a bit more rough and ready around the edges, and is a great place to start and get a sense about what that genre is about. That's what country music is. You have all these different genres –you have the outlaw sound, and the Nashville Sound. In Oklahoma you have the red dirt sound, you go to Kentucky and you get some bluegrass and on and on.
I'm sure that instead of these albums I could have just listed five Best ofs or compilation albums. Even in five albums, it's quite difficult to encompass all of the different sounds in country music. But hopefully those five are a good place to start. Even if they don't give you a complete view of what country is, they're also damn fine listens.