Five absolutely perfect albums from the 1980s

These five albums helped define the decade.
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Willie Nelson left Nashville for Austin in the early 1970s and a lot of disaffected country fans went with him. Outlaw Country was born. But for a long time, Nashville didn’t seem to care. Traditional country music was doing just fine, thank you very much. Then came 1986, when a trio of albums from young musicians seemed to suggest that it was time for a change. Randy Travis’s Storms of Life tilted a bit more traditional and Steve Earle’s Guitar Town was the most revolutionary. Dwight Yoakam’s debut slotted right in between them. Taken together, these albums seemed to be the public finally saying that the impulses of Outlaw Country were part of the natural evolution of mainstream country.

Yoakam doesn’t challenge many of the old-school country truths about partying and drinking and losing the love of your life. He just does it perfectly through his 10-song cycle. Most of the album consists of original compositions from the bluegrassy ”Miner’s Prayer” to the rocking title track to the classic pedal steel drinking song “It Won’t Hurt.” And he mixes in a few classic covers, including the Johnny Horton cover, “Honky Tonk Man,” which sets up the album to an up-tempo take on Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire," which comes near the end.

Yoakam would expand his musical ambitions in later albums like This Time and 3 Pears, and Steve Earle would release an arguably greater album toward the end of the decade with Copperhead Road. Those albums have some soaring highs but also have a weak part or two. Guitars… has none of that. It stands at the crossroads of country music, looking both forward and back, a perfect testament to where we have been and where we are going.

Come to think of it, maybe the ‘80s weren’t so bad. BTW  - a bit of trivia for you. Only one artist had a song in Billboard’s yearly top ten at the end of both 1980 and 1989. Care to guess?  Here’s a hint: she played herself in an episode of Seinfeld and professes a love for pineapple-flavored Italian ices. If that doesn’t whet your appetite for our next piece about five perfect albums from the 1990s, I don’t know what will.

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