The 15 country albums you need -- Records by Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and Loretta Lynn made our list

The 15 country albums you need

The country-music boom has touched off an explosion of reissues and best-of collections. Maybe you’re enthusiastic about contemporary country and would like to listen to more of its history, but you don’t know where to begin. Here are 15 current releases that define the form-a basic library, a hall of fame of homeyness, heartbreak, hard living, and high times.

Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys
Anthology 1935-1973
An impeccable summation of, as those dates imply, a vast body of work. Fiddler and bandleader Bob Wills brought an insouciant, jazzy rhythm to country music — that’s why they called it Western swing — and it reaches witty heights on jaunty yet urgent tunes here, such as ”Roly-Poly,” ”Take Me Back to Tulsa,” and ”Right or Wrong.”

Hank Williams
40 Greatest Hits
This is, ahem, It: the wellspring of modern country music. Williams was the source of inspiration for more of today’s whippersnappers than any other performer. On songs like ”Your Cheatin’ Heart,” ”I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and ”Why Don’t You Love Me,” Williams’ plaintive moan is scarily intense; sorrow, rancor, regret, and despair commingle in the best downer music ever made. He wrote ’em, he sang ’em, he lived ’em: Dead at 29 in 1953, Williams left this legacy.

The Patsy Cline Story
The recent Cline boxed set included virtually everything she ever recorded, but all you really need is this 1963 double-cassette/single-CD collection, which includes all her hits (”Crazy,” ”Walkin’ After Midnight”) as well as ample proof of Cline’s originality. She phrased like a pop singer — comparisons to Rosemary Clooney and Patti Page are not unwarranted — but placed her vocals in a dreamy, lilting country context. At her best, the result was sublime: pure sexy melancholy.

The Best of Lefty Frizzell
As the owner of an eight-record, German- import boxed set of Lefty LPs, I’m not rational on this subject — Frizzell’s keening tenor, with its octave-jumping gulps and half-yodels, is an immense pleasure. This concise 14-song collection (18 on CD), mostly from the ’50s, is the place for you to start, since it includes his most chipper songs (”Shine, Shave, Shower,” ”If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time”) as well as his bleakest (”Always Late (With Your Kisses),” ”The Long Black Veil”).

Loretta Lynn
Country Music Hall of Fame Series
Sure, sure, ”Coal Miner’s Daughter” is here, but that hit only hints at Lynn’s achievement as a country feminist in the ’70s. In particular, heed a trilogy of astonishingly forthright songs: ”One’s on the Way” (pregnancy and motherhood as exhausting work); ”The Pill” (a grateful celebration of birth control); and ”When the Tingle Becomes a Chill” (an unhappily married woman’s sexual yearning). These were unheard-of sentiments in country music at the time; even more striking for a genre perceived as socially conservative, they were all big hit singles.

The Best of George Jones(1955-1967)
George Jones’ singing is a country-music litmus test: If you can’t stand his stylized, nasal, clenched- jaw attack, maybe you should stick to your Dan Fogelberg records. This album collects the biggest singles from the first half of Jones’ career. They range from the gulping, galloping novelty hits ”White Lightning” and ”The Race Is On” to ballads such as ”The Window Up Above” and ”She Thinks I Still Care,” in which Jones’ baleful croon conveys romantic agony as have few other sounds in popular music.

The Best of Dolly Parton
Before her chest, her wigs, and her giggle turned her into a cartoonish sex symbol, Parton spent the early ’70s writing and singing many beautifully crafted story-songs — tales of Tennessee mountain life like ”Jolene,” ”Coat of Many Colors,” and ”The Bargain Store.” Frequently accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, supported by low-key instrumental backing, Parton sang in a delicate voice that was sure and strong. This early artistry is a treasure waiting for a new generation of country fans to unearth.

The Essential Ray Price
This collection of his best ’50s work makes the case for Price’s amazing versatility. As a hard-core honky-tonker, he wailed ”Wasted Words” and ”Crazy Arms”; as a reassuring balladeer, he used his dark baritone to offer an ”Invitation to the Blues.” He invented a medium-tempo shuffle rhythm that became known as ”the Ray Price beat,” and led a great backup band, the Cherokee Cowboys, which at different times included Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, and other greats before they were great. Essential contains his sturdiest, most ambitious music.

Willie Nelson
Red Headed Stranger
This 1975 release was arguably country music’s first concept album: a string of songs about a preacher who shoots his wife and her lover dead, loses his faith, and roams the West in despair. Its emotional frankness and uncommercial leanness made Columbia reluctant even to release it, yet Stranger wasn’t just a cult hit: It sold more than 2 million units, and ”Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” is now something of a pop-music standard.

Ernest Tubb
Live 1965
Tubb’s flat Texas voice and wooden phrasing are just the things country haters despise about the genre, but he’s a pioneer anyway: In the mid-to late ’40s, when country was dominated by acoustic instruments and homey sentiments, Tubb and his band toured raucous honky-tonks, using electric guitars to be heard over the din, singing about rough lives (”Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin”) and infidelity (”Slipping Around”). This live set reveals him in his element, playing all his hits.

Buck Owens & The Buckaroos
Live at Carnegie Hall
Recorded in 1966, an amazing document: Owens, the Bakersfield, Calif., rebel who had stunned Nashville with a string of No. 1 singles, invades New York. He cracks corny jokes, rips the place up with ”Under Your Spell Again” and ”Together Again,” and ridicules the Beatles — this, the year after Ringo had cut Buck’s ”Act Naturally.” In ’69, Owens became the cohost of TV’s Hee Haw, playing a red-white-and-blue guitar, became rich, something of a joke himself, and creatively complacent. Live proves he was once a humdinger.

Merle Haggard
The Capitol Collector’s Series
Like Buck Owens, Haggard is from Bakersfield, but his music is very different: darkly fatalistic, filled with the details of a troubled past (”The Bottle Let Me Down,” ”I’m a Lonesome Fugitive”). He became a right-wing hero with 1969’s antihippie ”Okie from Muskogee,” but his politics were as independent as his musical style, a mixture of honky-tonk, R&B, and folk, with lyrics that are often lovely elegies to simpler, gentler times.

George Jones and Tammy Wynette
Greatest Hits
No other country singing duos dramatized the ups and downs of married life as did the real-life couple of George and Tammy. In the early ’70s, from ”The Ceremony” to ”We’re Gonna Hold On” to ”We Loved It Away,” they sang their soap opera as they lived it — except that in the studio, they had producer Billy Sherrill’s soothing string section as a musical marriage counselor. They still sang together after their D-I-V-O-R-C-E in 1975, but these early hits represent their heartfelt peak.

Gary Stewart
Out of Hand
”A Country Music Classic,” says a banner on the recent HighTone reissue of Stewart’s 1975 RCA debut, and that ain’t no hype: Although it’s easily the most obscure album on this list, it’s also one of the most accessible, filled with rollicking humor and tremulous emotion. A former airplane-factory worker who admits in the leadoff cut that he’s got a ”Drinkin’ Thing,” Stewart comes across like Jerry Lee Lewis with a poet’s soul, imbuing even his funniest song title-”She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)” — with a poignant, even desperate, edge.

George Strait
Greatest Hits Volume Two
Cited by Garth Brooks as a highly admired contemporary, the white-hatted Strait is a crucial transitional figure in late-’80s country, as this collection demonstrates. He repopularized Bob Wills’ Western swing on ”All My Ex’s Live in Texas”; he combined country and pop on ”Ocean Front Property”; and hits like ”The Chair” and ”The Fireman,” songs as elegantly simple as their titles, prefigured the New Traditionalism of Garth ‘n’ Randy ‘n’ Clint. A bit lost in the current shuffle, Strait is underrated. Handsome devil, too.