Well, this has been a long time coming. So long, in fact, that the main spark of inspiration for this piece came shortly after John Prine’s passing last year. Naturally, of course, I took to revisiting his classic debut and kept continuously thinking of the artists who knocked it out of the park from the very beginning of their careers. Granted, great art comes in various shapes and sizes, and while some artists have just been consistently excellent throughout their careers, there’s also those that took their time to find their sound, and that’s OK, too. For some, their first offering simply remains their best. It happens.
So I’ve teamed up with a familiar frequent collaborator, Grant (of Critically Country), to discuss some of our personal favorite debut albums. Keep in mind that this is nothing more than a fun overview and not necessarily meant to offer a deep-dive into any one specific project or artist, nor is it meant to act as some sort of comprehensive guide – we haven’t heard everything out there. It’s all in good fun, hence why we haven’t ranked these or are touting these as the all-time best ones. These are simply ten first favorites that have shaped us as music listeners and thinkers. We invite you to share your favorites, too.
Randy Travis, Storms of Life (1986)
I’ve discussed before how I appreciate the class of ‘86 more than I do the class of ‘89 (even if Alan Jackson is an all-time favorite), and – spoiler alert – this is the first of two entries from that class, and it pained me to leave the last one off this list (though it was close). Anyway, long story short, after a decline following a post-Urban Cowboy era, country music badly needed a shot of rejuvenation, both artistically and commercially. It got it in various forms, and Randy Travis’ Storms of Life is the one that feels most familiar for the genre, a return to its roots where the actual material goes beyond just fitting squarely in line with an agreeable sound. If anything, Travis’ first offering is a little darker than his other output, featuring a complex meditation on cheating in “On the Other Hand” (plus the brutally similar “Reasons I Cheat”), a prison-themed tune in “Send My Body,” and a beautifully haunting title track that’s off the beaten path from some of the more lighthearted efforts that would dominate the bulk of his career. For me, when it’s loaded with classic singles and fantastic deep cuts, Storms of Life is one of those special albums that’s damn-near a masterpiece. – Zackary Kephart
Eric Church, Sinners Like Me (2006)
Eric Church’s debut is a favorite of many. Not only was this album full of quality and interesting songwriting, the instrumentation was as country as Church would get on any of his proceeding albums. On “Two Pink Lines” you get a fast paced song loaded with harmonica, about two young people that have a pregnancy scare that ends with a negative test and the girl fleeing the relationship. “What I Almost Was” is arguably the standout on this album, which looks back on the life that he almost had and thanks God that he chose a different path. – Grant
Steve Earle, Guitar Town (1986)
Speaking of the class of ‘86, though, I flip back and forth between this one and Storms of Life as my favorite from that year. Truthfully, I’m not even sure this is my No. 1 Steve Earle album, but it’s close, and if Randy Travis represented the side of country music returning to something familiar and comfortable, Earle represented the side willing to push a little further. As numerous writers before me have said, it owes as much to Bruce Springsteen as it does to Waylon Jennings while grounding itself firmly within that ever-expanding country music circle. It’s the kind of album that even non-country fans know of (shocking, I know), and the proof is honestly just in the material itself, from the classic title track, the punchy “Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough),” the restless “Someday,” the absolute weepers in “My Old Friend The Blues” and “Little Rock ‘n’ Roller,” and my personal underrated favorite, “Down the Road.” Nearly 30 years after its release, it came to dominate my high school years, and I’m forever thankful for that. – Zack
Jason Aldean, Jason Aldean (2005)
I know, I know, but hear me out! Jason Aldean wasn’t always an arena rock singer who sang songs that were full of drum machines and trashy lyrics. His debut was a great fusion of country and rock with real quality singles. “Amarillo Sky” described the struggle of farmers to make it and “Why” was an introspective track about why a man constantly hurts the one that he loves. – Grant
Kim Richey, Kim Richey (1995)
Confession time: I only heard this for the first time last year, from what I only assumed would be a deep-dive through the Country Universe archives and nothing more … until I came across a mention for this album, that is. Another confession: It’s the only Kim Richey album I’m familiar with, but that’s because I didn’t want to stop playing it when I first heard it, a noticeably darker, sharper effort that, of course, received zero support from the industry outside of some proper recognition from other artists for Richey’s songwriting abilities. It’s an album released in 1995 that doesn’t sound like it, because the material was sharper and unafraid to cut loose with some fantastic instrumental outros and sneakily supportive basslines that strengthen some fantastic, dark grooves here. It’s melodic as all hell, too. Another case where you might know a lot of the material from other artists, but it’s not a case of being ahead of its time, sadly. That would imply that country music eventually caught up with Richey’s country-rock edge … and that didn’t happen. It should have, and given how this is likely my one pick to not be immediately recognizable, I urge everyone to check it out. I still often find myself repeating “Those Words We Said” before finishing the entire album. – Zack
Maddie & Tae, Start Here (2015)
Maddie and Tae loudly entered the mainstream with their number one hit, “Girl in a Country Song,” that went after the bro-country scourge that had descended on country radio. Their debut was full of witty songs that definitely leaned more traditional than most mainstream country music of the time. “Shut Up And Fish” was another example of the duo’s great sense of humor, though they were never able to reach the success of their first single on country radio until “Die From a Broken Heart” came along. – Grant
Emmylou Harris, Pieces of the Sky (1975)
Here’s the thing: I don’t know if I’m cheating with some of my entries. A debut signals, well, the debut of an artist – their arrival on the scene to show audiences what they have to offer. By the time Emmylou Harris released Pieces of the Sky, she had already built up a strong following. And yes, most of this material is familiar for those “in the know” on their country music history, but it’s always eschewed the trademarks of being a “covers” album. For one, it’s a testament to Harris’ influences and subsequent love letter to her musical upbringing, coming at classics both from inside and outside the country music universe, because Harris simply bridged that divide. Between her angelic, unique voice and production that leaves plenty of room for the material to breathe, too, these feel like Harris songs, and that the Gram Parsons tribute in “Boulder in Birmingham” sounds like it fits right in is the greatest testament to her technical and emotive abilities. Simply put, one of the most beautiful albums I’ve ever heard. – Zack
Sam Outlaw, Angeleno (2015)
There aren’t many albums where I can say I love every single song, but that is absolutely the case with Sam Outlaw’s debut, Angeleno. On this album, Outlaw introduced the world to his clean, polished-sounding, California sound. There is plenty of steel guitar throughout the record in addition to great songwriting. The album leads off with the song “Who Do You Think You Are,” which describes a man falling in love with a woman who subsequently breaks his heart. “Old Fashioned” is a beautiful song about the type of love that two people share for each other, a love that is rare in today’s age. – Grant
Kris Kristofferson, Kristofferson (1970)
This was a happy accident that accidentally became successful. Confused? Think of how country fans of the early ‘70s felt when they gave Kris Kristofferson – an artist who had attained success through writing for other artists but not as much for himself – a chance with his (somewhat) self-titled debut, that opened with a topical, electric guitar-thumping criticism of upper-middle-class suburbanities that stood in defense of the Rolling Stones – again, on a country music album! All of these albums are songwriting triumphs, but aside from maybe one other pick of mine, this is one that’s … quirky. Kris Kristofferson started with every opportunity one could ever hope for and brought himself down to the same level as his audience, just to understand them. He wanted to write country music to understand the deep-seated pain his idols felt, so he could write with the same level of empathy and honesty. Kristofferson is the sort of album that was by no means initially successful, and had certain iconic songs here never reached the ears of other artists, we’d be observing it now as some cult treasure that should have been so much more. Perhaps it’s fitting that the biggest hit is “Me and Bobby McGee,” a song about a constant search for happiness and freedom that was a little too eerily reflective of Kristofferson’s own experience, even if no one really knows it because of that. But the rest speaks for itself, especially in “To Beat the Devil” and “Casey’s Last Ride,” and offered a collection that felt like a diary of observations and encounters with characters you’ll love to meet if you’ve never heard of them, or check in again with them if you have. – Zack
Easton Corbin, Easton Corbin (2010)
It’s hard to believe that Easton Corbin’s debut album came out over a decade ago already. Though his career didn’t turn out the way many neo-traditional country fans would have hoped, Corbin’s debut album was full of outstanding songs. All three singles from the self-titled debut were standouts, from the very traditional “I’m a Little More Country Than That,” to the fun and breezy “Roll With It.” Of the non-singles on this album, my personal favorites are “Let Alone You” and the reflective “Someday When I’m Old.” – Grant
Guy Clark, Old No. 1 (1975)
There are a few albums here that, while relatively unknown at first, quickly gained traction as well-known artists recorded songs from them. This album’s influence, however, was mostly used as a way to school Texas writers on how to properly write a song, with Guy Clark’s writing structured more as pure poetry than “tunes.” It’s an album that takes itself seriously, but more so through weary observations of drunken ramblers that sounds just a bit more somber and dark than your average affair. Maybe it’s because it’s a quiet record, or maybe it’s because it’s made specifically for its characters, where “Desperadoes Waiting on A Train,” “L.A. Freeway” and “Instant Coffee Blues” are as much codes to live by as they are songs. It certainly has its looser moments, but even “Let Him Roll” comes with the acknowledgment that we can’t change the road we’re on. Like the album as a whole states, we can only change how we approach the journey. – Zack
Flatland Cavalry, Humble Folks (2016)
If any band could ever take the place of the Turnpike Troubadours, it would be Flatland Cavalry. Humble Folks is a collection of excellent songs featuring loads of pedal steel and clever songwriting. “A Life Where We Work Out” is a lovely duet with lead singer Cleto Cordero’s fiance, Kaitlin Butts, that reflects on what could have been had a previous relationship not ended. Red Dirt star William Clark Green also appears on this album in the song “Coyote (The Ballad of Roy Johnson),” which tells the story of a man that smuggles immigrants across the border from Mexico. – Grant
Chris Knight, Chris Knight (1998)
OK, so it’s obvious how much this borrows from Steve Earle’s template of low-down, grizzly character sketches (though fitting, given how much influence he had on the artist in question, and it isn’t even the only example on this list). But even though Chris Knight has never been a technically great singer, his grit is unmatched on what is simply a standout effort for its time, if only for how dark and visceral it was willing to go in its subject matter. I mean, “Framed,” a defense of why it was OK for him to kill his wife and her lover, is the catchiest radio hit that never was one. But what I think I’ve come to love most about this album over the years is its thematic progression, how those same low-down characters gradually seek to find peace for their actions in their own lonely, somber ways. Toughness, then, comes in maturing from growing up too hard and too fast, told all too bluntly on “William.” Far too rugged for where mainstream country radio was headed during this time, but a gem that catapulted one of the genre’s best songwriters to deserved acclaim. – Zack
Turnpike Troubadours, Diamonds and Gasoline (2010)
The absence of the Turnpike Troubadours over the last year has left a hole in the country music world. The debut album from the band contains some of their most iconic songs, including “Every Girl,” “7&7,” and “Long Hot Summer Day.” Like Diamonds and Gasoline, the following three albums from them would contain some of the best songwriting in country music and a band of the highest quality to compliment the lyrics. – Grant
Dolly Parton, Hello, I’m Dolly (1967)
Obviously we know now of Dolly Parton’s cultural influence and importance. But before she released her first solo work, the industry knew and saw her as just “Porter Wagoner’s singing girl,” which isn’t a slight against Wagoner, mind you, just an observation on how far women in country music have had to come to be seen as more than just “girl singers.” She always stole the show anyway, and while I would say she was still finding her voice and sound in spots here, Hello I’m Dolly also houses some underrated gems and shows why Parton was always good enough to step out on her own, if only given the opportunity. “Dumb Blonde” shows that she’s fully in control, and while there’s plenty of gorgeously sad efforts like “Put It Off Until Tomorrow” and “I Don’t Want to Throw Rice,” “I Wasted My Tears” is the sort of weeper that doesn’t sound like one, if only because Parton’s personality is fully on display and would come to dominate her liveliest efforts. – Zack
Caitlyn Smith, Starfire (2018)
Though Caitlyn Smith’s sophomore album may have been disappointing, her debut was one of the best pop-country albums of the last decade. The songwriting throughout this album is outstanding and Smith has one of the most impressive voices in the entire genre. “This Town is Killing Me” and “Tacoma” are the standouts on the album. The former details the struggles of trying to make it in the music industry and the latter describes the desire to get as far away from a breakup as possible. – Grant
John Prine, John Prine (1971)
I mean … surprise! Now, I don’t often write obituaries, and if not for the general angst and mood of last year, I’m not sure I would have found the words for it, but when I wrote my tribute to John Prine, I was surprised by how little I found on him from my country music encyclopedias and other works. Such is Prine, though, who straddled the line between country and folk, never really claimed by either one (and, like, why?!?), but far more influential in modern Americana and alternative country than he ever was in Nashville. Like with Kris Kristofferson, I understand the hesitation to an extent with Prine based off his debut album, his best work and far too ahead of its time in the best possible way, especially with an opener that praises marijuana usage. What could have been a logical next step for the country music genre just wasn’t meant to be, I suppose. Oh, well. It certainly doesn’t detract from songwriting that mixes childlike humor with healthy doses of reality while never feeling immature or missing the mark. “Paradise,” “Hello in There,” “Angel in Montgomery” … even if you don’t know them from here, you know them, because artists and fans caught on to the album’s brilliance, and that’s not even to take away from what might be even better tracks in “Six O’Clock News” or “Far From Me.” It’s an album for the thinkers and dreamers out there, and while that’s true for the majority of this list, this is the one that’ll always welcome you back with a warm smile, just as Prine intended. – Zack
Josh Turner, Long Black Train (2003)
There aren’t many voices in country music as outstanding as Josh Turner’s. It’s hard to believe that the first single on this album was as sad and dark as “She’ll Go On You” which would be followed up with one of Turner’s most iconic songs in “Long Black Train.” Even the non-singles on this album are really great neo-traditional tracks, with my personal favorite being “Unburn all Bridges.” – Grant
Gary Stewart, Out of Hand (1975)
If I had to pick a favorite from this bunch, it’d probably be this one, an album I’ve discussed at length and one that just may be an all-time favorite. And for as much as I’m tempted to call Gary Stewart a relatively unknown presence in the genre, that’d really only be true for his time. Long after his unfortunate suicide in 2003, Stewart has become the sort of cult favorite that many, like me, have touted as underrated – even by Mike and the Moonpies. For the record, his other albums are great and worth checking out, but there’s a special magnetism to his debut that I still find hard to properly describe. It’s somewhere between Jerry Lee Lewis and Hank Williams, but borrowing from the unhinged nature of both acts that’s uniquely wild and depressing all the same. It’s the sort of album you sit alone and really listen to, preferably with the lights off and the shades pulled down, reveling in a man’s self-destruction. It’s a honky-tonk masterpiece that still deserves so much more attention, and while I’m careful to throw around descriptors like “authentic” and “sincere,” Stewart’s pain was the real deal. – Zack
Brad Paisley, Who Needs Pictures (1999)
Brad Paisley has one of the largest collections of quality music of any country artist out there. His debut album was no different, with great single choices from the serious “Who Needs Pictures” to the introduction of his quirky humor in “Me Neither.” This album would set the stage for the kind of artist Paisley would become over his two-decade-long career. – Grant
8 thoughts on “The Melting Pot: Favorite Debut Albums (w/ Critically Country)”
Lots of excellent choices here!
A couple of my favorites that weren’t included:
Clint Black, Killin’ Time
Joy (Lynn) White, Between Midnight & Hindsight
Brandy Clark, 12 Stories
Mandy Barnett, Mandy Barnett
Alan Jackson, Here in the Real World
Sugarland, Twice the Speed of Life
Highway 101, Highway 101
Iris DeMent, Infamous Angel
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I actually had Clint’s album in the running! Also should mention that I checked out a lot of selections based on your own feature for CU.
Brandy’s album is another excellent choice – I think I like ‘Big Day’ even more, but that’s one that would likely make it if I slightly stretched the list. Another one I’m sad didn’t make it is Hal Ketchum’s debut.
Sugarland’s album is great, too. Sadly, I think their reputation now lives and dies by ‘The Incredible Machine,’ which is a tragedy. Also have loved Nettles’ solo work.
You know, it’s funny you mentioned Iris DeMent’s album. Have to admit I’ve yet to check it out even though I’m familiar with her, and then I saw Pitchfork (of all outlets) reviewed it just yesterday. Thinking it’s a sign that I’ll eventually have to revise this!
Great choices! I agree with the Clint Black, Alan Jackson and Brandy Clark picks (I’m not familiar enough with the other albums – other than Mandy Barnett (see below) – to comment).
Re: Mandy Barnett – it’s a tough choice between her self-titled debut and “I’ve Got a Right to Cry,” but “Now That’s Alright with Me” from her self-titled album give the edge to that album. She has one of my favourite voices and I love going back and listening to those first two albums.
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Great read! You guys covered most of mine, but some I’d add are:
Billy Joe Shaver – Old Five and Dimers Like Me
Charley Pride – Country Charley Pride
Dixie Chicks – Wide Open Spaces (not technically their debut but…)
Joe Ely – Honky Tonk Masquerade
Lyle Lovett – Self-Titled
Miranda Lambert – Kerosene
Robert Earl Keen – No Kinda Dancer
Tom T. Hall – Ballad of Forty Dollars
I also second all of Kevin’s picks.
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Great picks, Andy! Honestly, judging from the responses I’ve seen here and on Twitter, many of these picks would have made my personal top 20 or 30, had I stretched this out a bit. Love your picks!
Some great choices here! I didn’t read this article in one sitting and I was thinking that I would suggest “Angeleno” in the comments, so I’m very pleased to see it here. It’s consistently great throughout and one of my favourite albums of the 2010’s. (I also love “Tenderheart” but it’s not quite as consistent).
As great as the Class of ’89 was, I also appreciate the Class of ’86 more. Dwight Yoakam is my all-time favourite (incidentally, Zackary, is “Guitars, Cadillacs, etc., etc.” the third ’86 album that you ended up leaving off of the list?), Randy Travis is in my Top 10 and I’m a big fan of Steve Earle as well.
“Guitar Town” is my favourite Steve Earle album (and his best, IMO, but I also really love “The Mountain”). While “Guitar Town” (the song) is excellent and some of the other songs are quite well known, I’ve always felt that “Down the Road” was underrated (and maybe the best song on the album), so I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks that.
While I can’t definitively say that “Storms of Life” is my favourite Randy Travis album without reviewing his discography, it’s right up there and was an outstanding debut.
I won’t comment on each album individually, but I love the Gary Stewart, Emmylou Harris and Brad Paisley inclusions here.
Here are a few of my favourite debuts that weren’t already mentioned in the article or other comments:
– Sunny Sweeney – Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame
– Dwight Yoakam (as noted in my comment above) – although an argument can be made that one of his other albums is actually his best
– Terri Clark – self-titled
– Clay Walker – self-titled
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Yep, I literally had Dwight at No. 11, and I hated cutting it. He’s one of my all-time favorites, too! I love Sunny’s album as well. In a longer list, I had her, Yoakam and Radney Foster somewhere in the top 10. Can’t believe how many artists were great from the start.
Radney Foster – that’s another great choice! If I set my mind to it and did a bit of research, I sure I could come up with some more, but, between the article and the comments, there are a lot of good choices here.