I’ve discussed before how artists craft their identities beyond the music at hand, from wardrobe preferences to style, presentation and beyond. It’s each artist’s individual way of saying, “this is who I am, and this is what I want to say.” Let’s question, though, how much of a part we, as consumers, play in crafting that role. We typically will gravitate toward artists we can most identity with, but at the end of the day, the artist’s crafted image is their own doing for themselves.
There’s another way of expressing that identity that works in the opposite way, so to say. Have you ever become interested in an album simply because of its cover? We all have, I think. The right image or idea can sometimes speak louder than the music at hand – or elevate it … or compensate for low-quality material, depending on your perspective. Simply put, album covers are fun to pore over because they offer an untold insight into how artists (and, to pull the curtain back, record companies) perceive us – our identities as music fans. And just like with the music itself, there’s a fascinating history that stretches beyond covers that simply look cool.
Despite country historically being the most single-minded musical genre – enough to where the album concept arguably wasn’t fully realized until the 1970s – the history stretches back to at least the ’40s, when 78-rpm albums consisted of three or four sleeved 10-inch records in a stamp booklet. Hence, you know, why they call it an “album” in the first place. Some covers simply consisted of a name and title, but others, like Roy Acuff’s Old Time Barn Dance album, featured looks that reinforced simplicity and a hayseed life through cartoon-like illustrations. Some are meant to endear themselves to simple themes of family and love, like Eddy Arnold singing to his mother on, well, To Mother, but others, like Homer and Jethro’s Fracture Frank Loesser, are just plain silly, as if artists played into and reinforced common early stereotypes associated with the music.
Those who know their country music history, however, will know that just as the music itself moved away from its hayseed beginnings, so, too, did the covers themselves as the genre entered the ‘50s and ‘60s. Notice the difference between those earlier covers and, say, Jim Reeves’ A Touch of Velvet. Just as the music itself became lavish and sophisticated through supple strings and backing vocalists, so, too, do our artists. Mr. Reeves is dressed in a red dinner jacket and looks more dignified, complementing country music’s increased acceptance within general popular culture during this time. Of course, there were exceptions, so as to appease critics who claimed country music was moving too far away from its roots. Lefty Frizzell simply sits on a fence in a nudie suit on The One and Only … next to a rooster (hen?), and the Louvin Brothers’ infamous Satan is Real … well, do I need to explain this one?
The other difference? They were actual pictures of the acts themselves, rather than simple illustrations. Both techniques had their uses though, especially to communicate artful expressions that were well ahead of their time before the album concept was fully realized musically: Marty Robbins’ infamous Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs features him dressed as a cowboy ready for a shootout, so as to reinforce darker tales of desperation in “Big Iron” and “The Hanging Tree”; Ray Price’s Night Life is all about the loneliness that amplifies itself at night, featuring a couple possibly ready to engage in a one night stand of future regrets … or perhaps not – personal interpretation is always the key, because again, it says more about us than it does the artists; Roger Miller’s Roger & Out features an illustration of him literally losing his head, because when you’ve got a reputation in Nashville of writing quirky material that no one knows how to take, you may as well as reinforce the notion that you’ve literally lost your mind.
My personal favorites? A pair of Porter Wagoner albums that quite literally paint a thousand words each. Just what is about to go down in The Cold Hard Facts of Life as Wagoner catches his significant other with someone else? My favorite personal touch is the subtle uncaring attitude displayed by all – she doesn’t care, her lover looks pleased with himself, and Wagoner looks like it’s a situation he expected. It’s so perfect, as is the Grammy-winning cover of Confessions of a Broken Man, in which Wagoner sits sitting dejected, depressed and at the end of his rope, going the extra mile to communicate the album’s main themes.
And as the genre moved even further into the ‘70s, things met in the middle in the best way possible. Record company profits rose, allowing more money for album art and for artists to truly unleash their own creative visions beyond the music. The women of country music benefited the most from this. Early record covers for acts like, say, Patsy Cline and Connie Smith are great, but you can tell what everyone besides the acts themselves had in mind with them – sit still and look pretty, because it’s a man’s world in the country music genre. It’s why I love Dolly Parton’s debut cover for Hello I’m Dolly, because for as simple as it is, the faint light shining upon that even fainter smile of hers is symbolic – her way of coming out into her own to show the world why she was always more than just “Porter Wagoner’s girl singer.” And Tanya Tucker’s TNT is her own infamous way of reclaiming her identity and starting over for herself.
And from there, she established herself as a fiery hell-raiser who could stand toe-to-toe with the outlaws. And hey, speaking of, for as corny of a concept as country music’s first million-selling album was in trying to convey the outlaw spirit through a wanted poster, it nevertheless fed distinct personas that the music itself further reflected. What sticks out to me most during this era is how much you can tell who an artist is simply off of a picture alone. Emmylou Harris stands all by her lonesome on Blue Kentucky Girl as the crowd carries on with its business, because she’s the outsider trying to stick her foot in country music’s door. It’s as if once the music starts, you can imagine that crowd looking on and forgetting whatever it was they were doing.
Not every cover is without its ridiculousness or is necessarily fancy – Hank Williams Jr.’s trashed room in Family Tradition reflects that – but it was conveyed in a way that was fun and could be taken with more humor than if conveyed through the music itself. And country music’s best covers ever since have been the ones that reflect those artistic personas. As country music moved through the ‘80s, for example, Randy Travis’ debut album, Storms of Life, took a back-to-the-basics approach in its image of a young Travis standing in front of a county store in black-and-white. Subtle, but beautiful. Reba McEntire’s My Kind of Country is noted as her own declaration of a love for traditional country music, and again, things are kept simple. She’s smiling, but it’s as if the photographer caught her by surprise and just happened to catch a great photo – something simple, something real.
And, to quote the aforementioned Travis, on the other hand? The ‘80s were one of country music’s artistically richest decades ever, and artists who didn’t feel quite at home at country radio used their art and artwork to express that. Lyle Lovett and Mary Chapin Carpenter both have album covers of themselves in black-and-white, out-of-focus images looking uneasy, so as to communicate their individuality. “We aren’t like other country artists” is the subtle message. And who needs to attach a name in an era when artists were embracing new communication methods that prior decades hadn’t offered? Rosanne Cash’s King’s Record Shop doesn’t feature her name, but it does feature, well, King’s Record Shop.
As country music exploded commercially during the ‘90s, so, too, did the album covers. Everything was, well, big. Extravagant. Humongous. Maybe even a little ridiculous to a point (how uncomfortable does Garth Brooks look in that Ropin’ the Wind cover?!?), but the idea was to look cool. Country music was the big player at the time, thanks to SoundScan. I mean, Dwight Yoakam’s This Time is literally just him standing in front of a giant clock. Shania Twain is standing next to a wolf. Alan Jackson is on a freakin’ motorcycle. Pam Tillis is sitting on railroad tracks knowing damn-well there’s a train right behind her! And since it was now the ‘90s and there were plenty of other ways to put faces to names – particularly through the explosion of music videos – sometimes an image of an act wasn’t even needed, like in the Chicks’ 1999 album, Fly. Of course, music videos also placed an increased emphasis on visual representation. Clint Black looks easy on the eyes in those early album covers because his image was part of the appeal. That also led to a lot of boring covers that consisted of acts smiling big smiles for the cameras with uninteresting backdrops. Artistry was still important, but not in every case.
That large split has basically carried over into today. The arrival of the new century’s improvements to photography via the digital age meant that film had basically become obsolete, and that while album covers may have lacked the same warmth and tone as before, they were easier to produce than ever. Simply put, too, with the rise of digital music outlets like iTunes, cover art had to be made to suit various forms of media and packaging. So mainstream country album covers often now look … safe. Plenty of male artists simply stand in front of a camera against a gray-ish background (“as if they’re taking a senior portrait,” to borrow from Grady Smith). But that’s what most people are likely to buy. It’s music nerds like you and me that analyze for something deeper. Facial expressions and items included within the background have always enhanced some of the best album covers, like with Miranda Lambert’s (literally) explosive image of her walking away nonchalantly in front of a burning car on Four the Record.
And in the independent scene, the old has become new again. Several artists have opted for vintage vinyl stylings of rounded corner frames featuring the artist, album name and track listing on the cover, from Gabe Lee to Yola, Colter Wall and beyond. Like with Lyle Lovett and Mary Chapin Carpenter before, it’s a way of communicating a difference between their preferred musical styles and modern mainstream country music’s style (or lack of). And sometimes a modern touch can work as well, like it does on Tyler Childers’ Country Squire to communicate a sense of weird, other-worldly wonder.
At a time when it’s never been easier to find new music, album artwork has arguably never been as important as it is right now in cutting through the clutter to grab listeners’ attention – and having it hopefully extend toward the music itself. And whether it’s a simple photo, portrait or other illustration, country music’s album artwork has a tradition and history as rich as the music itself. Regardless of what it says about us as listeners or the acts themselves, one simple truth is that an examination of artwork can be just as fun and enriching as one of the music itself.