Ask anyone to name a great album cover, and I’d bet you’d get something from the rock or jazz genres. The best of rock imagery, especially from the psychedelic and progressive bands, have become touchstones of pop culture. Likewise, the Blue Note, Prestige and Riverside jazz labels were behind some of the best-designed and most influential album covers of all time.
But what about country music? It probably doesn’t make the short list for most people. And that’s too bad, as Vinyl Hayride: Country Music Album Covers 1947-1989 makes clear. Assembled by Paul Kingsbury and the staff of the Country Music Hall of Fame, the book lays claim to country music’s stake in the art direction game as a “very special, neglected corner of commercial art heaven,” and, by and large, I would agree.
Presented in chronological order to show “how country music album art has evolved over the years,” the approach also inadvertently reflects how copycat the Nashville industry could be. What works — or sells — is mercilessly recycled with other artists and labels, a charge that could be applied the music as well. Nashville was notoriously all about the bottome line.
The early records feature cool line-art illustrations and excellent typography before the fringe-jacket cowboy/gunfighter look came into vogue in the late '50s, followed by the Nudie suits of the early '60s. Those looks are probably how many visualize “country,” but The Battle of New Orleans from 1958 or 1961’s Chet Atkins in Hollywood hew more towards what was happening in the jazz world. Much as in rock music, the late '60s and early '70s saw a shift to more conceptual pieces that were often literal interpretations of the album title. Porter Wagoner practically owned this style and The Cold Hard Facts of Life stands as one of my all time favorite album covers. The photo concept and execution for Jerry Lee Lewis’ She Still Comes Around (To Love What’s Left of Me) is stunning.
The '80s style wasn’t kind to anyone and country music is no exception. I have no idea if Mac Davis’ It’s Hard To Be Humble is meant to be ironic, but one look at that cover should bring Davis down to earth in a hurry. Dolly Parton, Alabama and The Judds are all treated unkindly by those unfortunate '80s. In fact it’s this period when country music began morphing into pop and the “hat country” we’re saddled with today and the fact that the album covers also cease to be interesting, original and challenging should come as no surprise.
I love these kinds of books and, visually speaking, country music can hold its own with any genre. When it’s good, it’s really good. And when it’s not…well, Grandpa Jones Yodeling Hits is every bit as bad as you think it is. Kingsbury writes in the excellent introduction “Here, hokey meets authentic, kitsch meets cool, and frequently it’s hard to sort guilty pleasures from genuine masterpieces.” And that’s a big part of the fun of Vinyl Hayride.
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