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Various Artists, Anthology of American Folk Music, compiled by Harry Smith (Smithsonian, 1997)

Originally released in 1952 as a six LP set of dubious legality, Smith's multi-disc collection remains, without a doubt, the greatest document of America's traditional music. Nothing else even comes close. For an idea of just how deep a heritage country continues to draw on, the Anthology is absolutely essential. The full 84-song collection includes a staggering variety of hillbilly, gospel, cajun, and blues and showcases classic performers from musicians running full gamut from the lost to the legendary.

Various Artists, The Bristol Sessions, Vol. 1 (Country Music Foundation, 1991)

Johnny Cash once called Ralph Peer's 1927 recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee the "single most important event in the history of country music." This disc presents an introduction (with good liner notes) to that epochal session and some of its principle figures. Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family (the two most important acts Peer recorded) are both well represented here in the musical context of their time and place. The transfer and remastering has been handled expertly on this disc as well.

Various Artists, The Sun Records Collection (Rhino, 1994)

How closely does the DNA of country match that of rock and roll? Better than man and chimp, and at few times in the history of popular music was that clearer than during the heyday of Sam Phillips's seminal record label, Sun. Phillips basically owned the hybrid rockabilly style, and his label introduced the world to Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis, three figures that country and rock both have long claimed as their own. In the middle of the twentieth century, the histories of these two incredible musical genres converged at Sun to produce some hugely influential records, and it's all here.

Hank Williams, The Ultimate Collection (Mercury, 2002)

He was a superstar at 25, dead by 29, yet there are literally dozens of Hank Williams albums. Such is the man's legend that his material is revisited, remastered, and reissued on a nearly annual basis. There are quite a few good collections out there, but this is currently the one to have. All of the essential tracks are included, and the sound has been scrubbed cleaner than on most any other compilation. This is the doomed honky-tonk icon— famously described as a mixture of whiskey, lamb's blood, and grave dirt—exhumed for a new generation.

Various Artists, Wanted! The Outlaws (RCA, 1996)

Originally released in 1976, this was the album that saw the industry recognize the new generation of post-Opry Nashville outsiders, the so-called "outlaws." Capitalizing on the recent success of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson releases, Wanted! compiled tracks by Jennings, Nelson, Tompall Glaser, and Jessi Colter into a well-packaged and well-timed album that sold over a million copies. While undeniably a bit of a derivative cash-in, Wanted! was—and remains—a decent introduction to some of the "outlaw" movement's biggest stars.

Bill Monroe, The Essential Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys (1945-1949) (Columbia/Legacy, 1992)

One among many Monroe collections, this works as a great introduction to the history of bluegrass, the style Monroe invented, named, and dominated for decades. These definitive cuts are from the early days when the music was truly groundbreaking.

Patsy Cline, The Definitive Collection (MCA Nashville, 2004)

Patsy Cline was one of the greatest country singers of all time, and she casts a long shadow over the women who have followed the trail she blazed in her short career. Cline collections come out at the rate of several per year, but this one is the best single-disc introduction to her remarkable voice and stylistic range. "Crazy," "Walking after Midnight," "I Fall to Pieces": The highlights are here.

Garth Brooks, No Fences (Liberty, 1990)

With No Fences, the first multi-platinum country record, Brooks opened a new era for country music. The album dominated the charts and spawned a string of ubiquitous singles. Brooks had digested decades of country songs and styles, and No Fences proved him more than capable of distilling them into a crossover smash. Brooks took country to a bigger audience than ever before, put on bigger and more elaborate shows than ever before, and with No Fences, ushered in what some have called (often derisively) "stadium" or "arena" country.

Uncle Tupelo, No Depression (Rockville, 1990)

Released the same year as Garth Brooks's No Fences, Uncle Tupelo's debut album took country in an entirely different direction. Tupelo, which was primarily Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar, brought the urgency and crunch of punk rock to the sensibilities and subjects of country, and No Depression (which takes its name from a Carter Family standard) kick-started the alternative (or alt-) country movement. Over the next two decades, dozens of bands would follow Tupelo's path, and thousands of young, erstwhile rock and roll fans would find themselves listening to music that was decidedly country.

Various Artists, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Mercury, 2000)

The soundtrack to the Coen brothers' film of the same name, O Brother proved that there was still a potentially huge audience for traditional country and bluegrass. This was especially significant after a decade dominated by the new pop-country associated with Garth Brooks. Superproducer T-Bone Burnett brought bluegrass luminaries from the new and old schools together to record an album's worth of Depression-era material for the period film, and the results are fantastic.

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