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Vinyl Hayride: Country Music Album Covers 1947-1989

By Paul Kingsbury

Chronicle Books, 128 pages, $24.95, 2003

Reviewed by Robert Loy, May 2003

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The dates encompassed by this tome are in no way arbitrary. Prior to 1947, records were sold several at a time collected into a stamp-album-like book (hence the name album) with a plain wrapper. After 1989, the CD had completely eclipsed the LP as the recording of choice and the tiny 4 and 3/4 inch canvas offered by a CD cover makes artistic expression all but impossible.

But during those 42 years, music lovers had some incredible artworks to gaze at while listening to their favorite musicians. Country album covers have not received as much attention as their rock and pop cousins, and it's not fair because, as Vinyl Hayride proves, C&W covers can hold their own against their citified cousins on just about every score.

For example, rock covers are perceived as more erotic, but you'd be hard pressed to find a sexier cover than 1961's "Chet Atkins Goes Hollywood" fronted by a gorgeous, impossibly-buxom blonde babe in skintight pants or Waylon Jennings's 1966 "Nashville Rebel" where a topless woman's naughty bits are covered - but barely - by the neck of Waylon's guitar.

You say psychedelia is more your thing? Well, if Lefty Frizzell serenading a rooster on 1959's "The One and Only" or the shot of Porter Wagoner's gazing on a DT-suffering version of himself inside a bottle of rotgut (on doesn't give you LSD flashbacks nothing will.

There's plenty of humor here, some of it unintentional like Grandpa Jones in lederhosen on the cover of "Yodeling Hits," but most of it on purpose; Mad Magazine's great cartoonist Jack Davis did covers for Little Jimmy Dickens, Jerry Reed, Johnny Cash and others that are worth the price of the book by themselves. There's history too, everybody knows about Johnny Cash and historic albums recorded at San Quentin and Folsom, but how many recall Mack Vickery's 1970 "Live at the Alabama Women's Prison?"

In the final analysis, the best country album covers, like the best country songs, are the ones that tell a story. So many covers here, like Marty Robbins going for the big iron on his hip (on "Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs") and Merle Haggard hopping a freight (on "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive") tell such tales that this book, all by itself, is like a library.