Fervor Coulee Bluegrass Blog
Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time
Donald Teplyske | October 20, 2020
Over the last several nights, as I've shut my brain down preparing for sleep, I've been reading the recently published list of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Starting backward at 500, I read the entries a couple or four pages nightly. I finished the last 135 last night. After several evenings of reading, the last several pages were more skimmed than read, and while I was surprised and pleased to see "Songs In the Key of Life" at #4 and "What's Going On" at #1, I closed the issue, sat back, and waited for my brain to process. And when it did, it wasn't pretty.
I started skimming to complete the list because I just couldn't believe what I had absorbed.
Hey- I know! I am 56 years old, a white guy from western Canada. I know Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, and Taylor Swift aren't making music for me. It really doesn't matter to me that there are more OutKast, Kanye West, and Radiohead albums on the list than I could count. Not all music is made for everyone. But "Darkness on the Edge of Town" way down at 91, surpassed by The Doors' debut (86), "Never Mind the Bollocks" (80) and Amy freakin' Winehouse (33)? Come on; to quote Rachel Maddow, 'That's horse hockey.'
No, the inclusion of artists I've never heard of, and music I don't appreciate, isn't what was bothering me. The overall impression I was left with was, Roots Music doesn't matter.
While the compilers seemed to make an effort to include a handful of jazz albums—Coleman, Coltrane, Davis, Joni Mitchell—and a lot of hip hop, rap, and soul/R&B music, and even a couple old blues titles— what is obviously missing? Roots.
Outside mention of a single Johnny Cash live album, "Red Headed Stranger," and Hank, Sr., Merle, and Patsy Cline compilations, mainstream country music was pretty much ignored in the list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
No Garth, Charley, or Waylon. A single Loretta album, but no Emmylou, Carter Family, or the Louvins. Yes, a Miranda Lambert and a Kasey Musgraves lp made the cut, but that isn't exactly hillbilly, is it? Nothing like "The Bristol Sessions- The Big Bang of Country Music."
And the exclusion of roots doesn't stop there. Nothing in the form of Drive-By Truckers, Steve Earle, Alejandro Escovedo, Long Ryders, or their ilk. Not even a Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Rhiannon Giddens, Yola, Bobbie Gentry, Shemekia Copeland, or Shelby Lynne. Yes, there is the requisite "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" (not even The Byrds best album), a John Prine album, and a couple Lucinda Williams albums appear (thankfully) including "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" and Gillian Welch's "Time (The Revelator") made the list. But beyond that? Not much.
We have a Flying Burritos album, but no Gram. No Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Rodney, or Rosanne. No Nanci Griffith. No Jerry Jeff. Not even "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." Outside of early Dylan and a bit of Neil Young, even folk music—essential to the development of rock and roll—is overlooked: nothing from the British Isles folk traditions, nothing from Indigenous performers. A couple Crosby, Stills, & Nash (& Young) albums, but no "Anthology of American Folk Music." No Baez, Odetta, Seeger, Guthrie, or folk music recorded in the last several decades.
Heck, and I interject, aside The Band, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, I'm not sure there are even any Canadians, not even Leonard Cohen, k d lang, or The Hip, not that I'm a fan of the latter. Sorry—I forgot: Drake appears more than once. What, no Bieber?
I get—as the editors write, "...tastes change, new genres emerge, the history of music keeps being rewritten." No fooling! I might add, 'and forgotten.' But this list has so many holes in it, George Jones could drive his Lawn-Boy through them.
There are no George Jones albums on the list. Arguably the greatest country singer of all time, and Nope. No room. Madonna and Bob Marley cash-grab hit sets, and a pair of Black Sabbaths? Sure, come on down.
And, most egregiously to me, no bluegrass: No Flatt & Scruggs, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Larry Sparks, Country Gents, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, Dale Ann Bradley, New Grass Revival, or Ralph Stanley. Not even a token Bill Monroe set, or bluegrass-adjacent Doc Watson.
One can't help feel disappointed that a music that developed out of Appalachia, out of the tradition of folks playing acoustic music with all the inspirations of the British-Scots-Irish music blended with African influence should be ignored.
When one looks at the identified contributors—Gene Simmons? Really? Morrissey? In 2020, who asks Gene Simmons and Morrissey their opinion on anything? Billie Eilish? Steve Perry? Five people named DJ?—one isn't shocked or even necessarily surprised. When reviewing those representatives from the music industry, artists, and journalists, I don't notice anyone with obvious bluegrass connection, not even a Chris Thile. And don't tell me OCMS is bluegrass. They aren't.
What's the answer? There isn't one. No list is definitive, and this one will be in the recycle bin in a week or three. It doesn't really matter.
It is unfortunate though that roots music in all its iterations, but especially bluegrass, was so obviously overlooked in Rolling Stone's third edition of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Maybe Bluegrass Unlimited should attempt their version of the 500 Greatest Bluegrass Albums of All Time.
I'd contribute to that.
I'd buy it, read it, and save it, too!