Now that a new generation of hipsters is becoming enamored cassettes (for what reason one can only guess), it seems appropriate to reconsider another analog fossil, the 8-track. Cassettes were an upgrade to 8-tracks in that they were smaller and retained the quality of their playability longer with less upkeep--not to mention the user didn't have to endure the clicking over of tracks in the middle of songs--but 8-tracks sounded better due to utilizing wider tape. But all of that is really of little relevance concerning this conversation.
The legacy of the 8-track, as those of us who are old enough to remember it, goes back to the 1960's. It's heyday, however, was in the 1970's. The introduction of vinyl LP's allowed artists to conceptualize, creating albums instead of just cranking out 45 singles, and the 8-track did little to improve on that format But it did do something that records were incapable of--it allowed music to become portable, no longer confining it to living rooms and bedrooms where phonographs were usually located. Now music could go with you in your car, leading no doubt to much of the success of artists tailor made for cruising main street on weekend nights such as Bachman Turner Overdrive, The Doobie Brothers, and Ted Nugent. But what about country music?
Trucking was at its peak in 70's (especially in popular culture), and truckers then listened to country music. What better soundtrack to a long haul than Waylon, Willie, and Merle--and, of course, C.W. McCall, Dave Dudley, and Red Simpson. To say that the 8-track's popularity directly influenced how country music was made would be an overstatement, but to deny that many of the best country albums between 1970 and 1980 sounded best on 8-track (yep, even better than on vinyl) would be nothing short of oversight.
Now that I think about it there are five groups of artists; 45 artists (Hank WIlliams, Ernest Tubb), LP artists (Marty Robbins, Merle Haggard), 8-track artists (Eddie Rabbit, Kenny Rogers), cassette artists (Hank WIlliams, Jr., Alabama) and CD arists (Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson). But hell, maybe I'm just crazy. Here's a short list of albums that I will forever associate with listening to them on 8-track.
Eddie Rabbitt The Best of
Eddie Rabbitt was an 8-track country artist if there ever was one. He had some chart toppers in the 80's, but the 70's was his rightful era--and when he his did his best (and most country) work. Rabbitt's first best of collection in 1979 doesn't include his best-known hits, "I Love A Rainy Night," and "Drivin' My Life Away," but it's got a big helping of the best of the Urban Cowboy era. "Two Dollars In The Jukebox," "Drinkin' My Baby Off My Mind," and "Every Which Way But Loose," will make you want to dust off your feather-banded cowboy hat and start downing Michelobs. It's cheesy as all heck--in both production and delivery--but it ain't half bad neither.
The Oak Ridge Boys Ya'll Come Back Saloon
The Oak Ridge Boys were definitely of their era. Rough around the edges and polished at the same time, both gospel and greasy, they appealed to a wide country demographic. Ya'll Come Back Saloon's old West-themed album cover might have given the impression to the unsuspecting that they were riding with Waylon and Willie, but the music is more akin to The Waltons than the Daltons. No matter, this is great, clean, pop country (for the time), and features a pair of classics in the title track and "I'll Be True To You".
Waylon Jennings Ol' Waylon
Waylon's most popular solo album, and perhaps his most disjointed, Ol' Waylon was his first departure from the Outlaw movement he started. There's strings, studio choruses--in other words, the same trappings of the sound he rejected when he spit in Nashville's eye--but there was also still plenty of his piss and vinegar spirit left over. Hearing Waylon cover Neil Diamond and Kenny Rogers songs side by side with country classics like "Belle of the Ball" and "Luckenback, Texas" makes for an uneven album--but, for some reason, it worked perfectly as an 8-track. Maybe that's just my own nostalgia, but Ol' Waylon did end up marking the peak of Waylon's popularity, so he must have been doing something right.
Willie Nelson Stardust
One of Willie's best albums--and it ain't even country! If people somehow weren't convinced that Willie was a musical maverick previously, Stardust certainly sealed the deal. Willie's trip through the classic American songbook (centering mostly on jazz standards) is one of the great recorded works by any musical artists--country or otherwise. If you want to hear it in its full sonic glory, forget the CD remaster and track down an 8-track copy.
Freddy Fender The Best of
One of my personal favorites, The Best of Freddy Fender was a constant companion on our family fishing trips. I'm not sure why because we were about the furthest thing from being Tex or Mex, but nevertheless it remained one of most listened to 8 tracks. The 8 track format was perfect for Fender's music and voice, giving it an analog compliment that was as warm as the weather around the Rio Grande. I recently bought this on CD, but the digital version lacks the warmth and smoothness I became accustomed to. It's almost worth rigging up an 8 track stereo unit just to hear this collection the way it was intended to sound one more time.