What happened in country music in 1968 was this: it got harder and leaner in some places and much softer in others, a schism Bear Family's wonderful 1968 volume in their ongoing Dim Lights, Thick Smoke & Hillbilly Music: Country & Western Music Hit Parade quite ably illustrate. It's not so easy to say that the West Coast preferred lean, electrified twang while Music City liked things a little more polished. The opening Waylon Jennings hit "Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line" -- nicely bookended on this 31-track collection by Jim Alley's barely known version -- shows how the Nashville crew were happy to deliver tough hard rockers, while the California contingent were eager to overload their arrangements with strings, echoed guitars, and effects, all showcased on the brilliant, near-psychedelic "Wichita Lineman" by Glen Campbell. These two singles were perhaps the strongest evidence of how all the rules were changing -- and that includes the incongruous inclusions from two Gram Parsons projects, the International Submarine Band and the Byrds, neither of which came close to the charts and neither of which fit in with the rest of the material here even if they did suggest where country music would eventually go -- but apart from the strangely defiant George Jones, who feels utterly divorced from the zeitgeist, there isn't a song here that doesn't reflect the shifting sensibilities of the '60s in some fashion. Traditionalists like Charlie Louvin and the Osborne Brothers open up their sound to accommodate the changing times; Johnny Cash's spiritual hoe-down "Daddy Sang Bass" carries an electric charge; Loretta Lynn and Jeannie C. Reilly tackle feminism with "Fist City" and "Harper Valley PTA," but so does Tammy Wynette, whose "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" captures the pain of a splintering marriage, while "Stand by Your Man" illustrates its flipside. But the songs that still sound vital belong to Merle Haggard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Tom T. Hall, acts that bridge classic traditions -- whether it's honky tonk music or folk songs -- with a modern sensibility, and "Mama Tried," "Another Place, Another Time," and "Ballad of Forty Dollars" all feel rich, fully realized, and alive, songs that still speak to modern sensibilities decades after their initial release.
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