Top Twelve Debut Albums

Country music is blessed with artists that are in it for the long haul. The very best contribute to the genre for ten, twenty, thirty, even forty years or more. But how many are able to get it right from day one? How many establish their bona fides the first time they go into the studio to make an album?

In all actuality, not many. At least, not many when you use a strict standard for what constitutes a debut album. It has to be the very first album the artist released, which disqualified great albums like Pieces of the Sky, Wide Open Spaces and Put Yourself In My Place. But just like regretting sex after too many beers can’t change the fact that your virginity is gone, you only get one first chance in the studio. Here are the artists who delivered the most the first time out.

Top Twelve Debut Albums

#12
Sugarland
Twice The Speed of Life
2004

They may have gone from a trio to a duo, but before that happened, they sang, played and wrote the best debut country album in a decade. The intensity of the fiery “Something More” and the saucy “Down In Mississippi (Up To No Good)” indicated that these girls (and guy) had actually lived life, not just studied it. No prissy Rascal Flatts harmonies here; they’re the real deal.

#11
Trisha Yearwood
Trisha Yearwood
1991
Right out of the gate, Yearwood established her formula of excellent songs performed with good taste. The mega-hit “She’s In Love With The Boy” scored with consumers, but they found a much deeper artist waiting when they listened past track one.

#10
K.T. Oslin
80’s Ladies
1987

Listen to just the first track and single, “Wall of Tears”, which is the only song on the album that Oslin didn’t write, and you’ll wonder what the fuss is about. Sure, her voice has some distinctive sass, but there’s nothing but cheesy synthesizer and uninspired production. It takes Oslin’s potent pen to make the album come alive, which it does right away with the second track, “I’ll Always Come Back”, one of two #1 hits from this distinguished debut. With the title track and the ferocious “Younger Men”, Oslin gave voice to an entire generation of real women. Her impact on her gender’s role in the genre cannot be overstated.

#9
Steve Earle
Guitar Town
1986

He was hailed as country’s own Bruce Springsteen for his Americana lyrical imagery and rock-tinged sound. He was certainly a working-class poet right out of the gate, as the title cut proved. Earle’s prodigious talent as a writer and performer made country music look cooler than it was because he chose to label it as such.

#8
The Judds
Wynonna & Naomi
1983

Wynonna’s unmistakable voice is wisely unadorned as she opens this first release from the legendary mother-and-daughter duo, unintentionally indicating that those mammoth vocals will be the driving force behind all their success as a duo until Wy would go out on her own. The song in question, “Had A Dream”, also showcased her great harmonies with Naomi and the rootsy sound that would establish them as a core neo-traditional act in the mid-80’s. Great hits like “Mama He’s Crazy” and “Cry Myself To Sleep” find a home along with fan favorites like “John Deere Tractor” and “Dream Chaser”, the latter of which is still in Wynonna’s solo set.

#7
Alan Jackson
Here In The Real World
1990

How does a hillbilly genius bide his time while he waits for his chance for a shot at the big leagues? If he’s Alan Jackson, by writing damn good songs. Jackson’s debut album featured instant standards like the title cut, “I’d Love You All Over Again” and “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow.” This album was so strong that Arista was able to pull another single from it five years later – “Home” – and pass it off as a new track from his first Greatest Hits collection.

#6
Randy Travis
Storms of Life
1986

Modern country music begins with the strum of acoustic guitar that kicks off this album’s first number, “On The Other Hand.” Travis gets plenty of deserved credit for bringing country back to it’s traditional sound after the genre bottomed out post-Urban Cowboy, but he was able to pull it off because of incredibly original songs that were performed impeccably. Come on; the man managed to have a #1 hit with a song that had the word “exhuming” in the chorus (“Diggin’ Up Bones.”) Beyond the hits, choice album cuts like “My Heart Cracked (But It Did Not Break)” and the gospel-tinged “Send My Body” reveal a man with wisdom beyond his age.

#5
Kim Richey
Kim Richey
1995

The only album on this list to not be a commercial success, Richey’s debut album was a flawless introduction to her inimitable writing talent. Her fantastic compositions are framed with a jangly country-rock sound that was way ahead of its time. The album may have sold only 100k, but more than half the songs have been covered, by artists including Patty Loveless, Lorrie Morgan, Suzy Bogguss, Mindy McCready, Ilsa Delange, The Stevens Sisters and Trisha Yearwood.

#4
Dwight Yoakam
Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.
1986

There are three covers on Yoakam’s debut album – “Honky Tonk Man”, “Ring of Fire” and “Heartaches By The Number” – but his trademark sound and style are already so firmly established that they blend in seamlessly with the seven Yoakam originals that populate the bulk of the collection. In fact, at his very best here, namely “Guitars, Cadillacs” and “Miner’s Prayer”, he manages to match the standards he covers.

#3
Dolly Parton
Hello, I’m Dolly
1968

Parton wrote ten of the twelve tracks that make up her debut album, a stunningly accomplished collection for a new artist. Her sharp wit permeates the clever hit “Something Fishy” and the bitchy “I Don’t Want To Throw Rice”, where she contemplates offing the woman who stole her man by “tying dynamite to her side of the car.” But she also creates an instant standard with “Put It Off Until Tomorrow”, and her songwriting is already heartbreakingly incisive on cuts like “I’m In No Condition” and “The Little Things.”

#2
Johnny Cash
With his Hot and Blue Guitar
1957

If you go and see the middling biopic Walk The Line, you’ll hear both the song that lands Cash a deal (“Folsom Prison Blues”) and the very worthy gospel number that nearly leaves him without one (“I Was There When It Happened”), not to mention the hit that supplied the movie’s title; that would be “I Walk The Line.” All three of these classics are on Cash’s debut album, along with his first big hit “Cry, Cry, Cry” and other great songs like “Remember Me, I’m The One Who Loves You” and “So Doggone Lonesome.” No youthful stumbling here; Cash hit a home run the first time out.

#1
Clint Black
Killin’ Time
1989

People wondered if Black was the second coming of Merle Haggard when he released his brilliant debut album. He never again lived up to the standard he set the first time out, but all the hype was justified at the time. Black serves up one great song after another, with highlights including the reflective “A Better Man”, the classic “Nobody’s Home” and the gin-soaked honky-tonk classic title track.. There was a brief time where Garth Brooks couldn’t get out of the shadow of Clint Black; Killin’ Time was the reason.

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6 Comments

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6 Responses to Top Twelve Debut Albums

  1. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar

    This is a pretty good list, although STORMS OF LIFE was by far the biggest impact album on this list and kick-started the “New Traditionalist” movement of the 80s – in fact I would call it the best album of the last 25 years.

    The Dolly Parton album, which I have owned since 1968, doesn’t belong on this list. It had no impact on the market at all – I picked it up in the markdown bin within two months of it being issued, and was , at best, a foreshadowing of what lay ahead. It’s an amusing album, but only “Put It Off Until Tomorrow” (a co-write) is ever performed anymore

    THe album that belongs on this list in place of Dolly’s album is COUNTRY CHARLIE PRIDE, the 1966 album that hit #16 on the album charts and guaranteed that country audiences would never give a flip about Pride’s “permanent suntan”

  2. AllanLCampbellNo Gravatar

    It’s amazing that all these great songs mentioned above were from the artists first albums. Clint Black’s first album belongs because it had 4 Number 1s. Another album that belongs on the list is Garth Brooks first album because it includes three classics like The Dance, and If Tomorrow Never Comes.

  3. Erik NorthNo Gravatar

    I may be blowing smoke here but, although it didn’t even chart at all anywhere, Linda Ronstadt’s 1969 solo debut album HAND SOWN, HOME GROWN is, in retrospect, an important first album–not only in the sense of introducing one of the great female artists of all time to the world as her own woman after having been the front woman for the folk-rock trio the Stone Poneys, but also because it is arguably the first-ever alternative country album made by a female singer.

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  6. MichaelNo Gravatar

    I wonder if country music is in another “bottomed out” period right now (I think so), and if so, who will release a debut album to save us a la Randy Travis? :)