200 Essential 80’s Singles
Part 7: #50-#26
“She and I”
Upon its release, this was one of the freshest-sounding singles on the radio. Alabama sound absolutely rejuvenated, as if finding a new track for their Greatest Hits project had them itching to take their sound in a new direction. Twenty years later, this remains a high point of an incredible career.
Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt & Emmylou Harris
Despite some nice harmonies from Ronstadt and Harris, this is essentially a Dolly Parton single, and it finds her returning to her mountain roots for the first time since going Hollywood more than a decade earlier.
“‘Til I Gain Control Again”
Crystal Gayle may seem like the most unlikely person to transform a Rodney Crowell standard into a #1 hit, but she pulled it off. Gayle never sounded better than when finally given a song this lyrically strong.
“I Don’t Have To Crawl”
Harris received a bit of a backlash for the Evangeline album, drenched with synthesizers and rock guitars that startled listeners who had embraced her bluegrass album Roses In The Snow only one year earlier. She absolutely nails the Rodney Crowell song that would later be recorded by his wife Rosanne Cash in 1988.
“It’s Such A Small World”
Rodney Crowell & Rosanne Cash
Yes, that’s three Rodney Crowell songs in a row. This one, he actually gets to sing on. This duet with then-wife Cash brought him chart success for the first time as a performer, and is one of the best duets of the decade. This was the first of five consecutive #1 singles from his album Diamonds & Dirt.
“Forever and Ever, Amen”
Travis sold five million records on the strength of this single. The relentlessly catchy hit was one of those rare country songs that became well-known outside of the genre during a time when pop crossover wasn’t happening on a large scale anymore.
“That’s The Way Love Goes”
Originally a #1 hit for Johnny Rodriguez ten years earlier, Haggard brought it back to the top slot. He’s more of a romantic than he’s given credit for. This is his best love song of the eighties.
“Tight Fittin’ Jeans”
Twitty sang a lot of drippy love ballads, but he never dropped down to Doug Stone territory because he always had a lot of songs to keep the male listeners happy. Here, he’s an average joe who meets a rich wife at a honky-tonk and gives her one night on the other side, after she informs him that “darlin’, there’s a tiger in these tight-fittin’ jeans.”
The first song written by a woman to receive the CMA Award for Song of the Year, Oslin was suddenly a country star in her mid-forties on the strength of this classic. She charts the changing roles of women in society through the story of three female friends over four decades – “We burned our bras, and we burned our dinners, and we burned our candles at both ends”, and “We’ve said ‘I do’, and we’ve signed ‘I don’t’ and we swore we’d never do that again”. Nearly twenty years later, listeners still wonder where the girls went from there.
“Why Not Me”
A country ditty that soars with the trademark harmonies that powered the career of this mother-daughter duo. Later Judds records were basically just Wynonna with mom singing back-up, but the intricate harmonies on “Why Not Me” show how much of a full-fledged duo they were in the breakthrough years.
“All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight”
Hank Williams, Jr.
Possibly the most well-known Williams song because of it’s use on ABC’s Monday Night Football, you can see where Gretchen Wilson gets her inspiration on this rowdy hit. Who can’t get on board with a guy who brags “I’ve got girls who can cook, I’ve got girls who can clean, I’ve got girls that can do anything in between” before yelling, “Do you want to drink? Hey, do you want to party?”
“The Way We Make A Broken Heart”
It started out as a creepy duet between Cash and writer John Haitt that didn’t make his album. Loving the song, Cash transformed it into a Spanish-flavored solo number that sounds a whole lot more sincere and a whole lot less skanky than the original, which is now available on a Haitt anthology sold on iTunes.
“Baby’s Gotten Good At Goodbye”
Strait has the ability to make even the most ordinary song sound extraordinary, through a delivery that authenticates every word he sings. He’s singing a by-the-books I’ve been left song here, but it’s effectiveness is due to his sincere delivery.
“Queen of Hearts”
It makes absolutely no sense for a woman to be singing these lyrics, but the deliriously catchy pop production distracts from that fact. Everybody can sing along to this one if they’re old enough to have heard it on the radio regularly.
“Hard Candy Christmas”
The title leads it to be revived every December on country radio, but this is a song about starting over, not about the holidays.
“I Believe In You”
One of the genre’s most underrated stars, Williams is fully convincing in his lengthy dismissal of just about everything but love, babies, and the woman he loves.
“Love Is Alive”
This is my favorite song about the meaning of love, which “ain’t just a word in every dictionary but nowhere defined,” but “alive and at our breakfast table every day of the week.”
“Honky Tonk Man”
Yoakam’s debut single kicked off his career in a big way. His cover of the Johnny Horton classic established his style and worldview immediately, which is difficult to do with a cover song, but made perfect sense for Yoakam. It sounds exactly like something he could’ve written himself.
“Whoever’s In New England”
Reba went from radio artist to record seller with this mega-hit about a wife who suspects it’s more than business that her husband is doing in New England. Her promise that “you’ll always have a place to come back to” after her man is done cheating is so desperate it could make Tammy Wynette blush, but it’s a wonderfully entertaining record, unenlightened as it is.
Lacy J. Dalton
One of my college professors made me aware of this song, noting that it’s the only record she can’t listen to without crying. The line that gets her in this ode to Music Row songwriters captures the moment of inspiration: “Then one night in some empty room where no curtains ever hung, like a miracle some golden words roll off of someone’s tongue.”
Yes, it’s a Lionel Richie song, and the backing track is anything but country. But nobody can nail something like this as convincingly as Kenny Rogers.
“She Got The Goldmine (I Got The Shaft)”
Tim DuBois wrote this hilarious divorce saga that is too bitingly clever to be dismissed as mere novelty. Reed’s fiery guitar work undercuts the humorous tone of the lyrics.
“Islands In The Stream”
Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton
Like I’ve said before, I don’t think this song makes any sense. Then again, it is a Bee Gees number, so I shouldn’t be that surprised. Rogers & Parton make a great pair on record, two distinct vocalists that can sell the phone book, and pretty much do so here.
“Telling Me Lies”
Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt & Emmylou Harris
Of these three women, Ronstadt probably has had the biggest influence on the actual vocal styles of female country singers today. Her heartbreaking wail had been off the country radio dial for nearly a decade when this single was released with Ronstadt singing lead. It’s the perfect showcase for a flawless singer with great taste in material. With Harris doing the bulk of the harmony work here, it’s a welcome throwback to their definitive collaborations in the seventies.
“Cry, Cry, Cry”
It’s not the Johnny Cash breakthrough hit, which Marty Stuart would release a cover of the following year. But it does have one of the best opening lines ever: “It’s just a little creek now, but when the rain comes down, it’s gonna be a raging river.” Lead singer Carlson vows “I’m gonna love that boy till the day I die, and till the day I do I’m gonna cry, cry, cry.”