#10 Deana Carter, “Strawberry Wine”
Debut: August 17, 1996/Peak: #1
Carter’s sandpaper voice was a perfect complement to the bittersweet nostalgia of this classic hit . The song made Carter an instant star, though she was never able to reach the heights of her debut album again. One of the best songs in Matraca Berg’s impressive songwriting catalog, she recently penned a sequel, “The Dreaming Fields”, which is the highlight of the new Trisha Yearwood album.
#9 Brooks & Dunn, “Brand New Man”
Debut: June 22, 1991/Peak: #1
All of those duos who’d been losing to The Judds at the all the award shows saw their chances of victory melt away when Brooks & Dunn hit the scene with “Brand New Man.” It sounds just as fresh today as it did back in 1991, with the raw energy of two artists with something to prove, hoping to finally achieve as a duo what had eluded them in their failed solo attempts.
#8 Connie Smith, “Once a Day”
Debut: September 26, 1964/Peak: #1
Dolly Parton once said, “There are only three real female singers: Barbra Streisand, Linda Ronstadt and Connie Smith. The rest of us are only pretending.” High praise indeed, but clearly warranted. Those bone-chilling vocals were already present in her debut single, which spent eight weeks at #1 and is now a country standard.
#7 Diamond Rio, “Meet in the Middle”
Debut: March 23, 1991/Peak: #1
Diamond Rio is one of the most technically proficient country music bands in history, and with their bluegrass influences, they can also turn in some fantastic harmonies. I don’t think they ever wrapped their talent around a stronger song than “Meet in the Middle”, so it’s not a surprise that this is still one of their best performances.
#6 Tanya Tucker, “Delta Dawn”
Debut: May 13, 1972/Peak: #6
Helen Reddy would have a decent-sized pop hit with this song, but it’s Tanya Tucker who sang the definitive version. A mere early teen at the time, her gutsy vocal has the perfect combination of sincere interest and morbid curiosity, the kind you would expect from a precocious teenager who is pondering the sad older woman who wanders around downtown “with a suitcase in her hand, looking for a mysterious dark-haired man.”
#5 Garth Brooks, “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)”
Debut: March 25, 1989/Peak: #8
For a man accused of bringing arena rock bombast to the mild-mannered country music format, he sure did kick his career off with as pure a country song as even the staunchest traditionalist could hope for. Something that Brooks gets less credit for is bringing the rodeo culture to the forefront of country music, and though he’d revisit the theme in later hits (“Rodeo”, “The Beaches of Cheyenne”), he’d never do it so poignantly again.
#4 John Conlee, “Rose Colored Glasses”
Debut: May 27, 1978/Peak: #5
John Conlee is, in my humble opinion, the best male country vocalist that most modern fans have never heard of. He launched his career with an absolutely brilliant tale of a man who is fully aware that he is deceiving himself, and that his woman has already stopped loving him: “These rose-colored glasses that I’m looking through, show only the beauty, ’cause they hide all the truth.” It’s the only one of his hits that’s available digitally in its original recording, thanks to a Grand Ole Opry compilation. If you haven’t heard this song yet, read the rest of this later and go “Rose Colored Glasses” now.
#3 Trisha Yearwood, “She’s in Love With the Boy”
Debut: May 18, 1991/Peak: #1
It seems that every time Trisha Yearwood’s name is mentioned lately, including by me, it’s accompanied by some variation of “the finest vocalist of her generation.” Has she gotten better with time? Yes. Was she already jaw-droppingly good when she recorded her first album? Again, yes. The song was an instant classic, the small-town love story endearing Yearwood to half the teenage girls in America and immediately establishing her career. She’d go on to record far more challenging and compelling material, but the innocent charm of this song, coupled with Yearwood’s impeccable performance of it, are as endearing as ever.
#2 The Statler Brothers, “Flowers on the Wall”
Debut: September 25, 1965/Peak: #2
There are few country acts in history with a more strait-laced, conservative image than The Statler Brothers, with their four-part harmonies being put to use on one nostalgic song after another. (“Bed of Rose’s” was a bit racy, but that’s about as edgy as they ever got.) Yet they launched their career with a doozy of a record, cataloguing a man’s slow descent into madness as he locks himself up at home, unable to socialize at all after being left by the woman he loves. Their eerie, sing-song vocals are insanity personified, and they’re against a backdrop of disturbingly cheerful guitar and banjo-picking.
#1 Jeannie C. Riley, “Harper Valley P.T.A.”
Debut: August 24, 1968/Peak: #1
A song that was exactly perfect for its time, but has a resonance that is timeless. Jeannie C. Riley had felt bruised and battered by the music business by the time she went in to record “Harper Valley P.T.A.”, and when she let loose in the studio, she poured all of her anger, resentment and indignance into a ferocious performance. A tale of a widowed wife who is chastised by her daughter’s school’s P.T.A. for wearing short skirts and “drinkin’ and runnin’ around with men and goin’ wild,” Riley sings with fiery conviction as she walks us through the confrontation that this woman has at the P.T.A. meeting that same afternoon.
One by one, she nails everybody in that room for their failings, repudiating them for their drinking, their adultery, and even their exhibitionism (“Shouldn’t Widow Jones be told to keep her window shades all pulled completely down?”) She doesn’t target them for their sinfulness, but rather for their stunning hypocrisy, calling out a single mom publicly for having a night life, while they’re breaking every Commandment under the sun behind closed doors (and open windows.) Riley’s hit is credited for giving voice to Americans in 1968 that were fed up with the hypocrites running the nation, and as we see public figures and politicians still throwing stones from their glass houses, and the tabloid media reveling in the personal failings of our celebrities, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” seems as relevant as ever.
Riley herself may not have a had another hit on this level, despite several fantastic follow-up singles that explored similar territory – “The Back Side of Dallas”, “The Rib”, “The Girl Most Likely” and “The Generation Gap” are all worth seeking out. There’s no shame in not matching your first hit, however, when it’s the best debut single in country music history.