100 Greatest Women, #8: Trisha Yearwood

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June 23, 2008

100 Greatest Women

#8

Trisha Yearwood

She once said that her goal is to create music that won’t make Emmylou Harris want to avoid her if she saw her coming down the street. For nearly two decades, Trisha Yearwood has certainly achieved that goal, as she has been the genre’s most consistently excellent recording artist, with a stronger ear for material than any of her contemporaries and nuanced performances that draw on her vocal power without exploiting it.

She was born and raised in Monticello, Georgia, the daughter of a banker father and schoolteacher mother. She was a big fan of Elvis Presley when she was young, but her passion for music really developed when she first heard Linda Ronstadt. She later said that it was the first time she heard a singer with real emotion in her voice, and when she met with her producer years later, she brought Ronstadt’s Prisoner in Disguise album with her and said, “This is the kind of music that I want to make.” Another pivotal moment in her musical development was hearing Rosanne Cash’s “Seven Year Ache”, which she later called the first country record that seemed relevant to her generation, rather than being her parents’ country music.

Yearwood loved singing publicly, but she was also sensible, and she pursued a business degree at a junior college. She moved to Nashville to complete her education, studying at Belmont University as a Music Business major. This led to her first industry job, as an internship at MTM Records became a full-time job after graduation. Her vocal talent did not go unnoticed, and she soon became an in-demand demo singer. She built a solid reputation for learning songs quickly, so those that hired her could save on studio time by having her sing the demos. Legend has it that she was so fast that she could double-park her car and be in and out before she’d get a ticket.

Yearwood became friends with Garth Brooks, a rising young country singer, and they made a pact that whoever broke through first would help the other one. Brooks earned a deal with Capitol Records, and employed Yearwood as a backup singer on his albums. By that time, Yearwood had begun a partnership with producer Garth Fundis, known for his work with Don Williams and Keith Whitley. Fundis arranged a showcase concert for Yearwood, with the expectation that RCA would sign her to a deal. As an afterthought, he also invited MCA to the showcase. To his surprise, RCA didn’t extend and offer, but Tony Brown at MCA did, and Yearwood joined the roster of the top label in town.

Yearwood and Fundis recorded her debut album efficiently, as the label shipped her lead single “She’s in Love With the Boy” to radio. Meanwhile, Garth Brooks invited Yearwood to be his opening act, and the stage-shy singer was suddenly playing in front of thousands of people every night. The audiences soon knew who she was, as her debut single took off like a rocket. By the summer of 1991, Trisha Yearwood was the first woman to have her first single go #1 since Connie Smith in 1964, and the “young love” theme of the song endeared Yearwood to little girls across America.

Yearwood’s self-titled debut album eventually sold two million copies, the most successful first album by a female country artist at the time. As she scored more hits with “Like We Never Had a Broken Heart”, “That’s What I Like About You” and “The Woman Before Me,” she was honored by the ACM with the Top New Female Vocalist trophy. However, as Yearwood prepared her second album, she was determined to make a strong artistic statement rather than try to replicate the success of “She’s in Love With the Boy.”

Listeners got their first taste of her new musical direction with lead single “Wrong Side of Memphis,” a country-blues number that was bolder than anything on her debut record. Her sophomore set Hearts in Armor was released to astonishing critical acclaim, as she mined the catalog of songwriters like Beth Nielsen Chapman, Matraca Berg and Jamie O’Hara. In the studio, she harmonized with everyone from Garth Brooks and Vince Gill to Emmylou Harris and Don Henley, on a set that was heavy on introspective ballads.

After establishing her credibility as an album artist with Armor, she followed with another collection of mature songs, The Song Remembers When. The title cut became one of her signature songs, and the set closed with her stunning revival of Matraca Berg’s “Lying to the Moon,” which Berg herself didn’t perform for a long time afterward because she felt that Yearwood had blown away Berg’s performance of her own song. When the Grammys reintroduced the Best Country Album category, the set was nominated, starting an unbroken run of every Yearwood studio album being nominated for Best Country Album.

After a solid Christmas set in 1994, Yearwood released her road album, Thinkin’ About You, in 1995. The set featured women leaving failing relationships by car, bus and train, along with a handful of songs about women sticking around, either because they’re newly in love, like on the #1 title track, or because they’re working full-time while also running a household (“XXX’s & OOO’s”). The album became Yearwood’s fourth straight platinum studio set, and “On a Bus to St. Cloud,” a majestic Gretchen Peters ballad, became a crossover Adult Contemporary hit.

After winning a CMA for her contribution to an Eagles tribute album and a Grammy for covering “I Fall to Pieces” with Aaron Neville, Yearwood released her sixth album, Everybody Knows, in 1996. The title cut and the Kim Richey-penned “Believe Me Baby (I Lied)” were both major hits, and Yearwood was a featured performer at the 1996 Summer Olympics, held in her native Georgia.

She was then invited to sing the theme to the movie Con Air, “How Do I Live,” which would become one of her biggest hits and won her another Grammy. As the lead single of her first hits collection, it powered that set to huge opening-week sales, becoming her first #1 album. {Songbook} A Collection of HIts also featured her Grammy-winning duet with Garth Brooks, “In Another’s Eyes”, and the #1 single “Perfect Love.” The set went on to sell four million copies, and Yearwood swept the industry vocalist awards on the strength of it, winning CMA Female Vocalist in 1997 and 1998 and ACM Top Female Vocalist in 1998.

The singles from the hits collection were her first to be produced by Tony Brown, and he helmed her entire CD that followed, the pop-flavored Where Your Road Leads. The platinum album was powered by “There Goes My Baby”, and during the set’s run, Yearwood was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. However, despite the success of the project, it was Yearwood’s least ambitious album since her debut, and she returned to work with Garth Fundis on her next set.

She was determined to make the album that she always dreamed of making, and that dream was realized with her 2000 release Real Live Woman. The title cut and lead single made a strong feminist statement about true beauty, and Yearwood turned in her strongest vocal performances to date on the Mary Chapin Carpenter and Kim Richey rocker “Where Are You Now” and her awe-inspiring revival of Linda Ronstadt’s “Try Me Again.”

In 2001, Yearwood had a top five hit with “I Would’ve Loved You Anyway”, from her #1 album Inside Out. The set was her second and last album to not be produced by Garth Fundis, as she worked with Mark Wright instead. It was a solid album that featured a cover of Rosanne Cash’s “Seven Year Ache,” with Cash herself singing backup. It also included one of her most traditionally arranged cuts, “I Don’t Paint Myself into Corners,” which became a fan favorite.

Yearwood took time off for the first time in her career after that album, but she returned in 2005 with what would be her MCA swan song, Jasper County. The album was previewed by the bittersweet ballad “Georgia Rain”, and it earned her a trio of Grammy nominations. It opened with the biggest first-week sales of her career, and was certified gold only a month after its release.

Yearwood’s deal with MCA ended with the project, and she chose to switch labels to the independent Big Machine. Her 2007 release for the label, Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love, was yet another smash with critics, and was anchored by Matraca Berg’s “Dreaming Fields,” a spiritual sequel to the Deana Carter classic “Strawberry Wine.”

After being so consistently excellent for such a long period of time, Trisha Yearwood may be taken for granted, as it is a given that each album will be a collection of quality songs sung to perfection. But besides an excellent body of work, wgat’s also worthy of celebration is the music that Yearwood didn’t make. She has a powerhouse voice that could sell anything, but she chooses to sing great songs instead. She could showboat with big, dramatic performances, but she chooses to interpret her material with nuance and restraint instead. She could have been a calculating radio star and pander to her audience with fluffy songs aimed at getting airplay, but she chooses to record deep and meaningful songs instead. She could have been just an awesome singer, but she chose to be an artist instead.

The end result is that Trisha Yearwood is now the owner of the most consistently excellent catalog of anyone in country music that has come along in the last twenty years. She is not only good enough to warrant Emmylou Harris staying on the same side of the street, she’s worthy of being in Emmylou’s company among the best serious recording artists in country music history. From the era that produced more great female country artists than any other, Trisha Yearwood has proven herself to be the best out of all of them.

Trisha Yearwood

Essential Singles

  • “She’s in Love With the Boy,” 1991
  • “Wrong Side of Memphis,” 1992
  • “The Song Remembers When,” 1993
  • “On a Bus to St. Cloud,” 1996
  • “Believe Me Baby (I Lied),” 1996
  • “How Do I Live,” 1997
  • “There Goes My Baby,” 1998
  • “Real Live Woman,” 2000
  • “Georgia Rain,” 2005

Essential Albums

  • Hearts in Armor (1992)
  • The Song Remembers When (1993)
  • Thinkin’ About You (1995)
  • Everybody Knows (1996)
  • Real Live Woman (2000)
  • Jasper County (2005)
  • Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love (2007)

Industry Awards

  • ACM Top New Female Vocalist, 1992
  • ACM Top Female Vocalist, 1998
  • CMA Album (Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles), 1994
  • CMA Female Vocalist, 1997 & 1998
  • Grammy: Best Country Collaboration With Vocals (“I Fall to Pieces”), 1995
  • Grammy: Best Country Collaboration With Vocals (“In Another’s Eyes”), 1998
  • Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (“How Do I Live”), 1998

==> #7. Patsy Cline

<== #9. Kitty Wells

100 Greatest Women: The Complete List

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  1. Dan M.No Gravatar says:

    Oof, nine essential singles. I don’t know if she really needed that many, terrific though they all are. And I personally would have subbed out “Georgia Rain” for “This Is Me You’re Talking To,” because although the former will probably remain the bigger chart hit, the latter is perhaps her best vocal performance to date (in my opinion, anyway).

    And of course that’s all just my standard quibbling. This is an especially great write-up and it will be very hard for anyone who actually reads it to argue that she doesn’t belong where you’ve ranked her.

  2. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar says:

    I really like Trisha Yearwood; I have all of her albums and listen to them all with some frequency, but as I commented earlier, sheer excellence of execution is not enough in and of itself. I like her singing much more than I like Shania Twain or any of the Dixie Chicks but they belong ahead of Trisha Yearwood. I have her 30th on my list

    This is simply too high in terms of her overall importance to the genre. Had Trisha Yearwood never existed, the genre would be about as it is today anyway. You can’t say that about Emmylou, Loretta Lynn, Jean Shepard, Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells, Maybelle & Sara Carter or several others. They made a real difference in shaping the music

  3. TomNo Gravatar says:

    true, trisha yearwood has not given the genre or even just the female world of country music a “new direction”. moreover, she probably could only win an “entertainer of the year award” if everbody else in country music would have a broken leg and a broken arm at the same time.

    but, if an artist manages to create an output of such superb artistic quality, both in terms of substance, execution and delivery over such a long period of time, any argument about where she should be rightfully placed among the “greatest” becomes totally academic. not only does she belong into the very top, from my point of view, she even defines what should be considered the top level of the genre.

    fair enough, there’s still considerable room for improvement when it comes to her live-performances.

  4. B. JonathanNo Gravatar says:

    I found myself wishing to write a number of five-dollar words to describe Trisha’s contribution to the genre, but I believe Kevin summed it up.

    Trisha may not be a revolutionary figure in the world of country music, but her sense of songcraft and her deep, profound knowledge of how to perform a lyric is truly one-of-a-kind. She is equally capable on rock-infused numbers as she is gut-wrenching ballads, and her albums are a testament to making fully-realized artistic statements at every turn.

    As the years pass, her contribution in terms of good, quality, country music will surpass most, if not all, artists in the last 20 years. The top ten greatest country women is quite an elite list, but I’m confident Trisha belongs.

  5. B. JonathanNo Gravatar says:

    Oh, and I find that her stage presence has blossomed in the last decade or so.

  6. Erik NorthNo Gravatar says:

    Trisha is probably my favorite mainstream female country artist of the last twenty years, pure and simple; and it’s based on her consistently wanting to do songs she can believe in, and not just merely put something on an album because she thinks it’ll be a hit.

    But sometimes I think she is sold short by country radio precisely because she doesn’t see herself as a non-stop hit-making machine. I think they’d love to see another “She’s In Love With The Boy”, and she hasn’t been willing to deliver it. Other times, I feel that they talk about her marriage to Garth Brooks in such a gratuitous way that it all unfairly obscures her own achievements as an artist.

    The fact that she names icons like Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris as the most important influences on her style is strong evidence of Trisha really placing her money where her mouth is. Both Linda and Emmylou are known for being very great singers onstage despite their inherent shyness; both see themselves as left-of-center artists; and both choose songs based on what they feel is right for them, not necessarily what is right for radio. Trisha in large part has succeeded, often brilliantly, in following that mantra; and it is for that reason that she needs to be taken seriously (IMHO).

  7. KevinNo Gravatar says:

    I saw Trisha live two weeks ago for the first time since 2002, and I was blown away by how much stronger she was as a performer, right down to honoring requests of random album cuts (“Under the Rainbow.” SERIOUSLY.) to doing a pitch-perfect Garth imitation while singing half of “Friends in Low Places.” She also spoke self-deprecatingly about body image issues, and how she just felt the problem is that the Kelly Ripas of the world don’t get to eat good southern meals. That her vocals were beyond amazing is a given. It was a great show.

  8. Tony C says:

    Her gift as a song interpreter are unmatched. She can find the truest emotion in even the most ordinary of lyrics. That’s not to say she often sings mundane lyrics, as her song selection is impeccable. True her effect on the genre hasn’t been on the level of others, but in terms of sheer greatest of craft she solidly belong in this upper echelon of females.

  9. Steve says:

    Trisha is an amazing vocalist, there’s no doubt. But top 10? I don’t know about that. She just simply hasn’t impacted country music in a way that would put her in the top 10 in my opinion. Top 20, now i can see that. And putting her ahead of Kitty Wells??? Thats realllly pushing it. She was really the first female superstar, and to put Trisha in front of her is just really wrong to me.

  10. thechasethielbarNo Gravatar says:

    But this list isn’t just about who impacted the genre the most, it is also about who makes the best music, and Trisha really does make great music. She is an album-artist at most, she makes albums, not just singles that make big hits on radio. Which all too many artists do.

    Every one of her albums is worth buying, as it is excellence. And her voice is also something to be noted, she has probably the best voice from a female artist that I think I will ever hear in my lifetime, she sounds almost exactly(and sometimes better) than she does on her album.

    I heard someone placed her 30th! That is way too low. I’m really not complaining that this is where she is put, as I strongly feel she deserves it.

  11. I know I am in the minority here when I say I don’t really get into Trisha Yearwood. I do like a few of her songs, and do own a few of her albums. I have even seen her concert. She is a great singer, but much her music does not move me.

    When I hear Pam Tillis sing “The River and the Highway” or Patty Loveless sing “A Thousand Times a Day” I feel real emotion. I don’t feel that emotion when I hear Trisha’s music. Even when I saw Trisha in concert in 1994 with Brooks & Dunn, I thought she was devoid of emotion even as she was brilliantly hitting notes most artists could only dream of hitting.

  12. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar says:

    One thing to keep in mind: with the obvious exception of comics such as June Carter and Minnie Pearl and a few songwriters who really aren’t great singers (Cindy Walker, KT Oslin and Matraca Berg come to mind as great songwriters who are only okay as singers) ALL of these artists made some really great music.

    Yes, Trisha Yearwood is a great singer, but so were Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells , Patsy Cline , Connie Smith. Charley McClain, Reba McEntire, Skeeter Davis. Moreover, the freedom to pick and chose material was a freedom that was won for Trisha by her many predecessors

  13. Dan M.No Gravatar says:

    It’s true that Trisha reaped the benefits of being a modern-day female singer, but I don’t think that her lack of “revolutionary” historical significance should detract from the strength of her musical legacy. As the post pointed out, she could have boasted arguably one of the finest voices to ever come out of the genre – in the same league as Patsy Cline and Connie Smith, in my opinion – without ever producing one of the most consistently excellent catalogues in the history of the genre, but she did do the latter.

    A list like this is duty-bound to recognize the trailblazers who gave her those opportunities – and in my opinion most of the ones to whom Yearwood owes real debts are indeed ranked ahead of her (I agree Kitty Wells deserved an even better spot) – but it also can’t ignore the gigantic impact of the last two decades or so, and I believe the list is correct in naming Yearwood the rightful musical ambassador (among women) of this contemporary era. Again, I say give it a decade or two to see who music historians smile most favorably on – my money’s on the gal with the big voice.

  14. Kelsey says:

    If you don’t feel emotion when listening to Trisha Yearwood music, I question whether or not you’re actually listening. Country music critics have called her “the best musical interpreter in any genre at any time”. I’m an actor, and I often listen to Trisha’s music before a performance for an emotional warm-up. Also, I understand that she doesn’t get wild and crazy with her stage entertainment as many artists do, but she doesn’t have to. Other artists do it to make up for vocal gifts that they lack, while Trisha can just stand at a microphone to sing and be majestic.

  15. LeeannNo Gravatar says:

    I’m surprised that I’ve neglected to comment on this post. I love Trisha Yearwood! I fully expected her to be on the top 10. She is an excellent interpreter of songs and I could listen to that voice sing just about anything. As a side note, I’ve been impressed by her sense of humor. For someone who is reserved, her dry wit still comes out in interviews.

    As this list has been unfolding, I’ve found that I like female singers quite a bit more than I had originally thought.

  16. LeeannNo Gravatar says:

    Oh yeah, my favorite song of hers is “The Nightingale.” It’s sung beautifully with strength, but appropriately understated.

  17. CoryNo Gravatar says:

    Trisha has flown just under the radar. But everyone seems to forget that her first 4 studio albums all went platnium. And her big radio hits werent radio candy they were songs like “Song Remembers When” and “Walkaway Joe” I think she has fought to represent the real live women of country and that is what has kept her around all these years.

  18. LynnNo Gravatar says:

    Kevin, I’m incredibly jealous. I would love to see Trisha live for an entire concert. I’ve only seen her once – with Garth last year for the Fire Relief concerts in LA. She nearly stole the show with 2 songs. Her voice is amazing and her humility humbling. Her catalog is among my favorites. I will hear her new single on my local station every now and again. Considering they once played Strawberry Wine ad naseum, I figure it’s only fair. :)

  19. JoeNo Gravatar says:

    She’s a fine singer, but her music and style really do nothing for me. Top ten? She also doesn’t play or write. She has had her success in the genre but she surely has not done anything unique or special. Had she not been around, the genre would exactly be the same. I wouldn’t even have her on my top 20, but Nashville and the inner circle tend do like her.

  20. KevinNo Gravatar says:

    I’m having trouble getting my head around this argument that several people have made now, that the genre would’ve been the same if Trisha Yearwood hadn’t been around.

    She may not have changed the way the music actually sounded, but if Trisha Yearwood hadn’t come along, country music would’ve had a hell of a lot less great music over the past seventeen years. There’s as much value to doing something very well as there is to changing the way it’s done.

  21. JoeNo Gravatar says:

    That’s just one component (doing something very well) to so many that should be considered. She is a fine singer again, but she is not that influential and should not be amongst many of the trailblazers who shape and mold the future. Trisha is on par with being the same usual mold with average appeal. Nothing out of this world, just a fine vocalist which to me doesn’t equate to being so high on such a list.

  22. CoryNo Gravatar says:

    Trisha Yearwood is the Emmylou of our generation. Her taste in music is unlike anything we have seen in the past 17 years from new artists. And she made commercial success with songs such as “The Song Remembers When” “Walkaway Joe” and “Real Live Woman” if you think Trisha is just another one of the mainstream chicks then go listen to her 2000 album “Real Live Woman”
    People forget she has sold nearly 15 million albums and has gone Gold in many other countires outside the US. And she is the best female vocalist to have come since 1991. And I think her success promted other labels to go and sign other female acts. Who knows maybe the discovery of Faith Hill and others are in thanks to Trisha(not saying the Faith Hill discovery was a good thing)

  23. DinahNo Gravatar says:

    Trisha is the best singer that is still lie for me..
    I love Trisha more and more and I love from day one..

    Dinah

  24. JazorNo Gravatar says:

    they got it right . Exceptional voice and the nicest celebrity I have ever met. Love it !

  25. Kimberly says:

    Trisha has a goood heart and a great voice i ♥ her so much!! =)

  26. TravisNo Gravatar says:

    Trisha is a great singer, and I’ve enjoyed much of her music, but like Reba, I can’t only handle so much of her voice before I have to change the music…. Other than some great songs over the years, i’m truly not sure why she is in the top ten… She plays no instrument to my knowledge,, ,she doesn’t dance on stage, she doesn’t hold to any traditional sound, nor does she keep to her pop side as well…Trisha reminds me of Patsy Cline,, great voice but no power behind her when it comes to putting on a great show,,, strictly a stand behind the mike kind of singer from the days of Patsy. For recording purposes, this works fine, but for paying money to go and watch,,, no thanks,, YAWN, boring… give me Reba, Shania, and Barbara Mandrell, the Queen of live shows……

  27. WayneNo Gravatar says:

    She is one of the best if not the best singer country music will ever see. So what if she didnt dress like a slut like faith and shania but she sure could sing circles around them and anyone else for that matter

  28. Erik NorthNo Gravatar says:

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say Faith or Shania dress up like sluts; that’s a bit steep in my opinion, even though I myself am not really a fan of either one. They’re just obviously different from Trisha. In any case, Trisha concentrates on vocal and song presence, which is really what most great singers are all about.

    Incidentally, Trisha has, on occasion, played acoustic guitar onstage.

  29. SweetcheeksNo Gravatar says:

    This is Sweetcheeks and I think people shouldn’t be mean to Trisha Yearwood. Her music is way better than all the songs like “She’s Country,” “Take a Back Road,” “Holler Back” “Chicken Fried” and all that garbage. I can listen to Trisha sing “Walkaway Joe” without feeling my IQ is going down! You can’t say that about Ashton Shepherd and a lot of today’s country females trying to get into the business who release things ilke “Look it Up.” Trisha Yearwood is good – she has a really good voice and she doesn’t waste it on bad songs. Thats all I have to say and my name is Sweetcheeks.

  30. Ben FosterNo Gravatar says:

    I don’t mind people not being fans of Faith or Shania, but I do find it a bit irritating when people feel the need to build up one female artist by tearing others down.

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