100 Greatest Women, #76: Paulette Carlson (Highway 101)

100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition

#76

Paulette Carlson (Highway 101)

2008 Edition: #66 (-10)

Few vocalists better illustrate the transition from the new traditionalist revival of the mid-eighties to the country boom in the early nineties than Paulette Carlson. As the lead singer of Highway 101, her bombastic vocals were wedded to an aggressive production that borrowed from rock without compromising its twang, heralding the arrival of the new sound that would make country the most popular music in the nation.

Before she was the feisty frontwoman of Highway 101, Carlson was already making a name for herself on Music Row. Her songwriting talent earned her a staff writing position at Silverline/Goldmine Publishing, and artists as prominent as Tammy Wynette recorded her material. With her expressive voice, it was no surprise that she landed a solo deal. But despite critical praise, her singles for RCA went nowhere.

She moved back to her home state of Minnesota, but when Chuck Morris, the manager of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, caught her act, he encouraged her to try Music City again. He came up with the idea of building an entire band around her, three men to back her up musically and vocally. He soon found the perfect backing players, and the new group was christened Highway 101.

Producer Paul Worley, who would later go on to produce breakthrough albums for Pam Tillis and Martina McBride, pushed hard to get the band a record deal. When a contract with MCA fell through at the last minute, he personally implored the president of Warner Bros. to pick them up, putting his credibility on the line for Highway 101. The label gave them a singles deal, and after two false starts, they recorded Carlson’s composition “The Bed You Made For Me.”

It was a surprise hit, peaking at #4 and sending Warner Bros. scrambling to get the hot band in the studio to record their debut album. Their second single “Whiskey, If You Were a Woman” found Carlson wrestling with her lover’s alcoholism. It went to #2. Two more singles from the album – “Somewhere Tonight” and “Cry, Cry, Cry” topped the charts, and during this time, a shocked Highway 101 won Top Vocal Group at the 1988 ACM awards. Group member Curtis Stone was so sure they wouldn’t win, he skipped the ceremony to go on his honeymoon.

Highway 101’s first album went gold, and they dominated the awards circuit for two years, winning both the ACM and CMA group awards twice. They had a solid his streak for four years, thanks to incredibly strong material from writers both legendary (Rodney Crowell, Harlan Howard) and up-and-coming (Kix Brooks, Pam Tillis.) Then, after three albums, Carlson decided to go solo.

As Highway 101 reemerged with a new lead singer, Carlson relaunched her solo career. She had a moderate hit with “I’ll Start With You”, from her solo album Life Goes On. Highway 101 also had one hit with their new lead singer, “Big Bang Boom.” But separate ways did not benefit either Carlson or her old band, and they were soon back together. However, by the time that they regrouped, the country music industry had changed tremendously, and their independent label couldn’t get them a seat at the table.

While Carlson’s story could be seen as a cautionary tale to Heidi Newfield and Jennifer Nettles, the contribution of her and the band she fronted should not be underestimated. The Highway 101 sound helped define the late eighties, that often overlooked period that laid the foundation for the Garth-led boom that was to come, and Carlson’s big expressive voice made that sound shine.

Essential Singles (Highway 101)

  • Whiskey, If You Were a Woman, 1987
  • Somewhere Tonight, 1987
  • Cry, Cry, Cry, 1988
  • (Do You Love Me) Just Say Yes, 1988
  • Who’s Lonely Now, 1989

Essential Albums (Highway 101)

  • Highway 101 (1987)
  • 101 2 (1988)
  • Paint the Town (1989)

Industry Awards (Highway 101)

  • Academy of Country Music Awards
    • Top Vocal Group, 1988-1989
  • Country Music Association Awards
    • Vocal Group of the Year, 1988-1989

100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition

Next: #75. Shelby Lynne

Previous: #77. Norma Jean

2 Comments

  1. I really liked Highway 101 and Paulette Carlson’s voice fit nicely with what the group was trying to do. Clearly the Paulette Carlson years represent the apogee of Highway 101’s chart success. Unfortunately Highway 101 had already started fading even before Carlson left with the last two singles reaching #11 & #14.

    Their new singer Nikki Nelson’s first single with the group also reached #14, the same chart position as Carlson’s last single

    Nelson was an excellent singer in her own right and for most of Highway 101’s existence, she has been the voice of Highway 101. I’m actually more surprised that Nelson did not make it as a solo act than I am that Carlson didn’t succeed. I have Paulette’s pre & post solo material and clearly her best work was done as part of Highway 101

  2. For me, the most interesting footnote of the Carlson-Nelson transition is that Nelson wasn’t Highway 101’s first choice to replace Carlson. They offered the slot to Trisha Yearwood first, who turned it down.

    Here’s what Yearwood said about that: “If I went with Highway 101, I would be saying I couldn’t make it on my own; it would be giving up. No way was I ready to do that.”

    This was after she’d already had a year-long deal with the manager of the Gatlin Brothers and before she started working with Garth Fundis.

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