A Trisha Yearwood Retrospective, Part One: 1991-1992

A Trisha Yearwood Retrospective

Introduction

We’d gone to Nashville for a summer vacation in 1992, and my parents and I were walking through the Opryland amusement park when we were stopped dead in our tracks by the chorus of “She’s in Love With the Boy.”

It wasn’t actually Trisha Yearwood singing, though: It was a young woman in her late teens, belting with all her might in one of the park’s attractions, a recording booth which allowed guests to leave with a cassette-tape copy of a karaoke performance. The woman’s parents beamed, watching their daughter on the video monitor, and it was just awful. Not a single note was on pitch and every word was behind the beat, and we tried to walk away as fast as we could toward the log flume. Then we overhead one of the performers in one of the park’s many musical revues, walking nearby, turn to a coworker and say, “People really just shouldn’t try to sing her songs. She makes even the best of us sound bad.” My folks still laugh about that whenever someone mentions Trisha Yearwood.

And it’s true: Yearwood’s technical gifts place her among the finest singers in the history of popular music. Even in the 90s country era, which was overrun with great singers, Yearwood’s skill clearly stood apart. But technical skill alone can take a singer only so far, and that’s the other and perhaps more important aspect of Yearwood’s artistry that distinguishes her: It’s in knowing what songs are worthy of her voice and then interpreting those songs with a rare degree of insight and purpose. The story of country music is simply far richer for Yearwood’s contributions.

Put another way, the crew here at Country Universe embrace the full breadth of the country genre– from the slick pop-country of Olivia Newton-‍John to the raucous Southern rock of Drive-‍By Truckers and the introspective folk songs of Iris DeMent– but Yearwood is an artist whose greatness we all tend to agree upon without reservation, qualifier, or caveat.

Looking ahead to the release of her eleventh proper country album, Every Girl, we’ll also be looking back at one of the deepest catalogues in the genre’s history. Her music is a huge part of why we became fans of country music and remain fans to this day. She’s an all-time great who, miraculously, somehow keeps getting better and better. – Jonathan Keefe

Part One: 1991-1992

She’s in Love With the Boy

Written by Jon Ims

1991

#1 (2 weeks)

Grade: A

As much as “She’s in Love With the Boy,” with its doe-eyed innocence, would be seen as an anomaly in Trisha Yearwood’s career, it does establish some of the signature themes and characteristics that would ultimately define her work.

First, it’s a great story song, with compelling, believable characters.  They all have good intentions, and Jon Sims’ keen eye for small town details immediately ground them in a specific time and place.

Second, Yearwood’s vocal performance is in service of the song. She doesn’t get in the way of the lyric with overpowered vocal runs, which would undermine the intimacy of the storyline.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it is the women who are in charge of the storyline, with mom stepping in to put dad in his place after our protagonist is sent to her room in the final act.  As Yearwood would mature as an artist, her material would follow suit, but this theme of empowerment remains a common thread from her earliest work right through her latest single in 2019.

“She’s in Love With the Boy” is easy to write off as a teeny bopper anthem, and Yearwood herself noted shortly afterward that she never expected the song to endear her to every little girl in America.  But when viewed as a story that’s as much about a mother-daughter relationship as it is about a boyfriend-girlfriend one, it’s a clearer indication of the artist that Yearwood would become. – Kevin John Coyne

Trisha Yearwood

1991

Country #2 | Pop #31

Track Listing:

She’s in Love With the Boy

The Woman Before Me

That’s What I Like About You

Like We Never Had a Broken Heart

Fools Like Me

Victim of the Game

When Goodbye Was a Word

The Whisper of Your Heart

You Done Me Wrong (and That Ain’t Right)

Lonesome Dove

Country music was still largely a singles-driven format in the early 90s, give or take a small handful of acts who approached the recording of a full album as an artistic endeavor of its own. Trisha Yearwood would establish herself as one of the genre’s most consistent albums artists with her sophomore effort, but that isn’t to say that Trisha Yearwood isn’t a solid effort in its own right. Ultimately, a debut album should establish some key aspects of an artist’s overall persona while still allowing for meaningful growth, and Yearwood’s self-titled debut did precisely that.

The album opens with its run of four hit singles, which ranged from the contemporary country perfection of “She’s in Love with the Boy” and soulful ballad “Like We Never Had a Broken Heart” to unconventional song choices like Jude Johnstone’s pensive “The Woman Before Me” and, even better, a bluesy, gender-flipped cover of alt-country troubadour Kevin Welch’s “That’s What I Like About You.”

These weren’t conventional song choices, nor were the album’s deep cuts; the songwriters whose work she chose to include range from Garth Brooks to Hal Ketchum to Carl Jackson. What the album makes immediately apparent– beyond the obvious virtues of Yearwood’s singing– was that she has an ear for quality material. While the songs don’t necessarily cohere into a greater thematic statement– that would come on Hearts In Armor— the songs themselves are all very, very good. And producer Garth Fundis knew to keep the focus on Yearwood’s voice. The album’s production showcases Yearwood’s range of influences, which would go on to be another of her trademarks, but it never pulls focus from her performances.

Trisha Yearwood may not be an album for the canon– by my count, she has at least three of those– but it’s still a fine album that establishes a strong foundation for the artist she would quickly become. – JK

Like We Never Had a Broken Heart

Written by Pat Alger and Garth Brooks

1991

#4

Grade: B+

This gorgeous ballad is not only co-written by Garth Brooks, but also powered by his excellent harmony vocal. His presence adds some depth to Yearwood’s vocal, which is pitch perfect but lacks the contours that she would bring to her ballads after she got past her first album jitters. It holds the record itself back from perfection, but she’ll get to that level soon enough.  – KJC


That’s What I Like About You

Written by John Hadley, Kevin Welch, and Wally Wilson

1992

#8

Grade: B+

 

Another great song with a performance that holds back its potential just a little bit.  One need only listen to Yearwood perform this song live to hear what could’ve been. Again, she sounds great. With Yearwood, there is never a single note out of place.  But she doesn’t have the sassiness yet that the lyric demands.

Fundis is similarly timid with his production, a conscious choice he made in the studio, as he wanted to prove that Yearwood could make it big within the confines of contemporary country music before pushing against the boundaries of it.  But it still sounded great within the context of country radio in early 1992, which was a damn good year for the genre. – KJC

The Woman Before Me

Written by Jude Johnstone

1992

#4

Grade: B+

Jude Johnstone wrote this song as “The Fella Before Me,” and was wise enough to to do a gender swap while it was still being pitched.  Yearwood had an aversion to songs that were specifically written for female artists when she was starting out, as they tended to be wimpy. “The Woman Before Me” has a strength to it that comes from its empathy, with the woman providing the comfort while also making clear that she isn’t responsible for the pain that her man is feeling.  It served well as the cleanup single from Yearwood’s debut album, which remains her highest selling studio album to date. – KJC

Wrong Side of Memphis

Written by Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison

1992

#5

Grade: A

Yearwood is generally better-known for her ballads, but I’ve always thought she was best on her bluesier or gospel-inflected tracks. To that end, “Wrong Side Of Memphis” is one of the finest singles of her career. Yearwood always does right by a Matraca Berg song, and she leans into her vowels and lets out a desperate wail over the course of this performance, telling what feels like an entire life’s story in barely three minutes. – JK

Hearts in Armor

1992

Country #12 | Pop #46

Track Listing:

Wrong Side of Memphis

Nearest Distant Shore

You Say You Will

Walkaway Joe (with Don Henley)

Woman Walk the Line

Oh Lonesome You

Down On My Knees

For Reasons I’ve Forgotten

You Don’t Have to Move That Mountain

Hearts in Armor

Even in the golden era of the nineties, when a stylistically diverse crop of female artists were making accomplished, intelligent albums, Hearts in Armor was in a league of its own. That it was the sophomore effort of a woman still in her twenties was remarkable, but Yearwood was an old soul early on, steeped in the traditions of both country and rock music and willing to cull from multiple genres to stake out her own unique musical vision.

It’s as if she learned all of the right lessons about singing from Linda Ronstadt and all of the right lessons about choosing material from Emmylou Harris, just with more of a taste for contemporary material than either of those two legends. Indeed, some of the best songs on Hearts in Armor were newer copyrights, including all four of the excellent singles that were pulled from the album.

But Yearwood also passed over quite a bit of new material in favor of covering previously recorded songs by Jamie O’ Hara (“For Reasons I’ve Forgotten,” “Oh Lonesome You”) and the album’s finest track, “Woman Walk the Line.”  Originally recorded by Harris, as well as co-written by her, it was later recorded by Highway 101. Emmylou provides a powerful harmony vocal, but the revelation here is that Yearwood understood the power of the song and how to best present it better than Harris herself, a trait that would repeatedly reveal itself throughout the course of Yearwood’s career.

The brilliant melancholy of Hearts in Armor bleeds through all of the tracks, uniting them in the process.  Even when she’s chasing a dream (“Wrong Side of Memphis”), expressing gratitude for unconditional love (“Down On My Knees”), or even praising God (“You Don’t Have to Move That Mountain”), there’s an underlying sadness: that dream might not come true, that love just might leave, and God might not only fail to move the mountain, but also neglect to show her the way around it.

It’s only fitting that the title track is the last one, as “Heart’s in Armor” strips Yearwood of the last thread of hope and is the full realization of those darkest worries coming true.  It was written by Jude Johnstone after her father died before she could make it home in time to see him, and the lyrics have a powerful finality to them that amplifies the sense of loss.

“I would finish what you started if I had that chance again,” Yearwood sings twice to close out the album, her voice all longing and regret, but not a hint of surprise. Listen to Hearts in Armor in sequence, and it’s impossible for the listener to be surprised, either.  But the inevitability of such desperate sadness only makes it that much more powerful.  – KJC

Walkaway Joe (with Don Henley)

Written by Greg Barnhill and Vince Melamed

1992

#2

Grade: B+

Henley’s sleazy attitude toward women made him an odd choice for a duet partner on this song, but he’s ultimately of little consequence. Yearwood’s performance is masterful in its empathy for the young woman at the center of this narrative. There’s no judgment, just the wisdom of experience from times when “there ain’t no reasoning.” A lovely, melancholy triumph that still sounds great almost three decades on. – JK

A Trisha Yearwood Retrospective

Next: Part Two: 1993-1994

 

7 Comments

  1. Fans of 90s country will eat this up. I’m more of a 70s/80s guy myself.

    Like Carrie Underwood, Yearwood has an amazing voice, is extremely likeable, extremely talented. But also like Underwood, I don’t care for the majority of her song choices. That’s rough when you love to hear them sing.

    Of all of her songs, my favorite is probably Walkaway Joe. I agree that Henley was unnecessary for the song – Yearwood sings it just fine by herself. And who can forget a then unknown Matthew McConaughey in the video as the walkaway joe in the story.

    As I said, Yearwood is likeable. I watch her cooking show just about every weekend. Lucky Garth gets to hear her sing anytime he wants and eat her amazing cooking.

  2. Love Yearwood’s voice and – for the most part – her song choices. Looking back, I find it amazing that songs like “Hearts in Armor”, “Nearest Distant Shore” and “For Reasons I’ve Forgotten” were never released as singles.

  3. @ bob:

    I think it’s because certain songs on certain albums are designed to be hidden gems; and if the artist is really good, as Trisha is, those songs don’t become mere “filler”. Trisha shares a fair amount in common with her spiritual role model Linda; and one of those is that she thinks not necessarily in terms of radio-friendly hits alone, but in the complete album as a portrait of herself at a given time.

  4. @ bob:

    I think it’s because Trisha, much like her spiritual role model Linda Ronstadt, thinks in terms of complete albums, and not necessarily just in terms of hit singles. The hit singles are important as doorways to the rest of the album; and if the artist is really good, like Trisha is, then those “non-hits” don’t become mere “filler”.

  5. Late to the party, but just wanted to say how excited I am for this feature! I have always loved Trisha Yearwood, and I just know that this retrospective will give me a whole new appreciation for her songs and albums. There’s nothing I enjoy more at Country Universe than when Kevin and Jonathan write about artists whose work they are truly passionate about.

  6. Trisha is one of my all time favorite artists, so I’m really looking forward to reading this feature! Also excited about her upcoming new album! It’s been way too long since we’ve heard some new, original material from her.

    Her first three albums contain some of my most favorite music that came out in the early 90’s, and I still enjoy listening to them today. Of the singles she released in this era, “Like We Never Had A Broken Heart” is my favorite. The song is simply gorgeous and has one of the most beautiful melodies I’ve ever heard. Not to mention, it makes me nostalgic whenever I hear it. Sadly, it seems to have become one of her more underrated/least remembered singles. “Walkaway Joe” would be a close second.

    I also want to say that I think “Nearest Distant Shore” was the biggest missed opportunity for a single release on Hearts In Armor. To me, it’s another one of the most beautiful songs she’s ever recorded, and I can still listen to it over and over without getting tired of it. HIA is such a great album, though, with other cuts that also would’ve made great singles (“Woman Walk The Line” and “For Reasons I’ve Forgotten,” as already mentioned).

  7. One of the 90’s best singers in a decade filled with talent.

    “She Is In Love With the Boy” still has regular rotation on local stations. Quintessential country music story song.

    And her cooking show is good stuff, too! Garth is a lucky man!

    (BTW, Kevin, I posted this comment from the MRA meeting./s) ;)

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