Category Archives: Starter Kits

Starter Kit: Sara Evans

Sara Evans was one of the most successful female artists from the earlier part of the last decade, which was not a particularly good era for women as a whole.  Her ease with both pop-flavored and purely traditional country allowed her to adapt to quickly changing trends in the genre.

This makes her catalog a fascinating one to sample.  In compiling this Starter Kit, it would be easy to just list the hits.  But I’ve left off some of her more overexposed tracks in favor of some gems that either didn’t quite dominate the charts or weren’t sent to radio at all.  I think her crossover numbers haven’t aged that well, anyway.

Be sure to let me know what I missed in the comment threads!

“Shame About That” from the 1997 album Three Chords and the Truth

The title track got all of the love, and the most airplay of the three low-charting singles from Evans’ debut album.  But I think that this is the coolest little record, with Evans sounding like the female heir to Buck Owens as she can’t even feign sympathy for the ex who is now regretting his departure.

“No Place That Far” from the 1998 album No Place That Far

Vince Gill provided the harmony vocal on this soaring ballad of devotion. After a slow and steady ascension, it became the first of four number one singles for Evans, powering her sophomore set to gold status. The record still holds up today, perhaps because it was one of the last great nineties records that allowed a new artist to break through on the back of a solid song.

“I Thought I’d See Your Face Again” from the 1998 album No Place That Far

One of those wonderful could’ve been hits, had the label only released it as a single.  This is one of the finest moments in Evans’ early years. It’s a multi-layered exploration of the finality of goodbyes. She’s fully aware that ending the relationship meant that the quiet nights together were gone, but she can’t get her head around the fact that she may never even see him again for the rest of her life.

“I Keep Looking” from the 2000 album Born To Fly

Evans reached her sales peak with her third album, powered to double platinum status by both the hit title track and her cover of the pop song “I Could Not Ask For More.”  But the finest single from that set was “I Keep Looking,” which is a smart and funny take on what it’s like to always want what you don’t have.  “Just as soon as I get what I want, I get unsatisfied. Good is good but could be better…”

“Backseat of a Greyhound Bus” from the 2003 album Restless

In the grand tradition of Dolly Parton classics like “Down From Dover” and “Just Because I’m a Woman”, Evans finds the heroine inside a woman who has been shunned by her community.  The setup makes you believe for a minute that this unwed soon-t0-be mother is going to fall in love with a man on this bus ride, but it’s a thing of beauty when she falls in love with her newly born daughter instead.

“Perfect” from the 2003 album Restless

Perfection is an impossible standard, of course. But here is a wonderful love song that embraces the imperfections as being what actually does make their loving marriage perfect. Plenty of great details here, my personal favorite being how in every wedding picture, her daddy looks annoyed.

“Suds in the Bucket” from the 2003 album Restless

When Evans first debuted, she was celebrated by critics for resurrecting a traditional country sound that recalled pre-Nashville Sound country music.  She didn’t break through commercially until she left that style behind, but in one of those moments of pure serendipity, she revisited that style as a goofy end to her very pop-flavored fourth album.  The label sent it to radio, and it became her signature hit, not to mention her third #1 single.

“Rockin’ Horse” from the 2003 album Restless

If I was going to make a list of the best country songs of the 21st century, this one would be in the upper echelon.  Simply put, I think it’s brilliant. Perennial optimist that I am, I’m always looking for the opportunities created by the challenges that confront me. I’ve never heard a better metaphor for this point of view than the one Evans constructs here.

The framework she uses is that a tree struck by lightning when she was a child almost hit her house, terrifying her at the time.  Her father took the fallen tree and used it to build her a rocking horse, which she deems “something magic out of something frightening.”  This becomes a symbol for her approach to life:  “When it’s pouring down on me, in my mind I see the rocking horse inside the tree.”

“‘A Real Fine Place to Startfrom the 2005 album Real Fine Place

You really can’t go wrong by covering Radney Foster.  His original version was great, but a soaring vocal by Evans lifted an already great song into the stratosphere.

Her fourth and final #1 hit, it helped her win the ACM Award for Female Vocalist, a perhaps overdue acknowledgment made possible by the very short window between Gretchen Wilson’s breakthrough and Carrie Underwood’s.

“Cheatin'” from the 2005 album Real Fine Place

Reba McEntire was the most dominant female in country music for a longer time period than any woman since Kitty Wells, so it always amazes me just how little her influence can be heard in the music of the women who came after her.

“Cheatin'” is a glorious exception, as Evans twists and turns and trills her voice as if she’s the second coming of late eighties McEntire.  Granted, Reba never showed anywhere near this much backbone when her man was running around, but it’s great to hear someone singing the way she used to back in her heyday.

“Coalmine” from the 2005 album Real Fine Place

A coal mining disaster limited this song from reaching its full potential, as it was horribly tacky to have playing on the radio in the wake of so many miners having died.  But it’s still a great little number.

Sure, it’s a blatant attempt to capture the “Suds in a Bucket” lightning twice, but I wouldn’t mind Evans revisiting that sound on every album she releases for the rest of her career.

“Low” from the 2008  soundtrack album Billy – The Early Years

It’s been five years since Evans released a studio album, perhaps because the songs that she’s attempted to launch a new set with have underwhelmed both critics and country radio. But she has released a real gem during the same period, which is her uplifting contribution to the soundtrack for  Billy Graham biopic.

“Low” asserts that her faith will always give her the strength to rise above those who would keep her down.  In an era when most songs of faith are little more than Hallmark cards with a sprinkling of spirituality along the edges, “Low” actually engages the gospel and applies it to everyday life.

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Crystal Gayle Starter Kit

Producing primarily pop-flavored country music has rarely been a ticket to immortality for even the biggest artists, particularly the female ones.  Imports like Shania Twain and Olivia Newton-John are labeled impostors.  Faith Hill’s canny song sense is overlooked while hubby Tim McGraw’s is widely praised. Brilliant Dolly Parton records like “Here You Come Again” and “9 to 5″ are cited as being beneath her greatness, rather than prime examples of it.  Only Patsy Cline has been given a free pass, and who wouldn’t want to claim those pipes?

Where does this leave Crystal Gayle, younger sister of Loretta Lynn and owner of 32 top ten hits, 18 of which went #1? As the first female country artist to sell platinum, her impact was quite big back in the day. But aside from her signature classic “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”, her music has been largely forgotten.  Perhaps this is because she peaked during an era that is often looked down upon as too crossover for its own good. Unlike Parton and Cline, there is virtually nothing for traditionalists to celebrate within Gayle’s catalog of hits. But much like Hill and Newton-John, the woman recorded some wonderful songs that deserve rediscovery.  Here are a dozen of the best.

“I’ll Do It All Over Again” from the 1976 album Crystal

Gayle typically avoided purely victim stances in her lyrics. Here, she’s been left but is aware that her heart will mend and that she’ll love again.

“Ready For the Times to Get Better” from the 1976 album Crystal

Country singles recorded in a minor key are quite the rarity, but the arrangement undercuts the misery of the lyric, even as she’s clearly ready to move on to happier times. This just might be her finest moment.

“Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” from the 1977 album We Must Believe in Magic

This classic won her a Grammy and the first of two CMA Female Vocalist trophies. If the piano sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same player that powered Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors” to similar success on both the country and pop charts.

“Talking In Your Sleep” from the 1978 album When I Dream

Proving that her appeal wasn’t limited to one big hit, this hit launched what would become Gayle’s second consecutive platinum album.

“Why Have You Left the One You Left Me For” from the 1978 album When I Dream

Her first really big uptempo hit defied expectations and broke her out of the ballad mold.  It didn’t hurt that it was ridiculously catchy.

“Half the Way” from the 1979 album Miss the Mississippi

Another hook-laden hit, powered by an infectious string section and quite a bit more wailing than she’s usually known for.

“Too Many Lovers” from the 1980 album These Days

What sounds like a quiet bar ballad in the first few seconds soon turns into an uptempo message of caution to women looking for love in all the wrong places.

“You Never Gave Up On Me” from the 1981 album Hollywood, Tennessee

There aren’t too many anniversary songs that essentially say, “Thanks for loving me even when I didn’t love you.”  Romantic songs like to pretend that both partners are equally kind and loving, when that isn’t always the case. I like ones like this more.

“‘Til I Gain Control Again” from the 1982 album True Love

Crystal Gayle was hardly the predictable vehicle for this intricate Rodney Crowell composition that had been previously cut by Emmylou Harris.  Even she didn’t think she could pull it off. Thankfully, producer Jimmy Bowen coaxed her into it, and the result was a #1 hit that was also among her most sophisticated performances.

“Baby, What About You” from the 1982 album True Love

Not much more to say about this one than it’s a slice of pop-country perfection.

“The Sound of Goodbye” from the 1983 album Cage the Songbird

One of Hugh Prestwood’s first great moments as a writer was this hit. Much like his material later pushed Randy Travis into a more ambitious production approach (“Hard Rock Bottom Of Your Heart”), the sonic landscape of this #1 hit pushed Gayle and country radio into far more interesting territory.

“Cry” from the 1986 album Straight to the Heart

Given that she’s in the grand tradition of those Nashville Sound ladies, it’s no surprise that Gayle not only covered Lynn Anderson’s #3 hit effectively, she even took it two slots higher up the chart.

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Shania Twain Starter Kit

shania-twainThere were two solo artists who changed the course of country music history in the nineties. The first was Garth Brooks, who ushered in the boom years with his mega-selling albums No Fences and Ropin’ the Wind.  The second was Shania Twain, who permanently altered the female point of view in country music with her mega-selling albums The Woman in Me and Come On Over.

Twain’s debut album was decent enough, with some charming singles like “What Made You Say That” and the Gretchen Peters-penned “Dance With the One That Brought You” being among the highlights. But it was the combination of Twain’s pen and Mutt Lange’s production that made her a superstar.  Throughout her career, she’s been a champion of mutual monogamy and carefree independence. She didn’t protest for women to be treated with equality and respect so much as write from the assumption that no other option had ever existed.

In truth, all three of her self-written albums are essential listening, but if none of the 60 million albums that Twain has sold are in your personal collection, here are some tracks to help you get started:

Ten Essential Tracks

“Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?”
From the 1995 album The Woman in Me

For all the heat Twain gets for being too pop, it’s hard to imagine anything this country getting played on even country radio today, let alone pop radio.

“Any Man of Mine”
From the 1995 album The Woman in Me

There were two songs from this album that essentially powered it toward becoming the best-selling female country album up until that point.  I’ve always preferred this one over “I’m Outta Here!”

“No One Needs to Know”
From the 1995 album The Woman in Me

A charming record about falling in love but not letting anybody know about it yet. It was the fourth #1 single from the album.

“You’re Still the One”
From the 1997 album Come On Over

Her first big pop hit won her two country Grammys, and was her first of two songs to be nominated for overall Song of the Year.

“That Don’t Impress Me Much”
From the 1997 album Come On Over

Three men are summarily dismissed for putting their looks, their brains, and their car before showing love and affection to Shania Twain. Such men are unlikely to exist in the real world.

“Man! I  Feel Like a Woman!”
From the 1997 album Come On Over

Arguably the most iconic single from Come On Over, it won her another Grammy and was a worldwide hit to boot, helping the album reach international sales in excess of 35 million.

“You’ve Got a Way”
From the 1997 album Come On Over

Shania unplugs with a quiet, acoustic love song.

“Up!”
From the 2002 album Up!

The title track from her epic fourth album is best heard in its country mix, with irresistible banjo and fiddle combos accompanying her frantic performance.

“Forever and For Always”
From the 2002 album Up!

Quite possibly her most beautiful ballad showcased how much she’d grown as a vocalist in the five years between Come On Over and Up!

“Ka-Ching!”
From the 2002 album Up!

This was the biggest pop hit from this album overseas, and it features a riveting video that skewers the banality of  her own celebrity as it questions society’s focus on materialism. That it was originally intended for her Christmas album is too cool for words.

Two Hidden Treasures

“Amneris’ Letter”
From the 1999 album Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida

Of all the places to find Twain’s finest vocal performance, its home is on the concept album for Aida. Just a piano and Twain singing her heart out.

“Nah!”
From the 2002 album Up!

Sure, there are countless witty rave-ups and quite a few heartbreaking ballads that never made it to radio and remained album cuts. But I don’t think there’s a more enjoyable track among her lesser-known songs than this kiss-off anthem that has some “na na na’s” thrown in to boot.

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Martina McBride Starter Kit

Martina McBrideShe’s one of the most successful female country artists of the past two decades, and though it was the 2000s that brought her most of her accolades, Martina McBride became a star in the nineties. She also released her strongest music during that decade, and her first three albums remain her strongest efforts to date.

For those of you who know McBride for her AC-flavored work in recent years, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the diversity of styles she explored early on in her career. Here’s where you should start:

Ten Essential Tracks

“Cheap Whiskey”
From the 1992 album The Time Has Come

It predates her breakthrough hits, but anyone who watched CMT back in the early nineties will remember the powerful video clip that accompanied McBride’s stone-countriest performance.

“My Baby Loves Me”
From the 1993 album The Way That I Am

It took this song 20 weeks to reach the #2 position, a glacial pace back in 1993. But the “Born in The U.S.A.”-borrowed power chords still sound cool today, so it’s no surprise that this was a big hit.

“Independence Day”
From the 1993 album The Way That I Am

Well, obviously.

“Safe in the Arms of Love”
From the 1995 album Wild Angels

There’s an indescribably unique sound to this record, and it’s still the coolest thing she’s ever done.

“Wild Angels”
From the 1995 album Wild Angels

Her first #1 hit came courtesy of Matraca Berg, who originally intended this to be the title track of her second country album.

“A Broken Wing”
From the 1997 album Evolution

She’d eventually go down the abuse song road too many times, but this is a remarkably powerful record.

“Whatever You Say”
From the 1997 album Evolution

This song was the blueprint for future hits “Where Would You Be” and “How Far”, but “Whatever You Say” is the strongest of her “scream ’til my lungs bleed” trilogy.

“Love’s the Only House”
From the 1999 album Emotion

Everything that Toby Keith’s vocal defenders have been saying he accomplished with “American Ride” was actually pulled off by Martina on this hit, which captures the contradictions of all the excess of wealth and underbelly of poverty that you can find in a diverse urban society.

“Blessed”
From the 2001 album Greatest Hits

A love letter to the life that God has given her, done with understatement and subtlety.

“Anyway”
From the 2007 album Waking Up Laughing

A pretty darn good code to live by. Heck, it was good enough for Mother Teresa.

Two Hidden Treasures

“Goin’ to Work”
From the 1993 album The Way That I Am

Pam Tillis co-wrote this working woman’s anthem, where a broken heart takes a back seat during the work day. “I’m good at my work,” she sings, declaring that her identity is defined by more than just the man who left her.

“All the Things We’ve Never Done”
From the 1995 album Wild Angels

The most beautiful anniversary song I’ve ever heard. Ever.

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Clint Black Starter Kit

clint_black1Clint Black burst onto the country music landscape with the famed Class of ’89, as one of the group’s leading members. With his neo-traditionalist sound, he caught people off guard with his uncanny channeling of his hero, Merle Haggard.

As time passed, we would quickly learn that Black was his own man as he earned two triple Platinum albums, four Platinum albums and one gold album. Moreover, he would soon establish his own sound, which the country music audience was more than willing to accept.

Ten Essential Tracks

“A Better Man”
From the 1989 album Killin’ Time

It is impossible not to include Clint Black’s first single in his Starter Kit. Not only is it a great song from a seminal album, it sprung to the top of the charts and introduced people to a voice that eerily resembled that of Merle Haggard’s.

“Killin’ Time”
From the 1989 album Killin’ Time

Black was known for his clever wordplay, which showed up in “Killin’ Time” with “This Killin’ time is Killin’ me.”

“Put Yourself in My Shoes”
From the 1990 album Put Yourself in My Shoes

This bluesy song pleads for understanding and forgiveness in a failed relationship. He boldly proclaims: “Put yourself in my shoes/Walk a mile for me/I’ll put myself in your shoes/Maybe then we’d see/That if you put yourself in my shoes/You’d have some sympathy/And if I could only put myself in your shoes/I’d walk right back to me.”

“Burn One Down”
From the 1992 album The Hard Way

This is just a cleverly written song all around. It demonstrates Black’s intriguing poetic ability.

“A Bad Goodbye” (with Wynonna Judd)
From the 1993 album No Time to Kill

As Clint seems to do very well on his duets, he leans into this emotional song with full force. Of course, Wynonna Judd is always a force to be reckoned with, but both of them aptly capture the complicated emotion of loving someone but no longer being in love.

“No Time to Kill”
From the 1993 album No Time to Kill

In this dobro and fiddle laden tune, Clint revisits the theme of killing time. This time, he determines that there’s no time to kill.

“State of Mind”
From the 1993 album No Time to Kill

Clint’s harmonica chops are displayed on this catchy song, especially on the album version. The song is built around the simple, yet factual, observation: “Ain’t it funny how a melody can bring back a memory/Take you to another place in time/Completely change your state of mind?”

“Untanglin’ My Mind”
From the 1994 album One Emotion

Can you imagine a song like this being played on today’s country radio? What’s more, can you imagine a Merle Haggard co-write reaching the top five on today’s country charts? Apparently, both were possible in the mid nineties. Those were the days, weren’t they?

“Still Holding On” (with Martina McBride)
From the 1997 album Nothin’ But the Taillights

Clint Black isn’t immune from veering away from the neo-traditional sound, especially toward the latter half of his career. This is a straight pop country ballad done well, particularly thanks to killer vocal performances by both Black and Martina McBride.

“Something that We Do”
From the 1997 album Nothin’ But the Taillights

Clint extols the simple truth that love is a verb: “It’s not just something that we have; it’s something that we do.” At the time of this song’s release, I was pretty bored by its simple melody. It wasn’t until my adulthood that I truly understood the sentiment.

Two Hidden Treasures

“Our Kind of Love”
From the 1997 album Nothin’ but the Taillights

Clint has a version of this gorgeous song with Carolyn Dawn Johnson, but this rootsy version featuring Alison Krauss is superior.

“Hand in the Fire”
From the 1999 album D’Lectrified

This whole album is a gem that was somewhat overlooked, though it still reached gold status. As the album title cleverly indicates, this is his version of an unplugged project. He reworks some of his old hits and adds some originals as well. This is one of the standout originals, which is a fun, matter-of-fact, declaration of love.

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Collin Raye Starter Kit

collin_rayeWhen Collin Raye first surfaced, it seemed like he was a poor man’s Vince Gill. Nice, sweet vocals but not much depth. However, he’d reveal himself as having one of country music’s stronger song senses. At his peak, he enjoyed both commercial success and regular Male Vocalist nominations.

Most of this list comes from Raye’s first four albums, all of which were certified platinum. His music started to decline in quality toward the end of the decade, but he still put out some good radio singles. He’s been mostly quiet this decade, releasing albums on independent labels.

Ten Essential Tracks

“Love, Me”
from the 1991 album All I Can Be

One of country music’s finest tearjerkers. It put Raye on the map as a balladeer to be reckoned with.

“In This Life”
from the 1992 album In This Life

One of those rare ballads that works just as well at a wedding as it does at a funeral.

“That’s My Story”
from the 1994 album Extremes

A riotous attempt at creating a plausible alibi, co-written by Lee Roy Parnell.

“Little Rock”
from the 1994 album Extremes

Raye’s masterpiece is an emotional powerhouse, as he takes on the role of a recovering alcoholic trying to reconcile with his wife.

“If I Were You”
from the 1994 album Extremes

Raye encourages the woman he loves to follow her dreams, hoping that in the end, he’ll be one of those dreams.

“Not That Different”
from the 1995 album I Think About You

Another song that works on numerous levels, working as well as a call for a couple to unite as a call for all humanity to do so.

“I Think About You”
from the 1995 album I Think About You

If all men saw women the way that Raye does in this song, we might be able to leave gender-based crime and discrimination behind.

“What If Jesus Comes Back Like That”
from the 1995 album I Think About You

A powerful moral warning to see every person as a child of God.

“I Can Still Feel You”
from the 1998 album The Walls Came Down

Raye’s final #1 single is all nervy and paranoid, as he’s haunted by a memory he can’t shake.

“Someone You Used to Know”
from the 1998 album The Walls Came Down

A man struggles with being seen as just a memory by a woman he still love.

Two Hidden Treasures

“Dreaming My Dreams With You”
From the 1994 album Extremes

A quiet and understated delivery of the Waylon Jennings classic.

“Heart Full of Rain”
From the 1996 album I Think About You

It’s hard to keep a flame alive when the woman you love keeps dousing it with water.

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Sawyer Brown Starter Kit

Sawyer BrownMy favorite band of the early and mid-nineties was Sawyer Brown. Former Star Search winners, they had a decent run of hits in the eighties, though their early albums are legendarily awful. But they found their artistic voice when lead singer Mark Miller began writing with Mac McAnally. Many of their biggest and best hits were written by one or both of them.

The end result was that Sawyer Brown became one of the only country acts that broke out in the last few years of the eighties to actually become far more commercially successful in the nineties.

Ten Essential Tracks

“The Race is On”
from the 1989 album The Boys Are Back

So much of their eighties work was disposable, but there’s a surprising charm to this revved up take on the George Jones classic. Even the Possum himself was a vocal fan of it.

“The Walk”
from the 1991 album Buick

This powerful single kicked off a string of five excellent singles that established Sawyer Brown as one of the strongest voices in country music.

“The Dirt Road”
from the 1992 album The Dirt Road

After a single that explored the major milestones of a father-son relationship, they followed with one about the life lessons taught in between those milestones.

“Some Girls Do”
from the 1992 album The Dirt Road

Finally, they find a way to be upbeat and fun without being goofy.

“Café On the Corner”
from the 1992 album Café On the Corner

The band reaches their creative peak, bringing the different faces of the early nineties recession into vivid focus.

“All These Years”
from the 1992 album Café On the Corner

This sparse ballad documents what is perhaps the most awkward conversation ever between husband and wife.

“Thank God For You”
from the 1993 album Outskirts of Town

A tongue-in-cheek list of thank yous aimed toward those responsible for the good life the man is leading.

“Hard to Say”
from the 1994 album Outskirts of Town

Plenty of clever wordplay is neatly embedded into a catchy melody.

“This Time”
from the 1995 album Greatest Hits 1990-1995

The lead single from the band’s second and far stronger hits collection features one of their most rootsy arrangements.

“(This Thing Called) Wantin’ and Havin’ It All”
from the 1995 album This Thing Called Wantin’ and Havin’ it All

A tent revival morality tale that still sounds relevant today.

Two Hidden Treasures

“Outskirts of Town”
From the 1993 album Outskirts of Town

Put this slow and simple portrait of country life up against all of the overblown party anthems that have dominated the radio this decade, and it quickly becomes clear what a parody of itself country music can become.

“Another Side”
From the 1997 album Six Days on the Road

A tale of two brothers on opposing sides of the Civil War. It’s far more poignant than you’d imagine.

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Diamond Rio Starter Kit

diamond-rioWith four CMA and two ACM Awards and five Gold and two Platinum albums, Diamond Rio was the premier country group of the nineties. They were one of the few groups in country music to serve as the exclusive vocalists and instrumentalists on their studio albums while most other groups in country music utilized professional studio musicians and even singers to fill out their records.

Their sound was a mix of multiple influences, but Diamond Rio’s music was not mistaken as anything other than country, which was particularly a result of the six vital member’s distinct and tight harmonies and organic productions that all gelled together to form a tight vocal group in every sense.

Ten Essential Tracks

“Meet in the Middle”
from the 1991 album Diamond Rio

“Meet in the Middle” is famous for being the first debut single to reach the top of the country charts by a band. This song of commitment and compromise is both singable and relationally instructive. It also appropriately introduces Diamond Rio as a group with a unique sound that will soon be instantly recognizable on nineties country radio.

“Norma Jean Riley”
from the 1991 album Diamond Rio

While he knows that Norma Jean Riley may be out of his league, he’s not going to let that stop him from subtly winning her over. Everyone tells him he’s a fool for trying, but he knows that not only will she notice him, she’ll eventually marry him. Here’s hoping. Most notable is Dan Truman’s lively keyboard that energizes an already infectious song.

“Nowhere Bound”
from the 1991 album Diamond Rio

This guy has trouble staying in one place for long and needs to be warned that his running is simply “nowhere bound.” Diamond Rio does just that in the hook of this melodically memorable song.

“In A Week or Two”
from the 1992 album Close to the Edge

Oops! He had planned to do all the things that would have shown her that he loved her, but it wasn’t on the schedule just yet. Isn’t it Too bad she couldn’t have waited for just a mere week or two?

“This Romeo Ain’t Got Julie Yet”
from the 1992 album Close to the Edge

The title of this fun song may play off of a certain Shakespeare play, but it’s even less literary than Taylor Swift’s “Love Story.”

“Finish What We Started”
from the 1994 album Love A Little Stronger

This is simply a gorgeous, unpretentious love song of commitment.

“Walkin’ Away”
from the 1996 album IV

And here is the practical application of commitment.

“How Your Love Makes Me Feel”
from the 1997 album Greatest Hits

How the protagonist of this song describes the feelings that accompany his budding romance, perfectly captures the frenzied period of the beginning of a fresh relationship.

“You’re Gone”
from the 1998 album Unbelievable

Dan Truman’s signature keyboard is the musical foundation for this haunting ode to a woman who had a brief but deep impact. Marty Roe sings, “The good news is I’m better for the time we spent together and the bad news is you’re gone.” We’re never really given much insight into what happened to their relationship, but we can be certain that her tactics were likely unconventional, but effective for a man with obvious emotional baggage.

“Beautiful Mess”
from the 2002 album Completely

Thanks to her, this man is a mess, but he couldn’t be happier about it.

Two Hidden Treasures

“You Ain’t in It”
From the 1991 album Love A Little Stronger

Tired of her memory crowding his every thought, he proudly progresses to a place where he can finally experience a minute here and there when she “ain’t in it.”

“How Can We Thank Him for What He Has Done”
From Ralph Stanley’s 1998 album Clinch Mountain Country

This is a beautiful gem that can be found on Ralph Stanley’s wonderful collaborative project with various country artists. Diamond Rio’s signature harmony are ever present, along with Stanley’s humbly, sincere spoken word of scripture.

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Tracy Byrd Starter Kit

tracy-byrd1One of the side effects of the nineties boom was that every Nashville label started looking for young male acts that looked good in a Stetson and could sing with an accent.

The end result was that some solid talent was discovered a bit too early, before they’d fully refined themselves into artists. Tracy Byrd’s a great example of this. Only 25 years old when his first single went to radio, Byrd had been plucked from the Beaumont, Texas music scene that had groomed Mark Chesnutt.

Byrd’s hit material from the nineties was reflective of what the B-list hat acts recorded during that era, though his vocal charm helped him elevate middling songs from time to time. He also turned in a few gems, with his music getting far more consistent as he entered his thirties.

His last studio album, 2006’s Different Things, was excellent, but radio had already moved on to the new twentysomethings at that point, artists who will probably be making better music a decade from now and being overlooked for the new, new twentysomethings.

Ten Essential Tracks:

“Holdin’ Heaven”
from the 1993 album Tracy Byrd

When surprisingly strong sales greeted the release of Byrd’s debut album, radio jumped on board. This catchy tune briefly knocked Garth’s “Ain’t Goin Down” out of the top spot, though Brooks would return to #1 a week later.

“Watermelon Crawl”
from the 1994 album No Ordinary Man

The line dance craze taken to its absolutely goofiest extreme. This is as representative of the early nineties as it gets.

“The Keeper of the Stars”
from the 1994 album No Ordinary Man

This romantic ballad was the surprise winner of Song of the Year at the 1995 ACM awards.

“Walkin’ to Jerusalem”
from the 1995 album Love Lessons

One of the craziest choruses to hit country radio sounds like a Mideast geography lesson taking a detour through southern America.

“Don’t Take Her She’s All I Got”
from the 1996 album Big Love

There’s no question that Tracy Byrd knows his country music history, and he effectively revived this Johnny Paycheck classic for the nineties.

“I Wanna Feel That Way Again”
from the 1998 album I’m From the Country

You can hear that Byrd is beginning to mature and settle in to his voice. He wouldn’t have been able to deliver this as well on earlier albums.

“Put Your Hand in Mine”
from the 1999 album It’s About Time

Another mature record that deals with a father and son relationship being strained by the tensions between father and mother.

“Just Let Me Be in Love”
from the 2001 album Ten Rounds

A warm and romantic love song with a Spanish flavor. By this record, he’s almost an entirely different singer than the guy who once sang “Watermelon Crawl.”

“Ten Rounds With Jose Cuervo”
from the 2001 album Ten Rounds

Two decades after Shelly West spiked sales of the titular drink, Byrd topped the charts with this entertaining track.

“Cheapest Motel”
from the 2006 album Different Things

A roving husband pays a far higher price in the end than the motel clerk charged him.

Two Hidden Treasures:

“Someone To Give My Love To”
from the 1993 album Tracy Byrd

Early evidence of Byrd’s affection for Johnny Paycheck surfaced with this cover featured on his first album. Despite only reaching #42, it helped stimulate sales of his debut set.

“Different Things”
from the 2006 album Different Things

It’s a shame that Byrd’s success and talent peaked in different decades. Nearly every track on his 2006 album, including the title cut, would make radio sound a whole lot better.

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Brooks & Dunn Starter Kit

Brooks & DunnWhen news broke of Brooks & Dunn’s impending breakup, we decided to move up our planned Starter Kit feature on this quintessential nineties act.

It’s hard to imagine a time when Brooks & Dunn winning an industry award was a breath of fresh air, but when they surfaced in 1991, they quickly ended the long reign of The Judds at the industry award shows.  Brooks & Dunn would then make The Judds dominance seem like child’s play. They’d go on to win 19 CMA awards, including 14 in the Vocal Duo category. This shattered the category dominance record held by The Statler Brothers, who won Vocal Group nine times.

They’ve been a core act at radio for eighteen years, and were the first duo or group in the history of country music to sell six million copies of a studio album, a feat they achieved with their debut album Brand New Man. Their cumulative sales are approaching 25 million.

Ten Essential Tracks:

“Brand New Man”
from the 1991 album Brand New Man

The sheer energy of their debut single made them an instant hit at radio. Truth is, this song could come out today and still sound fresh.

“Neon Moon”
from the 1991 album Brand New Man

Ronnie Dunn is one of the genre’s finest male vocalists, especially when he tears into a beer-sipping ballad.

“Boot Scootin’ Boogie”
from the 1991 album Brand New Man

They’d make many songs that honky-tonked more, but never one that did so in such an effortlessly charming way.

“She Used To Be Mine”
from the 1993 album Hard Workin’ Man

The title track of their second album earned them a Grammy, but the album’s real treasure was this killer ballad that showcased Dunn’s aching vocal.

“You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone”
from the 1994 album Waitin’ On Sundown

One of their best singles ever features Kix Brooks on lead, an unfortunate rarity among their radio hits.

“My Maria”
from the 1996 album Borderline

Leave it to Ronnie Dunn to make a seventies AM radio classic sound like little more than a demo for his definitive recording.

“How Long Gone”
from the 1998 album If You See Her

A simple, pleasing radio hit that’s heavy on hook and melody.

“The Long Goodbye”
from the 2001 album Steers & Stripes

A fully believable break-up song that’s all about drifting apart.

“Red Dirt Road”
from the 2003 album Red Dirt Road

A nostalgic trip down a very memorable lane.

“It’s Getting Better All the Time”
from the 2004 album The Greatest Hits Collection II

A “Backside of Thirty”-league portrait of a broken man.

Two Hidden Treasures:

“My Heart is Lost To You”
from the 2001 album Steers & Stripes

Despite riding a major comeback, this bilingual track got lost in the shuffle. It went top five but not recurrent, which is a shame, since it’s one of their most enchanting tracks.

“God Must Be Busy”
from the 2007 album Cowboy Town

“Believe” got all the love, but if you’re looking for a deeper exploration of faith and doubt, this is the way to go.

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Filed under Back to the Nineties, Starter Kits