Starter Kits

Tracy Byrd Starter Kit

August 11, 2009 // 13 Comments

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.

Brooks & Dunn Starter Kit

August 10, 2009 // 20 Comments

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.

Lorrie Morgan Starter Kit

August 8, 2009 // 13 Comments

Lorrie MorganAmidst her generation of successful female country artists, Lorrie Morgan was the only one who was clearly from the tradition of heartbreak queen Tammy Wynette, with a healthy dose of Jeannie Seely in the mix. With her contemporaries far more shaped by the work of Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, Morgan was instrumental in keeping the sound of female country from the sixties still relevant in the nineties.

While Morgan never earned the critical acclaim or industry accolades of peers like Patty Loveless and Pam Tillis, she was immensely popular with country fans, able to sell gold with albums that radio largely ignored. She was the first female country artist to have her first three studio albums go platinum, with three additional albums going gold and a hits collection selling double platinum.

Many of Morgan’s best recordings were never sent to radio, and those interested in discovering her in depth should seek out her finest studio albums, Greater Need and Show Me How.

But her singles were pretty good too, with these being the most essential.

Ten Essential Tracks:

“Dear Me”
from the 1989 album Leave the Light On

This song broke through just as news of the death of Keith Whitley, Morgan’s husband, became known. She was unfairly accused of capitalizing on his death with this release, as people both misinterpreted the song’s meaning and apparently ignored the fact that it had gone to radio weeks before his death.

Pam Tillis Starter Kit

August 6, 2009 // 18 Comments

Pam TillisThe first week of Back to the Nineties will wind down with women who have something in common. Each one is the daughter of a legendary country star that struggled to break through during the late seventies and most of the eighties, then became commercially successful throughout the nineties.

Today, our Starter Kit is for Pam Tillis. Now, those of you who are longtime readers of this site are already familiar with much of Pam’s work. Perhaps you’ve read my interview with her, or her 100 Greatest Women entry, or that edition of Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists.

But for those less familiar with her, Pam Tillis was one of the most surprising country stars during the boom years. After a pop album and several country singles with Warner Bros., she resurfaced as the flagship female artist for Arista Records. Between the time of her first single for the label going to radio in 1990 and the end of the decade, she’d amass thirteen top ten hits, three platinum albums, two gold albums, a Grammy, and two CMA Awards, including the 1994 trophy for Female Vocalist of the Year.

Ten Essential Tracks:

“Don’t Tell Me What To Do”
from the 1991 album Put Yourself in My Place

Her breakthrough hit was one of two tracks from her first country album to be nominated for CMA Single of the Year. It’s also one of many Tillis hits that helped bridge the generational gap between the self-pity queens of earlier decades and the rah-rah independent women of the post-Shania age.

Travis Tritt Starter Kit

August 5, 2009 // 9 Comments

While Travis Tritt didn’t acquire quite as many number one hits as many of his fellow artists in the nineties, with only 3 to claim, he was still a solid hit maker and strong force throughout the decade. His soulful brand of “southern rockin’ country” is often what he associated himself with, as noted in “Put Some Drive in Your Country”, but he was just as vocally connected to ballads and other more standard country fare.

Even as an artist of the nineties who was not honored as much by the industry as some of his peers, likely as a result of his outlaw image, his album sales still managed to be impressive. They included albums that went gold (1), platinum (3), double platinum (3) and triple platinum (1).

As one of my favorite artists of the nineties and in general, it was difficult to point to only ten essential tracks of Travis Tritt’s to spotlight, especially since the majority of my favorite songs of his were either not hit songs or even released at all.

Ten Essential Tracks:

“Here’s A Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)”
From the 1991 album It’s All About to Change

In the nineties, Tritt was credited as having a strong personality, though people close to him, including various opening acts, have reported that he was always surprisingly friendly and accommodating. This satisfyingly and refreshingly retaliatory song, however, helped to perpetuate the feeling that Tritt is not someone to be crossed. It is a glimpse of how it would feel to actually respond with one of those quippy comebacks that we only dream of lobbing, after the fact, of course.

Mark Chesnutt Starter Kit

August 4, 2009 // 13 Comments

Back to the Nineties continues with a look at Mark Chesnutt, one of the strongest traditionalists to break through in 1990. He won the Horizon Award in 1993 while he was riding a streak of three consecutive #1 singles.

Chesnutt’s greatest commercial and radio successes came early on. His first three studio albums went platinum and his fourth went gold. He’d earn an additional platinum record with a hits collection assembled from those sets.

While he remained a consistent presence on radio for the entire decade, his sales tapered off. His last big hit was his 1999 cover of Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” which went to #1. In more recent years, he’s limited his covers to The Marshall Tucker Band and Charlie Rich.

Ten Essential Tracks:

“Too Cold at Home”
from the 1990 album Too Cold at Home

Chesnutt’s first twelve singles reached the top ten, starting with this pure country hit that finds him hiding out in a bar on a sweltering summer day. “It’s too hot to fish, too hot for gold, and too cold at home.”

“Brother Jukebox”
from the 1990 album Too Cold at Home

He’s still at the bar for this hit, his first to top the charts. This time, the woman has left him, and his only family left are the jukebox, wine, freedom, and time.

Joe Diffie Starter Kit

August 3, 2009 // 26 Comments

Today, the Starter Kit returns to Country Universe, and it brings a new theme with it: Back to the Nineties.
Beginning this month, we’ll be putting a special focus on the artists most closely associated with the nineties boom, which remains the most commercially successful era in the history of country music.

The first artist to be featured is Joe Diffie, a wonderful balladeer who had his greatest success with novelty material. At one point, he was known in Nashville as Joe Ditty, a moniker that masked the fact that he continued to record heartbreaking ballads but had trouble getting them on the radio.

With that in mind, Diffie’s Starter Kit is also the first to introduce a slight tweak to the format. This and future Starter Kits will include Ten Essential Tracks and Two Hidden Treasures, allowing for should’ve been hits to be acknowledged along with the signature songs.

Ten Essential Tracks

from the 1990 album A Thousand Winding Roads

Today, it might be quickly dismissed as the latest nostalgic “list song”, and perhaps this would be little more than that in lesser hands. But Diffie’s wistful pining for home is a lot closer in spirit to Porter Wagoner’s “Green, Green Grass of Home” than it is to anything contemporary. As Diffie’s first single, it’s interesting to hear him still finding himself as a singer, with quite a bit of his phrasing borrowed from Merle Haggard.

Kevin Coyne Starter Kit

June 27, 2009 // 17 Comments

This is an exciting day for Country Universe. Our favorite blogger and Country Universe founder, Kevin Coyne, turns thirty today! We are thrilled to join Kevin’s best friend, Charlie Geier from The Widening Geier, in wishing Kevin a heartfelt happy birthday!

In celebration of Kevin’s big day, we have compiled a Starter Kit of some of our favorite articles that Kevin has written throughout the life of Country Universe, which is quickly approaching five years, by the way. Some of our readers may recall these posts and others will be reading them for the first time. This Starter Kit will not only give Kevin an opportunity to look back on his own writing, but allow the rest of us to either reminisce or explore some excellent writing as well. And as is the ultimate purpose of Starter Kits, it’s a starting place to encourage people to discover more of the subject’s body of work, who happens to be Kevin Coyne in this instance. By doing this, we hope to pay tribute to our friend by spotlighting his insightful writing. First and foremost, you will see Kevin’s easy and obvious writing prowess. Moreover, you will surely note his passion for country music and, most importantly, his sincere and deep compassion for people in general, not to mention his sense of humor and philosophical outlook.

Willie Nelson Starter Kit

May 16, 2009 // 4 Comments

Since he’s one of the few country legends who is best defined by his albums rather than his individual tracks, creating a Starter Kit for Willie Nelson is a tough row to hoe.

What follows is the cream of the crop from Willie Nelson’s peak years, minus the collaborations with other artists. His pairings with other great acts would be another Starter Kit unto itself.

When you’re ready to dig deeper, check out his studio albums in their entirety, starting with Phases and Stages and Shotgun Willie, moving on to Red Headed Stranger and Stardust, and picking up lesser-known classics from the later years, like Spirit, Teatro, and You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker.

“Yesterday’s Wine” from the 1971 album Yesterday’s Wine

Nelson encounters an old friend at a local drinking establishment and they share a round of drinks as they reflect on how they’re “aging with time, like yesterday’s wine.”

“Whiskey River” from the 1973 album Shotgun Willie

It’s since become a live favorite of Nelson’s fans at a speedier tempo, but there’s a a beautiful melancholy to the studio version found on this album.

“Bloody Mary Morning” from the 1974 album Phases and Stages

A centerpiece of what is arguably Nelson’s finest concept album, it’s since become something of a standard. Also of note from this set is “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way.”

Dwight Yoakam Starter Kit

May 3, 2009 // 22 Comments

Few artists command as much critical acclaim as Dwight Yoakam, yet he was also a stunningly successful commercial act from the start. Nine of his releases have been certified gold or better, and his biggest set to date – This Time – has sold more than three million copies.

His catalog is deep with classic cuts. Here are ten of the best, a solid introduction to one of the genre’s greatest talents.

And while it’s not represented on the list, I highly recommend his stellar Under the Covers, an excellent covers album that is best heard in its entirety.

“Guitars, Cadillacs” from the 1986 album Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.

It’s tempting to kick off with “Honky Tonk Man”, Yoakam’s effective cover of Johnny Horton’s classic that was also his breakthrough hit. But what’s missing from that track is Yoakam’s signature heartache and pain. In Yoakam’s best songs, he’s not seeking out the night life because he enjoys it. It’s to distract him from the loneliness and rejection that his lover has inflicted upon him.

“Streets of Bakersfield” (featuring Buck Owens) from the 1988 album Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room

Yoakam was instrumental in making the younger generations aware of the importance of Buck Owens, clearly Yoakam’s strongest country influence. When he chose to revive an old Owens tune, he invited the man himself to help him out. The end result was a #1 hit that was a comeback for Owens and a signature smash for both of them.

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