It’s hard to believe that twenty years have passed since the nineties first began. Perhaps that’s because so many of the artists who broke through during that decade remain relevant on the music scene today, whether they’re still getting major spins at radio or not.
For many of us, it was the nineties when we discovered and fell in love with country music, and it’s the music and artists from that decade that represent the pinnacle of the genre. It may be debatable whether the nineties were the most artistically significant decade in the history of country music, but there’s no debating that country music never had more commercial success or cultural impact than it did in that decade.
It was a time that when the C-list artists could sell gold or platinum on the strength of one or two hits, and that 24-hour video outlets could give wide exposure to songs and artists that radio playlists could not. When the four writers of this feature got together and combined our favorite singles from the decade, it was clear that this retrospective had to run far deeper than the one we recently completed for the first decade of the 21st century. There were simply far more good singles to choose from.
That being said, this list is a reflection of our personal tastes. While they often overlapped with what was commercially popular, with nineteen top ten hits and eleven #1 hits among the first 25 entries alone, we didn’t consider radio or retail success in our picks. So while you’ll see all of the big nineties stars represented on this list, it won’t always be with their biggest hits. There’s more than a few stars that never quite came to be as well, saved from the dustbins of history and easier to find now than they were back then, thanks to the twin marvels of YouTube and Amazon.
As always, share your thoughts in the comments!
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #400-#376
#400 Little Good-Byes SHeDaisy
1999 | Peak: #3
Passive aggression finally got its due representation in modern country with SHeDAISY’s debut single, in which a mistreated protagonist exacts revenge on her ex by ever-so-slightly screwing up his house. Sort of like “Before He Cheats” for sane women. On the other hand – taking all the Beatles records and leaving only Billy Joel? Pretty cold, Osborn sisters. – Dan Milliken
It Wouldn’t Hurt to Have Wings Mark Chesnutt
1995 | Peak: #7
Chesnutt is getting over you – promise – but he sure wouldn’t mind being lifted above the memories of your “mind-wrecking” love in this delightfully charming sing-along. – Tara Seetharam
Fool, I’m a Woman Sara Evans
1999 | Peak: #32
The age-old stereotype that women can’t make up their minds is cleverly subverted into a threat toward an unkind man. A good combo of Loretta Lynn sass and Diana Ross sha-la-las. – DM
One More Last Chance Vince Gill
1993 | Peak: #1
“One More Last Chance” may seem like a song about a man who is begging for just one more last chance to get things right. But under the surface, it’s about a man who is hopelessly addicted to alcohol and partying. Even when his wife takes away his obvious means of transportation by hiding the keys to the car, he resorts to riding his John Deere tractor to the bar instead. It’s a fun song, but one that is inspired by an incident associated with George Jones, who, incidentally, is infamous for his destructive alcohol addiction. – Leeann Ward
The Cheap Seats Alabama
1994 | Peak: #13
“The Cheap Seats” aptly captures the spirit of America’s favorite pastime. – LW
Lonely Too Long Patty Loveless
1996 | Peak: #1
A tender plea for the morning after to be the beginning of something more, with Loveless delivering both angst and cautious optimism through her vocal. – Kevin Coyne
(If You’re Not in it For Love) I’m Outta Here! Shania Twain
1995 | Peak: #1
Look, guys, some of you are so transparent, it’s laughable. And to you I offer Twain’s deliciously audacious, merciless warning: if you’re not in it for love, we’re outta here. – TS
Jenny Come Back Helen Darling
1995 | Peak: #69
Darling recalls watching a high school friend sacrifice her intelligence and ambition to please the boy she loves, who outgrows her in the end because she has nothing of her own to offer him. She ends up a high school dropout working at a movie theater. In short, how those fantasy Taylor Swift videos would end in the real world. – KC
Dreaming With My Eyes Open Clay Walker
1994 | Peak: #1
Walker puts a clever twist on a fact of life that’s all too hard to grasp – the only thing we can control is the present. His infectious pledge to live in the moment is as effective as country’s finest inspirational ballads because it’s firmly grounded in reality: “I learned that one step forward will take you further on than a thousand back or a million that ain’t your own.” – TS
There Ain’t Nothin’ Wrong With the Radio Aaron Tippin
1992 | Peak: #1
With an addicting guitar riff, Tippin celebrates the radio. It doesn’t matter that the car is falling apart, but at least there’s nothing wrong with the most important part of the vehicle, the souped up radio. – LW
Write This Down George Strait
1999 | Peak: #1
One of the dittiest of all George Strait ditties? Sure. But there’s a subtle, maybe accidental wisdom to it, too. So much art is created in moments of unusual passion, when sensations like pain or love feel intense and everlasting. But most life isn’t lived in such moments, and any feeling is subject to fade away without some regular renewal. “Tell yourself ‘I love you and I don’t want you to go’” sounds light and cutesy on the surface, but it’s those little notes – and not grandiose gestures of unusual passion – that keep a relationship chugging along for the long haul. – DM
Still in Love With You Travis Tritt
1997 | Peak: #23
With conspicuous steel guitar work, this minor hit for Tritt is a straight up country romper by today’s standards. – LW
Walking Shoes Tanya Tucker
1990 | Peak: #3
She seems a little sad about it, but she’s had enough of being taken for granted and is gearing up to walk right on out of her underappreciating lover’s life. – LW
Big Deal LeAnn Rimes
1999 | Peak: #6
A sassy little number that finds a regretful Rimes lashing out at the girl who nabbed her old boyfriend. Brash, spunky and so much fun. – TS
That’s My Story Collin Raye
1993 | Peak: #6
What do you think – the grooviest song about a guy trying to craft an alibi out of a backyard hammock ever? – DM
I Like It, I Love It Tim McGraw
1995 | Peak: #1
A melody destined for inclusion in Applebee’s commercials. A lyric about a horny guy and his teddy bear-loving girlfriend. I thought about trying to mount a good argument for it, but whatever. I know you sang along the first eight times you heard it. – DM
You Can’t Make a Heart Love Somebody George Strait
1994 | Peak: #1
A simply sung, heartbreaking story of a woman who desperately wishes the heart could take orders – and a man who bears the brunt of the reality that it can’t. – TS
Count Me In Deana Carter
1997 | Peak: #5
Easily the most understated of the five hit singles from her debut album, “Count Me In” is beautiful because of its innocent vulnerability. – KC
Where Do I Fit in the Picture Clay Walker
1994 | Peak: #11
Sure, Walker milks this forlorn ballad for all it’s worth, but his ability to dramatically emote is the success of his trademark tear-soaked voice. – LW
Some Girls Do Sawyer Brown
1992 | Peak: #1
Set to a hooky melody: Boy meets girl. Girl acts unimpressed. Boy knows better. Girl hooks up with boy. The end. – LW
I Want to Be Your Girlfriend Mary Chapin Carpenter
1997 | Peak: #35
Even in the nineties, Carpenter was mostly known for her introspective lyrics. That’s the best part of her songwriting, but hearing the lighter side of MCC from time to time is fun, too. – LW
Little Bitty Alan Jackson
1996 | Peak: #1
Alan Jackson has a knack for dressing up inriguing social themes as fluffy radio bait. Here, he counters the societal fixation on the “big” draws of money and prestige, expressing a peaceful acceptance of the rather small role most of us will ultimately play in the universe. We can’t all be famous or widely influential, but if we can love well and carry our chosen mantles with pride, things aren’t so bad. – DM
Not a Moment Too Soon Tim McGraw
1994 | Peak: #1
Some people find the whole “you saved my life” concept melodramatic, but I think if there’s anything in life that calls for melodrama, it’s love. McGraw’s testimony is sweet and believable, and the weighty lyrics are cushioned by a simple yet moving arrangement. – TS
Here in the Real World Alan Jackson
1990 | Peak: #3
Jackson’s breakthrough hit lamented that what we see in the movies – cowboy heroes, good winning out in the end, the boy getting the girl – doesn’t always work out that way in the real world. How fitting that he’d end up a real world cowboy hero, one of the good guys making great music for twenty years and counting. – KC
Most of your friends probably found you kind of boring when you were paired off and content. Now you’ve been dumped, and everyone’s got an opinion about what the relationship meant and what you should do next. Trisha is having none of it – just chocolate, a good mag and some much-needed alone time for her. – DM
As with the similar CMA category of Single of the Year, looking over the history of this category is the quickest way to get a snapshot of country music in a given year. There is a quite a bt of consensus among the two organizations here, and it is very rare for the winner at one show to not at least be nominated at the other. The winners list here would make a great 2-disc set of country classics, at least for those who don’t mind a little pop in their country. The ACM definitely has more of a taste for crossover than its CMA counterpart, and the organizations have only agreed on 17 singles in the past four decades and change.
As always, we start with a look at this year’s nominees and work our way back to 1968.
Zac Brown Band, “Toes”
Billy Currington, “People Are Crazy”
Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”
Miranda Lambert, “White Liar”
David Nail, “Red Light”
There’s usually a “Huh?” nominee among the ACM list in recent years. This year, it’s David Nail. Good for him! Currington hasn’t won yet for this hit, even though he got himself a Grammy nomination for it. With Lady Antebellum reaching the upper ranks of the country and pop charts with “Need You Now”, my guess is that they’re the presumptive favorites. Then again, Miranda Lambert is a nominee for the third straight year, and she’s up for her biggest radio hit.
Trace Adkins, “You’re Gonna Miss This”
Jamey Johnson, “In Color”
Miranda Lambert, “Gunpowder & Lead”
Heidi Newfield, “Johnny and June”
Brad Paisley, “Waitin’ On a Woman”
Adkins has been a fairly regular fixture on country radio since 1996, but this was his first major industry award. He also won the ACM for Top New Male Vocalist in 1997.
Gary Allan, “Watching Airplanes”
Big & Rich, “Lost in This Moment”
Kenny Chesney, “Don’t Blink”
Miranda Lambert, “Famous in a Small Town”
“Stay” swept the Song of the Year categories at all three industry shows, along with winning the ACM for Single Record. Allan’s presence here shows that being a little West Coast can still help a guy at the ACMs.
Heartland, “I Loved Her First”
Rascal Flatts, “What Hurts the Most”
George Strait, “Give it Away”
Josh Turner, “Would You Go With Me”
Carrie Underwood, “Before He Cheats”
George Strait earned his second ACM Single Record award a decade after his first (“Check Yes or No”) and two and a half decades after having his first radio hit. Underwood won at the CMAs later that year. “Give it Away” is one of a small group of ACM winners to not receive a nomination at the CMA ceremony.
Gary Allan, “Best I Ever Had”
Brooks & Dunn, “Believe”
Brad Paisley, “Alcohol”
Sugarland, “Baby Girl”
Carrie Underwood, “Jesus, Take the Wheel”
In the battle of biblical hits, the CMA picked Brooks & Dunn but the ACM picked Carrie Underwood. Much like George Strait would later win a CMA trophy for a different single (“I Saw God Today”), Underwood later triumphed at the CMA with “Before He Cheats.”
Tim McGraw, “Live Like You Were Dying”
Brad Paisley with Alison Krauss, “Whiskey Lullaby”
Rascal Flatts, “Bless the Broken Road”
Keith Urban, “Days Go By”
Gretchen Wilson, “Redneck Woman”
Lee Ann Womack, “I May Hate Myself in the Morning”
Because McGraw picked up the trophy at the CMAs in 2004, the field was cleared for Womack to win the CMA later in 2005. McGraw had won the ACM before for “It’s Your Love.”
Brooks & Dunn, “Red Dirt Road”
Alan Jackson with Jimmy Buffett, “It’s Five O’ Clock Somewhere”
Alan Jackson, “Remember When”
Toby Keith, “American Soldier”
Randy Travis, “Three Wooden Crosses”
Among all the lead nominees, only Toby Keith wasn’t a previous winner. Still, the award went to the new alcoholic’s creed, winning over a more pensive Jackson track and a big comeback hit for Randy Travis.
Kenny Chesney, “The Good Stuff”
Toby Keith, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)”
Trick Pony, “Just What I Do”
Keith Urban, “Somebody Like You”
Mark Wills, “19 Somethin’”
Chesney spent nearly two months at #1 with this hit, perhaps giving him the edge over the other mega-hits at radio from Keith, Urban, and Wills. As for the Trick Pony nomination, somebody really should find out what Heidi Newfield has on those ACM voters.
Brooks & Dunn, “Ain’t Nothin’ ‘Bout You”
Diamond Rio, “One More Day”
Alan Jackson, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”
Toby Keith, “I Wanna Talk About Me”
Travis Tritt, “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive”
Jackson’s powerful 9/11 reflection stands out as the only ballad among his four ACM Single Record victories.
Toby Keith, “How Do You Like Me Now?!”
John Michael Montgomery, “The Little Girl”
Jamie O’Neal, “There is No Arizona”
Aaron Tippin, “Kiss This”
Lee Ann Womack with Sons of the Desert, “I Hope You Dance”
Toby Keith’s run of four consecutive nominations began this year. His album of the same name proved victorious that evening. Womack’s massive hit became an instant standard, and is incidentally the most recent winner to also be a genuine crossover hit.
Dixie Chicks, “Ready to Run”
Tim McGraw, “Please Remember Me”
Brad Paisley, “He Didn’t Have to Be”
George Strait, “Write This Down”
As pop hits go, this one was a monster. “Amazed” even topped the Hot 100, the first country single to do so since “Islands in the Stream.”
Faith Hill, “This Kiss”
Martina McBride, “A Broken Wing”
Shania Twain, “You’re Still the One”
Steve Wariner, “Holes in the Floor of Heaven”
The Wilkinsons, “26 Cents”
Hill and hubby Tim McGraw each have two ACM trophies in this category, one solo and one shared.
Diamond Rio, “How Your Love Makes Me Feel”
Tim McGraw with Faith Hill, “It’s Your Love”
LeAnn Rimes, “How Do I Live”
George Strait, “Carrying Your Love With Me”
Trisha Yearwood, “How Do I Live (from “Con Air”)”
While Yearwood had won over Rimes at the Grammys a few weeks earlier, the ACM sidestepped the big controversy of the year and gave the trophy to the biggest hit in the bunch.
Brooks & Dunn, “My Maria”
Deana Carter, “Strawberry Wine”
Tracy Lawrence, “Time Marches On”
LeAnn Rimes, “Blue”
George Strait, “Carried Away”
It’s rare that the ACM goes with the song that was least successful at radio, but don’t let that #10 peak of “Blue” fool you. That hit was responsible for millions of record sales.
Brooks & Dunn, “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone”
Faith Hill, “It Matters to Me”
Tim McGraw, “I Like It, I Love It”
George Strait, “Check Yes or No”
Shania Twain, “Any Man of Mine”
It was a stroke of marketing brilliance: add two singles to a box set of a genre superstar. When the first single became one of his biggest hits, the box set quickly became the top selling in country music history.
Joe Diffie, “Third Rock From the Sun”
Vince Gill, “Tryin’ to Get Over You”
Alan Jackson, “Livin’ On Love”
Tim McGraw, “Don’t Take the Girl”
John Michael Montgomery, “I Swear”
There have been a few wedding standards to win this award, though Montgomery’s hit didn’t cross over in its original form.
Clint Black with Wynonna, “A Bad Goodbye”
Garth Brooks, “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up)”
Alan Jackson, “Chattahoochee”
Reba McEntire with Linda Davis, “Does He Love You”
Dwight Yoakam, “Ain’t That Lonely Yet”
Jackson won the ACM with his massive hit, but the McEntire/Davis duet and the Yoakam track were Grammy winners.
John Anderson, “Straight Tequila Night”
Brooks & Dunn, “Boot Scootin’ Boogie”
Billy Ray Cyrus, “Achy Breaky Heart”
Collin Raye, “Love, Me”
Tanya Tucker, “Two Sparrows in a Hurricane”
Brooks & Dunn are among the most nominated artists in this category’s history, but this is their only victory.
Clint Black, “Where Are You Now”
Garth Brooks, “Shameless”
Alan Jackson, “Don’t Rock the Jukebox”
Travis Tritt, “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)”
Trisha Yearwood, “She’s in Love With the Boy”
This was Jackson’s first major industry award.
Alabama, “Jukebox in My Mind”
Garth Brooks, “Friends in Low Places”
Vince Gill, “When I Call Your Name”
Alan Jackson, “Here in the Real World”
Shenandoah, “Next to You, Next to Me”
Garth-mania was beginning to peak in 1991. He swept the ACMs that year.
Clint Black, “Better Man”
Garth Brooks, “If Tomorrow Never Comes”
Patty Loveless, “Timber I’m Falling in Love”
Keith Whitley, “I’m No Stranger to the Rain”
Hank Williams & Hank Williams Jr., “There’s a Tear in My Beer”
Clint Black is one of only three artists in the last twenty years to win for their first proper single, with Carrie Underwood and LeAnn Rimes being the other two.
Kathy Mattea, “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses”
K.T. Oslin, “I’ll Always Come Back”
Ricky Van Shelton, “I’ll Leave This World Loving You”
Randy Travis, “I Told You So”
Keith Whitley, “Don’t Close Your Eyes”
Mattea’s award-winning hit had such a high profile that it was even referenced in the dialog of the hit movie Rain Man.
Restless Heart, “I’ll Still Be Loving You”
Ricky Van Shelton, “Somebody Lied”
George Strait, “All My Ex’s Live in Texas”
Randy Travis, “Forever and Ever, Amen”
Hank Williams Jr., “Born to Boogie”
Travis won for the second year in a row with what would become his signature hit.
Alabama, “Touch Me When We’re Dancing”
Janie Fricke, “Always Have, Always Will”
The Judds, “Rockin’ With the Rhythm of the Rain”
Reba McEntire, “Whoever’s in New England”
Randy Travis, “On the Other Hand”
This was technically his first single, but when released under the name Randy Traywick, it bombed. Warner Bros. then released “1982″ under Randy Travis, and it went top ten. They then re-released this song, and it became his first #1 hit.
Lee Greenwood, “Dixie Road”
Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, “Highwayman”
The Judds, “Love is Alive”
Mel McDaniel, “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On”
Hank Williams Jr., “I’m For Love”
So successful was this winning single that the four legends would go on to release future collaborations as the Highwaymen.
Alabama, “When We Make Love”
Julio Iglesias & Willie Nelson, “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before”
The Judds, “Why Not Me”
John Schneider, “I’ve Been Around Enough to Know”
Conway Twitty, “I Don’t Know a Thing About Love (The Moon Song)”
Say what you want about this winner, but it was popular enough to sell two million 45s.
John Anderson, “Swingin’”
Anne Murray, “A Little Good News”
Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard, “Pancho and Lefty”
Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton, “Islands in the Stream”
Shelly West, “José Cuervo”
Another pop smash that moved two million 45s. Is there anybody over 30 who can’t sing along to the chorus?
David Frizzell, “I’m Gonna Hire a Wino to Decorate Our Home”
Willie Nelson, “Always on My Mind”
Kenny Rogers, “Love Will Turn You Around”
Ricky Skaggs, “Crying My Heart Out Over You”
Nelson’s had quite a few signature hits, but none bigger than this one.
Rosanne Cash, “Seven Year Ache”
David Frizzell & Shelly West, “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma”
Barbara Mandrell, “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool”
Ronnie Milsap, “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me”
Oak Ridge Boys, “Elvira”
This might be the most pop-flavored lineup in category’s history. Even the Mandrell hit doth protest too much.
George Jones, “He Stopped Loving Her Today”
Johnny Lee, “Lookin’ For Love”
Dolly Parton, “9 to 5″
Eddie Rabbitt, “Drivin’ My Life Away”
Don Williams, “I Believe in You”
Jones capped his biggest comeback in a career defined by them with several awards for this classic hit.
Charlie Daniels Band, “Devil Went Down to Georgia”
Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers Band, “All the Gold in California”
Crystal Gayle, “Half the Way”
Waylon Jennings, “Amanda”
Kenny Rogers, “Coward of the County”
West Coast represent!
Crystal Gayle, “Talking in Your Sleep”
Loretta Lynn, “Out of My Head and Back in My Bed”
Willie Nelson, “Georgia On My Mind”
Waylon & Willie, “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys”
Don Williams, “Tulsa Time”
In a category of superstars, the Gentle Giant of Country Music was the victor.
Debby Boone, “You Light Up My Life”
Crystal Gayle, “Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue”
Waylon Jennings, “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)”
Kenny Rogers, “Lucille”
Linda Ronstadt, “Blue Bayou”
All of these records made a big impact on both the country and the pop chart.
Mickey Gilley, “Bring it On Home to Me”
Loretta Lynn, “Somebody Somewhere (Don’t Know What He’s Missin’ Tonight)”
Marty Robbins, “El Paso City”
Red Sovine, “Teddy Bear”
Waylon & Willie, “Good Hearted Woman”
A surprising win, perhaps fueled by the momentum of Gilley’s previous single, “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time.”
Glen Campbell, “Rhinestone Cowboy”
Freddie Fender, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls”
Mickey Gilley, “Overnight Sensation”
Willie Nelson, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”
Kenny Starr, “The Blind Man in the Bleachers”
Campbell made quite the comeback with this one, and it later inspired the Dolly Parton film vehicle Rhinestone, which earned an ACM nomination of its own for the Tex Ritter Award.
John Denver, “Back Home Again”
Merle Haggard, “Things Aren’t Funny Anymore”
Ronnie Milsap, “(I’d Be) A Legend in My Time”
Cal Smith, “Country Bumpkin”
Billy Swan, “I Can Help”
Smith may not have gotten all the recognition that his talent warranted, but he made two undeniable classics: “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking”, and his winner here.
Merle Haggard, “If We Make it Through December”
Byron MacGregor, “The Americans”
Jeanne Pruett, “Satin Sheets”
Charlie Rich, “Behind Closed Doors”
Charlie Rich, “The Most Beautiful Girl”
Rich’s two hits were so big that even with vote-splitting, he still emerged the winner.
Donna Fargo, “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.”
Merle Haggard, “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)”
Johnny Rodriguez, “Pass Me By (If You’re Only Passing Through)”
Jerry Wallace, “If You Leave Me Tonight I’ll Cry”
Faron Young, “Four in the Morning”
Fargo was a local star on the West Coast before she broke through nationwide with this hit, dominating the 1973 ACM Awards as a result.
Merle Haggard, “Carolyn”
Freddie Hart, “Easy Loving”
Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, “Lead Me On”
Loretta Lynn, “One’s On the Way”
Charley Pride, “Kiss an Angel Good Morning”
This gold-selling classic helped Hart triumph over the superstars of his day.
Lynn Anderson, “Rose Garden”
Merle Haggard, “The Fightin’ Side of Me”
Anne Murray, “Snowbird”
Ray Price, “For the Good Times”
Sammi Smith, “Help Me Make it Through the Night”
Each one of these is a classic in its own right. In a battle of Kristofferson-penned hits, Price emerged victorious, though Smith won the CMA later that year.
Glen Campbell, “Try a Little Kindness”
Johnny Cash, “A Boy Named Sue”
Merle Haggard, “Okie From Muskogee”
Billy Mize, “Make it Rain”
Elvis Presley, “Don’t Cry Daddy”
Freddy Weller, “Games People Play”
Tammy Wynette, “Stand By Your Man”
Haggard’s only victory in this category came on a night where he also won Album of the Year for the only time in several nominations.
Glen Campbell, “Wichita Lineman”
Merle Haggard, “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am”
Merle Haggard, “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde”
Merle Haggard, “Mama Tried”
Roger Miller, “Little Green Apples”
Miller’s known for his legendary songwriting, but his winning hit here was penned by Bobby Russell.
Glen Campbell, “Burning Bridges”
Glen Campbell, “Gentle on My Mind”
The Gosdin Bros., “Hangin’ On”
Bobbie Gentry, “Ode to Billy Joe”
Merle Haggard, “Branded Man”
Merle Haggard, “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive”
A young Vern Gosdin made up half of the nominated Gosdin Bros., a nice historical footnote to the first year of this category. Glen Campbell’s victory was appropriately West Coast for the ACMs first attempt at honoring the national country music scene.
Facts & Feats:
(4) – Alan Jackson
(3) – Willie Nelson
(2) – Glen Campbell, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Kenny Rogers, George Strait, Randy Travis
For a good stretch in the nineties, women were the dominant creative force in country music. Songwriter Matraca Berg was an indispensable component of that dominance, penning many of the biggest hits and best-loved tracks by signature acts like Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, and Martina McBride.
It’s no surprise that this list of Favorite Songs written by Matraca Berg is almost completely composed of female artists. So distinguished is Berg’s catalog that worthy cuts by the Dixie Chicks, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Gretchen Wilson just missed the list. Even Berg herself is only present with one performance, despite releasing several outstanding recordings in her own right.
But the beauty of these lists is that these are my own favorite songs, so I don’t have to force anything on to the list just to make it more well-rounded. Add your own favorites in the comments, and read Matraca’s 100 Greatest Women profile to learn more about this stunning songwriter.
“Wild Angels” – Martina McBride Wild Angels, 1995
This was meant to be the title cut of an album that Berg never released. Instead, the cut went to Martina McBride. It was McBride’s first #1 single, and listening to it today, it sounds remarkably rough around the edges for an artist who’d eventually become an AC radio staple.
“Fool, I’m a Woman” – Sara Evans No Place That Far, 1998
Berg’s writing can be effortlessly snarky, as evidenced by this breezy Sara Evans track that was a minor hit in 1999. “Did I say that I’d never leave you behind?” she queries. “Well, just keep treating me unkind. ‘Cause fool, I’m a woman, and I’m bound to change my mind.”
“When a Love Song Sings the Blues” – Trisha Yearwood Real Live Woman, 2000
Trisha Yearwood is Berg’s finest vessel, the only voice elegant enough to equal Berg’s words. This melancholy closer to Yearwood’s excellent Real Live Woman set finds the protagonist seeking solace in a dusty old piano, playing “Faded Love” and “Born to Lose” so she doesn’t have to cry alone.
“Give Me Some Wheels” – Suzy Bogguss Give Me Some Wheels, 1996
A tense struggle between being herself and living up to an idealized creation formed by her lover leads to choosing the car keys over sticking around. “I’ll never be the angel you see in your dreams. Give me some wheels if I can’t have wings.”
“The Last One to Know” – Reba McEntire The Last One to Know, 1987
Berg’s talents came to full fruition in the nineties, but there are a handful of treasures in her catalog from the previous decade. McEntire’s dignified performance is tasteful and understated, as she asks herself, “I believed you really loved me. Why can’t I believe you said goodbye?”
“Demolition Angel” – Pam Tillis The Collection, 2006
A variety of CD and MP3 albums have been compiled from the live DVD released by Pam Tillis in 2005. She debuted several new songs in that concert, including “Demolition Angel”, a stellar Berg song that has yet to be included on a studio album. She’s asking God to send down a “demolition angel” to tear down the walls she’s built around her heart, which she describes as a “monument to pride.”
“Everybody Knows” – Trisha Yearwood Pure Country, 1992
I once saw Yearwood remark durin a concert that she had to record this song because it included the words “jerk” and “chocolate.” She’s growing frustrated with everyone in her life that has a different opinion on how to get over her heartache. She’s be happy to be left alone with “some chocolate and a magazine.”
“You Should’ve Lied” – Lee Ann Womack Something Worth Leaving Behind, 2002
A deliciously bitter rejection of a cheater’s apologetic confession. “You overestimated me,” Womack seethes, “thinking I would understand. Believing that your honesty would make me see a bigger man. Was that all part of your plan?”
“You Are the Storm” – Dusty Springfield A Very Fine Love, 1995
Springfield covered this evocative track from Berg’s debut album, a weary goodbye to a man plagued by his own inner demons. “I tried to love you, I tried to keep you from harm,” she rues, “but I can’t give you shelter when you are the storm.”
“You’re Still Here” – Faith Hill Cry, 2002
This shamefully overlooked gem from Hill’s Cry collection is painfully poignant. A woman sings to her husband who has passed on, but is still everywhere that she goes. My personal favorite moment is when she sings, “I heard you in a stranger’s laugh, and I hung around to hear him laugh again. Just once again.”
“Cry on the Shoulder of the Road” – Martina McBride Wild Angels, 1995
Levon Helm provides the killer harmony track as McBride finally leaves a troubled relationship behind, content to find her comfort out on the interstate. “I’d rather break down on the highway with no one to share my load, and cry on the shoulder of the road.” I’ve always thought that the lyrics of Lee Ann Womack’s “A Little Past Little Rock” were heavily influenced by this song.
“For a While” – Trisha Yearwood Inside Out, 2001
Another Berg song cut by Yearwood that uses the word “jerk”, though I suspect it was the undercurrent of self-deprecation that truly appealed to the songstress when she cut this song. Watching an old Road Runner cartoon, she notices the “poor old coyote. Someone had a worse day than me for a change.”
“Mining for Coal” – Randy Travis No Holdin’ Back, 1989
This deep and moving performance by Randy Travis makes me wish more male artists would cut Berg’s songs. He’s so surprised to have found a true love while he was just looking for someone to ease his loneliness. “It’s like finding a diamond when you’re mining for coal.”
“Come Back When it Rainin’” – Trisha Yearwood Real Live Woman, 2000
Here, Yearwood is refusing to indulge her rainy day lover, who only seems to come around when he’s feeling down. “I’m just someone to call when you need a place to fall,” she notes, showing him the door.
“You Can Feel Bad” – Patty Loveless The Trouble With the Truth, 1996
Loveless turns the tables on the man who thinks he’s letting her down easy. “Your head is hanging and you look real sad. Maybe you should have called?” Her heart may be broken but her dignity – and biting wit – remain intact.
“Strawberry Wine” – Deana Carter Did I Shave My Legs For This?, 1996
Berg’s signature song of lost innocence is a perfect match for Carter’s sandpaper vocals. For those of us who “still remember when thirty was old”, this remains a beautiful commentary on the passage of time.
The earliest entry in Berg’s trilogy of songs inspired by her grandfather’s farm. I don’t know if this one is as autobiographical as “Strawberry Wine” and “The Dreaming Fields”, but it’s certainly as beautiful. “Calico Plains” tells the story of an older sister sharing her dreams with her younger sister. Little sis ends up making that dream her own when the elder Abilena finds herself with child and must marry and stay at home.
“Nobody Drinks Alone” – Keith Urban Be Here, 2004
A cautionary tale sung to a man who thinks he is at home by himsef, drowning his sorrows and painful memories with a bottle of wine. “Don’t you know nobody drinks alone?” Urban warns. “Every demon, every ghost from your past, and every memory you’ve held back follows you home.”
“Wrong Side of Memphis” – Trisha Yearwood Hearts in Armor, 1992
If there’s a better song out there about chasing the dream of country music stardom, I haven’t heard it. As the opening track of Yearwood’s landmark sophomore set, it announced her arrival as one of country music’s greatest album artists.
“On Your Way Home” – Patty Loveless On Your Way Home, 2003
Loveless earned a Grammy nomination for this confrontation of a cheating spouse who isn’t quite as forthcoming as his spurned lover needs him to be. “The truth is gonna set you free,” she sings, wearily promising, “If you keep on lying to me, I might stay right here just to spite you.”
“Diamonds and Tears” – Suzy Bogguss Something Up My Sleeve, 1993
Berg’s finest philosophical moment, a reflection on how the journey of life is its own destination. Even lost love is a form of “higher education”: “I have said and heard the word ‘goodbye’, felt the blade and turned the knife sideways. But I crossed bridges while they burned, to keep from losing what I’ve learned along the way.”
“The Dreaming Fields” – Trisha Yearwood Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love, 2007
A return to the wheat fields of her youth upon the death of her grandfather contains a sprinkle of social commentary, but is mostly a heart-wrenching exploration of grief over “the end of a world I love.”
“My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again” – Patty Loveless Strong Heart, 2000
The end of a first love brings not only the death of that romance, but also of the innocence that dies along with it. “It’s too bad, it’s so sad when your innocence is gone. It’s wasted on the ones that do you wrong.” Thus is the end result of a love “too blind with trust to know the Judas kiss.”
“Back When We Were Beautiful” – Matraca Berg Sunday Morning to Saturday Night, 1997
Berg received a standing ovation when she performed this stunning song on the 1997 CMA Awards, the same night that she won Song of the Year for “Strawberry Wine.” It recounts a conversation between grandmother and granddaughter, with the former confessing to the latter that “I hate it when they say I’m aging gracefully. I fight it every day. I guess they never see.”
The song is not available digitally and the album is out of print, but you can listen to it here.
“Lying to the Moon” – Trisha Yearwood The Song Remembers When, 1993
Berg refused to perform this song for years after Yearwood’s version was released, feeling that she couldn’t do it justice after Yearwood’s flawless rendition. Berg’s poetic style could be too precious in lesser hands, but Yearwood’s ability to be sincere without being schmaltzy makes her the perfect singer for “Lying to the Moon,” a song so breathtakingly beautiful that it’s easy to forget it’s essentially about getting stood up.
“I told the starry sky to wait for you. I told the wind to sigh to like lovers do. I even told the night that you were true, and that you would be here soon, and now I’m lying to the moon.” It’s one of Berg’s finest songs, combined with one of Yearwood’s finest vocal performances, a high-water mark for two of the genre’s greatest talents.
I was listening to The Band’s album Music From Big Pink earlier this week, and something struck me about the song “The Weight.” Trust me, you know the song. It goes a little like this: “I pulled into Nazareth / Was feelin’ about half past dead / I just need some place / where I can lay my head.” Ring a bell yet? No? Try this:
In the song, The Band, originally consisting of Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Levon Helm, draws from a familiar cast of characters and American mythology to tell a universal story set in the town of Nazareth, PA. First released in 1968, “The Weight” only reached #63 on the U.S. charts, but has since achieved iconic status. It has become an American standard in a way few songs have accomplished. Indeed, Rolling Stone lists it as the 41st greatest song of all time.
Further cementing its iconic status, check out a very small sample of the artists – across genres, of all ages – who have covered the song:
The Black Crowes
Old Crow Medicine Show
The Staple Singers
Lee Ann Womack
Cross Canadian Ragweed
Diana Ross, the Temptations and the Supremes
The Allman Brothers Band
The Marshall Tucker Band
Panic at the Disco
Songs with enduring power like “The Weight” are few and far between, and seem to be even more so nowadays. So tonight’s discussion asks:
What songs of the past decade have enduring power? What songs will we be listening to and hear covers of in the next 50 years?
While the Grammys have honored country music from the very first ceremony in 1959, they did not begin honoring by gender until 1965, when the country categories were expanded along with the other genre categories.
This is a look back at the Best Female Country Vocal Performance category. It was first awarded in 1965, an included single competing with albums until the Best Country Album category was added in 1995. When an album is nominated, it is in italics, and a single track is in quotation marks.
I’ve often made the case that female artists were making the best music in the 1990s, and the Grammys did a great job nominating songs and albums that were ignored at the CMA and ACM awards, which is not surprising, given that those shows have so few categories that are actually for songs and albums.
As usual, we start with a look at this year’s nominees and work our way back.
Martina McBride, “For These Times”
LeAnn Rimes, “What I Cannot Change”
Carrie Underwood, “Last Name”
Lee Ann Womack, “Last Call”
Trisha Yearwood, “This is Me You’re Talking To”
This year’s lineup includes three former winners and two women looking for their first victory in this category. Martina McBride is in the running for the eighth time in fifteen years, and with one of her more understated performances. Lee Ann Womack returns for a fifth time, having received a nomination for the lead single of her five most recent albums. Both ladies turned in good performances here, but they’ve been overlooked for records bigger and better, so they’re not likely to snap their losing streaks this time around.
As for the previous winners, LeAnn Rimes earned her third consecutive nod, bringing her total to five in this category. She hasn’t won since 1997, when she took home the award for “Blue.” If enough voters hear “What I Cannot Change,” she might have a shot, though the only version of the song that’s been a legitimate hit has been the dance remix.
Trisha Yearwood won in 1998 for “How Do I Live,” her only victory to date. But she’s earned her tenth nomination for “This is Me You’re Talking To,” which is arguably her strongest vocal performance of the ten. Like Rimes, the challenge is getting enough voters to listen to it, but she’s never been more deserving of the victory than she is this year.
Still, the favorite remains Carrie Underwood. She’s quickly become a favorite with Grammy voters, having won this category two years running, along with Best New Artist in 2007. She’s the nominee with the highest profile, and while “Last Name” is nowhere near the same league of “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “Before He Cheats” in terms of artistry or impact, it was a big hit, something that the other four entries cannot claim.
If Underwood was nominated for “Just a Dream,” she’d have a mortal lock on this one. But the strength of the other nominees will at least keep this race competitive. If Underwood prevails, Grammy queen Alison Krauss better watch her back.
Alison Krauss, “Simple Love”
Miranda Lambert, “Famous in a Small Town”
LeAnn Rimes, “Nothin’ Better to Do”
Carrie Underwood, “Before He Cheats”
Trisha Yearwood, “Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love”
Looking at this lineup, you’d think that it was a golden age of female country artists, something akin to the mid-nineties. In reality, only one of these songs was a big radio hit, though three others managed to go top twenty. In terms of quality, however, this is the most consistent and thoroughly wonderful set of nominees this category has seen this century. You’d have to go back to exactly 1999 to find a better lineup.
In a year when any winner would have been deserving, Underwood won for “Before He Cheats,” her second straight win for a signature mega-hit from her debut album.
On the drive home from a particularly trying workday last week, I was twisting the radio dial in search of one last song before I arrived at my house. It was a dark and stormy night, as Charles Schulz would say, and through the doom and gloom came Deana Carter’s “Strawberry Wine,” a CMA Song of the Year winner and a No. 1 single in 1996. Now, contrary to popular playlist belief, Carter recorded music after, say, 1998. In fact, she recorded a real gem in 2005 with The Story of My Life, a delightfully infectious, thought-provoking album that showcases Carter’s sensuous Southern drawl and nakedly honest observations.
That terrific set includes “Sunny Day,” where she slowly glides from caustic to cautiously optimistic in the span of a few minutes. “Sunny Day” is her resolution to throw off the chains of negativity and those that wield it with such carelessness. Plus, it’s a fairly blatant stab at the music industry (“I ain’t picked up my guitar in 15 days/Some music man doesn’t give a damn what I have to say”), and she eventually swears that her “son of a bitch” boss won’t steal her sunshine. Who wouldn’t want to express that sentiment sometimes?
Track of the week: “Sunny Day,” Deana Carter from 2005′s The Story of My Life.
When women became the dominant creative force in country music during the mid-nineties, it wasn’t just on the strength of their vocal talents, but also because of their excellent choice of material. No single songwriter supplied more of that quality material than Matraca Berg, one of the most prominent and successful female country songwriters in country music history.
Most songwriter stories begin with their journey to Nashville, but Matraca Berg was born in Music City. She grew up thinking that she’d either be a lawyer or a songwriter, and she later quipped that once she dropped out of high school, it was obvious that law wasn’t an option.
Not that it mattered much. Berg was only eighteen when she met up with songwriter legend Bobby Braddock (”D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today”), who was very impressed with her self-written songs and suggested they pair up to write on together. The result was “Faking Love,” which went to No. 1 for T.G. Sheppard & Karen Brooks in 1983.
Not a bad start for a young songwriter. But some lean years followed as she honed her songwriting craft, while also pursuing a career as a recording artist. Things began to pick up in the late eighties, when Reba McEntire turned her “The Last One to Know” into a #1 hit in 1987. After she scored more cuts with Randy Travis, Tanya Tucker and Sweethearts of the Rodeo, RCA offered her a recording contract.
In 1990, her stellar debut album, Lying to the Moon, was released. Four singles made moderate dents on the singles chart, and the album sold enough to reach the forties on the album chart. A second album was recorded but never released, and then RCA tried to push her in the pop market with the 1993 album The Speed of Grace. It failed to make an impact, and she was dropped from the label.
These would have been harrowing times, except for the fact that a bumper crop of female artists were looking for smart, contemporary material. Berg’s debut album was mined by several artists. Trisha Yearwood immortalized the title track, Pam Tillis covered “Calico Plains,” Dusty Springfield tackled “You Are the Storm,” and Berg’s childhood heroine, Linda Ronstadt, recorded “Walk On.”
Patty Loveless had a top five hit in 1990 with Berg’s “I’m That Kind of Girl,” and scored a #1 single six years later with “You Can Feel Bad.” Suzy Bogguss, another rising star in the early nineties, cut “Eat at Joe’s”, which had been recorded for that unreleased second album. Berg and Bogguss became friends and songwriting partners, and they wrote Bogguss’ last big hit together, “Hey Cinderella”, which went top five in 1994.
Trisha Yearwood would become the artist most associated with Berg. She had a big hit in 1992 with “Wrong Side of Memphis,” a No. 1 single with “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl)” in 1994 and a top five hit with “Everybody Knows” in 1996. Meanwhile, Martina McBride had her first No. 1 single in 1996 with “Wild Angels,” which Berg had imagined would be the title cut of one of her own albums.
Yearwood passed on the song that would become Berg’s signature composition, and it was recorded instead by an aspiring new artist named Deana Carter. In 1996, Carter made Berg’s “Strawberry Wine” her debut single, and the slow waltz about lost innocence was a surprise smash, topping the charts for two weeks. Carter repeated at #1 with the follow-up single, another Berg song called “We Danced Anyway.”
All of these hits renewed interest in Berg as a recording artist, and she signed with Rising Tide Records. In 1997, she released Sunday Morning to Saturday Night. She was invited to perform on that year’s CMA awards telecast, where host Vince Gill introduced her as not just a songwriter, but a poet. She performed the heartbreaking “Back When We Were Beautiful” and received one of her two standing ovations of the evening. The other one came when she and co-writer Gary Harrison won Song of the Year for “Strawberry Wine.” She was only the third woman in history to win the award, after K.T. Oslin (1988) and Gretchen Peters (1996).
In 1998, Berg had a popular video hit with “Back in the Saddle”, thanks to a supporting cast of many of the female stars who’d scored hits with her songs: Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill, Suzy Bogguss, Patty Loveless and Martina McBride. Meanwhile, newer artists also began to embrace Berg’s work. Sara Evans did well with “Fool, I’m a Woman” and Berg earned some big royalties when the Dixie Chicks had a smash with her “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me.” She even caught the attention of another legend, Loretta Lynn, who recorded “Working Girl” for her Still Country album in 2000. Terri Clark followed Lynn’s lead and included the song on her 2002 comeback album Pain to Kill.
More recently, Keith Urban included “Nobody Drinks Alone” on his Be Here album, Pinmonkey revived her Rising Tide single “That Train Don’t Run,” and Lee Ann Womack cut “You Should’ve Lied.” Berg earned a Grammy nomination for “I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today,” which was a hit for Gretchen Wilson.
But it’s with those nineties women that Berg remains most closely associated. Patty Loveless earned a Grammy nomination for her performance of “On Your Way Home.” Pam Tillis included “Crazy By Myself” on her 2007 album RhineStoned. Trisha Yearwood’s new album features Berg’s “Dreaming Fields” as the emotional centerpiece.
In recent years, Berg has been touring both the U.S. and Europe with other female songwriters, and while she shares billing with peers like Gretchen Peters and Carolyn Dawn Johnson, the depth of Berg’s catalog is unmatched by any female songwriter of her generation.
For a look back at the other major categories, visit our CMA Awards page.
Zac Brown Band
Usually there isn’t this much turnover in this race unless most of last year’s nominees are ineligible. This year, only one of the four eligible nominees from last year – Zac Brown Band – earns a nomination. With their massive success and their multiple nominations, they’ve got an excellent shot at winning. Then again, Easton Corbin is elsewhere on the ballot, too. It could be a horse race. 2009
Zac Brown Band
Thirteen years after winning the Best New Artist Grammy as part of Hootie & The Blowfish, Darius Rucker won the country music equivalent, adding an exclamation point to the most successful pop-to-country crossover in a generation.
The industry favorites Lady Antebellum became the fourth band in history to win this award, following Rascal Flatts, Dixie Chicks and Sawyer Brown.
Little Big Town
In the year since winning the Horizon Award, Swift has solidified her position as the genre’s most successful rising star. While her debut album hasn’t reached the sales heights of the first discs by previous winners Carire Underwood and Gretchen Wilson, Swift is still one of the genre’s only significant sellers.
Little Big Town
I had a sneaking suspicion that Josh Turner was going to take this home, but as I’ve said before, Carrie’s got the best pipes since Trisha Yearwood. That she’ was acknowledged for that at such an early stage of her career is pretty amazing. Somehow I think the thrill of winning Horizon was short-lived, as winning Female Vocalist the same night left that memory in the dust.
Big & Rich
Four of these five were nominees again the following year, and all in categories besides just Horizon, though Lambert got another shot at that as well.I think Big & Rich and Sugarland are making the most interesting music, and they’re moving more units than Bentley, though he’s no slouch himself.The CMA showed good judgment this year.
With her slate of 11 #1 singles as a songwriter, her recent induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and even a solo stint as a country singer, Matraca Berg would still be hard pressed to recall a more satisfying moment than the 1997 CMA Awards. After fifteen years of penning a number of country music’s defining songs, she had earned a nomination (with Gary Harrison) for CMA Song of the Year. With “Strawberry Wine,” a #1 single for Deana Carter, Berg and Harrison had crafted an innocence-lost ballad with tremendous depth and detail, and no less an expert than Vince Gill proclaimed her as a poet. That poetry lifted “Strawberry Wine” to both the Single and Song of the Year honors, prompting Carter to race to presenter Ricky Skaggs and jump into his arms with delight as she accepted the Single trophy.
“Strawberry Wine”, written by Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, is a prime example of country radio’s ability to spin an unconventional song, becoming a #1 single despite its subject matter, its length and its distinctive sound and structure. It also exhibits the eloquent quality that marks many of the best songs in the genre. With “Strawberry Wine”, a song about a teenager’s first love and lost innocence at her grandparents’ farm, Deana Carter was able to establish herself as one of country’s brightest new stars in the late 1990s.