At first, they were the very embodiment of a valid reason to suspect the credentials of TV singing contest winners. But over time, they became one of the most thought-provoking and substantial country music bands.
Sawyer Brown began as the backing band for Don King, who had a handful of minor country hits in the late seventies and early eighties. When King stopped touring in 1981, the band decided to strike out on their own. The original lineup of Mark Miller, Bobby Randall, Joe Smyth, Gregg Hubbard, and Jim Scholten named themselves Sawyer Brown after the Nashville street where they often rehearsed.
The band quickly earned a reputation on the road, honing the live act that would keep them in the green during all of their ups and downs at country radio. In 1983, they auditioned for the first season of Star Search, where they were th winning act, securing a $100,000 prize which led to a contract with Capitol Records.
They were a hit from the start, with a handful of big singles from their first two albums, including “Step That Step” and “Betty’s Bein’ Bad.” As the titles indicate, they built their early career on goofy novelty hits, and were known for their outlandish outfits and campy dance moves. Even though they won the CMA Horizon Award in 1985, they weren’t taken terribly seriously by the country music industry.
Their road business never wavered, but as the new traditionalist movement went into full swing, radio airplay was erratic. After “Bad” hit #5 in 1985, the band enjoyed only two more top ten hits in the following five years, one of which was a high-energy cover of the George Jones classic, “The Race is On.” Original guitarist Randall left the band, replaced by Duncan Cameron.
Then, in one of the most surprising second acts in country music history, they resurfaced as a major player in the most competitive era the genre has ever seen, and they did it with a string of serious, thought-provoking songs like “The Walk”, which traced a father-son relationship through time; “Cafe on the Corner”, which captured the stories of several small-towners hard hit by the early nineties recession; and “All These Years”, a harrowing look at a faltering marriage that just might be saved by an act of infidelity.
The personality was there too, with “Some Girls Do” and “Thank God For You” recapturing the energy of their early hits without the accompanying silliness. For most of the decade, the band would remain hitmakers, finally winning a Vocal Group award from the ACM in 1997, and regularly reaching the upper heights of the charts with well-picked covers and strong self-written material.
Their most recent studio album, Mission Temple Fireworks Stand, was among the most critically acclaimed of their career, and spawned their last top forty hit, “They Don’t Understand.” The set was followed in 2008 with a Christmas collection, Rejoice. Their touring schedule remains hectic, with the band regularly playing venues and fairs across the country every summer and fall.
Four generous hits collections were released in 2010, each one chronicling the entire career of a contemporary country music star. Individually, each double-disc set serve as the most expansive and thorough compilation for each artist. Taken together, they tell the story of country music over the last twenty years.
Alan Jackson 34 Number Ones
In the late eighties, Randy Travis did something that no other country star had done before. He became the top-selling country artist by a wide margin without making any musical concessions to pop or rock. In doing so, he tore up the old playbook. Suddenly, you could be a multi-platinum country artists without the added benefit of top 40 radio or accolades from the rock and roll press.
Thus began contemporary country music, the new paradigm that reached its commercial peak in the nineties, but has never come close to receding to its earlier status as a niche genre. A crop of young stars surfaced in 1989 and 1990, each one of them staking a claim to be the Haggard, the Jones, the Willie, the Waylon of their generation. Out of all of them, none struck a more perfect balance between artistic credibility and commercial viability than Alan Jackson.
Simply put, he is the most significant singer and songwriter of the past quarter century. So it’s no surprise that out of all of the country stars who’ve compiled #1 hit collections, Jackson’s set is the best, both in terms of overall quality and effectiveness in summing up an entire career.
Fact is, radio’s played nearly everything Jackson’s sent their way, and he’s demonstrated remarkably good judgment over the past twenty years. The highest of the high points – “Here in the Real World”, “Don’t Rock the Jukebox”, “Chattahoochee”, “Gone Country”, “Where Were You”, “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” – aren’t just great records from their time period. They’re accurate representations as well, little time capsules that show Jackson as being centrally relevant to the genre while he was also making great music.
Today, with critical acclaim and commercial success becoming increasingly divergent pathways, 34 Number Ones serves as a powerful reminder that one need not sacrifice quality for radio airplay. Of the new tracks, Jackson’s cover of “Ring of Fire” doesn’t quite measure up, It’s certainly a competent reading, but Jackson’s already a legend in his own right. Just listen to “As She’s Walking Away”, the duet with Zac Brown Band that serves at the set’s bonus 35th number one. His mere presence elevates the track into greatness.
Tim McGraw Number One Hits
Jackson’s ascent into superstardom came at the peak of the new traditionalist movement. Tim McGraw got in just under the buzzer, breaking through a year before Shania Twain shifted the course of country music to a distinctively more pop sound. He’s since been able to maintain stardom by going with the flow of these changes.
At his best, few have been better than Tim McGraw, but Number One Hits documents his bookend years as a follower of trends. It’s the songs on either end of his hit run than are the weakest. Whereas Jackson has flirted with banality once in a while, McGraw has openly embraced it. He became a mega-star by alternating shoehorning the five-hankie weepfest “Don’t Take the Girl” between novelty songs like “Indian Outlaw” and “Down on the Farm”, all of which reek of the hat act herd mentality that was heading out of style in 1994.
But McGraw used his clout from those early hits to get access to better material, and his albums soon demonstrated a song sense that was unrivaled among the other new acts of the time, most of whom quickly faded away as pop ascended in the genre. The best of his biggest singles came over the course of the next decade. Classics like “Just to See You Smile”, “Please Remember Me”, “Angry all the Time” and “Live Like You Were Dying” were among the best songs on the radio.
For a while there, he could get just about anything into the top fifteen, but this collection focuses only on the chart-toppers. So instead of fantastic gems like “Can’t Be Really Gone”, “One of These Days”, “Red Ragtop”, and “If You’re Reading This”, this set features quite a bit of forgettable fare that hasn’t aged well. They may have topped the charts, but that doesn’t make “Not a Moment Too Soon”, “She Never Lets it Go to Your Heart”, and the particularly abysmal “Southern Voice” worthy of inclusion in a best-of set.
If they were able to suspend the concept to include a questionable dance remix of the #8 chart hit “Indian Outlaw” and the mediocre new hit “Felt Good on My Lips”, they might as well have just been more generous with the track listing and released The Very Best of Tim McGraw. His music has been far more compelling than this collection shows.
Dixie Chicks The Essential Dixie Chicks
The explosive crossover success of Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes, and Faith Hill was in full swing in 1998, which left traditionalists hungering for a superstar alternative. In waltzed the Dixie Chicks, with a combination of musical credibility, traditional roots, and youthful appeal that instantly made them the darlings of the format. Over the course of two albums – 1998′s Wide Open Spaces and 1999′s Fly – they dominated radio, retail and the awards circuit.
Tracks from those two albums combine for fourteen of the thirty tracks of The Essential Dixie Chicks. All of the biggest hits are here, but chart success wasn’t the only determination for inclusion. Thank God for that, as less impressive top ten hits like “Cold Day in July” and “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me” are left off, with the far more compelling “Heartbreak Town” and “Sin Wagon” in their place.
As good as their first two albums were, it was the 2002 masterpiece Home that truly solidified them as artists for the ages. Released at the height of O Brother mania, the timing couldn’t have been better for this acoustic album. “Long Time Gone”, “Landslide”, and “Travelin’ Soldier” all went top two, and the album swept the country categories at the 2003 Grammy Awards.
And then, the bottom fell out. Poorly chosen words about the president quickly overshadowed Home, and the princesses of country radio suddenly became pariahs, taking the burgeoning roots movement down with them. Radio slamming its door shut is what makes a hit-centered Chicks compilation impossible, and Essential Dixie Chicks wisely chooses to give equal representation to Home and its follow-up, the California country Taking the Long Way.
An excellent job is done of selecting the best album cuts from both collections, an especially difficult task with the latter album. Sure, it won five Grammys and sold well, but the platinum single “Not Ready to Make Nice” was the only real hit. Thankfully, we’re treated to gems like “Top of the World” and “Truth No. 2″ from Home and “The Long Way Around”, “Easy Silence,” and “Lubbock or Leave It” from Taking the Long Way.
And while a case could be made for some great tracks left off – “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)”, “More Love”, and “Voice Inside My Head” come to mind – everything that’s here is essential listening. Then again, the Chicks could have randomly picked any 30 songs from the four albums represented here and still ended up with a great collection of music, so high has their standard of excellence been all along. How many other superstar country artists could do the same?
Brad Paisley Hits Alive
If the Dixie Chicks best represent the last gasp of lofty aspiration in mainstream country music over the past twelve years, Brad Paisley best represents the mediocrity the genre was willing to settle for. Rising to fame around the same time as the Chicks, Paisley was similarly touted as a traditional savior for the increasingly pop-influenced genre.
And for more than ten years, he’s lived up to the traditionalist part, rarely flirting with crossover sounds. Much like Alan Jackson, Paisley’s sound hasn’t changed much over time. But unlike Jackson, Paisley’s point of view hasn’t changed much either. He’s been releasing antiseptic, mostly dull radio fodder for most of his career, getting regular radio play with an endless stream of interchangeable love songs and party anthems.
Hits Alive attempts to assess his work to date, and it takes an odd approach. A disc of studio hits is paired with a disc of live recordings of his hits. Figuring out the guiding principle in song selection is near impossible. Some of his signature hits – “I’m Gonna Miss Her”, “Letter to Me”, “Waitin’ on a Woman” – appear only in live form. Songs that practically beg to be livened up, like “Ticks”, “The World”, and “Celebrity” – are only here in their studio incarnations. Bizarrely, “Alcohol” and “Mud on the Tires”, are presented in both forms.
The double dipping means early hits like “Who Needs Pictures”, “Wrapped Around”, “Two People Fell in Love”, and “I Wish You’d Stay” are omitted entirely. That’s a shame, because they’re all better than his string of condescending and slightly misogynist love songs that do make the cut, the worst offenders being “The World” and the jaw-dropping “Little Moments”, the latter providing a list of endearing traits that would be insulting if he was singing about his child, let alone his partner.
Thankfully, many of his best moments are included, most notably “Whiskey Lullaby” and “When I Get Where I’m Going”, two hits that have gone on to become genre standards in the years since their release. Plus, the live disc brings some unexpected treats. “Time Warp” showcases his stunning instrumental talent, while the hits “Water” and “American Saturday Night” truly do come alive on stage, making them sound better here than they did on the radio.
Of the four collections, Paisley’s may be the least impressive, but it’s still a decent representation of one of country music’s last superstars, and it speaks volumes about the creative holding pattern that still paralyzes the genre. Unless the spiritual successors to Alan Jackson or the Dixie Chicks come along, Paisley’s might be as good as it’s gonna get on country radio.
And so we come to the end. The top of our list includes a wide range of artists singing a wide range of country music styles. Thematically, these entries are diverse, but what they all have in common is what has always made for great country music. They are all perfectly-written songs delivered with sincerity by the artists who brought them to life.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #25-#1
Smoke Rings in the Dark Gary Allan
1999 | Peak: #12
Being deeply enamored of someone can make it easy – even appealing – to forfeit your own well-being. This single’s sunny tone reflects the persistent affection running through its protagonist, but its story demonstrates the heartbreak to which such unmeasured selflessness leads. – DM (more…)
This Keith Whitley classic was recorded as part of a tribute album to the late country star. It became a hit all over again, perhaps because Krauss performed it in a near-whisper. The quiet arrangement matches the sentiment beautifully. – Kevin Coyne
Lawrence dishes on his ex’s cheating ways to her new potential lover. How did she get that way? He reveals that he’s the one who taught her everything she knows from the cheater’s playbook. Moreover, he seems regretful of her corruption. – Leeann Ward
Cowboy Take Me Away Dixie Chicks
1999 | Peak: #1
In a modern world where life can so easily feel cold and mechanical, love remains earthy and exciting and mysterious. It’s a window into a different world, one where we’re not defined by the predictables of our routine – the same stresses, the same cars and buildings – but by our core nature as people, our place in the greater fabric of Earth and, perhaps, heaven. On the surface, “Cowboy Take Me Away” sounds like just a sugar-sweet love song – I’ve even heard it called “pre-feminist” – but there’s something else going on here: a plea for life to have meaning again. – Dan Milliken (more…)
New fans of country music in the nineties were hit over the head with the assertion that country music was one big family. Nothing demonstrated this mythos better than the all star jams that cropped up during the boom years.
There were some variants of this approach. A popular one found a veteran star teaming up with one or more of the boom artists to increase their chances of radio airplay. George Jones was big on this approach, with the most high profile attempt being “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair.” Seventeen years later, it’s amazing to see how young everyone looks – even Jones himself!
Jones shared the CMA Vocal Event of the Year trophy for that collaboration with Clint Black, Garth Brooks, T. Graham Brown, Mark Chesnutt, Joe Diffie, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, and Travis Tritt. He’d continue with this approach by teaming up with his vocal chameleon Sammy Kershaw on “Never Bit a Bullet Like This”, and he recorded an entire album of his own songs as duets with mostly younger stars. The Bradley Barn Sessions was represented at radio with “A Good Year For the Roses”, which found him singing one of his best hits with Alan Jackson:
Among the legends, the only other one to be successful with this approach was Dolly Parton, who used collaborations with young stars to score consecutive platinum albums for the first and only time in her career. Her 1991 set Eagle When She Flies was powered by the #1 single “Rockin’ Years”, co-written by her brother and sung with Ricky Van Shelton:
That album also included a duet with Lorrie Morgan on “Best Woman Wins.” She upped the bandwagon ante on Slow Dancing With the Moon, bringing a whole caravan of young stars on board with her line dance cash-in “Romeo.”
That’s Mary Chapin Carpenter, Billy Ray Cyrus, Kathy Mattea, and Tanya Tucker in the video. Pam Tillis isn’t in the clip, but she sings on the record with them. Parton also duets with Billy Dean on that album on “(You Got Me Over a) Heartache Tonight.”
Her next collaboration was with fellow legends Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, but they couldn’t resist the temptation to squeeze in several younger stars in the video for “Silver Threads and Golden Needles.” Alongside veterans like Chet Atkins, Bill Anderson, and Little Jimmy Dickens, you’ll catch cameos from Mark Collie, Confederate Railroad, Rodney Crowell, Diamond Rio, Sammy Kershaw, Doug Stone, and Marty Stuart.
Parton scored a CMA award when she resurrected “I Will Always Love You” as a duet with Vince Gill:
And while it didn’t burn up the charts, her version of “Just When I Needed You Most” with Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski:
Tammy Wynette made an attempt to connect with the new country audience with her own album of duets, Without Walls. Her pairing with Wynonna on “Girl Thang” earned some unsolicited airplay:
Perhaps the most endearing project in this vein came from Roy Rogers. How cool is it to hear him singing with Clint Black?
The new stars liked pairing up with each other, too. A popular trend was to have other stars pop up in music videos. There’s the classic “Women of Country” version of “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”, for starters. Mary Chapin Carpenter sounds pretty darn good with Suzy Bogguss, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea, Pam Tillis, and Trisha Yearwood on backup:
That’s a live collaboration, so at least you hear the voices of the other stars. But Vince Gill put together an all-star band for his “Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away” video without getting them to actually play. That’s Little Jimmy Dickens, Kentucky Headhunters, Patty Loveless, Lee Roy Parnell, Carl Perkins, Pam Tillis, and Kelly Willis behind him, with Reba McEntire reprising her waitress role from her own “Is There Life Out There” clip.
My personal favorite was Tracy Lawrence’s slightly less A-list spin on the above, with “My Second Home” featuring the future superstars Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, and Shania Twain, along with John Anderson, Holly Dunn, Hank Flamingo, Johnny Rodriguez, Tanya Tucker, Clay Walker, and a few people that I just can’t identify.
For pure star wattage, it took the bright lights of Hollywood to get a truly amazing group together. The Maverick Choir assembled to cover “Amazing Grace”, and it doesn’t get much better than country gospel delivered in a barn by John Anderson, Clint Black, Suzy Bogguss, Billy Dean, Radney Foster, Amy Grant, Faith Hill, Waylon Jennings, Tracy Lawrence, Kathy Mattea, Reba McEntire, John Michael Montgomery, Restless Heart, Ricky Van Shelton, Joy Lynn White, and Tammy Wynette.
What’s your favorite of the bunch? Any good ones I missed?
If I follow the metaphor correctly, Toby Keith’s the dog and his lady is the bone that’s been tossed in his direction.
“Every Dog Has Its Day” approaches “Bad Dog, No Biscuit” in the pantheon of horrifically cheesy and terribly executed country metaphors. It should be beneath the dignity of one of the genre’s finest male vocalists ever.
If he was George Jones, this would be his “High-Tech Redneck.”
Written by Toby Keith, Bobby Pinson, and John Waples
I’ve been wanting to write about Bobbie Cryner for a long time. Thanks to some kind folks uploading her music on to YouTube, I can finally do so. (For whatever reason, her two fantastic albums – Bobbie Cryner and Girl o f Your Dreams – have yet to see digital release.)
This woman was good. Real good. Possibly the best unheralded singer-songwriter of her time, with a sultry voice formed at the crossroads of Bobbie Gentry and Dottie West. She first surfaced on Sony, releasing her self-titled debut in 1993. It was previewed by the autobiographical “Daddy Laid the Blues on Me.”
It could’ve been the start of a legendary career, but the single stalled at #63. Next up was the haunting “He Feels Guilty”, which went to #68. It has an amazing guitar intro. That video can be viewed here. Her debut album produced a third single, the #72 “You Could Steal Me.” This one’s heartbreakingly gorgeous, but I can’t find an online way of sharing it with you.
The rest of that first album includes a duet with Dwight Yoakam on “I Don’t Care”, the Buck Owens classic. Another stellar cover is “The One I Love the Most”, which could’ve been a George Jones classic back in the early seventies.
But the best material comes from her own pen. Check out “I Think It’s Over Now”, which features the lyric, “You don’t have to say you love me if you think there’s any doubt. But if you have to think it over, well, I think it’s over now.”
Also worth seeking out is the closing track from that album, “This Heart Speaks For Itself,” which has every part of her body fooling others that she’s over the man who let her down.
In one of those glorious second chances that the music business rarely doles out, Cryner resurfaced on MCA three years later, sporting a more cosmopolitan sound and look. On Girl of Your Dreams, Cryner penned all five of the strongest tracks, while also credibly covering Dusty Springfield and Dottie West. The lead single was “I Just Can’t Stand to Be Unhappy”, a kiss-off anthem that was too smart for country radio, stopping at #63:
What followed was an absolute masterpiece, one that still only reached #56 (and only #66 when Lorrie Morgan revived it two years later.) “You’d Think He’d Know Me Better” is shockingly good, managing to tell the story of a selfish and cold woman by having her talk about how inconsiderate her man is. She’s the only one left in the dark at the end, as the listeners all realize who’s really to blame for this broken home:
Her final MCA single was “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength”, which chronicled Cryner’s battle with alcoholism. It didn’t chart.
Again, the album had gems beyond what went to radio. “Vision of Loneliness” is amazing, a song that gained new resonance with me when my mother related to it so well during her bereavement:
The title track should’ve been a single, though it’s hard to imagine radio playing it after passing on her earlier work. I’d argue that “The Girl of Your Dreams” isn’t just Cryner’s finest piece of writing, but that it rivals the very best of Matraca Berg, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Rosanne Cash. It begs for Trisha Yearwood to cover it:
So what happened after that second album faded into obscurity? How could a songwriting talent like this get lost in the shuffle? Well, it didn’t happen right away. After Morgan covered “You’d Think He’d Know Me Better”, Cryner surfaced as a writer on albums by top-tier female artists.
The most high profile of these three came after Cryner left a demo in Yearwood’s mailbox that simply had the title, “Real Live Woman.” Yearwood later commented that she prayed before listening to it that it would live up to that title. It did, and ended up being Cryner’s biggest hit when Yearwood took it into the top twenty:
Suzy Bogguss took the compelling story song “Nobody Love, Nobody Gets Hurt” to #63 in 1998, titling her album after it as Yearwood did with “Real Live Woman” in 2000.
Finally, Lee Ann Womack included “Stronger Than I Am” on her smash album I Hope You Dance. It finds a woman in awe of her young daughter who seems so much stronger than she is.
After that, I have no idea what happened to this woman. Do you? In an era when country music isn’t made for adults, or even by adults, this woman’s contributions are desperately needed.
The Boot has published another list that’s got me thinking. This time, it’s Top 10 Sad Love Songs in Country Music. Again, the title is a bit strange, as the list includes the Suzy Bogguss hit “Letting Go”, which is about a mother watching her daughter go off to college, but there’s no rule that a love song has to be about romantic love, I guess.
Predictably and justifiably, the list is topped by “He Stopped Loving Her Today”, a George Jones classic that tops many a classic country list, including one of our own. There’s also a pretty high body count – four outright deaths and one by implication. Country songs sure do like to kill people off, don’t they?
So what are the saddest country songs ever? My first instinct was to mention “Where’ve You Been”, but that Kathy Mattea classic has a ray of hope. It’s really about a perfect relationship meeting its natural end.
For real, heartbreaking sadness, all hope must be vanquished, with only regret remaining. Bonus points if somebody dies. Here are two that I think are tragic, one with death and one without:
Dixie Chicks/Patty Griffin, “Top of the World”
A man realizes after his death that he did nothing but hurt the woman he loved, and now it’s too late to go back and change it:
John Conlee, “Backside of Thirty”
Something similar, though the man is still alive. He had everything he ever wanted – a beautiful wife and son – and somehow messed it up. He’s now living alone in an apartment, drinking away his rent money, “back on the bottom with no will to climb.”
What do you think are the saddest country songs ever?
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
Let’s be real: to most core readers of this blog, it’s probably old news that Miranda Lambert is releasing this unusually good song to radio. And it’s probably old opinion for me to proclaim that she’s playing a more sophisticated game than just about any mainstream artist out there. You know: “she’s real, everyone else is a phony!” Is there some amount of truth in that? Sure. But you don’t need another country music Caulfield to tell you. You just have to listen to the song. The difference between this record and most of the others at radio can be felt within seconds.
So blah blah, it’s very good. Maybe great. The best on the album, which is itself quite good. She’s all that. Know what I find myself thinking? It shouldn’t be like this.
Meaning, it shouldn’t come as a pleasant shock when a major label sends out the best track on the album. Or when the track has that distinction because of its grace and intelligence, not because it happens to be more disposably catchy than the others surrounding it. We shouldn’t feel so tempted to put Miranda Lambert on a pedestal just because she’s one of the only acts who bothers (or, perhaps, gets away with) picking music with a few brain cells. We should feel better about noticing that “The House That Built Me” has a few hackneyed turns of phrase, that the second verse seems underdeveloped compared to the first.
I’d like to tell you about the beautiful craft, depth and delivery that make this single worthy of its almost-certain coronation as the best of the year. But all I can think is that that coronation shouldn’t be so almost-certain. Miranda Lambert is a great young artist; she deserves to compete with other great artists, ones who will elicit her admiration and secret envy and drive her to seek yet better songs, better ideas. It infuriates me that this single sticks out so plainly on the Billboard charts. It infuriates me that it’s such a fluke, that mediocrity is so dominant now that I have to focus all my country-music-fan energy on hoping this one really strong release will hit the Top Ten.
Because we used to have a genre full of this stuff, you guys. We used to have a bunch of of artists at once trying to find or write songs like this in between the standard fluff of the day. Hank, George, Emmylou, Dwight, Mary Chapin, whoever – even a lot of less consistent, less celebrated artists. They didn’t all sound the same, but there was a common thread: they tried to be great.
I don’t know all the political intricacies of country music’s current problem. I’m some guy on the internet blogging from an on-campus apartment. But I know that a lot of problems get fixed when individuals stop trying to please everyone and simply try to be great at what they do. Miranda Lambert has been trying to be great from Day One. And what a pleasure it is when her end result is worthy of the same grade as her effort:
Now, what do the rest of you have to say for yourselves?