The list comes to a close with ten classic records from some of the era’s most commercially and critically successful stars.
It’s easy to be cynical about country radio these days, but unlike most of the songs on the lists we compile now, 1993’s best singles got a lot of airplay. All but one of our top ten entries reached the top five of the singles chart. If we could get a success rate today that was anywhere near that, it might be safe to turn on the radio again!
Enjoy the end to this list, and us writers will enjoy that rare downtime that comes between finishing the publication of one of these lists and starting another one!
“Nothin’ But the Wheel”
Written by John Scott Sherrill
#3 – BF | #7 – KJC | #24 – SG
Loveless’ brokenhearted narrator takes to the midnight highway with only the mournful sounds of fiddle and steel for company, sadly aware that she is not being missed at home. In a catalog rich with beautiful ballads, this is one of the finest. – Ben Foster
Songs have such a big impact on our life experience that they sometimes inspire songs of their own. It’s a cool theme that I wish more singers and songwriters would explore.
Here are some of my favorite examples of this theme:
Trisha Yearwood, “The Song Remembers When”
Far and away, the gold standard for songs about songs. I love the way the intro’s guitar hook is repeated immediately after Yearwood, sings, “When I heard that old familiar music start.” Producer Garth Fundis is the unsung hero of this classic recording, which has always seen heaps of deserved praise for Hugh Prestwood’s poetic songwriting and Yearwood’s skillful interpretation.
Producing primarily pop-flavored country music has rarely been a ticket to immortality for even the biggest artists, particularly the female ones. Imports like Shania Twain and Olivia Newton-John are labeled impostors. Faith Hill’s canny song sense is overlooked while hubby Tim McGraw’s is widely praised. Brilliant Dolly Parton records like “Here You Come Again” and “9 to 5″ are cited as being beneath her greatness, rather than prime examples of it. Only Patsy Cline has been given a free pass, and who wouldn’t want to claim those pipes?
Where does this leave Crystal Gayle, younger sister of Loretta Lynn and owner of 32 top ten hits, 18 of which went #1? As the first female country artist to sell platinum, her impact was quite big back in the day. But aside from her signature classic “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”, her music has been largely forgotten. Perhaps this is because she peaked during an era that is often looked down upon as too crossover for its own good. Unlike Parton and Cline, there is virtually nothing for traditionalists to celebrate within Gayle’s catalog of hits. But much like Hill and Newton-John, the woman recorded some wonderful songs that deserve rediscovery. Here are a dozen of the best.
“I’ll Do It All Over Again” from the 1976 album Crystal
Gayle typically avoided purely victim stances in her lyrics. Here, she’s been left but is aware that her heart will mend and that she’ll love again.
“Ready For the Times to Get Better” from the 1976 album Crystal
Country singles recorded in a minor key are quite the rarity, but the arrangement undercuts the misery of the lyric, even as she’s clearly ready to move on to happier times. This just might be her finest moment.
“Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” from the 1977 album We Must Believe in Magic
This classic won her a Grammy and the first of two CMA Female Vocalist trophies. If the piano sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same player that powered Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors” to similar success on both the country and pop charts.
“Talking In Your Sleep” from the 1978 album When I Dream
Proving that her appeal wasn’t limited to one big hit, this hit launched what would become Gayle’s second consecutive platinum album.
“Why Have You Left the One You Left Me For” from the 1978 album When I Dream
Her first really big uptempo hit defied expectations and broke her out of the ballad mold. It didn’t hurt that it was ridiculously catchy.
“Half the Way” from the 1979 album Miss the Mississippi
Another hook-laden hit, powered by an infectious string section and quite a bit more wailing than she’s usually known for.
“Too Many Lovers” from the 1980 album These Days
What sounds like a quiet bar ballad in the first few seconds soon turns into an uptempo message of caution to women looking for love in all the wrong places.
“You Never Gave Up On Me” from the 1981 album Hollywood, Tennessee
There aren’t too many anniversary songs that essentially say, “Thanks for loving me even when I didn’t love you.” Romantic songs like to pretend that both partners are equally kind and loving, when that isn’t always the case. I like ones like this more.
“‘Til I Gain Control Again” from the 1982 album True Love
Crystal Gayle was hardly the predictable vehicle for this intricate Rodney Crowell composition that had been previously cut by Emmylou Harris. Even she didn’t think she could pull it off. Thankfully, producer Jimmy Bowen coaxed her into it, and the result was a #1 hit that was also among her most sophisticated performances.
“Baby, What About You” from the 1982 album True Love
Not much more to say about this one than it’s a slice of pop-country perfection.
“The Sound of Goodbye” from the 1983 album Cage the Songbird
One of Hugh Prestwood’s first great moments as a writer was this hit. Much like his material later pushed Randy Travis into a more ambitious production approach (“Hard Rock Bottom Of Your Heart”), the sonic landscape of this #1 hit pushed Gayle and country radio into far more interesting territory.
“Cry” from the 1986 album Straight to the Heart
Given that she’s in the grand tradition of those Nashville Sound ladies, it’s no surprise that Gayle not only covered Lynn Anderson’s #3 hit effectively, she even took it two slots higher up the chart.