As 2014 comes to a close, the Country Universe staff has been collectively impressed by the number of quality albums that were released this year. How many of those albums, however, will we still be listening to in twenty years?
We have that benefit of hindsight for the year 1994, and we’ve compiled our twenty favorite studio sets from that year. At their time of release, some of our favorites were comeback albums from veteran artists, some were from current artists reaching new artistic and commercial peaks, and some were debut sets from artists that went on to become mainstays on country radio or in the Americana music scene that was just coming together twenty years ago.
What they all have in common is that each and every one of them still sounds great today, and they collectively show the wide breadth that the country music landscape was transforming into as the genre reached wider levels of popularity than it had ever seen before.
#20 Randy Travis This is Me
BF #11 | KJC #15 | LW #19
Travis’ legendary status was practically secure by 1994, but This is Me shows an artist neither resting on his laurels nor struggling to keep up with the young new talent of the era. The album serves up one solid song after another, with its best tracks delivering clever new takes on signature country themes, thus further advancing an already respectable legacy. – Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Before You Kill Us All”, “This is Me”, “The Box”
Our Best of 1994 Singles List kicks off today with the bottom quarter of our top forty. The list was compiled by weighing each individual writer’s choices, with preference given to songs that appeared on multiple lists. Each writer’s individual ranking is listed under the songwriter credits.
Bonus retro fun: Check out those cassette singles covers!
#40 “Livin’ on Love”
Written by Alan Jackson
SG #14 | JK #23 | BF #37
Country music has, historically, given voice to those disenfranchised by poverty, validating and finding the value in the struggles of economic hardship. What elevates the appropriately bare-bones narrative of “Livin’ on Love” is the warmth and real sense of empathy in Jackson’s performance. – Jonathan Keefe
Nineties country star Kevin Sharphas passed away at the age of 43 from complications relating to cancer.
Sharp had major success with his debut album, Measure of a Man, which spawned three big hits: “Nobody Knows”, a Tony Rich Project cover that spent four weeks at #1, and two additional top five follow-up singles, “If You Love Somebody” and “She’s Sure Taking it Well.”
Sharp’s inspirational biography made his early success especially impressive. He suffered from a rare form of bone cancer that was so dire that he received a Make-a-Wish grant that introduced him to record producer David Foster. After Sharp’s cancer went into remission, they remained in contact and Foster helped Sharp secure a contract with Asylum Records.
Sharp’s success came during a transitional time in country music, before one-hit wonders became far more common but while one-album wonders were becoming prominent. Like Lari White, Paul Brandt, Michael Peterson, Deana Carter, and Ricochet, Sharp seemed to have garnered a foothold at radio, scoring several hits off a breakthrough album.
But like those other artists, radio completely ignored the follow-up project, Love is, in 1998. Despite his first set going gold, he parted ways with his label after the second collection wasn’t a success. A few years earlier, and radio would’ve probably played more of his second album. A few years later, and the burgeoning independent label scene and digital distribution methods might have made it easier for his career to maintain momentum.
Still, he found great success on the road in the new century, this time as an inspirational speaker, and he released an independent album in 2005, appropriately titled, Make a Wish. By this time, he was a spokesperson for the organization that once introduced him to Foster. His 2004 memoir’s title, Tragedy is a Gift, speaks to the positivity that defined Sharp’s work and made him such a wonderful addition to the country music scene in the latter half of the nineties.
Sam’s Pick: Garth Brooks – For the ultimate version of this song, it’s hard to go wrong with Bing Crosby. But Garth’s jazzy, laid-back take on “White Christmas” is pretty excellent too. Fun fact: This song loses a lot of its charm once you’ve spent a Christmas night with your heart in your throat driving home after a blizzard but before the salt trucks have come out.
Leeann’s Pick: Bing Crosby
I’ve searched high and low for a superior version, but no one can top the ultimate version of “White Christmas”. It’s beautiful, it’s calming and it’s perfect.
Jonathan Keefe: Lari White
One of the reasons I’m not crazy about Christmas music is that so much of it ends up produced in the same vanilla, tasteful-to-a-fault kind of soft rock manner, and White’s rendition does have that problem. Fortunately, it does get points for a prominent steel guitar line and for having an over-the-top, campy choir kick in during the second verse.
But, more importantly, it’s also a showcase for White’s incomparable voice: In terms of power, range, control, and richness of tone, she’s easily one of the finest singers country music has ever been lucky enough to claim. The catastrophically poor taste of the “Wild at Heart” video pretty well killed her career, but her version of this holiday standard does still score her some seasonal recurrent airplay.
Cyrus released “Achy Breaky Heart” when I was seven years old, and I fell for it. The upside? My mom bought me his Some Gave All cassette tape, and I fell in love with “She’s Not Cryin’ Anymore.” It was the first song in my life to grip me with emotion, which would later come to define my bond with music.
I know that it was either this or “Physical”, but I’m pretty sure it was this one because I have foggy memories of this being turned up for my amusement in the car when I was a small child. This is what happens when you’re a child of the eighties.
Dan Milliken: “Keep on Dancing” – The Gentrys
This is just my best guess. My dad used to crank this oldie in our living room and literally swing me and my little sister around in the air to it when we were young. I sometimes wonder if my preference for uptempo material (regardless of actual emotional tone) was established right there.
I don’t have a particular song in mind, but when I think about it, I realize that the first music that I remember really liking was from Raffi, a children’s’ singer. There was a particular cassette that I was obsessed with (recorded by my dad from the TV), which was a recording of a concert that aired on the Disney channel and subsequently released on CD a few years later.
As an adult when I revisited the album, along with Raffi’s Christmas album, I realized that the instrumentation closely resembled the sounds of country music. In fact, the country music community released a tribute to Raffi, which includes adorable recordings by the likes of Keith Urban, Marty Stuart, Kathy Mattea, Lee Roy Parnell, Lari White, Elizabeth Cook, Eric Heatherly, Alison Krauss and Asleep at the Wheel, among others.
My favorite track from the tribute is Raul Malo’s version of “Thanks A Lot” (not the Ernest Tubb song). Although I didn’t fall in love with country until I was a young adolescent, as I see it, loving Raffi music proves that I was wired to naturally love country music, even as a young child.
In the modern era of country music, you have to move a lot of units to be considered a legitimate superstar. The first act to do so on a regular basis was Alabama, who had eight consecutive multi-platinum albums in a row in the first half of the eighties.
Since then, there have been a multitude of country artists who’ve accomplished the same feat, but despite the fact that it was a band that broke down the barrier, only one male band since Alabama has achieved similar success: Rascal Flatts.
Family connections helped this power trio get their start. Lead singer Gary LeVox and his cousin, Jay DeMarcus, each had a desire to be country musicians, but it was DeMarcus who went to Nashville first. After a stint in Christian band East Meets West, DeMarcus convinced LeVox to join him in Nashville.
DeMarcus joined Chely Wright’s band, which is where he met the final trio member, JoeDon Rooney. By that time, DeMarcus and LeVox were doing regular gigs at Printer’s Alley in downtown Nashville. One night, their guitarist didn’t show, so DeMarcus invited Rooney to perform with them. They were an instant hit, and when they couldn’t come up with a band name, an audience member suggested Rascal Flatts.
The band signed with Lyric Street in late 1999. The fledgling label had launched with projects by Lari White and SHeDaisy, but soon Rascal Flatts would become their flagship act. Success was immediate, with radio embracing all four singles from their self-titled debut album. A Nashville disc jockey was responsible for the release of “I’m Movin’ On” as the fourth single, giving it heavy play as a n album cut. It became their first huge hit, winning Song of the Year honors at the ACM Awards and powering their debut set to double-platinum status.
Over the next few years, they became a core act at country radio, scoring eleven #1 hits and selling nearly twenty million albums. Signature records released during this time include “Bless the Broken Road” and “What Hurts the Most.” Interestingly, both of those songs had been recorded by other artists, but adding their distinctive sound and trademark harmonies made these songs huge hits on both the country and pop charts.
As their career peaked in the mid-2000s, they were regularly nominated for Entertainer of the Year, while sweeping the CMA and ACM Vocal Group category for several years on end. They also became a powerful force on the road, ranking among the top-grossing acts of all genres.
Like many of their contemporaries, the pace of their record sales began to slow down, but even today, they remain a strong presence at both radio and retail. After switching from Lyric Street to Big Machine, the band received plaudits for their newest music, with critics noting a return to the more country arrangements of their earlier work and a move away from the arena pop sound that had become more prevalent.
There’s the core of a good song idea here. Really. And he’s singing from the heart, clearly addressing this song to his late wife. It’s hard not to feel guilty criticizing this record.
But I’m gonna have to do it anyway. If I didn’t already know Gokey’s back story, I’d think he was just trying to imitate Rascal Flatts. Listen to the chorus, which he sings like it’s a carbon copy of the verse from “What Hurts the Most.” In that hit, it was “I’m not a-fraid to cry, every now, and again, even though, going on, with you gone, still upsets me.” In this song, it’s “I will laugh, I will cry, shake my fist, at the sky, but I will not say goodbye.”
The rhythm and delivery are identical. I’d cut him some slack if he had written this, but he didn’t. It was a trio of established songwriters that gave this song to an artist who doesn’t have the chops to sing it. In the end, this leaves Gokey sounding like a poor man’s Gary LeVox.
That might be the meanest thing I’ve ever written about anyone on this site.
Written by Chuck Cannon, Vicky McGehee, and Lari White
The second segment of our countdown includes the first appearances by Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire, two of the biggest-selling stars of the decade.
#375 How Do I Get There Deana Carter
1997 | Peak: #1
It’s always a gamble when friends decide to take their relationship to the next level. “How Do I Get There” explores the struggle of following one’s heart, even though it’s taking a big emotional risk to do so. – Leeann Ward
If I Could Make a Living Clay Walker
1994 | Peak: #1
This song is either ridiculously cheesy or irresistibly cheesy depending on your taste, but there’s no denying Walker sells the heck out of it with charm and enthusiasm. – Tara Seetharam
It Sure is Monday Mark Chesnutt
1993 | Peak: #1
Mark Chesnutt is one of the best male vocalists of the nineties, but there were many times when he did not always rise to the challenge of conveying the energy to elevate a decent song to a good one. Case in point: “Friends in Low Places”, which was eventually properly energized by Garth Brooks. “It Sure Is Monday”, however, is a positive example of Chesnutt actually making a song his own by demonstrating the ability to breathe life into a decent song and make it really good. – LW Continue reading →