In the Entertainer and Male Vocalist races, I’ve been making the case for fresh blood. In those categories, the routine nominees are mostly past their peaks, and there’s room to let some rising stars in on the action.
Oh, to be able to make the same case for the Female Vocalist race. Let’s take a look at last year’s nominees:
For the first time in this category’s history, I believe voters are facing a dilemma that plagued the Vocal Duo category for most of the nineties: there just aren’t enough worthy nominees to finish out the category.
Even earlier in this decade, when radio was barely playing any women at all, there were women like Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton, and Patty Loveless who earned nominations for their critically acclaimed roots records. Krauss was even a regular in this category for a good chunk of the decade, and despite being largely absent from radio, she sold more records than some of her fellow nominees.
This year, there isn’t even a woman who could step forward and claim that mantle. So my picks don’t bring anything new to the table. Maybe some of you can make the case that I’m unable to, and suggest new blood in the comments.
Picks for Female Vocalist
She deserves her fourth consecutive nomination, and on the strength of Revolution and its hit single “The House That Built Me”, I think that she deserves the win this year.
In any other year, this would be the slot that should be up for grabs. McBride didn’t release a new album, and while she had some success at radio with “Wrong Baby Wrong”, it didn’t crack the top ten or reignite album sales. Still, who is standing in her way? Kellie Pickler? Gretchen Wilson? Laura Bell Bundy? I fully expect her to earn her thirteenth consecutive nomination, matching Reba McEntire’s record run from 1983-1995.
Speaking of McEntire, she’s been popping up in this category again in recent years. After those thirteen consecutive nominations ended in 1995, the race was far too competitive for a good while. She’s earned three nominations since then, in 2004, 2006, and 2009. Her massive hit “Consider Me Gone” and surprisingly strong record sales mean that this won’t be a filler nomination. She’s earned it.
Yes, I know the idea of her winning vocalist awards makes many wince, but c’mon now. There’s no denying she’s one of the top female artists today. Until Eminem’s recent comeback, she was the biggest star in all of music, period. And she’s got a shot at reclaiming that title with her third album, if initial reaction to “Mine” is any indication.
The three-time winner is radio’s favorite artist and her album sales have remained strong. If Lambert hadn’t surged with “The House That Built Me”, I think that Underwood would be ahead in the race this year. If she makes the final ballot for Entertainer, I suspect that voters will reward her in that category and give Female Vocalist to Lambert. There’s good precedent for this, as Dolly Parton (1978), Barbara Mandrell (1980), and Shania Twain (1999) won Entertainer without winning Female Vocalist that night. It’s happened even more in the Entertainer/Male races, given that the big prize has gone to men far more frequently.
Many a star was launched in the nineties, a few of them right out of the gate. This section includes the debut singles from Toby Keith, Jo Dee Messina, LeAnn Rimes, and Doug Stone, along with Grammy-winning hits by Alison Krauss and Dwight Yoakam.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #100-#76
The Battle Hymn of Love Kathy Mattea & Tim O’Brien
1990 | Peak: #9
Sure, the novelty of thirteen year-old Rimes’ prodigious Patsy imitation helped things along. But that unshakable yodeled hook would have made “Blue” a classic in any era of country music. – Dan Milliken (more…)
A perfect time capsule of the boom times, as Jackson wryly notes all of those genre-hoppers who saw dollar signs in the growing country music scene. Funny how they didn’t arrive on radio until a decade later. – Kevin Coyne
I Want to Be Loved Like That Shenandoah
1993 | Peak: #3
Sometimes the deepest understanding of love comes from what you see around you. The narrator in this song won’t settle for anything less than the unwavering love he’s witnessed in his life, and his examples are stunning in the way they slice straight to the core of love, to the bond that can’t be broken by the physical world. This is one of the purest tributes to love I’ve ever heard. – Tara Seetharam (more…)
Tritt gives a surprisingly but fittingly subdued performance on this cover of a Steve Earle song, telling the story of a woman who sometimes forgets that she’s sworn off men. I can never get enough of the incredibly cool arrangement. – Tara Seetharam (more…)
I’ve always been something of a chart junkie. While I don’t pay as close attention as I used to, I still have a pretty good handle on historical trends. One artist I’ve been keeping an eye on is Carrie Underwood. When each official country single from her first two albums peaked at #1 or #2, it caught my attention.
But I never expected the trend to continue, with three more #1 hits from the new album. The source of that belief was the history of women on country radio, especially in the twenty most recent years that were based on actual monitored airplay instead of radio playlists. Since that change, far less records have gone #1 or #2.
When “Undo It” reached #2 last week, Underwood became the only female artist in country music history to have eleven consecutive top two singles. Until then, she was tied with Tammy Wynette, who scored ten consecutive top two singles from 1967-1970. All but one of Wynette’s singles were #1 hits, with the only #2 being “I’ll See Him Through.” With “Undo It” moving to #1 this week, Underwood has only two singles in her streak that didn’t top the charts: “Don’t Forget to Remember Me” and “I Told You So.”
“Undo It” is Underwood’s tenth #1 single. How rare is it for a female to reach that milestone? The last woman to reach it was Rosanne Cash, her tenth #1 being “Runaway Train” in the fall of 1988. Earlier that same year, Reba McEntire scored her tenth #1 with “Love Will Find Its Way To You.”
Underwood’s support at radio is unprecedented for a female artist in the modern chart era. In less than five years, she’s already tied for the most #1′s since 1990, and she’s moving quickly up the all-time list as well:
Most #1 Hits by a Female Artist – Monitored Era (1990-present):
Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood – 10
Faith Hill – 9
Shania Twain – 7
Jo Dee Messina – 6
Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood – 5
Sara Evans, Patty Loveless, Taylor Swift, Wynonna – 4
Most #1 Hits by a Female Artist – All-Time:
Dolly Parton – 25
Reba McEntire – 23
Tammy Wynette – 20
Crystal Gayle – 18
Loretta Lynn – 16
Rosanne Cash – 11
Anne Murray, Tanya Tucker, Carrie Underwood – 10
Why do you think that Underwood has been the one to push up against country radio’s glass ceiling so much? Can she keep this up? Will she eventually get to the top of each list, or is there somebody below her that might jump ahead?
The list continues with appearances from artists who first surfaced in the eighties and continued to thrive into the nineties, like Reba McEntire and Patty Loveless, along with new stars from the nineties who would find greater success in the next decade, like Toby Keith and Brad Paisley.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #300-#276
#300 Does He Love You Reba McEntire with Linda Davis
1993 | Peak: #1
This two-female duet was a gamble at the time of its release, but it offers such a brilliant fusion of perspectives that it’s hard to imagine why. The song fleshes out the range of emotions that the two women are experiencing –from pain to longing to self-doubt– and culminates in one shared question that they’ll never know the answer to: “does he love you like he’s been loving me?” – Tara Seetharam (more…)
Sometimes the choices that you make linger forever. Here, a woman in her thirties drives past a high school football game, and her mind wanders to the painful void left in her heart from the son she gave up for adoption. – Kevin Coyne
Faith Hill’s sophomore album is a surprisingly deep set, filled with candid insights into different womens’ lives. The title track represents that approach well, with Hill’s protagonist speaking to the differences in her approach to love and her partner’s. Seems simple, but then again, people spend thousands in couples counseling trying to find a way to voice feelings this directly. – Dan Milliken
She’d Give Anything Boy Howdy
1993 | Peak: #4
A not-so-subtle depiction of how elusive true love can be for some women – even those who desperately seek it – that resonates not despite of but because of its blatancy. There’s a beautiful honesty to the song’s precise articulation of the mixture of frustration and strength that builds up within these women. – Tara Seetharam
The Trouble With the Truth Patty Loveless
1997 | Peak: #15
The trouble with the truth is that is just so demanding. We think we want it, but it often requires some sort of action from us once we have it. Loveless struggles with this quandary: “The trouble with the truth is it always begs for more. That’s the trouble with the truth.” – Leeann Ward
Still Gonna Die Old Dogs
1999 | Peak: Did Not Chart
Waylon Jennings, Mel Tillis, Bobby Bare, and Jerry Reed united for an amazing live album dominated by Shel Silverstein songs. For anyone who read his brilliant poetry books for children, “Still Gonna Die” is the golden years equivalent: clever, frightening, and darkly hilarious. KC
From the first strains of the song, we know this is going to be a dark one. While he hasn’t physically cheated yet, the thoughts of at least wishing to do so are spilling over, which begs the analogy of “It’s like trying to hide a fire in the dark.” – LW
She is Gone Willie Nelson
1996 | Peak: Did Not Chart
As in his classic recording of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”, Nelson’s sad remembrance of a lost love glows with unspoken warmth, as the beauty of his good memories shines through the outer layer of melancholy. – DM
Presenting the perfect Country & Western song! This is a great David Allan Coe cover with some alterations, including the exclusion of a stanza (which does water down the song a bit), changes to the spoken part, and additions of some special guests. – LW
Wine Into Water T. Graham Brown
1998 | Peak: #44
A kneeling drunkard’s plea for the modern age. A broken man struggling with his alcoholism asks Jesus to perform His first miracle in reverse. Brown’s rough and tumble voice is the best possible fit for this fine composition.- KC
High Powered Love Emmylou Harris
1993 | Peak: #63
The added punch to the production shows that Harris could do nineties country as well as anybody on the radio back then, which is quite the compliment, given who was getting airplay in 1993. A perfect lament for a lover who won’t settle for skin deep treasures, she wonders, “Is there anyone left with teeth just a little uneven? Who won’t spend more time with a mirror than he does with me?” – KC
You Won’t Ever Be Lonely Andy Griggs
1998 | Peak: #2
Griggs creates a touching ballad out of one of the sweetest, simplest promises that comes with making a commitment to someone – that no matter the storm outside, you’ll never have to face it alone. – TS
Instead of serving as a means to shut the other person out, the door that Tippin is suggesting is for the purpose of letting the other person in. “a door ain’t nothin’ but a way to get through a wall”, he sings. If they work together to create it, then they might be able to walk through it to meet each other halfway. – LW
Built on a poignantly written metaphor, “The River” gracefully weaves together elements of faith, inspiration and motivation. It’s a masterful single, from its poetic lyrics to its beautifully simplistic arrangement, but the heart and soul is Brooks’ gripping conviction – quiet yet fierce. On a personal note, this song contains one of my all-time favorite lyrics that I often revisit: “So don’t you sit upon the shoreline and say you’re satisfied/Choose to chance the rapids and dare to dance the tide.” – TS
McGraw’s character leaves behind a lifelong love interest and a little home town to explore the world. But instead of getting good closure, the poor guy starts seeing the girl he left in every place he visits, even long after she has married and had children. That these visions could feasibly represent both unresolved romantic feelings and the inescapable imprint of one’s roots is just country-delicious. – DM
You’re Beginning to Get to Me Clay Walker
1998 | Peak: #2
Walker’s falling head first for a girl, but he isn’t ready to take the plunge with the L-word just yet. In his catalogue of fabulous 90s hits, this understated “love” song gets overshadowed by some of the more distinct ones, but it’s nonetheless memorable. – TS
Travis Tritt is one of few country artists who is as known for his rocking side as he is for being a strong balladeer. “Help Me Hold on” is a plea to his lover to help him salvage what’s left of their relationship, which doesn’t seem to be much, since she’s already packing a suitcase. – LW
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
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?