Sometimes it has a happy ending, sometimes it doesn’t. But it always ends on the country boy’s terms. He’s sticking to his middlebrow lifestyle with or without her.
A fantasy? Of course it is. But it’s an appealing one that reinforces the intrinsic value of blue collar life, where the vast majority of hardworking men and women never get a ticket out.
Toby Keith’s music was his ticket out, and he’s made millions more than most of his fans will ever see. But it took him long enough to get there that he can still viscerally connect with his audience, and speak in their voice.
A lesser singer and writer couldn’t pull any of that off. In fact, most of the guys on the radio today would have built a weak song around the eye-catching title, instead of a strong song which is far more interesting than even its title suggests.
But Keith isn’t just one of the genre’s greatest singers and songwriters. He’s also one of its smartest. When he’s at his best, we get songs that celebrate the working man and the country boy without a whiff of condescension or pandering.
One of the strongest voices of the New Traditionalist movement, Dwight Yoakam revitalized the Bakersfield sound as he shot to stardom in 1986.
Yoakam was born in Kentucky and raised in Ohio. Growing up, he pursued both music and acting, putting greater emphasis on the former after graduating from high school. He moved to Nashville in the late seventies, but did not fit in well with the pop-flavored country music scene.
However, he did meet guitarist Pete Anderson while there, and the two headed off to Los Angeles, where Yoakam became popular in both rock and country clubs, thanks to his contemporary take on classic country and rockabilly sounds.
An independent EP caught the attention of Reprise Records, and Yoakam landed a deal with the label. His debut LP, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., shot to the top of the charts upon its release in 1986. It established Yoakam as a significant leader among the New Traditionalists, updating the classic sounds of California country legend Buck Owens, among others.
Yoakam would spend the next decade selling platinum and beyond, despite having less consistent radio support than contemporaries like Randy Travis and Ricky Van Shelton. In addition to writing his own material, he smartly chose covers that worked for his style, including one that partnered him with idol Owens. Their collaboration “Streets of Bakersfield” was Yoakam’s first #1 hit, and it brought Owens back to the top slot for the first time in sixteen years.
Yoakam reached his critical and commercial peak in 1993 with This Time, an album that featured three huge hits, sold more than three million copies, and earned him a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. While riding high on the success of the album, he began to pursue acting in Hollywood. From this point on, he would split his attention between music and film.
As the nineties progressed, his album sales slowed but continued to earn him critical acclaim. He had his last major hit with a cover of the Queen classic “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” in 1999. Since then, he’s released well-received albums on independent labels, most recently his stellar tribute album, Dwight Sings Buck. In 2007, the CMA honored Yoakam with its award side effects from diflucan for International Touring Artist, and in 2012, he received the prestigious Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award from the Academy of Country Music.
Yoakam has not released a new studio album since 2005, but he has re-signed with his former label home of Warner Bros., and is scheduled to release an album of new material this year.
Some of the greatest artists in country music left the scene just as they reached staggering artistic heights, leaving fans to forever wonder what might have been.
Keith Whitley was born and raised in Kentucky, and was performing music from a very young age. A prodigious talent, he was only fifteen years old when he met Ricky Skaggs while competing in a regional music contest. The two became fast friends, and were soon performing on stage with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley.
Whitley made two separate runs as a member of the Clinch Mountain Boys with Stanley, then performed in a group called New South, led by J.D Crowe. After appearing on more than a dozen albums, first with the Boys and then with New South, he finally pursued a solo career in the early eighties, signing with RCA records.
His first album, A Hard Act to Follow, made little impact, but his second set, L.A. to Miami, earned him stardom. It featured his breakout hit, “Miami, My Amy”, and raised his profile considerably, but Whitley was displeased with the album's slick sound. He truly found his voice on his first gold album, Don't Close Your Eyes, which featured three consecutive #1 hits, including the CMA Single of the Year, “I'm No Stranger to the Rain”, and the modern standard, “When You Say Nothing at All.”
Whitley became a new standard-bearer for neo-traditional country music, receiving critical acclaim that exceeded that of contemporaries like Randy Travis and Ricky Van Shelton. With the chart success and a marriage to fellow country artist Lorrie Morgan that had just produced a son, Whitley was poised for long-term professional and personal success.
Sadly, he was battling alcoholism, a fight that he lost in May 1989, when he died of alcohol poisoning. Amazingly, his success continued posthumously with the album, I Wonder Do You Think of Me also selling gold and featuring three big hits. He remained a presence on radio in the early nineties through duets with other artists. A collaboration with Morgan earned the CMA Vocal Event trophy, and a collaboration with Earl Thomas Conley reached #2 in 1991.
Whitley's recording career was brief, but much like Patsy Cline before him, his influence has cast a long shadow over the genre.
If there ever was a song where traditional country perfectly mixes with honky tonk blues, here it is.
This mid-tempo gem, written by Jackson and Randy Travis, showcases production that still sounds vibrant almost twenty years later. With steel guitar and honky tonk piano aplenty, “She’s Got the Rhythm (and I’ve Got the Blues)” is simply a two-and-a-half minute sonic delight.
Furthermore, the song’s concept is accentuated by its clever title and Jackson’s amusingly mournful delivery, including a pitiful “Yee haw” that ends up sounding more funny than sad, which ultimately describes the song as a whole, despite the theme of lost love.
As I’m sure the rest of you do, I make playlists all the time. Many of them are lists of individual artists, but some of them have a concept.
My latest playlist is of covers. First, I have the original version (or the one that’s famous for being the original) followed by my favorite cover of it. My only rule is that I have to like both versions. So, songs where I like the cover but not the original won’t make the list.
I’ll share a sampling of what I have so far, as long as you share your latest or greatest concept playlist in the comments:
1. Buddy Miller, “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go” (Miranda Lambert)
2. Hank Williams, “Hey, Good Lookin’” (The Mavericks)
3. Elvis Presley, “Suspicious Minds (Dwight Yoakam)
4. Dolly Parton, “Coat of Many Colors (Shania Twain/Alison Krauss)
5. Waylon Jennings, “Dreaming My Dreams with You” (Alison Krauss and Union Station)
6. Johnny Cash, “Understand Your Man” (Dwight Yoakam)
7. Merle Haggard, “The Way I Am” (Alan Jackson)
8. John Prine, “That’s the Way the World Goes ‘Round” (Miranda Lambert)
9. John Anderson, “Swingin’” (LeAnn Rimes)
10. Buddy Miller, “Don’t Tell Me” (Alicia Nugent)
11. Kasey Chambers, “Pony” (Ashley Monroe)
12. Tammy Wynette, “Stand by Your Man” (Dixie Chicks)
13. Bill Monroe, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” (John Fogerty)
14. Conway Twitty, “Goodbye Time” (Blake Shelton)
15. Hank Williams, “I Saw the Light” (Blind Boys of Alabama/ Hank Williams Jr.)
16. Bob Dylan, “Shelter from the Storm” (Rodney Crowell/Emmylou Harris)
17. Merle Haggard, “Today I Started Loving You Again” (Buddy Jewell/Miranda Lambert)
18. Nitty Gritty Dirtband, “Fishing in the Dark” (Garth Brooks)
19. The White Stripes, “Dead Leaves in the Dirty Ground” (Chris Thile)
20. Al Green, “Lets Stay Together” (John Berry)
21. David Allan Coe, “You Never Even Called Me by My Name” (Doug Supernaw)
22. The Decemberists, “Shankill Butchers” (Sarah Jarosz
23. Steve Earle, “My Old Friend the Blues” (Patty Loveless)
24. Eric Clapton, “Lay Down Sally” (Delbert McClinton)
25. Fred Eaglesmith, “Time to Get a Gun” (Miranda Lambert)
26. Dolly Parton, “Jolene” (The White Stripes)
27. Johnny Cash, “I Still Miss Someone” (Suzy Bogguss)
28. Pearl Jam, “Better Man” (Sugarland)
29. Kris Kristofferson, “From the Bottle to the Bottom” (Dierks Bentley/Kris Kristofferson)
30. Don Williams, “Lord, I hope this Day is Good” (Lee Ann Womack)
31. Bob Dylan, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s all right” (Randy Travis)
In some parallel universe where I had actual musical talent and the opportunity to record an album, I suspect I’d forgo the pile of demo tapes sent to unknown artists and just look for awesome album cuts from great songwriters.
Matraca Berg’s catalog of recorded cuts would be a good place to start, an epiphany that serves Kenny Chesney well. Berg is usually associated with female artists, and indeed, this song was originally recorded by Deana Carter, who also co-wrote the song. But Berg’s pen has been responsible for some great moments from Keith Urban and Randy Travis, so it’s no surprise that Chesney does well with this one.
Chesney sings it with more personality and general presence than Carter did, and the record also benefits from picking up the pace toward the end, a choice that would have elevated Berg’s own version as well. The harmony vocal of Grace Potter isn’t essential until the song starts to fade away, but it does ease some of the loneliness embedded in the lyric.
All in all, it’s just nice to hear Chesney singing a great song again.
During the first decade of the twenty-first century, the antiseptic depictions of faith that have dominated contemporary Christian music began to seep in to country music.
This perception created records both good (“Jesus, Take the Wheel”) and bad (“The Little Girl”), but most of them were bland, adding going to church on Sunday or praying as just one of the token traits of southern life, no more or less significant than the fried chicken or football game that followed the morning services.
In one of the genre’s great ironies, Randy Travis had crossed over to contemporary Christian music, having had little luck on the radio since the late nineties. He brought country music’s love of fallen angels along with him, and with “Three Wooden Crosses”, he managed to found his way back to the top of the country charts without even trying.
It starts off like an off-color joke that shouldn’t be told in polite company, let alone on the radio dial next to Martina McBride’s “Blessed” and Craig Morgan’s “That’s What I Love About Sunday”: “A farmer and a teacher, a hooker and a preacher, ridin’ on a midnight bus bound for Mexico.” The story that unfolds reveals that one of these four travelers will be instrumental in spreading the Good News for a long time to come.
But because it manages to humanize all four of them along the way, revealing how each of them helped make the world a better place, its ultimate message is that our lives are best defined by what we do when we’re at our best, not by the labels that may be assigned to us through occupation or personal choices.
He was the definitive male vocalist of post-Urban Cowboy country music. The new traditionalists soon wiped the radio dial of that sound, but thanks to one classic hit, Lee Greenwood will always be around.
He was born and raised in California, growing up with his grandparents on a poultry farm. As a child, he showed prodigious talent, learning the saxophone at age seven. By age fourteen, he could play all of the instruments in his school orchestra. As soon as he finished high school, he moved to Nevada, a place he would return to after an opportunity in Puerto Rico ended in disappointment. He passed on an opportunity to be in a band, which went on to great success as the Young Rascals, holding out hope for a solo career down the road.
He secured a record deal with Paramount, but when that didn’t produce a hit record, he moved on to Las Vegas, where he became a dominant force on the casino circuit. By 1979, he had been discovered by the bassist for Mel Tillis, who put him in touch with Tillis’ label, MCA. By 1981, Greenwood was a major label country music artist.
His career took off quickly. His first single, “It Turns Me Inside Out,” cracked the top twenty, but the breakthrough came with “Ring On Her Finger, Time On Her Hands.” It would be the first of a long run of top ten singles, including seven chart-toppers.
Greenwood’s sound was a perfect fit for the earlier half of the eighties. Following the template of Kenny Rogers’ pop-flavored hits, Greenwood’s music was given an added layer of distinction by his trademark vocals, a balance of gravel and power that is instantly recognizable. This sound kept him on the top of the charts until the big breakthrough of new traditionalism, which had barely co-existed on the radio with Greenwood at his peak, but soon replaced him and his contemporaries when Randy Travis arrived on the scene.
Greenwood had a handful of hits in the later eighties, and returned to the top ten one last time in 1990 with “Holdin’ a Good Hand.” His vocal chops earned him several major awards along the way, including Male Vocalist awards from the CMA and the ACM. His performance of “I.O.U.” won him a Grammy in 1984, but it was his songwriting pen that would have the biggest lasting impact.
In 1984, he released a patriotic song called “God Bless The U.S.A.” Though it only reached #7 on the singles chart, it won the CMA award for Song of the Year, and its impact was much larger than any of his other hits. At the time it was written, “God Bless the U.S.A.” was a vehicle for the revival of American pride, a new wave of patriotism that swept the nation in the mid-eighties. Over time, it not only became a standard, it actually set the standard for patriotic songs, particularly in country music.
After the terrorist attacks in 2001, Greenwood’s anthem came back stronger than ever. The song received such heavy airplay that it re-entered the country charts after seventeen years, peaking at #16. Even more impressively, the song hit the all-genre Hot 100 chart, with heavy airplay at other formats helping it reach #16 on that chart as well.
In 2008, Greenwood was appointed to the National Council of the Arts by President George W. Bush. He’s still performing actively and when an event calls for a patriotic song, his is the one that you’re still most likely to hear.
Ring On Her Finger, Time On Her Hands, 1982
God Bless the U.S.A., 1984
Dixie Road, 1985
20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection, 2002
Country music has always been filled with artists who write their own songs. But I think in the ’80s and ’90s it went through a phase where everyone was recording songs written by other songwriters; which gives those songwriters great success and a way to provide for their families, but I think the fans also love to hear what the artist has to say from the artist’s mouth. And that’s, I think, one of the reasons why Taylor Swift has done such an amazing job and has been so successful, because she’s baring her heart to her fans and it’s so relatable. – Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum
Where to begin? I’ll start with the fact that Scott is wrong on the merits. There were plenty of artists who wrote their own songs during the eighties and nineties, though the best ones had the good judgment to balance their best compositions with great songs written by others, rather than weaken an album by not recording outside material that’s superior to what they’ve written themselves.
I have more of an issue with the idea that today’s country artists have improved on what came before them with this supposedly new approach. I’m sorry, but today’s current crop of country stars are collectively less talented, less compelling, less interesting, and quite frankly, less capable with a pen, guitar, and microphone than even the B-list stars of the eighties and nineties. There aren’t that many who can sing or write, let alone do both.
Study Taylor Swift for her marketing acumen. There’s a lesson to be learned there. But for all that is good and holy. please look to Randy Travis, Alan Jackson, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, and just about all of the other big eighties and nineties stars for how to produce good country music. For Scott to think that her generation is actually improving the genre, she must either have remarkably bad taste in music, or a nineties record collection that runs no deeper than Linda Davis.
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 Continue reading →