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.
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.
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.
Written by Doug Johnson and Kim Williams
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.
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.
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.
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
1999 | Peak: #12
A dark, atmospheric wonder, as Allan delivers the final eulogy for a love that couldn’t help burning out. – Dan Milliken
Just to See You Smile
1997 | Peak: #1
Being deeply enamored of someone can make it easy – even appealing – to forfeit your own well-being. This single’s sunny sound reflects the persistent affection pulsing through its protagonist, but its story demonstrates the heartbreak to which such unmeasured selflessness leads. – DM
The country boy as fish out of the water in Los Angeles. Or New York. Or Detroit. It’s a pretty common theme in country music. Jamey Johnson does his own spin on this theme with his new single, “Playing the Part.” It’s not terribly bad, but it’s not terribly good, either. “Big City” certainly doesn’t have to worry about losing its slot on the Waffle House Jukebox.
Signature hits, breakthrough hits, and why-weren’t-they-hits abound in this entry.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #150-#126
1994 | Peak: #1
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
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