The Class of 1989 permanently changed the face of country music. Clint Black was its valedictorian.
Born in New Jersey and raised in Texas, Black’s vocal talent was evident at an early age. He played in a band with his older brothers, and taking a gamble, he dropped out of high school and pursued a solo career.
The new traditionalist movement of the early eighties inspired him to commit himself to the country music genre. As he honed his craft throughout the eighties, he met songwriter and guitarist Hayden Nicholas, who would become an instrumental component of Black’s success.
Signing with RCA, he recorded his debut album with his road band. Black wrote or co-wrote every track on Killin’ Time, and the 1989 release had a seismic impact on country music. Black became the first country artist in history to have his first four singles reach #1, and the album quickly reached multi-platinum status. Beyond its sales and radio impact, Killin’ Time was widely hailed by critics and genre enthusiasts as a masterpiece.
The impact of Black opened the doors for fellow artists like Garth Brooks, Travis Tritt, and Alan Jackson to find similar massive success with their debut albums. Together, they rejuvenated the country music market, putting it on the even playing field with pop, rock, and R&B that it still enjoys today. Black won several major industry awards, and then had another multi-platinum album with his sophomore set, Put Yourself in My Shoes.
Throughout the nineties, Black continued to write and record radio hits. Even as his album sales cooled to platinum and then gold, he still maintained a streak of top ten hits. It wasn’t until his 29th solo single, “Loosen Up My Strings” in 1998, that he missed the top ten. To a certain extent, Black’s profile was reduced because of the very door that he opened. The flood of talent that followed in his wake included major talents who soon overshadowed him.
The tail end of his run with RCA found him recording with wife Lisa Hartman Black, and they enjoyed a big hit with their duet, “When I Said I Do.” Collaborations with Wynonna, Steve Wariner, Roy Rogers and Martina McBride also gained positive attention. In the new century, Black took the bold step of launching his own label, Equity Records, resulting in two studio albums that achieved moderate success. One of them, 2004′s Drinkin’ Songs and Other Logic, was his most critically acclaimed set in years.
His most recent release is 2007′s Love Songs, which featured re-recordings of some of his hit ballads from the nineties. He’s kept his profile alive with various film and television appearances, and he does some light touring, preferring at this stage to spend as much time as possible with his family.
Country artists are known for their longevity, but the Sons of the Pioneers make the rest look like flash-in-the-pan newbies.
First formed in 1933, Sons of the Pioneers are the longest-running active vocal group in country music today. The lineup, of course, has changed over the years, but the original group weren’t just sons of the pioneers. They were the pioneers of Western music, that post-ampersand genre that was once an essential half of mainstream country music.
The classic lineup included Roy Rogers, Bob Nolan, and Tim Spencer, who dubbed themselves the Pioneer Trio when they first began performing as a group. Hugh Farr joined in 1934. A radio announcer changed their name when introducing them. He felt they were too young to be pioneers, but that they could be sons of the pioneers.
The new name stuck, and the foursome began recording for Decca records in 1934. As one of the first multimedia supergroups, Sons of the Pioneers would become known not only through recorded music and live shows, but also through radio, film, and later, television exposure. Their first big hit was originally called “Tumbling Leaves,” but to give it a Western twist, it was recorded as “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.”
Over the course of five decades, Sons of the Pioneers appeared in 87 films, recorded countless albums, and starred in their own television series. Roy Rogers, an icon in his own right, left the band for a time to secure a contract with Republic Pictures, but the band rejoined him when their contract with Columbia expired, and they continued to work with him in the decades that followed.
Several band members have come and gone, and the original lineup has all passed on, but despite different incarnations, the band has remained successful. The original lineup was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, alongside later additions Lloyd Perryman and Karl Farr. In 1986, their recording of “Cool Water” was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame. Today, their Branson show remains a top draw, and they will celebrate their eightieth anniversary as a group next year.
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?
Back when they used to call it Country & Western music, Dale Evans was the most iconic female artist for the latter half of the genre. She’ll forever be known as the wife and partner of singing cowboy legend Roy Rogers, but she also made history with her songwriter’s pen.
One of the only women on this list who wasn’t known primarily as a recording star, Evans became a country legend in front of the camera. She began to pursue her musical dream at the age of fifteen. By then, she was already a divorced single parent, and she made ends meet by singing and playing piano on local radio stations in Memphis. One disc jockey suggested the stage name Dale Evans, and it became her official moniker. She worked her way up to Chicago, where she performed in front of big bands before becoming a staff singer for radio station WBBM.