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?
Connecticut born songwriter Gary Burr got his first break when he broke his leg in a high school soccer game. With time on his hands, he taught himself to play the guitar and began writing songs. His second break came in 1982 when, without a co-writer, he penned Juice Newton’s “Love’s Been a Little Bit Hard on Me”. That same year, he became the lead singer for Pure Prairie League after Vince Gill left the group to pursue a solo career. Gary remained with PPL until 1985 and headed to Nashville in the late 1980′s. He has since been awarded ‘Songwriter of the Year’ on three separate occasions by three different organizations: Billboard, Nashville Songwriter’s Association International, and ASCAP. He has also received over twenty of ASCAP’s recognition awards for radio play activity, and cds featuring his songs have sold more than 50 million units world-wide. He’s currently affiliated with SESAC. Most recently, he was Carole King’s guitarist on her “Living Room Tour”, performing some of his own songs as well.
If you go to Gary’s website and click on Discography you’ll see a Short List of 35 of his best known songs, in alphabetical order by recording artist. If you click on Full List, you see the names of about 170 songs. You’ll find hits and albums track (“hidden treasures” to some) by country artists such as Hal Ketchum, Patty Loveless, Randy Travis, Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, Tanya Tucker, Ty Herndon, Faith Hill, Leann Rimes, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Gary Allan, Andy Griggs, Kathy Mattea, Lorrie Morgan, Terri Clark, Collin Raye, Doug Stone, Ricky Van Shelton, Diamond Rio, Conway Twitty, Chely Wright and many others plus pop artists Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken, etc . The website list does not include the current Sarah Buxton hit “Outside My Window”.
Gary appears quite frequently at Nashville’s famous Bluebird Cafe, appearing in the round with singer/songwriters like Mike Reid, Georgia Middleman, J.D. Souther and others. In addition, he performs as part of the group MelDiBurPho which is composed of songwriters Vince Melamed, Bob DiPiero, Gary and Jim Photoglo.These shows are performed on the Bluebird’s small stage and, unlike the shows in the round, includes a drummer in addition to the usual guitars and a keyboard. Gary and the Guys have been doing these great shows for about 12 years. They call themselves the oldest boy band in America and the best band you can see for $12. They really seem to be having a great time together and they can be very funny, much of the humor either self-deprecating or at the expense of one of the other guys. For the February show, the guys performed in their pj’s, an annual event closely coinciding with three of their birthdays. Supposedly Faith Hill once showed up in pj’s and bunny slippers. She was discovered while singing back-up for Gary at the Bluebird.
After seeing Mr. Burr perform twice at the Bluebird, I purchased his two cd’s from the Bluebird on-line store. Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before …, released in 1997, includes 18 of his best songs performed and recorded live at the Bluebird. Mariane’s includes 11 songs and was released in 2004. The list of my favorite Gary Burr written songs that follows indicates the artist and cd it appeared on and his co-writer. Many of these favorites are from his Stop Me … cd and a few from Marianne’s. (Songs that can also be found on Gary’s cds have an asterisk next to the title.)
Should you already have or decide to purchase these cds, you may find, as I did, that you prefer Gary’s version for quite a few of them. A lot of his songs are about lost love, some because the guy was clueless, others about love that just didn’t work out and the difficulty in leaving memories behind. At his shows, Gary refers to himself as the “sensitive one” when he sings one of his ballads. Check out the songs listed on Gary’s website and let us know your favorites. Obviously, differing tastes will result in a very different list by many readers.
“I Wear Your Love” – Kathy Mattea Time Passes By, 1991
co-writer – None
An album track for Kathy Mattea from a cd chock full of great songs in addition to the three chosen for release as singles. The chorus concludes, “on the chillest night though I travel light, it is always enough for I wear your love”. Mattea is still one of the best female vocalists in country music.
“A Man Ain’t Made of Stone” – Randy Travis A Man Ain’t Made of Stone, 1999
co-writers – Frannie Golde and Robin Lerner
About this song, Leeann wrote, “I love Travis’ vulnerable, yet passionate, vocal delivery in this song. This man thought it was important to seem strong and unflappable, but realizes that she needed to see the softer side of him at times. Unfortunately, he reached this conclusion too late. Her leaving unearths his emotions and he abruptly learns that ‘a man ain’t made of stone/A man ain’t made of steel.’” The song peaked at #16.
“What’s In It For Me” – John Berry John Berry, 1993
co-writer – John Jarrard
This up tempo song is about a guy asking a girl who dumped him but has changed her mind and wants him back, ” What’s in it for me?” He’s glad she’s back and wants her but are things going to be different this time? “If it’s only more tears, then I’ll have to pass.” The song reached #5 on the charts for John Berry.
“Love’s Been a Little Bit Hard On Me” – Juice Newton Quiet Lies, 1982
co-writer – None
The young lady is a bit skittish about love after being burned in this up tempo tune. Calls to her inner romantic self can’t convince her to try again yet. “I’ll be back when I calm my fears … See you around in a thousand years.” This did better on the pop charts (# 7) than country (#30).
“A Thousand Times a Day” – Patty Loveless (1995); George Jones (1993) The Trouble With The Truth, 1995; High Tech Redneck, 1993
co-writer – Gary Nicholson
Another song about trying to forget someone. Giving up booze and smokes was difficult but “Forgetting you is not that hard to do, I’ve done it a thousand times a day”. The song reached #13 for Patty and was an album track for George. I prefer Patty’s version.
“In a Week or Two” – Diamond Rio Close To The Edge, 1992
co-writer – James House
A song of warning for procrastinators from a group known for their great harmony. “These words in my heart never had a chance to be heard”. The guy waited too long to tell her he loved her so he came out second. The song nearly reached the top of the charts but, as Trent Summar once reminded us, “close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.”
“I Try to Think About Elvis” – Patty Loveless When Fallen Angels Fly, 1994
co-writer – None
I recall seeing Patty sing this in a concert about 10 years ago. I would think that “list songs” like this would present a challenge remembering all the lyrics but she nailed it. A fun song that made it to #3.
“Heart Half Empty” – Ty Herndon with Stephanie Bentley What Mattered Most, 1995
co-writer – Desmond Child
“Is my heart half full of the love you gave me, or my heart half empty ’cause your love is gone?” While the half full, half empty metaphor is obviously not new and the song is a bit schmaltzy, I still love it. I add a star for true duets – equal contributions by the duet partners. Although Ty’s recent comeback attempt appears to have come up short, he still has a great voice and was well complemented here by Stephanie Bentley.
“Blue Sky” – Emily West Emily West, 2007 (EP)
co-writer – Emily West
The original version was from her EP. The current single includes background vocals by Keith Urban and online reviews have been very favorable but it hasn’t cracked the top 40 yet. The girl is saddened by her lover’s behavior but resolved not to be hurt by him again. “So you made a list of shoulders that you’d be needing, well mine aren’t yours anymore, come on show me your temper, be the man I remember, so I won’t forget what you’ve done.”
“Out of My Bones” – Randy Travis You and You Alone 1998
co-writers – Sharon Vaughn and Robin Lerner
Randy sings “I’m in need of a remedy, to cure me from loving you”. His remedy is walking in the first verse and talking in the second til she’s “out of my bones”. While his 1986 song “Diggin’ Up Bones” made it to the top, “Out of My Bones” stalled at #2. The album also included the late Patrick Swayze singing background on one of the tracks.
“Rockin’ the Rock” – Larry Stewart (Restless Heart) Heart Like a Hurricane, 1994
co-writer – None
A rollicking song about a girl who rocks his world but didn’t rock the charts peaking at #56. “I had a wonderful sense of balance, everything under control, til the day she came along and started rockin’ the rock that I’m standing on.” If you have a multiple tissues tune on your playlist, play this next. Larry Stewart’s solo career after leaving Restless Heart was not a huge success. He’s been back with them since 2004.
The relationship between a son and his father is portrayed in three vignettes. In the first, the father comforts his young son, calming his fears. Conflict and doubts occur in the second while the final scene finds the son, who makes his living with words and rhyme, trying to deal with the death of his father, asking himself how can I come up with a song to say I love you. The song made it to #6. (I remember liking “It’s Only Make Believe” as a kid but shortly after Conway disappeared from the pop charts. I didn’t know til much later that he had become a country star.)
“The One You Love” – Terri Clark with Vince Gill The Long Way Home, 2009; Pain to Kill, 2003
co-writer – Terri Clark
While Terri’s new cd did not include lyrics, they can be found with comments for each song on her website. She said that she hesitated to re-cut this song but her mother’s recent bout with cancer inspired her because it put the lyrics in a whole different light. “when someone’s slippin’ away, right before your eyes, how useless we are is a painful surprise”. Although Vince Gill singing harmony is always a plus, the original version on Pain to Kill was still excellent.
“West of Crazy” – Lisa Brokop Lisa Brokop, 1996
co-writer – Vince Melamed
An up tempo tune which reflects a woman’s state of mind after a breakup. “Just a few miles west of crazy, a stone’s throw away from tears, oh, so close to normal, but I can’t get there from here”. Love the song although it didn’t even chart in Canada. Lisa Brokop has become one of my favorite country music singers.
“One Night a Day” – Garth Brooks In Pieces, 1993
co-writer – Pete Wasner
The piano is the star in this song about a guy trying to leave a girl’s memory behind. He tells of the things he’s doing to get through the breakup, including “calling every friend I had, wake ‘em up, make ‘em mad, to let them know I’m okay”. Garth’s version, which reached #7 on the charts, also features a sax while in Gary’s, a steel guitar complements the piano.
“Time Machine” – Collin Raye I Think About You, 1995
co-writer – None
Although it was never a single, it’s one of my favorite Collin Raye songs. The songs tells of a lonely man who knows things won’t be any better tomorrow so he wants to go back in time. “To the casual eye it’s a barstool, but it’s really much more than it seems, a few drinks and then, she’ll be with him again, as he sits on the time machine”.
“Up and Flying” – Reba McEntire If You See Him, 1998
co-writer – Patty Griffin
Her ex-love is doing fine but she’s still doing time. “You make it look so easy, it doesn’t seem quite fair, baby I’m still tryin’, to get up and flying”. An album track for Reba. Should this song have been a single? Love Gary’s take on it.
“You Tell Me” – Terri Clark with Johnnie Reed The Long Way Home, 2009
co-writer – Terri Clark
As noted above, I love duets and on this album track, Terri is joined by Scotland born, Canadian country music artist, Johnny Reid. On her website, she describes it as a grown up song about a relationship in trouble that she wrote with Gary about 10 years ago. The conversational quality of the lyrics made it feel as a natural duet.
“Sure Love” – Hal Ketchum Sure Love, 1992
co-writer – Hal Ketchum
Hal sings of what he would do to find “Sure Love”. “I would chase all ghosts and watch them scatter, drop old dreams and watch them shatter, lose myself and all I own, to find sure love.” This up tempo song reached #3.
“Silence Is King” – Tanya Tucker Soon, 1993
co-writer – Jim Photoglo
This sad tune is about a couple who have reached the point where they don’t communicate any more. The chorus begins “We live in a land where silence is king, whispers have all disappeared”. In the last verse, there’s no let-up, “desperate measures come from desperate times, I don’t regret what I’ve done, if my actions made you speak your mind, angry words are better than none”. An album track for Tanya. On the live “Stop Me …” cd you hear Gary saying “so depressing” after he finishes singing. Probably too serious for country radio.
“I Will Not Be a Mistake” – Cliff Richard Something’s Goin’ On, 2004
co-writers – Helen Darling and Will Robinson
While Cliff is not a country singer, I could easily see someone like Collin Raye covering this song. It’s about a guy who assures the girl he’s about to get together with that while it may not come to anything it won’t be something she’ll regret. “I’ll be a chance you had to take, a heart you had to break, but I will not be a mistake”.
“Can’t Be Really Gone” – Tim McGraw All I Want, 1995
co-writer – None
A man tries to convince himself that his girl must be coming back when he mends his ways because “so much of her remains”. “The shoes she bought on Christmas day, she laughed and said they called her name”. “Her book is lying on the bed, the two of hearts to mark the page, now who would ever walk away at chapter twenty-one.” Just missed the top peaking at #2.
“Station on the Line” Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before …
co-writer – None
A haunting melody about a guy who falls for a girl who can’t commit. The chorus goes “and her type never does linger, she leaves all could and might-have-beens behind, she rode from New York to California, and I was just a station on that line”. As far as I can tell, no one else has covered this song.
“What Mattered Most” – Ty Herndon What Mattered Most, 1995
co-writer – Vince Melamed
A lament by a clueless guy who knew all the trivial stuff but missed what mattered most. “I never asked…she never said,and when she cried I turned my head, she dreamed her dreams behind closed doors, and that made them easy to ignore”. A #1 song for Ty in his successful stretch during the 90′s.
“In Front of the Alamo” – Hal Ketchum with LeAnn Rimes One More Midnight (no U.S. release)
co-writer – None
Allusions to one of the most famous battles in American history are combined with the story of a woman’s love gone bad because of her husband’s infidelity. The couple met as tourists in front of the Alamo. The second verse ends “she wanted trust, she wanted truth, the two things he found hard to do. So forever was shorter than she planned”. (The lives of the defenders of the Alamo were shorter than they planned.) She returns to the Alamo so that she can move on. The bridge begins “she didn’t come for inspiration or to breathe the mighty dust of heroes lost” and concludes “She just felt the time was right, at this random traffic light, to say ‘enough is enough’ and move on”. The third verse ends “maybe something in the air makes the timid braver there, to cross the line that they’ve drawn in the sand”. The tag chorus completes the analogy “they held on she lets go” (they were brave by holding on she by letting go) and concludes “in front of the Alamo, that’s a pretty good place to make a stand”.
While I do recall hearing the song on the radio, it failed to crack the top 40.
Kevin Coyne wrote here in 2007, “… a beautifully sympathetic portrait of a woman leaving a bad relationship behind. After all, what better a place to make a stand than in front of the Alamo? Before you worry that this is one of those over-the-top country numbers with a tortured metaphor, it’s actually wonderfully understated. The character is so believable that it seems just a happy accident that she makes a tough choice in front of a historical landmark.”
Also in 2007, Jim Malec of the 9513 wrote about the Ketchum song, “if you ask me, his latest, “In Front Of The Alamo,” is the best single I’ve heard so far this year. Featuring a brilliant support vocal from LeAnn Rimes, this song does everything right. Lyrically, it is a lesson in excellence, accomplishing in just over three minutes what most songs never do. On the production side it’s damn near perfect, even down to the mix (the short but fitting instrumental parts are well-played and perfectly placed).
It just doesn’t get much better than this.”
1994 Written by Matraca Berg, Suzy Bogguss, and Gary Harrison
There’s a term that has gathered strength over the past decade: the quarter-life crisis. It describes that phase in life where the idealism of what you thought your life would be collides with what reality has in store for you. Reconciling the two is needed to get beyond this point of life, and adulthood completely sets in once such reconciliation has been accomplished.
A significant difference between the major female artists of the early nineties and those of today is that they’re on opposite sides of that quarter-life marker. Take at the ages in which today’s newer female stars enjoyed their first top twenty hit: Carrie Underwood, 22; Miranda Lambert, 22; Kellie Pickler, 20; Taylor Swift, 17.
Now compare that to the women who broke through from 1989-1992: Suzy Bogguss, 34; Pam Tillis, 33; Mary Chapin Carpenter, 31; Wynonna, 27; Trisha Yearwood, 26. Unlike today, there were also several additional female artists who were also on the radio – Reba McEntire, Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, and Tanya Tucker – all of whom were in their thirties.
“Age ain’t nothin’ but a number,” Aaliyah once sang, but the musical output of these two crops of artists suggest otherwise. “Hey Cinderella” was a top five hit for Bogguss in 1994, and perhaps best exemplifies the different perspectives of these two generations of women.
“We believed in fairy tales that day,” Bogguss sings as she reminisces with her friend about the day her friend got married. “I watched your father give you away. Your aim was true when the pink bouquet fell right into my hands.” It sounds like the beginning of the latest Taylor Swift song, perhaps a duet with Kellie Pickler.
But as life goes on, “through the years, and the kids, and the jobs, and the dreams that lost their way,” these grown women are wondering about those fairy tales. “I’ve got a funny feeling we missed a page or two somehow”, and find themselves wanting to question the legendary princess: “Cinderella, maybe you can help us out?” they ask. “Does the shoe fit you now?”
While the perspective of youth is honestly preserved, these are clear-eyed adults with a wealth of life experiences informing their feelings today. It doesn’t get more honest than the line “We’re good now ’cause we have to be.” It’s not so much we grow up because we want to, but rather because we have to.
I’ve written many times that I don’t find Taylor Swift’s music offensive so much as irrelevant. When I was a teenager, I could listen to country music and not fully understand the intricacies of what the songs were about, but I knew I’d eventually grow into an understanding. Over the past fifteen years, I’ve done just that. What I can’t do is regress back into the state of development needed to find Taylor Swift’s music relevant to me.
Honestly, I don’t think that the world looked like what’s described in “You Belong With Me” and “Love Story” at any period of my life. I’ve just never known girls who saw the world that way. The ones I knew have grown up to be women quite a bit like those that Bogguss and her contemporaries sang about. Here’s hoping that this generation is able to do the same. In the meantime, if you like country music by and for adults, this forgotten hit is a great starting point.
It seems that 2009 has been a year of covers albums. Artists such as Aaron Tippin, Wynonna Judd, Tanya Tucker, and Rosanne Cash have all released worthwhile albums that have celebrated the songs of yesteryear within the last year. Now, to add to the list, Lorrie Morgan has just released her own tribute to tradition with a brand new project called A Moment in Time.
I don’t know about all of you, but this one almost slipped under the radar for me. As one of the middle tier female singers in the nineties, Morgan proved herself capable of singing various styles of music, but her love of and respect for traditional country music always lurked under the surface. So, this should be a welcome addition to the covers craze of 2009.
For an unknown amount of time, you can buy Morgan’s album of covers for just $3.99 at Amazon’s digital store.
Country Universe contributor and reader Cory DeStein flagged this rundown from Billboard regarding women on the charts this decade:
PERFECT 10: On Country Songs, Carrie Underwood ropes her 10th top 10, as “Cowboy Casanova” climbs 11-8. With the advance, Underwood now stands alone in first-place for most top 10s on the chart among solo women this decade.
Here are the solo females with the most top 10s on Country Songs since 2000:
10, Carrie Underwood
9, Faith Hill
9, Martina McBride
8, Taylor Swift
7, Sara Evans
7, Reba McEntire
6, Jo Dee Messina
5, LeAnn Rimes
5, Gretchen Wilson
4, Shania Twain
Notably, the artist who led the category among women last decade did so with almost three times as many top 10s. Reba McEntire ranked first among solo women in the ’90s with 27 top 10s on Country Songs. Trisha Yearwood placed second with 18 between 1990 and 1999, and Faith Hill, Patty Loveless and Tanya Tucker each posted 14 in that span.
The decline in fortune for women at radio this decade is even more pronounced when you compare the above top ten to the previous decade:
Most Top Ten Singles by a Female Artist – 1990-1999:
Reba McEntire (27)
Trisha Yearwood (18)
Faith Hill (14)
Patty Loveless (14)
Tanya Tucker (14)
Pam Tillis (13)
Lorrie Morgan (12)
Shania Twain (12)
Martina McBride (10)
That’s ten women who matched Underwood’s total for this decade. That Underwood didn’t even hit the top ten for the first time until late 2005 shows how bleak it was at radio for female artists this year.
But this comparison doesn’t even tell the whole story. Take a look at the list of women with the most top ten singles two decades ago:
Most Top Ten Singles by a Female Artist – 1980-1989:
Reba McEntire (23)
Crystal Gayle (22)
Dolly Parton (21)
Janie Fricke (17)
Barbara Mandrell (17)
Rosanne Cash (16)
Emmylou Harris (16)
Anne Murray (14)
Tanya Tucker (12)
Kathy Mattea (10)
Notice the trend? This decade, the top ten women combined for a total of 70 top ten hits. In the 90′s, the top ten women enjoyed a total of 145 top ten hits. In the eighties, a total of 168 top ten hits. Even the nineties list is dominated by women who were played heavily in the earlier part of the decade.
What’s strange is that it was in the mid-nineties that female artists became the dominant commercial force in country music. Janie Fricke never had a gold album. Shania Twain has sold 48 million albums. Yet Fricke had more top ten hits in just the eighties than Shania Twain has earned in her entire career. Record buyers have wholeheartedly embraced Alison Krauss and Miranda Lambert, but despite their strong sales, they’ve each enjoyed only one solo top ten hit.
So what to make of all of this? Is the recent success of Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood an indication that things are improving for women on the radio dial? Is it worth noting that Sugarland and Jennifer Nettles (11 top ten hits) and the Dixie Chicks (14 top ten hits) have done their part to compensate for this lack of gender parity? Does it even matter that radio is playing women less often each decade, especially if record buyers are finding their music anyway?
As a tribute of sorts to her father who loved traditional country music, Tanya Tucker has compiled a set of twelve songs that pays homage to country music’s past. While not an example of traditionalism herself as a recording artist, Tucker ably demonstrates that she is more than capable of stepping into the role on this project, but also shows that this is not her most comfortable position as an artist.
Produced by accomplished and respected producer, Pete Anderson (Dwight Yoakam), Tucker’s new covers album, My Turn, is full of both oft sung and lesser known gems. Tucker shines on up-tempo fare such as Buck Owens’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here” with guest help from Jim Lauderdale, Don Gibson’s “Oh, Lonesome Me”, Charley Pride’s “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone” and the album’s best track, Merle Haggard’s “Ramblin’ Fever.” With the support of snappy productions to match Tucker’s assured vocals, these interpretations aptly showcase Tucker’s spunk and are where she seems to fully connect, both vocally and emotionally, to the songs and their lyrics, which is likely why the straightforward “Ramblin’ Fever” works so well for her. “If someone said I ever gave a damn/Well, the damn sure told you wrong/’Cause I’ve had ramblin’ fever all along”, she growls with utmost believability.
The more inferior songs, admittedly, tend to be the slower tracks. While they are sung very well, there seems to be a palpable disconnect between the singer and the songs. Tucker’s version of Lefty Frizzell’s “I Love You A Thousand Ways” is, however, a welcome exception. It sticks close to the original, but Tucker’s relaxed vocal manages to help it stand out from the other slow compositions on the album.
As is naturally common on covers projects such as this, Pete Anderson applies a warm quality to the production, which is sonically pleasant, but perhaps not quite the fit that Tanya Tucker’s uniquely rough voice calls for. Instead of seamlessly blending with Anderson’s productions, Tucker’s vocals often seem to be muted, as if her voice needed to be turned up a bit in the mixes. Likewise, the choices for some of the guest vocalists (The Grascals and Rhonda Vincent) did not work especially well. Their rootsy vocals were more of a distraction than a compliment to the songs on which they appeared.
While it is likely unreasonable to compare this project to other albums of its ilk, it’s impossible not to hold it up to previous efforts that have been recently offered by her peers (Patty Loveless, Martina McBride, etc), especially since some of the same ground has been covered here. Tucker’s husky, and even flirtatious vocal style naturally sets this project apart from those of her fellow artists, but it is not as strong or cohesive as the others. Despite its few shortcomings, however, it is still a solid effort and deserves a high-profile spot in one’s collection of covers albums.
Update: Michael, Dee, T Partridge, Paul Dennis, Chris, and Annie are the randomly selected winners of this give away. Congratulations. I will be contacting each of you for your addresses. Thank you all for your participation. Check in later this week for another give away. If you haven’t already, be sure to comb through the Tanya Tucker spotlight at My Kind of Country (linked below).
Thanks to the good people at Gigante Media, Country Universe is pleased to announce that we’re giving away five copies of the anticipated Tanya Tucker album, My Turn, which will be officially released on June 30.
My Turn is an album of covers sung by one of country music’s finest vocal interpreters, which will surely be a wonderful tribute to songs of country music’s past.
To get an idea of what to expect, you can listen to some tracks from the upcoming album here. You can also visit our friends at My Kind of Country to read their excellent and thorough coverage of Tanya Tucker who happens to be their spotlight artist for the month and, incidentally, are giving away copies of the album as well.
Any comment regarding Tanya Tucker will enter you into the random drawing, but if you’re looking for some direction, you can either tell us how a certain song of Tanya’s personally effects you in the form of a Tanya Tucker Testimonial or come up with a cool sentence or phrase about Tanya that involves clever alliteration.
You have until Friday, June 26 to enter the drawing, which will close at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, which should increase the chances of getting the album to you by release day.
Tanya Tucker has teamed with Saguaro Road Records, the same record company that hosted Patty Loveless’ stellar covers project, to create her own covers album entitled My Turn. The lead single is a cover of the Buck Owens’ classic, “Love’s Gonna Live Here.”
While it is impossible to predict if Tucker’s effort will be as well received as Loveless’ highly regarded album, “Love’s Gonna Live Here” provides a promising glimpse of the direction that the album is likely to take.
With “Love’s Gonna Live Here”, Tucker does not set out to reinvent this iconic song, but rather, pay tribute to a beloved classic. With the help of Jim Lauderdale’s very recognizable twang, Tanya’s signature husky voice leans into the Owens composition with decided grit and re-energizes a song that is always deserving of being revived.
The following is a guest contribution by Country Universe reader Tad Baierlein.
When Dan Seals died of lymphoma last Wednesday, a great deal of the press coverage centered on his days as “England Dan” in the soft rock duo England Dan and John Ford Coley. Seals’ country career, though more successful for a longer period of time, seemed to be treated as an afterthought.
Many of the obituaries mentioned Seals’ biggest country hit, “Bop”; hardly an accurate representation of his years spent in country. Now, it’s perfectly justifiable to glance at a person’s career highlights for a newspaper obituary, but I think that a great deal more attention should’ve been paid to Seals’ death within the country music community. I would like to contribute this little appreciation to one of my favorite country artists.
“The Banker” Rebel Heart, 1983
For two years following the split of England Dan and John Ford Coley, nothing seemed to be going right for Seals. First off, he recorded two solo soft rock albums just as that sound was going out of favor. Aside from one single ekeing its way into the Adult Contemporary charts, the albums were considered huge failures. Secondly, Seals had accrued a massive amount of debt to the IRS; almost everything he owned was repossessed to pay it. Seals’ move to Nashville had been planned for quite a while but in 1982 it seemed almost a necessity.
This song that he wrote for Rebel Heart would seem to place his frustrations and hope in the story of a man trying to save his land from an evil, number-crunching banker. Sometimes when it seems like all hope is lost all you can do is work to get yourself out of trouble. Seals could only hope that the oil-rich resolution of “The Banker” came true in his life as well; he wouldn’t have to worry.
“Fewer Threads Than These” On the Front Line, 1986
The Seals album On the Front Line was his first as a country superstar. Refreshingly, Seals decided to go in a more self-assuredly country direction. With only a few exceptions (“I Will Be There,” “You Still Move Me”) the album follows a more straightforward country path. The album not only points to the direction Seals would take with his Rage On album, but also to the direction producer Kyle Lehning was already pursuing with his most famous artist, Randy Travis. This song, one of only three on the album not written by Seals, is a lovely traditional-sounding tune about patience in a relationship, featuring great dobro work by Jerry Douglas.
“Candle in the Rain” Rebel Heart, 1983
Seals had worked with Kyle Lehning for six years prior to his first country album. Lehning produced the most successful albums for England Dan and John Ford Coley. Much like Seals, Lehning didn’t consider himself part of the rock ’n’ roll community. Not only was he already working in Nashville at the time he started producing England Dan, he was established as a country musician (working with artists
like Waylon Jennings and the Glaser Brothers).
If Seals hadn’t strongly indicated an interest in country music right off the bat, it’s more than likely that he would’ve drifted in that direction anyway with Lehning at the helm. “Candle in the Rain,” an album track from Rebel Heart, features a new wave/country mix that’s pretty revolutionary. Right off the bat there’s a combination of acoustic guitar and synthesizer that hadn’t been heard in country music previous to Lehning’s production. The clear, almost new wave, drum beat in the chorus, the mixture of steel guitar and synthesizer, the airy backing vocals; “Candle in the Rain” really does combine the best elements of country and rock. It was a sound that Lehning and Seals would return to on many occasions.
“My Baby’s Got Good Timing” San Antone, 1984
Bob McDill and Dan Seals had a mutually beneficial songwriting relationship during Seals peak years as a country artist. McDill helped Seals find his voice as a country artist and songwriter, and Seals allowed McDill to get back to the more challenging material he had written in the seventies for folks like Don Williams and Bobby Bare. “My Baby’s Got Good Timing” is a tenetive first step for both artists; both are still unsure of Seals viability as a country artist.This is mainly McDill’s patented breezy love song matched with Seals’ best pop vocals. It’s an excellent combination but one that doesn’t point to the brilliant compositions the two would write in the years to come.
“God Must Be a Cowboy” Rebel Heart, 1983
To me, Seals’ Bahai faith really colors “God Must Be a Cowboy,” his first top ten hit. From what I understand (and I probably don’t) Bahai is like a buffet table of spirituality (take a little of this from Christianity, a little of that from Hinduism, oh that part of Islam looks good…), with meditation on universal tolerance at its core. “God Must Be a Cowboy” travels on the well-worn path of songs about country beauty vs. city clog, but there’s a meditative quality to the lyrics that separates it from the pack.
Seals takes time to appreciate the friendship of an old guitar, whose sound “sure smooths the wrinkles of my soul.” “An eagle overhead” makes Seals want to fly away before his time. Whatever home means to you, thank God there’s a trail to take you back there. Seals doesn’t chastise the city (“it’s alright for awhile/Sure makes you feel good when you’re there”), but he understands that in order to appreciate it you must first appreciate the quiet moments in the country. As a country artist, Seals tended to share his faith more by recording songs about tolerance rather than preaching. “God Must Be a Cowboy” really embraces his faith to a point that it shouldn’t be ignored.
“Lullaby” (with Emmylou Harris) On the Front Line, 1986
In many ways this song could be considered the opposite (or resolution of) Seals‘ huge 1985 duet “Meet Me In Montana.” Marie Osmond’s saccharine vocals are replaced by Emmylou Harris’ relaxed harmonies. A spare acoustic sound (highlighted by Mark O’Connor’s always welcome fiddle) replaces the rather bombastic orchestration of “Meet Me In Montana.” Poignancy and contentedness replaces fear and urgency. While “Meet Me in Montana” practically throttles you to get its attention (in a good way), “Lullaby” glides. The song doesn’t draw attention to itself, and if you notice how beautiful it is at the end of On the Front Line, well, good for you. A lovely song.
“Bop” Won’t Be Blue Anymore, 1985
Undeniably catchy, and a monster crossover hit that rocketed Seals to the top of country play lists, “Bop” is also marred by some of the worst tendencies of eighties production. From the processed saxophone to the drum machine to the squiggly synth prominent in the mix, “Bop” was Public Enemy Number One for folks who wanted country music to get back to its traditional roots. The strange thing is, “Bop”was not only an anomaly as far as Seals’ country career was concerned, but it also doesn’t match anything Kyle Lehning has been known for before or since. “Bop” was a very fun gamble that worked extraordinarily well. The unfortunate side effect was that the song associated Seals with the pre-packaged country the hat acts tried to eradicate in the early nineties.
“I Will Be There” On the Front Line, 1986
A bit of a bone thrown at the pop-country crowd that made “Bop” such a massive hit (co-written by Jennifer Kimball, the co-writer of “Bop”). That isn’t to say it’s not an impressive song, but aside from the mandolin that comes and goes in the verses it’s not very country. “I Will Be There” sticks out like a sore thumb on On the Front Line. Even so, the production is definitely more tasteful than “Bop”; it’s almost as if Seals and Lehning looked at what they had done and were like, “we need to step back a little from this for our own good.” Also very prominently featured on this song are Baillie and the Boys, a vocal group who had quite a few hits of their own in the late eighties, as well as providing excellent backup to the likes of Seals, Randy Travis and Clint Black, among others.
“Saw You in My Dreams” Make it Home, 2002
After the failure of his last two singles from On Arrival, Seals decided to sign a deal with Warner Bros. The resulting albums, Walking the Wire and the Kyle Lehning-less Fired Up, were flops. After the inevitable drop from Warner Bros. Seals became a touring artist at modest venues. With one exception, Seals’ only albums from 1994 to his death were live recordings of old hits.
His last chance at regaining his country audience was 2002’s Make it Home, a very nice collection of new material (mainly written by Seals or Nashville pro Rand Bishop). There are no amazing moments on Make it Home, but it’s almost uniformly well done. The best song on the album, in my opinion, is this song about a chance encounter/pickup. For a subject that could’ve turned sleazy on a dime (“would you believe I saw you in my dreams” he casually mentions to his crush in the chorus) it’s a sincere and very sweet song. If Make it Home is indeed Seals’ last solo album, it’s a good way to finish things up.
“Big Wheels in the Moonlight” Rage On, 1988
Seals’ 1988 album Rage On is probably his definitive moment as an artist. All of a sudden the relaxed production of On the Front Line was matched with uniformly good songs. One of the recurring themes of Rage On is wanderlust, whether it’s from a relationship (“Addicted”) or the boredom of a small town (“They Rage On”).
Wanderlust is name-checked in “Big Wheels in the Moonlight,” and it’s probably the most deceptively downcast song on the album. The protagonist spends two verses talking about his dream of riding the big rigs, but in the third he’s stuck in the same town with “kids and a wife and a regular job.” That dream that drew him in as a kid now haunts him as an adult, but he‘s resigned to not living it. Seriously, without listening to the lyrics, who would guess how sad this song is?
“You Still Move Me” On the Front Line, 1986
Country fans who can overlook the mid-eighties production painted a little thick on “You Still Move Me” will find a breathtakingly beautiful ballad. Not only is the melody lovely, but the song contains some of Seals’ greatest vocal moments. Particularly outstanding are his pained vocals in the bridge, and his “God, you move me” at the end. That moment perfectly sums up this song about a man who can’t believe he’s about to wreck a good relationship, but can’t control his emotions any longer.
“You Plant Your Fields” Won’t Be Blue Anymore, 1985
Wendy Waldman’s route to Nashville mirrors Dan Seals in every way except scope. A moderately successful singer/songwriter in the 1970’s, Waldman moved to Nashville in the early eighties. Unlike Seals, Waldman found her niche in songwriting for artists like Crystal Gayle, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Don Johnson (I mean, I’m talking about Wendy Waldman here, how could I ignore the fact that she wrote “Heartbeat” for Don Johnson).
“You Plant Your Fields” is more introspective than most of Waldman’s country material, comparing the seasons of love to tending the farm: “You plant your fields when the spring is tender, when the summer beats down you pray for rain, you hope for the harvest, the long cold winter, then you plant your fields again.”
“In San Antone” San Antone, 1984
Broadway vs. home is a hoary old cliché, but it always seems to apply. For every artist who makes it big on the great white way there are at least a thousand who become disillusioned and homesick. The title track to Seals second country album is a story about a singer trying to make it on Broadway but missing the girl he left behind in San Antone. It’s unclear whether he’ll return to her, but it’s a pretty safe bet considering he “can’t take much more of Broadway,” namely his squalid seventh floor apartment. The rocking coda of the song, where he proclaims “She believes in me!,” would probably point the way of departure.
“Three Time Loser” On the Front Line, 1986
It doesn’t get much more fun than this little ditty from On the Front Line. This is one of Seals’ amazing run of nine number one singles, and eleven out of twelve. It’s interesting that Seals often gets mentioned as a pop star first and country star second, because as a kid I considered him to be the quintessential country artist. Every single he released struck some sort of chord, whether it was a lovely ballad about friends, a pure rock song about someone being there, or this country song about trying to figure out girls (surprisingly prescient to a seven year-old).
“Five Generations of Rock County Wilsons” Rage On, 1988
A bit like “The Banker” in context but much more successful and realistic as a composition. If the theme for most of Rage On was wanderlust, this song expresses the exact opposite emotion. The protagonist wants to stay put and is outraged that his heritage means nothing to the men driving him off his land. He finally resigns himself to the fact that he will have to make way for the “big diesel cats.” At the end he boards a “big ol’ gray dog” bound for wherever; the song makes him sound like he’s doing it at gunpoint.
“Bordertown” On Arrival, 1990
After eight years of nothing but top ten hits, the streak finally broke with “Bordertown.” It wasn’t like the song hit number 12 either; it barely cracked the top 50. Possibly it was the transition to the early-nineties hat acts, but probably it was the controversial material: “Bordertown” is about illegal immigration, a touchy issue at the time that has only grown touchier since 9/11.
Seals and Bob McDill’s viewpoint, that everyone deserves a chance to become an American, is a stance that not many artists would take a chance on. The writers don’t waffle on “Bordertown”; they have a clear opinion that nobody should stand in the way of somebody who wants a better life. “The law’s the law,” except when the law applies to human decency. “It’s not his job to say what’s right or wrong,” and it’s not anybody’s job to stop people from improving their situation. It’s a shame that this was the single that drove Seals off of the charts, because it’s a song that deserved a wider audience to hear its message.
“Up On the Hill” Rebel Heart, 1983
Almost like a dry run for “They Rage On,” this song is about star-crossed lovers who find love and escape at night to their little makeout point. But unlike some other songs that share this same story the song takes a very pessimistic turn when the man from the wrong side of the tracks finds out “that money is what it’s all about.” But the man doesn‘t give up; every night he still climbs that hill, waiting. Good luck fella.
Another great example of the soon to be commonplace Kyle Lehning production style, with steel guitars standing side-by-side with electric guitar and a propulsive drum beat. This style almost seems more natural for those of us who grew up with 80’s and 90’s country music. To me, it’s hard to believe that there was a time when it didn’t exist (for better or worse).
“Addicted” Rage On, 1988
A brilliant song about a woman trapped in a destructive relationship, “Addicted” remains a very powerful piece of work. There’s a wonderful YouTube performance of “Addicted” from 1991 where Cheryl Wheeler joins Seals on stage to play guitar and sing a verse that wascut out of the single version. It’s interesting to see the writer and the singer’s different takes on the song: Whereas Seals sings the song like a concerned bystander dealing with a situation he has no control over, Wheeler sings her verse as an almost desperate wake-up call to a friend. It took a lot of guts for Seals to release “Addicted” as a single (and not only that, but as the first single from the album Rage On) and it’s a great performance.
“Meet Me in Montana” (with Marie Osmond) Won’t Be Blue Anymore, 1985
As Seals and writer Paul Davis’ first country number one and duet partner Marie Osmond’s return to the top after a ten year absence, “Meet Me In Montana” is a bit of a watershed for the soft-rock-to-country transfer of the mid-eighties. Davis was a crony of Seals and Kyle Lehning, as well as being a successful soft rock performer in his own right in the late-seventies. Instead of pursuing country superstardom Davis decided to retire from performing and write songs (occasionally performing, most notably with Paul Overstreet and Tanya Tucker on “I Won’t Take Less Than Your Love”). Davis wrote two very important songs for Seals: “Bop” and this brilliant duet. Seals’ clear voice matches perfectly with Osmond’s sunniness. Their voices add some hopefulness to a subject matter that could’ve been a little harsh.
“My Old Yellow Car” San Antone, 1984
It’s a shame that Seals didn’t pair up more with Thom Schuyler, who was for a time considered the songwriter’s songwriter in Nashville (partly because he wrote the songwriter’s song, “16th Avenue”). As a country singer, Seals was at his best telling a story or getting inside a character, and Schuyler was one of the best in the early eighties. In “My Old Yellow Car,” the successful protagonist looks back with regret at the old rust-bucket, and the innocence, that he’s lost track of.
“Love On Arrival” On Arrival, 1990
OMG it’s LOA. IMHO the song is LOL clever. I’ll quit that.
Seals’ final two number ones were great old rock ’n’ roll throwbacks: “Love On Arrival” and his cover of Sam Cooke’s “Good Times.” Those singles arrived at a time when country was trying to “get back to its roots;” instead of Sam Cooke and The Beatles (Seals’ idols growing up) the new traditionalists name-checked George Jones and Merle Haggard.
At the time it seemed like the gulf between new artists like Garth Brooks and Clint Black and late-eighties artists like Dan Seals couldn’t have been wider. Brooks and Black weren’t crossing over from pop, and they didn’t seem to have rock ‘n’ roll roots; they seemed authentic. This was before Brooks showed his Billy Joel fetish and Black started writing songs with Jimmy Buffett.
If anything, Garth Brooks can be seen nowadays as inheritor of Dan Seals’ throne: an immensely popular artist not afraid to be country or pop if the need be and not afraid to be controversial if the need be. As for the song itself, “Love On Arrival” is clever, fun and has a great hook: what more could you ask for.
“Gonna Be Easy Now” On the Front Line, 1986
A song about the hopelessness and lack-of-control of day-to-day life. I love the question/answer chorus that just gets bleaker and bleaker as it goes: “What’re you gonna do if the well runs dry? I’ll wait for the rain to fall. What’re you gonna do if the crops all die? Well, I won’t have to work at all. What’re you gonna do if the creek gets high? I’m still making up my mind. What’re you gonna do if the sun don’t shine? I’ll lay right down and die, and then everything’ll be alright.”
The protagonist puts on a brave face, a sort of roll-with-the-punches mentality, but inside he knows that “problems ain’t goin’ away, they’re just gonna change their shape” (this pessimistic attitude about rolling-with-the-punches contrasts harshly with the lessons taught in “You Plant Your Fields“). Seals’ final scream, “Everything’s gonna be easy now,” is a real eye-opener.
“They Rage On” Rage On, 1988
“They Rage On” is the song that broke Seals’ streak of number one singles, and listening to it it’s easy to see why; this ain’t no drinking song depression, it’s full-blown hopelessness. I wouldn’t place a song this bleak at the top of any chart. “They Rage On” is a song about small-town people who have nothing better to do with their lives, so they sit around holding each other tight, “searching for the answers.”
If it sounds like I’m dismissing “They Rage On” I’m certainly not; I’ve never heard a song encapsulate small town frustration any better. I’m just amazed that it was released as a single. If “They Rage On” doesn’t prove that Seals took more risks than any other country artist of the late-eighties I don’t know what does. Whatever the case, “They Rage On” is a gorgeous, brooding number which deserved its place as Seals’ streak-breaker.
“One Friend” The Best, 1987
As I said before, from reading the obituaries it would seem that Seals had two signature moments as an artist: one as a member of England Dan and John Ford Coley with Parker McGee’s “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” and the other as a solo crossover artist with “Bop.” Those two songs are all well and good, but to me “One Friend” and “Everything That Glitters” will always be Seals’ signatures.
Amazingly, “One Friend” had to be resurrected and re-recorded for his greatest hits to become a single. Seals recorded a spare two-minute long acoustic version for the end of San Antone. The original version was obviously supposed to be a pleasant little album ender, nothing more. Kyle Lehning thought the song had potential, so he had Seals repeat the bridge and the chorus, then added orchestration. The finished product is a song that is deceptively simple and universal, and one of the greatest songs about commitment I’ve ever heard.
“Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)” Won’t Be Blue Anymore, 1985
“Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)” is a brilliant composition. It’s a song filled with great characters (apparently from stories that Seals‘ grandmother told him): the struggling rodeo rider living in a mobile home, his little girl who’s slowly turning into a woman, the old horse that should be put to pasture except the rider “just can’t bear to let him go” and, of course, the woman who let success go to her head and left the people who loved her behind. The song is basically crying for a movie to be made of it, except no movie could match Seals’ emotions here.
The first verse and chorus is sung with vulnerability and resignation. The anger starts to build in the second verse, culminating at the bridge where he tells her “Someday I’m sure you’re gonna know the cost, cause for everything you win there’s something lost.” Then, after a moment to gather himself, Seals wistfully sings the chorus, then whistles off into the sunset.