He spent most of the eighties struggling for recognition, but thanks to his smooth ballads and country’s suddenly expanded audience, Vince Gill emerged as one of the biggest superstars of the nineties.
Born and raised in Oklahoma, he followed in the footsteps of his musician father, but while it was a hobby for his dad, it became Vince’s life mission. His ability to play several different instruments and his talent for harmonizing earned him a place in local bands, and he moved to Kentucky and then to Los Angeles seeking out further opportunities. An audition for the Pure Prairie League in 1979 resulted in him becoming their new lead singer, and Gill had his first taste of success when their single, “Let Me Love You Tonight”, topped the adult contemporary charts and cracked the pop top ten.
He left the band to join Rodney Crowell’s backing group, Cherry Bomb, only a few years after he had played a similar backing role for Ricky Skaggs. His time with Cherry Bomb connected him to Tony Brown, the musician and record executive who signed him to RCA in 1981. For the next several years, stardom remained just out of reach for Gill, who managed to score just three top ten hits with the label. He was better known for his session work as a guitarist and as a harmony singer, with his distinctive vocals appearing on #1 hits by Rosanne Cash (“I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me”) and Patty Loveless (“Timber I’m Falling in Love.”)
When Brown left RCA for MCA records, Gill followed shortly thereafter. In 1989, he released the dramatic ballad “When I Call Your Name”, featuring harmony vocals from Loveless. The record made him one of the genre’s hottest stars, setting up a decade of dominance at radio and retail. Throughout the nineties, Gill racked up a stunning run of hits and big-selling albums, with I Still Believe in You selling more than five million copies on the strength of four #1 hits.
Gill alternated between rave-ups that featured his guitar prowess and power ballads that brought country’s traditional heartache sound into the late twentieth century. Despite his new popularity, he still did as much session work as ever, happily accepting offers to sing and play on the albums of anyone who requested him to. He became known as the genre’s leading gentleman, and his quick wit led to him hosting the CMA awards for more than a decade. Because of both his talent and his work with other artists, Gill dominated the two award shows voted on by his peers, winning more than a dozen Grammys and CMA awards. He is tied with George Strait for the most CMA Male Vocalist trophies, and holds the record for the most wins in the Song of the Year category.
As radio support slowly dwindled toward the late nineties, Gill focused on making ambitious albums, most notably the four-CD set These Days, which earned him another pair of Grammys and a platinum award. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005, and he was one of the youngest inductees in history to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007. A marriage to fellow singer Amy Grant has kept him focused more on family than music in recent years, but he still tours regularly and remains an Opry staple. His most recent set, Guitar Slinger, hit shelves in 2011 and earned him multiple songwriting nominations for the lead single, “Threaten Me with Heaven.”
Does country radio still have room for a song about drinkin' and cheatin'? How about one sung by a female artist?
Enter Arista newcomer Kristen Kelly, currently making waves at radio with her debut single “Ex-Old Man,” which she co-wrote along with nineties star Paul Overstreet. The premise is simple. Husband cheats on her with her best friend. She calls it quits with her man, and hits the bar, assuring us in no uncertain terms that “There's a damn good reason for this drink in my hand.” The lyric and performance are brash and bitter with an undercurrent of vulnerability as Kelly fumes over the double betrayal. (“I was cryin' on her shoulder, he was cheatin' on me… She never let on that it was her stealin' his love”)
In a country radio environment where there are far too many bells and whistles, it's a refreshing change of pace to hear a new artist taking a back-to-basics approach – revisiting a classic yet often ignored country music theme, with a simple drum and acoustic guitar-driven arrangement that actually makes the song feel like country music (Overstreet and Tony Brown take producer's credit). At the same time, the jaunty acoustic chords and hand claps are subtly infectious, setting the toe tapping in short order.
It's encouraging to see that this single seems to be getting some attention at radio. If Kelly's lyrical material remains strong, she along with fellow rising talent Jana Kramer could potentially act as an effective counterbalance toward the polished, hook-heavy country-pop of Swift and Underwood and company, imbuing some welcome variety into country radio's pool of female talent.
Reba McEntire already has 56 top ten hits to her credit, and her new single, “Strange”, just entered the chart at #39, a career-high entry for the legendary singer. She's been a presence on the country charts for 23 years, has more gold and platinum albums than any female country artist, and she's a multimedia star, finding great success on Broadway and in television and film.
But for those who know her best as a sitcom star or Kelly Clarkson's and Kenny Chesney's duet partner, trying to tackle her catalog is a daunting task. This Starter Kit will get you going, as it includes ten of her most essential tracks. Those of you looking to learn more about McEntire are highly recommended to check out the excellent My Kind of Country blog, which gives frequent and always high-quality coverage of McEntire's music, past and present.
“Somebody Should Leave” from the 1984 album My Kind of Country
Even though she was won her first CMA award for Female Vocalist before this album was released, My Kind of Country is widely credited as being the first truly great Reba McEntire album. She exerted creative control for the first time, and instantly became one of the genre's most significant new traditionalists.
This Harlan Howard classic is achingly, heartbreakingly beautiful, a description that fits most of McEntire's best work. Here, a couple is aware that it's time to part ways, but aren't sure how to go about it, so worried are they for their children: “If it was only you and me, goodbye might come more easily. But what about those babies down the hall?”
“Whoever's in New England” from the 1986 album Whoever's in New England
A country ballad on the surface, a power pop ballad below the surface. This epic of suspected cheating turned her into a record seller, and earned her the CMA award for Entertainer of the Year.
“One Promise Too Late” from the 1986 album What Am I Gonna Do About You
McEntire's recorded quite a bit of traditional country, but rarely as pure as this track, where the musical hook is provided by twin fiddles and her voice is even twangier than usual.
“You Lie” from the 1990 album Rumor Has It
There were quite a few solid singles off Reba's lesser-known but still platinum-selling albums from the late eighties. But when she teamed with Tony Brown for Rumor Has It, the lead single “You Lie” blew them out of the water. The full range of her voice was on display for the first time, and it was a force to be reckoned with.
“Fancy” from the 1990 album Rumor Has It
Bobbie Gentry's original was tinged with sadness and regret, but McEntire turned it into an empowerment anthem, a full force assualt on the “self-righteous hypocrites that call me bad.” She did what she had to do, and she stayed true to her mother and herself. She could care less what anyone else thinks about it.
Paul W. Dennis of The 9513 said that his Randy Travis Starter Kit could begin and end with the entirety of Storms of Life. I could say the same about McEntire and her masterpiece For My Broken Heart.
Recorded in the wake of the plane crash that killed her road manager and several members of her band, the album is somber without ever becoming too morose. The title track was originally planned as a duet with Clint Black, but McEntire did it alone in the end. Her performance on the CMA Awards was one of her finest moments, even as her voice visibly cracked with emotion at the end.
“The Greatest Man I Never Knew” from the 1991 album For My Broken Heart
A daughter looks back on the man who sacrificed everything he had to make a better life for his family, but in so doing, never got to know his daughter. “I never really knew him,” she laments, “and now it seems so sad. Everything he gave to us took all he had.”
“If I Had Only Known” from the 1991 album For My Broken Heart
Her finest moment on record, as she looks back with sad regret on the things that she never said to a loved one who has died. “If I had only known it was my last night by your side, I'd pray a miracle stop the dawn. And when you smiled at me, I would look into your eyes and make sure you know my love for you goes on and on.”
“The Fear of Being Alone” from the 1996 album What If It's You
This strikingly intelligent hit finds McEntire warning her new beau not to rush into saying “I love you.” She warns him that “you may think you do, but you don't. It's just the fear of being alone.”
“Moving Oleta” from the 2003 album Room to Breathe
This one's so painfully sad that it could've been on For My Broken Heart. A man moves his wife into a nursing home because he can no longer care for her, so advanced is her Alzheimer's.