Essential 80’s: #200-#176

200 Essential 80’s Singles
Part 1:

Sawyer Brown
Peak: #15

Fresh off their victory in the very first Star Search competition, Sawyer Brown released a string of campy singles that cemented their reputation as a novelty act, complete with tacky stage outfits and cheesy videos. It took years and Mac McAnally for them to finally gain credibility.

Barbara Mandrell
Peak: #3

We take empowerment among our country women for granted today, so it’s startling to here this bouncy little number that has Mandrell willing to put up with anything her man wants to do if he’ll just come back to her; she even regrets having fewer dishes to wash, and the hook is “you can eat crackers in my bed any time.” I was going to write here that it’s impossible to imagine a contemporary female country singer recording this, then I read that Sara Evans has cut it for the forthcoming Mandrell tribute album. Since the ACM just anointed her the female standard-bearer for our format, the ladies might be backsliding.

“Honky Tonkin'”
Hank Williams, Jr.
Peak: #1

A smooth and swinging cover of his father’s hit, Williams tosses this off so effortlessly that he was clearly no longer living in the shadow of his legendary dad; he even throws in some lines from “Hey Good Lookin'” at the end.

“Meet Me In Montana”
Marie Osmond with Dan Seals
Peak: #1

Dan’s not finding an audience for his music in Nashville, Osmond’s not pretty enough for the big screen in Hollywood, so they’re ready to give up their dreams and reunite in Montana. Despite the pop sheen that defines country records from this era, there’s a bittersweet melancholy powering this classic duet.

“Mona Lisa Lost Her Smile”
David Allan Coe
Peak: #2

Coe just might be the most underrated honky-tonk artist of the last forty years. This was his biggest hit, and doesn’t have the beer-and-sawdust edge of most of his best work, but it’s sharply written, using the metaphor of painting to illustrate how a man can create a woman that ends up leaving him, “the masterpiece that we planned is laying shattered on the ground; Mona Lisa lost her smile, and the painter’s hands are trembling now.”

“Lookin’ For Love”
Johnny Lee
Peak: #1

Personally, I enjoyed Eddie Murphy as BuckWheat on SNL singing this song as “Wookin’ Pa Nub” more than Lee’s original, but this is the quintessential Urban Cowboy hit; hell, it’s actually on the soundtrack that ended up the label for an entire movement within the genre.

“(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me”
Ronnie Milsap
Peak: #1

Toby Keith is hardly the first cocky male singer, and Milsap is a greater influence on Keith than he’ll ever admit. Milsap scored a Grammy for this performance.

“Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left”
Steve Earle
Peak: #8

It’s easy to forget that this alt-country legend actually scored some mainstream country success with his first album. Comparisons to Bruce Springsteen were never-ending, but Earle’s got his own distinctive voice; “goodbye’s all we’ve got left to say” is one of those obvious hooks that nobody got around to writing until Earle.

“Theme From Dukes of Hazzard (Good Ol’Boys)”
Waylon Jennings
Peak: #1

Jennings scored a gold single with this TV theme that gets more play on CMT than most of the current country singles.

Randy Travis
Peak: #6

Travis’ breakthrough single establishes his neotraditionalist credentials, his rich baritone adding pure country soul into each line. Right out of the gate, he was a master vocalist with great taste in material.

“Fourteen Carat Mind”
Gene Watson
Peak: #1

Ever see a really gruff, tough-looking guy, then get taken aback when you hear him speak in a not-so-gruff voice? Watson is the musical equivalent here, with this wimpy but entertaining ode to a gold digger.

“Couldn’t Do Nothin’ Right”
Rosanne Cash
Peak: #15

Rosanne Cash’s earliest solo hit establishes her bittersweet sound right off the bat, with husband-producer Rodney Crowell blending in his distinctive background vocals.

“The Last One To Know”
Reba McEntire
Peak: #1

It may be surprising to those who only know Reba as the WB’s rubber-faced ass clown, but she was once one of the genre’s strongest traditional vocalists, wrapping her phenomenal voice around weepers like this one.

“That’s The Truth”
Johnny Cash
Peak: #84

Cash had already been in the Hall of Fame for four years when he released Johnny 99, a fascinating concept album that visits the seedy sides of small-city America. Here, he meets one woman who looks 49 though still in her youth, and another that hardly speaks a word, even when she’s high, before ending up on the wrong end of a preacher’s gun because he got to know his daughter a little too well.

Peak: #1

Even before moving the show to Vegas, the ACM Awards have always been a bit too glitzy and pop-oriented. Case in point: they actually gave Female Vocalist to Sylvia, mostly on the strength of this synth-drenched promise to love her man better than his mistress can. That’s right. She doesn’t leave him because he’s cheating; she vows to love him better than the competition.

“Come As You Were”
T. Graham Brown
Peak: #7

The gravely-voiced Brown produced some of country’s best blue-eyed soul in the 80’s. Here, he invites his old lover to “Come As You Were”, to show up at his house tonight as the woman he fell in love with, before she stopped loving him.

“Bluest Eyes In Texas”
Restless Heart
Peak: #1

Those who feel that Rascal Flatts has lowered the bar for country bands, particularly because they stepped into the void left by the artistically brilliant Dixie Chicks, need to remember that most successful country bands have had a lot more in common with the gel boys dominating the charts today. Restless Heart is a classic example of that pop-country, stacked harmony sound that fits in seamlessly in the adult contemporary radio landscape, and here, they manage to sound like they’ve only seen Texas on television.

“Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On”
Mel McDaniel
Peak: #1

The original “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”, it’s a lot more gentlemanly than the raunchy Trace Adkins hit – “she’s not really trying to cause a scene, it just comes naturally” – but at the end of the day, it’s about men checking out a woman’s ass.

“Honey (Open That Door)”
Ricky Skaggs
Peak: #1

It’s often forgotten that Randy Travis was actually one of the last neotraditionalists to break through; John Anderson, Reba McEntire, The Judds and Ricky Skaggs had already brought hard country back to the radio earlier in the decade. Skaggs’ version of this Mel Tillis song finds him having tons of fun recounting how he ended up locked out of his woman’s house.

“What’s Forever For”
Michael Martin Murphey
Peak: #1

Murphey’s best known today for his modern spin on Western music, but he had a huge country and pop hit with this sugar-sweet lament for lovers to stop breaking up so easily. It’s hardly “Don’t Toss Us Away”, but even today it’s sure to bring a tear to newly divorced Americans.

“Love’s Been A Little Bit Hard On Me”
Juice Newton
Peak: #30

Not until Shania Twain released Come On Over would another woman so gleefully release pop records to the country market; Newton didn’t even try to put it in a fiddle or steel guitar as a fig leaf. The result was hugely entertaining records like this single. View VH1 Classic late at night, and you might catch the hilariously low-budget video that has a laughably literal interpretation of the lyric.

Oak Ridge Boys
Peak: #1

The vocal quartet takes what was a raunchy recorded orgasm when first cut by Rodney Crowell & Emmylou Harris, and recasts it as a giddy, silly nursery rhyme; it sold millions in its new incarnation.

“Uncle Pen”
Ricky Skaggs
Peak: #1

Pickin’ and grinnin’.

“Would You Catch A Falling Star”
John Anderson
Peak: #6

Anderson’s beautiful lament for a star on the wane is more tender and sympathetic than “Sweet Music Man”, the genre’s standard on the subject. That this was recorded before he hit it big with “Swingin'” showed foresight and understanding that most young artists lack.

“Somebody’s Knockin'”
Terri Gibbs
Peak: #8

How can you not love a blind woman singing about “blue eyes and blue jeans”? Anyway, the very first winner of the CMA Horizon Award got that category off to a spotty start, as Gibbs beat out Rosanne Cash for the trophy.

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