Although it became a somewhat more frequent occurrence over the past two decades, it’s always been exceptionally rare for a country artist to hit with their very first single. But sometimes, lightning strikes, and a career is established with an artist’s first shot at the charts. This week, Country Universe is looking back into the history of country music, and counting down the fifty best debut singles of all-time.
First, the rules. To make this list, it had to be an artist’s first chart single, which eliminated greats like Randy Travis, who had a #91 hit with “She’s My Woman” on an indie label, six years before his debut on Warner Bros, and stars who had a pop hit first, like the Bellamy Brothers (“Let Your Love Flow”) and Carrie Underwood (“Inside Your Heaven.”)
The single also must have reasonably established the artist, so no one-hit wonders (Terri Gibb) or great singles that didn’t hit, like the first 45’s from Rodney Crowell (“Elvira”) and David Allan Coe (“If I Could Climb the Walls of This Bottle.”) Also, “debut” singles from artists that were already established as a member of a duo or group (Wynonna, Brother Phelps), don’t make the cut.
Finally, the song should be of enough quality to stand on its own, so even if the record connected with the public and kick-started an impressive career – like “I Can Love You Better” did for the Dixie Chicks – it won’t be on the list if it’s not that great of a song.
I’m sure I’ll miss some great ones along the way, but withhold your ire until the list is completed. Part 1 will cover #50-#41, with new ten-song Parts each day until the countdown wraps up this Saturday. Enjoy!
The Fifty Best Debut Singles of All-Time
Part 1: #50-#41
#50 Billy Dean, “Only Here For a Little While”
Debut: December 22, 1990/Peak: #3
Billy Dean’s first single finds him learning a lesson from a friend of his who died too young. The friend spent his life chasing after money and success, and Dean decides he’s going to live the rest of his life in service to others, so he won’t make the same mistake his departed friend did.
#49 Ty Herndon, “What Mattered Most”
Debut: February 25, 1995/Peak: #1
Ty Herndon’s debut single wasn’t just the best thing he ever recorded. It was also better than most of the hits that established stars had that year. A beautiful ballad of regret, it’s the attention to the small details (“Her favorite song was ‘In My Life'”) that makes his contention that he missed the bigger picture so believable and effective.
#48 SHeDaisy, “Little Good-Byes”
Debut: February 27, 1999/Peak: #3
Even though they’d been signed before the Dixie Chicks hit it big, SHeDaisy was assumed to be an attempt to duplicate the Chicks with another female trio. Their styles couldn’t be any more different, and SHeDaisy established the clever songwriting and flashy pop production that would garner them tons of success, even as they fought off homicide charges from traditional country music fans.
#47 BlackHawk, “Goodbye Says it All”
Debut: November 20, 1993/Peak: #11
More dependent on their tight harmonies than their labelmates Diamond Rio, this trio found quick success with “Goodbye Says it All”, aided by a funny music video that helped them stand out on CMT. Even though the next four singles from the project would all go top ten, this remains one of their signature hits.
#46 Ronnie Milsap, “I Hate You”
Debut: June 30, 1973/Peak: #10
Right from the beginning, Milsap had an ear for good material, so it’s no surprise that he had a top ten hit the first time out. “I Hate You” is weighed down by its production, with the Nashville Sound background vocalists getting things off to a cheesy start, but his talent shines through anyway.
#45 Terri Clark, “Better Things to Do”
Debut: July 15, 1995/Peak: #3
In the beginning, she was a straight up singer-songwriter, penning all four of the hit singles from her debut album. Her wry sense of humor made this kiss-off anthem shine, as she tells her former lover, “I’d love to talk to you, but then I’d miss Donahue.”
#44 Donna Fargo, “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.”
Debut: March 25, 1972/Peak: #1
Not only did this record launch Fargo’s career, it was also responsible for a boom in the dental industry, as listening to this sugary sweet love song too often leads to cavities. Fargo penned this hit herself, along with the three #1 singles that followed it. Her cheerful image was established from the start, and she had good reason to smile, as this song earned her a Grammy and a CMA Single of the Year trophy.
#43 Brad Paisley, “Who Needs Pictures”
Debut: February 6, 1999/Peak: #12
One of the most consistent hitmakers of the past decade kicked things off with a heartbreak song that was smart rather than sentimental, as he resists developing a roll of film that contains pictures of him and his ex-lover. “Who needs pictures,” he wonders aloud, “with a memory like mine?”
#42 Gretchen Wilson, “Redneck Woman”
Debut: March 13, 2004/Peak: #1
This hit has so imprisoned the musical career of Gretchen Wilson that it’s easy to forget how liberating this record sounded upon release. The palpable excitement that Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” brought back to country music radio made her an instant star in the process. The trick to her regaining some momentum might be for her to capture the spirit of this record again, rather than turning in endless variations of the same theme.
#41 Tracy Lawrence, “Sticks and Stones”
Debut: November 9, 1991/Peak: #1
It’s possible that if Tracy Lawrence surfaced during an era other than the early nineties, he might have become a country music legend, so rich and expressive is his voice. He still has had quite the impressive career, even if he’s been overshadowed a bit by the other great country voices that came out just before him, like Alan Jackson, Clint Black, and Mark Chesnutt.
Very nice list Kevin and I look forward to reading it :) Herndon was a favorite of mine back in the day (I did like his new CD too). And TL, no need to discuss how much I like his stuff.
I know it won’t be on this list, but I really enjoy “Wild West Show” from Big & Rich … it and “Never Mind Me” are my two favorite songs of theirs. It didn’t establish them nearly as much as “Save a Horse” did, and as I never heard the song when it was released, it seems like it was one of the more lowkey top-21 songs in the last several years.
Hate to spoil the story, but “Honky Tonk Man” was NOT Johnny Horton’s debut single – he had a number of singles released on other labels before finally finding his groove with Columbia
Kevin please don’t forget Memory Lane of Tim McGraw at no:36!!!
“Honky Tonk Man” technically meets the criteria for the list because it was Horton’s first chart single, but I wasn’t aware that he’d released many other singles before that. Dealing with that era is tricky because the charts themselves weren’t very long. I’ll adjust the list later today, because you’re right, Horton really doesn’t belong on it.
Loved the “boom in the dental industry” line. How true.
“Memory Lane” wasn’t Tim’s first chart single. That would be “Welcome to the Club.”
Redneck Woman should be higher :|