The Fifty Best Debut Singles of All-Time
Part 2: #40-#31
#40 John Michael Montgomery, “Life’s a Dance”
Debut: October 3, 1992/Peak: #4
Quite possibly the perfect early nineties country song, with an arrangement and performance that screams 1992 from the very start. Montgomery was quickly compared to Garth Brooks, and it was an apt comparison. While he wouldn’t prove to have as much depth or talent as Brooks, he certainly could put out a solid country record, even if he tended to favor romantic ballads through much of his career.
#39 Travis Tritt, “Country Club”
Debut: September 2, 1989/Peak: #9
I’ve always believed that this would’ve been a #1 hit, if only Travis Tritt hadn’t worn that ridiculous bandana around his neck in the video. His first single didn’t have his trademark edge, but you can sense it lurking beneath the surface here and there.
#38 Jo Dee Messina, “Heads Carolina, Tails California”
Debut: January 27, 1996/Peak: #2
Trumpeted as the “female Tim McGraw” when she first broke through, Jo Dee Messina didn’t just borrow a little of McGraw’s style. She got him to produce her records, too. “Heads Carolina, Tails California” established the musical formula that she’s followed ever since.
#37 Gary Allan, “Her Man”
Debut: August 24, 1996/Peak: #7
The cool thing about this single is Allan is making a very sincere promise to turn his life around, as he promises to be just “her man”, after so many years of living the wild life at her expense. But his vocal suggests he’s not thrilled to be putting himself on the right track, and there’s a tinge of regret as he leaves his “go-go-getter” days behind him.
#36 Tammy Wynette, “Apartment No. 9”
Debut: December 10, 1966/Peak: #44
A rare case of a debut single not charting very high, but still becoming a signature hit. Wynette’s teardrop-laden voice would be the first in a long, long line of four-star weepers. She’s already so bad off that she’s waiting for her man to come back, just so she can get the chance to stand by him.
#35 Sugarland, “Baby Girl”
Debut: July 24, 2004/Peak: #2
A slow-rising hit if there ever was one, “Baby Girl” spent a shocking 46 weeks on the chart. It’s a classic “tryin’ to make it” tale, though how they got away with the line “Girl, you’ll remember what your knees are for” on country radio is still a happy mystery to me.
#34 Hal Ketchum, “Small Town Saturday Night”
Debut: May 11, 1991/Peak: #2
There was a nice little stretch in the late eighties and early nineties when being intelligent was an asset at country radio, rather than a liability. As we drown in an endless sea of singles that blindly glorify being a teenager in a small town, Ketchum’s record is a reminder of the limitations of that city limit sign. As one character says to another, “The world must be flat, ’cause when people leave town, they never come back.”
#33 Bobbie Gentry, “Ode to Billy Joe/Mississippi Delta”
Debut: September 9, 1967/Peak: #17
The swampy “Mississippi Delta” was intended to be Gentry’s first single, but some DJ’s started spinning the b-side, “Ode to Billie Joe.” It became a Southern Gothic smash, with listeners debating endlessly what exactly it was that the narrator and Billie Joe threw off the bridge just before his suicide.
#32 Highway 101, “The Bed You Made For Me”
Debut: January 10, 1987/Peak: #4
It was an incredibly rare feat for a new country band to score a top five hit off the bat, let alone one with a female singer who penned the song. Their country had a bit more edge to it, forming a nice transition between the new traditionalist era and the country boom that began a couple of years later.
#31 Joe Diffie, “Home”
Debut: August 25, 1990/Peak: #1
He earned such a reputation for doing silly novelty songs that he earned the nickname “Joe Ditty” on Music Row, so it may surprise some to know that he started as a great country balladeer. Ironically, once he had a novelty hit or two, country radio began to resist his heartache ballads, though they remained great records. Trace Adkins can surely relate.