The Fifty Best Debut Singles of All-Time: Part 5

#10     Deana Carter, “Strawberry Wine”

Debut: August 17, 1996/Peak: #1

Carter’s sandpaper voice was a perfect complement to the bittersweet nostalgia of this classic hit .   The song made Carter an instant star, though she was never able to reach the heights of her debut album again.    One of the best songs in Matraca Berg’s impressive songwriting catalog, she recently penned a sequel, “The Dreaming Fields”, which is the highlight of the new Trisha Yearwood album.

#9     Brooks & Dunn, “Brand New Man”

Debut: June 22, 1991/Peak: #1

All of those duos who’d been losing to The Judds at the all the award shows saw their chances of victory melt away when Brooks & Dunn hit the scene with “Brand New Man.”  It sounds just as fresh today as it did back in 1991, with the raw energy of two artists with something to prove, hoping to finally achieve as a duo what had eluded them in their failed solo attempts.

#8     Connie Smith, “Once a Day”

Debut: September 26, 1964/Peak: #1

Dolly Parton once said, “There are only three real female singers: Barbra Streisand, Linda Ronstadt and Connie Smith.  The rest of us are only pretending.”   High praise indeed, but clearly warranted.  Those bone-chilling vocals were already present in her debut single, which spent eight weeks at #1 and is now a country standard.

#7     Diamond Rio, “Meet in the Middle”

Debut: March 23, 1991/Peak: #1

Diamond Rio is one of the most technically proficient country music bands in history, and with their bluegrass influences, they can also turn in some fantastic harmonies.     I don’t think they ever wrapped their talent around a stronger song than “Meet in the Middle”, so it’s not a surprise that this is still one of their best performances.

#6     Tanya Tucker, “Delta Dawn”

Debut: May 13, 1972/Peak: #6

Helen Reddy would have a decent-sized pop hit with this song, but it’s Tanya Tucker who sang the definitive version.  A mere early teen at the time, her gutsy vocal has the perfect combination of sincere interest and morbid curiosity, the kind you would expect from a precocious teenager who is  pondering the sad older woman who wanders around downtown “with a suitcase in her hand, looking for a mysterious dark-haired man.”

#5     Garth Brooks, “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)”

Debut: March 25, 1989/Peak: #8

For a man accused of bringing arena rock bombast to the mild-mannered country music format, he sure did kick his career off with as pure a country song as even the staunchest traditionalist could hope for.    Something that Brooks gets less credit for is bringing the rodeo culture to the forefront of country music, and though he’d revisit the theme in later hits (“Rodeo”, “The Beaches of Cheyenne”), he’d never do it so poignantly again.

#4     John Conlee, “Rose Colored Glasses”

Debut: May 27, 1978/Peak: #5

John Conlee is, in my humble opinion, the best male country vocalist that most modern fans have never heard of.    He launched his career with an absolutely brilliant tale of a man who is fully aware that he is deceiving himself, and that his woman has already stopped loving him: “These rose-colored glasses that I’m looking through, show only the beauty, ’cause they hide all the truth.”  It’s the only one of his hits that’s available digitally in its original recording, thanks to a Grand Ole Opry compilation.  If you haven’t heard this song yet, read the rest of this later and go   “Rose Colored Glasses” now.

#3     Trisha Yearwood, “She’s in Love With the Boy”

Debut: May 18, 1991/Peak: #1

It seems that every time Trisha Yearwood’s name is mentioned lately, including by me, it’s accompanied by some variation of “the finest vocalist of her generation.”   Has she gotten better with time? Yes.  Was she already jaw-droppingly good when she recorded her first album?  Again, yes.     The song was an instant classic, the small-town love story endearing Yearwood to half the teenage girls in America and immediately establishing her career.     She’d go on to record far more challenging and compelling material, but the innocent charm of this song, coupled with Yearwood’s impeccable performance of it, are as endearing as ever.

#2     The Statler Brothers, “Flowers on the Wall”

Debut: September 25, 1965/Peak: #2

There are few country acts in history with a more strait-laced, conservative image than The Statler Brothers, with their four-part harmonies being put to use on one nostalgic song after another.  (“Bed of Rose’s” was a bit racy, but that’s about as edgy as they ever got.)    Yet they launched their career with a doozy of a record, cataloguing a man’s slow descent into madness as he locks himself up at home, unable to socialize at all after being left by the woman he loves.    Their eerie, sing-song vocals are insanity personified, and they’re against a backdrop of disturbingly cheerful guitar and banjo-picking.

#1     Jeannie C. Riley, “Harper Valley P.T.A.”

Debut: August 24, 1968/Peak: #1

A song that was exactly perfect for its time, but has a resonance that is timeless.    Jeannie C. Riley had felt bruised and battered by the music business by the time she went in to record “Harper Valley P.T.A.”, and when she let loose in the studio, she poured all of her anger, resentment and indignance into a ferocious performance.    A tale of a widowed wife who is chastised by her daughter’s school’s P.T.A. for wearing short skirts and “drinkin’ and runnin’ around with men and goin’ wild,” Riley sings with fiery conviction as she walks us through the confrontation that this woman has at the P.T.A. meeting that same afternoon.

One by one, she nails everybody in that room for their failings, repudiating them for their drinking, their adultery, and even their exhibitionism (“Shouldn’t Widow Jones be told to keep her window shades all pulled completely down?”)   She doesn’t target them for their sinfulness, but rather for their stunning hypocrisy, calling out a single mom publicly for having a night life, while they’re breaking every Commandment under the sun behind closed doors (and open windows.)   Riley’s hit is credited for giving voice to Americans in 1968 that were fed up with the hypocrites running the nation, and as we see public figures and politicians still throwing stones from their glass houses, and the tabloid media reveling in the personal failings of our celebrities, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” seems as relevant as ever.

Riley herself may not have a had another hit on this level, despite several fantastic follow-up singles that explored similar territory – “The Back Side of Dallas”, “The Rib”, “The Girl Most Likely” and “The Generation Gap” are all worth seeking out.    There’s no shame in not matching your first hit, however, when it’s the best debut single in country music history.


  1. I was surprised by the #1 pick, but pleasantly so! What an awesome song that deserves this spot. I was also excited to see the Diamond Rio song on this list as well. Great list altogether. It reminded me of some songs that I had forgotten about. I guess I need to listen to some more xm 10.

  2. Leann, thanks for the positive feedback. This was an entirely subjective exercise, but it gives me an opportunity to talk about some records I love and attempt some historical perspective. I appreciate your comments – all of them, not just the ones on this topic!

  3. great list. since i was to young to really be into music when most of these songs cam out it was interesting to find out that songs like strawberry wine, brand new man and meet in the middle were their first songs since their classic hits now. it’s so interesting to see how artists evolve over the years

  4. Great overall list Kevin, and an especially good top 10!!!! There are definitely some songs that I need to check out again. Actually to echo what Leeann said it reminds me of some songs that I had forgotten about and I need to go download.

  5. Great list

    It is difficult to put together a list like this with any degree of confidence since many artists had non-charting singles released, usually on other labels, but sometimes on their breakthrough label. There are Dolly Parton records that pre-date her Monument album and the same goes for Johnny Horton (on MGM), Jeannie C. Riley (on Little Darling), Roger Miller (on Starday), etc . Also there are singers who had hits as lead singers of groups such as Don Williams (Pozo Seco Singers), Keith Urban (The Ranch) Cal Smith & Jack Greene (Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours).

    Consequently, using the first chart breakthrough as the debut is a reasonable approach to take. I would not object to overlooking minor charting records that got no promotion or distribution (many lower chart debuts never were actually on sale anywhere – they were issued to DJ’s as trial balloons to see if the DJ’s would play the artist) using this standard there are more debuts to consider, probably the most noteworthy being “There Goes My Everything” by Jack Greene, one of the greatest country songs and performances ever, which I would have somewhere in my top three

  6. Fantastic list…I appreciate all of your thought and reflectiveness you put into your blog. I too was a bit surprised by the top spot. Even though I’ve only been reading for about 6 months, I was sure that Trisha’s song was going to top your list (since you’re such a big fan). I have all of her stuff, and her lead single (while cute at the time) is one of my least favorites of hers (only because she has some amazing stuff).

    Anyways–thanks again for always an interesting read.

  7. Tanya Tucker…..HUMMMMM! Lets talk about a very very long career. This is one kid that knows how to change with the times. Having big hits from 13 years old to the present, gotta be something said about that. SHE GOT THE STAYING POWER.

  8. Whenever people claim that Garth is “pop-country” or “rock” I ask them if they have ever actually listened to his music. Brooks has a body a traditionally-leaning music that rivals any of his contemporaries, less Randy Travis and Alan Jackson.

  9. very insightful list actually. I was surprised to hear many of these as debut hits. Thanks for the list. I agree pretty much with it entirely. Harper Valley PTA has always been and impressive song, very deserving. I actually can’t think of one debut single you might have missed from before 2000.

  10. I will always love Harper Valley PTA!! I just grew up in that time and like you said, the song was just perfect for the time it came out! I loved this list!

  11. Harper Valley PTA – just ONE of the beaucoups of witty, on-target tunes written by The Storyteller, Mr. Tom T Hall. JCR did a bang-up job on belting out those lyrics.

  12. I was happy to rediscover this post thanks to Patrick’s comment, who is apparently spending some quality time on our site today. Thanks!

    I was even happier to see an exchange between me and Leeann that barely predates my invitation for her to join the site!

  13. This is still one of my favorite posts of yours, Kevin, which is possibly somewhat based on the strength of the nestalgia of newley discovering a site that I quickly became addicted to reading. I still can’t fathom how you did it all by yourself for so many years.

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