Paulette Carlson (Highway 101)
Few vocalists better illustrate the transition from the new traditionalist revival of the mid-eighties to the country boom in the early nineties than Paulette Carlson. As the lead singer of Highway 101, her bombastic vocals were wedded to an aggressive production that borrowed from rock without compromising its twang, heralding the arrival of the new sound that would make country the most popular music in the nation.
Before she was the feisty frontwoman of Highway 101, Carlson was already making a name for herself on Music Row. Her songwriting talent earned her a staff writing position at Silverline/Goldmine Publishing, and artists as prominent as Tammy Wynette recorded her material. With her expressive voice, it was no surprise that she landed a solo deal. But despite critical praise, her singles for RCA went nowhere.
She moved back to her home state of Minnesota, but when Chuck Morris, the manager of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, caught her act, he encouraged her to try Music City again. He came up with the idea of building an entire band around her, three men to back her up musically and vocally. He soon found the perfect backing players, and the new group was christened Highway 101.
Producer Paul Worley, who would later go on to produce breakthrough albums for Pam Tillis and Martina McBride, pushed hard to get the band a record deal. When a contract with MCA fell through at the last minute, he personally implored the president of Warner Bros. to pick them up, putting his credibility on the line for Highway 101. The label gave them a singles deal, and after two false starts, they recorded Carlson’s composition “The Bed You Made For Me.”
It was a surprise hit, peaking at #4 and sending Warner Bros. scrambling to get the hot band in the studio to record their debut album. Their second single “Whiskey, If You Were a Woman” found Carlson wrestling with her lover’s alcoholism. It went to #2. Two more singles from the album – “Somewhere Tonight” and “Cry, Cry, Cry” topped the charts, and during this time, a shocked Highway 101 won Top Vocal Group at the 1988 ACM awards. Group member Curtis Stone was so sure they wouldn’t win, he skipped the ceremony to go on his honeymoon.
Highway 101’s first album went gold, and they dominated the awards circuit for two years, winning both the ACM and CMA group awards twice. They had a solid his streak for four years, thanks to incredibly strong material from writers both legendary (Rodney Crowell, Harlan Howard) and up-and-coming (Kix Brooks, Pam Tillis.) Then, after three albums, Carlson decided to go solo.
As Highway 101 reemerged with a new lead singer, Carlson relaunched her solo career. She had a moderate hit with “I’ll Start With You”, from her solo album Life Goes On. Highway 101 also had one hit with their new lead singer, “Big Bang Boom.” But separate ways did not benefit either Carlson or her old band, and they were soon back together. However, by the time that they regrouped, the country music industry had changed tremendously, and their independent label couldn’t get them a seat at the table.
While Carlson’s story could be seen as a cautionary tale to Heidi Newfield and Jennifer Nettles, the contribution of her and the band she fronted should not be underestimated. The Highway 101 sound helped define the late eighties, that often overlooked period that laid the foundation for the Garth-led boom that was to come, and Carlson’s big expressive voice made that sound shine.
Paulette Carlson (Highway 101)
- “Whiskey, If You Were a Woman”, 1987
- “Somewhere Tonight”, 1987
- “Cry, Cry, Cry”, 1988
- “(Do You Love Me) Just Say Yes”, 1988
- “Who’s Lonely Now”, 1989
- Highway 101 (1987)
- 101 2 (1988)
- Paint the Town (1989)
- ACM Top Vocal Group, 1988 & 1989
- CMA Vocal Group, 1988 & 1989