100 Greatest Women, #66: Paulette Carlson

100 Greatest Women


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)

Essential Singles

  • “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

Essential Albums

  • Highway 101 (1987)
  • 101 2 (1988)
  • Paint the Town (1989)

Industry Awards

  • ACM Top Vocal Group, 1988 & 1989
  • CMA Vocal Group, 1988 & 1989

==> #65. Suzy Bogguss

<== #67. Bobbie Gentry

100 Greatest Women: The Complete List


  1. Highway 101 was terrific but Carlson’s subsequent solo album was merely okay and lacked the sizzle of her work with Highway 101. The list of singers who lost career momentum by leaving successful groups is endless (Brady Seals, Larry Stewart, Les Taylor, Paulette Carlson …) compared to the few who succeeded as solo acts (Eddy Arnold, Wynonna, Vince Gill)

    I think you have Carlson ranked a little too high – she definately belongs somewhere behind Gail Davies

  2. When I was a kid, I did not like her voice at all. Now, however, I have warmed up to it.
    It is interesting how front people for groups/duos tend not to do as well as they did when they were with the group. I even think that Vince Gill and the Judds, as Paul mentioned, were rare acceptions because their vocal style changed. Both Vince and Wynonna’s voices changed and matured after they left their respective group or duo. Also, Vince left more of a rock country group and didn’t really find success until he went more traditional and his voice really developed into something fuller, with more body. As much as I enjoy The Judds, we discovered a soulfulness in Wy’s voice that we didn’t realize existed until she went solo. Both people left their respective group/duo and changed their over all sound–vocally and musically. Conversely, it seems that the people who left their groups and didn’t make it as solo artists were hoping to continue to cash in with the same sound without having to consider other group members. This is probably why Richie McDonald from Lonestar is trying to break into the Christian market, because his voice likely isn’t going to change much, so he might as well try to change the audience instead.

  3. I recently saw a concert by Highway 101 featuring the female vocalist Nikki Nelson who initially replaced Paulette and sang on Big Bang Boom album. Nikki’s got a fine voice but it just lacks Paulette’s distinctive powerful edge, but then again Paulette was utterly unique. If the current version of Highway 101 comes your way, I highly recommend catching their show as they sing all the radio hits and some really cool cover versions.

  4. I agree with Paul — this is the first misstep of your list. She shouldn’t be ranked so high.

    For ranking purposes, I think singers should be evaluated primarily on their solo impact and songwriting abilities and secondarily on their success as band members. You seemed to have flopped the criteria in this case.

  5. I love Paulette Carlson. Yes, she was in a group, but it was her voice that MADE the band. She had a unique sound and exemplified what I liked about country radio in the late 80s.

  6. I agree, Roger. Being the female front of an all-male band is historical in and of itself, and without her voice, Highway 101 wouldn’t have soared the way that it did.

  7. “… (b)eing the female front of an all-male band is historical in and of itself… ”

    Not really

    I think you are overlooking some good examples of female frontpersons for otherwise all male bands : Rose Maddox (The Maddox Brothers), Patsy Montana and the Prairie Ramblers, Wilma Lee Cooper and the Clinch Mountain Clan, Molly O’Day and the Cumberland Mountain Folks among them

  8. I’m well aware of all of those acts, some of which are on my list. All of them you list are from a much earlier era of country music, and before the post-Alabama transition of most country bands being self-contained units rather than a named group backing up a frontman/frontwoman. If it was Paulette Carlson & The Whatevers, like Rhonda Vincent & The Rage, your list of comparisons would be relevant, but that’s not what Highway 101 was.

  9. The billing for the earlier acts was not necessarily consistant – the Maddox Brothers were sometimes simply billed as the Maddox Brothers, even with Rose present, but I agree that if you are confining this to the post Alabama era, then Carlson would fit the bill

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