The Best Singles of 1991, Part Two: #20-#1

Our Best Singles of 1991 list concludes with our twenty favorites from a great year of country music.

“Don’t Rock the Jukebox”
Alan Jackson

Written by Alan Jackson, Roger Murrah, and Keith Stegall

#7 – SG |  #16 – BF |  #31 – KJC

On one hand, “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” is a classic, straightforward honky tonker, written by Jackson, Roger Murrah and Keith Stegall. On the other hand, it came at a time when straightforward honky tonk songs were getting hard to find, as country music started drifting away from its classic influences to rock-influenced sounds. The protagonist pleading for some George Jones could just as easily be Jackson pleading for country music to stay country.- Sam Gazdziak

“The Walk”
Sawyer Brown

Written by Mark Miller

#8 – LMW |  #15 – KJC |  #21 – BF

A simple, short walk takes on many meanings in one of Sawyer Brown’s best songs, not to mention one of the best father-child songs. A walk to the school bus, a walk to the beginning of adulthood and a walk to the end of life are depicted in this sweet, full circle song. – Leeann Morrow Ward

“Except For Monday”
Lorrie Morgan

Written by Reed Nielsen

#8 – BF |  #26 – KJC |  #32 – SG |  #34 – JK

A breezy, catchy tune in which Morgan walks us through the seven days it took to get over her former love, making one wish today’s up-tempo hits had half so much personality. Kevin once wrote that that this track could “make any young kid a country fan in three minutes” – as a child of the early nineties, I lived out the truth of those words. – Ben Foster

“Feed Jake”
Pirates of the Mississippi

Written by Danny Mayo

#14 – KJC, LWM |  #19 – JK |  #25 – SG

Pirates of the Mississippi managed to find a way to turn a song about a faithful and good dog into a song that reflects forward thinking and compassion, especially for its time of 25 years ago. – LMW

“The Thunder Rolls”
Garth Brooks

Written by Pat Alger and Garth Brooks

#9 – SG |  #23 – LMW |  #27 – KJC |  #29 – BF

Ignore for a moment the melodrama that was added to this song by way of a heavy-handed music video and an added lyric that has the wife grabbing a pistol to finish off her wayward spouse. The original version of this song, from the rolling thunder opening to the moment where the wife realizes her husband has been cheating on her, is country music storytelling at its finest. All credit to Brooks and Pat Alger for this gripping story. – SG

“Someday Soon”
Suzy Bogguss

Written by Ian Tyson

#3 – SG |  #32 – BF |  #40 – LMW

Ian Tyson, a Canadian cowboy legend, wrote “Someday Soon” and originally recorded it with his then-wife, Sylvia, as the folk duo Ian & Sylvia. It’s been recorded several times since then, and it would be difficult to find one lovelier than Bogguss’ version. Songs about cowboys were scarce in country music even in 1991, and ones from a female perspective even more so, making this cover a rare treat. – SG

“It Only Hurts When I Cry”
Dwight Yoakam

Written by Roger Miller and Dwight Yoakam

#8 – SG |  #13 – JK |  #20 – KJC |  #39 – LMW

Is anyone better at these types of casual self-deceptions than Dwight Yoakam? “It Only Hurts When I Cry” is a more humorous spin on a trope that he’d later revisit in the blistering kiss-off of “Fast As You” and the devastating “Nothing.” – Jonathan Keefe

“Sticks and Stones”
Tracy Lawrence

Written by Roger Dillon and Elbert West

#4 – LMW |  #17 – KJC |  #32 – JK |  #34 |  BF

The first thing to notice about Lawrence’s debut single is his deep country voice, especially when he drifts into a deliciously low gravel. However, beyond the satisfying sound of “Sticks and Stones,” the meaningful lesson that acquiring physical riches does not make a home lifts “Sticks and Stones” to heights worthy of a number one debut country single. – LMW

“For My Broken Heart”
Reba McEntire

Written by Liz Hengber and Keith Palmer

#7 – BF |  #10 – KJC |  #13 – LMW |  #30 – JK

On the surface, “For My Broken Heart” is a very good break up song and Reba’s performance of it would have no doubt been heartfelt and touching. However, just below that surface, the song became one of the cathartic pieces of her broken heart after most of her band members tragically died in a plane crash. As a result, her heart-wrenching emotions are palpable and poignant as she acknowledges that “the world ain’t gonna stop for my broken heart.”- LMW

Marty Stuart

Written by Paul Kennerley and Marty Stuart

#2 – JK |  #11 – SG |  #18 – LMW |  #35 – BF

Marty Stuart has emerged in the 2000s as one of traditional country music’s staunchest defenders, but “Tempted,” his finest solo single, owes far more to the style of Roy Orbison than to, say, Lefty Frizzell. With its thundering tympani drums on a double-downbeat and its soaring pre-chorus melody, “Tempted” gets as much right about great pop as it does about great country, and it’s a single that still sounds effortlessly cool. – JK

“Hurt Me Bad (In a Real Good Way)”
Patty Loveless

Written by Deborah Allen and Rafe Van Hoy

#2 – BF |  #9 – JK |  #21 – KJC |  #29 – SG

Loveless exudes warmth and gratitude as she sings of a love so good that it makes all the past hurt worth it. The better part of Loveless’ legacy was established by the material released during her Epic Records tenure, but this beautifully sung, gently produced ballad makes the finest case for why her MCA work should not be ignored.- BF

“Pocket Full of Gold”
Vince Gill

Written by Brian Allsmiller and Vince Gill

#4 – SG |  #11 – KJC |  #18 – JK |  #27 – LMW |  #33 – BF

“He slipped the ring off his finger/When he walked in the room…” With that observation, Gill and co-writer Brian Allsmiller build a compelling drama of a man in search of an affair. “Here lies a rich man with his pocket full of gold” is a devastating closing line. Allsmiller is not a songwriter by trade but played basketball with Gill and passed along the idea to him. If writing a hit song during a pickup basketball game isn’t the most Nashville thing ever, I don’t know what is. – SG

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

Written by Jon Ims

#5 – KJC |  #6 – BF |  #31 – JK |  #37 – LMW |  #38 – SG

It’s often seen as the odd one out in Trisha Yearwood’s catalog of hits, even if it launched her career. But the common thread connecting “She’s in Love With the Boy” to the rest of her work can be found in the third verse. When Dad sends Katie up to her room so the men can have a talk, it’s Mom who breaks in and puts Dad back in his place. The women look out for each other in Yearwood’s world, and they usually are the ones who know best. – Kevin John Coyne

Reba McEntire

Written by Bobbie Gentry

#4 – KJC, BF |  #16 – JK |  #30 – LMW

Reba injects her own fierce star power into an already-great Bobbie Gentry song about a woman overcoming and making peace with her troubled past and defending the complex decisions her mother was forced to make. Rarely has a cover brought so much new life to a song while so honoring the spirit of the original. – BF

“Straight Tequila Night”
John Anderson

Written by Debbie Hupp and Kent Robbins

#2 – KJC |  #5 – BF |  #12 – LMW |  #14 – JK |  #33 – SG

This undeniably catchy hit launched a major comeback for John Anderson, and remains a highlight of his distinguished career. – KJC

“Brand New Man”
Brooks & Dunn

Written by Kix Brooks, Don Cook, and Ronnie Dunn

#2 – LMW |  #4 – JK |  #6 – KJC |  #20 – SG |  #27 – BF

Brooks and Dunn debut with a fiery song that was akin to a gospel rave up. With lyrics that used being born again as its central metaphor to express  the depth of his love. Paired with Ronnie Dunn’s soulful voice, the song couldn’t help but become an instant and memorable hit. – LMW

“Down at the Twist and Shout”
Mary Chapin Carpenter

Written by Mary Chapin Carpenter

#2 – SG |  #6 – JK, LMW |  #13 – BF |  #16 – KJC

Mary Chapin Carpenter is mostly known for her thoughtful, and maybe even somber, music, but is not typically thought of as a cut up. But “Down At the Twist And Shout” is about as lively and fun as it’s ever gotten on country radio. With its “Cajun beat,” as the song says, the song is bound to make you want to cut a rug on the dance floor, or at the very least, it will force a smile and some toe-tapping!  – LMW

“Meet in the Middle”
Diamond Rio

Written by James Foster, Chapin Hartford, and Don Pfrimmer

#3 – KJC |  #5 – LMW |  #6 – SG |  #10 – JK |  #20 – BF

Maybe the reason that so many artists broke through with their debut singles in 1991 was that they were able to find the perfect song to showcase their unique talents. “Meet in the Middle” was the perfect introduction to Diamond Rio, showcasing their bluegrass-influenced harmonies, flawless instrumentation, and their down home roots, all in one song. – KJC

“Small Town Saturday Night”
Hal Ketchum

Written by Pat Alger and Hank DeVito

#1 – SG |  #3 – JK,  LMW |  #9 – KJC |  #25 – BF

This ode to a dead-end town wasn’t written by Ketchum (Pat Alger and Hank DeVito did the honors), but it was a perfect fit for him. As catchy as the song is, it’s easy to overlook the details in the lyrics and the kids who seem almost but not quite resigned to their fate of being stuck where they are. It’s not clear what happens to Bobby and Lucy, but one can only hope they eventually took off to see if the world really is flat or not.- SG

“Maybe it Was Memphis”
Pam Tillis

Written by Michael Anderson

#1 – KJC, BF,  JK,  LMW |  #5 – SG

That “Maybe It Was Memphis” was the runaway favorite here shouldn’t be a surprise. When Country Universe counted down the top 400 singles of the 1990s back in 2010, this was the #1 pick, and rightfully so. And, while our panel of contributors has changed since then, the power of this single remains undiminished with time.

“Maybe It Was Memphis” isn’t simply a song about nostalgia; it’s a song about the inexplicable and the undefined and how they create experiences that are uniquely human. The song of a katydid, the hidden depths of a William Faulkner character, the gentle rocking of a porch swing, the drawl of a Tennessee Williams protagonist, the mist around the moon on a muggy summer night: Those disparate elements could combine into an infinite number of narratives. And that lingering question— “What was I supposed to do?”— remains forever ripe with possibility.

The single itself is no less masterful in its structure and composition, mirroring the depth of its lyrics. The hard twang of the opening electric guitar power chords, the call-and-response refrain from the pedal steel, the downbeat of anticipatory silence before each chorus, the gospel piano licks that truly take the track to church, and the torrid, note-perfect performance by Pam Tillis: The parts are inseparable from the whole. “Maybe It Was Memphis” is alchemy, and it’s country music at its absolute finest. – JK


  1. Hard to argue with any of the selections on this list. There was a lot of great music released this year. A lot of these songs have suffered from overplay as recurrents so, other than Patty Loveless at #10, none of my other favorites that I saw on the ballot made the list:

    Clint Black – Loving Blind and Where Are You Now
    Mark Chesnutt – Broken Promise Land
    Diamond Rio – Mama Don’t Forget to Pray for Me
    The Judds – One Hundred and Two
    Dolly Parton – Eagle When She Flies

    My favorite song of all time is Reba’s “Fancy” and it has more plays than any other song in my iTunes library.

  2. One of my favorite songs from 1991 didn’t make your top 40. Treat Me Like a Stranger from Baillie & the Boys. Love Kathy Baillie’s voice. Saw B&B a few years ago at the Bluebird. The song was written by her husband, Michael Bonagura, and Peter McCann.

    Favorites among your top 20: Feed Jake and the songs from Hal Ketchum, Suzy Bogguss & MCC.

  3. I certainly agree with Trisha’s placement here; if I remember right, “She’s In Love With The Boy” was the first debut single by a female artist to go to #1 on the C&W chart since Connie Smith did so in late 1964 with “Once A Day”. Thankfully, Trisha has had many, many memorable hits since “She’s In Love With The Boy”, and hopefully those are as remembered in the long scope of her career. I am sorry, however, that she never got to fulfill one particular dream of hers, which was to sing with her spiritual role model Linda Ronstadt.

  4. So many great songs from 1991, one of the best years country music has ever had. I cant even pick one favorite…Brand New Man, Shes in Love with the Boy, Feed Jake, Meet in the Middle, Hurt Me Bad….

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