Every #1 Country Single of the Nineties: Diamond Rio, “Norma Jean Riley”

“Norma Jean Riley”

Diamond Rio

Written by Rob Honey, Monty Powell, and Dan Truman

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

June 19, 1992

The genre’s hottest band scores another No. 1 hit from their debut album.

The Road to No. 1

After topping the charts in 1991 with their debut single, “Meet in the Middle,” Diamond Rio went top five with the next two singles from Diamond Rio: “Mirror Mirror” and “Mama Don’t Forget to Pray For Me.”

Another Billboard No. 1 would remain elusive until 1997, but they returned to the top of Radio & Records with their fourth single release.

The No. 1

Arista had a trend in the early nineties of waiting to release the most distinctive single from their breakthrough acts, letting them establish themselves at radio with three hits before putting something more left of center in front of radio DJs.  For Pam Tillis, that was “Maybe it Was Memphis.” For Brooks & Dunn, it would be “Boot Scootin’ Boogie.”  And for Diamond Rio, it’s “Norma Jean Riley.”

“Meet in the Middle” alluded to Diamond Rio’s bluegrass roots with its instrumentation, but “Norma Jean Riley” is as full-on bluegrass as anything on country radio this side of Ricky Skaggs.  Marty Roe’s phrasing is insane, elongating his notes and going as high-pitched and twangy as a modern day Ralph Stanley.

The boys behind him stack the harmonies, creating that high lonesome sound usually reserved for ballads, but always a heap of fun when applied to a rave up.   It’s a shame Diamond Rio never fully tapped this vein again, though some of their later downtempo tracks would borrow heavily from the same sound, particularly “Night is Fallin’ in My Heart.”

Anyway, it’s a winner, and 1992 is officially on a hot streak.

The Road From No. 1

Diamond Rio produced another fantastic top five record in “Nowhere Bound.”  The band then released their sophomore album, Close to the Edge, which went gold and produced two top five hits: “In a Week or Two” and “Oh Me, Oh My, Sweet Baby.”  Those two songs were added to the project after Arista rejected the album in its first incarnation, deeming it too week.  The boys bounced back critically and commercially with their third album.  We’ll cover its lead single and title track when we get to 1994.

“Norma Jean Riley” gets an A.

Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties

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  1. I love this song (it ranks right after “Meet me in the Middle”), but it’s despite the instrumentation which always struck me as very by the numbers. The only thing that feels bluegrass is the instrumental part at the end.

  2. This is such a fun, energetic song! Diamond Rio was my favorite group of the nineties. One thing I loved about them is that I could know it was a Diamond Rio song just by their instrumentation. The blend and sound of their keybords, drums and mandolin sounded unique to me, not to mention Marty Roe’s voice with those distinct harmonies. Unlike a lot of groups, they had a distinct sound that Marty would not have on his own.

  3. As I said on the Wynonna thread, I wish I had gotten into country music when these songs that are being reviewed were first released, since it was such an awesome time in country music. “Saw Mill Road” was the Diamond Rio song that was on the charts when I started getting into country music. I still love that song too and I was disappointed at the time when it didn’t do as well as I thought it should have.

  4. Yet another one of the most fun songs to come from the early 90’s! It’s so catchy, and I love Jimmy Olander’s guitar work and Marty Roe’s playful twangy vocals. This was definitely a perfectly timed release for the Summer of 1992. It specifically reminds me of when my Dad used to take me to one of my favorite Putt Putt/Mini Golf places in Fredericksburg, VA during that summer. I also remember hearing it out of the blue on the radio in my dad’s car during the summer of 1998, and I remember thinking that it had been ages since I’d heard it.

    I also really love “Mirror, Mirror” “Mama, Don’t Forget To Pray For Me,” and “Nowhere Bound,” and it’s too bad that none of those went to number one. Also, I didn’t know “In A Week Or Two” was a last minute addition to their second album. Love that song, too, and it made it on to a few of my tapes.

    Leeann – Being a country fan in the early 90’s was the absolute best! Though, sometimes I wish I was just a bit older at the time to fully appreciate all the great songs and artists that were coming out. Ironically, around the time you got into country, my attention had shifted towards the oldies station that my mom was listening to at the time, and I wouldn’t get to hear most of the country songs from that time period until I fully got back into country in 1995 or when I bought the albums those songs came from. For instance, I never knew Diamond Rio’s “Sawmill Road” was a single until after I had gotten that album in the early 00’s and did some research online. I agree that it’s such a great song, and it definitely should’ve done much better! I’m guessing it may have been more successful had it been released at least a year sooner when the “early 90’s” sound wasn’t going out of style yet.

    I also fully agree with you on Diamond Rio, in general. I love the truly unique sound they had, and you could instantly tell it was one of their songs whenever it one came on the radio.

  5. Damn, Diamond Rio released a slew of stellar singles, eh? I remember “Norma Jean Riley” as one of those left of centre songs that caught the attention of my high school girlfriend’s mom. She loved the song and really got into country music because of it.

    This song certainly has the punch and propulsive intensity of bluegrass with all the twang a country song can hold.

    Just another silly song that was exceedingly fun without being stupid.

    Let’s keep celebrating and championing Diamon Rio’s musicianship. It set them apart from almost all their competition.

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