Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties: Deana Carter, “Strawberry Wine”

“Strawberry Wine

Deana Carter

Written by Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison

Billboard

#1 (2 weeks)

November 23 – November 30, 1996

Deana Carter breaks through with one of the greatest country singles of all time.

The Road to No. 1

Deana Carter was born and raised in Nashville.  Though she was the daughter of singer, songwriter, and producer Fred Carter Jr., Deana cut her own path into the music industry.  She majored in rehabilitation therapy and found work in that field, though she performed music as a side hobby.  Eventually, that hobby became her profession, and she caught the attention of Willie Nelson with her demo tape.  He gave her a performance slot at Farm Aid in 1994.  By 1995, she was signed to Capitol Records, and her debut album, Did I Shave My Legs For This?, was recorded.  They chose an unconventional first single as her introduction to the country market.

The No. 1

At the time, Capitol explained that the competitive market meant “Strawberry Wine” had to be released first.  A waltz reminiscing about losing your virginity on your grandfather’s farm was a bold choice, and it paid off, with the song rocketing to No. 1 and earning her the CMA Award for Single of the Year in 1997.

“Strawberry Wine” is a reminder of how wide open it was for women in country music, and the important role that was played by outstanding songwriters like Matraca Berg, who co-wrote three No. 1 singles for female artists in 1996 alone, including the first No. 1 hits for both Martina McBride and Deana Carter.

This song is flawlessly written, with powerful lyrical imagery (“The fields have grown over now, years since they’ve seen the plow”) and a line about aging that was so strong, Alan Jackson borrowed it for his own hit a few years later (“I still remember when thirty was old.”)

Carter’s performance builds slowly, allowing the storyline to unfold naturally and providing greater emotional impact when she cracks with emotion on the song’s bridge: “Is it really him or the loss of my innocence I’ve been missing so much? Yeah….”

The song was mildly controversial because of its frank depiction of intimacy, but only because it was delivered by a woman.  Nobody had a problem when Garth lost his virginity as a teenager to a “lonely widowed woman” on “That Summer,” just like the critics who complained about the abusive husband being set on fire in “Independence Day” were a-ok with the cheating wife being run over with an eighteen wheeler in “Papa Loved Mama.”

I bring these examples up as a reminder that Deana Carter, Matraca Berg, and their fellow female singers and songwriters succeeded in spite of the patriarchal country music industry mindset. It didn’t just disappear for five years and then reassert itself the following decade.  There was this brief window of opportunity that allowed fully realized women to express themselves with honesty and candor.  In a few short years, that window would start closing, slamming for good in March 2003 when the Chicks were banished from the radio.

It makes something like “Strawberry Wine” seem all the more miraculous in retrospect.  This would’ve been a masterpiece no matter when it was released, but this window of time was the only opportunity it had to be truly heard.  Thank God it came along when it did.

The Road From No. 1

On its way to quintuple platinum sales, Did I Shave My Legs For This? produced three more big hits, including two more No. 1 singles.  We’ll cover the second single from this album in early 1997.

“Strawberry Wine” gets an A.

Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties

Previous: Alan Jackson, “Little Bitty” |

Next: Reba McEntire, “The Fear of Being Alone”

12 Comments

  1. An all time classic and still sounds great today. This for me is one of those songs where when I think about country music this one of the songs that pop in my head.

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  2. Everyone who was in middle or high school from 96 to 97 had this album and knew every song by heart! We used to all sing it together to annoy our bus driver. Lol. Good memories! Her record label screwed her over big time. What a shame.

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    • Man, I would’ve LOVED to have gone to your school! For me, my fourth grade year was the closest it ever got to country music being universally loved like that by almost everyone.

  3. With Deana Carter entering the conversation, we are now getting closer than ever to another one of my all time favorite periods in country music, the late 90’s.

    Just the opening steel guitar riff from Dan Dugmore lets you know right away that you’re in for a classic. This is simply a gorgeous waltz that’s perfectly written, performed, and produced. I love the storytelling and highly detailed songwriting by Matraca, and Deana delivers it all with such believability and makes it her own. I love how Deana’s vocals build up with more emotion before each chorus and how there’s a sad tone in her delivery as she sings in the bridge: “The fields have grown over now, years since they’ve seen a plow. There’s nothing time hasn’t touched.” And as Kevin mentioned, I also love how she delivers the second part of that bridge, followed by a beautiful steel guitar solo from Dan Dugmore. The steel playing by Dugmore here is actually a great example of what would make many more late 90’s and early 00’s country records so sonically pleasing for me. And even though it’s about events that took place in the summertime, there’s a certain warmth in the production by Chris Farren that makes it sound great during the colder months, as well. I also agree with previous comments that this song still sounds just as fresh and modern. For me, it’s even more of a breath of fresh air today than it was in 1996, compared to what we mostly have on the radio now.

    I liked this song on the radio during its chart run, but it wasn’t until 1997 that it truly started becoming one of my favorites. By 1997, I had started watching GAC religiously, and “Strawberry Wine” was one of the videos they’d show regularly. Every time it came on, I found myself not only really enjoying the video, but also loving the song the more I heard it. It was still getting played regularly going into 1998, as well. Even today, whenever I see this video, it takes me back to better, carefree times when I’d be watching GAC on TV regularly during my first year in middle school. :) I must say, this is also one of the 90’s country videos that has aged the best, imo. It still looks incredibly modern today. I also always thought the teen couple really looked like two young people who were truly in love with one another, and most of their scenes together just fit the song perfectly. I also love the different outfits Deana wore throughout the clip, especially the dresses.

    For some reason, our stations also started giving “Strawberry Wine” more recurrent airplay in the early 00’s, and I’m so glad they did. Every time it came on during those times, it was such a treat to hear! I specifically remember it being on the radio during a cool and rainy Fall evening in 2000 during my freshman year when my dad and I were on our way to grab a bite, a few hours after I’d gotten out of school. It had been quite a long time since I’d heard it, and it just felt so good hearing it again at that moment, especially with the typical Fall weather we were having. It also melted away all my worries about school work and made me think of good times from my earlier school years when I was just a few years younger. My dad also enjoyed getting to hear it again, and he always sang along with the chorus, which is something he always did whenever we heard it again. I also loved hearing the steel guitar parts back then, too, and I remember always thinking the opening steel riff especially sounded a bit similar to the steel playing on Suzy Bogguss’ “Just Like The Weather.” Sure enough, I’d later find out that Dan Dugmore did indeed also play on Suzy’s song.

    Besides also loving the rest of the singles, getting to hear and enjoy “Strawberry Wine” again in the early 00’s was actually one of the things that inspired me to pick up a copy of Deana’s Did I Shave My Legs For This? around that time. I absolutely love her singing throughout the record, and there’s a certain charm to that slight rasp in her otherwise very girly voice. Besides the singles, some of my other favorites are “Before We Ever Heard Goodbye,” “Love Ain’t Worth Making,” and “That’s How You Know It’s Love.”

    As much as I love “Strawberry Wine,” though, it was actually the next single that made me really notice Deana for the first time as a still eleven year old in early 1997, and I’m really looking forward to that one, as well. :)

    • @ Jamie:

      You may already be aware of this, but it does kind of bear reminding why Dan Dugmore was featured on so many of the albums made by the 1990’s female country sect, including Deana, Suzy, and especially Trisha. He was part of Linda Ronstadt’s touring and studio bands during the apex of her popularity in the late 1970’s, and that fact isn’t exactly lost on any of them, given how ultra-influential she was and still is on them.

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      • Actually, I was NOT aware of that connection between Linda and Dan and the 90’s women! (Although, I did at least know that Trisha was heavily influenced by Ronstadt.) I always did wonder why so many of them used Dan Dugmore as their studio steel player on the records, and that explains it a lot. I’ve especially noticed that he played on a lot of the Matraca Berg written hits, as well, with this being the third one in this feature so far.

  4. Adult reflections on youth wonderfully observed. The best songs of this era exude maturity and confidence. I am not sure if this exemplary story-song has anything even approaching it terms of remembered details and wistful poetry. A classic, indeed.

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