Every #1 Country Single of the Eighties: Highway 101, “Somewhere Tonight”

“Somewhere Tonight”

Highway 101

Written by Rodney Crowell and Harlan Howard

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

November 20, 1987


#1 (2 weeks)

December 26, 1987 – January 2, 1988

As we close out 1987, three pivotal acts that were critical in laying the foundation for the country music boom of the nineties will top the chart for the first time. What they all have in common is that they were award-winning acts that had multiple No. 1 hits and albums certified gold or higher, but for a variety of reasons, their run at radio was cut short.

By happenstance, these three acts will reach No. 1 for the first time consecutively, using the chronological format of this feature. The first is the landmark band Highway 101, which busted out of the gate with a gold-selling debut album that led to multiple wins for Vocal Group of the Year and a handful of No. 1 hits.

At the time of its breakthrough, Highway 101 was led by Paulette Carlson, a dynamic and charismatic vocalist who had struggled as a solo artist. Joining the California-based band as the singer, she was suddenly fronting a remarkably accomplished set of musicians: guitarist Jack Daniels, drummer Cactus Moser, and bassist and vocalist Curtis Stone. They were signed by Warner Bros. Nashville, and produced by Paul Worley, helping them shape a sound that was rooted in both traditional country and seventies rock, with a little bit of sixties pop as as extra seasoning.

Their first single didn’t chart, and wasn’t ultimately included on Highway 101. But all four of the singles that were included were bangers. Their breakthrough hit, “The Bed You Made For Me,” was written by Carlson and went top five. They just missed the top spot on both charts with their next hit, “Whiskey, If You Were a Woman.”

Their first chart-topper was “Somewhere Tonight,” a midtempo ballad penned by Rodney Crowell and Harlan Howard which was the most conventional of the four releases, in the sense that its a straight ahead, simple country song that Carlson delivers right down the middle. That makes it a bit less distinctive than the other three hits from this album, but no less worthy of praise than those other records.

This could’ve been a Nashville Sound classic back in the early sixties, and indeed that’s what it sounds like in its 1987 form: classic country through a then-contemporary lens. Carlson’s vocal recalls Juice Newton while also foreshadowing Shelby Lynne, and it’s somehow achingly vulnerable and unshakably tough at the same time. The musicianship from the band is flawless, and the steel guitar support enhances their already great work.

It’s as obvious an A as I’ve given in this feature, and it kicks off a run of three consecutive No. 1 hits. The two to follow are even better than this.

“Somewhere Tonight” gets an A.

Every No. 1 Single of the Eighties

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  1. The last major country star I know of who emerged from Minnesota is Paulette Carlson. A now-retired former coworker of mine who knows his music (pop, rock, and country) has long been a champion of Paulette and congratulates me about the Minnesota ties, which is ironic since her voice has never really done it for me. I can see the Juice Newton comparison you make, and I’ll add there’s a little Carlene Carter in the mix, but tonally, Carlson isn’t as pleasing to the ears as either of them. As such, Highway 101 was never among my favorite acts of the late 80s, but the tunes were catchy enough and the production solid enough that their hits hold some modest playback appeal, including this one which has definitely been their most enduring hit and still gets play on the classic country station in central Iowa. Highway 101 played at my county fair in either 1989 or 1990, right at the peak of their popularity. Certainly at the time, I wasn’t expecting they’d disappear a couple short years later.

    Grade: B-

  2. I will have to disagree with you Mark and agree with Kevin. I personally think this is better that Cry, Cry, Cry and might be there best song. Their debut album is very enjoyable with one of my favorites being “One Step Closer”. The steel guitarest cannot be praised enough on helping them form their sound. Plus the guitar player was the most country sounding guitar player name ever in Jack Daniels lol. Great song.

  3. In terms of impact and significance from new artists of this era, Highway 101 is often glossed over or ignored all together. It is hard to worm your way into the triumverate of Randy Travis, Steve Earle, and Dwight Yoakam, but damn, the band of session players fronted by a killer vocalist sound amazing here.

    They were neither a retro act nor a progressive act. Highway 101 just wonderfully pulled all their influences together into one captivating contemporary classic sound that was absolutely right for the moment.

    I was completely seduced by their previous hit “The Bed You Made for Me.”

    I remember K-102 music director and evening Dj Wayne Elliott hyping Paulette Carlson’s Minnesota roots, having been born in Moose Lake, Minnesota.

    I also recall Carlson was signed as a staff songwriter for the Oak Ridge Boys’ Publishing Company upon first arriving in Nashville before getting her break with Highway 101 some years later.

    This is fun!

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