There’s a certain vintage of mainstream country music that still widely resonates: Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Emmylou Harris. There’s also a lot of country music that’s widely derided, particularly in the years that country music rapidly expanded beyond its Americana roots and began replacing steel guitars with pop hooks. Those were the years I listened to country music—roughly the mid-’80s through the late ’90s, which saw the emergence of crossover legends like Shania Twain and Faith Hill, as well as dozens of pop-country singers who didn’t have quite their staying power, like Collin Raye and Deana Carter (both of whom were successful, but didn’t go on to sell out Vegas in subsequent decades).
Those rapid changes and crossover success stories raise the questions: What is country music, anyway, and who gets to decide? Like any genre, trying to pin down a definition is a little slippery, since even its signature sounds have changed markedly since country music was something sung by cowboys out on the range. What listeners think of as “classic” or “traditional” might refer to any number of styles that evolved from cowboys’ high lonesome wails to the twangier songs on your local Clear Channel-owned station. Although there’s plenty of innovation in country music, it’s also a genre that has leaned heavily on pop, rock, and blues—and as those genres change and evolve, so does country.
In my hometown of Dallas, country music past and present was a battle waged across three local country radio stations—KPLX was more likely to have older hits and neo-traditionalist songs, its rival KSCS was a mix of old and new, and KYNG focused on the younger pop-country sound that would give rise to Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood in under a decade. (In a rather on-the-nose bit of history, KPLX and KSCS still exist today in mainstream country-music formats, but KYNG lasted only from 1992 to 2003, reflecting the genre merger that became more pop than country.) Genres weren’t just bleeding and blurring on the radio, either. At Billy Bob’s Texas, a Fort Worth music venue that bills itself as the world’s largest honky-tonk, I once witnessed a sea of cowboy hats all doing the Macarena on the dance floor while waiting for LeAnn Rimes to take the stage.
The honky-tonk sound often associated with country music—celebrated in the 1980s by neo-traditionalists like Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam, the latter of whom commercialized his sound in a 1999 Gap ad—was a major shift in country music in the 1930s, when pastoral campfire songs gave way to good-time post-Prohibition dance-hall tunes. Hank Williams led another sea change in the ’40s and ’50s, with twangy love songs like “Hey Good Lookin’” and blues covers like “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It.” And the crossover pop-country of the ’90s really began decades earlier, when white musicians like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis began to borrow early rock ’n’ roll sounds from Black musicians.
In retrospect, with an ear toward this history, it’s easy to find fault with a lot of country songs from its early decades. So much of this music is built on the bones of traditionally Black music, yet country music has largely excluded people of color. (There are important Black country singers from every decade, from Charley Pride, whose first album came out in 1966, to Kane Brown, whose debut recordings were released just four years ago.) Country music builds many of its narratives around loves lost and found, and given the traditional gender roles in the first half of the 20th century, most of those were sung by men. As more women found mainstream success, the oft-misogynist tone of country music slowly made room for songs that weren’t about men pining after women, as with Martina McBride’s celebratory 1993 hit “Independence Day,” in which the narrator’s mother ends an abusive relationship by burning down the house. (It was just 10 years earlier that The Oak Ridge Boys hit No. 2 with their song “American Made,” which praises “her silky long hair and her sexy long legs.”) Country music is also unafraid to have a little fun, sometimes with groan-worthy puns or wordplay (see: Tim McGraw’s “Refried Dreams,” which includes the unfortunate line “I’m down here in Mexico / Livin’ on refried dreams,” and was left off this list for good reason), but also sometimes results in the giddy fun of Alan Jackson’s toe-tapper “Chattahoochee,” the song of summer back in 1993.
Country albums in the ’80s and ’90s often included a few singles and a lot of filler, which means that if you listened to country music around this same time, you’re probably already familiar with most of these, because a lot of the deep cuts weren’t worth more than a few listens. (If that’s the case, please enjoy this nostalgia trip with me.) Or if you’ve come to country music more recently, by way of Sturgill Simpson, Kacey Musgraves, or Sarah Shook, here’s one hour of their predecessors, who may have worn chunkier heels and had bigger hair and made some really terrible music videos, but were walking many of the same country/pop lines that artists do today. Country music’s signature sounds change year by year and decade by decade, but there’s not one thing that makes a song “country,” and that’s reflected in this Power Hour. It stretches about 15 years, from the early/mid-’80s, when neo-traditional sounds began to give way to poppier hooks, until the mid/late-’90s, which launched country stars into unapologetic pop success.
Rosanne Cash, “Tennessee Flat Top Box” (1987)
Rosanne Cash doesn’t try to reinvent “Tennessee Flat Top Box,” a cover of a song her father recorded when she was 6 years old; her clear, assured voice is all that’s necessary to distinguish it from Johnny Cash’s original. Despite the true-blue country roots of the song and her own lineage, Cash’s songwriting has always pulled from a variety of genres, often blurring lines between country, blues, and rock.
The Statler Brothers, “Hello Mary Lou” (1985)
Thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, most everybody knows a certain Statler Brothers song from the group’s 1966 debut. “Flowers On The Wall” is a direct descendent of early country-pop groups like the Everly Brothers (1957’s “Bye, Bye Love,” 1961’s “Walk Right Back”), but The Statler Brothers were actually deeply rooted in gospel music, adding country-music flourishes and four-part harmonies to standards like “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art.” “Hello Mary Lou” is typical of the group’s country side, with Harold Reid’s extraordinary, almost comical, bass voice isolating and amplifying lyrics.
The Judds, “Mama He’s Crazy” (1984)
Naomi and Wynonna Judd were mainstays of country radio for nearly two decades, with more than a dozen No. 1 songs. Wynonna’s effortlessly rich voice is backgrounded by her mother’s harmonies in a sly and sweet song about finding love.
George Strait, “Ocean Front Property” (1987)
George Strait, the King Of Country, was 40 by the early ’90s, when a lot of younger stars like Garth Brooks and Clint Black were finding their footholds. Strait earned, and hung on to, his title with songs that hark back to lovelorn “tear in my beer” classics, but with a little bit more fun. “Ocean Front Property” hinges on dad-joke-level wordplay, but Strait’s winking delivery goes for more charm than corniness, and a generous use of pedal steel and fiddle embrace some Hank Sr.-era twang.
Kathy Mattea, “Eighteen Wheels And A Dozen Roses” (1987)
A lot of country songs from the ’50s and ’60s—think Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams—tell stories of looking for love, losing love, unrequited love. Kathy Mattea flips the script in “Eighteen Wheels And A Dozen Roses,” telling the story of a trucker on his last run, who can finally retire and “spend the rest of his life / With the one that he loves.”
Pam Tillis, “Maybe It Was Memphis” (1991)
The daughter of country great Mel Tillis, Pam Tillis grew up in Nashville, modern country music’s spiritual and geographic home. Though her father’s connections earned her opportunities like debuting at the Grand Ole Opry as a child, her voice more than settles any accusations of nepotism. “Maybe It Was Memphis” swings easily between sweet country tune and belted-out power ballad.
Patty Loveless, “Blame It On Your Heart” (1993)
Patty Loveless has a lot of fun with lyrics—there’s the faintly ridiculous wordplay of “Timber, I’m Falling In Love” (1988), and the adjective pileup of a chorus in “Blame It On Your Heart.” With a string of insults followed by a deadpan change of heart, Loveless’ delivery captures the difficulty of trying to stop loving somebody who’s cheated on you. It’s more lighthearted than mopey, and the chorus of “Blame it on your lyin’, cheatin’, cold, deadbeatin’, two-timin’, double-dealin’, mean, mistreatin’ loving heart” never gets any less fun to sing along to.
Dixie Chicks, “There’s Your Trouble” (1998)
The Dixie Chicks existed as a Dallas bluegrass band from the late 1980s, but it wasn’t until they replaced their lead singer with Natalie Maines that they had their breakthrough, Wide Open Spaces, in 1998. With Maines came a newer country sound, balanced against Martie Maguire and Emily Robison’s traditional country and bluegrass instruments, like mandolin, fiddle, and banjo. “There’s Your Trouble” was on that first album with the new Chicks lineup, which heralded change in country music—Maines voice has more brazenness than drawl, and the Dixie Chicks charted new territory with songs like “Goodbye Earl,” in which a woman buries her abusive husband.
Garth Brooks and Chris LeDoux, “Whatcha Gonna Do With A Cowboy” (1992)
Garth Brooks is, first and foremost, an entertainer. He filled his first stadium in 1993, and those early-career tours were more successful than New Kids On The Block’s Magic Summer Tour and Madonna’s Blond Ambition. He was also an early advocate for low-cost concerts, loudly supporting Pearl Jam’s 1994 complaint with the U.S. Justice Department over Ticketmaster prices, and making a point to connect with fans in the nosebleed seats at Texas Stadium—literally, by strapping himself in a harness and fly wire and high-fiving fans in the cheapest seats. This duet with Chris LeDoux showcases just how much fun Brooks likes to have. Listen to the chuckles between the two of them (particularly when LeDoux sings, “You’d be better off to try to rope the wind,” a wink to Brooks’ Ropin’ The Wind). From the opening fiddle slides to the barn-stomping tune, “Whatcha Gonna Do” is an exuberant celebration of good country fun.
LeAnn Rimes, “Cattle Call” (1996)
After years singing at Texas rodeos and opries, LeAnn Rimes, age 13, skyrocketed to fame with “Blue,” written by Bill Mack, whose songs have been recorded by the likes of Dean Martin, Jerry Lee Lewis, and George Jones. Mack wrote the song in 1958, and four years later, tried to get Patsy Cline interested in it. Forty years later, a teenage girl whose voice earned comparisons to Cline’s recorded it and won the Grammy for Song Of The Year in 1996. Rimes’ debut album is filled with retro delights like this, including “Cattle Call,” recorded with county great Eddy Arnold, who popularized the song in 1940s.
Trisha Yearwood, “Wrong Side Of Memphis” (1992)
Trisha Yearwood’s best-known song, “She’s In Love With The Boy,” stands up as a song of simple, true love. But Yearwood’s voice powers a lot more than simple love songs, and “Wrong Side Of Memphis,” from her second studio album, sees her dig into a bluesier sound as she “bronze[s] these blue suede shoes” and hops in a ’69 Tempest to Nashville. Even as she sings about typical country subjects—love, cowboy boots, Nashville—she was one of the female country artists of the 1990s who brought much-needed balance to the industry. In “Wrong Side Of Memphis,” throwaway lines like “I ain’t drivin’ no pink Cadillac” underscore her perspective.
Randy Travis, “Honky Tonk Moon” (1988)
When poppier songs gained traction on country radio in the ’90s, Randy Travis was there with harmonica and a swinging bluesy beat to bring a little nostalgia to mainstream country. Heavily instrumented with fiddle, harmonica, and pedal steel, “Honky Tonk Moon” doesn’t have the slick production of a lot of his contemporaries. Travis’ soulful, gravelly voice sounds almost beautiful against the smooth slide-guitar work, and it’s a rare song of the late ’80s that doesn’t sound stuck in time. Travis’ throwback sound earned him 15 No. 1 songs in the ’80s and early ’90s but was beat back by the burgeoning pop-country hits later in the decade.
Lorrie Morgan, “What Part Of No” (1992)
Truly a song before its time, “What Part Of No” is Lorrie Morgan’s plea for a guy in a bar to stop hitting on her so she can just be alone. It has the strongest feminist underpinnings of any song on this list, and it spent three weeks at No. 1, a sign that country music was inching forward politically even in 1992.
Clint Black, “A Good Run Of Bad Luck” (1993)
Another of the giants of ’90s country music, Clint Black sang a lot of bluesy, poppy songs while wearing a cowboy hat and a big belt buckle. “A Good Run Of Bad Luck” had the good luck of appearing on two albums—Black’s No Time To Kill and the Maverick soundtrack.
Tanya Tucker, “Down To My Last Teardrop” (1991)
Tanya Tucker was just 13 when she released her first hit, “Delta Dawn,” in 1972. Even then, there was a hint of that signature rasp in her voice, and by the ’90s she sounded just world-weary enough. Paired with an upbeat harmonica and hooky midtempo tune, “Down To My Last Teardrop” is downright triumphant as she finally tires of a cheating lover. She sneaks in some cheeky lyrics, too, at least by early-’90s radio standards: “I don’t care who or what you’re doing / there ain’t gonna be no more boo-hooin’.”
Reba McEntire and Linda Davis, “Does He Love You” (1993)
Just about any Reba McEntire song would have worked for this list. She’s been a powerhouse of country radio since she cracked Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Top 100 in 1976 (“I Don’t Want To Be A One Night Stand”), with her first No. 1 song in 1982 (“Can’t Even Get The Blues”). “Does He Love You” spent five months on the charts and one week at No. 1 in 1993, and it’s a rare example (outside The Judds) of a two-woman duet. Another rarity: The song tells the story of an affair from the perspective of the wife and the other woman. It could have been a song about a broken heart or revenge or walking away, but Reba McEntire and Linda Davis tease out compassion from the pain.
Deana Carter, “Strawberry Wine” (1996)
Deana Carter’s 22-year-old ode to teen love wouldn’t feel out of place on a recent Kacey Musgraves’ album. Carter’s bright, clear voice brims with bittersweet nostalgia, but she still slips in a little wry humor (“I was thirsting for knowledge / And he had a car”). “Strawberry Wine” is one of several hit singles from Carter’s debut album, Did I Shave My Legs For This?, which earned multiple Grammy nods in 1997 and ’98.
Ty Herndon, “What Mattered Most” (1995)
Ty Herndon’s soft voice and plaintive love songs were typical of a lot of ’90s country music, and Herndon puts a lot of heart into the sweetly poignant “What Mattered Most.” The narrator’s self-reflection is a less typical perspective, though a refreshing one. It was nearly 20 years after this song was released that Herndon came out publicly as gay—even if the industry and the music were slowly making way for new voices and new sounds, country music has maintained a conservative, even regressive, outlook.
Alan Jackson, “Chattahoochee” (1992)
Country music can be a helluva lot of fun, and nothing captures that quite like “Chattahoochee,” a honky-tonk coming-of-age tale with the soul of a drinking song. Released in May, just in time to become the song of summer, it works just as well as a line dance as a roll-down-your-windows-and-sing-along song. It kept a foot firmly in neo-traditionalist country, but unlike tracks by greats like Randy Travis, did more to welcome in younger listeners.