Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1990, Part I
“Did you ever find Bugs Bunny attractive when he put on a dress and played a girl bunny?” Oh…wait, wrong Garth.
1. “American Remains,” The Highwaymen. The Highwaymen released their platinum debut album in 1985 and despite having no major hit singles, their 1990 “Highwayman 2” record went to the Top Five of the country album charts and was certified gold. Memphis born songwriter Rivers Rutherford was given a challenge by producer Chips Moman that resulted in “American Remains.” Rutherford, “He said to me, ‘I know you don’t like country music, but go listen to ‘The Highwayman’ and write me the sequel.’” Filled with Western mythos, this is an obvious attempt to rewrite the Jimmy Webb classic that became the band’s namesake, even down to the instrumentation. Perhaps it’s a case of absence making the heart grow fonder, but this ad hoc supergroup sounds better in the review mirror than they did as a contemporary act. Maybe they were just smart about source material. Check out their 2016 “best of” where they cover Guy Clark, Steve Goodman, Billy Joe Shaver, Robert Earl Keen, Bob Seger, and Woody Guthrie.
2. “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow,” Alan Jackson. Georgia native Alan Jackson worked odd jobs for over a decade while performing in clubs. After receiving encouragement from Glen Campbell, he moved to Nashville at the age of twenty-seven and was signed with a major label in 1989. With his neo-traditional sound and first class songwriting skills, Jackson became one of the biggest acts of the 1990s. The Top Five hit “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow” was autobiographical, a number co-written with Jim McBride. Jackson, “We were talking about my life in Georgia and the experience of playing the honky tonk circuit. I remembered a radio that my daddy won when I was a young child and how my mama used to sing to my sisters and me. I also remembered how my mama hated for me to play in the bars. All those things set the story in motion, and within a few sessions, my life chasing that neon rainbow was set to music.”
3. “The Dance,” Garth Brooks. During the late 1980s, it seemed that Randy Travis had hit the ceiling for what a country superstar could accomplish. However, two major changes in the industry occurred during the early 1990s. The advent of the automated music sales tracking system SoundScan reflected that country albums had been traditionally underreported in terms of sales. At the same time, as rap music became more popular, a younger white audience started moving to country radio. Oklahoma advertising major Garth Brooks moved to Nashville in 1987 and released his first album in 1989. He went to #1 that year with “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” but became a busting out of the genre superstar with “The Dance,” a retelling of the it’s better to have loved and lost tale that Garth performed in the manner of a human tear. Brooks, “’The Dance’ will be the greatest success as a song we will ever do. I’ll go to my grave with ‘The Dance.’ It’ll probably always be my favorite song.”
4. “Down at the Twist and Shout,” Mary Chapin Carpenter. Mary Chapin Carpenter became a platinum selling artist with 1990’s “Shooting Strait in the Dark” album – it’s highest charting single was the Cajun flavored “Down at the Twist and Shout,” a #2 country hit. She didn’t just dip her toe in the water for the sound, she had the Grammy award winning Cajun band BeauSoleil as her backing band for the recording. A veritable New Orleans tourism ad, Carpenter touts alligator stew, crawfish pie, Hurricane cocktails, and wants to dance her blues away to “Jole Blon.” In some ways, Carpenter replaced Rosanne Cash on country radio as the genre’s moody, literate female superstar.
5. “Dumas Walker,” The Kentucky Headhunters. The founding members of The Kentucky Headhunters started performing together way back in 1968 using the name Itchy Brother. In fact, seventy-five percent of the current band has been playing together since that time. Itchy Brother went on hiatus in 1982 and the group reformed in 1986 with Northeast Arkansas/Southeast Missouri natives/brothers Ricky Lee and Doug Phelps joining the act. Persistence paid off handsomely as their 1989 debut album, titled “Pickin’ on Nashville,” went double platinum. “Dumas Walker” wasn’t their biggest hit, that honor belongs to their cover of Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me,” but it is the band’s signature song. Ricky Lee Phelps on the culinary delights, “A slawburger is really just a plain hamburger, with mayonnaised slaw slapped onto it. It`s an old greasy burger. Ski is a soft drink kinda like Mountain Dew. They manufacture it in Chattanooga.“ And the title character Dumas? “He is an old coot who lives on the Tennessee-Kentucky border. He`s got himself a little package store. He`s on the Tennessee side, and the Kentucky side is dry, so that`s where they come and get all their beer. For the last 35 years, Dumas has been the world marbles champion.“
6. “A Few Ole Country Boys,” Randy Travis featuring George Jones. George Jones graced the Top Ten one last time in 1990 and became the first country artist to do so in five consecutive decades, courtesy of this duet with Randy Travis. Written by Troy Seals and Mentor Williams, “A Few Ole Country Boys” is a mutual admiration lyric that was art imitating life. Randy Travis, “Many people in this business will say that he’s the greatest country singer that ever lived, and I agree. I thought a lot of him.” George Jones in 1995, “”If Randy Travis had come to town last month, he probably wouldn’t have gotten a record deal. He’s too good and too original.” The duets release “Heroes & Friends” was the last of Travis’s five consecutive #1 albums.
7. “Friends in Low Places,” Garth Brooks. After lassoing in the female country audience with “The Dance,” Garth put their boyfriends at ease with the good ole boy beer chasing anthem “Friends in Low Places.” Brooks had cut the song as a demo before he had a record deal and it was also released by Mark Chesnutt in 1990. Songwriter Dewayne Blackwell, who’s career went back to the 1959 #1 single “Mr. Blue” by The Fleetwoods,” had joked about having “friends in low places” after realizing he brought no money to pay for his lunch one day. The phrase stuck with Blackwell and his songwriting partner Earl Bud Lee and they eventually worked out the lyrics on paper napkins. During this time, Brooks became the biggest selling artist in country music history, with the 1990 “No Fences” album currently certified as having moved over 17 million units. I should also note that Blackwell also penned the 1982 #1 David Frizzell alcohol themed single “I’m Gonna Hire a Wino to Decorate Our Home.”
8. “Hard Rock Bottom of Your Heart,” Randy Travis. El Paso native Hugh Prestwood got his break when Judy Collins recorded his composition “Hard Time for Lovers” in 1978, but he soon moved to country music, eventually penning Top Five hits for Michael Johnson, Trisha Yearwood, Collin Raye, and this Randy Travis #1 single. Travis plays the role of a sinner who can’t get redemption from his female love interest on “Hard Rock Bottom of Your Heart.” In a genre known for vocal affectations, Randy Travis’s great gift was knowing the subtle and suggestive power of understatement.
9. “Here in the Real World,” Alan Jackson. Mark Irwin was working as a bartender at Nashville’s famous Bluebird Café when he met Alan Jackson, who was then working as a staff songwriter. The two men got together to compare the fantasy world of the movies to the reality of unrequited heartbreak on “Here in the Real World.” The lead single and title track to Jackson’s double platinum major label debut release, this is where Jackson started his magnificent neo-traditional run during the 1990s. Others may have peaked higher, but Jackson may have been the most consistent major country voice during that decade.
9. “It Ain’t Nothin’,” Keith Whitley. Keith Whitley may have been dead and buried in 1990 (we know the former is true and we’ll assume the latter), but he still had a #1 single. Songwriter Tony Halseden was a founding member of Lousiana LeRoux, who later moved to Nashville and wrote Top Ten singles for Shenandoah, George Strait, Collin Raye, and The Kinleys. Despite the country arrangement, “It Ain’t Nothin’” sounds like a classic, strolling down the boulevard pop song. Robert Christgau writing about Whitley’s in 1989, “Supple, resonant, deeply relaxed, he cuts Travis, Anderson, and Haggard physically, and productionwise he’s harder than any of them.” Just shy of thirty-five and finally hitting his artistic stride, Whitley could have not only become a household name during the 1990s, but may have become one of the genre’s most respected singers. Sadly, his breakthrough was too soon and too short for significant crossover impact.
10. “Me and Billy the Kid,” Joe Ely. After several years of being the next big thing that never materialized and having plowed through The Flatlanders songbook, Joe Ely retreated into his Texas comfort zone during the 1980s. He released his comical tale of his misadventures with and against Henry McCarty (they never got along) on his 1987 Hightone release “Lord of the Highway,” but a better version kicks of his 1990 “Live at Liberty Lunch” album. Ely has said that he was inspired to write the song after visiting a “Billy the Kid” museum in New Mexico that clearly advertised fiction as history. “Me and Billy the Kid” has been covered by Pat Green and Marty Stuart and is the only song I know that rhymes “La Cucaracha” with “Chihuahau.”