Before the neo-traditional boom of the 1990s, American country music had seen the genre branch out and experiment with other sounds and styles. The likes of Alan Jackson and a revamped George Strait ushered in a new era of country stylings that went back to their roots. Before this though, the vast majority of artists began to blend country with soft rock and adult contemporary, the '70s country-rock of California and the high energy of southern rock.
While established acts like Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, and George Jones maintained their place on the charts, the decade saw a boom of up and comers who were influenced by a wide range of music. While it's easy to remember the hit country songs of staples like Ronnie Milsap, Randy Travis, Keith Whitley, and Hank Williams Jr the decade welcomed an endless list of artists and bands who found success in Nashville, Tennessee.
God bless the USA and these ten 80s country artists you forgot you loved. I believe in you, pull out your leg warmers and channel your inner urban cowboy as you relive these classics. Spoilers: No Waylon Jennings or Loretta Lynn on this list.
1. Charly McClain
The early '80s saw Charly McClain have a run of success with country hits like "Sleepin' with the Radio On," "Men," and the ever catchy "Who's Cheatin' Who." Her soft and airy sound had a strong and distinctive pop sense that was bubbly and fun. McClain also had success with a series of duets with '80s country crooner and staple, Mickey Gilley. "Paradise Tonight," "The Right Stuff" and "Candy Man" found the pair bringing out the best in one another. While McClain would release music throughout the '80s, she stepped away from her music career by the early '90s.
2. Earl Thomas Conley
While the majority of those listed here saw their careers creep into the '70s and '90s, Earl Thomas Conley's is nearly just the '80s. Of the nine studio albums he's released, seven were in the '80s. Similarly, 24 of his Top 10 singles were released in the decade. With 18 #1 singles, Conley had the third most of the decade behind Alabama and Ronnie Milsap. Much of his success can be attributed to his gritty and soulful vocals that soared on powerful love ballads. "I Can't Win for Losin' You," "Holding Her and Loving You," and "Once In a Blue Moon" showcased Conley's ability to exhibit an outpouring of raw emotions that resonated with listeners.
3. Steve Wariner
Steve Wariner was one of the '80s unsung leaders. Over the decade, he released 20 Top 10 singles, with nine hitting #1, the first being "All Roads Lead to You." Songs such as "Small Town Girl," "The Weekend," "Where Did I Go Wrong" and "Some Fools Never Learn" saw Wariner top the charts throughout the decade with a steady hand. He's one of few artists who begin in the late '70s and have staying power throughout the '90s with ballads like "Holes in the Floor of Heaven" and "Two Teardrops."
4. Janie Fricke
Janie Fricke's duet collaborations with Charlie Rich ("On My Knees"), Johnny Duncan ("Thinkin' of a Rendezvous" and "It Couldn't Have Been Any Better") in the late '70s should have been a hint at Fricke's later success in the early and mid-80s. With 11 total studio albums released in the '80s, Fricke saw more than her fair share of chart success with singles like "Tell Me a Lie," "Don't Worry 'Bout Me Baby" and "She's Single Again." There was a sense of style, confidence and a bold flair to Fricke. Songs like "She's Single Again" and "He's A Heartache (Looking For A Place To Happen)" found Fricke deliver another side of the honky tonk--one where slick guitars and catchy hooks captured the breakups and heartbreaks of the local watering hole.
5. Vern Gosdin
Often referred to as "The Voice," Vern Gosdin was a honky-tonk tearjerker throwback during the decade. While the vast majority of country artists dabbled in the blending country with soft rock, heartland rock or rootsy country rock, this country boy stuck to a more traditional country brand. While he consistently racked up Top 10 hits throughout the decade with the likes of "Way Deep Down," "I Can Tell by the Way You Can Dance (You're Gonna Love Me Tonight)" and "Today My World Slipped Away" (later covered by George Strait), it wasn't until the release of Chiseled in Stone in '88 that saw Gosdin deliver his best collection of songs. "Set 'Em Up Joe," a tribute to Ernest Tubb, isn't just a high mark for Gosdin, it's one of country music's best moments of all time.
6. Dan Seals
In the '70s, Dan Seals was one half of the pop duo England Dan & John Ford Coley. After scoring a few hits ("I'd Really Love to See You Tonight" in particular), the duo split with Seals transitioning to a solo country career. Seals would top the Billboard's Hot Country nine times in the '80s with hits like "Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)," "Big Wheels In The Moonlight," "Addicted," and the breakout duet "Meet Me In Montana" with Marie Osmond. While Seals certainly had the chops for classic country ("God Must Be a Cowboy"), he embraced his background as a soft rock artist to meld a softer-toned country sound that had crossover appeal ("Bop," "Love On Arrival").
7. The Forester Sisters
Built around the heavenly harmonies of sisters Kathy, June, Kim and Christy Forester, The Forester Sisters had a strong run in the late '80s. Their self-titled debut saw them rack up a number of Top 10 songs including "Just In Case," "(That's What You Do) When You're In Love," "Mama's Never Seen Those Eyes," and the breakout hit "I Fell In Love Again Last Night." Naturally, the sisters' harmonies were some of the strongest in the '80s after years of singing in church choirs and together. On songs like "I Fell In Love Again Last Night," they harnessed a sweet and delightful feel with a sharp pop sense. Still, they could tug at your heartstrings with the likes of "Lonely Alone" and "Too Many Rivers."
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8. Restless Heart
In '86, Restless Heart released their sophomore breakout album Wheels. The album saw four #1 singles, "That Rock Won't Roll," "I'll Still Be Loving You," "Why Does It Have to Be (Wrong or Right)" and "Wheels." Built around four and five-part harmonies, Restless Heart's warm choruses were engaging and memorable. Songs like "The Bluest Eyes In Texas" and "Big Dreams In a Small Town" had grand and sweeping chorus lines with an Eagles-esque country rock edge to them. In '90, lead vocalist Larry Stewart departed for a solo career, but the band chugged along for another two albums with a handful of successful singles like "When She Cries" and "Dancy's Dream."
9. Kathy Mattea
In '88, Kathy Mattea topped the charts with the instant classic "Eighteen Wheels And a Dozen Roses." With a swooping chorus that captured the essence of a blue-collar truck driver readying retirement, "Eighteen Wheels And a Dozen Roses" was a bonafide hit that was relatable and lovable. Much of Mattea's catalog was that way. Her version of Nanci Griffith's "Love at The Five & Dime" was as charming as ever. She'd have a run of hits in the early '90s with songs like "She Came From Ft. Worth" and "Walking Away a Winner."
10. Highway 101
Highway 101 was yet another group who had a short run of dominating success on the country charts in the late '80s. Revolving around lead vocalist Paulette Carlson, Highway 101's best found them harmonizing around Carlson's robust and powerful voice. Carlson's delivery was fiery and armed with a healthy dose of moxie. Combined with their gritty country rollicking edge, songs like "The Bed You Made For Me," "Cry Cry Cry" and "Who's Lonely Now" found Highway 101 releasing some of the decade's best.
Honorable mentions: The Judds, Barbara Mandrell, Eddie Rabbitt, Lee Greenwood, Dwight Yoakam
And some strong 80's country hits worth remembering as well: "Forever and Ever, Amen," "When You Say Nothing At All," "He Stopped Loving Her Today," "Always on My Mind," "Islands in the Stream."
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