Ken Burns and his team weren't the first or last to jump from outlaw country to the '80s voices of country music tradition, represented by Reba McEntire, Randy Travis and other usual suspects. What happened in between, aside from George Jones' comeback and Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton's continued ascents to crossover stardom, gets lumped together as "middle of the road" pop music.
Whether the influence of soft rock and singer-songwriters ruined the charts in the early '80s depends on a fan's age and memories of the often vilified Urban Cowboy soundtrack. If you were old enough to be jaded or too young to remember Mickey Gilley's country hits and Kenny Rogers' more pop-oriented material, their music and the songs of their peers might delve too far from hard country for your liking.
That said, the '80s is an under-explored goldmine of overlooked songs for those of us not averse to a little decade-specific over-production and a recurring sensitive streak that's more John Denver than Johnny Cash. If that sounds appealing, check out these 10 underrated country songs from the Reagan era.
"All Tangled Up in Love," Earl Thomas Conley and Gus Hardin
Earl Thomas Conley needs no introduction because he got his proverbial flowers for his career before his April 10, 2019 passing. For this top 10 single from 1984, he teamed with one of the most underrated '80s ladies in Gus Hardin. The former Carolyn Ann Blankenship found solo success as a vocal powerhouse, but this team-up with one of the decade's greatest hit-makers serves as the best introduction to her catalog.
"Secrets," Mac Davis
Mac Davis hardly qualifies as obscure. His hits date back to the early '70s, and he wrote one of Elvis Presley's defining hits, "In the Ghetto." Still, he suits this list because those albums of his from the '80s with funny artwork contain amazing examples of country funk that hold up when compared to Americana acts' genre-free art. For example, check out this deep cut from 1980.
"Crazy For Your Love," Exile
Exile is more than the rock band that recorded "Kiss You All Over." The group wrote and first recorded future Alabama hits "Take Me Down" and "The Closer You Get." A few years later, Exile's love songs crossed over to the country charts with seven straight number one singles between 1983 and 1985. This great example of band member J.P. Pennington's songwriting style ranks highly among those hits.
"Mama's Never Seen Those Eyes," The Forester Sisters
Had the Forester Sisters hit the mainsteam in the '90s, someone like Kathy Mattea would've had ready-made tour mates. Sadly, their run at fame came when overproduction overshadowed sibling harmonies and an appreciation for popular music's church house roots.
"Bet Your Heart on Me," Johnny Lee
Johnny Lee gets lumped in with the before-mentioned Urban Cowboy hate because of such soundtrack cuts as "Looking For Love in All the Wrong Places." Yet if we're going applaud someone like Jon Pardi for incorporating traditional instrumentation into radio-friendly country, Lee deserves similar praise for this and other so-called "middle of the road" hits.
"Who's Cheatin' Who," Charly McClain
Any defense of '80s country needs at least a passing mention of the former Charlotte Denise McClain. McClain dominated the '80s commercially and creatively as the solo artist behind this number one hit from 1980 as well as "Sleepin' With the Radio On," "Dancing Your Memory Away," "Sentimental Ol' You," "Surround Me With Love" and "Radio Heart." She also excelled as a duet partner for Gilley ("Paradise Tonight"), Johnny Rodriguez ("I Hate the Way I Love It") and husband Wayne Massey ("With Just One Look in Your Eyes").
"Savin My Love For You," Pake McEntire
Reba McEntire's big brother found limited success in the mid-80s as a more tradition-minded artist than many of the pop-oriented performers on this list. Over 30 years later, he's lost in the shuffle of neo-traditionalist "saviors" and pop-friendly Nashville stars. He represents how the supposed "middle of the road" wasteland that preceded Randy Travis' biggest hits wasn't so different from the celebrated musical landscape that brought us the class of '89.
"I've Been Around Enough to Know," John Schneider
Yes, that's Bo Duke with the ideal voice for this era of Nashville-crafted hits. John Schneider had the right stuff (and the right support team) for a very successful second career that continues today. For proof, check out this, the 1984 single that became Schneider's first of four number one hits.
"Big Wheels in the Moonlight," Dan Seals
England Dan and John Ford Coley member turned country music singer and songwriter Dan Seals transitioned from soft rock to polished Nashville hits. His greatness isn't limited to perfect timing, as classics like this one would've suited the airwaves 10 years earlier or later.
"Until I Met You," Judy Rodman
The ACM's Best New Female Vocalist of 1985 possessed one of the best voices in the business, no career length of gender qualifiers necessary. This performance in particular proves why it's a good thing that Rodman never really went away. She went on to write several notable songs, including the Tammy Wynette and Wynonna Judd duet "Girl Thang," and serve as a voice coach for everyone from Radney Foster to Bryan White.