Have you ever thought an artist was just so good they were destined for stardom, especiallly when they seemed to have a major label behind them, but then watched as … nothing actually happened? They had the voice, sometimes their own songwriting ability or musicianship, great material, a label which seemed supportive, and yet it just didn’t work out. Over the years I’ve been listening to country music that’s often happened to me. Here are a few of my favorite ‘stars in the making’ whose careers never really got going over the past 20 years, organised chronologically. I’ve limited it to artists who were signed to a major label which invested at least enough time, money and effort to release an album, but who never achieved more than one top 30 hit single.
Donna Ulisse had a beautiful alto voice and released a fine neotraditional album, Trouble At The Door, on Atlantic in 1991. None of the singles reached the top 60 on Billboard. After she lost her deal, Donna moved into bluegrass, and I reviewed her recently released second bluegrass album here earlier this year.
One of the best albums of 1992 was Between Midnight And Hindsight by Joy White on Epic – Joy’s strong, distinctive voice and intense approach was matched to some great material, but the singles (which included ‘Cold Day In July’, subsequently covered by the Dixie Chicks) all flopped. She moved to Columbia and rebranded herself as Joy Lynn White for 1994’s Wild Love, another strong set which failed to produce anything approaching a hit. She has recorded sporadically since for independent labels, but her later music is less commercial and less immediately appealing. I think she may have been a little ahead of her time, as her style would have appealed to Dixie Chicks fans.
Rhonda Vincent may seem like a strange choice for this list, but technically she qualifies. After a string of bluegrass albums for Rebel in the very early 90s, Rhonda spent several years trying to make it as a mainstream country artist. She released two excellent albums, Written In The Stars on Giant Records in 1993, and Trouble Free on Warner Bros in 1996. The singles made no impact whatsoever, and in 2000 Rhonda returned to her first love, bluegrass. She has gone from strength to strength since.
I have always been surprised that Bobbie Cryner‘s career never took off. She had a beautiful voice and wrote and picked some fine material to record, but two different labels tried and failed to make her into a star. Both her self-titled debut on Epic in 1993 and Girl Of Your Dreams on MCA in 1996 are well worth seeking out, even though none of the singles reached the top 50. She continued to write for other artists through the 90s.
Neotraditionalist Ken Mellons, had a promising start when his ‘Jukebox Junkie’ (one of the poorer songs on his self-titled debut album) was a top 10 hit in 1994. His hopes of stardom were dashed when none of the other singles from his two Epic albums hit the top 30, and he then made the serious mistake of signing to Curb. Six years later, after a handful of singles and one further album, the good but misleadingly titled The Best Of (it was actually all new material apart from a horrendous dance mix of ‘Jukebox Junkie’), he escaped. He released an independent album in 2004.
Another of the 90s hat acts who I really liked was Wesley Dennis, who released a very good Keith Stegall-produced record on Mercury in 1995, which was spurned by radio. That was the last we heard of him. Keith Whitley soundalike Keith Perry had a very nice record on Curb in 1999 whose singles yet again failed to make an impact; I understand he also recorded an inspirational album for the same label a few years later, but I haven’t heard that.
Elizabeth Cook‘s distinctive voice was probably too country for country radio, as she had no hit singles from her excellent Warner Bros album Hey Y’all in 2002. She has gone on to garner critical esteem from her independent releases, most recently Balls, making her another artist to do better without a major label.
Two of my favorite singles in 2004 came from artists on this list. After I heard Australian Catherine Britt‘s top 40 hit ‘The Upside Of Being Down’ I waited anxiously for her RCA debut album. And I waited. And waited. It was eventually released in 2006, I believe in Australia only, and she is now based back home in Australia. Julie Roberts‘ debut single ‘Break Down Here’ is still her only top 30 hit, although her label Mercury released two good albums, the first of which has been certified gold. She is still on the label roster, but as no new material has been released since 2006 one doubts she will stay there much longer.
The last name on my list is Bobby Pinson, who had a top 20 hit with ‘Don’t Ask Me How I Know’ in 2005. Sadly, none of the other singles from his excellent Man Like Me on RCA did as well, and he was soon cut loose. I suspect his problem was that he was too similar to Eric Church, another new artist at the time, although I preferred Bobby’s work. He subsequently released an independent album, and seems to be doing well as a songwriter, co-writing extensively Toby Keith and the members of Sugarland.
Which artists can you think of who you expected to be stars, who never made it?