My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Spotlight Artist: 80s Duos

This month we’ve decided to do something a little different; instead of spotlighting a single artist for the entire month, we’ll be taking a look at the careers of several of the duos that came to prominence during the 1980s:

1.  David Frizzell & Shelly West

This duo’s pedigree was impressive; he was the younger brother of the legendary Lefty Frizzell, while she was the daughter of Dottie West and the wife of another Frizzell brother.   Together they charted 11 singles on the Billboard country charts between 1981 and 1985, the first and best known of which was “You’re The Reason God Made Oklahoma”.  That #1 single had been featured in the Clint Eastwood film Any Which Way You Can, and released on the Viva label, which was distributed by Warner Bros.   They were awarded the CMA’s Duo of the Year trophy twice, and both Frizzell and West scored some solo hits during this period, though neither’s career was to enjoy any longevity.  Shelly’s divorce from Allen Frizzell may have been partially responsible for the end of her professional relationship with David.

2.   The Judds

The most commercially successful of the duos we’re spotlighting this month, the story of this mother-daughter act is well known.  Record producer Brent Maher’s daughter was hospitalized and under the care of nurse Naomi Judd in the early 1980s, which provided the opportunity for Naomi to give Maher a demo tape, leading to a live audition and on-the-spot signing with RCA/Curb.   The Judds were an immediate success, scoring 15 #1 singles between 1983 and 1990.  During that time, they also won seven Academy of Country Music awards, nine CMA trophies, and five Grammys.   A bout with Hepatitis C prompted Naomi’s retirement in 1991, while Wynonna went on to enjoy a highly successful career as a solo artist.  During the 20 years since Naomi’s retirement, the two have occasionally reunited in concert and in the studio.

3.  Sweethearts of the Rodeo

Sisters Kristine Arnold and Janis Gill sang together as children in California and began performing as The Oliver Sisters when they were teenagers.  They later renamed their act after the title of the classic album by The Byrds.   Both women married musicians; Kristine’s husband is Leonard Arnold of the band Blue Steel,  while Janis is the ex-wife of Vince Gill.   The Sweethearts of the Rodeo signed with Columbia Records in 1986, and for a brief time were one of the hottest acts in country music.  Their debut single “Hey Doll Baby” peaked just outside the Top 20.  Their second single “Since I Found  You” reached the Top 10.  Six more Top 10 hits followed.   Though they were never top record sellers, they were staples at country radio in the late 80s.  Their first two albums for Columbia racked up a number of radio hits, but after that the hits began to taper off.   After two more albums failed to generate any more hits, Columbia dropped the Sweethearts from its roster in 1992.  They re-emerged the following year on Sugar Hill Records, for whom they recorded two critically acclaimed albums in 1993 and 1996.

4.  The O’Kanes

Jamie O’Hara and Kieran Kane recorded three albums for Columbia between 1986 and 1990.  Six of the nine singles released during that period charted in the Top 10, including their best known hit “Can’t Stop My Heart From Loving You”, which reached the #1 spot in 1987.  Jamie, a native of Toledo, Ohio, had penned “Older Women”,  which had been a #1 hit for Ronnie McDowell in 1981 and  The Judds’ signature hit “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout The Good Old Days)”, which won a Grammy for Best Country Song in 1986.  The two met while working as songwriters for the same publishing company.   They disbanded in 1990 and resumed their solo careers.  Brooklyn-born Kane eventually went on to become one of the founders the independent Dead Reckoning Records.

5.  Foster & Lloyd

Country rockers Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd recorded three albums together for RCA between 1987 and 1990, and in the process scored nine charting singles, four of which reached the Top 10.   Prior to landing their own record deal, they wrote “Since I Found You”, which became the breakthrough hit for The Sweethearts of the Rodeo.   Foster & Lloyd’s biggest hit was 1987’s “Crazy Over You”, which rose to #4.  Perhaps a bit too offbeat for conservative country radio in the late 80s, they were more of a critical, rather than commercial, success and disbanded in 1990.   Lead vocalist Radney Foster subsequently signed with Arista Records and enjoyed a moderately successful solo career, while Bill Lloyd went back to earning a living as a session musician.  They reunited in 2011, with the release of It’s Already Tomorrow, their first album together in over 20 years.

As always, we hope that this spotlight will provide our readers with a pleasant trip down memory lane, or perhaps inspire them to explore music that they may have overlooked or are too young to remember.

9 responses to “Spotlight Artist: 80s Duos

  1. Ken Johnson January 2, 2012 at 1:16 pm

    Excellent concept.

    Many of country music’s biggest solo stars also chose to team up during that decade providing a lot of interesting music. A few that come to mind are Mickey Gilley & Charly McClain, Barbara Mandrell & George Jones/Lee Greenwood/Oak Ridge Boys, Eddie Rabbitt & Crystal Gayle/Juice Newton, Merle Haggard & Leona Williams/George Jones/Willie Nelson/Janie Fricke, Dwight Yoakam & Buck Owens, Ricky Skaggs & Sharon White/James Taylor, Vince Gill & Rosanne Cash/Reba McEntire, Earl Thomas Conley & Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell & Rosanne Cash. It could take the whole month just to list Willie Nelson’s 1980’s singing partners. Kenny Rogers also shared the mike with a variety of voices including Dolly. Thanks to technology a posthumous pairing of Jim Reeves & Patsy Cline achieved a top ten hit in 1982 and Hank Williams, Jr.’s duet with his late father became a hit single and an amazing video in 1989. As a radio programmer in that era it was a challenge to keep from overplaying artists who had solo & duet singles simultaneously on the chart as well as including their popular hits from the past. Many country stations became overwhelmed just by Willie Nelson’s avalanche of recordings.

    Established acts also teamed with newcomers for some fresh collaborations: Earl Thomas Conley & Gus Hardin, T. G. Sheppard & Karen Brooks. One of my favorites of those combos was Johnny Lee & Lane Brody who only generated but one hit with “The Yellow Rose” in 1984 but they sure sounded great together.

    Pop acts transitioned to country by teaming with then-current country stars. Sylvia & Michael Johnson, Steve Wariner & Nicolette Larson. Mel Tillis & Nancy Sinatra, Tanya Tucker with Paul Davis (and Paul Overstreet), Anne Murray & Dave Loggins. Dan Seals himself a former pop act dueted with Marie Osmond who returned to country music after a 12 year absence. Ray Charles released a great duet album that spawned several single hits. Songwriter Fred Knobloch (later a member of S-K-O & S-K-B) teamed with model/actress/singer Susan Anton for their top ten hit “Killin’ Time.” From left field Merle Haggard & T.G. Sheppard each had successful recordings with Clint Eastwood.

    Looking forward to January’s offerings & Happy New Year!

    • Paul W Dennis January 2, 2012 at 1:34 pm

      The 1980s were probably the peak decade for one-off pairings. Johnny Cash teamed with Karen Brooks on “I Will Dance WIth You” which deserved a better fate than #45. Cash also teamed with Waylon on a couple of songs, and with Hank Jr on “That Old Wheel”. I think my favorite pairing was Tom T Hall’s pairing with Earl Scruggs on “Song of The South” and “There Ain’t No Country Music On This Jukebox”, neither a big hit but both marvelous recordings. And who could forget Lynn Anderson and Gary Morris on “You’re Welcome To Tonight” which I believe was Lynn’s last top ten hit

  2. Paul W Dennis January 2, 2012 at 1:22 pm

    I wasn’t that gung-ho about the Judds, but I really liked the other duos listed. You might also have listed Moe & Joe who showed up in mid-1979 but had most of their hits as a duo during the 1980s.

    Ditto for the Bellamy Brothers who emerged as a force in country music in 1979 and charted thirty singles during the 1980s. According to Billboard, they were the most successful country duo of the 1980s. They had nine #1s and three #2s during the decade plus eleven more top ten records for a total of 22 top tens for the decade.

    By contrast the Judds had fourteen #1s, one #2 and one other top ten for a total of 16 top tens for the period 1983-1989.

    Both groups contained onward after the 1980s (the Judds split at the end of 1991, the Bellamys are still performing today) but both largely were spent as chart forces by the end of the 1980s

  3. luckyoldsun January 2, 2012 at 2:03 pm

    “Shelly’s divorce from Allen Frizzell may have been partially responsible for the end of her professional relationship with David.”

    If anything, Shelly’s being married to David’s brother made the duet act seem a bit weird–what with Allen being an aspiring singer, himself. Sounds like their life coulda made a damn good country song.

    I think they stopped recording together because they stopped having hits.
    I believe I read that David Frizzell said that the problem was that it became very difficult to find new songs that really fit their duet personas. They weren’t getting songs like “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma” –or maybe the lyrics of the songs that they were getting seemed forced.

    • Ken Johnson January 2, 2012 at 2:42 pm

      Truth be told both Shelly & Allen had major drug abuse problems which contributed to derailing their marriage and both of their careers. Shelly continued touring with her mother until the accident that claimed Dottie’s life in 1991. Shortly after Shelly said she was quitting the business to raise her family but sadly the business had already quit her many years earlier.

  4. Michael A. January 2, 2012 at 5:11 pm

    Not too familiar with any of the duos other than The Judds, so I’m looking forward to (hopefully) a lot of coverage on them and learning more about the others!

  5. Ben Foster January 7, 2012 at 9:18 am

    This will be an interesting twist on the Spotlight Artist feature. It’s a shame that most of these duos, excepting The Judds, are not better remembered, but I suppose such is the misfortune of having come right before the nineties boom.

  6. Pingback: LEFTY FRIZZELL / SHE ‘S GONE GONE GONE « Throughhisown's Weblog

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