The 1980s were a mixed bag, with the early 1980s producing some of the lamest country music ever recorded, as the Urban Cowboy movie wrecked havoc on the genre. Fortunately, there was still good country music being released. The first flowering of the late 1980s “New Traditionalist” movement arrived in 1981 with the first hits of Ricky Skaggs and George Strait, but they remained outliers until 1986 as far as good new artists were concerned. The latter part of the decade, however, produced some truly excellent country music with the 1986 arrival of Randy Travis and company.
This list is meant neither to be a comprehensive list of great country songs from the 1980s, nor any sort of ranking of records. It’s just a list of some songs that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records.
“If You’re Gonna Play In Texas (You Gotta Have A Fiddle In The Band)“ – Alabama
Alabama made excellent music during the 1980s, although the country content of some of it was suspect. Not this song, which is dominated by fiddle. One of the few up-tempo Alabama records that swings rather than rocks.
“I’ve Been Wrong Before” – Deborah Allen
An accomplished songwriter who wrote many hits for others, particularly with Rafe VanHoy, this was one of three top ten tunes for Ms. Allen, reaching #2 in 1984. This is much more country sounding than her other big hit “Baby I Lied”.
“Last of The Silver Screen Cowboys” – Rex Allen Jr.
After some success as a pop-country balladeer, Rex Jr. turned increasing to western-themed material as the 1980s rolled along. This was not a big hit, reaching #43 in 1982, but it featured legendary music/film stars Roy Rogers and Rex Allen Sr. on backing vocals.
“Southern Fried” – Bill Anderson
This was Whispering Bill’s first release for Southern Tracks after spending over twenty years recording for Decca/MCA. Bill was no longer a chart force and this song only reached #42 in 1982, but as the chorus notes: “We like Richard Petty, Conway Twitty and the Charlie Daniels Band”.
Indeed we do.
“Even Cowgirls Get The Blues” – Lynn Anderson
This was a very good record but only a minor hit (#26) for Lynn Anderson. This record was her next-to-last single for Columbia.
“It Don’t Get Better Than This ” – Sheila Andrews
Sheila Andrews recorded for Ovation Records, a label that was able to break out the Kendalls and almost no one else, so none of her songs became major hits. Sheila was quite pretty and had a powerful voice. This was Sheila’s biggest hit reaching #42 in 1980. She died in late 1984, but I have no information on her death.
“That’s What I Get For Loving You ” – Eddy Arnold
This 1980 hit was the very last top ten hit for country music’s most successful performer. How successful was Eddy Arnold ? Well, from 1945-1954 he had fifty-seven consecutive top ten singles en route to his record 92 top ten singles. His singles spent 145 weeks at #1 – if George Strait, currently in 3rd place can get his singles to the top for another 60 weeks, he will pass up Eddy Arnold. Yeah, right.
“House of Blue Lights ” – Asleep At The Wheel
AATW fell off the charts after 1978 until a renaissance in 1987. This cover of a Chuck Miller pop hit from 1955, reached #17 in mid-1987. AATW remain the leading purveyors of modern day western swing. The Wheel is still rolling!
“Sweet Country Music” – Atlanta
This Alabama clone had two top ten records in this song from 1984 and 1983’s “Atlanta Burned Again Last Night” plus another nice song in 1984 in “Dixie Dreaming” which reached #11.
“Lovin’ Up A Storm ” – Razzy Bailey
Razzy’s first #1 record in 1980. Razzy had great chart success with five #1 records (two of those being double-sided hits so seven songs were listed at #1) but his records didn’t actually sell all that well. His best records came after his hit making days were over .
“I Wish I Had A Heart of Stone” – Baillie and the Boys
A #4 single from 1989. This act was originally a trio but by the time this record came along, it was down to a duet, not that anyone could tell the difference since the only voice that mattered was that of Kathie Bailie. This was a pop-country act that came along at the wrong time, just as the “New Traditionalist” movement was gaining power. They charted ten singles (eight top tens) and were gone from the charts by 1991. Their 1990 recording of Hank Snow’s “A Fool Such as I” is very nice.
“She’s Not Really Cheatin’ (She’s Just Getting’ Even)” – Moe Bandy
Aside from a silly duet with Joe Stampley, this was Moe’s biggest hit of the 1980s, reaching #4 in the summer of 1982. Joe made a lot of good records during the 1970s and 1980s and his sound remained hard-core country through 1986.
“Numbers” – Bobby Bare
Bobby’s chart career was running out of steam as he entered the 1980s. This song, (which had nothing to do with 10 , the movie starring Dudley Moore and Bo Derek) was Bare’s biggest hit of the 1980s reaching #11 in 1980. Bobby would continue to chart until 1986.
“Redneck Girl ” – The Bellamy Brothers
The Bellamy Brothers knew their audience as this #1 song from 1982 proves. Just as during the 1970s the Statler Brothers mined nostalgia, so would the Bellamy Brothers later in the decade with “Old Hippie” and “Kids Of The Baby Boom”.
“Killin’ Time” – Clint Black
Clint Black and Garth Brooks both emerged in 1989 and while I thought Brooks would ultimately be the bigger star, Black shot out of the gate faster with “Better Man” and “Killin’ Time” both reaching #1 in 1989. I loved both songs.
“Last Train To Heaven” – Boxcar Willie
Boxcar Willie never had many hit records although he sold many millions of albums and became a beloved star of the Grand Ole Opry. This 1982 song reached only #82 but the album on which it appeared sold quite well. Lecil “Marty” Martin took his name and his persona from a song he wrote titled “Boxcar Willie”. Boxcar sang the old songs and America loved him for it – he was indeed America’s favorite hobo.
“When It Comes To Love” – Thom Bresh & Lane Brody.
Thom Bresh is the son of Country Music Hall of Fame member Merle Travis, and is an accomplished guitar player. Lane Brody is tall and gorgeous, a fashion model, actress and singer. This song reached #77 in 1982. Lane would duet with Johnny Lee in 1984 with a television theme song, “The Yellow Rose” which reached #1.
“If Tomorrow Never Comes” – Garth Brooks
This 1989 hit is my favorite of all of Garth’s songs and was his first # 1 record, with many more to follow.
“New Way Out” – Karen Brooks
This 1982 single was one of only three top twenty hits our Ms. Brooks would have, reaching #17 in 1982. Her duet with T.G. Sheppard “Faking Love” would make it to #1 in 1983 but this is the better song.
“Baby When Your Heart Breaks Down – Kix Brooks
Yes – that Kix Brooks. This single on the Avion label reached #73 in 1983. It was a good record that deserved a better fate.
“I Tell It Like It Used To Be” – T. Graham Brown
Although it only reached #7 in 1986, it spent 27 weeks on the charts and was a truly great record, and very different from anything else charting at the time.
“You’re The Best Break This Old Heart Ever Had” – Ed Bruce
This 1982 hit was Ed’s only #1 single as a singer. Ed Bruce had a lot of success as a songwriter writing a lot of good songs including the Tanya Tucker hit “The Man That Turned My Mama On” and the Waylon and Willie hit about not letting your young ones grow up to be cowboys.
“Who’s The Blonde Stranger” – Jimmy Buffett
A modest (#37) hit in 1985, it came with a terrific video. By 1985, Jimmy Buffett was no longer about hit records. His shows continue to pack them in.
“Whiskey River” – Johnny Bush
Remake of his 1972 hit on RCA, this Delta recording reached #92 in 1981 and shows the influence of Willie’s more rockin’ arrangement. Johnny is still out there performing, a mentor to generations of Texas singers. His Who’ll Buy My Memories album was one of my ten best of 2011.
“Love Wheel” – Calamity Jane
Calamity Jane was Pam Rose, Mary Ann Kennedy, Mary Fielder and Linda Moore; essentially a collection of songwriters although Rose is a marvelous musician. This short-lived group released four charting singles 1981-1982. This was the last of the four reaching #87. None of their singles cracked the top forty although their cover of the Lennon-McCartney tune “I’ve Just Seen A Face” came close.
“A Lady Like You” – Glen Campbell
Although no longer the force he was during the 1970s, Glen Campbell continued to chart and score top ten records through the 1980s. This was his biggest song of the 80s reaching #4 in 1985.
“I’d Say Yes” – Paulette Carlson
This song reached #67 for Carlson in 1983. She would go on to bigger and better things as lead singer of Highway 101 during the late 1980s.
“How Do” – Mary Chapin Carpenter
Her debut single for Columbia, this song reached #19 in 1989. I still think this is the kind of song she does best.
“The Night Hank Williams Came To Town” – Johnny Cash (with Waylon Jennings)
After leaving Columbia in 1986, Johnny signed with Mercury. Although already spent as a chart force, Johnny made some very interesting albums for Mercury, in fact his Mercury albums are my favorite Cash albums of the 1980s. This song wasn’t a big hit, reaching #43 in 1987, but it tells a great story.
“My Baby Thinks He’s A Train” – Rosanne Cash
Rosanne had a decent string of hits during the 1980s, with eleven #1 records during the decade. This is my favorite of her #1 records; her second #1 from 1981.
“Stumblin’ In” – Chantilly
This cover of the Suzi Quatro-Chris Norman hit reached #43 in 1982. Chantilly was lead singer Kim Williams plus Debbie Pierce and P.J. Allman. Debbie’s father Webb Pierce was the most successful country singer of the 1950s; however, Debbie’s career did not reach such heights.
“I’ve Never Been To Me” – Charlene
You couldn’t escape this song in 1982 as it reached #3 on Billboard’s pop charts. Released on Motown, some country radio stations added it to their playlists as it charted country at #80, although you couldn’t tell that by me. It seemed that all the country radio stations in Central Florida gave this record a lot of spins.
“Sexy Song” – Carol Chase
I don’t know if the song was all that sexy, but Carol certainly was. From 1980, this song reached #80.
“Chain Gang of Love” – Roy Clark
This was the last Roy Clark single to get anywhere near the top twenty, stalling out at #21 in 1980. Local DJs loved this song and it was well within several Central Florida stations own top ten surveys. Roy continued to chart throughout the 1980s, making some really good records for some very small labels along the way. Of course Roy Clark was never about hit records and is as famous as any country artist of his generation.
“Have You Ever Been Lonely (Have You Ever Been Blue)” – Patsy Cline & Jim Reeves
The grave robbers strike again! Some bright soul noticed that Jim and Patsy had recorded many of the same songs during their brief lives, a few in the same key and at the same tempo. The result was the macabre pairing of the ghosts of Jim and Patsy in a pair of duets. This song reached #5 in 1982. Its follow up “I Fall To Pieces” only reached #54.
“A Little Bitty Tear” – Hank Cochran with Willie Nelson
Hank Cochran was a great songwriter – Patsy Cline’s two biggest hits were with Hank’s compositions and he cranked out an endless supply of hits for many other artists. This Cochran song was a huge hit for the legendary Burl Ives reaching #2 country and #9 pop in 1962. Try to find the Burl Ives recording if you can as Hank wasn’t much of a singer. This version reached #57 in 1980.
“Mona Lisa Lost Her Smile” – David Allan Coe.
This is a great song by the strangest character in the history of the genre. This song got to #2 in 1984. Coe also write “Take This Job and Shove It”, the signature song for Johnny Paycheck.
“I Don’t Remember Loving You” – John Conlee
John had a decade long string of hits from 1978-1987 including ten that reached #1 on one of the three major charts. This wasn’t one of them, reaching #10, but its quirky lyrics appealed to me.
“Fire and Smoke” – Earl Thomas Conley
This 1981 single was ETC’s first #1 recording, and it was on an independent label (Sunbird) at that. This being Conley’s second consecutive top ten record, RCA swooped in and purchased all of the Sunbird’s masters, re-releasing the prior ETC recordings on RCA. Earl would have 17 #1s for RCA during the 1980s – a good investment indeed.
“Please Play More Kenny Rogers” – Steven Lee Cook
This amusing song was Cook’s only chart record peaking at #92 in January 1980.
“I Just Need You For Tonight” – Billy “Crash” Craddock
After an impressive string of hits from 1971-1977, Crash’s career cooled off considerably with his switch to Capitol in 1978, with only “If I Could Write A Song As Beautiful As You” reaching the top ten in 1979. This 1981 hit reached #11 and was the last top twenty hit for Craddock.
“Dallas”– Floyd Cramer
The Theme from the television show of the same name reached #32 for Floyd in 1980 (it also charted pop). For an artist as famous as was Floyd Cramer, this was only his fifth (and last) charting record, his most famous being “Last Date” in 1960 (#11 Country, #2 Pop).
“I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried” – Rodney Crowell
After a decade of minor chart success, Crowell hit the big time in 1988-1989 when all five singles released on his Diamonds & Dirt album reached #1. This was my favorite of the five, although I liked all five. He would have no further #1 recordings.
“The Real Buddy Holly Story” – Sonny Curtis
Sonny was an early associate of Buddy Holly and this #38 chart record from 1980 recalls Buddy’s rise to fame. Sonny was a talented songwriter who wrote a number of hits for others. Sonny’s biggest hit as a performer, “Good Ol’ Girls” reached #15 in 1981.
“Wild Turkey” – Lacy J Dalton
The flip side of “Everybody Makes Mistakes” (#5 in 1981), there were many women who knew the lyrics to this song.
“Drinkin’ My Baby Goodbye” – Charlie Daniels
This 1986 single was Charlie’s biggest hit of the 1980s, reaching #8.
“Jagged Edge of A Broken Heart” – Gail Davies
Truth be it, I like everything Gail Davies ever recorded. This 1984 track only reached #20 but in my humble opinion it should have been a monster hit.
“Some Days Are Diamonds (Some Days Are Stone)” – John Denver
This Dick Feller-penned classic was Denver’s last top forty pop hit, reaching #30 pop / #10 country in 1981. Most people know Feller for humorous songs like “East Bound and Down” and “Lord Mr. Ford”, but he could write more serious songs at least as well as the funny songs.
“He’s Back and I’m Blue” – Desert Rose Band
DRB (Chris Hillman, Herb Pedersen, & John Jorgenson) had a run of six consecutive top ten records before fading away and disbanding. Only they really never disbanded – the core of the band was Hillman & Pedersen – they’ve worked together on various other projects and whenever one of them issues a solo record, the other seems to be on the recording as well.
“Rolaids, Doan’s Pills and Preparation H” – Dave Dudley
The last chart hit for the king of the truck driving songs, this tune reached # 77 in 1980. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to mention this song.
“There Goes My Heart Again” – Holly Dunn
Holly ran off a nice string of hits from 1986 to 1991. This #4 chart effort from 1989 is my favorite Holly Dunn song. Holly had two #1s but is probably best remembered for her first top ten record “Daddy’s Hands” which reached #7 in 1986 for the soon defunct MTM label .
“It’s Written All Over Your Face” – Ronnie Dunn
This song reached #59 in 1983. He had another single reach #59 the next year with “She Put The Sad In All His Songs”. Wonder whatever became of him ? His singles suggested that he might make it as a mid-level star.
“Guitar Town” – Steve Earle
The big three new faces of 1986 were Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis, each of whom put out solid albums. This was the title song from his the album of the same name, and his biggest hit reaching #7. I tuned out on very quickly on Steve Earle after Guitar Town.
“One Nite Stan” – Ethel and The Shameless Hussies
In reality this was the very talented Kacey Jones performing with her tongue so far in her cheek that I doubt she was ever really able to retrieve it. The group name was taken from a line in Ray Stevens’ hit “The Streak”.
“Midnight Rodeo” – Leon Everette
This was one of several early-80s top tens for Everette.
“The Gospel According To Luke” – Skip Ewing
Skip is a very talented songwriter with many hits to his credit. As a singer he’s rather bland, but I liked this top ten song from 1989.
“Give Me One More Chance” – Exile
Exile had a global #1 pop hit in 1978 with “Kiss You All Over”. The band turned to country music in 1983 and ran off ten #1s during the decade before fading off the charts.