My Kind of Country

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

Spotlight Artist: Highway 101

highway 101Paulette Carlson was born in Minnesota in 1952, and began singing in bars there and in North Dakota. She signed her first solo record deal with RCA in 1983, but none of her singles for the label had made much of a splash. Groups were more successful in country music in the 1980s than they had ever been before, and in 1986 Paulette, who had relocated to LA, at the southern end of the iconic Pacific coast road, US Highway 101, recruited three talented musicians in Jack Daniels on lead guitar, Curtis Stone on bass guitar, and Scott (always known as Cactus) Moser on drums, to form the band known as Highway 101. The three men were all making a living as studio session musicians, but wanted a shot at the big time.

The partnership was a magical one, with Paulette’s distinctive vocals matched by the band’s radio-friendly sound. They soon signed to Warner Brothers, and their debut single, Carlson’s ‘The Bed You Made For Me’ was an immediate hit. A string of hits followed in the remaining years of the decade, and they won both the CMA and ACM Vocal Group of the Year awards in 1988.

But there was trouble in store. Paulette Carlson still had solo ambitions, and in 1990 she chose to leave the band in favour of a solo deal with Capitol. Unfortunately for her, the album she released in 1991 featured mainly weak material, and her singles flopped at radio. The boys he left behind had better luck. Realising that Highway 101’s big selling point was the strong female lead, they recruited an able replacement in Nikki Nelson, a 22 year old from California. She made two albums with Highway 101, and their singles gained some airplay, although they fell short of the success of the original brand. Jack Daniels then departed, and the remaining trio moved to Liberty, a new Nashville label founded by legendary exec and producer Jimmy Bowen, for one album and single.

Both Carlson and her former bandmates hankered after former glories, and she, Daniels and Stone teamed up again in 1996. They recorded a new album, suitably entitled Reunited, on Intersound Records, but it was too late to rekindle the fire they had enjoyed on country radio.

Another new start, and new lineup, was briefly created in 1998, featuring Stone, Moser, and two newcomers: vocalist Chrislynn Lee and Charlie White. Subsequently, Nikki Nelson returned as lead vocalist, backed by Moser, Stone, and a frequently changing lead guitarist. Cactus Moser (now married to Wynonna Judd) unfortunately lost a leg in a motorcycle accident in 2012, but continues to tour with Highway 101. Their only recent recorded output is a Christmas single and DVD in 2010.

In between the usual December fare of year-end reviews and Christmas records, we will be surveying the career of Highway 101.

5 responses to “Spotlight Artist: Highway 101

  1. Razor X December 2, 2015 at 9:08 am

    I always thought that it was a shame that Paulette Carlson’s solo ambitions ruined a good thing for everyone. When she left Highway 101, everyone lost — Paulette, her former bandmates, and the fans. The band would have had at least a few more years of success had she stayed. It’s a pity she didn’t at least hang in there until Highway 101 was past its commercial peak.

    • Ken December 2, 2015 at 4:21 pm

      The reason Paulette left the act near the height of their popularity was because her stock was at it’s high water mark and other record labels were interested in her as a solo performer. Had she struck out on her own after the act was in decline there probably would not have been many takers and those that wanted her would have offered bargain basement pricing. She made a business decision that seemed to make perfect sense at that time.

      Her failure as a solo entity can be attributed to two factors. First and foremost she lacked the stellar songs that had made Highway 101 so successful. In an era when hot new acts with strong songs were proliferating competition was never keener. There was no room for fair or mediocre material when there was an abundance of great music available. But more significantly she had the unfortunate circumstance of being signed to Garth Brooks’ label. Capitol became overwhelmed by the megastar so that other artists on their roster were not even on their radar. Paulette was not a priority but she did not find that out until it was too late. To be fair to Capitol they were unprepared for the juggernaut that Garth became. Several other Capitol artists also fell victim to Garth’s superstardom.

      Sad that such a talented, distinctive artist had such a short lifespan as a hit-maker. I agree that had she remained with Highway 101 there might have been many more hits. I saw them in their heyday and they were an exciting act onstage.

      • luckyoldsun December 3, 2015 at 3:27 pm

        There were a lot of women singers who were doing real well commercially then–Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood, Wynonna Judd, Lorrie Morgan, Pam Tillis, Patty Loveless. But there were also plenty of good ones whom radio never took to and who failed. Bobby Cryner, Kelly Willis, Joy White, Marsha Thornton come to mind. I guess there were no sure things–and having been part of a successful group was evidently not the asset that Carlson figured it would be.

        • Razor X December 3, 2015 at 4:11 pm

          Which is why — after years of struggling — I would have thought she’d appreciate the success she had with Highway 101 and not want to risk going solo. As part of a group, she didn’t have to compete directly with the solo female vocalists you mentioned for awards, etc.

      • Ken December 3, 2015 at 5:31 pm

        Razor: All of that is easily overlooked when there’s somebody waving a big money contract at you. Remember that with Highway 101 she had to split the take four ways. On her own she kept 100% and would see just her name on the marquee. From a business standpoint the deal was a winner – if she could deliver the hits.

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