The 1980s were a mixed bag, with the early 1980s producing some of the lamest country music ever recorded, as the Urban Cowboy movie wreaked 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.
“Walk On By“– Donna Fargo
A nice cover of the 1961 Leroy Van Dyke hit, by the time this record was released Donna had already pulled back on her career due to being stricken with Multiple Sclerosis in 1979. Released in March 1980, the song reached #43. Donna is still alive and you can find out more about her at her website www.donnafargo.com
“Crying Over You” – Rosie Flores
Rosie’s never had much chart success but this self-proclaimed ‘Rockabilly Filly’ is a popular concert draw and a dynamic live performer. This song was her career chart highwater reaching #51 in 1987.
“Just In Case ” – The Forester Sisters
Katie, Kim, June and Christie had a five year run of top ten hits from 1985 through 1989 with fourteen straight top ten records, including this song, their second of five number one records . Released in 1985, this topped the charts in early 1986.
“Crazy Over You”– Foster & Lloyd
Songwriters Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd joined forces as a duo in 1987. This was their first and biggest chart record reaching #4 in the summer of 1987.
“Always Have, Always Will” – Janie Frickie (or Janie Fricke)
This 1986 #1 was her ninth (and last) #1 record. This bluesy number was an excellent record coming after a long string of successful but insubstantial fluff. A former session singer, Janie’s career hit high gear during the 1980s, a decade which saw her tally 26 chart records with 17 top ten records and eight #1s.
“Beer Joint Fever” – Allen Frizzell
A younger brother of both Lefty and David Frizzell, Allen today writes and sings predominantly Christian music, although he will perform a Lefty Frizzell tribute (omitting Lefty’s rowdier songs). This song charted in 1981 – the follow up was titled “She’s Livin’ It Up (and I’m Drinkin’ ‘Em Down)”, neither of them songs Allen would dream of performing today.
“I’m Gonna Hire A Wino To Decorate Our Home” – David Frizzell
The early 1980s were David Frizzell’s commercial peak, both as a solo artist and as part of a duet with Shelly West. This unforgettable 1982 novelty was David’s sole #1 record, although my personal David Frizzell favorites were the follow up “Lost My Baby Blues” and his 1999 recording of “Murder On Music Row”.
“You’re The Reason God Made Oklahoma” – David Frizzell & Shelly West
A huge record, this song came from the Clint Eastwood film Any Which Way You Can and topped the charts in early 1981
“Houston (Means I’m One Day Closer To You)” – Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers
After a dominant streak from 1975 in which seven songs reached #1 on one or more of the major charts, Larry and his brothers hit a rough patch in which their singles charted, but few reached the top ten. Finally in late 1983 this song reached #1, and kicked off a brief resurgence fueled by a large infusion of western swing. The two records that followed this record (“Denver” and “The Lady Takes The Cowboy Every Time”) would have made Bob Wills proud.
“You and I” – Crystal Gayle & Eddie Rabbitt
Crytal Gayle had a run of thirty-four top ten records that ran from 1974 to 1987. I’m not that big a Crystal Gayle fan but I really liked her 1982 duet with Eddie Rabbitt which reached #1 country / #7 pop.
“Somebody’s Knocking” – Terri Gibbs
Released in 1980, this song peaked at #8 (#13 pop / #3 AC) in early 1989. Blind since birth, Terri really wasn’t a country singer and soon headed to gospel music . This was her biggest hit, one of four top twenty records.
“Sweet Sensuous Sensations” – Don Gibson
Not a big hit, this was Don’s next-to-last chart record, reaching a peak of #42 in April 1980. Don’s chart career ran from 1956-1981. His influence as a songwriter is still felt today.
“Oklahoma Borderline” – Vince Gill
It took Vince a while for his solo career to take off after leaving Pure Prairie League. This song reached #9 in early 1986 and was his second top ten recording. The really big hits would start in 1990 with “When I Call Your Name”.
“A Headache Tomorrow (Or A Heartache Tonight)” – Mickey Gilley
Mickey Gilley was a second cousin to Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart as his piano playing amply demonstrates. This song reached #1 in 1981. Mickey’s long string of hits consisted of some original material (such as this song and “Doo-Wah Days”) and some covers of pop hits such as his next record “You Don’t Know Me” (a cover of a Ray Charles hit covering an Eddy Arnold hit) and prior hits “True Love Ways” and “Stand By Me”.
“White Freight Liner Blues” – Jimmie Dale Gilmore
Jimmie Dale Gilmore looks like a renegade hippie from the sixties and sounds like one of my honky-tonk specialist from the fifties. He’s never had much chart success (this song reached # 72 in 1988) but his albums are terrific and his vocals solid country through and through. Probably the most underrated performer of my generation.
“If I Could Only Dance With You” – Jim Glaser
A part of the famous trio Tompall and The Glaser Brothers, Jim’s voice was midway in range between brothers Chuck and Tompall with significant overlap on both ends. Also, Jim was part of the vocal trio on Marty Robbin’s classic hit “El Paso” and wrote the pop hit “Woman, Woman” (#4 pop hit for Gary Puckett and The Union Gap). Jim released a number of chart records under his own name form 1968-1977, but his real success began after Tompall & The Glaser Brothers split up (again) in 1982 and Jim signed with Noble Vision Records. After the first three records for Noble Vision went top thirty, this 1984 single reached #10. The follow up “You’re Getting To Me Again” went to #1 but then Noble Vision started having financial problems. Jim would subsequently sign with MCA in 1985 but the momentum had been lost (not to mention that by then Jim was already 47 years old).
“Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)” – Tompall & The Glaser Brothers
Tompall and The Glaser Brothers were one of the most impressive live singing groups to ever take the stage. Unfortunately, their stage show did not translate into recording success. The group was together from 1959 until about 1974, recording many fine records but only one top ten hit in “Rings” which reached Record World’s #1 slot in 1971. The group briefly reunited in 1980 and had their career record with this Kris Kristofferson song which reached #2 Billboard / #1 Cashbox in 1980.
“Today My World Slipped Away” – Vern Gosdin
Recorded for the small AMI label, this gem reached #10 in early 1983, just as AMI was going down the toilet. It’s hard for me to pick out just one favorite Vern Gosdin song, but this one would be in my top three. From here Vern would go to another small label Compleat where he would have his biggest hit in 1987’s “I Can Tell By The Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight”).
“Diamonds In The Dust”- Mark Gray
Mark Gray and Vince Gill were the two young male singers most highly touted to make it big in the early 1980s. Both were associated with bands that had some success (Mark was a member of Exile for a few years, Vince a member of Pure Prairie League). Then Nashville took a traditionalist turn leaving Gray, not as versatile a performer as Vince Gill, stranded. Still, Gray almost made it. This song was Gray’s third top ten record, reaching #9 in late 1984. The follow up “Sometimes When We Touch”, a nice duet with Tammy Wynette reached #6. Then came the Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam, et al floodwaters of 1986.
“When A Man Loves A Woman” – Jack Grayson
Nice 1981 cover of a #1 pop hit for Percy Sledge in 1966. This song peaked at #18 in early 1982. This was Grayson’s only top twenty recording out of thirteen charted records.
“The Jukebox Never Plays Home Sweet Home” – Jack Greene
This 1983 single barely cracked the top 100 for Jack but it was a pretty good recording that probably would have been a big hit had Jack recorded it a dozen years earlier. This was Jack’s thirty-third chart record. He would have three more before fading off the charts for good. His 1966 single was #1 for seven weeks in 1966-1967 and was the CMA Single of The Year in 1967. Jack also took home the Male Vocalist honors for 1967. Jack is now 82 years old and still performs, but mostly on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.
“I.O.U.”– Lee Greenwood
This single reached #6 in 1983, his fourth consecutive top ten single, and still my favorite Lee Greenwood song. Lee was the first artist to record “Wind Beneath My Wings” and had it planned as the second single from the I.O.U album. Gary Morris dashed into the studio and got his version recorded and released before “I.O.U.” finished its chart run. Lee’ version was better (and better than the pop version that came out in 1989).
“Lone Star State of Mind” – Nanci Griffith
Nanci is a fine songwriter/poet having written many fine songs. As a singer, she’s not much. This song reached #36 in 1987, her biggest chart hit of the 1980s. She did a nice recording of “Love At The Five & Dime”, but even that song was better in a cover version, as recorded by Kathy Mattea.
“Still The Same” – Bonnie Guitar
Nine years after her last chart entry and twenty years after her last top forty recording , country music’s ‘Renaissance Woman’ snuck onto the charts in 1989 with a nice version of a Bob Dylan song.
“Trains Make Me Lonesome”– Marty Haggard
Marty’s career almost ended before it started when he picked up a hitch hiker who shot him and left him for dead. A long recovery followed with an extended period of recovery. This song reached #57 in 1988 for the soon to be defunct MTM label. Written by Paul Overstreet and Thom Schuyler, this song was recorded by a number of artists including George Strait on his 1992 album Holding My Own. Marty’s version is better and would have been a big hit had it been released in 1958 rather than 1988.
“A Better Love Next Time – Merle Haggard
This was Merle’s 100th chart single reaching #4 in 1989. What else is there to say?
“Song of The South” – Tom T. Hall & Earl Scruggs
Tom T. Hall’s days as a hit maker were largely over by 1982 and Earl Scruggs never was a hit maker – he was of far greater importance than that. These two music masters combined for a wonderful album titled The Storyteller and The Banjo Man in 1982 from which emerged this single. Alabama would have a big hit with this song a few years later but the Alabama version lacks the personality and charm of this rendition.
“She Says” – George Hamilton V
The only chart record for the son of George Hamilton IV, this tune reached #75 in early 1988.
“There’s Still A Lot of Love In San Antone” – Connie Hanson with Darrell McCall
A cover of Darrell’s 1974 hit, this version peaked at # 64 in early 1983.
“After The Last Goodbye ” – Gus Hardin
This 1983 recording was the only solo top ten for the smoky voiced Ms. Hardin. A longtime favorite in Tulsa, Gus broke through with a major label contract (RCA) and charted eight solo singles and two duets. Released in 1984, her duet with Earl Thomas Conley “All Tangled Up In Love” peaked at #8 in early 1985. Her 1985 duet with David Loggins “Just As Long As I Have You” reached #72.
“I’m Moving On ” – Emmylou Harris
Emmylou had 26 top ten recordings between 1975 and 1988. This 1983 live cover of Hank Snow’s 1950 hit (in fact, the biggest chart hit in the history of country music) reached #5. During the 1980s, most of Emmylou’s best recordings were duets – “That Loving You Feelin’ Again” (with Roy Orbison) and “If I Needed You” (with Don Williams) come readily to mind, but there were more.
“Sure Thing” – Freddie Hart
After a hugely successful first half of the 1970s, Freddie hits got progressively smaller. By 1979 Freddie had been dropped by Capitol and signed by Sunbird, the same label that launched Earl Thomas Conley. The label failed to re-launch Freddie’s career but did provide a few good recordings, including this song, which reached #15 in 1980 and would prove to be Freddie’s last top twenty hit.
“Key Largo” – Bertie Higgins
Just when it seemed that the ‘Gulf & Western’ subgenre had been strip mined of hits by Jimmy Buffett, along comes this nostalgic hit which became a #8 pop hit in 1982 (topped out at #50 on the country chart).
“Whiskey, If You Were A Woman” – Highway 101
Highway 101 exploded onto the country music scene in January 1987 running off a string of ten consecutive top tens through early 1990. This one is my personal favorite with Paulette Carlson’s voice seemingly tailor made for the song, which reached #2 in 1987. Typical story – Carlson left the band in late 1990 seeking solo stardom and the band never recovered its momentum (plus Carlson did not succeed as a solo act). I was torn between this song and one of the group’s #1 hits “Somewhere Tonight”.
“Jones On The Jukebox” – Becky Hobbs
The inability of the Hobbs to break through at radio has always bugged me. Other than a duet with Moe Bandy (“Let’s Get Over Them Together” – #10 in 1983), Ms Hobbs was unable to break the top thirty. The closest she got was this song, which peaked at #31 in 1988.
“Texas Ida Red” – David Houston
David’s 60th (and next to last) chart record, this recording peaked at #69 on the small Excelsior label in 1981. This was a pretty good western swing record. Houston would have one more chart record in 1989. His 1966 hit “Almost Persuaded” was (according to Billboard) the biggest chart record of the last fifty years, spending nine weeks at #1.
“All American Redneck” – Randy Howard
#84 in 1983 – what more need I say.
“Til You And Your Lover Are Lovers Again” – Engelbert Humperdinck
Engelbert is one of the truly great vocalists of my generation. His greatest decade was the 1960s when he made international huge pop hits out of country classics such as “Release Me”, “There Goes My Everything” and “Am I That Easy To Forget” as well as covering other country songs on his albums. This song peaked at #39 in 1983.
“Oh Girl” – Con Hunley
This cover of a Chi-Lites hit from 1972 reached #12 in 1982 and featured the Oak Ridge Boys on backing vocals. Con’s voice was too smoky and too distinctive to have achieved much success during the early 1980s but this was a fine recording, even if not very country. Con’s biggest hit came the year before when “What’s New With You” peaked at #11.
“Talk To Me Loneliness” – Cindy Hurt
This song reached #35 in 1982. Her biggest hit was “Don’t Come Knocking” which topped out at #28 earlier in the year. Cindy charted seven records between 1981 and 1983, then disappeared.