Highway 101 debuted in January 1987 as the newest artist signed to Warner Brothers Records Nashville. Their spectacular eponymous debut introduced the world to Paulette Carlson, a honky-tonk wonder who has always reminded me of a country Stevie Nicks. The record had four major hit singles and was produced by Paul Worley.
The band launched with the impressive honky-tonk rocker “The Bed You Made For Me,” which deservedly hit #4. Carlson, who solely penned the track, is a woman taking the upper hand while confronting her cheating man (it’s not clear if she’s the mistress or the spouse). She brilliantly uses the bed he cheated in to drive home her argument when laying him out in lavender:
And did you tell her she was sleeping in the bed you made for me?
Did she like my satin sheets and did you sing her to sleep?
And my pillow that she slept on did it bring her sweet dreams?
Did you tell her she was sleeping in the bed you made for me?
The pillow that you made for me it was soft with feather down
And the headboard, it came from an old house
That was about to be torn down
And the songs you always sang to me oh as I fall asleep
Did they sound the same to her in the bed you made for me?
Now you can take my old pillow and throw it out the door
You can buy another bed you can find another headboard
‘Cause I ain’t gonna lie beneath those satin sheets you tore
The bed you made for me it isn’t mine anymore
Their second single, which peaked at #2, was the incredible steel guitar drenched “Whiskey, If You Were A Woman,” a slice of songwriting gold penned by Mary W. Francis, Johnny MacRae and Bob Morrison. The clever lyric finds Carlson coping uniquely with her man’s grip on the bottle:
Oh, oh, whiskey, if you were a woman
I’d fight you and I’d win, Lord knows I would
Oh, oh, whiskey, if you were a woman
I’d drive you from his tangled mind for good
No matter what you do, I do it better
You’ll never be the woman I could be
But you don’t have a heart or any feelings
So I can’t even ask for sympathy
They clinched their first chart topper with the luminescent “Somewhere Tonight,” penned by Harlan Howard and Rodney Crowell, who was a rising star at the time. The track, about a lonesome woman whose man took off for brighter horizons, is surprisingly jaunty for the subject matter. (A bit of trivia: “Somewhere Tonight” was #1 the week I was born).
Final single “Cry, Cry, Cry” was the band’s first consecutive #1. It’s another excellent jaunty honky-tonk rocker, this time with Carlson having quite a difficult time getting over the relationship that just ended:
It’s just a little creek now
But when the rain comes down it’s gonna be a raging river
I just heard my baby say goodbye
He left me here holding back my tears, now he’s gone forever
The dam’s gonna break and I’ma gonna cry, cry, cry
I’ma gonna cry and I don’t care who sees
I wonder if he knows what he’s done to me
Gonna love that boy till the day I die
Till the day I do I’m gonna cry, cry, cry
The singles from the band’s debut album were sonically and lyrically cohesive, which helped endear them to radio programmers. The rest of the album somewhat breaks the mold. The band’s drummer Cactus Moser, now married to Wynonna Judd, co-penned the twangy “One Step Closer” with Curtis Stone. The track finds Carlson in a bar with her eye on a guy across the room. She’s hesitant to make a move because ‘One step closer and Mama always told me, don’t go fallin’ till you see the whites of his eyes.’
Carlson solely penned one other track, the equally uptempo “Are You Still Mine,” which could’ve easily been another hit single. She also co-wrote (with Bob DiPiero and Pat McManus) the breakneck paced “Good Goodbye,” about a woman who’s happy to see her current relationship has ended. Matraca Berg lends her pen to “Bridge Across Forever,” a co-write with Ronnie Samoset. It isn’t Berg’s most distinctive lyric and the track unfortunately falls short in comparison to the rest of the album.
The album’s most famous ballad is “Woman Walk The Line,” written by Emmylou Harris and Paul Kennerley. Harris and Trisha Yearwood have both recorded their own versions, which bring out the palpable hurt within the lyric. Highway 101 gives the track pep, which is a bit jarring, but it works as another way of presenting the story.
The final ballad, “Someone Believed” is the most distinctly different from any other track on the album. The song tells a two-act story about a girl who wishes to leave her life on the farm and a city boy who cannot imagine any other life than the girl’s. The cohesiveness is found in the idea that anything is possible in life if you just believe.
Highway 101 is a near perfect debut album. The majority of the tracks are stunning and the production is nicely within the neo-traditional meets contemporary style that was popular at the time. My only slight complaint is that the album is almost too cohesive. I wish Worley had given the album tracks a bit more sonic variety and thus presented the album with a few more surprises. It’s still an essential album 28 years later, with all of the band’s biggest hits in one place. If you were going to check out Highway 101 this is absolutely where you would begin.