Cut to the chase: 1988 was one of the greatest years for country music albums in the genre’s history. Partly this was due to what Steve Earle dubbed “The Great Credibility Scare.” For just a minute, between the crossover peaks of the Urban Cowboy craze at the beginning of the Eighties and the arrival of Garth Books and his Hat Act companions at the decade’s tail end, there was a window when country record labels took chances on often rock-leaning singer-songwriter types who were critically acclaimed but, perhaps, commercially marginal: Lyle Lovett, Foster & Lloyd, Nanci Griffith and several others, including Earle himself. What’s blanked on too often these days, however, is that these latter-day genre rebels were accompanied by successful, square-in-the-mainstream, country stars — both young and old, New Country and New Traditionalist who were producing some equally credible, and often incredible, recordings. These twin trends peaked in 1988 when there were so many fantastic country albums released that, here, we’re recommending a dozen great ones instead of our usual 10.
One way to listen to Dwight Yoakam’s third album is as a pair of EPs, each with its own loose theme. The first side moves from the we’re-poor-but-we-got-love “I Got You,” passes through a variety of suspicions and deceptions, then concludes with the toxic, murderous acts of the title track. The flip side takes on displaced white Southern identity via a couple of singles that remain the only Billboard Number Ones of Yoakam’s career: “I Sang Dixie” and “Streets of Bakersfield.” Another way to listen is just to hear it as a concept album about country music itself, where the foregrounding of seemingly retro themes and twangy sounds, mingled with modern sonics and Yoakam’s cool delivery, creates a space where country music traditions can at once be embraced and commented upon.
Just a year after the release of Don’t Close Your Eyes, Keith Whitley died of alcohol poisoning at age 33. It’s one of country’s great “what ifs” to imagine what might have happened had he lived. Whitley began his career in bluegrass, playing in the bands of both Ralph Stanley and J.D. Crowe. By the mid-Eighties, however, he’d made a successful transition to mainstream country where his soft curly-cued tenor provided a key link in the chain that connects, say, Lefty Frizell, whose “I Never Go Around Mirrors” he covers here, to Garth Brooks, whose phrasing, intonation and love of piano ballads, it turns out, were predicted by Whitley’s chart-toppers like “When You Say Nothing At All,” “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” and the harrowing “Don’t Close Your Eyes.”
All these decades of great work later and this one is still her best. Her defining sound and arrangements (hat tip to producer and guitarist Gurf Morlix for that) backing her most bittersweet vocals — the gut-punch of her tone trebled here, because this was back when she still committed to enunciation. And the songs! “Passionate Kisses” and “The Night’s Too Long” became hits for Mary Chapin Carpenter and Patty Loveless, respectively, but best of the best is “Side of the Road,” where Williams tells her lover to stay here, I’ll be back, but I need a minute, and more, to myself.
Before Little Big Town, Lady Antebellum or the Band Perry, there was Highway 101: a self-contained, co-ed country outfit with a fantastic female lead. Though mostly forgotten these days, Paulette Carlson was one of the most exuberant and expressive country hitmakers of her era. Imagine a cross between Tammy Wynette and Stevie Nicks fronting one hell of a country-rock band (except on “Feed This Fire,” where Carlson nixes the Tammy and offers up the finest pure-Stevie ballad that Stevie never made). Featuring songs by Matraca Berg and Beth Nielsen Chapman, plus a nifty updating of a Bakersfield standard, Highway 101 (2) isn’t to be missed. Standout track: “Setting Me Up,” a stomping Dire Straits cover, delivered as a duet between Carlson and guitarist Jack Daniels, that became the group’s seventh consecutive Top Ten.
They say that it’s a man’s world, but you can’t prove that by K.T. Ms. Oslin notes up front that she doesn’t need some man’s money because she’s a working girl and has her own, thank you very much. She has her own troubles, too. In “Where’s a Woman to Go,” she goes to a bar (her daddy’d just die) to feed the jukebox: “Gonna find out how many teardrops ten dollars can buy.” In “Hold Me,” after her husband reveals he drove off that morning planning to leave her forever only to change his mind, she pulls the rug from under that confession by informing his ass she’s done the same thing. From the cover’s permed-and-shoulder-padded glamour shot to K.T. warning her latest flame that she “don’t stay in love for long,” This Woman is for Eighties ladies all the way —and for the ladies and gentlemen who love them.
George Strait doesn’t make bad albums, but the conventional wisdom is that he does kind of make the same one over and over again. While true in the board strokes, this estimation overlooks all the reasons why Strait’s great in the first place, starting with a quality that’s still not as associated with him as it should be: variety. Strait’s ninth album pinballs from honky-tonk to hard-as-rock western swing to jazzy lounge crooning to pure pop balladry. Or, put another way, from the title track, a twangy hardcore cover of a randy country classic, to weepy softshell country-pop like “Famous Last Words of a Fool.” And the album’s real spice of life is Strait himself, who alters his vocal attack — slurry or rough, smooth or chilly, stretching lines, clipping them, shouting, whispering — attempting stoicism before falling to pieces.
Early in 1988, If My Heart Had Windows included her radio breakthroughs, but it was her second album of the year, including her first two Number Ones and three more Top Fives besides, that established Patty Loveless as a singer for the ages. “Chains” is her link in a chain of fools that stretches back at least to Aretha. “Timber, I’m Falling in Love” sounded like maybe George Jones had cut it 30 years ago but was actually brand new from songwriter Kostas. And her cover of Maria McKee’s “Don’t Toss Us Away” entwines country’s future, like it or not, with all that Americana to come.
The O’Kanes weren’t literal brothers but, during their brief recording career, Jamie O’Hara and Kieran Kane sure sounded like they were. The O’Kanes didn’t simply update the country tradition of fraternal guitar-and-mandolin harmony duos like the Louvins, to whom they were frequently compared, and the Delmore Brothers, who with their bluesy blend and jazz-boogie rhythms were the more spot-on antecedent. Instead, the O’Kanes actually made rambling songs, murder ballads and heart songs (along with busted-heart songs, too) that are the equal of anything in the tradition.
From Ain’t Living Long Like This, his masterpiece proto-Americana debut from 1978, and on to The Houston Kid, his masterpiece state-of-the-art Americana comeback from 2001, Rodney Crowell’s been most closely associated with the progressive- or alt-sides of the country divide. Ironic, then, that his most enduring contributions have all landed smack in the commercial radio mainstream. Either as producer, picker or songwriter, Crowell had a hand in all the best, and best-selling, recordings by both his former boss Emmylou Harris and his former wife Rosanne Cash, and his masterpiece among masterpieces, Diamonds & Dirt, launched five country chart-toppers. At once deep and direct, crafty and charismatic, judgy and generous, challenging and accessible, up to date yet up on the past — Crowell’s album collapses the expected country binaries. It bounces between indelible ballads, like “After All This Time,” tough shuffles, such as “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried” and Harlan Howard’s “Above and Beyond,” and crazed boot-scooters like “She’s Crazy for Leaving,” where he’s freed from a wrecked pickup via jaws of life. “Sometimes it’s diamonds and sometimes its dirt,” Crowell muses at the close about love, or maybe art. “Sometimes it’s magic and sometimes it’s work.” And, sometimes, it’s everything at once.
Vern Gosdin was nicknamed “The Voice,” but that was always too limiting. On the best-selling, and just plain best, album of his career, Gosdin fights off tears like Mel Street, lets them fall like George Jones, pulls himself together again like Don Williams: “The Voices” might’ve been more like it. On “Set ‘Em Up Joe,” a tribute to Ernest Tubb’s “Walkin’ the Floor Over You” that goes down as maybe the greatest ever sad-country-ballad-about-another-sad-country-ballad, he proves himself a master of the honky-tonk form, and then, on “Tight As Twin Fiddles,” does the same with western swing. Throughout, he delivers hard-won vernacular wisdom (“Nobody Calls From Vegas Just to Say Hello,” “I Guess I Had Your Leavin’ Coming”), never more so than on the title cut: “You don’t know about lonely, till it’s chiseled in stone.”
Working with Patsy Cline producer Owen Bradley, k.d. lang was praised most often here for creating in a simmering, shimmering mode of Cline-alike Nashville Sound on “Lock, Stock and Teardrops” and “I’m Down to My Last Cigarette.” But the album is much more expansive. Lang casts herself singing “Gay ‘90s” player-piano tunes here, Silver Screen pop there, way uptown blues, humid exotica, and — big finish — teams on a medley of country standards with three other Bradley collaborators: Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn and, the real queen of this now forsaken brand of eclecti-politan, Brenda Lee. Shadowland proves again that playing roles and feeling sincere are not mutually exclusive.
So many country stars from the 1980s have slipped from collective memory. Take the Forester Sisters, who scored 14 Top 10 hits in the decade (including five Number Ones) and sounded as if Kathy Mattea had cloned herself into a quartet. Opening with bluegrassy take on the Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” the Foresters’ best album was Sincerely, named after their take on a 1955 McGuire Sisters hit — and that blend of smart mid-Sixties balladry and sweet, easeful mid-Fifties harmonies captures well where they were coming from. Best moment: “Love Will,” a timeless testament to the necessity of love that doesn’t pretend you won’t lose it.