The year 1989 is most commonly remembered in country music for the arrival of the Hat Acts who would come to dominate the genre for much of the next decade: Garth Brooks and Clint Black released debut albums and each sprinkled several hits throughout the year, while Alan Jackson charted his first single in the fall. But country music is never just one thing. As the 1980s ended, a new subgenre eventually known as “alternative country” began to emerge, a scene that preferred sounds too loud and twangy for the radio. Mainstream country fans, meanwhile, were more likely to prefer signature hits from Alabama and proto-Hat Act George Strait as well as strong work from the likes of Holly Dunn, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Suzy Bogguss — who all played in a shimmering country-folk style that would persist, for a time, into the Nineties. Finally, 1989 also enjoyed what the rearview now reveals were the final Top 10 radio hits from legends Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and George Jones. Though we tend to associate certain eras with certain sounds, one key annual takeaway in country music is nearly always the same: Variety is good.
As the 1980s ended, the smart money in the Next Country Superstar sweepstakes was on Clint Black. A vocalist in the Lefty-to-Merle tradition, but with prettier tone and bigger pipes, Black had the superior vocal chops, wrote the smarter songs (usually with guitarist Hayden Nicholas), and was blessed with a Gary Cooper grin to boot. As things played out, it was mostly downhill for Black afterward, artistically anyway, but Killin’ Time remains a perfect debut: five indelible hits, four of them chart-toppers, including the dazed-and-confused “Nobody’s Home,” the suicide-in-slow-motion title track, and the existentially bored “Nothing’s News” (“I wonder how I came to be the know-it-all I am?”).
Best of all was “Better Man.” Its Springsteen bounce and Hornsby keys dragged late-Eighties rock out to the country, and its generous, self-aware message remains all too rare regardless of format: Black’s in the dumps because his woman’s dumped him — yet is still able to appreciate that he’s become a better person for “knowing you this way.”
This was Alison Krauss’ third album but her first with Union Station, the bluegrass band she’s led ever since. Still only 18, her voice is higher and a bit brighter than it became — it was primarily her vocals here that earned Krauss her first IBMA win for Female Vocalist. Alongside guitarist and fellow vocalist Jeff White, she lays high and lonesome into genre standards such as “Wild Bill Jones” and swell newer numbers too, like the Larry Cordle-penned title track and band bassist John Pernell’s heart-plummeting “Here Comes Goodbye.” The album comes to a rousing end with a highway-speed workout on the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider.”
“Ace in the Hole,” one of a trio of Number Ones here, lays out what each of us will need to make it through this contingent life. The rest of the album shows us where we may end up anyway. For instance, the opening title track and “What’s Going on In Your World” illustrate the meanness in this world and the alienation that can follow. Some of what’s here just laughs to keep from crying: “Hollywood Squares” is where Strait imagines himself belonging but only because he has so many X’s, and O’s so much. Most of the remaining heartaches, even a crawling honky-tonk-leaning number like “Overnight Success,” coat their pain in smooth, twinkling surfaces — a wonderland of misery.
There’s plenty of competition on all fronts, of course, but Beyond the Blue Neon was probably the best country album of its year, quite possibly its decade too, and remains the greatest album of Strait’s career.
In which Dolly Parton saves her decade’s best for last, choosing her finest batch of songs in years and tagging producer Ricky Skaggs and all-star pickers like Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, and Bela Fleck to punch up the twang. The album opens with an exhilarating reading of REO Speedwagon’s “Time for Me to Fly,” the sort of bluegrassy arena rock cover she’s long favored, and follows it up with what looks to be the final solo chart-toppers of her career: the aspirational, polished-chrome title track (a Mac Davis co-write) and the randy romp “Why’d You Come in Here Looking Like That.” My favorite is “Slow Healing Heart,” a borderline power ballad, powered by mandolin, pedal steel, and Dolly’s “walking wounded” tears.
Among Emmylou Harris’ finest, Bluebird masterfully splits the difference between old-school country and on-the-way Americana. There’s an old Johnny Cash song as well as new twangy boot-scooters like “Heaven Only Knows” and “Heartbreak Hill” (which now stands as the last Top 10 country hit she’s likely ever to have). But Harris also renders the Carl Belew standard “Lonely Street” into a ghostly, hopeless soprano-and-guitar mood piece, and her stately third-person phrasing generates a version of John Hiatt’s “Icy Blue Heart” that could be mistaken for some ancient mountain ballad, haunted kin to “Barbara Allen” or “Pretty Polly.”
George Jones could sing the damn phonebook, as the cliché has it, and still make you cry. So imagine how moving it is to hear country’s greatest singer moan standards like “Just Out of Reach,” “My Baby’s Gone,” “Don’t You Ever Get Tired (Of Hurting Me)” and the Johnny Horton title track — the last Top 10 solo single of Jones’ career. The standout track is “The King Is Gone (So Are You),” a novelty ballad as harrowing as it is hilarious. Poor George attempts to drown his troubles by pouring shot after shot from an Elvis Presley bourbon decanter into a Flintstones jelly-jar glass. “Yabba dabba doo!”
Thanks to the Hat Act debuts of Garth, Clint & co., 1989 marks the beginning of country radio’s format shift to so-called Hot New Country, or HNC. In Minneapolis’ the Jayhawks, 1989 also saw stirrings of a self-consciously twangier, louder foil to HNC, the post-punk country-rock that soon would be dubbed alternative, or alt-country. Really not much more than a collection of demos, Blue Earth’s charms are decidedly lo-fi (particularly next to the studio perfectionism on the band’s masterpiece major-label follow-up, Hollywood Town Hall), but the sound is more than good enough to highlight the always-melancholy but somehow also always-catchy-and-exuberant melodies and voices of songwriter Mark Olsen and lead guitarist Gary Louris. On “Two Angels” or “Ain’t No End,” or any of a half-dozen others, their distinctive harmony blend is arguably country’s best since the time of the brothers Stanley and Louvin, or at least since Gram and Emmylou.
Garth Brooks changed country forever, bringing superstar success and arena-rock performance style to the genre while rebranding the soft-rock, singer-songwriter balladry that had previously been most associated with the likes of James Taylor or Dan Fogelberg. In a typically country move, though, Brooks made sure his game-changing moves were tied at the waist to what came before him. To that end, his debut featured the George Strait-inspired western swinger “Not Counting You” as well as a lone-and-lonely-fiddle answer song to “Amarillo by Morning” called “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old).” The album concludes with the insistence that, yes, we can have it both ways: a Charley-Pride-by-way-of-Jim-Reeves version of “I Know One” is followed by the soft-rock message song “The Dance,” which argues that the sunny and stormy sides of every life are inevitably hot-wired together. Doesn’t get any more country than that.
In the last half of the 1980s, Holly Dunn (who died of cancer in 2016) scored nine Top 10s, a pair of country chart-toppers included. Next to many of her chart contemporaries, though, Dunn’s more or less unknown today. None of her hit-producing albums are in print or even available to stream, and not a few genre histories and record guides skip her career entirely. You’ll need to track it down used, but The Blue Rose of Texas is worth the hunt — and makes the case she could sing almost anything. Showcasing her gutsy soprano, the album opens with “Are You Ever Gonna Love Me,” which updates the Everly Brothers’ rockin’ country sound for the compact disc era, and Dunn does the same for Buck Owens’ Bakersfield on “There Goes My Heart Again.” The title track is the gentlest of western swing, “No One Takes the Train Anymore” is singer-songwriter folk, and “Most of All, Why” (with backing vocals by its writer, Dolly Parton) trembles as Dunn’s tears well up, then fall to scar her cheek.
What a gift this album is. With Emmylou Harris singing behind him, Guy Clark’s “Immigrant Eyes” feels timely as ever (“Some were one desk away from sweet freedom, some were torn from someone they love”). Clark’s take on wife Susanna’s generous “Come from the Heart” just feels timeless. And “Heavy Metal” (“‘bout a big ol’ D-10 caterpillar” driver) is a marvelous iteration of the working man’s blues. Three decades on, these 10 exquisite tracks sound more and more like the finest studio album of Clark’s career.
The Ivy League-educated Carpenter was a coffeehouse singer-songwriter but became a country act because where else was she going to get radio spins? Her second album tweaked her folkie sounds, doubled down on her smarts, and included a pair of Top Tens. “Never Had It So Good” combines hard, Steve Earle-y strum with cool-but-not-quite-collected Rosanne Cash-styled drama. Best of all, though, was one of the great forgotten country hits of its era, the jangly country-rockin’ “Quittin’ Time.” She was just getting started.
Even noting the string of Top 10 hits she enjoyed in the early 1990s, Suzy Bogguss remains one of the most underrated singers in country history, a gold-standard merging of the folkie-prettiness of Kathy Mattea, say, and the soulful, trad-country ache of a Patty Loveless. Her major-label debut didn’t include any big hits, but did demonstrate that big-tent sense of country tradition, including radiant renditions of everything from Patsy Montana’s “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” to Susanna Clark and Rodney Crowell’s “Guilty As They Come,” to the best version of the Merle Haggard-penned title track you’ll ever hear. If you’re not already a fan, Somewhere Between is a swell intro to a vocalist you’ll want to become a completist about.