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Good Country Music (1980-85): Crossover Cowboys

Sunday Simmons ItcherAfter making a huge impact on the mainstream charts – and the silver screen – country music began to decline in popularity as the eighties progressed, but new artists continued to inject life into the genre. Check out Reba McEntire, Ricky Skaggs and more in good country music from 1980-1985. ~ Sunday Simmons

Outlaw Country

It was the early eighties and country music was taking Hollywood by storm. Western darling, Dolly Parton, starred in ‘Rhinestone’ with Sylvester Stallone. John Travolta and Debra Winger brought Mickey Gilley’s nightclub into the spotlight with the box office smash ‘Urban Cowboy’; Sissy Spacek took on the role of Loretta Lynn in ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’.

Country music was beginning to evolve as the decade progressed, with new faces joining the old…

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Incredible Country Music Recommendations

Reba McEntire

Essential Album: ‘My Kind of Country’ (1984)

Oh honey, why did you leave me? // Ain’t you got a heart left in your chest // I swear to you that I’m dying // ‘Cause my mind won’t let my body rest…

Reba McEntire released albums steadily through the late seventies and early eighties, but it wasn’t until her breakthrough album ‘My Kind of Country’ hit the airwaves in 1984 that this lady’s career hurtled skyward.

Reba went on to become a multi-million selling artist, but ‘My Kind of Country’ remains one of her best recordings as far as I’m concerned. It showcases an artist coming into her own, taking control of where she wants her music to go, and with a more traditional country sound that would become the blueprint for countless future hits.

If you’ve only heard of Reba’s later work, you really should treat yourself to this album – I love the track ‘How Blue’. With its pretty, finger-picking intro and Reba’s rich, friendly tone, it’s one of my favourite tracks from one of country’s best selling artists.

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The Judds

Essential Track: ‘Girl’s Night Out’ (‘Why Not Me’, 1985)

Well, it’s a girl’s night out // Honey, there ain’t no doubt // I’m gonna dance every dance // ‘Til the boys go home…

Mother/daughter duo, Naomi and Wynnona Judd, had a successful country career during the eighties, racking up hit after hit. ‘Girl’s Night Out’ is traditional rocking country at its best, a foot-stomping, hand-clapping, sing-along, feel good song.

If you’re up for a boot-scooting boogie, ‘Girl’s Night Out’ is the perfect party starter, with a great harmony vocal from two of the finest female country singers to emerge during the eighties. It’s a shame the duo’s career was cut short in 1991 due to Naomi’s illness, but fans delight in the reunion gigs, and ‘Girl’s Night Out’ remains an instant crowd pleaser!

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Ricky Skaggs

Essential Track: ‘Highway 40 Blues’ (‘Highways & Heartaches’, 1982)

The highway called when I was young // Told me lies of things to come // Fame and fortune lies ahead // That’s what the billboard lights had said…

Producer, bluegrass singer, composer, and multi-instrumentalist, Ricky Scaggs, carved himself a reputation as a country music game changer during the eighties as he worked to keep the genre fresh with his neo-traditional style. Not afraid to experiment, Ricky created a boundary breaking sound and according to top guitarist, Chet Atkins, he was ‘single handedly saving country music’.

Accolades aside, Ricky has produced some phenomenal music, and his track ‘Highway 40 Blues’ is one of my all-time favourites. This song has a real country groove – a relentless foot-tapping groove, banjo, mandolin, steel guitar, and of course, Ricky’s friendly country twang.

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Vince Gill

Essential Album: ‘Turn Me Loose’ (1984)

I trusted you with all my heart // And the only love I’ve known // Oh Carolina, how could you let her go?

Vince Gill is a traditional country balladeer par excellence, and his career only went from strength to strength after the release of his debut solo album, ‘Turn Me Loose’, in 1984. Before solo success beckoned, Vince enjoyed success as frontman with Pure Prairie League in the seventies, and was reportedly asked to join Dire Straits by none other than Mark Knopfler himself!

I digress. As country debut albums go, ‘Turn Me Loose’ is outstanding and sets the bar for Vince’s future releases. My dad was a big Vince Gill fan so I heard a lot of this guy throughout the years, but it was always his debut album that stood out for me.

I love Vince’s vocal style; it’s rich and warm in a Glen Campbell way but has a lighter tone. I’ve chosen ‘Oh, Carolina’ as my favourite album track – it has a lovely melody, some pretty acoustic moments, and Vince’s voice is so pure on this song it speaks right to the heart.

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Johnny Lee

Essential Track: ‘Looking for Love’ (‘Urban Cowboy Soundtrack’, 1980)

I was lookin’ for love in all the wrong places // Lookin’ for love in too many faces // Searchin’ their eyes, lookin’ for traces // Of what I’m dreamin’ of…

I absolutely love this track from Johnny Lee; it has just about everything I like about an upbeat country ballad – killer hook, great melody, steel guitar, and Johnny Lee’s warm vocal tone. Johnny had experienced some commercial success during the seventies, but after ‘Looking for Love’ featured on the soundtrack for the hit movie ‘Urban Cowboy’, his career shot through the roof and the track was a huge crossover hit!

There’s a Bellamy Brother’s feel to this song, and it’s easy to see why it ended up breaking free of the Billboard Country Hot 100 to top the mainstream charts for an impressive three week run!

A lovely catchy ballad that belongs on any country playlist.

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The Highwaymen

Essential Track: ‘Highwayman’ (‘Highwayman’, 1985)

I fly a starship // Across the Universe divide // And when I reach the other side // I’ll find a place to rest my spirit if I can…

Like a Travelling Wilburys for the country world, The Highwaymen was a supergroup of stellar proportions. Featuring outlaw country artists Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, The Highwaymen scored a #1 hit with ‘Highwayman’ in 1985.

With such a rich heritage, this band couldn’t be anything other than awesome as four of the biggest names in country music came together to create something special. Written by Jimmy Webb and originally recorded by Glen Campbell, ‘Highwayman’ is an intricate tale told it in style; it shot to the top of the country charts.

A smooth country track with an amazing vocal performance from the iconic outlaws!

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Alabama

Essential Track: ‘If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)’ (‘Roll On’, 1984)

So rosen up that bow for faded love // And let’s all dance // If we’re gonna play in Texas // We gotta have a fiddle in the band…

Credited with changing the face of country music during the eighties with their brand of bluegrass/country rock, southern band Alabama round off our list of good country music.

One of my favourite tracks by these crossover cowboys has got to be ‘If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)’ for its upbeat, good time vibe.

These guys were an almost unstoppable force in country music in the States for a period of time during the early eighties, until the more traditional style took over again. If you love country, you’ll find yourself singing along in no time.

But don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself.

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And If You Really Want to Get into the Eighties Country Scene…

The early eighties produced some iconic musical pairings that have stayed in the hearts of country fans the world over. When Kenny and Dolly shared the stage it was a natural pairing, with two voices harmonising perfectly. And for a novelty, why not check out Merle Haggard and Clint Eastwood’s track from the movie ‘Bronco Billy’!

Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers gave us their version of the Bee Gees track ‘Islands in the Stream’ (1983).

Merle Haggard and Clint Eastwood struck up an unlikely friendship with ‘Bar Room Buddies’ (1980).

Now we’ve looked at a few of the artists I love from this era, why not share your thoughts and tell us who else belongs on this list.

Get commenting!

Oi Oi, I’m Sunday Simmons, professional freelance writer and indie author. Born into a family of entertainers, musicians and artists, I chose the pen as my instrument at a young age and I’ve been scribbling stuff ever since. Hopefully some of it makes sense! Writing is my passion, and with three kids and plenty of pets, life is chaos and I love it.
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