As FM radio expanded in the early ’90s, Americans who only knew cowboy hats and a couple of Willie Nelson songs were introduced to stars like Garth Brooks, George Strait and Reba McEntire. It was a great time for country music; the genre was booming and the rest of America was taking notice. Here’s our list of the Top 10 artists who defined country music in a decade when the format reached new frontiers. As with any list, we know there are many more than 10 who impacted the genre. If you don’t see your favorite here, leave us a comment at the end and let us know which artists helped define the ’90s for you! And, don’t forget to cast your vote for GAC’s Top 50 Videos of the ’90s! Vote now »
Garth charted more number one hits (19 in the 1990s) and sold more albums (current tally 128 million, making him the second best-selling American solo artist of all-time behind Elvis) than any other country artist. He is the recipient of 18 ACM awards, 11 CMA awards and 2 Grammys, as well as 16 American Music Awards. However, these staggering facts and figures only tell part of the story of how he defined country music throughout the ’90s; Garth was a one-man country music marketing machine. Through incorporating elements of rock music into his songs and amping up his live shows with an endless supply of energy (remember the music videos of Garth running around stage with a wireless headset mic and joyfully smashing guitars?), Garth brought country music to the mainstream masses. Even people who “don’t like country music” have his Greatest Hits album featuring songs like the classic and universally known “Friends in Low Places,” which, be assured, someone will be singing in a New York City karaoke bar tonight. And not only did Garth headline major concerts in the US, including his free Central Park performance for 980,000 fans in 1997, he was a worldwide phenomenon touring such locales as Brazil, Europe and the Far East as the symbol of American country music.
This native Georgian charted 16 No. 1 hits during the 1990s on his way to 5 CMA Awards (including single and song awards for “Chattahoochee” and 1995’s Entertainer of the Year prize), as well as 7 ACM Awards (where he won Album of the Year twice for 1991’s Don’t Rock the Jukebox and 1993’s A Lot About Livin’ (And A Little ‘bout Love)). True to his upbringing on traditional country and Gospel music, Alan skewed more honky tonk and classic country as several of his contemporaries moved towards incorporating pop into the country format. Alan stood to define the traditional roots of the genre alongside other neotraditionalist artists like Randy Travis. Songs including 1994’s “Gone Country,” from the album Who I Am, provided a little commentary on the infusion of pop and country, while his Ford Truck endorsement beginning in 1997 involved music videos, NASCAR and TV commercials to help Alan further cement his connection to country music’s blue collar roots on a national platform.
Shania released only three albums in the 1990s on her way to becoming an international icon. Even more astounding, her 1993 self-titled debut topped out at #67 on the US Country Albums chart and didn’t reach platinum status until six years later, after the release of 1995’s The Woman In Me and 1997’s Come On Over. However, these two latter releases paved the way for one of the most impressive careers in music history. The string of hits from these two albums is astounding. “Any Man of Mine” and three other No. 1 singles from The Woman In Me, and then the mega-hits “You’re Still The One,” “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” and “That Don’t Impress Me Much” from Come On Over. Come On Over is the best-selling female album of all time in any genre and the best-selling country album of all time, with sales in excess of 40 million copies. With help from rock producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange, Shania combined undeniably catchy country melodies, slick pop production and a sexy image with empowered female themes to hit the mainstream full on. She helped define ’90s country by using the building pop bridge to reach mainstream audiences and show new fans a modern version of country music that was fun, progressive and easily accessible. Shania is also a 5-time Grammy winner and won both the ACM and CMA awards for Entertainer of the Year in 1999.
The pairing of Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn in 1991 was a stroke of genius that kicked off a storied career resulting in numerous achievements that include 20 No. 1 singles. Throughout the 90s, the duo landed in the top spot on the singles chart 14 times while releasing six studio albums and two greatest hits collections. Add to that their amazing string of awards for CMA’s Vocal Duo of the Year (every year from 1992-1999, and 2001-2006), and Brooks & Dunn most certainly did their part to expand and define country music in the ’90s. In a genre dominated by solo artists and a select number of music groups, B&D were the only duo to notch a No. 1 single throughout the ’90s, much less 14 of them. Songs like 1991’s “Neon Moon” from their six-times platinum debut Brand New Man and 1996’s “My Maria” (the Billboard No. 1 country song for the year) from the album Borderline are classics that illustrated the power and reach of a country duo. Today, Big & Rich, Montgomery Gentry and Sugarland come to mind as strong duos, but B&D established themselves on the forefront of the trend with clever songs, country hooks and a chemistry both onstage and in songwriting sessions that captured fans.
Though Clint’s first album, Killin’ Time, was released in 1989, he helped pioneer the country movement to a more mainstream pop audience throughout the ’90s and is identified more as a symbol of that decade. Clint, along with artists like Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson, had a polished, neotraditional sound that was accessible to broader audiences as FM radio expanded in the early ’90s. Clint’s music was firmly planted in country but incorporated pop elements to go along with his clean-cut country image (think clean shaven and cowboy hats). Clint’s 1990 album, Put Yourself In My Shoes, helped propel him into the Top 20 of Billboard’s pop albums chart on the strength of No. 1 singles including “Where Are You Now” and “Loving Blind.” In total, his first two albums sold more than five million copies in just three years. Clint charted 12 No. 1 hits throughout the ’90s, while releasing six studio albums and one greatest hits package. Further expanding the role of country in the American mainstream, Clint had a cameo in 1994’s hit Mel Gibson movie Maverick and starred in 1998’s Still Holding On: The Legend of Cadillac Jack. Clint also won the CMA’s Male Vocalist of the Year prize in 1990, the American Music Awards’ Favorite New Country Artist in 1990 and the ACM’s Vocal Event of the Year award in 1999 for the number one hit “When I Said I Do,” sung with his wife Lisa Hartman Black.
Reba has maintained a hugely successful career since her debut solo album in 1977. She’s reinvented herself brilliantly throughout the years and remains one of the format’s top acts. Like the other artists on this list, she made a significant impact on the genre throughout the ’90s to help define it. Reba charted eight No. 1 singles during the ’90s, including the great “You Lie” off of 1990’s triple-platinum Rumor Has It and “How Was I To Know” from 1996’s multi-platinum What If It’s You. She was also the recipient of 11 American Music Awards, 5 ACM awards, 1 CMA award and 1 Grammy throughout the decade. Of special note here is her string of Favorite Female Country Artist awards 1990-1996 at the American Music Awards, indicating that the American public knew Reba and identified her with country music. A big reason for this was that Reba crossed over into the American mainstream through film and TV. Like Clint Black, Reba also had a role in the 1994 Mel Gibson film Maverick. However, she took it much further than her country contemporaries. She had roles in films including 1990’s Tremors with Kevin Bacon and 1994’s The Little Rascals, and also made appearances on ten television series throughout the decade including Frasier and Diagnosis: Murder. In addition to her music, Reba helped push country music forward through the warm welcome she received from America’s television households.
Billy Ray charted one No. 1 single in the 1990s, but it was an absolute lightning rod to the format. We’re talking about the phenomenon that was 1992’s “Achy Breaky Heart” from his debut album Some Gave All. To put it in perspective, the single catapulted the Some Gave All album to nine-times platinum sales (nearly five million sales in 1992 alone when it was the biggest selling album of the year in any genre) and the No. 1 spot on the all-genre Billboard Top 200 chart for 17 straight weeks – still a record during the Soundscan era. The album has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and remains the best selling debut album from a male artist in any genre. Yet, the song “Achy Breaky Heart” was a completely different animal that made its mark as the biggest selling country single in almost a decade, becoming the first single to reach platinum sales since Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s 1983 hit “Islands In The Stream.” The video for “Achy Breaky Heart” was yet a third massive platform for the song that set off a whole ‘nother craze by helping to bring line dancing into the American mainstream and defined country music as a perfect soundtrack for a good night out – mullets optional.
Originally a four-piece traditional bluegrass group out of Texas, the Dixie Chicks formed in 1989 and were propelled to stardom after a lineup change and the release of their breakthrough album Wide Open Spaces in 1998. The group, now consisting of Natalie Maines (lead vocals/acoustic guitar) and sisters Martie Erwin Maguire (fiddle/backing vocals) and Emily Erwin Robison (banjo/backing vocals), charted three No. 1 hits in the late ’90s as they fused bluegrass, country and pop to reach a broad mainstream audience. Song like the No. 1 hit “Wide Open Spaces” introduced the Chicks as a contemporary sounding group with excellent harmonies and strong musicianship, while at the same time maintained their tie to American roots and bluegrass music. Wide Open Spaces reached the Top 5 on both the country and all-genre pop album charts on its way to selling over 12 million copies as a wide female audience gravitated toward the Chicks’ accessible sound and universal lyrics covering such themes as female empowerment. The Dixie Chicks returned in 1999 with Fly, their second album to sell more than 10 million copies, and marked the first time a country band, or a female band (any genre), had sold more than 10 million copies on back-to-back albums. Though the Chicks would soon be mired in controversy beginning in the early 2000s, they helped define the ’90s country movement by continuing to bridge country and bluegrass-flavored music with a wide audience, and opened the door for future successful vocal groups with strong female leads like Little Big Town and Lady Antebellum.
George Strait, aka The King of Country, has presided over a monumental career in which he’s sold more than 68 million albums and charted 57 No. 1 singles. Armed with a smooth, rich voice and a neotraditional sound, Strait has influenced country music all throughout his Hall of Fame career. George charted 17 No. 1 singles throughout the ’90s (second only to Garth) including the multi-week chart topper “Love Without End, Amen” from 1990’s Livin’ It Up, “One Night At A Time” from 1997’s Carrying Your Love With Me and the classic “Write This Down” from 1999’s Always Never The Same. While his songs dominated the airwaves, George took on the lead role in the 1992 film Pure Country. Like other country stars in the decade, George used film to propel his crossover success by performing and releasing the album’s soundtrack that reached No. 6 on the all-genre Billboard Top 200 albums chart. Through Pure Country, George became the image of country. Later in the decade, George headlined the George Strait Country Music Festival from 1997-2001. The touring festival included such high-profile artists as Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney and Alan Jackson, and worked to continue showing America what country music was all about, as well as helped launch the careers of several artists who would later dominate the 2000s.
Tim’s career didn’t rocket straight to the top when he released his self-titled debut album in 1993. In fact, none of the singles released off the record reached Top 40 status at country radio. His second album, 1994’s Not A Moment Too Soon, was a completely different story as the controversial single “Indian Outlaw,” which besides being a Top 10 country hit, also reached No. 15 on the pop singles chart, helped ignite a string of hits including the No. 1 songs “Don’t Take The Girl” and title track “Not A Moment Too Soon” that made the album country music’s biggest seller in 1994. In all, Tim charted 10 No. 1 singles throughout the 90s. Tim won three American Music Awards, five CMA awards and six ACM awards in the decade as well. In addition to the airplay and awards, Tim helped define the genre to the American public when a certain female country artist joined his Spontaneous Combustion Tour in 1996. Besides being the highest-grossing country tour of the year, it also served to introduce Tim to his future wife, Faith Hill. The couple’s relationship captivated the public in much the same way Johnny and June or other great country couples did. This marriage was a new generation’s version of this classic love story and is best illustrated with the reception of the couple’s duet “It’s Your Love” off of Tim’s 1997 album Everywhere. The song won the CMA prize for Vocal Event of the Year in 1997, and four ACM awards in 1998 including Best Single and Best Song. “It’s Your Love” is a fantastic song, but had an even deeper effect showcasing country music’s leading couple.
Well, that’s our list — what do you think? Leave us a comment below and tell us about your favorite artists of the ’90s or the ones you think should be on our list.
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