Though the Nashville country music machine certainly held sway in the genre during much of the decade, '80s country music also harbored more than a few talented, visionary artists who made their greatest contributions during the decade. While some seamlessly continued a long-standing foothold in the country music universe or launched long careers as perma-stars, this group generally confined its finest moments to the boundaries of the '80s, either through stunning consistency or eclectic innovation. More than anything, they proved that country music qualifies as '80s music, too.
1. Don Williams
Known affectionately as "the Gentle Giant" in a nod to both his deep, comforting voice as well as a bulky frame that would be threatening in a different context, country-pop crooner Don Williams was one of the most consistent country artists of both the '70s and '80s. His crossover appeal was unique during Nashville's prime countrypolitan period in retaining country roots that never seemed betrayed in pursuit of mainstream success. Earnest but never treacly, Williams' signature '80s hits deftly communicated simplicity and traditional values before the latter term became so politicized. Standout tracks from Williams' early-'80s peak include the No. 1 hits "I Believe in You," "Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good," and "If Hollywood Don't Need You."
2. Kathy Mattea
Though few of them made a mark on the country charts, several songwriters and performers who emerged during the '80s skillfully blended folk, pop, rock and traditional country to create new wrinkles in the ever-changing genre. Mattea, an understated country star, proved an exception to this rule, becoming a savvy interpreter for the work of various country songwriters. As such, she was a major hitmaker during the latter half of the decade, perfecting her voice as an instrument of precision and passion even as she gracefully endured the growing emphasis in country music on physical attributes in female artists over musical ones. This is not to say Mattea was/is not a lovely woman; she just never relied upon the superficial to chase success.
Rock and roll has had more than its share of premature deaths, but bluegrass and country veteran musician Keith Whitley still stands as one of music's most mournful stories of self-destructive tragedy. When he died in 1989 at age 34 of alcohol poisoning, Whitley stood poised on the cusp of country music superstardom, having just begun an impressive solo career. But because he was a gifted songwriter as well as a great performer, the prospect of what Whitley may have accomplished had alcoholism not bested him continues to sting music fans. Boasting five straight No. 1 singles in 1988 and 1989 (including the sublime "When You Say Nothing at All" and "I'm No Stranger to the Rain"), Whitley was a powerful flame extinguished unbearably suddenly.
As one of country music's foremost new traditionalists of the mid-'80s, singer, songwriter and (more recently) accomplished actor Dwight Yoakam challenged the strict boundaries of country music with surprising success. Having begun his career at the start of the decade in Los Angeles and not Nashville, Yoakam approached his music as well as the industry with a certain amount of rebellious defiance. That said, it's absolutely stunning that he scored nine Top 10 country hits between 1986 and 1989, even while he both straddled and remained somewhat marooned on the fringes of the mainstream. Brilliant compositions like "Little Ways" and "A Thousand Miles From Nowhere" announced with ample authority Yoakam's presence as an artist of permanence.
5. John Conlee
Perhaps the country singer who squeezed the most marrow out of the period between 1978 and 1987, the underrated, underappreciated Conlee was a quintessential '80s country artist in the most dignified manner possible. Put another way, Conlee fit well into the urban cowboy/country-pop rampant during this era, but he did so with a traditional, heartsick flair that seemed to pay tribute to country music's full heritage. Quietly, Conlee placed a Top 10 country hit during every calendar year of this period, an impressive achievement in any genre of music. From his '70s splash with "Rose-Colored Glasses" and "Backside of Thirty" to his last No. 1 hit, 1986's "Got My Heart Set on You," Conlee chugged like a clean motor and did so on his own terms.
Another '80s mainstay fixated on quality and songwriting integrity was undoubtedly Conley, a homophonously named singer-songwriter who ruled the '80s even more than near-namesake Conlee. Pushing 40 before he finally broke through in country music with his first No. 1 hit, "Fire & Smoke" in 1981, Conley had never been a stranger to struggle and adversity. Emerging as a teen from a childhood marked by poverty, Conley always harbored artistic aspirations and eventually found that meeting their potential depended upon an independent approach. Whatever Conley did worked swimmingly, as he charted a stunning 19 No. 1 country hits during the decade, including one of country's most heartbreakingly honest ballads, 1983's "Holding Her and Loving You."
7. The Judds
Well, obviously there need to be more women on this list, so here are two more at once. As one of popular music's most successful superstar duos of all time, the mother-daughter combination of Naomi and Wynonna Judd kept country music tradition alive even as they broadened its commercial appeal beyond perceived limits. For instance, the duo's most beloved top country hits, including "Mama He's Crazy," "Why Not Me," and "Grandpa (Tell Me 'Bout the Good Old Days)," spoke not only to longtime country fans but also to housewives, grandmothers and even teenagers who could connect with the songs' tales of romantic fire or rural nostalgia. Perhaps double-handedly, the duo changed the face of modern country music for female artists and fans.
In terms of pure eclecticism, few country artists have approached '70s and '80s star Eddie Rabbitt, a rocker at heart who flirted with numerous pop music styles during his varied career. For better and for worse, some artists seemed to be tailor-made for the '80s, and for some reason Rabbitt fit such a mold despite his renegade spirit. Unfortunately, the brilliant early-'80s singles "Drivin' My Life Away" and "I Love a Rainy Night" eventually gave way to pure pop but highly successful crossover tunes like "Step By Step" and "You and I," Rabbitt's memorable if twangless duet with Loretta Lynn's younger, less gruff sister, Crystal Gayle. Even so, Rabbitt seamlessly maintained country relevance and respect throughout the remainder of the '80s.
9. Juice Newton
I've always had a nostalgic soft spot for the quintessential country crossover artist Juice Newton, likely for reasons I don't fully understand. Certainly I have fond memories of her early-'80s hits "Angel of the Morning," "Queen of Hearts," and, especially, the supremely likable "Love's Been a Little Bit Hard on Me." But there must be something else at work here, perhaps the kick-ass nickname or Newton's unabashed devotion to pop and rock that was never hidden by her country music niche. Still, her hybrid approach to country did not lack passion or directness, and she therefore earned her success. So, in my house, when I talk about "the Juice," I mention neither football nor murder, if you get my meaning.
10. Steve Wariner
Wariner may not have boasted nearly as many huge hits as contemporaries like George Strait, Randy Travis or even a cagy veteran like Conway Twitty, but his mark on the '80s sound of mainstream country music was nearly as lasting as anyone working in the genre at the time. Of course, I must admit more personal bias because for some reason I'm very close to worshiping the simple, wistful pleasures of Wariner's 1983 Top 5 country-pop hit, "Lonely Women Make Good Lovers." Maybe I always hoped to test the song's hypothesis, which was an idea doomed instantly to failure if a prerequisite was being "a good-lookin', smooth-talkin' man." Anyway, Wariner became a Nashville staple on the strength of his accessible but forthright '80s work.