Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood are enjoying enormous success on the country charts these days, headlining arena tours and selling millions of albums along the way. Those statistics are especially impressive in this digital era. However, if you were a country fan in the 1990s, you’re familiar with a whole generation of female country singers who achieved similar multi-platinum success with clever songs, relentless touring and distinctive personalities. But if you weren’t listening closely back then, please allow me to introduce them to you.
Mary Chapin Carpenter, Come On Come On (1992) — 4x platinum
At the peak of her fame, Mary Chapin Carpenter established her fan base by writing smart lyrics about uncertainty — whether in marriage (“He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”), the family dynamic (“Only a Dream”) or a withering community (“I Am a Town”). And her warm alto is equally inviting on the fun songs (“I Feel Lucky,” “Passionate Kisses” ). She rarely released slow songs as singles, so her concerts were always a lot of fun, too.
Deana Carter, Did I Shave My Legs for This? (1996) — 5x platinum
As a hippie chick with whispery vocals, Deana Carter immediately stood out from the pack. The wistful nostalgia of “Strawberry Wine” clicked with listeners, paving the way for two more No. 1 country hits — the carefree “We Danced Anyway” and the flirtatious “How Do I Get There.” Cute title, too. A sexy gal with a sense of humor is hard to beat.
Dixie Chicks, Wide Open Spaces (1998) — 12x platinum
As their signature song, “Wide Open Spaces” spoke to the dreamer inside young fans while the Texas trio’s fiddle-banjo-vocals approach satisfied more mature traditionalists. After hearing “Tonight the Heartache’s on Me,” who wouldn’t join them at the bar? Another smart move: They accepted a tour invitation with Lilith Fair, bringing their sassy perspective to an audience that might otherwise not bother with contemporary country.
Faith Hill, Breathe (1999) — 8x platinum
The title track was played at country radio about, oh, every 10 minutes, but fans still snapped up Hill’s most successful album. No wonder she’s making the touchdown gesture on the cover. To prepare for the windswept video shoot, she took lessons from a movement coach, and there’s never been a luckier bed sheet. The album also contains her catchiest single to date, “The Way You Love Me.” (“… love me, whoa-whoa-whoa!”)
Martina McBride, Evolution (1997) — 3x platinum
When the show-stopping “A Broken Wing” finally arrived at radio, man, you ought to have seen her fly. With strong material, both upbeat (“Happy Girl”) and downtrodden (“Wrong Again”), the little-but-loud vocalist was among country’s most popular female singers at the end of the decade.
Reba McEntire, For My Broken Heart (1991) — 4x platinum
This album is a linchpin in Reba McEntire’s catalog. After a plane crash killed seven of her band members, her road manager and the pilot and co-pilot of the chartered flight in 1991, she could have been forgiven for sappy sentimentality. Instead, she offered this mostly subdued collection of songs about longing, grief and moving on. You might get through it without crying — at least until the triple whammy at the end: “The Greatest Man I Never Knew,” “I Wouldn’t Go That Far” and “If I Had Only Known.”
LeAnn Rimes, Blue (1996) — 6x platinum
Almost overnight, this typical Texas teenager turned into a singing sensation with “Blue” — despite the yodeling or perhaps because of it. She promptly won two Grammy awards and followed up that retro tune with the perky “One Way Ticket (Because I Can).” It wasn’t long until crossover success beckoned and she finally shook off those “new Patsy Cline” comparisons, but for a few years there, she was America’s country sweetheart.
Shania Twain, The Woman in Me (1995) — 12x platinum
Sure, she’s beautiful, but have you ever tried to get a Shania Twain song out of your head? Impossible! With iconic videos (dancing around a wagon, showing off the midriff) and an unbeatable formula (writing and producing with then-husband Mutt Lange), Twain instantly won the love of millions of fans. She encountered some flak for her pop influences, yet “No One Needs to Know,” in particular, sure sounds country today.
Wynonna, Wynonna (1992) — 5x platinum
After the Judds split up, Wynonna stepped into the spotlight with a surprisingly soft single, “She Is His Only Need.” Of course, the powerful singer picked up momentum with the regretful “I Saw the Light” and the rousing “No One Else on Earth.” She also showed her spiritual side on “When I Reach the Place I’m Goin'” and “Live With Jesus.” By the way, did you know her famous mother co-wrote “My Strongest Weakness”?
Trisha Yearwood, Songbook — A Collection of Hits (1997) — 4x platinum
If you’re lucky enough to see Trisha Yearwood in concert, she’ll likely sing every one of these songs from early in her career. Although Songbook was intended as a “greatest hits” album, she wisely added a few new tunes — which all turned out to be monster hits (“How Do I Live,” “In Another’s Eyes,” “Perfect Love” ). And deservedly so.