Country music from the 1980s often gets a bad rap because of the sour aftertaste from Urban Cowboy. Yet in retrospect, many artists from that era recorded a superb catalog of hits that still hold up, even 20 or 30 years later. It’s impossible to write a definitive list of the generation’s most important artists, so instead, here are 12 of my personal favorites.
This bar band put a Southern stamp in its music, but the message quickly translated all across the country. With more than two dozen No. 1 hits in the 1980s, they emerged as the most popular country group in history, singing about the simple delights of mountains, rivers and love that feels so right.
She gave a contemporary spin to classic country themes like heartache, adultery and disillusionment. While she famously drew on personal experience as the wife and daughter of country artists, it’s safe to say she still wrote for a radio audience because the melodies are captivating rather than navel-gazing.
The acoustic arrangements intrigued country fans, but their nostalgic ballads secured their place in music history. When they parted ways in 1991, a reunion looked impossible. However, if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother, and they stood together at CMA Music Festival in 2009 — and still sounded splendid.
In the 1980s, she made marriage seem like the worst possible outcome for a happy couple. Sometimes the women in her songs felt stuck. Other times, they’d just slip off the wedding ring and figure it out later. Sure, she famously stretches out her syllables, but you have to put all that emotion somewhere.
As a dedicated follower of country and soul, he blended those styles into a lush, pleasing sound that found a vast, devoted audience. His delicate touch on piano underscored the romantic longing in his songs, a yearning that went unrequited in about half of his hits. But his sentimental fans wouldn’t have missed the other half for the world.
Her warm alto can make you feel like she’s singing only for you. While some traditionalists considered it easy listening music, but she still racked up a long succession of country hits by balancing lighthearted tunes with breakup ballads and, occasionally, social commentary. She never needed to belt it out, because, oh, that tone … .
No one received more country airplay in the 1980s than the Red Headed Stranger, that easygoing entertainer with a glint of mischief in his eye. The native (and nasal) Texan is readily identified with the Outlaw movement of the prior decade, but many of his later hits have become anthems. In short, you couldn’t have country music without him.
Armed with polished harmonies and an arsenal of love songs, these guys were radio favorites throughout the late 1980s. Larry Stewart’s confident vocals belied the complex arrangements of their six consecutive No. 1 hits. If you get misty-eyed for ’70s soft rock, these former studio musicians will take you back in time.
In 1982, this Kentucky-raised tenor won two CMA Awards, joined the Opry and married Sharon White of the Whites. Oh, yeah, and he scored the first of many No. 1 hits with “Crying My Heart Over You” — a bluegrass staple that country audiences embraced. By giving a modern spin to acoustic music, he continues to carry the traditional torch.
He makes it seem effortless, which is why countless imitators have cropped up since “Unwound” in 1981. Musically inspired by Frank Sinatra and Bob Wills, the handsome Texan can croon about love gone wrong while the twin fiddles break your heart. And his lighthearted songs, like the man himself, never get old.
About halfway through the decade, country fans rejoiced when this North Carolina singer arrived with his rich baritone and catchy, clever songs. At just 25 years old, he launched a string of soon-to-be classics that you still hear at weddings today. He also wrote “I Told You So,” which Carrie Underwood will be singing forever and ever, amen.
One of the smoothest, purest singers in country music started out as a guitarist for Dottie West before finding his own voice. Although he has a well-deserved reputation as a nice guy, Wariner often returned to the well of regret and foolish decisions for inspiration. Even when the endings are sad, the subdued production lets the message shine through.