Thanks to a bunch of handsome traditionalists and distinctive modern women, the 1990s initiated an unprecedented interest in country music. Indeed, it seemed like everybody who made a record in Nashville was selling platinum — at least. Here are a dozen artists, listed in alphabetical order, who left their mark during that lucrative decade.
He started the decade as a promising singer with a few hits but concluded it as the best-selling country artist ever. A four-time CMA entertainer of the year, his high-wire arena shows are legendary, and his songs cover everything from inspiration to intoxication.
Essential songs: “The Dance,” “Friends in Low Places,” “The River”
Brooks & Dunn
“Brand New Man” brought a brand-new dynamic to country music — two guys who wrote million-dollar songs that balanced honky-tonk truth with rock ‘n’ roll attitude. While Kix Brooks kicked up dust, Ronnie Dunn delivered hit after hit. They made it look so easy.
Essential songs: “Brand New Man,” “My Maria,” “How Long Gone”
Natalie Maines tore up lead vocals while sisters Martie and Emily Erwin relied on bluegrass chops to lend their albums a traditional yet progressive feel. Together, Wide Open Spaces and Fly sold 22 million copies while earning cool points for country music.
Essential songs: “Wide Open Spaces,” “Cowboy Take Me Away,” “Goodbye Earl”
With his elegant voice and agreeable personality, this charitable singer-songwriter had the market cornered on sweet country ballads. The longtime CMA Awards host has also collected 18 of their trophies and remains a classy ambassador for country music history.
Essential songs: “When I Call Your Name,” “Look at Us,” “I Still Believe in You”
His early country hits don’t sound much different from his latest singles — and that’s a compliment. Not one to chase trends and never flashy, the unassuming singer-songwriter adheres to an early album title: A Lot About Livin’ and a Little ‘Bout Love.
Essential songs: “Here in the Real World,” “Chattahoochee,” “Gone Country”
In the MCA years, she managed to grab a few country hits, but by signing to Epic, she redefined herself as a first-class interpreter of sad country songs. There’s a lighthearted side, too, yet few singers have conveyed the emotion in country music so clearly.
Essential songs: “Hurt Me Bad (In a Real Good Way),” “Blame It on Your Heart,” “Here I Am”
She’d been around for a dozen years, but McEntire finally realized her potential with dramatic ballads like “Rumor Has It” and epic sagas like “Fancy.” As this era suggests, she’s a first-rate storyteller and her penchant for theatrics has served her well.
Essential songs: “For My Broken Heart,” “Is There Life Out There,” “Does He Love You”
Who would have ever banked on the “Indian Outlaw” guy to make it so big? But by giving country radio a mix of smart singles and obvious smashes, McGraw ended the decade with the elusive CMA male vocalist award and a foundation for a multi-faceted career.
Essential songs: “Don’t Take the Girl,” “I Like It, I Love It,” “Please Remember Me”
“Love Without End” ushered in a magnificent decade that included Pure Country, the four-disc Strait Out of the Box, two CMA Award-winning albums and 16 No. 1 singles. Asked by that smooth baritone to “Check Yes or No,” guess what country fans chose?
Essential songs: “Love Without End,” “I Cross My Heart,” “Blue Clear Sky”
Amid the hat acts, this Georgia native sang like a Southern rocker — but still won CMA Awards, Grammys and an Opry membership. Along with his party anthems, his keen songwriting often expressed a mature perspective about how some things don’t come easy.
Essential songs: “Help Me Hold On,” “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares),” “Foolish Pride”
The sassy singer-songwriter’s career exploded with “Any Man of Mine,” with millions of women agreeing they deserved the best. Selling 20 million albums by the end of the decade, she’s still the one for wedding ceremonies and super-fun exclamation points.
Essential songs: “Any Man of Mine,” “Love Gets Me Every Time,” “You’re Still the One”
This former demo singer consistently tracked down the strongest material in Nashville — especially the devastating tear-jerkers. She always nailed the big note, yet made her name by realizing that a well-placed whisper can be far more effective than a scream.
Essential songs: “She’s in Love With the Boy,” “The Song Remembers When,” “How Do I Live”