Looking back at the last two decades in country music, quite a few country superstars launched their career with a massive debut single. For example, artists like Brooks & Dunn, Faith Hill and Toby Keith all peaked at No. 1 in Billboard on their first attempt, building a foundation for careers that have reaped millions of dollars and turned them into household names. Of course, other country artists fizzled out shortly after making a big splash. From 1990 through 2010, here’s a recollection of the remarkable singles that immediately introduced a fresh face to country music.
Although he became later known for novelty tunes, Joe Diffie reached No. 1 in November 1990 with a traditional country ballad about his memories of “Home.” The following summer, Diamond Rio met the top spot with the upbeat “Meet in the Middle,” while Trisha Yearwood’s signature song, “She’s in Love With the Boy,” followed suit a few months later. In time, all three artists became members of the Grand Ole Opry.
Brooks & Dunn truly were brand new when “Brand New Man,” released in June 1991, became their first of 20 No. 1 hits across a 20-year career. Tracy Lawrence made his name with “Sticks and Stones,” peaking at No. 1 in January 1992 while Wynonna stepped out as a solo artist (after immense success in the Judds) with “She Is His Only Need,” reaching No. 1 in April 1992. However, the biggest hit of the year belonged to Billy Ray Cyrus, whose five-week domination of the country chart began in May 1992 with the inescapable “Achy Breaky Heart.”
Toby Keith’s ambitious “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” happened to coincide with the Dallas Cowboys’ Super Bowl championship, and by June 1993, he had scored his first of 19 No. 1 hits. Clay Walker cheerfully asked “What’s It to You” and was answered with a No. 1 hit in October 1993. In early 1994, Faith Hill spoke to self-confident women everywhere with “Wild One,” a four-week No. 1 hit.
In 1995, country fans rewarded young guys like Wade Hayes (“Old Enough to Know Better” ) and Ty Herndon (“What Mattered Most”) with No. 1 hits, trailed by Lonestar’s sassy “No News” a year later. (According to Joel Whitburn’s Hot Country Songs 1994-2008, its flip side was “Tequila Talkin’,” which actually charted first, but peaked at No. 8.) However, barefoot-and-fancy-free singer Deana Carter made quite an impression when “Strawberry Wine” flowed into the No. 1 spot in November 1996. The eloquent coming-of-age ballad earned a CMA Award for song of the year and her album, Did I Shave My Legs for This?, sold 5 million copies.
New artists didn’t have as much luck at the turn of the decade, with several years passing between Kevin Sharp’s yearning “Nobody Knows” in January 1997 and Jamie O’Neal’s emotional “There Is No Arizona” in February 2001. Six months later, Blake Shelton arrived in the top spot with “Austin,” a sweet tune about answering machines. (Remember those?) Cyndi Thomson quickly followed with her breathy “What I Really Meant to Say” before deciding she didn’t want a major label career after all.
A curly-haired young man with a cute dog claimed the top spot with the persistent “What Was I Thinkin'” in September 2003 — the first of many visits for Dierks Bentley. In May 2004, Gretchen Wilson planted herself at No. 1 for five weeks with the relentless “Redneck Woman.” Both artists earned Horizon awards from the CMA, although Wilson’s trophy came first in 2004, followed by Bentley’s in 2005. (Carrie Underwood claimed the promising award the following year. However, her American Idol song, “Inside Your Heaven,” spent 12 weeks on the country chart before “Jesus, Take the Wheel” shot to the top.)
By the end of 2006, two other new acts had notched No. 1 hits — the Wreckers’ “Leave the Pieces” and Heartland’s “I Loved Her First,” although the Wreckers later split up, while Heartland, which recorded for an independent label, have not yet returned to the Top 40.
Darius Rucker made a fortune in the 1990s by fronting Hootie & the Blowfish, a likeable pop band that sold 16 million copies of their major label debut, Cracked Rear View. That’s certainly a tough act to follow, but Rucker successfully crossed over to country with “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It,” a memorable No. 1 hit in October 2008. A few months later, the Zac Brown Band sizzled with “Chicken Fried,” while their Grammy win for best new artist in early 2010 was just gravy.
So far this year, Easton Corbin’s easygoing “A Little More Country Than That” is the only debut single to go all the way. The next two decades will reveal if he’s the next country superstar. But in the meantime, he’s keeping company with all the right people.