A few weeks ago I posted an article talking about one of the biggest years in country music history, 1989. That was the year of Garth, Alan, Clint, and Travis Tritt bursting onto the scene and shoving country into the highest gear ever. But there are two other years that led up to that point and were maybe more pivotal. This week, we will look at one of them, welcome to 1986.
1986 - One Of The Most Influential Songs And Albums We've Ever Had
I have been in country radio for 41 consecutive years and I have always maintained 1986 deserves a whole lot more credit than it gets. It was incredibly important, transitional and had to happen before we would have a boom like 1989. You may have heard recently that this is the 35th anniversary of Randy Travis' debut album, Storms Of Life, and how it changed the direction of our beloved format. It did, but it wasn't alone. But it was the bolt that held the new movement together. 1986 began a seismic shift.
1986 - This Song And Artist Helped Change The Landscape
In the early to mid 80's we were wrestling in country. There was good music, but much of it was not connecting directly with the core country fans. For many we were too pop, and not daring enough to be real country. So, many of our fans tolerated it, but didn't love it. The pop country crowd was growing weary with the pop country movement that had worn out its welcome and grown stale. Enter four pivotal people - Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam, Keith Whitley, and Holly Dunn. They accelerated a new and daring sound - real country - that the core fans had been waiting for. They joined George Strait, Hank Jr., The Judds, Ricky Skaggs, Reba, and Alabama as artists that were starting to build to a new day.
1986 - This Song Peaked At #7 - But Was A Very Influential Song
Randy Travis debut album was new, fresh and his warm voice was a throw back to a degree, but not old sounding and fans loved every song on that project. Yoakam was new and exciting, especially on stage, very avant gard and fans loved him. Whitley had been around for a couple years, but 1986 he broke through, and vocally reminded fans of Travis at times, and fans flocked to his emotive songs. And Dunn, such a powerful and emotional voice melted us all with Daddy's Hands and the powerful songs that followed for her.
1986 - Keith Whitley - Fans Loved Him For His Run Which Was Way Too Short
These four were new, young, different, and they were country. Travis had been told by every record label in Nashville he was "too country." Yoakam the same and even more. Imagine that, new artists that were too country. That shows you how far we had strayed from our roots. I will never downplay the talent of the established artists from that era, they were all great, and recorded some great music. But overall, it was just not resonating with the core fans and was not growing our music to new and especially younger fans. The pop country fans had moved on, as we all thought they would. If you want something to grow, you don't water the leaves, you water the roots. We learned that.
1986 - Tanya Tucker Returned To Greatness And Gave Us A Big Lift
Mainly Travis and Yoakam opened the ears of our fans that had been waiting for a more traditional sound, and kicked down the door for new fans to pour through. They changed the minds of the record companies and allowed traditionalists like Patty Loveless, and vocal stylists like KT Oslin to show up in 1987, then country folk singers like Suzy Bogguss in 1988 and a battalion of others. It began an avalanche that went on for a number of years and led country to its greatest success ever, as you well know the 1990's were something real special.
1986 -George Strait Released This Huge Song
1986 was a very important time for us. We needed hero's but as I remember it, we didn't really know we did. We had been in a groove that was successful to a degree, and it's possible that many of us in the biz and at the stations didn't really know how big we could get, because we could only imagine. Alabama showed us earlier in the decade how big they could be with insane success and exposure. We wished we had more acts that popular and why not, they were everywhere. Strait was incredibly popular with deep country fans, as was Skaggs, and Reba was coming on strong. The Judd's were traditional but had wide appeal in addition to the core country fans, sort of like Alabama did. And the incredibly resurgent Tanya Tucker found herself back near the top of the charts and that was a big deal for us as she helped connect the past and the future. She too was a pivotal artist for us that year.
1986 - Another Huge Travis Song
But when the new traditionalists showed up, they brought everyone with them, and we, in a few years soared to heights that were previously unthinkable. And then the kicked down door from 1986 allowed 1989 and the 1990's to happen. The flood was on, Garth, Alan, Clint, Travis, Tracy Byrd and Lawrence, Tim McGraw, Brooks And Dunn, Vince Gill, Billy Ray Cyrus and dozens more both men and women. Dunn and Loveless led a charge of incredible women singers that rocked the 1990's to historic levels bringing us Shania, Pam Tillis, Terri Clark, Faith, Martina, Trisha, LeAnn Rimes, Lee Ann Womack, Jo Dee Messina, Kathy Mattea, Lorrie Morgan and tons more. It started with 1986 we were selling albums and tickets like never before, it was incredible.
Holly Dunn - Her Emotive Style Was Very Influential Going Forward - 1988
And country "bands" became a thing too with Shenandoah, Blackhawk, The Desert Rose Band, Kentucky Headhunters, Confederate Railroad, Southern Pacific, Lonestar, Diamond Rio and others. We were suddenly young, cool and rolling. Sadly, there were many casualties as well. Many artists that had staked their entire claim on pop country were now on the way out, and many older established artists, even the really big ones were now off the charts for good. It was an extraordinary change.
1986 - Hugely Popular Song Started A Movement
As great as 1989 was and will always be historic, it was 1986 that did a whole lot of the heavy lifting to make it all possible. We should remember and thank those incredible new artists that dared to be country again.
We owe them always -Thank YOU!