Editor’s note: This is a re-upload from a previous blog. Originally, I had planned to update this to include Lyle Lovett’s debut, self-titled album. Ultimately I decided against it because after going through most of his discography, in my opinion it’s not really his best work, nor did it have the same historical impact these three albums did. With that said, I have updated this piece to look at these more from a historical perspective rather than my own perspective. If you read it before, it’s probably not worth the re-read. All I did was include some more background information on the artists.
“Wait, what? Don’t you mean the class of 1989?”
Sure, everybody knows that class in country music, and I myself love all artists involved in that as well. However, there’s another class in country music that often gets overlooked, mostly because only one of the following names actually achieved consistent success in his career (well, it’s debatable I guess but … ).
1986 saw the release of debut albums from three artists – Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam, and Steve Earle. All artists shared their similarities and their differences. At a time when country music sales were down, these artists represented a righting of the ship for country music’s future direction. While New York Times writer Robert Palmer declared the genre was dead in 1985, the establishment looked to sign artists who might help salvage country music’s image and give it new life.
If you’ve heard Inside Nashville with Tom Moran, you’ve already heard of the pendulum effect. Actually, if you’re a country fan, you’ve likely heard of it anyway. It’s used to refer to country music letting in outside genre influences before a revolution emerges and country goes back to being country before it starts all over again. A lot of people wish that would happen now, but it won’t. This age old trend in country music is likely done due to people having other options with streaming anyway.
We only think of wanting traditional country back when we think of this pendulum effect. We don’t think of how we can get country to move forward in a better way than what the mainstream was already currently offering. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be room for traditional country though. I’m just trying to say there needs to be a balance. 1986 brought that exact balance needed with three debut albums – Storms Of Life, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc. and Guitar Town.
Before we begin, I’d like to point out that there are many more artists besides the three I’m highlighting below who released debut albums this year. Lyle Lovett, Holly Dunn, and possibly Marty Stuart (he released some albums before this so I was unsure if I could really count this as his “debut” year) are among those names. The reason why I have highlighted these three is because of their combined impact both artistically as well as commercially, one trait the aforementioned artists lacked with their debut albums.
One thing this is also not is some contest to see who released the best album this year. Truthfully, I like all of these for very different reasons despite all falling under the country umbrella, and I’m not sure I could rank them myself. This is just meant to be a lighter, more fun post showcasing three excellent musicians who brought a healthy dose of creativity and flavor to the genre when it needed it most.
STORMS OF LIFE
At his core, Randy Travis represents the heart of country music. No, I don’t know for sure what really “defines” a country song, but hearing Travis just makes it seem like the answer is right there. The talent is there, the writing is there, the vocals are there, the heartache is there … there’s very little more you could ask for on Travis’ debut album Storms Of Life.
Travis had put in years of club work in his native state of North Carolina before coming to Nashville. He was discovered in 1985 at a tourist bar near Opryland by Warner Bros. because at the time, they were looking for the next Ricky Skaggs.
Travis’ first release was the Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet composition “On The Other Hand”, a hardcore traditional ballad that radio didn’t like. Remember, the industry was trying to drive its way forward. Who had room for tradition?
Consequently, the song died at No. 67 on the charts. Travis and producer Kyle Lehning were unfazed really. Fortunately, Warner Bros. allowed them to try again with the equally traditional “1982”. Written by Buddy Blackmon and Vip Vipperman, the song’s original title was “1962”, but the writers granted Randy permission to change the lyrics to something a little more updated for the current time frame. “Why” is still a mystery, but radio took notice this time and the song managed to climb all the way to No. 6. Warner Bros. then did something unheard of for the time. They decided to re-release “On The Other Hand” and give it one last shot. Released in April 1986, the song went on to become Travis’ first No. 1 on the charts.
With the songwriting on this album, so many songs feature little twists that make them nuggets of gold. The simple phrase of “on one hand, on the other hand” is stretched out into a classic cheating song, and it’s one of those instances where you wonder why nobody had thought of it before. “Diggin’ Up Bones” is a heartbreaker that’s more than a little fun with its wordplay, but on the other hand (pun intended), “No Place Like Home”, a track which gives off a warm, sentimental vibe is actually about a man reflecting on how good he used to have it before his wife threw him out. Part of this tracks’ beauty can also be attributed to Travis’ knack for emotional nuance. He can make certain songs “pop” with his exuberant personality like the title track and “Diggin’ Up Bones,” but he can also dig deep on a track such as this.
Of course, the biggest lyrical surprise comes courtesy of “Send My Body” which is an oddly jubilant track told from the perspective of a man on death row who’s … actually not all that upset about it. Heck, he’s having a grand old time actually, and he’ll continue having it just so long as his final wishes are met. It’s tracks like this as well as the brutally honest “Reasons I Cheat” that just shouldn’t work and yet somehow do due to their execution (pun actually not intended for that former track).
Sure, a track like “There’ll Always Be A Honky-Tonk Somewhere” might be a little dated at this point (and unfortunately not really all that true considering most artists are found online now), but for its time and even now, Storms Of Life continues to be one of the finest country albums released. Its consistency and sharp elements help to establish why Travis was the heart of country music in 1986.
GUITARS, CADILLACS ETC. ETC.
If Randy Travis represents the heart of country music, Dwight Yoakam represents its future. Well alright, that sounds weird considering this album features the most classic country covers out of these three albums, but that’s actually the point. When Yoakam bust out on the scene with a cover of Johnny Horton’s “Honky Tonk Man,” he did it in a way that was livelier and more energetic, showcasing how he could honor the genre’s roots while still pushing it into a new era. As such, it’s hard to say much about Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc. other than that.
Yoakam first bust out onto the scene by not being involved with it at all. That could explain why he was never really accepted in Nashville despite scoring hit after hit. Before releasing his debut album, Dwight honed his craft in Los Angeles, away from the Urban Cowboy movement that was going on in country music at the time. He played punk rock venues and clubs with acts like X and The Blasters. Here, he found a niche audience that was different from the ones being catered to by country radio.
One doesn’t need to look very far though to hear Yoakam’s commitment to country music though. While this is the one album of the three that feels more like a collection of fantastic songs rather than something with a cohesive flow, it still maintains its consistency to deliver a real batch of quality. The jaunty “I’ll Be Gone” is a fun little tune, and “Bury Me” with Maria McKee shows Yoakam’s uncanny ability to be a little experimental with his songwriting ideas (what other country song at this point was talking about freeing the soul?).
The title track also continues to be one of the finest country songs around, showing how even in the glory age of the ’80s, chasing that dream in Nashville still sucked, and yet the passion for music made it all worth it. “Twenty Years” and “Miner’s Prayer” are also very strong efforts on the songwriting front, with both being short and to the point in their messages which again, showed a testament to Yoakam’s strengths as a writer.
Sure, Yoakam would get more experimental with further releases, but Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc. remains one of Yoakam’s quintessential albums for bridging together both the traditional-country fans and “new” country fans of the era.
Steve Earle would not enjoy a very long career in country music. In fact, after his next album, he was out almost completely. Where Travis represented the heart of country music and Yoakam represented the future, Earle represented the spirit of it. He didn’t give a damn what the record executives wanted from him, and much like Yoakam, he didn’t play too hard and fast by the rules of what country should sound like either.
And yeah, Guitar Town is certainly not without its faults. The dated 80’s production really rears its ugly head on more than a few tracks, and you could also argue that this was more “different” rather than “revolutionary.”
Still, it’s regarded as one of his best for a dang good reason. What shines out the most is Earle’s fiercer personality and sharp writing. A track like “Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left” is just as straightforward and bitter as the title implies. The title track itself was more of a comedic, tongue-in-cheek look at life on the road told in a way only Earle could tell.
Along the way you just get to some absolute fun, rocking jams like “Hillbilly Highway,” and “Good Ole Boy (Gettin’ Tough)” which hinted at his later love for harder rock music. The thing is though, Earle acted like Mr. Tough Guy, but in reality, he wasn’t. He was a father who made a sweet sentimental song like “Little Rock ‘n’ Roller” fit right in, and “Fearless Heart” showed what happened when he let down his guard for love. This dual perspective isn’t something I picked up on until I took another listen to this recently.
This album also carries some of the finest songs of the 80’s in “My Old Friend The Blues” and “Someday.” The former is just a very straightforward country tear-jerker, but its execution has always been where it’s shined. The latter track is really where the Bruce Springsteen influence shows up in his work, with that fiercer attitude complimenting this song nicely. Even “Down The Road” is a great album closer due to its willingness to keep the listeners on their toes in terms of its changing tempo.
Earle would get louder, bolder, and more pissed-off on later albums, but this remains one of his most consistently great projects to date.