We’re going back to the ’90s this week, and honestly I’m surprised this is only the second time I’ve visited this era of country music for this feature. While ’90s country does have its critics, there arguably wasn’t a better time for the genre, and that comment doesn’t just extend toward the quality. More women were receiving airplay than ever before, and it was a time where country was actually “cool.” The best part is that it was cool just for being what it was – what a concept!
Listening through the hits from this year, that’s evident too. Many of the songs here hit on themes country hadn’t really touched before. Even when the songs did hit on familiar themes, they did so with fresh perspectives. It was a daring, creative time for country music while simultaneously being a time period where country was proud to be country.
And sure, that also means some of those creative risks didn’t pay off. Between “Indian Outlaw,” “Watermelon Crawl” and a few more hits, this is a year where I could probably craft a “worst hits” list.
But this isn’t meant to highlight the bad. As always, this feature is meant to act as a time capsule for the past and rediscover some old lost gems. And make no mistake, 1994 was stacked for excellent songs, so much so that I had at least 24 songs I didn’t just like, but loved. Honorable mentions aren’t going to cut it either, so I made a Spotify playlist to capture how excellent this year was. You can find that here.
As always, these picks are based off of what was a hit in 1994, meaning the songs had to be top 20 or close to it. Also, if you want to know what qualified as a hit, this is one time where Wikipedia isn’t a bad source. Also, these are solely my personal picks. I invite you to share your favorite hits from this year as well! I should also mention that despite this being a countdown of hits from 1994, there’s a surprising lack of Joe Diffie comin’ out the radio. It doesn’t make “Third Rock From The Sun” any less great though.
As always, let’s start with some honorable mentions!
- Alan Jackson – “Who Says (You Can’t Have It All)”
- Pam Tillis – “Spilled Perfume”
- Blackhawk – “I Sure Can Smell The Rain”
- Tim McGraw – “Don’t Take The Girl”
- Wynonna Judd – “Girls with Guitars”
- Trisha Yearwood – “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl)”
- Clay Walker – “Dreaming With My Eyes Wide Open”
On with the list!
No. 10 – Tracy Lawrence, “I See It Now”
I actually hadn’t heard this song prior to assembling this list, but this won me over right away due to its stellar framing. It’s the story of a man who sees his former lover has moved on and is quite happy, and instead of acting petty or bitter, he’s happy for her, mostly because it allowed him to see where he went wrong and how he can be a better man in the future. It’s the kind of song that’s got a great sense of maturity to it while still feeling like a real reaction to a situation like this. What a stellar country song.
No. 9 – Travis Tritt, “Foolish Pride”
Of course, here’s another song that certainly has a sense of authentic framing to it. Travis Tritt’s decision to weigh in on this marital dispute as an outside narrator allows us to judge the competition as well. There’s a sense of frank honesty to this track that paints neither side in a favorable light, not that they could see that anyway. Tritt has some gems in his catalog, but this one may just be one of his more underappreciated tracks.
No. 8 – John Anderson, “I Wish I Could Have Been There”
Yes, it’s essentially country music’s “Cats In The Cradle,” but John Anderson manages to make this song work due to his strong, sincere delivery. There’s an aching behind the regrets he addresses on the track, but by the final verse, it goes to show that it’s alright to make a mistake every now and then. What matters most is that everything turns out alright in the end.
No. 7 – Vince Gill, “Whenever You Come Around”
Most Vince Gill tracks are exercises in brutally good vocal performances, and “Whenever You Come Around” is no exception to that. There’s not much to say other than Gill exudes not only a strong performance on a technical level, but also an achingly convincing one that lends itself nicely the song’s wistfulness. Oh, and I won’t say that hearing this song performed at Troy Gentry’s funeral pumped up its placement a little higher on this list, but … yeah, this is something special.
No. 6 – Toby Keith, “Who’s That Man”
This is one of those songs that lets you see everything the narrator sees and just feel all the more bad for him. It’s the story of a man who loses everything and really has nothing to show for it. His kids and ex-wife have all moved from the divorce and are quite content while he’s just left wondering where it all went wrong. It’s the sort of downward spiral that’s all too familiar for country music, and yet it makes this story no less aching. Say what you will about Toby Keith, but when it came to his ’90s material, he was hard to beat.
No. 5 – Martina McBride, “Indepdence Day”
Predictable? Yeah. Wrong? Of course not. Aside from the point of the song flying over a few listener’s heads to this day, “Independence Day” is iconic for its message of empowerment and breaking free of oppression, even if it’s just on a personal level. It’s a fantastically written song and features one of Martina McBride’s best vocal performances to date.
No. 4 – Reba McEntire, “She Thinks His Name Was John”
I haven’t had a lot to say about these songs thus far. It’s not for a lack of quality, it’s just that most of these songs aren’t memorable for their production or vocal performances (not that those elements are bad or close to it though). No, the songs here are remembered for their excellent stories, and what’s the point of rehashing a plot to you all?
“She Thinks His Name Was John” was so bold in its execution that it actually received flack from the media and radio stations. The story of a woman dying from AIDS probably didn’t fit in with some of the more upbeat, generic love songs that didn’t make this list, and that’s a damn shame, as it’s one of Reba McEntire’s best. As with most songs on this list, it’s the framing that really cements its placement here, with the woman being forced to question her own life decisions and know she won’t get to experience some of life’s greatest joys. How do you not tear up at that?
No. 3 – Mary Chapin Carpenter, “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”
It’s the dual meaning of that hook that really makes this excellent song what it is. With an all too infectious melody bolstering this independent anthem, Mary Chapin Carpenter crafted one of her best songs with “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her.” It’s hard to write much about this one, but it’s just so damn brilliant in its framing and execution.
No. 2 – Collin Raye, “Little Rock”
When crafting these lists, songs that speak to something I might try to do are always going to win points with me. But wow, what a story this song carries. It’s a sad story of redemption and the narrator knowing he screwed up, and despite all that, all he wants is another chance. But the narrator is also self-aware to know that he doesn’t deserve that chance either. “Little Rock” is a story that feels like it could have really happened to someone, and despite the mistakes the narrator has made, you can’t help but still want to root for him, especially when Collin Raye’s vocal performance is all too sincere.
No. 1 – Dwight Yoakam, “Fast As You”
It’s ironic. Nine out of the 10 songs on this list are here for their brilliant stories and lyricism, and yet my No. 1 pick skates by simply on being the coolest one here. I’d love to write an essay about Dwight Yoakam’s slight comeback with his This Time album, but that’s a story for another time. This was the album era where Yoakam, dare I say it, evolved as an artist. Very few artists could successfully blend genres together while still keeping the roots of country prevalent like he could.
Personally, when I was little, I remember hearing this song on the radio one day and being sad at the fact that the DJ didn’t say who or what the song was afterward. Because I had only caught the end of it, all I could remember was that iconic riff, and I spent years trying to figure out what it was (it’s hard to Google a riff, at least in country music). But years later when I dug through Yoakam’s catalog, I was delighted to be reunited with this gem. It’s quintessential Yoakam at his coolest and most daring, and it’s a dosage of fun and levity that managed to surpass every other song in 1994, at least in my view.