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Previous: Favorite Hit Country Songs of 1997
I teased this in the previous edition of this series, but despite being an otherwise quiet year, 1996 was jam-packed with classics.
Really, the only year I think that will rival it is 1992, but regardless, we’re definitely in the heart of ‘90s country now. And yet, ironic as it is, this list still shook out in unexpected ways – many of which mirror our previous looks at this decade. Unexpected favorites tended to win me over once again more than certain heralded classics, and between a healthy amount of sonic variety and weirdly creative artistic pivots from names I didn’t expect to see, we’ve got a stacked and entertaining list ahead.
As a refresher (regardless of whether you are or aren’t new to this feature) this is a series in which we explore the hits of yesteryear – not necessarily the best or most impactful ones (because that’s just a silly exercise anyway), but rather just personal favorites, meaning I invite you to share yours, as well. If you’re curious as to what qualifies for this particular list, here’s a handy guide. Let’s get started.
No. 10 – LeAnn Rimes, “Blue” (written by Bill Mack)
This shouldn’t work as well as it does. LeAnn Rimes’ breakthrough debut came courtesy of a Bill Mack song, originally recorded in 1958 for him but also passed down to various other artists throughout the years. And yet, even at age 13, this longue-ready, heartache-drenched single became Rimes’ song, echoing the Patsy Cline influence that Mack had tried so vehemently to deny was a part of the song’s original recording. Either way, it’s there in the smooth melody that stands as a literal time capsule of the era. But what elevates it further is Rimes herself, not only in the way she gets to exercise her huge range and terrific command of flow, but also in the surprisingly weighted and mature interpretation of heartache and betrayal that makes a smooth-sounding song achingly sad. It’s just a damn shame – a damn shame that she was horribly mismanaged, a damn shame that she was signed to Curb Records … and a damn shame that we didn’t get to hear as much out of her as we should have. “Oh so lonesome,” indeed.
No. 9 – George Strait, “I Can Still Make Cheyenne” (written by Aaron Barker and Erv Woolsey)
This feels like one of those songs that had to be featured here somewhere, and if there’s any reason it’s gone down as one of many iconic George Strait singles, it’s because of that slyly unassuming delivery. A lesser performer might have played this up and put it over the top in an obnoxious manner, but with Strait, being torn between his passion for the rodeo life and his partner actually presents itself with an underbelly of sadness and regret, even despite the jokey hook. And that’s the thing – he’s not given the choice to try and salvage what’s left. He’s just forced to roll with the punches and live with past mistakes of negligence as best as he can. Oh yeah, and of course the gorgeous neotraditional textures bleed through the mix and elevate the tempered feel throughout – it is a Strait song, after all. It’s a phenomenal country song that’s been written about plenty over the years, and as far as just his singles go, one of his best.
No. 8 – Lonestar, “No News” (written by Phil Barnhart, Sam Hogin, and Mark D. Sanders)
This is a good outlier in Lonestar’s discography. They’d be known for fairly agreeable, down-the-middle melodic and hook-driven pop-country in due time – for better and worse – but they started with something noticeably rougher, not only in the stomping, groove-driven mix, but even in the content itself. Aside from a certain terrible reference you’ll know when you hear it, the paranoia is part of the appeal here, where our main character runs down every – and I mean every – situation that could have resulted in his partner’s departure. And it doesn’t take long to understand why she left in the first place. Either way, while I won’t say Richie McDonald’s normally impressive pipes are well-suited for a choppier flow like this, the way he plays it straightforward and understated is another strength in letting the situation unfurl in mostly hilarious fashion. I’m not sure it comes out ahead of “Walkin’ in Memphis” for me, but it’s still one of their best.
No. 7 – Jo Dee Messina, “Heads Carolina, Tails California” (written by Tim Nichols and Mark D. Sanders)
Given this song’s unexpected but still very welcome revival over the past year, it’s another classic that had to be here somewhere. And I’m happy to oblige, because between Jo Dee Messina’s boundless charisma and driving urgency that lends itself well to being reckless and diving head-first into whatever adventures await, it’s a sunny shot of optimism that never fails to brighten my mood. And that’s the fun of it all – there’s no game plan, and the destination doesn’t matter anyway so much as just staying together with someone and building something together, wherever those roots are eventually planted. Sure, it’s pure escapism, but one of the best examples of its kind, and a testament to why it’s endured.
No. 6 – Diamond Rio, “It’s All In Your Head” (written by Van Stephenson, Reese Wilson, and Tony Martin)
Nope, Lonestar wasn’t the group to release the zaniest country single of this year. And despite only standing as an underrated gem in Diamond Rio’s catalog, at best, it might just be my favorite of theirs. To this day, though, I can’t tell if there’s an ultimate meaning behind it or if it’s just meant to be as batshit crazy as possible – a song that runs the gamut of taboo topics in slightly humorous manners, all told through conspiracy theories from a snake-handling preacher. And even if his crazy babbling and faith can’t save him from, you know, dying to a snake bite, I think it’s more about how putting faith in, well, anything is a little crazy in its own right, which is a bold statement for this genre. There are things we know for sure and others we don’t, and who are we to say what’s right or wrong about what to believe – “work out your own salvation,” as it says. Either way, it’s one of the most impressively sharp-sounding songs of the decade, wrapped in a hammering groove that gets to erupt through some lively organ and well-developed electric guitar progression. Hey, preach it, man.
No. 5 – Reba McEntire, “The Fear of Being Alone” (written by Walt Aldridge abd Bruce Miller)
You know, calling this an impressively mature and direct statement on the nature of love itself doesn’t do enough justice in its own right, given that Reba McEntire has an entire discography full of them. Even still, this is one of her best, a crisply produced song brimming with a huge, urgent hook and fantastic melodic flow that feeds well into its blunt conceit – that on a cusp of a rebound, McEntire isn’t going to play along any more than it’s worth. It could lead to something more eventually, but for now, she’s mature enough to see that she and her current partner are just two lonely souls not quite ready to move on just yet from past pain. In a shorter statement, “take it slow, stupid,” which is even something McEntire’s character has to remind herself of but stays in control of regardless.
(Ha, take that, Garth!)
No. 4 – Garth Brooks, “That Ol’ Wind” (written by Garth Brooks and Leigh Reynolds)
Interestingly enough, this is our first time discussing Garth Brooks for this feature as we examine this particular decade, and while we’ll no doubt hear more from him as we continue onward, for now, we have an often overlooked gem. Sure, this is a story song with some ridiculous plotholes and a fairytale ending that Brooks has oversold elsewhere, but that’s not the case here. There’s something wonderfully tempered and underplayed here, anchoring the production mostly in those beautiful strings and fiddle, aiming for something softer overall until that gorgeous outro. And it’s a fitting feel, given that this is a song about reconnections and missed opportunities getting the second chance that don’t often come, where a washed-up musician finally returns to the place he once found true love and meaning – hell, possibly the inspiration for his songs – for one last show, and finds that unexpected happy ending with the woman he left behind and a child he doesn’t know is his. That’s the thing; this feels more like a shot in the dark and things aligning by circumstance, rather than anything truly planned, where his return is more for himself and any expectations of redemption are long past him. Perhaps a bit saccharine in concept, but a wonderful execution makes this one of my favorite Brooks songs.
No. 3 – Shania Twain, “No One Needs to Know” (written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange and Shania Twain)
This is another ridiculous entry on this list, but in the most joyous way possible, a song that gets its deserved mileage out of its bouncy acoustic foundation and exudes utter joy every step of the way. There’s catchy, and then there’s damn-near transcendent, and this just hits that perfect note of capturing that simple feeling of being in love. Shania Twain isn’t ready to share her joy to anyone within the song – not even the person she’s in love with, which could present a problem – but I’m glad she shared it to the outside world, because it’s one of her best songs on a compositional level. It’s just so joyously playful throughout, even a bit self-aware of how ridiculous it all is as she runs down her very detailed plans of how her love is going to play out. Really, it hits all of the right notes of why I love the similar “I’m Gonna Getcha Good,” but in keeping things far breezier with the soft touches of pedal steel and harmonica, this is a different side of the same coin I’ll always gladly revisit. And everyone can know that.
No. 2 – Deana Carter, “Strawberry Wine” (written by Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison)
If I’ve (hopefully) proved anything today, it’s that 1996 was a truly unconventional year for country music. LeAnn Rimes broke through with a long-lost Nashville Sound classic, Lonestar and Diamond Rio both got weird, and Deana Carter broke through with a five-minute waltz, of all things. It’s another classic that earns its place here, pulling from a conventional young summer romance mold and setting the highest possible bar for it. If anything, the slower pace and greater attention to detail are its greatest assets, where Carter walks back through a memory with crystal clear detail, but is also cautious enough to look at it from the modern perspective, wondering if the person she lost her innocence with matters as much as just … the downside of growing up.
It’s a song where its ragged weariness shows, not only in the impeccable production, but also in describing the memory more as bittersweet – an extended metaphor for the natural pain of knowing you’ve entered a new chapter in life and that the rush of new experiences is always fleeting, something we desperately yearn to repeat but never will; at least, not in the same regard. But even if you can’t repeat the past, you can always walk back through it in some manner, and that’s enough to hold us over and keep us going. Definitely not the type of song that will ever fly at radio again, so perhaps it’s fitting that a memory of this unconventional classic earning every bit of deserved recognition is bittersweet in its own right.
As always, before unveiling my No. 1 pick, here are a few honorable mentions that just barely missed the cut for this list, presented in no particular order:
Tracy Lawrence, “Time Marches On” (written by Bobby Braddock)
A little peculiar and a little dark, in some ways speaking for those who lament the way things change, yet also speaking for those who know things will roll on regardless and just have to accept that everything has its time.
Martina McBride, “Wild Angels” (written by Matraca Berg, Gary Harrison, and Harry Stinson)
One of Martina McBride’s most naturally infectious anthems that she, of course, nails vocally.
Patty Loveless, “You Can Feel Bad” (written by Matraca Berg and Tim Krekel)
Patty Loveless in raw, take-no-prisoners, kiss-off form is always a sight to behold. Always.
Terri Clark, “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” (written by Warren Zevon)
Sure, it’s a cover of a cover, but Terri Clark handles the unassuming swagger as well as she ever does.
Rick Trevino, “Learning As You Go” (written by Larry Boone and Billy Lawson)
A smoothly underrated look at regret and mistakes that can’t be undone; just lessons learned for the next rodeo.
The Mavericks, “All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down” (feat. Flaco Jiménez) (written by Raul Malo and Al Anderson)
It’s one of the few chances I’ll have to spotlight The Mavericks for this feature; I’m not blowing that opportunity, especially not with their biggest hit. It’s as infectious as anything else in their discography.
Trace Adkins, “Every Light in the House” (written by Kent Robbins)
The weird thing about this particular decade is that it could handle melodrama shockingly well, enough to where it often ended up sounding earnest and emotional. This is one of the best examples of that.
Ty Herndon, “Living in a Moment” (written by Pat Bunch and Doug Johnson)
An effectively underplayed sentiment about unconditional love that keeps things grounded well.
Faith Hill, “It Matters to Me” (written by Ed Hill and Mark D. Sanders)
A deep insight into the way couples can fall apart through failure to communicate to one another, where even if one is willing to fix the problem, a solution won’t come without equal weight pulled.
And finally, Clay Walker, “Bury the Shovel” (written by Chris Arms and Chuck Jones)
In which Clay Walker also, like many other artists here, plays against expectations with something far darker and grittier than what he’d typically become known for. I love the Spanish flair in the opening that somehow bleeds into something damn-near bluegrass-inspired.
And now, my No. 1 pick:
No. 1 – Pam Tillis, “The River & the Highway” (written by Gerry House and Don Schlitz)
In a year where many of the hits defy convention, this is one that does so through understated, underplayed poetic beauty. I’d like to leave it at that – let the song speak for itself when the beauty is this transcendent and magnetic without further analysis. But it’s also a piece of art that deserves the deeper explanation, where the title is used as an extended metaphor to describe a woman and a man, respectively. They’re both reckless in their own ways, the former an aimless drifter devoid of direction and the latter a souless husk devoid of ambition, where both chase down goals without true fulfillment.
Basically, they’re two lovers who understand each other all too well but can’t find a way to communicate that, meaning they can only offer each other temporary support but nothing long-lasting. They just happen to have crossed paths for now, and where it goes from there is anyone’s guess. It’s a sad moment where relatability for most lovers is there underneath the surface, anchored in those sweeping strings and minor piano flourishes for a backdrop fitting for a stunning, huge ballad like this. And while the beauty is self-evident and mostly connects with me on primal emotional alone, it’s worth unpacking and appreciating its layers. It’s another unconventional favorite of mine to top one of these lists, but it couldn’t have been any other song to do so – even in this year like this one.
5 thoughts on “Favorite Hit Country Songs of 1996”
Man that’s some good music!
Wow! 1996 was a stacked year indeed.
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What a great year! This is right in my wheelhouse and there are a number of hits from this year that are in my Top 5 songs for those particular artists. A number of these songs I distinctly remember hearing quite often on the morning school bus ride.
This was a hard year to narrow this down to a Top 10 plus honourable mentions, as some truly great and beloved songs didn’t make my Top 15 (eg. Meant to Be; You Can Feel Bad; Learning as You Go; Poor, Poor Pitiful Me; High Lonesome Sound; Heads Carolina….; All You Ever Do is Bring Me Down; and many more).
Here we go!
– The Fear of Being Alone by Reba McEntire (as mentioned in the 1997 version of this feature, this is one of my favourite Reba eras)
– Blue by LeAnn Rimes (what a way to debut and a tremendous performance, especially given her age – I just listened to this album again yesterday and it’s fantastic)
– Sure Enough by Chris Cummings (another really solid year for Canadian artists as well – this is one of Chris Cummings’ best songs)
– Every Light in the House by Trace Adkins (when he’s good, he’s excellent and this is my favourite song of his)
– My Heart Has a History by Paul Brandt (I listened to this song (and album) a lot at the time and this is very high on my list of favourite Paul Brandt songs)
10. Strawberry Wine by Deana Carter (a classic song that I could only get to #10 on my list for this year, which goes to show how great this year was)
9. Change My Mind by John Berry (incredible singer with some really good songs, including this one)
8. It Matters to Me by Faith Hill (one of her best)
7. A Thousand Times a Day by Patty Loveless (my #6 favourite Patty Loveless song; great performance as always)
6. Deep Down by Pam Tillis (my favourite Pam Tillis song and I was surprised it didn’t make my Top 5, which, again, goes to show how great this year was)
5. I Can Still Make Cheyenne by George Strait (my #2 favourite George Strait song and you’ve summarized it perfectly. (The other “Cheyenne” hit of this year – Beach of Cheyenne by Garth Brooks – was really good as well)
4. Believe me Baby (I Lied) (my #2 favourite Trisha Yearwood song)
3. No One Needs to Know (easily my favourite song by Shania Twain (among many other great songs of hers))
2. That Ol’ Wind by Garth Brooks (this would be very high on my list of favourite Garth Brooks songs)
1. One Way Ticket (Because I Can) by LeAnn Rimes (fantastic song and easily one of my favourite LeAnn Rimes songs (if not my #1)! I’m a few years older than her – I was in high school when she put out this album – and I remember being amazed at how someone could sing so great at such a young age. I’ve loved this song since I first got to know it as a teenager and it’s still awesome!)
Looking back on this list and how many of these songs are among the best of the best for many of these artists, this might be one of my favourite years of country music ever!
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Great picks, Frank! And it looks like we have a lot in common for this year! It’s wild, though – even with 10 honorable mentions listed, there are still songs I didn’t list that might have made my top 10 outright in a weaker year. It’s just amazing how stacked this year was!
Honestly, while maybe not quite on this particular level, the rest of this decade really looks stacked as well. We’re definitely in the heart of the ’90s now!
Yes, I listed a number of great songs that I had to leave off, but this was only a sample as there were many more that I really like (and my comment is long enough as it it 🙂 ). I really fell in love with country music in the early to mid-90s as a teenager, so I’m really looking forward to the next few years of this feature.
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