Image taken from the “Midnight in Montgomery” music video.
Previous: Favorite Hit Country Songs of 1993
I’ve been looking forward to examining this particular year. This, for me, is the perfect year. The ‘90s boom was just about to enter full swing commercially, and artistically it was already there. There is still a slight sting, however. While many artists featured here are known legends today, they were just starting out around this time, and because of that it really does feel like a country music renaissance … even if veteran artists continued to suffer because of it.
It’s merely the vicious cycle of relevancy in operation, and, though bittersweet, doesn’t mean the genre at large suffered. Far from it, really. Even 30 years after the fact, I just got the feeling that everything was fresh and exciting as I revisited these hits (or introduced myself to them for the first time). There are other years – 1995 and 1996, in particular – where it felt unfair to limit myself to just 10 selections, but it’s at a whole other level here. Even then, I think the key doesn’t reside so much within the quality itself, but rather in how there’s something for all kinds of country music fans to enjoy through this particular era. It’s what makes a favorites list like this way more fun than some objective exercise in measurement of quality – which means that (hopefully), like always, this list will feature classics and some personal surprises.
So, 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 – Suzy Bogguss, “Aces” (written by Cheryl Wheeler)
Off the delicate, warm acoustics bolstered by Suzy Bogguss’ absolutely full and gorgeous tone, this is one of the prettiest songs I’ve ever heard … and also one of the most confusing to follow, especially without further context. Writer Cheryl Wheeler has described it as being about three people, basically turning into something of a love triangle where, at least in Bogguss’ version, she plays the role of a woman who’s found love through a partner introduced to her by a former lover she’s talking to here. And now said former lover is jealous. Like I said: complicated.
But I think the general feeling of how both parties need to move on is what strikes a chord most with me. It showcases the parallels between how people go about doing that at their own pace … even if that pace slows to a crawl for some of those who can’t let go of the past quite yet, or at least thought they could but couldn’t. And the fact that it has that feeling of a real, tense conversation between two old flames – which is especially uncomfortable in how manipulative and one-sided it can feel at times – does add a striking poignancy to how sad it can feel saying goodbye for good, on both ends. But hey, she’s right – you can’t deal someone the aces and expect them not to play along.
No. 9 – Reba McEntire, “Is There Life Out There” (written by Susan Longacre and Rick Giles)
Anthemic Reba McEntire who swings for the fences is my favorite version of her, and while there are two examples of that alone on this list, they couldn’t be any different from each other in actual tone. So for now, we have a decidedly more realistic look at broken dreams through the eyes of a woman who thought she was ready to settle down. I’d be remiss not to mention how the music video, which features a mother balancing her job as a waitress with her responsibilities at home before returning to college to earn a degree, helped turned this into a bonafide classic for similar women inspired to return to school.
But the song itself? It’s a bit more nervous and jerky, not just off the sharper guitar licks but also in how it’s focused more on that actual question that never really gets answered for this specific character. It’s more about dreaming of new possibilities while also feeling disillusioned by past regrets, which is still relatable even beyond its specific framing, but also much sadder because of it. Even then, McEntire is a powerful enough presence to lend magnitude and weight to her plight, like an empathetic friend telling her it’s not – nor is it ever – too late. It’s a gusty release like this that makes this decade so beloved.
No. 8 – John Anderson, “Straight Tequila Night” (written by Debbie Hupp and Kent Robbins)
If I didn’t want to showcase as much variety as I possibly could through this list, I’d have easily included “When It Comes to You” in the top 10 as well – spoiler alert: John Anderson is definitely making another appearance here later, because he absolutely dominated this year. And considering this marks the start of one of my favorite comeback stories in countrh music, I couldn’t be more thrilled to talk about him or this song here.
And, given that humongous hook and perfect fiddle melody, I can see why this reignited his career, because it sounds like a rejuvenation in nearly every form. In a way, despite acting as an outside perspective here, I’ve always liked to imagine Anderson’s role as a little more involved here as well, as if he’s so innately familiar with what cuts to the bone of this woman chasing old ghosts because he’s the one who hurt her in the first place. Either way, it’s an excellently sketched story song, and sports empathy for a woman pursued who’d rather be left alone. Even still, when it’s this infectious, I can’t help but draw out that pain a little longer, because it’s never sounded so good.
No. 7 – Billy Dean, “Only the Wind” (written by Tom Shapiro and Charles H. Jones)
This has always walked a careful line for me. It’s all set to the play toward the cheesier, family-oriented side of this decade that could be mildly sweet but forgettable at best, and annoyingly nauseating at worst. But this … well, it doesn’t force its character to grow up so much as showcase the common hardships of what doing so entails, starting with a therapeutic method to overcome a childhood fear of windstorms and later using that same technique to weather a different storm of heartache.
And it’s in those intense moments of vulnerability and hardship where we’d like to retreat back to innocent days and not have to face fears head-on. Of course, there comes a time when it won’t work even when we need it to, which makes Dean’s own attempt to try (and fail) to do so feel all the sadder and likely more relatable than what we’d want it to be. The production is fitting, too, balancing a gentle but atmospheric tone that’s meant to maintain a calming balance, until the fuller incorporation of heavier percussion and guitar tones signals his world crashing down. For me, it’s this ‘90s star’s best and most underrated moment on record – way more beautiful to experience and hear for one’s self than describe, too.
No. 6 – Hal Ketchum, “Past the Point of Rescue” (written by Mick Hanly)
I said in our previous edition of this series that my favorite Hal Ketchum songs were of a weightier, darker variety, and this is exactly what I meant by that. There’s been a lot of heartache thus far on this list – and more is coming – but no song ratchets up the tension or dramatic stakes quite like this one does. It’s the dark chug and shuffle of that groove; it’s Ketchum’s haggard demeanor worn out from an endless search for closure, which, ironically enough, is the same attitude suggested for why his old flame ran away in the first place; it’s just the way it captures that feeling of hanging by a very thin wire; it’s that by the end, you get the feeling this character was past the point of rescue from the beginning and has just been trapped in his own personal purgatory. It’s just a perfect execution of an already fantastic song that can be paradoxically strung-out and frenetic, a dark picture that wouldn’t fly as a hit today – we’re well past that point of rescue.
No. 5 – Reba McEntire, “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” (written by Bobby Russell)
It’s not the first time Reba McEntire covered a very dark, well-known dramatic tale of misfortune– you’ll know which other one I’m referring to in our next edition of this series – nor is it the first time she made it her own. By ditching the stiffer polish of the Vicky Lawrence original and aiming for something darker and more appropriate off the smokey keys and muted acoustics and bass, this sets one hell of a scene.
McEntire’s natural dramatic flair is, of course, the real star of the show when it comes to the chorus, but I love it how counterbalances its bombast with muted verses, adding a solemnity to the progression of events that later unfold through the brasher moments of consequence in between. And while it is one hell of a crime drama either way, it’s also always been an interesting reflection of the justice system, where the real criminals sometimes aren’t the ones who act out in passion, but the ones who don’t care enough to find the truth.
No. 4 – Pam Tillis, “Maybe It Was Memphis” (written by Michael Anderson)
It’s Pam Tillis’ most iconic single, and while I’d personally place underrated gems like “Let That Pony Run” and especially “The River & the Highway” within that upper echelon as well, I can’t argue with those who call this among the best of the decade in general. What’s really struck out to me as we’ve ran through this year is just how strong the hooks were (and still are), wrapped in an urgent, anthemic energy that’s potent – damn-near transcendent, really. All the more fitting for a faded summer romance song like this one, too, given how it fosters the bones of an arena-rock classic but still maintains something of a wistful reverence on the verses as it runs back through time. It’s passionate without being overwrought, and sweet while able to control its bombast to create a firestorm all its own. All I know when I return to it is that it always sure feels right.
No. 3 – Brooks & Dunn, “Neon Moon” (written by Ronnie Dunn)
Oh, we’re still not done revisiting beloved classics. And really, when it comes to this duo and their debut album, there are plenty of classics – “Brand New Man” and “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” are likely even more iconic to casual country music fans – but this starry-eyed honky-tonk classic is my pick for their defining moment.
The duo made some damn good working-class, beer-drinking anthems, but I’ve always found Ronnie Dunn’s vocals to be suited best for the slow-burns, like this lonely song where hope is only found in earnest through faded memories and an indulgence in country music’s most familiar setting: the lonely honky-tonks that provide temporary solace, if not actual relief. It also helps to have a huge presence like his add so much natural firepower and urgency to the sentiment, the perfect embodiment of being down but not quite out just yet – not as long as there’s light from that neon moon. Even some of the twinkling textures have aged fairy well, overall paving the way for a wonderfully produced barroom classic that drew from tradition to set a new standard for the genre.
No. 2 – John Anderson, “Seminole Wind” (written by John Anderson)
Not that these placements really matter, but ranking two of my all-time favorite country songs just doesn’t feel fair. There are so many songs here that feel like they could have only been hits during this particular era, whether it’s due to more interesting sonic pivots, more serious subject matter, or just from being off-the-wall oddities that transcend mere description.
Case in point of that last one: “Seminole Wind,” my favorite John Anderson song and part of his aforementioned comeback story. It’s always his voice that draws the most immediate attention, but one element that gets lost in the conversation with him is that he’s an excellent, underrated songwriter. Yet even given country musuc’s affinity for the rural outdoors, it’s never had much of an environmentalist streak. You’ll certainly the tales of how much better country life is better versus life in the city, but nothing quite like this. And I’m not sure we’ll ever hear anything quite like it again – a song that can approach political territory in its ties to Native American history and Anderson’s own personal ties to their ancestral land with a harrowing look at the tensions between the natural and artificial elements of Florida Everglades topography – the destruction of natural land and resources for financial gain; or greed, to put it bluntly.
You see, that’s why I said it defies mere description, because on paper it sounds challenging and academic. But between that soaring melody cutting across organ, fiddle, and perfectly placed backing vocals, it couldn’t be more inviting and adventurous. It’s a song you describe more by feeling than its technical elements, which in this case is a heightened journey through time used to offer a voice to those forgotten by it; it just has a heart like no other. It’s a song that can make its case and feel like the rare sort of rush you only get from those individual gems worth cherishing – a swell of atmospherics where the bulk of the grandeur simply comes through its raw power and how masterfully well it all comes together. There isn’t much that could be better for me, and yet, this is one of those wonderfully strange years.
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:
Wynonna, “I Saw the Light” (written by Andrew Gold and Lisa Angelle)
No, it’s not a Hank Williams cover, but it still draws on tradition by being quite the clever and humorous cheating song.
Mary Chapin Carpenter feat. Joe Diffie, “Not too Much to Ask” (written by Mary Chapin Carpenter and Don Schlitz)
I hadn’t heard this prior to assembling this list, nor did I expect to see a collaboration between these two artists. But this tension-filled song about a frayed relationship showcases a lot of stirring chemistry between them that provides a welcome surprise.
John Anderson, “When It Comes to You” (written by Mark Knopfler)
I said it earlier, but John Anderson really did dominate this year.
Sawyer Brown, “Cafe on the Corner” (written by Mac McAnally)
This is another song that hurt not to include within the top ten proper, one of my favorites by this underrated group.
Alabama, “I’m In a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why)” (written by Roger Murrah and Randy VanWarmer)
I’m sure we’ll see this group again when we explore the ‘80s, though given that this is probably my favorite cut of theirs, it’s another song that hurts to leave out. My favorites by them tend to be their fast-paced, frenetic country-rockers.
Trisha Yearwood, “The Woman Before Me” (written by Jude Johnstone)
Heartbreaking, and an underrated gem from Trisha Yearwood’s debut album.
Suzy Bogguss, “Outbound Plane” (written by Nanci Griffith and Tom Russell)
I just love that little recurring skittering piano riff. Fly away, I say.
Vince Gill, “I Still Believe in You” (written by Vince Gill and John Barlow Jarvis)
I’ve run out of new things to say about Vince Gill when he operates in classic balladry territory, but it’s another heartbreaking winner.
Sammy Kershaw, “Yard Sale” (written by Larry Bastian and Dewayne Blackwell)
Another heartache-drenched song here, and one that proves why those George Jones comparisons for Sammy Kershaw weren’t for nothin’.
And finally, because I’m feeling generous, two awesome tracks from Clint Black, “We Tell Ourselves” and “Burn One Down,” the former a surprisingly dark and adrenaline-inducing number, and the latter a classic country slow-burn. (The former written by Clint Black and Hayden Nicholas / the latter written by Clint Black, Hayden Nicholas, and Frankie Miller)
And now, my No. 1 pick:
No. 1 – Alan Jackson, “Midnight in Montgomery” (written by Alan Jackson and Don Sampson)
This is my favorite song by my favorite artist, and another example of something creatively daring and so unlike anything else out there – before or after. And on concept alone, you wouldn’t think that’d be the case. There are a lot of songs dedicated to Hank Williams, and if we wanted to expand that field to include songs that reference him in some form, chances are we’d never get through all of them even if we started right now.
But this … it eschews mere mediocre homage. Off the chilling, downbeat nature punctuated by its atmospheric, ghostly swell and eerie pedal steel usage, the closest comparison I could maybe make is to “The Ride.” But this isn’t a conversation between country singers about the hard-knock nature of the music business. This is a chance encounter at a legend’s grave where it’s clear peace was never found, and where his only words offered to Jackson’s character are simple ones of gratitude for still caring about him at all. Even then, it’s an uneasy ghost tale played with a hint of self-awareness, because Williams’ story and legend has been so carefully twisted and manipulated over time, that it’s unclear whether Jackson’s character even encountered a ghost at all. Even then, it doesn’t romanticize that legend so much as offer a sad reminder of what’s left – how “Hank’s always singing there” for those who won’t let him rest. It’s as much of a tribute as it is a story.
As such, even after years of listening to it over and over, it never fails to chill me. Every relisten feels like the first time yet again – it’s that magical and transcendent, even if the realism and magnitude of that short life is what resonates most. It’s a ghost story crafted by reality over fiction, and I can’t think of a more poignant songwriter to speak to that than Jackson … well, you know, other than Williams himself.
6 thoughts on “Favorite Hit Country Songs of 1992”
That’s a great AJ tune, one of the better nods to Hank.
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Excellent list Zackary! I didn’t think it was possible to top 1993, but I do think this batch of songs is even better. Your top 2 songs from this year are also my top 2 favorite songs from 1992. They’re both so hauntingly beautiful and could never be hits nowadays. While reading through the list the first time, I was wondering what could possibly top “Seminole Wind” for #1. “Midnight in Montgomery” is one of the few songs capable of doing so… it’s my favorite AJ song too!
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Thanks, Steve! Glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for sharing your own thoughts as well!
I always enjoy your surprise choices to to spotlight (Billy Dean). But 100% yes to all these picks. Even if you wanted to expand the list you probably could’ve added 10+ more easily. Also the Hal Ketchum track is so underrated and he was a great songwriter and had great taste in song’s (“I Miss My Mary” and “Long Time Comin”) come to mind as other A+ songs from Hal.
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Oh, absolutely. I could have a done top 20 and still had plenty of honorable mentions to boot. One fascinating thing to me as I’ve ran through the ’90s is how lopsided certain years can be compared to others, haha. And I love your other Hal picks as well!
Another incredible year! I love your pick for #1, but again, as much as I like Alan Jackson, I wasn’t able to get this song (or Dallas) onto my list. What a great year for Reba, Brooks & Dunn and John Anderson, among others. Also, as a big John Anderson fan, I was surprised to see how my list came together and it didn’t include any of his songs for this year (even though I love these ones by him).
– Clearly Canadian by George Fox – George Fox is one of my all-time favourite Canadian artists and I love this song
– It Only Hurts When I Cry by Dwight Yoakam
– There Ain’t Nothin’ Wrong With The Radio by Aaron Tippin
– What Kind Of Fool Do You Think I Am by Lee Roy Parnell – fantastic melody and one of my favourite songs to sing along with
– Could’ve Been Me by Billy Ray Cyrus – quite possibly my favourite Billy Ray Cyrus song (and, to tell you the truth, Achy Breaky Heart wasn’t too far down on my list – I liked the song when it came out and I still enjoy it from time to time now)
10. Just Call Me Lonesome by Radney Foster
9. Everybody Knows by Prairie Oyster – one of my favourite Prairie Oyster songs, even though it’s a bit different in sound than most of their catalogue
8. Yard Sale by Sammy Kershaw – excellent songwriting on this one and he sound fantastic here
7. Past The Point Of Rescue by Hal Ketchum
6. The Woman Before Me by Trisha Yearwood – one of my favourite songs of hers
5. I Still Believe In You by Vince Gill – another classic Vince Gill ballad
4. Maybe It Was Memphis by Pam Tillis – not my favourite of her (that would be Deep Down), but right up there
3. Neon Moon by Brooks & Dunn – this top 3 was really hard! It was hard to justify keeping this classic song out of the top spot, but that’s how it goes when these years are so strong
2. I Saw The Light by Wynonna – my favourite Wynonna song; such a great vocal performance
1. Lost And Found by Brooks & Dunn – my favourite B&D song (just slightly ahead of Neon Moon)