Acts like Kenny Rogers, Barbara Mandrel, Eddie Rabbitt, and Crystal Gayle were a few of the country acts that gained success on the pop and adult contemporary charts and radio. Other stars, like Olivia Newton- John, Dan Seals, and The Osmonds revived their careers switching from pop to country. Even though the 1980s had many great country songs that crossed over, there are some that listening today hold up without having an outdated sound. Yes, just because they were from the 1980s, several songs have that sound where you knew it was from that era. I am not saying they are bad songs, in fact I love the 1980s music in all genres probably the best, but underrated songs like “Snapshot” and “Nobody” by Sylvia, have that 80’s feel to it (I will state that both of those tracks do not get the credit they deserve). Some country music experts have called the decade the Country Pop era, where many acts geared their music to the mainstream audiences in hopes to sell more records by breaking on the pop charts. The success of the movie Urban Cowboy also helped fans who were normally not country music fans take another look at the music, deemed hillbilly-ish before.
These are a few country songs that were from the 1980s that still hold up today, without the label of being too “’80s sounding.” Now just because I am not listing “He Stopped Loving Her Today, ” (George Jones) “9 to 5 ” (Dolly Parton) or “Looking For Love” (Johnny Lee) on this list, they were very important for the movement of country in the 1980s. I also wanted to list underrated songs, which I feel was overlooked, along with only one artist to a track, as opposed to listing many songs from the same artist. So here are my suggestions of country music songs from the 1980s that still could fit in today’s music scene (in no particular order).
- “Islands in The Stream” – Dolly Parton/Kenny Rogers (1983).
Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers were no strangers to the crossover market by 1983. Rogers started out with his band The First Edition on the rock scene before hitting his stride in the 1970s in country music. “Islands” is probably the most famous country duet song in history, where everyone heard this Bee Gees’ penned song every hour on many stations, from country, rock, and adult contemporary radio. The song knocked off “Total Eclipse of The Heart” by Bonnie Tyler on the pop charts (even Air Supply couldn’t knock off Tyler’s song, as huge as they were, along with the fact their song was written by the same writer as Tyler’s hit). Barry Manilow and Reba McIntyre did a version of “Islands” for Manilow’s 1980’s cover album. This song is still played at weddings and gatherings. The melody of the song, and catchy chorus, makes this song timeless, and finds a new group of listeners every decade.
2.”Could I Have This Dance -Anne Murray (1980).
Speaking of weddings, this classic recorded by Murray, was another song that people couldn’t get away from at the social gatherings from weddings to dances. Just like Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration,” this song is still sometimes played at weddings and receptions. The song was featured on the Urban Cowboy soundtrack, along with her Greatest Hits release, and is lyric perfection about falling in love with the right one forever. Just reading the lyrics without listening to the song is poetry. This was Murray’s next to last crossover hit, hitting #3 (AC), #1 (Country), and #33 (Pop) on the charts. The waltz rhythm of the song also adds to the softness of the song. This song would not have worked played as an up tempo song, or a disco track. The light rock style could be played right next to Michael Bublé today.
- “Amarillo By Morning” -George Strait (1982).
This song is pure solid country, with its fiddle playing and lyrics about a guy making his life in the rodeo. This is one of my favorite Strait songs, and makes my list of underrated because as many country listeners know the song, it never hit #1, only reaching #4 on the country charts, and is often not mentioned as one of his best. Written by Paul Fraser and Terry Stafford, the character talks about being broke, getting injured, and losing female relationships all for chasing his dreams. This is a traditional sounding country song, that does not have an ’80s sound. Even if the listener is not in the rodeo, the themes can relate to struggling musicians, or anyone else on the road chasing goals.
- “American Made”-The Oak Ridge Boys (1983).
Patriotism never goes out of style, regardless of the decade. Many point to Lee Greenwood’s most famous song from the era, but for me, this song still holds up, and is my favorite song about America from the decade. With the strong guitars, wonderful vocals, mixing American pride along with the love of a woman, this song hit #1 on the country charts, and #72 on the pop charts, and was played on many of my local Top 40 radio channels when it came out. Co-written by Youngstown, Ohio’s Bob DiPiero (Youngstown is only twenty-some minutes from my hometown of Columbiana, Ohio), the song references Nikon cameras, Sony TVs, and other foreign merchandise. The uniqueness of three out of the four Oak vocalists singing on the track, also gives each line a different approach. Many pick the band’s “Elvira” or “Bobbie Sue” (also crossover hits) as the best from the ’80s for them, but this is the one that doesn’t sound as dated as the other two musically.
- “The Sweetest Thing (I’ve Ever Known)” – Juice Newton (1982).
My father was always a fan of Juice Newton and Crystal Gayle in the 1980s. Although I liked some their songs, it wasn’t until a few years ago, while listening to my Classic County radio station (AM 600 WRQX) that I really started appreciating the other songs by these two crossover artists. With songs like “Love’s Been A Little Bit Hard On Me” (it has a great 80s style humorous video) and “Queen of Hearts,” Newton had both country and pop hits. This ballad was the third release from her famous Juice album, and may be one of the best of her work. The song was originally recorded in 1975, and then re-recorded in ’81, was a #1 country, #1 AC, and #7 pop hit. Great ballads last , regardless of the era, and this is one that still could be placed on Top 40 or AC radio and not be out of place.
- “Love in The First Degree” Alabama (1981).
Alabama along with The Oaks, were one of the biggest groups in country, where many acts were solo artists (this song hit #1 on the Country and #15 on Pop charts). “Love,” with its solid drum beat carrying throughout, and guitar fills, would fit on today’s AC charts. Lyrically about the narrator falling in love , while using criminal symbolism, is not at all country sounding. The drum production on the song (which was a staple of the group), with the snare drum sounding almost like another tom, also adds a dynamic to the track. Every time I hear this song, it gets me in a good mood and feels like a fun song to play on guitar, and would be a crowd pleaser even for a rock cover band to play.
- “You’re The Reason God Made Oklahoma”- Shelly West/David Frizzell (1981).
This is another classic country duet song, and has grown to be one of my favorites the past year or so, thanks to that classic radio station, mentioned earlier. West and Frizzell had seven duet hits, and West even had a country favorite with “José Cuervo” after this duet in 1983. West( the daughter of Dottie West) and Frizzell’s song was picked by actor Clint Eastwood (after he heard the track and believed it was a hit) for his movie Every Which Way You Can. Lyrically about two people living in separate states and lifestyles (one is a framer/rancher, the other in California), the song has a country sound, but still could be on today’s radio. Even though it #1 on the Country charts during the Urban Cowboy phase, the song is still relevant today. Eastwood was right in thinking this song was a hit, and is still enjoyable.
- “Meet Me In Montana” -Dan Seals and Marie Osmond (1985).
Another duet that has been a favorite of mine from the past few years (it’s hard to choose each day which song I like the best , this or #7). With a similar theme of two different lifestyles, this one is Seals struggling to make it as a singer in Nashville, while Osmond is in Hollywood trying to be an actress, where both are tired of the struggle, are willing to give up the dreams for each other and live elsewhere peacefully. Seals had several pop hits with his duo act England Dan and John Ford Coley ( including “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight” and “Nights Are Forever Without You”), before moving on to a successful country music career. Osmond was already established with her variety show (with brother Donny) in the 1970s, before having a pop/country singing one (she known more now for her gossipy talk show gig). This song hit #1 on the country charts, and the reason it would still be able to be played on stations today is because the song was written by the vastly underrated pop singer Paul Davis (“Sweet Life,” “I Go Crazy,” ’65 Love Affair,” and the wonderful “Cool Night”). Seals had such a smooth and unique voice, and mixed well with Osmond’s range. This is one song I never get tired of hearing.
- “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me” -Rosanne Cash (1984).
Much like Juice Newton and Crystal Gayle, AM 600 WRQX gave me a newer appreciation for Rosanne Cash. While I always liked her song “Seven Year Ache, ” this song was co-written by Rodney Crowell and won a Grammy in 1985 (the rumor was she co-wrote the song after losing to Newton at the ’83 Grammys). This song has a solid pop sound to it, with strong backing vocals by Vince Gill. The guitar sound on the track, and the layered vocals, is a throwback to the 1960’s style rock hits. This song could fit in with an act now like Susanna Hoffs. The song is soft, but has a mid tempo beat that could be brought back today and be a hit (I can imagine it on a movie soundtrack, perhaps the female character alone at a dance). This song is filled with a radio friendly format and a melodic guitar fills on top of the wonderful vocals.
Even though some of these songs still fit the country format, they are still tracks that could be placed on today’s various formats without having an unfashionable theme. Although I am very critical to many of today’s so called country acts, I can still listen to these underrated gems (and there are many more I have no touched on). I encourage you all to take a listen to these.