"If you're gonna play in Texas, you've gotta have a fiddle in the band."
-- Alabama

From Willie Nelson’s “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” in 1981 to Alabama’s “There’s A Fire in the Night” in 1985, to Garth Brooks’ “If Tomorrow Never Comes” in 1989, the country music journey of the 1980’s had elements of the past, present and future.  Nelson’s success transcended the decades and his “outlaw” sound of the 1970’s was still popular.  “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” a former album track by fellow outlaw, Waylon Jennings, was part of the soundtrack of “The Electric Horseman” and a country #1 single.  Alabama was a 1980’s phenomenon as a country music band with “Fire in the Night” its 15th consecutive #1.  Garth Brooks would prove to be a harbinger of the future of country music and “If Tomorrow Never Comes” his first #1.

“Urban Cowboy,” starring John Travolta and Debra Winger, was released on June 6, 1980.  The movie brought country music to a new level of popular attention.  Country music had been largely viewed as a sit and listen medium.  With Travolta bringing his dance moves from his late 1970’s blockbuster movies “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease” country music became more associated with dance music.  Clubs like Gilley’s portrayed in the movie sprang up in major metropolitan areas and people started sporting cowboy hats and boots.  The “Urban Cowboy” soundtrack produced three number one country hits: “Stand By Me” by Micky Gilley, “Lookin’ For Love” by Johnny Lee, and “Could I Have This Dance” by Anne Murray.  All three were very pop compatible songs made to cross-over to the pop chart.  Gilley’s rendition of “Stand By Me” was as comfortable on the pop chart as its original recording by Ben E. King in 1961.

Since the emergence of the “Nashville sound” in the early 1960’s there had been a consistent push/pull relationship between pop oriented country music and traditionalists who sought to keep country within the bounds of its origins.  The disco-country sound of the early 1980’s was soon predictably challenged by those who wanted country music to be more traditional.  Barbara Mandrell expressed it in her #1 country hit of 1981, “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool.”  By the mid 1980’s this sentiment produced a group of artists referred to as “New Traditionalists.”  The New Traditionalist movement began as early as 1981 when George Strait released his first album, “Strait Country.”  As the title implies, it was not targeting a pop audience and was different from the “Urban Cowboy” sounds that were dominating the country music charts at the time.  As Strait’s recordings moved away from the pop sound, his presentation and appearance differentiated himself from the outlaw country music that had been so popular in the late 1970’s.  He didn’t grow his hair long and always wore a cowboy hat.  He did wear blue jeans.  Country artists such as The Judds, Randy Travis, Toby Keith and Reba McIntyre focused on a traditional country music in the mid 1980’s.

While the New Traditionalists were finding more success, the softer, mellow sounds of pop country co-existed on the country chart.  Kenny Rogers continued to have solo success as well as several chart-topping duets.  His number one collaboration with Dolly Parton in 1983, “Islands in the Stream,” certainly has pop credentials.  It also reached the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and it was written by The Bee Gees. 

The Eagles were one of the most successful artists of the 1970’s with their country influenced rock sound.  It was probably inevitable that country musicians would take notice and bring the rock band sound to country.  That is what Alabama did.  The artist of the decade for the 1980’s, Alabama had its first #1 in 1980 with “Tennessee River.”  That began a series of 20 consecutive #1’s and they finished the decade with “Southern Star” in 1989 as their 26th top song.  (The streak was interrupted in 1987 when “Tar Top” peaked at #7.)  While Alabama is the prime example of the success of country bands in the 1980’s, there were others such as The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Gatlin Brothers, and The Oak Ridge Boys.

The most significant factor in pop music in the 1980’s was the advent of MTV with its programming full of music videos promoting the latest pop music releases.  In 1983, country music got in on the act with the launching of two cable networks, TNN (The Nashville Network) and CMT (Country Music Television).  Both networks served to popularize country music with a younger generation.

With a dichotomy of styles from the traditional to the pop cross-over, country artists like Alabama, George Strait, Alan Jackson, Reba McIntyre, and Garth Brooks began their careers while artists such as Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, George Jones and Kenny Rogers proved they had staying power.  Whether emphasizing staying true to its roots or searching for cross-over success, country music’s audience grew dramatically in the 1980’s. 

listed in chronoligical order (click on column head to sort)

Title Artist Release Date

Country Rank

Hot 100 Rank My Rank
9 to 5 Dolly Parton 1980/11/3 1 1 16
All My Exes Live In Texas George Strait 1987/4/6 1
Always On My Mind Willie Nelson 1982/3/6 1 5 2
Amarillo By Morning George Strait 1983/1/13 4
Baby s Got Her Blue Jeans On
Mel McDaniel 1984/10/12 1
Baby s Gotten Good At Goodbye George Strait 1988/12/26 1
Bop Dan Seals 1985/10/5 1 42 3
Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind George Strait 1984/9/4 1
Eighteen Wheels And A Dozen Roses Kathy Mattea 1988/3/12 1
Fishin In the Dark Nitty Gritty Dirt Band 1987/6/7 1
Forever And Ever Amen Randy Travis 1987/3/5 1
Grandpa Tell Me Bout the Good Ol Days The Judds 1986/1/5 1
He Stopped Loving Her Today George Jones 1980/4/14 1
Highwayman The Highwaymen 1985/5/6 1
I Love a Rainy Night Eddie Rabbitt 1980/11/10 1 1 10
If Tomorrow Never Comes Garth Brooks 1989/8/21 1
Islands in the Stream Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton 1983/8/15 1 1 8
Lost in the Fifties Tonight Ronnie Milsap 1985/7/13 1
Mama He s Crazy The Judds 1984/4/5 1
My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys Willie Nelson 1980/1/5 1 44 17
Queen of Hearts Juice Newton 1981/6/8 14 2 9
Smokey Mountain Rain Ronnie Milsap 1980/9/5 1 24 11
Theme From The Dukes Of Hazzard Waylon Jennings 1980/8/5 1 21 23
(There s) No Getting Over Me Ronnie Milsap 1981/6/5 1 5 18
We ve Got Tonight Kenny Rogers & Sheena Easton 1983/1/24 1 6 21
Others Considered:
Title Artist Release Date Highest Rank Country Highest Rank Hot 100
Baby Blue George Strait 1988/4/25 1
City of New Orleans Willie Nelson 1984/7/5 1
Don t Fall In Love With A Dreamer Kenny Rogers & Kim Carnes 1980/3/5 3 4
Drivin' My Life Away Eddie Rabbitt 1980/6/9 1 5
Elvira The Oakridge Boys 1981/3/5 1 5
Guitars, Cadillacs Dwight Yoakam 1986/6/30 4
I Believe In You Don Williams 1980/8/5 1
I Was Country When Country Wasn t Cool Barbara Mandrell 1981/4/16 1
I'll Still Be Loving You Restless Heart 1987/1/5 1 33
Killin Time Clint Black 1989/7/15 1
Lookin' For Love Johnny Lee 1980/6/30 1 5
Love in the First Degree Alabama 1981/10/2 1 15
Marina Del Ray George Strait 1982/9/16 6
Mountain Music Alabama 1982/1/22 1
Ocean Front Property George Strait 1986/12/22 1
On the Other Hand Randy Travis 1986/4/21 1
On the Road Again Willie Nelson 1980/8/5 1 20
One Day at a Time Cristy Lane 1980/2/5 1
Seven Year Ache Rosanne Cash 1981/2/5 1 22
Starting Over Again Dolly Parton 1980/2/25 1 36
Thank God For the Radio The Kendalls 1984/1/5 1
The Chair George Strait 1985/8/26 1
The Closer You Get Alabama 1983/4/29 1 38
The Streets of Bakersfield Dwight Yoakam 1981/6/17 1
There s A Fire In The Night Alabama 1984/10/22 1
Through The Years Kenny Rogers 1981/12/14 5 13
To All the Girls I ve Loved Before Julio Iglesias & Willie Nelson 1984/2/5 1 5
When You Say Nothing At All Keith Whitley 1988/8/5 1
Whoever s In New England Reba McIntyre 1986/1/27 1

My music preference in the 1980’s was still not country.  My favorite artists at the time were Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Hall & Oates, and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.

As the 1980’s began I developed a more direct connection to country music.  Prior to then, my contemporary country music choices landed solidly with cross-over records.  But in 1980, I saw the movie, “The Electric Horseman” (Jane Fonda & Robert Redford).  Willie Nelson performed several songs for the movie and had a supporting role.  “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” became a favorite at the time even though it wasn’t much of a cross-over success, peaking at #44 on the Billboard Hot 100. 

“Urban Cowboy” also brought me more into the country music stream of music and like many others at the time, I actually bought cowboy boots and a cowboy hat (that style didn’t last long for me).  It was easy to like the country music from the movie as it was full of cross-over hits.  But none of the “Urban Cowboy” soundtrack make my top 25 for the decade.  One, Johnny Lee’s “Looking For Love” did make the extras list.  Another, “Stand By Me” could have easily reached as high as #1 on my list, but I disqualified it as being a pop standard covered by a country artist (Micky Gilley).

Another successful country song that would have threatened my #1 slot for the decade was “It’s Just A Matter Of Time” by Randy Travis.  “Rock, Rhythm & Blues” was a 1989 album for which contemporary artists performed rock & roll classics from the 1950’s. Travis contributed “It’s Just A Matter Of Time” and released it as a single.  I became aware of it in 1995 when it was included on the CD, “Rock Your Boots Off” in which country music artists performed early rock and roll songs.   Brook Benton’s original 1961 version had always been a favorite, so just like “Stand By Me,” “It’s Just A Matter of Time” was disqualified (even though it did reach #1 on the country chart – maybe I should reconsider).

Of my top 25 country songs for the decade, only six would have been recognized at the time.  Two of those were  “We’ve Got Tonight” and “Islands in the Stream.”  Both were cross-over hits with strong pop credentials.  “We’ve Got Tonight” (#6 on the pop chart) was a Kenny Rogers duet with pop artist Sheena Easton and “Islands in the Stream” (#1 on the pop chart) was written by Barry, Robin & Maurice Gibb (The Bee Gees).  “Queen of Hearts” barely qualifies as it did better on the pop chart (#2) than it did on the country chart (#14), but since Juice Newton was primarily a country artist, it didn’t get eliminated.  Like Nelson’s “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” got my attention because of the movie by the same name.

Of the 54 songs included in the 1980’s collection, 48 were #1 on the country chart.  Of my top 25, only two did not make #1:  “Queen of Hearts” (#2) and “Amarillo By Morning” (#4).  A majority of the songs on my list didn’t make it to the pop chart (31 / 54), but there were 15 that made the pop top 20.  There were three cross-over #1’s: “9 to 5,” “I Love a Rainy Night,” and “Islands in the Stream.”

Dan Seals’ “Bop” caught my ear when it was released in 1985 even though it didn’t get that much exposure on pop radio (#44 on Billboard Hot 100).  It was a #1 country hit and its nostalgic bent seems to be something that attracts me to country songs.  “Grandpa, Tell Me ‘Bout The Good Old Days,” and “Lost In The Fifties Tonight” fit that mold.

 My favorite artist of the decade is clearly George Strait.  Four of his songs made the top 25, including my #1 song for the decade, “Amarillo By Morning.”  Four others made the extras list and there are others that could have easily been included.  I wouldn’t have been able to name any of these in 1989 – I became a George Strait fan in the 1990’s.  He has sixty number one country hits. My favorite, “Amarillo By Morning” isn’t one of them – it peaked at #4.  I wasn’t aware of that until I was researching this web page.

I just recently was introduced to two of the songs on the top 25 list, George Jones’ classic, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” and “The Highwayman” (Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson).   The others are songs I heard in the 1990’s and 2000’s as I tuned in more to country music.  For the decade of the 1980’s it was more difficult to rank the songs, and more difficult to not list a lot more.  I was becoming more of a country music fan.  For now, these are my favorites – let me know if you like the same ones or have some I should have considered.  But for now, this is my list.  

George Strait, Ronnie Millsap, Willie Nelson
"9 to 5" is one of my favorite movies. Dolly Parton has five songs in my country favorites collection, two from the 1970's and three from the 1980's.
Sheena Easton, Kim Carnes & Dolly Parton all have duets with Kenny Rogers in my 1980's collection.