As much as stars shape country music, songs shape the stars. Some songs turn out to be more than just "songs" for an artist. They can change the trajectory of their career and send them to heights they dreamed of the day they got off the Greyhound with a guitar.
In my two-part series, we'll look at career changing songs, we'll cut it off at 1980 and work our way forward. These are songs I played, and in some cases still play on the radio in my four decades in this format. Also, this is NOT to minimize any of these artists songs before, since, or still. But there are songs that really do make a gigantic difference, so let's take a look now. Our biggest stars didn't just happen, they all had those breakout 3 minutes.
Career Changing Songs Part One!
Feels So Right - Alabama - 1981
I was just starting at my first country station, WOBL in Oberlin, Ohio at this time. Alabama had been recording music for a number of years before this with varying levels of success. The My Home's In Alabama album before this album broke them through with 4 hit songs, and even had two number ones, Why, Lady, Why and Tennessee River. But this album (of the same name Feels So Right) was huge, and the single Feels So Right, jettisoned them to another level that they never really came down from. It was the second single off the album (Old Flame was first) it went number one and did well on the pop charts too. This song is still universally loved by fans. This album was on the charts for over three years. This song changed everything for them.
Can't Even Get The Blues - Reba McEntire - 1982
This is a good example of a nice little song that did a whole lot of good for a newer singer. Reba had been recording for a few years before this song with mild success. Her first real chart hit, Up To Heaven, a couple years earlier got her noticed. The song before this, I'm Not That Lonely Yet was top five, but this went number one and Reba broke through. This was the springboard to her recording a ton of number ones over the next 20 years or so. Short, tidy and to the point, it changed everything for her. Even superstars have a beginning, and though this was not at her very beginning, we looked at Reba differently after this, as she took the mantle as the number one woman in country for many years to come.
Amarillo By Morning - George Strait - 1983
George Strait was popular before this song and somehow this didn't go number one, as it peaked at number four. He had a number one song earlier with Fool Hearted Memory which was his first. But this song is as loved as any song he ever recorded. It was named the 12th best country song ever in 2004 by CMT. ABM is about the perfect country song, sung by the perfect artist. After this, Strait would rattle off about 60 number one songs as this changed the way we looked at him. He was always believable, but this song made him even more real, and in a time where pop country was still the rule, he - and this - were not. Many feel, as do I - that one of the keys for Strait's tremendous longevity was that he never had that gigantic song in his career that he had to follow up somehow, but this is as close as any. Fans bought into the fact that he was going to be - and stay - what they hoped and thought he was, and this song solidified it.
Swingin' - John Anderson - 1983
John Anderson (My Article On Him) too was well established as a country hit maker for a few years before this song. He was a big time traditionalist when pop country was in vogue. This went number one and was so popular people who knew little or nothing of country knew and loved it. It won awards and sold a ton. It was the second number one song of his young career from his terrific album, Wild And Blue, (should be in any collection) which was much loved as well. Swingin' became a fixture in pop culture and was a song we couldn't play enough at the time. When the Urban Cowboy sound was still a thing, he gave deep country fans exactly what they needed and wanted with every release. He became one of the most influential artists of his time. If you love deep county, you love John Anderson.
Here In The Real World - Alan Jackson - 1990
I was doing mornings at KLIK The Big 950 in Jefferson City, Missouri when Alan Jackson released his first single, Blue Blooded Woman in 1989, and it died at number 45 on the charts. It's a fun song, and I liked it, but there was no traction for it. Remember, there was a time no one knew him at all. Soon there after I saw the video for this song, I knew at that second - this song - and this guy were going to be huge. Jackson was about 30, good looking, with a hat in this video singing this powerful song that I knew was can't miss. It went to number 3, and he was on his way to about 30 number ones and incredible popularity. I have interviewed Jackson a couple times since and have seen him in concert and on TV, and he ALWAYS says this, "This is the song that saved my life." A huge misfire with the first song, and a darn near career song with the second. This song gave us Alan Jackson.
Friends In Low Places - Garth Brooks - 1990
I was at KLIK and Garth Brooks was a new star with some songs under his belt and was on his way. He had 4 singles before this, including The Dance which was a huge hit. But I always say the second album decides if you are gonna stick around or not. Garth's first album, Garth Brooks was big, but a big debut album has been done a ton of times. What wasn't done a ton of times was this second albums first hit song. The No Fences album was a gigantic hit, and this song showed a side of Garth we had not seen yet, and it would become his calling card. Everyone on the planet knew this song, and still does. It's hard to say this is a career song, because it's Garth and he may have a bunch of them, but it's pretty darn close. This song established him as the front runner of country, and put him on a path that had never been blazed before. In short, this gave us Garth for the long haul.