In my estimation, the best male country singers of the 80s are Dwight Yoakam, Vince Gill, Keith Whitley, Lee Greenwood, John Conlee, Ronnie Milsap, Don Williams, Garth Brooks, Randy Travis and George Strait. But what made each singer so memorable? Why do they still hold up today? Let’s dive deeper into each artist’s talent and discography to find out!
Best Male Country Singers of the 80s
Let’s begin by discussing Dwight Yoakam.
Dwight Yoakam began receiving attention in 1986, when his debut album, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. was released. Yoakam has a wide variety of musical styles, including bluegrass music, neo-traditional country, country rock, honky-tonk, and rockabilly, to name a few.
But Yoakam’s career did not end in the music business. He made his name known throughout the entertainment industry. Yoakam took roles in several popular films, including Wedding Crashers and Sling Blade. Besides films, Yoakam has also appeared in a number of television series. From the Academy of Country Music Awards to Grammy Awards and more, he has had a great deal of success. But from the looks of his 2022 setlist, it doesn’t seem like his career is slowing down any time soon.
The truth is, Dwight Yoakam has an especially unique voice that has brought us so many great songs. However, one of his best songs is A Thousand Miles From Nowhere. Aside from the special lyrics, the song really just showcases Yoakam’s talents. His voice echoing on the album really gives a taste of his singing abilities.
Vince Gill’s career began in the 1970s as the lead singer of the country rock band Pure Prairie League. However, in 1983, Gill decided it was time to set out on his own. He began his incredibly successful solo career. Because of his amazingly beautiful and distinct voice, Gill has placed himself in high demand as a guest vocalist. There is also a high demand for Gill as a duet partner.
Over the years, Gill has recorded over 20 studio albums, produced over 40 chart-topping singles, and sold an incredible 26 million albums. In 1991, he was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, one of the highest honors a country music singer can receive. From “Top Male Vocalist to Best Country Solo Performance, he has acquired almost every award that a country music artist can get. Beyond awards, Gill was inducted into four halls of fame.
Over the years, Vince Gill has released many excellent songs, including solos, duets, gospel music, and holiday jingles. However, the song that sticks out the most is the beautiful Go Rest High On That Mountain. The song is powerful and beautiful enough to bring tears to your eyes. It’s often used in funerals, especially in the South. So many of us have experienced it in this form. Regardless, it’s hardly morbid. It’s a song that catches my breath every time I hear it. It’s truly an iconic song.
Keith Whitley was born and raised in Kentucky, spending most of his childhood in Sandy Hook. His career began there in 1970 as part of Ralph Stanley’s band. After moving to Nashville in 1983, Whitley began his recording career. Whitley’s first top 20 single was Miami, My Amy, released in 1986.
After that, his first three singles from his studio album became chart-topping hits. He went on to win Male Vocalist of the Year, among other awards. Whitley sadly passed away at the young age of 34, having battled alcoholism for years. The day after his passing, he was honored on Music Row by lining it with black ribbons.
Arguably one of his most popular songs, Whitley’s When You Say Nothing At All is full of emotional lyrics. It’s a song about what features one might fall in love with in a relationship. While I do love the song as sung by Whitley himself, there are also several amazing covers that I enjoy. Specifically the cover sung by Alison Krauss.
Lee Greenwood is best known for his signature song, God Bless the U.S.A, which became more popular during the Gulf War and after the attacks on September 11. Greenwood began his career in 1981 after signing with the MCA label’s Nashville division. His first single, It Turns Me Inside Out, made it into the top 20 on the country chart in 1981. His career hasn’t slowed down since. He has become successful in the country music industry and so much more.
In September 2008, Greenwood was nominated by President Bush for a six year term on the National Council on the Arts. Over the years, Mr. Greenwood has won numerous honors, including a Grammy Award and a Country Music Association Award. But there is also a patriotic award given in his name, the Lee Greenwood Patriot Award.
I know that it seems extremely obvious to love his most popular song; however, there aren’t many songs that bring emotion to my heart the way this one does. God Bless U.S.A. is a timeless song that will always be associated with the wars and attacks that Americans have suffered. It encourages Americans to join together and be proud of America. Greenwood’s voice is always powerful, and that’s showcased in this song.
Born on a tobacco farm in Versailles, Kentucky, it was obvious by age 10 exactly what John Conlee wanted to do. He had already begun singing, playing guitar, and then later sang in a barbershop quartet. However, it wasn’t until after a short career as a licensed mortician that he finally pursued his career as a country music singer.
By 1971, Conlee had moved to Nashville, Tennessee in pursuit of his career. His first charting single, Rose Colored Glasses was released in 1978, and from there he took off. As time passed, he released quite a few hits, with his career peaking in the 1980s. After a number of career hits and awards, Conlee is still alive and kicking in good health at 76 years old.
Conlee has an extremely unique voice and accent. Many of his songs are great, however, the best of his songs is definitely Working Man. It’s honestly just an extremely relatable song about the struggles of the “working man,” or for that matter, any blue-collar worker. The struggles that they face, the trials and tribulations, the worry that they deal with from day to day.
Ronnie Milsap, a blind country singer and pianist, was one of the most influential, popular performers in the country music industry during the 1980s. He blended country music with soul seamlessly. Songs like (There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me made their way to the top of the charts with this style. However, during the 1980s, Milsap adopted a musical style called “Urban Cowboy” and combined that with soft rock production techniques.
Numerous honors, including a few Grammy Awards, were bestowed upon Milsap. His songs fell off the charts for a while, but that didn’t stop Milsap from producing great music. He even ventured into the new world of country music, pairing with new stars like Kacey Musgraves. Because he continues to explore the world of country music, releasing greatness along the way, he will continue to be in the heart of the industry.
Smokey Mountain Rain is an especially romantic, emotional song. The lyrics explain that no matter what, he will get to his lover. Ronnie Milsap has a special and unique voice, and he does a great job with this song. It’s also one that we country kids heard growing up; so it brings back a lot of good memories of my grandpa singing on the front porch on a rainy Sunday when it comes on the radio.
Don Williams’ solo career began in 1971 after years of performing with a band and working in other industries. With chart-topping songs like We Should Be Together and You’re My Best Friend, Williams’ solo career really took off. He continued to release a number of popular hits well into the 2010s.
Beyond his solo country music career, Williams also had a few minor roles in Burt Reynolds movies. He appeared in W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings and the ever popular Smokey and the Bandit II. William announced a farewell tour in 2006, but it didn’t last long because he soon left retirement to go on tour once more. He did, however, officially retire in 2016. Later the next year, he passed away in Mobile, Alabama, due to emphysema.
While there is a long list of great songs from Don Williams, It Must Be Love tops them all. It’s an upbeat ballad that describes realizing that he’s in love. It’s been covered by several other artists, however, Don Williams sang it best. It’s one of my favorite songs ever beyond Don Williams. There’s nothing quite like it.
Garth Brooks launched his career in the late 1980s with his first ever single, Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old). Because of his styles and integration of pop and rock into country music, Brooks has earned great popularity. He’s had success with both multi-platinum records and record-breaking live performances.
Brooks is one of the most popular artists in the world, a best-selling artist with over 170 million records. In 2012, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. This came to follow the year before’s induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. The number of awards he has received over the years is too high to count.
The list of incredible songs by Garth Brooks only ends when you run out of songs to count. However, easily the best song is If Tomorrow Never Comes. It’s hard to imagine losing a loved one, especially a partner. This song serves as a reminder to tell them how much you love them because tomorrow is never promised. The emotion he displays in every one of his songs is beautiful. However, when he sings this song, he always tops everything else.
Travis’ career began in the mid-1980s, when he broke through into the country music industry with his album Storms of Life. Following his debut, Travis had incredible success with platinum and multi-platinum albums. Even though his career began declining in the mid-90s, Travis still had the incredible hit, Three Wooden Crosses.
Unfortunately, Travis’s battle with alcohol for a while took a toll on both his personal and professional lives. During the 2010s, Travis faced some legal trouble caused by some choices made while intoxicated. In 2013, Travis suffered from a massive stroke that left him suffering from aphasia. He has spent the years since struggling and fighting to recover from the event.
Even though Travis has not fully recovered, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. While Travis continues to make public appearances, sadly, he is no longer able to sing like he used to. However, he does continue to make public appearances and surprise artists who are honored to cover his songs.
It’s true that there is a long list of spectacular songs that came from Randy Travis. To be honest, it’s almost an impossible decision. However, there’s one song that does stick out in my mind any time I think of him. I Told You So is an incredibly heartbreaking song, full of lyrics that make you want to cry.
Travis’ voice really brings out the emotion of the song, to the point that you can feel the emotions welling up inside yourself. But if you hear the duet he does with Carrie Underwood, it’s easy to see why this song is so special. Together, they bring this song from the depths of your heart to the tears in your eyes.
George Strait, one of the hottest artists in the 1980s, is known as the “King of Country.” He’s also known as the man who can “supposedly make a cowgirl’s jeans twitch at 100 yards.” Strait was a prominent figure in pioneering the neo-traditional country movement. Strait has a record number of hits, with over 60 number ones on the country charts. He continued releasing new singles through the 2010s.
Sadly, in 2012, Strait announced that he was retiring from touring. His last tour, the Cowboy Rides Away Tour, sold out in hours. The tour featured several amazing opening performers. When the tour ended, it was the end of a great era of country music.
George Strait has a record number of hits to prove that he has an incredible musical style. His list of terrific songs is endless. But the one nearest and dearest to my heart is I Cross My Heart. The song has been played at numerous weddings; it’s a timeless love song that will melt your heart. Those who hear Strait sing will experience intense emotions because he sings from the bottom of his heart.
The 1980s were a weird time in country music history. There were a lot of artists that were recording country-pop crossover music, but there was still that portion of the industry that wanted to keep country music the way it once was. The best male country singers of the 80s were part of the solution to this perceived problem. These artists are people who won’t soon be forgotten by fans.
This article was written by Katherine and edited by Michael.
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