Country Music in the 1980s: A Look Back at the Biggest Artists, Moments + More
Just like big hair and Spandex, country music was alive and well in the 1980s.
The decade introduced a class of future superstars of country music: Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Travis Tritt and Alan Jackson, among others, are part of a group of then-newcomers dubbed the "Class of '89," for the year in which their fame began rising. At the same time, the 1980s also found some singer-songwriters, such as Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle, finally coming into their own as performers.
The '80s were a transitional decade for country music: a time when artists could try out different styles and approaches -- and, by extension, adopt new traditions that would come to reverberate in the '90s and beyond. Read on to learn more.
Country Music Milestones of the 1980s
Oct. 13, 1980: Johnny Cash joins the Country Music Hall of Fame. He was 48 years old at the time of his Country Music Hall of Fame induction, making him the youngest living member, at the time, to enter into the Hall of Fame.
Dec. 19, 1980: Dolly Parton makes her move debut in 9 to 5. A story of three working women seeking revenge on their boss, the film also starred Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dabney Coleman and became a major box office hit.
May 23, 1981: Rosanne Cash's "Seven Year Ache" becomes her first No. 1 song. The song, written by Cash, was the title track of and debut single from her third studio album.
Sept. 4, 1981: George Strait releases his debut album, Strait Country, on MCA Records. Three singles were released from the disc: "Unwound," "Down and Out" and "If You're Thinking You Want a Stranger (There's One Coming Home)." Both "Unwound" and "If You're Thinking You Want a Stranger" landed in the Top 10, with the latter peaking at No. 3.
June 1982: The Bluebird Cafe opens. Founder Amy Kurland originally intended for the Bluebird Cafe to be a restaurant with a small stage, which she added to the 90-seat venue to attract customers; however, patrons began flocking to the Bluebird to hear live music moreso than to eat, turning the venue into one of the most coveted and prestigious show locations in Music City.
Aug. 28, 1982: George Strait earns his first No. 1 song. "Fool Hearted Memory" was Strait's fourth career single; it was written by Byron Hill and Blake Mevis, and was penned for a movie titled The Soldier
Jan. 8, 1983: "Can't Even Get the Blues" becomes Reba McEntire's first No. 1 song. It was written by Tom Damphier and Rick Carnes, and was being considered for Jacky Ward, another artist on Mercury; McEntire argued with her producer, Jerry Kennedy, over the right to include the track on her own new record.
Oct. 8, 1984: Anne Murray wins Album of the Year (for her 1983 album A Little Good News) and Single of the Year (for the album's title track) at the CMA Awards. In addition to being the only double winner of the evening, Murray's Album of the Year win marked the first time in the history of the CMA Awards that a woman had won that honor as a solo artist.
Dec. 6, 1984: Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson record "Highwayman." The song became the title track of their gold-certified freshman album together, and their supergroup's namesake; it went to No. 1 in August of 1985.
Dec. 22, 1984: The Judds hit No. 1 with their debut single "Why Not Me." The song is the title track of their platinum-selling first album.
Feb. 14, 1985: Randy Travis signs with Warner Bros. Records. He had already been rejected by every label in town by the time he landed at Warner Bros., thanks in part to an independent album, Live at the Nashville Palace.
July 30, 1985: Alabama become the first country act to earn a quadruple-platinum album. The trio actually did it twice at once: with their 1981 album Feels So Right and 1982's Mountain Music.
Sept. 22, 1985: The first Farm Aid takes place in Champaign, Ill. The inaugural event was held at the University of Illinois' Memorial Stadium, with Bob Dylan, BB King, Roy Orbison, Loretta Lynn, Billy Joel and Tom Petty among the list of performers. More than 80,000 people attended, kicking off an annual event that has, as of 2015, raised over $48 million.
Jan. 17, 1986: Reba McEntire joins the Grand Ole Opry. McEntire's induction into the hallowed hall came nine years after she made her Grand Ole Opry debut in 1977.
June 6, 1986: Randy Travis releases his debut album, Storms of Life. The disc includes a re-release of Travis' first chart-topping single, "On the Other Hand," as well as "Diggin' Up Bones" and "No Place Like Home," two additional No. 1 hits for Travis.
July 16, 1986: Dollywood opens in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. It began as Rebel Railroad, a small tourist attraction, in the early 1960s, then changed names and owners a few times until Parton bought into the theme park in an attempt to increase employment for her family and fellow East Tennessee natives.
July 26, 1986: Randy Travis' "On the Other Hand" becomes his first No. 1 single. Written by Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz, the song comes from Travis' first album, Storms of Life.
Oct. 1, 1986: Patty Loveless releases her debut album. Loveless' freshman project didn't garner any Top 40 hits, but it did introduce her to her husband, Emory Gordy Jr., who produced Patty Loveless.
March 2, 1987: Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt release Trio. The project was produced by George Massenburg; it became a No. 1 album for the women and has been certified multi-platinum. It also won two Grammy Awards and spawned four hit singles, including their remake of the Phil Spector song "To Know Him Is to Love Him," which was a No. 1 hit.
Oct. 16, 1987: Anne Murray's Greatest Hits album goes triple platinum. She was the first female country artist to achieve that sales record.
May 2, 1988: Clint Black signs with RCA Records. He'd release his debut album one year later.
June 17, 1988: Garth Brooks signs with Capitol Records. The label had initially turned him down.
Aug. 13, 1988: Willie Nelson's Stardust officially logs 10 years on the Billboard charts. He was the first artist to achieve that longevity with a single record.
April 8, 1989: Keith Whitley's "I'm No Stranger to the Rain" hits No. 1. It will be the final chart-topper of his life.
April 12, 1989: Garth Brooks releases his self-titled debut album. Brooks' freshman disc spawned four more Top 10 singles, including his second single, "If Tomorrow Never Comes," which became his first No. 1 hit.
April 15, 1989: Dolly Parton serves as host and musical guest on Saturday Night Live. During the episode, in addition to her hosting and performance duties, the country legend also appeared in several sketches, including "Planet of the Enormous Hooters" and "Celebrity Restaurant."
May 9, 1989: Keith Whitley dies at 34 years of age. His cause of death was determined to be alcohol poisoning.
June 26, 1989: Alan Jackson signs his first record deal. His first single then failed to crack the Top 40.
Sept. 9, 1989: Keith Whitley's "I Wonder Do You Think of Me" hits No. 1. It was his first single to go to the top of the charts following his death.
Dec. 9, 1989: Garth Brooks' "If Tomorrow Never Comes" hits No. 1. Brooks co-wrote the song with Kent Blazy for his self-titled freshman album.
The Best of Country Music in the 1980s
Top 10 Country Songs of the 1980s: In the '80s, some of country music's best new songs celebrated true love, simple pleasures and American pride.
Top 10 Country Albums of the 1980s: Country music in the 1980s found the genre stretching: Some artists experimented with synthesizers, saxophones and pop sensibilities while others continued to produce firmly traditional country tunes.
Top 10 Country Artists of the 1980s: Much like rock 'n' roll, country music was at a crossroads in the 1980s. Glossier pop-country became an even bigger commercial force, even as a slew of traditionalists emerged to give the genre a jolt of steely authenticity.
Country Music in the 1980s: Hear a Playlist
Country fans, if you were "country when country wasn't cool," there's more than two hours of music for you to enjoy here. Tease your hair, dig out the Aquanet, and press play!