Stories

Country by the Decade: 1980s

How country music’s biggest artists and moments in the 1980s shaped the genre forever.

By Katie Quine

Country music was undoubtedly having a moment in the 1970s as the rest of the nation took note of the genre’s many superstars who rose to fame in the era. Heading into the 1980s, crossover was commonplace, even among the artists who longed for the “authenticity” that seemed to have gone missing in the music.

With its “peanuts-in-my-Coke” sentiment yet distinctive pop-country trappings, Barbara Mandrell’s “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool” perfectly captured the curious metamorphosis that the genre was experiencing in the early part of the decade. The hit featured a guest appearance by George Jones, an artist whose roots were planted in honky-tonk but had reemerged as a venerable icon in the 1980 with the biggest hit of his career, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

While Jones had a great deal of success as a solo artist in the early 1980s, country bands were also on the rise. The Oak Ridge Boys and Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers — both Grand Ole Opry members inducted in 2011 and 1976, respectively — had a string of chart-topping singles, and Alabama would forever change the landscape with its blend of country, rock, and Outlaw sounds. Between 1980 and 1987, the band had 21 consecutive No. 1 songs, starting with “Tennessee River” and ending with “You’ve Got the Touch.” No other country act has come close to breaking the record.

As pop-country became mainstream, Hollywood developed a fascination with the genre, producing movies like Urban Cowboy and 9 to 5, which starred John Travolta and Dolly Parton, respectively. The cinematic craze was short-lived, and it was unclear what would become of country music in the second portion of the decade. But as the old parable goes, “The circle can’t be broken,” and a new crop of talent emerged who heralded an era of “neo-traditionalism.”

At the forefront of this subgenre was Randy Travis, who recorded enduring tunes like “Forever and Ever, Amen” and “I Told You So,” the latter of which was famously covered by fellow Opry member Carrie Underwood, who has long admired Travis’ artistry. Reba McEntire also launched a successful career, earning her first No. 1 hit, “Can’t Even Get the Blues,” in 1982. As for George Strait, the title of his debut album, Strait Country, says it all: He didn’t have to fit the Hollywood mold of a cowboy — he already was one.

The neo-traditionalists of the 1980s breathed new life into the genre that would make the 1990s just as exciting for country music.