Time, as Tracy Lawrence sang in a 1990s classic, marches on.
The current time finds Lawrence celebrating 30 years since his debut single — “Sticks and Stones,” which first appeared on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart dated Nov. 9, 1991 —and that anniversary arrives as ’90s country is a big deal again.
Luke Combs, Carly Pearce, Jon Pardi, Tenille Arts and Michael Ray are among the modern hitmakers who count music from that era as an influence on their work.
There’s a good case to be made that Lawrence and 11 other artists who debuted the same year, the Class of ’91, form an underappreciated foundation for the country music that resonates in 2021. Music Row executives have long hailed the Class of ’89 as a standout: Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Clint Black and Travis Tritt all made their first chart appearances, while Vince Gill achieved his long-sought country breakout with “When I Call Your Name.”
But the Class of ’91 was special, too. Headed by Country Music Hall of Fame members Brooks & Dunn, it included harmony acts Diamond Rio, Little Texas and McBride & The Ride; Country Music Association female vocalists of the year Trisha Yearwood and Pam Tillis; Lawrence and fellow traditionalists Aaron Tippin and Sammy Kershaw; plus pop- and folk-influenced singers Collin Raye, Billy Dean and Hal Ketchum.
And it really was a class, in the sense that all the acts — arriving just as Brooks had attracted the national spotlight to the genre — experienced their launch with a greater sense of possibility than many of their predecessors were afforded.
“Everything was new and buzzy and exciting,” recalls McBride & The Ride frontman Terry McBride. “There was that camaraderie of those artists, sort of a kinship and friendship that was being made from seeing these people on the road, touring together, doing these publicity things together. It was everybody kind of excited for everybody.”
Much of the excitement was a direct result of SoundScan. Prior to its introduction in the Billboard issue dated May 25, 1991, album charts were derived from reports by retailers and distributors. The reliability of that information was subject to the gatherers’ competence, perception and integrity. SoundScan, which now operates as MRC Data, measured sales through a computer network that tracked point-of-purchase transactions, and it quickly proved that country was selling better than was generally known. Eighteen country titles moved upward on Top Pop Albums that issue. Sixteen of them jumped at least 10 positions, and 11 titles leaped over 20 spots. An additional nine country albums reentered the chart under the new methodology. The media, and the music business itself, were forced to pay attention.
“When it came out, we were keeping the lights on up in New York,” says Diamond Rio guitarist Jimmy Olander, contrasting Arista Nashville with the label’s pop division. “They were having dismal years. Alan was killing it [in country], Brooks & Dunn, you know — we were really, really doing well. It was nice when the technology affirmed [that], for sure.”
While ’90s country sounds traditional in 2021 hindsight, much of it was considered progressive at the time. Eagles harmonies and Southern rock guitars were dominant influences on the genre, country drum sounds approximated arena-level power and echo for the first time, and tempos were generally faster. The previously ballad-tilted format would yield a line dance craze in 1992.
“It kind of went through some of those pop-feeling moments with production,” reflects McBride. “It was a lot slicker and a little glossier than the hardcore country stuff, like Gary Stewart, that I grew up on. But still the same subjects.”
Indeed, 19 of the top 20 songs on the Hot Country Singles chart dated April 6, 1991, were about commitment, future love, romantic misery or small-town values. The lone exception — Reba McEntire‘s “Fancy,” about a woman who slept her way to being wealthy — at least had small-town imagery and an aspirational attitude.
“I’m not seeing the big party vibe in here. I’m seeing a little bit more country value,” says Olander, comparing the music of the Class of ’91 with modern country. “We were doing stuff that spoke to us, and the values in our personal lives were not about the party. It was about relationships.”
With the exception of Ketchum, who died in 2020, all of the artists in the Class of ’91 are still working in the music business 30 years later. Lawrence hosts a syndicated radio show and is launching an album trilogy, Hindsight 2020, beginning with Volume 1: Stairway to Heaven Highway to Hell on April 23; Tillis issued a quality project, Looking for a Feeling, in 2020; Olander and Diamond Rio keyboardist Dan Truman are collaborating on an instrumental project; and McBride targeted the Texas red-dirt circuit with a solo album, Rebels & Angels, while McBride & The Ride is reuniting with a handful of dates starting April 9.
Some of that era’s longevity is an extension of an age-old pop-music cycle: Many of their original fans have grown up and are now accompanied at concerts by their kids, who feel connected to songs they’ve heard at home for years.
But the Class of ’91 is also benefiting from a speedier chart. The Hot Country Singles top 10 on April 6, 1991, ranged in age from Alabama‘s “Down Home,” which had charted for just six weeks, to Dean’s ironically titled “Only Here for a Little While” logging its 16th week on the list. By comparison, the top 10 titles on the April 5, 2021, Country Airplay chart span 21 weeks to 60 weeks.
“We were getting four singles a year,” notes Lawrence. “A guy like me that had a really solid 10-year run and had a couple of hits as we got into the 2000s, I was able to amass a great body of work that allows me to keep working for a long time. It’s harder for a young artist to really get a body of work. It takes longer to put that together now.”
While hip-hop sonic influences and the influx of party songs have changed some of country’s texture, Combs, Pearce and Pardi are still working old-school themes and musical structures in 2021, providing shoutouts to ’90s country that keep that era in mind. Since most of the Class of ’91 kept having hits for five to 17 more years, those dozen artists joined the Class of ’89 to create the backbone of the ’90s country now enjoying a resurgence.
“I think people will look back on the early ’90s like they do parts of classic rock’n’roll,” predicts Lawrence. “That stuff’s going to stay around for a long time.”
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