The two dirtiest words that ever get thrown around in Nashville are “Urban” and “Cowboy.” But using them to condemn all late-seventies and early-eighties country pop unjustly assails some brilliant songs—like, for instance, the twelve below. So why get hung up on whether they are truly country music? Just call them “country yacht rock” and get over it.
Crystal Gayle, “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”
Country: #1, AC: #4,* Pop: #2
Even more than Kenny Rogers’s “Lucille,” which preceded it in the pop top five by five months, this song established easy listening as Nashville’s new template.
Dolly Parton, “Here You Come Again”
Country: #1, AC: #2, Pop: #3
One of the few country artists whose pop success was never begrudged by C&W fans, Dolly sounds as if she was produced by Burt Bacharach here. And that’s a bad thing?
Bellamy Brothers, “If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body Would You Hold It Against Me”
Country: #1, Pop: #39
The proto–Urban Cowboys (see 1976’s “Let Your Love Flow”) prove that sometimes, smoothness is its own reward.
Johnny Lee, “Pickin’ Up Strangers”
In the five years after Urban Cowboy, Lee released eleven singles that made it into country’s top ten. This one may be even better than “Lookin’ for Love.”
Rosanne Cash, “Seven Year Ache”
Country: #1, AC: #6, Pop: #22
Great lines like “Facedown in a memory” show why Cash fit in with Guy Clark’s next-generation circle of songwriters; the album’s cover and production suggest that Nashville was imagining the next Linda Ronstadt.
Ronnie Milsap, “(There’s) No Getting Over Me”
Country: #1, AC: #2, Pop: #5
Note that Milsap actually sings, “There ain’t no getting over me,” making the song’s title as polished for urban audiences as its sax solo.
Eddie Rabbitt, “Step by Step”
Country: #1, AC: #3, Pop: #5
Other than Rogers, Rabbitt was the male artist most closely associated with the era. This song was his third straight single to go top five on the country, adult contemporary, and pop charts.
John Conlee, “Miss Emily’s Picture”
There’s no fiddle, and the steel guitar part is almost bashful. But the song’s heartbroken narrator does mix bourbon with his morning coffee at work. Did Miss Emily dump him or die? Either way, how much more country do you need this to be?
Country: #1, AC: #5, Pop: #15
The refrain—“Your ‘nobody’ called today”—is classic country wordplay. But let’s be frank: the bigger heartbreak here is the bubblegum arrangement.
Kenny Rogers with Sheena Easton, “We’ve Got Tonight”
Country: #1, AC: #2, Pop: #6
Anyone who ever wondered why Rogers owned the era should listen to Bob Seger’s original version of this song. Rogers and Easton’s vocals take the melody to places Seger’s performance doesn’t even hint at.
Earl Thomas Conley, “Your Love’s on the Line”
By mid-1983, Rogers was the only country artist reliably hitting the pop charts, and neo-traditionalists like George Strait were taking back the country charts. But Nashville has always been slow to change, and this is what a great cheating song still sounded like.
Alabama, “Lady Down on Love”
Country: #1, AC: #18, Pop: #76
If the Eagles had played into the eighties and added synthesizers, they might have sounded like this, the eleventh of 21 consecutive country number ones for Alabama.
*“AC” refers to Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart.