As we grow nearer to closing out 2019, we’re witnessing a period marked by a seismic change in the perception of country music. Partly due to the new-found hipness of Nashville, the genre’s everlasting hub, the imagery long associated with country – hay bales, barns, yee-hawing yahoos – is vanishing from view. Such stars as Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and others play the kinds of super stadium venues that only Springsteen or The Rolling Stones once had the cache to headline. In a somewhat amazing twist, country is quite often listed as the preferred musical style of college-aged consumers.
Thirty years ago, a fresh and feisty group of artists came along with a vibrant new sound that also captivated a younger, record-buying audience. They collectively came to be known as the “Class of ’89,” as all made their chart debuts in 1989. And it was quite an august class: Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Travis Tritt. They paved the way for the worldwide boom in country music’s popularity and, yes, were successful in changing the way people perceived country music.
Sparked by the so-called “Neo-traditionalist” movement of the mid-1980s, record labels were looking for younger talent. They found them in this new crop of artists. “The Neo-traditionalist thing started with Randy Travis and Ricky Skaggs and Reba [McEntire],” explains Clint Black. “There was a lot of young talent around and the labels were rushing to sign them. Just strictly as a fan, I loved the music that everyone was making.”
Now, thirty years later, all the members of the class still enjoy active and relevant careers. Two of the five, Brooks and Jackson, have been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. This past year, Brooks won his seventh CMA Entertainer of the Year award, veritable proof that his popularity is actually flourishing at the age of 57. Jackson still lives the life of the road warrior, though not at the frenetic pace of his younger days. But which class member had the biggest immediate impact? Not Alan and, surprisingly, not Garth.
View this post on Instagram
It’s Time…! To end the #30YearsIn30Days with us performing “Killin’ Time” Live at the Grand Ole @Opry. I never planned to release a live album but the 30 year mark of my career inspired me to do just that! “Still Killin Time” is out everywhere tonight! #StillKillinTime Pre-save & pre-add the album at the link in my bio.
Clint Black was actually the first to garner some big-time attention. Black bolted out of the box in rocket-like proportion with his debut album Killin’ Time. He accomplished something that not even Brooks or Jackson were able to pull off, as the first single from the album, “A Better Man,” reached No. 1. But the Black train didn’t stop there. The three follow-up singles – the title track, “Nobody’s Home” and “Walkin’ Away” – also topped the charts, making Black one of the rare artists to reach No. 1 with his first four singles (Brooks & Dunn and, believe it or not, Donna Fargo did the same). Black also wrote or co-wrote every cut on the album, a slight departure from the time-honored traditions of Music Row, where new artists were generally paired with professional songwriters before they became established.
To mark the 30th anniversary of that landmark debut album, Black recently released Still Killin’ Time, featuring eight live recordings of his hits. There’s also a cool bonus attached with two songs, “This Old House” and “No One Here for Me,” that were originally intended for Killin’ Time. “These were two songs that kept getting edged out,” Black tells Sounds Like Nashville. “With today’s technology, they probably could have been on that first album. But we were limited to ten songs back then.”
Black wrote “This Old House” as a tribute to the Grand Ole Opry. “I wrote it as an homage to the Opry because it is our house, the home of country music,” Black explains. Fittingly, Black enlisted several of his artist buddies, many of them Opry members, to provide guest vocals, including Dierks Bentley, Sara Evans, Steve Wariner, fellow Class of ’89 alum Travis Tritt and Darius Rucker. “I thought that would make a nice touch,” Black says. “The guest list just snowballed.” Black was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 1991.
Black’s Killin’ Time album reached No. 1 in September of 1989 and stayed at the top for an astonishing 31 weeks. Mainly on the strength of that album, Black became the first member of the class to take home a CMA Award. Black won the Horizon award (now called New Artist of the Year) in 1989.
Garth Brooks’ self-titled debut album was also released in 1989 but fell one spot short of the No. 1 mark. The follow-up would fare much better. In September of 1990, Brooks released No Fences, an album featuring the singles “Friends in Low Places” and “The Thunder Rolls,” among other hits. The album made Brooks an international star, as it reached No. 1 on the British music charts. Buoyed by the string of smash singles, No Fences topped the Billboard album charts for a whopping 41 weeks and, perhaps more important, went all the way to No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart, which lists all genres of music. The numbers were astonishing, with No Fences eventually tallying 17 million copies sold, making it the best-selling country album in history at that time.
Brooks and Black in particular led the charge for a staunch rebirth for country music. They came in with a sound reflecting a variety of influences outside of country. Black often acknowledged his love for the Eagles as well as Merle Haggard, while Brooks incorporated bits and pieces from such artists as the Beatles, James Taylor and Elton John. Brooks’ electrifying stage show, he often cited, was influenced by glam rockers KISS. Brooks and Black targeted a generation raised on classic rock that was generally uninspired by the current state of rock ‘n’ roll. Their diverse, up-to-date sounds filled that critical void.
But it wasn’t the sound alone. The male members of the Class of ’89 also had the looks to go with it, so necessary in this new era of music videos and increased television exposure. Brooks sported an everyman identity coupled with a wild-eyed intensity that appealed to both male and female fans. Black, with his signature cowboy hat, had an earthy, down-home appeal. His resemblance to Western movie and singing idol Roy Rogers was almost uncanny. The lanky Alan Jackson unfurled a flowing lock of curls under his cowboy hat. The outlaw of the bunch, Travis Tritt, was unlike any of his other Class counterparts. There was no cowboy hat, or any kind of lid for that matter, and his rugged, somewhat unkempt appearance gave him a certain “bad boy” image.
“I didn’t wear a hat because I was trying to set myself apart,” Tritt told journalist Dan Rather on the AXS TV series The Big Interview. Tritt added that, “I had all this hair back then,” and simply did not want to cover it up. Tritt’s vocal mixture of country and Southern soul, inspired by the Georgia native’s love of Ray Charles, took his 1989 debut single “Country Club,” to the Top 10, an impressive first outing. Tritt had to wait for his second single, 1990’s “Help Me Hold On,” to crack the No. 1 spot.
View this post on Instagram
Monday June 26, 1989 George H. W. Bush was President. The price of gas was about $1.06. Batman starring Michael Keaton & Jack Nicholson was released. Roseanne Cash was at the top of the Country charts with the Beatles' remake "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party.” AND Country Music History was made…….. #OTD #KeepinItCountry
Alan Jackson took even longer to reach the top of the charts. Nearly two years after his 1989 debut, “Blue Blooded Woman,” which landed at No. 45, Jackson finally realized his first No. 1 with his fifth career single, “I’d Love You All Over Again.” The song he had written for his wife Denise propelled his fortunes from that point. Five of his next six singles, including “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” and “Someday,” all went No. 1.
Jackson’s third career album, A Lot About Livin’ (And a Little ‘Bout Love), took him to that desirable “next level” status. The record spawned the No. 1 singles “She’s Got the Rhythm (And I’ve Got the Blues)” and “Chattahoochee.” It also marked Jackson’s first No. 1 album, staying at the top for five weeks in 1993. To date, it has tallied more than five million sales.
View this post on Instagram
and it’s time time time that you love and it’s time time time – Tom Waits • with the great Mrs Sarah Cannon, also known and beloved as Minnie Pearl, and the equally beloved Tennessee Ernie Ford backstage at the CMA awards in 1990 • fast forward 29 years to tonight and I have the honor and privilege of sharing my dressing room at @theryman with Mrs Cannon ♥️ • • • • • • • #cmaawards #minniepearl #tenneseeearnieford #theryman #nashville_tn #shawncolvin
With his traditional country sound and ever-present cowboy hat, Jackson would never be mistaken for anything but a country artist. The lone female of the Class of ’89 group, Mary Chapin Carpenter, was quite the complete opposite. Raised in Washington, D.C., Carpenter graduated from Brown University, an Ivy League college, and gravitated more towards folk and pop music.
Carpenter released an album in 1987 to mostly middling results. But her label, Columbia Records, began marketing her as a country artist, and Carpenter soon developed a wider audience. Her first single for the label in 1989, “How Do,” landed inside the Top 20. She followed that up with “Never Had It So Good,” and this time she found herself with a Top 10 hit.
Carpenter’s breakthrough album, Come On Come On in 1992, showcased the full range of Carpenter’s writing prowess. “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” shone with a sarcastic wit, while “The Hard Way” spoke to a woman’s struggle. On the lighter sides, “I Feel Lucky” and “The Bug” were just plain fun. Come On Come On proved her breakthrough release, producing seven hit singles, cracking the Top 10 on the country albums chart and becoming her best-selling album.
Though she has been out of the country mainstream for most of the present decade, Mary Chapin Carpenter remains an important artist in the country landscape. Her introspective writing style has undoubtedly inspired a number of female songwriters. You can almost hear the Carpenter touch on songs by Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves or Maren Morris. Such artists as Trisha Yearwood and Patty Loveless list Carpenter as an influence.
The Class of ’89, along with a slew of other country artists, picked up an invaluable assist in May of 1991 that ultimately changed the field of record sales. Billboard magazine, which publishes the country singles and albums charts, went to a new system of tracking album sales, known as SoundScan. The technology provided more accurate data on sales by reading the UPC bar code on each record. In the past, Billboard collected sales information by calling stores throughout the United States, a method that was fraught with errors, personal bias and often shoddy reporting. SoundScan was a vast improvement over the old system.
More important, SoundScan proved that country music artists could actually sell records. “That started showing our true sales,” Clint Black tells Sounds Like Nashville. “We could see what was happening – that a lot of music was being bought.” Garth Brooks, for example, hit No. 1 on both the Billboard 200 and Top Country Albums charts in 1991 with Ropin’ the Wind, a combined result of Brooks’ overall popularity and more accurate sales reporting. Alan Jackson’s 1992 album, A Lot About Livin’ (And a Little ‘Bout Love), topped the Billboard country charts while also landing at No. 13 on the Billboard 200.
Each member of the vaunted Class of ’89 racked up exceptional chart numbers and won their fare share of awards. Their impact is still visible today, 30 years after bursting onto the country scene. Here’s a roundup of each artist.
13 No. 1 singles
CMA Awards: 1989 Horizon; 1990 Male Vocalist of the Year
2 No. 1 albums
Grand Ole Opry 1991
20 No. 1 singles
CMA Awards: Horizon 1990; Entertainer of the Year 1991, 1992, 1997, 1998, 2016, 2017, 2019; Album of the Year 1991, 1992; Single of the Year 1991; Musical Event of the Year 2019
Grand Ole Opry 1990
Country Music Hall of Fame 2012
Best-selling solo artist in history in any genre of music
Only artist in history with seven diamond albums (more than 10,000,000 units sold)
Most CMA Entertainer of the Year awards: 7
24 No. 1 singles
11 No. 1 albums
CMA Awards: Entertainer of the Year 1995, 2003; Male Vocalist of the Year 2002, 2003; Song of the Year 1994, 2002; Album of the Year 2002; Vocal Event of the Year 1993, 2000, 2003
Grand Ole Opry 1991
Country Music Hall of Fame 2017
MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER
CMA Awards: Female Vocalist of the Year 1992, 1993
Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame 2012
5 No. 1 singles
CMA Awards: Horizon 1991; Vocal Event of the Year 1992, 1993, 1996
Grand Ole Opry 1992
The Class of ’89 helped spark a resurgence in country music, leading to the growth of country radio and the popularity of the genre. The members also wielded an impact as far as bringing the true songwriter/artist to the forefront. They wrote the majority of their own songs – Black and Carpenter seldom used outside material – and thus had more input into their albums. It’s a trend that continues today, with artists fairly well expected to write (or co-write) much of their own material and not depend on cuts by professional songwriters.
The Class of ’89 explosion was marked by an increase in record sales across the board. Multi-platinum albums, once thought to be nearly unattainable by country acts, practically became the norm. Black’s Killin’ Time and Put Yourself in My Shoes albums both went over the three million mark initially. Brooks set records with No Fences and Ropin’ the Wind, with each eventually topping 10 million sales. Come On Come On by Mary Chapin Carpenter sold more than 5 million. Other artists like Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Brooks & Dunn and Dwight Yoakam rode the wave of popularity and began to see an uptick in their sales as well. By the mid-1990s, country became the most popular musical format on radio.
This new-found popularity extended to the performing arena. Brooks grew into a nationwide entertainer, performing at large venues to sold-out crowds. Black headlined a 1992 concert at the massive Houston Astrodome. “More headline acts came out of that era,” says Black. “That led to a big change in touring. We showed that we could sell out arenas.”
The impact made by the Class of ’89 was no mere passing fad but a long-term, lasting effect. Contemporary artists point to the class members as seminal influences on their careers. At the time, though, the artists making the music were hardly aware of their influence. “We had no idea we were making any kind of impact because we were right in the middle of it,” says Black. “I was a bit myopic about the impact but I was excited about everything that was happening. I realize the impact now, though, because of what younger artists tell me. I get it because of what people’s music meant to me when I was coming up.”
And now, thirty years later, the music lives on and the impact is still being felt.