When you think ’90s country music, names like Garth Brooks, Shania Twain and Trisha Yearwood come to mind almost immediately. Dixie Chicks, Martina McBride, Brooks & Dunn, Alan Jackson, too. That era, often characterized by both neo-traditional music and arena-sized pop-country, was crucial in the genre’s evolution: moving from countrypolitan to roots-based tunes. Of course, pop melted into the format unlike ever before, but it never seemed to be too saccharine or frivolous. The core of storytelling was always prominent.
But what about the music-makers who rarely get enough credit? Well, we’ve picked our 10 favorites, the ones most overlooked in the grand scheme of things. Check out our selections below.
10 Most Underrated Country Acts From the 1990s:
1. Pam Tillis
Daughter of icon Mel Tillis, she emulated many of the greats before her, both in style and presentation, and she is rarely cited as one of the standout vocalists of the time. Contemporaries Patty Loveless, Jackson, Brooks and others are often labeled as the definitive trailblazers, but Tillis’ caramel-smooth vocal remains distinctive and powerful. No one else possesses such a remarkably capable talent. We’ve taken her for granted, and shame on us.
Essentials: “Cleopatra Queen of Denial,” “Maybe It Was Memphis,” “Land of the Living,” “Shake the Sugar Tree,” “Spilled Perfume,” “All the Good Ones Are Gone”
She was as pop-country as you could get at the time, but her pristine, colorful voice was guarded behind a wall of luscious drums and gooey production. Underneath all the layers, she had talent for days. McCann ⎯⎯ constantly pitted against immediate “rival” Leann Rimes ⎯⎯ was able to net several big hits, but after three studio albums, she fell off the grid (save for a string of unsuccessful singles in the mid-00s). She might not have a legacy on par with many other of the day’s noise-makers, but she is just as unforgettable.
Essentials: “Down Came a Blackbird,” “Almost Over You,” “Crush,” “With You,” “A Rain of Angels,” “I Wanna Fall in Love”
3. Chely Wright
Her smokey alto was a breath of fresh air. She released two studio albums before “Shut Up and Drive” (from 1997’s Let Me In) stuck, bringing her name into the forefront. The follow-up, 1999’s Single White Female, took her to centerstage and resulted in several notable chart stats. Again, her talent was overshadowed by a flood of other breakout acts, from Sara Evans and Dixie Chicks to Rimes.
Essentials: “It Was,” “She Went Out for Cigarettes,” “Shut Up and Drive,” “The Love That We Lost,” “Till All Her Tears Are Dry,” “Single White Female,” “What I Learned from Loving You”
4. Clay Walker
Considered a Hat Act, there’s something so charming and indelible about Walker’s tone. While his contemporaries were commanding headlines, he was quietly and strategically setting out his own path. Many might consider him a nonentity, but his music, from signatures like “She Won’t Be Lonely Long” and “Rumor Has It,” is entrenched in the same romantic vein of Kenny Rogers. His voice made him unforgettable, beginning with his eponymous 1993 bow.
Essentials: “Hypnotize the Moon,” “She Won’t Be Lonely Long,” “Rumor Has It,” “If I Could Make a Living,” “Live Until I Die,” “Who Needs You Baby,” “Where Do I Fit in the Picture”
5. Sammy Kershaw
A heady timbre, Kershaw flew mostly under the radar during the tenure of his mainstream country career. The wave of neo-traditionalists was tremendous, so it was easy to see how few would go on to become major forces. Regardless, Kershaw’s lonesome honesty cut through the noise over the span of 10 studio albums, from 1991’s Don’t Go Near the Water to 1996’s Politics, Religion & Her and 2016’s comeback record, The Blues Got Me.
Essentials: “Cadillac Style,” “She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful,” “Don’t Go Near the Water,” “Yard Sale,” “Queen of My Double-Wide Trailer,” ” Vidalia,” “Meant to Be”
6. Mary Chapin Carpenter
Of the neo-traditionalist class, Carpenter shook up the status quo with her pointed, simple songwriting. Her vocal is as straightforward, too, as a black cup of coffee without all the frills. Her spit and edge is irrefutably transcendent, bringing Americana-decorated music to the mainstream. 1992’s Come On Come On (containing some of her biggest radio staples) remains as her most commercially-viable release. But her entire catalog, through to 2016’s The Things That We Are Made Of, is among country’s best and most honest collections.
Essentials: “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” “Halley Came to Jackson,” “Passionate Kisses,” “The More Things Change,” “Rhythm of the Blues,” “I Feel Lucky,” “Walking Through Fire,” “Down at the Twist and Shout”
In the shadow of Dixie Chicks, this three-piece band low-key made their mark, too. Far poppier in style, they often dealt heavily in female empowerment, as you’ll find from their signatures hit, off their debut LP, The Whole Shebang (1999). They never quite reached the same heights on later albums, but their harmonies are some of the best in the business.
Essentials: “I Will…But,” “Little Goodbyes,” “This Woman Needs,” “Lucky 4 You (Tonight I’m Just Me),” “Punishment,” “‘Cause I Like It That Way,” “Before Me and You”
8. Travis Tritt
While he snagged a handful of hits, it was hard to compete against the Garth Brooks and Alan Jacksons of the world. He always seemed to walk in their shadow, even if his music was as good, if not better. His scruffy voice harkened to George Jones in many ways, and when he wrote or recorded excellent, groundbreaking material (“Anymore,” “Tell Me I Was Dreaming,” among others), he could really make you cry or pound your fists in anger or down a six-pack of beer.
Essentials: “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares),” “Anymore,” “Tell Me I Was Dreaming,” “T-R-O-U-B-L-E,” “Teen Feet Tall & Bulletproof,” “I’m Gonna Be Somebody”
9. Diamond Rio
The pre-cursor to Little Big Town and Zac Brown Band, the group, in which Ty Herndon was a member in the early ’80s, was stylistically similar to Brooks & Dunn ⎯⎯ red-dirt music dolled up for the market. While their lineup shifted quite a bit through the following decade, they did settle on a lineup which included Marty Roe, Gene Johnson, Jimmy Olander, Brian Pout, Dan Truman and Dana Williams. They went on to release a long string of major label albums in the ’90s, including their eponymous debut, 1992’s Close to the Edge and Love a Little Stronger (1994).
Essentials: “How Your Love Makes Me Feel,” “Meet in the Middle,” “Mama Don’t Forget to Pray for Me,” “Walkin’ Away,” “She Misses Him on Sunday the Most”
10. Mark Chesnutt
Another in a long line of Hat Acts, often trading between white and black 10-gallons, he stood out not necessarily for his unique voice but the quality of his work. His first album, titled Too Cold at Home, jumpstarted his career right out of the gate, leading to later albums like 1993’s Almost Goodbye and 1999’s I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing, on which he spun his own version of the classic Aerosmith tune.
Essentials: “Too Cold at Home,” “Almost Goodbye,” “It’s a Little Too Late,” “Gonna Get a Life,” “I’ll Think of Something”