by John Ellis
In high school, there were essentially two types of music that I liked – the music that I liked when whatever girl I was dating was not around, and the music that I liked when whatever girl I was dating was around. Generally, the second classification included lots of country music, and the first included lots of grunge and metal. Looking back, I now realize the truth of Dream a Little Dream. Starring the two Coreys, the movie contains a scene in which the tension between the different high school factions comes to a violent head. Before the violence can extend past undoing, Corey Haim’s character pleads that one day, they will all look back and forget that they were enemies; they will one day view each other as high school friends. In other words, the John Ellis that loved grunge and metal was friends with the John Ellis that loved country music and Richard Marx. I can see that now.
Researching and compiling this list was fun. For those of you who grew up during the 90s, I’m sure that regardless of your opinions as a teenager of the music included, you’ll have fun watching the videos and listening to the country music of your youth. Using the comment section, let me know which country music you believe I should’ve included.
(Note: all of the music in this post was released in 1995 or earlier. That’s not because there wasn’t great country music in the 90s post-1995, it’s that I didn’t listen to any of it and don’t know anything about it.)
Honorable Mentions: “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” – Brooks & Dunn; “Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident)” – John Michael Montgomery; “Any Man of Mine” – Shania Twain; “The River” – Garth Brooks
11. “I Swear” – John Michael Montgomery
Personally, I preferred the All-4-One version of “I Swear,” but my girlfriend loved the John Michael Montgomery version. So, I, too, loved the John Michael Montgomery version. This may be the curmudgeon in me, but as I listen to the song for the first time in well over a decade (if not two decades), the song contains a sweetness that is missing in today’s music.
10. “Independence Day” – Martina McBride
“Independence Day” was released during my senior year of high school. Which raises the question, why is a country song about domestic violence lodged in eighteen-year old John Ellis’ memory? Well, because a few years earlier, one of my favorite bands had released “Janie’s Got a Gun.” Shamefully, I didn’t really pay much attention to the Aerosmith song’s theme; I just thought that it was a cool song with a cool riff. I did think enough about the parallel between the two songs’ thematic content, though, to cause me to believe that I could use the Martina McBride song as a means to getting my girlfriend to listening to Aerosmith. It didn’t work. In hindsight, my girlfriend was unwittingly correct, “Independence Day” is a superior song to “Janie’s Got a Gun.”
9. “Dust on the Bottle” – David Lee Murphy
Imagine my surprise to discover that Alabama’s fun song “Dust on the Bottle” isn’t an Alabama song at all. Instead, it’s by some singer that I’ve never heard of before. Well, I mean, I must have heard of David Lee Murphy, because I remember his song. Except, one distinct thing that I do remember thinking whenever this song would come on the radio was that this was an aging band’s (Alabama) metaphor about how they might be well-worn but were still able to be good lovers. Now imagine how embarrassed I feel right now.
8. “Meet In the Middle” – Diamond Rio
“Meet In the Middle” was one of the few country songs that I could listen to while playing basketball. For the record, in high school, my free time was usually spent playing basketball or hanging out with a girl. “Meet In the Middle” had a multi-tasking ability that most country songs of the early 90s did not.
7. “Chattahoochee” – Alan Jackson
I’m not really sure why, but my buddies who were into mudding loved this song. I mean, I think that I get it, but since I wasn’t into mudding, I may be missing something. If you don’t know what “mudding” is, it’s when someone, usually a teenage boy who lives in the Deep South, takes a pickup truck or a jeep or their parent’s Buick Regal if there are no other options and drives it through the woods in search of mud holes. The mud holes, of course, are the end game. And by “end game,” I literally mean end game because my buddies would inevitably come to school the next day bragging about how their truck was stuck in a muddy creek somewhere. I never understood the appeal. I liked their theme song, though.
6. She’s In Love With a Boy – Trisha Yearwood
If you were a teenager during the early 90s and ever had to worry about the approval of parents when it came to whom you were dating (or, as in many cases, being the one who fell short in the eyes of the other side of the equation’s parents), Trisha Yearwood’s debut single resonated with you. Grunge music may have spoken to our collective and mostly made-up angst, but “She’s In Love With a Boy” spoke to things we were actually dealing with.
5. “I Cross My Heart” – George Strait
I have never watched the movie Pure Country, but the movie’s final song was ubiquitous during my high school life. George Strait’s 1992 hit song was a frequent request and dedication on top-forty radio stations’ evening “Request and Dedication Hour.” I remember many of my friends loving this song. Sadly, if I had made this list while in high school, “I Cross My Heart” wouldn’t have even made an appearance, much a less top-five slot. I couldn’t stand the song back then. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve become a fan of George Strait and “I Cross My Heart.”
4. “Don’t Take the Girl” – Tim McGraw
The romantic Jim and Pam scenes in The Office make me cry, so of course “Don’t Take the Girl” still elicits a tear drop or two from my eyes. While much less likely to admit it back then, Tim McGraw’s first number one single made me weep as an eighteen-year old. On the exact opposite end of the emotional spectrum, though, this song always reminded me (still does) of the “Yellow Ribbon” tall-tale. That was an emotional paradox that greatly troubled teenage me. Middle-aged man me is far more comfortable with emotional paradoxes.
3. “I’m In a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why)” – Alabama
Unlike the car in the Alabama hit, my 1966 Dodge Dart was not able to do 0 to 60 in 5.2, but that didn’t stop me from trying. Leaving basketball practice, my friends and I would race to the house of our friend who had a big satellite for his TV, a swimming pool, and a garage with four-wheelers in it. Living out the Alabama song while racing, things like stop signs, speed limits, and pedestrians became obstacles to ignore. It’s only God’s grace that allows boys to make it past the age of thirty.
2. “The Dance” – Garth Brooks
Released in 1990, “The Dance” was the first country song that made me wonder if I was indeed a fan of country music. Afraid that answering that question would require me to throw away my Poison and Warrant cassette tapes, I simply chalked my love of the song up to Garth Brooks being an exception. As you can probably tell from this list, the next few years produced many exceptions.
1. “Friends in Low Places” – Garth Brooks
If you’re not currently humming “Friends in Low Places” out loud, you are probably singing the song at the top of your lungs right now (in your mind, of course). In a second, after you hit “play” on the video below, you’re going to weave and bob your head to the greatest country song of the 90s. The fact that everyone between the ages of thirty-eight and fifty will click play on the video is the only defense I need for crowning this Garth Brooks’ hit as number one on my list of best country songs of the early 90s.
*Bonus Track* – “Is There Life Out There” – Reba McEntire
I’m not sure that I’d ever heard “Is There Life Out There” until researching country music from the 90s for this post. The more I listen to the 1991 hit from Reba McEntire, the more I like it. I also realized why this excellent, heartfelt song doesn’t hold a place in my teenage memories. The song’s subject matter is outside of teenagers’ experiences. In fact, there’s really next to nothing in the song for the average teenager to hang his or her experiential hat on. I’m imagining that whenever “Is There Life Out There” came on the radio, we simply changed the station in search of more relatable music. Which is kind of a shame.
Unlike many of the reviews that I found online, I don’t believe that “Is There Life Out There” is a song about a woman’s longing to find self-fulfillment outside of her family. Those reviews paint “Is There Life Out There’s” protagonist as a second-wave feminist hero wanting to escape the chains of her family. Instead, I find the song a poignant ode to the power that a loving and supportive family provides those who are seeking to better their life. Often, as in the song, that better life is sought because of and for the family. For me, Reba McEntire’s song is a beautiful testament to the resiliency, selfless-love, and sense of purpose that family provides. Also, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that the great Huey Lewis played McEntire’s husband in the video.
 In my memory, All-4-One was a generic version of Boyz-to-Men. I could be wrong, although I don’t think so; plus, I refuse to Google either All-4-One or Boyz-to-Men.
 Here is a short version (very, very short version) of the “Yellow Ribbon” – a boy falls in love with a girl who wears a yellow ribbon tied around her neck all the time. The boy asks the girl about the ribbons, and she tells him to ask her later. … Repeat that sentence about a dozen times while gradually raising the age and life situation of the boy and girl … Now in their eighties, the married boy and girl are holding hands on their deathbeds. The boy asks one last time about the ribbon. The girls admits that the time is finally here for her to answer. She unties the ribbon and her head falls off.