The release of Megan Moroney’s excellent debut album, ‘Lucky’, last Friday (May 5th) got us to thinking about what are the best debut albums in the Country music genre. You can read our review of ‘Lucky’ right here if you missed it.
A groundbreaking or unique debut album in Country music is not something that happens all that often. It sometimes takes artists two, three or even four albums to really hit their stride but in an industry that is becoming more cut-throat and ‘short term’-ist, some artists don’t get the chance to make those follow up albums. So, here is out list of Country music artist that hit the ground running with some of the best debuts of all time.
Kacey Musgraves – ‘Same Trailer, Different Park’ 2013
Most newer female artists in 2023 can trace their Country music legacies and origins back to one of three artists. Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift or Kacey Musgraves. Musgraves’ groundbreaking debut album mixed classic Country with Western vibes and biting, sardonic lyrics. Her ‘It Is What It Is’, no-holds-barred attitude was the shot in the arm the genre needed to counter the oncoming assault of Bro-Country and spawned a thousand wannabes.
Johnny Cash – ‘With His Hot and Blue Guitar’ 1957
Cash’s first big hit, ‘Cry, Cry, Cry’ is on this album but more importantly, so are ‘I Walk the Line’ and ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, two of Cash’s most iconic songs ever. The album was re-issued in 2002 some more tracks but it was this tight, 27 minute, 12 track debut release that set the stage for everything that Cash would go on to achieve in his career.
Steve Earle – ‘Guitar Town’ 1986
Topping the Billboard Country album charts, this classic went on to provide Earle with two Grammy nominations in 1987 and was eventually included in Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time in 2012. It was considered the rockers version of Country music and at ten tracks was a tight, concise project that laid the foundations for Earle to go on to produce the hugely successful ‘Copperhead Road’ just two years later.
Ashley McBryde – ‘Girl Going Nowhere’ 2018
Having built up a pre-release buzz over in London at the C2C festival McBryde released her iconic debut album in late March of 2018. Producer Jay Joyce captured the subtle blend of Rock & Country that defines this album superbly. Tracks like ‘Radioland’ echo an American upbringing not found anywhere else in the world, whilst the title track is a big middle finger to all those people, particularly one teacher, who doubted that Ashley McBryde could achieve musical success. McBryde is also not afraid to explore rawer subjects like drug addiction on tracks like ‘Livin Next to Leroy’.
Clint Black – ‘Killin’ Time’ 1989
Even bigger than Garth Brooks for a while back there in the late 80s, Black’s debut album was lightning in a bottle and something, unfortunately, that he could never quite capture again. Four huge hit singles like ‘A Better Man and ‘Nobody’s Home’ helped bring huge commercial success and the LA Times wrote ‘Black has a winning vocal style that evokes a very young Merle Haggard.’ His flame burned hard and fast but although he has charted over 30 singles on the Billboard charts, Black was never quite able to find the magic again on any of his subsequent albums.
Sam Hunt – ‘Montevallo’ 2014
Perhaps the most controversial inclusion on the list but this album is both an absolute beast and absolute game changer. For years after many artists, including established ‘hat wearers’ like Dustin Lynch even tried to ape Hunt’s infamous ‘sing-speech’ delivery, that was the influence that this album had on the genre. Throw in the fact that there isn’t a bad song on this album and it spawned 5 hit singles between June 2014 and March 2016 and you’ve got a worthy addition that went on to impact the sound & style of Nashville for years to come too.
Garth Brooks – ‘Garth Brooks’ 1989
Unlike Clint Black, who also released his debut album in 1989, Brooks was able to find gold on his debut album in the form of tracks like, ‘Much Too Young to Feel This Damn Old’ and ‘The Dance’ but also build upon that success across the rest of his resulting albums up to 1997’s ‘Seven’ album. Despite being criticised in some circles for ‘not being Country’ Brooks as gone on to cement his status as the GOAT of Country music and it all started in 1989.
Dolly Parton – ‘Hello, I’m Dolly’ 1967
Similar to Garth Brooks, Parton arrived in a blaze of glory and managed to keep the flame burning for decades after. Her 1968 debut featured 12 tracks, 10 of which were written by Parton herself. The album spawned two hits, ‘Dumb Blonde’ (you can see what she was doing with the marketing right from the off there) and ‘Something Fishy’ which peaked at 24 and 17 respectively so it wasn’t a massive commercial success but the seeds of her success were sown and the critical reception from the magazines of the time garnered high praise all round.
The Chicks – ‘Wide Open Spaces’ 1998
The Dixie Chicks, as they were back in 1998, revolutionised Country music in the late 90s with the release of this album. There isn’t a single artist in Nashville now who doesn’t love their music or didn’t grow up singing songs like ‘There’s Your Trouble’ or ‘Tonight, the Heartache’s One Me’. They were able to build on the success of this album with subsequent classics like ‘Fly’ and ‘Home’ before the infamous ‘Shut up and sing’ moment from a stage in London that changed the course of their careers forever.
Chris Stapleton – ‘Traveller’ 2015
This article is not really a ‘ranking’ article but if it was there would be a strong argument for Stapelton’s ‘Traveller’ to be ranked as the greatest Country debut album of all time. It not only revolutionised his career but it caused a paradigm shift in the genre itself, right at the height of the Bro-Country phenomenon that led to artists like Luke Combs being signed, which in itself is influencing the decisions being made on Music Row right now. The awards this album has won are too numerous to name, which is fascinating because it wasn’t a big singles album, but it just burned and burned through word of mouth and Stapleton’s fiery live performances. ‘Traveller’ seemed to hang around in the charts for about 3 or 4 years after too. An absolute unicorn of an album.