Country music has always been about stories.
The songs are stories and the artists are the storytellers. It’s the best musical genre for showing the every day emotions the great people of the world go through. There are songs about love and love lost. There are songs about having a good time and then feeling sorry for it when things get out of control.
Even the artists themsevles become stories. And one form of story country fans always root for is the comeback story.
There have been a few comeback stories in country music’s history. I thought we could look at what are perhaps the ten best comebacks in country music history.
10 Biggest Country Comeback Stories
10. Johnny Paycheck
Johnny Paycheck is a controversial figure in country music. He certainly wasn’t perfect, but he did have a few big hits that still live on today. Johnny had some ups and downs throughout his career on the charts, but I want to focus on his 1986 hit, Old Violin. The song was a top 25 song. It wasn’t a huge hit, but I still hear it on the classic channels today. It’s a great song and really telling. I think it was just a great song that might go overlooked by some, but for others it means the world.
9. Sara Evans
Six years usually means death for a country career. Sara Evans left country music in a sense after her Greatest Hits record peaked in 2007. It was two years prior that she had released a full set of new material. She went through some personal times of pain, but came back really strong with the single A Little Bit Stronger. The title of the song fit well and became a number one hit for Sara. It was great to have one of the best voices in country history back on the charts.
8. Billy Dean
Billy Dean was the next big country star when he debuted on the charts in 1990. His career shot off like a rocket as his first seven singles became top ten hits. Billy’s success continued on the charts all the way through 1996 when he had the top ten hit That Girl’s Been Spyin’ On Me. That was the last top ten hit for Billy at that point, though. A few more singles failed to crack the top twenty five on the charts. Most careers usually kind of fade away when this happens. But in 2004, Billy came out with a pleasantly surprising song entitled, Let Them Be Little. The song was a smash hit. It reached the top ten and Billy was back in the forefront of country music. It was a great comeback from a great country artist.
7. Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash really had a few comebacks in his career. There were periods of big hits and a few misses throughout. If I had to pick one comeback that stood out it would be his comeback in 1994 with the start of the American Recordings sessions. The albums did exceptionally well with fans and critics. The ’80s were not a good period on the charts for Johnny, but in the ’90s and ’00s he came back strong and was a legend before he died and very much so after. He was a one of a kind person and artist.
6. Toby Keith
When you consider Toby Keith’s career it’s really amazing he ever became a star. He was forced to switch labels throughout the early part of his career. His singles always did well even when they weren’t given much attention from the labels he was on. By 1998 Toby was out of his contract with Mercury and teaming up with the folks at Dreamworks. The result was the smash hit How Do You Like Me Now?!, which went #1 in 2000. Toby was back and bigger than ever. He road the success for a few years and even ventured out to his own label where he is still cranking out the number one hits. You can’t keep this man off the charts.
5. Tanya Tucker
Tanya Tucker was a success from an early age. She shot to the top of charts with huge hits in the ’70s. Then her career kind of stalled by the ’80s. In 1986, though, she came back strong with a strong run of hits that started with the #3 song One Love At A Time and the #1 song Just Another Love. The run of hits continued into the ’90s and Tanya furthered established herself as one of the greatest artists in country history.
4. Randy Travis
You know Randy Travis. Basically the man had number one hits nonstop from 1986 through 1994. He also had a few hits in the following years, but mostly Randy struggled on the country charts and focused on gospel music. That’s why it was surprising in 2003 when his gospel themed song Three Wooden Crosses became a number one hit. I think it was a shock to some, but for those true Randy Travis fans out there it made complete sense. The man has a talent for great music and always will it seems.
3. Tracy Lawrence
Tracy Lawrence was one of the biggest stars of the ’90s. He sold millions of records and had huge hits for more than five years. There was a period, though, from about 1999 to 2005 when Tracy struggled on the charts save a couple top five hits. That’s why it was a great comeback story in 2006 when Tracy became the first act in country music to have a single released on their own label reach #1 on the charts. Find Out Who Your Friends Are took more than a year to reach #1 and needed a little help from buddies Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw, but it was a great song. Tracy is still one of my favorite artists and it’s partly because of comeback stories like this. And he even did it on his own label.
2. Hank Williams Jr.
Hank was kind of forced to follow in the footsteps of his famous father. You know the story well. From an early age Hank Jr. was up on stage singing his dad’s tunes. He did that for a time while also having hits of his own for a good decade. But by the time he reached his mid 20s Jr. was sick of it. He needed to find his own place in country. He went without a top ten hit for five years when in 1979 he came out with the single Family Tradition. The song became the motto for Jr. and his followers. The next decade belonged to Hank Williams Jr. It was a great comeback and emergence for a true original.
1. George Jones
George Jones was the king of country from the ’50s all the way into the ’70s. But by the end of the decade he was losing control of his career. He was in trouble and looking for his. He had a few hits during the time, but nothing like he had previously. It was a great comeback story when in 1980, at the age of 48, George released what is commonly recognized as the greatest country song of all time. He Stopped Loving Her Today launched George into legend status and he carried the momentum all the way through the ’80s and ’90s. He’s still going strong today and it all started for the second time with the biggest comeback song of all time.
Bonus: Billy Ray Cyrus
After I completed the list I had to go back and include one more comeback story. Everybody in the country world pretty much knew Billy Ray Cyrus in the early ’90s. He had a huge hit with Achy Breaky Heart along with a handful of other hits at the time. By 1994, though, he was pretty much off the charts. It was a quick fade after just a couple years in the limelight. Come 1998 and Billy was back on the charts with a great country record. Busy Man reached #3 on the country singles charts and Billy was back once again. One more top 20 hit followed and then Billy was gone again only to resurface as the co-star with his daughter on the hit show Hannah Montana. The two recorded a duet Ready, Set, Don’t Go, which became a top five hit in 2007. Billy’s life has been full of ups and downs. Just like country music songs, Billy lives through it all in his personal and professional life. I’m a fan. I hope he has at least one more comeback in him yet.
Bonus #2: Darius Rucker
After writing the entire post and including a bonus I realized I was forgetting a great story in music – Darius Rucker. Country folks might have not even recognized the name Darius Rucker when it appeared on the charts in 2008. Darius was coming off big time success, though, in the mid ’90s. His band, Hootie & The Blowfish, was one of the biggest bands of the decade. They had huge pop hits that still get tons of radio play today. The band drifted off the charts in the ’00s, though and eventually Darius tried his hand at country. It has been a huge success. Darius has had number one hits and platinum albums. He’s still friendly with the Hootie boys, but for now Darius is still working on keeping his comeback alive.
You are not a country fan if you didn’t place John Anderson in the top 5. Alan Jackson once said it was the greatest comeback of the decade.