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First albums

Mike Sudhalter  |  June 22, 2007

First albums always tell you a great deal about the artist.

The music comes from the heart, and at the time, they don't usually know if it's going to succeed or not. I'm going to say first albums are the best ones, but they're often the most revealing.

Take Gretchen Wilson. On her "Here for the Party" debut, she had a megahit with "Redneck Woman", a song that millions could relate to. The reason they could understand? Listeners realized that Wilson lived every word of that song and was proud of who she was.

Now, she's a multi-millionaire in Nashville, not the small town girl bartending in a rowdy Illinois tavern. She's tried to duplicate the success of "Redneck Woman", but it's tough to be the same person when you're now a superstar. It's tough road for Wilson. Because if she goes for a different image, some fans will say she sold out. But it's pretty clear, by listening to her songs, that she's not living them like she once did.

The key is maintaining an independent identity as an artist. George Strait, doesn't run a ranch. He probably has dozens of people doing it for him. But through his public persona, everyone still thinks he's the same cowboy that waltzed on to the country music scene a quarter-century ago.

The textbook example of a great debut is Sara Evans. About 10 years ago, Evans hit the scene with a hard-country album called "Three Chords and The Truth". Everything from her sound, her clothes, her persona were retro and it had the critics raving. The record-buying population, not so much. At some point between 1996 and 1998, Evans decided she wanted to sell records instead of pleasing critics, which anyone should be able to understand. She updated her look and sound for the "No Place That Far" album, and has actually moved closer towards tradition since veering much closer to pop with "Born to Fly" in 2000.

Garth Brooks is another example of a great first album. The songs were just so straightforward and country. At some point, he realized that he was a once-in-a-generation artist and started rocking and adding all the bells and whistles. But for a time in 1989, it was just about a guy and his songs.

There's also examples of artists who need to build an identity, but they don't have it by the first album. Debut albums by Shania Twain, Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney and Joe Nichols all flopped. Has anyone released a single as many times as Chesney released "The Tin Man"?

It's interesting, if the four aforementioned artists were newcomers in 2007, they may never have released debut albums. These days, record companies, wait to see how singles do on the charts, before releasing the whole enchilada. It's a shame, because we've got to see the evolution of Twain, McGraw, Chesney and Nichols from neophytes to established artists, and in the case of the first three, superstars.

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