Country Music History – Essential Recordings of 1967
Prison, puppet heads, and a smart imitation dumb blonde.
1. “Branded Man,” Merle Haggard. 1967 was the year that Merle Haggard became a major country superstar, topping the charts with “The Fugitive,” “Branded Man,” and “Sing Me Back Home.” Although these songs all had prison themes, music journalist Daniel Cooper noted, “”It’s unclear when or where Merle first acknowledged to the public that his prison songs were rooted in personal history, for to his credit, he doesn’t seem to have made some big splash announcement.” On “Branded Man,” a former convict finds that society has no interest in forgiving his past sins. Merle’s talent tested Ken Nelson’s discipline as a producer, “When I first started recording Merle, I became so enamored with his singing that I would forget what else was going on, and I suddenly realized, ‘Wait a minute, there’s musicians here you’ve got to worry about!’”
2. “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” Glen Campbell. Glen Campbell was a small town Arkansas boy who was taught guitar by members of his family and performed at a local church. He became a touring musician at the age of 18 and became an important Los Angeles studio musician in the early 1960s. Campbell started releasing singles in 1958 and had his first minor hit (#62 on the pop charts) with the Jerry Capehart composition “Turn Around, Look at Me.” (Ironically, Campbell’s version of that song was a significant inspiration for a teenage Oklahoma piano player named Jimmy Webb). Campbell had two Top Twenty country hits between 1962 and 1966, but had his breakthrough hits in 1967 with “Gentle on My Mind” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” was written by, here’s that name again, Jimmy Webb and originally recorded by Johnny Rivers in 19 65. Inspired by a romantic dissolution, “Phoenix” represented a new lush pop version of country music, an alternative to both honky tonk and countrypolitan. Campbell scored a #2 country/#26 pop hit with his release on what Frank Sinatra hailed as “the greatest torch song ever written.”
3. “The Chokin’ Kind,” Waylon Jennings. West Texas native Waylon Jennings landed his first regular radio job when he was 12 years old and worked as a disc jockey after dropping out of high school. Buddy Holly arranged his first recording session in 1959 and Waylon famously missed out on the plane ride that resulted in the deaths of Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson). He first hit the country charts in 1965 and went Top Ten in 1966 with the Bakersfield rip “That’s What You Get for Loving Me.” “The Chokin’ Kind,” a song about a relationship with an emasculating woman, is best known as a 1969 soul and pop hit for Joe Simon. Despite being later covered by Ella Fitzgerald and Z.Z. Hill, it was penned by country songwriting legend Harlan Howard and Waylon released the original version in 1967. His slow paced, sad sack delivery resulted in his second Top Ten country hit, peaking at #8.
4. “Cincinnati, Ohio,” Connie Smith. Connie Smith continued her hot streak in 1967, scoring four Top Ten country singles. “Cincinnati, Ohio” was her biggest hit of the year, peaking at #4, and was penned by original mentor Bill Anderson. This ode to the Queen City has a strolling pop feel and lyrically it’s an unusual country tribute, a genre that rarely romanticizes urban environments. Although not as big as star as Patsy or Loretta or Dolly, Smith scored twenty Top Ten singles from 1964 to 1976. Smith made news in the late 1990s, marrying much younger county star Marty Stuart (to paraphrase Barbara Mandrell, she was cougar when cougar wasn’t cool) and still regularly performs at the Grand Ole Opry.
5. “The Cold Hard Facts of Life,” Porter Wagoner. “The Cold Hard Facts of Life” was a Bill Anderson composition and Porter Wagoner’s biggest hit since 1962’s “Misery Loves Company,” peaking at #2. The narrator on this song returns from a trip a day early, dreaming of romance with his wife (which rhymes with “life” which rhymes with “knife”). He discovers that she has been cheating on him, downs some liquid courage, goes on a stabbing spree, and winds up in prison. He remains proud of teaching the philanderers the cold hard facts of life. In other news, 1967 was the year that hired Dolly Parton to replace recently married country singer Norma Jean (Beasler). It actually took several months before Wagoner’s audience fully accepted the replacement act.
6. “Different Drum,” The Stone Poneys featuring Linda Ronstadt. Linda Ronstadt was raised in a wealthy Arizona family and left college in the mid-1960s to try her luck on the California music scene. She quickly found success, singing lead for The Stone Poneys on their #13 pop hit “Different Drum.” “Different Drum” was penned by Michael Nesmith in 1965, before he started Monkee-ing around, and was first recorded by The Greenbriar Boys, a New York bluegrass band. The Stone Poneys gave “Different Drum” a folk/pop arrangement, quite dissimilar from The Greenbriar Boys’ revivalist traditionalism. The song never hit the country charts although Ronstadt would later have significant success on the country charts and Nesmith became identified with alternative country music.
7. “Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger,” Charley Pride. Charley Pride, the first African American country music superstar, was raised by Mississippi sharecroppers and spent most of the 1950s as a minor league pitcher. He began performing while working in Helena, Montana in the 1960s and was signed by Chet Atkins in 1966. To introduce Pride gingerly to the conservative country audience, he was first put on the road with Faron Young, who would perform a few songs, introduce Pride, and give his seal of approval to the crowd. Pride’s talent and humble demeanor quickly assuaged any listener trepidation. He scored his first country hit in 1966 with “Just Between You and Me,” which wasn’t as good as the April Wine song of the same name. “Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger” was a Top Five hit, a classic woman gone wrong number penned by Jan Crutchfield (“Statue of a Fool”), Don Robertson (“Please Help Me I’m Falling”) and Jack Clement, who used his wife’s name for the credit. Clement, “She wound up getting an ASCAP award, but in the divorce, I wound up with the song and the rights.”
8. “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’,” Loretta Lynn. While some sources state that Loretta was inspired to write “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’” after a fight with her spouse, her first #1 country hit originated with Peggy Sue Wright, a younger sister. Lynn, “She was married and had a little girl and was starting to find out that no matter how good life is, it does have its ups and downs.” Still, it’s one of the numbers that admirers cite as an example of Lynn’s proto-feminism. Peggy Sue, as she was billed, had a string of minor country singles from 1969 to 1980 with her biggest hit being the temptation number “I’m Dynamite” (so, please, don’t light the fuse), which peaked at #28. She later became a background singer for younger sister Crystal Gayle.
9. “Dumb Blonde,” Dolly Parton. East Tennessee native Dolly Parton grew up in rural poverty, a reality that she later turned into an inspiration. She started performing on local radio when she was ten and appeared on the Grand Ole Opry when she was thirteen. She had her first charting singles as a writer, collaborating with her uncle Bill Owens to compose two Top Ten country hits in 1966 for North Carolina singer Bill Phillips. Parton had her first county hit with “Dumb Blonde,” a Curly Putnam number about leaving a cheating man, because blondes have more fun. Porter Wagoner was soon introducing Dolly as the new “dumb blonde” on “The Porter Wagoner Show.” Parton, “I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb – and I’m not blonde either.”
10. “The Fugitive,” Merle Haggard. Haggard’s first #1 single was released under two titles, first “The Fugitive” and later the more sympathetic “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.” The theme sounds like an autobiographical tale from his prison experiences, but was written by Liz and Casey Anderson, who had no knowledge of Merle’s time spent in San Quentin. Instead of celebrating the outlaw lifestyle, “Lonesome Fugitive” describes a man that will never know peace, forever living life on the run. There’s also a reference to a concerned “mama,” an idea that Haggard would revisit with great success in 1968.
11. “Gentle On My Mind,” Glen Campbell. Songwriter John Hartford grew up in St. Louis and was equally obsessed with music and the Mississippi River (later in life, he spent his summers working as a steamboat pilot). Influenced by Earl Scruggs fingerpicking banjo style, Hartford became a gifted instrumentalist and moved to Nashville in the mid-1960s. He wrote and released the original version of “Gentle on My Mind,” a tale about love unshackled by commitment, and his version went to #60 on the country charts. Campbell’s version only went #30 country/#62 pop, but became well known as the theme to “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” television program. The song became a standard, covered by pop, soul, and country artists. Four time Grammy Award winner Hartford would later say that the financial rewards from “Gentle on My Mind” “bought his freedom,” a fitting legacy given the song’s theme of independence.
12. “Guitar Man,” Jerry Reed. Georgia native Jerry Reed was known for his speed, both verbally and with his guitar licks. He started his recording career in the mid-1950s, did a stint in the Army, and went to Nashville in 1961. Reed had his first success as a songwriter, penning “That’s All You Gotta Do” a #6 pop hit for Brenda Lee in 1960 and Porter Wagoner’s 1962 #1 country single “Misery Loves Company.” His 1967 single “Guitar Man,” which was a showcase for his guitar chops and has colloquial touches reminiscent of Chucky Berry, was only a #53 country hit. Elvis Presley covered “Guitar Man,” with Jerry Reed on guitar, for a #38 pop hit later that year. The opening lyrics, “Well, I quit my job down at the car wash/Left my mama a goodbye note,” were later refashioned by They Might Be Giants for their 1988 song “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head.”