Country Music History – Essential Recordings of 1972, Part I
Merle Haggard gets jungle fever and Johnny Cash turns Faron Young into dust in the wind.
1. “Call Me the Breeze,” J.J. Cale. Relaxed shuffle boogie expert John Weldon “J.J.” Cale was a Tulsa native who spent some time working in bands and as a sound engineer in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s. During that time, he cut the first version of “After Midnight,” a song that Eric Clapton took to the pop Top Twenty in 1970. “Call Me The Breeze” was the first track from his 1972 debut album “Naturally” and features one of the most primitive drum machine sounds that you’ll ever hear. Although most commonly associated with Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Call Me the Breeze” has been recorded by several country artists including Johnny Cash, David Allen Coe, and Bobby Bare. Cale’s debut album also included “Clyde,” an ode to a lazy bass picker that Waylon Jennings took to #7 on the country charts in 1980. Eric Clapton recorded many of Cale’s song, including the she don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie number “Cocaine.” After Cale’s death in 2013, Clapton stated, “He was a fantastic musician and he was my hero.”
2. “Chantilly Lace,” Jerry Lee Lewis. The Killer had his last major year on the charts in 1972, scoring #1 country hits with the string heavy “Would You Take Another Chance on Me” and his cover of The Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace.” He also had his last pop Top 40 hit with his version of the often recorded “Me and Bobby McGee.” “Chantilly Lace” was an opportunity for Lewis to return to his lecherous 1950’s wild rock ‘n’ roll persona. Producer Jerry Kennedy, describing the chaos of the recording session, “”He wanted everybody there. He didn’t want anything overdubbed later. It was a mess. We had an acre of people there – voices, strings, everything. And, as always, Jerry Lee started changin’ keys, and the arranger was goin’ crazy, havin’ to rewrite stuff for the string section.” The recording is what the conductor of the sting section thought was a rehearsal. Lewis nailed the tune in one take.
3. “Dallas,” The Flatlanders. Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Joe Ely were budding singer/songwriters in Lubbock, Texas in the early 1970s, when they formed what was originally a short lived trio known as The Flatlanders. In early 1972, The Flatlanders recorded a set of material as a demo session in a small Odessa, Texas studio. Those sessions went unreleased and were stashed in a closet for approximately four decades. However, the audio quality of the 2012 album “The Odessa Tapes” is surprisingly good. Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s “Dallas” begins with the question “Have you ever seen Dallas from a DC-9 at night?” and describes a city that is as unforgiving as it filled with temptations. After recording an unreleased album in Nashville, The Flatlanders broke up in 1973, but the trio of like-minded Texans have sporadically toured and recorded since 1990. The Dallas Observer, the leading source for Metroplex entertainment news, gave a hat tip to the Flatlanders by naming their popular music blog “DC-9 at Night.”
4. “Delta Dawn,” Tanya Tucker. Tanya Tucker decided to become a country singer when she was eight years old and shortly thereafter was invited onstage to perform with Mel Tillis at the Arizona State Fair. Think about this for a second – at the age of ten, she had a regular gig at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. She was signed to CBS Records in 1972 and the thirteen-year-old performer was leery of recording teen oriented material. “Delta Dawn” was penned by Mississippi native Alexander Harvey with Larry Collins, who had been in the 1950’s rockabilly duo The Collins Kids. After hearing Bette Midler perform “Delta Dawn,” Billy Sherrill pitched the unsolved mystery song to Tucker and she took it to #6 on the country charts. Tucker, “I thank the lucky stars and the Good Lord for that song. If I cut it now for the first time I think it would be a hit. I was fortunate to have latched onto that one, and that was all Sherrill’s doing. If it hadn’t been for Sherrill, I probably would have been a rodeo queen or something.” Helen Reddy brought “Delta Dawn” to pop audiences with her 1973 #1 single.
5. “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You,” O.B. McClinton. An often forgotten name when discussing African-American country singers, O.B. McClinton was the son of a Senatobia, Mississippi preacher who moved to Memphis and wrote material for Otis Redding, James Carr, Arthur Conley, Denise LaSalle, and The Staple Singers. The “Chocolate Cowboy” released a handful of obscure singles in the mid-1960s and first charted in 1972 with the #70 hit “Six Pack of Trouble.” “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” was written by Philadelphia songwriters Jerry Akines, Johnny Belman, and Vic Turner and was first recorded by soulman Wilson Pickett in 1970. McClinton took his country soul cover version to #37 in 1972 and had another minor Top 40 hit in 1973 with “My Whole World is Falling Down.” McClinton often addressed his race in humorous terms, including the 1976 single “Black Speck” with its lyrics, “In there, there’s a black speck/A ni**er singing like a redneck/But, he sings a good song.” McClinton passed away from abdominal cancer in 1987.
6. “(Drinkin’ Beer and) Singing a Country Song,” Dick Curless. This might be the most obscure recording I’ve listed yet. This tune was originally recorded by Johnny Russell, who we first met as co-writer of the Buck Owens hit “Act Naturally,” as “Mr. Fiddle Man.” While Russell recorded it as a heartbreak number, the versus and title were changed for our favorite straight shooting, Maine Cyclops Dick Curless, who recorded the number as either “(Drinkin’ Beer and) Singing a Country Song” or, simply, “Singing a Country Song.” The Curless lyrics are a tribute to country music heroes with nods to Hank Thompson, Jim Ed Brown, Merle Haggard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charley Pride, and Conway Twitty. The spirited studio version Curless recorded in 1972 wasn’t released at the time, but a concert version appeared on his highly regarded 1973 “Live at the Wheeling Truck Driver’s Jamboree” album. You can hear the studio version on YouTube or purchase the Bear Records Dick Curless box set if you are idle rich. Curless had his last Top 40 country single in 1972, relocated to Branson during his later years, and died of cancer in 1995.
7. “Garden Party,” Ricky Nelson. Former teen idol/heartthrob Ricky Nelson was trying to maintain his artistic viability in the early 1970s, recording country rock music with the Stone Canyon Band and covering songs by Dylan and the Rolling Stones. His contemporary look and sound resulted in a negative reaction at an oldies rock ‘n’ roll gig at Madison Square Garden in 1971, where he was booked to perform with Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Bobby Rydell, among others. The Bronx cheers that he received inspired him to write “Garden Party,” where Nelson concludes that many people wanted him to be stuck in time, yet he surmises that “ya can’t please everyone, so ya got to please yourself.” His philosophical reaction to negativity yielded a #6 pop/#44 country hit. Nelson never had another major hit and died in a plane crash in 1985.
8. “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues,” Danny O’Keefe. Washington based musician Danny O’Keefe first worked in psychedelic rock with his late 1960’s band Calliope. After become a solo act/folk songwriter, Danny O’Keefe only hit the pop charts once. “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” is a self-pitying tale of a man whose friends and interests are fading away, but the royalties from cover versions by Elvis Presley, Dwight Yoakam, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Charlie Rich, and Leon Russell probably cheered O’Keefe up a bit. Speaking of Rich, his 1977 hit “Rollin’ with the Flow” is almost a direct replication of “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues.”
9. “Irma Jackson,” Merle Haggard. Haggard, “Of all the songs I’ve written, this may be my favorite, because it tells it like it is.” Haggard wanted this interracial love song to be his followup single to “Okie from Muskogee,” to represent another side of his artistic nature. Capitol Records was less than enthusiastic about its potential as a single and it became a 1972 album track. The narrator describes his eternal love for Irma Jackson in the song, but accepts that they can’t be together because of outside forces. The 1972 album “Let Me Tell You About a Song” included two #1 singles – “Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man)” and “Grandma Harp.” The latter song is about Haggard’s grandmother, who, true story, was the sister of my wife’s great grandmother.
10. “It’s Four in the Morning,” Faron Young. Songwriter Jerry Chesnut was working on his farm when the lyrics “It’s four in the morning and once more the dawning just woke up the wanting in me” popped into his head. He immediately got off of his tractor and started writing. Faron Young didn’t want to record the tune, any tune, in waltz time, but couldn’t find any other arrangement that worked. The tortured romance number became Young’s last #1 single. Young’s chart success dried up in the late 1970s and his last years were defined by his alcoholism and estrangement from his family. Young committed suicide in 1996 and some of his ashes were spread on Johnny Cash’s property. Reportedly, a wind gust resulted in some of his ashes landing on the windshield of Cash’s parked car. Cash turned on his wipers and Faron’s remains “went back and forth, back and forth, until he was all gone.”