Country Music History – Essential Recordings of 1973, Part I
My baby makes me proud, Lord, don’t she make me proud.
- “Behind Closed Doors,” Charlie Rich. After securing his first Top Ten country hit in 1972 with the Kenny O’Dell composition “I Take It on Home,” Rich became a country superstar in 1973 with this O’Dell song about a woman in the living room and a tiger in the bedroom kind of gal. The huge singalong chorus more than made up for the blatant sexism. “Behind Closed Doors” went #1 country and to #15 on the pop charts. The Silver Fox had an even bigger hit later that year when “The Most Beautiful Girl” became a rare country crossover #1 pop hit.
- “Christmas in Prison,” John Prine. Chicago native John Prine went to Nashville, which would later be his permanent home, to record the 1973 album “Sweet Revenge.” It didn’t take long for Prine to become somewhat bitter with the music industry and that attitude permeated the album. Prine took on America’s favorite holiday on the regretful “Christmas in Prison.” John Prine, “It’s about a person being in a situation they didn’t want to be in, but I used all the imagery as if it were a prison. And being a sentimental guy, I put it at Christmas.” A required soundtrack piece for your seasonal holiday depression.
- “Daddy’s Advice,” Asleep at the Wheel. Asleep at the Wheel formed in Paw Paw, West Virginia in 1969. They were a group of longhaired stoners who were in love with Bob Wills and discovering their sound in rural, redneck country. Before recording their first album, they had opened shows for Alice Cooper and Hot Tuna, relocated to Oakland, and worked as a backing unit for African American country singer Stoney Edwards. Years later Asleep at the Wheel would become the standard bearers for Western swing music, but on their 1973 debut album they approached the genre with a tad of tongue in cheek cynicism. “Daddy’s Advice” has an upbeat, traditional sound, but the hat doffing vocal approach masks a lyric about killing an abusive father. Songwriter Leroy Preston would later have writing credits for Los Lobos, Rosanne Cash, and Marshall Crenshaw.
- “Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul,” Stoney Edwards. As we now all know, Charley Pride wasn’t the only African-American on the country charts in the 1970s. O.B. McClinton scraped into the Top 40 twice in the early ‘70s and Big Al Downing had a string of minor hits starting in 1978. Oklahoma native/former forklift operator Stoney Edwards hit the country Hot 100 charts fifteen times between 1970 and 1982, but only three of those entries made the Top 40. “Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul” is a legends tribute, with a hint of Western swing instrumentation and the authentic down home feel that was Stoney’s vocal trademark. “Hank and Lefty” peaked at #39 on the country charts. Earlier in 1973, Edwards went to #20 with the Gene Dobbins composition “She’s My Rock,” which George Jones would take to #2 on the country charts in 1985.
- “Honky Tonk Heroes,” Waylon Jennings. In 1972, a group of Texas promoters held a three-day country concert known as the Dripping Springs Reunion show in the hill country outside of Austin. At that event, which is retroactively viewed as a precursor to the annual Willie Nelson 4th of July picnic shows, a well lubricated Waylon Jennings promised to cut a song written by Billy Joe Shaver, a struggling Texas songwriter. Waylon forgot about the conversation until Shaver started pestering him to the point of threatening to whip his ass. The resulting “Honky Tonk Heroes” album, comprised primarily of Shaver compositions, is seen as an important landmark in the outlaw country genre. The song “Honky Tonk Heroes” describes fist fights and booze fests at “Green Gables,” a one time honky tonk outside of Waco where Shaver’s mother worked as a young woman.
- “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train,” Billy Joe Shaver. Billy Joe Shaver may not be the father of the outlaw country movement, but he’s at least the crazy uncle of the genre. While Waylon Jennings was popularizing Shaver’s material with the “Honky Tonk Heroes” album, Billy Joe released his first LP (“Old Five and Dimers Like Me”) in 1973, with themes of hard times and Christianity. Shaver’s dry raspy drawl is a bit of an acquired taste, but every lyric and note rings true. That eighth grade education served him well.
- “If We Make It Through December,” Merle Haggard. Christmas is the happiest time of the year. Unless you are unemployed and you can’t buy your baby girl a present and you may have to move to find work. Then, it’s rather bleak. Highlighting the economic uncertainty of the era, “If We Make It Through December” was Haggard’s only crossover Top 40 hit, peaking at #28.
- “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking,” Cal Smith. Cal Smith spent most of the 1960s working as a guitarist in Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours, but left in 1969, three years after he had started releasing solo material. “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking” is kind of a mind your own business male version of “Harper Valley PTA,” with Cal spitting out lyrics about a “self righteous biddy” who is passing judgment on his sins; the same ones that Cal plans to discuss with the man upstairs. The West Coast native scored a #1 single with this Bill Anderson composition and returned to the top slot with 1974’s “Country Bumpkin” and 1975’s “It’s Time to Pay the Fiddler.”
- “London Homesick Blues,” Jerry Jeff Walker. Texas musician/songwriter Gary P. Nunn was a member of Michael Martin Murphy’s band in the early 1970s and traveled to England in 1973 with his boss. Nunn, “He was married to an English girl, and while he was out doing promo stuff, I crashed at her brother’s London flat. It was cold. The heat would go off in the morning and not come back on until evening. Here came a first line: ‘Well, it’s cold over here, and I swear, I wish they’d turn the heat on.’ So I made up a silly little song, trying to mix British and Texas phrases together. ‘You can put up your dukes or bet your boots.’ I had no idea that I’d ever do anything with it.” The never rehearsed song was performed live and would later become the theme to “Austin City Limits.” Nunn is still a regular on the Texas country live music scene, staying home with the armadillo every chance he gets.
- “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,” Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn. Just a notch below George Jones and Tammy Wynette on the country royalty scale, Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn released eleven studio albums, with all but 1988’ s Makin’ Believe including a Top Ten hit. The Cajun themed interstate love song “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” is a peppy look at lust and infatuation. It’s one thing to avoid alligators while swimming to a woman, but you know it’s serious when a man drops his fishing line. This was the third of five successive #1 singles the duo had between 1971 and 1976. This was the only major writing credit for Becki Bluefield, who had been an unsuccessful solo artist in the late 1960s/early 1970s and was co-written with Hank Williams historian/impersonator Jim Owen.
- “Meat Man,” Jerry Lee Lewis. Songwriter Mack Vickery recorded unreleased material for Sun Records in the 1950s, toured for a decade with the novelty act Elmer Fudpucker, and released the kitsch classic “Mack Vickery Live! at the Alabama Women’s Prison” album in 1970. By 1974, he had written hit songs for Faron Young and Waylon Jennings. The lead track from the 1974 Jerry Lee Lewis album “Southern Roots,” “Meat Man” is a ridiculously lewd celebration of sexual conquests. Besides bragging about having a “Maytag tongue,” Jerry Lee claimed, “I been down to Macon, Georgia/I ate the furs off a Georgia peach/Plucked me a chicken in Memphis/Mama, I still got feathers in my teeth.” Lewis would later state that “Meat Man” was the only song in his catalogue that could follow “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.” It was released as a single and, for some reason, failed to chart.
- “The Midnight Oil,” Barbara Mandrell. Houston native Barbara Mandrell grew up in the music industry, becoming so adept as a steel guitar player at the age of eleven that she started performing in Las Vegas and making her first network television appearance when she was twelve. She signed to Columbia Records in 1969 and had five Top Twenty hits before “The Midnight Oil” peaked at #7, her biggest success at that point in her career. Written by session musician Joe Allen, Mandrell lies about working late “again,” so she can cheat on her man. A pretty lascivious tune if you listen closely, “The Midnight Oil” is a much more traditional country sound than what Mandrell would pursue during her era as a major star in the late 1970s/early 1980s.
- “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” Dolly Parton. Dolly’s always been an expert at selling her rural roots, rather through poverty (“Coat of Many Colors”) or though natural beauty, such as “My Tennessee Mountain Home.” Dolly tosses in the front porch, June bugs, fireflies, honeysuckle, an eagle, a songbird, church, laughin’, and stealin’ a kiss on this sentimental tribute to East Tennessee. A #15 country hit, “My Tennessee Mountain Home” would later become something of a theme song for Parton’s Pigeon Forge, Tennessee theme park Dollywood.
- “No Headstone on My Grave,” Jerry Lee Lewis. Charlie Rich first cut “No Headstone on My Grave” as a blues track in 1962 with a downhearted lyric about a man so forlorn he wants to crawl into an unmarked final resting place. In 1973, Lewis released “The Session,” a double album, which was recorded in London and included, among many others, Peter Frampton, Alvin Lee, and Rory Gallagher as part of the studio cast. Lewis transforms the song into a hard charging, triumphant rocker – nobody else would describe his slave status as “motherhumpin’.” “The Session” was the highest charting pop album for Lewis since a 1964 greatest hits collection and also spawned the country hit “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee.” That drinking and fighting song was written by blues guitarist Stick McGhee and Lewis started performing it live in 1949, when he was fourteen years old.
- “Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half as Bad as Losing You),” George Jones. The world of country music would be much less interesting without the pen of Bobby Braddock, who wrote this painfully hysterical number, a #7 country hit and an inventory of physical and emotional pain that can’t compare to the loss of a well-endowed woman. “Nothing Ever Hurt Me” is humor that makes the listener simultaneously laugh and wince. Other Braddock compositions: “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” “( We’re Not) The Jet Set,” “Golden Ring,” “He Stopped Lover Her Today.”