Country Music History – Essential Recordings of 1973, Part II
Nelson Mandela, Satan, Willie Nelson’s underwear.
1. “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” Waylon Jennings. Billy Joe Shaver might have been a rookie recording artist in 1973, but he was thirty-three years old and was no stranger to hard living. After dropping out of school after eighth grade, Shaver lost his virginity at a Waco brothel, worked as a truck driver, joined the Navy, lost almost three fingers at a sawmill job, worked as a rodeo cowboy, sold cars, and developed a songwriting and, of course, alcohol based friendship with Townes Van Zandt. His song about terminal limited means has been covered by a who’s who of country music – Tom T. Hall, Waylon, Jerry Jeff Walker, Willie, and Emmylou. He may be an old five and dimer, but nobody’s ever been saltier. Or earthier.
2. “Ravishing Ruby,” Tom T. Hall. Speaking of Shaver, he made another album title in 1973 with Tom T. Hall’s “The Rhymer and Other Five and Dimers.” The album’s lead track and only hit single, “Ravishing Ruby” leads off with Mariachi horns as Tom sings about a women born in the back of a “rig.” The bunk sleeping Ravishing Ruby has no interest in young men, she just longs to see her long gone daddy, Smilin’ Jack. Tom’s Tex Mex experiment resulted in a #3 hit and “The Rhymer” was one of Hall’s last albums before he transitioned from witty observer to overripe sentimentalist. Also from that album check out the rabbit eating family hard times of “Don’t Forget the Coffee, Billy Joe” and the Washington depression of “Spokane Motel Blues.”
3. “Ride ‘Em Jewboy,” Kinky Friedman. Richard “Kinky” Friedman used his music to address stereotypes with no regard to political correctness. He named his band Kinky Friedman and The Texas Jewboys, referencing Bob Wills and challenging his audience simultaneously. From his debut album, the holocaust survivor/Texas campfire number “Ride ‘Em Jewboy” had a more significant emotional impact than he could have ever imagined. Friedman, “When I was in South Africa in 1996, I met a man called Tokyo Sexwale and Tokyo was Mandela’s right hand man and worked for him and was also in the cell next to Mandela the entire time they were in prison. He heard Mandela play a song called ‘Sold American,’ a song I had written, from my first album in 1973, and they smuggled in tape cassettes as best they could but it wasn’t easy and they took what they got. But then Tokyo said that Mandela got the song ‘Ride ’em Jew Boy’ and Mandela would sign off with ‘Ride ’em Jew Boy’ every night and it would be the last thing he would play. He would sometimes play it multiple times in a night.”
4. “Ride Me Down Easy,” Bobby Bare. Billy Joe Shaver started working as a songwriter for Bobby Bare’s publishing company in 1966, but didn’t have his first hit credits until 1973. “You Asked Me To,” a song of devotion that borders on injudicious fawning was a #8 hit for Waylon Jennings and returned to that same spot for Elvis in 1981. “Ride Me Down Easy,” a song about a wine drinking, woman pleasing, asker of forgiveness was a #11 hit for long time employer Bare. The spiritually themed plea of a hell raiser seeking atonement was also a nice fit for Jerry Lee Lewis, who also released his version in 1973.
5. “Ridin’ My Thumb to Mexico,” Johnny Rodriguez. Sabinal, Texas native Johnny Rodriquez spent some time in jail as a teenager, then got a singing gig at a tourist attraction in Brackettville, Texas, a small Southwest Texas town less than an hour from the Mexico border. Miraculously, he was discovered by Tom T. Hall and Bobby Bare, with Hall providing financial assistance and connections to help him land a record deal. Rodriguez was an immediate star, “Ridin’ My Thumb to Mexico” was his third single and his second #1 hit, following “You Always Come Back (To Hurting Me)” to the top slot. A self-penned, lost love number with Tex Mex flourishes, this was one of six #1 singles that Rodriguez released from 1973 to 1975.
6. “Satan’s River,” Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton. Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton’s 1973 album “We Found It” wasn’t a commercially successful effort. The rekindled love song title track peaked at #30 on the country charts and was the album’s only single. “Satan’s River,” a song written by Porter, is a spiritually themed lost gem that is a lot more humorous than it was intended to be. When the background singers start cooing behind the lyrics about fools with big yachts floating on the smooth waters, having been bamboozled by Beelzebub, the kitsch factor is immeasurable.
7. “Shotgun Willie,” Willie Nelson. By 1973, Willie Nelson had relocated to Austin and had left RCA to become Atlantic’s first country artist. Recording in New York with Jerry Wexler serving as one of the producers, the album “Shotgun Willie” wasn’t a major commercial success, but did give Willie the artistic breathing room to develop his version/persona. The title track, where Shotgun Willie waits in his underwear and bites on a bullet, was inspired by real life rifle fireworks between Willie and one of his son-in-laws. Nelson, “I shot his car and shot out his tire. Steve called the cops on me. Instead of explaining the whole damn mess, the beatings and the semi-kidnapping and shooting and all, I told the officers he must have run over the bullet. The police didn’t want to get involved in hillbilly family fights. They wrote down what I told them on their report and took off.” The only hit from the album was the Bob Wills cover “Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer),” but it also included Nelson’s studio version of “Whiskey River.” Also, the Paul English inspired “Devil in a Sleepin’ Bag” is some slick country funk.
8. “Uneasy Rider,” Charlie Daniels Band. Charlie Daniels worked as a Nashville based producer and studio musician in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and started releasing his own albums in 1971. The title of “Uneasy Rider,” his first hit, was based on the 1969 road movie/ biker flick “Easy Rider”, and it’s a tale of a scared, dope smoking hippie that outsmarts a trio of Mississippi locals at a redneck bar. Given Daniels’ later career as a right wing reactionary spokesperson, there is infinite irony in his 1970’s countercultural grandstanding.
9. “Up Against the Wall You Redneck Mother,” Jerry Jeff Walker. Ray Wylie Hubbard was a Dallas based folk musician who got caught up in cultural warfare at a New Mexico bar. Hubbard, “Somebody had started in on me: “How can you call yourself American with hair like that?” Then I’d seen a pickup outside with a bumper sticker reading something like “America, love it or leave it.” Later that night, B.W. (Stevenson) and Bob Livingston and I were passing a guitar around, and I started singing, “He was born in Oklahoma…” I came up with a chorus, we laughed, and that was it. Next thing I know, Livingston calls me from Luckenbach and says Jerry wants to cut it. But there was no second verse. I made it up on the phone.” Hubbard’s account of a dumb Okie who is having the time of his life stomping hippies has been a staple on the Texas music scene ever since its release. I’ve seen women in their mid-60s pump their fist to this song at a Dallas/ Fort Worth area Unitarian Church.
10. “Watergate Blues,” Tom T. Hall. “Watergate Blues” was a B-side that became a Top 20 country hit for Tom T. Hall. In the first half of the song, he recaps Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72” with less profanity. On the second half, be bemoans the diminished stature of American leadership. As always, the problems of bygone eras seem positively quaint as the decades roll on.
11. “What’s Your Mama’s Name,” Tanya Tucker. Tanya Tucker had her first #1 single at the age of fourteen with the who’s your daddy soap opera of “What’s Your Mama’s Name.” On this Dallas Frazier/Earl Montgomery composition, a drunkard named Buford Wilson is imprisoned for seeking out his green eyed daughter and bribing a girl with candy for answers in the process. Tanya also went to #1 with her next two singles – the Curly Putman revenge murder of “Blood Red and Goin’ Down” and the David Allen Coe love song “Would You Lay with Me (In a Field of Stone).” The 1974 Ed Bruce composition “The Man That Turned My Mama On” stalled at #4, as country fans have a limited appetite for grammatically incorrect titles.
12. “You’ve Never Been This Far Before,” Conway Twitty. Country music executives discovered during the 1970s that most of their record buying audience were females, which may or may not have resulted in Conway Twitty releasing more smut than Luther Campbell and Lil’ Kim combined. Conway’s composition about trembling fingers touching forbidden places not only topped the country charts, but was also his only pop crossover hit after becoming a country identified artist in 1966, peaking at #22. Still, Conway had certain expectations about how a woman should act. Twitty in 1979, “I don’t know what to expect from them anymore. The way they talk, the way they more and more take the man’s role. They come up to me, and I just don’t know what to do. Well, it turns me plumb off, I’ll tell you that.”
13. “You’re Looking at a Happy Man,” George Jones. Alabama native Carmol Taylor was a teenage friend of Billy Sherrill and Nashville’s most famous record producer helped Taylor get work as a songwriter. Taylor wrote two #1 singles for Tammy Wynette – 1970’s “He Loves Me All the Way” and 1972’s “My Man (Understands).” “You’re Looking at a Happy Man” was co-written by Taylor with George Jones and returns our hero to the uptempto style of “The Race Is On” on this 1973 album track. Jones is penniless after his woman left on “You’re Looking at a Happy Man,” but his newfound freedom equates to undeniable personal satisfaction.