Country Music History – Essential Releases from 1980, Part 2
Remembering that time when Willie Nelson penned his signature tune on a barf bag.
1. “Midnight Rider,” Willie Nelson. Gregg Allman wrote this tale of outlaw glory in 1970 with lyrical assistance from roadie Ken Payne. The original Allman Brothers single wasn’t a hit, but the song found the charts from a cover version by Joe Cocker in 1972 and a solo outing by Gregg Allman in 1973. Willie Nelson recorded “Midnight Rider” as part of the soundtrack for the 1979 film “The Electric Horseman,” using the song as an opportunity to showcase the skills of harmonica player Mickey Raphael. Willie’s version, a #6 country hit, isn’t as strong as the original, but does show the cross genre appeal between Southern rock and the outlaw country movement.
2. “Misery and Gin,” Merle Haggard. If you take a quick glance at Haggard’s album covers from 1980 for “The Way I Am” and “Back to the Barrooms,” Merle looks like a man that just rolled out of bed after a three day bender and one that would rather punch you in face than sing for you. Still, Haggard had his first #1 single in years with “Bar Room Buddies,” a painful buddy outing with Clint Eastwood. “Misery and Gin,” penned by Snuff Garrett and John Durrill, put Merle in a familiar place – “looking at the world through the bottom of a glass.” The piano based sound was distinctively different from a typical Haggard drinking song. Biographer David Cantwell, overstating the case just slightly, wrote that the song “cultivated a Tin Pan Alley classicism that suited Haggard’s mature voice and phrasing.”
3. “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” Willie Nelson. Sharon Vaughn wrote “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” and it was first recorded by Waylon Jennings on the 1976 album “Wanted! The Outlaws.” Willie Nelson resurrected the song for the soundtrack to “The Electric Horseman,” mixing acoustic guitar with cinema quality strings. While the production work is overwrought, Willie hits the right tone – painting the fantasy of the cowboy lifestyle but also noting that independence can equate to loneliness. The first of thirteen #1 singles that Nelson would have during the decade.
4. “On the Road Again,” Willie Nelson. Nelson, on his discussion with two Hollywood executives that inspired his signature song, “They were looking for songs for the movie and they asked me if I had any idea. I said, ‘What do you want the song to say?’ and Sydney (Pollack) said, ‘Can it be something about being on the road?’ It just started to click. I said ‘You mean like, On the road again, I can’t wait to get on the road again?’ They said, ‘That’s great. What’s the melody?’ I said, ‘I don’t know yet.’” The conversation took place on a plane. Forty-five minutes later, Nelson had completed the lyrics on an airsickness bag. A fitting theme for a man whose life has been an endless tour.
5. “One of a Kind,” Moe Bandy. Moe Bandy was always more successful as a singles artist than an album act. For example, his 1979 album “One of a Kind” only peaked at #44 on the country charts, despite producing the #1 single “I Cheated Me Right Out of You.” The #13 single “One of a Kind,” written by Sonny Throckmorton and Bobby Fischer, is a duet with singer/songwriter Janis Carnes. The two singers have something in common, they both like to cheat. Or is Bandy notes, “It’s hell when you’ve tasted heaven.” Songwriter Fischer quit his stable job in the Quad Cities with John Deere in 1970 and didn’t have his “career record” until Reba McEntire recorded “You Lie” in 1990.
6. “She Just Started Liking Cheatin’ Songs,” John Anderson. John Anderson relocated from Apopka, Florida to Nashville in 1971 and one of his first gigs was working on the Grand Ol’ Opry, as part of a roofing crew. He was signed by Warner Brothers in the late 1970s and snuck into the Top 40 in late 1978 with “The Girl at the End of the Bar.” In early 1980, Anderson peaked at #15 with “Your Lying Blue Eyes” and his slow, steady breakthrough continued with the Kent Robbins composition “She Just Started Liking Cheatin’ Songs,” a variation of Moe Bandy’s first hit, “I Just Started Hating Cheating Songs Today.” This was one of the final studio sessions for Tommy Jackson who performed twin fiddles with Buddy Spicher on the song. Alan Jackson covered “She Just Started Likin’ Cheatin’ Songs” on his 1999 “Under the Influence” album and his version reached the lower levels of the Billboard country charts, despite never being released as a single.
7. “Smoky Mountain Rain,” Ronnie Milsap. Ronnie Milsap reflected back to his studio work with Elvis for his recording of his signature song, “I was given total (artistic) freedom (on ‘Kentucky Rain’). The only suggestion I got from Elvis was that he wanted to hear thunder roll on the piano. He made that comment, and beyond that, he didn’t say anything. He basically said, ‘Play what you feel.’ I thought, ‘It worked on the Elvis’ record, it will work on mine the same way, and it certainly did.’” Songwriter Dennis Morgan, who co-wrote the song with Kyle Fleming, “(Producer) Tom Collins eventually took ‘Smoky Mountain Rain’ to Ronnie Milsap and he loved it. We recently found out that it had been named one of the official state songs of Tennessee. That puts it right up there with ‘Tennessee Waltz’ and ‘Rocky Top,” which have also been Tennessee state songs. To be in that kind of company is quite humbling.” From 1974 to 1989, Milsap released thirty five, yes THIRTY FIVE, #1 country singles.
8. “Theme from the Dukes of Hazzard (Good Ol’ Boys),” Waylon Jennings. “The Dukes of Hazzard” was cornpone humor that made “Hee-Haw” look like “Masterpiece Theatre,” but was a Top Ten series in the Nielsen ratings for three consecutive years. Waylon wrote the theme song and served as the narrator for the show. “Good Ol’ Boys” was his biggest crossover hit, peaking at #21. It was his last single to touch the pop charts. It’s hard to look like an outlaw while simultaneously putting over Luke Duke.
9. “True Love Ways,” Mickey Gilley. Buddy Holly nostalgia was rampant in the late 1970s with Linda Ronstadt having pop hits with “That’ll Be the Day” and “It’s So Easy,” the popular film “The Buddy Holly Story” being released in 1978 (starring Gary Busey when he momentarily seemed sane), and Susan Allanson scoring a Top Ten country hit with “Maybe Baby.” Sonny Curtis hit the country Top 40 in 1980 with “The Real Buddy Holly Story,” a rebuttal to the movie, and Mickey Gilley went to #1 with his version of the Buddy Holly/Norman Petty composition “True Love Ways.” Gilley wasn’t a major talent, but he was smart and knew how to work the nostalgia angle; his next single was a cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” and another #1 hit. From 1976 to 1986, he had thirty four Top Ten singles with half of those topping the charts.
10. “Two Story House,” George Jones and Tammy Wynette. “Two Story House” is the last major hit with a Tammy Wynette writing credit. However, songwriters David Lindsey and Glenn Tubb pitched the song to George and Tammy in 1977, so the writing credit may have been part of a business deal. This #2 country hit is a rags to riches tale about a couple who have achieved their financial dreams, but lost their love along the way. A 1980 performance of the song on “The Tonight Show” ended abruptly, when George admitted to the studio audience that he had forgotten the lyrics. Jones, on the reunion, “I hated to work with her. It brought back too many unpleasant memories, and when some fans saw us together, they got it in their heads that we were going to get back together romantically.” The once married couple wouldn’t record together again until 1995.
11. “Wake Up,” Merle Haggard. On this 1980 album cut, Merle narrates a song from the perspective of a widowed man who can’t accept the reality that his lover has passed away. Here’s an opening line that grabs you by the neck, “Wake up, don’t just lay there like cold granite stone.” Listed by No Depression as one of Haggard’s most underrated songs, it captures one of Haggard’s primary attributes as an artist – he was fearless.
12. “Wayfaring Stranger,” Emmylou Harris. The origins of “Wayfaring Stranger” are unknown, although the traditional ballad is believed to have been popularized during the 1800s. It was first recorded in 1930 as “The Wayfaring Pilgrim” by Vaughan’s Texas Quarter and became a signature song of Burl Ives in the 1940s. The ballad promoting a tranquil vision of heaven had been recorded dozens of times before Emmylou Harris recorded her stripped down version for a Top Ten country hit. This is the type of material that was tailor made for Emmylou’s traditionalism and her beautiful, tremulous voice. The status of “Wayfaring Stranger” as an American standard continues to grow, over twenty versions of the song have been released since 2010.
13. “Yesterday Once More,” Moe Bandy. “Yesterday Once More” is an absolute rarity from Bandy, in that it’s lyrics aren’t about cheating. This salute to yesteryear includes references to Hank, Lefty, Tex Ritter, Jim Reeves, Red Foley, Johnny Horton, Patsy Cline, and Bob Wills. This #10 country hit was written by Jim Mundy and Peggy White (most likely a relative of Mundy, whose real name was Jim White). Mundy was an Oklahoma native who Del Reeves’ #9 1971 hit “The Philadelphia Fillies” and had his own Top Twenty hit in 1973 with the hand clapping “The River’s Too Wide.” Bandy returned to his roots for his final Top Five hit, 1982’s “She’s Not Really Cheatin’ (She’s Just Gettin’ Even).”