Country Music History – Essential Releases from 1980, Part I
“Do you know who I am? I’m Dave Dudley.”
1. “Broken Trust,” Brenda Lee. Brenda Lee started performing regularly on Atlanta radio at the age of six and was a teenage pop star, best known for the 1960 #1 pop single “I’m Sorry” and the seasonal hit “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” The diminutive performer, known as Little Miss Dynamite, became a country star during the 1970s, eventually scoring nine Top Ten country singles. “Broken Trust” is one of six country Top Ten hits written or co-written by Jimbeau Hinson, most likely the only openly bisexual performer in Nashville. The Oak Ridge Boys back up Brenda on this hungry eyed, jealousy weeper, where the vocal performance tops the material. Red Foley on his first encounter with Brenda Lee, “I still get cold chills thinking about the first time I heard that voice. There I stood – after 26 years of supposedly learning how to conduct myself in front of an audience, with my mouth open two miles wide and a glassy stare in my eyes.”
2. “Drivin’ My Life Away,” Eddie Rabbitt. New Jersey hair farm Eddie Rabbitt may have looked like a “Planet of the Apes” extra during the 1970s, but he became a major country star, scoring eleven Top Ten singles and five chart toppers in that decade. With the rockabilly influenced, word slinging “Drivin’ My Life Away,” Rabbitt became a crossover pop star with a #5 pop/#1 country hit. His windshield wipers tempo slappin’/truck stop cutie rejectin’ number set the stage for “I Love a Rainy Night,” his followup hit, to become a #1 pop single. He then went into romantic balladeer mode and synth pop quickly sent him back to the country charts.
3. “Freightliner Fever,” David Dudley. “Freightliner Fever” was written by Springdale, Arkansas native Truman Lankford and was a minor hit for Red Sovine in 1970. Songwriter Lankford later had a regular gig on the Louisiana Hayride and as of 1977 his home was a “’73 station wagon with a mattress and other necessities in the back” per a Hope, Arkansas newspaper article. Dudley had pretty much completed his chart run by 1980, although he had a minor hit with “Rolaids, Doan’s Pills and Preparation H.” Like “Six Days on the Road,” “Freightliner Fever” is another pill popping, long haul trucking tune. Dudley was namechecked in the original song and he referenced Sovine in his version. Dudley’s version of “Freightliner Fever” was picked as one of the “50 Best Trucking Songs of All Time” by “Today’s Trucking” magazine in 2011. Later in life, Dudley lived in rural Wisconsin and was known to frequently approach local restaurant patrons by stating, “Do you know how I am? I’m Dave Dudley.”
4. “Friday Night Blues,” John Conlee. After going Top Five with “Rose Colored Glasses,” John Conlee had two #1 singles. His sex ballad “Lady Lay Down” was later covered by Tom Jones and the “Backside of Thirty” makes adulthood sound like an unbearable curse. Conlee, the most nasal singer this side of Webb Pierce, continued his hot streak in 1980. Songwriter Sonny Throckmorton had a minor hit with “Friday Night Blues” early in that year and Conlee’s cover went to #2 on the country charts. It’s a tale of two lives in a relationship – a working man that covets his couch on the weekend and his stay at home wife who yearns to “boogie.” Conlee also went to #2 that year with the Throckmorton cheating lyric “She Can’t Say That Anymore,” a song with a soft soul arrangement that fits Conlee like mayonnaise on chili.
5. “Good Ole Boys Like Me,” Don Williams. Southeast Texas native Bob McDill had his first success as a songwriter penning the Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs 1967 minor pop/nursery rhyme hit “Black Sheep.” McDill wrote #1 country singles from 1975 to 2000 for a slew of artists including Don Williams, Dave & Sugar, Crystal Gayle, Waylon Jennings, Ronnie Milsap, Mel McDaniel, Alan Jackson. Williams went to #2 on the country charts with “Good Ole Boys Like Me,” a tale of small town boy equally influenced by the bible, Tennessee Williams, Thomas Wolfe, and Wolfman Jack. The narrator doesn’t know how far down the road he’s going to travel, but he does know that worldly gains mean little for those washed in the blood.
6. “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” George Jones. Bobby Braddock and Curly Putnam first wrote “He Stopped Loving Her Today” in 1977 and Johnny Russell recorded two unreleased versions of the song in 1978. Billy Sherrill loved the eternal togetherness through death tale, although he had the lyrics restructured to include the spoken word middle section. Jones hated the song, calling it “morbid” and thought the melody was too much like Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Producer Sherrill has said at various times that the recording of the song took over a year up to eighteen months, but recording studio logs reflect a much shorter timeframe. In any event, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is considered one of the greatest recordings in country music history and revived Jones’s dormant career, becoming his first #1 single in six years. Jones, “a four decade career had been salvaged by a three minute song.” According to studio session musician L.E. White, Jones was staring at Tammy Wynette, his former wife who had entered the studio control room with then husband George Richey, throughout the entire vocal performance.
7. “I Ain’t Living Long Like This,” Waylon Jennings. Jennings was at his commercial peak in the late 1970s, scoring nine #1 albums from 1975 to 1980 and eleven #1 singles during that timeframe. Rodney Crowell penned this number about the price of fast living (“I look for trouble and I found it son/Straight down the barrel of a lawman’s gun”). Emmylou Harris originally cut the song in 1978, but this jailhouse rocker sounded a bit more authentic with Waylon at the helm.
8. “I Believe in You,” Don Williams. Songwriter Roger Cook had two separate careers, first writing U.K. pop music with Roger Greenaway, penning hits such as “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (in Perfect Harmony)” and “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress.” After penning over twenty U.K. Top Ten pop singles, Cook relocated to Nashville and composed #1 singles for Crystal Gayle, Don Williams, and George Strait. Cook wrote “I Believe in You” with Sam Hogin, providing one of country music’s most memorable lyrics in the process. Things to dismiss – organic food, foreign cars, fundamentalism, Superman, Robin Hood. Things to believe in – old folks, children, magic, babies, mom, dad, and you.
9. “I’d Love to Lay You Down,” Conway Twitty. Missouri born songwriter Johnny MacRae spent over a decade in the Navy, then relocated to Nashville in the early 1960s. His first significant success was penning Jean Shepard’s 1966 #13 single “Many Happy Hangovers to You.” MacRae wrote his first #1 single fourteen years later with the Conway Twitty sex number “I’d Love to Lay You Down.” Twitty is so fired up in the song, he even finds his woman sexy in curlers, but then worries if he will still be able to perform in old age. From MacRae’s 2013 obituary about his rural Tennessee home, “He loved that farmland and spent many hours there fishing, writing songs, cutting hay, talking to the cows, watching the eagles fly, contemplating life and solving ALL of the world’s problems.”
10. “I’m Not Ready Yet,” George Jones. The Blue Boys were Jim Reeves backing unit and they released four albums after Reeves died in 1964. Their biggest chart hit was their 1968 recording of the Tom T. Hall composition “I’m Not Ready Yet,” a song about a man who lacks the emotional wherewithal to leave a bad relationship that peaked at #58. George Jones provided “I’m Not Ready Yet” with a different tone on his 1980 #2 country single. Without changing the lyrics, he sounds more like a man addressing his mortality than one trying to walk away from a woman.
11. “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” The Oak Ridge Boys. Rodney Crowell wrote “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight” with Donivan Cowart, a musician/onetime housemate of Crowell in the early 1970s. The song was first cut as a rather humorless album track by Emmylou Harris in 1978. The Oak Ridge Boys upped the bears per minute, resulting in a droll romp about a young woman escaping Louisiana with a traveling man to the total dismay of her parents. It was the second of the group’s seventeen #1 country singles. Crowell was better known as a songwriter than as a performer during this era, Bob Seger scored a #2 pop hit with his cover version of Crowell’s “Shame on the Moon” in 1982.
12. “A Lesson in Leavin’,” Dottie West. Tennessee native Dottie West spent most of the 1950s performing on local radio and television programs, then moved to Nashville in 1961. She co-wrote the 1963 #3 country hit “Is This Me?” for Jim Reeves and won a Grammy award with her 1964 #10 hit “Here Comes My Baby.” West frequently had success as a duet partner, going Top Ten collaborating with Jim Reeves, Don Gibson, and having several major hits with Kenny Rogers in the late 1970s/early 1980s. West became more provocative as she aged, posing for “Oui” when she was pushing 50 and developing a taste for spandex stage outfits. “A Lesson in Leavin’” was written by Arkansas native/MOR specialist Randy Goodrum with frequent collaborator Brent Maher. The percussion driven number was West’s first #1 single as a solo artist and was a crossover pop hit for Jo Dee Messina in 1999. During the early 1980s, Dottie’s daughter Shelly West was also a major country star, often singing hit duets with David Frizzell, the younger brother of Lefty Frizzell. Dottie’s chart success waned in the mid-1980s and she passed away in 1991 after suffering injuries in a car accident.
13. “Lookin’ for Love,” Johnny Lee. The country music pop culture event of 1980 was the movie “Urban Cowboy,” starring John Travolta and Debra Winger as young lovers immersed in the chip kicker culture of Gilley’s Club on the outskirts of Houston. One of the primary benefactors of that film was Johnny Lee Ham, a former Navy enlistee and long term sideman of Mickey Gilley. “Looking for Love” was written by grade school teachers Wanda Mallette and Patti Ryan with assistance from Nashville pro Bob Morrison. Approximately twenty artists had rejected “Lookin’ for Love,” a song that Travolta loved and wanted in the movie. Lee’s take went #1 country/#5 pop, starting a solid five year run as a top tier country artist. The soft pop influence of the “Urban Cowboy” sound was scorned by purists, but sounds positively soulful compared to the endless string of piano ballads in 1990s country music. At the age of 70, Lee still performs regularly in Texas and Oklahoma.
14. “Lovers Live Longer,” Bellamy Brothers. The Bellamy Brothers became a major country act in 1979 when the David Bellamy composition “If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body Would You Hold It Against Me” went to #1. They also went Top Five that year with the Confederacy hugging “You Ain’t Just Whistlin’ Dixie.” Their success continued in 1980 with “Sugar Daddy,” a request to be one, and they calypso flavored “Dancin’ Cowboys,” both #1 singles. David Bellamy was on the leading edge of replicating the Jimmy Buffett sound for country audiences on the Caribbean influenced “Lovers Live Longer.” I guess they also deserve some kind of credit for not discarding a couplet as bad as “I play your body like a fine guitar/You light me up just like a shooting star.”