Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1968, Part I
Convicts, drunk tanks, and the triumphant return of Conway Twitty.
1. “Another Place, Another Time,” Jerry Lee Lewis. Songwriter Jerry Chesnut was raised in Eastern Kentucky coal mining country, did a tour in the military, and worked in Florida radio before relocating to Nashville in 1967. Chesnut was an immediate success, penning three Top Ten singles in 1968: “Holding On to Nothin’” by Porter and Dolly, “Looking at the World Through a Windshield” for Del Reeves, and the Jerry Lee Lewis comeback hit “Another Place, Another Time.” With his career largely dormant in the 1960s, Jerry Lee Lewis’s manager Eddie Kilroy pitched the idea of a Nashville album, but had trouble finding material since the commercial prospects where dim. “Another Place, Another Time” became a surprise hit, kick-starting a second, prodigal son career for the inimitable stylist. Lewis was able to play a traditional country weeper while sacrificing none of his signature brashness.
2. “Ballad of Forty Dollars,” Tom T. Hall. Olive Hill, Kentucky native Tom T. Hall started performing locally as a teenager and honed his songwriting skills while serving in the Army in the late 1950s. After leaving the service, he studied journalism and worked in radio. He had his first success as a songwriter when Jimmy Newman took his composition “D.J. for a Day” to #9 on the country charts in 1964. He also penned Johnny Wright’s 1965 #1 hit “Hello Vietman” and Dave Dudley’s 1966 Top Five release “What We’re Fighting For.” Hall had his first hit as a performer with 1967’s “I Washed My Face in the Morning Dew,” but went Top Ten for the first time by displaying his droll wit on “The Ballad of Forty Dollars.” In this song, a trio of gravediggers observe a funeral from the safety of their pickup truck after downing a case of beer. They sadly realize that the deceased man will never repay a $40 loan.
3. “Bury the Bottle with Me,” Dick Curless. Ohio born songwriter Darrell McCall worked in local radio and began performing as a teenager. After a stint in the military, he went to Nashville and became a background singer. Along with Anita Kerr, he was part of the short lived vocal group The Little Dippers, who had a Top Ten pop hit in 1960 with the Buddy Killen penned ballad “Forever.” McCall, who still performs on the Texas honky tonk scene, teamed with Hank Cochran to write “Bury the Bottle with Me.” The song only peaked at #55 on the country charts, but describes the consequences of alcoholism with a frightful fatalism – the narrator ended his life with a stolen soul, a petrified brain, and will spend eternity in hell. Bottoms up!
4. “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” Tammy Wynette. Central Florida native Bobby Braddock dreamed about songwriting from a young age, while cutting his teeth playing piano and saxophone for local rock bands. After moving to Nashville in 1964 and working in Marty Robbins’ band, he began penning hits for Robbins, Little Jimmy Dickens, and the Statler Brothers. Braddock, “I got the idea of a couple that spells in front of their kid so the kid won’t hear all this disturbing stuff about his parents getting a divorce. Months went by and nobody recorded it. I asked Curly Putman why nobody was recording the song. He said the melody for the title line was too happy. The melody I had for the song was sort of like a soap commercial.” After having the melody reshaped, Wynette had her third #1 single in a row, following “I Don’t Wanna Play House” and “Take Me to Your World” to the top slot. The song walks a fine line between tragedy and self-parody. Braddock, “Looking back on it now, I think the song’s pretty corny, but I was glad to have it.”
5. “Fist City,” Loretta Lynn. “You better move your feet/If you don’t want to eat/A meal that’s called fist city.” A wrestling promo set to music, Loretta has said that this #1 country song was inspired by a female bus driver that had eyes for her husband. Lynn, “She was spreading the news around town that she was in love with my husband. I knew he was no saint, but after seeing her I knew he had more class than that.” Not one to worry about decorum, Lynn promises to lift her rival off of the ground by pulling her hair. Lynn, “”I’ve been in a couple of fights in my life. I fight like a woman. I scratch and kick and bite and punch. Women are much meaner than men.” Loretta’s other major self-penned hit of 1968 was titled “Your Squaw is on the Warpath.”
6. “Folsom Prison Blues,” Johnny Cash. Is there anything more spine-tingling in popular music than hearing a bunch of murderers, rapists, and serial jaywalkers whooping it up after The Man in Black proclaims that he “shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”? Sorry to pull the curtain back on this one, but the cheering wasn’t from the concert – it was added during the production process. The sad realizations of adulthood. The melody of “Folsom Prison Blues” was taken from the 1953 Gordon Jenkins’ song “The Crescent City,” a bit of theft that resulted in a significant cash (Cash?) settlement in the early 1970s. The studio version of “Folsom” peaked at #4 on the country charts in 1956 and the live version topped the country charts and was a #32 pop single. It’s a performance that’s equally compelling as both music and mythmaking. Cash, “Prisoners are the greatest audience that an entertainer can perform to.”
7. “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” Jeannie C. Riley. Jeanne Stephenson was a small town Texas girl who went to Nashville to find fame, but first found work as a secretary. One version of the origin of the song is that singer Margie Singleton asked Tom T. Hall to write a song similar to “Ode to Billie Joe,” however, it’s also been reported that Hall first pitched the song to Skeeter Davis. Hall, “I grew up in a town of 1,300 people, but we had our aristocracy — the folks who were the leaders of the town, those we were inclined to believe were more intelligent, more moral. They’d talk about people — how ugly some of them were. But I thought those people were beautiful.” Riley actually didn’t care for the tune, later saying, “I had more in common with the daughter who brings the note home than the mother in the mini-skirt.” Still, it was Riley that reworked the money line, changing Hall’s lyric to the “the day my momma socked it to” technical knockout. The theme of small town hypocrisy is timeless and this #1 pop/#1 country hit inspired a film starring Barbara Eden in 1978 and a television sitcom in the early 1980s.
8. “Holding On to Nothin’,” Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. On this Jerry Chesnut penned Top Ten country hit, Porter and Dolly portray an aging couple whose flames of passion have burned away and they have no reason to be together. Chesnut, “Even at this early stage, I was in awe of Dolly’s talent. After she joined ‘The Porter Wagoner Show,” Porter called and asked me to bring some songs for him to listen to. Dolly started singing this great harmony on ‘Holding On to Nothin’. Porter said we’ll do a duo of that. On the strength of the song, they won the Duo of the Year Award.” For her part, Dolly has said that this performance convinced Chet Atkins that Dolly could be a solo star.
9. “(It Won’t Be Long) And I’ll Be Hating You,” Johnny Paycheck. Donald Lytle wasn’t a badass based upon a marketing campaign, during his life he spent well-earned time in military and civilian prisons. He moved to Nashville in the late 1950s, releasing rockabilly and country sides under the name Donny Young and worked in George Jones’s band in the mid-1960s. He changed his name to Johnny Paycheck and had his first hit with the 1965 jukebox heartbreak number “A-11,” which should have been included in my list for that year. “(It Won’t Be Long) And I’ll Be Hating You” wasn’t a hit, but Paycheck sounds like an angry Waylon Jennings and the choppy chord changes give the tune a retroactive country new wave feel.
10. “Just Because I’m a Woman,” Dolly Parton. Dolly wasn’t a major solo star in 1968, but she was brave enough to take on gender sexual politics on the self-penned #17 country hit. In response to being questioned about whether she had even lost her chastity belt, Dolly responds affirmatively, while letting the male party know about the equality of both goose and gander sins. Dolly, “”When I was first married, Carl and I were very happy. Then eight months in he suddenly asked me whether I’d been with anyone else before we got together. I told him I had and he was so upset, he had a hard time getting over it. That’s why I wrote it: ‘My mistakes are no worse than yours, just because I’m a woman.’”
11. “Looking at the World Through a Windshield,” Del Reeves. North Carolina native Del Reeves had his second major wave of country success in 1968/1969 going Top Five three times, including the Bakersfield inspired, trucking themed “Looking at the World Through a Windshield.” Written by Jerry Chesnut and radio personality Mike Hoyer, Reeves misses his baby in Nashville while pushing his rig as hard as it will go Dallas to the Pacific back to Baltimore. Reeves had his last Top Ten hit with the 1971 novelty number “The Philadelphia Fillies,” which wasn’t a baseball tune. Reeves would later work as a music executive and is credited, if that’s the right word, with discovering Lee Greenwood and Billy Ray Cyrus.
12. “Mama Tried,” Merle Haggard. One of Haggard’s signature songs, this 1968 #1 single empathizes with a caring mother whose criminal son is living “life without parole.” While not strictly autobiographical (Merle never had a life sentence), Haggard has described this as the composition that moved him the most and said he thought about his own mother every time he performed it. The tribute to his exasperated mother became a concert staple for both The Grateful Dead and the Old 97’s. If an alien gave you two minutes and eleven seconds to explain the greatness of country music, your job would be to play him/her/it this song.
13. “Mr. Bojangles,” Jerry Jeff Walker. Free spirit Ronald Clyde Crosby learned country music from his grandparents, who played square dances in upstate New York. Crosby did a stint in the National Guard, worked throughout the country as a street performer, and landed in the Greenwich Village folk scene during the mid-1960s, taking the stage name Jerry Jeff Walker. The waltz paced “Mr. Bojangles” was inspired by an encounter with a street performer that Walker had in a New Orleans drunk tank. The gentleman depressed his cellmates with a story about his faithful dog who had passed away, then lightened the mood with a tap dance. Walker’s original release was a minor pop hit, peaking at #77. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band took their cover to #9 on the pop singles chart in 1971 and it has been covered by a laundry list of pop, folk, and country artists, with one of the most famous versions being the hipster jazz take by Sammy Davis, Jr.
14. “My Elusive Dreams,” Roger Miller. “My Elusive Dreams,” a song about schemes and failures written by Billy Sherrill and Curly Putnam, has been a major hit twice – David Houston and Tammy Wynette took the song to #1 in 1967 and Charlie Rich peaked at #3 with his 1975 cover version. The Roger Miller version wasn’t even a single, his only hit that year was the Bobby Russell/rainless in Indianapolis number “Little Green Apples.” Still, Miller proved that he could milk a tender ballad just as effectively as he could spin a yarn.
15. “Next in Line,” Conway Twitty. Conway Twitty’s early pop success ended in 1960 and he decided to try his luck with country music in 1965. He went Top Twenty in 1966 with the Liz Anderson composition “Guess My Eyes Were Bigger Than My Heart,” but had his true country breakthrough in 1968 with “The Image of Me,” a Wayne Kemp number about causing a heartbreak that peaked at #5. Wayne Kemp went back to his “Love Bug” songwriter partner Curtis Wayne for the #1 single “Next in Line,” where Twitty has his turn to nurse a split aorta. This was the first of forty #1 hits that Conway would have either as a solo artist or from his duets with Loretta.