Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1968, Part II
Prostitution, Rod Stewart, and capital punishment.
1. “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,: Waylon Jennings. Despite the narrative that Jennings didn’t have success until he amassed his outlaw trappings, he had five consecutive Top Ten country hits in 1967 and 1968 with “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line” peaking at #2 in the U.S. and going to #1 on the Canadian country charts. The sound is pure Bakersfield country with Waylon walking the straight and narrow, frustrated by a wild woman. Neat production trick – having a B-3 Hammond organ underscore the vocal hook on the title line. “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line” was penned by highly respected instrumentalist/Django Reinhardt devotee Jimmy Bryant, who recorded critically acclaimed albums as a solo artist, especially the 1967 release “The Fastest Guitar in the Country,” and with steel guitarist Speedy West on their 1954 effort “Two Guitars Country Style.”
2. “Shady Grove,” Doc Watson. Musicologist Doc Watson was known for his revivalism of early country and folk material, as well as for his much studied rapid fire, flatpick guitar work. Never a mainstream commercial act, Watson recorded for the New York based folkie label Vanguard Records in the 1960s, but hooked up with Music City session musicians for his 1968 album “Doc Watson in Nashville: Good Deal!” “Shady Grove” is a traditional folk song, originating from the adulterous 17th century folk ballad “Matty Groves.” The lyrics hint at unrequited love, but the music has a dark edge that suggest something more ominous. An often covered song, the current most popular versions are a by Jerry Garcia with mandolin specialist David Grisman and an unexpected roots rocker from Tom Petty’s Mudcrutch.
3. “Sing Me Back Home,” Merle Haggard. This 1968 #1 country single is a folk type ballad/meditation about a prisoner who Haggard personally knew and his journey to the electric chair. Haggard, “Even though the crime was brutal and the guy was an incorrigible criminal, it’s a feeling you never forget when you see someone you know make that last walk. They bring him through the yard, and there’s a guard in front and a guard behind – that’s how you know a death prisoner. They brought Rabbit out…taking him to see the Father…prior to his execution. That was a strong picture that was left in my mind.” One of his best compositions, later covered by The Grateful Dead, Joan Baez, and Gram Parsons.
4. “Skip a Rope,” Henson Cargill. Oklahoma native Henson Cargill went to Nashville to record “Skip a Rope,” a tide turning tune during the Vietnam era. A positively hippie vibe permeates this diatribe about backstabbers, tax, cheats and racism. “Skip a Rope” was penned by Glenn Tubb (a nephew of Ernest) and Jack Moran, a blind Penn State grad/social worker who released a 1970 album titled, ouch, “As I See It.” Cargill only hit the Top Ten on one more occasion with the Moran penned, church attending/slum ignoring “None of My Business,” which peaked at #8 in 1969. After leaving the recording and touring scene, Cargill opened Henson’s Saloon and Restaurant in Oklahoma City in 1982. He filed for bankruptcy in 1983.
5. “Smoky the Bar,” Hank Thompson. Hank Thompson, who Bob Wills referred to dismissively as “a pretty boy,” had a significant comeback in 1968, scoring his first Top Ten hits since his 1961 cover of “Oklahoma Hills” with “On Tap, in the Can, or in the Bottle” and the beer drinking weeper “Smoky the Bar.” “Smoky the Bar” is as close as Thompson ever got to countrypolitan crooning. Thompson’s enunciation may have sounded more like the Princeton electrical engineering student that he was than a legitimate honk tonk man, but he instinctively understood that simplicity was his calling card.
6. “The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp,” O.C. Smith. Dallas Frazier, “Songwriters have to make things bigger than life. We dramatize. We take a little seed, and it will turn into a giant redwood tree before we’re done with it.” Frazier made prostitution seem noble on “The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp,” a tale of a woman with fourteen children who turned to the world’s oldest profession to keep chicken dumplings on the table. Alabama native Johnny Darrell took the song to #22 on the country charts in 1967. O.C. Smith has an African-American vocalist who performed with Count Basie in the early 1960s. His version may not have been sounded like traditional country music, yet went Top Five on the Canadian country charts and was a Top Five pop hit in the U.K. and Australia. Smith had his biggest commercial success in the U.S. with his #2 charting pop version of “Little Green Apples” later in 1968. Both songwriter Frazier and vocalist Smith worked for many years as ministers after leaving the music industry.
7. “Stand by Your Man,” Tammy Wynette. Wynette, “It’s unbelievable to me that a song that took me 20 minutes to write, I’ve spent 20 or 30 years defending.” With its huge sing-along chorus and anti-feminist attitude, Wynette’s vow of devotion, or what some might call servitude, became her signature song. The lyrics made Wynette sound like a terminal victim and the hardships she suffered, to include her marriage to a famous alcoholic and an unsolved kidnapping episode, reinforced the image. “Stand by Your Man” was written quickly in the studio with producer Billy Sherrill, not due to sublime inspiration, but because one more song was needed to complete an album. Wynette feared the record would be a hit for practical reasons, stating, “I’m going to have to hit that God-awful high note the rest of my life.” This #1 country hit also crossed over to #19 on the pop charts. Lyle Lovett covered “Stand by Your Man” in 1989, finding that spot where satire turns into insufferable preciousness.
8. “Today I Started Loving You Again,” Merle Haggard. Originally titled “I Started Loving You Again” and later known as “Today I Started Loving You Again,” this Haggard/Bonnie Owens composition surprisingly wasn’t a hit from Merle’s 1968 “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde” album. However, at that time, Merle was better known for prison songs than heartbreak themes and he didn’t need airplay validation to achieve classic country status. Sammi Smith had a Top Ten single with her 1975 cover and the song has been recorded by George Jones, Martina McBride, and Bobby Bland, among others.
9. “Waiting ‘Round to Die,” Townes Van Zandt. Townes Van Zandt was raised by a wealthy Fort Worth family, Van Zandt county in East Texas was named after one of his forefathers. Diagnosed with manic depression and a severe alcoholic, Van Zandt started performing in Houston in the mid-1960s, mixing a blues based sense of despair with the outlaw ethos of a natural contrarian. Townes’ 1968 debut album includes some of his best known songs, including the title track “For the Sake of a Song,” the prostitution number “Tecumseh Valley,” and “Waiting ‘Round to Die.” “Waiting ‘Round to Die” is a song about gambling and booze and rambling and robbery and incarceration. Townes was an expert on most of those subjects. Longtime road manager Harold Eggers, “Touring with Townes, we were always on the brink of being shot or arrested.”
10. “What a Way to Live,” Johnny Bush. Texas native Johnny Bush started performing in San Antonio in the early 1950s, but didn’t find any success until he started working with Willie Nelson and Ray Price in the 1960s. In fact, Nelson provided financial support to assist with Bush’s first album release. Billed as “The Country Caruso,” Bush had his first country Top 40 hit with his cover of Nelson’s “What a Way to Live.” By design or default, he sounded a bit too much like his former boss Ray Price to establish his own identity. Bush, who still performs in Texas, had his biggest hit with the Marty Robbins composition “You Gave Me a Mountain,” peaking at #7 in 1969. He is also well known for co-writing “Whiskey River,” which he took to #14 on the country charts in 1972, six years before it was a #12 hit for his old friend Willie.
11. “What Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me,” Jerry Lee Lewis. Louisiana born/Texas raised songwriter Glenn Sutton was in his late twenties when he moved to Nashville. He teamed with producer Billy Sherrill and penned hits for David Houston, Tammy Wynette, and George Jones. “What Made Milwaukee Famous” was the second major comeback hit for Lewis, peaking at #2 on the country charts, with its title lyric being a reference to a Schlitz beer advertising line. Rod Stewart, no amateur when it comes to booze, had a #4 U.K. hit in 1972 with the rare double-A side single, pairing “What Made Milwaukee Famous” with his version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel.”
12. “Wichita Lineman,” Glen Campbell. After the success of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” Glen Campbell wanted Jimmy Webb to write another song “about a town.” Webb had “prairie goth” images in his head and went much deeper. Webb, “You can see someone working in construction or working in a field, a migrant worker or a truck driver, and you may think you know what’s going on inside him, but you don’t. You can’t assume that just because someone’s in a menial job that they don’t have dreams or extraordinary concepts going around in their head, like ‘I need you more than want you; and I want you for all time.’ You can’t assume that a man isn’t a poet. And that’s really what the song is about.” A #1 country/#2 pop hit, but much more than that. It is simply one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever recorded. Also, check out the Freedy Johnston cover – he’s a man from Kansas that knows about wide open, lonely spaces.
13. “Who Put All My Ex’s in Texas,” Willie Nelson. Willie Nelson’s 1968 concept album “Texas in My Soul” was a complete commercial failure, generating no hit singles and the album didn’t even touch the country charts. There were no Nelson original compositions on the record, only covers of material from Ernest Tubb, Cindy Walker, and Merle Travis, among others. “Who Put My Ex’s in Texas” was written by a young Eddie Rabbitt, along with ex-Brenda Lee bandleader Tony Moon and Larry Lee, who later coauthored the 1981 Gene Watson #1 single “Fourteen Carat Mind.” “Who Put All My Ex’s in Texas” has the spry verve of Bob Wills and fits Nelson like a red bandana. George Strait would make the Texas ex’s theme a bit more famous in 1987.
14. “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” The Byrds. The Byrds quickly moved from Rickenbacker jangle pop to psychedelic rock to a country based sound in the 1960s. By 1968, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman were the only original members of the band. Gram Parsons was brought onboard and heavily contributed to the vision of the 1968 “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” album. The lead track on the album was a then unreleased Bob Dylan track “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” The lyrics are typically impenetrable, but the country folk groove is deathless. The Byrds took “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” to #74 on the pop charts in 1968 (the critical legacy of the “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” album has been much more substantive than its commercial success), but a version recorded by Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band went to #6 on the country charts in 1989. Whoo-ee, ride me high.