Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1969, Part II
Deadly skillets, LSD warnings, and bad male wigs.
1. “Hot Burrito #1,” The Flying Burrito Brothers. The Flying Burrito Brothers formed in 1968, when Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman were pushed from the nest or flew away from The Byrds. Their 1969 album “The Gilded Palace of Sin” is considered one of the most important records in country rock history, although critical hosannas far outpaced retail activity. Inspired by a breakup, “Hot Burrito #1” is one of Parsons’ strongest vocal performances. Chris Hillman, “I only heard two great vocals out of that guy: ‘Hot Burrito #1’ and ‘Hot Burrito #2.’ The rest of it was good, and there was a lot of soul; he was a very emotional singer. But those two vocals were tearjerkers — they give you chills.”
2. “Homecoming,” Tom T. Hall. Tom T. Hall narrates an awkward reunion on “Homecoming,” a tale of a struggling road musician who is no longer connected to his family. It’s a song about chasing dreams and living on hope, shading reality to mask failures. Although Hall promises to call and write his father in the future, the words feel completely empty. You don’t know how long he’s been gone, but his last words are sound like a reference to a lost love. A #5 country hit.
3. “I Take A Lot of Pride in What I Am,” Merle Haggard. The fact that this #3 single about feeling pride in oneself despite having a low social status sounds similar to the Glen Campbell hit “Gentle on My Mind” did not escape Dean Martin, who recorded both songs as album title tracks in 1968 and 1969. Lynyrd Skynyrd lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant was a fan of this recording – it was played at his funeral. During this era, only hitting #3 was a comparable failure, Merle’s four preceding and successive singles to this release all went to #1.
4. “In the Ghetto,” Elvis Presley. “In the Ghetto” was a major comeback hit for Elvis, his first Top Ten pop single since 1965’s “Crying in the Chapel.” Songwriter Mac Davis, “I grew up with a little kid whose daddy worked with my daddy, and he was a black kid. We were good buddies, 5 or 6 years old. I remember him being one of my best buddies. But he lived in a part of town, and I couldn’t figure out why they had to live where they lived, and we got to live where we lived. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we didn’t have broken bottles every six inches. It was a dirt street ghetto where he lived.” Elvis reportedly had reservations about the generational poverty song, since Colonel Parker had advised him to always avoid politics and cultural issues. The palpable empathy of Elvis failed to make this single a country Top 40 hit, but did inspire cover versions by Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard. However, nobody came close to touching The King on this one.
5. “Kay,” John Wesley Ryles. John Wesley Ryles started performing with his family as a child and regularly appeared on Fort Worth and Dallas radio programs. His family relocated to Nashville in 1965 and Ryles became a solo act. “Kay” was a #9 single, not his biggest hit, but his best known release. It’s a story song about a man who relocates to help his woman succeed in Music City. She goes on tour and he’s left driving a cab, experiencing some of the worst parts of society and urban decay. “Kay” was written by Hank Mills, a pseudonym for Samuel Garrett, who also had writing credits on the Del Reeves hit “Girl on the Billboard” and Dean Martin’s “Little Old Wine Drinker Me.” Ryles had eleven Top 40 country hits from 1969 to 1987 and later worked as a demo singer and session musician.
6. “Lay Lady Lay,” Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan travelled to Nashville to record his late 1960’s albums “John Wesley Harding” and “Nashville Skyline.” Dylan moved away from his standard nasal wheeze vocal sound to become a baritone crooner on the “Nashville Skyline” album, a transformation he attributed to quitting his smoking habit. “Lay Lady Lay” was Dylan’s last Top Ten pop hit and this seduction song was written for the film “Midnight Cowboy,” but submitted too late for inclusion. Due to disagreements over the percussion sound, drummer Kenney Buttrey played bongos and a cowbell simultaneously. Janitor Kris Kristofferson had the honor of holding Buttrey’s instruments while he performed. “Lay Lady Lay” didn’t get a mainstream country interpretation until Deana Carter’s 2007 release, which had to be a better idea on paper than it was in reality.
7. “Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs,” Charlie Rich. Charlie Rich recorded for five different record labels from 1960 to 1967, with his talent clearly exceeding his financial rewards. He signed to Epic Records in 1968 and started being marketed to the country audience. His 1969 album “The Fabulous Charlie Rich” is considered one of his best, even though the public response was tepid. Written by his wife Margaret Ann Rich, “Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs” is about a woman whose faith in her husband transcends his success. Ouch. This is a much more soulful vocal performance than Rich typically gave during his era as a major star. A #41 country hit for The Silver Fox; Ricky Van Shelton peaked at #4 with his 1990 cover.
8. “My Big Iron Skillet,” Wanda Jackson. “My Big Iron Skillet” was the only country hit written by Bryan and Wilda Creswell, an Oklahoma married couple whose respective obituaries mention nothing about their interest or success in music. While Tammy was vowing to stand by her man and Loretta wanted to relocate her competitors to fist city, Wanda decided to take on an abusive husband directly, threatening to beat him to death with her kitchenware. This #20 country hit proves that Martina McBride (“Independence Day”) and the Dixie Chicks (“Goodbye Earl”) had nothing on Wanda when it came to survivalist, self-defense techniques.
9. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” The Band. Rockabilly artist/Arkansas native Ronnie Hawkins relocated to Canada in 1958, bringing drummer Leon Helm with him. His backing group eventually evolved into The Band and immediately became a high profile act by serving as Bob Dylan’s touring unit from 1965 to 1967. Their 1969 album included the Top 40 hit “Up on Cripple Creek” and the Robbie Robertson composition “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” a song about the end of the Civil War and the associated personal suffering. Levon Helm, who claimed that he co-wrote the song without receiving a credit, gives a mournful, pain dripping vocal that sounds as though it was given from personal experience. Joan Baez had a #3 pop hit in 1971 with her light folk, singalong version.
10. “Okie from Muskogee,” Merle Haggard. There are a few different takes on the anti-longhair/anti-LSD/anti-marijuana/pro manly footwear “Okie from Muskogee,” Haggard’s famous/infamous conservative values anthem. One theory is that Haggard was writing from the perspective of his long lost father and what he would think of the anti-war movement. Another point of view is that Haggard was simply naive about American politics, which he later admitted. Whether satirical or serious, this #1 single still resonates strongly in flyover country and has been covered by the Grateful Dead, The Flaming Lips, and The Melvins, bands that probably never had a strong aversion to mind altering substances.
11. “Restless,” Carl Perkins. Carl Perkins had his biggest country hit of the 1960s with the rockabilly meets gospel leg shaker “Restless,” which peaked at #20. Part of the urgency from the song comes from the drummer sounding completely lost during the instrumental break. “Restless” returned to the charts in 1991, when bluegrass artist Mark O’Conner took his version to #25. Perkins only had one more country hit, “Birth of Rock and Roll,” a #31 single in 1986. Perkins recorded with NRBQ, Paul McCartney, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty (covering “Restless”) during the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. He passed away in 1998 at the age of 65 and seemed like such a good man that I barely want to mention that he wore some of the most ridiculous hairpieces ever tossed upon a human head. One of his biggest fans, George Harrison, performed at his funeral.
12. “Ruby, Don’t Take You Love to Town,” Kenny Rogers & the First Edition. Houston native Kenny Rogers started performing as a solo artist in the late 1950s, joined a jazz group named The Bobby Doyle Three, did a stint with the folkie act The New Christy Minstrels, and formed The First Edition in 1967. That band had immediate success with the Mickey Newbury LSD warning “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In”), a #5 pop hit. The group was renamed Kenny Rogers & The First Edition in 1969 and had their second major hit with the Mel Tillis composition “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” This story about a handicapped Vietnam vet who can no longer satisfy his woman went to #6 on the pop charts and #39 on the country charts. Rogers stayed with The First Edition until the mid-1970s and started his solo career in 1975.