Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1969, Part III
Spuds Mackenzie, Apollo 12, and more hooting prisoners.
1. “San Quentin,” Johnny Cash. “Any of the guards (that) are still speaking to me, could I have a glass of water?” In the words of Cash biographer Robert Hilburn, who attended the San Quentin prison gig, “Not knowing what to expect, the convicts were startled by the venom of the song’s opening lines: ‘San Quentin/You’ve been a living hell to me.’ The audience let loose a chilling roar of brotherhood.” You could say that Cash was making a statement on punishment versus rehabilitation on “San Quentin,” or you could argue that he was pandering to his audience. Any way you view it, the performance is an unforgettable chutzpah moment in the career of Johnny Cash, a man who was completely aware of his charisma and loved the risks that he took.
2. “She Still Comes Around (to Love What’s Left of Me),” Jerry Lee Lewis. This 1968 single/1969 album title track was the third major country comeback hit for Lewis, peaking at #2. Penned by frequent Tammy Wynette songwriter Glenn Sutton, “She Still Comes Around” is “Stand by Your Man” from the male perspective. Jerry chases painted woman on payday nights, hates to breaks his woman’s heart, but she’s too devoted to leave him. Wow, does she have a sister? Producer Jerry Kennedy didn’t engage with Lewis on arguments over spirituality like Sam Phillips did. In fact, the studio time seemed positively mundane. Kennedy, “Jerry was one of the easiest people I ever worked with. I’ve heard a lot of stories of how he butted head with other people, but we always got along great. I didn’t spend a lot of time socializing with him. He would come to town, come to my office, and we’d listen to songs, and then we’d go into the studio and record. And then he would go home.”
3. “Silver Wings,” Merle Haggard. Haggard was releasing so much first rate material during this timeframe that “Silver Wings,” which has become one of his most famous songs, was never released as a single. The string arrangement gives the song a more pop feel than most of Haggard’s material during this timeframe, but the theme of sadness while watching a love one fly into the distance is pure country heartbreak. “Silver Wings” had been covered by Marshall Crenshaw, Rosanne Cash, Jimmy Buffett, and Suzy Bogguss.
4. “Sin City,” The Flying Burrito Brothers. “Sin City” is our second entry from The Flying Burrito Brothers’ 1969 album “The Gilded Palace of Sin.” Chris Hillman woke up one morning with the words “this old town’s filled with sin, it will swallow you in” stirring in his head. He woke up Gram Parsons and thirty minutes later the song was completed. The Burrito Brothers bested the Eagles by eight years in writing an impressionistic song about the evils of Los Angeles. Speaking of the Eagles, I once watched as Glenn Frey introduced Bernie Leadon as a former member of The Flying Burrito Brothers. The stadium crowd reacted with laughter, having no idea of the importance of that group in country rock history, just thinking of it as a humorous sounding name.
5. “Statue of a Fool,” Jack Greene. After performing for a few years in Georgia and Tennessee, Jack Greene got his first big break in 1962, when he became a member of Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours.
By the mid-1960s, Tubb encouraged Greene to leave his outfit and pursue a solo career. He scored five #1 singles during the latter part of the decade, with his best remembered hits being the Dallas Frazier composition “There Goes My Everything” and the Jan Crutchfield penned “Statue of a Fool.” This 1969 #1 single replicates the towering melancholy that was Roy Orbison’s stock in trade earlier in the decade. David Ruffin brought “Statue of a Fool” to soul audiences in 1975 and Ricky Van Shelton had a #2 hit with his 1989 release. Greene had less success during the 1970s, but continued to perform until 2011, a few years before he passed away from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
6. “Sweet Thang and Cisco,” Nat Stuckey. Texas disc jockey/songwriter/performer Nat Stuckey hit the Top Ten three times as a singer during the 1960s, first with “Sweet Thang” in 1966, with “Plastic Saddle” in 1968, and in 1969 with the beer drinking, gambling, jail visiting, strip club supporting “Sweet Thang and Cisco.” After this fine Jerry Lee Lewis homage, Stuckey continued to record during the 1970s, while also transitioning into writing commercial jingles (during the 1980s, he was the singing voice on the last Budweiser commercial that featured lady’s man/bull terrier Spuds MacKenzie). A few years before he died, he co-wrote the Randy Travis 1986 #1 single “Diggin’ Up Bones.”
7. “Tall Dark Stranger,” Buck Owens. Buck, “My mother used to tell me to ‘always beware of tall, dark strangers.’ That saying just kind of stuck with me over the years, so when I wrote the song ‘Sweet Rosie Jones,’ I had a tall, dark stranger come and steal her away. I liked the image of the mysterious character so much, I went back to him again when I wrote ‘Tall Dark Stranger.’ When we recorded it in early ’69, I decided it needed to sound more dramatic. I felt it was the kind of song that needed strings and background vocals. Ninety-nine percent of the time I didn’t think that sort of thing was right for the kind of records I was making, but this was that other one percent.” The Jordanaires provided backing vocals and Buck’s stranger/danger tune resulted in this twentieth #1 country hit.
8. “To Make Love Sweeter for You,” Jerry Lee Lewis. This Glenn Sutton/Jerry Kennedy composition, sometimes mistakenly credited to country crooner George Morgan, is a rarity for Jerry Lee, a straightforward pledge of romantic devotion. While monogamous sincerity was never his calling card, “To Make Love Sweeter for You” was his third country #1 single, a spot he visited twice in 1957 with “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire.” Between new Smash Records material and recycled Sun Records album, seven Jerry Lee Lewis albums were released in 1969. One of his most acclaimed albums from this era was the “Together” release, a duet record with sister Linda Gail Lewis, which spawned a #12 country hit with their cover of “Don’t Let Me Cross Over.” (While it’s a bit weird for a brother and sister to sing a temptation cheating song together, the father/daughter act The Kendalls would make that a staple of their act during the late 1970s).
9. “Where Grass Won’t Grow,” George Jones. Songwriter Earl Montgomery on his long association with George Jones, “”I studied him. I studied his style. And I studied his phrasing. I wrote the kind of songs he liked – honky tonk songs, cheating songs, she’s ran off and left me and all that stuff.” “Where Grass Won’t Grow,” a 1969 album title track, doesn’t fall into any of those categories. It’s a description of a difficult hand to mouth farm existence and a lost lover who is buried underneath the unproductive soil. George Jones revisited the song in 1994 on his “The Bradley Barn Sessions” album, with support from Trisha Yearwood, Emmylou Harris, and Dolly Parton. Earl Montgomery, known as either “Peanut” or “Peanutt” to his friends, later left the music industry to become a traveling minister and also owned a second hand store in Sheffield, Alabama.
10. “Wine Me Up,” Faron Young. We haven’t mentioned Faron Young since his 1961 #1 single “Hello Walls.” Young continued to chart hit singles throughout the 1960s, but also founded the “Music City News” publication, invested in real estate, had a child out of wedlock, and hit the bottle with ever increasing enthusiasm. When touring with George Jones, the evenings frequently ended with fisticuffs between the two hard living, hard drinking men. One of his strongest efforts of the decade was the 1969 drinking song “Wine Me Up,” which made its debut in outer space when astronaut Pete Conrad included it on his mixtape for the Apollo 12 mission. Young would never cover a song that had been recorded by Ray Price, knowing that the comparison would do him no favors, but this version of the Ray Price shuffle was a #2 country hit.
11. “Workin’ Man Blues,” Merle Haggard. A tribute to blue collar men, welfare avoiding working class stiffs who dream of adventure, yet keep their nose on the grindstone to pay for the necessities. Still, they might stop be a tavern on the way home. “Workin’ Man Blues” was a #1 single for Haggard, as was his previous release, the poverty stricken “Hungry Eyes,” sometimes known as “Mama’s Hungry Eyes.” In concert, Haggard would often perform “Workin’ Man’s Blues” in the style of Bob Wills, giving solos to several instrumentalists in the band. Bob Dylan referenced Haggard’s tune on his 2006 song “Workingman’s Blues #2.”