Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1970, Part II
Flying spoons, switchblades, and Memphis.
1. “Kentucky Rain,” Elvis Presley. New Jersey native Eddie Rabbitt was in a quandary after writing “Kentucky Rain” with business executive Dick Heard. Rabbitt thought it could have been his breakthrough hit, but before he could release it, the song was pitched to and recorded by Elvis. Rabbitt, “I thought if this is the only hit song I ever write, then it is better that Elvis does it because he’s the King.” Rabbitt wasn’t the only future superstar associated with “Kentucky Rain,” Ronnie Milsap played piano on the track. Millsap, “I did a session with Elvis called ‘Kentucky Rain,’ and he wanted a little more thunder on the piano in places, so I did that left-hand thing down there real low on the piano like thunder.” While there’s no lack of Vegas in the arrangement, wet shoes Elvis took this precipitation hit to #16 on the pop charts, #31 on the country charts, and all the way to #1 on the Canadian country countdown.
2. “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” Creedence Clearwater Revival. Tambourines, elephants, lawn dancing creatures, Buck Owens, and flying spoons get all mixed together on this sorrow free, Bakersfield inspired #2 pop hit. John Fogerty, “I wanted to write a kids’ song. One inspiration was ‘And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street’ by Dr. Suess. Another was a children’s book by Margaret Wise Brown, ‘The House of a Hundred Windows.’ ‘Lookin’ Out My Back Door’ was the first time I played a dobro on a record. I’d gotten it in Nashville, and learned to play a little part.” Creedance released three double sided singles from the 1970 “Cosmo’s Factory” album, all of which made Top Five.
3. “Memphis and Arkansas Bridge,” Charlie Rich. Charlie Rich was still seeking his commercial breakthrough during 1970. His only country Top 40 hit that year was the jazz pop number “Nice ‘n’ Easy,” which was originally recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1960 and Rich’s version stalled at #37. On “Mempis and Arkansas Bridge,” Rich has a fight with his woman, gets stupid drunk, can’t find his way back to Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, and somehow lands in a Nashville prison. The iconoclastic blues edge that Rich had during this era was much more representative of his natural aesthetic than the
MOR/countrypolitan straightjacket that producer Billy Sherrill slapped on him during his superstar phase.
4. “Rose Garden,” Lynn Anderson. The daughter of successful country songwriters Liz and Casey Anderson, Lynn Anderson quickly moved from being a radio station secretary to working as a recording artist. She’s only remembered for “Rose Garden,” but charted for over twenty years, scoring seventeen Top Ten hits with five of those going to #1. Georgia musician Joe South, best known for the 1969 #12 pop hit “Games People Play,” penned “Rose Garden” and a rather choppy version was first recorded by Billy Joe Royal in 1967. (Royal hit #9 on the pop charts in 1965 with “Down in the Boondocks” and had a solid run on the country charts in the late 1980s). Anderson and her producer/husband Glenn Sutton gave “Rose Garden” a much more melodic and carefree sound than the Billy Joe Royal and Joe South releases. Anderson scored a major crossover hit, going to #3 on the pop charts, #1 country, and earning a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance in 1971. Anderson, “I believe that ‘Rose Garden’ was released at just the right time. People were trying to recover from the Vietnam years. The message in the song—that if you just take hold of life and go ahead, you can make something out of nothing—people just took to that.” Anderson was arrested for several substance abuse related charges later in her life and passed away in 2015 at the age of 67.
5. “Salute to a Switchblade,” Tom T. Hall. Tom T. Hall was stationed in Germany while serving in the Army in the late 1950s and “Salute to a Switchblade” sounds like a legitimate overview of a night of alcohol and bad judgment. In the song, Hall and an Army buddy get hammered while trying their luck with some German ladies, finding out the hard way that one of the women was married. Hall recounts the evening with more humor than concern, sprinting out of the bar and surviving his encounter with a switchblade. His conclusion: “Not necessarily an incident one would want to write Mother about.” A Top Ten country hit.
6. “Snowbird,” Anne Murray. Nova Scotia native Anne Murray worked as a physical education teacher before landing a performing job on the Canadian musical variety show “Singalong Jubilee.” Murray started recording in 1968 and had her first international hit with “Snowbird,” written by fellow “Singalong Jubilee” cast member Gene MacLellan. A rumination about heartbreak while observing nature’s wonders, “Snowbird” was the perfect fit for Murray’s deep alto voice. The song has been recorded by everyone from Burl Ives to Elvis to indie rock artist Mark Eitzel. Murray had a long successful career releasing the type of ballads that Barry Manilow would have considered too mushy, including the 1978 #1 pop hit “You Needed Me.”
7. “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” Johnny Cash. If you are reading this, you probably already know that “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down” was written by Kris Kristofferson, who had his first hit credit on Dave Dudley’s “Viet Nam Blues” in 1966 and had penned hits by Faron Young, Roger Miller, and Jerry Lee Lewis in 1969 and 1970. You probably don’t know that the substance abuse/loneliness number was first recorded by Ray Stevens in 1969, an intentionally hilarious release by the novelty artist turned alt right cartoon. The Cash version has much more production ear candy than was typical of his less is more approach. Still, he had the gravitas to convey a sense of desperate detachment. Kristofferson on the impact of this #1 country hit, “It was the song that allowed me to stop working for a living.”
8. “Tell Me My Lying Eyes Are Wrong,” George Jones. Those California dopeheads weren’t the first act to discover the “Lying Eyes” concept. This 1970 Top Ten country hit was penned by Nashville stalwarts Dallas Frazier and Sanger Shafer. Shafer was a native of Whitney, Texas who became enamored with Lefty Frizzell as a teenager and co-wrote songs with his hero later in life. Check out this been there/done that opening line for a working class cheating song: “The night shift got off early because of making repairs.” George heads to the bar for a cold one and finds his woman dancing in the arms of another man. Sometimes a double shift is a man’s best friend.
9. “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” Bobby Bare. You know you are a hot songwriter when other artists scour your album tracks for new singles. Tom T. Hall released this Bluff City tearjerker on his 1969 album “Ballad of Forty Dollars & His Other Great Songs.” Bobby Bare sounds suitably despondent as he follows his love to Memphis, then stays there hoping against hope that she’ll return. Bare knew how to spot good material, his following single was written by a young Billy Joe Shaver, then he went Top Ten with two Kris Kristofferson songs (“Come Sundown” and “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends”).
10. “A Week in a Country Jail,” Tom T. Hall. Local law enforcement officials worked with a great deal of latitude in the days before social media. During Tom T. Hall’s travels, he once found himself in Paintsville, Kentucky without his driver’s license. An overnight stay in jail was extended to a week, due to the judge’s grandmother passing away and the need to travel to a funeral. It’s not clear if Tom T. really flirted with the jailer’s bologna sandwich making wife during his week in the pokey, but at least he pulled a #1 country song away from the experience.
11. “What is Truth,” Johnny Cash. While Merle Haggard veered hard right as a reaction to anti-war voices, Johnny Cash went all what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding as he tried to cross the generation gap on the self-penned “What is Truth.” John’s defense of the long hairs resulted in a #3 country hit and crossed over to #19 on the pop charts. John once succinctly summed up his lyrical interests, “I love songs about horses, railroads, land, Judgment Day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother. And God.”