Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1971, Part I
Alligator bait, drunken murder, and Elvis Costello.
1. “Amos Moses,” Jerry Reed. After recording for almost a dozen years, Amos Moses had his first Top Ten hit in 1971 with “Amos Moses.” It was actually a Top Ten pop hit that stalled out at #16 on the country charts, which is somewhat not surprising since the alligator trapping tale was built around a pure funk guitar riff. Lyrically, it’s a tale of a child that was used as gator bait who grows up to be a one armed poacher. The local sheriff decides to arrest Amos Moses and is never seen again. As hot a guitar slinger as Nashville ever saw, Reed won the Country Music Association (CMA) Instrumentalist of the Year award in both 1970 and 1971. In addition to his regular country album releases, Reed released two instrumental albums with Chet Atkins in the early 1970s (the first was titled “Me & Jerry” and the second was titled “Me & Chet”).
2. “The Arms of a Fool,” Mel Tillis. “The Arms of a Fool” was penned by Texas native Ronald Elmer McCown, who sometimes recorded as Ronnie Mack (not to be confused with the pop songwriter Ronnie Mack who penned “He’s So Fine,” the country Ronnie Mack, by contrast, released “Rednecks Need Lovin’ Too”). It is said that McCown, who played piano for Mel Tellis and wrote several hits for the stuttering singer, weighed 400 pounds and drank whiskey endlessly. He was also taken into custody in 1983 for allegedly murdering his wife (bet you didn’t see that fact coming). He seems to have avoided a prison sentence, spending his later years as a penniless, roaming Texas sideman. “The Arms of a Fool” has a shuffle groove that Tillis never replicated again throughout his career. Tillis scored over thirty Top Ten singles from 1968 to 1984, with his most popular hit being the 1979 #1 single “Coca-Cola Cowboy.” His daughter, Pam Tillis, became a successful recording artist during the 1990s.
3. “California Cottonfields,” Merle Haggard. The 1971 Merle Haggard album “Someday We’ll Look Back” reflects the difference between what was often popular material for Haggard, versus what was his best received critical work. The title track, a rather generic look at overcoming difficult times, and the pop ballad “Carolyn” were the major hits from the album. From a songwriter’s perspective, the World War II era farm laboring plaint “Tulare Dust” and the Dallas Frazier/Earl Montgomery penned “California Cottonfields” are the best remembered songs. “California Cottonfields” is another World War II era Oklahoma to The Golden State labor camps tale. The biggest compliment that you can give the song – it’s well written enough that you could easily mistake it for a Haggard original.
4. “Coat of Many Colors,” Dolly Parton. Parton, “People often ask me, of all of the thousands of songs I’ve written in my lifetime, if I have a favorite. I do have a personal favorite and it is ‘Coat of Many Colors.’ To me, it’s more than a song. It’s an attitude. It’s a philosophy. It speaks about family. It’s anti-bullying . It just covers so many things. The song means so much to me personally because it is a true story from my childhood, about a little ragged coat that Mama made for me, and tried to make me feel proud of it by telling (me) the story of Joseph from the Bible. It kind of takes me back in time.” Dolly wrote the lyrics to this poverty and pride number in 1969, on the back of a Porter Wagoner dry cleaning receipt.
5. “A Good Year for the Roses,” George Jones. Anger, disappointment, disillusionment, denial. George Jones goes through an entire cycle of grief on the countrypolitan divorce number “A Good Year for the Roses,” and reminds us that he’s the genre’s most gifted vocalist in the process. Songwriter Jerry Chesnut’s inspiration was purely practical, Chesnut had a bad experience trying to grow Hybrid Teas Roses. Chesnut pondered, “What if it’d been a good year for roses, but everything else was going to pot? If the man’s wife was leaving, the baby’s crying, and the dog’s died? The whole world’s going to pot, but the roses are just blooming like crazy. I just started writing the song like that.” Chesnut on the 1981 Elvis Costello version, “I started getting telegrams: ‘Congratulations on the Elvis Costello record.’ I had no idea who it was. The first check we got in was $60,000, just for airplay in the British Isles. I said, ‘What is this guy?’ They said, ‘He’s punk rock.’ I said, ‘Maybe that’s the direction I want to go in.’”
6. “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” Sammi Smith. Sammi Smith was born in California, but grew up in Texas and Oklahoma. She dropped out of school at the age of eleven, started performing in nightclubs at the age of twelve, and was married at the age of fifteen. She moved to Nashville in 1967, but didn’t have any significant success until she recorded Kris Kristofferson’s seduction number “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Kristofferson was inspired to write the song from a Frank Sinatra response to what he believed in, “Booze, broads, or a bible…whatever helps me make it through the night.” Although considered risqué for its time, Smith’s signature song was a #1 country/#8 pop hit. Smith continued to hit the country charts through 1986, but only had two other Top Ten releases. Smith passed away in 2005 at the age of 61. She is the only person in recorded history to have named a child Zenithapollostar.
7. “Kentucky, February 27, 1971,” Tom T. Hall. Tom T. Hall would often take “song hunting” trips, where he would travel through rural Kentucky, taking notes and looking for inspiration. “Kentucky, February 27 1971” is an album track that is a result of his research. Tom visits a rural old-timer to ask why the younger generation is leaving the farm land. Responses include the search for adventure and the quest for an easier lifestyle. He mistakenly concludes that he didn’t have any stories that Tom could turn into a song. Another album track to seek out from the “In Search of a Song” is “The Little Lady Preacher,” about a well-developed female preacher and her sinful guitar player. After they left town together, Tom ponders who converted whom.
8. “Kiss An Angel Good Mornin’,” Charley Pride. Songwriter Ben Peters was raised in Mississippi cotton country and moved to Nashville after leaving the Navy. He penned country hits for over twenty years to include Freddy Fender’s “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” Kenny Rogers’ “Daytime Friends,” and “Kiss An Angel Good Mornin’,” Charley Pride’s biggest hit. This simple kiss her like an angel/lover her like a devil look at happiness went #1 country and crossed over to #21 on the pop charts. At this point, Pride was straddling the fence between honky tonk and countrypolitan. He would soon fall off of that fence.
9. “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again),” Kris Kristofferson. Kris Kristofferson was one of Nashville’s hottest commodities as a songwriter in the early 1970s, but he didn’t have his first charting single until 1971’s “Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again”). Kristofferson hit #26 on the pop charts with this love song, but it didn’t hit the country charts – producer Jerry Fuller used adult contemporary production values to offset the singer’s limited vocal range. Roger Miller, who had recorded Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” in 1969, had a minor country hit with “Loving Her” in 1971, however, Tompall & the Glaser Brothers had the most success with the song, taking it to #2 in 1981. One of the most popular versions is Waylon Jennings’ 1971 album track. Waylon also went to #5 in 1970 with the Kristofferson/Shel Silverstein love ‘em and leave ‘em song “The Taker.”
10. “Man in Black,” Johnny Cash. While it may seem that John R. Cash had “The Name in Black’ as part of his birth certificate, that nickname wasn’t popularized until he released this 1971 protest song. In the lyrics, Cash professes that he will always wear black, as a reminder and support to those who live in poverty and are disenfranchised. He also didn’t blink when it came to the Vietnam War (“I wear the black in mournin’ for the lives that could have been/Each week we lose a hundred fine young men”). Cash stated that he was inspired to write “Man in Black” after speaking to students at Vanderbilt University. His followup single to this #3 hit was “Singin’ in Vietnam Talking Blues.”