Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1971, Part II
Gary U.S. Bonds, The Replacements, and the beginning of the 1970’s outlaw country movement.
1. “Me and Bobby McGee,” Janis Joplin. Fred Foster gave Kris Kristofferson the title for his best known composition, inspired by songwriter Boudleaux Bryant’s secretary who was named Bobby Mckee. Kristofferson, recalling his conversation with Foster, “The hook is that Bobby McKee is a she. How does that grab you?” Kristofferson was lyrically inspired by an onscreen relationship in the Fellini film “La Strada.” He later recalled that the lead character, “Was free when he left the girl, but it destroyed him. That’s where the line ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose’ came from.” “Me and Bobby McGee” was a #12 country hit for Roger Miller in 1969 and had been recorded by nine different artists before Joplin released her version. Joplin and Kristofferson had a brief affair before her death and Kristofferson didn’t her posthumous #1 pop hit until the day after she died. Kristofferson, “It just tore me up. I can just see her saying, ‘Wait till that motherf**ker sees this. Wait till he hears how you’re supposed to sing it.”
2. “Me and Paul,” Willie Nelson. Paul English, Willie Nelson’s long-time drummer, wasn’t hired for his musical acumen. English was a master of intimidation, having cut his teeth in the notorious mafia club’s on Fort Worth’s Jacksboro Highway, and his main job was to ensure his boss was properly paid after a show. He always carried a weapon and, perhaps in a moment of understatement, once reflected, “I wasn’t a really nice person when it came to collecting.” While there had been outlaw themes in country music from Jimmie Rodgers murder fantasies to the Western swing era “Cocaine Blues” and Johnny Cash’s prisoner empathy persona, this song about drug busts, whiskey abuse, and life on the road is the true starting point of the 1970’s “outlaw country” movement. Originally released on the 1971 Willie Nelson album “Yesterday’s Wine,” “Me and Paul” became a 1985 album title track and a #14 country single.
3. “The Only Time I’m Really Me,” Tammy Wynette. Wynette was a still a major star in the 1970s, scoring ten #1 singles from 1970 to 1976 as a solo artist (and three more with George Jones), although those recordings aren’t as well-known as her 1960’s classics. On this self-penned album track, Wynette catalogues the various roles in her life – wife, mother, daughter housekeeper, bill payer. However, she’s only truly herself once a day. In her dreams. Wynette wasn’t a songwriter in the same league as Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton, but that aspect of her talent is truly underappreciated.
4. “Paradise,” John Prine. There aren’t many singer/songwriter albums from the 1970s, or any other era for that matter, that compare favorably to John Prine’s eponymous 1971 debut release. He was writing with a maturity well beyond his years about aging, the personal impacts of war, and the changing American landscape. Prine on perhaps is best known and most recorded song, “I wrote it for my father mainly so he would know I was a songwriter. Paradise was a real place in Kentucky, and while I was in the army in Germany, my father sent me a newspaper article telling me how the coal company had bought the place out. It was a real Disney-looking town. It sat on the river, had two general stores, and there was one black man in town, Bubby Short. He looked like Uncle Remus and hung out with my Granddaddy Ham, my mom’s dad, all day fishing for catfish. Then the bulldozers came in and wiped it all off the map. When I recorded the song, I brought a tape of the record home to my dad; I had to borrow a reel-to-reel machine to play it for him. When the song came on, he went into the next room and sat in the dark while it was on. I asked him why, and he said he wanted to pretend it was on the jukebox.”
5. “Pretty House for Sale,” Charley Pride. Mississippi recording artist Harold Dorman is known in the world of pop music for his 1960 #7 R&B/#20 pop hit “Mountain of Love,” a song that was later a bigger hit for Jimmy Rivers and one that the Replacements would nick for their 1985 album track “Waitress in the Sky.” Dorman also wrote country material for Moon Mullican and Charley Pride, including this 1971 album tracked penned with George Gann (that duo also wrote Pride’s 1974 #3 single “Mississippi Cotton Pickin’ Delta Town”). On this 1971 album track, Pride details all the amenities of his home (custom drapes, a fireplace, a wet bar, good neighbors), that he no longer wants. He can no longer bear to live there, after his wife left town with a stranger.
6. “She’s All I Got,” Johnny Paycheck. Johnny Paycheck’s first Top Five single came from songwriters you wouldn’t expect to see on the country charts. Originally a minor pop hit for R&B singer Freddie North, “She’s All I Got” was written by Gary U.S. Bonds of “Quarter to Three” fame and R&B singer/producer Jerry Williams, Jr., better known as Swamp Dogg. Williams on having a country hit, “Black music didn’t start ’til 10 at night until 4 in the morning and I was in bed by then. If you strip my tracks, take away all the horns and guitar licks, what you have is a country song.” This inverted “Jolene” lyric was a #2 hit for Paycheck and Tracy Byrd took it to #4 in 1997.
7. “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” Jerry Reed. Jerry Reed was riding a…um…hot streak in 1971, as “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” followed “Amos Moses” into the Top Ten as a pop hit and became his first #1 country single, topping the charts for five weeks. Much more of a pop song in style than country, Reed once described how his Georgia roots influenced his music, “I loved R&B and rock ‘n’ roll and country and gospel. And in Atlanta, when you played dances, you had to play it all. It just evolved into the way I played my guitar.” In this tall tale, Reed gets busted for gambling, tries to bribe the judge, and ends up in prison, transitioning from hot to not in two minutes and nineteen seconds and creating a pop culture catchphrase in the process.
8. “Willin’,” Little Feat. Lowell George was a member of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention who was fired after writing “Willin’” either because (a) Zappa thought he was too talented to be a sideman or (b) due to a lengthy self-aggrandizing guitar solo performed live with an amp turned off or (c) because this song is about dope. On this song, an outlaw trucker dreams about his woman Dallas Alice while accepting weed, whites, and wine for payment. “Willin’” found a bigger audience when recorded by Linda Ronstadt on her 1974 smash album “Heart Like a Wheel.” Lowell George is also remembered for his 1973 barfly number “Dixie Chicken,” which later inspired a Texas female group to name their band the Dixie Chicks.
9. “The Year Clayton Delaney Died,” Tom T. Hall. Clayton Delaney was a pseudonym for Olive Hill, Kentucky booze hound/blues picker Lonnie Easterly, who lived on Clayton Hill and had neighbors named Delaney. It’s been said the Lonnie was a musical mentor for a young Tom T. Hall, but that could be as much legend as f act. Lynyrd Skynyrd would later write a similar tale of a musical/spiritual mentor with “Curtis Loew.” Hall’s tale of loss, sadness, music, alcohol, and redemption became a #1 single and his signature song.
10. “You’re Lookin’ at Country,” Loretta Lynn. The online music site Stereogum once stated that “You’re Lookin’ at Country” was Loretta Lynn’s best song as it “arguably evolved into an anthem for artists who continue to carry the torch for traditional country music.” Not sure how strong that case is, but “You’re Lookin’ at Country” is another defining moment in terms of Loretta’s persona and her relationship with her audience. The #5 country hit probably took on more meaning during the next few years as performers such as John Denver, Olivia Newton-John, and Gordon Lightfoot started crossing over to the country charts. Ain’t nobody ever been more country than Loretta.