Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1974, Part 2
Jeff Bridges, Dusty Springfield, Mr. Lovemaker.
1. “Old Man from the Mountain,” Merle Haggard. An upbeat hillbilly number about an “uptight and tense” man who is coming home to lay claim to his woman, who had been fooling around with that lady stealing Joe the Grinder. The term Joe the Grinder wasn’t new a -a New Orleans R&B band named The Hawks, obviously not Robbie Robertson’s group, recorded a raunchy sex song titled “Joe the Grinder” in 1954. Perhaps in some type of tribute, Merle included a touch of Dixieland jazz in “Old Man from the Mountain.” This single was the fourth of nine consecutive #1 releases for Haggard from 1973 to 1976.
2. “The Older the Violin, The Sweeter the Music,” Hank Thompson. Traditional Western swing music certainly wasn’t in vogue in 1974 and Hank Thompson, who had first charted in 1948, was at the end of his commercial viability. He still went Top Ten with this Curly Putnam composition, where Thompson takes pride in his specks of gray and proclaims that he can still play a symphony of love. Hank gets high marks for endurance, he had his last Top 40 hit, “Tony’s Tank Up, Drive-In Café,” in 1980 and continued to tour through the mid-2000s. For at least the last few decades of his career, he performed with local pickup bands. That cost cutting measure inspired Thomas Cobb to write the 1987 novel “Crazy Heart,” which was turned into a major motion picture, and a good one, starring Jeff Bridges in 2009.
3. “Once You’ve Had the Best,” George Jones. My favorite new fact of the week is that Johnny Paycheck, who wrote “Once You’ve Had the Best,” originally included the song on a 1973 album titled “Mr. Lovemaker.” Johnny Paycheck = “Mr. Lovemaker.” Wow. Of course, Paycheck played bass for Jones in the late 1960s and was probably delighted to see his former boss take “Once You’ve Had the Best” to #3 on the country charts. The song became a concert staple for Jones and the two hard living country stars teamed up in 1980 to release the “Double Trouble” album. That poorly received effort kicks off with the thematic “When You’re Ugly Like Us (You Just Naturally Got to Be Cool).” Here’s a summary review from Stephen Thomas Erlewine, “The pair sound as if they were on one of their notorious drinking and drugging binges, making jokes with each other throughout every song (except the closing “You Better Move On”) and singing without regard for key.”
4. “Playboy Theme,” Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. In December of 1973, Bob Wills turned back the clock, reuniting some of the most famous musicians from the history of the Texas Playboys and adding Merle Haggard to the mix, for the recording sessions that resulted in the 1974 “For the Last Time” album. It was the first time for the Texas “Playboy Theme” to be officially released, an introductory tune that was originally performed by The Light Crust Doughboys in the early 1930s. After the first night of recording, an exhausted Wills briefly met Ray Benson for the first and only time, then suffered a major stroke. Wills spent the rest of his life in a nursing home and is buried under an unassuming headstone in his beloved Tulsa, Oklahoma. His existence was dedicated to a pursuit that was both extremely simple and deeply profound – he made people dance.
5. “Promised Land,” Elvis Presley. Chuck Berry placed his trademark guitar riffs and Americana wit on the country standard “Wabash Cannonball” to write “Promised Land” in 1964. It’s often been written, and sometimes disputed, that Chuck Berry wrote this travelogue while in prison, borrowing an atlas from a prison guard to get his geography right. On one hand, this is just a catchy rocker with Elvis paying tribute to one of his trailblazing colleagues. However, from an irony perspective, The King of Rock and Roll was a poor boy who made it to the promised land and seemed to find little personal happiness at the destination.
6. “Return of the Grievous Angel,” Gram Parsons. “The Return of the Grievous Angel” was based on a poem written by Parson fan Thomas Brown and aptly sums up the romantic mythos of the wandering balladeer, where all roads lead back to the arms of a good woman. Parsons has a mixed legacy in country music, his actual contributions to country rock are probably not as significant as his influence in opening up the genre’s possibilities to fellow musicians and fans. In one of music’s more bizarre stories, Parsons’ manager Phil Kaufman, in executing an agreement between the two men, was able to take custody of Parsons’ lifeless body at Los Angeles International Airport and turned his friend into ashes in California’s Joshua Tree National Park.
7. “Silver Threads and Golden Needles,” Linda Ronstadt. This tale about a poor woman who marries a philandering wealthy man was originally recorded by rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Wanda Jackson in 1956, at a rather moderate tempo, and was a pop hit for The Springfields, Dusty Springfield’s UK family based trio, in 1962. Linda Ronstadt recorded the song twice, in 1969 and in 1973. Linda Ronstadt quickened the pace on her first country Top 40 single, peaking at #20. Although known as a pop star, her use of a fiddle break and steel guitar was more traditional than most country hits of the era. Also, that girl could sing.
8. “(We’re Not) The Jet Set,” George Jones and Tammy Wynette. One of the pet themes of country music for decades has been the superiority of rural ways over city life. That theme has seldom been expressed with more apt humor than on “( We’re Not) The Jet Set,” where George and Tammy contrast draft beer and weenies with steak and martinis. Conclusion: love is more important than money. “(We’re Not) The Jet Set” was covered, with love, by John Prine and Iris DeMent in 1991.
9. “Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott,” The Statler Brothers. Natural born nostalgia peddlers The Statler Brothers namechecked long time Western movie star Randolph Scott for this 1974 #22 single – a song that was a much bigger hit in my memory than it was in reality. Penned by brothers Don and Harold Reid, The Statler Brothers bemoaned the popularity of sexually themed movies while saluting Tex Ritter and Walt Disney. The group charted over thirty Top Ten singles from 1965 to 1989 and won the CMA Vocal Group of the Year nine times between 1972 and 1984. Still, their innate reactionary tendencies always made them seem like an act that pined for a world that didn’t know who Rosa Parks was.