Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1974, Part I
Cheating, jealousy, sexual assault.
1. “$1,000 Wedding,” Gram Parsons. Gram Parsons had died from a drug overdose by the time his 1974 album “Grievous Angel” was released, eternally establishing himself as a tragic hero. Guitarist Herb Peterson description of the sessions, “He was not in any kind of shape to record with us. He was generally out of it for the most part.” Still, working with Emmylou Harris and Elvis veterans James Burton and Glen Hardin, “Grievous Angel” is viewed as a flawed masterpiece and one of the most important/influential albums in country rock history. The Parsons composition “$1,000 Wedding” is a cryptic number, perhaps about being stood up at the altar or about a funeral or both. Music critic David Menconi, “For all that the words leave unspoken, there’s no mistaking Parsons’ tone of stoic, bemused resignation. Duet partner Emmylou Harris blesses the proceedings with the perfect note of angelic sadness.”
2. “After the Fire (Is Gone),” Willie Nelson and Tracy Nelson. “After the Fire is Gone” is a cheating song about ex-lovers reconnecting due to a lack of passion on their respective home fronts. Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn took the song to #1 on the country charts and #56 on the pop charts in 1971. Tracy, no relation to Willie, was a raw boned, blues singer who had fronted the San Francisco band Mother Earth in the late 1960s. The full Nelson version went Top Twenty country and resulted in a Grammy nomination for Best Duo, based upon an ad hoc collaboration. The song may have been a bigger hit if Atlantic Nashville hadn’t gone out of business in September of ’74. “After the Fire (Is Gone)” songwriter L.E. White started performing as a fiddle player with bluegrass artists in the 1940s and was once a member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. He also penned the Conway Twitty 1968 #1 single “Be Proud of Your Man.”
3. “Angel from Montgomery, Bonnie Raitt. California native Bonnie Raitt, the daughter of Broadway musical star John Raitt, performed in Boston clubs in the late 1960s and started releasing emotionally charged, blues based music in 1971. John Prine recorded “Angel from Montgomery,” an account of an aging woman, seeking a way out of her desperate loneliness, in 1971. Bonnie Raitt, singing from the female perspective, gave the sadness and longing another layer of emotional depth. Raitt, “I think ‘Angel from Montgomery’ probably has meant more to my fans and my body of work than any other song, and it will historically be considered one of the most important ones I’ve ever recorded.” Raitt released two gold albums during the 1970s and, instead of fading into obscurity, surprisingly became a major pop star with 1989’s “Nick of Time” LP.
4. “Beautiful Texas Sunshine,” Doug Sahm. San Antonio native Doug Sahm was a musical mad scientist who took elements from garage rock, Tex Mex (conjunto/ norteño music), country, blues, R& B, you name it, to develop his own specialized, loose, freewheeling style of rock ‘n’ roll. The Sir Douglas Quintet, purposefully given a British sounding name by Houston producer Huey P. Meaux in 1964, scored Top 40 hits in the ‘60s with “She’s About a Mover,” “The Rains Came,” and “Mendocino.” Sahm left Texas during the late 1960s, due to the state’s strict enforcement of drug laws, but returned in the 1970s and always romanticized his home, even singing “You just can’t live in Texas if you don’t have a lot of soul” on his 1969 album track “At the Crossroads.” (A completely untrue statement, but a warm sentiment nonetheless). “Beautiful Texas Sunshine,” from Sahm’s 1974 “Groover’s Paradise,” sounds like peyote and beer and happiness. Of course, it also has a sweet groove.
5. “Bloody Mary Morning,” Willie Nelson. Here’s how insane the music industry was in the 1970s. Willie Nelson’s 1974 concept album “Phases and Stages” sold 400,000 copies – a figure that Atlantic Records found so insignificant that they shut down their country music division. A concept album about divorce, with one side given to each gender’s perspective, the biggest hit from the album was the #17 charting single “Bloody Mary Morning.” It’s a lyric about trying to balance relationships with the rigors of the entertainment industry and the extra complication of alcohol abuse. Actually, it’s a lyric not about attempting that balance, but failing to do so. Nelson signed to Columbia the following year and transformed from curiosity to superstar.
6. “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” Asleep at the Wheel. “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” represents a nice intersection between jump blues and Western swing. It was written by steel guitar player Vaughn Horton, who penned hits for Gene Autry, Ernest Tubb and Red Foley among others. Country radio performer Denver Darling, who specialized in WWII era patriotic numbers and record executive Milt Gaber also have writing credits on what originally was a #1 R&B hit for Louis Jordan in 1946. In fact, it spent eighteen weeks as a #1 R&B hit and crossed over to #7 on the pop charts. Leon McAuliff brought the song into the world of country music with his 1961 cover and Asleep at the Wheel reached the charts for the first time, albeit peaking at #69, with their 1973 version, a mixture of fiddle and steel and Dixie horns. A concert staple for Ray Benson’s outfit, a spirited take kicks off their 2007 “Kings of Western Swing” album.
7. “Drinkin’ Thing,” Gary Stewart. Gary Stewart, the 1970s king of honky tonk music, moved to Nashville in the mid-1960s, picked up a gig as Charley Pride’s piano player, and penned Top Ten country singles for Nat Stuckey and Billy Walker. His first hit the country charts with a rather lackluster cover of The Allman Brothers Band hit “Ramblin’ Man,” but his eccentric, vibrato-laden vocal style was made for heartache and drowning his sorrows in a bottle material. “Drinkin’ Thing,” featuring a big chorus hook and padded with background singers, fit the mold of contemporary country music at the time (always a challenge for Stewart), however, his soulful, pained voice made him a significant figure for country music traditionalists. Penned by Wayne Carson, who also wrote “The Letter” for The Box Tops and co-wrote “Always on My Mind.”
8. “The Grand Tour,” George Jones. During 1974, country music’s greatest voice may have been spreading himself thin – he released solo work, recorded with wife Tammy Wynette, and even completed a trio album with Tammy and his eight-year-old stepdaughter Tina Byrd. Still, this divorce heartbreaker is George at his best, serving as a home tour guide and detailing the emptiness where his wife and baby once were. Lyrically, it’s still 70’ s Nashville – we learn that his ex regularly brought him his paper and was good in the bedroom. Somebody, buy this man a drink.
9. “I Can Help,” Billy Swan. Cape Girardeau, Missouri native Billy Swan had his first success as a songwriter, penning “Lover Please,” a #7 pop hit for Clyde McPhatter in 1962. Before cutting his own albums, he produced Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie” and played bass for Kris Kristofferson. Mining the rockabilly vein of country music, Swan topped the country and pop charts in 1974 with the swaying groove, organ hooked “I Can Help,” which sounded like Ringo Starr being produced at Sun Records. Swan was so helpful, he even volunteered for baby daddy duty. Swan had seven more Top 40 country hits from 1975 to 1983 and continues to work as a background singer and session musician.
10. “I Just Started Hating Cheating Songs Today,” Moe Bandy. Moe Bandy spent a dozen years as a sheet metal worker/part time musician before heading to Nashville in 1973. His first three hit singles were penned by native Texans Sanger Shafer and A.L. “Doodle” Owens and Bandy never strayed far from a traditional sound and drinking and cheating lyrics. On the #17 country hit “I Just Started Hating Cheating Songs Today,” Bandy quotes hits from Barbara Mandrell, Sammi Smith, and Merle Haggard, throws his bottle at the jukebox, and discovers that his woman is the devil. Not a bad start for an artist’s first charting single.
11. “I Will Always Love You,” Dolly Parton. Most pop fans know “I Will Always Love You” as a Whitney Houston song, her version from the 1992 hit movie “The Bodyguard” spent an incredible fourteen weeks at #1 on the pop charts in late 1992 and early 1993 (Dolly quip, “I don’t care who gets the credit, as long as I get the cash”). Parton topped the country charts with “I Will Always Love You” twice, first in 1974 and then with a re-recorded 1982 version from the hit movie The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Dolly wrote this ode for her mentor Porter Waggoner and its long term popularity is easily understood – a sentiment of eternal appreciation, beautifully and directly expressed. Strange, but true – in 1968, Dolly wrote a spoof about a love affair with a Texas oilman, titled “I’ll Oil Wells Love You.”
12. “Honky Tonk Night Time Man,” Merle Haggard. An album cut from “Merle Haggard Presents His 30th Album,” “Honky Tonk Night Time Man” is a return to Haggard’s upbeat, Bakersfield via Bob Wills style of music. An upbeat shuffle tune, Merle shuns the light and tucks away his blues in the darkness. Roy Nichols burns up his Telecaster for the guitar turn. The song reached the Southern rock audience when Lynyrd Skynyrd released their version on their 1977 “Street Survivors” album. Gary Rossington, ““Ronnie’s favorite guy was Merle Haggard, and he just listened to that every day. I loved it. We still do, you know. I love Merle.”
13. “Jolene,” Dolly Parton. The inspiration for “Jolene” wasn’t an actual love triangle or personal jealousy, it came from a ten-year-old, autograph seeking fan. Dolly, “She had this beautiful red hair, this beautiful skin, these beautiful green eyes. I said, ‘Well, you’re the prettiest little thing I ever saw. So, what is your name?’ And she said, ‘Jolene.’ And I said, ‘Jolene. Jolene. Jolene. Jolene. That is pretty. That sounds like a song. I’m going to write a song about that.’” Lyrically, interesting since Parton has nothing but praise for a romantic rival and an unsolved mystery – there is no indication of Jolene’s interest or intentions when it comes to Dolly’s man.
14. “No Man’s Land,” Tanya Tucker. Nashville tool and die maker/songwriter Don Wayne (real name – Don William Choate) co-write Lefty Frizzell’s “Saginaw, Michigan,” as well as Cal Smith’s #1 singles “Country Bumpkin” and “It’s Time to Pay the Fiddler.” Wayne also penned this lurid soap opera/album track for Tucker, who was still too young for a driver’s license. In this story song, a young woman in raped, can never accept affection from another man, and becomes a nurse. Years later, the man who assaulted her needs medical attention. His story does not have a happy ending.