Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1976, Part I
Manfred Mann, Stryper, Jimmy Lee Swaggert.
- “Blackbird (Hold Your Head High),” Stoney Edwards. Oklahoma native/African American singer Stoney Edwards hit #20 on the country charts on two occasions, first in 1973 with the Gene Dobbins composition “She’s My Rock,” later a bigger hit for George Jones and a gender switching Brenda Lee, and in 1975 with Jesse Winchester’s “Mississippi, You’re on My Mind.” His 1976 album “Blackbird” was his last major label release and the title track raised a few eyebrows on its way to #41 on the country charts. Written by Chip Taylor (“Wild Thing,” “Angel of the Morning”), “Blackbird (Hold Your Head High)” was a song of racial pride, despite the lyric “just a couple of country ni**ers, stealing the rodeo.” Edwards released a few albums on independent labels after leaving Capital; 1980’s “No Way to Drown a Memory” peaked at #53 but sounds like it should have been a much bigger hit. After suffering from diabetes and stomach cancer’s, country music’s forgotten pioneer passed away in 1997.
- “Carolina in My Mind,” James Taylor. Originally released on James Taylor’s 1968 debut album, “Carolina in My Mind” was covered by George Hamilton IV (for a #29 country hit), The Everly Brothers, Melanie, and John Denver in the late ‘60s/ early ‘70s. Taylor recorded a new version for his 1976 “Greatest Hits” album, which outpaced the original in popularity. Taylor, later reflecting on his Carolina upbringing, “Chapel Hill, the piedmont, the outlying hills, were tranquil, rural, beautiful, but quiet. Thinking of the red soil, the seasons, the way things smelled down there, I feel as though my experience of coming of age there was more a matter of landscape and climate than people.” Other notable appearances by Taylor on the country charts – Elvis took “Steamroller Blues” to #31 in 1973, Willie Nelson hit #29 with “Fire and Rain” in 1976, and George Jones hit the Top Ten with “Bartender’s Blues” in 1978.
- “Convoy,” C.W. McCall. “The Streak” by Ray Stevens was the pop culture fad turned novelty record #1 pop hit of 1974 and “Convoy” by C.W. McCall (a.k.a., Bill Fries) filled that slot in late 1975/ early 1976. Interestingly, both had spoken word verses and a sung chorus (some historians now cite “Convoy” as an early example of “country rap”). “Convoy” was about the CB (citizens band) radio craze, a communications device heavily used by truck drivers in the early 1970s to keep the brotherhood informed on the whereabouts of police after highway speed limits were lowered. The song, written by Nebraska ad man Bill Fries, revels in the use of trucker colloquialisms and the “handles” (radio names) used by the drivers. After “Convoy” became a hit, it seemed that CB radios became a mandatory auto accessory for every middle-aged driver in America.
- “Did You Ever,” George Jones and Tammy Wynette. A track from the 1976 #1 country album “Golden Ring,” “Did You Ever” is an ever clever Bobby Braddock number about a couple communicating in unfinished sentences, with insinuations about sexual activity and alcohol. (Country music journalist Joan Dew once told a colleague that sex “was very, very important to Tammy” and that George was “a little fuddy-duddy”). The performance sounds like a series of knowing winks from a couple who knows how each other is wired and has managed to find humor in their respective vices.
- “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time,” Mickey Gilley. While cousins Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Lee Swaggert publicly raged between rapacious sin and mass market salvation, Mickey Gilley choose a much quieter path. After performing for years in Houston area clubs, he opened Gilley’s honky tonk in the early 1970’s, a venue that was later synonymous with the “Urban Cowboy” film/culture. Gilley had been pumping piano and recording for over fifteen years when he became a major country star in 1974; his cover of the 1949 George Morgan hit “Room Full of Roses” was the first of four successive #1 singles. Baker Knight, who wrote Ricky Nelson’s “Lonesome Town” and the Elvis hit “The Wonder of You,” penned the Jerry Lee imitation/#1 country single “Don’t the Girls All Get Pretty at Closing Time.” A well meaning tribute that leaves you wondering how much sanity is overrated.
- “Drinking My Baby (Off My Mind),” Eddie Rabbitt. We first bumped into Eddie Rabbitt as the co-writer of the 1970 Elvis hit “Kentucky Rain.” Rabbitt started charting as a country artist in 1974, either as the sole writer of his material or partnering with the oddly named Even Stevens. (According to Stevens, he wrote over 900 songs with Rabbitt; he also penned Dr. Hook’s “When You’re in Love with a Beautiful Woman” and Kenny Rogers’ “Love Will Turn You Around.”) “Drinking My Baby (Off My Mind)” was Rabbitt’s first #1 country single – a tale of a cheater’s regrets. Perhaps inspired by the popularity of Narvel Felts’ 1975 hit “Reconsider Me,” Rabbitt tosses in some falsetto high notes on the title hook. Like the previous entry, another number that sounds like a broken stallion version of Jerry Lee.
- “Faster Horses (The Cowboy and The Poet),” Tom T. Hall. Although the marketplace didn’t notice, the quality of Tom T. Hall’s material dropped off dramatically in the mid-1970s, even though the paint by numbers “Country Is” went to #1, the novelty number “I Like Beer” hit the Top Five, and the #1 hit/baby duck filled “I Love” was one of the most noxious tunes of the decade. Tommy got his groove back, dig that disco intro, on the cowboy philosopher tale “Faster Horses.” The head scratching arrangement features banjo playing in the versus and R&B horns in the chorus. It’s too bad that this didn’t get him booked on “Soul Train.”
- “Fox on the Run,” Tom T. Hall. When you think of a mid-‘70s hit titled “Fox on the Run,” your mind might immediately jump to the international pop hit by U.K. glam rockers Sweet. However, that title was first used on a 1968 single by Manfred Mann, written by British songwriter Tony Hazzard, that peaked at #5 on the U.K. pop charts and was a #1 hit in New Zealand. Manfred Mann’s original take on this self-pitying tale about a manipulative woman had a folk inspired arrangement and was brought into the world of American bluegrass by the duo of (Bill) Emerson & (Cliff) Waldron in 1970. Tom T. Hall returned to his Kentucky roots, recording the song in an uptempo bluegrass style, for a #9 country hit.
- “Golden Ring,” George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Although considered the pinnacle of country music royalty, George Jones and Tammy Wynette only had three #1 country singles – 1973’s “We’re Gonna Hold On,” “Golden Ring,” and 1977’s “Near You.” On this Bobby Braddock composition, a wedding ring is tracked from a pawn shop to a wedding through the breakup and back to the pawn shop. George and Tammy’s own six year marriage had already dissolved by the time they started picking up the royalty checks from this hit.
- “Good Hearted Woman,” Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. During a poker game at a Fort Worth hotel in 1969, Waylon Jennings relayed his idea for a song to Willie Nelson. Jennings, “I’d been reading an ad for Ike and Tina Turner and it said, ‘Tina Turner singing songs about good-hearted women loving good-timing men.’ I thought, ‘What a great country song title that is!’” The two future superstars didn’t interrupt their card playing to complete the song, they tossed out lyrics that were written down by Nelson’s then wife Connie Koepke. Waylon recorded “Good Hearted Woman” as the title track for a 1972 album and his version went to #3 on the country charts and – how’s this for irony? – Tina Turner covered the song in 1973. Waylon and Willie’s 1976 faux live recording was a #1 country hit.
- “Hank Williams, You Wrote My Life,” Moe Bandy. Memphis native Paul Craft served in the Coast Guard as a young man and toured as a member of Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys. He became a successful songwriter in the early 1970s, writing this Moe Bandy hit, as well as “Keep Me from Blowing Away” on Linda Ronstadt’s “Heart Like a Wheel” album. Craft is also responsible for the righteous uprights of Bobby Bare’s “Dropkick Me, Jesus” (through the goalposts of life). “Hank Williams, You Wrote My Life” was Bandy’s biggest hit to date, peaking at #2. Bandy namechecks some of Hank’s biggest hits as he revels in secondhand heartbreak. Bandy’s traditionalism was a breath of fresh air during the John Denver era of country music.
- “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You,” Jim Ed Brown and Helen Cornelius. Jim Ed Brown and Helen Cornelius started performing as a duo in 1976 and their first hit was their biggest, the doo wop ballad meets country sin number “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You,” a #1 country hit. The song was written by Fred Imus, the brother of radio shock jock Don Imus, and Phil Sweet, the father of Michael Sweet – the frontman for the Christian “metal” act Stryper. Jim Ed Brown and Helen Cornelius hit the Top Ten on six more occasions from 1976 to 1980 with their MOR version of country music. If you haven’t suffered enough today, check out their version of “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.”