Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1977, Part II
Ramblin’, rollin’, and packing condoms.
1. “Moody Blue,” Elvis Presley. During the mid-1970s, Elvis became a bigger star on the country charts than he was on pop radio, perhaps reflecting the demographic evolution of his original audience. Elvis was no longer interested in venturing out to recording studios in 1976, so MCA brought the recording studio to Elvis and he recorded in his Graceland home. One of the songs recorded during “The Jungle Room Sessions” was “Moody Blue,” written by “Always on My Mind” co-songwriter Mark James. While the song has somewhat of a Neil Diamond goes to Vegas quality, it shows that Elvis continued to do quality work, no matter what was happening in his personal life. A #31 pop hit and a #1 country hit. Elvis made his first attempt to perform the song live in Charlotte in February of 1977, then revealed to the audience that he had completely forgotten the lyrics.
2. “Ramblin’ Fever,” Merle Haggard. After a dozen years on Capitol Records, Haggard moved to MCA in 1977. The move wasn’t due to any artistic dissatisfaction, he simply negotiated a better business deal. “Ramblin’ Fever,” the title track to his first MCA album, was a #2 Southern rock influenced single about the “disease” of those who always need the road. Given that Haggard continued to perform until he physically no longer could, the lyrics seemed a perfect fit to the lifestyle of the song and dance man who didn’t like to be pinned down. That also may be why he had five wives.
3. “Rollin’ with the Flow,” Charlie Rich. Charlie Rich had his last #1 country single as a solo artist with “Rollin’ with the Flow,” an adult contemporary number about an unrepentant hell raiser who knows that Jesus loves him. The melody is a direct lift from Danny O’Keefe’s “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues. It was written by Springdale, Arkansas native Jerry Hayes, who also wrote Charly McClain’s 1981 #1 country single “Who’s Cheatin’ Who.” Rich had his last #1 hit with 1978’s “On My Knees,” a duet version (with Janie Fricke) of a song that Rich originally recorded in 1960.
4. “She Never Spoke Spanish to Me,” Joe Ely. After The Flatlanders failed to launch, Joe Ely released his eponymous debut album in 1977, a mixture of country and rock that would later be described as Americana music. On the Butch Hancock written “She Never Spoke Spanish to Me,” Ely finds infatuation south of the border and brags about his undercover ammo. Ely recorded the Butch Hancock sequel in 1995, “She Finally Spoke Spanish to Me,” in which his love interest verbalized “adios.” Ely included three other winning Hancock originals on his debut album – “Suckin’ a Big Bottle of Gin,” “Tennessee’s No the State I’m In,” and frequent Ely concert love song “If You Were a Bluebird.”
5. “Some Broken Hearts Never Mend,” Don Williams. Don Williams grew up on the Texas Gulf Coast and had his first success as a member of the Pezo-Seco Singers, a folk trio who scored two minor Top 40 hits in 1966 and 1967. Williams became a major star in country music during the 1970s, despite often singing at a tempo that made a paraplegic snail look like a hummingbird. “Some Broken Hearts Never Mend” was the seventh of Williams’ ten #1 singles during the decade. Written by Arkansas native/marketing major Waylon Holyfield, Williams can’t even enjoy a late night booty call without thinking of the one that got away. The Bellamy Brothers covered “Some Broken Hearts Never Mind” in 1989 using a country reggae (that’s not a typo) arrangement.
6. “Southern Nights,” Glen Campbell. New Orleans music legend Allen Toussaint wrote and recorded “Southern Nights” as the title track to a 1975 album, the lyrics spurred by memories of visiting relatives in rural Louisiana. Songwriter Jimmy Webb brought the song to Glen Campbell’s attention, thinking that a slightly more uptempo reading could be a major hit. Toussaint, “That song was a total inspiration. It felt like a soft clear white flower settled above my head and caressed me. I really felt highly, highly inspired and very spiritual doing that song. It’s the only one I felt that much about. Some others have been inspired highly, but not as high as that one.” Campbell would continue to have intermittent success on the country charts, but this was his last significant pop record.
7. “Ten Years of This,” Gary Stewart. Stewart teamed up with Wayne Carson (“The Letter,” “Always on My Mind”) to write “Ten Years of This,” a #16 country hit that describes a miserable marriage with the narrator being the victim of a cheating woman. In real life, Stewart married at the age of seventeen to a woman who “would happily show you her boob job and often boasted of packing Gary’s rubbers for the road” in the words of Jimmy McDonough. Mary Lou Stewart died in late November of 2003. Gary committed suicide less than a month later.
8. “When My Last Song Is Sung,” Merle Haggard. After signing with MCA, Capitol Records put out the “A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere” album, a record filled with unreleased tracks that critics thought was better than Haggard’s commercial releases of that era. The opening/title track is a complaint from a working man who finds that economic realities are stacked against him. “I’m a White Boy,” the final track, flirts a little too much with being a KKK anthem. “When My Last Song is Sung” is an album track about finding peace in one’s life work and in eternity’s potential. Merle was way ahead of the curve in mixing racism and Jesus.
9. “White Freight Liner Blues,” Townes Van Zandt. Townes Van Zandt performed for five straight nights at a Houston club in 1973 and a compilation of four track recordings from those shows was released as the double album “Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas” in 1977. “White Freightliner Blues” is a romantic look at the highways, both as a means of escape and as a way to get home. It’s been covered countless times by Texas, Americana, and bluegrass acts – similar to the open road, this is a tune that a good band can take anywhere they want to go.
10. “Y’all Come Back Saloon,” The Oak Ridge Boys. The origins of The Oak Ridge Boys go back to a Knoxville, Tennessee gospel band that formed in the 1940s and they didn’t complete the transition from gospel to country until 1977’s “Ya’ll Come Back Saloon” album. The title track was the band’s breakthrough country hit, a description of a tambourine playing bar singer performing “Faded Love” nightly for a broken spirited cowboy. Songwriter Sharon Vaughn had a long career in Nashville, then moved to Stockholm where she has written a string of hits for young European and Japanese artists. One would not readily associate the pop dance track “Top Secret” by the South Korean girl group Girls’ Generation with the writer of Willie Nelson’s “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.”