Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1978, Part I
Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, and Russian roulette.
1. ‘All of Me,” Willie Nelson. After years of struggling for success and developing a niche as a leader in the outlaw country movement, Willie Nelson decided to record an album of pop standards. Columbia Records considered the idea a commercial misstep, but the 1978 “Stardust” album eventually sold over five million copies and was selected for the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2015. It’s been estimated that “All of Me,” written by Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons in 1931, has been recorded approximately 2,000 times. Louis Armstrong had the first major hit with this ode to co-dependency in 1932 and Nelson kept the jazz swing feel on his #3 country hit. By contrast, check out Eric Clapton’s 2013 cover version, where he plods with a hand that’s beyond slow.
2. “Blue Skies,” Willie Nelson. Russian born, New York City raised Jewish composer Irving Berlin is an iconic American songwriter, his credits include “God Bless America,” Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Easter Parade,” “You Can’t Get a Man With A Gun,” etc., etc., etc. “Blue Skies” was written by Irving Berlin in 1926 and was an immediate success on radio (performed by big band leader Ben Selvin), in the theater (as a piece in the Rodgers and Hart play “Betsy”), and on film (camped up by Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer”). A frequent pop hit, Moon Mullican translated the sunny number into country music in 1939 and it was also released by Jim Reeves in 1962. While the original versions have a trite novelty feel, Nelson gives a straightforward reading, painting a more melancholy picture than the lyrics would suggest. The result – Irving Berlin, who lived to the age of 101 and passed away in 1989, wrote country music’s biggest hit in 1978.
3. “Boxcars,” Joe Ely. Joe Ely’s 1978 album “Honky Tonk Masquerade” is the best representation of his specialized Americana by way of Lubbock rock ‘n’ roll, incorporating elements of Buddy Holly, intro-spective Texas songwriting, and conjunto tejano sounds. His eclecticism never subsumed his knowledge that passion and song quality are more important than instrumentation. On the album’s title track, he comes to grips with a deception induced heartbreak. On “Boxcars,” penned by his Flatlanders buddy Butch Hancock, the rhythm of the railroad tracks salve his wounded soul.
4. “Comes a Time,” Neil Young. Neil Young’s 1978 “Comes a Time” album was a return to simple folk songs with a sound similar to his 1972 album “Harvest,” his most commercially successful outing. The title track is a phases of life song about aging and settling down that featured Nicolette Larson on background harmony. Neil wasn’t pleased with the album, resulting in a most unusual construction effort. Our unpredictable hero bought 200,000 copies of the record and used the vinyl as barn shingles. Despite his folk sound, Neil never had significant crossover country success. Linda Ronstadt’s cover of “Love Is a Rose” peaked at #5 in 1975 and Neil had a minor twang hit with 1985’s “Get Back to the Country,” which sound a lot more like “Hee-Haw” than Hank Williams.
5. “The Gambler,” Kenny Rogers. It took Kenny Rogers a few years to find success after The First Edition was discontinued, but starting with 1977’s “Lucille,” he became a country superstar, a crossover pop star, a sex symbol, a movie star, photographer, and a guy who slapped his name on a chicken franchise. Former Vanderbilt University computer operator Don Schlitz wrote “The Gambler” in 1976 and it was released by Bobby Bare, songwriter Schlitz, and Johnny Cash before it became a know when to hold ‘m/fold ‘em #1 country single for Rogers, who described it as his favorite hit three decades later. This mystery/story song resonated with the public so strongly that Rogers starred as “The Gambler” in a series of made for television movies during the 1980s. During his career, Rogers as either a solo artist or in collaborations had over twenty #1 country singles.
6. “Georgia On My Mind,” Willie Nelson. Indiana attorney turned songwriter Hoagy Carmichael is responsible for some of the most enduring songs in American popular music, including “Stardust,” “The Nearness of You,” “Heart and Soul,” and “Georgia on My Mind.” “Georgia” was co-written with Stuart Gorrell, an Indiana University peer of Carmichael who never wrote another song. Famed jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke performed on Carmichael’s original recording and there were over a dozen cover versions performed by jazz, pop, and R&B acts through the 1950s. Ray Charles covered “Georgia” in 1960 as part of his “The Genius Hits the Road” album, a geographically themed affair that included “Alabamy Bound” and “Mississippi Mud.” Ray took his highly orchestrated take to #1 on the pop charts. Willie’s less ornate approach resulted in a #1 country hit.
7. “Honky Tonk Masquerade,” Joe Ely. Joe Ely was still relying heavily on Butch Hancock for material on the “Honky Tonk Masquerade” album, but was started to come into his own as a songwriter. On the self-penned title track, he narrates a betrayal that feels like a knife in the gut and a kick in the teeth. The entire album falls into the “essential” category. First, check out the piano pumper rocker “Nails” and then dance like the dickens to the “West Texas Waltz.” Mark Deming, “The album remains one of the great triumphs of the Texas singer/songwriter community.”
8. “It’s Been a Great Afternoon,” Merle Haggard. The Starland Vocal Band wasn’t the only act getting some afternoon delight in the 1970s. On “It’s Been a Great Afternoon,” Merle hits the tequila and wine in the evening, gets nursed through his hangover in the morning, and relishes the enjoyment of a rowdy “afternooner.” This song bridges the musical diversity of Bob Wills with the lead guitar, steel, and fiddle all getting their moments with a vocal style that would be used in the early 1980s by John Anderson. Following this #2 hit, Haggard’s next release was a gentle love song performed with then wife Leona Williams titled “The Bull and The Beaver.”
9. “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Northeast Arkansas native Ed Bruce cut his first single on Sun Records in 1957, and while he had some success as a songwriter, he didn’t make the country Top 40 until his original version of “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” went to #15 on the country charts in 1975. (Bruce co-starred with James Garner in the early 1980’ s television series “Bret Maverick” and that exposure lead to a string of country hits in the early ‘80s). Waylon and Willie’s outlaw take is a warning about the rigors of the cowboy lifestyle and a salute to the independent spirit it instills. This single went to #1 as well as their followup “I Can Get Off on You,” where a woman’s love is better than weed, cocaine, whiskey, and pills. These guys knew how to work their gimmick.
10. “No Place to Fall,” Townes Van Zandt. Townes Van Zandt was living in a backwoods cabin in Franklin, Tennessee in the late 1970s, where rare visitors would walk away with interesting stories about alcohol and firearms. (According to Steve Earle, Townes placed a round in a .357 magnum revolver while he was there, spun the cylinder, put the gun to his head, and pulled the trigger. Three times.) Van Zandt’s 1978 album “Flyin’ Shoes” was his first album of new material since 1972, after a business dispute between producer Jack Clement and manager Kevin Eggers kept Townes in limbo throughout the mid-1970s. “No Place to Fall” is a plea for emotional support from a man who could always count on enablers.
11. “Pittsburgh Stealers,” The Kendalls. While casual country music fans probably couldn’t name more than one song by the father/daughter act The Kendalls, the duo landed eleven Top Ten hits and three #1 singles from 1977 to 1984. Longtime Nashville songwriters Larry Kingston and Jim Rushing penned the 1978 #6 hit “Pittsburgh Stealers,” where a married couple work different shifts at a steel mill and look for love in all the wrong places. The Kendalls almost invariably portrayed cheating as more pleasurable than dishonorable (the followup single to “Pittsburgh Stealers” was a #1 hit titled “Sweet Desire”) and had an inexplicable weirdness factor where you never knew if the material was performed seriously or with an unspoken wink and a nudge.
12. “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” Linda Ronstadt. Warren Zevon’s “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” was an odd choice for a pop/county airplay cover song, even considering that Linda Ronstadt removed the most direct reference to sadomasochism from her version. Ronstadt scored a minor hit recreating Zevon’s black humor, just missing the country Top 40. She had her last Top Ten country hit earlier in 1978 with “I Never Will Marry,” a traditional English ballad that is believed to be from the early 1800s. Ronstadt’s “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” created the familiarity with the song that allowed Terri Clark to have a Top Five country hit with her 1996 take. However, I always miss the barfly’s request for a beating from Zevon’s original release.