Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1981, Part II
Wiretapping, death threats or just another Jerry Lee Lewis entry.
1. “Rainbow Stew,” Merle Haggard. Haggard owed MCA two albums when he signed with Epic Records in 1981. He released a spiritual collection (“Songs for the Mama That Tried”) and a live record (“Rainbow Stew Live at Anaheim Stadium”) to complete the contractual obligation. The live version of “Rainbow Stew,” with a band that included former Texas Playboys Eldon Shamblin and Tiny Moore, resulted in this Top Five country hit. Merle updated the spirit Harry McClintock’s “Big Rock Candy Mountain” on the this lively hoedown, where his dreams include drinking free Bubble-Up and chewing on rainbows. It’s a hippie world filled with love and peace, but “you don’t have to get high to be happy.” A huge, cackling laugh punctuates the ending.
2. “Seven Year Ache” Rosanne Cash. Rosanne Cash, the daughter of Johnny who studied drama and English for a year at Vanderbilt, was born into the music business. She started performing with her father in the mid-1970s and released her first album in 1978. After being signed by Columbia Records, she had three minor country hits from her 1980 “Right or Wrong” album. The title track to her 1981 release “Seven Year Ache” provided Rosanne with her breakthrough hit and signature song. Her first #1 single was a self-penned heartbreaker about a husband working the bar scene instead of communicating with his wife. Even with the weird, cascading steel guitar sound, this was Cash’s only hit to crossover to the pop charts (peaking at #22). Her marriage to producer Rodney Crowell outlasted the seven year ache by half a decade.
3. “She’s Got a Drinking Problem,” Gary Stewart. Gary Stewart’s career was plummeting in the early 1980s and his personal issues undoubtedly contributed to that reality – check out the 1981 b-side “Honky Tonk Man” on YouTube, it sounds like a man singing from the substance abuse section of a psychiatric ward. Written by a trio of Nashville pros and sounding too countrypolitan by half, “She’s Got a Drinking Problem” was Stewarts last Top 40 hit, a non-album single that peaked at #36. Not prime Stewart, but when he concludes “she’s got a drinking problem, and it’s me,” you believe him. RCA next paired Stewart with Dean Dillon, best known now for writing a plethora of hits for George Strait, for two bro country albums in a throwing mud at the wall attempt to replicate the success that the Moe Bandy/Joe Stampley pairing had for Columbia Records. Dillon, “That was like pouring gasoline on gasoline. He was a beautiful man. He unequivocally was the best honky-tonk singer I ever heard.”
4. “Still Doin’ Time,” George Jones. “Still Doin’ Time” was written by John Moffat and Michael Heeney, two Nashville songwriting pros that have their names on other big hits, but nothing substantial artistically. However, they are responsible for two minutes and fifty seconds of the best country music you’ll ever hear, although George Jones might deserve a small bit of credit as well. The lyrics “The ocean of liquor I drank to forget her/Is gonna kill me, but I’ll drink till then” were art replicating life and there’s only one singer I know that could ever compete with Jones in vocalizing pure personal agony, a wee lad from the Pacific Northwest named Kurt Donald Cobain.
5. “Stop in the Road,” John Anderson. We first met the obese, alcoholic, potential wife murdering songwriter Ronald McCown as the composer of the 1971 Mel Tillis hit “Arms of a Fool” (or “Arms of a F-F-F-Fool” if you prefer). John Anderson included one McCown number on each of his first four albums, including the 1980 #21 hit/forgettable tearjecker “If There Were No Memories.” The 1981 album track “Stop in the Road” is a bluegrass romp about putting bad memories in the rearview mirror. The take no prisoners pace is a welcome change from the plodding tempos of the era. The hit singles from Anderson’s 1981 album “I Just Came Home to Count the Memories” included the tad too maudlin title track, and the Bobby Braddock song “Would You Catch a Falling Star,” a pretty dark lyric about the downhill side of a career that would be a brave for any mainstream country star to sing.
6. “Storms Never Last,” Jessi Colter with Waylon Jennings. Jessi Colter, the onetime wife of Duane Eddy and long term spouse of Waylon Jennings, may seem like a glory hound hanger-on, however, she did write many of her hit singles. She released her first album in 1970, then had her breakthrough hit with the 1975 #1 country/Top Five pop hit “I’m Not Lisa.” (I’ve not completed my research, but I’m convinced there is a relationship between the song “I’m Not Lisa” and the establishment of the National Suicide Prevention Hotline). Her career cooled down after being included on the 1976 #1 album “Wanted! The Outlaws,” but Waylon and Jessi had a rare regular issue gold album with their 1981 duet release “Leather and Lace.” “Storms Never Last,” Colter’s most enduring composition, is about a love/marriage that will survive through difficult times. The sentiment beats the execution in the original recording, but “Storms Never Last” has been rediscovered in the 2000s, through covers by Allison Moorer, John Prine with Lee Ann Womack, and live performances by Miranda Lambert.
7. “Thirty Nine and Holding,” Jerry Lee Lewis. Jerry Lee Lewis, rock ‘n’ roll’s original id driven savage, was only forty-six years old in 1981, but he seemed much older and it would be his last year as a significant charting artist. “Killer Country” was his final album for Elektra Records, his relationship with record executive Jimmy Bowen ended with allegations of wiretapping and death threats. “Thirty Nine and Holding” was another one of Jerry Lee’s middle age angst numbers, where being a year from forty seems like the precipice of death. In addition to this aging hell raiser tune, Lewis had a Top Ten country hit with his cover of “Over the Rainbow.” His version of Judy Garland’s signature song sounds like blues, jazz, classic pop, and rock ‘n’ roll, all at the same time. The man is a stylist.
8. “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go,” Merle Haggard. Haggard re-recorded this 1967 album track for the 1981 “Big City” album. “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go” was written by Haggard with country trucker song specialist Red Simpson. While the original version was a mid-tempo Bakersfield special, Haggard slowed down the tempo to focus on the heartbreak in 1981. He could really lay into a lyric when the spirit moved him and he showed some of his non “hillbilly” influences as he aged. Haggard, “I liked other music, too. I liked Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra and people like that.”
9. “When the Word Was Thunderbird,” Billy Joe Shaver. Billy Joe Shaver’s discography isn’t a model of efficiency; he would often release different versions of his compositions on his early albums. “When the Word Was Thunderbird” was first released on his 1976 “When I Get My Wings” album and it flops around like a landed fish desperate for water. Shaver righted himself on the streamlined 1981 cut, reminiscing about the days when the word was thunderbird and the price was forty twice. (Shaver, a Texas recycling pioneer, also included “Thunderbird” on the 1999 “Electric Shaver” album and on the 2012 “Live at Billy Bob’s Texas” set). The self-described “Wacko from Waco” is not lacking in the colloquial charm department.
10. “Who’s Cheatin’ Who,” Charly McClain. Charly McClain is this column’s Janie Fricke, a female singer who had years of chart/radio success, yet is almost completely forgotten today. A Memphis native, Charly (shorthand from Charlotte) performed in a family act during her teens and was signed to Epic Records when she was twenty. She had fourteen Top Ten singles from 1978 to 1985 including the #1 hits “Who’s Cheatin’ Who,” “Radio Heart,” and “Paradise Tonight,” a duet with Ronnie Millsap. The sing along, chorus driven “Who’s Cheatin’ Who” was penned by Jerry Hayes, who had his first #1 single with Charlie Rich’s “Rollin’ with the Flow.” Alan Jackson returned this betrayal mystery song to country radio with his 1997 #2 cover version. McClain’s last Top Ten single was “You Are My Music, My Song” a soppy 1985 duet with husband Wayne Massey, who played the role of country/rock superstar Johnny Drummond on “One Life to Live” from 1980 to 1984. Musically, he was no Dr. Noah Drake.