Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1981
Cary Grant, Steven Spielberg, Easy Pickens.
1. “1959,” John Anderson. Anderson proved his first cut was the deepest on this dejected heartbreaker that went to #7 in January of 1981, his first Top Ten. Vocally, it’s a performance that is both wonderfully commanding, yet equally self-constrained. He could have easily gone over the top, but settled for a tear in his tonsils. Lyrically, the most tender song ever about losing one’s virginity in the back of a pickup truck. Songwriter Gary Gentry also penned the David Allen Coe hit “The Ride,” which according to Gentry was inspired by an actual conversation with the ghost of Hank Williams, as well as the eternally bizarre “The Chicken in Black” for Johnny Cash.
2. “9 to 5,” Dolly Parton. The 1980 film “9 to 5” was a major box office hit, starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, and Dabney Coleman. The movie used comedy to undermine sexism in the workplace, with Dolly’s character famously telling the male protagonist, “I’m gonna change you from a rooster to a hen with one shot!” The key to writing the #1 pop and country hit was Dolly using her fake fingernails to simulate the sound of a typewriter. Dolly, “You have to have acrylic nails. That’s how I wrote 9 to 5. These (nails) are great instruments.” Also, she voiced the frustrations of the underappreciated working class who lacked the financial wherewithal to make grandiose take this job and shove it exclamations.
3. “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” Willie Nelson. Willie finds a broken soul, patches it up, and sends it back into the world to do great things on “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.” This was from the 1981 movie “Honeysuckle Rose,” which starred Willie along with Dyan Cannon, who was once married to Cary Grant, and Amy Irving, who would later marry Steven Spielberg. However, for sheer blatantly dumb trivia, the best footnote is that character actor Slim Pickens was in the film and his successful career inspired his brother to go into the acting profession – using the stage name “Easy Pickens.” In any event, this #1 country hit is one of Willie’s best compositions and includes some of his finest guitar work. In concert, he sometimes dedicates the song to his son Billy, who committed suicide in 1991.
4. “Angel of the Morning,” Juice Newton. New York native Chip Taylor (a brother of Jon Voight and an uncle to Angelina Jolie) is known for writing two remarkably different pop and rock classics, the Merilee Rush/Juice Newton hit “Angel of the Morning” and “Wild Thing” by The Troggs. “Angel of the Morning,” a poetic look at a one night stand, went to #7 on the pop charts for Merilee Rush, after reportedly being rejected by Connie Francis, in 1968. It was introduced to country audiences by Melba Montgomery’s 1978 version, a #22 hit. Judy Kay “Juice” Newton performed in folk coffeehouses in Los Angeles in the early 1970s and released two unsuccessful in the mid-1970s as Juice Newton & Silver Spur. She broke through to pop and country audiences in 1981 with “Angel of the Morning” and a cover of “Queen of Hearts,” a song that had been a hit single for Dave Edmunds in the U.K. Newton eventually had nine Top Ten country singles and three #1 singles during the 1980s.
5. “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” Merle Haggard. If you are making a list of classic country drinking songs, you might want to start with Haggard’s “Swinging Doors,” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “Misery and Gin,” and “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.” An abnormally long single for its era at four and a half minutes, Merle gives way for multiple guitar breaks, a piano solo, and gives Don Markham an opportunity to wail on the saxophone. (Markham was a member of Haggard’s backing unit, The Strangers, the rest of the musicians on the “Back to the Barrooms” album were Nashville session pros). Haggard recorded one song written with then wife Leona Williams for the album. It was titled “Can’t Break the Habit” and it compares being in a relationship to a bad addiction.
6. “If Drinking Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will),” George Jones. Like the previous entry, here’s another drinking song by a Mount Rushmore figure in country music history. Twenty six years before I entered the world in Dunklin County, Missouri, future songwriter Harlan Sanders (not the chicken salesman) was born there. Sanders once asked country singer Red Simpson how to get his songs heard and Simpson recommended that he produce a demo tape. Sanders, lacking the several hundred dollars needed to do so, robbed a store in an attempt to finance his career in country music. After leaving prison, he co-wrote a handful of minor hits with “If Drinking Don’t Kill Me” being his biggest success. Jones, “Knowing what people thought about Tammy and me, I often changed the words of ‘If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me’ when I sang it publicly, particularly on national television: ‘If drinkin’ don’t kill me, Tammy’s memory will.’ If folks bought my records because they thought I was breaking down, which I happened to be, so be it.”
7. “If I Needed You,” Emmylou Harris. Harris on Townes Van Zandt, “He had something about Hank Williams in him, a certain high, lonesome sound in his voice. His lyrics had a kind of poetry and evoked a kind of landscape – I had never heard anything like that before. ‘If I Needed You,’ I think, is one of the most beautiful love songs. It’s pledging something, it’s a leap of faith, and it’s totally disarming.” Emmylou covered Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” as a duet with Don Williams, resulting in Van Zandt’s first major hit, a #3 country single. Van Zandt on the writing process, “I just woke up and wrote it down. I had the guitar part and everything. I was staying with Guy and Susanna Clark and we all had the flu. We were taking cough syrup and antibiotics, so the dreams were like Technicolor! I dreamt I was a folk singer, and I played ‘If I Needed You.’ In the morning, I played it for Guy and Susanna when we were having coffee. They said, ‘That’s a beautiful song; where did that come from?’ I told them I wrote it in my sleep.’”
8. “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Someday),” John Anderson. Billy Joe Shaver thought the title track to his 1981 album was his best shot for a hit single. Therefore, he was particularly unamused when John Anderson’s quickly released cover of “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal” became a major hit. Promoters then billed Shaver as the man who wrote “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal,” leaving audiences particularly unamused when they were expecting to see John Anderson. Anderson received a Grammy nomination and his first Top Five single with this folksy, some might say particularly amusing, look at self-actualization. The song was first recorded by Johnny Cash on his 1979 double gospel album “A Believer Sings the Truth.” Columbia had so little confidence in the commercial prospects of that project that they allowed Cash to release the set on Nashville’s independent Cachet Record label.
9. “Labelled with Love,” Squeeze. The new wave band Squeeze was a popular U.K. act and primary songwriters Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford were frequently compared to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, based upon their skills as pop tunesmiths. The band had major U.K. hits in 1979 with “Cool for Cats” and “Up the Junction,” both #2 pop singles. However, they didn’t breakthrough in the U.S. until 1987’s “Hourglass,” a commercial success when their glory years were far behind them. (Strangely, “Tempted” never broke Top 40 in America, but became a staple of modern rock stations years later). Their 1981 Top Five single “Labelled with Love” was produced by Elvis Costello and had a decidedly country sound. Chris Difford was inspired to write the song after viewing a photo of an older woman in Paris from 1936. Difford, “’Labeled with Love’ was an adult lyric in a way that the older generation could latch on to and understand. My mother absolutely loved it. The story is about the end of a relationship after the war. I’d been reading about American soldiers in Britain during the war who married English girls and whisked them off their feet to the States.”
10. “Louisiana Saturday Night,” Mel McDaniel. Oklahoma native Mel McDaniel released his first local single in 1964 (“Lazy Me,” written and produced by J.J. Cale) and after a brief move to Nashville, McDaniel relocated to Alaska in the early 1970s, honing his skills by performing for oil field workers. He relocated to Nashville in the mid-1970s, working as a demo singer and performing at a Holiday Inn. After signing with Capitol Records, McDaniel had ten Top 40 country hits from 1977 to 1980, but no major success. Don Williams had recorded the Bob McDill composition “Louisiana Saturday Night”in 1977 with as much energy as he could muster, but it wasn’t exactly sprightly. McDaniel’s Okie twang voice was a good match for the cornpone lyrics and the fiddle breaks were worthy of the song’s title. His first Top Ten hit.
11. “My Baby Thinks He’s a Train,” Rosanne Cash. Rhythm guitarist Leroy Preston was the primary songwriter for Asleep at the Wheel during the 1970s and “My Baby Thinks She’s a Train” was originally included on the 1977 “The Wheel” album, with a sound much more like Sun Records era Johnny Cash than Bob Wills. Rosanne Cash scored her second #1 single with her echo heavy, slap bass, modern rockabilly cover take. The following year Rosanne Cash and producer husband Rodney Crowell covered “I Wonder,” a Leroy Preston composition with a classic pop sound from the same Asleep at the Wheel album for a Top Ten hit. Preston also has songwriting credits on releases by Marshall Crenshaw, Los Lobos, and Rosie Flores.
12. “My Favorite Memory,” Merle Haggard. Merle Haggard’s 1981 album “Big City” was a commercial and critical success. It was his first certified/non-compilation gold album since 1970’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and his highest charting album since 1976’s “It’s All in the Movies.” The self-penned “My Favorite Memory” was the lead single and a #1 hit. This is a slow paced, beautiful song, where every vacation and good time fails to successfully compete with the joyful memory of first meeting his lover. It’s only marred by using the pronunciation “favor-RIGHT.”
13. “Never Been So Loved (In All My Life),” Charley Pride. It’s been almost a decade since we’ve had a Charley Pride entry, but he really went into an MOR slumber after 1972. However, his formula was such a commercial success that there was no reason for him to change. “Never Been So Loved (In All My Life)” is a different Charley Pride record both lyrically and musically. Being the genre’s token mainstream black artist, Pride rarely played the stud like Conway Twitty, but puffs out his chest while admitting “he’s been around” on this outing. Also, check out the homages to ‘70s black music on this Wayland Holyfield/Norro Wilson composition/#1 single – the disco is in the strings, the funk is in the guitar.