Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1982
1. “Always on My Mind,” Willie Nelson. Songwriter Wayne Carson knocked out “Always on My Mind” at his kitchen table in ten minutes, although producer Chips Moman wanted a bridge for the song, so Mark James and Johnny Christopher helped to complete that part of the composition. It was first recorded not by Elvis, but by soul artist Gwen McCrae (best known for the 1975 Top Ten pop hit “Rockin’ Chair”) and country/pop act Brenda Lee. The 1972 Elvis version was originally a b-side to “Separate Ways,” but its release shortly after his divorce from Priscilla made the song feel like a personal statement of regret. His version went Top Twenty on the country charts, as did the 1979 release by John Wesley Ryles. Nelson had his biggest crossover hit as a solo act with his gospel shaded love ballad take, peaking at #5 on the pop charts and topping the country charts. Taking the song into another realm, the Pet Shop Boys had an international pop smash with their 1987 synth pop effort.
2. “Atlantic City,” Bruce Springsteen. Bruce Springsteen, not generally known as a country act, went into low budget/low tech, folkie influenced territory for this 1982 “Nebraska” album. Johnny Cash released rather unconvincing versions of “Johnny 99” and “Highway Patrolman” in 1983, while “Atlantic City” has become somewhat of a No Depression standard. The Band, John Anderson, Hank Williams III, Pete Yorn, Eddie Vedder, Mumford & Sons, etc., have all tried to explain the fate of the Chicken Man and the realities of a world with limited financial opportunities. Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact. The Boss did eventually get a song on the country airwaves. Current dead man Mel McDaniel scored a #12 hit in 1986 with his cover of Springsteen’s “Stand on It.”
3. “Big City,” Merle Haggard. Dean Holloway, Haggard’s bus driver, got a co-writing credit on this #1 country song, by simply responding after asked how he felt after two days in Los Angeles with “I’m tired of this dirty old city.” On this upbeat shuffle, check out the twin fiddles on the intro and enjoy the walking bass feel, Merle’s ready to give up social security if that means a return to rural life. (I’ll take both). Haggard followed this release with “Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver,” a #2 hit/hoary nostalgia weeper that just makes you want to slap the taste out of his mouth.
4. “A Country Boy Can Survive,” Hank Williams, Jr. Hank took his unreconstructed redneck gimmick to new heights/depths with “A Country Boy Can Survive,” spreading the conceit that every rural citizen is automatically a wilderness survivalist and cities are filled with ruthless killers. This vigilante justice number became one of his signature tunes and, seeking profit after tragedy, he released a new version after the 9/11 terrorist attacks titled “America Will Survive.” However, by the early 2000s, Toby Keith had long corralled the right wing vengeance market.
5. “Crying My Heart Out Over You,” Ricky Skaggs. Kentucky native Ricky Skaggs first performed with Bill Monroe when he was six years old and became a leader in the bluegrass revivalist movement during the late 1970s and early 1980s. His first major album release, 1981’s “Waitin’ for the Sun to Shine” was primarily comprised of bluegrass and country music covers, most of which would have been unknown to casual music fans of that era. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs went into traditional weeper mode with their 1960 #21 country hit “Crying My Heart Out Over You,” a song that the duo penned with Carl Butler and the otherwise unresearchable Earl Sherry. Skaggs didn’t do anything unique with the arrangement, but his remake was the first of eleven #1 singles he would have during the decade.
6. “I’m Not That Lonely Yet,” Reba McEntire. Oklahoma native Reba McEntire’s original career plan was to work as an elementary school teacher, but her exposure on the local rodeo circuit got her on the fast track to Nashville. She released her first album in 1976, but didn’t hit Top Ten on the country charts until 1980’s “(You Lift Me) Up to Heaven,” a song that sounds like a Coca-Cola ad about an orgasm. “I’m Not That Lonely Yet,” written by Bill Rice and Sharon Rice, was Reba’s first Top Five hit and represents a much more traditional country sound than her later soap opera material. On “I’m Not That Lonely Yet,” Reba enjoys a spin on the dance floor, while warning her suitor to refrain from asking for favors.
7. “Just to Satisfy You,” Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Waylon Jennings penned “Just to Satisfy You” with novelty artist/disk jockey Don Bowman and his original 1964 recording sounds like easy listening folk music. However, the song became a minor country hit for Bobby Bare in 1965 and it was Bare who helped facilitate Jennings’ contract with RCA Records. The 1982 version has the feel of putting on an old pair of cowboy boots and this was the last #1 single for Waylon and Willie. The duo’s next two singles were automatic pilot covers of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” and “Take It to the Limit.”
8. “Mountain Music,” Alabama. Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry, and Jeff Cook formed the nucleus of Alabama, the bestselling band in country music history, in 1969 and the musically adept cousins became a full time act in 1973. They had their commercial breakthrough with the 1980 single “My Home’s in Alabama” (as opposed to the Bronx, I guess) and eventually scored twenty six #1 singles during that decade. The Bon Jovi of country music, Alabama specialized in high gloss singalong material, lacking only in substance, originality, and conviction. However, they probably deserve one mention during this series and here it is.
9. “Redneck Girl,” The Bellamy Brothers. If you attend a modern era concert by The Bellamy Brothers you will (a) feel young if you are under the age of 55 and (b) might be surprised that their encore/reprise song isn’t their 1977 #1 pop hit “Let Your Love Flow.” The David Bellamy composition “Redneck Girl” gets that honor, a composition that their fans could relate to better than “Get into Reggae Cowboy.” These guys weren’t dumb – the tune floats on the breeze like a Beach Boys number with a guitar break that could have come from any early ‘80s pop/hard rock act. The Bellamys have never stopped trying to expand their demographic base, even touring Sri Lanka and India in 2014.
10. “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft),” Jerry Reed. Tim DuBois may be best known as one of Nashville’s most successful music executives, but the former Certified Public Accountant first made his name as a songwriter. DuBois had writing credits on the 1981 #1 singles “Midnight Hauler” by Razzy Bailey and “Love in the First Degree” by Alabama. DuBois penned the divorce comedy number “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft),” an exasperated look at post marital legal difficulties. This #1 country single was Reed’s first major hit since 1978’s “East Bound and Down.” His last Top Ten hit was “The Bird,” where Reed gets bilked by a country sampling parrot.
11. “Shopping for Dresses,” Merle Haggard. The two major hits from the 1982 album “Going Where the Lonely Go” were the Haggard penned title track and “You Take Me for Granted,” the latter written by Haggard’s unhappy, soon to be ex-wife Leona Williams. “Shopping for Dresses” has a strange theme, Merle is performing an apparel assessment for a woman who he wishes that he had. Randy Travis recorded “Shopping for Dresses” as a duet with Loretta Lynn in 1990 and I haven’t mentioned yet that the song was co-written by Merle and Little Jimmy Dickens. May the bird of paradise fly in your clothes.
12. “War is Hell (On the Homefront Too),” T.G. Sheppard. T.G. Sheppard is another largely forgotten country star, despite having scored over a dozen #1 singles during the 1970s and 1980s. Sheppard generally sounded like a poor man’s Conway Twitty and frequently performed as Conway’s opening act. Although his most popular songs are “I Loved ‘Em Every One” and “Slow Burn,” the WWII sex song “War is Hell (On the Homefront Too)” is his most memorable. Far from saluting the flag, a teenage boy loses his virginity to a woman whose man is overseas fighting the Nazis. She does have the decency to turn her man’s picture over, before sliding into the sheets.
13. “Wild and Blue,” John Anderson. There were some strange bedfellows at the top of the country charts in 1982. The single named act Sylvia had a #1 country song with “Nobody,” as in “your nobody called today and she hung up when I asked your name.” It’s a pop tune that sounds like a poorly produced Olivia Newton John. On the other end of the spectrum, the John Scott Sherrill penned “Wild and Blue” is as country as moonshine and kicks like a Tennessee mule. John twangs on steroids on this heartbreak number that was his first #1 song. Also, check out the cover versions by two outstanding female artists – Sally Timms of the Mekons and Lucinda Williams.
14. “Write You Own Songs,” Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel once told a story of art battling commerce while attending a record company meeting with Merle Haggard. A record executive reportedly told Haggard that his self-penned singles were no longer selling and that he needed to focus on material from other songwriters. As the conflict continued and the executive kept pressing his point, Haggard eventually said, “I’m about three times behind telling you to kiss my ass.” Waylon and Willie were much more proactive in that department.
15. “Yesterday’s Wine,” George Jones and Merle Haggard. “Yesterday’s Wine” was a minor hit for Willie Nelson in 1971 and this barroom buddies tale provided the title track for the 1982 Jones/Haggard album “A Taste of Yesterday’s Wine.” Nelson’s lyric is a bit impressionistic for mainstream country, but with two legends bearing down hard on the chorus, this became a #1 single. A major generational shift would hit Nashville by the end of the decade, commercially positioning these trailblazers and their peers as, well, yesterday’s wine.