Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1983, Part I
Terry Stafford, Sammy Johns, The Bee Gees.
1. “All the People Are Talkin’,” John Anderson. This saxophone hooked John Anderson album title track was never released as a single, although it sounds like a surefire hit. Lyrically, Anderson is so in love that he’s not interested in the town gossip that his woman is a hussy. Musically, it has some of the funky rock elements that made “Swingin’” such a smash. “All the People Are Talkin’” was penned by Fred Carter, Jr, an ace session musician remembered for creating the opening guitar lick for “The Boxer” by Simon & Garfunkel. We will meet his daughter, Deana Carter, later in this journey and learn about her penchant for “Strawberry Wine.”
2. “Amarillo by Morning,” George Strait. George Strait has been successful for so long that it seems like he must have been releasing #1 singles right out of high school, but the Texas native was pushing thirty when he was picked up by MCA Records. After serving four years in the Army and completing his college degree, Strait performed in Texas clubs with his Western swing influenced Ace in the Hole Band. He broke country Top Ten with his first single in 1981 (“Unwound”) and had his signature hit in 1983 with his cover of “Amarillo by Morning,” which surprisingly only peaked at #4. Songwriter Terry Stafford, best known for the 1964 Elvis sound alike single “Suspicion,” wrote “Amarillo by Morning” with Paul Fraser and Stafford’s original version was a #31 country hit in 1974. It was covered by rodeo champion/singer Chris LeDoux in 1975, but nobody emphasized the pensive melody like Strait. It’s a song about a man who has lost all his money and his family, but the freedom in chasing his dream provides all the satisfaction that he needs. By the way, the city of Amarillo was once known as “The Helium Capital of the World.” However, I’m guessing a better nickname may have been “The Balloon Sucking Capital of the World.”
3. “Black Sheep,” John Anderson. Director Robert Altman is best known for his work on the critically acclaimed movies “MASH,” “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” and “Nashville.” Altman co-wrote the 1983 #1 hit country song “Black Sheep” with actor Danny Darst, who portrayed a cop who became a meal for Hannibal Lector in the 1991 film “The Silence of the Lambs.” John portrays a truck driver/working class stiff surrounded by upper class family members on “Black Sheep.” Or in John speak, “I’m duh black sheep of duh fah-mi-lee.”
4. “Common Man,” John Conlee. Sammy Johns is known as a pop one hit wonder, scoring a Top Five hit in 1975 with the free love, hippie/let’s find a good use for this extra cargo space “Chevy Van.” Johns wrote “Common Man” (managing to work in references to his “van” and “Chevrolet”) and his version went to #50 on the country charts in 1981. While the original sounded a bit too adult contemporary, Conlee had no problem giving the tune the pickup truck vibe that it needed. Johns also wrote country hits for Waylon Jennings (“America”) and Conway Twitty (“Desperado Love”) in the 1980s. Conlee scored five #1 singles during the 1980s and would often return to blue color material such as “Working Man” and “The Carpenter,” the latter a #6 country hit in 1987 written by Guy Clark.
5. “Gimme a Ride to Heaven, Boy,” Terry Allen. Musician and painter Terry Allen was alt country before the genre was established and he’s had songs covered by Robert Earl Keen (“Amarillo Highway”), Cracker (“Truckload of Art”), and Little Feat (“New Delhi Freight Train”). On this 1983 number, Allen picks up a hitchhiking Jesus who drinks his beer (beating Thomas Rhett to that theme by almost three decades) and steals his car. It’s too late, Carrie Underwood. Jesus already took the wheels.
6. “Half a Man,” Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. Willie Nelson has often revisited and reinterpreted his own material during his career. Nelson scored a #25 country hit in 1963 with his much too heavily orchestrated original version of “Half a Man.” Haggard covered “Half a Man” on his 1982 album “Going Where the Lonely Go,” but the best version is the Haggard/Nelson duet from the 1983 “Pancho & Lefty” album. In this lyric, Nelson wonders if his heartbreak would be eased if he physically had less limbs and organs to feel pain. He may have been eating that marijuana when he wrote this one.
7. “Jose Cuervo,” Shelly West. Shelly West, Dottie’s daughter, first found fame as a duet singer with David Frizzell. Her first solo single was the #1 hit “Jose Cuevo,” the only hit penned by songwriter Cindy Johnson. (Later in life, Johnson married a Texas oil man and relocated from Nashville to San Angelo, Texas). This cowboy kissing, shooting out the lights, dancing on the bar, did I start a fight number goes from the salt and lime to waking up in bed with a stranger. Kids, never let your parents tell you how wholesome music was during their day.
8. “I Always Get Lucky with You,” George Jones. “I Always Get Lucky with You” was first released by co-writer Merle Haggard and was the closing cut on his 1981 “Big City” album. Tex Whitson, Merle’s manager, also had a writing credit on the song and pitched it to producer Billy Sherrill for a George Jones cover. It’s an example of classic, pre-rock ‘n’ roll pop music and it was the last #1 hit for Jones. Haggard, “I’d get mad at him over the years because of his self-damage, but everything I said to him was out of love. Imagine you’re George Jones, and every night you’re expected to sing as good as you did on a song like ‘She Thinks I Still Care.’ He was a shy country boy from East Texas walking around with that on his shoulders. He knew people expected him to be the greatest country singer that ever lived. He was the Babe Ruth of country music, and people expected a home run every time.” Here, Haggard gave Jones a chance to round the bases.
9. “I Wonder,” Rosanne Cash. Speaking of classic, pre-rock ‘n’ roll pop music, Rosanne goes into serene jazz ballad mode on the Leroy Preston composition “I Wonder.” A Vermont reporter caught up with former Asleep at the Wheel member Preston at his retail day job in 2003 and asked what makes a good song. Preston, “It’s got an element of my scale of soul. I’m not opposed to clever. You’ve only got three minutes to capture someone’s attention and hold it. On the other hand, the listener has to say, ‘That was three minutes well spent.’ They laugh, they cry, they hum a little, they dance.” Preston had his last hit writing credit on k.d. lang’s 1989 single “Full Moon of Love,” which peaked at #22.
10. “Islands in the Stream,” Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton. The Bee Gees are known for their lengthy successful careers in pop and disco music, but the Aussie brothers also popped up on the country charts occasionally. Olivia Newton John had a #5 country hit in 1976 with the Barry and Robin Gibb number “Come on Over.” “Rest Your Love” was a #39 country hit for the Bee Gees in 1979 and a Conway Twitty cover of that song went to #1 in 1981. The Bee Gees originally thought that “Islands in the Stream” might be a good fit for Marvin Gaye, but it was ultimately given to Kenny Rogers. The story goes, as this sounds too good to be true, that Rogers was having problems making the song work, Dolly was in a nearby studio and a duet magically appeared. This was a crossover #1 pop hit for Kenny and Dolly and the country superstars worked together intermittently for decades. The majority of the 1983 Kenny Rogers album “Eyes That See in the Dark” was written by The Bee Gees, including the #3 country hit “Buried Treasure.”