Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1983, Part II
Little Charlotte, she’s as pretty as the angels when they sing.
1. “Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning,” Willie Nelson. We first met Texas songwriter Gary P. Nunn as a member of Jerry Jeff Walker’s Lost Gonzo Band and the writer of “London Homesick Blues.” Nunn penned the #1 Willie Nelson country hit “Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning” with Donna Farar and would later state that he had “six million reasons” why he loved this song. Producer Chips Moman constructed a bluesy Muscle Shoals arrangement for this lost my best friend number. Songwriter Nunn, who still regularly plays gigs in Texas and is formally quoted on a display at the Jester Hall dormitory on the University of Texas campus, also had a writing credit on the 1980 Rosanne Cash hit “Couldn’t Do Nothin’ Right.”
2. “Little Old Fashioned Karma,” Willie Nelson. I’ve mentioned this before, but retrospectively looking at Nelson’s rise to fame, it’s surprising that most his major hits were cover songs. His 1983 “Tougher Than Leather” album was an anomaly for that era in Nelson’s career in that it was completely comprised of original Nelson material. This #10 country hit sounds like Southern gospel, until the fiddle break, while Willie communicates a vague warning about reaping and sowing. It then goes into extended boogie mode. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether Nelson is such a major American icon because of or despite his eccentricities.
3. “Pancho and Lefty,” Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. “Pancho and Lefty” is a melancholy, cinematic classic of outlaw betrayal that songwriter Townes Van Zandt first released in 1972. Emmylou Harris released her cover version on her 1977 #1 country album “Luxury Liner,” but it wasn’t a hit until Haggard and Nelson released their duet version, recorded at the recommendation of Nelson’s daughter, Lana. Townes, who was included in the Haggard/Nelson video for the song, found the composition useful on another occasion. Van Zandt, “We got stopped by these two policemen and they said ‘What do you do for a living?,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m a songwriter,’ and they both kind of looked around like ‘pitiful, pitiful,’ and so on to that I added, ‘I wrote that song ‘Pancho and Lefty.’ You ever heard that song ‘Pancho and Lefty’? I wrote that,’ and they looked back around and they looked at each other and started grinning, and it turns out that their squad car, you know their partnership, it was two guys, it was an Anglo and a Hispanic, and it turns out, they’re called Pancho and Lefty. I hope I never see them again.”
4. “The Randall Knife,” Guy Clark. West Texas songwriter Guy Clark had his first substantial commercial success in 1982, when the Ricky Skaggs cover of “Heartbroke” became a #1 country hit (that song was originally recorded by Rodney Crowell in 1980 and it was also covered by George Strait and The Marshall Tucker Band in 1982). As a performer, Clark had two minor country hits – “The Partner Nobody Chose” went to #38 in 1981 and “Home Grown Tomatoes” peaked at #42 in 1983. “The Randall Knife,” “Home Grown Tomatoes,” and the future John Conlee hit “The Carpenter” were all tracks from Clark’s 1983 “Better Days” album. On “The Randall Knife,” a father and a son are connected by a possession, one that represented both danger and love.
5. “Reasons to Quit,” Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. Haggard wrote “Reasons to Quit,” the second single from the 1983 #1 country album “Pancho & Lefty.” Haggard and Nelson voice their understanding that there are valid reasons to quit smoking and drinking and “laughing at the price tags that we pay” and roarin’ down life’s fast lane. The enumeration of these reasons, however, does not result in a pledge to change. Haggard and Nelson had one more #1 album named after a twosome left in them, 2015’s “Django & Jimmie.”
6. “Swingin’,” John Anderson. Forget Romeo and Juliet, Little Charlotte Johnson inspired the best love story ever. John conveys the wondrous thrill of new romance and the band positively…um…swings with horns and a rock inspired organ interlude. Not only a #1 hit, not only the Country Music Association Single of the Year, but the best-selling country single in the history of Warner Brothers Records. Happiness is a warm swing. (Avoid John’s 1994 rerecorded version. It don’t mean a thing, ‘cause it ain’t got…).
7. “Unwed Fathers,” Tammy Wynette. John Prine’s critical success in the 1970s never translated into commercial success, leading him to some interesting experiments. He went to Sun Studios and cut a rockabilly inspired album in 1979 (“Pink Cadillac”), then starting collaborating with other songwriters for his 1984 “Aimless Love” album. “Unwed Fathers,” co-written with Nashville legend Bobby Braddock, is a sympathetic look at teen motherhood, a theme the Bottle Rockets reprised on “Welfare Music.” Tammy Wynette took the song from folk to country music, as the lead track to her 1983 album “Even the Strong Get Lonely.” Her version only peaked at #63 on the country charts, perhaps the deadbeat dad theme served up a bit too much home truth for her audience.
8. “You’re the First Time I’ve Thought About Leaving,” Reba McEntire. It’s almost disorienting to hear Reba’s early traditional material, which is completely unlike the overproduced schlock that became her trademark. “You’re the First Time I’ve Thought About Leaving” was a #1 single/potential cheating number written by two pop stars turned country writers, Dickey Lee of “Patches” fame and Kerry Chater, who played bass for Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, best known for their 1968 #2 hit “Young Girl.” Reba hasn’t made a physical move on “You’re the First Time I’ve Thought About Leaving,” but her body and mind are suffering from misalignment.