Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1984
Numerologists might be interested to know that in terms of the number of quality songs released, 1984 was the worst year in country music since 1948, which at least had the built-in excuse of a musician’s strike.
1. “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” Jason and the Scorchers. “If you come down to Nashville, I’ll get you the best $25 hooker that money can buy,” Jason Ringenberg’s invitation to a music journalist in the early 1980s. Illinois native Ringenberg relocated to Nashville in 1981, bringing a hard edged rock sound to country music, his band becoming pioneers in the “cowpunk” genre in the process. In 1984, EMI released an expanded version of the 1983 EP “Fervor” which kicked off with the Scorchers’ cover version of Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie.” The Scorchers completely transformed the song from its folk roots to a wallop you upside the head hard rocker. Perennially good guy Ringenberg was ahead of his time artistically and remains active as a solo artist and performing children’s material.
2. “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight,” Hank Williams, Jr. Hank Williams, Jr. worked the “rowdy” themes two ways during the 1980s, scoring a #1 single in 1981 with the crestfallen “All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down” and hitting #10 in 1984 with the pig in the ground, beer on ice “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight.” This song had a long second life as the theme for 1989 to 2011, which finally was dropped by ESPN after Williams compared Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler on national television. Of course, that comparison would have never happened if Obama hadn’t invaded Poland.
3. “City of New Orleans,” Willie Nelson. Penned by Chicago folk singer Steve Goodman, “The City of New Orleans” manages to convey the rootlessness and loneliness in traveling through the nation’s heartland, while still managing to capture the spirit of hope and possibilities within the journey. That hope may be interpreted as the traveler’s welcome home or, in a bigger sense, the promise of the American dream. The song was a Top Twenty pop hit for Arlo Guthrie in 1972, sounding like a railroad classic that could have been popularized in his fathers’ folk era. Nelson didn’t do anything unique on his 1984 #1 single cover version, he just blessed the song with his smart timing and his sense of Americana.
4. “Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown,” Ricky Skaggs. The Stanley Brothers originally released “Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown” in 1964, wherein a jilted man pleads with his woman to have the decency to be less conspicuous about her affairs. It seems that the cheating hurts him less than the impact on his reputation. “Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown” was written by singer Ray Pennington, who released the original version of “I’m a Ramblin’ Man,” a #1 hit for Waylon Jennings in 1974, along with his songwriter partner Roy Marcus. (The duo also wrote The Stanley Brothers revenge/murder/death penalty number “Stone Walls and Steel Bars”). Skaggs scored eleven #1 singles during the 1980s, never having a hit with any of his own compositions. The problem with being a dyed in the wool revivalist? It appears that you have nothing to say.
5. “Let Somebody Else Drive,” John Anderson. Mack Vickery, “A songwriter`s survival kit contains a sleeping bag, some potted meat and crackers, directions to the blood bank and a suicide hot line number.” Vickery wrote “Let Somebody Else Drive” with Merle Kilgore, two gentlemen I would have loved to have met, after Vickery received a DUI and spent a weekend in prison. Vickery, “All I did was describe the process of getting stopped and booked and spending time in there.” The anti-drinking song/public service announcement was Anderson’s eleventh straight Top Ten single and even though his 1984 album “Eye of a Hurricane” peaked at #3 on the country charts, Anderson was about to hit a completely unexpected commercial downturn.
6. “Mama He’s Crazy,” The Judds. While the Kendalls were the representative parent/daughter singing duo of the 1970s, The Judds took that mantle during the 1980s, becoming the most famous (only famous?) mother/daughter singing duo. Penned by “Behind Closed Doors” songwriter Kenny O’Dell, “Mama He’s Crazy” was The Judds second single and the first of their fourteen #1 singles. The lyrical concept of Wynonna directly addressing Naomi about her newfound love worked particularly well on this number. This was the second #1 country song by a female duo with the first going all the way back to the Davis Sisters, featuring our old friend Skeeter Davis, and their 1953 chart topper “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know.” Also enjoyable is the album cover for the 1983 “Wynonna & Naomi” EP, the two soon to be superstars look like they just auditioned to appear as extras on the “Designing Woman” sitcom.
7. “That’s the Way Love Goes,” Merle Haggard. Sometimes young fame can be a curse. Lefty Frizzell was only forty five when he recorded “That’s the Way Love Goes” in 1973, but seemed much older having first became a major star in 1950. Johnny Rodriguez scored a 1974 #1 country single with his cover version of this Lefty/Sanger Shafer composition, but Haggard took complete ownership of the song with his version, also a #1 hit. Haggard’s voice aged like fine whiskey and no matter what he was singing, he always conveyed legitimacy. Merle would be too humble to admit it, but he outperformed his hero Lefty on this number.
8. “We Didn’t See a Thing,” Ray Charles & George Jones. Ray Charles returned to country music with his 1984 album “Friendship,” a set of duets with some of the genre’s biggest stars. The album topped the country charts and resulted in five Top Twenty hits for the man who was received no crossover airplay for his groundbreaking 1962 “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” album. The Gary Gentry penned “We Didn’t See a Thing” was the lead single, referencing Ray’s blindness, while also describing a buddy relationship where one party tells a lie and the other person swears allegiance to it. Chet Atkins contributed his trademark guitar licks and a good time is had by one and all.
9. “You’ve Still Got a Place in My Heart,” George Jones. It was a long journey for Leon Payne’s 1950 composition “You’ve Still Got a Place in My Heart” to become a major hit. The original recording by Leon, also known as the Blind Balladeer, went nowhere but was revived by Dean Martin in 1968 for an adult contemporary hit. Con Hunley, who refers to himself as the Smoky Mountain Blue Eyed Darlin’, had a #14 country hit with his 1978 version. This slow-paced number gives George a chance to invest emotion into every syllable. God, what a voice.