Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1985, Part I
I’ll fly a starship across the universe divide and when I reach the other side, I’ll find a place to rest my spirit if I can.
- “Big Butter and Egg Man,” Merle Haggard. Merle Haggard never received due credit for plunging into a broad range of musical influences. Louis Armstrong wrote “Big Butter and Egg Man” with Percy Venable and released his version of what would become a jazz standard in 1926. Haggard puts on his Bob Wills hat for his Western swing/Dixieland take on serving dairy products. Check out the sly background female sigh after Haggard promises repeated deliveries. An album track with complimentary sides of cholesterol and protein.
- “The Chair,” George Strait. George Strait was an established superstar in 1985, a role that he would never concede. He projected a non-threatening, handsome persona, perfectly suited for the soft sell pick up line, “Well, excuse me, but I think you’ve got my chair.” Penned at the end of a long writing session between Dean Dillon and Hank Cochran, “The Chair” was one of nine #1 Strait singles with a Dillon writing credit. Lyrically, after wining and dining the woman and getting at least a one night stand out of the ordeal, Strait confesses his lie about the seating arrangement.
- “Chivalry,” The Mekons. The Mekons were English punk amateurs who made rock critics swoon before they even learned how to play their instruments. Chicago disc jockey Terry Nelson gave the band a country mixtape in 1983, leading to a new style of music. Jon Langford on The Mekons’ 1985 “Fear and Whiskey” album, “We were never trying to imitate country. ‘Fear and Whiskey’ doesn’t sound anything like country music to me, but there was imagery and osmosis. It sounds like a bunch of punk rockers from Leeds not really knowing how to play country music.” “Chivalry,” the album’s lead track, is boozy, desperate, it feels like it might completely fall apart at any moment. It’s also sounds completely at home in both punk and country at the same time.
- “Centerfield,” John Forgerty. Mr. Flannel Americana only hit the country charts as a performer once, peaking at #38 in 1985 with his Sun Studios tribute “Last Train to Memphis.” Still, the music was in his blood. Fogerty, “Many of the great songs that we may look back now and call country were played on the radio right next to Elvis Presley and the Beatles. I remember hearing Buck Owens on the rock ‘n’ roll stations.” While “Centerfield” only peaked at #44 on the pop charts, this baseball standard reeks of sunny days, lemonade, County Fairs, and Willie Mays. Fogerty, “I was very aware of the connotation of center field — the comeback, spotlight angle of it. It all seemed very Zen-like and cosmic to me at the time.”
- “Desperados Waiting on a Train,” The Highwaymen. Jerry Jeff Walker released the first version of “Desperados Waiting for a Train” in 1973; songwriter Guy Clark included it on his 1975 debut album ‘Old No. 1.’ “Desperados” was inspired by a grandfatherly figure to Clark, who grew up in the West Texas town of Monahans. The older man, a retired oil wildcatter, struggled with the aging process, but was a source of inspiration and support to Clark during his boyhood. The title can be interpreted as two males romanticizing a humdrum existence or an acknowledgement of the sad reality/ inevitability of death. The country supergroup The Highwaymen (Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson) scored a #15 country hit with their 1985 cover.
- “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind,” George Strait. Dallas and Fort Worth are thirty miles apart and the major anchors of the “Metroplex,” but culturally they are wildly varied. Think vodka versus whiskey, shopping malls versus cattle drives, urban versus western. Originally recorded by Moe Bandy in 1977, George Strait scored a #1 hit with “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind.” In this outing, our hero is slurping jealousy beer in the Stockyards while his former woman is living it up with her new big city beau. In reality, she’s probably stuck in traffic.
- “Forgiving You Was Easy,” Willie Nelson. Nelson wasn’t writing his pen dry during the mid-1980s – his 1985 album “Me and Paul” was a collection of re-recorded older material, a trio of Billy Joe Shaver covers, and one new song. You’ve probably correctly guessed that the looking for Zen/it’s easier to forgive than forget “Forgiving You Was Easy” was the unreleased number and it became a #1 hit. Per Wikipedia, Nelson spent one day recording the album and it peaked at #3 on the country charts. Further proof that when you find an open ATM, bring a shovel.
- “Highwayman,” The Highwaymen. Jimmy Webb fell out of bed after a night of “professional drinking” with Harry Nilsson, waking from a frightful dream. Webb, “I had an old brace of pistols in my belt and I was riding, hell-bent for leather, down these country roads, with sweat pouring off of my body. I was terrified because I was being pursued by police, who were on the verge of shooting me. It was very real. I sat up in bed, sweating through my pajamas. Without even thinking about it, I stumbled out of bed to the piano and started playing ‘Highwayman.’ Within a couple of hours, I had the first verse.” Webb recording his supernatural soul stirring saga in 1977 and Glen Campbell did an…interesting version in 1979. Marty Stuart pitched the song to Johnny Cash as perfect for the new country megastar project – four verses, four souls, four singers. If I ever hear the voice of God and He doesn’t sound like Johnny Cash, I’ll be deeply disappointed. (I’ll try to hide it, but He’ll intuitively know).
- “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me,” Rosanne Cash. Rosanne Cash scored a Top Five country hit in 1982 with “Ain’t No Money,” a Grammy nominated single despite having a rhythm that sounds like corrugated cardboard. After losing the honors to Juice Newton, Rosanne joked, “I’ve got a new dress, new shoes, I don’t know why you don’t want me.” Three years later, her disappointment resulted in a number one hit, one written with then husband/producer Rodney Crowell. Stylistically, her dad brought country sounds into pop music and Rosanne did the exact opposite.
- “It’s All Over Now, John Anderson. Rock ‘n’ roll hero/soul legend Bobby Womack, who performed with Sam Cooke before dropping out of high school at the age of sixteen, wrote “It’s All Over Now” with his sister-in-law Shirley Womack. The song was a minor hit for Womack’s group The Valentinos, but became an international smash when released by The Rolling Stones in 1964. (Womack was initially angered that the Stones covered his song, lifelong royalties soothed those feelings). “It’s All Over Now” has become a standard in pop, blues, and country music having been covered by over seventy artists, including Waylon Jennings, Rod Stewart, Molly Hatchet, the Grateful Dead, and Wanda Jackson. John Anderson’s version is as aggressive as commercial country music would get in the 1980s and peaked at #15 on the country charts in 1985.