Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1986, Part 1
Randy, Dwight, and Steve join our party.
1. “1982,” Randy Travis. Randy Traywick was a North Carolina boy who went from singing in church as a child to becoming a juvenile delinquent teenager. He released an independent album under his God given name in 1978 and went to Nashville with his cougar before cougars were cool manager/love interest Elizabeth “Lib” Hatcher during the early 1980s. He signed with Warner Bros. Records in 1985, became Randy Travis, and his “Storms of Life” album made him an immediate superstar. Nashville studio guitarist Vip Vipperman and banjo ace Buddy Blackmon wrote “1982,” a lyric about living in the past due to a poor romantic decision. Citing now almost obsolete technology, Travis is hoping that a telephone operator and snail mail can deliver him out of his woeful funk.
2. “Diggin’ Up Bones,” Randy Travis. Written by singer/songwriter Paul Overstreet, our disc jockey turned country star turned voice of Spuds McKenzie friend Nat Stuckey, and Al Gore (not the same guy who invented the internet), Travis examines the remaining artifacts of a love gone wrong on “Diggin’ Up Bones.” Or, as he noted, “Exhuming things that’s better left alone.” This #1 single helped push the “Storms of Life” album into triple platinum territory, bringing back unadorned, traditional country music back into the mainstream. Travis re-recorded this hit in 2011 with John Anderson – an extra verse gave John a chance to reflect upon a gnawed on chicken leg.
3. “Don’t Leave Without Taking Your Silver,” George Jones. Songwriter Damon Black lived in St. Francois County, Missouri, serving as the county assessor for 29 years. When not politicking, Black wrote material that was performed by The Wilburn Brothers, Mel Tillis, Porter Wagoner, the Osborne Brothers, and George Jones. His only major hit was the 1970 Mel Tillis #10 single “She’ll Be Hanging ‘Round Somewhere” and he was primarily known in bluegrass circles. This 1986 album cut sounds like a standard she’s leaving me/heartbreak weeper, until George asks the nearly departed to take the silver, that stuff that she put in his hair. George’s 1986 album “Wine Colored Roses” was certified gold, buoyed by the Top Ten title track and the marital keeper “The Right Left Hand.”
4. “Down in Tennessee,” John Anderson. There wasn’t a significant Beatles influence on 1980s country music, but the intro to this #12 country single was lifted right out of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” On this Wayland Holyfield/big ballad number, John is more emotionally than physically “Down in Tennessee.” Randy Travis on his colleague, “That guy is such a unique stylist. He’s in that category with people like George Jones and Ray Price. There’s not that many who fall into that kind of category as vocalists.” One person not in that league is Mark Chesnutt, who had a #23 hit with “Down in Tennessee” in 1995.
5. “Guitars, Cadillacs,” Dwight Yoakam. After leaving his native Ohio, Dwight Yoakam settled in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, often playing gigs in venues better known for promoting the city’s punk rock scene. While Randy Travis sounded like a traditional country act, Yoakam had a rockabilly influenced sound and projected a less conformist persona. Yoakam had immediate success with his “Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.” album, scoring a #3 single with the Johnny Horton cover “Honky Tonk Man.” Yoakam quickly returned to the Top Five with “Guitars, Cadillacs,” in which a woman taught him new ways to be cruel and an actual fiddle break returned to country music. Not to discount Yoakam’s considerable talent, but having guitar ace Pete Anderson by his side was no minor advantage.
6. “Guitar Town,” Steve Earle. Texas high school dropout Steve Earle developed an association with Lone Star State singer/songwriters Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark early in his career, appearing alongside Townes in the mid-1970s documentary “Heartworn Highways” and singing backup vocals on Guy Clark’s 1975 “Old No. 1” album. He had a songwriting credit on the platinum 1976 release “Wanted! The Outlaws,” then spent the next decade shuffling between Nashville and Texas. His first radio success was a writing credit on Johnny Lee’s 1982 #14 single “When You Fall in Love,” an outing that sounds more like Air Supply than outlaw country. Earle released several singles from 1983 to 1986, first hitting the country Top 40 in 1986 with the rockabilly flavored “Hillbilly Highway.” The ramblin’ man with a Jap axe/tremolo pedal of “Guitar Town” put Earle in the country Top Ten and the album of the same name lead to many comparisons to Bruce Springsteen. That album also included the 1987 Top Ten single “Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left.”
7. “Hold On,” Rosanne Cash. Columbia Records was able to milk Rosanne Cash’s 1985 “Rhythm and Romance” album by releasing four singles over a seventeen month period, resulting in four Top Five hits with two #1 singles. “Hold On” was penned by Rosanne and was the album’s lead track. Like “Seven Year Ache,” it’s a lyric aimed at a lover with a roving eye. When Iman Lababedi interviewed Rosanne during the 1980s and asked about her personal happiness, she responded with a torrent of tears.
8. “I Had a Beautiful Time,” Merle Haggard. Ralph Emery, “Merle, did you ever have a problem with cocaine?” Haggard, “My only problem was trying to get enough of it.” In addition to recreational drugs, Haggard, who was married five times, was also not averse to sexual activity. On the #5 hit “I Had a Beautiful Time,” Merle celebrates the simple pleasures of a one night stand (he poured out his feelings, she poured the wine) while noting that he had a significant other waiting for him at home. However, one of these interests outweighed the other. After a long cocaine binge in the early 1980s, Haggard realized he spent five celibate days on his houseboat with an attractive woman. He never snorted again.
9. “I Tell It Like It Used to Be,” T. Graham Brown. Athens, Georgia may be best known musically for The B-52s, R.E.M., and Bubba Sparxxx, but it’s also where T. Graham Brown started his singing career, while attending the University of Georgia. Moving to Nashville in 1982, Brown performed on demos and on advertising jingles for years, eventually landing a deal with Capitol Records and releasing his debut album in 1985. “I Tell It Like It Used to Be,” the album’s title track, went Top Ten in early 1986 and reflected Brown’s broad influences, to include Southern beach music, gospel, and blues. Brown sounded somewhat like a more disciplined version of Joe Cocker, an evolution that any hippie hater could salute.
10. “Little Rock,” Reba McEntire. “Little Rock” is a triple crown winner with fine songs by that name having been released by Reba, Collin Raye, and Hayes Carll. Not a tune about Pulaski County’s best known community, “Little Rock” is a pun for a wedding ring on this 1986 #1 single. Lyrically, Reba is tired of being ignored by her rich man and decides to pursue lust instead of lucre. This bouncy tune makes divorce seem as emotionally heavy as dropping off dry cleaning. From 1984 to 1992, Reba released twenty four Top Ten singles in a row with fourteen of those records going to #1.