Country Music History, Essential Releases of 1986, Part II
Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Los Lobos.
1. “Memories to Burn,” Gene Watson. Gene Watson had a lengthy run on the charts, releasing twenty-one Top Ten country singles from 1975 to 1988. The Dallas Frazier/Larry Lee composition “Fourteen Carat Mind” was his only #1 hit, reaching the top slot in January of 1982. Watson brought back the Ray Price shuffle on “Memories to Burn,” a #5 single penned by Dave Kirby of “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone?” fame with frequent writing partner Warren Robb. (In fact, Price frequently performed Kirby/Robb material during the 1980s and released his version of “Memories to Burn” on his 1985 “Welcome to Ray Price Country” album). This is a case of the song outclassing the vocal performance, which is undistinguished at best.
2. “Never Be You,” Rosanne Cash. Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers bandmate Benmont Tench wrote “Never Be You” and it was originally recorded by Maria McKee. Her version was included on the soundtrack to the 1984 so bad it might be good cult flick “Streets of Fire.” Cash’s cover, including Tench on keyboards, is a close replication to McKee’s performance and arrangement, but Rosanne’s woes about romantically trading down resulted in a #1 country hit. Petty returned to the country charts as a writer a few more times – Southern Pacific’s 1985 cover of “Thing About You” was that band’s first hit and Roy Orbison took “You Got It” (an Orbison/Jeff Lynne/Petty collaboration) to #7 in 1989.
3. “On the Other Hand,” Randy Travis. Songwriters Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz didn’t work exclusively together, but they were responsible for several huge hits including “Forever and Ever, Amen,” “Deeper Than the Holler,” and “On the Other Hand” for Randy Travis. The duo also wrote #1 singles for The Forester Sisters (“(I’d Choose) You Again”), Keith Whitley (“When You Say Nothing at All”), and Tanya Tucker (“I Won’t Take Less Than Your Love”). As the lead single from the Randy Travis “Storms of Life,” “On the Other Hand” initially stiffed when released in 1985. After “1982” became a Top Ten hit, this song about falling for a married woman was re-released and became the first #1 single for Travis. He pretty much owned the rest of the decade, with ten #1 hits from 1986 to 1989.
4. “The One I Loved Back Then (The Corvette Song),” George Jones. East Tennessee native/Navy veteran/songwriter Gary Gentry was working at a liquor store when he first moved to Nashville. When one of his customers noted that the temperature was “hotter than a two dollar pistol,” Gentry went into his creative thinking mode. On this comedy number, Jones and a quick shop employee engage in a conversation. George thinks they are taking about his Corvette. His new buddy is more interested in the curves of George’s romantic interest. Three years after this single went Top Five, Gentry’s pen had dried up and he spent the next few decades working as a truck driver.
5. “River in the Rain,” Roger Miller. Roger Miller never hit the country Top Ten after 1968’s “Little Green Apples” and released new material sporadically during the 1970s and 1980s. His most noteworthy work of the 1980s was writing the music for the theater production “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” For his efforts, he won a Tony Award for Best Original Score. “River in the Rain,” a finely wrought romantic view of the Mighty Mississippi, was Miller’s final Top 40 country hit, peaking at #36. The number fittingly ends with some fine blues licks. Shortly before dying of lung cancer in 1992 at the age of 56, Miller co-wrote the Dwight Yoakam hit “It Only Hurts Me When I Cry.” During the 1980s and 1990s, three Roger Miller cover songs went to #1 on the country charts – Ricky Van Shelton’s “Don’t We All Have the Right,” Alan Jackson’s “Tall, Tall Trees” and the Brooks and Dunn version of “Husbands and Wives.”
6. “Stand on It,” Mel McDaniel. Mel McDaniel had his career peak in 1985 and 1986, going to #1 with the Bob McDill tune “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On,” then hitting Top Ten with the inexplicably renamed Chuck Berry cover “Let It Roll (Let it Rock)” and with the testify request “Stand Up.” (Bruce Channel of “Hey! Baby” fame had a writing credit on “Stand Up.” Channel moved to Nashville in the late 1970s and had a second career penning #1 singles for T. G. Sheppard, Janie Fricke, and John Conlee). “Stand on It” was a Bruce Springsteen rockabilly b-side that McDaniel took to #12 on the country charts in 1986, channeling The Boss’s gospel preacher vibe. McDaniel’s chart success ending in the late 1980s and he passed away in 2011.
7. “This Cold War with You,” Merle Haggard. We first met Texas musician/songwriter Floyd Tillman in the 1930s, when he was a member of Leon “Pappy” Selph’s Blue Ridge Playboys. A major star during the 1940s, Tillman quickly faded into obscurity after that decade, although he lived until the ripe old age of 88, passing away in 2003. Haggard recorded two cover versions of Tillman’s 1949 recording “This Cold War with You,” first releasing the song on his 1974 “If We Make It Through December” album, then giving it another day in court on his 1986 “A Friend in California” release. This saxophone driven, blues meets jazz approach sounds like “Stardust” era Willie Nelson.
8. “Whoever’s in New England,” Reba McEntire. Kendal Franceschi and Quentin Powers are odd names for Nashville songwriters and the anonymous duo had no lengthy success in the business. Still, they wrote one of Reba’s most memorable singles. On “Whoever’s in New England,” Reba plays the role of a Southern woman who suspects her executive husband is having an affair, but is patiently waiting for his attention to return to her. Surely not the first example, but this is where country music starting sounding like pop power ballads.
9. “Will the Wolf Survive,” Waylon Jennings. After twenty years with RCA Records, Waylon Jennings moved to MCA in 1986 and his “Will the Wolf Survive” release was his last #1 country album. The album produced three Top Ten singles and included the first widely heard version of Steve Earle’s “The Devil’s Right Hand.” (Earle had originally recorded that song as a b-side to a 1984 non-album single). “Will the Wolf Survive” was written by David Hidalgo and Louis Perez from the band Los Lobos and provided the title inspiration for their highly acclaimed 1984 album “How Will the Wolf Survive?” Waylon’s cover lacks the punch of the original version, but it was still a gas to hear a Los Lobos tune on country radio.