Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1987, Part II
Look for the bare necessities/The simple bare necessities/Forget about your worries and your strife.
1. “Little Sister,” Dwight Yoakam. Dwight Yoakam has never shied away from cover songs, his first hit was a Johnny Horton remake (“Honky Tonk Man”) and on his 1997 “Under the Covers” album he churned out new versions of rockers popularized by The Clash, The Kinks, and Van Morrison’s Them. The Doc Pomus/Mort Shuman composition “Little Sister” was a number five pop hit for Elvis in 1961. The original recaptured Presley’s Sun Studios rock ‘n’ roll magic with the lyrics about a young girl’s coming of age sexuality and Hank Garland’s superb eight note guitar riff. Yoakam’s faithful recreation resulted in a 1987 Top Ten country hit and it’s no small feat to record a popular Elvis tune that results in no reciprocal embarrassment. Other interesting covers by Dwight over the years – Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me,” and Prince’s “Purple Rain.”
2. “Love Me Like You Used To,” Tanya Tucker. After her run as a teenage jezebel ended, Tanya had some lean times in the early 1980s, spending a few years without a record deal. She signed with Arista in 1986 and immediately scored a #1 country hit with “Just Another Love,” a forgettable contemporary pop country number written by Paul Davis of “I Go Crazy” fame. Davis also had a writing credit on “Love Me Like You Used To,” a song he wrote with Bobby Emmons, who is best known for co-writing “Luckenbach, Texas.” On this #2 country single, Tanya hopes to relight the burning passion in a long term relationship. The vocals deliver more desire than hope.
3. “Midnight Girl/Sunset Town,” Sweethearts of the Rodeo. California sisters Janis and Kristine Oliver started performing as a bluegrass act as teenagers. A relationship with Emmylou Harris helped the duo get work as background vocalists and as a touring opening act in the 1970s. After moving to Nashville in the 1980s (primarily for family reasons, Janis Oliver was once married to Vince Gill), the Sweethearts of the Rodeo signed with Columbia Records and released eight Top Ten singles from 1986 to 1988. The Don Schlitz composition “Midnight Girl/Sunset Town” is a reversal of country music’s favorite pet theme – the young woman actually longs to leave her rural one horse town setting for the excitement of a city. Also, it’s hard not to root for a female duo named after the groundbreaking Byrds LP.
4. “Ocean Front Property,” George Strait. Dean Dillon continued to work as a recording artist in the late 1980s/early 1990s, but his songwriting credits paid for his groceries. Dillon had already teamed with Hank Cochran, who Dillon later described as a “father figure,” for the Strait #1 hit “The Chair.” Dillon, Cochran, and former Texas rockabilly musician Royce Porter wrote the 1987 #1 single “Ocean Front Property.” Lyrically, it’s a country version of the 1984 John Waite hit “Missing You,” with less subtlety and more humor. From 1986 to 1989, Strait release eleven consecutive #1 singles. He wasn’t flashy and he didn’t need to be.
5. “Rose in Paradise,” Waylon Jennings. Nashville songwriters Jim McBride and Stewart Harris wrote the mystery number “Rose in Paradise,” Waylon’s last #1 single. The ghost story had been pitched to several performers and when Loretta Lynn heard it, she said, “Oh, Lord, that would be good for Waylon.” The supernatural feel was inspired by a woman named who lived outside of McBride’s native Huntsville, Alabama. She had five husbands who mysteriously died, however, the authorities were never able to prove foul play. In the lyrics, a jealous rich man hires a gardener to keep an eye on his young wife. Both parties disappear, leaving no clues in the process. McBride, “We were getting phone calls from DJs all over the country wanting to know if the woman was dead, and we said, ‘I don’t know, we just wrote the song.’” The writers didn’t immediately consider that the acronym for their hit was R.I.P.
6. “Rosie Strike Back,” Rosanne Cash. Rosanne Cash used a template similar to Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris in that she picked material from highly acclaimed writers and then used first rate studio musicians to push the boundaries of country music. “Rosie Strike Back” was written by folk performer Eliza Gilkyson, the daughter of musician Terry Gilkyson, a successful pop writer during the 1950s (his credits include Frankie Laine’s “The Cry of the Wild Goose” and Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made of This”). Terry Gilkyson’s most lasting pop culture contribution was writing “The Bare Necessities” for the 1967 film “The Jungle Book.” The lead track to Cash’s 1987 album “King’s Record Shop,” “Rosie Strike Back” isn’t a cute look at domestic violence like “Goodbye Earl.” Rosanne tells Rosie to pack up her baby and get the hell out of a bad situation. Session musician’s Steuart Smith’s guitar work is as tough as Rosanne’s attitude.
7. “Seashores of Old Mexico,” Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. A few years can be an eternity in the entertainment industry. Haggard and Nelson had a platinum #1 country release in 1983 with the “Pancho & Lefty” duet album. Their attempt to replicate that success with the 1987 “Seashores of Old Mexico” album resulted in no hit singles and tepid sales. The title track, about a ne’er do well running away from the U.S. law and eventually settling in with a beautiful senorita, was written by Haggard and had been a Top Ten Canadian hit for Hank Snow in 1971. Haggard had released his version in 1974, but it lacks the sheer weirdness of this 1987 take. Musically, the guitar chords sound like “Mr. Bojangles” and it includes intermittent punctuation by mariachi horns. Of course, Willie gets the line about the woman loving “the gringo, my red hair, and lingo.” George Strait had a #11 country hit in 2006 with his glossier, orchestration heavy version.
8. “Somebody Lied,” Ricky Van Shelton. Virginia native Ricky Van Shelton, no relation to Blake, moved to Nashville when he was in his mid-thirties and scored a record deal after a few years in Music City. “Somebody Lied” was the first of ten #1 singles that Shelton had from 1987 to 1991 and he showed his traditionalism on his debut album by covering material from Buck Owens, Roger Miller, and Merle Haggard. Conway Twitty had cut “Somebody Lied” as an album track in 1985, but Van Shelton’s take on this heartbreak tale was a more serious/less blustery affair. “Somebody Lied” was written by Joe Chambers and his long time musical partner Larry Jenkins, who was a nephew of Conway Twitty. Jenkins had a minor country hit in 1982 with “I’m So Tired of Going Home Drunk” (the punch line – “I just ain’t going home”).
9. “Telling Me Lies,” Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris. These three female country superstars tried to record an album during the mid-1970s, but legal issues with being signed to different labels stalled the project. (Emmylou released a version of “Mr. Sandman” with Dolly and Loretta on backing vocals in 1981, then was required to erase their contributions from the single). The 1987 platinum/#1 country album “Trio” was a major event, spawning four Top Ten country singles. After going to #1 with Phil Spector’s “To Know Him is To Love Him,” the second single was a cover of the Linda Thompson/Betsy Cook composition “Telling Me Lies,” a vivid dissection of a crushing personal disappointment. The acidic lyrics are a sharp counterpoint to the almost incomprehensible beauty of the blended voices.
10. “Thirty Again,” Merle Haggard. Haggard’s 1987 “Chill Factor” album went Top Ten, he wouldn’t scale those heights again for the next two decades, and included four hit singles. Always cognizant of his mortality, the fifty year old Haggard wanted to take two decades off the clock on the slow, jazz number, album cut “Thirty Again.” In an example of how perspectives change, the hippies viewed thirty as the age of distrust during the 1960s, while Haggard sees that mark as the pinnacle of his “crazy and wild” days. The aging process wouldn’t get any easier, he was five years away from filing for bankruptcy.
11. “Til I’m Too Old to Die Young,” Moe Bandy. Moe Bandy had a comeback Top Ten hit in 1987 with this strange, sentimental number about trying to avoid The Grim Reaper for as long as possible. Nothing like his traditional cheating material, this ends with what sounds like a weeping Civil War era fiddle passage. Linda Ronstadt cut a disturbing, minimalistic cover of this song on her 2006 collaboration album with Ann Savoy titled “Adieu False Heart.” Kevin Welch wrote this somber piece with Scott Dooley and John Hadley; his daughter Savannah Welch recorded “Till I’m Too Old to Die Young” in 2010 as part of the excellent Austin female group The Trishas. As for Bandy, he had another Top Ten hit in 1988 with “Americana” and he became one of the first country stars to settle in Branson, Missouri. Two revelations from 1970s and 1980s country music – David Bellamy is an underappreciated songwriter and Moe Bandy is an underappreciated vocalist.
12. “Those Memories of You,” Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris. “Those Memories of You” was written by bluegrass banjo player (as opposed to hardcore punk banjo player) Alan O’Bryant and was first recorded by Bill and James Monroe in 1978. Pam Tillis did a country version in 1986 and her single went to #55 on the charts. The “Trio” version split the difference between the genre with bluegrass inspired vocals and country instrumentation. With Appalachian girl Dolly out front and center, the result was a #5 single. Mark Deming on the “Trio” album, “that rare example of an all-star collaborative effort that truly shows everyone involved to their best advantage, and it ranks with the best of all three headliners’ work.”