Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1988, Part I
1. “The Bird,” George Jones. After more than three decades of being a star, country radio became much less interested in George Jones starting with the release of the 1987 album “Too Wild Too Long.” The only Top 40 hit on the album was this Dennis Knutson/”Doodle” Owens novelty number that was originally pitched to Buck Owens in the mid-1970s. Lyrically, “the bird” represents a parrot that outed George’s extracurricular activities with women, as well as our culture’s most widely known hand gesture. That songwriting duo was also responsible for the George Jones Top Ten singles “Somebody Wants Me out of the Way,” “Wine Colored Roses,” and “The Right Left Hand.” Dennis Knutson, “Through the years from 1973-2012 I managed to accumulate close to 100 major cuts. Never got rich but didn’t care about that because I never wrote a song for that purpose.”
2. “Changed the Locks,” Lucinda Williams. The daughter of college professor/poet Miller Williams, Lucinda Williams spent most of the 1970s as a folk singer, living in Louisiana, Texas, and New York. During her late twenties, Williams recorded two albums for the Folkways label – one a collection of blues standards (1979’s “Ramblin’”) and the other a set of original material (1980’s “Happy Woman Blues”). After several years of honing her writing skills and avoiding record deals that didn’t fit her vision, she released the “Lucinda Williams” album in 1988 on Rough Trade Records and it’s one of the best singer/songwriter efforts of the decades. Lucinda details how to avoid an unwanted ex-lover on “Changed the Locks.” In addition to getting a new set of keys, Lucinda decides to change her phone number, her car, her clothes, the path of the railroad tracks, and the name of her town. There are poor cover versions of “Changed the Locks” in the universe by Tom Petty and Johnny Cash. Never trust a man to do a job built for and by Lucinda.
3. “Copperhead Road,” Steve Earle. Steve Earle looked to be a major new commercial artist after his 1986 “Guitar Town” album went to #1. However, his 1987 release “Exit 0” was a disappointment and he went down an alternative country path for 1988’s “Copperhead Road.” The bluegrass meets metal title cut sounds like a movie – starting with a blaring bagpipe intro, then describing a ‘Nam vet from a bootlegging family who gets into the weed business. Duplicating the violence of his professed profession, the drum beats sound like machine gun fire. Give Earl credit for voicing the outlaw, redneck survivalist theme before it became a cliché. In the sheer weirdness department, this take no prisoners, kill the feds number inspired a country line dance.
4. “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” Keith Whitley. Keith Whitley started performing on the bluegrass circuit during the 1970s, working in Ralph Stanley’s band and being a member of J.D. Crowe’s New South. Pushing thirty, Whitley moved to Nashville in 1983 and quickly signed with RCA Records. Whitley had three Top Ten singles in 1986 and 1987, but this #1 single took him from also ran to superstar. Lyrically, it’s a plea from a wounded man for his lover to stop fantasizing about her ex. Vocally, Whitley’s smooth as Kentucky bourbon baritone was perfectly suited for honky tonk heartbreak. Alan Jackson and Kellie Pickler have covered “Don’t Close Your Eyes” as a tribute to Whitley and as, to quote Jerry Lee, a damn good country song.
5. “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses,” Kathy Mattea. Kathy Mattea worked in a bluegrass outfit in her native West Virginia before moving to Nashville in 1978. After singing demos for years, she signed with Mercury Records in 1983 and had her breakthrough hit in 1986 with the Nanci Griffith composition/#3 country hit “Love at the Five and Dime.” Gene and Paul Nelson were a sibling performing duo turned songwriting team whose long haul trucker uncle inspired the retirement love song “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses.” The song was a true story, even the bit about the relatives trading the semi for a Winnebago, and was named the CMA “Record of the Year.” Mattea, ““That song got me the first time I heard it. When I hear that record on the radio, I can hear how young I was. There was something real honest about it.”
6. “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried,” Rodney Crowell. After a decade of being known primarily as a writer and producer, Rodney Crowell exploded commercially with the 1988 “Diamonds & Dirt” album; I’m not aware of any other regular issue country album that included five #1 singles. (The marital relationship angle didn’t hurt; the first single was the Rosanne duet “It’s Such a Small World,” after all). “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried” has that sunshine busting out all over vibe, similar to Buck Owens’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here” from a previous generation (or two). The world can never have enough buoyant optimism.
7. “I Told You So,” Randy Travis. Randy Travis wasn’t a prolific songwriter and this is his only major hit where he has the sole writing credit. Conceptually, this #1 single is about a man who wants to atone for his sins and reunite with a former lover, but he’s overwhelmed by the thought of rejection. Travis was always a “serve the song” type of performer, but this is one of the few times he went out of his way to display his enormously powerful voice. Simply put, one of the best performances by one of the genre’s best vocalists. A 2009 duet version by Travis and Carrie Underwood went to #2 on the country charts and was a crossover pop Top Ten hit.
8. “If I Had a Boat,” Lyle Lovett. If Lyle Lovett has a signature song, it would be “If I Had a Boat,” the fourth not terribly successful single released from the 1987 “Pontiac” album (that album did include his last two Top 40 country efforts – “She’s No Lady” and “I Loved You Yesterday”). In naming this the 87th greatest country song of all time, “Rolling Stone” described “If I Had a Boat” as “absurdist and meditative.” Lyle just wanted a boat and a pony and to be Roy Rogers (with no Dale Evans in the picture) and to inhabit Tonto to tell The Lone Ranger to kiss his ass. When asked how he approached this song as an artist, Lovett replied, “I don’t know, I think songs like that approach you.”
9. “If My Heart Had Windows,” Patty Loveless. A Kentucky raised coal miner’s daughter, Patty Loveless (who changed the spelling of her last name to avoid confusion with Linda Lovelace) started performing live gigs at the age of twelve and worked weekend shows with Porter Wagoner as a teenager. Still, she spent over a decade and a half working the clubs and dive bar scene before getting her break in Nashville. She had her breakthrough hit in 1988 with the Dallas Frazier composition “If My Heart Had Windows,” which had been a Top Ten single for George Jones in 1967. On the Loveless take, traditionalism and sentimentalism pair up to pay their respects to the weeping steel guitar.
10. “If You Change Your Mind,” Rosanne Cash. Pedal steel guitarist Hank Devito was a member of Emmylou Harris backing unit “The Hot Band” and wrote several major hits, including “Queen of Hearts” for Dave Edmunds and Juice Newton. Devito and Roseanne co-wrote the 1988 #1 single “If You Ever Change Your Mind,” a textbook example of effective vocal phrasing and subtle pop hooks. This was the third of five straight #1 singles that Rosanne released from 1987 to 1989, making her the hottest Cash in country music during this era.