Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1988, Part II
After a sixteen year absence, Buck Owens returns to the #1 slot on country radio.
1. “Life as We Knew It,” Kathy Mattea. Songwriter Fred Koller collaborated with Shel Silverstein in the early 1970s (their composition “Jennifer Johnson & Me” has been recorded by Bobby Bare, Conway Twitty, and Robert Earl Keen) and split time as a songwriter and a book store owner for several decades. His material has been recorded by mainstream country acts including Pam Tillis, Hal Ketchum, Vern Gosdin, as well as folkies like Peter Stampfel, Peter Case, and John Prine (who recorded “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian”). Besides the Jeff Healy Band hit “Angel Eyes,” Koller’s most successful commercial work was recorded by Mattea, who went Top Five with “Goin’ Gone,” “She Came from Fort Worth,” and the 1988 divorce song “Life as We Knew It.” Mattea walks away from a marriage with both regret and matter of fact acceptance on “Life as We Knew It.” She can’t believe “we threw it all away,” but there’s also no hint that she plans to live in the past.
2. “Life Turned Her That Way,” Ricky Van Shelton. This Harlan Howard composition was first recorded by “Little” Jimmy Dickens in 1965 and was a #11 hit for Mel Tillis in 1967. How’s this for validation? It was also recorded by George Jones, Conway Twitty, and Charley Pride in that same year. This #1 Ricky Van Shelton record is about a woman whose romantic past has left her emotionally defeated and the narrator made the problem even worse (“She’s been walked on and stepped on so many times/I hate to admit it, but that last footprint’s mine”). So far, both Shelton entries have had a Conway Twitty connection. Billboard magazine’s Ed Morris opined in 1990 that Shelton “sounds like a latter-day Conway Twitty. So many of his songs are just simple, unadorned laments of some sort or another. They’re not sophisticated. They just have an emotional tug that the big country audience really goes for.’
3. “Old 8 x 10,” Randy Travis. Speaking of Conway, his nephew Larry Jenkins and his frequent collaborator Joe Chambers wrote “Old 8 x 10,” the title track to Randy Travis’s 1988 double platinum album. The album included the #1 singles “I Told You So,” “Honky Tonk Moon,” “Deeper Than the Holler,” and “Is It Still Over?”, but this lesser known release is a top notch weeper. The dimensions in the song’s title refer to a picture frame. Within that frame is the entirety of the world for Travis – the image of a woman. A woman who is never coming back.
4. “Passionate Kisses,” Lucinda Williams. “Passionate Kisses” is the biggest hit that Lucinda’s ever written. Unfortunately, the hit part of the equation belongs to Mary Chapin Carpenter, whose wet rag cover version was a #4 country hit in 1993. Lucinda takes on Maslow’s hierarchy in “Passionate Kisses,” quickly moving from basic physiological needs of food and clothing, then moving on to self-actualization through romantic bliss. It’s a rare combination of pop hooks and optimism from Lucinda. When I met her in Portland in the early 1990s, I tried to get her to dismiss Carpenter’s cover, but even in the pre-internet days, she was too savvy or sweet to take that bait. Carpenter had the second cover hit from the 1988 “Lucinda Williams” album, Patty Loveless took the lonely Corona drinking office clerk of “The Night’s Too Long” to #20 in 1990.
5. “Set ‘Em Up Joe,” Vern Gosdin. Alabama native Vern Gosdin began his performing career at his church and later performed gospel music on a local radio program with his family. He moved to California during the 1960s and worked with Chris Hillman and Gene Clark at various times during the decade. After failing to become a success, he moved to Georgia and worked day jobs for several years. His friendship with Emmylou Harris helped to open doors in Nashville and he returned to the music industry and the charts in 1976. Gosdin’s voice developed more personality as he aged and “Set ‘Em Up, Joe,” a tribute to Ernest Tubb written by Gosdin with Dean Dillon, Buddy Cannon, and Hank Cochran, became his second #1 hit. Nice recording touch – the way the short, warped pedal steel break replicates Tubb’s low-fidelity production values. Gosdin had another career record that year with “Chiseled in Stone,” a warning to be good to your lady, because nobody’s immortal.
6. “Streets of Bakersfield,” Dwight Yoakam & Buck Owens. When Buck Owens was one of the biggest stars in country music, he would often receive unsolicited tapes from aspiring songwriters. Most of them went directly to the garbage, but Washington native Homer Joy’s submission got a hearing – mainly because Buck’s publisher found great humor in the name Homer Joy. The tape impressed Owens to the point where Joy was made a staff writer for his publishing company. Songwriter Joy was inspired to write “Streets of Bakersfield” after having an altercation with a studio producer (“you don’t know me, but you don’t like me”) and pacing the streets until his ill fitting cowboy boots blistered his feet to the point he could barely walk. Buck Owens cut “Streets of Bakersfield” in 1973, but the original version wasn’t released as a single. Years later he reflected, “I always thought it was a big song and that’s why I harangued Dwight to record it.” The duet version, with Conjunto legend Flaco Jimenez on accordion, resulted in a #1 single, giving Owens a late career return to the public spotlight.
7. “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” Merle Haggard. “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” was the last of Haggard’s thirty-four #1 singles as a solo artist. Written with his friend Freddy Powers, Haggard wishes to the cosmos with nursery rhyme simplicity for the return of his lover. There’s a shimmering, doo wop quality to the recording, although the boozy saxophone break is an incongruous touch. Still, it’s sentimental nostalgia that works. Like his colleagues George Jones and Willie Nelson, Haggard’s stature as a major commercial artist was going to fade at the end of the decade.
8. “White Freightliner Blues,” Jimmy Dale Gilmore. Townes Van Zandt performed for five straight nights at a Houston club in 1973 and a compilation of four track recordings from those shows was released as the double album “Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas” in 1977. That set included “White Freightliner Blues,” one of his most covered songs. It’s a romantic look at the highways, both as a means of escape and as a way to get home. “Freightliner” has been covered by several Texas singer/songwriters (Gilmore, Steve Earle, Billy Joe Shaver) and has become somewhat of a modern bluegrass standard. Similar to the open road, this is a tune that a good band can take anywhere they want to go. Gillian Welch has recorded one of the most popular takes, but Van Zandt’s fellow Texan Jimmie Dale Gilmore steers a pedal stomping romp that avoids potholes and off ramps.