Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1989, Part I
Charles Manson, ZZ Top, and Terry Bradshaw.
1. “5:01 Blues,” Merle Haggard. The 1989 “5:01 Blues” album was Haggard’s last release for Epic Records and the pushed singles weren’t written by Haggard or his buddies, they came from Nashville’s factory of staff writers. Haggard performed “A Better Love Next Time,” his last Top Ten single, with the conviction of a man reading a bus schedule. The title track was a better effort, if a smaller hit, working a pun around the popular brand of Levi jeans with Haggard voicing his frustration of having nobody to see at home after quitting time. “5:01 Blues” was co-written by Michael Garvin, who had a string of country hits and later had a credit on the 2000 Top Ten Jennifer Lopez pop/dance single “Waiting for Tonight.” Haggard had his last Top 40 hit in 1990 with “If You Want to Be My Woman,” a Chuck Berry inspired effort about Merle’s frustration with a chaste woman.
2. “Ace in the Hole,” George Strait. George Strait’s backing unit was always named the Ace in the Hold Band, so this Dennis Adkins composition was a natural fit for King George. Strait is often labelled as a Western swing act, a categorization that I’ve always found bewildering, but “Ace in the Hole” squarely fits in the genre, from the rhythm guitar foundation to the rotating instrumental solos. He would never be compared to Bob Wills in the energy department, but I’m not sure anyone within the genre has ever had better commercial instincts.
3. “Bamboo Annie,” John Anderson. Hank Williams, Jr. fell off a literal cliff in the 1970s and John Anderson fell off a figurative one in the late 1980s. He went Top Ten in 1986 with the pro forma “Honky Tonk Crowd,” then only had two more Top 40 hits during the decade, a desperation duet with Waylon Jennings (“Somewhere Between Ragged and Right”) and a tune that was pushed as a George Bush reelection theme (“If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It”). The production values on Anderson’s barely released 1989 album “Too Tough to Tame” are so flat that it sounds more like a demo than a major album release. Hidden among the muck is this absolute gem about a failed cross-cultural international romance during World War II. Or, as John says, “That’s the way things were down in New Caledonia back in 1942, ya’ll.”
4. “Better Man,” Clint Black. Clint Black was raised in Southeast Texas and started performing with his brothers as a teenager. He spent several years on the Houston club circuit, working odd jobs to pay the bills. After signing a management contract with Bill Ham (who represented ZZ Top for decades), Black quickly got a deal with RCA Records and had immediate success. “A Better Man,” his first single and a #1 hit, was inspired by the ending of a long term relationship. Black, “I wanted to say something, to get a point across that although it didn’t work out, there was a lot to be gained from it. I wanted to say I’m better for knowing you, and those seven years we spent together were good for me.”
5. “Callin’ Baton Rouge,” New Grass Revival. The neo-progressive bluegrass act New Grass Revival put their mission statement in their name and broadened the horizons of their genre from 1971 to 1989. The mainstay was vocalist/mandolin player/fiddler Sam Bush, while the most famous member may have been banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck. Although only a mainstream/major label act during the late 1980s, New Grass Revival released eleven albums from 1972 to 1989. The Oak Ridge Boys had released a plodding version of the Dennis Linde composition “Callin’ Baton Rouge” in 1978. The New Grass Revival interpratation was their only Top 40 hit, giving them an opportunity to display their skills within the context of a well written country song. A fan of the New Grass Revival version, Garth Brooks covered “Callin’ Baton Rouge” for a 1994 #2 country single. Moderate success weeded out the New Grass Revival, who disbanded after the release of the 1989 “Friday Night in America” album.
6. “Come as You Were,” T. Graham Brown. Songwriter Paul Craft veered from novelty material like the Ray Stevens release “It’s Me Again, Margaret” and Bobby Bare’s “Dropkick Me, Jesus” to more sincere themes like Linda Ronstadt’s “Keep Me from Blowing Away” and this Top Ten single. “Come As You Were” was a minor hit for Jerry Lee Lewis in 1983 and had been recorded by Barbara Mandrell in 1986. T. Graham Brown channeled his inner Charlie Rich for a bluesy take on this brokenhearted tale. Graham’s commercial run ended in the early 1990s, having never seemed to reach his full potential as a singer. Paul Craft, reflecting upon his contributions to popular culture, “Hell, it wasn’t work, it was play. You couldn’t hold me back. I had to do it — like a squirrel climbing a tree.”
7. “Deeper Than the Holler,” Randy Travis. The world of pop music had described love in terms of geological features to include Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep – Mountain High” and most successfully on the Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson written “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (a duet hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell in 1967 and a #1 single for Diana Rosss in 1970). This Paul Overstreet/Don Schlitz #1 hit put a country spin on the theme. “Holler” is, of course, a colloquial variant of “Hollow,” a synonym for valley. Pine trees, snowflakes, and robins also get shout outs.
8. “Don’t Toss Us Away,” Patty Loveless. For everyone who has been waiting for the connection between the 1960’s garage rock turned psychedelic band Love (eternally known for the single “7 and 7 Is” and the album “Forever Changes”), you can stop holding your breath now. While Arthur Lee served as Love’s enigmatic frontman, guitarist Bryan MacLean was a creative force as well and penned “Alone Again Or,” the lead track from “Forever Changes” and one of the band’s most famous songs. MacLean was the half brother of Maria McKee, who performed in the critic’s band Lone Justice during the mid-1980s and MacLean wrote the 1985 album track “Don’t Toss Us Away” for that band. Loveless took this plea to keep a relationship together to #5 on the country charts, using a traditional country arrangement. The original Lone Justice version sounds like a bad Janis Joplin imitation. Sometimes discipline isn’t a bad thing. By the way, MacLean passed away while eating at a restaurant on Christmas day in 1998. He was only 52 years old.
9. “An Empty Glass,” Gary Stewart. It is my firm belief that the Dean Dillon/Gary Stewart composition “An Empty Glass” is the best drinking song in the history of country music. Stewart sings this number with a knife in the heart agony that compares favorably to George Jones’s best work. Stewart’s late career album releases for Hightone Records didn’t result in a commercial comeback, but just the fact that he was alive was a reason for celebration.
10. “From a Jack to a King,” Ricky Van Shelton. Ned Miller was a recording artist and songwriter who reportedly suffered from such painful stage fright that he would send someone else to perform using his name. His composition “Dark Moon” was a Top Ten pop hit for both Bonnie Guitar and Gale Storm in the 1950s. Ned recorded “From a Jack to a King” in 1957, but the single failed to chart. The song was rereleased in 1962 and became a major international hit, reaching the Top Ten on the pop charts in both the U.S. and the U.K. There had been dozens of cover of versions of this lucky in love number, but only Ricky Van Shelton brought it back to the charts, with this 1988 #1 single. Miller, who passed away in 2016 at the age of 90, had a Top Twenty country hit in 1964 with “Invisible Tears,” probably the only song recorded by both Marie Osmond and Charles Manson.
11. “Hey Bobby,” K.T. Oslin. K.T. Oslin’s 1988 album “This Woman” was her second consecutive platinum release and it included the Top Five singles “Hey Bobby,” the title track, and “Hold Me,” a #1 hit. Musically, she was much closer to Carole King than Hank Williams, but her relationship driven songs connected with perhaps the same demographic that made “Designing Women” a hit television show during this era. On “Hey Bobby,” K.T. decides to drop pretense of flirtation and directly propositions a young man for a night of memorable action. She’s even willing to talk about cars if he’ll get into hers. Oslin on her long hiatus after the hits dried up in the early ‘90s, “I asked my businesspeople if I had enough money to quit, and they said I did, so that’s what I did.”
12. “How Do,” Mary Chapin Carpenter. Mary Chapin Carpenter’s father was an important figure at “Life Magazine” (he undoubtedly knew Loudon Wainwright III’s dad) and that status resulted in an Ivy League education before starting a career in folk inspired country music. Carpenter signed with Columbia Records in 1987 and had her first hit in 1989 with “How Do,” a frisky upbeat shuffle with sharp Telecaster work from her musical collaborator John Jennings. After Jennings passed away in 2015, Carpenter noted, “He could play anything and his knowledge, talent and supreme great taste informed everything he did.”
13. “I Never Cared for You,” Willie Nelson. Willie first recorded this poetic number and its dramatic flamenco guitar flourishes as a single for Monument Records in 1964. Thematically, it’s about a woman who has been so conditioned to believe only lies that Willie notes that the sun is filled with ice, the sky has never been blue, and he has never had feelings for the subject of the song. Willie later included new versions of “I Never Cared for You” on four different albums – 1985’s “Me and Paul,” 1989’s “A Horse Called Music,” 1998’s “Teatro,” and 2014’s “December Day.” A truly odd number, from the unusual lyrics to the Tex Mex musical touches to Willie’s gunslinger vocal.
14. “I’m a One Woman Man,” George Jones. Shreveport area musician Tillman Franks went from being a sideman on the “Louisiana Hayride,” to being the manager of Johnny Horton. Franks had writing credits on many of Horton’s biggest hits including “Honky-Tonk Man,” When It’s Springtime in Alaska,” “Sink the Bismarck,” and “I’m a One-Woman Man.” Horton took the anti-cheating number “I’m a One-Woman Man” to #7 on the country charts in 1956 and it was the last Top Ten single for George Jones as a solo artist, peaking at #5. George had originally recorded a sonically challenged version of this rockabilly meets hillbilly number in 1960. Songwriter Franks, who is credited with introducing Elvis Presley to Louisiana Hayride producer Horace Logan, survived the car crash that killed Johnny Horton in 1960 and went on to manage David Houston, professional athlete Terry Bradshaw, and Japanese/Branson sensation Shoji Tabuchi.