Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1989, Part II
REO Speedwagon, Nick Lowe, and Tommy Shaw.
1. “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” Keith Whitley. The third #1 single from the 1988 gold album “Don’t Close Your Eyes” was “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” penned by Buddy Holly’s old friend Sonny Curtis and longtime Nashville songwriter Ron Hellard. (If you ever meet Ron Hellard, do not expect a friendly response if you ask about his ditty “Please Don’t Go Topless, Mother”). Lyrically, it’s somewhat of a standard overcoming the precipitation number, but Whitley’s fatal alcohol addiction adds an element of depth and irony. This was the #1 single on the 24th of April in 1989. Whitley gave his last breath on May 9th.
2. “It’s Just a Matter of Time,” Randy Travis. Soul singer Brook Benton was a co-writer of “It’s Just a Matter of Time” (with Clyde Otis and Belford Hendricks) and, singing in a smooth soul style similar to Nat “King” Cole, Benton took his slick production to #3 on the pop charts in 1959. (A subsequent generation of pop fans discovered Brook Benton in 1970 when he returned to the Top Five with his cover of Tony Joe White’s “Rainy Night in Georgia”). “It’s Just a Matter of Time” appeared on the country charts on three occasions – a #1 hit by Sonny James in 1970, a Top Ten outing for Glen Campbell in 1986, and Travis took it back to the top slot. Travis included doo wop backing vocals and a Conway Twitty like spoken interlude. Pure comfort music – the aural equivalent of a big heaping plate of mashed potatoes and fried chicken.
3. “Jennifer Johnson & Me,” Robert Earl Keen. I stumbled onto this track when researching songwriter Fred Koller, who worked with Shel Silverstein during the 1970s. “Jennifer Johnson & Me” was never released as a single, but was recorded by Mac Davis, Bobby Bare, and Conway Twitty, before being discovered by Texas A&M alum Robert Earl Keen. Keen tends to lapse into a lazy drawl as a vocalist, but he works in conventional singer/songwriter mode here. The song itself is beautifully wrought nostalgia, as a man finds a picture of his first love and reminisces about the Beatles, a three dollar arcade date, and a photo booth kiss. In a first cut is the deepest moment, he also wonders if Jennifer Johnson ever looks at that same picture. Keen’s 1989 “West Textures” album also includes his signature work as a writer, “The Road Goes on Forever.”
4. “Killin’ Time,” Clint Black. Clint Black and long term songwriting partner/band leader Nicholas Hayden had been working together for two years prior to the release of the 1989 “Killin’ Time” album. The title track was a last minute addition to the album, becoming its namesake and a #1 single. On “Killin’ Time,” Black worries that drowning his sorrows in liquor might put him in an early grave. Perhaps, this is one retroactive definition of 1980’s neo-traditional country music – a time when drinking was still viewed in terms of heartbreak instead of celebration. Every single Black released from 1989 to 1996 went Top Ten and he had ten of his thirteen #1 hits during that timeframe.
5. “The King is Gone (So Are You),” George Jones. Songwriter Roger D. Ferris has credits on material by Bob Wills, Marty Stuart, and Randy Travis, among others, but only wrote two Top 40 country hits – Keith Whitley’s “Same Old Side Road,” which peaked at #16 in 1987 and this unforgettable George Jones hit. Originally titled “”Ya Ba Da Ba Do (So Are You),” George takes the head off of Elvis and fills Fred Flintstone up to his pelvis while drinking away his relationship issues. As the Jim Beam intake increases, Elvis and Fred and George have a conversation about Graceland, Bedrock, and women. The Highwaymen performed a concert cover version in 1990 that is included on their 2016 “Live: American Outlaws” release.
6. “Long White Cadillac,” Dwight Yoakam. How many #1 singles would you guess that Dwight Yoakam has had? Ten? Fifteen? The actual number is two – 1988’s “Streets of Bakersfield” and “I Sang Dixie.” Still, after three years as a recording artist, he had his first best of release with 1989’s “Just Lookin’ for a Hit.” The album consisted of eight previously released singles and cover versions of The Flying Burrito Brother’s “Sin City” and The Blasters’ “Long White Cadillac.” Yoakam had toured with The Blasters before becoming famous, so this album lead track/minor hit single was a way of repaying a favor. From an artistic standpoint, slowing down the tempo of the song gave the lyrics more of a chance to stick with the listener. Superbly written, tunesmith Dave Alvin had eerily placed himself as the embodiment of Hank Williams during his final car ride on “Long White Cadillac.” Pete Anderson gets an extended solo on the outro, displaying his expertise in blues based traditional rock ‘n’ roll.
7. “Nothing I Can Do About It Now,” Willie Nelson. Beth Nielsen Chapman has worked as a folk oriented adult contemporary performer and replaced Tommy Shaw in the Alabama band Harmony when Mr. Crystal Ball (“so many things I GOT to know!”) joined Styx. She also has writing credits on #1 country hits by Tanya Tucker, Lorrie Morgan, Faith Hill, and this Willie Nelson chart topper, his last #1 single as a solo artist. Written specifically for Nelson, Chapman captured The Zen of Willie and this “What – Me Worry?” look at trials and tribulations. Chapman also provided harmony vocals, leaving Willie to conclude, “Beth just sort of laid it all out there for me to follow.”
8. “She Don’t Love Nobody,” Desert Rose Band. Chris Hillman may be best known by rock music fans as being a member of The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, but he also carved out a successful career in mainstream country music as the leader of the Desert Rose Band. His Eagles inspired outfit released eight Top Ten singles from 1987 to 1990, including the #1 hits “He’s Back and I’m Blue” and “I Still Believe in You.” “She Don’t Love Nobody” was written by John Hiatt and was originally recorded by Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit in 1985. I prefer Nick’s version, perhaps due to familiarity, but Hillman’s outfit took their pedal steel hooked cover to #3 on the country charts in 1989.
9. “Straight to Hell,” Drivin’ ‘N’ Cryin’. These Georgia apostrophe abusers started in the mid-1980s with the Southern rock/folk blend that was having a resurgence at that time and then improved their commercial fortunes in the early 1990s when they began sprinkling sugar coated crunchy metal frosted flakes into their music. “Straight to Hell” is an alt-country tale about a boy trying to emotionally survive in a small town where it’s no secret that his mom is, shall we say, indiscrete and generous with her affection. The narrator eventually runs off with his girlfriend to find a new life away from his atmospheric shame. “Straight to Hell” was covered by the Hard Working Americans in 2014 and Drivin’ ‘N’ Cryin’ still regularly performs in front of smaller audiences than they deserve.
10. “There Goes My Heart Again,” Holly Dunn. Texas native Holly Dunn moved to Nashville in 1984 and had a writing credit that year on the Louise Mandrell Top Ten single “I’m Not Through Loving You Yet.” Dunn quickly received her own record deal and released eight Top Ten hits and two #1 records from 1986 to 1990. “There Goes My Heart Again” managed to sound traditional and contemporary at the same time – you could easily imagine Buck Owens or Ray Price singing this passion over reason lyric. This Top Five hit was the first hit writing credit for Joe Diffie, who became a star in his own right the following year.
11. “Three Days,” k.d. lang. Canadian vocalist k.d. lang initially (get it?) worked in a Patsy Cline tribute band in the early 1980s. Her sultry voice and androgynous looks were hard to ignore and she had her first success in the U.S. on her 1987 duet of “Cryin’” with Roy Orbison, a Grammy Award winning effort. Lang made the country Top 40 twice in the late 1980s, with “I’m Down to My Last Cigarette” and “Full Moon Full of Love.” “Three Days” was written by Willie Nelson and had been a Top Ten hit for Faron Young in 1961. The punchline is that the singer feels heartbroken on three occasions – yesterday, today, and tomorrow. From the aptly named “Absolute Torch and Twang” album, “Three Days” was a Top Ten hit on the Canadian country charts for k.d. and it was obvious that her talent wasn’t going to be constrained by genre limitations.
12. “Timber, I’m Falling in Love,” Patty Loveless. As a single named entity, Kostas probably doesn’t have the recognition or cache of Cher or Beyoncé. However, during the early 1990s, Kostas (a Greek immigrant known as Kostas Lazarides to his family), was one of Nashville’s hottest songwriters. His first success came in writing material for Patty Loveless, including the 1989 #1 single “Timber, I’m Falling in Love.” A lightweight lyric, but vocally Loveless and Vince Gill fit together like traffic and weather. Gill, “To me, one of my most seamless sounding partners has been Patty Loveless. There’s something magical about our voices together that I was always drawn to.”
13. “You Got It,” Roy Orbison. Roy Orbison had his string of classic rock ‘n’ roll/pop hits from 1961 to 1964, but lost his commercial footing after “Oh, Pretty Woman” went to #1 in 1964. He received a major career boost in 1988, as a member of the casual supergroup The Traveling Wiburys, performing alongside Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne, while demonstrating that his operatic, velvet voice had never lost a step. Orbison sadly passed away in December of 1988, but his posthumous 1989 “Mystery Girl” album included “You Got It,” his last major U.S. hit. Written by Orbison, Petty, and Lynne, the song sounded like classic Orbison with modern production techniques. The song was an international Top Ten single, also hitting #9 on the U.S. pop charts and #7 on the country charts. Dylan, “With Roy, you didn’t know if you were listening to mariachi or opera. He kept you on your toes. With him, it was all about fat and blood. He sounded like he was singing from an Olympian mountaintop and he meant business.”
14. “Why’d You Come in Here Looking Like That,” Dolly Parton. As a solo artist, Dolly’s 1989 album “White Limozeen” was a comeback effort that included the #1 singles “Yellow Roses” and “Why’d You Come in Here Looking Like That,” as well as a bluegrass version of REO Speedwagon’s “Time for Me to Fly.” Dolly’s lusting after a former lover on “Why’d You Come in Her Looking Like That,” dazzled by his cowboy boots and painted on jeans. The production values sound like a template for the music that Mutt Lange and Shania Twain made in the 1990s. In the you probably wouldn’t guess this department – “Why’d You Come in Here” was written by the same goofs who were responsible for the motion sickness nausea of “Butterfly Kisses.”