Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1992, Part I
Phil Seymour, Bun E. Carlos, Drew Carey, The Starland Vocal Band, Greene County, Arkansas.
- “Better Class of Losers,” Randy Travis. While touring together in 1990, Randy Travis and Alan Jackson formed a short lived, but quite successful songwriting partnership. Travis had a #1 single in 1991 with Jackson/Travis collaboration “Forever Together” and Jackson landed a #1 hit with “She’s Got the Rhythm (And I’ve Got the Blues).” “Better Class of Losers,” the third major hit written by the pair, is another “Friends in Low Places” themed number, where Travis prefers his three dollar wine drinking friends to his significant other’s caviar and penthouse apartment lifestyle. Alan Jackson’s thoughts on touring with Randy Travis, “If y’all weren’t around then, he was like Elvis! He’d sold, like, 12 million records in four years or something. When he sang, the women were screaming and fainting. It was crazy! Somebody singing real country music and selling all those records, it just made me so happy. I was so proud to be on that tour.”
- “Boats to Build,” Guy Clark. Iconoclastic Texas troubadour Guy Clark found himself back on a major label in 1992, releasing his “Boats to Build” album on Elektra/Asylum. While country music was reflecting more of a folk influence at the time, Clark never had a radio friendly voice. Still, his gift was his songwriting and the title track is about a man taking his destiny into his own hands, literally, as in bending boards, nailing planks, and making charts to eventually sail into distant shores. This purpose driven life number was covered by Jerry Jeff Walker in 1998 and as a duet by Jimmy Buffett and Alan Jackson in 2004. The following quote from Clark sounds pretentious on its surface, but he had the track record to back it up, “My whole background is poetry, literature and that whole thing, and I just can’t bring myself to sing something that’s not really good. My percentage of keepin’ songs is pretty low.”
- “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” Brooks and Dunn. Leon “Kix” Brooks was a frustrated performer in the early 1990s, not artistically satisfied with having writing credits on #1 singles by John Conlee (“I’m Only in It for the Love”), The Dirt Band (“Modern Day Romance”), and Highway 101 (“Who’s Lonely Now”). Ronnie Dunn either left or was kicked out of a Christian university in the early 1980s and spent most of that decade working in the Tulsa, Oklahoma country music scene. The two performers were brought together by Arista executive Tim DuBois and released their “Brand New Man” album in 1991. “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” a Ronnie Dunn composition that was originally recorded by Asleep at the Wheel in 1990, was the duo’s fourth #1 single from their debut album, inspiring a line dance and becoming their signature song in the process. Dunn, reflecting on his composition that has been played on the radio over six million times, “It wasn’t meant to be a song to line dance to. At the time, I thought I was being a heavy lyricist, writing metaphorically about the cowboy lifestyle and the weekend warrior deal.”
- “Bubba Shot the Jukebox,” Mark Chesnutt. Bob Chesnutt’s day job was running a used car lot in Beaumont, Texas, but his unfulfilled dream was to become a country music star. Independent record releases and trips to Nashville never resulted in a record deal, but that goal later transferred to his son Mark Chesnutt. Mark Chesnutt dropped out of high school to work on the Beaumont club circuit, spending a decade paying dues before getting a contract. Reclusive Nashville songwriter Dennis Linde displayed his quirky sense of humor (his first hit credit was on Roger Miller’s 1969 release “Where Have All the Average People Gone?”) on “Bubba Shot the Jukebox.” As the title says, it’s a song about a redneck, a 45 caliber handgun, and a jukebox that played a sad tune and met an untimely death.
- “Feel Like Going Home,” Charlie Rich. After his hot run during the 1970s ended, Charlie Rich went over a decade without releasing any new material. With music journalist/long time friend Peter Guralnick serving as executive producer, the 1992 “Paintings and Pictures” release was the type of jazz leaning material that Rich always loved to perform. The Rich composition “Feel Like Going Home” was originally the b-side to the 1973 #1 single “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” On the reworked version, Rich sounded like a weary traveler who is ready to go the promised land, even tossing in a gospel choir and church organ. The final song on his last album, “Feel Like Going Home” sounds like Rich’s epitaph, rendered with a longing mix of pain and hope. Three years after this album was released, Rich passed away, leaving a legacy as one of the genre’s most talented and complicated artists.
- “Five O’Clock World,” Hal Ketchum. Arkansas native Allen Reynolds was best known in the music industry during this timeframe for producing Garth Brooks. However, Reynolds had also written “Five O’Clock World,” a Top Five pop hit for the blue-eyed soul act The Vogues in 1965. Supposedly, Ketchum suggested recording a cover of “Five O’Clock World” for his “Past the Point of Rescue” album, completely unaware that his producer had written it. Ketchum’s version, a #16 country hit, has a much less cluttered arrangement than The Vogues (how could it not), but still has the yodeling chorus hook. “Five O’Clock World,” still primarily associated with The Vogues, appeared in the films “Good Morning, Vietman” and “Big Fish,” as well as being the opening theme for television’s “The Drew Carey Show” for several years.
- “The Heart That You Own,” Dwight Yoakam. Despite only being a major singles artist on country radio from 1986 through 1993, Dwight Yoakam has sold over 25 million albums during his career. His first five studio releases were all certified platinum and his 1991 “If There Was a Way” album spawned four country Top 20 singles. The Yoakam composition “The Heart That You Own” is in the tradition of self-pitying country weepers, a female owns his heart and poor Dwight can’t find the financial or emotional wherewithal to take it back. The fiddle breaks sound like they were flown in from the 1960s, meaning they sound perfect.
- “I Feel Lucky”, Mary Chapin Carpenter. Mary Chapin Carpenter reached her commercial peak with her 1992 “Come On Come On” album – the record sold over four million copies and included seven (!) Top Twenty country hits. “I Feel Lucky” was the lead single, a collaboration effort between Carpenter and Nashville songwriter Don Schlitz. Carpenter ignores bad omens from her horoscope and the weather to win the lottery and get felt up by Lyle Lovett. You are also delighted to learn that the skyrockets in flight piano solo was performed by Jon Caroll, who started his music career at the age of eighteen as a member of The Starland Vocal Band.
- “If I Didn’t Have You,” Randy Travis. California native Donald “Skip” Ewing scored five Top Ten hits in the late 1980s, the biggest being 1989’s pop country number “Burnin’ a Hole in My Heart.” His primary success during the 1990s was as a songwriter, with credits on #1 singles by Collin Raye, Bryan White, Mark Wills, Kenny Chesney, and this Randy Travis chart topper, co-written with Max Barnes. Travis released two individual “Greatest Hits” CDs in September of 1992 (conveniently titled “Volume 1” and “Volume 2”) that included five previously unreleased songs. “If I Didn’t Have You,” which gave Travis a chance to emulate the phrasing of George Jones, and “Look Heart, No Hands” were two of those previously unreleased songs and they were both became #1 singles. Certainly not by design, the two greatest hits CDs marked the end of Travis’s time as one of the hottest stars in county music.
- “Is There Life Out There,” Reba McEntire. It took some time for songwriter Rick Giles to find his niche. He had his first hit when he penned “Wham Bam Shang-A-Lang” for the country rock band Silver in 1976 (a #16 pop hit that received major airplay on Chicago’s superstation WLS). He went a decade with no further success, but by the mid-1980s, he found his groove in Nashville, eventually writing fifteen Top Ten singles. Susan Longacre went to Giles with the idea of writing a song about a stepmother who had lost her sense of identity when her children left home (the finished product was much less specific about those details). Reba McEntire, in her late thirties at the time and coping with a plane crash that had killed most of her touring band in 1991, understood the power of music videos, casting herself as a struggling diner employee, college student, and mom. This stages of life/identity song inspired a made for television movie starring Reba in 1994. Reba, “Probably no song I have ever recorded has had an impact on women’s lives like ‘Is There Life Out There.’ When I sing that song, women stand up all over the arena. It’s their anthem!”
- “It Only Hurts When I Cry,” Dwight Yoakam. Roger Miller didn’t particularly enjoy working with other songwriters, once brushing off an offer by saying, “Look, Hoss, Picasso didn’t co-paint.” Still, he co-wrote “It Only Hurts When I Cry” with Dwight Yoakam, an experience that Yoakam likened to “trying to ride a bicycle alongside a taxiing Lear jet.” This was Miller’s last hit songwriting credit before his death in October of 1992. Yoakam wasn’t convincing in the wounded lover role, but he was the undisputed king of retro chic during that era.
- “Just Call Me Lonesome,” Radney Foster. The song title “Just Call Me Lonesome” was first used in a Rex Griffin composition that Eddy Arnold took to #2 on the country charts in 1955. That weeper was later covered by Wanda Jackson, Jim Reeves, Dave Dudley, Elvis Presley, and many others. Radney Foster released a different song titled “Just Call Me Lonesome,” one that he co-wrote with George Ducas who had his own Top Ten hit in 1995 with “Lipstick Promises.” This tune sounds so much like Dwight Yoakam that a Google search will auto-populate Yoakam’s name against the song, even though he never recorded it. Foster on the similarities, “I think it was mostly because of the Bakersfield shuffle, and he owned so much of that real estate, so to speak. I was writing with George Ducas, and just really trying to figure out how to write something that Harlan Howard would have written, or Ray Price, or Buck Owens would have sung.”
- “Let the Mystery Be,” Iris Dement. Iris Dement had family roots in rural Greene County, Arkansas, where her parents farmed an island on the St. Francis River, but was primarily raised in Southern California. Dement wrote her first song at the age of 25, penning the wistful “Our Town” about a dying community. That song was later featured in the final episode of the popular television program “Northern Exposure.” “Infamous Angel,” her debut album, was released in 1992, leading off with “Let the Mystery Be,” a lyric about agnosticism from a woman raised in a Pentecostal household. DeMent’s declaration to believe in love while alive and not to worry about the after-party has been covered by 10,000 Maniacs and as a power pop number by Bun E. Carlos.
- “Letting Go,” Suzy Bogguss. “Letting Go,” a song about the emotional upheaval involved when a child moves away from home, is a pop ballad that was written by Doug Crider with studio musician Matt Rollings. Doug Crider, who is Suzy Bogguss’s husband, was inspired to write the song after reflecting on the difficulties that his mother had when he moved to Nashville and about the emotions his mother-in-law felt after Suzy got married. Crider, “This is one of those themes that makes people sad, but it feels right to be sad about it.” The song was pitched in Nashville and Los Angeles for a few years, before Suzy decided to record it, resulting in a #6 single. By the way, in my experience here’s the real key about “letting go” as a parent, it’s not possible and that’s not a bad thing.
- “Lovin’ All Night,” Rodney Crowell. Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash divorced in 1992, an event that may have brought about the 1992 Rodney Crowell album title “Life Is Messy.” It was his last album for Columbia Records and the last time he would have hit records as a recording artist (Crowell later had writing credits on major hits for Alan Jackson, Tim McGraw, Lee Ann Womack, and Keith Urban). “Lovin’ All Night” is a ‘50s inspired rocker about the type of escapades that give a man no reason to leave his bedroom. Sometimes it’s better to strive for simplicity instead of “art.”
- “Maybe It Was Memphis,” Pam Tillis. The daughter of showbiz pro Mel, Pam Tillis worked in folk and jug band music during the 1970s, before settling into the Nashville scene. She recorded a string of unsuccessful singles during the 1980s, but after being signed by Arista Records in 1989, she became a regular chart presence during the 1990s. “Maybe It Was Memphis” was written by Michael Anderson during the 1980s, who was the bassist for power pop pioneer Phil Seymour at the time. Seymour recorded the song during the 1980s, but his version wasn’t released until 2011. Tillis recorded this look back at a lost love that namechecks William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams on two occasions, ultimately getting a #3 country hit and her signature song. She had thirteen Top Ten hits during the decade, although neither “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial” nor “Betty’s Got a Bass Boat” garnered that honor.