Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1994, Part I
First time I shot her, I shot her in the side/Hard to watch her suffer, but with the second shot she died…
- “Before You Kill Us All,” Randy Travis. Songwriter Max T. (Troy) Barnes was in direct competition with his father, Max D. (Duane) Barnes, during the 1990s. In 1992, the Max T. Barnes composition “Love, Me” by Collin Raye lost to Max D. Barnes’ “Look at Us” by Vince Gill for the CMA Song of the Year award. Max T. Barnes and Keith Follesé penned “Before You Kill Us All,” a humorous plea by Randy Travis for his women to return, because he can’t manage the household without her (the goldfish are belly up, the dog won’t eat, the cat only has three lives left). The 1994 “This is Me” album was Travis’s last gold album until he turned to gospel music in the early 2000s. Keith Follesé went on to write #1 hits for Tim McGraw, Martina McBride, Lonestar, and Faith Hill’s crossover pop hit “The Way You Love Me.”
- “Crescent City,” Emmylou Harris. Emmylou Harris had the last of her twenty Top Ten singles in 1989 with the jilted lover, bluegrass tinged “Heartbreak Hill.” She never changed her basic formula, covering classic country tunes and well respected singer/songwriters, but she was deemed too old for radio by the 1990s. Her 1993 “Cowgirl’s Prayer” album included material from Tony Joe White, Jesse Winchester, Leonard Cohen, and Lucinda Williams’ “Crescent City.” “Crescent City” is a fond remembrance/coming of age song about Louisiana with a goal to get back to that zydeco drenched and dancing the night away atmosphere. Released as a single in 1994, Emmylou’s version of “Crescent City” didn’t even break into the Top 100 of the country charts.
- “Delia’s Gone,” Johnny Cash. As a solo artist, the 1980s were somewhat of a lost decade for Johnny Cash, both artistically and commercially, and it seemed like one of country music’s most iconic performers would never be relevant again. Into that void stepped producer Rick Rubin, who founded Def Jam Records and was known early in his career for his work with the Beastie Boys and Run-D.M.C. The stripped down production sound, basically acoustic guitar and Cash’s voice, for the 1994 “American Recordings” album included material from Nick Lowe, Glenn Danzig, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, and Loudon Wainwright, III. Cash returned to the narrative of the folk murder ballad on “Delia’s Gone,” written by Karl Silbersdorf and Dick Toops, an oddly named duo who appear to have no other substantive credits. Cash had recorded “Delia’s Gone” in 1962, but the later recording had a much more disturbing quality, as Cash and Rubin were trying to replicate the unapologetic feel of “Folsom Prison Blues.” The album gave Cash a new, younger audience and was the first step in reestablishing his legendary status.
- “Every Once in a While,” Blackhawk. Henry Paul made a successful transition from rock to country music during the 1990s. During the 1970s, Paul was a guitarist/singer for the Outlaws, a southern rock act best remembered for their AOR hit “Green Grass and High Tides.” He attempted a solo career in the late 1970s and early 1980s, then formed the country act Blawkhawk in 1992, teaming with Nashville songwriter Van Stephenson and keyboardist Dave Robbins. Blackhawk scored seven Top Ten singles during the 1990s, including the 1995 #2 single “I’m Not Strong Enough to Say No,” written by former hard rock producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange. The 1994 #2 hit “Every Once in a While” was penned by the band and continued the type of harmony singing that Paul had done as an Outlaw. He still works in both genres as a touring member of both bands.
- “Fast As You,” Dwight Yoakam. For his last Top Ten hit, Yoakam reworked the guitar riff from Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” and attached it to a groove based song about a reciprocal back stabbing romantic relationship. Yoakam hopes that he has the wherewithal to hurt his woman as much as she’s hurt him, but both parties know it’s not going to happen. Producer Pete Anderson in 2012 reflecting on the albums he made with Yoakam, “Truth be told, Rosie Flores, and Dwight Yoakam — way back — and Jim Lauderdale, the people I made records with way back in the ‘80s, they were the first Americana records. They were records that didn’t fit anywhere. There wasn’t an Americana format back then.”
- “Gone Country,” Alan Jackson. “Nothing can better bring together a black man and a white, a young man and an old, a country man and a city man, than a dollar placed between them,” Nick Tosches. As country music sales skyrocketed during the early 1990s, musicians (see entry #4 above) and songwriters from other fields of music suddenly felt a need to relocate to Tennessee. Songwriter Bob McDill, “The people in that song were real people who said the kind of things that are in the song – all these weak, thinly veiled excuses for moving to Nashville.” “Gone Country” is a pretty withering commentary about people who have suddenly discovered that commerce is more important than their art. Alan Jackson put a more positive spin on it, “I think it’s just a fun song actually, celebrating how country music has become more widespread and accepted by all types of people all over the country.”
- “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” Mary Chapin Carpenter. During the early 1970s, the health supplement Geritol ran a commercial about a Stepford housewife meeting her husband at the door at the end of his workday with a cocktail. The ad concluded with the patronizing tagline, “My wife…I think I’ll keep her.” Over two decades later, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Don Schlitz used that bit of inspiration to write “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” a song about a woman who finds more satisfaction in a minimum wage job than being a dutiful housewife. Certainly, this was the most blatantly feminist song to be a major hit during this era, peaking at #2. Carpenter ended her chart run with nine Top Ten singles, including the 1994 #1 hit “Shup Up and Kiss Me.”
- “I Try to Think About Elvis,” Patty Loveless. It’s not easy to replicate the energy of 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll, but Patty Loveless and her producer/husband Emory Gordy, Jr. managed to do that with the manic pop thrill of “I Try to Think About Elvis.” Lyrically, Loveless lists things she tries to think about to avoid her romantic obsession, including Shakespeare, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, sushi bars, and saxophones. Musically, there’s a homage to Jerry Lee Lewis in the instrumental break. Songwriter Gary Burr, “I had to rewrite ‘Elvis’ because it was a very testosterone-driven song. It was also all about homeruns, hand guns, and red meat. So, I rewrote it and tried to get in touch with my feminine side. I wrote about hair-dos and tattoos – two important things to a woman to me.”
- “I Wish I Could Have Been There,” John Anderson. Harry Chapin made a fortune by reporting on his inattentive parenting skills in the 1970s with “Cat’s in the Cradle.” John Anderson, co-writing with Kent Robbins, voiced his regrets from the perspective of a traveling musician who misses his daughter being born and his son’s athletic exploits on “I Wish I Could Have Been There.” It was the last of three Top Five hits from John’s 1993 gold certified “Solid Ground” album. Some perspective on Anderson’s talent from Jon Langford of The Mekons, ““I think he was one of the last great country singers. There’s no one since him who comes from that long tradition of great country singers. He’s the last country singer I really listened to.”
- “Independence Day,” Martina McBride. Kansas native Martina McBride moved to Nashville in 1989, quickly moving from selling Garth Brooks merchandise on the road to getting a contract with RCA Records. She had her breakthrough hit in 1993 with the #2 single “My Baby Loves Me,” a Gretchen Peters composition. “Independence Day” wasn’t one of McBride’s biggest hits, stalling at #12 on the country charts as some stations shied away from the theme of domestic abuse, but it’s one of her best known songs. Gretchen Peters also wrote this tale of a young girl who reacts to family violence by burning down her home. Peters, “I wrote it from the point of view of an eight-year-old girl, and I think not coincidentally that was how old I was when my parents split up. I did kind of have some kind of emotional grounding to understand at least how it feels from a child’s point of view to have their world just come apart like that, and feel that things are out of control, and they’re just in the way.”