Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1994, Part II
Death, the meaning of life, and Toby Keith.
1. “ Marie,” Townes Van Zandt. Townes Van Zandt was only fifty years old when the 1994 album “No Deeper Blue” was released but decades of hard living made him sound like an octogenarian. Singing as if he was teetering on the edge of death reinforces the despair of “Marie,” one of the bleakest songs you’ll ever hear. A description of a homeless man with no support system, the tale ends when his girlfriend dies under a bridge, while carrying the couple’s unborn child. Townes often worried that his lyrics could turn into self-fulfilling prophecies, but he also had a premonition about his own fate, once musing, ““I don’t envision a very long life for myself. I think my life will run out before my work does.” Townes passed away on January of 1997 and will always be an enigmatic figure, one who seemed quite comfortably in psychic dark places that most of us work to avoid.
2. “My Life,” Iris Dement. Iris Dement was signed to Warner Brothers Records and recording in Nashville for the 1994 “My Life” album. However, the label was smart enough not to try to put her unique talent in the Music City assembly line production mode; she continued to deliver her country/gospel sound with serious emotional themes. The title track is as moving a song as you will ever hear – Dement notes the relative insignificance of an individual human life as compared to the scope and history of the universe. Then, she discovers her own self worth, not in the approval of a higher power, but in giving her mother joy, making her lover smile, and providing comfort to friends when they are hurting. Iris concludes that she “can make things better for a while” and it sounds like mankind’s noblest gift.
3. “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” Toby Keith. Toby Keith, who dropped his surname Covel for his stage act, spent over a decade working in oil fields, playing semi-pro football, and performing in honky tonk clubs before being signed in the early 1990s. He went platinum with his debut album and “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” his first single, went to #1 on the country charts. This salute to the television show “Gunsmoke,” Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers became the most played song of the decade. Keith, a dedicated capitalist if nothing else, took full advantage of his nostalgic smash turned opportunity, “I went out and did probably 265 or 270 one-nighters in nightclubs after I had a hit. It was more money than I had ever made in my life. You’re talking about paying me more money in one night than I used to make in a month, so book me, I can do it. I didn’t know how long it was going to last.”
4. “Thinkin’ Problem,” David Ball. The son of a South Carolina Baptist minister, David Ball spent much of the 1970s working in the Austin music scene and relocated to Nashville during the 1980s. Ball released his major label debut album “Thinkin’ Problem” in 1994 and the title track went to #2 on the country charts. The drinkin’/thinkin’ pun was similar to Gary Stewart’s 1974 Top Ten single “Drinkin’ Thing” and critic Brian Mansfield most humorously noted, “David Ball, 41 when this album came out, had a craggy Texas face and a voice to match.” Ball’s star faded fast in the 1990s, but he had a minor miracle in 2002 when his single “Riding with Private Malone,” released on an independent label, became a Top Five hit. Proof, if you ever needed it, that an aging act with an unremarkable voice and no corporate backing could conquer Nashville by simply pushing the right patriotic buttons.
5. “Third Rock from the Sun,” Joe Diffie. Joe Diffie is another singer that didn’t get the Nashville stamp of approval until he was in his thirties. He worked in factory and trucking jobs in Oklahoma and Texas, before hitting Nashville in 1986 and becoming a popular demo singer. He was signed to Epic Records in 1990 and scored four Top Five singles and two #1 hits, “Home” and “If the Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets),” from his debut album. With a reworked Jimi Hendix title, “Third Rock from the Sun” is an enjoyable yarn about chaos theory, car theft, barroom chicanery, and a potential alien. This was the last major songwriting credit for Sterling Whipple, the one-time employee for Tennessee’s child protective services agency, who gave the world “Blind Man in the Bleachers.”
6. “Welfare Music,” The Bottle Rockets. The core members of The Bottle Rockets performed in the St. Louis area during the 1980s as Chicken Truck, the name taken from the John Anderson song, but broke up when lead singer Brian Henneman became a roadie (or, more appropriate, THE roadie) and extra musician for Uncle Tupelo. A set of informal recordings by Henneman resulted in a record deal with the independent label East Side Digital in 1992. The band recorded “The Brooklyn Side,” their career album for East Side Digital in 1994 and that album was picked up by Atlantic Records in 1995. “Welfare Music,” co-written by Henneman with Scott Taylor, a high school teacher who was a mentor to the band, is an empathetic look at an unwed teen mother, arguing that the woman and her baby deserve more support than judgment. It’s amazing how that sounded like a radical concept by the mid-1990s.
7. “Wish the Worst,” Old 97’s. This Dallas based, roots rock act went all the way back to Vernon Dalhart’s 1924 record “The Wreck of the Old 97 for their countrier than thou band name. Lead singer/heartthrob Rhett Miller manages to write literature influenced lyrics without ever losing the feel or emotion of the music. The band released “Hitchhike to Rhome,” their debut album in 1994. Miller simultaneously misses the presence of a former lover on “Wish the Worst,” while hoping she crashes her mother’s car and catches the flu. The band would later perform this type of material with less affectation, but the humor shines through. Another popular track from “Hitchhike to Rhome” is the romantic infatuation number “Doreen.” Miller wasn’t changing names to protect the innocent there, you can easily spot the real Doreen standing in the front of the audience at every Old 97’s show in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.