Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1995, Part I
Bruce Springsteen, The Battle of Pea Ridge, and the return of George and Tammy.
1. “All Just to Get to You,” Joe Ely. Joe Ely wrote several songs with Will Sexton, the brother of long time Dylan guitarist Charlie Sexton, for the 1995 album “Letter to Loredo,” Ely’s last major label release. Ely and Sexton penned “All Just to Get to You,” a recounting of physical and geographical obstacles and frustrations that Ely has overcome to get to “you,” which may be about a person or may be about the elusive mass audience that Ely hoped to find. Ely, reflecting on his songwriting, “There’s a certain kind of romance that I have in me as far as when I start dealing with characters and landscapes and everything. I like to tell stories. I like to take things that happened to me and things that I have witnessed and create characters and put the characters in a scene, and then I follow them around and just try to see what they would do.” New Jersey singer/songwriter Bruce Springsteen provides backing vocals on “All Just to Get to You” and fellow Texan Pat Green kicked off his 2012 album “Songs We Wish We’d Written II” with his cover version.
2. “Ben McCulloch,” Steve Earle. Steve Earle’s recording career went dormant during the early 1990s and he did a short prison sentence on drug related charges. He was still respected enough as a songwriter/artist to get picked up by Warner Brothers for his 1995 Grammy nominated album “Train a Comin’.” “Ben McCulloch” gets its title from the Civil War General of that name who died in the 1862 Battle of Pea Ridge, a Confederate defeat in Northwest Arkansas. The narrator, who goes AWOL after seeing his brother get killed, finds the realities of war much less romantic than the marketing material and questions his own involvement by stating, “I don’t even know what I’m fightin’ for, I ain’t never owned a slave.” Conscientious objector protest music, set over a century before Viet Nam.
3. “Bend It Until it Breaks,” John Anderson. Songwriter Lionel Delmore had deep roots in country music history, his father Alton and his uncle Rabon comprised the Delmore Brothers, the famous 1930s and 1940s country recording act. Delmore co-wrote John Anderson’s first Top 40 hit, 1978’s “The Girl at the End of the Bar,” his biggest hit, “Swingin’,” and his last Top Ten single, “Bend It Until It Breaks.” Anderson replicates the fiddle sound of “Seminole Wind” on this somber tale of a long suffering cuckold. Anderson, “Lionel Delmore was one of the most important people to me ever in my career as far as advising me and staying on me about writing songs. We both decided to quit our jobs the same day and start writing songs together.” Lionel died of lung cancer in 2002, the year after the Delmore Brothers were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
4. “Dust on the Bottle,” David Lee Murphy. David Lee Murphy moved from southern Illinois to Nashville in the early 1980s, kicking around the city for a decade before being signed by MCA Records. He first went Top Ten in 1995 with the standard Nashville country track “Party Crowd,” then went to #1 with “Dust on the Bottle,” arguably the most influential song in country music history over the past twenty-five years. Musically, Murphy brought a hard rock power chord structure into mainstream country music with this song, something that would be done with much less subtlety in the future, and lyrically there’s a girl, a lake road, and a bottle of wine. The only thing he left out was the pickup truck. Murphy ended his recording career with five Top Ten singles, but also has writing credits on #1 hits by Kenny Chesney, Jason Aldean, and Thompson Square.
5. “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” Vince Gill. Vince Gill has released over twenty Top Ten singles, but his signature song wasn’t one of them. The eulogic ballad “Go Rest High on That Moutain” was completed after the death of his brother in 1993. Gill, “I wrote this song, and I didn’t have any idea if anybody would want to hear it, or like it. All I wanted to do was grieve for him and celebrate his life. That’s how I always process grief—sit down with a guitar and make something up. Turns out that if anybody remembers any of my songs, it’ll be this one.” Patty Loveless and Ricky Skaggs provide backing vocals on this textbook example of how to merge country and gospel music, which Gill reportedly started writing after the death of Keith Whitley. Gill and Loveless famously performed this song at the funeral for George Jones in 2013 and the recording has undoubtedly been played at countless similar services.
6. “Goin’ Through the Big D,” Mark Chesnutt. “Goin’ Through the Big D” is a divorce song in the same vein as “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft),” where a poor relationship decision leads to personal economic frustration. One of the song’s co-writers was producer Mark Wright, who worked was way from a staff songwriter position through producer to become a record label president. Ronnie Rogers, who had written several hits with and for Alabama, co-wrote this song and inspired this anecdote from Harlan Howard about who picks up the tab in Nashville, “One day we were desperate. Then a kid named Ronnie Rogers comes in and says, ‘I got a hold by [the band] Alabama.’ We said, ‘He’s buying!’ We stuck him with three hundred bucks worth of booze. We felt so good, we almost felt we had a hit ourselves.” As for Chesnutt, he ended his career with twenty Top Ten singles, the last being a cover of the Diane Warren composition/Aerosmith hit “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” a song that Decca Records said he could either record or he could be dropped from his contract.
7. “Here Comes the Rain,” The Mavericks. The Miami based band The Mavericks brought Latin and Tex Mex sounds back to country music with their six Top 40 country singles during the 1990s. Lead singer Raul Malo, the son of Cuban immigrants, updated the romantic angst/heartbreak vocal style of Roy Orbisons. Malo, “Roy Orbison was more influential for his songs for me than even his singing. And I don’t mean to discount his singing in any which way — he was certainly an influence. But it was really his songwriting that drew me in to Roy.” Malo is “showered in pain” on “Here Comes the Rain,” a frequent lyrical theme from the band, but Malo is the type of singer built to transcend his material. Writer Joseph Hudak, “Malo possesses a voice that vibrates through a listener’s entire core.”
8. “I Do Believe,” The Highwaymen. The intermittent supergroup the Highwaymen were losing commercial steam with their 1995 album “The Road Goes on Forever,” released on Liberty Records instead of Columbia. However, it’s probably their best non-compilation album. Jennings states his case for a non-interventionist deity on “I Do Believe.” Jennings, “I think the best song I’ve ever written is ‘I Do Believe.’ It’s off of one of the Highwaymen albums. It wasn’t a hit, but it’s a good song. Most people who have heard it feel the same way. It’s about what a lot of people in this world are turning to now in the name of religion, but I think spirituality is where it’s at. It’s how you feel yourself. It’s how I felt and the way I still feel about things.” The Highwaymen toured until the late 1990s and their legacy was celebrated in 2016 with a live album and the highly recommended “The Very Best of the Highwaymen.”
9. “I Don’t Even Know Your Name,” Alan Jackson. The success of Garth Brooks commercially dwarfed all of his competition during the 1990s, but Alan Jackson’s statistics aren’t too shabby. His 1992 album and 1994 albums sold over ten million copies, included ten Top Ten singles, and five of those were #1 hits. “I Don’t Even Know Your Name” is an upbeat shuffle/comedy number about flirting with a waitress in a drunken state and being newly married the next morning. Structurally, it sounds like a fast paced bluegrass number, a genre Jackson tackled in 2013 with the self-explanatory release “The Bluegrass Album.” Supposedly, “I Don’t Even Know Your Name” was recorded as a lark for members of Jackson’s family to enjoy and the response was so positive, it ended up being released and became a #1 hit.
10. “If God Met You,” George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Perhaps moved by a combination of nostalgia, commercial desperation, and a realization that time wasn’t on their side, George Jones and Tammy Wynette reunited for their first album in fifteen years, the 1995 “One” release. Many of the song titles played on the theme of being former lovers, but that wasn’t a big enough hook to interest country radio. The gem of the set is “If God Met You,” where George plays the raging sexist and Wynette declares that God is a woman. The album was the last studio work for Wynette, who passed away in 1998. Wynette had performed on the left field pop single “Justified and Ancient” by the British electronic band The KLF, which became a major international hit during the early 1990s. Eternally practical, she always renewed her beautician’s license throughout her career, noting that if times got too bad, she could “always go back to hairdressing.”