Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1996, Part I
Murderers, drug addicts, the Eagles.
1. “All You Ever Do is Bring Me Down,” The Mavericks. Despite their unquestionable musical prowess, The Mavericks have never been a powerhouse on country music radio. They had their biggest hit in 1996 with the Raul Malo/Al Anderson composition “All You Ever Do is Bring Me Down,” a roots rocker that features accordion legend Flaco Jiménez on the instrumental break. Somehow, the band managed to merge the Bakersfield sound with norteno swing and garage rock simultaneously on this #13 single. On a side note, I once saw Flaco perform a gig in Dallas and he drew the most multi-generational audience I’ve ever seen.
2. “The Band Plays On,” John Anderson. John Anderson’s second major commercial run officially ended with his 1996 album “Paradise.” The title track went to #22 on the country charts and two other singles from the release failed to make Top 40. An album track from 1996 that nobody has heard, “The Band Plays On” was written by Fred Knoblock, who scored a #1 adult contemporary hit with “Why Not Me” in 1980, and Gary Scruggs, a son of bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs. John ironically duets with famed drummer Levon Helm from The Band on this number that will absolutely rip your heart of its chest cavity, slam it on the driveway, then stomp a mudhole in it. It doesn’t matter what happens to you in life. The band still plays on.
3. “Believe Me Baby (I Lied),” Trisha Yearwood. Trisha Yearwood scored her fourth #1 single with “Believe Me Baby (I Lied),” a pop country number written by Larry Gottlieb, perhaps the only man who was writing credits for both the Four Tops and Blue Öyster Cult, along with Kim Richey and Angelo Petraglia. (Not to be outdone by Gottlieb, Pegraglia has written songs with both Taylor Swift and the Nashville based rock band Kings of Leon). Lyrically, “Believe My Baby (I Lied”) is a variation on the pride over honesty theme regarding a broken relationship. Yearwood currently has her name on nineteen Top Ten singles with five of those topping the charts. Her upwardly mobile relationship carousel with Nashville musicians resulted in a marriage to Garth Brooks, her third time for tying the knot, in 2005.
4. “Bigger Than the Beatles,” Joe Diffie. “Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles” was a vanity project album released in 1993. Don Henley and Eagles manager Irving Azoff collaborated with some of Nashville’s hottest acts to record completely unnecessary Eagles cover tunes and while the record didn’t include any major hits, it still sold over three million copies, a number that shocked the Nashville establishment. It also provided a roadmap that the country radio audience of the 1990s had been tuned into pop and rock music during the 1970s. The Joe Diffie #1 single “Bigger Than the Beatles” reinforces that connection by namechecking Elvis, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and the Eagles. It’s strategic cynicism that hits its mark. This was Diffie’s fifth and final #1 country hit and he scored seventeen Top Ten hits between 1990 and 2001. He became a nostalgia touchstone as the subject of Jason Aldean’s 2013 country rap hit “1994.”
5. “Blue,” LeAnn Rimes. LeAnn Rimes started performing at the age of five in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and released an album on an independent label at the age of eleven. Her first recorded included a version of “Blue,” a song written and first released by Texas disc jockey Bill Mack in 1958. When Rimes was signed to a major label, “Blue” was intended as a b-side, but the combination of the thirteen-year-old singer and the sound reminiscent of Patsy Cline took the song to #10 on the country charts. Rimes major label debut album sold over six million copies and she eventually had twelve Top Ten country hits between 1996 and 2005. She also crossed over to pop radio, including the 1997 #2 hit/Dianne Warren composition “How Do I Live.” However, artistically, she could never escape from Patsy Cline’s shadow.
6. “The Buck Starts Here,” Robbie Fulks. North Carolina native Robbie Fulks dropped out of an Ivy League school to pursue music, eventually settling in Chicago after failing to make any headway as a Nashville songwriter. “Country Love Songs,” his 1996 debut album, is a showcase for his cynicism, his take no prisoners humor, and his love for the traditional honky tonk sound. His voice would get better with age, but he proved his ability to write a classic tear jerker, with a hat tip to Bakersfield’s finest, on “The Buck Starts Here.” When he pulls out a 45 to help him through his sorrow, he’s reaching into his vinyl collection, not for a handgun.
7. “Corpus Christi Bay,” Johnny Rodriguez. The largely forgotten Johnny Rodriguez scored twenty Top Ten singles during the 1970s and 1980s, however, his personal life and career weren’t in peak form during the 1990s. He did receive positive critical attention for his 1996 album “You Can Say That Again,” an album that combined traditional country material with songs from contemporary songwriters including Lucinda Williams, Dave Alvin, and Robert Earl Keen. Keen’s tale of hard living on “Corpus Christi Bay,” where one brother gives up the wild side of life while acknowledging without judgment that the other will never change, reminded Rodriquez of his own useful indiscretions. Speaking of which, Rodriguez, who still regularly performs in Texas, was charged with murder in 1998 and acquitted in a jury trial, blazing a path for gringo Billy Joe Shaver to follow.
8. “Feel Alright,” Steve Earle. While Johnny Cash may have been the iconic representation of the country outlaw persona during the 1950s and 1960s, Steve Earle took that mantle during the 1980s and 1990s, with legitimate jail time for bonus points. After a five year absence, Earle returned to the marketplace with the well received 1995 album “Train a Comin’,” but truly got his groove back on “Feel Alright,” the lead track to the 1996 “I Feel Alright” release. Earle referenced his legal troubles, noting “Some of you would live through me/Then lock me up and throw away the key.” After his bouts with drug addiction, just feeling “alright” was enough to be a triumph.
9. “Guys Do It All the Time,” Mindy McCready. Florida native Mindy McCready moved to Nashville at the age of eighteen and released “Ten Thousand Angels,” her double platinum debut album, at the age of twenty. She first hit Top Ten with the album’s title track, a song about temptation which may have been art imitating life. She had her only #1 single with the country funk of “Guys Do It All the Time,” a lyric about gender double standards that displayed the type of humor and attitude popularized in country music’s next generation by Miranda Lambert. “Guys” was co-written by Bobby Whiteside, who worked for years in his Chicago studio as a jingle producer.
10. “Heads Carolina, Tails California,” Jo Dee Messina. Massachusetts girl Jo Dee Messina moved to Nashville in the late 1980s and a professional relationship with Tim McGraw, who co-produced her 1996 debut album, helped her land a deal with Curb Records. She went to #2 on the charts with “Heads Carolina, Tails California,” a Tim Nichols/Mark D. Sanders number about the promise of coastal living happiness. Messina, “Tim (Nichols) called and said ‘I’ve written this song, it’s perfect for you.’ Believe it or not he dropped it off in my mail box and said ‘see if you like it.’ I was out of town. We recorded if after we finished the album. I had to bump a song off to fit it on. It ended up being the first single and a big hit.” Messina had twelve Top Ten singles over a ten year period, with her last major hit being the 2005 #1 single “My Give a Damn’s Been Busted,” a tune co-written and originally recorded by Joe Diffie, whose label decided that the song had no potential to be a hit.
11. “Hillbilly Guitar Boogie,” Sleepy LaBeef. Sleepy LaBeef always seemed to live in his own cosmic, alternative rockabilly dimension. His recording career spanned over five decades, but he never had a Top 40 hit on any chart; he might be best known for the lengthy profile written about him by Peter Guralnick in his book “Lost Highways: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians.” Coincidentally, Peter Guralnick’s son Jake Guralnick produced Sleepy’s 1996 album “I’ll Never Lay My Guitar Down,” which includes a cover of Chicago blues guitarist Eddy Clearwater’s “Hillbilly Guitar Boogie.” The song is a first rate Chuck Berry rip and pianist Dave Keyes knew how to channel the crucial Johnnie Johnson sound.