Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1996, Part II
Tom T. Hall has his first #1 single since 1975, courtesy of Alan Jackson.
1. “Housework,” Loudon Wainwright III. Loudon Wainwright III was raised in a wealthy family in Westchester County, New York and began his career as an acerbic singer/songwriter in the late 1960s. From a pop music standpoint, he’s best known for his 1973 novelty hit “Dead Skunk” and he’s often worked as an actor, performing support roles in television and movies. The country spoof number “Housework” from his “Grown Man” album replaces the genre’s most common self-pitying theme of drinking and replaces it with doing household chores. Besides doing dishes, vacuuming, and making dinner, his heartbreak is so severe, he even cleans the bath tub. Perhaps, with his own tears.
2. “I Can Still Make Cheyenne,” George Strait. San Antonio songwriter Aaron Barker came home from selling fruit along a Texas roadside one day in 1988 and found a royalty check from BMI that was for more money than he had made in the previous decade. His mother concluded that the check was actually a sweepstakes promotion, but in reality it was his reward for penning the George Strait #1 hit “Baby Blue.” Barker wrote several more hits for Strait, including “I Can Still Make Cheyenne,” a number where Strait’s manager Erv Woolsey gets a co-writing credit. On this #4 hit, a rodeo cowboy decides to give up the circuit and return to his woman, who informs him that she’s now with another man. Before the phone call ends, he’s ready to rope and ride in the next town.
3. “I’ll Give You Something to Drink About,” George Jones. George Jones didn’t crack the country Top 40 with any singles from his 1996 album “I Lived to Tell It All,” but he got a nice shot at Nashville’s promotion of soulless country music with the Bobby Braddock number “Billy B. Bad” (“He just tested positive for Branson” may be the best unknown lyric of the decade). George returns to the bottle on the Hank Cochran, Mack Vickery, Jerry Laseter composition “I’ll Give You Something to Drink About,” a relatively upbeat number with mariachi horns. After trading his woman for his juice, Jones sounds perfectly at peace with his decision.
4. “Like the Rain,” Clint Black. It takes a large dose of hubris or confidence to put a previously unreleased song as the lead track on a “Greatest Hits” release, but Clint Black’s “Like the Rain” quickly went to #1, a feat he accomplished thirteen times from 1989 to 1999. Despite the tired metaphor, Black pulls a good song out of the relationship/weather trials and tribulations theme. I met Black before a concert several years ago, but he wouldn’t talk before his performance, so it was somewhat like an encounter with a Western themed mime. His commercial success began to wane during the 2000s and in the rearview mirror, his career was a victory of work ethic and craft over legitimate inspiration.
5. “Little Bitty,” Alan Jackson. Tom T. Hall released his “Songs from Sopchoppy” album in 1996, his first album in seven years and it included the original version of “Little Bitty,” a ditty that sounded like a children’s song. Alan Jackson quickly covered the song, making it the lead track of his 1996 “Everything I Love” album. By upping the tempo and giving it a strong fiddle hook, Jackson’s cover removes the emphasis from the cloying nursery rhyme structure and turns into a Cajun dance number. As evidence of how much the genre had grown over the decades, Tom T. Hall noted that the first royalty check he received for “Little Bitty” was ten times more than what he had received for composing Jeannie C. Riley’s 1968 #1 single “Harper Valley PTA.”
6. “My Maria,” Brooks and Dunn. B.W. (“Buck Wheat”) Stevenson was a burly Dallas native whose high school peers included Michael Martin Murphy, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Larry Groce. “My Maria,” a gypsy love song with a yodeling chorus, was considered progressive country music upon its release and became a #1 country hit for Brooks & Dunn in 1996. Asleep at the Wheel founder Ray Benson, “They were just fooling around in the studio when he wrote ‘My Maria.’ He was pretending to sing like Frankie Valli or Del Shannon in this high, wailing falsetto, and the producer said, ‘What’s that song?’ ‘We’re just f—ing around.’ ‘Yeah? Well, write that song. We’ll record it next.’ So, they did.” Brooks and Dunn completed their career with twenty #1 singles and over forty Top Ten hits.
7. “She is Gone,” Willie Nelson. Two musicians perform on this simple tale of lost love – Willie and sister Bobbie Nelson. Bobbie Nelson’s piano style has a gospel influence, befitting the theme of death, and Willie works over his nylon strings while coping with his grief. “She is Gone” has no chorus, no happy ending, but its stark message is overshadowed by the song’s sheer beauty. Reportedly written after his mother passed away, “She is Gone” is from Nelson’s 1996 “Spirit” album, one of the best releases of his storied career.
8. “Strawberry Wine,” Deana Carter. Nashville songwriter Matraca Berg has penned thirteen Top Ten country songs, none more memorable than “Strawberry Wine,” a coming of age reminiscence written with Gary Harrison. Berg, “”We used to go to my grandparents’ dairy farm in the summer. My aunt, who’s six months younger than me, and I would try to score some wine. And I met this boy.” Deana Carter, the daughter of session musician/songwriter Fred Carter, Jr., had a debut #1 single with this recollection of virginity lost. Carter’s debut album, “Did I Shave My Legs for This?”, sold over five million units but her commercial success quickly waned. Matraca Berg and Carter teamed up in 2011 to write “Tequila and You,” a Top Five duet for Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter.
9. “Surf Medley,” Junior Brown. While primarily marketed as a novelty/comedy act, Junior Brown is one of the best guitarists in any genre and no other performance displays his skills like the 1960s’s guitar homage of “Surf Medley.” Merging “Pipeline” by The Chantays, “Walk, Don’t Run” as popularized by The Ventures, and the Johnny Rivers hit “Secret Agent Man,” Brown nimbly tosses out licks, changes tunings, and melds surf into twang. “Surf Medley” is slightly over seven minutes long and doesn’t drag for a second. Close your eyes and you’re not sure if you’re in Austin or on the Pacific coast.