Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1997
In terms of quality country music, 1997 was the leanest year since 1984 and most of the selections below are from the alt-country spectrum. I tried hard to include additional selections from Sara Evans and Mindy McCready, but my ears got in the way.
- “Cold Gray Kentucky Morning,” Aaron Tippin. Louisville songwriter Tim Krekel worked in both country and rock music. He was a side musician for Billy Swan and Jimmy Buffet and he released eight solo albums. He penned #1 country singles for Crystal Gayle and Patty Loveless and on the rock side of the ledger he wrote Shakin’ Stevens’ 1986 Top 20 U.K. hit “Turning Away.” He also had credits on album tracks by Jason and the Scorchers and Dr. Feelgood. The Krekel composition “Cold Gray Kentucky Morning” was the lead track, but never a single, from Aaron Tippin’s 1997 “Greatest Hits…and Then Some” collection. Tippin contemplates drowning himself in the Ohio River when his woman leaves him without warning. The title could easily be “Cold Gray Kentucky Mourning.” The future gun salesman ended his career with nine Top Ten singles, the last being 2001’s “Where the Stars and Stripes and the Eagle Fly.” Nobody has ever made a more blatant attempt to take bookings away from Lee Greenwood.
- “Cry on the Shoulder of the Road,” Martina McBride. Our good friend Tim Krekel from the previous entry shows up again here, as the co-write of “Cry on the Shoulder of the Road” with Matraca Berg. Although his backing vocals are a bit muted, Levon Helm made his last appearance on mainstream radio on this #26 country hit. McBride, working her country music as power ballad routine, leaves an unappreciative lover on “Cry on the Shoulder of the Road,” but doesn’t pretend there’s no pain in the bargain. McBride never crossed over for a significant pop audience, but she connected with female country music fans – releasing eight consecutive platinum albums from to 2005. You know somebody’s on a winning streak when their obligatory Christmas album sells over a million copies.
- “Drunk by Noon,” Sally Timms. Husband and wife team Brett and Rennie Sparks comprise The Handsome Family, an alternative country duo who have released eleven albums on independent labels. They are best known for “Far from Any Road,” the theme song to the HBO’s “True Detective” crime drama in 2014. “Drunk by Noon,” released by The Handsome Family in 1996, sounds like an alcohol related psychosis warning. Sally Timms of the Mekons covered the song on her 1997 “Cowboy Sally” EP, giving it both a softer and more tragic reading. The narrator’s fondest wish – to come down with cancer.
- “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight,” Whiskeytown. The alt-country band Whiskeytown was popular music’s introduction to Ryan Adams, who fronted the band on three albums and several EPs between 1995 and 2001. Whiskeytown received a major label deal with Geffen for their 1997 “Strangers Almanac” release and Adams wants to repossess his most vital organ on “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight,” sounding more like Tom Petty than Gram Parsons as he documents his unending woe. Texas singer/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo takes a vocal turn on the bridge, singing with the authority of a true believer. Whether Adams is/was a major talent or a talented poser remains a subject of serious debate among men who seldom get a second date.
- “Fort Worth Blues,” Steve Earle. Townes Van Zandt, a seminal and lasting influence on Steve Earle, died on New Year’s Day of 1997. Earle released this tribute to Van Zandt as the closing number to his 1997 “El Corazón” album, referencing the time his hero spent in Tennessee and Colorado, but also noting his inability to escape the “Fort Worth Blues.” Earle, “”I met this guy, and I was 17. It was obvious I was going to write songs and make records, but here I was, meeting someone who was making art for the sake of art, at a really high level. He was committed to continuing to do that, whether he made money or not. That’s the most positive thing I took from him. Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”
- “Sending Me Angels,” Delbert McClinton. Delbert McClinton started his career in Fort Worth in the 1950s as a member of The Straitjackets, a local bar band who often supported national touring blues artists such s Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy Reed. He had his first pop success in 1962, performing harmonica on Bruce Channel’s #1 single “Hey! Baby!,” but didn’t return to the charts in a significant way until 1978, penning the #1 Emmylou Harris hit “Two More Bottles of Wine.” McClinton hit to #8 on the pop charts in 1980 with “Giving It Up for Your Love” and, after getting stuck in a Texas sized rut, relocated to Nashville by the end of that decade. The McClinton/Tanya Tucker duet “Tell Me About It” went to #4 in 1993, but McClinton never established himself as a commercially successful country artist, perhaps having a vocal style too based in the roadhouse blues for Music City. McClinton is fending off the devil on the 1997 single “Sending Me Angels,” a gospel influenced tune written by Frankie Miller and Jerry Lynn Williams that originally was recorded by Bonnie Tyler in 1992 and has been covered by Kathy Mattea, Peter Frampton, and John Oates, among others. Peaking at #65, this was McClinton’s biggest solo country hit, but he can still shine his multiple Grammy Awards when he needs an ego boost.
- “Shades of Gray,” Robert Earl Keen. Although the public didn’t notice, Robert Earl Keen had his major label debut in 1997, releasing the “Picnic” album on Arista Records. “Shades of Gray” is one of Keen’s outlaw yarns, a tale of a good Christian man who tags along with a moonshiner and a pot dealer for a cattle rusting adventure. After making a quick $900 in Wichita, the trio are surrounded by guns, dogs, and police helicopters, yet feel no relief after not being subjects of the manhunt. Keen on the dark turn of events, “The song takes place on the night of the Oklahoma City bombings in April of 1995.”
- “Somebody Slap Me,” John Anderson. John Anderson signed with Mercury Records for his 1997 album “Takin’ the Country Back” and had his final Top 40 hit with “Somebody Slap Me.” Longtime Nashville songwriters Bob McDill and Roger Murrah penned this statement of romantic disbelief, where Anderson finds a knockout gal who likes football, fishing, and can do her own plumbing. Even the guitar chords sound comical. Marty Stuart, who co-wrote the title track of “Takin’ the Country Back,” “John Anderson shines like a beacon out there in a sea of everything that’s going on. You can check any stage of his career and he’s always been measured as the real deal.”
- “Somewhere in My Heart,” The Volebeats. Hamtramck, Michigan was once known for its sizable Polish population and was frequently mentioned in Creem Magazine when punk rock acts played at Lili’s bar circa 1980. The Volebeats, an alt-country act who have released ten albums on independent labels, formed in Hamtramck in 1988. “Somewhere in My Heart,” the lead track from their 1997 “The Sky and The Ocean” album, blends ‘60s inspired folk rock with ‘80s jangle pop and has just enough twang to be included in this genre. Guitarist Matt Smith on how their environment shaped the band, “I can’t overemphasize the fact that we grew up on (radio station) CKLW. All through the ’60s and ’70s, it broadcast across Canada from Windsor and it was the guiding light of pop music culture then. You’d turn on the radio and hear Gordon Lightfoot next to Alice Cooper next to the Carpenters next to T-Rex, and then all the R&B and Motown stuff. Our whole perspective on music comes from that.”