Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1998, Part I
John Prine gets a #1 country hit, courtesy of George Strait.
1. “Angry All the Time,” Bruce Robison. Bandera, Texas native Bruce Robison grew up admiring Jerry Jeff Walker and Willie Nelson and, in a lower key fashion, has joined their ranks as a respected Texas singer/songwriter. Robison documents the pain of an irreparable long term marriage on “Angry All the Time.” The couple’s love for each other hasn’t died, but they can’t find a way back to happiness. Kelly Willis, Robison’s wife and sometimes professional partner, performed backing vocals on the track. Similarly, Faith Hill accompanied Tim McGraw on his cover version, a 2001 #1 single.
2. “Bears,” Lyle Lovett. Lyle Lovett’s 1998 offering was “Step Inside This House,” a double album of material composed by his Texas peers. We first learned of Steven Fromholz as the writer of Willie Nelson’s 1976 #11 country hit “I’d Rather Be Crazy.” Fromholz released three albums on Capitol Records during the 1970s, but never developed significant traction outside of his Texas cult. He released “Bears” on his 1976 “A Rumor in My Own Time” and its offbeat wit made it a natural fit for Lyle Lovett. While the Fromholz arrangement sounds like cartoon bluegrass, Lovett places more emphasis on the lyrics while encouraging the listeners to take a bear to lunch. Fromholz, the 2007 Poet Laureate of Texas, was the first and perhaps only person to rhyme “Arkansas” with “eating babies raw.”
3. “California Stars,” Wilco/Billy Bragg. Billy Bragg came from England’s punk rock scene in the 1970s, eventually settling in as a leftist, politically outspoken singer/songwriter in the Woody Guthrie tradition. Jeff Tweedy formed Wilco after the disintegration of Uncle Tupelo in 1994. The two acts worked together on the 1998 “Mermaid Avenue” album, a collection of songs written using lyrics from Woody Guthrie that had never been set to music. Wilco’s standout track from the collection is the plaintive “California Stars,” where Woody uncharacteristically pined for romantic escapism. Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, describing the song’s origin, “He hadn’t been to California in ten years at least. He probably already knew he had Huntington’s, and he wished he could go back in time — stop the progress of an illness.” Tweedy, on receiving the lyrics, “I remember it feeling like I was getting to hold the Declaration of Independence.”
4. “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” Lucinda Williams. Miller Williams, the father of Lucinda, was a poet and professor whose career took him to several Southern college towns. Lucinda reflected on the hardships of those moves as a child (“little bit of dirt mixed with tears”) and conveys a sense of tense family dynamics and rootlessness on “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.” After almost two decades of recording, Williams didn’t have a radio hit, but critical mass pushed her into becoming a gold selling album artist. After Miller Williams heard this song, he sought out his daughter and gave her what might have been a long overdue apology. The “Car Wheels” record not only raised Lucinda’s profile with the public, but was also won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
5. “Dance the Night Away,” The Mavericks. Van Halen may have the more popular song with this title, but The Mavericks scored a Top Five U.K. single and minor U.S. country hit with “Dance the Night Away,” the lead track to their 1998 “Trampoline” album. Moving further away from a neo-traditional sound, Raul Malo sings about his happiness after ending a bad relationship while being accompanied by Latin horns, a ‘60s rock organ sound, and a “96 Tears” inspired groove. I’m not sure this is a country track, but its first-rate ear candy.
6. “Drunken Angel,” Lucinda Williams. David Michael Fuller was an alcoholic Texas singer/songwriter who used the stage name Blaze Foley. Foley inserted himself into a domestic dispute in 1989, a decision that ended his life. His legend grew steadily after he was killed – with albums released under his own name, a tribute album from Gurf Morlix, a documentary, and a book all released about Austin eccentric, known for his use of duct tape as a clothing accessory. Lucinda Williams’ “Drunken Angel” is about Foley, who she has described as “a genius and a beautiful loser.” In a less generous mood, she’s also described him as “a fuck up who put duct tape on his shoes and duct tape on his guitar.” Ultimately, inspiring a song of this magnitude is a life well lived.
7. “Happy Girl,” Martina McBride. I’ve wanted to include more material by Martina McBride, a seemingly good egg who has been an advocate for addressing domestic violence, but she can overwhelm her material by never using her inside voice. Maybe because “Happy Girl” aims lower than, for example, “A Broken Wing,” McBride simply serves the song here. This #2 hit was co-written by Beth Nielsen Chapman who also had a writing credit on Faith Hill’s 1998 crossover pop hit “This Kiss.” Nashville session musician Jim Hoke deserves a hand for providing the penny whistle instrumental hooks.
8. “I Just Want to Dance with You,” George Strait. John Prine’s 1986 “German Afternoons” album was released on his own independent label and failed to chart. For Prine devotees, the best known songs from that album might be cheating number “Speed at the Sound of Loneliness” or the CD era bonus novelty track “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian.” Prine wrote “I Just Want to Dance with You” with British songwriter Roger Cook, who co-wrote The Hollies 1972 #2 U.S. pop hit “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress.” Prine served up a bit of Jimmy Buffett’s tropical, swaying groove on “I Just Want to Dance with You,” which George Strait covered in 1998 for a #1 single. The timing was fortuitous for Prine, who was paying for neck cancer treatments when the royalty checks started stuffing his mailbox.
9. “It Ain’t Easy Being Me,” Chris Knight. Being the son of a pipeliner and being raised in a town named Slaughters, Kentucky are two helpful resume line items for a budding country singer. Chris Knight was still a late bloomer, who started performing when he was 30 and landed a record deal at the age of 37. “It Ain’t Easy Being Me” is the lead track from Knight’s 1998 debut album, a co-write with hit machine Nashville songsmith Craig Wiseman. Knight documents his tendency for self-defeating behavior on “It Ain’t Being Me” (“was I born this way or am I a self made fool?”) and earned a 2001 John Anderson cover to boot. For the past two decades, you could argue that Chris Knight has been better at being Steve Earle than Steve Earle has been.
10. “I’ve Loved You All Over the World,” Willie Nelson. Losing commercial relevance seemed to have impacted Nelson emotionally much less than many of his contemporaries. He simply continued down his Zen path of continuously recording new music and touring, because that’s what he was put on this planet to do. His journey lead him to producer Daniel Laniel in 1998, who put his atmospheric stamp on the “Teatro” album, creating a drum heavy sound unlike any other Nelson recordings. “I’ve Loved You All Over the World” won’t awe anyone in the lyrical department, but it does convey that Nelson sense of eternal good vibes. The song was effectively used in a 2015 Subaru ad, documenting the special bond between a man and his dog, as they travel life’s highway.