Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1999
Mattress dancing, undies sniffing, and vodka drinking.
1. “Choices,” George Jones. After a decade of publicly claiming sobriety, George Jones smashed his SUV into a bridge in March of 1999, an incident that occurred while Jones was talking on his cell phone. A half-empty bottle of vodka was found under the passenger seat. Billy Yates and Mark Curtis had written “Choices” in 1994, however, its release as a single two months after the car wreck gave poignancy to the alcohol related lyrics. The song crept up to #30 on the country charts, most likely despite the traditional, hard country arrangement and Jones won a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. The Drive-By Truckers referenced the car accident on their 2009 release “George Jones Talkin’ Cell Phone Blues.” A song with cross genre appeal, “Choices” was covered by Bettye LaVette in 2007 and Leonard Cohen in 2015.
2. “Clay Pigeons,” Blaze Foley. Blaze Foley spent more time getting kicked out of Austin clubs than performing inside of them. However, a Guadalupe venue known as “The Outhouse” was proud of its eclecticism and Blaze recorded a live gig there in late December of 1988. Foley was killed approximately six weeks later and a cassette of the performance was released in 1989 to assist with funeral expenses. As Foley became more popular in death than he ever was while breathing, that cassette transformed into a CD release in 1999. “Clay Pigeons,” his most popular song, combines the adrift sadness and shaggy dog humor that is typical of a John Prine composition. In fact, Prine’s cover version is one of the highlights of his 2005 “Fair & Square” album.
3. “Conversation with the Devil,” Ray Wylie Hubbard. You might get an indirect hangover from playing the first three selections from this article. Hubbard lived off his reputation in Texas for years after Jerry Jeff Walker covered “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” in 1973. He spent most of the next few decades getting blitzed and the quality of his recorded music and live gigs reflected that reality. A low point was getting a regular booking at a “lingerie club” near Dallas’s Love Field airport. Luckily, Hubbard turned his life around, finding sobriety and a good woman. On “Conversation with the Devil,” Hubbard chats with Satan, complimenting him on his fiddle solo on “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and learning that the fiery lake is filled with preachers, politicians, right wing conservatives, and country program directors. After waking from his bad dream, Hubbard spurns red meat.
4. “I’ll Think of a Reason Later,” Lee Ann Womack. East Texas native Lee Ann Womack was signed by Decca Nashville in 1996, quickly hitting the charts with her traditional country sound on the Top Five singles “The Fool” and “You’ve Got to Talk to Me” and going platinum with her debut album. She continued her moment with her 1998 album “Some Things I Know,” which included the Top Five singles “A Little Past Little Rock” and “I’ll Think of a Reason Later.” Songwriters Tony Martin and Tim Nichols placed Womack in the role of commenting on her ex-lover’s fiancé on “I’ll Think of a Reason Later,” where the narrator speculates that the woman she hates might be brimming with intelligence, good will, and compassion. She hates her anyway.
5. “In Spite of Ourselves,” John Prine/Iris Dement. John Prine scored a #21 country album in 1999 with “In Spite of Ourselves,” a collection of duets with former country stars (Connie Smith, Melba Montgomery), contemporary hit artists (Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless), and a few critically acclaimed acts (Iris Dement, Lucinda Williams). Prine and DeMent became the modern day alt-country Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn with their cover version of the George Jones/Tammy Wynette hit “(We’re Not) The Jet Set” and the Prine penned title track. He might be an undies sniffer and she might get a bit too turned by convict movies, but, in spite of their quicks, they know they are perfectly matched. DeMent’s reflection on the song, “When I saw the lyrics, I thought twice, to put it mildly. He’s not lying when he says I told him I wouldn’t record the song as long as my mom were alive, but I broke my word, and I did it anyway. The next thing you know, a copy of that CD shows up in the mail that looked exactly like the original, but it had that song removed, so I could give it to my mom.”
6. “Love Like a Truck,” Bottle Rockets. Bottle Rockets frontman Brian Henneman grew up revering Waylon Jennings and John Anderson as much as he did Neil Young and the Ramones. While their label was pining for a breakthrough with modern rock radio on the 1999 “Brand New Year” album, Brian Henneman and high school teacher turned collaborator Scott Taylor were showing off their old school country roots on this eighteen wheeler as love machine number. Luckily, Henneman finally found more reliable transportation than his “1000 Dollar Car” or the van that left him stuck in “Indianapolis.” Not surprisingly, Henneman has a second band, named Diesel Island, that works in the St. Louis area, performing nothing but classic country cover tunes.
7. “The Mountain,” Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band. Steve Earle on career planning, Nashville style, ““I was sitting in with Del McCoury at the Station Inn in Nashville one night, and I just asked him, straight out: ‘If I wrote a record of bluegrass songs, would you guys accompany me?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’ Eleven months later, I had the songs ready.” That album was titled “The Mountain” and the title track is about a coal miner who is comforted by his mountain home. However, he’s haunted by both his occupation and the narrow scope of his life. Earle, “’The Mountain’ is one of the best songs I’ve ever written.” Levon Helm, who did a reverent cover on his 2007 “Dirt Farmer” album, most likely agreed with Earle’s assertion.
8. “Nine Bullets,” Drive-By Truckers. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have been performing together since 1985, with acts named Adam’s Cat, Virgil Kane, and the probably never booked Horsepussy. The Truckers formed in 1996, giving Hood a platform for his sloppy, big heart and Cooley a chance to shine as an unregenerate badass. Their 1999 album was titled “Pizza Deliverance” (legend has it that our two heroes once worked at a Florence, Alabama pizza joint) and the band put their Southern drawl vocals over grunge guitars on “Nine Bullets.” Hood details how he’ll distribute the ammo in his roommate’s gun, noting that a lady who steals one of his socks at the laundromat is going to catch a bullet. This is one of the perkier songs, attitude wise, from the early DBTs era.
9. “Sin Wagon,” Dixie Chicks. Natalie Maines grabbed the song title from an Olivia Newton-John reference in “Grease” and quickly decided to shelve the wholesome image the Dixie Chicks had in the late 1990s, a band sometimes viewed as The Spice Girls for rural audiences at the time. On “Sin Wagon,” an abused Natalie Maines finds her red dress, downs some liquid nutrition, and prepares for a little mattress dancing – a phrase that horrified their record label. Maines, “We’re not really bad girls. The most good girl (editor’s note – OUCH!) just has that wild side and sometimes you got to let it out.” Nice touch – incorporating a snippet of the gospel number “I’ll Fly Away” then noting “on a sin wagon.”
10. “That’s Right (You’re Not from Texas) (Live),” Lyle Lovett. It’s not a cheap ticket to see Lyle Lovett, probably because he’s feeding seventeen musicians and vocalists who comprise “His Large Band.” Lovett released his “Live from Texas” album in 1999, including “That’s Right (You’re Not from Texas)” a song written by Lovett, Willis Alan Ramsey (best known for writing “Muskrat Love”), and Ramsey’s wife Alison Rogers. The number is a showcase for Lovett’s Western swing meets singer/songwriter with Baptist choir confectionary skills. Despite all the hype, 98% of Texas is either barren or covered with strip malls and fast food joints. That other 2% is worth the exploration.
11. “Wrapped,” Kelly Willis. Kelly Willis may have been too hip for the room on her 1999 “What I Deserve” album, covering Paul Westerberg, Nick Drake, and Paul Kelly, while being backed by Chuck Prophet, Mark Spencer, and John Dee Graham. Despite the usual lack of airplay, the album peaked at #30 on the country charts, her best showing at that time. While Willis publicly displays an attitude that says “keep your distance,” she’s the vulnerable one on her cover of husband Bruce Robison’s “Wrapped,” a song about grappling with emotions that you would rather not have. George Strait’s covered “Wrapped” (is that redundant?) for a #2 hit in 2007. Iman Lababedi in 2013, “After 17 years of marriage, I wonder if Bruce Robison ever wakes up in the middle of the night, looks at his wife and thinks to himself, ‘Holy hell, that’s Kelly Willis’? I can’t see there ever being a time when a woman as stunningly beautiful as Kelly gets taken for granted. He must be in a constant state of amazement.”
12. “Write This Down,” George Strait. One doesn’t think of George Strait as a pop star, but he crossed over to #27 on the pop charts with “Write This Down,” while topping the country charts for four weeks. This please don’t leave me, baby, number was co-written by Dana Hunt, who co-wrote Strait’s 1995 #1 hit “Check Yes or No.” It was a posthumous #1 hit for song co-writer Kent Robbins, who died in a car wreck in December of 1997. As for the material, the verses are pure aural oatmeal on “Write This Down,” but the big chorus was built to reverberate against arena walls.