Demi Lovato stopped by the BBC Radio 1′s Live Lounge today where she performed the best cover of Hozier’s “Take Me To Church” I have ever heard. Check it out below!
Demi Lovato stopped by the BBC Radio 1′s Live Lounge today where she performed the best cover of Hozier’s “Take Me To Church” I have ever heard. Check it out below!
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Devotees have been puzzling over the meaning of this enigmatic masterpiece for 40 years, but it has yet to yield up a definitive interpretation. Parsons’ protagonist is a none-too-bright bridegroom at a low-rent (possibly shotgun) wedding, where he is stood up for reasons unknown. Maybe the bride died, maybe she ran off with someone else – it’s never specified. So he and his groomsmen go on a drunken bender so epic, “It’s lucky they survived.” Wedding seems to morphs into funeral, leading to the saddest closing line in all of country music: “It’s been a bad, bad day.” For all that the words leave unspoken, there’s no mistaking Parsons’ tone of stoic, bemused resignation. Duet partner Emmylou Harris blesses the proceedings with the perfect note of angelic sadness.
“Even if [people] don’t agree with the girls-kissing-girls thing or even the drug reference,” Musgraves said about her breakthrough song, “I would hope that they would agree that no matter what, we all should be able to love who we want to love and live how we want to live.” The heart of her drama lies in waiting for the establishment to catch up. Censored at the Country Music Association Awards and lionized by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, 25-year-old Kacey Musgraves has become one of the loudest symbols of young country musicians embracing progressive values. But like most of her debut Same Trailer, Different Park, “Follow Your Arrow” isn’t an attack on conservatism so much as an attack on any system that keeps us from being who we are, gay or straight, sober or stoned.
The first million-seller by a female country artist, this yodeling paean to the Wild West mythos made an icon of Arkansas-born singer-songwriter-actress-fiddler (and Jimmie Rodgers fan) Ruby Blevins, a.k.a. Patsy Montana. After stints in Los Angeles and New York working in radio, TV and film, Montana joined the Kentucky string band the Prairie Ramblers and adapted the early Western standard “Texas Plains” as “Montana Plains” and then as “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” establishing her gun-totin’ cowgirl image (she later sang of being a “man-hatin’ lassie” on “The She-Buckaroo”). “Cowboy’s Sweetheart” has been covered consistently from Patti Page to the Dixie Chicks, even showing up on The Voice as the audition song for Gracia Harrison.
Here’s why this is country’s finest duet of all time: Country’s Greatest Singer and Most Feckless Drunk vs. Country’s Greatest Actor and Crankiest Pill-popper. Prediction: Heartbreak wins again, in the most bluntly theatrical way possible. The couple’s screwy marriage on the outs, they sound like they’re about to wrap their hands around each other’s throats. Inspired by a made-for-TV movie about a handgun’s history – going from cop to murderer to little kid – genius co-writer Bobby Braddock subs a wedding ring for the gun. But the narrative is no less gritty, working you over like a Cassavettes flick, moving from the mundane (the intro’s inexplicably frisky guitar) to the devastating (in the song’s crowning scene, Wynette voices the man’s palpable hurt, while Jones intones grimly, “She says one thing’s for certain, I don’t love you anymore”). The ring ends up back in the Chicago pawn shop from whence it came. Our protagonists, meanwhile, remain a dizzy gospel-invoking mess.
The song that possibly best articulates the doomed country mythos that Hank Williams’ life and death epitomize wasn’t written by Hank himself. The blind country singer-songwriter Leon Payne wrote and recorded “Lost Highway” just a year before. Payne wasn’t just waxing spiritually metaphorical: He was indeed lost along the highway, struggling unsuccessfully to hitchhike from California to Texas to visit his ailing mother, forced instead to seek food and shelter in a Salvation Army.
Recorded with an all-star band that included Elvis’ piano player, the Opry’s house drummer and guitarist Chet Atkins, “Bye Bye Love” catapulted the Everly Brothers into the stratosphere, becoming a Top Five hit on the country, pop and R&B charts in 1957. Apart from the song’s introductory guitar riff, which Don Everly lifted from an earlier tune called “Give Me a Future,” the brothers didn’t write “Bye Bye Love.” They did give the song its identity, though, beefing up a relatively standard chord progression with equal doses of Tennessee twang and their iconic harmonies.
Originally an 1860 parlor song titled “I’ll Twine ‘Mid the Ringlets” (a raven-tressed maiden’s plucky response to being unceremoniously abandoned), “Wildwood Flower” was revived by Virginia “song catcher” A. P. Carter. He arranged it for his family trio including singer-autoharpist wife Sara and her lead-guitarist cousin Maybelle, who turned 19 the day the group recorded the song outside Philadelphia. Its opening lyrics were mondegreened, pursuant to the mishaps of oral tradition. “I’ll twine mid the ringlets of my raven black hair” became “Oh, I’ll twine with my mane, golden weeping black hair,” and would continue to alter as numerous others recorded it – including Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris and Reese Witherspoon. No version, however, is quite so outlandish as country comedian Dan Bowman’s hallucinogenic 1964 variation, “Wildwood Weed.”
“One day my father-in-law asked me who I thought the richest man in the world was, and I mentioned some names,” says co-writer Red Hayes. “He said, ‘You’re wrong, it is the man with a satisfied mind.'” Porter Wagoner’s demo of this pious lament, first recorded at a Missouri radio station in 1954, would end up becoming the version that would hit Number One on the country charts the following year. In the ensuing decades, the most famous song by the man once known as Mr. Grand Ole Opry would go on to become an unlikely standard amongst a slew of rootsy country-rock revivalists: the Byrds, Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons, David Allan Coe, Lucinda Williams and Jeff Buckley have all taken their turn at the song.
Not so much straight “country” as the blues seasoned with rural fiddle, “World” percolated through the western swing circuit as covered by Bob Wills and Milton Brown; became Fifties blues in the hands of Howlin’ Wolf; and then Sixties rock via the Grateful Dead and Cream – a history that, if nothing else, cements the song as a kind of Rorschach test that ultimately filtered back to Chet Atkins, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Willie Nelson. More recently, the Mississippi Sheiks became a cause for Jack White, who is reissuing their entire catalog through his Document label – presumably lured by that “real-thing” feel in their gritty but obscure sound.
Did Hank Williams write perhaps his greatest “heart” song to spite his first wife, while joyriding in a convertible and eating ice cream with his second wife? Wife No. 2 says so, but she probably would. At any rate, Williams was in full flail at the time, caught in a matrix of loves: Audrey (ex-wife-manager, mother of his son); Bobbie (pregnant girlfriend contractually promised child support); Billie Jean (19-year-old new wife). It’s not hard to imagine that the owner of the cheatin’ heart was the guilt-wracked singer himself. While Don Helms’ mournful pedal steel pierces the air, Williams sorrowfully laments a cheater’s fate. Completed in a single take during his last recording session, it was released posthumously and went straight to Number One.
Bandleaders Jon Batiste and his band, Stay Human, led an all-star jam for a joyful cover of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People.” The lineup included Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes, Buddy Guy, Mavis Staples, Beirut, Kyle Resnick, Ben Folds, Aloe Blacc, Derek Trucks and Colbert himself.
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Fueled by drugs, booze and a nasty divorce from his third wife, Steve Earle delivered this road anthem with a croon and a bark, snarling his way through lines about speed traps and truck stops with the authority of a rock & roll rebel who, at 31 years old, had already seen (and snorted) it all. Years of hard living eventually took their toll on Earle, who released three follow-ups to Guitar Town before spending the first half of the ’90s in a heroin-addled haze. By the time he cleaned up his act in 1995, the alt-country movement was in full swing and Earle joined a new generation of musicians – many of whom had strummed along to a Guitar Town cassette – in the effort to tear down the boundaries between country and rock.
A highlight of the Louvins’ second gospel album, 1959’s Satan Is Real, “The Christian Life” adds a homespun fire-and-brimstone attitude to the sort of Depression-era country harmonizing picked up from earlier sibling acts like the Delmore Brothers: “My buddies shun me since I turned to Jesus / But I still love them, they burden my heart,” Charlie and Ira sing in close harmony over a waltz rhythm. Almost a decade later, the Byrds went on to cover “The Christian Life” on their 1968 country-rock masterpiece Sweetheart of the Rodeo, with Roger McGuinn’s voice dubbed over Gram Parsons’ original lead vocal.
Fred Rose wrote it in the Forties, and everyone from Roy Acuff to Hank Williams took a shot at it, but the true purpose of “Blues Eyes Crying in the Rain” was to finally launch a long-striving, industry-beleaguered, 42-year-old Willie Nelson into orbit as the stark, startling centerpiece of his 1975 smash Red Headed Stranger. Michael Streissguth’s 2013 study Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville has a great scene where skittish label suits, fearful that the album “sounds like it was recorded in Willie’s kitchen,” frantically arrange a press listening session at Nashville hot spot the Exit/In, and then marvels as “Blue Eyes” triggers a standing ovation. “Nobody was more shocked than we were,” then-CBS Records President Rick Blackburn once conceded. “It didn’t have… the bells and whistles. It wasn’t the way you went about making a record in Nashville in those days.” Result: His first country Number One.
Innuendo has always played a role in folk and country music. But few songs piqued the pop crossover crowd’s curiosity more than Mississippi-born, Los Angeles-schooled Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 debut, in which an adolescent narrator and her family sit around the dinner table passing biscuits and gossiping about Billie Joe McAllister’s descent from the Tallahatchie Bridge. McAllister threw something else off it a day earlier and Gentry never reveals what it was. “The song is sort of a study in unconscious cruelty,” she once said of the family’s nonchalant attitude to the suicide. Released as the B-side to “Mississippi Delta,” “Ode” is a sultry country blues that drifts downstream on Gentry’s ominous acoustic guitar. Arranger Jimmie Haskell added dramatic strings, and three minutes were edited from her seven-minute original. Saxophonist Lou Donaldson’s funky 1967 instrumental version was sampled on dozens of hip-hop songs.
Complete with choo-choo sound effects and the harmonica solo of some long-imagined cowboy, Acuff’s version of “Wabash Cannonball” was an early instance of country culture rising to meet the needs of city entertainment – the band even changed their name to the Smoky Mountain Boys once they made the Grand Ole Opry, presumably to retain that rural flavor. No surprise that he soon got into publishing and later ran for office – his moves always did seem a little strategic. But these are milestones, too; moments of friction in the development of a style as it took shape within the listening public at large.
This 1959 saga of sacrifice is arguably the most persuasive primer on the pitfalls of infidelity. The hero of Frizell’s saga was wrongly executed for murder; he declined to give an alibi because was spending time “in the arms” of his best friend’s wife, a lethal indiscretion he takes to the grave. Since covered by Joan Baez, the Band, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen and plenty of others, “The Long Black Veil” has become a country-folk standard, a grim, haunting evocation of forbidden love and all its consequences.
In “The Grand Tour,” the Possum sings the part of a deserted husband and father leading a stranger through a memory-filled house that is no longer a home. The genius lies in the way Jones’s voice evokes that ghostly feeling amid the lush excess of producer Billy Sherrill’s strings, guitars and chorus. Written by Norro Wilson, Carmol Taylor and George Richey, “The Grand Tour” is the lead and title track of Jones’s masterful 1974 album. Although Jones was an admitted heavy drinker when he recorded it, “The Grand Tour” contains no clue to its protagonist’s crime. Instead, there’s only Jones’s impossibly detailed, syllable-by-heartbreaking-syllable performance of a shell of a man condemned to life in a haunted abode that is full of stuff but devoid of love.
According to Owens’ autobiography, Buck ‘Em!, songwriter Johnny Russell stumbled into “Act Naturally” when a last minute Los Angeles recording session forced him to break a date with his Fresno girlfriend. When she asked what he would be doing, Russell gave her the line that would eventually open the song: “They’re gonna put me in the movies, and they’re gonna make a big star out of me.” Two years and several rejections later, Owens heard Russell’s demo and decided to record “Act Naturally” as part of the first sessions that brought his full road band, the Buckaroos, into the studio. Here, the group sounded tight and alive, the promise of that first line making the second – “We’ll make a film about a man that’s sad and lonely, and all I gotta do is act naturally” – all the more cutting. A Beatles cover helped a younger generation discover his music but Owens recalls a flight during which his neighbor explained to him how she loved the Beatles but hated country music. “As hard as I tried,” he said, “I couldn’t convince her that ‘Act Naturally’ was a country song.”
This autobiographical reminiscence was a gear-shift for Lynn, who’d made her name by feistily fending off hordes of honky-tonk homewreckers out to bed her man. The song originally rambled for six minutes and eight verses before producer Owen Bradley got out his red pen, excising a scene of Lynn’s mother hanging movie magazines on their cabin wall as well as other homey details. It’s country music’s definitive started-from-the-bottom anthem, climaxing with one of popular music’s most stirring key changes. Though Lynn is proud of her family’s hardworking decency, she never pretends that her life would’ve been better if she’d never left Butcher Holler and poverty behind.
Leave it to the poet laureate of Texas country to not only tell a story of betrayal, but to make the turncoat a sympathetic character. “Pancho and Lefty” is The Great Gatsby of country songs, conveying more about friendship, duplicity and guilt than most novels. In the song, the bandit Pancho Villa has been dispatched by the hangman’s rope, but at least his suffering is over. His sidekick Lefty, who set him up, has to die a thousand deaths, trying to live with what he’s done while hiding out in cheap hotels up north. Or as Van Zandt puts it, “The dust that Pancho bit down south/Ended up in Lefty’s mouth.” Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s cover ended up topping the country charts in 1983.
In a statement released this morning, Sam Smith stated, “This is one of the highlights of my career. I am honored to finally announce that I will be singing the next Bond theme song. I am so excited to be a part of this iconic British legacy and join an incredible line up of some of my biggest musical inspirations. I hope you all enjoy the song as much as I enjoyed making it.”
Smith co-wrote the song with his fellow Grammy winner Jimmy Napes. He will be the first British male solo artist to perform a Bond theme song since 1965 whenTom Jones performed the theme from Thunderball.
In the press release from Sony, producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli said: “Sam and Jimmy have written the most inspirational song for Spectre and with Sam’s extraordinary vocal performance, ‘Writing’s On The Wall’ will surely be considered one of the greatest Bond songs of all time.”
Capitol Records will release “Writing’s On The Wall” on Sept. 25. Spectre, the 24th film in the James Bond franchise, will be released Oct. 26 in the U.K. and Nov. 6 in the U.S.
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With its theatrical vocal, finger-snapping rhythm and a haunting clarinet hook seemingly borrowed from a Brecht/Weill musical, Tennessee Ernie Ford’s excoriation of the evils of debt bondage was an unlikely country-pop smash. Although folksinger George Davis claimed to have written an original “Nine-to-Ten Tons” in the Thirties, Merle Travis countered that he wrote the more productive “Sixteen Tons” about his father’s life in the coalmines of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. The opening lines, meanwhile, came from a letter Travis’s soldier brother wrote during World War II, and the Sisyphean refrain – “I owe my soul to the company store” – from his father’s experience being paid in store tokens rather than cash. A blend of machismo and melancholy, “Sixteen Tons” has been covered by Elvis Presley, the Weavers, Stevie Wonder, Tom Morello and countless others.
Arizona native Marty Robbins’ unusually long (4 minutes, 40 seconds) story-song is a barreling Greek tragedy adapted from the Mexican waltz-time ranchera country style. In what might be country’s most cinematic hit, a narrator enamored of “wicked” Feleena shoots down a “dashing and daring” young cowboy who’s hitting on her. Past tense becomes present as the narrator returns to El Paso, is shot himself by a vengeful posse and dies in Feleena’s arms. Grady Martin’s nylon-stringed guitar provides eloquent, flamenco-influenced instrumental commentary. A longtime staple of the Grateful Dead’s cover repertoire, “El Paso” caught another cultural wave decades later when Feleena was transformed into “Felina,” the anagrammatically allusive title of Breaking Bad’s 2013 finale.
“That song was my novel,” songwriter Tom T. Hall once said of the epic “Harper Valley P.T.A.” In this sassy 1968 takedown of small-town hypocrisy, a mini-skirted widow “socks it to” the titular busybodies – in its way, it was as innocence-ending as Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” the previous year. Indeed, when singer Margie Singleton asked Hall to write her a similar song, the aspiring novelist took note of the Harpeth Valley Elementary School in Bellevue, Tennessee and found artistic inspiration in Sinclair Lewis’s religion-mocking novel Elmer Gantry. Jeannie C. Riley’s recording, however, made her the first woman to top both Billboard’s Hot 100 and country-singles charts. Barbara Eden starred in both the 1978 comedy based on the song and in a 1981-82 TV show spun off the flick.
It’s not really about Bruce Springsteen, first of all. Though stadium-filling bad boy Eric Church’s iPhone-lighter-app-waving triumph details “a love affair that takes place in an amphitheater between two people,” the Boss was not the performer in question. Church politely but firmly declines to reveal the actual inspiration, which means the best country song of the 2010s thus far might have more accurately been titled “Nugent” or “Anka” or “Fogelberg.” Cowritten by Church with Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tyndell, it’s a dreamy, nostalgic weeper (tough as our man talks, he’s a softie at heart) and drove 2011’s Chief to dizzying heights. It even earned Church a handwritten thank-you note from Springsteen himself – scrawled on the back of a Fenway Park set list.
This crossover smash emerged from circumstances as prefabricated as country music gets – written and produced by men whose credits include Lady Antebellum and Rascal Flatts, sung by an American Idol winner and sporting a literal-interpretation video. And yet the popcraft of “Before He Cheats,” as rendered by Carrie Underwood in the key of frosty rage, is nearly perfect. Even a certified alt-country critical darling like Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards is not immune to its seductive charms. “The rhythm of it, the metric of the lyrics, the chord changes, the play on words and unconventional patterns, the way she says ‘Shania karaoke’ – it’s genius,” Edwards said in 2009. “Fuck, I wish I’d written that!”
Perpetually unsung, the Flatlanders were a Lubbock trio who sounded like – well, there was Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s flat, twangy voice; the warble of a singing saw; the lyrics that made sutras of psychedelic complexity sound like they were something Grandma crocheted into a throw pillow. Small-town, but more importantly, sensitive enough to address even the most routine insults of life in the 20th century, the big city didn’t repulse them, but it did give them the willies. And yet in song, they are somehow always the eye of a storm: unchanging, know-nothing, happy to breathe deeply and just watch the show unfold. Would you be surprised to learn that they sank like a stone?
He rarely touches the stuff himself, but Brad Paisley’s way with a booze anthem is unparalleled, and such range, too: “Whiskey Lullaby,” a grim, suicide-haunted duet he cut with Alison Krauss in 2004, is basically Leaving Las Vegas in miniature, whereas this bawdy, self-penned waltz unleashed just a year later comes on like Animal House. A boastful first-person rundown of hooch’s seductive powers – “I can make anybody pretty,” it begins – that claims credit for everyone from Hemingway to the thoroughly soused best man at your wedding. It’s a longtime live-show staple that inspires superfans to bring their own lampshades (seriously). “The song somehow seems to make the entire audience feel something in common,” Paisley has marveled. “We’re all out there together. We’ve all done it. We’re all one big collective idiot. And there’s nothing better than feeling that way.”
Charley Pride’s 1971 recording of Ben Peters’ “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin'” remains the definitive version of this a slightly naughty love song attempted by Conway Twitty, George Jones and Alan Jackson. The piano-driven arrangement here is classic early-Seventies countrypolitan, propelling the singer’s only crossover Top 40 pop hit. Pride’s métier has always been an easygoing effortlessness, which perfectly suits this ode to the pleasures and virtues of “Drunk in Love”-style domesticity.
If sparks flying off metal could sound sophisticated, they’d sound like Earl Scruggs’ three-finger, five-string, five-alarm-fire banjo picking on this instrumental classic, which enshrined the banjo as a lead instrument in bluegrass. A stoic virtuoso from the western North Carolina boonies, Scruggs peppered the air with rippling eighth-note ragtime rolls on “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” (a song derived from an earlier track, “Bluegrass Breakdown,” that he wrote for Bill Monroe), trading solo breaks with fiddler Benny Sims. Despite its innovative panache, the song only hit the country (and pop) charts after appearing as accompaniment to the car-chase scenes in Arthur Penn’s scintillating, taboo-flaunting 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde.
California’s second oldest state prison was a brutal place before the state implemented much-need penal reforms in 1944. Johnny Cash learned of that dark period at a screening of the 1951 film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, while serving with the U.S. Air Force, stationed in Germany. Cash initially recorded the song for Sun Records in 1956, but the version he performed 12 years later for Folsom’s inmates became the iconic hit. It’s said that the raucous cheers following, “I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die” were actually added in post-production, but who really wants to believe that?
Janet Jackson’s forthcoming album Unbreakable is coming out October 2. Recently, Ms. Jackson has shared the title track, “Unbreakable. ”
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In the two decades Lee Ann Womack has been making music, she’s never made a splash like the one she made with this 2000 song. It charted at Number One on both the country and adult contemporary charts, won “Song of the Year” at the CMAs, ACMs, ASCAP awards and took home a Grammy for “Best Country Song.” Plus, between the years of 2000 and 2007, you couldn’t throw a rock at a high school graduation without hitting it. But according to the song’s co-writer Tia Sillers, it was actually less about how the children are our future and more about her rough divorce. Still inspirational, just more depressing.
Country music’s most parodied anthem (see Homer and Jethro paean to a doomed sow, “B-A-C-O-N & E-G-G-S”) began, unpromisingly, as “I-L-O-V-E-Y-O-U, Do I have to Spell It Out for You?” Songwriter Bobby Braddock found a juicier subject and song-plugger Carly Putman suggested a sadder melody. Producer Billy Sherrill brought the finished product to Tammy Wynette, whose achingly sincere limning of a mother spelling out the “hurtin’ words” in front of her four-year-old made the song her third Number One and the title track of her first gold album. “I hated myself for not writing that song,” the five-time divorcée later said. “It fit my life completely.”
When John Prine wrote “Angel” he’d been working as a mailman in the suburbs of Chicago, sketching out ideas as he made the rounds, playing open mics on weekends. At the time, country was cross-pollinating with the distinctly un-country sounds of pop and soft-rock, but Prine presented himself as something more stripped down: A regular guy with a plain voice playing simple music, no shoulder pads necessary. But it was his ear for detail – the flies buzzing around the sink, the rodeo poster that sends a woman on a daydream that she knows will never get fulfilled – that made his songs quietly complicated. Country music rendered with the sharpened eye of an author.
Recorded in 1972 but released in 1975, Lynn’s ode to reproductive rights turned out to be a difficult pill for many country stations to swallow – one of nine Lynn songs banned during her career. Written by Lorene Allen, Don McHan and T. D. Bayless, “The Pill” uses a chicken-coop metaphor (“I’m tearin’ down your brooder house”) to warn a straying cock that his hen may start exchanging her maternity-wear “garbage” for clothes that “won’t take up so much yardage.” Lynn, who birthed four babies by age 20, employs her throaty chuckle-growls to even the scales over funky chicken-scratch guitars. “They didn’t have none of them pills when I was younger,” Lynn wrote in Coal Miner’s Daughter, “or I would have been swallowing ’em like popcorn.”
When Cash recorded “Seven Year Ache” at age 25, it was with the soulful, seen-it-all purr of someone who’d endured the game for decades. And she had: Growing up with dad Johnny’s drug addiction, touring absences, divorce from her mom Vivian and second marriage to June Carter which forced her dual Tennessee/California identity; not to mention cultivating her own career, sustaining her first marriage to hotshot singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell and having their first child. Yet the mood on this career-defining Number One country hit – which chronicled a man’s wanderlust and apparently traced to a spat with Crowell (who produced the song!) – was an almost breezy reasonableness, as if the singer almost pitied the poor schnook. The melodic tick-tock was “Mellow Mafia” with a twangy moan, and Rosanne’s tart aphorisms were some of the genre’s most poetic.
Not to be confused with Jimmy Patton’s 1959 rockabilly track “Okie’s in the Pokie,” this megahit kicked Merle Haggard into the top tier of country performers. A Bakersfield-born son of Okie farmers, Haggard co-wrote this condemnation of pot smokers, sandal-wearers and draft-card burners on his tour bus with Strangers drummer Roy Edward Burris. Both parody (“pitching woo”? “Manly footwear”?) and counter-counterculture anthem – Hag once said its 24 lines contain “about 18 different messages” – “Okie” remains an undeniable a manifesto of ethnic pride.Haggard followed his relatively mellow Los Angeles studio original with a more truculent live version, then doubled down in January of the following year with his borderline-jingoist “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” Yet as he told a journalist decades later, “I didn’t intend for ‘Okie’ to be taken as strongly from my lips as it was.”
Recorded as a single in 1961 and included on Patsy Cline Showcase that same year, this track has became a country ballad standard – but it almost wasn’t. Producer Owen Bradley initially envisioned the track recorded by baritone Roy Drusky. According to Ellis Nassour’s biography Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, Cline was standing in the hallway when she overheard Drusky turn it down because it wasn’t manly enough. It ended up being his loss: Bradley agreed to let Cline take it over and she allegedly sang it so tenderly during sessions that it caused every man in the studio to cry. It became one of the first of several pop/country crossovers for Cline and charted for over six months.
A Top Five country hit in 1965, George Jones knew the ironic, upbeat number would be a hit the minute he heard it: “‘The Race Is On’ was pitched to me,” he later told Billboard, “and I only heard the first verse, [sings] ‘I feel tears welling up cold and deep inside like my heart’s sprung a big leak,’ and I said, ‘I’ll take it.'” Eight years later, the song took on new meaning when it became the first to be broadcast by New York’s WHN, the crossover-friendly radio station that would set audience records and define the sound of pop country in the late-Seventies.
Obviously, the blackface aspect of Emmett Miller’s act will forever shadow his legacy, but covers by everyone from Little Richard to Etta James to Ryan Adams to LeAnn Rimes are keeping “Lovesick” alive. Hank Williams didn’t learn everything he knew from Miller, but the sweet-singing 1920s minstrel performer did play a significant role inspiring country music’s founding father. A couple decades before “Lovesick Blues” became Williams’ first number one hit in 1949, Miller and his melancholy yodel were in love with a beautiful gal too. Miller’s version comes with a spoken intro in which he explains that he’s got “every known indication of being in that condition” before dappling the show tune, from the 1922 Tin Pan Alley musical Oh, Ernest, with some octave vaulting. For another take on Miller, hear David Lee Roth covering “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)” on Van Halen’s Diver Down.
After periods emulating both smooth Eddy Arnold and honky-tonkin’ Hank Williams (whose Drifting Cowboys band he led after Hank’s death), Ray Price (a.k.a. “the Cherokee Cowboy”) returned to his Texas roots with this 1956 megahit that spent 20 weeks at the top of Billboard’s country chart. Co-writer Ralph Mooney penned the tune after his wife left him due to his drinking, and its lyrics suggest deep emotional delirium and paranoia. The music, however, reflected Price’s new shuffle style, with single-string fiddle, pedal steel guitar, and doubled acoustic and electric basses. Six months after Price’s release, Jerry Lee Lewis’s first Sun Records side was a more blatantly delirious rock cover that turned many heads.
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Inspired by a girl who “could party and rock harder than anyone I’d known,” John Scott Sherrill wrote this song while separating from his wife. The first country chart-topper for both singer John Anderson and Sherrill, “Wild and Blue” is a hauntingly beautiful account of a cheating woman, told from the POV of her cuckolded man. Anderson’s syrupy drawl and mournful wail is intensified by sister Donna’s Hill Country harmonizing. Lloyd Green’s pedal steel and twin fiddles paint a long, bleak evening of waiting for honey to come home, but in the end the singer’s resigned forgiveness is hardly cause for celebration. Big-voiced Sally Timms gave Anderson’s 1982 hit a straight, strong reading when British country-punks the Mekons covered it on 1991’s Curse of the Mekons.
The second Number One single off Garth Brooks’ debut LP, “The Dance” is a better-to-have-loved-and-lost slow jam that co-writer Tony Arata had been playing to open mic nights since he had moved to Nashville a few years earlier. “The only folks listening, however, were other songwriters,” remembers Arata. When Brooks first heard him play “The Dance,” he swore he would record the song if he ever got signed.
Inspired by a sign in Chicago that read “Trailers for Sale or Rent,” Roger Miller’s finger-snapping, bass-walking 1965 hit sold 2.5 million copies and became the Texas-born songwriter’s signature tune. Miller’s deliciously detailed masterpiece describes a happy-go-lucky vagrant’s existential tradeoff: “Two hours of pushin’ a broom / Buys an eight-by-12 four-bit room.” A perfectly modulated chorus sketches the hobo’s sunny familiarity with train engineers’ families before sneakily adding his similar acquaintance with “every door that ain’t locked when no one’s around.” Later in ’65, singer Jody Miller (no relation) answered with “Queen of the House,” a similarly ironic ode to domestic royalty. Roger released his own sequel of sorts in 1970 when he opened Nashville’s King of the Road Motor Inn.
Songwriter Gretchen Peters wrote “Independence Day” from the point of view of an eight-year-old girl who watched her mother get abused by her alcoholic father, until her mother burns down their house. Its popularity – intrinsically tied to its subject matter – helped McBride become a spokesperson for domestic abuse awareness and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity. But conservative host Sean Hannity wasn’t in on the track’s deeper meaning, using it as the theme song for his 2001 political radio show. “I know he [was] completely disregarding what the song’s about,” said Peters, “but… as long as they pay me, that gives me the wherewithal to support causes I believe in, and it all works out.”
Addiction, divorce, despair: Jamey Johnson spilled his demons on 2008’s, That Lonesome Song, an album that positioned the Alabamian as an able heir to the outlaw country throne. “I was trying to reach that dude at the bar going through what I was going through,” he told Rolling Stone. But where he truly shines is on “In Color,” a bittersweet ballad about man trying to convince his grandson that his photos – and his life – were more vibrant than just black and white, displaying a delicate sense for narrative and an emotive voice that’s both calloused and vulnerable. Written with James Otto and Lee Thomas Miller, the song was originally cut by Trace Adkins, for whom Johnson had earlier penned the American-as-apple-bottom anthem “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.” “Trace was gracious,” Miller later explained. “He told me, ‘The guy wrote the song. What am I gonna do?'”
Charlie Rich had been struggling to find a niche between his rocking, jazz-picker roots and the Music Row mainstream for two decades. Then “Behind Closed Doors” gave the so-called Silver Fox the biggest hit of his career. “The jocks had been complaining that [Rich] was too bluesy for country,” producer Billy Sherill explained toBillboard in September of 1974. “Others said he was too country for anything else. We just needed the right song.” To create that right song, Sherill and Co. started with a riff that writer Kevin O’Dell had been humming for years, and then balanced traditional country flourishes with the dramatic orchestral instrumentation of an 11-piece string section. Rich won two Grammys and his only CMA Entertainer of the Year award.
After recording a pair of acoustic blues albums for Folkways, Lucinda Williams found her rightful audience with her eponymous 1988 Rough Trade debut. It contained this hoarse-voiced pop-rock anthem about not only wanting but deserving a comfortable bed, bath, and emotional beyond. Williams was broke and turning 40 when Mary Chapin Carpenter softened the song’s edges, added a stirring guitar arrangement and took “Passionate Kisses” close to the top of the Billboard country chart in 1993, winning Grammys for both herself and its author.
Parton’s most homespun hit (and her frequently avowed favorite) effortlessly transplants the biblical story of Joseph to the postwar Tennessee of Dolly’s girlhood, celebrating the unselfconscious pride in a patchwork garment her mama fashioned out of rags. Parton wrote the song on Porter Wagoner’s tour bus – and on Porter Wagoner’s dry cleaning receipt, the only paper handy when inspiration struck. Wagoner later framed that receipt. The coat itself (or, as Coat Truthers insist, a latter-day recreation) hangs in the Chasing Rainbows Museum at Parton’s theme park, Dollywood.
Born into a Cajun farming family in Erath, Louisiana, in 1932, Doris Leon Menard based this regional hit on “Honky Tonk Blues” by Hank Williams, to whom he always bore a musical resemblance. Written during his shift at a service station, and recorded with Elias Badeaux and the Louisiana Aces, Menard’s catchy two-step satirizes a Cajun stereotype, the hard-drinking spendthrift whose late-night escapades lead to an early-morning return through the back door (and ultimately prison). “La Porte d’en Arrière” sold out its initial 300-copy run within days, then sold half a million more while becoming Cajun music’s most frequently covered song not titled “Jole Blon.” Although Menard soon “came to where I couldn’t bear to even hear the name of that song, I got so tired of it,” he still manages to perform “La Porte” to this day.
Years before his band become the most successful country group of the 1980s, Randy Owen spent his childhood days on Lookout Mountain, where his family ran a small cotton farm. 1982’s “Mountain Music” paid tribute to those southern roots, setting Owen’s adolescent hobbies – river-swimming, tree-climbing, raft-building – to a soundtrack of classic-rock guitar riffs, country harmonies and fiddle-fueled breakdowns. “We did ‘Mountain Music’ in two cuts,” he told CMT. “Back when we had a chance to rehearse and arrange stuff, we just went in and did the song like we’d rehearsed it.” Released during a time when country stars rarely played on their own records, “Mountain Music” was the work of a true band, and was proof that no one has to rely on the Nashville hit machine.