A roundabout Wikipedia journey this afternoon reminded me of something I’ve said before:
While I can sing you significant chunks of many pop hits of the Seventies, I’m totally ignorant of their country counterparts.
I was raised in a house where country music was pretty much disdained, and I’ve been content to maintain that attitude into almost-middle-age. (Today’s “country” hasn’t changed my mind.)
In an effort to right that possible wrong, or at least to offer something like fair play, I decided to listen to the Number One country hits from the summer of 1973 and see what I thought of them.
I chose the year not quite at random: The summer of ’73 was the summer of my birth. It also felt too obvious to go for a big round anniversary like 40 years. We bloggers do that all the time.
So here we go. Anything good on?
Week ending June 16: Tammy Wynette, “Kids Say The Darndest Things.” Knowing nothing about it, I pegged this as a weeper in which a wide-eyed child of divorce looks up at his/her mommy and innocently asks when Daddy’s coming home.
I wasn’t quite right, but I was close enough: The wee ones talk about divorce, mention Daddy’s absence and drop cuss words.
It’s kind of a one-joke setup that shows its hand early, leaving us with no alternative but to enjoy the relentlessly skittering xylophone.
(How much work do xylophone players in Nashville get, anyway? If this tune made the percussionist enough for a down payment on a new Monte Carlo, I guess it was worth it.)
Week ending June 23: Jeanne Pruett, “Satin Sheets.” This one crossed over onto the pop Top 40, and I’ve heard it on rebroadcast Casey Kasem American Top 40 shows.
A real weeper, this, with steel guitar and a somewhat less cloying lyric than “Kids Say The Darndest Things.”
A couple more chord changes might have been nice, though. Those famously clever and inventive Nashville songwriters didn’t really knock themselves out on this one.
(Wiki tells me — and feel free to read this paragraph in a Casey voice — the song was actually written by an unknown songwriter from Minnesota farm country who spent three years trying to get someone to listen to it, and was eventually rewarded with a big hit for his trouble. Nice backstory, but it’s still kind of a cookie-cutter song.)
Week ending June 30: “Don’t Fight The Feelings of Love,” Charley Pride. The second of three country Number Ones in ’73 for the ex-minor league ballplayer.
And whaddya know, it rollicks a little bit, in a root-fifth kind of way.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say I like it; and I’m a little hard put to explain why it was such a big hit, as it doesn’t have one of those killer melodic or lyrical twists that really stick in the mind.
But it doesn’t offend me, and it gets in and out in a spare two minutes.
Week of July 7: “Why Me,” Kris Kristofferson. Yeesh. Another tune that became a good-sized pop crossover success, spending 19 weeks in the pop Top 40.
I’ve never been able to stand it myself, in between Kristofferson’s froggy croak and a lyric that would go nicely in Hallmark’s “For A Religious Friend In Turmoil” section.
(I’m also acquainted with the song from Elvis Presley’s mid-’70s shows, when it served as a vehicle for featured backup singer J.D. Sumner. I don’t care for it much in that setting either.)
Weeks ending July 14 and 21: “Love is the Foundation,” Loretta Lynn. Apparently Faith Hill and Conway Twitty have both had their ways with this one as well.
They didn’t have to remember much. There’s kind of a spare construction here — a single verse, twice through the chorus, and done.
(Is it, or was it, a general rule that country audiences don’t demand as many hooks or arranging touches as pop listeners do? Even a one- or two-chord pop hit — “Everyday People,” say, or “Rhiannon” — goes more places than these songs do.)
I’d call this one a sludgy and fairly uninspiring ballad myself; the hints of lust and cheatin’ don’t really add that much spice.
Week ending July 28: “You Were Always There,” Donna Fargo. Please tell me this isn’t about Jesus …
… no, but it’s only marginally less maudlin. It’s a song from a daughter to one or another deceased parent, ruing the fact that they never took the time to talk about anything substantive.
I can see why this was big, but it ain’t my cup of tears.
Week ending Aug. 4: “Lord, Mr. Ford,” Jerry Reed. I was sorta hoping this was a raging political screed aimed at the occupant of the White House, until I remembered Mr. Nixon was still president in the summer of ’73.
No, instead this is a fast-talking, fed-up, somewhat corn-poney recitation about the evils and frustrations of the automobile.
It ain’t great, but it tears up everything around it.
And I bet a few months later, after those Ay-rabs dropped an oil embargo on our landau-roofed asses, it sounded awful prescient.
Week ending Aug. 11: “Trip to Heaven,” Freddie Hart. Does this trip involve driving? ‘Cause Jerry Reed tells me driving’s a pain in the arse.
More straightforward acoustic-guitar raking here, cut from familiar musical cloth. Somehow this song makes me imagine a dance hall in Texas, chock full of couples two-stepping slowly around in each others’ arms.
Which is fine as far as it goes — the world needs honky-tonk shitkicker love songs as much as it needs any other style of music.
I suspect, though, that 100 other country singers released 100 (or 1,000) other songs that sounded just like this in ’73, and I’m not sure how to explain why this one landed at the top of the heap.
Week ending August 18: “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,” Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty. Country songwriters sure love their specific references: Nothing establishes credibility like a name-drop of a Chevy truck, some Hank Junior on the radio, or, in this case, two Southern states separated by one big river.
(Hey, has anyone suggested that Florida Georgia Line cover this song? You’d have four of the most populous states south of the Mason-Dixon line wrapped up, even before the song started.)
Anyway: There’s just enough snap, energy and shared spark here to put this above the rest of the pack.
And, speaking as we were about those special touches that set a song apart, check out how the rhythm moves from a sort of country canter in the verses to a rocky shuffle in the choruses. That’s a perfect example of the kind of effort that sets a good record apart.
Weeks ending Aug. 25 and Sept. 1: “Everybody’s Had The Blues,” Merle Haggard.
I wasn’t expecting a song called “Everybody’s Had The Blues” to knock me flat with lyrical innovation, and this one doesn’t. (Again, something more than the sparsest of repeated lyrics might have helped.)
But as a straight slice of no-nonsense country, it does its job.
Also, kinda cool the way the band breaks time for the lines, “A lonely song / Someone is gone,” and “Love, hate / Want, wait.”
Weeks ending Sept. 8, 15 and 23: “You’ve Never Been This Far Before,” Conway Twitty. Yup, him again.
I’ve heard this one — it cracked the pop Top 40 — and I’m not gonna bother listening to it again. If you want to, knock yourself out:
(OK, the bum-bum-bums are a catchy touch.)
So, yeah. Not sure why I spent so much time taking that trip.
But now, when someone brings up country, I can say with a little more familiarity that I’ve been that way before.
Bum bum bum.