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The Originals – Country Edition

March 26th, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Here’s a mix of originals of country hits, and the stories behind some of them. For those who expect a lot of hackneyed yee-haw’s and songs about dogs that gone and died, there may be little satisfaction. But many of these songs bear out what was made so clear in Ken Burns’ recent magisterial documentary series on the history of country music: the great songs are about the stories. Listen to country for its sounds or reject it for the same reasons, but if you hear the words, you’ll have great entertainment regardless of how you feel about the odd twang or dobro.

The potted History of Country I wrote some years ago is still available as as e-book as a free download.

And the greatest of all country songs, Kris Kristofferson’s Sunday Morning Coming Down was treated with its remarkable story in a songswarm. I include the first released recording, by Ray Price, as a bonus track.

 

A Boy Named Sue
The Johnny Cash signature tune was actually written by the ultimate Renaissance Man, Shel Silverstein (who previously featured in this series as the author of Dr Hook’s/Marianne Faithfull’s The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan, on Any Major Originals – The Classics).

It is unclear what inspired Silverstein to create this fantastic story about the guy with a girl’s name (or why the boy named Sue just didn’t acquire a butch nickname). But there once was a prominent Mr Sue. Sue K Hicks was the original prosecutor in the notorious 1925 Scopes Trial.

Cash (or possibly his wife June Carter; the accounts vary) was introduced to the song at a “guitar pull” party in Nashville, at which musician friends ran their latest compositions by one another. According to Cash, other artists present that night were Bob Dylan (who played Lay Lady Lay), Judy Collins (Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now) and her then lover Stephen Stills (Judy Blue Eyes), and Silverstein.

Just before his televised 1969 concert from St Quentin jail, June suggested that Johnny perform Silverstein’s song. And he did. On the film footage he can be seen referring to the scribbled lyrics of the song taped to the floor. And so his spontaneous performance of the song, apparently the first time he had ever sung it, became one of his biggest hits. Some have claimed that Cash’s lack of familiarity with the song explains his half-spoken delivery. But Silverstein’s 1968 version, from the Boy Named Sue and His Other Country Songs album, is similarly half-spoken.

Silverstein followed the song up with a composition from the father’s perspective, using the same tune (Find it on the Any Major Fathers Vol. 1 mix). Oh, and Mandark in Dexter’s Laboratory is in fact called Susan.

 

Rose Garden
Before Lynn Anderson had a hit with it in early 1971, Rose Garden had been recorded by two soul acts — Dobie Gray and The Three Degrees — and before them, in 1968, by its writer, Joe South, who had in 1967 given the song to his old pal Billie Joe Royal. South had written Royal’s two best-known songs, Down in the Boondocks and Hush. Both of those were singles; Rose Garden remained an album track on the unwieldily titled Billy Joe Royal Featuring ‘Hush’. South’s far superior version was also just an album track (he’d have a hit later with Games People Play).

Lynn Anderson almost did not record the song. Execs at her record company, Columbia, didn’t like it much and thought it inappropriate for a woman to sing a song which represents a male perspective (for example in the line “I could promise you things like big diamond rings”). As it happened, there was some spare time during a studio session, and the track was recorded. The label’s micro-managing head, Clive Davis, heard it and decided that it should be Anderson’s next single. It was a big hit in the US and Europe, and Anderson’s version remained the biggest selling recording by any female country artist until 1997.

I think Rose Garden should have been recorded by Elvis in his American Sounds Studio period (which yielded tracks like Suspicious Minds and In The Ghetto); it could have been huge.

 

Detroit City
It took a name-change from the song’s best-known line to the geographically-specific Detroit City for Bobby Bare to score his first big hit, in 1963. Before Bare changed the title to Detroit City, the song was known as I Wanna Go Home, and had been a country hit for Billy Grammer a few months earlier. The famous guitar figure that kicks off Bare’s hit version also features in Grammer’s version, but in the middle of the song.

Grammer, later a guitar designer, had a way of riffing on life on the road; in 1959 he had a million-seller with Gotta Travel On— which Bare would dutifully cover as well. I Wanna Go Home was written by Danny Dill and Mel Tillis (who also wrote Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town).

 

Streets Of Baltimore
Tompall Glaser was one of the original country Outlaws — in fact, he owned the studio where the term was coined on account of the artists who recorded there. With his brothers, he supported Johnny Cash on tour in the early 1960s before as Tompall & The Glaser Brothers they signed for MGM Records in 1966.

The same year Tompall co-wrote Streets Of Baltimore, the sad story of a man who selflessly gives up everything, including his farm back in Tennessee, so as to fulfil his woman’s dream of living in Baltimore — with no happy ending, at not least for him.

Tompall’s cousin Dennis, who worked for him, told me in an e-mail in 2009 that the original song had many more verses. “Harlan [Howard; the legendary country hit writer] told me once that Tompall stopped by his office and gave him a copy of what he’s written, which was much longer than the final version. And said: “˜Here, fix it’. It sounds like something Tom would say.’

But the Glasers didn’t recorded the song first; Bobby Bare did, possibly after having been given the song by Harlan Howard. Recorded in April 1966 (produced by Chet Atkins) his version was released as a single in June 1966; the Glasers’ was recorded in September. Bare went on to have hit with it, reaching #7 on the Country charts. The song became more famous in the wonderful version by Gram Parsons, which appeared on his 1973 GP album. Likewise, the 1998 duet by Nanci Griffiths and John Prine is essential.

Dennis Glaser also said that the song has been mentioned in an American literature textbook “as an example of songs that reflect actual life”.

 

Make The World Go Away
Written by the legendary country songwriter Hank Cochran, Make The World Go Away was first recorded by Ray Price, but was first released by blue-eyed soul diva Timi Yuro, whose version reached #24 on the Billboard Charts in 1963. Price’s version, which was released a month after Yuro’s, became a huge country hit. But two years later, veteran crooner Eddy Arnold made the sing his own and scored a mammoth hit with.

 

Crazy Arms
Four years before Make The World Go Away, Ray Price had a massive hit with Crazy Arms, a recording which set the tone for country music for the next decade. But before Price got his hands on it, Crazy Arms was an unremarkable country ballad written in 1949 by steel guitar legend Ralph Mooney while he was in Las Vegas (there are claims that an ill-fated songwriter named Paul Gilley sold the lyrics to Mooney). Singer Wynn Stewart cut an acetate demo, but the song went unrecorded for several years.

In 1956 Mooney sold the song to a California baker named Claude Caviness who had set up a record label, Pep, as a vehicle for his moderately talented singing wife Marilyn Kaye. He had the song recorded as a duet, with Kenny Brown and Kaye doing vocal duty, backed by the Arkansas Ramblers.

Their recording was not a hit, but Price discovered it while visiting a radio station in Florida. He changed some of the lyrics, gave it a new arrangement — and had a huge hit with his recording. When Caviness popped up to claim ownership of the song, Price didn’t fight back but formed a music publishing company with him. That’s how you solve a problem the Nashville way.

 

Jackson
Here’s a song that could work on different types of Originals theme: a 1960s theme for the cover by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood; or the country take by Johnny Cash & June Carter, both from 1967. Originally it was a folk piece for the Kingston Trio, release in 1963 and written by Jerry Leiber and Billy Edd Wheeler (who’d later pen the rape tale Coward of the County). Wheeler had no particular Jackson in mind — he liked the sound of the consonants — but Cash decided to place it in Tennessee, where it has remained ever since.

 

Gonna Get Along Without You
Country went pop in the early 1950s when vocalist Theresa Brewer scored a hit with country singer Roy Hogsed’s I’m Gonna Get Along Without You in 1952, followed by kid duo Patience and Prudence in 1956. It returned to country in 1964 with Skeeter Davis version, considered by country fans as the definitive take. Since then the sing has been recorded, with various tweaks to the title, in different genres, including reggae (The Melodians), funk (The Vibrations), ska (Bad Manners), disco (in Violas Wills’ 1979 hit version from) and alt.rock (The Lemonheads).

Roy Hogsed recorded fairly prolifically between 1947 and 1954, but enjoyed only one minor country hit, Cocaine Blues. He died at 58 in 1978.

 

You Are My Sunshine
A standard to the point of cliché, You Are My Sunshine was a big hit in 1940 for Jimmie Davis, who’d become governor of Louisana from 1944-48 and 1960-64 (in the latter election campaign, he was a strong segregationist). From Davies’ croonery the song found its place in the canon of the Great American Songbook. But its roots are very much in country.

Its authorship is credited to Davies and his sideman Charles Mitchell, but they had nothing to do with writing. They bought the credit from the Rice Brothers Gang, who were the second outfit to record it. Three weeks before they got around to it, You Are My Sunshine was recorded in August 1939 by The Pine Ridge Boys from Atlanta, an outfit that recorded and performed in various incarnations for decades after.

 

Tennessee Waltz
On a Friday night in 1946, country singer and accordionist Pee Wee King (who was born by the decidedly un-country name Julius Kuczynski in Milwaukee) was driving with Redd Stewart, fiddler and singer with King’s Golden West Cowboys, to Nashville when the radio played bluegrass legend Bill Monroe’s Kentucky Waltz. Wondering why nobody ever dedicated a waltz to the state of Tennessee — home to country music capital Nashville, after all — they decided to relieve the boredom of the long drive by writing one, setting lyrics, written on a matchbox, to an instrumental they had been playing in concerts, the No Name Waltz.

One might think that Pee Wee King’s version, with Stewart on vocals, would be the first to be recorded. However, he was scooped by Cowboy Copas, who would perish on the plane that killed Patsy Cline (one of the many who later covered Tennessee Waltz). Lloyd Copas had been a singer with Pee Wee King’s band in the early 1940s, succeeding Eddy Arnold. It may be that Pee Wee first gave the song to his old frontman, who made a recording of it in April 1947 for (ironically) King Records in Cincinnatti, and another in June that year. It is most likely the latter recording that was released in March 1948 and became a #3 country hit. Pee Wee King recorded his version in December 1947. Also released in early 1948, it also peaked at #3, but at half a million copies sold more than Copas’ take.

By 1950, Tennessee Waltz had become something of a country classic, and even jazz singer Anita O’Day had covered it, when it became a mammoth crossover hit for Patti Page, whose version remains the best known. It topped the pop, country and R&B charts simultaneously, a unique feat. As so often, the big hit was first a b-side, in this case to the less than immortal Boogie Woogie Santa Claus. For a b-side, much effort went into the production, which used a rudimentary form of vocal overdubbing to go with the backing track by the Jack Rael Orchestra. An acetate was recorded of Page singing the song, and this would be played into one microphone while Page sang into a second microphone. Page’s version of her dad’s favourite song went on to sell 6 million copies.

 

Wabash Cannonball
The oldest song in this collection is also one of the most influential country songs Wabash Canonball (named after a famous railroad) is best-known in the 1947 version of Ray Acuff, one of the mega stars of country in the ‘40s. But the song itself goes back to at least 1882, with a song titled The Great Rock Island Route credited to J. A. Roff, and to 1904, when an adapted version of it was released under the current title as sheet music by William Kindt.

In 1929 it was first recorded by the Carter Family (and A.P. Carter duly gave himself a writing credit as well), but their version went unreleased for three years. In the interim, 25-year-old banjo picker and radio performer Hugh Cross became the first to release Wabash Cannonball on record, also in 1929, but using the Kindt arrangement.

The song would be recorded several times before 1947, when Acuff had his big hit with it. Funny enough, Acuffs’ had recorded Wabash Cannonball back in 1938, with is band The Tennesseans — but in that session, member Sam “Dynamite” Hatcher did the lead vocals.

 

Wild Side Of Life / It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels
When in 1952 Kitty Wells released her answer song to Hank Thompson’s The Wild Side Of Life, it caused a sensation. Here a woman dared to answer back to the moaning of a chauvinist. With her hit It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels, which in terms of success eclipsed Thompson’s lament, became an inspiration to many women. And it turned the singing housewife Wells into a star.

But neither The Wild Side Of Life nor It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels were first recorded by the gender-battle protagonist who had their chart-topping hits with these songs.

The male perspective was first recorded by Jimmy Heap & The Melody Masters (with Perk William on vocals) in 1951; the answer record by the otherwise rather obscure songstress Al Montgomery was released as Did God Make Honky Tonk Angels a few months before Wells recorded hers.

The melody for both was adapted from a group of similar songs: Thrills That I Can’t Forget by Welby Toomey and Edgar Boaz in (1925), The Carter Family’s I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes (1929), and Great Speckled Bird (popularised by Roy Acuff in 1936).

 

Sweet Dreams
Released after she died in a plane crash, the unusually poppy Sweet Dreams became so associated with Cline that the successful biopic was named after the song. Originally, it was Don Gibson’s song, and his own composition (as was the future Ray Charles hit I Can’t Stop Loving You). Gibson’s version made no inroads, and a cover by Faron Young fared much better. But even though Young’s record did better on the Billboard country charts (#2 against Cline’s #5), it was Cline’s version that became the classic, even crossing over into the pop charts.

 

The Battle Of New Orleans
Originally a traditional folk song known as The 8th of January, The Battle of New Orleans tells the story of a soldier fighting with the genocidal Andrew Jackson’s army against the British in the 8 January 1815 battle of the title. It was first recorded in 1957 and released the following year by Jimmy Driftwood, a school teacher in Timbo, Arkansas.

Born James Morris, he is said to have been one of the nicest guys in the folk music scene (not surprisingly, he was a collaborator with the great musicologist Alan Lomax). As a history teacher, Driftwood considered song to be an educational device, and so in 1936 (or 1945, depending which sources you believe) he set the fiddle-based folk song to lyrics — there were no definitive words, only snippets of recurring phrases — to benefit his students.

In the 1950s, Driftwood was signed by RCA, and eventually recorded The Battle Of New Orleans, with the label’s session man Chet Atkins on guitar. He later wrote another country classic, Tennessee Stud, which became a hit for Eddy Arnold and Johnny Cash (Tarantino fans will know it from the Jackie Brown soundtrack).

Shortly after Driftwood recorded The Battle Of New Orleans, the doomed country star Johnny Horton did a cover which relied less on manic fiddling and dropped such radio-unfriendly words as “hell” and “damn” — and scored a big hit with it (he even changed the lyrics for the English market, turning the enemy “British” into generic “rebels”).

Horton released several “historical records” (most famous among them, perhaps, Sink The Bismarck), though it would be unfair to reduce his influence on country music to that. A close friend of Johnny Cash’s, Horton died in a car crash in 1960, widowing his wife Billy Jean for the second time — she had been married to Hank Williams when the country legend died. Spookily, both Williams and Horton played their last concerts at the Skyline Club in Austin, Texas.

Two other takes on The Battle Of New Orleans are notable. In 1959, skiffle legend Lonnie Donegan reached the UK #2 with it — but received no airplay on Aunty Beeb until he changed the word “ruddy” to “blooming”.

The song was revived in 1972 by the Les Humphries Singers, a multi-ethnic and multi-national English-language ensemble of hippie demeanour that was very popular in West Germany with its Ed Hawkins Singers-meet-Hair shtick. Humphries, an Englishman, renamed the song Mexico (not a stretch; that country’s name appears in the original lyrics) and scored a massive hit with his outfit’s joyous rendition. The trouble is, Humphries credited the song to himself, a brazen act of plagiarism. I have found no evidence that Humphries, who died in 2007 at 67, was ever sued for his blatant rip-off.

 

Queen Of Hearts
Here’s one of those songs that some might know better in its original version, and others as the hit cover. Queen Of Hearts was a UK #11 hit for Welsh singer Dave Edmunds in 1979, and two years later a US #2 hit for the unlikely-named Juice Newton, who is most famous for her cover of Angel Of The Morning (the original of which is yet to run in this series). With Newton, the song came home to the world of country: it was written by Hank DeVito, pedal steel guitarist for Emmylou Harris.

Newton earned a Grammy nomination for best country song for her version, and it was her remake that inspired the veteran French singer Sylvie Vartan, who once performed on a bill with the Beatles, to record her French take on the song (retitled Quand tu veux , or When You Want It). A couple of years earlier Newton had tried to have a hit with another British song, but her version of It’s A Heartache lost out in the US to that by Welsh rasper Bonnie Tyler. Later Newton enjoyed a #11 with another cover. Brenda Lee’s Break It To Me Gently.

 

1. Dave Edmunds – Queen Of Hearts (1979)
The Usurper: Juice Newton (1981)

2. Shel Silverstein – Boy Named Sue (1968)
The Usurper: Johnny Cash (1968)

3. Ed Bruce – Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys (1974)
The Usurper: Waylon Jennings & Willie Nelson (1978)

4. Billy Joe Royal – I Never Promised You A Rose Garden (1967)
The Usurper: Lynn Anderson (1970)

5. Norro Wilson – Hey Mister (1969)
The Usurper: Charlie Rich (as The Most Beautiful Girl, 1973)

6. Waylon Jennings – Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again) (1971)
The Usurpers: Kris Kristofferson, Roger Miller (1971), Tompall & the Glaser Brothers (1981)

7. Bobby Bare – Streets Of Baltimore (1966)
The Usurper: Gram Parsons (1973)

8. Timi Yuro – Make The World Go Away (1963)
The Usurpers: Eddy Arnold (1965), The Osmonds (1975)

9. Billy Brown – He’ll Have To Go (1959)
The Usurper: Jim Reeves (1959)

10. Billy Walker – Funny How Time Slips Away (1959)
The Usurpers: Jimmy Elledge (1961), Willie Nelson (1962), Joe Hinton (1964),

11. Ray Price – Heartaches By The Number (1959)
The Usurper: Guy Mitchell (1959)

12. Merle Travis – Sixteen Tons (1947)
The Usurpers: Tennessee Ernie Ford (1955), Frankie Laine (1956)

13. Kenny Brown & Marilyn Kaye – Crazy Arms (1956)
The Usurper: Ray Price (1959)

14. Don Gibson – Sweet Dreams (1955)
The Usurpers: Faron Young (1956), Patsy Cline (1963)

15. Margie Singleton – Harper Valley PTA (1968)
The Usurper: Jeannie C. Riley (1968)

16. The Kingston Trio – Jackson (1963)
The Usurpers: Johnny Cash & June Carter (1967), Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood (1967)

17. Jimmy Driftwood – Battle Of New Orleans (1958)
The Usurper: Johnny Horton (1959)

18. Billy Grammer – I Wanna Go Home (1963)
The Usurpers: Bobby Bare (as Detroit City, 1963), Tom Jones (1967)

19. Roy Hogsed – I’m Gonna Get Along Without You (1951)
The Usurpers: Patience & Prudence (1956), Skeeter Davis (1964), Viola Wills (1979)

20. Cowboy Copas – Tennessee Waltz (1948)
The Usurpers: Pee Wee King (1948), Patti Page (1950), Les Paul with Mary Ford (1950),

21. Pine Ridge Boys – You Are My Sunshine (1939)
The Usurper: Jimmie Davis (1930), Gene Autry (1941), Bing Crosby (1941),

22. Hugh Cross – Wabash Cannonball (1929)
The Usurper: Roy Acuff (1936)

23. Jimmie Heap – Wild Side Of Life (1951)
The Usurper: Hank Thompson (1952)

24. Al Montgomery – Did God Make Honky Tonk Angels? (1952)
The Usurper: Kitty Wells (1952)

25. Bonnie & Fuzzy Owens – A Dear John Letter (1953)
The Usurper: Ferlin Husky & Jean Shepard (1953)

26. Big Bopper – White Lightning (1958)
The Usurper: George Jones (1959)

27. Paul Davis – Six Days On The Road (1961)
The Usurper: Dave Dudley (1973)

28. Arthur Smith & His Cracker Jacks – Feudin’ Banjos (1955)
The Usurper: Eric Weissberg (as Dueling Banjos, 1972)

BONUS TRACK:
Ray Stevens – Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down (1969)
The Usurpers: Johnny Cash (1969), Kris Kristofferson (1970)

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  1. halfhearteddude
    March 26th, 2020 at 15:04 | #1

    PW = amdwhah

  2. March 26th, 2020 at 21:56 | #2

    Another great one: Ruby, don’t take your love to town by the late Kenny Rogers was written by Mell Tillis and originally recorded by Waylon Jennings in 1966. I prefer the much quicker Mel Tillis version though.

  3. Lynchie
    March 27th, 2020 at 11:12 | #3

    My fave version of “Detroit City” is by The Killer himself – Ladeez’nGennlmen Mr Jerry Lee Lewis! (1.47 in he does the talking bit – listen and you’ll see what I mean)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nRyBVMjXBsw

  4. Rhodb
    March 28th, 2020 at 00:37 | #4

    Thanks for the Original country

    Love the original series

    A couple of surprises here 16 tons and battle of New Orleans

    Regards

    Rhodb

  5. March 29th, 2020 at 23:45 | #5

    According to Jean Shepherd, radio raconteur, author, screenwriter (A Christmas Story) and friend of Shel Silverstein, A Boy Named Sue was inspired by him.

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