May 17 – People Began Drink Juice Up In ’81

It was a good time to be a female singer around this time in 1981. This week 41 years back, Sheena Easton had just dropped out of the top spot on the Billboard singles chart with “Morning Train” and had been replaced by what would go on to be the biggest-seller of the year in the States, “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes. Sitting between them, at a high position of #4 was the tasty Juice Newton‘s “Angel of the Morning.” It was an auspicious entry to the main stage for the New Jersey-born, California raised singer.

Juice had grown up singing and playing guitar, and got good at it playing folk music in cafes around California while she went to college there in the ’60s. Judy Kay Newton took the nickname “Juice” when she signed to RCA with a country band in the mid-’70s,but they didn’t do a great deal commercially. Patience paid off both for her and Capitol Records, who signed her individually after that. Her first two albums went almost unnoticed, but her third, the eponymously-titled Juice, changed all that. The key was that while it sounded in a country vein, it was good enough, and pop enough to hit mainstream radio. When all was said and done, the album went platinum in the U.S., three times that in Canada and launched four hit singles.

Angel of the Morning” was the first, and internationally, biggest of them. The song was written by Chip Taylor in the ’60s. Taylor also wrote the quite different “Wild Thing”, a hit for the Troggs. He says he wrote it right after hearing “Ruby Tuesday” by the Rolling Stones. “I wanted to capture that kind of passion,” he recalls. The song was offered to Connie Francis, but she found it too risque, so it went to Merrilee Rush. She recorded it and had a top 10 hit in 1968 with it, and others have recorded it including Olivia Newton John, Nina Simone and even Tom Hanks’ wife Rita Wilson, but no one did as well with it or “owned” it like Juice.

She sang and played the acoustic guitar on it, and had some talented studio help to fill out the sound including Dan Dugmore (a member of both James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt’s backing bands) on aching slide guitar. Newton says she was vaguely aware of Rush’s version, but didn’t emulate it since “when it was popular, I was listening to folk music and R&B, and it was pop.”

Soon everyone was listening to her take on it. The song went gold in the States and in Canada where it hit #1. She’d have nearly as much success with the follow-up single, “Queen of Hearts” and then did well at home with “The Sweetest Thing” from it, and three years later, “Ride Em Cowboy”, re-released as a single from the album to promote a best of compilation. Soon after, she’d disappear from the mainstream pop and rock charts, but she remained a viable entity on country radio, having three #1 hits on their charts in the second-half of the decade.

Obviously a country girl at heart, Juice has voiced two audiobooks, both Westerns, and keeps herself busy keeping and trading horses in California these days.

April 29 – 89? No Reason For Ol’ Willie To Slow Down

Activist, country music hero, namesake of a boulevard in Austin, where he also was the guest on the first Austin City Limits… what more is there to say about Willie Nelson other than Happy Birthday, Ol’ Willie!? Quite a lot more actually, enough to fill books about the iconic pony-tailed musician who turns a smokin’  89 today!

Nelson had an eventful enough life before becoming a star musician… raised in a musical church family, he learned guitar by  age six and sang in church. He went to Waco, Texas’s Baptist Baylor University for agriculture briefly and worked selling Bibles door to door, making saddles, as a bar bouncer and a host of other jobs before turning to songwriting for a living, writing hits for the likes of Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline (including “Crazy”, her signature piece and a song NPR reported in 1996 to have been the most played song ever in jukeboxes!) . But when he started recording his own work his star really began to climb.

To date he’s recorded over 70 studio albums over the past five+ decades, including four already this decade! A dozen of them have reached the top of the Country charts, including his 1978 Stardust, which went 5X platinum. Solo songs like “Georgia on My Mind”, “Blue Skies,” and “On The Road Again” are part of the canon of 20th-Century Americana and the hit “Always on My Mind” was not only a top 10 hit for him but covered as a dancy #1 UK and Canadian hit by the Pet Shop Boys (whose version was picked by BBC listeners as the best cover song by anyone, ever, in 2014). Then there are the duets, including ones with B.B. King, the Beach Boys, Merle Haggard and Julio Iglesias with whom he recorded the easy-listening smash “To All The Girls I’ve Loved.” He joked on one TV appearance that the song came about when his wife mentioned Iglesias and Willie asked who he was; she replied he was one of the most famous singers in the world. Willie deadpanned “how can that be- I’ve never done a duet with him!”

Despite his I.R.S. problems with overdue taxes and periodic legal troubles from his love of marijuana, the U.S. Library of Congress still thought enough of him to award him the prestigious Gershwin Prize, their highest honor, back in 2015 As such he’s the only country artist to have that on his resume; other recipients have included Billy Joel, Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder.

Arguably the only thing that can top that is an award from Nobel Prize winners…and Willie has that too! He was given a Nobility Award from that elite group for his charity and activism. Not only does he own a biofuel company and live in a solar-powered house, he also co-founded Farm Aid with John Mellencamp and Neil Young back in 1985 and is still its president. That group, as we know, holds concerts to raise funds for struggling farmers and environmental issues concerning our food chain.

We hope Willie will be rollin’ for a long time to come, and with his recent output, maybe he will be. Besides working closely with Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke on the campaign trail in Texas  a couple of years ago, he streamed live concerts in 2020 to raise funds for those who lost jobs due to the pandemic and last year recorded a new song, “I’ll Be Seeing You” which he allowed to be used in ads promoting Covid vaccination, and did a cover of “Under Pressure” with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. In fall he took center stage again at Farm Aid and not one to let the , err , grass grow under his feet, he kept busy through the winter too. The result – a birthday gift to his fans. He’s putting out a brand new album today, A Beautiful Time. It’s received decent advance reviews and includes a number of originals he wrote with producer Buddy Cannon, and a few covers of songs by the likes of Leonard Cohen and the Beatles. One might guess Willie will be busy today planning what he’s going to do for his 90th birthday!

April 3 – Accidental Single Made For A Royal Career

Today we give a bit of the royal treatment to a great singer…Billy Joe Royal that is. He was born 80 years ago today in 1942.

Royal grew up in Georgia, originally in Valdosta, then later near Atlanta. He had an early career in both cities, getting to sing on radio in the former by age 14. “I just wanted to be in music,” he said. He started a band, the Corvettes not long after, and they had some success in Atlanta and Savannah. They were an early rock’n’roll band, and though he loved Elvis, his biggest influence was Sam Cooke, so they had a decidedly soul tinge to their sound. By the end of the decade, he’d opened for artists like B.B. King in Atlanta, and more importantly, for Cooke. Years later, he remembered “he was my idol. The second time he was there, he put his arm around me and said ‘you just keep getting better and better.’ For a kid, I can’t tell you how that felt!”.

Although Royal could play guitar and some piano, he mostly just focused on singing. Still, one of the band would years later say “it was obvious to all of us Billy Joe was the one with talent.” As a performer, that might be true, but the band’s guitarist was pretty good too… as a writer. Joe South would go on to success as a songwriter and stayed friends with Royal. In fact, he indirectly made his career. He wrote “Down in the Boondocks” , the song about the poor boy falling for his rich boss’s daughter. (By the way, “boondocks” comes from a Tagalog (Fillipino) … that will probably win you a drink in a bar trivia game! ) He wanted Gene Pitney to record it, but had Royal sing it for the demo. Columbia liked it so much they signed Royal, and released it as a single…Royal’s first.

The single made his career, hitting #9 in the U.S. and #1 in Canada. It probably was a bigger hit than #9 would indicate at home for Royal, but being an unknown it went to “#1 overnight in Cincinnati” where he played often, then in Savannah, another favorite place for him to perform, and eventually took off, market by market across the land. His follow-up, “I Knew You When” was also a top 20 hit, and he’d notch a couple more in the ’60s. Among his other notable recordings was the first version of “Hush”, a song South had written but was made into a hit by Deep Purple.

The ’70s saw shifts in music, and he failed to connect with radio audiences, but became a popular Las Vegas performer, making friends with another childhood idol, Elvis Presley. However, he didn’t like Vegas that much, nor L.A. where he lived for some time so he made a conscious decision to change. “Kenny Rogers lived down the street from me, and Kenny was tearing up the world singing country music.” So Royal moved to Nashville and started recording straight-ahead country songs, with good results. He’d score four top 5 country hits in the ’80s, including a massively successful cover of Aaron Neville’s “Tell it Like It Is.” He would have likely had five such hits, were it not for unforseeable bad luck. He had a song running quickly up the country charts called “Burned like a Rocket.” As luck would have it, that was just when the Challenger space shuttle blew up…and the song was essentially exiled from radio, and the charts.

His recording career ground to a stop in the ’90s after 14 studio albums, but he remained a fairly popular live performer, and occasional film actor, into the 2000s.

He died in his sleep in North Carolina in 2015, leaving behind a daughter named Savannah… named for the town he loves that is not “the boondocks.”

March 18 – One Song, Three Versions, Three Charts Topped

Write a song which would top some charts and become your signature piece, and later be turned into a hit for your god-daughter. Maybe have a coffee and a sandwich and go back to write a song which would top charts twice for you…before going on to become one of the biggest-selling records of all-time. That’s not a bad day’s work, even by Dolly Parton standards. Her single “I Will Always Love You” was released this day in 1974.

The song came from her 13th studio album, Jolene, which had already generated a popular #1 country song with the title track…which she wrote on the same day. “I Will Always Love You’ was written out of sadness, but not for the reasons many assumed. As Uncut‘s Peter Watts notes, it was “written to lament the end of Parton’s formative (and entirely non-romantic) musical partnership with sharp-dressing country legend Porter Wagoner.” Wagoner had really jump-started her career in the late-’60s by bringing her on board as something of a co-host to his popular country music/variety TV show. They worked together on songs and by being on TV, her career was boosted greatly. However, after six or so years, she found it limiting, and found his musical direction a tad narrow as well.

The song was done in a style Wagoner would have appreciated, Opry-style country with fiddles, banjos and slide guitar accompanying Dolly and her acoustic six-string. It was a big hit on country charts, getting to #1 on them a couple of months after “Jolene” had likewise. That was of course, only the tip of the iceberg.

The ’74 single appealed to Elvis Presley, who wanted to record it. Dolly was flattered…until Presley’s shady business manager, Colonel Tom, demanded half the publishing rights. Wisely, she refused. “I said, ‘I’m really sorry’ and I cried all night…oh my God – Elvis Presley!…other people were saying ‘You’re nuts!’” Turns out she wasn’t.

The second half of the ’70s saw Parton widen her appeal, with a pop radio hit (“Here You Come Again”) and in 1980, a role in a movie for which she did the theme song – 9 To 5. That led to a role in the ’82 flick The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, with then-superstar Burt Reynolds. Parton got to do much of the soundtrack, and included “I Will Always Love You,” which she re-recorded in a slightly-less Nashville-sounding way. It once again made it to #1 on American country charts, and even dented the Canadian top 10 overall.

She suggested Patti Labelle record it, liking Patti’s voice, but the other declined, something she later said she greatly regretted. One person who did cover it, to little notice, was Linda Ronstadt. That was important, because apparently Kevin Costner was a fan. So when he was teamed with Whitney Houston for the ’92 movie The Bodyguard, he suggested the song to Whitney. She and producer David Foster felt it was perfect for her personality and voice, so it became the movie’s theme… remarkably, to the chagrin of Arista Records, the soundtrack company, which felt it was too slow-building to click.

The movie was a hit and the song…well it just blew up. A whole new range of people who’d never heard Dolly’s version heard the gospel-like soft rock stylings of Whitney tackling it.  People loved the film and apparently loved Whitney’s over-the-top vocals even more. It went to #1 all around the world, being the #1 single of the year in the U.S., Canada, Britain, Iceland… to this day Billboard put it at #54 on the list of all-time best-selling singles; Britain’s NME have it at #9 on their list (presumably based on UK sales.) It won Whitney the Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Performance Grammy and awards from as far afield as Japan, which gave her the Gold Disc Song of the Year trophy. It’s currently topped 20 million in sales, best for any single by a female. And, of course, it earned Parton a pretty penny. Writer Watts says it made her better than $6 million in writing royalties, and Dolly herself notes honestly enough “when Whitney’s version came out, I made enough money to buy Graceland!”

Being 76 isn’t slowing Dolly down much; you might notice she’s been much in the news lately. She just released her 51st studio album – Run, Rose, Run – which happens to be the soundtrack to … a book! She co-wrote the book of the same name with mega-star writer James Patterson, a thriller about a young woman who’s an aspiring country music star …and is “on the run.” We must say it’s an intriguing concept, a soundtrack to a book, and one which wouldn’t be a bad thing to catch on. The novel is #1 on the New York Times best-sellers list currently.

Dolly also made headlines by politely declining a potential induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She’d been nominated but said “even though I am extremely flattered and grateful to be nominated…I don’t feel that I have earned the right, so I must respectfully bow out.” She did leave the door open in the future mind you, saying “I have always wanted to put out a hopefully great rock’n’roll album” and her husband is a big rock fan and encourages her to do so. And at this point in her career, if she said she wanted to put out a great ska album played with an orchestra, who would bet against her?

February 9 – A Tip Of The (Cowboy) Hat To Tom, Eh

It’s easy, and appropriate, to consider acts like The Beatles or Elvis Presley as “legendary”. It’s more of a stretch to call an artist who’s barely known outside his homeland and who measured his record sales in thousands rather than millions as one. Nevertheless, today we remember a Canadian music legend, Stompin’ Tom Connors who was born this day in 1936. Despite having only one charting single, by the time he died at age 77, the Prime Minister would eulogize him and Britain’s BBC noted his passing, calling him “one of Canada’s biggest cultural figures.” Not too shabby for a man who was jumping boxcars at 13 and playing his guitar for beer soon after!

Connors was born in New Brunswick, but to a rather dysfunctional family and ended up being passed around various family members across eastern Canada as a lad. By 13 he ran away from home, hitch-hiking or jumping freight trains to get from place to place. Within a year he’d gotten an old guitar and learned to play a little while moving around, picking crops here and working in a mine for a few weeks there. While still a teen, he went for a few beers to a bar in Timmins – an Ontario mining town – but found himself a few cents short. The bartender told him he’d give him his beer if he’d sing a song. So he did that, making up songs about the country he’d seen as he went along. He spent over a year at the hotel, performing nightly and getting a spot on the local radio station. He apparently stayed friends with that barkeep for the rest of his life.

He soon became a popular local musician, known for his cowboy hat and boots. He had a habit of pounding his left boot on the floor to keep time, which led to his “Stomping” nickname. After awhile, some clubs complained he was damaging their floor with all that stomping, he in turn began carrying his own piece of lumber to stand on as part of his gear! His sound was all his own, basically a rollicking form of country music where the words were always king. With the Americana music movement to the south, some have dubbed him the father of “Canadiana” music.

By the 1960s he was recording and becoming familiar on Canadian country stations. In time he’d write over 300 songs, many quite humorous and almost all reflecting Canada and its people. As the National Post put it, “he sang of a nation without politics, (but) of its proud history, reminding us that we’ve built something amazing here and must not take it for granted.” If Gordon Lightfoot could periodically tell stories about the country and its history, like the “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”, Connors made a career of it. “Fire in the Mine”, was aptly enough about a fire in a Timmins mine that killed 39. “Algoma Central 69” about the Algoma Central railway, a northern lumber and iron ore route. “Big Joe Mufferaw” was about a legendary lumberjack… something most Canucks probably didn’t know existed! And there were his best-known ones. “Bud the Spud”, the title track of his first album to go gold in Canada about the potatoes he grew up surrounded by; “Sudbury Saturday Night” about another Ontario mining city; “Tillsonburg” a humorous look back at a summer he spent picking tobacco in Canada’s most-southerly reaches and “The Hockey Song.” What would a Canadian story-teller be without one about hockey? The song was adopted by the Toronto Maple Leafs and played at every home game; after his death it actually hit the Canadian top 30.

All the while, he gradually became a household name in his country. The CBC network had him do the theme song for a public affairs show, which led to him also getting a 26-episode travelogue, Stompin’ Tom’s Canada. When he married , the TV network broadcast the wedding, one of the few times anyone saw him without his Stetson. And he was passionate about Canadian music.

This country is the most under-written country in the world as far as songs,” he once said and he did his part to rectify that. He started a trio of record labels including Canada’s first classical one. He didn’t like classical music but lamented that Canadian orchestras lacked a good outlet for their recorded music. He once returned six Juno Awards “I once felt honored to have received” because he was mad at the “border jumpers” who won the majority of the Canadian awards, artists who were born in Canada but lived and worked in the States (or occasionally Britain.) He did accept a lifetime achievement award from SOCAN in 2009 however, that being the legal arm representing Canadian musicians.

After he passed away from kidney disease, network hockey showed a tribute to him and flags in Tillsonburg were flown at half-mast, Sudbury commissioned a statue of him playing his guitar for use in the city square.  Prime Minister Harper called him “a true Canadian original…RIP Stompin’ Tom, you played the best game that could be played.” Two members of parliament, including ’80s alt rock artist-turned-politician Andrew Cash sang “Bud the Spud” in his memory in Parliament. An amazing life from humble beginnings. And if he didn’t do everything he’d wanted, well that would be alright by him. “I think that people should die without their dreams being fulfilled,” he’d said. “So maybe they can have an excuse for coming around again.”

October 17 – Earle Was King Of Rebel Country-rock

Half of the best album of the year came out? That’s what some critics suggest, as Copperhead Road by Steve Earle was a bit of an uneven product. It came out this day in 1988.

The Texan redneck whose music had been variously described as alt country, bluegrass, country rock and any number of similar variations had been a successful, but not entirely popular, fixture in country music for a decade by then. He’d been moving back and forth between Nashville (where he was considered too rebellious and liberal by most of the movers-and-shakers) and Texas, writing hits for various artists and gaining good reviews with his first full album, 1986’s Guitar Town. Copperhead Road was difficult to pigeonhole but made a splash both on rock and country radio. The title track about a Vietnam vet growing pot in the tradition of his moonshining granddaddy made Earle a household name and has been downloaded over a million times. It helped the album be his biggest to date in the States and Canada (where it’s 3X platinum.) Four other “power twang” rants about failed Reagan policies (“Snake Oil”), the war on drugs, and the disrespect shown Vietnam veterans (both on the title track and “Johnny Come Lately,” a song noteworthy because of the Pogues playing on it) made the A-side a defiant piece of rebel rock, winning kudos and having feet tapping, but the B-side with less than memorable love songs and a Christmas tune (with Maria Mckee of Lone Justice) didn’t win so many plays or thumbs ups.

The New York Times called it “half of a brilliant album, with five smart, ornery story-songs” and Rolling Stone agreed, giving it 4-stars, noting the disparity between the B-side and A, which was “as powerful as any music made this year.” 

August 11 – Now The Public Needed Nashville Trio

Being drunk and horny is something a lot of people can relate to I guess! Lady Antebellum found that to be true with their song “Need You Now”, released this day in 2009. And yes, to be politically correct and up to the minute, let’s note that the Nashville trio now go by “Lady A” as of last summer “to blunt the name’s association with slavery and the Antebellum South” and to placate a gospel singer in Georgia who says she used the name Lady Antebellum before them.

Anyhow… the country trio of singers Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley plus guitarist/mandolinist Dave Hayward had formed in Tennessee about three years before and found some success on country charts with their self-titled debut on Capitol’s “Nashville” label. But this song took them to another level, becoming one of the rare crossover acts who’d become household names.

The trio wrote the song with help from well-respected country songwriter Josh Kear (who also penned songs for the likes of Dirks Bentley and Carrie Underwood.) He says “it was the second song we wrote that day. Charles had a guitar thing and an opening line…and we wrote it really fast and went ‘great!’… it was the first day I’d ever spent with them.” They figured they might have a pretty good tune in it and that it might be one people could relate to. “All three of us know what it’s like to get to that point where you feel lonely enough to get to that point where you could make a late night phone call you very well could regret the next day,” said Scott.

They brought in several Nashville session musicians to record it, including drummer Chad Cromwell who’d been a touring drummer for Neil Young and Joe Walsh among others. It was the first single off their second album, which would arrive a few months later bearing the same name. It quickly rose up the country charts, which wasn’t a surprise. What was a surprise is that it quickly was picked up by pop and adult contemporary stations as well. “We had no idea what we had on our hands,” Kelley would comment later. “So the fact that pop radio is embracing it, even though we had no intentions of that, (is) exciting.”

Embrace it pop audiences did. The song would go on to #1 on Billboard, and hit #2 in Canada and the top 5 in Ireland and New Zealand as well. In so doing, it became the first “country” single to top the overall charts since the Dixie Chicks “Not Ready To Make Nice” in 2007. When all was said and done, it was the second biggest hit of the year, sold over six million copies (between digital and physical versions), and pushed the album to 4X platinum status. “Need You Now” would quickly become the most-downloaded country song of all-time and took home not only the Country Music Award for Single of the Year but also Grammys for Best Record and Best Song. Although they’ve never quite duplicated it’s success, they came close a couple of years later with the song “Just A Kiss”.

Like Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers before them found out, sing a song with a good enough melody and a story people can relate to and it’ll find a home, no matter what city it comes from.

August 6 – Campbell’s Encore Began

He was an unknown, but rich and successful, super-talent, then he was a superstar, then he was a relative “has been”. And in 1975, Glen Campbell resurrected his career and took flight as a star again with “Rhinestone Cowboy” hitting #1 on this day in 1975.

Campbell was 31 at the time, and had already done enough to fill up many a musician’s career resume. He’d been the chief guitarist in the now-famous “Wrecking Crew” group of L.A. session musicians who did the music behind artists ranging from Sonny & Cher to Frank Sinatra to even the Beach Boys in the ’60s. But unlike the others (Carol Kaye, Hal Blaine etc.) Campbell had a great voice and TV looks and began recording himself by the late-’60s. He’d scored a string of country hits, some of which – “Galveston”, “Wichita Lineman” etc. – had crossed over to mainstream pop radio. He’d even starred in his own weekly TV show from 1969 to ’72. However, tastes changed, perhaps the quality of his work dropped off a bit, and by ’73, he was an afterthought in the music world. (A drop off in quality is entirely to be expected for a guy as busy as Glen was. By the time this single became a hit, he’d recorded at least 27 different albums in some eight years!).

Rhinestone Cowboy” was written by American Larry Weiss, who recorded it himself in 1974. Rhinestone-adorned suits were popular at the Grand Ole Opry at the time, and that might have been the origin of the phrase. “I heard the phrase, and thought ‘Boy! I like that title’,” Weiss said. “(It) was sort of a summation of all my childhood cowboy movie heroes, particularly Hopalong Cassidy.” Weiss’ single flopped at home, but was a very minor hit in Australia. As it happened, Campbell was touring that country at the time and heard it. He liked it, bought the single and went home to play it for his record company. As it turned out, the A&R guy at Capitol Records had also heard it and was about to suggest it to Glen. Campbell figured that was some sort of sign from the universe and quickly set out to record it. It seemed to fit his style, and his persona too. As allmusic point out, like the protagonist in the song, Campbell was “an artist who’s aware that he’s more than paid his dues…someday, he’ll shine (again).”

Shine he did. The song quickly made it to the top of Billboard, as well as country music charts and the Canadian and Irish ones as well. It was his first American overall #1 single, and first to top the country music charts since “Galveston” six years earlier. The album went gold as well, his first of those since 1970. It ended up as the #2 biggest hit of the year and got Glen a nomination for a Record of the Year Grammy (losing out “Love Will Keep Us Together”.) For years to follow, it would be his signature tune in concerts and TV appearances.

Years later, Campbell would say “Rhinestone Cowboy” was “maybe the best song I’ve ever sung.” Among its fans, Thom Yorke and Soul Asylum, both of whom have recorded cover versions of it, and Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen’s been known to perform it and says of Glen, “he made well-crafted records. He can really sing and he was a great guitarist. As I got older, I got into that music.”

July 19 – If It Was Countryish Sounds, Bands Looked To Bernie To Lead-on

Conventional wisdom has it that Don Henley brought the melody and social awareness to the Eagles, Glenn Frey a bit of hit radio-friendly rock attitude and that when Joe Walsh joined later on, he made them rock a bit harder. If that was the case, who then gave them that little bit of a country twang that resonated through their first few records? Well that would be Bernie Leadon, who turns 74 today. Happy birthday, Bernie!

Of course, there might be some flaws with that general idea of the Eagles sound. “That’s an over-simplification,” Leadon told interviewers not long ago. “It implies that I had no interest in rock or blues or anything but country rock. That’s not the case.” Probably not, but it’s an obvious assumption given that Leadon had a background in that end of the music field and brought with him traditionally country/bluegrass instruments like banjos, mandolins and steel guitars as well as the normal rock Les Paul guitar.

Bernie grew up in southern California and knew future-Byrds Gene Clark and Chris Hillman early on. His first real band was in fact the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers with Hillman, which he left to join Dillard & Clark, a country-rock act with Gene Clark. From there it was on to the critically-praised but commercially dull Flying Burrito Brothers, with Hillman (as well as another country-rock pioneer, Gram Parsons). He did two albums with them, Burrito Deluxe and their self-titled one, but grew weary of their lack of sales among other things. This was perhaps his lucky break, because from the Burritos he scored a gig playing in Linda Ronstadt’s backing band… along with Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Randy Meisner. Needless to say, within about a year they were flying as the Eagles and would eclipse the sales of any of his previous acts.

Although Henley and Frey were the focal points of the band, Leadon was a significant player on their first four albums, doing a lot of the guitar work as well as the “country” ones (like mandolin) as needed. Not to mention he did some of the writing and even sang a few tunes, though except for “Witchy woman” (which he co-wrote) they weren’t the ones we normally heard on radio. He wrote and sang “Twenty-one”, “My Man” and “I Wish You Peace” for instance. The latter he actually co-wrote with Patti Davis… Ronald Reagan’s daughter and his girlfriend at the time, something her right-wing politician daddy wasn’t too chuffed about apparently!

He got the band to bring in Don Felder in 1974 to expand their sound a bit, but would end up quitting them around the end of ’75. The most common suggestion was that he didn’t like the shift away from country roots the band was exploring (something accelerated when Walsh replaced him for Hotel California) but that was probably one of several reasons involved. It was well-known he and Frey didn’t like each other, and Leadon seemed to be burning out from the touring and partying the band was always doing more than the others. He did join them however in 1998 when they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and for most of their tours in the past decade.

He’s kept himself busy since the Eagles heyday, but in a low-key kind of way. He released two solo records, over 20 years apart, and briefly joined the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, as well as doing a bluegrass album with Chris Hillman in ’85, Ever Call Ready. Beyond that though, he’s been an in-demand session musician for artists including (but far from limited to) Helen Reddy, Alabama, the Amazing Rhythm Aces, Green on Red and Emmylou Harris.

These days he apparently lives in Nashville, and “I mainly play banjo around the house for enjoyment.”

An interesting note. Bernie wasn’t the only musical talent in the Leadons. His brother Tom was in Mudcrutch with Tom Petty, before he became famous.

April 19 – Cash’s New Single Was Scorching Hot

A hot new single was spinning this day in 1963, a rock standard that came out of backwoods Southern country. It was this day 58 years back that Johnny Cash lit the “Ring of Fire.”

The song which became one of the most iconic pieces from one of pop music’s pioneering country-rock crossover stars had fairly humble beginnings. It had been written about a year earlier by Cash’s future wife, June Carter, and Merle Kilgore, a country music manager who’d end up being Johnny’s best man at the wedding to June. June was already enamored with Cash although alarmed by his “very volatile lifestyle” and apparently wrote the lyrics about falling in love with “the Man in Black.” Her sister Anita recorded it first, but to little note. Johnny loved the song, and after waiting a few months to make sure Anita’s rendition wasn’t going to be a hit, he recorded it, adding Mariachi-style horns to give it a “south of the border” feeling.

Johnny’s earnest delivery and spicy music made it a hit, albeit not as big a hit as many might have guessed given how well-known the song is. It did get to #1 on Country charts, his fifth such chart-topper, it only rose to #17 on the overall Billboard charts. Still, that was his best showing since 1958, and it was popular enough for the record company to change the name of a “greatest hits” package of Cash’s that followed a couple of months later to Ring Of Fire, the Best of Johnny Cash. In time the single was certified gold.

It’s also become a garage-rock staple, with popular cover versions by The Animals, Social Distortion and Wall of Voodoo to name just a few. Stan Ridgway of the latter said “I used to play Johnny Cash music as a teenager. I grew up with a lot of it,” a statement probably true of a lot of younger Baby Boom musicians. Still, few disagree that The Man in Black’s remains the ultimate rendering of that ring. CMT consider it the fourth best Country music song of all-time while Rolling Stone have it among their 100 greatest of any genre.

And lest you wonder, you can thank the Cash-Carter kids for maintaining the song’s integrity. Daughter Rosanne says it’s “about the transformative power of love. That’s what it’s always meant to me and will always mean to the Cash children.” Therefore they vetoed an offer from Preparation H to use it in their advertising.