June 6 – Country Night Fever

Could lightning strike thrice? Hollywood, and record exec Irving Azoff, betted it could. And they weren’t entirely wrong. In 1977, John Travolta danced his way into superstardom with Saturday Night Fever, the music of which dominated the record charts the following year. In 1978, he did the same with Grease. Could the public buy Travolta in a cowboy hat, doing a two-step? And would it produce a mega-selling soundtrack? Turns out it would. And although neither the film nor the soundtrack quite matched the success of the previous two, Urban Cowboy certainly was a hit on the big screen and on big radios. The album came out this day in 1980.

The movie starred Travolta as Bud, a Texan oil worker and his at times problematic relationship with Sissy, played by Debra Winger. At night, they liked to hang out at Gilley’s, a huge bar near Houston which played itself in the film. It was billed as the “world’s biggest honky tonk” , having a capacity of 7000 people and famous mechanical bulls. It was owned by Mickey Gilley, a country music, piano-playing cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis, who saw the possibilities as soon as someone suggested a film be shot there. “I’m thinking ‘Saturday Night Fever’? Country Night Fever,” he told Billboard.

The bar had live music and musicians like Bonnie Raitt and Charlie Daniels appeared as themselves in the movie (and also appeared on the soundtrack.) And like Saturday Night Fever, they put together a double-LP (66 minutes of music, which was on a single CD when finally released in that format) using a mix of existing hit songs (like “the Devil Went Down to Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band, “Nine Tonight” by Bob Seger and “Lyin Eyes’” by the Eagles) and brand new ones for the movie. Those included a couple by Gilley himself and contribtuions from country acts like Johnny Lee and Kenny Rogers as well as rockers like Joe Walsh as well as adult contemporary stars like Boz Scaggs and Anne Murray. It was a winning combination, with Travolta getting a Rolling Stone cover that summer to publicize it and no fewer than six singles from it making the American top 40: “All Night Long” by Walsh, “Love the World Away” by Rogers, Gilley’s own cover of “Stand by Me”, “Lookin’ for Love” by Lee, “Look What You’ve Done to Me” by Scaggs and “Could I Have This Dance” by Murray. Three of those hit the top of country charts and overall, the album got to #3 in the U.S. (only #21 to the north in Canada, and worse elsewhere) and went triple-platinum.

It generally got good reviews, with retroactive ones like allmusic‘s 5-star one and Billboard pointing out how it was able to make “the music and the culture that surrounds it a pop phenomenon.” The latter says “40 years later, country owes a lot to Urban Cowboy.” Indeed, we’ve noted here how in 1981, just after this movie and album, the charts briefly had a good run of country crossover hits from the likes of Juice Newton, Dolly Parton and Eddie Rabbitt. One can only wonder what would have happened if Travolta had taken up waltzing on the big screen in ’81!


May 25 – Just Don’t Call This Outlaw And Lady ‘Lisa’

Happy birthday, Mirriam Johnson! An “outlaw country” rocker who’s also a bit of an evangelist…and is better known as Jessi Colter. She turns 79 today.

Colter (or Johnson) was born in Phoenix with interesting parents – her dad was a stock car racer while her mom was a Pentecostal minister. She seemed to love music early on and learned to play piano, and began performing in local bars while still a teen. There she met guitar legend Duane Eddy, whom she married in 1961 while only 18. He took her under his twangy wing, helped her put out a couple of singles under the name Mirriam Eddy (neither did much on the charts) and she toured with him throughout the ’60s…until they divorced in 1968.

That was around when she met and fell in love with Waylon Jennings, the rebel country star. He got her signed to RCA and suggested a different name for her to match his image. She went with Jessi Colter because she’d heard of Jesse Colter, apparently Jesse James’ sidekick.

Her first album, A Country Star is Born didn’t exactly live upto its name, and she left RCA quickly but signed to Capitol, at which point her career began to take off. Her first album there, I’m Jessi Colter, did reasonably well – ten songs she wrote and sang, playing keyboards on many while Waylon produced – and gave her her iconic song that she’s remembered for.

I’m Not Lisa”, a song about a girl named Julie who’s stuck with a boyfriend who couldn’t get over an ex named Lisa, was rather downbeat and very country-ish but ended up not only going to #1 on country charts but being a major mainstream pop hit, getting to #4 (#6 in Canada and #17 in New Zealand too) in 1975. While the mid-’70s delivered quite a few successes that could be termed “country rock” – Glen Campbell, John Denver, at times Linda Ronstadt etc – few were as much “country” and as little “rock” as Jessi’s. It was however, her only kick at the can in the pop music world.

Not so in country though; the following year she had a major country hit with her husband with their take on Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds” (actually a re-release of one they’d recorded when a new couple), and it made it onto the Wanted -the Outlaws album (which also had Willie Nelson) that went double-platinum in the U.S.

She had a few more country hits in the decade, but by the ’80s her chart star had fallen, perhaps in part because she was looking after her son “Shooter” Jennings, who is now a country-rock artist too.

After Waylon passed away in 2002, she had a minor resurgence in the country world but her last album, in 2017 was different – an album of Biblical psalms being sung. Her mom’s influence growing on her no doubt, or maybe that of another “outlaw” country star who turned devoutly Christian – Johnny Cash. The same year, she also wrote a memoir, An Outlaw and A Lady.

April 20 – Her Name Was On It, But Not Her Stamp Of Approval

It’s not a rarity for a brand new artist to think they know better than experienced people in the studio and at their record company. What is rare is for that artist to be right, which seemed to be the case with Shania Twain three decades ago. Her eponymous debut album came out this day in 1993.

Shania (born Eileen) was an experienced singer by then even though she was only 26 at the time she went into the Nashville studio. She grew up in a poor and at times turbulent family in northern Ontario and was singing as a child. By her tween years she’d often sing in bars, even though she was far, far too young to patronize them even with Canada’s more liberal alcohol laws. “I hated going into bars and being with drunks,” she later said, “but I loved the music so I survived.” That she did and at age 13, she was already appearing on Canada’s Tommy Hunter Show, a country-themed TV variety show. Little wonder she got signed to Mercury Records country (Nashville) division by 1991 when she was 25.

Mercury had high hopes for the lovely-looking, strong-voiced singer and spared little expense. They brought in some of Nashville’s better session players including guitarist Billy Joe Walker and percussionist Terry McMillan to play on her record and brought in two big-name producers. Norro Wilson was a Grammy winner and had worked with the likes of Tammy Wynette and Charlie Rich. Harold Shedd is popular enough to have a road named after him in Georgia, and among his many credits were a number of Alabama records plus Reba McEntire’s first gold one. They picked ten songs for her to do, including some that were covers like “You Lay a Whole Lot Of Love On Me”, which had been recorded previously by Tom Jones. Twain had little input other than co-writing one track, “God Ain’t Gonna Get Ya For That.”

Videos were made, PR men had budgets but neither of the first two singles – “What Made You Say That?” and “Dance With The One Who Brought You” – did much, failing to crack even the country music top 40. The third single flopped worse. The album scraped up to #67 on Billboard‘s country chart.

Now one could say that maybe they didn’t promote it enough, or suggest that the cover photo of her clad in heavy coat and fur-trimmed boots with a wolf in a snowstorm didn’t look Nashville enough. But maybe it was what allmusic suggested – the album was a “bland set of contemporary country that demonstrates her considerable vocal ability but none of the spark” that would make her an international superstar. She’s said she hated how little control she had over the song selection or way the record ended up sounding.

But obviously, spark she had for superstar she did become. Her next two albums, The Woman in Me and Come on Over both utilized songs written mostly by her and had her future husband Mutt Lange (of Def Leppard, Foreigner and more rock acts fame) produce. Each sold literally in the tens of millions and generated not only country #1 hits but crossover pop hits like “Man I Feel Like a Woman.”

Shania Twain did eventually sell, going platinum in the States by 1999 and double platinum in her homeland after her next pair of albums made her name known. But one can gather how much she regards the record herself by the fact that no songs from it made her Greatest Hits record and she hasn’t been known to perform any of them live this century. Shania, a rare case of the student knowing better than the teacher.

April 19 – That Fire Was Forging Gold For Cash

A hot new single was spinning this day in 1963, a rock standard that came out of backwoods Southern country. It was this day 60 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 Cash. In time the single was certified gold. Remarkably, although it’s considered to be almost synonymous with him, he didn’t include it on any of his first six live albums – it finally made it onto the 1983 Konzert V Praze release.

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.

April 12 – 22 Grammys Later, Vince Flying With Eagles

Happy birthday to a country legend. A man who has more Grammys than any other country music man… but who happens to have had a part in a popular rock group and is now a member of one of the most popular ones. Vince Gill is 66 today.

Gill grew up in the Oklahoma City area with a keen musical interest. Although his dad was a judge, he also played country music on the side, and unlike many parents, encouraged Vince to go into music and helped the lad learn guitar… as well as bass, banjo, mandolin, fiddle…

After high school, Vince was off to Kentucky to join a band. Not long after that, he came to the attention of Cincinnati-based Pure Prairie League who recruited them. He played guitar and sang on three albums of theirs from 1979-81, including the Firin’ Up album which yielded their biggest-selling single, “Let Me Love You Tonight”, a top 10 hit which he sang lead on. He also wrote most of the album, although not that particular song. (A little more Pure Prairie League trivia while we’re at it – their second biggest-hit [and likely most played one on radio these days] “Amie”, from their pre-Gill era, hit the U.S. top 40 on this day in 1975.)

He left the League after Rodney Crowell’s backing band came, the Cherry Bombs, came calling and by the mid-’80s, he’d signed to RCA and embarked on a solo career. And what a career. He put out 18 studio albums, 10 of which have gone platinum in the U.S., including his 5X platinum I Still Believe In You, which gave him four #1 hits on the country charts including the title track. Country fans loved his songwriting and “high soulful tenor” , as did critics. He’s won a total of 22 Grammys including Best Male Country Performance nine times over (including each year from 1994-98). But unlike some of his counterparts, he never really crossed over into mainstream pop radio and thus remained a bit of a mystery to many listeners. Even his current wife, gospel-country singer Amy Grant was probably better known. As the 2000s wore on, his sales (as with many other artists) started to dip and in 2012 he said “I don’t have a record deal. Don’t know that I want one”.

He wasn’t likely to get bored. He worked on records by Bonnie Tyler, Kelly Clarkson and his wife and probably didn’t mind having more spare time to hit the greens. He’s a competitive golfer who’s actually in the Tennessee Golf Hall of Fame! However things changed in 2016, when his friend Glenn Frey died. Suddenly Vince had the Eagles calling.

He joined them soon after Frey’s death and has been a constant member since, which initially drew some scorn both from his country-based fans and the band’s pop-rock ones. But he’s been a great fit. One might think he’s taking Frey’s place, since he plays some rhythm guitar and sings hits like “New Kid In Town” and “Lyin’ Eyes” that Glenn usually did. But he says he “simply took another spot that was open”. He adds “because Glenn was a great friend, in my heart of hearts, I wish I wasn’t doing it; that would mean Glenn was still around. But life is what it is, and you just do what you can. These songs deserve to live on.”

That they do, and so too does his career. Fans will have to wait awhile to see Vince though; the Eagles recently wrapped up their lengthy and Covid-delayed “Hotel California” revisited tour and Gill’s next scheduled shows are Christmas ones with Amy Grant in Nashville this December.

April 10 – Turntable Talk 13 : Chuggin’ Down To Georgia

Welcome back to Turntable Talk! Thanks once again to all the regular readers and welcome to any new ones. If you’re keeping count, this is our 13th instalment…hopefully lucky 13! For any new readers, briefly, on Turntable Talk we have a number of guest columnists from other music sites, sounding off on one particular topic. This month, our topic is This Song’s Going Places! We’ve asked our guests to pick a song, or even album that is all about going somewhere…there’ve been tons of great songs about traveling, either geographically or mentally , not to mention ones about specific destinations.A big category, and I look forward to seeing what piqued the others imaginations.

Today we start with Keith, from Nostalgic Italian. Keith has been a regular contributor here since we began and has many great stories to tell from his many years working on air on Michigan radio. His pick:

Once again, Dave over at A Sound Day has offered up a new topic for his Turntable Talk feature and has asked me to contribute. His thoughts of holiday getaways and Spring Break led to this month’s topic. Our instructions:

“Tell us about a song (or album) you like that is all about going places. Trains, planes, automobiles – there’ve been scores of good songs about traveling, geographically or even mentally, not to mention songs about specific destinations…”

One song immediately popped into my head and takes me back to my childhood. In order to write about the song, we have to take a trip to Michigan’s thumb area in 1979.

My great aunt had a trailer in Caseville, MI. My grandparents would go there on occasion, and we did too. At some point they decided that they also would like a little summer getaway and bought their own trailer. They placed in on a lot of land one street over from my great aunt’s place. I have many fond memories of that place. Walks to the beach (which is now private), grocery shopping at the IGA, big breakfasts cooked by my dad and grandpa, riding the minibike around the neighborhood, and fishing at the back lake.

The thing I remember most about the trailer in that first couple years was that they did not have a TV. When they did, it only got one or two stations and you’d have to go outside and turn the antenna to get a good picture. The radio was our main source of entertainment. Even that wasn’t great, as there were very few stations that came in. We had this small, one speaker radio/cassette player that provided the music.

There were two cassettes that were at the trailer. The fantastic Stardust album from Willie Nelson and Johnny Paycheck’s Greatest Hits Volume 2. Each album contains a song about Georgia, but my pick comes from Johnny Paycheck. “Georgia in a Jug” originally appeared on Paycheck’s Take This Job and Shove It LP.

The song was written by Bobby Braddock, who wrote some of country music’s biggest hits (Toby Keith’s “I Wanna Talk About Me”, Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”, and George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today”, to name a few). He is a member of the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame. As a producer, he discovered Blake Shelton and got him his record deal. He also wrote Shelton’s hit “Austin,” which was a number one song. Coincidentally, Blake Shelton also covered “Georgia in a Jug”.

This song’s “travel” would fall into the “mental” category that Dave mentions in his instructions to us, as it all occurs on a barstool. It is relatable in that most of us have a jar or bucket where we throw spare change in hopes that one day we’ll have enough to travel or make a big purchase. The dreams of the singer are shattered by the end of a relationship. He decides to head to the bar with his money and take his own trip. The destinations include, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Honolulu.

One reason I have always found Johnny Paycheck’s version superior to the other covers is the arrangement. After each destination, you hear a little musical bit that takes you there. “I’m going down to Mexico in a glass of tequila” is followed by the sound of a trumpet from a mariachi band. “Going down to Puerto Rico in a bottle of rum” is followed by a marimba type drum. “Going out to Honolulu in a Mai Tai mug” is followed by the sounds of Hawaiian music. Those little musical flourishes really make the song for me.

Listening to this song as a nine year old, I had no idea it was about getting drunk or drinking. I just remember it being one of those cool songs that the family listened to and sang along with as a gin rummy game was being played, while we were reading a book, or we were sitting outside eating at the picnic table. It is one of many songs that will instantly transport me in time – and isn’t that what makes a song so special?

Thanks again to Dave for allowing me to take part in this feature. As always, I look forward to reading the contributions of the other music lovers in our group. Thanks for reading!

Georgia In A Jug

Mason jars on the dresser filled with dollars and quarters
Savin’ em’ for our trip around the world
But now you’ve changed your tune, there’ll be no honeymoon
So tonight I’m going there without you girl

I’m going down to Mexico, in a glass of tequila
Going down to Puerto Rico, in a bottle of rum
Going out to Honolulu, in a Mai Tai mug
And I’m coming back home to Georgia, in a jug

We’ll never ride that bus to Mexico City, and that’s a pity
We’ll never sail our ship into old San Juan
You’ll never walk with me, on the beach at Waikiki
And we’ll never share that brick suburban home

Today I’m taking that money out of that jar
Tonight I’ll buy my ticket, at the corner bar

I’m going down to Mexico, in a glass of tequila
Going down to Puerto Rico, in a bottle of rum
Going out to Honolulu, in a Mai Tai mug
And I’m coming back home to Georgia, in a jug

Yes, I’m coming back home to Georgia, in a jug…

March 20 – Canada’s Diamond In The Rough

One of Canada’s great musical secrets put out one of their best works 34 years ago. Ending the ’80s by foreshadowing the growing roots rock or Americana movement of the ’90s, Toronto alt-rock/country band Blue Rodeo released their sophomore album, Diamond Mine on this day in 1989.

The group fronted by duel-guitarists/vocalist Greg Keelor and Jim Cuddy had built up an impressive following around their hometown through the past five years by way of almost constant shows, and had established themselves nationally with their 1987 debut, Outskirts. Diamond Mine built upon that by drawing on, and expanding, the strengths of their live shows and of the first album – energy, melodic songmanship and an seeming casualness.

An album designed for CD, it rambles through 57 minutes of material, with many of the songs segued together with piano ramblings from their original keyboardist Bob Wiseman. The result gives the effect of a live piece recorded straight to tape, slightly looser than their debut but less-shiny than their next work (1990’s Casino). The band left their Toronto comfort zone to record it in New Orleans, with the help of fellow-Torontonian producer Malcolm Burn (who’d later win a Grammy for his work with Emmylou Harris and had just finished off working on a solo album for his friend, super-producer Daniel Lanois).

The album had what would become the band’s trademark mixture of slower, usually hurting pop ballads sung by Jim Cuddy, such as “House of Dreams” and “Girl of Mine” with more uptempo, country-rockers typically fronted by Keelor, such as the title track and “How Long?” (this one actually with Cuddy on the lead and Keelor adding harmony) , both top 30 hits in Canada. The duo’s writing skills have seldom shone brighter than on tracks like the witty breakup song “Florida,” the heartfelt country ballad “The Dime Store Greaser and the Blonde Mona Lisa” or the protesting “God and Country.”

Reviews at home were good, although it went largely unnoticed elsewhere. Rolling Stone did write about them a little while later, noting that they are “often compared to another Canadian institution, The Band” and adding they “developed a strong roots sound that draws from a charismatic mix of American pop, country and blues” and name-dropped Graham Parsons, the Everly Brothers and even the Beatles in their story. Allmusic would later grade it 3-stars and consider it “Dylanesque.”

The work paid off -at home. It got to #4 on the Canadian charts (and actually hit #2 on country charts while getting airplay on rock radio simultaneously) and would soon hit triple platinum, one of 11 platinum or better albums they’ve racked up domestically. The following spring, Blue Rodeo won the Juno (Canadian Music Award) for best group on the strength of the CD. Outside though, like Tim Horton’s coffee and maple glazeds, it remains pretty much an unknown pleasure.

March 8 – Turntable Talk 12 : From Kentucky To Nashville To You

Welcome back to Turntable Talk! Thanks to all the regular readers and welcome to any new ones. If you’re keeping count, this is our 12th instalment, meaning we’ve been doing this periodically for a year now! But for new readers, briefly, on Turntable Talk we have a number of guest columns from other music fans and writers, sounding off on one particular topic. This month, our topic is First Time’s The Charm. We’ve asked our guests to pick a debut record by an artist that really impressed them…and maybe let us know if they feel the artist kept up the quality and momentum with subsequent works.

Today we have Keith, from Nostalgic Italian. Though he largely details day to day life as a family man, his background in radio for years makes him interested and well qualified to talk about fine albums. And his pick…:

It is time for another round of Turntable Talk, hosted by Dave at A Sound Day. This is the 12th round that I have participated in and it has quickly become one of my favorite “features” to participate in. There has not been a topic that Dave has presented that has not been interesting for me to explore. This round is no exception. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out his site and read the contributions of other music lovers, too!

For this round, Dave says, “This time around I’m calling it “First Time’s The Charm.” Let’s look at an artist whose debut really impressed you. It can be one that just knocked you out first time you heard it when it was brand new, or one you went back & discovered later. As long as it showed a band or singer that hit the ground running.

In talking with one of the other participants this week, I mentioned that with each topic, one choice always seems to hit me immediately. Then I begin to think about other possibilities, and without fail I always seem to come back to the first choice. This time around, I decided not to consider anything else and go with the first thing that came to mind.

It is 1989. In our living room is the shelving unit that contains my dad’s stereo system. One shelf holds the receiver/amplifier while the cassette deck and Sony Mini-disc players sit on top of each other on the shelf above that. Two speakers sit on top of the unit. A turntable sits on a shelf that slides out on the top left of the unit. Under that, on a shelf all by itself is a Sony CD player.

My dad calls me out to the living room and says, “Keith, you’ve gotta hear this!” My dad has certainly played a major role in sharing great music with me. The above phrase was spoken by him to me more times than I can count. Oh, the music he introduced me to! I would have to say that 9 times out of 10, it has always been something that I have really liked. The CD he popped in the player was the debut album from The Kentucky Headhunters.

The group started back in the late 60’s and called themselves “Itchy Brother.” In 1980, the group was almost signed to a record deal at Swan Song Records, which was a small label founded by the band Led Zeppelin. However, Zeppelin drummer John Bonham died that year and the label folded. Itchy Brother disbanded in 1982. In 1985, there was an attempt to reunite the group. This attempt led to a few new members joining while some original members decided not to be a part of the group. Now missing some of the original members, a new name was chosen for the band – The Headhunters. It didn’t take long to find out that there was another band using that name, so “Kentucky” was added to the name.

The group decided to take out a loan to record a demo. That demo included some original songs and some cover songs. They had hoped to press copies of the demo to sell as merchandise at their live shows. It didn’t take long for that demo to get noticed by folks in Nashville. The group was not really interested in signing a record deal, but their manager suggested that they talk with producer Harold Shedd at Mercury Records. They were signed to their deal in 1989 and the demo was released as their debut album Pickin’ on Nashville.

I hadn’t intended on listening to the whole album that day, but when my dad hit play, I really liked what I heard. While they certainly had a Southern rock sound, it wasn’t really completely Southern rock, if that even makes sense. It is kind of a mixture of country, Southern rock, a bit of blues, classic rock, a little rockabilly, and maybe even a little bit of metal. It was like nothing I had heard in some time. It was a very unique mix of various styles and types of music.

The first cut on the album was a cover of Bill Monroe’s “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine”. Bill’s version has a very bluegrass feel to it. The Headhunters had me from the opening guitar lick. Then I was really digging the harmonies of the group. The guitar solo had a rock/B.B. King feel to it, which I just loved. The debut single reached number 25 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles Chart, the first of four Top 40 singles for the band.

The second single from the album is probably their best known song, but not quite their biggest hit. It almost didn’t make the album, though. “Dumas Walker” is a song that is about a Kentucky hangout. The lyrics tell of hanging out there eating a “slawburger, fries, and a bottle of Ski.” Folks in Kentucky knew that a slawburger was a burger with cole slaw on it, and a bottle of Ski is a soda that is a lot like Mountain Dew. The record company wasn’t too keen on it, though.

Producer Harold Shedd felt that the song was too local. He felt like no one outside of Kentucky would connect with the song. He asked band member Richard Young if they would be willing to leave the song off the record. After much discussion, Young says that he convinced Shedd to keep it on the record. He said that Shedd was missing the point – that every place had their own “‘Dumas Walker’s’ and they can relate to that!” He was right. The song was a top 20 hit for the band in 1990.

Another thing that helped get the band recognition was CMT (Country Music Television), which was the country version of MTV. The early headhunter videos are a blast to watch. How could anyone possible turn off a video set in a bar with people playing marbles, the lead singer juggling bowling pins, and the drummer banging on his drum kit with no shirt and a coon skin cap on!? Incidentally, the video was nominated for the CMA video of the year in 1990.

Richard Young says that the group had a “magnetism that people just couldn’t resist” and compared it to watching the old Monkees TV show. He said, “People want to be entertained. If you can’t hold their eyes, they will wander.” Watch a few of their videos and you will certainly be entertained.

The third single from the album was another cover song. This time it was a cover of Don Gibson’s “Oh, Lonesome Me.” Gibson’s version is very typical 1960’s country. The Headhunters version kicks it up a notch with a driving beat and video that really fits the “Monkees” description above. This song peaked at number 8 and would be the band’s only Top 10 hit. The fourth and final single from the album was “Rock and Roll Angel,” which is mostly forgettable

The band enjoyed great success in 1989/1990 because of their debut album. In 1990, they won the Academy of Country Music’s Top New Vocal Duo or Group Award , The Country Music Associations Vocal Group of the Year, and the CMA Album of the Year. They also won a Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group that year.

Sadly, their follow up album Electric Barnyard was a major disappointment. It was certified gold, but the singles released to radio didn’t get much airplay. Citing creative differences, Ricky Lee Phelps and Doug Phelps left the group in 1992 to form their own band, Brother Phelps.

The band has continued to tour with a variety of different members and their last album was released in 2021. They never really enjoyed much success after that debut album. That being said, I believe their fresh sound really paved the way for (and had a big influence on) some of the more recent country singers who have a more “rock” sound.

One thing I think is important to mention is that the Kentucky Headhunters hit the scene at a very unique time in country music. In 1989, this new group stood out during a time that also saw country music’s amazing “Class of ’89” hit the scene. They were in the thick of things at the same time that Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Travis Tritt, and a dude by the name of Garth Brooks were getting their debuts as well. The fact that they made waves amongst those guys is a testament to that first album.

It is hard to say what factored into the decline in popularity. Was it hard to get airplay with all of those other big names taking off? Was the music that followed just not good enough? Did the loss of the Phelps Brothers put the nail in the coffin for the band? Maybe it is a little bit of each of those things. The Kentucky Headhunters recorded nine studio albums, but you really only need to get their debut, Pickin’ on Nashville. It is as good as it gets.

February 28 – 1981 Was A Little Bit Country…

It seems like we all felt a little bit country and a little bit rock’n’roll 42 years ago. On this day in 1981, the distinctly country-flavored “I Love A Rainy Night” by Eddie Rabbitt hit #1 in the U.S., in the process knocking another country star, Dolly Parton and her “9 to 5” off the top spot. It’s the only time in Billboard history back-to-back country tunes were #1 overall.

By then Rabbitt was an established country star, but hadn’t been well-known outside of that genre until recently. A New York City kid, he grew up liking country and learned guitar early. He moved to Nashville in the mid-’60s (when he was in his early 20s) and became a respected songwriter, hitting gold when Elvis Presley recorded his “Kentucky Rain.” Soon Eddie was recording on his own, and by this time in ’81, had lined up seven previous #1 country hits, six of them in the previous three years. But it wasn’t until his 1980 album Horizon that listeners on pop and rock stations began to pay attention. That album, which allmusic label both as “rockabilly” and “sun-inspired, guitar-based” music, got him his first gold single in “Driving My Life Away”, which made it to #5. “I Love A Rainy Night” did even better, winning him his second-straight gold record and topping American charts, while making it to #6 in Australia and #11 in Canada.

Much like Orson Welles was famous for releasing no wine before its time, Eddie released no song before its. In the case of this one, he began writing it in the ’60s. He told interviewers it “brought back the memory of sitting in a small apartment, staring out the window at 1 O’clock in the morning, watching the rain.” He came up with the melody and chorus, recorded it on a portable cassette player, and put the tape away. He refound it in ’80, built an optimistic outlook on rainy, stormy conditions with the help of his producer David Malloy (who in his time would be part of 41 country chart-toppers) and released it just when the general public seemed unusually fond of country-ish sounds.

To finish the story, after two weeks of Eddie on top, Dolly herself rebounded and “9 to 5” went back to #1. Add in six weeks of Kenny Rogers on top of the singles chart late in ’80 and country music had a ten week stint on top in a little over three months. And all the while, Juice Newton was having success with her crossover hits like “Queen of Hearts“. If you were an urban cowboy, it seems 42 years back was the golden age.

January 19 – Parton A Part Of Many A Hall Of Fame

If anyone deserves a Happy birthday, I guess it’d be someone who’s inducted into the “Happiness Hall of Fame” (yes, that’s a real thing!). so happy 77th birthday, Dolly Parton!

No matter what your musical tastes, it’s hard not to like Dolly, the Queen of Country Music. Growing up poor in the hills of Tennessee made her appreciate life’s simple pleasures, but also to have a very strong work ethic she credits her dad with instilling in her. She told Dan Rather she still likes to get up before sunrise to work, and that pays off – she’s written some 3000 songs and recorded over 50 studio albums of her own, eight of which made it to the top of the American Country charts. Not surprisingly, she’s a long-time member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. As well, she’s had mainstream success with songs like “Here You Come Again” and “9 to 5” (taken from a movie she starred in with Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda) but perhaps did best with the song “I Will Always Love You”, made into a major hit by Whitney Houston. Elvis Presley had wanted to record it, but apparently wanted to have songwriting credit for it which she refused. Besides her music and movies and Dollywood theme park (the #1 visited single tourist attraction in her home state), she’s usually doing something for others – she’s spearheaded campaigns for HIV/AIDS charities, an effort to preserve the Bald Eagle and headlined a 2016 fundraiser for fire victims in Gatlinburg, near where she grew up.

She’s been back in the entertainment news recently. Last year she ventured into fiction-writing, co-writing a story of an up-and-coming country singer with James Patterson, Run Rose Run. It was a #1 best-seller on the New York Times list for five weeks. And, more recently again with her being named to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last fall. That, despite her asking not to be voted in, given that she’s more of a country musician. However, since she was inducted, she decided to try and earn it. “Why not just go ahead and do it…maybe have some of the greats, the legends of rock & roll sing along with me.” Thus, she’s working on a rock album, which will be largely (if not all) cover versions. Steve Perry, Steven Tyler, Pink and even Paul McCartney are already confirmed guests for it. Perhaps we will have a preview of how it will sound tomorrow. A new song, “Gonna Be You”, which she did with Cyndi Lauper, Debbie Harry and others, is due to be released.

And no, she doesn’t care if you stare at her: “it takes a lot of money to look this cheap!” is one of her famous catch-phrases!