Pictured – Bobbie Gentry walking across the Tallahatchie Bridge before it collapsed (later rebuilt).
Sure, I know what you’re saying. What the fuck?! In five years this guy has barely acknowledged country music much less done a whole post on it. (Well I did do one on Glen Campbell.) So what’s all this about?
Well, I have a long, interesting non-history with country music. I grew up in Philly and was fed a steady diet of pop, Motown, R&B, doo-wop, and rock and roll. Other than a few country songs that made their way into the Top 40, country was known but hardly popular in the US outside of the South.
It’s only been in (relatively) recent years that country radio sprung up and with it the “hat” boys, Garth Brooks and all those guys. And now – or at least when the good times return – you can find stadiums-full of shit-kicking country lovers at weekend festivals, Kenny Chesney shows, and the like in New England.
For me, I’d always been disdainful of country and country-rock. And while I would hardly call myself a big fan of country, things do change over time. Rock bands like the Eagles, Allmans and Stones (all of whom love country) got me into country-rock. I couldn’t deny that. And I also very much dug Ken Burns’ country documentary even if some of the music left me cold.
But I was driving around the other day listening to the radio, heard a country song and thought, boy, you know I’ve always liked that tune. And then I thought back over the years and realized that there were other tunes I liked. For the most part, they tend to lean towards the pop side of country as opposed to the “Your Cheatin’ Heart” shit.
So, you might as well enjoy this post because this is my “get it out of my system” post. I’ll post a half-dozen, put the entire list on Spotify.
First up, the song that inspired this post, “Ode to Billie Joe,” by Bobbie Gentry. This one was all over the airwaves in 1967. It’s got a nice loping feel to it and distinct air of mystery.
As to what Billie Joe a girl threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge, Gentry says.”the most named items were flowers, an engagement ring, a draft card, a bottle of LSD pills, and an aborted fetus. Although she knew what the item was, she would not reveal it, saying only ‘Suppose it was a wedding ring.'” Suppose it was:
Roger Miller was a fairly ubiquitous presence on pop radio in the Sixties. He was quite the accomplished guy. Wikipedia: In addition to 11 Grammy Awards, Roger Miller won Broadway’s Tony Award for writing the music and lyrics for Big River, which won a total of 7 Tony’s including best musical in 1985. He was voted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 197 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1995.
Sometimes he was funny like in “You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd,” and sometimes cool like in, what else, “King of the Road.” Bob Dylan would have killed to write these lyrics:
Third boxcar, midnight train, destination, Bangor, Maine.
Old worn out clothes and shoes,
I don’t pay no union dues,
I smoke old stogies I have found short, but not too big around
I’m a man of means by no means, king of the road.
What don’t we know about Dolly Parton? She is truly a legend in country music. I don’t know when I first heard “Jolene” but it was definitely not on Top 40. It’s another of those stay-the-fuck-away-from-my-many songs. I found it haunting.
Parton wrote it and said, it was “inspired by a red-headed bank clerk who flirted with her husband Carl Dean at his local bank branch around the time they were newly married.” In an interview, she also revealed that Jolene’s name and appearance are based on that of a young fan who came on stage for her autograph.
How can you have a favorite country song list without Johnny Cash? You cannot. I cannot exactly swear to this but I think there may actually be a Federal law against it. (Cash is represented on my Spotify list more than anyone else.)
Cash wrote “Folsom Prison Blues” and eventually recorded it at Folsom Prison. The lyrics about the guy in Reno are some of the greatest of all time. I’m fond of quoting them to people I’ve just met to see their reaction:
When I was just a baby my mama told me, “Son
Always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns”
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die
When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry
Maybe Glen Campbell was as much – or more – of a pop artist as he was a country artist. But as a guitar player, he was a member of the studio-based Wrecking Crew who escaped that factory and broke out as a big star. And ‘Wichita Lineman” has a great feel and again, great lyrics courtesy of Jimmy Webb. And Glen’s backed here by the Crew:
And so there’s gotta be an instrumental in here somewhere, yes? Let’s all kick up our heels to “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by the late, great Earl Scruggs: