by Julian Spivey
Kenny Rogers announced last week that he will be retiring from touring after one last, farewell tour. This announcement gives us the opportunity to re-publish an article originally published on Rogers’ 75th birthday in August of 2013 about a particular uniqueness of his career.
Rogers is one of the most beloved artists in American music history, but also one who’s often mocked for the cheesiness many of his tunes – including some of his “greatest hits” – are embodied with.
This aspect of his career makes him truly unique, at least for me.
Rogers started out his career in a country-rock band called First Edition – which he would make some of his best music with, like the psychedelic “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” which sounds completely different than anything Rogers would do in his country music hit-making heyday of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. If one were to listen to this song and say “Daytime Friends” or “Through the Years” back-to-back they wouldn’t have any clue the songs were done by the same artist. In 1968, this song would hit number five on the U.S. pop charts.
The next year the group would have another top 10 in their recording of Mel Tillis’ “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” – in my opinion, Rogers’ best recording – a topical song at the time during the height of the Vietnam War, being about a crippled soldier who gets revenge on his cheating woman. This song is country music to its core and features one of the all-time great final lyrics.
Shortly after these two songs made them stars the ‘60s would be over and so would the group’s popularity. Rogers would leave the group in the mid-‘70s and show up as a solo country singer in the latter part of the decade – with his first breakthrough coming in the form of his first number one country song “Lucille,” about a cheating woman looking to hook up with him as the song’s narrator in a bar when her heartbroken, farmer husband comes in explaining how “you picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.”
“Lucille,” written by Roger Bowling and Hal Bynum, was a break from Rogers’ earlier sound. It was more country than rock – and the psychedelia that infiltrated some of his ‘60s music was obviously left back in the ‘60s. It still worked unbelievably well. The song remains one of his three best recordings of his career – both with or without the First Edition. “Lucille” is a great story song that plays on the timeless country trope of cheating and doin’ somebody wrong. The thing that works so perfectly about it is that it’s told from the point of view of the person the cheating is going to be done with, with that person knowing full well that he would be helping this woman to cheat on her broken down husband. Rogers’ gravelly vocals are among the best he’s ever had on any recording. I’d prefer this over the crisper vocals of something like “Lady” or “You Decorated My Life.” “Lucille” will always be one of the all-time great country classics.
Next in Rogers’ career came another number one single: “Daytime Friends,” which begins this uniqueness to his career. “Lucille” and “Daytime Friends” are similarly themed songs – both cheating songs. Whereas “Lucille” has something interesting going for it (the unique point of view, fantastic vocals), “Daytime Friends” begins the cheese factor in Rogers’ music, relying on catchiness over quality. Still, for Rogers this song is mostly forgivable, unlike some of his other songs, mostly from the early ‘80s – I might not always switch the radio station when it comes on.
Rogers continued this odd streak of fantastic and cheese throughout the ‘70s with his iconic “The Gambler” and the sweet ballad “She Believes in Me,” followed by the nauseatingly lovey-dovey “You Decorated My Life” and the sort of badass, but also sort of unforgivably hokey (and strange) story song “Coward of the County” – all of which were popular with radio listeners and hit number one on the country charts.
“The Gambler” will be considered Rogers’ finest work for as long as people remember him – despite me finding ‘Ruby’ to be a superior song. “The Gambler” is one of the better story songs in country music’s history – and it’s a genre filled with fantastic story songs, especially of old – even if it has a chorus that is seemingly sung for all of eternity. “The Gambler” (written by Don Schlitz) is a good mixture of storytelling meets catchiness between the verses and chorus. The song won Rogers a Grammy Award and has been named the greatest country song of all-time by TasteofCountry.com. It’s clearly not, but it’s still an honor nonetheless.
“She Believes in Me,” written by Steve Gibb, is a song that some might disagree with me on – particularly those who likely aren’t Rogers fans. Some would say that there isn’t a whole lot of difference between something like “She Believes in Me” and “Lady” – and there may not really be – but, something about “She Believes in Me” rings true for me, whereas “Lady” just comes off as overblown cheese and is one of the most annoying tracks of its era. Rogers’ vocal on the very first ‘lady’ of “Lady” may be one of those iconic notes to many music and country fanatics, but it’s always cringe-worthy and radio station switching inducing to me. Rogers is essentially the Lionel Richie of country music and “Lady” was indeed written by the R&B legend. Numerous people would disagree, but I don’t think being the Lionel Richie of country is necessarily a good thing. Back to “She Believes in Me,” though, for a second. The song works for me because I can understand the pain of someone trying to mix their two loves in life – their significant other and their art. Rogers’ vocal is also right up there with his work on “Lucille” as one of the best of his career, with his performance of the chorus being especially powerful. It’s the closest thing to a power ballad I’m ever going to like.
“You Decorated My Life,” written by Debbie Hupp and Bob Morrison, is pretty much in the same group as “Lady” and “Through the Years” in that it’s just too much. It’s too overdone, too lovey-dovey, too cutesy. Again, it’s Rogers being the Lionel Richie of country music. Rogers has done way too much of this type of tripe throughout his career and it has been immensely popular because it makes all the women swoon, but frankly that doesn’t do a whole lot for me. It’s pure sap, but it’s pretty indicative of where country music was at during that period of time. In fact, you probably could’ve switched Rogers’ songs for Ronnie Milsap songs at the time and not have known the difference between the two. “You Decorated My Life” and “What a Difference You’ve Made In My Life” are probably the same song, we just haven’t figured it out yet.
“Coward of the County,” written by the Roger Bowling and Billy Ed Wheeler, is an incredibly awkward song – probably the only song about somebody being gang raped in the entire history of country music. Probably, and thankfully, it will be the last. It’s another story song about a man named Tommy who everybody had always considered the “coward of the county” because his convict father had told him when he was younger to “turn the other cheek.” However, when Tommy’s girl, Becky, is violated by the entire Gatlin family tree Tommy has to forget all that “turning the other cheek” mess and take care of all those Gatlins – does he kill them or just beat them? “Coward of the County” is the almost unbelievably odd mixture of hokey and badass – something that really sums up Rogers’ career. Not really a bad song, but one I simply can’t listen to anymore.
That brings us to a song that is both universally loved and universally hated, but surprisingly probably more loved. That’s “Islands in the Stream,” the hit duet that Rogers did with Dolly Parton in 1983. The song was written by the Bee Gees of all people, which probably should’ve been enough of a signifier to leave it well alone, but the song became one of the biggest hits of either Rogers’ or Parton’s careers and is generally considered to be the greatest duet in country music history.
Those people are generally delusional. “Islands in the Stream” is simply puke-worthy. One of the sappiest pieces of pop music ever recorded and nauseatingly cutesy; the song represents everything that was bad about that early ‘80s period of pop-infused country music.
Something that you would hear in recordings ranging from Dan Seals’ “Bop” to Eddie Rabbitt and Crystal Gayle’s “You and I.” The vocals are fine by both Rogers and Parton and the song is catchy – this is why it was iconic and has since ingrained itself into the brains of people everywhere. One of the greatest duets of all-time? Have those people ever heard Johnny and June Carter Cash’s “Jackson” or Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn’s “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” or David Frizzell and Shelley West’s “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma” (like Rogers’ “She Believes in Me” something that could’ve been too sappy, but ultimately works out).
Maybe the most curious song for me in the Kenny Rogers songbook is “Love Will Turn You Around” from 1982, a song used as the theme to a cutesy film Rogers starred in called “Six Pack.” It’s a song, co-written by Rogers, Thom Schuyler, David Malloy and Even Stevens, that should be annoying in that it’s clearly very saccharine, but I think it’s something that is ultimately forgiven due to the song’s almost throwback to the First Edition style of music and vocals. It doesn’t have the same yawn factor as “Lady” or “You Decorated My Life” and it’s more happy-go-lucky. Yeah, it’s super sweet, but it passes.
I could say Rogers – who doesn’t write most of his own songs – is a hit or miss song chooser, but all of these songs mentioned after his First Edition days have topped the charts. What it really boils down to for me is simply that some of Rogers’ songs have the “it factor” and some of them clearly don’t, but it remains unusual for an artist to have this many songs that I admittedly love, but also so many songs that I absolutely loathe. I guess I’m the one who’s hit or miss with him – because over the years of listening to Kenny Rogers I’ve learned what to throw away and what to keep from his discography.
by Julian Spivey
Johnny Cash is possibly the most iconic performer in country music history. His discography is filled with classic after classic. Here are his 10 best songs:
10. “Big River”
“Big River” was one of Cash’s most notable recordings during his Sun Records days in the ‘50s. The song is a great example of Cash’s rockabilly sound that allowed him favor with both country and rock audiences – something that lasted throughout his career.
“Jackson,” a duet Cash did with his wife June Carter in 1967, is perhaps the greatest duet in the history of country music. The song is about a married couple whose relationship has lost a little of its “fire” and wants to one up the other on the town in Jackson. The song won Johnny and June a Grammy in 1968 for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group.
8. “Hey Porter”
“Hey Porter” was the very first song Cash ever released in his career in early 1955 with Sun Records and it still remains one of the absolute best he’s ever recorded. Cash went to Sun Records in hopes of being a gospel singer, but Sun owner Sam Phillips wanted another Elvis Presley type. Cash scribbled down the train song “Hey Porter” and a superstar was soon born.
7. “I Still Miss Someone”
Cash recorded “I Still Miss Someone” for the first time as the B-side to his 1958 hit “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” and the song would become one of the most heartbreaking and best vocals of his career. The tune about not quite being able to get over a lost love would be played often live by Cash and the best recorded version of it is likely the abbreviated one on the live At Folsom Prison album from 1968.
6. “I Walk the Line”
“I Walk the Line” became Cash’s first career No. 1 hit when it topped the Billboard country chart in 1956. It was also a crossover hit for Cash reaching the top 20 on the pop chart. The love song is one of the most famous and greatest in the country music genre about a man’s undying love and devotion to his wife.
“Hurt,” the last song Johnny Cash released before his death in 2003, is his most notable release of his later career. Cash had this amazing way of turning cover songs into his own by putting his own spin on them and he takes this hard rock Nine Inch Nails track and truly turns it into classic Cash. It was a perfect swan song.
4. “Man in Black”
“Man in Black” was essentially Cash’s theme song. The song explained what many had always wondered, “Why did Johnny Cash always wear black?” “Man in Black” was one of Cash’s finest statement songs in which he explains he wears the black as a form of protest against all that’s wrong in the world.
3. “Sunday Morning Coming Down”
“Sunday Morning Coming Down,” a No. 1 for Johnny Cash in 1970, is one of the all-time great story songs about a man just feeling absolutely down and depressed with the world. The song would win Song of the Year at the 1970 CMA Awards and helped make songwriter Kris Kristofferson a superstar.
2. “Ring of Fire”
“Ring of Fire,” a No. 1 for Cash in 1963, came out of the relationship he and fellow singer June Carter were experiencing in the early ‘60s. Carter co-wrote the song with Merle Kilgore and Cash turned it into the biggest hit of his career. One of the greatest country songs ever came as the result of a true, burning love and desire.
1. “Folsom Prison Blues”
Cash’s greatest song was “Folsom Prison Blues.” The song was originally released in 1956, but didn’t become a huge hit until 1968 when a live version was released on At Folsom Prison. Cash always considered the song of a man living life behind bars and dreaming of catching a passing train to freedom to be his signature song. Not only was it his signature song, but it’s arguably one of the five greatest country songs ever recorded.
This article originally appeared on The Word in 2011.
by Julian Spivey
Today is, of course, the 14th anniversary of 9/11. Looking back on that day, I can vividly remember two types of emotions most Americans felt — sadness and anger.
The two feelings are really similar as both came out of the grief that something that horrible, significant and catastrophic could happen on our American soil.
Both feelings brought on by the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were soon conveyed to the American public through two important songs, both from the country music genre. One of those songs was championed by the masses. The other was beloved by those who shared its sentiments, but condemned for being “ignorant” by its disapprovers. Both songs were very appropriate at the time and remain just as appropriate a decade later.
The two songs were Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” and Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).” Both proved to strike a nerve with Americans as both quickly reached the top spot on the Billboard country music charts and cracked the top 40 overall on the Billboard charts, something that country songs didn’t often do at the time.
Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” was a song that was written to explain how both Jackson and the people of America felt on that dark September day. It’s a solemn song that was introduced to the world on the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards broadcast less than two months after the attacks and truly helped many at the time cope with the pain that hadn’t gone away and maybe never would. Most people – fans and critics alike – felt that the solemnity shown and the way that Jackson went about writing and performing the song was the right way to do it. Billboard writer Deborah Evans Price said of the song, “A multitude of songs have been written and recorded in the wake of 9/11, but none captures the myriad emotions unleashed by the terrorist attacks on an unsuspecting nation more perfectly than Jackson’s eloquent ballad.”
Jackson himself said that he simply wanted to write a song that showcased the way he felt and the way that others felt, without trying to write out of anger or avengement. He told Today’s Christian in a 2003 interview, “I didn’t want to write a patriotic song. And, I didn’t want it to be vengeful, either. But I didn’t want to forget about how I felt and how I knew other people felt that day.”
It’s a sentiment that was appreciated by most. Keith’s song, however, didn’t receive the same type of universal acceptance.
Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” was written out of anger for what happened on 9/11 based on his love of country and what he thought his father’s point of view would have been on the attack, had he been alive to see it.
The song is a revenge song about what the U.S. should do to those who did such a cowardly, as Keith saw it, thing to us.
“Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” was lambasted by many, including even some in Keith’s own genre. Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines told the Los Angeles Daily News that Keith’s patriotic anthem was “ignorant and it makes country music sound ignorant.” Blender took so much offense to Keith’s vengeful attitudes in the song that it named it the 22nd worst song of all-time.
Despite the fact that not nearly as many people feel Keith’s ‘Courtesy’ is as appropriate of a song as Jackson’s ‘Were Were You,’ it does represent a very real feeling that many Americans felt at the time. There were a lot of people in this country who wanted revenge and felt like somebody should pay for what happened that day. It’s a feeling that for better or worse — and in my opinion worse — even got us into not just one, but two wars. Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” is just as valid and important of a song as Jackson’s ‘Where Were You’ for that reason alone.
Both are real and filled with raw emotion and that’s something that we should expect out of our best songwriters. 9/11 truly caused a multitude of emotions and attitudes in this country and these two country singers tapped into those emotions and created two of the most important compositions in their genre’s long and illustrious history.
by Julian Spivey
I saw online that today would have been the great Conway Twitty’s 82nd birthday. I decided, as I frequently do in tribute to artists on their birthdays, to break out my Conway Twitty vinyl tonight.
I don’t view Twitty as the larger than life country music legend that I do Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Waylon Jennings or Willie Nelson, but I can tell you he sounds better and better every time I hear him and when you’re in the right mood he’s hard to beat.
The one Twitty song that’s always been my go to Twitty jam is “You’ve Never Been This Far Before.” It has to be, without a doubt, the sexiest (or dirtiest depending on your point of view) song to ever become a country music hit. The song topped the country music charts in 1973 and can still be heard occasionally on classic country stations.
Twitty has always been known for his sensual and sexy songs like “Hello Darlin’” and “Lay You Down” – it’s pretty much his thing. He was the first real panty dropper in country music history and still makes country heartthrob Luke Bryan look like an immature little brat. But, “You’ve Never Been This Far Before” seems to take things even further in its unadulterated sultry-ness. The song is, after all, about making love to a virgin and how great of a feeling that can be.
Take not of some of these almost X-rated lyrics, especially for 1973: “And I can feel your body tremble/As you wonder what this moment holds in store/And as I put my arms around you/I can tell you’ve never been this far before/I don’t know what I’m saying/As my trembling fingers touch forbidden places/I only know that I have waited/For so long for the chance that we are taking.”
I hate to come off as too obscene or explicit, but you’d almost expect the lines “And as I slide myself inside you/I can tell you’ve never been this far before” to follow. Maybe that was in the original cut of this song Twitty wrote himself and didn’t make it to the record …
Seriously, with these racy lyrics and Twitty’s one-of-a-kind sultry voice you can’t help but think this record would’ve gotten an “explicit lyrics” sticker placed upon its record sleeve if such a thing existed when “You’ve Never Been This Far Before” was released.
Unsurprisingly the song was banned from some radio stations throughout the country upon its release for the verses listed above, but that didn’t stop it from going to No. 1. Controversy has always sold well, I guess.
It’s interesting how past generations often complain that today’s popular songs are too dirty or explicit and then you find a gem of a song like this that’s more than 40 years old. Just ask your grandmother how she felt when she heard the baddest pimp in the history of country music lay this one down. I defy you to find any country hit from the last few years that’s this explicit, and even if you could there’s no way in hell it would sound this good. That’s because there was only one Conway Twitty.