Classic Country Singles: Lacy J. Dalton, “16th Avenue”

“16th Avenue”

Lacy J. Dalton

Written by Thom Schuyler

Lacy J. Dalton 16th Avenue

Before even diving into its background, it’s worth noting that “16th Avenue” is often hailed as one of the best celebrations of Music Row songwriters ever. The line, “One night in some empty room, where no curtains ever hung, like a miracle some golden words rolled off someone’s tongue,” rips away the veneer to reveal the harsher reality. This isn’t the naive idealist thinking of becoming an artist – this is the songwriter who knows if you’re not writing singles, you’re not getting paid, even if you pour your soul into it. And even in a town like Nashville, it’s an endlessly vicious cycle and the relationships are flaky; you may just end up in that empty room at some point again. “16th Avenue,” then, is a tribute to those who toil away in nameless darkness.

The backstory is, perhaps, a bit more unexciting than what the song reflects, though; songwriter Thom Schuyler conceived the tune just from picking around at home one Friday night. He worried over its potential, given that it felt more like an “industry” song and didn’t feature a chorus. He stuffed the unfinished song into his drawer.

Three months later, Schuyler played the song for his publisher, Even Stevens, who was working with Eddie Rabbitt then. Stevens was more impressed than Schuyler was with it, as to his astonishment, he asked Schuyler to work on the song some more. Schuyler hadn’t lived the life he sang about in “16th Avenue.” He was one of the lucky ones. But he did observe other writers who endured those hardships and listened to their stories.

Schuyler, through song promoter Jerry Smith, pitched both his demo of “16th Avenue” along with “My Old Yellow Car” to producer Billy Sherrill – they both ended up in the hands of a new artist, Lacy J. Dalton.

Dalton – born Jill Byrem – really was the perfect artist to record the song, an artist with a raspy, barroom voice who’d later be known for writing and recording songs about working-class trials and triumphs. She knew, too, what it was like to have to try desperately to make ends meet. Raised a small-town girl in Appalachian Pennsylvania, she was the daughter of a beautician and a mechanic, both of whom worked additional side jobs to pay the bills. They, too, were country musicians, but Dalton’s early musical love was the folk rock scene.

Tragedy struck in 1974 when Dalton’s husband, John Croston, died from extended complications from a freak swimming accident. Dalton was a widowed mother forced to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet: by singing, cooking, waitressing and dancing in after-hours gentleman’s clubs.

When she did catch her big break – through executives at CBS Records who loved her voice and wanted to sign her – Dalton performed under her stage name and quickly made a name for herself. The title cut to her Hard Times album was her big breakthrough at radio, capturing the happiness a working class family feels knowing their love is worth more than any material good they lack. It captures the realism of Dolly Parton’s best work with just a touch of innocent optimism.

Both Schuyler and Dalton had bigger hits than “16th Avenue,” but it’s the sort of career song that perfectly depicts the harsher reality most struggling songwriters endure in Nashville, and remains, to this day, a songwriter’s anthem.

3 Comments

  1. Thanks so much for this. Lacy J. Dalton is the reason I love country music. I was a high schooler in South Dakota planting soybeans when “Hard Times” came on the radio in the tractor cab. Her voice — the weight, the pain, the force — is not for everyone, but it really grabbed me.

  2. Thanks for reading, Hard Times! Agreed, too. I’ve always loved the unique magic her voice brings to a song, especially here and “Everybody Makes Mistakes.”

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