Category Archives: Classic Country Singles

Jeannie C. Riley, “Harper Valley P.T.A.”

Harper Valley P.T.A.
Jeannie C. Riley
1968

Written by Tom T. Hall

“Harper Valley P.T.A.” written by Tom T. Hall, is the ultimate in story songs. A career-changing hit single for Jeannie C. Riley in 1968, it introduced the world to a small-town environment filled with gossip and a woman not afraid to stand up to her know-it-all critics.

This absorbing story was written by Hall of Famer Tom T. Hall. In an interview, Hall states that his inspiration for the song was passing by the Harpeth Valley Elementary School in Bellevue, Tennessee, and that he built the song around the school name. Jeannie C. Riley, who served as songwriter Jerry Chesnut’s secretary, heard the song and recorded it herself with the help of producer Shelby Singleton.

Although the account is purely fictional, it brims with true-to-life spectacle. The song tells the story of a junior high student who is sent home with a note to her single mother from the Parent Teacher Association of the school. The group of small-town parents calls out the mother for her shameful behavior (among these transgressions: dating numerous men and wearing mini-skirts), but instead of accepting the criticism, she decides to attend their next meeting. At the meeting, she cites misconduct of several of the individual members, including the scandalous affairs and drinking problems that pale in comparison with her indiscretions. She concludes, “This is just a little Peyton Place and you’re all Harper Valley hypocrites.” And as the song fades, Riley, in the character of the teenage daughter, says she will always remember the day her “Mama socked it to the Harper Valley P.T.A.”

The classic anthem sold over six million copies as a single, and became a No. 1 pop and country smash, making Riley the first woman ever to top both singles charts with the same song. The song earned Riley a Grammy for Best Female Country & Western Vocal Performance, and the Country Music Association named it Single of the Year, both awards coming in 1968. The song was later the inspiration for a 1978 motion picture and a 1981 television series, both starring Barbara Eden, playing the heroine of the song.

“Harper Valley P.T.A” turned out to be the only major pop success for Riley, although she experienced scattered hits on the country charts throughout the early 1970s. In the mid-1970s, Riley began recording gospel music and eventually gained acclaim as a popular contemporary Christian artist. Tom T. Tall counted “Harper Valley P.T.A.” as one of his seven No. 1 country singles, and he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008.

“Harper Valley P.T.A.” is the latest in a series of articles showcasing Classic Country Singles. You can read previous entries at the Classic Country Singles page.

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Merle Haggard, “Okie from Muskogee”

Okie from Muskogee
Merle Haggard
1969

Written by Roy Edward Burris and Merle Haggard

“Okie from Muskogee” is an ode to simple American living, a joke at the expense of the common man or a political protest geared towards angering the counterculture of its time, depending on the viewpoint of the listener.

Haggard, dubbed “the poet of the common man,” provided a different outlook of both the social and political environments of the late 1960s when he, along with Ray Burris wrote “Okie from Muskogee. Despite its strong undercurrent of patriotism, the song is often viewed as a protest song. With the Vietnam War prompting many American to protest, Hag’s trademark tune became a rallying cry for those who were living in those times of conflict and was viewed as a song against the protesters of the war and their disrespect for the soldiers. It has also be considered to be a reflection of the different lifestyles and social conditions that marked the late 1960s.

But simply, Merle Haggard attempted to write about life in small town America and their traditional values. Speaking to an audience that never would have used LSD, rebelled against authority figures or grown their hair into “shaggy messes” (as the song spelled out), “Okie” helps to express their peaceful, tranquil routines. As Haggard would say,

“It started out as a joke. We wrote to be satirical originally. But then people latched onto it, and it really turned into this song that looked into the mindset of people so opposite of who and where we were.”

Simply, Haggard’s idealistic look at the people from his hometown was purely a valentine to the common folk and a recognition of those like his father (who moved the family to Muskogee from California during Haggard’s childhood) who took pride in freedom and their chosen lifestyles.   Haggard sums it up in the chorus, “I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee/A place where even squares can have a ball/We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse/And white lightnin’s still the biggest thrill of all.”

“Okie from Muskogee” immediately earned the attention of the country music audience when released in late September 1969. The Haggard classic, reached #1 and stayed there for four weeks in the fall of 1969. The song was named the Country Music Association Single of the Year in 1970, and stood as one of Haggard’s five wins that evening. The original lyrics are on display at the Smithsonian Institution and a copy of the song is part of a time capsule on the moon. President Richard Nixon even asked for Haggard to perform the song at the White House.

All of these achievements are a testament to the truth in the song, despite its myriad meanings. Ultimately, “Okie from Muskogee” asked its fair share of questions of the audience and created a commentary within the country music community and beyond that still echoes today.

“Okie From Muskogee” is the latest in a series of articles showcasing Classic Country Singles. You can read previous entries at the Classic Country Singles page.

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Classic Country Singles: Tammy Wynette, “Stand By Your Man”

Stand By Your Man
Tammy Wynette
1968

Written by Billy Sherrill and Tammy Wynette

It was a seminal moment in a career filled with them, but the recording of “Stand by Your Man“ has contributed considerably to the world of country music. It caused the questioning of gender roles and stirred up dialogue about how far a woman’s heart can stretch in the face of her man’s transgressions.

“Stand by Your Man” was reportedly written in 15 minutes, the creation of Wynette and her producer, Billy Sherrill. Wynette’s gorgeous performance is sympathetic yet strong.  As always, Wynette possesses a heartbreaking quality in her voice, but still remains as calm as ever. Her declaration of love for her man is powerful, despite the admission of his sinful dealings. The song is an ode to a faithful, supportive wife and the understanding that her man has faults and failing, but she will continue to stay by his side. Feminists criticized the song, believing it was belittling to women, but Wynette defended the song profusely. Her intent, she said, was to call women to forgive their wayward men.

Following shortly after her great breakup ballad, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” the ode to loyalty soon became what Sherrill would call her signature song. Released as a single in late 1968, the song reached No. 1 on the country chart for three weeks, and also became a No. 19 pop hit. The classic anthem to faith and fidelity also won Wynette her first Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance, Female in 1969.

New controversy marked the song in the early 1990s when soon-to-be First Lady Hillary Clinton told CBS’ 60 Minutes that she “wasn’t some little woman ‘standing by my man’ like Tammy Wynette.” Wynette demanded an apology, and Clinton retracted her statement. Later, in a gesture of reconciliation, Wynette performed at a Clinton fundraiser.

Different perceptions surround the song, but Wynette’s portrayal of a forgiving woman evoked strength and power, lending evidence to the belief that “Stand By Your Man” is till-death-do-you-part devotion rather than blind faith in a faltering love.

“Stand By Your Man” is the latest in a series of articles showcasing Classic Country Singles. You can read previous entries at the Classic Country Singles page.

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Classic Country Singles: Kathy Mattea, “Where’ve You Been”

“Where’ve You Been”
Kathy Mattea
1990

Written by Don Henry and Jon Vezner

Everybody loved the song, but nobody wanted to cut it. A slow and simple tale of an aging couple that ends with them both in a hospital, as the wife is succumbing to Alzheimer’s? Not exactly the formula for a smash hit. Co-writers Jon Vezner and Don Henry pitched the song all around Nashville, and it was finally Vezner’s wife, Kathy Mattea, who committed to recording the song that was piercing her heart with every listen.

The tale of Claire & Edwin starts simply enough, with Claire wondering “where’ve you been” when they fall in love, and she finds the man she always dreamed of. She asks the same question when a storm delays his coming home from work – “Her frightened tears fell to the floor, until his key turned in the door.”

The gentle instrumentation – Mattea is accompanied only by acoustic guitar through much of the song – gives the tale an unassuming nature. There’s no foreshadowing of the turn the lyrics will take, and country fans certainly hadn’t been conditioned to three-act story songs that end like this, even though there would be countless numbers of them during the boom years. But the turn comes, as the bridge pulls the rug out from under the listener with disarming humor: “They never spent a night apart, for sixty years she heard him snore; now they’re in a hospital, in separate beds on different floors.”

The final verse, where Edwin and Claire have their last conversation, captures the very best of what country music can be, revealing deep truths about the human experience through careful observation of word and deed: “Then one day they wheeled him in. He held her hand and stroked her head, and in a fragile voice she said, ‘Where’ve you been? I’ve looked for you forever and a day.’”

There is no bombast, no cheap appeals for sentiment or manipulative vocals. Mattea lets the song shine, and only slightly increases the intensity of the last “where’ve you been.”   Still, the scene is so perfectly constructed that it’s hard to believe it really happened, though Mattea’s reverent delivery indicates otherwise. She recalls:

It’s a true story about Jon’s grandparents. They had both gotten very sick and were in the same hospital, but didn’t know it. His grandmother had been slowly losing it, and she didn’t recognize anybody.  She was in unfamiliar surroundings, so she finally quit talking altogether. Jon was there visiting, and he was up seeing his grandfather; he said to the nurse, “Has anybody brought him down to see her?” She said no, and he asked if he could do that.

They said yes, so he wheeled his grandfather into his grandmother’s room. His grandfather kept stroking her hair, saying, “Look at them hair, nobody has hair like grandma,” and she looked at him and said, “Where have you been?” It was the first thing she had said in weeks.

When Jon told me the story for the first time, it was before we had even gotten engaged, and he just cried and cried. When he played the song for me and the first chorus came around, I knew where he was going with the lyric, and I just couldn’t believe he could be that vulnerable as a writer, to put that moment in a song.

The song was Mattea’s biggest hit, winning her a Grammy. It also won Song of the Year at the Grammys, CMA’s and ACM’s. While Mattea had wondered to herself, “Do people want to hear this on the way to work?”, the song struck a deep chord, and it was the first time Alzheimer’s had been captured in a mainstream hit song.

The quiet grace of this single is the perfect illustration of what country music can be, without any of the annoyances that often bring the genre down. Great song, fantastic vocalist, tasteful arrangement and the honest truth – these are the things that keep country fans wading through a sea of mediocrity to find treasures like this.

“Where’ve You Been” is the latest in a series of articles showcasing Classic Country Singles. You can read previous entries at the Classic Country Singles page.

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Classic Country Singles: Kenny Rogers, “The Gambler”

The Gambler
Kenny Rogers
1978

Written by Don Schlitz

Although responsible for one of country music’s most famous lines (“You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em…”), Don Schlitz’s premier story song, “The Gambler” is far deeper than what first appears. The game of poker is disguised as a metaphor for life and shows that it’s not what cards one is dealt, but how the player handles those cards, that is truly the secret of life. Kenny Rogers’ gruff and gritty vocal tells the story of two travelers, one barely living and one barely alive. It’s a strong connection between a couple of strangers, and shows that we may not be so different at all.

They travel on through the darkness, passengers at a crossroads, and the old man gives his secrets to survival because he’s “made a living reading other people’s faces.” The two men are heading to an unknown destination on an evening when the sage, aware of the distant sadness in the young man’s eyes, offers him some sound advice for some strong whiskey and a lit-up cigarette. He implores him to take charge of his fate, but to live presently in each moment because “there’ll be time enough for counting when the dealin’s done.” By the end, one man’s final moments may have led to another’s finest, as the narrator finds an “ace that he can keep” in the last words of his fellow voyager. The old man lives out his last wishes of dying in his sleep.

“The Gambler” resided at No. 1 for two weeks in December 1978, and earned Schlitz a victory for Best Country Song at the 1979 Grammys. The tune also proved victorious in the same category at the 1979 CMAs. A 1979 made-for-TV movie called The Gambler, which was inspired by this song, became the highest-rated TV film of the year. For Rogers, it’s the highlight of a considerable song catalog, and for Schlitz, it represented the start of a songwriting career filled with masterful storytelling.

“The Gambler” is the latest in a series of articles showcasing Classic Country Singles. You can read previous entries at the Classic Country Singles page.

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Webb Pierce, “There Stands the Glass”

There Stands the Glass
Webb Pierce
1953

Writt

en by Audrey Grisham, Russ Hull & Mary Shurtz

He was the top country artist of the 1950s, spending 113 weeks at No. 1 that decade. As a cast member of the Louisiana Hayride and the Grand Ole Opry, he was heard on radio stations coast to coast. Throw in his larger-than-life persona and appearances in Hollywood films, and you’ll reach an inescapable conclusion: Webb Pierce was country music, its most visible and successful performer for the better part of a decade.

Which makes his current obscurity all the more tragic. While his contemporaries like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins and Eddy Arnold have been lionized by history, Pierce has been nearly forgotten, despite the fact that his talent and contributions to the development of country music as a popular art form were immeasurable. Fans dedicated to discovering country music’s roots cannot do so without discovering Webb Pierce. When they’re ready to do so, they should start with “There Stands the Glass.”

The record opens with a pure hillbilly wail that contemporary country fans will instantly recognize as an influence on the vocal styles of Dwight Yoakam and Patty Loveless. Pierce is staring at the drink that he’s ready to down, the one “that will ease all my pain, that will settle my brain.” It’s a stunningly vulnerable admission of how he’ll be using alcohol tonight to “hide all my tears” and “drown all my fears.”

But the listener learns quickly that Pierce’s confidence is not quite what it seems, as that opening wail foreshadowed at the beginning of the song. He’s wondering where the woman who left him is, and if she’s thinking of him in his misery. As he repeats the line “it’s my first one today” – not even tonight, mind you – it’s clear that there will be many more, and that this routine is nothing new.

The song was banned by some radio stations for promoting the consumption of liquor, but it’s a half-hearted endorsement at best. There’s a sense in Pierce’s performance that he’s doing this because he has to, not because he wants to, and that perhaps his taste for the drink is the greater obstacle between him and happiness. As Homer Simpson famously said, “To alcohol: The cause of – and solution to – all of life’s problems.” Webb’s desperate barfly would certainly agree.

“There Stands the Glass” is the the latest in a series of articles showcasing Classic Country Singles. You can read previous entries at the Classic Country Singles page.

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Classic Country Singles: Waylon Jennings & Willie Nelson, “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”

Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys
Waylon Jennings & Willie Nelson
1978

Written by Ed Bruce & Patsy Bruce

Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson collaborated at numerous stages of their careers, and it is one of the most famous alliances between two stars in country music history. One of the pinnacles of the Waylon and Willie partnership is “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” a warning to the mothers of little boys with big dreams of the wide-open range. As they explain, “They never stay home, and they’re always alone, even with someone they love.” Surely this was no unfamiliar feeling for both men, notorious for their restless (and sometimes reckless) ways. In fact, the song is the very definition of many a man’s heart in just under three minutes.

In the verse, the song tells of the dangers involved with living a life. Often misunderstood, these men sin in the evening just to set out for greener pastures when the morning comes. The two living legends take turns teaching the lessons learned on that long and winding way, advising mothers to mold their young ones into “doctors and lawyers and such” because cowboys “ain’t easy to love and they’re harder to hold.” In their own personal experience, the twosome have seen that cowboys will only leave the women in their lives with sadness and a song. The whining steel guitar in “Mammas” seems to sympathize with both the emptiness of those left behind and the stubborn pride of the cowboys who leave.

Ed Bruce and Patsy Bruce composed the song, and Ed even made the charts with his own version, but it was the Jennings-Nelson combination that galvanized it. Culled from the classic duet album Waylon & Willie, a platinum disc for the pair. “Mammas” peaked at No. 1 in March 1978, spending four weeks atop the Billboard magazine Hot Country Singles chart. In fact, it finished 1978 as the No. 1 song of the year and earned the duo a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.

“Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” is the the latest in a series of articles showcasing Classic Country Singles. You can read previous entries at the Classic Country Singles page.

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Glen Campbell, “Galveston”

Galveston
Glen Campbell
1969

Written by Jimmy Webb

Everything old becomes new again, especially in country music, which is as predictably cyclical as the rise and fall of the moon and sun. The string-drenched charm of Glen Campbell’s signature style is garnering hosannas rich with the joy of rediscovery, as it is used to interpret contemporary rock hits on his current record, Meet Glen Campbell.

It’s an effective project because Campbell has always been a quintessential singles artist, and the new record is like a brand new greatest hits collection culled from the best work of other performers. Among Campbell’s own best work, there are several classic country singles, four of which were million-sellers:  “Wichita Lineman,” “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “Southern Nights” and the focus of this entry: “Galveston.”

Released during the height of the Vietnam War, “Galveston” is the inner monologue of a young soldier dreaming of home. The lyrics are striking in their brevity, as a compelling story is told in a mere fourteen lines.    “Galveston, oh Galveston”, the full-voiced Campbell sings, “I still hear your sea winds blowin’, I still see her dark eyes glowin’. I was 21 when I left Galveston.”

As he’s on the battlefield, he’s wondering if she’ll still be waiting when he gets home, but his greatest fear isn’t that she’s forgotten him. It’s that she’ll be carrying the flame in vain: “I am so afraid of dying”, he wails, “before I dry the tears she’s crying.”

The production of the song is vintage Campbell, with sweeping orchestral strings and horns. Rather than swamp his performance, they underscore the powerful emotions he is expressing. They are the musical representation of the powerful sounds described in the lyric, both the “sea waves crashing” back home, and the “cannons flashing” on the battlefield.     The fear that he is feeling while under attack is overwhelming, but the desire to get back home and see Galveston and the girl who’s waiting there pushes him on.

Campbell’s vocal is beyond reproach, with a particularly chilling “Galveston, oh Galveston” right before his fear of death is confessed.   It’s an emotional release that is all the more powerful because of his restrained delivery of the lyric up until that point. And while writer Jimmy Webb didn’t pen it with Vietnam specifically in mind, the song had a heightened impact because of the climate it was released in. For similar reasons, this Campbell classic is worth revisiting today.

“Galveston” is the the latest in a series of articles showcasing Classic Country Singles. You can read previous entries at the Classic Country Singles page.

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Classic Country Singles: Martina McBride, “Independence Day”

“Independence Day”
Martina McBride
1994

Written by Gretchen Peters

In 1993, Martina McBride chose to include a powerful song penned by Gretchen Peters on her second collection The Way That I Am, despite resistance from her record label. Even with their hesitance to discuss such difficult subject manner, McBride was determined to shed light on the hard truths of domestic violence. When selected as the fourth single from the album, the song, titled “Independence Day,” many radio stations were uncertain whether they wished to play the controversial anthem. Its story of a woman’s struggle against spousal abuse is powerful and purposeful in content, lending a realistic view of how such treatment can torment its victims.

From the narrative standpoint of the woman’s daughter, the song tells of an abusive husband and the destructive effect on his family. The daughter, eight years old and all too aware, recalls how she took a trip to the downtown fair to avoid the conflict and confrontation between her parents. Her father, a drinking, dangerous man inflicts damage on his wife, made very apparent by the “proof on her cheek” and the “worried and weak” look on her face as the innocent girl gets ready to leave the house. All the while, the chorus rings out as a cry for freedom for both a hopeless wife and a helpless daughter who suffer at the hands of a violent man.

The video was equally compelling and provided a disturbing visual to help tell the story. In its final frames, the house is up in flames and the daughter is in the arms of the policemen ready to take her to the county home. The outcome for her parents is much less clear. No resolution is found, but the ending on this “day of reckoning” seems rather dire regardless of interpretation.

What is so terrifying and troubling about both the song and the video is the seeming ambivalence of the bystanders. From the firemen who just “put out the flames and took down some names” to the folks who spread the rumors of abuse like the fire that destroyed the house, those indirectly involved appeared hesitant to confront such a devastating situation. All the more reason for the wounded wife to live out the vows made in the chorus to “make the guilty pay” and take matters into her own hands.

The risks involved with writing and recording “Independence Day” paid off. Although it only reached #12 on Billboard’s singles chart, the song reached a wide audience and received much critical acclaim. McBride, as a Horizon Award nominee, performed the song on the 1994 CMA awards show, and later that evening, accepted the award for Video of the Year (an honor shared with directors Deaton Flanigan). The next year, Gretchen Peters was awarded the Song of the Year trophy, becoming only the second woman to receive the award. Peters acknowledged those who had lived with domestic violence and praised McBride for the best ambassador imaginable for this groundbreaking single.

“Independence Day” was also nominated as Best Country Song at the 1994 Grammys and earned McBride her first nod in the Best Female Country Vocal Performance category. Its presence is still greatly felt and is a cornerstone of McBride’s career and a testament for truth and fearlessness in country songwriting. As Peters would later say, “I think Martina would agree that the most gratifying and most humbling thing is when women that have really lived this come up to you with tears in their eyes and say you got the story right.”

“Independence Day” is the latest in a series of articles showcasing Classic Country Singles. You can read previous entries at the Classic Country Singles page.

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Classic Country Singles: Rosanne Cash, “Seven Year Ache”

Seven Year Ache
Rosanne Cash
1981

Written by Rosanne Cash

In the 1980s, Rosanne Cash earned 11 #1 singles, more than any female artist other than Reba McEntire. The one that still resounds most is her take on the seven-year itch. With “Seven Year Ache”, Cash showed a skill for writing (and performing) songs in the progressive country movement, songs with smarts and the ability to appeal to diverse audiences.

Throughout her career, Cash has created music that sends a distinct message, and “Seven Year Ache” is no different. The song matches a tough-girl delivery with a biting, cynical lyric about a man and his restless ways, culminating in another night out on the town. It’s a cutting indictment that is equal parts attitude and apathy, with Cash seeming both angry with her man’s transgressions and tired of scolding his behavior.

Her antagonist is “face down in a memory, but feeling alright,” no doubt gaining the pleasure in the female attention while experiencing the pain of past memories that haunt him. Both the men and women in the bar are entranced by his every move as he flirts and finds a way to inspire both jealousy and attraction. Cash admonishes her man for being “someone he’s not” and “looking careless” as he barely bothers to consider his surroundings, but instead searches for the next cheap thrill.

Cash’s ex-husband and former producer, Rodney Crowell, is often credited for inspiring “Seven Year Ache,” but, in an interview with Bill Deyoung, Cash said, “The real inspiration came for me because Rickie Lee Jones’ first album came out, and I was so moved by it, and so inspired, I thought ‘There’s never been a country song about street life, about life on the streets.’” This inspiration led her to write more than four pages of lyrics before trimming the song into a three-minute master class of love’s longing, loneliness and lingering frustration.

“Seven Year Ache” earned Cash her first Grammy nomination, and remains her signature song, a #1 single in 1981. It was the title track of her second country disc, a four-star effort in Rolling Stone, and a staple in modern mainstream country music in the early 1980s. Country fans were re-introduced to the classic song in 2001, when Trisha Yearwood (with some assistance from Cash herself) included her own take on the track on her album Inside Out. But it is Rosanne Cash, eloquent in her words and aware in her actions that defined love’s ups and downs with this trademark tune.

“Seven Year Ache” is the latest in a series of articles showcasing Classic Country Singles. You can read previous entries at the Classic Country Singles page.

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