Category Archives: Classic Country Singles

Classic Country Singles: Randy Travis, “Three Wooden Crosses”

Three Wooden Crosses
Randy Travis
2002

Written by Doug Johnson and Kim Williams

During the first decade of the twenty-first century, the antiseptic depictions of faith that have dominated contemporary Christian music began to seep in to country music.

This perception created records both good (“Jesus, Take the Wheel”) and bad (“The Little Girl”), but most of them were bland, adding going to church on Sunday or praying as just one of the token traits of southern life, no more or less significant than the fried chicken or football game that followed the morning services.

In one of the genre’s great ironies, Randy Travis had crossed over to contemporary Christian music, having had little luck on the radio since the late nineties.  He brought country music’s love of fallen angels along with him, and with “Three Wooden Crosses”, he managed to found his way back to the top of the country charts without even trying.

It starts off like an off-color joke that shouldn’t be told in polite company, let alone on the radio dial next to Martina McBride’s “Blessed” and Craig Morgan’s “That’s What I Love About Sunday”:  “A farmer and a teacher, a hooker and a preacher, ridin’ on a midnight bus bound for Mexico.”  The story that unfolds reveals that one of these four travelers will be instrumental in spreading the Good News for a long time to come.

But because it manages to humanize all four of them along the way, revealing how each of them helped make the world a better place, its ultimate message is that our lives are best defined by what we do when we’re at our best, not by the labels that may be assigned to us through occupation or personal choices.

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Classic Country Singles: Rosanne Cash featuring Johnny Cash, “September When it Comes”

September When it Comes
Rosanne Cash featuring Johnny Cash
2003

Written by Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal

In her memoir Composed, Rosanne Cash describes a handful of prophetic songs that she has written as being “Postcards From the Future”, describing life events in detail before they happen. The most haunting example of this is “September When it Comes.”

She had written the lyrics in the nineties, scribbled quickly on a piece of paper while she was on the Long Island Expressway. At the time, her father Johnny was suffering through a health crisis. The lyrics describe her preparing for the impending death of her father, the time of reckoning described as September, a beautiful metaphor for the autumn years of life.

Her husband, John Leventhal, discovered the lyrics and wrote the music to go along with it. He suggested that it would be a perfect duet for her to do with her father. She struggled with the idea for months, before finally calling her father up to ask him to sing on the record.  After a few moments thought, he responded, “I’ll have to read the lyrics first.”

She flew down to Nashville and delivered them in person.  He quickly agreed to sing on the song about his own impending mortality.  Though he was in poor health and struggled during the recording session, he insisted on completing three takes. As he sang the lyrics, Rosanne cried quietly on the other side of the recording glass.

“September When it Comes” was released in the spring of 2003, the centerpiece of Rules of Travel, Rosanne’s first studio album in eight years.  A few months later, the song’s prophecy came to fruition. Johnny Cash died in the early morning hours of  September 12, 2003.

The eerie accuracy of the timing aside, the song is a quiet masterpiece in its own right.  It captures the pain of losing a parent to a crippling illness, but also the peace that comes with the knowledge that they have a reached a place that they can rest, and fall into the loving arms of those who wait for them. 

More so than any of the work that Johnny Cash recorded in his final year or that Rosanne Cash has recorded since his death, “September When it Comes” is the most beautiful swan song for both Johnny’s musical career and this father-daughter relationship.

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Classic Country Singles: Donna Fargo, “You Can’t Be a Beacon (If Your Light Don’t Shine)”

You Can’t Be a Beacon (If Your Light Don’t Shine)
Donna Fargo
1974

Written by Martin Cooper

In which preaching to the choir takes on an entirely different meaning.

Donna Fargo burst on to the country scene in 1972 with the gold-selling hits “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.” and “Funny Face,” which helped establish her as a burst of positivity against an increasingly dour national landscape.

The Watergate scandal challenged Fargo’s shiny outlook on the world, and influenced the material of her 1974 album Miss Donna Fargo. The second single, “U.S. of A.”, found her speaking to the country directly, celebrating that the country’s strength comes from its plentiful natural and human resources.

That song went to #9, but it was the follow-up to a #1 hit, one of Fargo’s first big hits to come from an outside writer.  Built upon the biblical passage Matthew 5:16, it is a challenge not to those who do not have God in their life, but rather those who claim that they do:

How can you ask for truth when you do not truthful live?
How can you ask forgiveness when you don’t forgive?
I don’t mean to bring you down or speak to you unkind
But you can’t be a beacon if your light don’t shine

How can you ask a child to be honest and true,
When he can only judge what’s right by what he sees in you?
How can you offer vision, yet walk around blind?
No, you can’t see a beacon if its light don’t shine

The message of the song is that you can’t allow God’s light to shine through you if you’re using it to spotlight the failings of others. If you’re going to claim the moral high ground, you can’t throw water balloons on the rest of us while you’re up there.

What keeps her from crossing over from preacher to preachy is the final verse, which essentially encapsulates what it means to be a person of faith in the first place:

May God’s love surround you, may you find a brighter day
May He grant you the peace you seek in every way
God’s light burns in each heart, yours and mine
And you can be a beacon if you just let it shine

Proclaimed against a backdrop of church organ and gospel choir, “You Can’t Be a Beacon (If Your Light Don’t Shine)” is a challenge to fellow believers to practice what they preach through action, not just word. If you feel a little guilty listening to it, as I often do, it’s a pesky little reminder to be what you claim to be.

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Classic Country Singles: The Browns, “The Three Bells”

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height=”160″ />The Three Bells
The Browns
1959

Written by Dick Manning, Bert Reisfeld and Jean Villard

The structure of “The Three Bells” should be familiar to any listener of contemporary country music. A genre that prides itself on its simplicity is ambitious enough to tell an entire life story in under four minutes. It’s an approach that has created several classic singles like “Where’ve You Been” , “Time Marches On” and “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye.”

One of the most significant historical examples of this structure comes from The Browns, who had a massive crossover hit with their 1959 single “The Three Bells.” It’s a simple tale. The church bells ring three times throughout the course of Jimmy Brown’s life: on the day of his baptism, the day of his wedding, and the day of his funeral. The preacher has words of wisdom for each occasion, ones that would be familiar to any Christian churchgoer, Catholic or otherwise.

That the character shares the same name as lead singer Jim Ed Brown and takes place in a little country town might lead you to believe that this was a song of Nashville origin, but it actually began its life and its worldwide success in France as the story of Jean-François Nicot. Originally written in French, “Les Trois Cloches” was an international hit for Édith Piaf, the songstress that was recently immortalized in the film La Vie En Rose. The Browns, composed of siblings Jim Ed, Maxine, and Bonnie, had been performing the song since seeing it Les Campagnons de la Chanson performing an English-language version on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1952.

When they finally went into the studio to record it in 1959, The Browns thought they were at the end of their recording career. They had just told RCA that the family act was breaking up, despite having enjoyed moderate success since 1954 with eight top fifteen singles. What was intended as their swan song became their signature instead, catapulting them into nationwide fame. Not only did it spend 10 weeks at #1 on the country singles chart, it also topped the pop chart for four weeks and even reached #10 on the R&B chart.

“The Three Bells” came at a time when country music was enjoying its first major crossover success, topping the pop chart a few weeks after Johnny Horton (“The Battle of New Orleans”) and a few weeks before Marty Robbins (“El Paso.”) Robbins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and The Everly Brothers dominated both the pop and country surveys, Guy Mitchell scored a #1 pop hit with his covers of “Heartaches By the Number”, and even two of the big pop stars of the day – Conway Twitty and Brenda Lee – would ultimately find their way to country music and make it their permanent home.

Meanwhile, The Browns would fare better on the pop chart with their next two singles, but continued to be a presence on country radio until the sisters retired. The man who sang lead on the definitive three act country song would have three acts to his own career. After The Browns came to an end, Jim Ed Brown launched a successful solo career, with his 1967 hit “Pop a Top” becoming a bona fide classic later resurrected by Alan Jackson. As the solo hits began to wind down, he reinvented himself as one half of a duo with Helen Cornelius. Their 1976 debut collaboration “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You” took Brown to the top of the singles chart for the first time since “The Three Bells”, and earned them both the CMA award for Vocal Duo in 1977.

“The Three Bells” has crafted quite a legacy of its own, with versions released by everyone from Ray Charles, Alison Krauss, and Roy Orbison to Sha Na Na, Nana Mouskouri and Andy Williams. For modern country fans who haven’t encountered this classic yet, the structure will be instantly familiar.

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The Three Bells
The Browns
1959
Written by Dick Manning, Bert Reisfeld and Jean Villard

The structure of “The Three Bells” should be familiar to any listener of contemporary country music. A genre that prides itself on its simplicity is ambitious enough to tell an entire life story in under four minutes. It’s an approach that has created several classic singles like “Where’ve You Been” , “Time Marches On” and “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye.”
One of the most significant historical examples of this structure comes from The Browns, who had a massive crossover hit with their 1959 single “The Three Bells.” It’s a simple tale. The church bells ring three times throughout the course of Jimmy Brown’s life: on the day of his baptism, the day of his wedding, and the day of his funeral. The preacher has words of wisdom for each occasion, ones that would be familiar to any Christian churchgoer, Catholic or otherwise.
That the character shares the same name as lead singer Jim Ed Brown and takes place in a little country town might lead you to believe that this was a song of Nashville origin, but it actually began its life and its worldwide success in France as the story of Jean-François Nicot. Originally written in French, “Les Trois Cloches” was an international hit for Édith Piaf, the songstress that was recently immortalized in the film La Vie En Rose. The Browns, composed of siblings Jim Ed, Maxine, and Bonnie, had been performing the song since seeing it Les Campagnons de la Chanson performing an English-language version on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1952.
When they finally went into the studio to record it in 1959, The Browns thought they were at the end of their recording career. They had just told RCA that the family act was breaking up, despite having enjoyed moderate success since 1954 with eight top fifteen singles. What was intended as their swan song became their signature instead, catapulting them into nationwide fame. Not only did it spend 10 weeks at #1 on the country singles chart, it also topped the pop chart for four weeks and even reached #10 on the R&B chart.
“The Three Bells” came at a time when country music was enjoying its first major crossover success, topping the pop chart a few weeks after Johnny Horton (“The Battle of New Orleans”) and a few weeks before Marty Robbins (“El Paso.”) Robbins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and The Everly Brothers dominated both the pop and country surveys, Guy Mitchell scored a #1 pop hit with his covers of “Heartaches By the Number”, and even two of the big pop stars of the day – Conway Twitty and Brenda Lee – would ultimately find their way to country music and make it their permanent home.
Meanwhile, The Browns would fare better on the pop chart with their next two singles, but continued to be a presence on country radio until the sisters retired. The man who sang lead on the definitive three act country song would have three acts to his own career. After The Browns came to an end, Jim Ed Brown launched a successful solo career, with his 1967 hit “Pop a Top” becoming a bona fide classic later resurrected by Alan Jackson. As the solo hits began to wind down, he reinvented himself as one half of a duo with Helen Cornelius. Their 1976 debut collaboration “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You” took Brown to the top of the singles chart for the first time since “The Three Bells”, and earned them both the CMA award for Vocal Duo in 1977.
“The Three Bells” has crafted quite a legacy of its own, with versions released by everyone from Ray Charles, Alison Krauss, and Roy Orbison to Sha Na Na, Nana Mouskouri and Andy Williams. For modern country fans who haven’t encountered this classic yet, the structure will be instantly familiar.
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