The long list of country music greats lost in 2013 continues with the passing of Cowboy Jack Clement, who succumbed to liver cancer yesterday morning at the age of 82.
Few have done so much to shape country music from behind the scenes as this legendary songwriter and producer. In addition to writing some of the genre’s best-loved songs, he produced classic records such as “Ring of Fire” and “Dreaming My Dreams with You,” as well as Bobby Bare’s concept album A Bird Named Yesterday. He also played an instrumental role in launching the careers of icons such a Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis, while helping the now-legendary Charley Pride become one of the first major African-American country stars. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1973 and is one of this year’s inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Be sure to check out this fine in-depth tribute by the always reliable Peter Cooper, as well as some personal remembrances by his good friends Kris Kristofferson and Marty Stuart.
Finally, enjoy the following performances of some of Clement’s most beloved compositions. We at Country Universe are saddened to hear of Clement’s passing, and we extend our condolences to his family, friends, and fans.
This year’s inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame have just been announced from Nashville by Bill Anderson. The 2013 inductees are Cowboy Jack Clement (Non-Performer), Bobby Bare (Veterans Era), and Kenny Rogers (Modern Era).
Songwriter and producer Jack Clement, a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame since 1973, claims writer’s credit for some of country music’s most beloved classics. He supplied Johnny Cash with multiple hits, including the standard “Ballad of a Teenage Queen,” and has also had his songs recorded by the likes of Charley Pride, Dolly Parton, Jim Reeves, Hank Snow, and Ray Charles, among many other legendary artists.
Bobby Bare enjoyed a run of country hits throughout the sixties and seventies, including genre classics such as “Detroit City,” “500 Miles Away from Home,” “Four Strong Winds,” and “Marie Lavaux.” He hosted the program Bobby Bare and Friends on The Nashville Network from 1983 t0 1988, and in the late nineties, enjoyed a strong second act as a member of the country music supergroup Old Dogs with friends and fellow legends Jerry Reed, Mel Tillis, and Waylon Jennings.
Kenny Rogers is widely known for his beloved 1978 classic “The Gambler” – a Grammy and CMA-winning crossover smash that spawned a TV serial adaptation in which Rogers starred. His multifaceted career has also included success with his band The First Edition, as well as crossover success lasting on through the 1980s and hit duets with stars such as Kim Carnes, Sheena Easton, Dottie West, and Dolly Parton.
Congratulations to the 2013 Country Music Hall of Fame inductees from the Country Universe community. What’s your take on this year’s inductees, and who would you like to see follow them into the Hall in 2014?
A comedic flair, a speech impediment, and a famous daughter have often overshadowed the fact that Mel Tillis is one of the finest songwriters and performers in the history of country music.
Tillis hailed from Tampa, Florida, and he discovered music at a young age, playing guitar and singing songs at local talent shows. Though he had a severe stutter from age three, the impediment disappeared when he sang. Tillis entered the military, and while stationed in Japan, formed a band called the Westerners. Once back stateside, he moved to Nashville to jump-start his songwriting career, alternating between Tennessee and Florida until the hits started coming in.
From 1957 to the end of the sixties, Tillis would record for major labels and score a handful of hits, but he had a far bigger impact as a songwriter. He wrote hits that are now standards, recorded by legends like Webb Pierce (“I Ain’t Never, “No Love Have I”), Bobby Bare (“Detroit City”), Ray Price (“Heart Over Mind”, “Burning Memories”) and Kenny Rogers and the First Edition (“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.”)
However, once the seventies arrived, Tillis became a major presence on country radio, scoring dozens of hits, many of which were his own recordings of his compositions that had been hits for other artists in the sixties. In 1976, he was named CMA’s Entertainer of the Year, the same year he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Tillis’ comedic talents made him an in-demand performer, and he was a fixture on both network and syndicated television shows during the peak years of his career. He also appeared in several movies, with Smokey and the Bandit II and Cannonball Run being the most successful.
As with many of his contemporaries, the hits slowed down
in the eighties, even though other artists continued to score hits with his material, most notably Ricky Skaggs’ chart-topping recording of “Honey (Open That Door)” in 1984. He purchased radio stations that he later sold for a big profit, and he became one of the most popular draws in Branson, Missouri, where his theater was a cornerstone for tourist entertainment.
In recent years, Tillis has frequently collaborated with his daughter Pam Tillis, making appearances on her albums and co-headlining a popular Christmas show at Opryland. Tillis was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 2007, and elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame that same year. In 2010, he released his first comedy album, You Ain’t Gonna Believe This…, on Show Dog Records.
Though his Hall of Fame career has now stretched several decades, Kris Kristofferson will forever be defined by his legendary songwriting in the late sixties and early seventies.
An intellectual of Swedish descent, Kristofferson’s father was in the U.S. military, and as a result, he moved around quite a bit while growing up. His twin passions were writing and rugby, and he pursued both vigorously while completing his undergraduate studies in California. He earned a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, and while studying there, he gained distinction in boxing, and more importantly, he began writing songs.
He briefly pursued a performing career while in England, with hopes that success could help him toward his real goal of publishing a novel. When this was unsuccessful, he succumbed to family pressure and joined the army in 1960. Five years later, he left the army, which resulted in estrangement from his family, and he arrived in Nashville to pursue his songwriting craft full time.
The cuts came slowly, but after having a few chart hits by artists like Dave Dudley and Roger Miller, he became established around town. As the sixties turned into the seventies, Kristofferson’s pen became legendary, thanks to a string of hits for other artists. Sammi Smith’s recording of “Help Me Make it Through the Night” won him a Grammy for Song of the Year, while he earned the CMA trophy for “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (Johnny Cash) and the ACM trophy for “For the Good Times” (Ray Price.) Janis Joplin, who Kristofferson had dated for some time, found her greatest success after her death, as her recording of Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” topped the pop singles chart for several weeks.
Kristofferson’s notoriety as a writer piqued enough interest in him to lead to a successful singing career of his own. He had several well-received albums for Monument, two of which sold gold. Radio was mostly indifferent to the projects, with the glaring exception of his stunning #1 hit, “Why Me”, in 1973.
While he continued to sing and write songs, Kristofferson’s career took a surprising turn toward Hollywood, and he became a legitimate film star, winning a Golden Globe for Best Actor starring opposite Barbra Streisand in A Star is Born. He also had successful musical collaborations with his wife, Rita Coolidge. Meanwhile, Nashville stars continued to record his songs, with friend Willie Nelson even recording a platinum-selling tribute album in 1979.
His last major success as a recording artist came in 1985 as part of the supergroup The Highwaymen with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson. That same year, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, while the Country Music Hall of Fame elected him in 2004.
Over the past two decades, he has continued to release albums of self-written material, while continuing to tour and appear in various films, including a prominent role in the Blade trilogy. Essential Singles:
For the Good Times (Ray Price), 1970
Sunday Morning Coming Down (Johnny Cash), 1970
Me and Bobby McGee (Janis Joplin), 1971
Help Me Make it Through the Night (Sammi Smith), 1971
Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends (Bobby Bare), 1971
Why Me, 1973
The Highwayman (with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson), 1985
Me and Bobby McGee, 1971
The Silver Tongued Devil and I, 1971
Jesus Was a Capricorn, 1972
To the Bone, 1981
Broken Freedom Song: Live From San Francisco, 2003
With a career that has spanned seven decades, Bobby Bare's body of work has made him one of the genre's most influential and critically acclaimed recording artists.
Raised in poverty by his widowed father, Bare was on his own by age fifteen. He built his own guitar and played in a Springfield, Ohio band before moving to Los Angeles to pursue a music career full-time. His first single, “The All-American Boy”, was recorded under the name Bill Parsons. It became a surprise pop hit, reaching #2 in America and the top thirty in England.
His pop career was short-lived, thanks to being drafted into the army. When he returned from service, he resumed performing under his own name, pursuing a singing and songwriting career in the pop music field. He shared an apartment with Willie Nelson and toured with some big pop acts, before turning his attention to country music in the early sixties.
Chet Atkins signed him to RCA in 1962, and he had a string of big hits for the label, including classics like “Detroit City”, “The Streets of Baltimore”, and “500 Miles Away From Home.” Bare began incorporating elements of the folk music scene into his music, and by the end of the decade, he'd established a reputation for tackling challenging material on record, including the controversial “(Margie's at) the Lincoln Park Inn.”
A brief stint on Mercury Records in the early seventies continued the streak of critically acclaimed albums, but he returned to RCA shortly thereafter. It was on that label that he released the landmark album Bobby Bare Sings Lullabys, Legends, and Lies. The double album showcased the songs of Shel Silverstein, including the #1 hit, “Marie Laveau” and a duet with his son on “Daddy What If?” Thus began a fruitful partnership with Silverstein that resulted in more critically acclaimed albums, though none of them would approach the commercial success of their first collaboration.
As the seventies progressed, Bare became aligned with the Outlaw movement, and by the early eighties, he was drawing on the catalog of writers such as Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. After releasing his 1983 album Drinkin' From the Bottle, Singin' From the Heart, Bare took more than a decade off from recording. In recent years, he has returned to prominence through the Americana scene, and is now viewed as one of the forefathers of that fledgling musical movement.
Detroit City, 1963
500 Miles Away From Home, 1963
The Streets of Baltimore, 1966
(Margie's at) the Lincoln Park Inn, 1969
How I Got to Memphis, 1970
Daddy What If? (with Bobby Bare, Jr.), 1974
Marie Laveau, 1974
Detroit City and Other Hits, 1963
500 Miles Away From Home, 1963
(Margie's at) the Lincoln Park Inn, 1969
This is Bare Country, 1970
Bobby Bare sings Lullabys, Legends, and Lies, 1973
A first class singer, songwriter, and musician, Jerry Reed’s talents ran far deeper than his tongue-in-cheek persona might have indicated.
Born and raised in Georgia, Reed played guitar from an early age. Music brought him comfort and structure during a childhood of instability. By the time he was out of high school, he was already signed to Capitol Records. Though he released several singles over the next few years, it was his songwriting and guitar playing that first earned him notice.
Throughout the late fifties and the sixties, his songs were recorded by Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Johnny Cash, Brenda Lee, and others. He also became an in-demand session guitarist, with a career highlight being the sessions he played with Presley, who feel in love with Reed when he heard his 1967 single, “Guitar Man.”
A strong working relationship with Chet Atkins led to a contract with RCA and further raised Reed’s profile. By the late sixties, Reed was getting critical notice for his own records. He had his big breakthrough in 1970, when “Amos Moses” became a gold-selling pop and country hit. In 1971, ‘When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” became his first #1 country single and another big pop hit.
Throughout the seventies, Reed matched popular singles and albums with high profile media exposure. He was a regular on Glen Campbell’s television show, and he appeared in several films. His greatest notoriety came as Cledus Snow in the wildly popular Smokey and the Bandit film series. “East Bound and Down” was recorded for the soundtrack of the first film, and became one of his biggest hits.
Reed’s recording career had a second wind when he released the 1982 album The Man with the Golden Thumb. Often rated as his strongest studio album, it featured the classic hit “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft).” Reed quickly followed with the hit album, The Bird. The title track had him mimicking both George Jones and Willie Nelson, and the album also featured a hit cover of the Creedence Clearwater Revival song, “Down on the Corner.”
The nineties brought a fun collaboration with Mel Tillis, Bobby Bare, and Waylon Jennings, a live album dubbed Old Dogs. Reed also starred as the coach in the box office smash, The Waterboy. Illness sidelined him as he aged, and he passed away in 2008 due to complications caused by emphyzema.
Guitar Man, 1967
Amos Moses, 1970
When You’re Hot, You’re Hot, 1971
Lord, Mr. Ford, 1973
East Bound and Down, 1977
She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft), 1982
The Unbelievable Guitar and Voice of Jerry Reed, 1967
If you had a friend who was a tightrope walker, and you were walking down a sidewalk, and he fell, that would be completely unacceptable. – Mitch Hedberg
Emotional Traffic is a collection of poor choices.
First and foremost, the material is shockingly weak. Yes, McGraw has been slowly slipping over the last couple of albums, but the bottom has completely fallen out here.
Take a song like “Right Back Atcha Babe”, for example. It’s a hodgepodge of little details in the same vein as “Something Like That,” but none of them are believable. And why are they having the conversation anyway? It’s not like they’ve suddenly run into each other after a really long time. Why is he recapping the events like he’s got to get her caught up before this week’s episode?
“One Part, Two Part” and “I Will Not Fall Down” are Nashville songwriting at its laziest. They’re not even songs so much as they’re song titles. It’s all packaging and no product.
The album is polluted with that bizarre inversion of modern country music: The less a song has to say, the longer it takes to say it. Songs go on forever on this album. The bloated opener, “Halo”, doesn’t contain a single intelligible moment, despite five minutes of trying. “Touchdown Jesus” is a ridiculous concept to begin with, and could’ve made its point in two minutes instead of four, had McGraw had the good taste to cover Bobby Bare’s “Dropkick Me, Jesus” instead.
Look, you know you’re in trouble when nine tracks in, it’s a relief to hear “Felt Good On My Lips.” Sure, the melody’s so blatantly derivative of “Video Killed the Radio Star” that it makes Lady Gaga sound fresh and original. But at least it has a pulse, even if I’m still bewildered by the Incredible Machinery of it all.
And to be fair, there are some decent moments scattered throughout, like “Better Than I Used to Be” and “Die By My Own Hand”, but it’s all ground that McGraw’s covered before, and better, too. They’re just not worth sitting through Emotional Traffic for.
Had I not committed to writing this review, I don’t know that I would’ve listened to this album at all, certainly not for a second and third time. This level of work from this level of talent is nothing short of completely unacceptable.
Proof that while the other woman can sometimes sound sympathetic, there’s no getting around the fact that the guy is a heel, allowing his selfishness to wreck the lives at home and at the Lincoln Park Inn.
Country music is rife with the greatest cheating songs, but the one that’s running through my head now is Martina McBride’s “Phones Are Ringing All Over Town.” I love the frenzied way the desperate man tries to live in his denial that his wife has had enough of his cheating ways by calling everyone he can think of to try to find her. Sucker!
That signature tremble in Stewart’s voice works wonders here as he considers fooling around with a married woman. It’s part nervousness, part gaspy adrenaline, and of course very part self-loathing. Mmm, country.
Sometimes the choices that you make linger forever. Here, a woman in her thirties drives past a high school football game, and her mind wanders to the painful void left in her heart from the son she gave up for adoption. – Kevin Coyne
Faith Hill’s sophomore album is a surprisingly deep set, filled with candid insights into different womens’ lives. The title track represents that approach well, with Hill’s protagonist speaking to the differences in her approach to love and her partner’s. Seems simple, but then again, people spend thousands in couples counseling trying to find a way to voice feelings this directly. – Dan Milliken
She’d Give Anything Boy Howdy
1993 | Peak: #4
A not-so-subtle depiction of how elusive true love can be for some women – even those who desperately seek it – that resonates not despite of but because of its blatancy. There’s a beautiful honesty to the song’s precise articulation of the mixture of frustration and strength that builds up within these women. – Tara Seetharam
The Trouble With the Truth Patty Loveless
1997 | Peak: #15
The trouble with the truth is that is just so demanding. We think we want it, but it often requires some sort of action from us once we have it. Loveless struggles with this quandary: “The trouble with the truth is it always begs for more. That’s the trouble with the truth.” – Leeann Ward
Still Gonna Die Old Dogs
1999 | Peak: Did Not Chart
Waylon Jennings, Mel Tillis, Bobby Bare, and Jerry Reed united for an amazing live album dominated by Shel Silverstein songs. For anyone who read his brilliant poetry books for children, “Still Gonna Die” is the golden years equivalent: clever, frightening, and darkly hilarious. KC
From the first strains of the song, we know this is going to be a dark one. While he hasn’t physically cheated yet, the thoughts of at least wishing to do so are spilling over, which begs the analogy of “It’s like trying to hide a fire in the dark.” – LW
She is Gone Willie Nelson
1996 | Peak: Did Not Chart
As in his classic recording of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”, Nelson’s sad remembrance of a lost love glows with unspoken warmth, as the beauty of his good memories shines through the outer layer of melancholy. – DM
Presenting the perfect Country & Western song! This is a great David Allan Coe cover with some alterations, including the exclusion of a stanza (which does water down the song a bit), changes to the spoken part, and additions of some special guests. – LW
Wine Into Water T. Graham Brown
1998 | Peak: #44
A kneeling drunkard’s plea for the modern age. A broken man struggling with his alcoholism asks Jesus to perform His first miracle in reverse. Brown’s rough and tumble voice is the best possible fit for this fine composition.- KC
High Powered Love Emmylou Harris
1993 | Peak: #63
The added punch to the production shows that Harris could do nineties country as well as anybody on the radio back then, which is quite the compliment, given who was getting airplay in 1993. A perfect lament for a lover who won’t settle for skin deep treasures, she wonders, “Is there anyone left with teeth just a little uneven? Who won’t spend more time with a mirror than he does with me?” – KC
You Won’t Ever Be Lonely Andy Griggs
1998 | Peak: #2
Griggs creates a touching ballad out of one of the sweetest, simplest promises that comes with making a commitment to someone – that no matter the storm outside, you’ll never have to face it alone. – TS
Instead of serving as a means to shut the other person out, the door that Tippin is suggesting is for the purpose of letting the other person in. “a door ain’t nothin’ but a way to get through a wall”, he sings. If they work together to create it, then they might be able to walk through it to meet each other halfway. – LW
Built on a poignantly written metaphor, “The River” gracefully weaves together elements of faith, inspiration and motivation. It’s a masterful single, from its poetic lyrics to its beautifully simplistic arrangement, but the heart and soul is Brooks’ gripping conviction – quiet yet fierce. On a personal note, this song contains one of my all-time favorite lyrics that I often revisit: “So don’t you sit upon the shoreline and say you’re satisfied/Choose to chance the rapids and dare to dance the tide.” – TS
McGraw’s character leaves behind a lifelong love interest and a little home town to explore the world. But instead of getting good closure, the poor guy starts seeing the girl he left in every place he visits, even long after she has married and had children. That these visions could feasibly represent both unresolved romantic feelings and the inescapable imprint of one’s roots is just country-delicious. – DM
You’re Beginning to Get to Me Clay Walker
1998 | Peak: #2
Walker’s falling head first for a girl, but he isn’t ready to take the plunge with the L-word just yet. In his catalogue of fabulous 90s hits, this understated “love” song gets overshadowed by some of the more distinct ones, but it’s nonetheless memorable. – TS
Travis Tritt is one of few country artists who is as known for his rocking side as he is for being a strong balladeer. “Help Me Hold on” is a plea to his lover to help him salvage what’s left of their relationship, which doesn’t seem to be much, since she’s already packing a suitcase. – LW
The following is a guest contribution by Country Universe reader Tad Baierlein.
When Dan Seals died of lymphoma last Wednesday, a great deal of the press coverage centered on his days as “England Dan” in the soft rock duo England Dan and John Ford Coley. Seals’ country career, though more successful for a longer period of time, seemed to be treated as an afterthought.
Many of the obituaries mentioned Seals’ biggest country hit, “Bop”; hardly an accurate representation of his years spent in country. Now, it’s perfectly justifiable to glance at a person’s career highlights for a newspaper obituary, but I think that a great deal more attention should’ve been paid to Seals’ death within the country music community. I would like to contribute this little appreciation to one of my favorite country artists.
“The Banker” Rebel Heart, 1983
For two years following the split of England Dan and John Ford Coley, nothing seemed to be going right for Seals. First off, he recorded two solo soft rock albums just as that sound was going out of favor. Aside from one single ekeing its way into the Adult Contemporary charts, the albums were considered huge failures. Secondly, Seals had accrued a massive amount of debt to the IRS; almost everything he owned was repossessed to pay it. Seals’ move to Nashville had been planned for quite a while but in 1982 it seemed almost a necessity.
This song that he wrote for Rebel Heart would seem to place his frustrations and hope in the story of a man trying to save his land from an evil, number-crunching banker. Sometimes when it seems like all hope is lost all you can do is work to get yourself out of trouble. Seals could only hope that the oil-rich resolution of “The Banker” came true in his life as well; he wouldn’t have to worry.
“Fewer Threads Than These” On the Front Line, 1986
The Seals album On the Front Line was his first as a country superstar. Refreshingly, Seals decided to go in a more self-assuredly country direction. With only a few exceptions (“I Will Be There,” “You Still Move Me”) the album follows a more straightforward country path. The album not only points to the direction Seals would take with his Rage On album, but also to the direction producer Kyle Lehning was already pursuing with his most famous artist, Randy Travis. This song, one of only three on the album not written by Seals, is a lovely traditional-sounding tune about patience in a relationship, featuring great dobro work by Jerry Douglas.
“Candle in the Rain” Rebel Heart, 1983
Seals had worked with Kyle Lehning for six years prior to his first country album. Lehning produced the most successful albums for England Dan and John Ford Coley. Much like Seals, Lehning didn’t consider himself part of the rock ’n’ roll community. Not only was he already working in Nashville at the time he started producing England Dan, he was established as a country musician (working with artists
like Waylon Jennings and the Glaser Brothers).
If Seals hadn’t strongly indicated an interest in country music right off the bat, it’s more than likely that he would’ve drifted in that direction anyway with Lehning at the helm. “Candle in the Rain,” an album track from Rebel Heart, features a new wave/country mix that’s pretty revolutionary. Right off the bat there’s a combination of acoustic guitar and synthesizer that hadn’t been heard in country music previous to Lehning’s production. The clear, almost new wave, drum beat in the chorus, the mixture of steel guitar and synthesizer, the airy backing vocals; “Candle in the Rain” really does combine the best elements of country and rock. It was a sound that Lehning and Seals would return to on many occasions.
“My Baby’s Got Good Timing” San Antone, 1984
Bob McDill and Dan Seals had a mutually beneficial songwriting relationship during Seals peak years as a country artist. McDill helped Seals find his voice as a country artist and songwriter, and Seals allowed McDill to get back to the more challenging material he had written in the seventies for folks like Don Williams and Bobby Bare. “My Baby’s Got Good Timing” is a tenetive first step for both artists; both are still unsure of Seals viability as a country artist.This is mainly McDill’s patented breezy love song matched with Seals’ best pop vocals. It’s an excellent combination but one that doesn’t point to the brilliant compositions the two would write in the years to come.
“God Must Be a Cowboy” Rebel Heart, 1983
To me, Seals’ Bahai faith really colors “God Must Be a Cowboy,” his first top ten hit. From what I understand (and I probably don’t) Bahai is like a buffet table of spirituality (take a little of this from Christianity, a little of that from Hinduism, oh that part of Islam looks good…), with meditation on universal tolerance at its core. “God Must Be a Cowboy” travels on the well-worn path of songs about country beauty vs. city clog, but there’s a meditative quality to the lyrics that separates it from the pack.
Seals takes time to appreciate the friendship of an old guitar, whose sound “sure smooths the wrinkles of my soul.” “An eagle overhead” makes Seals want to fly away before his time. Whatever home means to you, thank God there’s a trail to take you back there. Seals doesn’t chastise the city (“it’s alright for awhile/Sure makes you feel good when you’re there”), but he understands that in order to appreciate it you must first appreciate the quiet moments in the country. As a country artist, Seals tended to share his faith more by recording songs about tolerance rather than preaching. “God Must Be a Cowboy” really embraces his faith to a point that it shouldn’t be ignored.
“Lullaby” (with Emmylou Harris) On the Front Line, 1986
In many ways this song could be considered the opposite (or resolution of) Seals‘ huge 1985 duet “Meet Me In Montana.” Marie Osmond’s saccharine vocals are replaced by Emmylou Harris’ relaxed harmonies. A spare acoustic sound (highlighted by Mark O’Connor’s always welcome fiddle) replaces the rather bombastic orchestration of “Meet Me In Montana.” Poignancy and contentedness replaces fear and urgency. While “Meet Me in Montana” practically throttles you to get its attention (in a good way), “Lullaby” glides. The song doesn’t draw attention to itself, and if you notice how beautiful it is at the end of On the Front Line, well, good for you. A lovely song.
“Bop” Won’t Be Blue Anymore, 1985
Undeniably catchy, and a monster crossover hit that rocketed Seals to the top of country play lists, “Bop” is also marred by some of the worst tendencies of eighties production. From the processed saxophone to the drum machine to the squiggly synth prominent in the mix, “Bop” was Public Enemy Number One for folks who wanted country music to get back to its traditional roots. The strange thing is, “Bop”was not only an anomaly as far as Seals’ country career was concerned, but it also doesn’t match anything Kyle Lehning has been known for before or since. “Bop” was a very fun gamble that worked extraordinarily well. The unfortunate side effect was that the song associated Seals with the pre-packaged country the hat acts tried to eradicate in the early nineties.
“I Will Be There” On the Front Line, 1986
A bit of a bone thrown at the pop-country crowd that made “Bop” such a massive hit (co-written by Jennifer Kimball, the co-writer of “Bop”). That isn’t to say it’s not an impressive song, but aside from the mandolin that comes and goes in the verses it’s not very country. “I Will Be There” sticks out like a sore thumb on On the Front Line. Even so, the production is definitely more tasteful than “Bop”; it’s almost as if Seals and Lehning looked at what they had done and were like, “we need to step back a little from this for our own good.” Also very prominently featured on this song are Baillie and the Boys, a vocal group who had quite a few hits of their own in the late eighties, as well as providing excellent backup to the likes of Seals, Randy Travis and Clint Black, among others.
“Saw You in My Dreams” Make it Home, 2002
After the failure of his last two singles from On Arrival, Seals decided to sign a deal with Warner Bros. The resulting albums, Walking the Wire and the Kyle Lehning-less Fired Up, were flops. After the inevitable drop from Warner Bros. Seals became a touring artist at modest venues. With one exception, Seals’ only albums from 1994 to his death were live recordings of old hits.
His last chance at regaining his country audience was 2002’s Make it Home, a very nice collection of new material (mainly written by Seals or Nashville pro Rand Bishop). There are no amazing moments on Make it Home, but it’s almost uniformly well done. The best song on the album, in my opinion, is this song about a chance encounter/pickup. For a subject that could’ve turned sleazy on a dime (“would you believe I saw you in my dreams” he casually mentions to his crush in the chorus) it’s a sincere and very sweet song. If Make it Home is indeed Seals’ last solo album, it’s a good way to finish things up.
“Big Wheels in the Moonlight” Rage On, 1988
Seals’ 1988 album Rage On is probably his definitive moment as an artist. All of a sudden the relaxed production of On the Front Line was matched with uniformly good songs. One of the recurring themes of Rage On is wanderlust, whether it’s from a relationship (“Addicted”) or the boredom of a small town (“They Rage On”).
Wanderlust is name-checked in “Big Wheels in the Moonlight,” and it’s probably the most deceptively downcast song on the album. The protagonist spends two verses talking about his dream of riding the big rigs, but in the third he’s stuck in the same town with “kids and a wife and a regular job.” That dream that drew him in as a kid now haunts him as an adult, but he‘s resigned to not living it. Seriously, without listening to the lyrics, who would guess how sad this song is?
“You Still Move Me” On the Front Line, 1986
Country fans who can overlook the mid-eighties production painted a little thick on “You Still Move Me” will find a breathtakingly beautiful ballad. Not only is the melody lovely, but the song contains some of Seals’ greatest vocal moments. Particularly outstanding are his pained vocals in the bridge, and his “God, you move me” at the end. That moment perfectly sums up this song about a man who can’t believe he’s about to wreck a good relationship, but can’t control his emotions any longer.
“You Plant Your Fields” Won’t Be Blue Anymore, 1985
Wendy Waldman’s route to Nashville mirrors Dan Seals in every way except scope. A moderately successful singer/songwriter in the 1970’s, Waldman moved to Nashville in the early eighties. Unlike Seals, Waldman found her niche in songwriting for artists like Crystal Gayle, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Don Johnson (I mean, I’m talking about Wendy Waldman here, how could I ignore the fact that she wrote “Heartbeat” for Don Johnson).
“You Plant Your Fields” is more introspective than most of Waldman’s country material, comparing the seasons of love to tending the farm: “You plant your fields when the spring is tender, when the summer beats down you pray for rain, you hope for the harvest, the long cold winter, then you plant your fields again.”
“In San Antone” San Antone, 1984
Broadway vs. home is a hoary old cliché, but it always seems to apply. For every artist who makes it big on the great white way there are at least a thousand who become disillusioned and homesick. The title track to Seals second country album is a story about a singer trying to make it on Broadway but missing the girl he left behind in San Antone. It’s unclear whether he’ll return to her, but it’s a pretty safe bet considering he “can’t take much more of Broadway,” namely his squalid seventh floor apartment. The rocking coda of the song, where he proclaims “She believes in me!,” would probably point the way of departure.
“Three Time Loser” On the Front Line, 1986
It doesn’t get much more fun than this little ditty from On the Front Line. This is one of Seals’ amazing run of nine number one singles, and eleven out of twelve. It’s interesting that Seals often gets mentioned as a pop star first and country star second, because as a kid I considered him to be the quintessential country artist. Every single he released struck some sort of chord, whether it was a lovely ballad about friends, a pure rock song about someone being there, or this country song about trying to figure out girls (surprisingly prescient to a seven year-old).
“Five Generations of Rock County Wilsons” Rage On, 1988
A bit like “The Banker” in context but much more successful and realistic as a composition. If the theme for most of Rage On was wanderlust, this song expresses the exact opposite emotion. The protagonist wants to stay put and is outraged that his heritage means nothing to the men driving him off his land. He finally resigns himself to the fact that he will have to make way for the “big diesel cats.” At the end he boards a “big ol’ gray dog” bound for wherever; the song makes him sound like he’s doing it at gunpoint.
“Bordertown” On Arrival, 1990
After eight years of nothing but top ten hits, the streak finally broke with “Bordertown.” It wasn’t like the song hit number 12 either; it barely cracked the top 50. Possibly it was the transition to the early-nineties hat acts, but probably it was the controversial material: “Bordertown” is about illegal immigration, a touchy issue at the time that has only grown touchier since 9/11.
Seals and Bob McDill’s viewpoint, that everyone deserves a chance to become an American, is a stance that not many artists would take a chance on. The writers don’t waffle on “Bordertown”; they have a clear opinion that nobody should stand in the way of somebody who wants a better life. “The law’s the law,” except when the law applies to human decency. “It’s not his job to say what’s right or wrong,” and it’s not anybody’s job to stop people from improving their situation. It’s a shame that this was the single that drove Seals off of the charts, because it’s a song that deserved a wider audience to hear its message.
“Up On the Hill” Rebel Heart, 1983
Almost like a dry run for “They Rage On,” this song is about star-crossed lovers who find love and escape at night to their little makeout point. But unlike some other songs that share this same story the song takes a very pessimistic turn when the man from the wrong side of the tracks finds out “that money is what it’s all about.” But the man doesn‘t give up; every night he still climbs that hill, waiting. Good luck fella.
Another great example of the soon to be commonplace Kyle Lehning production style, with steel guitars standing side-by-side with electric guitar and a propulsive drum beat. This style almost seems more natural for those of us who grew up with 80’s and 90’s country music. To me, it’s hard to believe that there was a time when it didn’t exist (for better or worse).
“Addicted” Rage On, 1988
A brilliant song about a woman trapped in a destructive relationship, “Addicted” remains a very powerful piece of work. There’s a wonderful YouTube performance of “Addicted” from 1991 where Cheryl Wheeler joins Seals on stage to play guitar and sing a verse that wascut out of the single version. It’s interesting to see the writer and the singer’s different takes on the song: Whereas Seals sings the song like a concerned bystander dealing with a situation he has no control over, Wheeler sings her verse as an almost desperate wake-up call to a friend. It took a lot of guts for Seals to release “Addicted” as a single (and not only that, but as the first single from the album Rage On) and it’s a great performance.
“Meet Me in Montana” (with Marie Osmond) Won’t Be Blue Anymore, 1985
As Seals and writer Paul Davis’ first country number one and duet partner Marie Osmond’s return to the top after a ten year absence, “Meet Me In Montana” is a bit of a watershed for the soft-rock-to-country transfer of the mid-eighties. Davis was a crony of Seals and Kyle Lehning, as well as being a successful soft rock performer in his own right in the late-seventies. Instead of pursuing country superstardom Davis decided to retire from performing and write songs (occasionally performing, most notably with Paul Overstreet and Tanya Tucker on “I Won’t Take Less Than Your Love”). Davis wrote two very important songs for Seals: “Bop” and this brilliant duet. Seals’ clear voice matches perfectly with Osmond’s sunniness. Their voices add some hopefulness to a subject matter that could’ve been a little harsh.
“My Old Yellow Car” San Antone, 1984
It’s a shame that Seals didn’t pair up more with Thom Schuyler, who was for a time considered the songwriter’s songwriter in Nashville (partly because he wrote the songwriter’s song, “16th Avenue”). As a country singer, Seals was at his best telling a story or getting inside a character, and Schuyler was one of the best in the early eighties. In “My Old Yellow Car,” the successful protagonist looks back with regret at the old rust-bucket, and the innocence, that he’s lost track of.
“Love On Arrival” On Arrival, 1990
OMG it’s LOA. IMHO the song is LOL clever. I’ll quit that.
Seals’ final two number ones were great old rock ’n’ roll throwbacks: “Love On Arrival” and his cover of Sam Cooke’s “Good Times.” Those singles arrived at a time when country was trying to “get back to its roots;” instead of Sam Cooke and The Beatles (Seals’ idols growing up) the new traditionalists name-checked George Jones and Merle Haggard.
At the time it seemed like the gulf between new artists like Garth Brooks and Clint Black and late-eighties artists like Dan Seals couldn’t have been wider. Brooks and Black weren’t crossing over from pop, and they didn’t seem to have rock ‘n’ roll roots; they seemed authentic. This was before Brooks showed his Billy Joel fetish and Black started writing songs with Jimmy Buffett.
If anything, Garth Brooks can be seen nowadays as inheritor of Dan Seals’ throne: an immensely popular artist not afraid to be country or pop if the need be and not afraid to be controversial if the need be. As for the song itself, “Love On Arrival” is clever, fun and has a great hook: what more could you ask for.
“Gonna Be Easy Now” On the Front Line, 1986
A song about the hopelessness and lack-of-control of day-to-day life. I love the question/answer chorus that just gets bleaker and bleaker as it goes: “What’re you gonna do if the well runs dry? I’ll wait for the rain to fall. What’re you gonna do if the crops all die? Well, I won’t have to work at all. What’re you gonna do if the creek gets high? I’m still making up my mind. What’re you gonna do if the sun don’t shine? I’ll lay right down and die, and then everything’ll be alright.”
The protagonist puts on a brave face, a sort of roll-with-the-punches mentality, but inside he knows that “problems ain’t goin’ away, they’re just gonna change their shape” (this pessimistic attitude about rolling-with-the-punches contrasts harshly with the lessons taught in “You Plant Your Fields“). Seals’ final scream, “Everything’s gonna be easy now,” is a real eye-opener.
“They Rage On” Rage On, 1988
“They Rage On” is the song that broke Seals’ streak of number one singles, and listening to it it’s easy to see why; this ain’t no drinking song depression, it’s full-blown hopelessness. I wouldn’t place a song this bleak at the top of any chart. “They Rage On” is a song about small-town people who have nothing better to do with their lives, so they sit around holding each other tight, “searching for the answers.”
If it sounds like I’m dismissing “They Rage On” I’m certainly not; I’ve never heard a song encapsulate small town frustration any better. I’m just amazed that it was released as a single. If “They Rage On” doesn’t prove that Seals took more risks than any other country artist of the late-eighties I don’t know what does. Whatever the case, “They Rage On” is a gorgeous, brooding number which deserved its place as Seals’ streak-breaker.
“One Friend” The Best, 1987
As I said before, from reading the obituaries it would seem that Seals had two signature moments as an artist: one as a member of England Dan and John Ford Coley with Parker McGee’s “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” and the other as a solo crossover artist with “Bop.” Those two songs are all well and good, but to me “One Friend” and “Everything That Glitters” will always be Seals’ signatures.
Amazingly, “One Friend” had to be resurrected and re-recorded for his greatest hits to become a single. Seals recorded a spare two-minute long acoustic version for the end of San Antone. The original version was obviously supposed to be a pleasant little album ender, nothing more. Kyle Lehning thought the song had potential, so he had Seals repeat the bridge and the chorus, then added orchestration. The finished product is a song that is deceptively simple and universal, and one of the greatest songs about commitment I’ve ever heard.
“Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)” Won’t Be Blue Anymore, 1985
“Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)” is a brilliant composition. It’s a song filled with great characters (apparently from stories that Seals‘ grandmother told him): the struggling rodeo rider living in a mobile home, his little girl who’s slowly turning into a woman, the old horse that should be put to pasture except the rider “just can’t bear to let him go” and, of course, the woman who let success go to her head and left the people who loved her behind. The song is basically crying for a movie to be made of it, except no movie could match Seals’ emotions here.
The first verse and chorus is sung with vulnerability and resignation. The anger starts to build in the second verse, culminating at the bridge where he tells her “Someday I’m sure you’re gonna know the cost, cause for everything you win there’s something lost.” Then, after a moment to gather himself, Seals wistfully sings the chorus, then whistles off into the sunset.