Sometimes it has a happy ending, sometimes it doesn’t. But it always ends on the country boy’s terms. He’s sticking to his middlebrow lifestyle with or without her.
A fantasy? Of course it is. But it’s an appealing one that reinforces the intrinsic value of blue collar life, where the vast majority of hardworking men and women never get a ticket out.
Toby Keith’s music was his ticket out, and he’s made millions more than most of his fans will ever see. But it took him long enough to get there that he can still viscerally connect with his audience, and speak in their voice.
A lesser singer and writer couldn’t pull any of that off. In fact, most of the guys on the radio today would have built a weak song around the eye-catching title, instead of a strong song which is far more interesting than even its title suggests.
But Keith isn’t just one of the genre’s greatest singers and songwriters. He’s also one of its smartest. When he’s at his best, we get songs that celebrate the working man and the country boy without a whiff of condescension or pandering.
The very definition of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, two struggling solo artists came together in the nineties and became the most c0mmercially successful duo in country music history.
Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn both released solo work in the eighties to little fanfare, though they had encountered some success in other areas. Brooks earned many songwriting credits, including hits by John Conlee (“I'm Only in it For the Love”), Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (“Modern Day Romance”), and Highway 101 (“Who's Lonely Now.”) Dunn had recorded a few sides for Churchill records that received little attention, and won a nationwide talent contest in 1988 that earned him another shot to record in Nashville.
Arista Nashville founder Tim DuBois thought the two would work well together as a duo, and despite reservations on both their parts, the chemistry was immediately there. Upon release of their debut album Brand New Man in 1991, the duo instantly shot to the top of the charts. Thanks to a string of four #1 singles, their first album sold more than six million copies, beginning a remarkable run of success at both radio and retail.
With Dunn usually handling lead vocals and Brooks providing the most energy in their live shows, the duo had a mostly uninterrupted run, with all but their final album selling at least gold, and most selling platinum. They won dozens of industry awards, mostly in the Vocal Duo categories, but they were also named Entertainers of the Year twice at the ACM's and once at the CMA's.
As their career progressed, their critical acclaim largely dwindled, as their emphasis on rave-ups overshadowed their often remarkable ballads. Still, by the time they had broken up in 2009, they had accumulated 26 #1 hits and record sales in excess of 27 million, making them the top-selling duo in country music and second only to Simon & Garfunkel among duos of all genres. Both Brooks and Dunn are now pursuing solo careers, with Dunn already scoring a #1 country album and top ten single at radio.
One of the greatest vocalists of his generation, John Conlee powered to stardom on the strength of a self-written hit that would provide both his musical and fashion signature for the rest of his career.
He’d been singing and playing guitar since early childhood, but his first career was as a mortician, followed by a stint as a radio deejay. He moved to Nashville in 1971, and five years later, he earned his first recording contract with ABC Records.
A handful of singles failed to gain steam, including “Backside of Thirty”, which would later be re-released when “Rose Colored Glasses” took off. That breakthrough hit made it to #5, its chart placing limited by its slow ascent, as early stations dropped the record while latecomers were still adding it.
ABC soon folded into MCA Records. Through 1985, Conlee had his biggest string of success with that label, connecting with signature hits like “Common Man” and “Friday Night Blues.” His dark sense of humor surfaced often, with eerie hits like “She Can’t Say That Anymore” and “I Don’t Remember Loving You.”
After seven years and two greatest hits collections, Conlee moved to Columbia, where he kicked things off with four consecutive top ten hits. Radio success cooled when he moved to independent labels in the late eighties, and he made his last chart appearance in 1990 with the comedic single, “Doghouse.”
Conlee’s distinctive vocals earned him award nominations early in his career, and he is recognized as one of the strongest talents from the Urban Cowboy era, managing to bring a traditionalist edge to even his most pop-flavored productions. Conlee can still be widely heard on the Grand Ole Opry and the concert circuit. He released a well-received gospel collection in 2006, but his faith has been expressed long before that through action. His various charitable endeavors include work on behalf of children’s hospitals and family farmers.
Google “Gary Harrison songwriter” and you won’t find a website or MySpace. There’s not even a Wikipedia article. Don’t know where he’s from, how he got into songwriting or what he likes to eat for dinner.
As far as I know, he has never made an album. When he co-writes a song, does he write the music or the lyrics or a little of both? Don’t know. He’s a Grammy nominated songwriter as co-writer of “Strawberry Wine”, the 1997 CMA Song of the Year, and has penned many BMI Award-Winning Songs. It appears that his first big hit was “Lying in Love with You”, written with Dean Dillon for Jim Ed Brown and Helen Cornelius. The duet went to #2 in 1979.
Since there is so little data to draw from, a chronological treatment of his illustrious career would be difficult. I’ve decided instead to begin with the collaboration Gary is best known for, his work with Matraca Berg, and then continue with his other significant songwriting collaborations.
In his excellent Favorite Songs by Favorite Songwriters article on Matraca Berg, Kevin gave us his favorite 25 songs written by Berg. Gary Harrison has frequently collaborated with Matraca. On Kevin’s list the following 9 songs are written by Berg/Harrison:
#25 Wild Angels – Martina McBride
#22 Give Me Some Wheels – Suzy Bogguss
#20 Demolition Angel – Pam Tillis
#19 Everybody Knows – Trisha Yearwood
#10 Strawberry Wine – Deana Carter
#7 Wrong Side of Memphis – Trisha Yearwood
#5 Diamonds and Tears – Suzy Bogguss
#4 Dreaming Fields – Trisha Yearwood
#3 My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again – Patty Loveless
Give a read to Kevin’s write-up for all 25. Kevin asked for comments from his readers on their favorite Matraca Berg songs. In the 29 comments received, three more collaborations with Gary were mentioned that didn’t make Kevin’s cut, including “Hey Cinderella” and “Eat at Joe’s” by Suzy Bogguss and Pinmonkey’s “That Train Don’t Run”.
“Hey Cinderella” is from Suzy’s 1993 CD, Something Up My Sleeve. Fantasy turns into “dreams that lost their way” by the end of the first long verse. In the second verse, reality sets in. In “Eat at Joe’s”, from her 1992 CD, Voices in the Wind, Suzy’s sounds like a sultry waitress in an all night diner – “here’s a hot top on your coffee, honey you’re a mess, I ain’t your wife I ain’t your momma, but I’ll do I guess”. The bridge is a wistful but not really hopeful call out to prince charming.
My favorite Pinmonkey song is still “Barbed Wire and Roses”, but “That Train Don’t Run”, from their 2006 Big Shiny Cars CD, isn’t far behind. It’s up-tempo like Barbed Wire. It was also a single for Matraca Berg from her 1997 “Sunday Morning to Saturday Night” cd. The singer recalls a former lover who may have been a bit on the wild side. It must be “your memory rattlin’ the shutters, that train don’t run by here no more”. The next line is “I lie and listen to the last boxcar, sweet dreams baby wherever you are”. Love that last phrase. Sounds like something Bogie might have said.
A bit of trivia: I wonder how many times that last phrase, “sweet dreams baby, wherever you are”, has been used in a song. In addition to the Pinmonkey song, I found it in “Goodnight”, written by Charlie Black and Dana Hunt, from Suzy Bogguss’ self-titled 1999 CD. The last line of the chorus is “I’m signing off, sweet dreams baby, wherever you are”. A song by Jedd Hughes, “Time to Say Goodnight” has “sweet dreams baby, sweet dreams baby wherever you are tonight”. It was written by Hughes, Tommy Lee James and Terry McBride and can be found on Hughes’ 2004 CD, Transcontinental. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else finds another instance.
I found another Berg/Harrison collaboration but this time with Jeff Hanna on a Chely Wright song, “Emma Jean’s Guitar”. It’s an album track from Chely’s 1997 Let Me In CD, which featured “Shut Up and Drive”. The story tells of a guitar with Emma Jean’s name etched in the finish found in a pawnshop. The singer wonders about Emma Jean’s hopes and dreams and feels that she’s the guardian of her guitar.
Gary has written quite a few great songs without Matraca. Another frequent co-writer for Gary has been Tim Mensy. My favorite Mensy-Harrison collaboration is Trisha Yearwood’s “Nearest Distant Shore”, an album track from her 1992 Hearts in Armor CD. It’s a song about getting out of a bad relationship: “You did your best but “the one you swore to love is pulling you down, you’re in over your head, chilled to the bone by the waters you’ve tread, chart a course to land before you drown”.
“That Wasn’t Me” was an excellent album track for Martina McBride on her 1993 CD, The Way That I Am. She knows that the guy is still hurting from the memory of an old girlfriend. She tells him “that wasn’t me”. It’s time to move on because she “can no longer pay the price” of his not letting go.
For fans of Mark Chesnutt, there’s “I Just Wanted You to Know”, a #1 song in ’94 from the CD Almost Goodbye and a #6 the same year, “She Dreams”, from What a Way to Live. Other Mensy Harrison collaborations include Doug Stone’s “I Thought It Was You”, a #4 in 1991, “A Singer in the Band”, an album track on Joe Nichol’s Revelation CD in 2004, and a Mark Wills song “Any Fool Can say Goodbye”.
With J.D. Martin, Gary Harrison wrote “Rollin’ Lonely”, a Johnny Lee song from his “Workin’ for a Livin’ ” album, which reached #9 on the charts in 1985, “Domestic Life”, a John Conlee #4 hit from his “American Faces” album in 1987, “Two Car Garage”, a #3 hit in 1983 from the B.J. Thomas album “The Great American Dream” and “Broken Toys”, a song about child abuse from BJ’s 1985 album “Throwin’ Rocks at the Moon”. The last song was written with Gloria Thomas as well as J.D.
Gary co-wrote 3 songs with Tammy Cochran from her “Thirty Something and Single” album released in June of 2009, the title track, “It’s All Over But the Leaving” and “He Really Thinks He’s Got It”.
With Karen Staley, he wrote “Face in the Crowd” which peaked at #4, a duet with Michael Martin Murphey and Holly Dunn from the former’s 1987 “Americana” album and “Now and Then” which Michelle Wright took to #9 in Canada.
Some other Gary Harrison songs are:
- “I Hate Everything” written with Keith Stegall, a #1 for George Strait in 2005. Check out the wake-up call at the end.
- “Alone Some” with Billy Yates, an album track for Billy from his 2005 album “Harmony Man”.
- “Crazy Me” and “I Do It for Your Love” with Richard Marx, from the Kenny Rogers 2000 CD There You Go Again.
Impressive list and I’ve probably missed some songs. If you search BMI.com, you’ll find 918 work titles for Gary Harrison. He’s been so busy, he probably hasn’t had time to set up a website or MySpace.
My dad was passionate about many things, and in my memory, he’s defined by two of them: c0llecting vintage toys and loving music. Earlier today, my mother and I attended Toy Story 3. He loved the first two films, and it was a way to get closer to him in spirit this Father’s Day.
I couldn’t let this day end without using my humble little corner of the internet to celebrate some of his favorite songs. A love for country music was something that my father shared with my mother, and thanks to long car trips as child, this love eventually rubbed off on me. This morning, my mother put on the country classics Music Choice channel and it was playing their song: “Blanket on the Ground” by Billie Jo Spears.
It’s one of those songs that always seemed to be on the mix tapes that my parents listened to. But there are a wealth of country hits that I associate with just Dad. Some of them I always loved. Some of them I didn’t care for at the time. Some I openly disdained and wished he’d never play again. All of them are now among my favorites because they remind me of him.
So in honor of Father’s Day, here are some of my Dad’s favorite country songs. Share your dad’s favorites in the comments!
Alan Jackson, “Livin’ On Love”
From my mom’s point of view, K.T. Oslin’s “Hold Me” perfectly encapsulated their marriage. For my dad, it was “Livin’ On Love.”
Clint Black, “Nobody’s Home”
My dad loved Clint Black, especially his first two albums. This was the hit he played to death when Killin’ Time was his album of choice.
Johnny Cash, “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky”
Sure, my dad loved “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Five Feet High and Rising.” But he also loved Cash’s campier hits, like “One Piece at a Time” and this chestnut.
Dixie Chicks, “Travelin’ Soldier”
No matter what was going on in the room, my dad would stop what he was doing to watch this video. As a Navy veteran, this song really hit home for him.
Dwight Yoakam, “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere”
Another guy that Dad couldn’t get enough of. This was a song that I thought he played too much, never caring for it at the time. Now it’s one of my favorites of his.
John Anderson, “Seminole Wind”
He bought the album for “Straight Tequila Night”, but this quickly emerged as one of his all-time favorite songs.
John Conlee, “Common Man”
I do believe that I’d never have discovered this great vocalist if his greatest hits set wasn’t one of the very first CDs my father purchased. I still remember the “Priceless Music Priced Less” logo on the front.
Johnny Horton, “Sink the Bismarck”
Another hits collection dad played the heck out of. I always thought this was Horton’s biggest hit because Dad played it so much. I remember being shocked to find “Honky Tonk Man”, which I knew as a Dwight Yoakam song, was on there, too.
Kenny Rogers, “The Gambler”
He didn’t care for the man’s love songs or most of his pop hits, but he had this album on vinyl and I only remember hearing him play the title track.
Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard, “Pancho and Lefty”
Another one of Dad’s first CD purchases. I always thought the opening music sounded like a TV theme song.
Marty Robbins, “Big Iron”
Dad loved the Western subgenre of country music, at least as performed by Marty Robbins.
And finally, it’s not a country song, but it was his favorite song, and I’ll forever associate it with him. Amazing how I used to groan when I heard him playing it on our living room jukebox again, and now I never get tired of it because it’s him.
It’s been a long time since we’ve done one of these!
I think that the strongest feature of the iPod is the ability to create playlists. I currently have over 16,000 songs, so playing it on pure shuffle is interesting but not likely to result in hearing a string of my favorite songs.
I have dozens of playlists, but the one that I visit the most is called “Repeat.” It’s an ever-shifting playlist of songs that I don’t tire of. Currently, there are 131 songs on the list.
I’m sharing the first ten that play on shuffle from the list. Share your favorite playlist and ten of its tracks in the comments!
The Boot has published another list that’s got me thinking. This time, it’s Top 10 Sad Love Songs in Country Music. Again, the title is a bit strange, as the list includes the Suzy Bogguss hit “Letting Go”, which is about a mother watching her daughter go off to college, but there’s no rule that a love song has to be about romantic love, I guess.
Predictably and justifiably, the list is topped by “He Stopped Loving Her Today”, a George Jones classic that tops many a classic country list, including one of our own. There’s also a pretty high body count – four outright deaths and one by implication. Country songs sure do like to kill people off, don’t they?
So what are the saddest country songs ever? My first instinct was to mention “Where’ve You Been”, but that Kathy Mattea classic has a ray of hope. It’s really about a perfect relationship meeting its natural end.
For real, heartbreaking sadness, all hope must be vanquished, with only regret remaining. Bonus points if somebody dies. Here are two that I think are tragic, one with death and one without:
Dixie Chicks/Patty Griffin, “Top of the World”
A man realizes after his death that he did nothing but hurt the woman he loved, and now it’s too late to go back and change it:
John Conlee, “Backside of Thirty”
Something similar, though the man is still alive. He had everything he ever wanted – a beautiful wife and son – and somehow messed it up. He’s now living alone in an apartment, drinking away his rent money, “back on the bottom with no will to climb.”
What do you think are the saddest country songs ever?
As my first visit to Nashville in four years draws to a close, I’ve been immersing myself in the tackier elements of country music history. As we prepare for our visit to the wax museum (Game On!), I’m thinking about some of the most hilariously overwrought moments that classic country has to offer.
Is it Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton’s “I Get Lonesome By Myself”, with a plot line that should lead to child endangerment charges by the first verse?
How about the horrific cautionary tale “Drunken Driver” by Ferlin Husky?
Or, if you’ll just hand me my crayons, I’ll write down the reasons why the mental home classic “I Don’t Remember Loving You” is John Conlee at his best:
What are your favorite over-the-top country classics? Share in the comments. Remember, if you want to embed a video from YouTube, you need only add a “v” after the http at the beginning of the url. (i.e., httpv://www.youtube.com…)
Harlan Howard is one of the most distinguished songwriters in country music history. When interviewed about his #1 hit for the Judds (“Why Not Me”), he made an interesting statement about the need for repeating certain titles throughout a song:
“Why Not Me” wasn’t a great title. To get a really good record, you’ve gotta write a hell of a song when you’re dealing with a title that average. The only thing I know to do with songs like “Why Not Me” and “Busted” – which I never thought was a good title – is to put the title in there often so that people remember it. The weaker the title, the more you gotta hear it.”
“Why Not Me” earned the Judds the Country Duo/Group Grammy and the CMA award for Single of the Year. “Busted” was hit for both Johnny Cash with the Carter Family in the sixties and John Conlee in the eighties. Both songs feature the titles repeated endlessly.
I think this quote is fascinating because it provides a window into how two songs from different eras were crafted by the same writer. I never noticed the similarities before reading the quote.
I’d also add that the Little Texas hit “My Love” and the Brooks & Dunn hit “That’s What It’s All About” show how the rule can be taken too far, in my opinion, and turn into just an annoying song.