Producing primarily pop-flavored country music has rarely been a ticket to immortality for even the biggest artists, particularly the female ones. Imports like Shania Twain and Olivia Newton-John are labeled impostors. Faith Hill’s canny song sense is overlooked while hubby Tim McGraw’s is widely praised. Brilliant Dolly Parton records like “Here You Come Again” and “9 to 5″ are cited as being beneath her greatness, rather than prime examples of it. Only Patsy Cline has been given a free pass, and who wouldn’t want to claim those pipes?
Where does this leave Crystal Gayle, younger sister of Loretta Lynn and owner of 32 top ten hits, 18 of which went #1? As the first female country artist to sell platinum, her impact was quite big back in the day. But aside from her signature classic “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”, her music has been largely forgotten. Perhaps this is because she peaked during an era that is often looked down upon as too crossover for its own good. Unlike Parton and Cline, there is virtually nothing for traditionalists to celebrate within Gayle’s catalog of hits. But much like Hill and Newton-John, the woman recorded some wonderful songs that deserve rediscovery. Here are a dozen of the best.
“I’ll Do It All Over Again” from the 1976 album Crystal
Gayle typically avoided purely victim stances in her lyrics. Here, she’s been left but is aware that her heart will mend and that she’ll love again.
“Ready For the Times to Get Better” from the 1976 album Crystal
Country singles recorded in a minor key are quite the rarity, but the arrangement undercuts the misery of the lyric, even as she’s clearly ready to move on to happier times. This just might be her finest moment.
“Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” from the 1977 album We Must Believe in Magic
This classic won her a Grammy and the first of two CMA Female Vocalist trophies. If the piano sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same player that powered Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors” to similar success on both the country and pop charts.
“Talking In Your Sleep” from the 1978 album When I Dream
Proving that her appeal wasn’t limited to one big hit, this hit launched what would become Gayle’s second consecutive platinum album.
“Why Have You Left the One You Left Me For” from the 1978 album When I Dream
Her first really big uptempo hit defied expectations and broke her out of the ballad mold. It didn’t hurt that it was ridiculously catchy.
“Half the Way” from the 1979 album Miss the Mississippi
Another hook-laden hit, powered by an infectious string section and quite a bit more wailing than she’s usually known for.
“Too Many Lovers” from the 1980 album These Days
What sounds like a quiet bar ballad in the first few seconds soon turns into an uptempo message of caution to women looking for love in all the wrong places.
“You Never Gave Up On Me” from the 1981 album Hollywood, Tennessee
There aren’t too many anniversary songs that essentially say, “Thanks for loving me even when I didn’t love you.” Romantic songs like to pretend that both partners are equally kind and loving, when that isn’t always the case. I like ones like this more.
“‘Til I Gain Control Again” from the 1982 album True Love
Crystal Gayle was hardly the predictable vehicle for this intricate Rodney Crowell composition that had been previously cut by Emmylou Harris. Even she didn’t think she could pull it off. Thankfully, producer Jimmy Bowen coaxed her into it, and the result was a #1 hit that was also among her most sophisticated performances.
“Baby, What About You” from the 1982 album True Love
Not much more to say about this one than it’s a slice of pop-country perfection.
“The Sound of Goodbye” from the 1983 album Cage the Songbird
One of Hugh Prestwood’s first great moments as a writer was this hit. Much like his material later pushed Randy Travis into a more ambitious production approach (“Hard Rock Bottom Of Your Heart”), the sonic landscape of this #1 hit pushed Gayle and country radio into far more interesting territory.
“Cry” from the 1986 album Straight to the Heart
Given that she’s in the grand tradition of those Nashville Sound ladies, it’s no surprise that Gayle not only covered Lynn Anderson’s #3 hit effectively, she even took it two slots higher up the chart.
Katie Cook has been a staple on Country Music Television since 2002, hosting various series and specials such as CMT Most Wanted Live, the MWL concert series, MWL Star, MWL Stacked and the popular weekly entertainment magazine show, CMT Insider.
But her experience with country music is actually three-fold: along with being embedded in the industry as a television host and interviewer, she’s also the daughter of Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Roger Cook, and she’s both a singer and songwriter herself – she released an album in 2000 as part of a band called Reno and continues to hone her songwriting skills. Cook took some time to share with Country Universe her opinions on the state of country music, the evolution of CMT and her recent White House visit, among other topics.
Seetharam: You’ve grown up around different cultures and lifestyles, having lived overseas in London. How has that shaped your perspective on country music?
Cook: That’s a good question. I honestly think when I was younger living in Nashville, I didn’t fully understand the appeal of country music until I moved back to England after high school. And then I moved back again in my mid 20s to work on music and I found myself missing Nashville so much, and when I really tried to become a songwriter myself, I realized how difficult it was to write a great, melodic, catchy, hooky, 3-minute song that tells a story, that can wrap an entire interesting story up and make a point in 3 minutes. It’s extraordinarily difficult and it’s something that country is known for, and I don’t feel it exists in such a powerful way in any other musical genre I’ve experienced anywhere else in the world.
I think I had to get away from Nashville and the country music scene to really look back and realize how strong the writers are here, and how incredible the players are. Because very often as a younger person in Nashville, I would listen to stuff from elsewhere. You know, I’d listen to more alternative music coming out of England and stuff, but when I really got into the music scene over there, I was like, “No one plays like they do in Nashville.” The pickers, you know, you don’t get that kind of quality anywhere in the world, I don’t think, so again I think being part of these different cultures helped me look back on Nashville and appreciate it that much more.
I have to ask about your father because he’s really a fantastic songwriter. Between him working with such high profile artists and you interviewing such high profile artists, what kind of conversations do you two have?
You know, we never talk about music. In fact, we’ve tried to write so many songs together, and I suppose we’ve completed a few, but you know, when he and I get together, it seems to turn to any other subject but music. I think because we’re so close and there’s so many other things going on in the family and with friends and stuff that the conversation always leads elsewhere.
We’re both really opinionated, and we don’t necessarily agree on everything musically either. He’ll say, “Oh, I heard this song on the radio the other day by such and such. I couldn’t stand it. I thought it was awful,” and I’m like, “Really? That’s my new favorite song.” So, we just have such different opinions that we’ve just kind of learned to keep our musical lives separate. But that’s not to say he’s not completely supportive, and he watches the shows I do, and I try to listen to all of his new songs. But for the most part, we’re just dad and daughter.
You mentioned you liked some alternative music when you were younger – it seems like your musical taste stretches across many genres, not just country music. What do you think of the current country music that’s infused with other sounds, like rock or pop?
Well, you know, there’s two sides of the argument. Some people say, “Well country’s got to move forward,” and other people would say, “Why is it changing? Keep it traditional.” I really see both sides of it. I probably prefer it when somebody has a real appreciation of traditional country and then mixes it in with things you don’t expect them to. And that can even be an artist like Beck – that doesn’t necessarily even have to be a country artist. I kind of probably lean more to liking that type of thing more than someone who’s just trying to sell me a rock song as a country song. I think that’s just…I don’t know. That’s not my favorite style. It’s almost like bad 80s rock being regurgitated and labeled country music. So you know, I don’t typically have a music collection that reflects that kind of modern country.
But I have absolutely no boundaries as an artist, as a writer, as a music lover. I mean, nothing frightens me at all about loving country music and mixing it with other things or driving it forward, in even bizarre ways. I’m like, “Bring it on!” I love music, period. I personally do really love country music because I think the playing is magnificent. I think the story telling is magnificent. I think there’s just something so romantic about unfortunately an almost lost way of life in America, and I think I’m very drawn to do that, but I wouldn’t necessarily call myself one of those people that would be guarding country against change. I don’t think I’m that person at all. In fact, I think the more people that can discover it, the better.
Absolutely. That’s my philosophy as well. What about all these female artists who are breaking barriers in country music? You’re a female musician yourself – what’s your take on them?
I think it’s fantastic. I really, really love that there are so many young females out there now that play all different kinds of instruments. You know, you’ve always had a few of those in the past, but when I was younger, you had like Sheila E. You had Joan Jett. You definitely had a few artists that played. And of course, you had Barbara Mandrell, who played everything. And she was just a hero because she literally played every instrument: drums, saxophone, keyboard, everything.
But I think more likely now, a young girl’s going to grow up and be like, “Yeah it’s just no big deal to pick up the guitar and learn how to play and write a song. Taylor Swift does it.” It’s just obviously such a more common sight now, and I just think that’s a wonderful thing. Because too often in the past a woman was just supposed to stand at the mic and look pretty. And there’s nothing wrong with that but women take to playing just as easily as men, and I think they’re going to be more encouraged now because of this young crop of lovely ladies that play and sing and write. It’s fantastic.
Let’s talk CMT a bit. Earlier in the decade, CMT played an important role in popularizing roots music, with artists like Alison Krauss and Nickel Creek. What drove that, and why do you think there’s been a shift away from that now?
Yeah. I think everything’s cyclical. Obviously at one point, that kind of sound would be all you would have heard, practically, on the Grand Ole Opry and WSM years ago. And country’s always going to shift in and out of different things. It’ll all come back around. Right now it is kind of more of a maybe rock-edged type of thing. Look at how big Gretchen Wilson was, and now, if anything, Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood kind of slid into her position, and they’re more slick in their production. It’ll come back around. You know, it always does.
One thing that I thought was so interesting – the first time I interviewed Loretta Lynn was backstage at the Opry. And we weren’t on camera, and we were just kind of chatting, and I said, “I want to know what your take is on country and where it’s going.” And she said, “Oh you know, it’s always going to be going somewhere different and that’s fine. Back in the day, everyone gave Patsy Cline so much grief for going pop.” And it was so interesting to hear her say that because I would not have labeled her a pop artist, but when I think about it, at the time, what she was doing was very pop for most country ears. And yet now we would look back and consider her such a traditional artist, and anyone who sounds like Patsy Cline now would be considered hard-core, country traditional. It’s just interesting, isn’t it? To get that different perspective.
I think it’ll all come back around. If you get too much of any one thing, you’re going to crave the other. The grass is always greener. Things are a little less acoustic right now but it’ll all come back.
That’s an interesting perspective both you and Loretta have, and I think many people would agree. But it does seem like CMT as a channel has evolved over the years into something different. There’s a little more pop culture on there now, more television shows and movies, and a little less music. Do you think it’s moving in a positive direction?
Well, yes and no. I love some of the programming, but I’m just a music person, so I’m always going to wish that there was more music. It’s very interesting what people watch, what they tune into. Because we can run music programs and get very low ratings, and then run a rerun of Nanny 911 and get massive ratings.
So, although I personally would rather see music and videos all day, I can understand some of the programming decisions because like any business, we want to stay on the air, and we want to be able to afford to do these big award shows and great big music programs like CMT Giants, that honor Alan Jackson and Reba [McEntire] and all these wonderful artists. And you can’t pay for those unless you’ve got people tuning in, and for some strange reason, people will tune in sometimes in very large numbers to programming that’s not always music-related. So, it’s a catch-22. I can see the business side of it, but I personally tune in more to the actual music programs because that’s what I’m interested in.
What’s your favorite music video of the decade? Or do you have one?
Wow. Hmm, there are so many to choose from. I tend to live very much in the moment, so usually what’s on my mind is something that I saw very recently. I can tell you one of my favorite songs of the past decade was probably Little Big Town’s “Boondocks.”
I love that song.
And I thought it was a video that perfectly matched the song. I loved the extras that they had in it. I loved the way it was cut together, the editing. I loved the scenery. I loved how cool the band looked in it. That was a favorite. Gosh, what was that other…why am I going blank…it’s because I’ve just been staining my floor and I’m probably high from the chemicals. That first really big Jason Aldean song. “Hicktown!” Jason Aldean’s “Hicktown” – that’s the one I’m thinking of. It’s kind of similar to the “Boondocks,” Little Big Town kind of vibe. I just thought they were both really fresh videos and those were probably a couple of my favorites.
Is there a single quality that you look for in a good music video?
I think because I’ve been doing TV for awhile now I really look at editing, and I look at how things time out. You know, how a cut or a certain dance moves really times out with the beat of a song. “Pickin’ Wildflowers” by Keith Anderson – that was probably one of my favorite videos of the last decade. I know I’m giving you a few instead of picking just one. I just thought it was really sexy and the way the dancers again moved with the beat. I think you can be a great video director, but a really great music video director to me needs to have a great sense of the music. They need to be really passionate about the song and really feel the beat of it and edit accordingly. That’s just something I personally really like in a song.
When you’re interviewing these artists on the red carpet or on any of the shows you host, you’re essentially a musician interviewing a musician. Does that affect the way you interview? Do you ever wish you could give advice?
Well, I wouldn’t dream of giving advice, but I do think it affects the way I interview people. If anything, it probably – I don’t know, in some way it helps. But I think it probably hinders me more because I know sometimes a question that they might not really want to answer, or something that I know they’ve probably been asked a million times, and you know, I always try to come at it with an understanding of how they might answer something. But sometimes a question just needs to be asked because it makes good television and it’s what the viewers at home want to know. But I might inside be squirming a little bit.
I can’t really think of a perfect example right now. But even something as simple as, “When you did that duet with so and so, what was it like being in the studio with them?” I know there’s a really good chance they weren’t in the studio together. Because when you live in Nashville and you work around music yourself, you have a good understanding of how these things work, and you know that schedule-wise, it’s very rare that duets even happen in the same room with people. But you know, it’s important to ask that because it’s what people at home might be wondering. So, I don’t know, I think sometimes I do see an interview slightly differently.
And I understand Dolly Parton is your favorite artist?
Oh I love her. She’s just my favorite – not just musically, but just…
Your favorite person.
Yes, favorite person to interview, definitely.
Do you have a Dolly interview or quote that stands out for you?
You know, well, yeah, I’ve got a lot. It seems like every single time I’m with her I’m like, “OK, that tops the last one.” She always says something that tops the last one.
She’s just fabulous. And hilarious.
The funniest interview, honestly, was, the very first time I ever met her. I did like a whole half-hour, sit-down live show with her called [CMT] Most Wanted Live, and before we went out, we were comparing outfits. And of course she had on a to-die-for, fabulous outfit. Oh, it was pink and yellow and princess-like and just made her look amazing. And I was kind of joking that my outfit wasn’t very interesting compared to hers, and I must have made some comment like, you know, “Maybe I need to put more of a push-up bra on. I’m going to look like a child sitting next to you.” And she laughed and she said, “Your boobs look great!”
Well later on we were sitting there in front of the audience, the whole crowd, and I think I took like an audience question about, does she ever feel sorry for flat-chested women because she’s so well-endowed or whatever. And she laughed and she said, “No we’re all beautiful,” and then she said to the audience, “Look! Look at her boobs! Don’t you think they’re great?” – pointing to me. “Don’t you think she has lovely boobs?” And you know I just absolutely went bright red.
Oh I was fanning myself. I broke a sweat. I was laughing so hard. I could not believe I was on camera with Dolly Parton and she’s commenting on my boobs. It was just one of the funniest moments in my life. I’m not sure anything’s ever going to top Dolly Parton complimenting me on my chest (laughs).
Dolly is clearly a hold-nothing-back kind of person, but have you ever interviewed an artist who you think is misunderstood by the public? Maybe you got a different perspective when you met him or her in person?
Yeah. There are certain artists that I can tell are a little bit shy. I mean, obviously Alan Jackson, Billy Currington – some of the guys are really, painfully shy, and they get on camera and they’re just quiet and, you know, they seem very unsure of themselves. And then the minute the camera goes off, you can have the most normal conversation with them. And I always think, “Oh why can’t you do that when the little red light comes on?” So yeah, there’s definitely artists that seem very different off camera, and I wonder if their real personality comes across, but you know what? They’re doing well and they have fans, so evidently people do understand them. But yeah, some of those shy guys are the ones that really wear me out. I’m like, “Come on, loosen up!”
Shifting gears a little, you were recently at the White House for “An Evening of Country Music.” That must have been an amazing experience. What was it like?
Yeah! It was incredible. It was really exciting to see an entire day at the White House devoted to country music. Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss and Charley Pride were there – all great ambassadors for country music. To actually be in that ballroom and see the President get up and give a wonderful introduction to these country artists and talk about country, and how it’s such an important part of American culture was, you know – I really got the chills. It was a wonderful moment. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to go back to the White House, so I really was kind of absorbing it all.
We got to see the press room, which was tiny. And it’s so interesting because, you know, you see something on television and then you see it in person, how different it is. And we were at the back of the room, so when the show was over, we were actually the first to walk out, and they led us down a hallway and then just kind of left us on our own to find our way out. And I was like, “We’ve been let loose in the White House!”
That’s not something you can say every day!
It was incredible. We weren’t really let loose, of course. It was all under very controlled supervision, but it felt like we were running goofy and loose in the White House, and that was very exciting. But yeah, it was a very proud moment for country.
Did you get to interact at all with the President?
I didn’t get to hang out with Obama and Michelle and the girls, but I did get to see the First Dog. One of the White House workers, I guess — I don’t know what the right term would be– but somebody was walking the dog, and he’s beautiful. He’s big. For some reason I thought he was still a little puppy. But he’s quite large and he’s a good-looking dog. He’s got quite a yard to roam around in.
I hear you’re an expert tweeter – or rather, I see you’re an expert tweeter. What do you enjoy about twitter?
Well I’m actually fairly new to it. I like getting to know people. I like getting very kind of down-to-earth questions from people, and I think what I find refreshing is that I assume the only reason anybody would want to talk to me or hear from me is to get like country music gossip, and that actually doesn’t seem to be the case. A lot of people are like, “Where do you like to eat? How old’s your kid now? Do you like being a mother?”
More personal questions.
Yeah. It seems like people just are more curious about who you really are as a person, and I find that really refreshing. I go to work and put on the false eyelashes and do my hair all fancy and put on the nice outfits and everything, but when I come home, I’m just like anybody else. I’m sitting around in my Old Navy sweats and eating something I shouldn’t be eating and prying my eyeballs on the computer. And we’re all kind of the same when we just get into that mode, and I just like connecting with people on that really normal level. That’s a lot of fun for me.
Do you tweet at other artists? Or mostly fans?
You know, I don’t know who all these people are that read it. I just kind of get on there and send a message out and wonder where it goes. It goes into cyberspace and I don’t really know who’s reading it but people keep signing on, so I guess I’m doing something right.
When you’re not tweeting, what are some of the projects you’re working on that you’re excited about?
Well I have a children’s book called “Little Big Benny,” and that has recently been edited. I kind of have it out with a lot of kids right now. A lot of kids are reading it and giving me their feedback. I’m trying to really nail down exactly what age group it’s for. I’m really hoping by the end of the year to be shopping that around to publishers. So that’s taking up a lot of free time.
I’m a mother and that’s an ongoing project right there. She’s going to be three in a couple of weeks. And we decided to do our kitchen. We just ripped our whole kitchen from the 40s out, which was actually kind of cool looking but had absolutely no storage or work space. So we just completely gutted the middle of our house and decided to pretty much do it ourselves so that we could save money, and at this point I think I maybe would rather just be in debt (laughs).
That sounds extremely chaotic.
It’s been really chaotic. I’ve been making meals in a toaster oven for almost six months. But you know, there are some people in the world who don’t even have a toaster oven, so I’m not going to complain.
But there’s always other stuff going on. I’m always writing. I’m always working on creative stuff. I’m hoping to launch a T-shirt campaign –I’m not going to say anymore about it– but I’m hoping to have something really fun available in the next month. Very creative T-shirt thing. So yeah I’m kind of – I consider myself a creative person. I’m not happy unless I’m working on something. So I never really have a day off, but that’s just the way I like it.
The following is a guest contribution from Country Universe reader Erik North.
Sometimes you first find out about your favorite artists not necessarily from your peers but, strangely enough, from either your parents or your relatives.In the case of Linda Ronstadt, I found about her through my aunt, who had a copy of Linda’s 1978 album Living In The U.S.A. that I listened to when I was eight years old back in 1978. Since that time, I have been a very staunch fan of Linda’s, even on those occasions when her excursions into other musical arenas have driven others to distraction.As it is with Elvis or the Beatles, if you have to have Linda Ronstadt explained to you, you may never get it.
Linda is not one of those who confines herself to any single genre; while that does tend to cause people a lot of problems, it’s in Linda’s nature to explore as much as she can, regardless of what the critics, or even her own fans, think.Whether it’s big band pop, Mexican rancheras, Gilbert and Sullivan, traditional, contemporary, and urban folk music, the experimental classical music of composer Philip Glass, rock and roll, blues, R&B or jazz, she just can’t stop exploring musically.
And yet, at the same time, even though she has never put herself in the strict category of being a country singer, her classic country-rock albums and songs have influenced at least three different generations of female country and roots-rock singers.She has an appreciation for and a huge knowledge of the country genre, through and through, having grown up in Arizona on a steady diet of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride.The early rockabilly records of Elvis, and later Buddy Holly, were also important factors in her musical growth.And when there was a revival of American folk music as the 1960s dawned, she was into that, too, getting a full dosage of traditional Appalachian folk music and bluegrass.All of those things have factored into how Linda Ronstadt approaches country music.Her approach is just more Sunset Boulevard than Music Row, that’s all.
Although it often gets pointed out that many of Linda’s hits are remakes of long-standing rock, R&B, and country songs that had been hits for others, what often gets overlooked is the complete albums those hits came from, and the songs that surround those hits.Linda was perhaps the first female singer in any genre, country or otherwise, whose career was defined by albums as much as (if not more than) hit singles.And so this is an advocacy of Linda’s great talents within or on the perimeter of the country genre, not only as a hitmaker, but as an album artist par excellence as well.
“The Only Mama That’ll Walk The Line”
Hand Sown, Home Grown, 1969
From Linda’s debut album, arguably the very first alternative-country album by a female artist, comes this feminist take on a song that had been a hit the previous year by Waylon Jennings (as “The Only Daddy…”).Linda’s snarling, almost-spat-out delivery, and a clever change in a lyric at the beginning, are almost a challenge against the stereotype of female country singers of that era.It was the first song she did on the Johnny Cash Show on June 21, 1969, that introduced her to country music audiences.
“I Can’t Get Over You”
Adieu False Heart, 2006
Linda’s duet album with Ann Savoy, though rooted in Celtic and Cajun roots music, goes into very rustic traditional folk/country territory with this ballad written by Julie Miller, whose husband Buddy plays acoustic guitar on this track.Linda’s lead vocals transport one back to that rootsy sound, aided and abetted by Ann’s harmony vocals.It is one of the standout tracks on an album that got a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Folk Music recording in 2006.
“It’s So Easy”
Simple Dreams, 1977
At the height of her success, Linda also fueled a revival of rock and roll legend Buddy Holly’s catalog; and one of the ways she did this was to record this traditional rock and roll number from 1958 and spice it up with clavinets, a cowbell, and pounding drums.The inherent rockabilly twang of the song got a fair amount of country airplay, even though it only charted at No. 81 on the country singles chart.It nevertheless got to No. 5 on the pop singles chart.And at the same time, the album it came from was the No. 1 album on both the pop and country album charts.
Heart Like A Wheel, 1974
Who says women don’t do truck driving songs?Thanks to this number written by her good friend, the late Lowell George (of Little Feat), Linda pulls it off in this dissolute tail of being “robbed by the rain/driven by the snow” and being given “weed, whites, and wine” while journeying “from Tucson to Tucumcari, Tehachapi to Tonopah.”This is a defining song in the California country-rock repetoire from a landmark album in the genre.
“New Partner Waltz”
Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’, 2003
This all-star tribute to the country/gospel duo the Louvin Brothers won the 2003 Grammy for Country Album of the Year. Overlooked amidst the contributions made by heavyweights like Vince Gill, Terri Clark, Dierks Bentley, and her Trio pals Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, was this particular track in which Linda returns to her traditional country roots by duetting with the album’s producer and her good friend, bluegrass music master Carl Jackson.The two of them do such a good job, and it showed that Linda always had a lot of business revisiting the country arena.
“That’ll Be The Day”
Hasten Down The Wind, 1976
Having previously done a superb country/folk version of Buddy Holly’s last hit “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” on Heart Like A Wheel, Linda returned to the Holly catalog two years later with this modern rockabilly remake of his and the Cricket’s No. 1 hit from 1957.The use of echo on Linda’s vocals, and the twin guitar breaks provided by her guitarists Waddy Wachtell and Dan Dugmore, propelled this song to No. 11 on the pop singles chart, and No. 27 on the country chart in October 1976, and led to Linda earning her second Grammy award, this one for Best Pop Female Vocal.
Linda Ronstadt, 1972
Linda’s penchant for understanding the traditions of honky-tonk heartbreak songs, while realizing the timelessness of them, is borne out in this recording of a song that had previously been a hit for, among others, Ray Price in 1956, and has since been more recently covered by Patty Loveless, one of Linda’s many fans and peers.Coming from her self-titled album, which was her first true country breakthrough (it reached No. 35 on the country album chart early in 1972), this song also features contributions from a couple of guys named Glenn Frey and Don Henley.Need I tell anyone what became of them?
“Break My Mind”
Hand Sown, Home Grown, 1969
Another country standard, this one written by John D. Loudermilk (he of “Tobacco Road” and “Indian Reservation” fame, among others), this one was a favorite among the elite of the Los Angeles country-rock movement of the late 1960s; and Linda had the foresight to give it a honky-tonk rock throwdown rendition, complete with an unusually growling lead vocal from her, and a stinging guitar break from the late, great West Coast C&W guitar master Clarence White.
“Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me”
Simple Dreams, 1977
Linda often took a lot of hard knocks from critics for being “self pitying,” so in response, she shocked them by doing this very atypical Warren Zevon-penned hard country-rocker (complete with cowbell and syn-drums).This song revealed a humorous side of Linda, though it’s a brand of humor that is as black as coal.If its chart placement at the time seemed a little low (No. 31 pop, No. 56 C&W), it still remains one of Linda’s all-time best performances, given that it is essentially an ode to gang rape—a point that Terri Clark may have missed when she did this song nineteen years after Linda.
“Long, Long Time”
Silk Purse, 1970
One overlooked fact about this incredibly heartbreaking ballad is that Linda recorded it, and the album it came from, largely with a group of Nashville session musicians known as Area Code 615.The fact gets overlooked because the contributions made by fiddle player Buddy Spicher and pedal steel master Weldon Myrick to the song make it seem more orchestral than pure country.This song was also the only time Linda strongly advocated for its release as a single, over the objections of her then record label Capitol, and it paid off.Not only did it go to No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 in October 1970 (getting onto country radio later in the decade, when Linda’s crossover popularity was too great to ignore), but it also got Linda her first Grammy nomination, for Best Contemporary Female Vocal.
Don’t Cry Now, 1973
Much like her version of the Eagles’ “Desperado” on this same album (her first for Elektra/Asylum), this country-rock ballad, written by Rick Roberts of the Flying Burrito Brothers (he replaced Gram Parsons) and later of Firefall, is a tale of homesickness and a desire to come back to the homestead after many long years of being alone.It is a fitting song for Linda, for though she grew up in Arizona and not Colorado, its sentiment and its setting in the Intermountain West are borne out in Linda’s passionate, heartfelt delivery, boosted by a lush string section and surrealistic pedal steel guitar work from the late, great Sneaky Pete Kleinow.
“He Was Mine”
Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions, 1999
Linda and her good friend Emmylou Harris are a Mutual Admiration Society of the highest order, and their 1999 collaboration, recorded in Linda’s hometown, was a substantial hit with country and roots-rock fans (No. 73 pop, No. 6 C&W, October 1999).One of the songs on this album that stands out is this track, written by Emmy’s ex, Paul Kennerley, and given a typically passionate delivery by Linda, boosted by Emmy’s harmony vocal and Greg Leisz’s pedal steel solo.This was meant to be heard by a larger core of listeners, but country radio sadly stayed away from it.
“When Will I Be Loved?”
Heart Like A Wheel, 1974
The hard-belting style Linda displays whenever she gets her teeth into a traditional rock and roll number is very much in evidence in this Everly Brothers remake, essentially the Sunset Strip meeting the rockabilly sound of Sun Records, with its twanging guitar break from Linda’s long-time favorite session player Andrew Gold.All that kept it from going to No. 1 on the pop chart was the Captain and Tenille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together”; it became Linda’s one solo No. 1 country hit in June 1975.
Feels Like Home, 1995
Matraca Berg considered it an extreme honor to have one of her songs recorded by one of the female legends who inspired her the most, even asking that those who were listening with her keep silent as she took it in.This hoedown, fueled by Linda’s Southwestern drawl and Allison Krauss’ fiddle, sadly got what amounted to The Shaft from country radio in April 1995, as it charted only at No. 61 on the country singles chart.Nevertheless, it is one of Linda’s strongest, most countrified vocal performances in her stellar career.
“Telling Me Lies”
Linda’s 1987 collaboration with good pals Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton was among the best-selling country albums of the pre-Garth, post-Urban Cowboy era; and one of the reasons was this Linda Thompson/Betsy Cook-penned ballad about betraying and deceitful men—perfect for a world-class vocalist like Linda, who sings lead here.“Telling Me Lies” peaked at No. 3 on the country chart on July 15, 1987, when Linda turned 41; and Trio peaked at No. 1 C&W, No. 6 pop, winning a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Duo/Group performance for 1987.
“I Fall To Pieces”
Linda Ronstadt, 1972
It may be considered sacrilege for a non-country singer to tackle a song made immortal by Patsy Cline back in 1961, but Linda takes a cue from Patsy’s relaxed delivery, giving this standard it a modest shuffle sound, rent with pedal steel and fiddle flourishes, and the ambience of a live audience (this was recorded at the legendary Troubadour nightclub in Los Angeles in August 1971).Once again, future Eagles Don Henley and Glenn Frey are there, assisting Linda with good grace.
“I Never Will Marry”
Simple Dreams, 1977
A traditional Appalachian folk ballad popularized first by the Carter Family is given a restrained treatment by Linda, complete with her good friend Dolly Parton’s authentic Appalachian harmony vocals, which makes it appropriate that it should have peaked at No. 9 on the country singles chart in June 1978.What gets overlooked, though, is that Linda plays acoustic guitar on this track as well, helped out by the traditional Dobro shadings of the Seldom Scene’s Mike Auldridge (as an addendum, this song’s A-side, a hard-rocking version of the Stones’ “Tumbling Dice,” was a No. 37 pop hit).
“A River For Him”
Winter Light, 1993
Winter Light, released in late 1993, was one of Linda’s most criminally underrated albums (only getting to No. 92 on the pop album chart); and one of the highlights of it was this tear-inducing, acoustic guitar-and-synthesizer-dominated ballad written by her good pal Emmylou Harris.Linda’s low-key delivery of Emmy’s lyrics is really affecting without being manipulative, and she gets all of the heartbreaking nuances, as she had done twenty-three years before with “Long, Long Time.”
Hasten Down The Wind, 1976
Once again, Linda isn’t afraid to tackle a classic, as she does here with this Willie Nelson-penned ballad immortalized by Patsy Cline in 1961.Linda’s approach is more bluesy than Patsy’s is, but her delivery, besides paying homage to a legend, also helped coin the phrase “torch rock.”The song, which hit No. 6 on the country chart in February 1977, also made the album it came from a No. 4 hit on the pop album chart, and No. 1 country.
“I Will Always Love You”
Prisoner In Disguise, 1975
There is such a thing as subtlety, something that Linda proved when she became the first artist to cover this Dolly Parton mega-classic, just fourteen months after Dolly’s original.If you think you’ve heard all you need to hear of this song through Whitney Houston’s arguably way-over-the-top 1992 version for the movie The Bodyguard, do yourself a favor and take a listen to Linda’s version, poweredby Andrew Gold’s subtle piano, the R&B-tinged backup singers, Dan Dugmore’s pedal steel flourishes, and, above all else, Linda’s dramatic, heartfelt soprano voice.This song helped power the album to No. 4 on the pop album chart, and No. 2 on the country album chart in late 1975.
We Ran, 1998
There is just no way of getting around it: We Ran, released in June 1998, is one of Linda’s greatest latter-day albums and arguably also the single most criminally underappreciated album of her career (it only got as high as #168).And one of the highlights of this album is this track, penned by Paul Kennerley and country maverick Marty Stuart, a return to Linda’s early ’70s C&W-rock roots.It is essentially a duet of sorts, as former Eagle and longtime Ronstadt musician favorite Bernie Leadon harmonizes in a very slithery way with her and also does the twangy Telecaster guitar licks.This one track should have gotten country airplay.
“Silver Threads And Golden Needles”
Don’t Cry Now, 1973
How does this grab you—a remake of a remake.Linda had originally recorded this song, first a hit for Wanda Jackson in 1956, on Hand Sown, Home Grown in 1969, but she was unhappy with the arrangement of the song on that album.Four years later, she redid this country standard as a country-rock hoedown, fueled by the fiddle work of Cajun musician Gib Guilbeau and some piercing steel guitar work from Ed Black.With a No. 20 placement on the country singles chart in May 1974 (the album it came from hit No. 5 on the country album chart, and No. 45 pop), “Silver Threads” began Linda’s crossover dominance, by which she helped reconnect rock and roll with its traditional country roots.
Simple Dreams, 1977
What had originally been a very modest hit for its writer, the late and legendary Roy Orbison, in 1963 turned into one of Linda’s signature hits, also helping to re-establish Orbison’s place in the rock pantheon.With its bass line, marimba, and lush electric piano backing, in Linda’s hands, “Blue Bayou” is influenced to no small degree by Linda’s Mexican roots (she re-recorded this song again shortly after this had hit, this time in Spanish).Propelled near the climax by Dan Dugmore’s soaring steel solo, “Blue Bayou” got to No. 2 on the country chart in November 1977, and on Christmas Day was at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.With “It’s So Easy” also at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 at the same time, Linda had set two records.She became the first female artist to have two top five hits at the same time, and the first act of any kind to pull off such a feat since the Beatles dominated the Top Five in April 1964.
“I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)”
Heart Like A Wheel, 1974
Linda always mentioned Hank Williams as a pivotal musical influence; and on her version of one of Hank’s signature hits, she puts her money where her big voice is.Aided and abetted on harmony vocals by her good pal Emmylou Harris, Linda pulled off a remarkable feat.“I Can’t Help It,” which hit No. 2 on the country singles chart in March 1975, was the B-side of “You’re No Good,” Linda’s No.1 pop hit of one month earlier.The following year, she won the first of (so far) eleven Grammy awards, for Best Female Country Vocal, beating out, among others, Emmylou and her other Trio pal Dolly Parton.
“Love Is A Rose”
Prisoner In Disguise, 1975
One can trace the Dixie Chicks’ approach back to this bluegrass-fueled version of a Neil Young composition that reveals Linda’s approach to country—more Laurel Canyon than the Opry, but still rooted in country, thanks to the contributions of Herb Pederson on banjo, and David Lindley on fiddle.“Love IsA Rose” hit #5 on the country chart, while the A-side, a pounding version of the Motown classic “Heat Wave,” simultaneously hit No. 5 on the pop singles chart in November 1975.
ldn’t touch if you don’t want to your rendition to be remembered for second-bestness. You shouldn’t touch Patsy, you shouldn’t touch Connie, you shouldn’t touch Merle, you shouldn’t touch Reba, you shouldn’t touch Wynonna, you shouldn’t touch Trisha, you shouldn’t touch either George. And you shouldn’t touch Gary Allan.
Okay, to his credit, Stone actually has some nice moments in this attempt at the honky-tonk weeper that most notably appeared on Allan’s Smoke Rings in the Dark. He’s always had one of the prettier voices in the business, and the first verse of his reading suggests he might use that quality to offer a different interpretive take on the song than Allan’s appropriately gritty vocal did. Perhaps, you think, Stone will focus on the shocked vulnerability of the drunk driver as he realizes he is near death and utters his empathic last words. Or perhaps he’ll make the whole situation sound more angelic and dreamlike, like it’s such an intensely emotional moment that it doesn’t even seem to be of this world.
But when that crucial phrase comes in the chorus, all the tension just seems to dissipate. Stone’s technical performance is hard to fault, even as he litters it with lots of little slurs that make him sound like he’s practicing to become the male McEntire. But interpretively, forget it. He sings sweetly, like he recognizes this is a sad song, but Allan sang like he actually watched it happen. “Don’t Tell Mama” is the kind of piece that requires a master interpreter to unlock its full sentimental value, and for that, you gotta have Gary.
Written by Buddy Brock, Jerry Laseter & Kim Williams
In the most recent edition of Rolling Stone, an esteemed panel of journalists, executives and artists were assembled to name the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. The list is based on a singer’s vocal abilities, along with his or her historic importance. The following country artists were included:
#21: Johnny Cash
#27: Hank Williams
#43: George Jones
#45: Patsy Cline
#77: Dolly Parton
#79: Merle Haggard
#88: Willie Nelson
Who else deserved to make the roll call? And are six entries enough to represent country music? Comment away!
“I Fall to Pieces” is a part of country music’s culture due to its heartbreaking content and the lush musical setting that stands as Cline’s signature sound. The tale of a woman’s loss of hope after the end of a love affair connected with a mass audience upon its release in 1961 and continues to be a landmark of the genre.
The song was written by legendary songwriters Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard, who met in California in the early 1960s and soon became writing partners. One night, Cochran came up with a title, and he met up with Howard at his house the next day, where they finished writing the song. The demo version was recorded by Howard’s wife and country singer, Jan Howard. Harlan Howard pitched the song to Decca producer, Owen Bradley, who then attempted to pitch the song across Nashville. “I Fall to Pieces” was turned down numerous times, first by Brenda Lee, who found the song “too country” for her pop style. Bradley then asked Roy Drusky to record it, but he turned it down, believing it to be a woman’s song. Patsy Cline overheard Drusky’s argument with Bradley about the song and asked if she could record it instead.
When Cline began recording the song in November 1960, she felt that a pop-leaning number would not suit her voice or her music, but after several arguments with Bradley, she relented and sang “I Fall to Pieces” in the manner he intended. By August 1961, the sophisticated ballad had peaked at No. 1 on the country chart (her first No. 1) and reached No. 12 on the pop chart. It would be one of several crossover hits for Cline, whose inimitable voice continues to inspire legions of fans.
“I like to give artists a song they have to sing the rest of their lives. Songwriting is both my living and my pleasure, so I’m a happy man.” ~ Harlan Howard
The dean of country music songwriters, Harlan Howard paved the way for all future practitioners of his craft, lending an authenticity and eloquence to the music that will last for the ages. Through five decades of classic songs, Howard put his indelible stamp on the country music industry through sheer genius and, like many fellow artists and songwriters, rose through the ranks with country music as a constant love through a hardscrabble life.
Born and raised in a Michigan farm town, Howard, an orphan, was first drawn to country music by his weekly appointments with the Grand Ole Opry radio shows on Nashville’s WSM radio. This love affair with the music continued when he traveled to Nashville on weekends during his stint as an Army paratrooper in Georgia, and it was that appreciation for the fine art that led him to leave for Los Angeles in 1955 to work in the factories while attempting a career in songwriting. A year after arriving in Los Angeles, Howard met Tex Ritter and Johnny Bond, who were impressed with the young songwriter’s catalog, culled from numerous hours of writing songs in his head while working at the factory. One of the first tunes that Howard wrote eventually became a country classic, “Pick Me Up on Your Way Down”, first recorded by Charlie Walker and a #2 hit in 1958. Another early success came in 1960, with both Guy Mitchell and Ray Price taking his “Heartaches by the Number” to top of the pop and country charts, respectively.
In that same year, Harlan moved to Nashville with his second wife, Jan Howard, and their three children. Soon after, Harlan’s success rate skyrocketed. He enjoyed as many as 15 of his own songs in the country Top 40 simultaneously, a long-standing record. His friendships with young writers such as Willie Nelson, Hank Cochran and Roger Miller further developed his songwriting skills and laid the foundation for the future of country songwriting. They would collaborate in an effort to create the “next big hit” for a number of Opry stars at the time. One superlative song in this stretch was “I Fall to Pieces”, immortalized by Patsy Cline. The likes of Johnny Cash, George Jones and Buck Owens all achieved considerable success on the charts in the 1960s, displaying Howard’s unique ability to write witty love songs (“I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail”, Owens’ 1964 classic) or heartbreaking ballads (Bobby Bare’s breathtaking 1966 song, “Streets of Baltimore”).
Howard’s fortunes took a dip in the 1970s, although he would find sporadic chart success with songs such as Melba Montgomery’s “No Charge”. Throughout the decade and into the 1980s, Howard wrote infrequently, but the mid-to-late 1980s brought greater triumphs for Howard. The Judds’ version of his “Why Not Me” earned the CMA Single of the Year award in 1985, and the Reba McEntire chose his “Somebody Should Leave”, another #1 single in 1985, as the final single from her album My Kind of Country. “Life Turned Her That Way”, a Top Ten record for Ricky Van Shelton, earned Howard his sole nomination for Song of the Year from the CMAs (the song had also received a wonderful treatment from Mel Tillis in the late 1960s).
In 1989, Howard took further control of his career by starting his own publishing firm, Harlan Howard Songs, Inc., with wife Melanie, and leaving his long-term post at Tree Publishing. Howard’s run of hit records continued during the surge of female radio success in the 1990s. “Don’t Tell Me What to Do” helped Pam Tillis’ career gain new traction, becoming her first Top Five single (and a nominee for the CMA Single of the Year) in 1991. Also, the first single for Patty Loveless after career-threatening throat surgery was 1993’s “Blame It On Your Heart”, a #1 smash for two weeks. The tongue-twister, a co-write with Kostas, was named BMI’s most-played song of 1994, and launched Loveless into the top tier of country music superstars.
As a result of his consistency and continuous wealth of classic songs, the Country Music Hall of Fame welcomed him as a member in 1997. Other honors included induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the National Academy of Popular Music Hall of Fame and the Grammy Hall of Fame. His list of 100+ Top Ten singles is an honor roll of country music and its ability to challenge, change or just plain entertain the listener. For Howard, it was easy to determine the ultimate mettle detector of a country song and its prospects for greatness. He maintained that it must be, simply, “three chords and the truth”.
The Harlan Howard Songbook
Above and Beyond the Call of Love/Buck Owens; Rodney Crowell
Blame It On Your Heart/Patty Loveless
Busted/Johnny Cash; John Conlee
Don’t Tell Me What to Do/Pam Tillis
Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got a Heartache)/Buck Owens
Heartaches by the Number/Ray Price
I Fall to Pieces/Patsy Cline; Aaron Neville & Trisha Yearwood
I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail/Buck Owens
Life Turned Her That Way/Mel Tillis; Ricky Van Shelton
No Charge/Melba Montgomery
Pick Me Up On Your Way Down/Charlie Walker; Faron Young
Somebody Should Leave/Reba McEntire
Streets of Baltimore/Bobby Bare
Why Not Me/The Judds
Your Heart Turned Left and I Went Right/George Jones
Crystal Shawanda, a 27-year-old singer-songwriter from Ontario, Canada has established herself as a promising new voice with her first album Dawn of a New Day, a step in the right direction as she challenges for her own place in today’s country music. The album is diverse in its sounds and themes, and echoes her experience as a young woman born on an Indian reservation and trying to make a name and gain fame in Nashville. For the most part, she thrives in this collection of songs.
The common thread throughout the album is an appreciation of the past and a certain strength of character through adversity, and Shawanda’s voice ranges from sassy and spirited to wonderfully delicate. The first single, “You Can Let Go,” is a story song that, although predictable in terms of the storyline, is rich with emotion and is an effective introduction of Shawanda, formerly a featured singer at Nashville’s hallowed honky tonk, Tootsie’s. The depth of a father-daughter relationship is married with the lessons learned in letting go. She sells it, but this paint-by-numbers ballad only hints at her potential, as does “What Do I Have to Do?,” another power ballad that tries a little too hard to make its point.
Shawanda settles into this rut at times, tempering some of the originality that is her calling card. She both succeeds (“Tender Side”) and stumbles (“Try”) in showing her strength in the face of vulnerability. Shawanda is much more powerful when tackling stronger, more attitude-driven material, in the form of both soulful ballads and uptempo tunes. The high points are the feisty numbers that dot the album, from the lustful “I Need a Man” to the engaging “Evolution,” an autobiographical piece that rips and roars with grace and grit. Two other stellar tracks are “My Roots are Showing” and the title track, empowering songs with impressive vocal power by the newcomer.
Shawanda’s love for classic country music is apparent with her avowed adoration to Loretta Lynn, her namechecking of Patsy Cline, and her inclusion of the Hank Williams standard, “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” She covers the classic tune admirably, and would do well to continue the tradition of these legends, artists who followed their muse without much consideration for Nashville rules. Although Dawn of a New Day sometimes makes those commercial concessions, it is a satisfying piece of work that will likely be the first of many successes for the talented Shawanda.
There are few women in the history of popular music as revered as Patsy Cline, one of the few country legends who has transcended the status of a singer and become a pop culture icon. Almost all of her classic recordings were created in a three-year span, and she only released three albums in her lifetime. However, her fame has grown exponentially since her career was tragically cut short, leaving behind questions of the music that might have been, but also immortally preserving her in her musical prime.
Cline hailed from Virginia, the daughter of a blacksmith and a seamstress. She grew up idolizing Judy Garland and Shirley Temple, and asserted from a young age that she would be a star as well. She also liked country music, being particularly drawn to the hits of Hank Williams. Cline suffered a throat infection as a child that she would later credit as a gift, believing that it was that illness that resulted in her deep-throated voice.
As a teenager, Cline competed in local talent shows and sang on the radio in Winchester. She performed in local country clubs wearing fringed cowgirl outfits that her mother created. A brief marriage in her early twenties to Gerald Cline provided her stage surname, while a later boyfriend suggested using Patsy along with it. She was soon commanding a large following in the Virginia/D.C./Maryland area, and was appearing on the television show Town and Country. She caught the attention of Jimmy Dean, who also frequently appeared on the show, and he became an early champion of her talent. Cline began appearing on the Grand Ole Opry, and she signed to Four Star Records in 1955.