Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties: Alan Jackson, “Who’s Cheatin’ Who”

“Who’s Cheatin’ Who

Alan Jackson

Written by Jerry Hayes

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

May 30, 1997

Alan Jackson strips both the nerve and the charm from an Urban Cowboy classic.

The Road to No. 1

After spending multiple weeks at No. 1 with “Little Bitty,” the title track from Everything I Love went top ten. Jackson then kicked off a string of three consecutive No. 1 hits.

The No. 1

The typical Alan Jackson production works best with his self-written material, and nearly as well with newly written songs from the Music Row songwriting machine.

But as we saw already with his faceless cover of “Summertime Blues,” this approach can falter when applied to a song that incorporated pop elements in its original hit version.

Charly McCain’s “Who’s Cheatin’ Who” is an incredibly nervy record, with a relentless groove that creates the perfect atmosphere for a suburban cheating song.  It’s an early highlight of the Urban Cowboy era, which was frequently maligned during the new traditionalist years.

Thing is, Nashville will run any sound into the ground until it stops making money. But the new traditionalist era had this odd undercurrent of moral shaming to it, as if country music had sullied itself by incorporating sounds from other genres.  This overshadowed the fact that all these young cowboys, Alan Jackson included, had done the same thing, borrowing heavily from seventies California rock to make country more palatable to aging boomers.

The fatal flaw in Jackson’s middling cover of “Who’s Cheatin’ Who” is the assumption that making it sound like an Alan Jackson record would elevate it because New Traditionalist Country is always superior to Pop Country.

That’s a load of hooey.  Jackson’s cover stripped the nerve and the charm from a pop country classic, and took away everything that made it interesting in the process.

The Road From No. 1

Two more No. 1 hits are on the way from Everything I Love, and they’re both significantly better than this one.

“Who’s Cheatin’ Who” gets a C-.

Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties

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Next: Tim McGraw with Faith Hill, “It’s Your Love”

9 Comments

  1. I too find that while I loved the late 80s traditional country that the early 80s pop country was just as good most of the time. Is there any chance that you would be rating the #1 songs of the 80s in a feature to introduce more ppl to great songs they may not know?

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    • I’d also like to cast my vote for this feature covering the 80’s! It’s my next favorite decade in country to the 90’s. It would be pretty interesting, and it might even introduce or reintroduce me to songs I’d never heard or at least haven’t heard in a while.

      As much as I love neo-traditional country because it’s what I mainly grew up loving, I also love pop country from the 80’s and late 70’s, as well as pop country from the late 90’s and early 00’s. I especially always thought the Urban Cowboy era got unfairly maligned for the longest time. I personally enjoy a lot of songs and artists that came out of that period, and think it came out with a lot of quality stuff, as well.

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  2. Oh, man. I just listened to the Charlie Mcclain version for the first time in a very long time and I have to change my tune. You are right! Hers is much better and the production helps give a charm to it that is lacking in Jackson’s version. I like Jackson’s production, but you’re right that his production doesn’t fit the song nearly as well. This song was never one of my favorite Jackson songs. I only marginally liked it, but I actually really like the original version as a song.

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  3. I actually have to agree with you all the way on this one. 1997 was a year that saw the genre going in a more sophisticated and mature direction, and the whole line dance craze finally seemed to be on the wane. However, Jackson’s version of “Who’s Cheatin’ Who,” in hindsight, feels like one of the last attempts at catering to that trend. It sounds like it was designed for nothing much more than filling up the dance floors, and even the extended instrumental parts (which I usually enjoy) only add to its dance ready feel. I completely agree that Charly McClain’s original version is much more superior and creatively arranged and better sung, as well (I also really dig the bass backup vocalist on McClain’s version). Jackson’s version, as you mentioned, just sounds like many other Alan Jackson uptempo songs. This is easily the 1997 number one that has aged the poorest for me, so far, which feels strange for me to say, since I otherwise really enjoy the rest of the Everything I Love album. Needless to say, I much prefer its other uptempo single, “Little Bitty,” which has aged very well in comparison.

    In late 1996, shortly before Jackson’s version of “Who’s Cheatin’ Who” came out, I had actually been listening to Charly McClain’s version a lot on one of the tapes I recorded back in early 1991. So when Jackson came out with his version shortly afterwards, her version was still fresh in my mind. I actually did like Alan’s version at first and thought it was pretty neat, and a bit of a coincidence, that he would release a version of the same song I’d been enjoying on my Walkman fairly recently. Even back then, though, I missed hearing that bass backup singer that was such a signature part of McClain’s version. And after a while, I also started realizing that I still liked the way McClain sang it better, and I also preferred the guitar parts in the original, as well. Not long after it came out, I was recording it on to a tape, and I remember being a bit irritated with the long instrumental break at the end because I thought it was taking up too much of the tape, and I was starting to regret my choice a little of recording it, lol.

    Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a fun song for me to hear every now and then, and I still much prefer it to some of the other ditties Alan would release in the next decade (“Country Boy,” “Good Time,” “Five O’ Clock Somewhere,” etc.). It just pales in comparison to the original, and it’s my least favorite single from the otherwise excellent Everything I Love album.

    And speaking of that, I’m REALLY looking forward to those next two number ones! :)

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  4. …i’ve been actually working on a feature for the Swiss country publication “country style” – workin title: the frowned upon era – that so far shares kevin’s above remarks on the “urban cowboy” period to quite some degree. it was triggered by the passing of mickey gilley (urban cowboy legend) and naomi judd (new traditional legend/trail blazer) lately. so far, one of my conclusions is that there is a lot to like in the sound coming out of nashville between the late 70’s and mid 80’s. and the stars of that period, which, commonly presumed, peaked with the release of the “urban cowboy” movie. to me, it seems the ongoing bad mouthing/writing of the “urban cowboy” era has over time become something like a reflex, or a “truth”, that may not survive closer scrutiny. an unfounded truth, perhaps? then again, i haven’t finished the work and the piece yet. not one of my favourite aj titles, this one.

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  5. The sad thing is, every time I hear my local classic country station play this song, it’s ALWAYS this version, never the superior McClain original.

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  6. I think almost any mainstream country cover by a superstar provides essential connective tissue between country’s past and and it’s present. So much of being a country fan involves looking over your shoulder to what came before. Conversations like this one shine a a spotlight on older music that may have been in the dark too long. I imagine for many fans of nineties country this was their first exposure to this song. We can thank an underwhelming cover for getting us back to the superior original.

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