Every No. 1 Country Single of the Eighties: Emmylou Harris, “Beneath Still Waters”

“Beneath Still Waters”

Emmylou Harris

Written by Dallas Frazier

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

April 25, 1980


#1 (1 week)

May 10, 1980

Emmylou Harris entered the eighties as a Grammy Award-winning artist with a string of hit singles and gold albums under her belt.  Her first No. 1 of the decade came from her 1979 album Blue Kentucky Girl, which had already produced a top five hit with a countrified “Save the Last Dance For Me” and a top ten hit with the title track, which had first been released by Loretta Lynn.

While other artists were topping the charts with songs they learned from Emmylou Harris albums, Harris herself was mining the catalogs of veteran artists for her own material, and she replaced George Jones at No. 1 with a gorgeous cover of his own album track from 1968, “Beneath Still Waters.”  Diana Trask had grazed the top forty with her own version in 1970, but due to complications with Jones’ Musicor catalog, the song was largely unknown when Harris resurrected it.

Jones’ original recording is a masterpiece in its own right, and Harris’ version is simply exquisite.  The thesis of Blue Kentucky Girl was that Harris could make a completely traditional country album, and it’s only the cleaner production standards that distinguish it as a record from the late seventies.  Her lonesome wail is tailor made for the lyric, which captures the feeling of impending doom, even while everything still seems fine on the surface.

Harris went on to win the CMA Female Vocalist Award in 1980 on the strength of “Blue Kentucky Girl” and “Wayfaring Stranger,” the latter being the top ten lead single from her bluegrass album, Roses in the Snow.  A top fifteen cover of “The Boxer” followed from that album, which kept her gold streak going strong.  Her 1981 album Evangeline produced a top five hit with “Mr. Sandman,” but the second single, “I Don’t Have to Crawl,” became her first to miss the top forty since the original release of “Too Far Gone” in 1975.

Harris bounced back with the lead single from her album Cimarron, which we’ll cover in the fall of 1981.

“Beneath Still Waters” gets an A.

Every No. 1 Single of the Eighties

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  1. Such a gut puncher! Emmy can sing the hell out of a sad song with her angelic voice that cracks in all the right spots. Emmy doesn’t get enough credit for bringing country music back to it’s roots in the 80s. While most ppl were on the Urban Cowboy pop country bandwagon she zagged and went more traditional than ever before. This song and album it came from as well as Roses in The Snow show an artist who respected and loved the elements of country music from the past that made it great. She made real country sound fresh while respecting the past. She may be overshadowed by other 70s and 80s female singers but country music owes Emmy her roses for what she did in her career to highlight all the best of what makes country music great!

    • It should also be said that, throughout her career, Emmy, like her Trio pal Linda Ronstadt, always thought of albums as more than just a collection of potential hit singles with filler in-between; they were portraits. It’s a concept that seems to be alien to most Music Row head honchos, but which was very much a common thing with 1960’s and 1970’s FM rock radio. Of course Emmy’s style leans much more toward traditionalist and classic styles of country, but the approach she takes has made her crossover appeal with rock and pop music fans extremely sizable over the decades.

  2. I have no sense of Harris’ actual chart success over the years because her music fills rarified space in my mind. Like the purity of her trembling voice, it somehow exists above all the messiness of politicking for radio play, album sales, and chart performances. If one country star wears the mantle of “artist”, it is Emmylou Harris.

    A few posts back I described Crystal Gayle has having a special dignity about her. Paris similarly exudes integrity and conviction. She stood alone in her ability to remain commercially viable while both subverting and sustaining tradition in country music, an adventurous torch-bearing outlaw.

    I was only marginally familiar with her work until I purchased her 1996 three disc boxed set “Portraits” and had my mind blown.

  3. This is probably my favorite Emmylou recording of the pre-Nash Ramblers phase of her career. It is tough to cover a George Jones hit without seeming inferior, but Emmylou succeeds admirably.

    George never released the song as a single, although it received some airplay. The album from which it came, MY COUNTRY, was a mixed bag of twenty songs, some very good, some rather mediocre. This should have been released as a single

    • I agree. It’s one of the rare instances where the George Jones recording is not the definitive version. I’d add Patty Loveless’ take on “A Thousand Times a Day” to that very short list.

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