Every No. 1 Country Single of the Eighties: Dottie West, “A Lesson in Leavin'”

“A Lesson in Leavin'”

Dottie West

Written by Randy Goodrum and Brent Maher

Billboard

#1 (1 week)

April 26, 1980

Dottie West was already a legend when she hooked up with Kenny Rogers in the seventies for a series of duets.  She’d won the first ever Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance, winning for her first top ten hit, 1964’s “Here Comes My Baby.”  She established herself as a country heartbreak queen, wearing demure clothing as she sang hits like “Would You Hold it Against Me” and “Paper Mansions.”  She was a pivotal player at the Grand Ole Opry, and prior to hooking up with Rogers, she was best known for her hit “Country Sunshine,” which was famously used in a Coca-Cola Commercial.

Her radio support was always sporadic, but she became a major star in the late seventies, scoring her career first No. 1 singles with two Rogers duets. Her solo career was also reaccelerating.  Her 1978 single “Come See Me and Come Lonely” was her highest charting solo effort since 1974, and she went top fifteen for the first time in five years with ‘You Pick Me Up (and Put Me Down)” in 1979, the lead single from Special Delivery.

The second single from that album was “A Lesson in Leavin’,” and it became her first solo No. 1 hit.  Jo Dee Messina’s hit cover has been so pervasive that West’s original feels revelatory, even though I’d heard it many times before.  There isn’t a single sign of the old country heartbreak queen here. She’s firm, dismissive, and fully in control of her emotions as she shows this louse the door.  The arrangement is tight, with a killer bass and percussion tracks backing up her no-nonsense performance.

Female artists are often derided when they adapt a sexier image when they get older, but West’s sheer confidence on “Leavin'” suggests that it was the prairie dresses and beehive hairdos that made her uncomfortable and she was now being her fully realized self.  Even though she had singles stretching back to the early sixties, “A Lesson in Leavin'” feels like the first No. 1 hit from a true eighties lady, foreshadowing the wave of cool, confident, and independent women that were waiting in the wings.

Seriously, if you haven’t heard this record in a long time, play it again.  It’s far more interesting than you remember and Messina’s version is not a carbon copy of it.  We’ll see West again early next year.

“A Lesson in Leavin'” gets an A.

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5 Comments

  1. When Jo Dee put our her version I was 13 years old and had never heard of Dotti West. For years I never knew it was a cover song. Once I discovered Dotti years later on our classic country station I fell in love with her Kenny duets which then lead me to finding her greatest hits and this song. Her aged voice makes this song for me. She’s lived with this bull for too long and she can’t wait for it to come back and bite him in the butt.

  2. I personally enjoy Dottie’s late 70’s and 80’s music and her duets with Kenny the most, and I really like the more contemporary style she took on during that period. I also really love “You Pick Me Up (And Put Me Down),” which is another song I discovered when going down the late 70’s and 80’s pop country rabbit hole about 5 years ago, along with her minor 1982 hit, “You’re Not Easy To Forget.” Both songs have that feel good, breezy vibe from this era that I love, despite the downbeat lyrics.

    Similar to Truth, I had no idea that Jo Dee Messina’s version of “Lesson In Leavin'” was a cover for the longest time back when it was still pretty recent. I was a bit surprised one day when Mom was singing along with it a bit when it was on the radio in the car one day, since it was still a pretty new song to me back then, lol. A while later, I rediscovered Dottie’s version, which I had completely forgotten about, while revisiting one of my many tapes that I recorded off the radio in early 1991, and all at once it came back to me, and I finally understood how Mom knew the song, lol. Again, it’s amazing how many of these pop country songs from the 80’s and late 70’s were still getting good airplay in early ’91 on our station.

    While I still enjoy Messina’s version, I’ve actually come to love Dottie’s original version even more. I really dig the arrangement and overall groove to it, and something about the late 70’s pop country style is just so appealing to me. Even the hand claps don’t bother me here (At least this was long before they became an annoyance and had to be in every friggin’ song, like in more recent years). I also totally agree with Truth that West’s more mature and experienced vocals make the song work even better for me.

  3. I prefer the Jo Dee Messina version as it was sped up a little bit and had more energy imo. Dottie has a a great voice and impacted the next generation of performers due to her influence as a singer/songwriter. Also this isn’t meant to be ugly but she also has one of the worst songs I heard in “Mommy, Can I still call him daddy”. I get it was her kid but it was a rough recording lol but I love her as a performer. Anybody got any stinkers from artists you love?

    1
    • It’s hard to believe that this is the same artist who recorded “Mommy Can I Still Call Him Daddy” and “Suffer Time,” isn’t it? Another legendary howler of hers is “Six Weeks Every Summer (Christmas Every Other Year).”

  4. This song always leapt from my radio speakers. The bass line and percussion were so punchy and upfront, the vocals so sassy and slinky. Easily one of the most memorable and distinct sounding singles from the early eighties. Her maturity brings the weight and intensity of a freight train to the lyrics; the coming lesson is inevitable and immanent.

    Tyler, “stinkers from artists you love” could be its own thread.” Merle Haggard’s “Fighting Side of Me” simply sounds profoundly ignorant and unnecessarily aggressive with each subsequent listen these many years since I first heard it.

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