Every No. 1 Country Single of the Eighties: Sylvia, “Drifter”



Written by Archie Jordan and Don Pfrimmer

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

March 20, 1981


#1 (1 week)

April 4, 1981

Sylvia Hutton started singing at the age of three, and like many aspiring country artists, she honed her skills at church.   Moving to Music City just after her twentieth birthday, she took the industry route to her recording career, starting off as a secretary to producer Tom Collins.  She auditioned for Dave & Sugar, but after she didn’t get the gig, RCA took advantage of that group’s missed opportunity and gave Sylvia a solo deal.

Choosing to go by her first name only, Sylvia scored two minor hits before breaking through with the top ten hit “Tumbleweed” in 1980, from her debut album, Drifter.  Collins assumed production responsibilities for his former staffer, and wanting to distinguish her from Crystal Gayle, he created a sound that he called “prairie disco,” which fused disco beats with country instrumentation inspired by the soundtracks of wild west films.

This fusion resulted in her first No. 1 single.  “Drifter” is a fascinating record full of sharp contrasts.  The instrumental track could’ve been a hit in its own right, but Sylvia’s smooth pop vocal that builds to a lonesome country wail takes it to another level.  The dramatic strings of a movie score climax coexist with a pure country steel hook, with Sylvia’s performance building a bridge between the two.

In an unconventional move, RCA followed “Drifter,” its album’s third single, with three more releases: the top ten hits “The Matador” and “Heart On the Mend,” and the top fifteen “Sweet Yesterday.”  A couple of years before Cyndi Lauper became the first female pop artist to score four top ten hits from a debut album, Sylvia was the first to pull that trick off at country radio.

It set the stage perfectly for her sophomore set, which will launch with her chart-topping signature hit.  We’ll get to that one in 1982.  It’s a great record in its own right, but this one is her most intriguing and innovative No. 1 hit.

“Drifter” gets an A.

Every No. 1 Single of the Eighties

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  1. Love this song, you know as soon as the first note hits what song this is! Sylvia, while quite pop had catchy songs that got stuck in your head! Like Nothing Ever Happened the f/u to Nobody is my favorite Sylvia song. So relatable!

  2. Intriguing way of defining this song as “prairie disco”.

    But in all good seriousness, “Drifter” does evoke the West in ways that so few songs of that milieu did during the early 1980’s; and maybe only Sylvia herself could have pulled that off (though in our present context, one can look to Canadian singer/songwriter Lindi Ortega’s similarly-themed Southwest concept album [i]Liberty[/i] as well).

  3. I really enjoy (and enjoyed) Sylvia. I think she is talented and had some really good songs, including this one. She is great and I like this one a lot. I’m sure “Nobody” will turn up, and that’s another favourite.

      • That is very cool to hear. I expect they will be on the CD I have of hers, unless one is Snapshot which for some reason wasn’t on the RCA Country Legends CD (but it has all her other hits and Snapshot is on Youtube). Also if one is Snapshot, I hope the hilarious music video gets a mention.

  4. If Quentin Tarantino isn’t familiar with this song, he should be.

    I, admittedly, wasn’t myself. This was the first time I have heard it, which is hard to believe given how often Sylvia’s other hits were played on K-102.

    The idea of “prairie disco” provides perfect context for appreciating everything that is going on in this delicious song.

    It’s fun and brilliant! I love it!

    I always considered Sylvia among the most bland female artists of the ’80s, but this song has given me pause to reconsider.

  5. Just like your 90’s feature I’m creating a 80’s playlist to listen to. I never heard of Sylvia before in my life but talk about a hit. Every time this song comes on it’s like I’m a part of some western movie and the strings, guitar and background vocals are just awesome. My hidden gem thus far for this feature.

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