Every No. 1 Country Single of the Eighties: Barbara Mandrell with George Jones, “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool”

“I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool”

Barbara Mandrell with George Jones

Written by Kye Fleming and Dennis Morgan

Radio & Records

#1 (2 weeks)

June 19 – June 26, 1981

Billboard

#1 (1 week)

July 4, 1981

After “Years” became her first number one hit of the eighties, Barbara Mandrell released Love is Fair, her only studio album to produce four hits.  Three of them were on the country charts: “Crackers” went top five, followed by the top ten “The Best of Strangers” and the top fifteen title track.  A fourth single, “Sometime, Somewhere, Somehow,” was a top thirty AC hit.

Mandrell was the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year during this time period, and a few weeks before she became the first artist to win that award twice, she scored a No. 1 hit with the lead single from Barbara Mandrell Live.

“I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool” wasn’t technically a live recording, at least in its single version that was sent to radio.  That was recorded in the studio with an audience applause track added on.  The album version was recorded later in front of a live audience.

There’s an easy joke to make here. Something along the lines of Mandrell never having been country in the first place, as evidenced by the slick soul arrangement of this track. I’ve probably made that joke myself in the past.  But it’s really just genre gatekeeping disguised as humor,  R&B and country share similar roots, and as has been more widely documented in recent years, a lot of what we associate with certain genres has more to do with label marketing decisions made in the early days of record making more than anything else.

It’s one of the reasons that George Jones doesn’t sound jarringly out of place on this track.  They’re both Texas artists who made different styles of country music, with Mandrell doing more traditional work than she’s usually acknowledged for, and with Jones always using far more pop and R&B elements on his records than he was ever criticized for by the staunch traditionalists.

Now none of this changes the fact that this isn’t a very good song.  Records this reactionary to current trends rarely stand the test of time.  You really had to be there to understand why she was referring to country as being cool, and for many years after it went back to being anything but cool all over again.

This works more as a time capsule and an event record than it does as a song and performance on its own merits.

Mandrell followed it with another No. 1 single from her live album, which we’ll cover before the end of 1981.

“I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool” gets a B.

Every No. 1 Single of the Eighties

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6 Comments

  1. This song may not be the greatest, but I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that I see it as my unofficial theme song lol. I was country (both in my lifestyle and music preferences) before it took off at various points, especially among my friends.

  2. Isn’t the latent assumption sustaining this song’s message that country music is, in fact, often more uncool than it is ever actually cool? It embraces a contradiction endemic to the genre that puts country’s past in the always-present context of the listener today.

    It’s aspirational country music striving for acceptance and relevance. This a hopeful prayer that gains strength and resonance with each repetition.

    Rather than a celebration of the moment, it is a reminder that better days will come again.

    I love this song.

  3. My first question on hearing this song recently (I had heard it a long time before) was “Do people really put peanuts in Coke and if so, why?” and I googled to find that apparently, yes, some do. I think it’s a sweet/salty type thing from the articles. That said, I like the song and can kind of relate, even though I’m an Australian country girl, to some of the sentiments. I agree with the B rating, good but not top tier. I have a couple of Barbara’s collections and enjoy both.

  4. I have a soft spot for this song. I’ve always loved it. I didn’t discover it until about 10 years after its release. The lyrics were still relevant in the early to mid 90s for sure.

    • It became a pretty popular t-shirt and bumper sticker in the early nineties, if I recall correctly.

      Though I think the only time it ever got “cool” in the conventional sense – i.e., teens and young adults being into it – was the late nineties with Shania and the Chicks.

      1
  5. Understanding that cool is always a relative term, being country became palpably cool for me in the early 1990’s.

    I had secretly wanted to write a country music column in my high school newspaper “The Odyssey.” I, couldn’t work up the nerve, however, because I was worried about how quickly a nerd’s already limited social capital would be drained by writing about hillbilly music at the decidedly suburban Robbinsdale Armstrong High School in Plymouth, Minnesota.

    My obsession with country music may have run deep but I ran scared from my own musical fantasies; my love was still largely a secret love.

    Then Garth Brooks’ “No Fences” came along and changed everything.

    Come my senior year (1991-1992), I proposed “Country Cuts” as column for the monthly newspaper. Although I still remember the groans and giggling when I had to pitch the idea to the paper’s editorial team in front of the entire journalism class, my column ran just as the “New Country” movement exploded.

    I was in the right place at the right time.

    If what I was sharing wasn’t outright cool, it was timely and newsy. High school kids in the upper mid-west were suddenly interested in country music.

    Classmates were now openly asking for mixed tapes of new country music songs, wearing cowboy boots, and heading out of town to catch country shows by artists like Aaron Tippin, Joe Diffie, and Mark Collie at The Medina Ballroom in Hamel, Minnesota.

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