Every #1 Country Single of the Eighties: Willie Nelson, “Living in the Promiseland”

“Living in the Promiseland”

Willie Nelson

Written by David Lynn Jones

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

May 23, 1986


#1 (1 week)

June 28, 1986

These days, Americana is what we call most of the good country music.  Back in the eighties, it was the best way to describe the whitewashed nostalgia that fueled suburban patriotism. It was so omnipresent that even protest songs like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” were embraced as patriotic anthems, as if the verses of that song simply didn’t exist.

“Living in the Promiseland” is another one of those songs. On the surface, it’s celebrating America as the land of opportunities, borrowing heavily from the inscription on the Statue of Liberty.  By the second verse, those Americans aren’t finding opportunities.  They’re struggling, they’re hungry, they’re homeless, and they’re still here.

Nelson’s the right singer for such a message. He’s always been great at intertwining love for country with love for his fellow man.  He’s let down by the production though, which sounds like the theme to a mid-eighties television medical drama on the verses, only to then be weighed down by a low energy choir for the chorus.

But the song’s strength is in truly seeing Americans when it looks at America, and not sorting them out as good or bad based on how many of those opportunities they’ve found across the land.

“Living in the Promiseland” gets a B+.

Every No. 1 Single of the Eighties

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1 Comment

  1. I want to call attention to the song writer here, David Lynn Jones.

    In some camps in the mid-eighties, Jones was being hailed as the emerging leader and the most significant creative voice of the next generation of country stars.

    Well, at least until that Travis kid came out of North Carolina and he wasn’t.

    Anyhow, Waylon Jennings, in particular, was a big fan of Jones’ songwriting and a promoter of him as a special artist.

    Willie Nelson apparently first heard “Living in the Promiseland” on a tape Jones had recorded with legendary Waylors (Waylon’s backing band) drummer Riche Albright to pitch to Mercury.

    That tape must have been good because Jones got a deal and recorded his debut album, “Hard Times on Easy Street” in 1987 for Mercury. It would produce the top ten hit “Billie Jean ( Little Sister) and then Jones would fade into obscurity.

    Despite being effectively something less than a one-hot wonder, Jones was a critic’s darling. He recorded two albums for Mercury and two for Liberty Records, all produced by Albright.

    In the 1988 May/June edition of “Country Music” magazine, Patrick Carr had this to say about Jones’ debut:

    “Consider the content and quality of his debut album, “Hard Times on Easy Street.” Comparable in idea-for-dollar and surprise-per-track value with the fertile first works of groundbreaking writer/singers/ like Guy Clark or Joe Ely or Billy Joe Shaver, even Kris Kristofferson, it also has prime-time production values, real full-scale sock-to-you professional-class music; you can crank this sucker up the decibel scale, just as you can the late Gram Parsons’ “Grievous Angel” or Steve Earle’s ” Guitar Town” or John Cougar Mellencamp’s “The Lonesome Jubilee” and really have yourself a ten-track time.”

    Thom Owens of Allmusic wrote that “Hard Times on Easy Street,” “showcases a talent that arrived fully formed. Though Jones doesn’t push any musical boundaries, his ear for straight-forwards, rock-inflected rootsy country is impeccable”.

    An uncredited review in “Cashbox” magazine said his third album “”offers a kaleidoscope of meaning in each cut.”

    In the liner notes to that third album “Mixed Emotions,” Jones explicitly thanks Jimmy Bowen for “the opportunity to do this album our way.”

    Maybe Jones didn’t get traction among the new traditionalists because he didn’t play by Nashville’s rules. He built his own rehearsal space and pre-production studio tiny Bexhar, Arkansas.

    He also unapologetically wrote what was on his mind and he had bid ideas about “developing the species and purifying the soul.”

    That tendency towards stating his opinions are in full bloom on the Nelson performance of his song.

    I remember having to listen – really pay attention to the lyrics – to this song by Willie because it seemed to be both pushing and pulling at America at the same time.

    Only Willie could recreate the patriotic tension he sympathetically achieved with his recording of “The City of New Orleans” earlier in the decade.

    David Lynn Jones represents a peek at an alternate country music trajectory had Travis’ “1982” not taken off the way it did after being re-released to radio for a second go round.

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