Saturday, September 7, 2019
September Is Country Music Month (The Middlin' Seventies)
Country music in the seventies was such a schizophrenic time, it's almost impossible to sum up the decade in one post. Whereas in pop music, the sixties could be separated by a solid line right through the middle of the decade, the seventies in country music are more like thirds, or even fourths.
In 1970 Merle Haggard was still at his peak, with The Fightin' Side of Me; Conway Twitty had re-recorded and had a monstrous hit with Hello Darlin'; Ray Price had For The Good Times.
'71 saw Easy Loving by Freddie Hart; Sammi Smith's recording of Kristofferson's Help Me Make It Through The Night was huge. Conway and Loretta teamed up and recorded After The Fire Is Gone.
By 1972 record labels began flexing their muscle, and radio suffered the consequences. Even Merle and Faron Young became a bit poppier, with Carolyn and It's Four In The Morning, respectively. And the cringe-worthy Happiest Girl In The Whole USA shot to number one.
'73 still had some gems, like Charlie Rich's Behind Closed Doors, but it also produced dogs like Teddy Bear Song.
By 1974 we saw the likes of Olivia Newton-John and John Denver, pop singers, take over the charts. Even many of country's stalwarts buckled to record company demands and recorded covers of pop hits ~ it wasn't a good look. On the list of the top 100 singles of 1974 it's almost impossible to find a true country track. One of the only bright spots of that year was the emergence of a new guy named Ronnie Milsap.
And 1974 is kind of where I stopped.
I didn't stop completely, but I began to wean myself. The preset button on my car radio no longer landed on the country station. The emotion I most distinctly recall is disgust. I truly believed country music was gone forever, and it wasn't right. I'd given almost a decade of my musical existence over to country; had grown to cherish it, and it went and knifed me. Most of the country music I was even familiar with by now was the pond scum featured on network variety shows ~ Convoy by CW McCall and Rhinestone Cowboy by Glen Campbell.
One could find some real country if they searched long and hard enough. Gary Stewart and a new girl singer, Emmylou Harris, were recording real country. Merle even dipped a toe back in the country music brook. Then there was Gene Watson. I didn't miss out on these artists, because I became an album connoisseur and took a stab in the dark and plunked down three dollars and ninety-nine cents at Woolworth's solely on faith. Emmylou was giving corporate country a dainty middle finger and recording true country in the face of the pop-country pap radio was forced to play. Gene Watson was who he was, which was stone country, and take him or leave him, he reckoned. Gary Stewart was the hillbilly renaissance of Jerry Lee Lewis.
Around this time, Wanted: The Outlaws became a thing. Truth be told, The Outlaws was a compilation LP put together solely by a producer in Nashville. This was no concept album by any stretch. But it took over, much like the Urban Cowboy soundtrack hijacked the airwaves. I'd loved Waylon Jennings since 1967, so there was no "discovery". The Outlaws was a new Waylon, and I was okay with it; but it wasn't the "best country album of all time", regardless of what fable Rolling Stone Magazine tries to foist upon us.
And this is where my consumer story comes in. I grew weary of kneeling on the living room carpet to spin Gary and Emmylou on my mom and dad's castoff console stereo. The built-in fabric-covered speakers had one setting, and poor as I was, I was ready to step into the new audio world. One Saturday I scuttled off to a little sound shop ensconced inside a crumbling strip mall and innocently placed myself in the greasy salesman's hands. "This new Swedish company, Bang and Olufsen, has these speakers that are bad!" They were definitely ponderous, as was the price tag. Inside that little shop, everything sounded exactly the same, but boy, these B&O's were big! Oh well, I had my BankAmericard inside my crocheted shoulder bag. What the heck? Throw in that Technics turntable and the Pioneer receiver!
Merle's "Movin' On" LP did sound better on my new setup. Though there were few current albums worth purchasing, I made the most of what I already owned. As 1976 dawned, I discovered a couple of new artists who were different, and thus good. Eddie Rabbitt was one of those. Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers were the other.
'77 produced a hit that struck me, "Stranger" by Johnny Duncan with a nameless female singing strong backup (who we eventually would learn was named Janie Fricke). A group previously ensconced in gospel suddenly began releasing country singles. They went by the old-fashioned moniker of "Oak Ridge Boys". On the minus side, Dave and Sugar, a thoroughly stupid name, became huge, and yep, I fell for it, too. I bought their albums, even though it was impossible to keep up with their changing personnel.
1978 was mostly forgettable, except for the rise of another artist who would take country even further from its roots. Thanks, Kenny Rogers. And, of course, Barbara Mandrell scorched everyone's eardrums with "Sleepin' Single In A Double Bed". There was, though, John Conlee's "Rose Colored Glasses".
Nothing much changed in 1979. The cast of players didn't change. The only memorable hit was by a folk-pop group called "The Dirt Band". Gosh, whatever happened to those guys?
If a year produces at the most two great songs, I'd label that a failure, which is essentially my take on the seventies. I think my fondest memories of the seventies were albums by Julio Iglesias (seriously) and Marty Robbins (very seriously). Is it any wonder I threw my hands in the air and surrendered?
However, let's not just let the decade go without reviewing the best.
Bonus Track #2 (Rodney Crowell!):
Bonus Track #3:
1979 (written by Rodney Crowell):
Gotta use this one, because the song is not the same without Linda Ronstadt:
If one is an easy grader, the seventies weren't all that bad. If one has scruples, yea, the seventies were bad. But at least they brought us Gene Watson and Eddie Rabbitt and the Oaks.
I'll settle for that.