Maybe This Will Change Their Tune(s)
November 20, 2014
Somewhere lost in the two-week shuffle that included a CMA Awards show and questions about why the Hell Ariana Grande was even there, then buried deep below the recent conversation about Taylor Swift versus Spotify (not touching that one), I've been meaning to address something else equally puzzling if not troubling to me.
Of course, I'm talking about ABC-TV's pre-CMA special, "15 Songs That Changed Country Music," which aired Monday, November 3rd.
According to the ABC-TV website, criteria for songs selected followed, "Months of research and input from Country music insiders, veteran experts and numerous Country music artists."
Wow, and they still got it mostly wrong.
For one thing, only 15 songs? I guess that fits snugly into a one-hour special but c'mon! There are way more than 15 songs that shifted the Country music landscape. So, after days of research, soul-searching and memory jogging with input from the talented and boyishly good-looking trio of me, myself and I, the list has been modified to more accurately reflect the historic context of Country music and its seismic changes as seen through MY lens. To make this as close to an apples-to-apples conversation as possible, I have adhered to the 15-song format -- under protest.
The list should really be much longer.
But hey, as the show's host and ABC-TV "Good Morning America" anchor Robin Roberts said, "It's all open for debate." So let's do just that, shall we?
I'll include the original 15 at the bottom of today's column. Here's my list:
- "He Stopped Loving Her Today" by George Jones -- Only one argument regarding this song on the list. I have it as #1 and I don't think I'm the Lone Ranger here in considering this perhaps the greatest-ever Country song. Ever. It's also one of the saddest Country songs and not his only great Country weeper. For my money, Jones also cut another absolutely devastatingly sad song: 1974's "The Grand Tour."
- "I Fall To Pieces" Patsy Cline. ABC's list had "Crazy" instead of this and they ranked it #1. See my #1 song for why this falls to #2. As for changing the song … well, you could flip a coin between the two -- when I flipped it, "I Fall To Pieces" won. It was Cline's first #1 hit and yes, "Crazy" was a masterpiece, but I believe the success of "I Fall To Pieces" set up "Crazy." It was one of the first country-pop crossovers for a female and is every bit the signature, standard song that "Crazy" is when one thinks of Patsy Cline.
- "Lovesick Blues" by Hank Williams. ABC picked "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Fact is, there are so many amazing, game-changing epically big songs from Williams, one could almost pick any of them. But "Lovesick Blues" was the first, real hit for him and set the tone for everything that followed. The list, according to ABC's website, did not necessarily have the best-selling or most classic songs. Is "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" a better song than "Lovesick Blues?" Well, ya, probably. But the list is "The 15 songs that CHANGED Country music. And per my criteria on Patsy Cline's "I Fall To Pieces," if "Lovesick Blues" is not a success, then neither is "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."
- "Friends In Low Places" by Garth Brooks -- the song that defined Country's '90s resurgence and set in motion a movement. No-brainer.
- "Folsom Prison Blues" by Johnny Cash. Yup, it belongs. Signature song that has been covered a zillion times and is nearly required set list material in a live Country music setting. This allowed Johnny Cash to eventually become The Man In Black.
- "Okie From Muskogee" by Merle Haggard. This replaces "Mama Tried" on the ABC list. Haggard is nearly in the Hank Williams category (for me, anyway) in that you can pick any number of songs that fit this criteria. I just don't think "Mama Tried," while one of my favorite Hag songs, fits. To me, the choice is either "Fightin' Side Of Me," or "Okie From Muskogee" and I'm going with "Okie," because it seems to define Haggard and his brand of music best.
- "Act Naturally" by Buck Owens -- first of 19 #1 singles, four weeks at #1 --- changed Country's sound in the '60s, made Buck Owens an international superstar. Arguably opened the door for Merle Haggard to gain success. Oh yea -- and the Beatles liked it enough to cover it. 'Nuff Said.
- "Forever & Ever Amen" by Randy Travis -- May not have officially launched the neo-traditionalist movement of the late-'80s -- his four-million-selling debut album, "Storms Of Life," triggered that -- but this lead single from Travis' sophomore "Always And Forever" certainly sent it into hyper-space in 1987. That said, if you've never sat down and listened to "Storms Of Life" in its entirety, you should be temporarily suspended from working in this format until you do.
- "Stand By Your Man" by Tammy Wynette. Another one that cannot be argued. Significant enough to have been chosen as the centerpiece song of Jack Nicholson's fantastic film, "Five Easy Pieces." More germane to this conversation, it was also a big crossover hit and made her a superstar. The song also continues to generate debate about whether it means women should be subservient to men and stick by them no matter what. I've always though Wynette addressed this point effectively and succinctly in the last line of the song when she said, "After all, he's just a man."
- "Jolene" by Dolly Parton -- ABC's choice of "I Will Always Love You" is a more famous song but the fact of the matter is this: Whitney Houston put it on the map in most people's minds. "Jolene" was Parton's second #1 single and also got airplay on pop and AC radio. It came from the album of the same name -- which also contained "I Will Always Love You." It's a game-changer because it helped to firmly establish Parton as a certifiable songwriting force.
- "Cruise" by Florida Georgia Line -- Hate on this selection and/or this song all you want, but convince me this didn't change Country music or start a movement. You can't, because it did both.
- "Good Hearted Woman" by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Two thoughts for why this song makes my list: Thought #1: This was "Bro-Country" more than 30 years before that term was coined. Thought #2: Waylon and Willie both belong on this list and probably as individuals, because each was a star and game-changer in his own right. But when they teamed up for the album "Wanted: The Outlaws!" and included this track, it crossed over and brought Country music commercial and critical acclaim.
- "Harper Valley PTA" by Jeanie C Riley -- This was an absolutely ginormous record that became a ubiquitous radio hit in 1968. So much so, that Riley became the first female artist to top the Country AND Pop charts. That feat was not matched until Dolly Parton's "9 To 5" in 1981. "Harper Valley" also sold six million copies as a single. Not downloads. Not streams. Nope. 'Cuz, see, those didn't exist in 1968. Six million people physically walked into to a place called "a record store" and purchased something called "a 45 RPM record." That's a lot of singles. That changed Country. Oh, yes it did.
- "All My Exes Live In Texas" by George Strait. ABC got something terribly wrong by leaving Strait off this list. This is another Hank Williams or Merle Haggard conversation. Pick almost any Strait song because he belongs here. But "All My Exes" is a solid choice because it is a great song with a great song title that got the attention of non-Country fans, who, when in need of instant trivia recall of Country music, could easily remember this song. Strait was already a huge star, with at least 10 #1 songs under his belt, but this song came around in 1987, about the same time as Travis' "Forever And Ever Amen." Travis gets credit for helping trigger the late-'80s "Neo-traditionalist" movement; in fact, Strait triggered an earlier version, by helping the format shake off the "Urban Cowboy" tag -- mainly because Strait was (and is) an ACTUAL cowboy.
- "Love Story" by Taylor Swift. When I was finalizing my list, the last two songs came down to this one and Loretta Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter." You may accuse me of Country music blasphemy for leaving Lynn off the list entirely (A longer list and she's definitely in), but -- just my opinion -- that song did more for Lynn that it did for Country music. Yes, it's a legendary tune and her signature song. But it made the world more aware of her personal narrative. "Love Story" catapulted Swift's career too, but in the process it made her specifically and Country music in general, an irresistible force for teenaged girls. That helped set in motion a movement for teen listening and engagement with Country. Further, because the song was released in 2008, some of those teens have since graduated into the 18-34 demo. Because they discovered Taylor and Country during their music intensive years, it's likely that Country music will always be at least part of their musical experience.
Original list of 15, as aired on ABC-TV Monday, November 3rd:
- "Crazy" by PATSY CLINE
- "He Stopped Loving Her Today" by GEORGE JONES
- "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" by HANK WILLIAMS
- "Friends In Low Places" by GARTH BROOKS
- "Folsom Prison Blues" by JOHNNY CASH
- "Mama Tried" by MERLE HAGGARD
- "The Gambler" by KENNY ROGERS
- "Stand By Your Man" by TAMMY WYNETTE
- "Independence Day" by MARTINA MCBRIDE
- "Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning" by ALAN JACKSON
- "Love Story" by TAYLOR SWIFT
- "Islands In The Stream" by DOLLY PARTON & KENNY ROGERS
- "Coal Miner's Daughter" by LORETTA LYNN
- "Live Like You Were Dying" by TIM MCGRAW
- "I Will Always Love You" by DOLLY PARTON