Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Spruced Up And Saved From Oblivion: Your Man For Fun In Rapidan's Fifty Greatest Country And Western Songs Of All Time!


1) The Critters, Mr. Dieingly Sad
On the surface a simple little song with a borrowed melody (from Paul Williams, no less), The Critters' masterpiece takes a turn down a very dark road about mid-song, and the next minute-and-a-half is a pure, harrowing cage match with Satan. No surprise: Satan wins, and before he's done with Mr. Dieingly Sad there's broken glass, a shotgun blast, and blood all over the walls.

2) Three Dog Night, One
Hank Williams' entire catalog boiled down to three minutes of existential longing. When the pedal steel starts raining tears after the last chorus you'll feel like you've never been in love, never felt the sun on your teeth, and never had a haircut you didn't regret.

3) Jim Stafford, Swamp Witch
Stafford's got something of a bum reputation as a novelty act, but 'Swamp Witch' ought to convince anyone who cares that the man has a hole in his dark soul that you could drive a Mack truck through. When I heard Jim sing this song at his theater in Branson I had shivers running up and down my spine, and some of the old buffet vultures around me were actually crying out in terror.

4) Charlie Rich, There Won't Be Anymore
This, in a nutshell, is what country music is really all about: a man makes a short, hopeless, declarative statement, and then sings it like he believes it.

5) Cat Stevens, Banapple Gas
Not what it sounds like or seems, neither of which I --or you-- could define. That said, it's something mighty special all the same. But, you ask, is it really country? You're damn right it is.

6) Red Sovine
, Teddy Bear
Sure, it's kind of corny: a little Teddy Bear gets abandoned in the woods, gets lost, is harassed by predators, gets hit by a pick-up, and finally finds happiness in the arms of a little girl. Yet in that little girl's willingness to overlook the bear's mangled limbs and missing eye there's a tidy and useful lesson for all of us. If this song doesn't get the tears flowing, you need to see a therapist to help you understand all the damage your parents did to you.

7) Terry Bradshaw, I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry
Make no mistake: Bradshaw was a great quarterback, and he's entertaining enough playing an unhinged whack-job on TV. But as this peerless interpretation shows, he's an even better country singer, and in Hank Williams' classic Bradshaw found an outlet for all the repressed feelings a professional athlete in America isn't allowed to express in public.

8) Sheena Easton, Morning Train
A classic song of abandonment made even more unforgettable by the reliable presence of the Jordanaires and the sizzling fiddle break provided by Vassar Clements. Also features an uncredited Leon Russell on piano.

9) Steve Miller Band, Abracadabra
'Abracadabra' shows that Miller obviously spent some time studying what Gram Parsons was up to, and there's a languid quality to the arrangement that would make this song right at home tacked onto the end of 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo.' Country --and rock and roll, for that matter-- is full of singers pining for some sort of magical remedy for lost love and broken hearts, but few of them get their hopes squashed so completely as Miller does here.

10) Oak Ridge Boys, Wasn't That A Party
It sure as Sam Hell was. 'Nuff said!

11) John Anderson, Swingin'
No roadhouse jukebox would be complete without a copy of this alternate lifestyle classic, a rare country song with lyrics as racy and erudite as anything in John Updike's randiest novels. You want to get a bar full of drunk fat folks dancin' and hollerin' along to the record player? Just punch up Anderson's deathless key-party stomp --mission accomplished!

12) John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, Tender Years
A beautiful version of 'Tender Years' that actually, miraculously, manages to wring more emotion out of the song than George Jones ever could. Before Hollywood stole his soul, Cafferty was a great, hugely underrated singer, and this may be his masterpiece.

13) The Tijuana Brass, The Lonely Bull
Country songs are full of people who have gotten drunk, cried in their beer, and slept in their clothes, yet in a genre steeped in all manner of lonely funk, fog, and fractured hearts, nobody ever got it so right as the Tijuana Brass. I hope like hell the boys in Calexico get down on their hands and knees every night and thank their version of God for Herb Alpert.

14) Dean Martin, Houston
There are scads of great versions of this song, but Martin's is the only one you need to own --unless, of course, you need confirmation of how great it really is.

15) Gilbert O'Sullivan, Alone Again (Naturally)
Sadder than a sack full of nothin', and if you've been drinking I'd strongly recommend you lock the gun cabinet before you drop the needle on the turntable.

16) Eric Carmen, All By Myself
Ibid.

17) Gary Wright, Dream Weaver
Just how completely fucking great is 'Dream Weaver'? You know the answer to that question as well as I do, so let's just move right along.

18) Randy Vanwarmer, Just When I Needed You Most
I'll admit this one has a bit of personal history behind it, but it still has the power to tear out my spleen and tattoo 'Oh, Fuck' on my buttocks every time I listen to it.

19) Victor Lundberg, An Open Letter To My Teenage Son
Raw, honest, unflinching, and powerful as a shot of monkey serum. If you're a parent --and I'm not-- I suspect it'll make a mess of you in a hurry and then make you a better man (or woman). Sort of like 'Blind Man in the Bleachers,' only different. No blind man, no bleachers, but the same desperate attempt to communicate something vaguely important.

20) Blues Image, Ride Captain Ride
This one might have ranked higher if the pale Marty McGraw cover version hadn't poisoned my memories of the original just a bit. Still, no road trip would be complete without it.

21) Ray Stevens, The Streak
Ok, so maybe this one falls under the 'Guilty Pleasure' category, but sometimes when I'm listening to music I just want to laugh, clap my hands, and sing along.

22) ZZ Top, Tush
An elegy, a prayer, a shout of praise, a cry in the darkness, a yelp of unabashed lust --how can one song be so many things? I don't know, but 'Tush' proves it can.

23) Sammy Hagar, Winner Takes All
Obscure gem from the soundtrack to an equally obscure Canadian Western starring Merlin Olsen, Susan Dey, and Herve Villechaize. Hagar takes an old chestnut and makes it all his own (with help from Mark Knopfler).

24) Will to Power, Baby, I Love Your Way/Freebird medley
It's the craziest idea in the world, and it shouldn't work, and it shouldn't be country, but I'll be damned if it doesn't and it isn't.

25) The Sweet
, Fox On The Run
Timeless song of a Nashville dream gone bust, complete with some of the most vivid bus station imagery in all of country music. You feel for this young girl as she falls into the clutches of a 'talent scout' and ends up snorting coke and starring in $500 porn movies. And you cheer for her (sort of) as she finds God.

26) Billy Idol, Hot In The City
The song that launched a million line dances still holds up pretty damn well, all things considered. All I know is that when I tossed it on the stereo at a party recently my guests erupted in a boot-scooting frenzy right there in my living room.

27) The Nashville Teens, Tobacco Road
Who says there's not a place for doo-wop in country music? Not me, not when it's steeped in the dust of gravel roads that go nowhere and the longing of small town teenagers everywhere. This one might be hard to find, but it's worth the journey.

28) Hank Locklin, Please Help Me, I'm Falling
Sex addiction, alcoholism, eating disorders, and codependency --it's all right here, years before Betty Ford ever crash landed at Hazelden. It's all right here, and it's all good in the way that only country music can make bad things good.

29) Styx, Miss America
There's so much going on in this song that I don't know where to begin. Taken on its own --and with the unstated I tacked onto the beginning-- it could be a lazy declaration of disillusionment. Add a question mark and you have a political statement lurking in a tossed-off query. But however you care to interpret Styx's dense, metaphorical rip through the American Dream, it all adds up to a pure, timeless classic of country music --and for once that's country in the broadest sense. Meaning: the place where all of us live.

30) Johnny Horton, The Battle of New Orleans
An epic of American heroism, and the sort of song that gets stuck in your head and drives you absolutely batshit fucking crazy. What 'Battle of New Orleans' demonstrates is that some things are worth fighting for, and some things that are worth fighting for are worth singing about. Also, implicit in this song, as in so much of the great country music I love: Don't fuck with America. Bonus points for rhyming 'beans' with 'New Orleans.'

31) Tom Jones, Green, Green Grass of Home
No list of the greatest country songs of all time would be complete without a contribution from the virile Welshman, who proved that a hirsute wanker could belt out an American classic with all the style and emotional nuance of a Nashville pro.

32) Pat Benatar, Hell is for Children
In one of country music's finest examples of method acting --or maybe, God help her, she wasn't acting-- Benatar wrings every ounce of pain out of this succinct and wrenching portrait of rural poverty and child abuse. 'Hell is for Children' is a rare example of a country song that dares to tackle social issues without resorting to trailer trash cliches and self pity.

33) Spandau Ballet, True
Tremendous song that touches on country's timeless themes of fidelity, infidelity, and the broken hearts that result when tortured souls venture down to the dark end of the street.

34) Curtis Mayfield, If There's A Hell Below We're All Going To Go
Mayfield's forays into country deserve to be placed next to Ray Charles's 'Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music' on your shelf, but chances are you --and millions of other people-- never even heard them. Here he tosses salvation out the window and wages a wrestling match with sin in which we're all losers. This is a record the Louvin Brothers might have recorded, and if they ever update the splendid 'Goodbye Babylon' set Mayfield deserves a place on the roster.

35) Tommy James and the Shondells, I Think We're Alone Now
One man, one woman, a bottle of Jack Daniels, and a long night of lovin', Tommy James style. Dim the lights, and cue up a little Ed Ames or Ray Price.

36) Neil Sedaka, The Diary
This one seems so obvious at first listen, but listen again: Sedaka's predicament (he finds his faithless lover's diary) is a familiar one, but what he does with this discovery is satisfying and surprising beyond belief. You'll find yourself thinking: I wish I'd thought of that.

37) Jay Ferguson, Thunder Island
What a wonderful metaphor. I think it was John Donne who said 'No man is an island,' and Jay Ferguson might be inclined to agree. A man and a woman, however, now that's a different story, and Ferguson's artful exploration of the pure, tempestuous oblivion of sex is country music's Song of Solomon.

38) REO Speedwagon, Keep the Fire Burning
When it feels like love is slipping away, Speedwagon's 'Keep the Fire Burning' is the perfect lover's plea that'll remind you both of what's at stake and why it's worth fighting for. A nice antidote to D-I-V-O-R-C-E, and one of Owen Bradley's most sumptuous productions.

39) Fats Domino, Jambalaya
It should be apparent by now that I'm bending over backwards here to avoid the obvious choices, but I'd emphasize that this isn't purely a perverse attempt to be contrary. I love Hank Williams as much as the next guy, but his music is now so familiar that it's become like the wallpaper in this room, and more often than not when I get a hankering for Hank I turn to one of his countless interpreters for a fresh spin on the master's music. Domino's take on 'Jambalaya' is about as fresh as it gets.

40) Carol Douglas, Doctor's Orders
It's not often a doctor dispenses practical advice of the sort Ann Landers routinely dishes out, but Carol Douglas had a damn good doctor, and the advice he gave her would have proved useful (and would still prove useful) to country's legion of unhappy women: get rid of that man. Of course such advice sounds a bit like common sense when the man in question has infected you with syphilis.

41) Terry Jacks, Put the Bone In.
The flipside to the smash 'Seasons in the Sun' is a classic of country cooking (Jacks is ostensibly talking about a pork and beans recipe), with a filthy insinuation that takes it over the top.

42) The Alan Parson Project, Eye in the Sky
The anthem for all those paranoid peckerwoods holed up in the mountains out west, as well as the anti-government tax-dodging zealots all over the country. Despite the fact that 'Eye in the Sky' was allegedly found in the car that Timothy McVeigh was driving when he was arrested, it's still a powerful song that taps into some of the anger and distrust that is lurking out there in country's heartland, and as such is a nice counterpoint to the jingoism of Lee Greenwood et al.

43) Cream
, White Room
A clear-eyed account of the aftermath of a debauched night on the town that ends in a detox cell. In the sorrow of the hungover protagonist, a man who has let everything slip away, you can hear the echoes of everyone from Hank Williams to George Jones.

44) Foreigner, Dirty White Boy
White trash exploitation songs don't come any more unsavory than this one, the sad tale of a backwoods Don Juan who makes his reputation deflowering virgins and cuckolding husbands. Despite the obvious relish with which Foreigner serves up the nasty details, there's a morality play at work here, and justice is ultimately served. Marty Robbins for people who don't know who the hell Marty Robbins is.

45) Thompson Twins, King For A Day
Another tale of a roadhouse Lothario who comes into a boodle of cash (an inheritance of some sort, I think, although the song is vague on this point) and lives high on the hog for a day. This is essentially the old story of money burning a hole in a man's pocket, and though you know exactly what's coming --the guy squanders every last dime on liquor, women, and riverboat casino slots-- it's a hugely entertaining yarn all the same. Almost sounds like something Hank Jr. might have coughed up in his prime.

46) Jody Reynolds, Endless Sleep
Easily the best of the tributes to Hank Williams that flooded the country market after his death. Its timelessness is a product of its ability to tap into the anguished fuck-up's ancient longing for peace and serenity. It almost makes you wish you were dead, and that's as high a tribute to a great country song as anything I can think of.

47) Rick Astley
, Cry For Help
Astley's one great, defining song, and one of the finest things to come out of Nashville in the last 20 years. It's exactly what it says, and more. As pitiless and pitiful a performance as anything in the dense catalog of blues, soul, and country. Unfortunately no one heard Astley's cry, or realized how raw and real it really was, and he'll be remembered --if he's remembered at all-- as one more great talent who died too young.

48) Melanie, Brand New Key
Great off-kilter take on the theme of a woman who's had enough of a philandering lover. Beyond the central metaphor (a revelation that will open up a whole new world for the protagonist), there's an entertaining tale in which the woman changes the locks on the house while her soon-to-be ex is out drinking and carousing with his pals. The locksmith, of course, is more than willing to participate in the woman's liberation, and what ensues --Melanie is clever enough to make you use your imagination a bit-- is straight out of Penthouse Forum.

49) Foghat, Stone Blue
A fat slab of the bluest country you'll ever hear, delivered with typical butt-kicking whump by the titans from Fenniman, Mississippi. The record industry, and its attempts to remake them in the mold of Alabama, ultimately wrecked Foghat, but before the weasels got their hands on them they were one of the most volatile live acts in all of country.

50) Consumer Rapport, Ease On Down The Road
Country music has always been full of songs about people leaving things behind--lovers, families, dead-end jobs, jerkwater towns. Sometimes these characters are leaving to pursue a dream elsewhere; often they're just getting the hell out of town. It's a liberation theme that has resonated with countless people trapped in lives of quiet desperation, and it's certainly not unique to country. It's interesting to note, however, that 'Ease On Down The Road' beat 'Born to Run' to the charts by five months, and it's a more stoic, laidback version of Springsteen's anxious, revved-up classic. The guys in Consumer Rapport don't know where they're going, and they don't much care, just as long as it's somewhere else. 

1 comment:

  1. Contrary and obscure much? One thing I like about your work is that it's not all just what I expected, yet not aggressively opaque. I am aware I just contradicted myself. I would have thought living in the Southwest all those years would have given me a more comprehensive knowledge of country music, but obviously not.
    And Reba McIntire's Fancy? No? Maybe that's more a girl song.

    ReplyDelete