(Pictured: country singer Don Williams, 1980)
When I was a country DJ back in the late 70s and early 80s, Don Williams was one of my favorite singers. While other country stars churned out singles as if they were stamped out of a form, Williams’ records seemed more carefully made, with deeper lyrics and greater emotional resonance. He didn’t write many of his biggest hits—that list is otherwise studded with the work of Bob McDill, Wayland Holyfield, and Roger Cook, as well as John Prine, Dave Loggins, and Don Nix. But once he sang a song, in that big, warm, grandfatherly voice, it belonged to him.
Williams’ tally of hits is remarkable. He first charted in 1973, and he scored his first Top 10 with “We Should Be Together” in 1974. His next 32 singles would hit the Billboard country Top 10, and he would add 16 more between 1985 and 1991. In all, 17 would hit #1 on the country chart, including his version of Eric Clapton’s “Tulsa Time” in 1979. His biggest country hit, 1980’s “I Believe in You,” crossed over to the pop chart and reached #24. As country fashions changed in the 1990s, Williams fell out of favor, and he hasn’t charted a single in the States since 1992. He released an album every couple of years until 2004, but not again until 2012. Just this year, he released another, Reflections. At age 74, he’s one of those guys who seems as though he’ll keep doing what he’s always done forever, because he’s earned the right, and he’s damn good at it.
The song I want to write about here, however, is an anomaly. It’s the one that broke his decade-long streak of 33 straight Top 10s 30 years ago this fall. At first, you’d be forgiven for thinking “Maggie’s Dream” is just another song about a truck-stop waitress. She goes to work every day, banters with the truckers, collects the tips they leave, and dreams “a dream she’s had since she was 17 / To find a husband and be a wife.” But because one of Don Williams’ gifts is infusing a song with emotional subtext far beyond the mere words on the page, you soon realize there’s much, much more going on.
The mountains around Asheville
She’s never seen the other side
Closer now to 50 than to 40
I know a few things about music, but I don’t know the first damn thing about songwriting. I do know that what Dave Loggins and Lisa Silver do on “Maggie’s Dream”—or maybe it’s how Williams and his co-producer Garth Fundis decided to arrange it—packs a remarkable emotional wallop. I don’t know if you can call it a bridge or a middle eight or a verse performed differently or what it is precisely, but it comes at the very of the song. And given what we have learned about Maggie, and the mood Williams has created, it’s devastating:
And she relies upon the jukebox
0n the lonely afternoons
When the business starts to slow down
She plays the saddest tunes
And she stares off down the highway
And she wonders where it goes
Nobody to go home to
And it’s almost time to close
As we listen to the instrumental fade, and we watch Maggie looking out the window down the North Carolina highway, we realize what she must surely know—that the life of which she dreams will remain as mysterious to her as the other side of the mountains. That her dreaming will be as endless as the highway.
We don’t know the time of year in which “Maggie’s Dream” is set, but it’s got to be October.
Although “Birthday” is one of the most familiar songs in the Beatles’ catalog, they never scored a hit single with it. That distinction belongs to Underground Sunshine, whose bubblegum version of “Birthday” reached #26 on the Hot 100 in September 1969. It was a bigger hit in several places, hitting #1 at KIRL in St. Charles, Missouri, and reaching the Top 10 at both WLS and WCFL in Chicago, and also in St. Louis, Washington, San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, Oklahoma City, Omaha, Raleigh, Buffalo, New Orleans, Portland, Birmingham, Edmonton, Clarksburg (West Virginia), Gary (Indiana), and Council Bluffs (Iowa).
Underground Sunshine began as a three-piece band from Montello, Wisconsin, 65 miles north of Madison, made up of two brothers, drummer Frank and bassist Bert Koelbl (brothers who later changed their surname to Kohl) and guitarist Rex Rhode. They were managed by Madison radio personality Jonathan Little. Stories vary as to how they became a quartet. In Do You Hear That Beat?: Wisconsin Pop/Rock in the 50s and 60s, Little told author Gary E. Myers that he wanted the band to add keyboards to get a Doors-type flavor; Bert Kohl told Myers they needed a keyboard to play the solo on “Birthday.” However the need arose, the band ultimately met it within the family—Little’s sister Jane, a senior in high school who was dating Frank Kohl, got the gig. After Underground Sunshine recorded “Birthday” in Milwaukee and Little released it on his own label, he took advantage of his radio connections to get airplay for it. Before long, Mercury Records picked it up for national release on its Intrepid label.
After “Birthday,” Underground Sunshine bubbled under with a second single, “Don’t Shut Me Out.” An album, Let There Be Light (said to have been recorded in seven hours), reached #161 on the Billboard 200 in November 1969. It contained a cover of the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” as well as “Bad Moon Rising,” “Proud Mary,” and “Gimme Some Lovin'” (an eight-minute fuzz-tone guitar/organ freakout), plus an 11-minute psychedelic opus called “Take Me Break Me,” which appears in a short version on the B-side of “Don’t Shut Me Out.”
The seeds for Underground Sunshine’s sunset were planted practically from the beginning, when they made an agreement with a local backer who paid for their equipment in exchange for a 20 percent commission on whatever they made. That was fine for a band playing central Wisconsin bars for $100 a night, but not for a group with a national hit. Their lawyer advised them to break the agreement, which they did—although it cost them Rex Rhode, a close friend of the original backer, who quit only weeks before the band was scheduled to appear on American Bandstand. Rhode’s replacement was recruited via an ad in the Milwaukee Journal, a musician named Chris Connors. According to one member, Connors would play a key role in the band’s demise.
The story, as told to Myers, is a small-town rock ‘n’ roll Rashomon. Jonathan Little blamed substance abuse. Jane said it was partly a culture clash between “pretty innocent Montello High School kids” and Connors’ “Milwaukee ideas and big-time thoughts,” and partly her own distaste for the groupie scene they encountered on tour. “The whole thing was really tacky to me,” she said. Bert Kohl told Myers that Jane’s parents made her quit “because the rest of the band was using pot,” and that after Jane and Frank got married, she made Frank quit. Frank said that weed had nothing to do with it. “We did some pot but none of us are pot-heads,” he said. “How many bands back in the 60s did, in fact, smoke pot?” Frank blames the breakup on conflicts over the fact that Jonathan Little was making more money than the band members, a situation Bert echoed: “The biggest paycheck I ever got was $325, and I was doing an awful lot of work.”
Whatever the reason, Underground Sunshine was over by the end of 1970. By the early 90s, when Myers interviewed the members for his book, they looked back on it fondly. “I had a lot of great opportunities,” said Frank Kohl. “Got to see a lot of the country, got to see a lot of different things.” Bert Kohl said, “Even the way it was done, I would not trade anything for it.”
(Pictured: the Osmonds rock the hell out at the Rainbow in London during a 1972 tour. Could this have been the night a famous rock drummer met the band backstage?)
Here’s another list of things I wish I had written that have turned up on my Twitter feed over the last couple of weeks:
—It’s worth noting that only a small fraction of all the music ever recorded has been released on CD or otherwise preserved digitally. The vast majority was/is on physical media such as records, tapes, and cylinders, and physical media is subject to physical deterioration. (As are we all.) Vox discussed the work of sound archivists and their efforts to save important cultural history before it vanishes.
—You may not know Jim Marshall’s name, but you’ve seen his work, including the iconic photograph of Johnny Cash flipping off the camera. A new book of his photographs of the Haight Ashbury scene deserves a place on any coffee table.
—It’s occasionally noted that Bob Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” all by himself, and that John Lennon and Paul McCartney created some of the world’s most enduring music sitting on hotel beds by themselves, but the glorified rhythm tracks that become hit songs today often credit six or seven authors. It turns out there’s a reason for the proliferating credits, one both derived from and contributing to the fact that every pop record seems to sound the same as every other one.
—As part of its fascinating Steely Dan Sunday series, Something Else! Reviews has collected several outtakes and alternates and organized them into what would be a highly worthwhile new Steely Dan album, if Walt and Don were inclined to release it. Incline yourselves, Walt and Don.
—Glen Campbell is slipping away with Alzheimer’s Disease, but he’s managed to record a magnificent farewell called “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.” Unlike many singers of his age, Campbell has retained much of his range and still sounds very much like the singer he was 40 years ago—which makes his impending adios all the sadder.
—The new WKRP in Cincinnati complete series box set comes out at the end of the month. Shout! Factory has done heroic work trying to clear the original music, but they weren’t able to get permission for all of it. Thus the new set will contain some substitutions—and some other changes that run the gamut from understandable to bizarre. An intrepid poster at Home Theater Forum ran down the list of changes, which is fascinating. If you were already inclined to buy the set, do the changes have any effect on your decision?
—One of the highlights of the Ken Burns documentary Jazz is the segment on Coleman Hawkins’ recording of “Body and Soul,” a magnificent improvisation that represents a turning point in jazz history between big bands and bebop, was the first straight jazz recording to become a hit single, and is beautiful besides. It was recorded 75 years ago this month, and you should go and listen to it right now.
—You’d never guess that the Osmonds and Led Zeppelin had a mutual admiration thing going on, but they did. Read about “the secret history of Mormon heavy metal” here.
(Pictured: For two centuries, southern Illinois has sometimes been referred to as “Egypt.” To find out what that has to do with anything, read on.)
Fifty years ago, Martha and the Vandellas released “Dancing in the Street.” It first charted in August 1964 and reached #2 on the Hot 100 for the week of October 17, tucked in behind “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” by Manfred Mann. But it was #1 in many places, according to ARSA: New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Washington among them. It was widely recognized at the time as an emblem of the new consciousness of young people, especially young African Americans. Today’s it’s considered one of the pivotal recordings of the 60s, and is the subject of a pretty good new book.
But as we continue our monthly look back at 1964 as it was heard on WOKY in Milwaukee, we find that “Dancing in the Street” did not make #1 there. Neither did it reach #2. “Dancing in the Street” never appears on a WOKY chart, not even for a week. I’d love to know why.
Also not appearing on the WOKY survey, at least for the week of October 10, 1964: the Beatles. It’s the second Fab-free week in a row; “Matchbox” and “Slow Down” appeared on the September 26 survey but were gone on October 3. Such a thing isn’t unprecedented: the Beatles were absent from the WOKY surveys dated June 27 and July 4 as well—the first weeks without the Beatles since “I Want to Hold Your Hand” debuted on the survey January 11. The Billboard Hot 100, always a bit behind the street, shows “Matchbox” at #18 and “Slow Down” at #25 for the week of October 10. “A Hard Day’s Night,” which departed the WOKY survey after the week of September 19, falls to #50 from #24. But that’s all for the Beatles, unless you count George Martin and His Orchestra with “I Should Have Known Better,” from the American soundtrack of A Hard Day’s Night, which is bubbling under at #111.
The British Invasion continues, however. At WOKY, Manfred Mann, Chad & Jeremy (“A Summer Song”), and the Honeycombs (“Have I the Right”) are all in the Top 10; the Nashville Teens (“Tobacco Road”), Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas, the Dave Clark Five, and Peter & Gordon are farther down the survey. On the Hot 100, “House of the Rising Sun” is still in the Top 20, and Gerry & the Pacemakers (“I Like It”) are at #41. “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks moves from #81 to #60, and the Zombies are at #101 with “She’s Not There.” Herman’s Hermits and Cilla Black are bubbling under, too.
Since July, the WOKY survey has been topped by a series of timeless classics: “Memphis,” “Rag Doll,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Where Did Our Love Go,” “House of the Rising Sun,” and “Oh Pretty Woman.” But during the entire month of October, the #1 song in Milwaukee was not quite so titanic: “Last Kiss” by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers. Only “I Want to Hold Your Hand” stayed longer at #1 to this point in 1964 (five weeks) and only the double whammy of the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” and “She’s a Woman” would equal its four weeks, later in the year.
All of this is introductory to what we really want to talk about: five other records on the WOKY survey that tell us something interesting 50 years later.
(Pictured: When I first heard Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” this is not how I guessed she would look.)
I spent last week in San Antonio, Texas. It is still summer down there—temperatures were well into the 90s for the first part of the week before moderating some Thursday through Saturday, but it was still necessary to run the hotel air conditioner continuously. I was told that it’s not all that unusual for it to be that hot in October—“we really have only two seasons.” That is: hot summer and a cool winter, where it must occasionally get cold enough for the bridges to freeze, because every bridge on every highway has a sign warning of it. Autumn, in which the trees change color, is not one of San Antonio’s seasons. As my flight approached Madison yesterday, it was lovely to see it again.
A former colleague of mine does mornings on a hot AC station in San Antonio, so I listened to her station a bit, and something struck me about contemporary pop music that I had never noticed before: the guitar is no longer an important instrument. You might catch one strumming here and there, but old-fashioned guitar solos are gone. In fact, mid-song instrumental breaks of any kind have grown rare. This isn’t so obvious on a station like one I work for, Magic 98, which plays a lot of 70s and 80s music and does not consider its brand of AC to be “hot.” But based on evidence of my friend’s station, where it was two days before I heard anything older than “Call Me Maybe,” the typical pop record is drum-driven now. Nearly everything has a pronounced, pounding beat, even records that are ostensibly ballads.
And here’s something else: although critics of pop music from the Beatles on forward made fun of all the yeah-yeah-yeahs, it seems to me there’s more of that now than ever before. It’s as if songwriters are going for hooks you can shout along with, all whoa-whoa-whoa or oh-oh-oh, with nothing like meaning to get in the way. Or is it that lyricists have so little to say that words aren’t even required?
I am a guy in his 50s, so I am not the target audience for hot adult contemporary. I’m not supposed to like it. But just as fish don’t know that they’re wet, the hot AC target audience, women aged 18 to 35, may not even realize how much has changed over the last couple of decades. For somebody like me, whose paradigm for music is vastly different, it wears thin in about an hour.
But it wasn’t terrible. I’m proud of my former colleague, who got a great break and is working hard to keep it. And I finally got to hear “All About That Bass,” a hook monster that’s the best new thing I’ve heard in years.
I spent most of my time in San Antonio listening to an oldies station, because of course I did. This one was exclusively 70s and 80s, pretty clearly aimed at a female audience, with lots of rhythmic pop and disco records. But if that’s what led to them playing “Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel” on back-to-back days when I happened to be listening, then it’s all good.
I did a bit of sightseeing when I wasn’t working. I went to the Alamo, because if you visit San Antonio and don’t go voluntarily, you’ll be arrested and taken there. On a day off, I drove up to Johnson City to visit President Lyndon Johnson’s birthplace, boyhood home, his ranch, and the fabled Texas White House. And I drank all the Texas-made beer I could hold: any list of good beer towns that doesn’t include San Antonio is a weak and sorry thing.
And now I’m back home, back in the embrace of a Wisconsin October, which is the only place I ever really want to be.
(Pictured: Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line. Not your mama’s country singers.)
Country music has always been a battleground of styles. The following badly oversimplifies the history, but here we go: Country fans of the 50s had little use for the softer “countrypolitan” sound that dominated the 60s and early 70s, and many rejoiced when the outlaw movement of the mid-70s brought more traditional sounds back. But outlaw country didn’t transform anything for good, and a good deal of country music remained heavily pop-oriented until late in the 80s, when new traditionalists like Randy Travis and Lyle Lovett gained popularity. But in the 90s, first Garth Brooks and later Shania Twain (and her producer/husband Mutt Lange, who had guided the careers of Foreigner and Def Leppard) redefined what mainstream country meant. In the early oughts, pop-oriented guys like Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley charted alongside throwbacks like Alan Jackson. No matter the level of creative tension, however, you were always able to draw a line from the contemporary stars back to the people on whose shoulders they stood, whether that was Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Reba McEntire, or stars from even earlier days.
But in recent years there’s come a remarkable break in the history of country music. In 2011, Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” became the first major hit to incorporate rhythmically spoken verses, a style incongruously imported from hip-hop and rap music. It wasn’t long before Aldean released a version on which he collaborated with Ludacris, and it started a flood of country songs with hip-hop elements. This has resulted in some pretty odd music, and it’s not just younger stars making it. In 2013, Tim McGraw, who began as a thoroughly mainstream country singer in the mid 90s, released “Southern Girl,” on which he slathered himself in levels of auto-tune generally heard only on rap records.
Break number two: the 2012 single “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line. Apart from the vocal—an exaggerated drawl—and an ostentatious banjo, there’s nothing country about “Cruise.” It’s a loud, riff-heavy record aimed at young listeners—and aggressively putting off older ones. “Cruise” arrived at the precise moment Billboard modified its chart rules to give extra credit to records that cross over. The change seems nutty, boosting a record higher up the country chart based on how well it does on other, non-country charts—but the net result was to make “Cruise” the longest-running #1 song in the history of country music.
The success of “Dirt Road Anthem” and “Cruise” had the effect of freeing country singers, songwriters, and record labels from stylistic limitations—and from country’s history. Blake Shelton famously claimed this was natural evolution that only “old farts” would resist, but it represents much more than that. Country music has become whatever country labels release and country radio stations will play, no matter what it sounds like. This trend began in the oughts with Carrie Underwood (even though the most country thing about her was that she dated the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys) and continued with Taylor Swift. But it’s only within the last two years that the trend has become the norm. Sam Hunt’s current hit “Leave the Night On” might have been released to adult contemporary radio five years ago without changing one thing about it. It’s on country radio in 2014 because country is the mass-appeal pop format of the moment.
As a sometime-country DJ and a card-carrying old fart, I like some of what I’m hearing right now. Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, Eric Church, and the Zac Brown Band are remarkably good. Shelton and Toby Keith can be, when they choose good songs, but they don’t always. Gary Allan would have been a star in any decade. Despite what I’ve said about it here, I even like “Dirt Road Anthem.” But I often find myself wishing country would stop chasing fads and ignoring its history. And maybe also pick up a damn fiddle now and then.