Top 5: Sock It to ‘Em

Of the more than 19,000 radio station music surveys currently available at the fabulous Airheads Radio Survey Archive (ARSA), only about 20 are from country stations. One of them is from WIL in St. Louis, dated August 12, 1968. It would be a year or so before country records began crossing over to the pop chart in droves, in one of those periodic embraces of country by the mass-appeal Top 40 audience. But in the summer of 1968, country music—in St. Louis, at least—was a country unto itself. Not only were there few pop crossovers, but not many of these songs remained mainstays of the country library after they dropped off the charts. Yet I’m sure we can find five interesting tunes on the survey nevertheless.

1. “What Made Milwaukee Famous”/Jerry Lee Lewis (holding at 1). After a fallow period that lasted for most of a decade, the Killer reinvented himself as a country singer and scored hits consistently throughout the 1970s. The full title of this song is “What Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out Of Me),” and it was covered by Rod Stewart and Commander Cody.

3. “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife”/Glen Campbell (up from 6). This domestic anthem, which twangs not a whit, crossed over to the pop charts. It treats the “everyday housewife” condescendingly (“she picks up her apron in little-girl fashion”) but also suggests that her life didn’t have to turn out like it did—even though the alternate future the singer imagines for her is mostly a higher class of domesticity. (Perhaps she’d manage the household staff instead of being the household staff.) In the late summer of 1968, Campbell was poised for a leap to major stardom: his next two singles would be the iconic “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston.”

5. “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”/Tammy Wynette (down from 12). Talk about mainstays of the country library. “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” the lead single and title song of Wynette’s latest album, remains one of the greatest weepers in country history. The second single, which would come out in September, was “Stand By Your Man,” which practically defines what country music is all about. Go and listen to it, even if you think you know it. If the little hairs on the back of your neck don’t stand up when she sings the refrain, check your pulse. It’s one of the rare things in this life that’s absolutely perfect.

20. “Mama Tried”/Merle Haggard (up from 26). “Mama Tried” stayed on country playlists for years after 1968, and I remember it made quite an impression on me when I heard it on my parents’ radio station in the early 70s: “I turned 21 in prison doin’ life without parole/No one could steer me right but mama tried.” Haggard’s popularity from the mid 60s through the mid 70s was stunning: every single he released between 1966 and the middle of 1977 made the country Top Ten, and 25 of them reached Number One. By late 1969, Hag would be crossing over to pop: “Okie From Muskogee” would just miss the Top 40.

43. “Harper Valley PTA”/Jeannie C. Riley (debut). It’s widely forgotten now what an earthquake “Harper Valley PTA” was in the late summer and fall of 1968. It debuted at Number 81 on the Hot 100 dated August 24, then made an astounding leap to Number 7 the next week—a record for biggest one-week jump that wouldn’t be broken until the Soundscan era. It would reach the Number One slot on the Hot 100 on September 21, 1968 and spend three weeks one week at the summit. It is a record that quite literally everyone knew about in the fall of 1968. And all these years later, it still sounds pretty damn good, chock full of hooks and rich with the sly humor characteristic of songwriter Tom T. Hall. Even after 42 43 years, while Jeannie C.’s mama socks it to those Harper Valley hypocrites, you’re still cheering her on.

5 responses

  1. I was a country DJ from 1994-’96 and grew to really admire the form, especially the stuff from the 1960s/70s.

    Campbell’s ode to the domestic goddess aside, the other four songs are as good of an introduction to what country music should be as any.

  2. As a performer, Tom T. Hall was average, best known for “I Love.” It reached #12 on The Billboard Hot 100 and #2 on Adult Contemporary in 1974. He had seven tunes he performed that made it to #1 on the Country Singles chart, including “I Love” and “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died.” My favorite Hall song is “I Like Beer.”

    As a country music songwriter, “The Story Teller” is on the A-List. He has written 11 #1 hit songs, with 26 more that reached the Top 10 on the Country charts. He wrote Alan Jackson’s 1996 hit, “Little Bitty.” He also hosted the syndicated country music TV show “Pop! Goes the Country” in 1980.

  3. “Harper Valley P.T.A.” spent only one week atop the Hot 100, after which it was bulldozed by that seven-plus-minute Beatles juggernaut. Had “Jude” come later, the P.T.A. might’ve ruled the roost for four weeks.

    Developing and highlighting special, non-regular playlist music features for the morning show of a late-’80s oldies/classic hits hybrid was part of my music director responsibilities. I used “Harper”‘s 81-to-7 jump as the tease for featuring the song one morning. Rather than appreciating the “wow, I never would’ve guessed *that* one in a million years” reaction most listeners would have had, the general manager seemed more displeased with having heard that *particular* non-playlist song in morning drive. Sound familiar?

    “Harper Valley”‘s message is timeless, even if a couple of its ’50s and late-’60s cultural references seem a little more weathered. But while ‘Peyton Place’ may no longer seem any more scandalous than your typical “reality” show, has any record ever had a better literal punch line?

  4. Not sure where I got three weeks at #1 for “Harper Valley PTA.” Clearly I should not blog early in the morning, or late at night . . . or anytime, really.

  5. “Harper Valley PTA” was #! for 3 weeks on the country chart–maybe that’s what got you confused?

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