(Pictured: Mel Tillis.)
You gotta pick your spots. For example, I am not the person to write an appreciation of AC/DC’s Malcolm Young, who died over the weekend. David Cassidy is more my speed, but he is still with us at this writing, so that piece can wait. Here, then, are a few words about Mel Tillis, who died Sunday at age 85. I do not intend this blog to become a country-music blog, even though this makes something like five country-themed posts in the last couple of months, but as I say, you gotta pick your spots.
Mel Tillis was the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year in 1976, so he fits with a broader obsession at this blog. And he must have been a dark horse to win that year—the other nominees were Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Ronnie Milsap, and Dolly Parton, all of whom scored #1 hits in 1975 and/or 1976, while Mel did not. Up to that point, he’d been #1 only once, with a version of Webb Pierce’s “I Ain’t Never” in 1972, although he’d scored 17 other Top 10 hits between 1969 and 1976. The week after the 1976 CMAs, in October, his “Good Woman Blues” hit #1, and it started the best streak of his career: 15 straight Top 10 hits between 1976 and 1981, including four #1 singles.
In 1979, I was on the radio in Dubuque, playing country music. Mel’s “Coca Cola Cowboy” was one of the biggest songs of that summer, doing a week at #1 in August. Earlier that year, “Send Me Down to Tucson,” a fabulous cheatin’ song, had gone to #2. (Both were heard in the Clint Eastwood movie Every Which Way But Loose.) Another of his songs, the 1977 hit “I Got the Hoss,” was a frequent request, for reasons that become obvious when you hear it. The Top-10 hits that followed “Coca Cola Cowboy” were successful but not especially memorable—as I look at the list, I can’t call any of then back to mind. Mel cut an album with Nancy Sinatra in 1982, and he hit the country singles chart for the last time in 1989. His last studio album came out in 2010.
Mel did a bit of acting too, first appearing as a country singer in a 1973 episode of Love American Style, if IMDB can be believed. He was in several Burt Reynolds movies: W. W. and the Dixie Dancekings, Smokey and the Bandit, Cannonball Run, and Cannonball Run II. He also appeared in commercials, most famously for the Whataburger chain. He was a popular guest on talk and variety TV shows during the last half of the 70s, and his visibility likely contributed to his Entertainer of the Year win in ’76. His visibility also made him the most famous stutterer in America, and as a person who shares that affliction (although not to the degree he had it), I admired his perseverance, and his willingness to make fun of it.
In 1981, a group of us from college attended a national radio convention in Chicago. Willie Nelson was supposed to headline a concert one night, but he was taken ill, and the organizers had to scramble to find a replacement. Mel flew in on short notice and did the show, telling the audience that he owed so much of his success to radio that he was happy to make the trip. I used to have an autograph he signed that night, but like a lot of stuff from that era, it’s long gone.
Listening to Mel Tillis again, I’m reminded—and surprised—at just how great so many of his records were, so perfectly in the pocket for their time.
On the subject of those who have recently left the planet . . . .
(Pictured: Elton John and Rod Stewart on the soccer pitch.)
Radio Rewinder is a fascinating Twitter feed that somehow has only a few more followers than I do. It posts old record charts, pictures of radio personalities, and other ephemera very appealing to a geek such as I. A post the other night was a scan of the Billboard Hot 100 chart for the week of November 13, 1976.
As I look at this chart, I get the same sensation I used to get from reading baseball box scores, standings, and the long lists of hitting and pitching leaders that ran in the Sunday paper. It represents a record of what mattered at that moment, and who, a repository of truths (and illusions), and the raw material from which an infinite number of stories could be told.
I won’t make you wade through an infinite number, but you can find a few on the flip.
(Pictured: country singer Lacy J. Dalton, a muse of sorts, on stage in 1983.)
In November 1982, I was the afternoon guy at KDTH in Dubuque, nine months into my first full-time radio job. I was lucky to start my career at a place like that, a 5,000-watt full-service AM with a storied history, a staff full of talented veterans, and a deep reach into the community’s heart.
Unfortunately, when you are in your early 20s, what you don’t know causes you to think and act in ways you later wish you hadn’t. You choose the roads you take based on where you think they will lead you, even though the destination you imagine is by no means promised to you. What you don’t know is not really ignorance: it’s the stuff that youth and inexperience make it impossible for you to know. So it wasn’t that I failed to appreciate my good fortune, the stroke of luck it took to get the job and the world of stuff I could learn there. I did appreciate it, to the extent that I was able to understand that I should, but I know now that it wasn’t a very great extent.
KDTH played mostly country music by the fall of 1982, although a few pop hits were routinely sprinkled in. As I look at the country chart for this week in that year, I can’t remember some of the songs. For example, the #1 song 35 years ago this week, “You’re So Good When You’re Bad” by Charley Pride, barely registers. I remember “War Is Hell (On the Homefront Too)” by T. G. Sheppard a lot better. It sat at #3 for the week, and is about a young horndog who ends up in the sack with an older woman, the wife of a soldier gone off to World War II. If I’m recalling correctly, KDTH made the decision not to play the record on Veterans Day that year.
Several songs playing on KDTH that November were on the pop chart as well: “Break It to Me Gently” by Juice Newton, “The One You Love” by Glenn Frey, Michael Martin Murphey’s “What’s Forever For,” and “Nobody” by Sylvia (not the same Sylvia famed for “Pillow Talk”). None of them are songs I hear regularly now; on the rare occasions when I do hear them, each of them can turn me, in small ways, back into the 22-year-old kid I used to be. I didn’t listen to KDTH or to country when I wasn’t at work. In the car or at home, if I wasn’t listening to our Top 40 sister station D93, I’d be listening to WLS. Fleetwood Mac’s “Gypsy,” “Southern Cross” by Crosby Stills and Nash, “Steppin’ Out” by Joe Jackson, “Pressure” by Billy Joel, and Donald Fagen’s “I.G.Y” can take me back to that season as reliably as the songs I was playing on the radio myself.
One of the top country songs 35 years ago this week was “16th Avenue” by Lacy J. Dalton, one of seven Top-10 country hits she scored between 1980 and 1983. Dalton sounded a little like Bonnie Raitt, although her voice was thinner, and she’d occasionally lapse into a Melissa Etheridge rasp that was unusual back then. While not all of her singles were especially memorable, “16th Avenue” was, about dreamers who come to Nashville seeking fame and fortune. Written by Thom Schuyler, it would be nominated for Song of the Year by the Country Music Association.
But then one night in some empty room
Where no curtains ever hung
Like a miracle some golden words
Roll off of someone’s tongue
And after years of being nothing
They’re all looking right at you
And for a while they’ll go in style
On 16th Avenue
Thirty-five years ago this month, I was on the radio at last after dreaming of it for many years, getting paid to make golden words roll off my tongue, I thought. And after a few years of being nothing—an afternoon jock in Dubuque, Iowa, for example—they’d all be looking right at me, I thought.
But the destination I imagined was by no means promised to me. And I didn’t yet know enough to know that.
(Pictured: Country star George Jones in the 1970s.)
So I was looking through radio station music surveys at ARSA, as one does, and I found one from country station KCKN, AM 1340 in Kansas City, Kansas, dated October 30, 1970. Here’s a lot on it that echoes stuff we’ve talked about here recently, so let’s see how much of it we can get to before this post becomes too long for you to stand.
1. “For the Good Times”/Ray Price. On the country charts since 1952 and one of country’s biggest stars in the 1960s, Price crossed over to the Hot 100 11 times, and the beautiful “For the Good Times” went all the way to #11.
2. “Fifteen Years Ago”/Conway Twitty. As mentioned here just last week.
3. “It’s Only Make Believe”/Glen Campbell. Which, as I wrote in my Campbell tribute last summer, stomps Twitty’s original recording into a fine powder.
6. “Thank God and Greyhound”/Roy Clark. The first half is a lament by a man whose lover is leaving him; the second half goes in an entirely different direction. “Thank God and Greyhound” is the kind of country songcraft you don’t hear on the radio much anymore.
11. “Coal Miner’s Daughter”/Loretta Lynn. Not merely a landmark in the history of country, but a great song, period, regardless of genre or era. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” is an authentically vivid picture of family life and family love.
12. “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”/Elvis Presley. Debuting on KCKN’s Fabulous 50 at this lofty position, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” didn’t make Billboard‘s country chart at all, but it went to #11 on the Hot 100.
13. “Snowbird”/Anne Murray. Her first American hit, and another highly successful pop crossover; it had reached #8 on the Hot 100 at the end of September.
16. “The Preacher and the Bear”/Jerry Reed. “The Preacher and the Bear” was the flipside of the better-known “Amos Moses,” which would become both a pop and country smash, and a cleaned-up version of a song that was, for a time, the most popular that the American recording industry had ever produced. In 1905, the original recording of “The Preacher and the Bear” by Arthur Collins spent 11 weeks at #1 according to Joel Whitburn’s accounting of the primordial charts. It sold two million copies, a figure not exceeded until the 1920s. Collins’ original refers to the preacher as a “coon” and uses an exaggerated black dialect—which, of course, Reed’s does not. As the racist genre of “coon songs” went, the original was pretty mild, but still.
19. “Morning”/Jim Ed Brown. I have mentioned before that “Morning” was a record my mother adored, so much so that one of us bought her the 45 for Christmas that year. Never mind the fact that it’s a fairly explicit cheatin’ song—it’s a beautiful one.
21. “A Good Year for the Roses”/George Jones. “A Good Year for the Roses” (covered by Elvis Costello in 1981) tells a poignant and powerful story through a series of images and observations, but requires us to interpret them. It’s a superb piece of writing—again, the kind of songcraft that’s largely missing from mainstream country and pop music today—and would probably be the greatest thing George Jones ever did were it not for his 1980 hit “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
37. “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down”/Johnny Cash. Like “A Good Year for the Roses,” “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down” leaves its meaning for us to discern, although I’ve been listening to it for 47 years now and I still haven’t gotten to the bottom of it. Like “For the Good Times,” it was written by Kris Kristofferson.
44. “I’ve Cried”/Crystal Gayle. Her first chart hit, as mentioned here not long ago.
49. “Asphalt Cowboy”/Sleepy LaBeef. From Smackover, Arkansas, this legendary rockabilly figure never hit the Billboard pop or country singles charts, and “Asphalt Cowboy” is one of only five listings of his among the 78,690 surveys on file at ARSA. But ever since 1979, when critic Peter Guralnick wrote about him in his book Lost Highway, he’s been considered one of the most important artists nobody knows.
KCKN was one of the first radio stations in Kansas, going on the air in 1925. It adopted a country format in 1957 and added an FM simulcast in the early 60s. In 1982, the AM and FM split, and the country format remained on FM. Today it’s known as KFKF. The station on 1340 in Kansas City today is KDTD, broadcasting a regional Mexican format.
When I wrote about Walter Becker and Steely Dan in September, I said that I’d made a list of favorite Dan songs but then decided to leave it out of the post, partly because it didn’t seem like the proper place for it, but also because any list I make is likely to change depending on what day it is. But a couple of people amongst the readership said they were interested in seeing it, so here it is.
10. “Change of the Guard.” Included for its bangin’ piano and a stereo-speaker-spanning guitar solo/shred by Skunk Baxter, this track from Can’t Buy a Thrill is the deepest cut on this list, with the possible exception of …
9. “Snowbound.” This is a ringer; it’s a cut from Donald Fagen’s 1993 album Kamarkiriad, and co-written by Becker, who produced the album. Of all the songs Fagen has recorded as a solo artist, this feels to me like the most Steely Dan-ish, every bit as lush and beautiful as anything on Aja or Gaucho.
8. “My Old School.” The closest Steely Dan ever got to a rave-up, “My Old School” is snide and joyful at the same time, which is not an easy daily double to hit.
7. “Parker’s Band.” A track from Pretzel Logic, and a tribute to Charlie Parker (“Kansas City born and growin’ / You won’t believe what the boys are blowin'”) and the jazz players Becker and Fagen grew up on.
6. “Any Major Dude With Half a Heart.” At least one Becker tribute I read (and there were a lot of them, so I can’t recall which one) labeled Steely Dan a part of the 1970s California rock scene, which doesn’t seem accurate to me. Their music is much more New York: darker, jazzier, and less obviously cocaine-dusted than what I associate with the California sound. But if you’re looking for something in their catalog that sounds like California in the 70s—something with a peaceful, easy feeling, perhaps—“Any Major Dude” is the closest you’ll get.
5. “Midnight Cruiser.” Steely Dan songs are populated by outcasts who, if they aren’t chasing the dragon, are chasing dreams they probably won’t catch. “Midnight Cruiser” finds two of them deciding to make one last run at it, but worrying that “The time of our time has come and gone / I fear we’ve been waiting too long.”
4. “Deacon Blues.” Practically perfect in every way.
3. “Glamour Profession.” Even though the song is about a drug dealer in sunny Los Angeles, the icy electric piano texture that’s all over it makes you feel like you’re standing on a dead-white and frozen plain in the middle of winter, accompanied by a clutch of horn players who are being strangled by a howling wind. (Walter Becker once said he wouldn’t mind not appearing on his own albums. He’s famously not on “Peg,” and he’s not on this, either.)
2. “Doctor Wu.” Which includes my favorite Steely Dan lyric: “Katy lies / You can see it in her eyes / But imagine my surprise / When I saw you.”
1. “Black Cow.” This is the first track on Aja, so it was new to me when I dropped the needle for the first time. It took quite a while before I got past it to the rest of the album. (Becker isn’t on this, either.)
Like I said, this project is possibly a fool’s errand. But I’ve gone on those before.
It’s probably just as foolish, but perhaps more fruitful, to rank Steely Dan’s albums, which I will do below.
2. Katy Lied
3. The Royal Scam
4. Can’t Buy a Thrill
6. Pretzel Logic
7. Countdown to Ecstasy
8. Two Against Nature
9. Everything Must Go
10. Alive in America
If you disagree with me ranking Pretzel Logic and Countdown to Ecstasy behind Gaucho, get in line. This is how I roll. And while the top four feel solidly locked place in today, you never know what might happen tomorrow.