(Pictured: bluegrass icons Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, who gained fame recording music for the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde, put on gangster garb for themselves.)
I started in country-music radio in the late 70s. At that time, unlike pop and rock stations, country stations didn’t seem to be playing much from the late 60s. Look at the survey from WLBI in Denham Springs, Louisiana, a small town just east of Baton Rouge, dated September 1, 1968. I count only four songs—“Harper Valley P.T.A.,” Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” by Eddy Arnold, and Waylon Jennings’ “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line”—that were getting much airplay in the late 70s and early 80s, at least at the stations I was familiar with. The rest—not just the songs, but many of the performers who sang them—were becoming footnotes to country music history then. Today, they’ve been footnotes for a long time. Among the footnotes, we find the following:
5. “Clean the Slate in ’68″/Jim Nesbitt. Nesbitt was a South Carolina radio and TV personality who first hit with a talk/singing novelty called “Please Mr. Kennedy” in 1961. He later recorded a string of politically themed talk/singing novelties, including “Lookin’ for More in ’64,” “Still Alive in ’65,” and “Heck of a Fix in ’66,” all of which made the Billboard country chart. “Clean the Slate in ’68” was not so big (except in Denham Springs), and “Still Havin’ Fun in ’71” was even less so. “Clean the Slate” name-checks several major 1968 presidential candidates including “bushy haired Bobby,” who had been assassinated in June—and which might account for the fact that few stations touched the record. WLBI is the only one shown at ARSA.
10. “It’s All Over But the Crying”/Hank Williams Jr. Until the late 70s, when he took on the outlaw persona he still maintains today, Hank Williams Jr. was a fairly conventional country star. In 1968, he starred in the film A Time to Sing, in which he plays a young man who becomes a professional singer to help save the family farm—and gets to romance the completely delicious Shelley Fabares while he’s doing it. Based on the trailer, Hank Jr. doesn’t appear to be much of an actor, although the movie is admirably diverse, co-starring the Clara Ward Singers and an R&B group called the X-Ls. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), it was originally to be titled The Hank Williams Jr. Story, despite the fact that its plot isn’t biographical in the slightest. “It’s All Over But the Crying” is from the soundtrack.
19. “Happy State of Mind”/Bill Anderson. If you remember Bill Anderson at all, it’s probably as a TV personality: a frequent game-show panelist in the 70s, and 40 years ago this fall the co-host with Sarah Purcell of a game show called The Better Sex. In the 80s and 90s, he hosted cable TV talk shows. But before all that, between 1958 and 1980, Anderson hit the country charts 58 times, including seven #1 hits and seven more that peaked at #2. Five of his songs crossed over to pop; the biggest was “Still,” which went to #8 in 1963. Bill Anderson is pretty much the Platonic ideal of the 60s “countrypolitan” sound, which was intended to have upscale appeal: tasteful orchestrations, little or no twang, and soft-spoken Southern accents. (Not for nothing is he known as “Whispering Bill.”) This November he’ll turn 80, and he’s still performing.
21. “Destroyed by Man”/Mel Tillis. The depressing tale of a girl gone wrong, and I mean really depressing: “Men don’t respect her / But still they hold her hand / She was created by Heaven / Now destroyed by man.” Jesus, Mel.
25. “Like a Rolling Stone”/Flatt and Scruggs. The famed bluegrass pickers recorded an album called Nashville
Submarine Airplane, in which they covered familiar pop songs of the day including “Catch the Wind,” “Universal Soldier,” “Gentle on My Mind,” and four Dylan songs: “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” “The Times They Are a-Changing,” “Rainy Day Women #12 and #35,” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” The latter would get as high as #2 at WLBI and make the Top 10 at a country station in Boston. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), Lester Flatt disliked this change in the duo’s direction so much that it led to his 1969 split with Earl Scruggs after nearly 25 years.
Go on, click that last link. You know you want to.