(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.