(Pictured: Ronnie Milsap on stage in the 70s.)
The movie Urban Cowboy, which is often credited with sparking a pop-country boom, was released on June 6, 1980, but the pop-country trend had been strong for a while by then. “Don’t Fall in Love With a Dreamer” by Kenny Rogers and Kim Carnes, #3 on this chart, was #4 pop in the same week, and is country only in terms of where Rogers was filed in the record store. Anne Murray’s “Lucky Me” (#9) is one of several crossover hits she scored in 1979 and 1980, although it was less successful on the pop charts (#42) than previous singles had been. Mickey Gilley was climbing the country chart with two records, both remakes: “True Love Ways” (#15) and “Stand By Me” (#45), and both eventual pop crossovers, with “Stand By Me” going all the way to #22. Although neither side of Ronnie Milsap’s current #1 single, “My Heart”/”Silent Night,” crossed over to pop, both of them certainly could have; Milsap would hit the Hot 100 13 times between 1977 and 1984. And down at #24 was the familiar soulful swing of Crystal Gayle on “The Blue Side.”
In 1974, Marilyn Sellars had a #10 hit with the country-gospel song “One Day at a Time.” This chart contains a poppier version of it that ended up a bigger hit. Cristy Lane, the Academy of Country’s Music’s Best New Female Vocalist of 1979, had five Top-10 country hits before her take on “One Day at Time.” It would spend only a week at #1 later in June, but its overtly religious theme opened a second career for her as a Christian-music artist; later albums and her biography were hawked endlessly on TV, always referring to “One Day at a Time.”
A band that would skate the line between pop and country for a couple of years in the process of becoming one of the biggest country acts in history was breaking into the Top 40 this week: “Tennessee River” by Alabama was at #36. It was their third record in six months to make the country Top 40, but this one would be their first to go to #1, in August. After that, their next 20 singles would hit #1—every last one that charted—until a 1987 release peaked at #7. Not to worry, however. After that, they’d hit #1 with nine of their next 10 singles, which gets us to 1991. By the end of the century they scored 32 #1 country hits in all. Seven of those #1s would cross to the Hot 100. In 1981 and 1982, “Feels So Right,” “Love in the First Degree,” and “Take Me Down” all made the Top 20.
That’s not to say that more traditional country was dead or dying. The 6/7/80 chart includes a record that some writers, including me, consider to be the best, most-emblematic country record of all time: “He Stopped Loving Her Today” by George Jones, at #9 this week on the way to #1 in July. It’s built on a metaphor that could easily became maudlin, with a weeping steel guitar and flourishing strings, but Jones is the perfect communicator for it, right down to his absolutely convincing sale of the spoken-word bit toward the end. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” earns its profound sadness legitimately. It has the emotional depth of a short story, which it kind of is.
On the subject of short stories: Don Williams was at #2 in this week with “Good Ole Boys Like Me.” Songwriter Bob McDill was as capable as anyone in Nashville of turning out disposable song product, but “Good Ole Boys Like Me” is positively literary:
Then Daddy came in to kiss his little man
With gin on his breath and a Bible in his hand
He talked about honor and things I should know
Then he’d stagger a little as he went out the door
Any song that name-checks Uncle Remus, Stonewall Jackson, Tennessee Williams, Thomas Wolfe, and legendary Nashville DJ John R just gots to be cool. As delivered by Don Williams, who scored hits with several Bob McDill songs over the years, “Good Ole Boys Like Me” has an intelligence, warmth, and depth that’s been AWOL from Music Row in Nashville for years now.
I wasn’t doing country radio in June of 1980—I’d started my summer gig at the album-rock station by then. But I’d be back in the fall, catching up on the hits of the summer.