(Pictured: Dolly Parton.)
So the other day I was looking at the list of the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year award winners, as one does. Some notes follow:
1969: “The Carroll County Accident”
1974: “Country Bumpkin”
Today’s mainstream country has largely abandoned storytelling in favor of love songs and party songs. There was a time, however, when stories were one of the defining characteristics of the genre. Bobby Russell’s “Honey” has a narrative arc that audiences of 1968 couldn’t get enough of. If you hate “Honey” for its treacly sentimentality, you’ll really hate “Country Bumpkin,” another tale of love, domesticity, and death, written by Don Wayne. But as a prime example of country music’s storytelling art—a long, happy relationship described in three vignettes—you can hardly improve on Cal Smith’s recording. As for “The Carroll County Accident,” written by Bob Ferguson and recorded by Porter Wagoner, it plays out like a bit of detective fiction before its final twist.
1970: “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down.” This song tells a story too, about loss and the coping with it, and after listening to it for nearly 50 years (in Johnny Cash’s magnificent recording), I still can’t quite tell how Kris Kristofferson did it. Image follows image and by the end of the song, you’re longing for something you can’t even name. Every time.
1971/1972: “Easy Loving.” Written and recorded by Freddie Hart who, you may remember, has his own one-man fan club at this blog. “Easy Loving” won this award two years in a row, although voters in 1972 might just as easily have chosen “My Hang-Up Is You,” which clones “Easy Loving” and was #1 on the country charts even longer than the OG.
1973: “Behind Closed Doors.” Just as old-school country fans decry the stuff that gets on the radio nowadays, the “countrypolitan” sound of the 60s and 70s was also controversial. String sections, tasteful keyboards, and choirs ooh-ing, aah-ing, and/or whispering replaced twang and yee-haw as Nashville went for a more upscale audience. Kenny O’Dell’s “Behind Closed Doors” (which was #8 adult contemporary and #15 on the Hot 100 as recorded by Charlie Rich) was the most countrypolitan thing to hit #1 in 1973.
1975: “Back Home Again.” This was the year that Charlie Rich famously set fire to the envelope after announcing John Denver as the winner of the CMA Entertainer of the Year Award. That doesn’t change the fact that “Back Home Again” is the best thing Denver ever wrote, and the best song I know about returning to a place you love and the people who live there. “Back Home Again” hit #1 country in late 1974, a year that’s remarkable for its number of classics: the list of the year’s #1 songs includes Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December,” Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” “I Will Always Love You,” and “Love Is Like a Butterfly,” “Room Full of Roses” by Mickey Gilley, and Billy Swan’s “I Can Help.”
1979: “The Gambler”
Kenny Rogers’ two most iconic hits, the first written by Roger Bowling and Hal Bynum and the second by Don Schlitz. Then as now, Nashville was powered by songwriters and writing teams whose job it was to provide grist for the recording mills. But Bowling, Bynum, and Schlitz (and Bobby Russell, Bob Ferguson, Kenny O’Dell, and many others, including Bobby Braddock and Curly Putnam, below) knew how to tell engaging, involving stories—both what to leave in and what to leave out—and they took obvious pleasure in using the English language in clever and creative ways. “You got to know when to hold ’em / Know when to fold ’em / Know when to walk away / And know when to run” is great stuff. Between the dearth of storytelling and a proclivity to name-check celebrities and consumer products in lyrics, modern Music Row songwriting isn’t in the same league.
1980/1981: “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” With apologies to Steve Goodman and David Allan Coe, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is the perfect country-and-western song. It’s said that George Jones didn’t like this Braddock/Putnam song when it was first pitched to him, but his performance, married to Billy Sherill’s magnificent production, made it one of the greatest performances in American popular music, any genre, any era.
It should win the CMA’s Song of the Year every year, actually.