(Pictured: Waylon Jennings, pre-outlaw.)
One day last fall I wrote about a gender-flipped country version of Paul Anka’s “You’re Having My Baby” that came out while the original was still getting pop-radio airplay. It was, however, far from the only instance in which 70s Top 40 cheese got repurposed for the country market that way.
—Based on the stature of the songs he chose and his success with them, Johnny Carver might be the Big Cheese. Carver was discovered by Del Shannon and scattered a few hits across the lower reaches of the Billboard country chart between 1967 and 1972. In 1973, his version of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree,” retitled simply “Yellow Ribbon,” went to #5 on the country chart. In 1976, he would make #9 with a version of “Afternoon Delight.”
—Not to be confused with Johnny Carver is Bobby Wright (because I nearly did). His parents, Kitty Wells and Johnny Wright, were both successful country singers; Kitty Wells charted 64 times between 1952 and 1964, most famously with her first hit, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” Johnny Wright did three weeks at #1 in 1965 with “Hello Vietnam.” Bobby Wright didn’t hit much—only four singles between 1969 and 1974—but the last one was a version of “Seasons in the Sun.” (It’s even more bathetic than the original, hard as it may be to believe such a thing is possible.) Wright got it to #24 country while the Terry Jacks original was still on pop radio.
—“Yellow Ribbon” was not the first Tony Orlando and Dawn song to inspire a country cover. After “Knock Three Times” went to #1 in January 1971, it was covered by North Carolina singer Billy “Crash” Craddock, and it went to #3 country that spring. “Knock Three Times,” which twangs harder than any of the other covers we’ve discussed so far, started Craddock on his way to becoming one of the biggest country stars of the mid 70s. In 1974, he had back-to-back #1 country hits including “Rub It In,” which did two weeks at #1 in the summer and crossed to #16 on the Hot 100.
—Margo Smith had a couple of minor hits before taking on a cover in 1976 that made her a star. She took a version of the ultra-sappy “Save Your Kisses for Me” to #10 country about the same time Brotherhood of Man was making #27 on the pop chart. Over the next three years, Smith would hit the country Top 10 with several cover songs, mostly from the pre-rock 1950s.
—Billie Jo Spears, best-known for the 1975 #1 country hit “Blanket on the Ground” (which you really ought to hear if you don’t know it, although I ain’t saying why), got a country radio hit with her own soulful version of “Misty Blue,” reaching #5 only a few weeks after Dorothy Moore’s version peaked at #3 pop in ’76. Moore’s version itself was a cover; both Wilma Burgess and Eddy Arnold had previously hit with it on the country chart.
—Anthony Armstrong Jones charted with covers five times between 1969 and 1973, including the top-10 “Take a Letter Maria” in 1970, plus versions of “Proud Mary,” “Bad Bad Leroy Brown,” and “Sweet Caroline.”
—In 1973, about the same time Gladys Knight and the Pips made “Neither One of Us” a #2 pop hit, country veteran Bob Luman took a version of it to #7 country.
—With a folk-rock group called the Kimberlys, Waylon Jennings went to #23 in 1969 with a version of “Mac Arthur Park.” If all you know is outlaw Waylon, “Mac Arthur Park” will be a surprise.
Waylon’s “Mac Arthur Park” was released over a year after the Richard Harris version and not contemporaneous with it, so it’s not a precise fit with a lot of the other songs in this post, but it comes from the same place: performers, labels, and publishers seeing a way to capitalize on proven commodities by aiming for different audiences. The rebooting of pop hits for other genres is something we’ve discussed previously. Many, many pop hits were covered for the R&B market, and some of those crossed back over to pop. (One might speculate why such a thing has largely fallen out of fashion in the last two or three decades, but I’m not getting into that today.)
I might have included here several instances in which artists covered successful songs years after they first appeared, but it seems to me that rushing out a country cover while the original is still on pop radio, or within a few months, is a cat of a different color. If you know of some others, add ’em in the comments.