Snapshots From 1983

Forty years ago this spring, I was music director at KDTH in Dubuque, Iowa. My role was mostly clerical, but I got to shape the sound of the station in a modest way, and I had a lot of fun doing it. What you see here is the Billboard Hot Country singles chart from May 7, 1983. (Click to embiggen.) Some random observations follow.

1. “José Cuervo”/Shelly West. To use a 2023 term, Shelly West was a nepo baby, the daughter of country star Dottie West. She came to prominence a couple of years earlier in duets with David Frizzell, brother of Lefty. “José Cuervo” is not especially subtle, but it was never not going to be a hit.

2. “Whatever Happened to Old-Fashioned Love”/B. J. Thomas. Thomas had a nice little renaissance in the early 80s, with a couple of #1 country hits, although “Whatever Happened to Old-Fashioned Love,” which also crossed over to adult contemporary, is not as good as I remember.

3. “Common Man”/John Conlee. This is the closest I will ever get to a John Conlee appreciation post, but he deserves one: “Lady Lay Down,” “Backside of Thirty,” “Baby You’re Something,” “Friday Night Blues,” “She Can’t Say That Anymore,” “Common Man,” and “I’m Only in It for the Love” are all terrific. Bonus John Conlee fact: before getting into the music business, he was a licensed mortician and radio DJ, although maybe not at the same time.

14. “Amarillo by Morning”/George Strait. George Strait might be the only artist to emerge in the last 40 years who truly belongs in the pantheon of genre-shaping, world-changing country stars. Although he had been scoring hits for nearly two years by May 1983, “Amarillo by Morning” was his first inarguable classic.

15. “It Hasn’t Happened Yet”/Rosanne Cash
20. “Our Love Is on the Faultline”/Crystal Gayle
If you asked me to name a single favorite Rosanne Cash song (and please don’t), I could ride with “It Hasn’t Happened Yet.” Same for Crystal Gayle and “Our Love Is on the Faultline,” actually. Rosanne has written that her main memory of “It Hasn’t Happened Yet” was being hugely pregnant while recording it and straining to reach the high notes.

23. “American Made”/Oak Ridge Boys. This later became a Miller Beer commercial over the group’s objections, and they supposedly stopped performing it as long as the ad campaign was running.

24. “Stranger in My House”/Ronnie Milsap. Between 1980 and 1990, Milsap hit #1 with 25 of 29 charting singles. “Stranger in My House,” which was not only different from all of his other stuff but from everything else on country radio at the time, was one that didn’t, although it got to #23 on the Hot 100.

48. “Pancho and Lefty”/Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. This is country music for people who say they don’t like country music.

59. “Snapshot”/Sylvia. Sylvia got to #15 on the pop chart with “Nobody” in 1982, and “Snapshot” is a rewrite of it, but with an even better hook. The video at that link is 1983-perfect. Sylvia can’t act at all—she spends most of the video wearing a frowny stare that’s probably intended to be sexy—but she’s got some impressive 80s hair.

I remain immensely grateful for my experience at KDTH. Even though I was a young idiot whose gaze was firmly locked on his own navel, it taught me a lot. I learned what it meant to be a pro by watching talented pros. I learned how powerful local radio can be when it’s truly committed to its community. And I learned that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who like Willie Nelson and those who are wrong.

On Gordon Lightfoot: I first heard “If You Could Read My Mind” at the end of 1970, in that liminal space of time where I was becoming what I was going to be. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” means more to me than it does to many, since I actually saw that ship at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, the summer before she went down. When I got to college, I heard “Dreamland” and “Daylight Katy” for the first time, and they became favorites. And in the early 90s, Gordon Lightfoot played live in our town, and we sat in the theater for two hours wrapped in that warm, resonant voice like it was a blanket.

I have written before about how as we sail on our way, certain people stand like beacons on the shore. We don’t always think about them, but if we look back, they’re always there. Only when those beacons wink out do we realize what they meant to us.

6 thoughts on “Snapshots From 1983

  1. I have spent a good portion of my life saying I don’t like country music, which is a provable lie. What I don’t like is willfully ignorant, cliche country music.

    “Pancho and Lefty” is art. It still hits me as hard as it did 40 years ago.

    “The dust that Pancho bit down south
    Ended up in Lefty’s mouth

    The day they laid poor Pancho low
    Lefty split for Ohio
    Where he got the bread to go
    There ain’t nobody knows”

    ‘Cept us. Lefty sold his buddy out. And now, Lefty’s growing old and worrying—or worse—knowing—the eternal consequences.

  2. porky

    on Gordon: My wife got tickets for my son and I last fall. It was obvious Gordon had lost his ability to sing . It pained me to report it then, and pains me now. However when they broke into “Edmund” my entire body turned into a goosebump. The love for him in that room was palpable, probably why he continued on.

    Love those Billboard charts. I find it odd that T.G. Sheppard had a country hit with “Without You” a scant few months before Tom Evans joined Pete Ham in committing suicide, hoping it wasn’t his realization of more lost royalties and/or the realization of many more instances yet to come.

  3. Yah Shure

    “Amarillo By Morning” is my all-time favorite non-crossover country hit. The 45 with the overdubbed harmony on the third verse’s “just what I’ve got on” was the icing on the cake. Strange that they would go to the trouble of remixing the entire song and never make it available again.

    Epic wisely spelled Pancho as “Poncho” on the promo 45 labels. Maybe they should’ve sent Billboard a stock copy.

    Half of the top ten titles didn’t register, although the 40-year-old Merle, Vern, Louise, Johnny and Gus cobwebs were swept away once the hooks kicked in.

    Reba’s cliff dive was typical of those days when the country record promoters wanted you off of their records the instant they hit #1 on Billboard. Billy Parker’s survey from KVOO up I-44 in Tulsa was always good for a laugh: 70 currents, with every single one of them moving up.

    1. porky

      A great tune it is, first released by its co-writer Terry Stafford (“Suspicion,” I’ll Touch a Star”) in late ’73 on Atlantic’s “Atlantic Country” label. His version peaked at #31 in 1974.

      And you likely know my love for pop-to-country conversions, how about Ronnie McDowell cutting Karla Bonoff’s “Personally?” As the above-mentioned Milsap put it, stranger things have happened.

      1. Yah Shure

        Our station is marking its centennial year with themed weekends, and for April Fool’s last month, we did country crossovers twice an hour, to mark the station’s country era during the late ’70s and ’80s.

        On my Saturday night corner of the sandbox, I opened with “You could probably use a momentary rest from the country crossovers for a bit, so the Beatles and an Eagles song are coming right up.” After the commercial break came “I Want To Hold Your Hand”/”She Loves You” from Homer & Jethro, followed by Conway Twitty’s cover of “Heartache Tonight.” Hadn’t spun that 45 in decades and boy, did Conway nail that one! Perfect production, too.

        I counted down the top 20 from the station’s April 1, 1981 survey the following hour, which included John Conlee’s “What I Had With You.” That one was stiff enough to rescind any John Conlee appreciation post.

  4. With all of the justified love for “Poncho [sic] and Lefty” in the room, I should advocate for its composer, the master singer-songwriter (and occasional fellow Houstonian) Townes Van Zandt, who makes a cameo in the Merle/Willie vid starting at the 1:01 mark. Any and all of his 60s/70s records are recommended; Our Mother the Mountain (his ’69 sophomore effort) is my favorite…I have a signed CD from my only in-person encounter with the man about a year before he passed. Here’s an acoustic performance of the “medley of [his] hit” from the mid-70s.

    A further observance: Porter Wagoner’s “This Cowboy’s Hat”, at #41, is down from its peak position at #35. It was the final of his eighty-one country charters.

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