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Country Music History – Essential Recordings of 1959, Part I

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Satan Is Real.

1. “Act Like a Married Man,” Jean Shepard.  Jean Shepard was the second female country music star in the 1950s, following in the footsteps of Kitty Wells.  Shepard grew up near Bakersfield, California and joined the Melody Ranch Girls in 1948.  After being discovered by Hank Thompson, she had her biggest hit with “A Dear John Letter” in 1953, a collaboration with Ferlin Husky and the only #1 single of her long career.  “Act Like a Married Man” was a non-charting single, released in 1957 and included on her 1959 album “This is Jean Shepard.”  Like the material from Kitty Wells, Shepard was lecturing the male population on morality on “Act Like a Married Man.”   There were no bad girls in country music in the 1950s.  Shepard has her last Top Ten country hit with Bill Anderson’s “Slippin’ Away,” a #4 single in 1973 and had her last Top 40 hit with Bill Anderson’s “The Tip of My Fingers” in 1975.

2. “The Battle of New Orleans,” Johnny Horton.  Songwriter James Morris, known professionally as Jimmy/Jimmie Driftwood, was a backwoods renaissance man.  Born in Timbo, Arkansas, Morris became a musically gifted school teacher and wrote “The Battle of New Orleans,” based on the fiddle tune “The Eighth of January,” as a history lesson.  Morris had worked as a teacher for over two decades before being signed by steel guitarist/nascent music publisher Don Warden.  His first album, using his new name Jimmie Driftwood, was titled “Newly Discovered American Folk Songs” and released in 1958.  Johnny Horton’s more commercial cover version of “The Battle of New Orleans” became a #1 pop and country hit; “Billboard” magazine listed “New Orleans” as the #1 song of the year.  Driftwood had a short, lucrative career in music, performing for a few years and penning Eddy Arnold’s 1959 #5 country hit “Tennessee Stud.”  Later in life, he was actively involved in environmental causes, helped to establish the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, served as a musicologist for the National Geographic Society, and served as the head of the Arkansas Parks and Tourism Commission.  A pretty impressive resume for a guy who played a homemade guitar his entire life.

3. “Billy Bayou,” Jim Reeves.  There are some lyrical similarities between “The Battle of New Orleans” and “Billy Bayou” in that both are set in the 1800s and involve military conflict, in this case The Battle of Little Bighorn.  Neither song takes their subject matter too seriously.  “Billy Bayou” was written by Roger Miller and was the first #1 county hit of 1959.  Miller, described by songwriter peer Bill Anderson as, “the most talented, and least disciplined, person that you could imagine,” didn’t hit the charts as a performer until 1961’s “When Two Worlds Collide.”  Although an early effort, “Billy Bayou” has the full complement of offbeat wit/charm one expects from Roger Miller.

4. “The Christian Life,” The Louvin Brothers.  There is no more iconic album cover in country music history than “Satan Is Real” by The Louvin Brothers.  Charlie and Ira Louvin stand in the foreground wearing white suits with outstretched arms, representing God only knows what.  In the background, a 12-foot-tall plywood, pitchfork wielding Beelzebub oversees the eternal flames of hell.  The irony was, of course, the lack of irony.  A religious themed album, “The Christian Life” is a celebration of their life style choice.  The song would reach a bigger audience after being covered by The Byrds on their 1968 country rock album “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.”

5. “Country Girl,” Faron Young.  After partnering with Roy Drusky on the 1958 #3 single “Alone with You,” Young covered the Drusky composition “Country Girl” for a #1 hit in 1959.  More an opportunist than an original, Young utilizes the Ray Price 4/4 shuffle beat on “Country Girl,” a jealousy song about a woman who leaves the narrator to a city boy.  The next time Young would top the county charts, it would be with a Willie Nelson composition.

6. “Dark As the Night, Blue As the Day,” Bill Monroe.  Bill Monroe peaked on the charts in 1946, hitting the Top Ten twice.  His last Top 40 country hit came in 1959 with “Gotta Travel On,” which had been a bigger hit that year for Billy Grammar and sounds like it could have been written in the 1930s (you probably know the opening lyric more than the song title – “I’ve laid around and played around this old town too long…”).  “Dark As the Night, Blue As the Day” was a non-charting b-side, but documented the lonesome, heartbreak sound that was Monroe’s specialty.  Monroe continued to record and tour until his death in the mid-1990s and his honorary title as The Father of Bluegrass music will never be challenged.

7. “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” Johnny Cash.  Johnny Cash ended his relationship with Sun Records in 1958 and scored his first hit on Columbia Records with “All Over Again” later that year.  He had his first #1 single on Columbia with the self-penned “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” a story song about a cocksure farm boy who ignores his maternal advice and takes his weapon into the city.  You already know how this story will end.  Cash wouldn’t reach #1 on the country charts and have a crossover pop hit again until 1963’s “Ring of Fire.”

8. “Heartaches by the Number,” Ray Price.  Ray Price was known for his ability to spot and develop talent – at various times Willie Nelson, Johnny Bush, Roger Miller, and Johnny Paycheck worked in his band.  Price and Ernest Tubb had reworked the Harlan Howard composition “Pick Me Up on Your Way Down” for a Charlie Walker hit in 1958.  Price gave Howard his second Top Ten country hit in 1959 with “Heartaches by the Number,” perhaps the signature song from Price’s honky tonk era.  There have been countless cover versions of “Heartaches,” including a #1 pop hit in 1959 by Guy Mitchell, but nobody has come close to touching Ray Price’s take.

9. “The Knoxville Girl,” The Louvin Brothers.  “The Knoxville Girl” was a strange 1959 country hit both in terms of timing and subject matter.  The song was included on The Louvin Brothers’ 1956 album “Tragic Songs of Life,” but wasn’t released as a single at that time.  The Wilburn Brothers released their version of “The Knoxville Girl” in 1959, most likely spurring The Louvin Brothers single.  (The Wilburn Brothers peaked at #18 with their release, besting the Louvins who reached #19).  A traditional murder ballad, The Louvin Brothers narrate a tale that provides no motive to describe why a man beats and kills the woman he loves.  Still, he feels badly about being imprisoned.

10. “I Got Stripes,” Johnny Cash.  “I Got Stripes” was co-written by Cash and Charles Williams.  Williams was active in radio, television, and songwriting.  He received credit as an arranger on Bobby Bare’s version of “500 Miles Away from Home” and he co-wrote Cash’s 1987 single “The Night Hank Williams Came to Town.”  In fact, it is Williams who voices the radio announcer sales pitch at the end of that song.  “I Got Stripes” was another Top Five country hit for Cash and reinforced his outlaw image with its prison theme.  One would hope for a more spirited version of “I Got Stripes” on the 1968 “At Folsum Prison” album, but that recording came from the band’s second show of the day and the performers were physically and emotionally spent.  I guess things happen that way in prison.

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