Behind door number 420, we welcome Willie Nelson.
1. “Night Life,” Willie Nelson. Willie Hugh Nelson was raised in Abbott, Texas, where he was a star high school athlete, and worked a series of radio gigs and odd jobs throughout the 1950s. He moved to Nashville in 1960 and started selling songs, scoring his first hit as a songwriter when Claude Gray took “Family Bible” to #10 that year. Nelson sold “Night Life” to guitar instructor Paul Buskirk, for the grand sum of $150, and Nelson’s 1960 recording of the song was released under the name Paul Biskirk and the Little Men featuring Hugh Nelson. The blues oriented sound was nothing like commercial country music at the time. Ray Price had a relatively minor hit with his 1963 cover, peaking at #28. Still, it’s a standard that has been recorded by Frank Sinatra and B.B. King. “Night Life” is one of Nelson’s early major artistic achievements. We might hear another one or two songs from this up and comer as we continue this journey.
2. “One More Time,” Ray Price. Florida native Mel Tillis moved to Nashville and began his career as a songwriter in the late 1950s. He charted two minor hits as a recording artist in 1958, but his primary success throughout the 1960s came as a composer. Tillis wrote hits for Kitty Wells, Brenda Lee, Carl Smith, and Ray Price in 1960. “One More Time” was a shuffle of confusion, as Price wondered about a fickle woman’s inconsistent romantic affection. Price wouldn’t match the #2 chart success of this song again until his 1963 take on “Make the World Go Away.”
3. “Only the Lonely,” Roy Orbison. Although often considered a first generation rock ‘n’ roll star, Wink, Texas native Roy Orbison didn’t have any pop Top 40 success during the 1950s. “Only the Lonely” was Orbison’s breakthrough pop hit, written with his frequent collaborator Joe Melson and peaking at #2 on the pop charts. Alabama native Sonny James, a country artist who crossed over for a #1 pop hit in 1957 with “Young Love,” took “Only the Lonely” to #1 on the country charts in 1969. Trust me, of the two, you’ll prefer Orbison’s original.
4. “Please Help Me, I’m Falling,” Hank Locklin. Hank Locklin worked for years in the Florida Panhandle and southern Alabama before scoring his first hit in 1948, the #8 country single “The Same Sweet Girl.” Locklin had a #1 hit in 1953 with “Let Me Be the One,” but his chart success was sporadic in the 1950s. His smooth tenor and the lyric about temptation took “Please Help Me, I’m Falling” to #1 on the country charts for 14 weeks and was also a crossover Top Ten pop hit. Locklin could never duplicate that success, scoring only two more Top Ten county hits and having his final Top 40 effort in 1969. Locklin was still a capable performer at the age of 88, as shown by a 2006 PBS performance of “Please Help Me, I’m Falling,” and passed away in 2009 at the age of 91.
5. “Rank Stranger,” The Stanley Brothers. Albert E. Brumley, no relation to Alfred E. Neuman, was a gospel composer who lived in southwest Missouri and composed over 800 songs, the most famous one being the hymnal standard “I’ll Fly Away.” (His composition “Rank Stranger” is sometimes credited to William York as a writer or co-writer, that name is most likely a pseudonym for Starday Records co-owner Don Pierce). “Rank Stranger” is a curious tale about a man who returns home, but recognizes no friends nor family members. However, the narrator is comforted that he will see all his loved ones again in heaven. As of this entry, we bid farewell to The Stanley Brothers, who performed as a duo until Carter’s alcohol related death in 1966. Ralph Stanley soldiered on as a highly respected elder in bluegrass music, performing until he passed away in 2016.
6. “A Six Pack to Go,” Hank Thompson and His Brazos Valley Boys. Hank Thompson had been hitting the charts for a dozen years in 1960, proving in the process that you could have a #2 hit with a song titled “Squaws Along the Yukon” in 1958. While working a gig in Wichita Falls, Thompson heard “A Six Pack to Go” from a local act. Penned by regional journeymen musicians Dick Hart and Johnny Lowe, Thompson narrates a jumpy Western swing tale about a man who needs more alcohol than his bartender can provide on “A Six Pack to Go.” This #10 county hit has been covered by Leon Russell and George Strait. Johnny Lowe was surprised to find that once the single was released, Thompson’s name had magically appeared as a co-writer.
7. “Streets of Laredo,” Marty Robbins. After the major commercial success of Marty Robbins’ 1959 album “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs,” Robbins’ next album was, you guessed it, “More Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs.” The album track “Streets of Laredo,” also known as “Cowboy’s Lament,” is a traditional ballad that was first published in 1910. The song was first recorded, under yet a different title, as “I’m A Young Cowboy” by Rex Allen and Victor Young in 1955. If the Robbins version tests your melodrama quotient, you might prefer Johnny Cash’s stripped down take from his 2002 album “The Man Comes Around.”
8. “Tobacco Road,” John D. Loudermilk. As a title, “Tobacco Road” has appeared in a number of genres, first as a 1932 novel about poverty from Georgia native Ernest Caldwell. A long running Broadway play based on Caldwell’s book debuted in 1933 and the theme was reshaped for a 1941 comedy film directed by John Ford. North Carolina native John D. Loudermilk wrote and released “Tobacco Road” as a folk song with attitude in 1960. Garage rockers The Nashville Teens brought the song to pop radio with their 1964 #14 hit. Eric Burdon & War released a funk/soul version in 1970, proving that poverty is non-exempt from every genre. Songwriter Loudermilk passed away a mere few days ago.
9. “Window Up Above,” George Jones. Jones, “”I wrote it in about twenty minutes. I just came in off the road, about eight in the morning. While breakfast was being fixed, I just sat down in the den and picked up the guitar, and it was as simple as that. Sometimes it’s hard to even figure where the ideas come from.” “Window Up Above” is where Jones first hits his definitive gut wrenching vocal style, where any random syllable can lacerate a vital organ. A #2 hit for Jones, a #1 single for Mickey Gilley in 1975 and as good as country music gets, any way you slice it.
10. “Wings of a Dove,” Ferlin Husky. Ferlin Husky was raised on a Missouri farm and served in the Merchant Marines during World War II. Radio work eventually took Husky to Bakersfield, where he was discovered by Tennessee Ernie Ford manager Cliffie Stone. Husky scored a #1 hit in 1953 with “A Dear John Letter” and topped the charts again in 1957 with “Gone.” He also scored a #2 hit in 1958 using a comedic alter ego named Simon Crum with the almost unlistenable “Country Music is Here to Stay.” The gospel themed sing along “Wings of a Dove” was penned by writer turned producer Bob Ferguson, who also penned the 1968 Porter Wagoner #1 hit, “The Carroll County Accident.” A monster hit, “Wings of a Dove” spent ten weeks at #1 on the country charts and crossed over for a #12 pop hit. Husky never topped the charts again, but continued to have Top 40 country hits through 1975.
11. “You Don’t Know My Mind,” Jimmy Martin. East Tennessee native Jimmy Martin was a hard drinking, raccoon hunting, tenor singing guitarist/mandolin player, who performed with Bill Monroe, The Osborne Brothers, and formed his own act known as The Sunny Mountain Boys. Songwriter Jimmie Skinner had the good fortune of being born in Blue Lick, Kentucky and scored three Top Ten hits in the 1950s, with his biggest being 1957’s #5 hit “I Found My Girl in the USA.” As a vocalist, Skinner proved that the 1950’s country audience had very forgiving ears. “You Don’t Know My Mind” is a bluegrass, rambling man number, which should have charted, but didn’t. Martin hit the Top Twenty twice, with “Rock Hearts” in 1958 and the truck driver fatality number “Window Maker” in 1964. Martin also appeared on “Grand Ole Opry Song,” the opening track of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
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