Had no idea this post was over 8,000 words long, but here’s the second part of the guide to Country Music of the 60s and 70s (part 1 can be found here). We’ll be focusing on crossover hits in this post, but also talking about the musicians themselves.
I hope you enjoy it and I’m happy to say the blog will be back with a new Diversity of Classic Rock. Enjoy!
George Jones: Country singer born in Saratoga, Texas in 1931. His father worked in a shipyard and liked to play music as a hobby and his mother played piano in church. His parents bought a radio for him when he was 7 and he started listening to country music and fell in love with it.
When he was 16, he moved out and started working at a radio station. One day at work, he met his idol Hank Williams. He was also in the Marines in the early 50s before being discharged in 1953.
In 1954, Jones released his first record, “No Money in this Deal”, which did not chart.
He had a few hits between 1955 and 1958 like “Why Baby Why”, “Just One More”, and “Treasure of Love”, but none of them were pop crossovers.
In 1959, Jones got his first crossover with “White Lightning”, which reached #73 on the pop charts and topped the country charts.
In 1961, “Tender Years” was another minor crossover hit, reaching #76 on the pop charts.
Glen Campbell: This country singer grew up in a family of 12 children on a farm. They didn’t make much money from farming and had to pick cotton for extra money. He got his first guitar when he was 4 and started learning to play, his biggest inspiration being Django Reinhardt. By the age of 6, he started playing on local radio stations. He dropped out of school and moved to Houston with his brothers when he was 14. At 17, he moved to New Mexico to join his uncle’s band, Dick Bills and the Sandia Mountain Boys.
He began the 60s with a move to Los Angeles to become a session musician. This was a success and he was part of the famous Wrecking Crew group of studio musicians, who worked with musicians like The Beach Boys, Dean Martin, The Monkees, Jan and Dean, Nancy Sinatra, and Elvis Presley.
In the late 60s, he started getting crossover hits with songs like “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “I Wanna Love”, “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife”, “Wichita Lineman”, “Galveston”, “Try a Little Kindness”, and more.
In the mid 70s, he came back with more crossover hits like “Rhinestone Cowboy”, “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in LA)”, “Southern Nights”, and “Sunflower”.
Jeannie C. Riley: Gospel and country singer born Jeanne Carolyn Stephenson in Texas in 1945. She is best known for the one-hit wonder “Harper Valley PTA”. This song topped both the Hot 100 and Country charts, making Riley the first woman to do this. It didn’t happen again until Dolly Parton released “9 to 5” in 1981.
The song tells the story of a widowed mother from the point of view of her teenage daughter. The mother allegedly was acting scandalous because of her mini dresses and her party girl behaviour and the Harper Valley PTA were not happy with that and were concerned that she was a bad example for her daughter. The mother ends up telling them off and calling them hypocrites.
She was never able to replicate that mainstream success. Her second single, “The Girl Most Likely” did well on the country charts peaking at #6, but on the Hot 100, its highest position was #55. Other songs like “There Never Was a Time”, “Country Girl”, “Oh, Singer”, and “Good Enough to Be Your Wife” made the top 10 in the country charts.
Jerry Jeff Walker: Country singer best known for writing the song “Mr Bojangles”, famously covered by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1970. That version reached #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1971. It tells the story of an alcoholic tap dancer who gets arrested in New Orleans and insists he be called Bojangles. His original version went to #77 on the Hot 100 and #22 in Australia.
He was born Ronald Clyde Crosby in Oneonta, New York. His grandparents were involved in the local square dancing scene – grandma playing piano and grandpa playing fiddle. As a teenager, he and some friends auditioned for American Bandstand, but they were rejected. His bandmates got an audition at Baton Records, but the record label demanded that two members be cut. Jerry Jeff Walker was one of the ones cut.
After he graduated from secondary school, he decided to busk his way around the country. In 1966, he adopted his stage name, Jerry Jeff Walker. In the mid 60s, he spent time in Greenwich Village and was in a band called Circus Maximus, but he left the band because his interests were different from bandmate Bob Bruno.
John Denver: Country and folk singer born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr in New Mexico on 31 December 1943. He grew up in a military family, moving all over the country. His father was very strict and didn’t really show love for his children. Since John was shy and his family moved around a lot, it was difficult for him to make friends.
Music was always there for him though, and he started playing guitar when he was 11. While he was in secondary school, he was unhappy and decided to drive to California. His father was unhappy that he took his car to do that and flew over to California to take him back to Texas. After dropping out of university, he moved to LA to pursue his music career. He joined the Mitchell Trio in 1965 and went out on his own in 1969 to release his first debut while signed to record label, Rhymes & Reasons. He self released his debut, John Denver Sings, in 1966.
His first hit was “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” given to Peter, Paul, and Mary. Denver recorded it as a demo and his producer, Milt Okun gave the song to them. You can listen to Denver’s version below.
Denver’s first tours were humble. RCA Records didn’t actively promote his album with a tour, so he had to be proactive. He offered to play free concerts at schools, universities, and coffee shops throughout the Midwest.
His efforts paid off. His contract with RCA was extended and he built a loyal fan base. In 1971, he released his breakthrough album, Poems, Prayers, and Promises. Yes, that’s the album “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was on.That song reached #2 on the Billboard charts and #50 on the US Country charts. Before it was immortalised as a meme in 2018, it was a very popular song – his signature song.
The next year, he released his first top 10 album, Rocky Mountain High. The title track reached #9 on the Billboard charts. 1973-1975 were the best years for John Denver, as he topped the charts with songs like “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” “Annie’s Song,” “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” and “I’m Sorry/Calypso.”
During this time he developed his trademark image of longish blonde hair, big glasses, and embroidered western looking shirts. He appeared on The Muppet Show and developed a close friendship with Jim Henson. He was politically active in the mid 70s, campaigning for Jimmy Carter and supporting causes like environmentalism, and helping the poor.
In 1975, he won the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year, but previous winner Charlie Rich was upset about this because he felt his music was too poppy. Rich set the envelope that contained John Denver’s name on fire in protest.
Besides music, he liked to paint, take pictures, ski, golf, and fly planes. He died in 1997 when his plane crashed into Monterey Bay.
Johnny Cash: Needs no introduction, but I’ll give you a brief bio, he was born J.R. Cash in 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas. He was a versatile and prolific musician and made music that spanned many genres like rock, rockabilly, blues, folk, and gospel. Because of his work, he was inducted into the Country Music, Rock and Roll, and Gospel Music Halls of Fame. If you’re going to listen to just one country musician on this list, Johnny Cash is the one to listen to. He was known as the Undertaker and The Man in Black because he wore black outfits because it was easier to keep clean on long tours.
He moved to Memphis with his first wife, Vivian. Before getting famous, he was in the military and an appliance salesman. One day, he visited the Sun Records studio in the hopes of getting a record deal. His first audition was mostly gospel music and he was rejected. He tried again and brought the producer there some rockabilly songs and he liked it. In December 1956, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash played a jam session. The tapes from that session survived and were released under the name Million Dollar Quartet.
Johnny Cash was also an activist, advocating for prison reform, including famously performing at San Quentin and Folsom Prison and supporting Native American rights. Some of his songs like “Navajo”, “Apache Tears”, “Big Foot”, and “Talking Leaves” told stories of Native Americans being oppressed by colonists and settlers. The Seneca Nation’s Turtle Clan adopted Johnny Cash in 1966 because of his activism.
Going through his entire discography could be an entire series of posts, so we’ll only talk about his crossover hits from the late 50s to the 70s.
His first crossover hit was the very famous “I Walk The Line” in 1956. It topped the Country charts and was a top 20 hit. The chord progression was inspired by backwards playback of tapes. Much like his other songs, the rhythm is based on the sound of a freight train.
In 1958, Johnny Cash had multiple crossover hits with songs like “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” (#1 Country, #14 Hot 100), “Guess Things Happen That way” (#1 Country, #11 Hot 100), and “The Ways of a Woman in Love” (#2 Country, #24 Hot 100).
“Don’t Take Your Guns to Town”, released in 1959, topped the country charts and peaked at #32 on the Hot 100.
It was a few years until Johnny Cash had a crossover hit. The famous love song, “Ring of Fire” topped the country charts in 1963 and peaked at #17 on the Hot 100 and that same year, “The Matador” was a top 50 hit, reaching #44. June Carter Cash wrote “Ring of Fire” and her sister Anita Carter originally recorded the song.
“Understand Your Man” was a hit in 1964, topping the country charts and peaking at #35 on the Hot 100.
For a few years, his popularity waned partially because of changing tastes, but also his drug addiction. Not too long before his performance at Folsom Prison in January 1968, he started to turn his career around after decreasing his drug use. There were two performances on the 13th of January, one at 9:40 AM and another three hours later, just in case. Carl Perkins and the Statler Brothers opened for Johnny Cash. June Carter Cash joined her husband later in the show for some duets. The album peaked at #7 in the UK and Norway, #27 in Canada, and #13 on the pop albums chart in the US. Johnny Cash said that the inmates were the most enthusiastic audience he ever played to.
At the end of the 60s, Johnny Cash got multiple mainstream crossover hits with a live version of one of his first songs from 1955, “Folsom Prison Blues” (#1 Country, #32 Hot 100), “Daddy Sang Bass” (#1 Country, #42 Hot 100), a live cover of Shel Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue” (#1 Country, #2 Hot 100), “Blistered” (#4 Country, #50 Hot 100), and “If I Were a Carpenter” (#2 Country, #36 Hot 100).
In the early 70s, he had crossover hits like “What Is Truth”, “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”, “Flesh and Blood”, and “Man in Black”.
In 1976, “One Piece At a Time” was a top 30 crossover hit.
Johnny Tillotson: Country pop singer from Florida. Since he was a child, he would perform and eventually he got his own TV show at a local station. While he was studying at the University of Florida, a local DJ sent a tape of his singing and he was chosen as a finalist for the Pet Milk talent competition.
He went to Nashville and got a record deal. He released his first single, “Dreamy Eyes” in September 1958. He graduated from university the following year with a journalism degree and moved to New York for his music career.
In the early 60s, he got a few hits with the songs “Poetry in Motion”, “Without You”, “It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’”, “Send Me the Pillow You Dream On” (the latter two were also successful on the country charts) and more.
In the late 60s, “You’re The Reason” and “I Can Spot a Cheater” were minor country hits.
Kenny Rogers: One of the most famous country musicians of the 70s. He’s best known for his country music, but he made music in multiple genres.
He was born in Houston and got his start in music in the late 50s. His first solo single, a rock ballad called “That Crazy Feeling,” peaked at #51 on the Cashbox charts in 1958. His voice is noticeably higher in this song.
In the early 60s, he was in a jazz group called the Bobby Doyle Three.
For almost 10 years, he was in The First Edition. Some of their best known songs were the kinda psychedelic “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”, “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”, “Reuben James”, and “Something’s Burning”.
In 1976, Kenny Rogers went solo and released his best known music. Sixty of his songs were Top 40 hits. Some of his crossover hits of the late 70s include “Lucille”, “The Gambler”, “She Believes in Me”, “You Decorated My Life”, and “Coward of the County”. In the early 80s, his biggest hits were “Lady” and “Islands in the Stream” (a duet with Dolly Parton).
Kris Kristofferson: Kris Kristofferson was born in Texas. His father’s family were from Sweden. His family were a military family so they moved around a lot. Eventually, they ended up in California.
His father wanted him to be in the military, like he was, and when he was 17, Kris Kristofferson worked with a dredging contractor on Wake Island.
He was a good student and got a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University. After he graduated in 1960, he joined the Army, under pressure from family, and was stationed in West Germany.
In 1965, he left the army and moved to Nashville to pursue a music career. He got his foot in the door by getting a job sweeping floors at Columbia Recording Studios. One day at his job, he met June Carter Cash and asked her to give Johnny Cash a demo tape of his. The tape just sat in a pile and Kristofferson kept working other jobs.
He never gave up on his dream. He kept writing songs like “Me and Bobby McGee”, “Viet Nam Blues”, and “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.” Many of the songs he wrote were recorded by other musicians and became hits.
One day decided to chance his arm by getting Johnny Cash’s attention, doorstepping him by landing a helicopter in front of his house. It worked at he got his attention.
In the early 70s, he started recording his own albums and his songwriting was in demand. Janis Joplin’s version of “Me and Bobby McGee” went #1. He had a few crossover hits like “Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)”, “Josie”, and “Why Me” – his biggest hit. His most successful album were Full Moon (with Rita Coolidge) and A Star Is Born (with Barbra Streisand).
Lee Hazlewood: He was best known for his work with Duane Eddy, writing many of his instrumental hits and Nancy Sinatra – writing and producing “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’”, but he was also a country songwriter. He was born in Oklahoma and grew up there and in neighbouring states.
Before he worked in the music industry, he went to SMU in Dallas and served in the Army. After he left the Army, he worked as a DJ in Phoenix while writing songs.
He wrote Deana Martin’s country hit “Girl of the Month Club.”
His country/folk album with Nancy Sinatra, Nancy & Lee, reached #13 on the albums charts.
Loretta Lynn: Eldest daughter born into the Webb family in Kentucky. She is Crystal Gayle’s older sister and known as “The Coal Miner’s Daughter”, “The Queen of Country Music, “The Honky Tonk Girl”, and more.
She got married at the age of 15 to a 21 year old named Oliver Vanetta “Doolittle” Lynn and moved to Washington state. Her husband was important in her career, being her manager, purchasing her first guitar, and helping her get gigs. However, it wasn’t all happy. He had a reputation for being an alcoholic womaniser, cheating on his wife multiple times. By the age of 19, Loretta Lynn was a mother of 4. Doolittle bought her a guitar when she was about 20 or 21 and she taught herself to play. Her marriage to Doolittle inspired a lot of her songs, which were often about the life of a blue-collar woman dealing with a cheating husband. She was known as “The Hillbilly Feminist” for her songs about gender issues.
She started her own band and released her first single, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” in 1960. That single was just the beginning for her. In the 60s, she had a lot of success with songs like “Success”, “Before I’m Over You”, “Blue Kentucky Girl”, “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)”, “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” – her first #1 country hit, “Fist City”, and “Woman of the World (Leave My World Alone)”. These songs and more did well on the country charts.
In the early 70s, “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “I Wanna Be Free” were minor crossover hits, reaching #83 and #94 on the Billboard pop charts.
In 1975, “The Pill” was a crossover hit, reaching #70 on the Billboard pop charts and #49 on the Canadian charts. This song was one of a few that was controversial and banned from the radio because of the subject matter. Other controversial songs of hers include “Rated X”, “Wings Upon Your Horns”, and “Dear Uncle Sam”.
However, she doesn’t like her music to be pigeonholed into any political ideology. She has visited the White House six times since 1976, under both Democrat and Republican presidents and has mostly supported Republicans for president like George H.W. Bush and Donald Trump, but she was friends with Jimmy Carter. She is also a critic of upper/middle-class feminism because she believes that it failed working class and poor women.
Marty Robbins: The first Billboard #1 of 1960 was Marty Robbins’ “El Paso”, from the 1959 album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. The songs all have a cowboy theme to it and tell stories.
The full length version of “El Paso” was 4 minutes and 38 seconds long, very long for the time period and the record label were not sure if it would get any radio airplay so an edited version was released, but the longer version was preferred among DJs and fans. “El Paso” is a country ballad about a Wild West cowboy in El Paso who is in a love with a Mexican dancer named Feleena. However, Feleena is sharing a drink with another man. The narrator is jealous and shoots his love rival. He flees, fearing the consequences. Some time later, he returns to El Paso because he wants to be with Feleena, but he is killed.
Marty Robbins was a successful country musician in the 50s who had major hits on the country music charts with multiple songs topping the country charts and more in the top 10 and 20. He had some mainstream chart success in the late 50s, but “El Paso” was his biggest hit and it won the Grammy for Best Country & Western Recording in 1961.
Fallout fans will recognise the song “Big Iron”, which tells the story of a duel between an Arizona Ranger and Texas Red in the town of Agua Fria. People expect that Texas Red will beat Arizona Ranger because he’s killed 20 men. The ranger was fast and killed Texas Red with his “big iron on his hip” even before he pulled out his gun. This song was a mainstream hit, reaching the top 30 on the Hot 100. This song is an example of great storytelling in music.
Marty Robbins also had another mainstream chart success with the song “Don’t Worry” in 1961, which topped the US Country charts and peaked at #3 in the Billboard Hot 100. He never had any other success as big on the mainstream charts after this.
Besides music, he was a NASCAR driver and actor. He was born in Arizona in 1925. He was stationed in the Solomon Islands in WWII and during that time he learnt to play guitar and wrote songs. After that, he had a radio show and TV show in Phoenix. Country singer Little Jimmy Dickens was a guest on his show and helped him get a record deal.
Marty Robbins was loved by classic rock bands. The Grateful Dead covered “El Paso” and The Who’s 2006 album Endless Wire has a song called “God Speaks of Marty Robbins”.
Olivia Newton-John: English-born Australian pop and country singer. You might associate her with pop music, but she made some country music in the mid-70s. She was born in Cambridge to a Welsh father who was an MI5 officer and a Jewish mother. When she was 6, her family moved to Melbourne because her father got a job teaching at a university there.
As a teenager, she performed on radio and TV and moved back to the UK in the mid 60s. In 1973, she released a cover of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and got a crossover pop/country hit with “Let Me Be There” – it reached the top 10 on both the pop and country charts.
Between 1974 and 1976 she got multiple crossover hits with “If You Love Me (Let Me Know)”, “I Honestly Love You”, “Have You Never Been Mellow”, “Please Mr Please”, “Let It Shine”, and “Come On Over”.
Patsy Cline: Country singer born Virginia Patterson Hensley in Virginia in 1932. She was one of the most influential early female country singers as a part of the Nashville sound from the late 50s to her death in 1963 in a plane crash. She was one of the first country singers to have a crossover pop hit.
Her mother was a seamstress and her father was a blacksmith. When she was 13, she had a throat infection, but once she recovered, she had a powerful singing voice. While in school, she worked at a drug store operating the soda fountain and as a waitress at a diner.
One day, she asked a DJ if she could sing on his show. This performance was well received and she started performing at clubs in her hometown. In the mid 50s, her manager Bill Peer, gave her her stage name of Patsy because of her middle name. She was signed to Four Star Records in 1955. After her first single for the label, “A Church, A Courtroom & Then Goodbye”, she appeared on the Grand Ole Opry.
She auditioned for Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts (kind of the X Factor of the 40s and 50s) in New York in 1956 and appeared on the TV show in January the following year. For her audition, she sang “Walkin’ After Midnight” and she changed her appearance from a cowgirl look to a more fancy look. She won the contest because of the audience’s applause that pushed the clap-o-meter to its peak. The single was a success, reaching #2 on the country charts and #12 on the pop charts.
She joined the Grand Ole Opry cast in 1960 and the circumstances were unique. She was the only person to request to join and be accepted. She was very helpful to emerging talented women country singers, befriending Loretta Lynn, Dottie West, Jan Howard, Brenda Lee, and Barbara Mandrell. Loretta Lynn and Dottie West called her generous.
It wasn’t until 1961 that she got hits again, but this wouldn’t last long, as her life was cut short in 1963. Her 1961 crossover country/pop hit “I Fall to Pieces” was her first release for Decca Records. It was a chart topper in the country charts and was in the top 20 in the pop charts. A real breakthrough for Cline.
Sadly, during the peak of success of “I Fall to Pieces”, she and her brother were in a car crash that nearly killed her. She was was trooper though, returning to touring on crutches. Her next single was “Crazy”, a Willie Nelson composition. This single was her biggest pop hit.
In 1962, she released the album, Sentimentally Yours. “She’s Got You” was a crossover hit on that album, reaching #14 on the pop charts.
Her biggest posthumous hits were “Sweet Dreams” and “Faded Love”.
Patti Page: Born Clara Fowler in Oklahoma in 1927. She was the best selling female artist of the 50s. She got her start in music in 1947 when she got a record deal with Mercury Records. In 1948, she released her first single, “Confess”. She couldn’t get any background singers to perform, so she had her voice overdubbed for the harmony.
She began the 50s on a strong note with her single “With My Eyes Wide Open, I’m Dreaming” selling over a million copies and “All My Love (Bolero)” being her first chart topper.
“Tennessee Waltz” was her signature song and best selling single, a success on the pop charts (#1) and country charts (#2).
In the 60s, her biggest crossover hits were “Mom and Dad’s Waltz” and “Go on Home”.
Ricky Nelson: Actor and singer born in New Jersey to parents who were entertainers. His father Ozzie was in a band and his mother Harriet was a singer and actress. The family were the stars of a sitcom called The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. By the age of 13, Ricky was making six figures, so he did not feel the need to go to university, even though his dad wanted him to. His parents were smart and put his money into trust funds, only giving him a small allowance once he was 18.
When he was 16, he told his girlfriend, Diana, that he was going to make a record. With the help of his family’s connections, he recorded a cover of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walking”, his first single “A Teenager’s Romance”, and “You’re My One and Only Love”.
In 1957, he was on a TV show and just after that he performed at a lunch assembly at a secondary school. The crowd were full of screaming fans who just saw the performance. “A Teenager’s Romance” was a big hit, hitting #2 on the pop charts. Also that year, “Be-Bop Baby” peaked at #3 and his album Ricky hit #1. He was the first teen idol to use TV to promote his singles, making music videos before MTV.
His biggest crossover pop/country hits in the late 50s were “Stood Up”, “Waitin’ In School”, “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in it”, “Believe What You Say”, and “Poor Little Fool”.
He had different visions from the jazz and country musicians who worked with him so he decided to form a rock band with like-minded musicians his age. Between 1958 and 1959, he had 12 hits on the charts, more than Elvis, who had 11. His career was at its peak until 1964, which was when Beatlemania hit America and the music trends changed.
During the era of Beatlemania, Ricky Nelson didn’t give up on music. Instead he decided to change his sound from rockabilly to country. While he wasn’t as much of a chart success, his sound was influential to Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, and The Eagles.
His last top 40 hit was “Garden Party” in 1972. The song peaked at #6 on the pop charts and #44 on the country charts.
Roger Miller: Country singer known for his honky-tonk songs. He was born in Fort Worth, Texas. When he was a baby, his father passed away due to illness and Roger’s mother sent him and his brothers to live with extended family. He worked hard as a child, doing farm work to support his poor family. He couldn’t afford a guitar and his family didn’t even own a telephone.
When he was 17, he stole a guitar because he couldn’t afford one, but he wanted to write songs. Out of guilt, he turned himself in the following day. In lieu of jail, he enlisted in the army. While in the army, he played in a musical group and was encouraged to go to Nashville after he was discharged.
When he went to Nashville, he met Chet Atkins and he was impressed. Chet Atkins loaned him a guitar to use in the meantime so he can get more practise. Miller found a job at a hotel and sang while working, gaining a reputation. Country comedian Minnie Pearl hired him and so began his professional music career. Then he met George Jones, who got him an audition at Starday Records.
After that, he decided to take time off from music to raise a family. His day job was being a firefighter, but by night he performed.
His biggest crossover hits (that made it to the top 10 in the pop charts and country charts) are “Dang Me”, “Chug-a-Lug”, “King of the Road”, “Engine Engine #9”, and “England Swings”.
Roy Orbison: This influential Nashville sound singer-songwriter was born in Vernon, Texas to a father who was an oil well driller and car mechanic and a mother who was a nurse. During the Great Depression, they had trouble finding work and moved to Fort Worth for better opportunities.
When Orbison was six, his parents got him a guitar. His biggest influence was country music, especially Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams, and Jimmie Rodgers. One of his first paid performances was when his band that he formed in secondary school were paid $400 to play at a dance. While in university, he started listening to Elvis and Johnny Cash.
In 1956, his band, The Teen Kings, were offered a recording contract. So they went to Sun Studio in Memphis and recorded the song, “Ooby Dooby”, which reached #59 on the Billboard charts. The Teen Kings went on to tour with Johnny Cash, Sonny James, and Carl Perkins. He also toured with Patsy Cline, Eddie Cochran, and Gene Vincent.
While none of his hit singles of the early 60s made the country charts, his biggest hits were “Running Scared” (#1), “Crying” (#2), “Cream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)” (#4), “It’s Over” (#9), and “Oh, Pretty Woman” (#1).
His popularity declined by 1965. Part of the reason behind this was he didn’t have much of a public persona because he had no publicist. He didn’t have much of a face recognition because he hid his face. The story behind his trademark thick sunglasses came from when he accidentally left his glasses on the plane while touring with The Beatles. All he had were his prescription sunglasses and so it stuck. His image was mysterious, wearing all black and hiding behind a pair of thick sunglasses and standing still in performances. As for friendships with The Beatles, he was closest to George, and in the 80s, they were both in the Traveling Wilburys. Orbison died away in 1988 of a heart attack at the age of 52.
Skeeter Davis: This country singer was born Mary Penick in Dry Ridge, Kentucky in 1931, the firstborn of a family of seven children. Her nickname, Skeeter was given to her by her grandfather because she was hyper, like a mosquito. Her family moved around a few times around Ohio and Kentucky.
She and her school friend, Betty Jack Davis (where Skeeter got her last name from), went to the Grand Ole Opry and convinced a stage manager to let them go backstage. While backstage, they met Hank Williams and Chet Atkins. Skeeter and Betty Jack later became known as The Davis Sisters (though they’re not related) and recorded some music together.
In 1949, the two of them went to Detroit and made demos. One of them, “Jealous Love”, can be found below.
Her first country hit single, “Lost to a Geisha Girl” was released in 1957. It reached #15 on the country charts. In 1959, “Set Him Free” reached #5 on the country charts and “Homebreaker” reached #15 on the country charts.
In 1960, her music started to cross over into the pop charts. ‘(I Can’t Help You) I’m Falling Too” was #2 on the country charts and reached the top 40 on the pop charts. “My Last Date (With You)” was a bit more successful on the pop charts, peaking at #26.
Her biggest hit was “The End of the World”, released in 1962, reaching #2 on the country and pop charts. It was even an international hit, charting in Australia and Britain.
“I Can’t Stay Mad at You” was another crossover hit for Skeeter Davis, reaching #7 on the pop charts, but no other single reached the level of success as “The End of the World”. “I’m Saving My Love”, “He Says the Same Things to Me”, and “Gonna Get Along Without You Now” were minor crossover hits, reaching the top 50 on the pop charts.
Tammy Wynette: The First Lady of Country Music, was born Virginia Wynette Pugh in Mississippi in 1942. Along with Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, and Dolly Parton, she was one of the most influential women in the genre. Her husband was country singer George Jones and they worked together on songs, like Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.
As a baby, her father died of a brain tumour. Tammy Wynette was raised by her grandparents in a very humble home. No indoor toilets or running water. Her most hobbies were playing a lot of musical instruments that her late father left her and playing basketball.
Tammy Wynette first got married to Euple Byrd at the age of 18, right before her secondary school graduation. Before fame she did waitressing, receptionist work, bar work, factory work, and went to beauty school. She renewed her cosmetology licence every year just in case her music career flopped and she needed to pay the bills. Euple was not very supportive of her dreams of being a country singer, and so she left him and went to Nashville. Getting a record deal wasn’t easy and she faced a lot of rejection, like a lot of musicians. Producer Billy Sherrill decided to take a chance on her because he needed a singer for the song “Apartment No. 9”. Sherrill suggested that she change her name to Tammy Wynette because she reminded him of Debbie Reynolds’ character in Tammy and the Bachelor.
Wynette’s breakthrough was with the #3 hit “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad”. From there, the next six singles went #1 on the country charts: “I Don’t Wanna Play House”, “Take Me to Your World”, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”, “Stand by Your Man”, “Singing My Song”, and The Ways to Love a Man”. “Stand by Your Man” was her biggest crossover hit, reaching #19 on the pop charts.
Her success continued through the 70s and early 80s, but no other songs were major crossover pop hits.
Wanda Jackson: One of the first popular female rockabilly singers, The Queen of Rockabilly. She grew up in Oklahoma City, but her family later moved to Bakersfield, California for a short period of time. Her father bought her a guitar and took her to concerts. After she graduated from secondary school, she started touring, opening for Elvis Presley, who encouraged her to sing rockabilly music.
Her 1954 single with Billy Gray, “You Can’t Have My Love” reached #8 on the country charts. She stood out for her glamorous outfits – fringed dresses, heels, and dangling earrings.
Between 1955 and 1960, she was on the popular country music radio show Ozark Jubilee. Most of her singles in the late 50s were only regional hits, but “I Gotta Know” reached #15 and “Fujiyama Mama” reached #1 in Japan – leading to a tour there in 1959.
In 1960, she reached the top 40 with the song “Let’s Have a Party”. This song did better in the Netherlands, where it charted at #17 and in the UK where it charted at #32.
In 1961, she had two crossover hits with “Right or Wrong” and “In the Middle of a Heartache”. She was nominated for a Grammy in 1965 for Best Female Country Vocal Performance, but lost to Dottie West.
Rockabilly went out of fashion in the mid 60s, and so Wanda Jackson’s career slumped commercially, but she still had some successes on the country charts in the late 60s with songs like “Both Sides of the Line”, “A Girl Don’t Have to Drink to Have Fun”, and “My Big Iron Skillet” (has some electric sitar in it, nice!). From 1967-1968 she had a syndicated TV show called Music Village.
Waylon Jennings: This country singer influential in the Outlaw country movement was born on the G.W. Bitner farm, in the Texas Panhandle. His father was a labourer on a farm, but later started a retail creamery. Jennings’ mother taught him to play guitar when he was 8 and he would borrow guitars from relatives until his mum bought him a guitar as a gift.
He won a talent show hosted by a TV station in Lubbock singing “Hey Joe”. At the age of a 12, he was hired for a weekly 30 minute radio programme. He dropped out of secondary school at the age of 16 and started working various temporary jobs. He started performing at a country radio station. One day while working at the radio station, he met Buddy Holly at a restaurant and became friends with him.
Jennings’ radio show in Lubbock had a mix of music: country classics, new country music, and mixed recordings – usually rock musicians like Chuck Berry and Little Richard. The station owner wasn’t happy about the rock music and fired him after he played two Little Richard records in a row.
In 1959, Jennings toured with Buddy Holly (as part of his backing band) during the infamous Winter Dance Party tour of the Midwest. We all know what happened. In short, the tour was inefficient, with the bus zigzagging around. On top of that, all the musicians were crammed into a janky repurposed school bus that broke down all the time. The weather was bitter cold and lots of snow. Musicians were falling ill because of the cold. Buddy Holly chartered a plane for himself and his band. Waylon Jennings gave up his seat for The Big Bopper, who had the flu. Ritchie Valens got his seat on the plane because he won a coin toss. Jokingly, Jennings told Holly that he hoped his plane crashed, and he regretted that joke for the rest of his life.
After Buddy Holly died in the plane crash, Waylon Jennings took over as lead singer, playing the rest of the tour dates. When he returned to Lubbock, he went back to the radio station, but his performance suffered because of the death of his friend and hero, Buddy Holly.
Finally, in the early 60s, he got a record deal and started recording some singles, but they didn’t make the national charts. The reason these singles weren’t as successful as they could have been was because A&M Records were mostly known for folk music, not country. In the mid-60s he met Willie Nelson and they became friends. Bobby Bare called Chet Atkins when he heard “Just to Satisfy You” on the radio and told him he should sign him.
Finally, in 1965, Jennings got his first country chart hits with the songs “That’s the Chance I’ll Have to Take”, “Stop the World (And Let Me Off)”, and “Anita, You’re Dreaming”.
From there, he got more popular and his singles were hitting the top 10 in the country charts: “The Chokin’ Kind”, “Walk On Out of My Mind”, “I Got You”, “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line”, “Yours Love”, and “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”.
In 1969, he and The Kimberlys won a Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Group for their version of “MacArthur Park”.
Jennings was critical of the Nashville establishment, calling them strict and not liking the expectations of how musicians had to look and perform. So he decided to start his own thing, Outlaw Country, you could say this is the punk of country. Back to basics, free to look how you want, and heavily influenced by throwback sounds, in this case: rockabilly and honky tonk. Jennings’ first Outlaw Country album was Ladies Love Outlaws in 1972.
In the 70s, he had a string of hit singles, with a few of them crossing over to the pop charts. The biggest crossover hit that decade for him was “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)”, which peaked at #1 on the country charts and #25 on the pop charts.
He also was famous for “Theme from Dukes of Hazzard (Good Ol’ Boys)”, which peaked at #21 on the pop charts in 1980.
Willie Nelson: Country musician and activist for legal cannabis. He was born in 1933 in Abbott, Texas. His parents abandoned him and he was raised by his grandparents instead. His grandfather bought him a guitar and taught him some chords and he sang gospel songs in church. His biggest influences were Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price, Hank Snow, Django Reinhard, Frank Sinatra, and Louis Armstrong.
While he was in secondary school, he played football, basketball, and baseball. He also raised pigs and was in a band that played in honky tonks. Before he got famous, he was in the Air Force and studied agriculture at Baylor University.
Like some of the other country musicians mentioned in this post, he worked in radio. He auditioned for the Ozark Jubilee, but didn’t make it and worked as a dishwasher instead. He didn’t like that job and he went back to Texas, feeling disheartened with the music industry. One year later, he decided to try again, performing in clubs and working at radio stations.
In 1960, he moved to Nashville in the hopes of better opportunities, but again, ran into rejection. No label would sign him. He hung out at a local bar and met some people who worked in the industry who helped him get his songs out there. His song “Crazy” was performed by Patsy Cline and it became a smash hit.
In 1962, he got his first top 10 country hit with the song, “Willingly”, a duet with Shirley Collie. The follow up, “Touch Me” made it to #109 on the pop charts and peaked at #7 on the Country charts.
In 1965, he joined the Grand Ole Opry and met Waylon Jennings. Between 1966 and 1969 he had a bunch of singles break the top 40: “One in a Row”, “The Party’s Over”, “Blackjack County Chain”, “Little Things”, and “Bring Me Sunshine”.
Willie Nelson moved to Austin, Texas and was inspired by the hippie scene, changing his sound. He started the Fourth of July Picnic, an annual concert held every year since 1973. Along with Waylon Jennings, the two were categorised as Outlaw Country.
In 1974 and 1975, Willie Nelson released concept albums Phases and Stages and Red Headed Stranger. His most successful single, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” reached #21 on the pop charts and topped the country charts. The follow-up single, “Remember Me (When the Candle Lights Are Gleaming)” reached #67 on the pop charts at #2 on the country charts.
In 1978, “Georgia on My Mind” topped the country charts and reached #84 on the pop charts and #16 on the Canadian adult contemporary charts.
His success continued in the 80s and songs like “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” (#44), “On The Road Again” (#20), “Always on My Mind” (#5), and “Let It Be Me” (#40) were successful crossover hits.
Coming up next in the series: Country Rock musicians of the 60s, 70s, and 80s!
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