Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing feature where I explore country music’s biggest crossover hits.
So far on ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ we’ve addressed honky-tonk fever, cigarettes and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. This week … I’ll be honest, I wish I had more to say about this next crossover hit. To be perfectly blunt, this is just one of those crossover hits that happened and that was that, but let’s see how we can spice this up a little now, shall we?
Over the past few volumes, we’ve discussed both western swing artists and singing cowboys. In both cases, we’ve talked about the theme of escapism, namely how the former artists offer temporary escape while the latter artists offer a fantasy. “Slippin’ Around” managed to marry a fantasy with one of country music’s most essential traits.
It may be hard to deliver a concise, uniform definition of country music, but it’s not hard to list some of its most identifiable traits. Drinking is a must, and whether it’s to drown sorrows or for recreational purposes, country music always has a drink in its metaphorical hand. Good values and storytelling are also integral parts of the genre’s history. If there’s one situation country music loves the most however, it’s a cheating situation.
A study from Curtis Ellison’s Country Music Culture: From Hard Times to Heaven reveals that cheating songs were the most popular types of songs in country music from 1960-1987. When Ralph Peer marched up to Bristol, Tennessee to scout for “hillbilly” talent in 1927, these songs were prevalent even then. Many of the songs were derived, partially or wholesale, from old English ballads. Some of the earliest examples include “The Jealous Sweetheart” by the Johnson Brothers, a murder ballad inspired by the cheating taking place, and “The Mountaineer’s Courtship” by Ernest Stoneman.
As to how these types of ballads survived for so long, music historian David Fillingim thinks it “has to do something with the singers’ lot in life.” He compares them to a vice of sorts, where singers could express their pain and suffering as well as have one way to speak to the unfairness of their situation. Ironically, it’s a form of escapism while still looking problems straight in the eye.
As far as their place in country music is concerned, Fillingim’s analysis is still an accurate portrayal of their evolution in the genre. After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, country music swapped the ballrooms for rowdy, raucous dance halls. Honky-tonks and cheaters simply went together well. Everyone was drinking in the reopened dive bars all over the rapidly changing South.
Sometimes those cheating songs were good for their humorous one-liners or the punch of the hook. Other times, they were, as originally intended, vices for artists to express their pain, even if sometimes the audience didn’t truly understand it.
For a singing cowboy, Jimmy Wakely sure sang about cheating more than a few times. During the peak of his career, Wakely was of the most prominent West Coast performers in country music, with starring roles in movies and on network radio and television.
In other words, Wakely wore many different hats, but it was all out of a genuine love for what he did. But it’s also what makes this edition of this series so hard to discuss. “Slippin’ Around” was his biggest crossover hit and one of the biggest crossover country hits ever, but it was just of many for Wakely. The song, where he was joined with performing artist and movie and television star, Margaret Whiting, was just something that happened.
One could argue that Wakely helped to attract more exposure to cheating songs in country music with “Slippin’ Around” and “One Has My Name, the Other Has My Heart,” but that’s the extent of the information one will likely find on Wakely in the history books. Whiting is even harder to research. This isn’t meant to discredit either artist or their contributions to the genre with this song, but it does mean there isn’t really a story to tell other than an external one.
For now, all that’s left to do is analyze the song itself. The song’s heavy reliance on organ at first makes you think you’re listening to something from an old Broadway show rather than a country song, and that just may have contributed to its crossover appeal.
Lyrically, this wasn’t anything dark or mysterious. It’s a story of two people who are forced to sidestep their current lovers to be with each other before realizing they should just be together. Again, the singing cowboys aimed to offer fantasy and escapism in a lighthearted manner, making “Slippin’ Around” more joyously goofy than anything else.
The song had (and has) been covered by many artists before, but it worked better as a duet. Wakely and Whiting have a decent amount of chemistry, and showcasing both perspectives adds nicely to the song’s lighthearted, almost humorous perspective. Other artists who have covered this song include Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Price, Ernest Tubb, Floyd Tillman (the songwriter), and George Morgan and Marion Worth as another duet in 1964. There’s more, but you get the idea by this point.
Still, while there’s not much to say about the song itself, it does, as evidenced already, speak to country music’s tradition of embracing this controversial subject. For a short time, a signature part of what makes country music what it is was a No. 1 hit on the pop charts.
This piece was written thanks to the following sources:
- Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. (2012). The Encyclopedia of Country Music.
- Ellison, C. (1995). Country Music Culture: From Hard Times to Heaven. Retrieved from here.
- Fillingim, D. (1996). The Gospel Songs and the Cheatin’ Songs: Redneck Theological Discourse and the Problem of Suffering. Retrieved from here.
- Giaimo, C. (20 August 2015). Nashville’s Cheatin’ Heart: Why Country Music Has Been Obsessed With Adultery for the Last Century. Retrieved from here.
- The Country Music Foundation. (1994). Country: The Music and the Musicians.