Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing feature where I explore country music’s biggest crossover hits.
Thus far, with the exception of maybe Tex Williams’ “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette),” the crossover hits discussed in this feature have rarely reflected their respective time periods. In other words, in wasn’t what the song said that catapulted it to the top of two different charts, but rather how it was crafted.
There’s a time and place to discuss country music and politics, particularly in the 1960s, but that’s not suitable for a mere blog post. Instead, what is generally regarded as fact during this time is that in a society where racial, youth and sexual revolutions were taking place (along with tensions from conflict with the Soviet Union), country music was a safe retreat for Americans because it represented a bedrock of American values. It was the one “place” people could turn to to ensure that the older, more predictable world they once knew and loved was still there. Call it a vice or call it smoke and mirrors; either way, I bring this up merely to provide context.
The context this information is useful for though comes to fruition only through a rewind of the clock even further, namely the start of the Korean War. As you can probably guess by now, a strong conservative political stance surfaced in many songs dealing with the war and atomic energy in the ’50s. Many songs were merely topical, but others went deeper by commenting on the domestic consequences of the conflict. “A Dear John Letter,” the focus of this piece, falls well … somewhere in between, in a sense.
“A Dear John Letter” was the breakout hit that both Ferlin Husky and Jean Shepard needed. Husky had worn many hats to try and break through. Under the name Terry Preston, Husky performed in local country music bands. On the radio he developed an alter ego named Simon Crum. It wasn’t until he signed to Capitol Records that the real success came. Husky would eventually go under his own name, but when he recorded “A Dear John Letter,” he went under the Preston name.
For Shepard’s story, she and some friends had formed the Melody Ranch Girls while still in high school (Shepard sang and played upright bass). In 1952, acting on Hank Thompson’s recommendation, Ken Nelson of Capitol Records signed Shepard to the record label. Her debut single fared poorly, but “A Dear John Letter” was another story.
Interestingly enough, “A Dear John Letter” was one of the first examples of a song that showcased new recording techniques due to advanced technology in country music. Husky, who plays the role of an overseas GI in the song, receives a letter from his significant other and finds himself in a state of shock when the letter reports she’ll be marrying his brother instead. Husky does not sing on this track, but rather offers narration and an actual reading of the letter. Shepard delivers the heartbreaking letter through a lyrical melody, presented initially without reverberation, echoing the coldness of the letter. When Husky reads the closing paragraph of the letter, Shepard’s opening paragraph is heard in the background with a hint of reverberation. This was the product of an engineer’s decision to mix Shepard’s vocals more quietly and to run it through a reverberation chamber.
In other words, this new technique allows for a song that feels like the portrayal of a heartbroken man finding himself in the midst of an emotional crisis and allowing us to feel his pain. Her voice rings, both literally and figuratively, in his head. No, it wasn’t a statement on the world at large, but it addressed a biting, real, and most importantly, common sentiment all the same, as all good country songs do.
Looking in the context of the modern day, the pairing between these two doesn’t make much sense. Husky would go on to become one of the pioneers of the “Nashville Sound,” whereas Shepard would go on to become an artist who fought for the perseveration and sanctity of country music’s roots. But while this song was climbing the charts, Husky became Shepard’s legal guardian so they could cross state lines, tour and promote the song. Shepard was a minor at the time of the recording. Later in 1953, another collaboration, the answer song, “Forgive Me John,” was released and became a No. 4 country hit.
This piece was written thanks to the following sources:
- Basic points of information about Ferlin Husky and Jean Shepard were found courtesy of their biographies in both The Encyclopedia of Country Music (John W. Rumble & Don Roy and Daniel Cooper, respectively) and The Encyclopedia of Country & Western Music: Revised Edition (Rick Marschall).
- Background information regarding the Korean War came from the chapter, “The Reinvigoration of Modern Country Music” found in Country Music U.S.A. (Bill C. Malone)
- Information regarding the advanced recording techniques found in “A Dear John Letter” comes from the chapter, “Recording Practice in Country Music” found in the Oxford Handbook of Country Music (edited and written by Travis D. Stimeling)