Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing feature where I explore country music’s biggest crossover hits
Last week on ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ we explored the beginning of the rockabilly movement and its effects on country music. The next few volumes of this series will be split between talking about big rockabilly numbers and big pop-country numbers like Sonny James’ “Young Love.” This week, the background information is essentially the same as it was last week, and like James’ song, this week, we’ll be taking a look at another song exploring young love.
Marty Robbins was arguably the most versatile country singer to grace a stage. As a young boy, his father taught him to play harmonica. Meanwhile, his grandfather, a traveling medicine man, taught him cowboy songs. Robbins was further influenced by Gene Autry’s singing cowboy movies.
Of course, we’ll eventually explore Robbins’ love for western music later on in this feature, but Robbins was truly all over the place during his career. From pure country to cowboy songs, ballads, blues, rockabilly, pop, folk, Mexican, gospel, and even Hawaiian, there was essentially nothing Robbins couldn’t do. Between the late 1950s and early 1980s, Robbins usually had at least one top 10 song every year.
As such, it’s not surprising to hear Robbins transitioned nicely into the rockabilly era without fear of commercial repercussions. When I ended the last edition of ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ I said that a song like “Young Love” clarified for Nashville A&R men that there was no point in goading older country singers into performing rock ‘n’ roll. The challenge now came in finding artists who could sing convincingly about adolescent life.
Robbins told head of Columbia Records Don Law he was up to the challenge.
Robbins was the first country artist to take a stab at Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right.” Unlike Presley’s version though, Robbins’ version was an up-tempo country song that left Presley’s twitchy energy out of the mix. Robbins’ own stab at rockabilly came just a year later with Rockin’ Rollin’ Robbins, an album he hated with all his heart.
When his experiment with rockabilly didn’t work out, Robbins reverted back to country with “Singing The Blues,” a song covered by Guy Mitchell for the pop market. Robbins was outraged since Mitchell was a fellow labelmate. While the Robbins version of the song sold around 750,000 copies, Mitchell’s sold around three million. Robbins felt that big chance should have been his, so he insisted on recording in New York with Mitchell’s producer, Mitch Miller, and arranger, Ray Conniff.
In January 1957, Robbins went to New York with four songs in the vein of “Young Love,” and one of them, “A White Sport Coat,” is the topic for today’s discussion. With production by Mitch Miller and backing by Conniff’s orchestra, Robbins finally had his own song to aim at the pop market. Robbins himself was inspired to write the song in 20 minutes while being transported in an automobile. While driving from a motel to a venue in Ohio, he passed a local high school where its students were dressed for their prom.
With “Young Love” before, singing to teenagers was a bit of an odd, but predictable (and, to be frank, creepy), move for country singers during this time. But on “White Sport Coat,” Robbins sings from the actual perspective of a teenager at his prom, a song that would raise all kinds of red flags if it weren’t for its framing. You see, Robbins doesn’t find love in this song, nor is the schmaltz laid on too thick. Age actually hardly matters here, as instead, he gets left behind, leaving him to wallow in his misery. Despite its backstory and odd perspective, “A White Sport Coat” wasn’t too out of line thematically with other country songs.
But so the story goes regardless. Merchandisers and chart marketers began advertising records without labels. Even Nashville journalist Charles Lamb, who had been publishing the Country Music Reporter, dropped the word “country” and began running one big chart dedicated to capturing the most popular tunes, regardless of identification. Country’s move toward a mono-genre certainly shares ties to the modern age in an unfortunate way.
Next week, we’ll explore with other side of the rockabilly movement with an actual rockabilly song, Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes.”
This piece was written thank to the following sources:
- Like with last week, a lot of credit goes toward “All Shook Up: The Rock Revolution and the Nashville Sound,” by Colin Escott from the book, Will The Circle Be Unbroken, edited by Paul Kingsbury and Alanna Nash for filling in the gaps on the rockabilly movement.
- Additional information on the movement was taken from Country Music U.S.A. by Bill C. Malone.
- Information regarding Robbins’ life was taken from The Encyclopedia of Country & Western Music by Rick Marschall.