Pop Goes The Country Vol. 35: Billy Swan – “I Can Help” (1974)

Billy Swan

‘Pop Goes The Country’ is an ongoing series where I explore country music’s biggest crossover hits.

This likely won’t surprise any of you given that this feature is called ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ but not every country music fan enjoyed country music’s crossover success. While we took a detour into the larger cultural conversation surrounding the genre when we discussed Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue,” one underlying point of that piece was to show how there was no monolithic country music stance toward politics. Similarly, there was no fixed position on country music’s future direction in the early 1970s.

As the story typically goes, traditionalists bemoaned the Top Forty formats and tight playlists favored by “country” music stations during this time. Most of all, though, the underlying complaint behind it all was that, with an increase in singers trying out country music, it left older country musicians facing increased challenges getting their own music recorded and distributed; it just wasn’t the popular flavor of the day anymore. Elsewhere, the Country Music Association received criticism for its complicity in blurring country music’s identity; meanwhile, the California-based Academy of Country Music challenged Nashville’s dominance by giving West Coast musicians greater prominence and not bothering to trouble itself with conversations of genre or style.

That’s, of course, just one example of the differing ideologies regarding what country music was supposed to be during this time. Despite the debate stretching back to the genre’s humble beginnings when comparing, say, the traditionally oriented Carter Family and the progressive Jimmie Rodgers, tensions were high in the mid-’70s. Justin Tubb (Ernest Tubb’s son), for example, wrote and sang a song called “What’s Wrong With The Way That We’re Doing It Now,” an anthem for hard country artists that only chose to decry “progressive” artists, an admittedly very vague term, both then and now.

On the other side of the argument, artists and fans of pop-country music argued they were just as passionate about country music as the traditionalists; it’s just that they could accept anyone from George Jones to Ricky Skaggs to Barbara Mandrell to Larry Gatlin as country singers, despite their different approaches in the genre.

The biggest question when answering how any trend comes to be in music, though, is to ask where it all started. For as much as these features are discussions on individual songs, these are also history lessons, and it’s always important to learn from the past to understand how it’s shaped the modern day.

Now, that’s admittedly a loaded statement we won’t explore in extremely specific detail, but it wasn’t long ago that this feature focused on artists like Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, rock performers in country music or country music artists with an extra edge, depending on your perspective. Many country music fans during the mid-’70s had been lured to the genre by the rockabillies and, above all, Elvis Presley in the late ’50s. Twenty years is a long time, however, and by this time, music listeners of this generation never lost their fascination with performers who bled charisma and a kinetic energy.

Granted, this is also why being “derivative” in music isn’t necessarily an immediate insult; fans during this time could still see through a pure nostalgia trip and recognize actual quality. It also just so happens that, as you might have also guessed, performers drawing from various styles were sometimes called “country,” much to either the joy or dismay of certain fans. For artists who absorbed rockabilly music in their youth, country music was a naturally easy fit. It’s no surprise, after all, that even someone of that era who leaned traditional like Gary Stewart still sounded like a combination of Hank Williams and Lewis.

That’s at least how Billy Swan, the focus of today’s piece, came to love country and rock ‘n’ roll. Swan boarded with Presley’s uncle, Travis Smith, in Memphis for several years, but later moved to Nashville where he picked up work as a janitor at Columbia Studio B. Ironically, Swan quit that job during the time Bob Dylan was in the process of recording the Blonde on Blonde album, and Columbia replaced him with Kris Kristofferson.

The tidbit about Kristofferson isn’t meant to be a fun fact, however. The two songwriters would eventually cross paths when Swan landed a position at Combine Publishing Company. There, Swan was responsible for helping the firm’s songwriters make demo recordings, and one of the songs he worked on was Kristofferson’s “Me And Bobby McGee.” In 1970, Kristofferson hired Swan as a bass guitarist for his band, however Swan wasn’t particularly impressive in this role, so he switched to rhythm guitar and vocals.

As for how today’s featured song came to be, the simple (and corny) answer is through the power of friendship. When Swan stepped into the spotlight as a solo artist, his only hit, “I Can Help,” was a record critics praised for its distinctive musical elements. There’s a noted groove to the record that country music hadn’t quite seen yet (which, again, stirs up that aforementioned debate), and between the song’s cascading guitar riff and catchy melody, it was a simple callback to early rock ‘n’ roll that happened to sound really good. Arguably, the song’s most striking element is its prominent organ passage. In fact, it was the keyboard part that launched the entire composition for Swan after Kristofferson and then-wife Rita Coolidge presented him with a portable RMI organ as a wedding present.

With the song’s release in late 1974, Swan left Kristofferson’s group to form his own band. It wasn’t long, however, before Swan returned, realizing he enjoyed his work as a musician and background singer more than as a solo artist. To be fair, though, Swan’s career never really took off enough to warrant his own stage act. “I Can Help” was his only major hit, but a huge hit it was, reaching No. 1 on both the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart and Hot 100 pop chart. Join me next time on ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ where we’ll discuss Freddy Fender, but “before the next teardrop falls,” of course.

This piece was written thanks to the following sources:

– Basic information regarding Billy Swan was taken from The Encyclopedia of Country & Western Music by Rick Marschall.
– Information surrounding country music’s cultural influence and traditionalist/pop country fan dichotomy was largely adapted from Bill C. Malone’s Country Music U.S.A., particularly the chapter “Country Music, 1972-1984.”
– Further information on the formation of “I Can Help” was taken from this article by Richard Buskin.

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