Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing series where I explore country music’s biggest crossover hits.
One bias that we, as country music fans, need to acknowledge is that, when studying country music’s past to observe modern day trends, we tend to rely a little too much on the benefit of hindsight. By only reading one’s own perspective on the past, we tend to view certain ideas as facts we can point back to, like an encyclopedia, when living and observing those trends in the present day helps us to assess a larger picture grounded in our own reality. Granted, this does lead to greater debates when labeling marks of history in the present day, but it also goes to show that no perspective, at least when observing country music history, is necessarily right or wrong.
For example, it’s easy to see now why artists like Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline should be counted as country music icons, given their rural backgrounds and songs of hard living, but surely some country music fan back in those times argued otherwise.
A bigger can of worms to open is to question an artist’s intentions within a respective genre, a needed, but dicey, debate. And this ongoing debate of what’s country versus what’s not is increasingly prevalent as this feature moves through the ‘70s. In the years after 1974, a profusion of singers moved into country music from a wide variety of performing backgrounds, causing some critics to describe country music as a “refuge for musicians with failed or quiescent careers.” Musicians moving toward country music often meant little more than adding pedal steel to their recordings, or using Nashville recording studios and musicians.
In other words, “country” had truly become the marketing term it started out as, and while it may seem easy to see where the problem is, it goes deeper than that. Anne Murray, for example, hated country music while growing up, despite eventually learning to appreciate it and becoming a country star in her own right. “I thought it was terrible, because at the time the only kind of thing I heard was Kitty Wells and to me it was more important that somebody could sing than what they were saying,” Murray says.
And while it’s easy to pit artists who invaded country music against those working within the genre, the lines are blurry there, too. Olivia Newton-John, Charlie Rich and Murray resisted country labeling throughout their careers, even despite prospering from the identification. Naturally, none of them turned down any awards from the country music establishment, but they did argue their music was more broadly popular that a country categorization would suggest.
And then there’s John Denver, a pop-folk singer who, despite merely experimenting with the idiom and never really seeking the full-scale country involvement, arguably sang more “rural-sounding” songs than some performers within mainstream country music.
Today’s hit in question, “Thank God I’m A Country Boy,” provided lyrics surrounding farm life, country cooking and the mountain fiddle; in other words, the song is a celebration of country lifestyles. In fact, with reference to the song “Sally Gooden,” the song provides an actual link of country’s past with its present. “Sally Gooden” is one of two songs recorded by Eck Robertson and Henry Gilliland in 1922. Along with its flip side, “Arkansaw Traveler” (with Arkansas perhaps being spelled that way intentionally), the Victor recording is recognized as the very first country record and was a charter inductee into the Library of Congress’ “National Recording Registry” in 2002.
So, whether the country flavor (or lack thereof) of “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” is subtle or gimmicky (or something else entirely) is up to you. Even with that said, however, Denver found himself immersed within controversy less than five months later when the Country Music Association named him “Entertainer of the Year.” Ironically, the aforementioned Charlie Rich burned the letter announcing his win, and, as is the spirit with this feature, whether that’s hypocrisy or not is up to individual perspective. The controversy went beyond Rich, however, when a large segment of Nashville expressed its displeasure with the fact that a “crossover” performer could take the CMA’s most prestigious award.
Denver, however, had grown up under his father, an avowed country music fan; therefore, the influence was rather distinct. Nashville would make amends with Denver when he achieved a lifetime dream of performing at the Grand Ole Opry for the very first time on November 12, 1976. Join me next time where we’ll talk about something less controversial – a trucker’s anthem by C.W. McCall, and who knows, I might have some additional help writing that piece! Stay tuned.
This piece was written thanks to the following sources:
– All quote attributions are credited toward Bill C. Malone’s Country Music U.S.A., specifically the chapter “Country Music, 1972-1984.”
– Other information about John Denver’s life were taken from The Encyclopedia of Country & Western Music by Rick Marschall.