Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing series where I explore country music’s biggest crossover hits.
As previously discussed in this feature, country music in the 1970s was defined by the recording industry’s skillful negotiation of audience expectations, artistic opportunities, and commercial imperatives. Just as country music embraced artists like John Denver and Olivia Newton John working from beyond the genre’s boundaries, it also embraced the same commercial strategy and creative approach that included the Outlaws. Yet the tensions between traditionalism and commercialism were there, and that everlasting divide seemed to make little sense during this era.
On one hand, Charlie Rich, an artist who incorporated pop influences into his own music, became a hero to those who felt country music’s identity had been lost during this time with a simple strike of a match. But that’s one isolated incident; some artists, like Dolly Parton, were caught in between the throes of this civil war.
Parton started as a child on live country radio, Knoxville’s Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour. She arrived in Nashville in 1964, embraced the modernizing industry, wrote for other performers, sang backup, and showcased her no “Dumb Blonde” personality. An invitation from Porter Wagoner to be his TV girl singer, in 1967, came next, yet also presented shades of that aforementioned dilemma: Wagoner’s fans wanted a more traditional presentation, reflective of hillbilly radio, whereas the personality era wanted poppier products. So Parton adapted, going from traditional country songs, most notably “Coat Of Many Colors,” to contemporizing her beats on songs like “Jolene” and “Joshua,” to singing power ballad love songs like “I Will Always Love You,” her release from Wagoner in the form of a song. By the mid-1970s, Parton could compete with an Adult Contemporary-tempted country radio world. After a failed rock move, however, Parton had to plan her next move carefully.
Parton couldn’t have faced more pressure from the country music industry when she flew off to Los Angeles for a chance at pop stardom. Her critics resented her “snubbing” Nashville, and they predicted she’d destory everything she had built up. Meanwhile, Parton insisted, “I’m not leaving country, I’m just taking it with me.”
Part of Parton’s plan to broaden her reach was to appear on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” in 1977, in which, sadly, Johnny Carson said he’d give a week’s pay to “look under there.” Parton’s self-deprecating commentary about her appearance helped to solidify her image with those who were unfamiliar with her past country hits, even if it meant reinforcing sexism or hillbilly stereotypes. Later that year, though, she’d introduce her new audience to a brand new sound and song with “Here You Come Again.”
Parton’s new producer in Los Angeles, Gary Klein, first heard “Here You Come Again” on a B. J. Thomas album and gave him a call. Thomas said he had no intentions of releasing it as a single, giving Parton and Klein the assurance they needed to proceed. Once Klein produced a final mix, however, Parton feared the song would confirm Nashville’s suspicions that she had “gone Hollywood,” because of her misgivings about the record containing no trace of “real country” in it; so Klein added steel guitar to the track at Parton’s insistence. Klein said, “Dolly wanted people to be able to hear the steel guitar, so if someone said it isn’t country, she could say it is and prove it. She was so relieved. It was like her life sentence had been commuted.”
“Here You Come Again” spent five weeks at the top of Billboard’s country chart and went to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart. Two days after Christmas, 1977, the song helped Parton secure her first gold album, which quickly went platinum, too. The song became the biggest of her 24 number one records, and in October 1978, the Country Music Association recognized that Parton had not abandoned country music, and voted her as Entertainer of the Year.
Yet the conversation points back to that everlasting debate. On one hand, Parton’s success – along with that of artists associated with the “Urban Cowboy” movement – led to a boom period in country record sales, an expansion in the number of country radio stations, and a revived campaign among Nashville record companies to demonstrate the music’s continued relevance. But it also provoked criticism from those who saw this all as an abandonment of country music’s identity. Yet even if the metaphorical crossover bubble did eventually burst, giving way for the neotraditional movement, everything eventually swings back around again. By 1989, country music was becoming Garth Brooks, and in 1979, country music aspired to be Dolly Parton. Join me next time on ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ where we’ll talk about the Charlie Daniels Band and a duel between a fiddler and the Devil.
This piece was written thanks to the following sources:
- Charles L. Hughes’ analysis of Dolly Parton from The Oxford Handbook of Country Music, “Country Music and the Recording Industry”
- Eric Weisbard’s Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music
- Rick Marschall’s The Encyclopedia of Country & Western Music
- Kevin John Coyne’s analysis of “Here You Come Again” for Country Universe
- Michelle Lindsey’s analysis of Dolly Parton’s Here You Come Again album for Highway Queens