The Unbroken Circle is a recurring feature where we discuss classic country songs
This may surprise some of you, but country music – a genre in which drinking to forget now stands as an all-too familiar and borderline clichéd song topic – once steered clear of any mentions of alcohol, and would not allow it to be the antidote to anyone’s heartache.
OK, so, why? The genre’s history of drinking songs blaring off jukeboxes is essential to telling its story, and yet in the days between World War II and the Korean conflict, most radio stations didn’t allow any songs mentioning alcohol consumption onto their playlists. It was as taboo as mentions of infidelity, in order to support a sacred image that was only part of country music’s fuller identity. Hank Williams may mention drinking soda pop in “Hey Good Lookin’,” but his image behind the songs (and in many cases, within them) reflected something much darker.
It was even more taboo for the time, then, for a song about using drinking as a form of healing a broken heart to come from a female writer. But when Mary Jean Shurtz began writing her own version, another barrier could have been broken … if there had been any hope for its future prospects as a radio single, hence why she didn’t initially finish the song. And for a while it would remain unfinished, until an artist who dominated country music in the 1950s came along to challenge traditional boundaries.
That artist was former Sears Roebuck salesman and store manager Webb Pierce, who slowly built a following for his music career while earning an average day-to-day living. While he lived in Shreveport, Lousiana, Webb found favor from locals, who enjoyed his whining tenor and knack for creeping his way up to notes, enough to where he eventually moved to the 50,000-watt KWKH and its Saturday night barn dance, the Lousiana Hayride, built a band, and became the show’s hottest act. From there he formed Pacemaker Records with Hayride producer Horace Logan, and in late 1951 he moved to Decca Records, scoring his first big hit the next year with an old Lousiana favorite – “Wondering.”
His label felt that they had found the right artist and next big superstar to greet the new decade, and they weren’t far off in their estimate. Given that Pierce’s own influences included Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry, and several western-swing acts, it’s no surprise that he was one part of a new class of performers that would craft a sound known as honky-tonk, a wilder yet firmer take on the hard country sound spearheaded by Ernest Tubb in the ‘40s and continuing on through performers such as Hank Thompson, Hank Snow, and Ray Price, among others. Song topics were noticeably less sentimental and more reflective of reality, and cheating become a popular – yet still controversial – topic, when acts like Floyd Tillman and Jimmy Wakely recorded “Slippin’ Around” and “One Has My Name, The Other Has My Heart,” respectively.
And yet despite “honky tonk” appearing to have begun in Texas in the years following the repeal of prohibition – when country artists began playing in beer joints to consumers starved from the Depression – drinking was not an accepted topic in country music. The music became louder, the instruments were electrified, and the dance beats and subject matter were made to reflect the changing adaptions rural consumers faced, and it was all to shed a rustic, bygone image. It became as much of a diversion and respite as it did a musical style.
Pierce, too, joined in on the emergence of cheating songs with his own “Back Street Affair” in 1952, a song initially intended for Hank Williams. And he quickly eclipsed all of his contemporaries, thanks in part to a string of consecutive No. 1 hits in the aforementioned “Wondering” and “Back Street Affair” as well as “That Heart Belongs to Me.” He quickly became country music’s biggest artist, and scored nine top tens and four No. 1 country songs in his first 18 months as a performer. Call it risky, then, for him to be drawn to Shurtz’ unfinished ode to heartbreak. His newfound success and stature gave him the confidence to try a theme he felt his fans could embrace, even despite knowing that it would be a controversial release. He took the song home to his wife, Audrey Grisham, and between her, Shurtz, and another writer in Russ Hall, he eventually recorded the finished song with two of his former band mates from his Hayride days – steel guitarist Jimmy Day and pianist Floyd Cramer, both of whom would find their own success in Nashville.
Still, the dilemma of whether or not to release it remained in question. “There Stands the Glass” was the sort of the song that would either propel or end Pierce’s career, but he knew his audience, and he knew, according to him, that a large portion of his audience drank, and thus wouldn’t be put off by the song’s very nature.
His fears came true when, upon the song’s release – and after strong hesitation from Pierce’s label, at that – country radio stations banned it on the grounds that it might influence alcohol sales. Pierce was, however, right about his fans, and sure enough, they began bombarding radio stations requesting to hear the song. And in an age where that still mattered, the fans won. “There Stands the Glass” climbed to the No. 1 position by Nov. 21, 1953, and held it for twelve weeks; it would be replaced by another Pierce song called “Slowly,” which is another story for another time for an even bigger hit.
“There Stands the Glass” did become an anthem for social drinkers everywhere, though, and proved that country music could handle being just a little more taboo, and all the better for it, thanks to offering a temporary catharsis and exclamation of pain its audience could understand.