Songwriter Tom Douglas was never a recovering alcoholic, nor did he sell VCRs at a Walmart or live in Little Rock, Arkansas. But in penning a character who was in recovery mode and did all of those aforementioned things, he communicated a common struggle most songwriters face in Nashville – making it on Music Row.
One could argue Douglas arrived in Music City at a bad time, as while the early 1980s fostered the Urban Cowboy movement, it was a short-lived fad that gave country music some incredible commercial highs … and many subsequent lows, almost to the point of needing to reinvent itself for the next decade, which it did.
Two things occurred during this time. A singer named Floyd Collin Wray made a name for himself in the casinos of Reno, Nevada, as well as in a band with his brother Scott, the Wray Brothers. And Douglas, tired of finding no success in Nashville, went to Dallas, Texas, to sell real estate. But as country music found itself in something of a renaissance period by 1986 – thanks to performers like Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis that stood out as new, distinctive artists that updated older sounds for the modern time and blazed their own trails – changes in real estate laws the same year made it almost as difficult to make it in that field as it was in country music in the early half of the decade. Texas, too, had a lot of its own challenges as the oil boom faded rapidly.
In country music, another boom was on its way. The commercial boom of the ‘90s spearheaded by the arrival of SoundScan and the oft-dubbed “class of ‘89” – specifically by Garth Brooks – gave country a commercial boom that it had never seen before, has never seen since, and will likely never see again. Soon, sales statuses of gold and platinum-selling singles and albums became not just a goal for both emerging and veteran artists of the format, but the expectation.
It boded well for the aforementioned Floyd Wray, the son of rockabilly singer Lois Wray who played independently with his brother and signed to Epic Records Nashville in 1990 as a solo act. The artist who now went as Collin Raye honored his family’s rockabilly roots on hits like “I Want You Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” and “My Kind of Girl,” but he always felt more at home with sensitive ballads, putting him in similar artistic territory of contemporaries such as Vince Gill. Raye, too, was set to enjoy the coming ‘90s boom, breaking through with the tender “Love, Me” in 1991 – the lyrics of which have reportedly been inscribed on several tombstones over the years – as well as “In This Life,” a popular wedding song.
And with a solid string of top ten singles and platinum-selling albums afterward, one could argue Raye was set to match his contemporaries saleswise. But he switched producers for 1994’s extremes, having been unsatisfied by the overall quality of his first two albums. It led with the Lee Roy Parnell-penned “That’s My Story,” but its second single would go on to become one of the greatest storytelling songs of the decade, and it would finally give Tom Douglas his own big break.
Douglas still wrote songs while in Dallas, but he gave up trying to be a commercial success and found that his writing was better for it, and that he had cultivated a more unique voice along the way. In a way, then, both the struggling salesman and the dissatisfied artist could relate to the role of someone trying to right old wrongs on Douglas’ own “Little Rock,” where achieving sobriety here acts as just an extended metaphor for finding personal clarity. Besides, you can’t get a play on words like “I think I’m on a roll here in Little Rock” out of Dallas, or Nashville, really, even if many have tried with the latter. Still, at its heart, “Little Rock” is a story of personal redemption, framed as a telephone conversation between a recovering alcoholic and his estranged wife, which runs an emotional gambit consisting of guilt, shame … and even possible empathy for someone genuinely doing their best to piece their life back together.
Luckily, Douglas attended a songwriter’s seminar in Austin one weekend and was heard by Nashville producer Paul Worley, who liked “Little Rock” well enough to take a tape cassette of it back to Nashville with him, where it found its way to Collin Raye.
The song’s greatest success is that it became a Billboard top five hit and Radio & Records No. 1 hit for Raye, but I think an even better one that’s harder to judge or accurately cement comes in its music video. In 1994, understanding of alcoholism as a crippling disease slowly increased, and a song like this that confronts its demons head-on helped fuel that understanding and force listeners to see that broken character as still just … a human being. And at the end of the music video for this song, an 800 number for Alcoholics Anonymous was displayed. Douglas later said that whenever the video would air, he’d hear that there would be thousands of calls from all over the country who wanted to find out more about the program. The struggling songwriter had finally made it, and in more ways than one.
Raye was on a roll, too, and would continue using his music to fuel social commentary through hits such as “Not That Different” and “I Think About You.” But there’s something to be said for how large this single will always stand in his career. It’s solid as a stone, and we don’t need to wait any longer to see it as a true country classic.