It’s usually easy to discuss a classic song. Perhaps not when it comes to a technical discussion of all the bells and whistles that make it a great song (which, ironically enough, only ever seems to be the smallest part of the overall discussion anyway). But assessing its history, influence, and legacy is a typically straightforward endeavor, thanks to well-documented histories that aim to keep its story going throughout time to introduce to newer generations (that are willing to listen, of course).
It’s much, much more difficult, however, to discuss who’s recorded the definitive version of a classic, especially one that’s been recorded hundreds of times. Such is the case with “She Thinks I Still Care,” written by Dickey Lee as something of an internal response to a woman he liked who didn’t reciprocate his feelings. Even on paper, it reads as something of a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek breakup song – like something you’d expect from Roger Miller (who, ironically enough, is not one of the many artists to record this song).
Even when performing it live, Lee always sold the song with a wink and a smile. “This song is about the first girl I really fell in love with, and she really messed me up. But things worked out okay because George Jones had a #1 record with it. Then Anne Murray had a big hit with it, and then Elvis had a big hit with it. So I finally made enough money from the song to take out a contract on her and I had her killed.” (From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music)
Yes, George Jones, Anne Murray, and Elvis Presley – a weird melting pot of unexpected acts to record the song that could all lay claim that they recorded the definitive version of the song. With the somewhat playful lyrics, it should come as no surprise that it was Presley who Lee first had in mind to record it. He sent it to Presley’s team but didn’t hear anything back for years. During a meeting between the pair years later, Presley noted to Lee that he liked the song and wanted to record it one day, to which Lee replied that he was the first artist he sent it to; the person responsible for letting Presley hear the song all those years ago never did. He did get to record it … albeit on his final album, Moody Blue.
Indeed, though, his version didn’t have the pulsating vivaciousness one would have typically expected from him. Instead, hearing those lyrics sung aloud just reveals an inherit sadness underneath, where it’s clear our protagonist has not ounce of self-awareness. It’s sad to see one in denial who just can’t let go sink into a depressive state. Maybe that’s why it actually makes sense that George Jones was the first artist to have a major hit with the song.
Granted, Jones himself was no stranger to lighthearted, mischievous fun – “White Lightning” is proof alone of that, though there’s also “Love Bug” and others for further evidence. And his sweet, buttery vocal tone might catch the unfamiliar country fan off guard with just how … profoundly sad and crushing his most lasting moments were. He’s just got a way of pulling his songs apart and gnawing their emotions into pieces, giving his songs a feeling of truth that’s impossible to define or articulate. He’s one of the genre’s finest singers, but I’d argue his greatest strengths extend beyond his technical abilities; as an interpreter, he truly gets inside and understands a song, particularly the sad ones.
Perhaps it’s because he didn’t have to try hard to understand pain. Born in southeast Texas, the youngest of eight children, Jones showed a penchant for singing early on in life. Unfortunately, his father saw it too and suffered from alcoholism, which turned him violent and uncontrollable at his worst. Many times he’d return home at night to wake his son up and demand songs from him, belt-whipping him if he hesitated. He also forced his son to busk and took along any earnings to drink. The small silver lining was that Jones learned how to do street performances on his own and eventually quit school to sing in local bars for tips and beers. Along the way he found country music heroes in Roy Acuff and Hank Williams … and a taste for alcohol, like his father before him.
Still, from busking to a DJ gig to, finally, singing country music, Jones earned his path to stardom, thanks to his tremendous singing ability. He said he approached each recording, according to Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary, “until you’re just like the people in the song, and you’re living it and their problems become your problems, until you’re lost in the song and it just takes everything out of you.”
And so set the bar for the high lonesome streak of “She Thinks I Still Care.” For Jones it was an early country hit, and one definitive of pretty much any trait one could associate with the genre. But another unlikely hit made of the song came from across the musical divide, and in a most unusual way. Anne Murray’s career as a country singer included 25 top ten hits, beginning with 1970’s “Snowbird” and concluding with 1990’s “Feed This Fire,” ten of which raced all the way to the top; one of them was “She Thinks I Still Care,” changed to “He Thinks I Still Care.”
The funny thing is, though, that it was never actually promoted to country radio. Her cover was issued as the B-side of “You Won’t See Me,” a record that was marketed toward pop and became a top ten hit. One week before it peaked, however, on July 13, 1974, “He Thinks I Still Care” somehow managed to top the country charts, marking the first time an artist had notched country and pop hits with opposite sides of the same record. It also made Murray only the second Canadian to reach the No. 1 position on Billboard’s country chart, the first one being Hank Snow.
Murray didn’t grow up with country music. She grew up in the Nova Scotia mining town of Springhill, where her musical tastes were shaped by her parents’ love of pop vocalists and whatever else she picked up on the radio. And because that included crossover hits by artists like Sonny James, Jim Reeves, and Skeeter Davis, she also noticed they had a country flavor to them, which she enjoyed. “She Thinks I Still Care,” in particular, was a special entry point for her, as she picked it up singing backstage at the Singing Jubilee, a television show based out of Halifax, Nova Scotia, that gave her first big break. She and the guest performers on the show would sit around backstage and sing songs between appearances, which is how she came to learn the song; she’d eventually include it on her Danny’s Song album.
Of course, versions by Presley, Jones, and Murray are simply just the most well-known versions of this classic song. Presley’s version is arguably the liveliest and most dramatic; Jones’ version is arguably the most painful one; and Murray’s version is arguably the most soulful one. When answering who has the definitive version … well, if you know me, you know I think it’s all in the eye of the beholder anyway.
Others, like Kenny Rogers, Dan Seals, Merle Haggard, Patty Loveless, and Glen Campbell, among so many others, have also recorded their own versions of the song, proving why there’s a lot of reasons to still care about an old forgotten soul whose torment will likely never end.