Tidbits: Pop Goes The Country

Country covers. In our Forgotten Gem article for this month, we focus on the massive 1956-57 hit "Singing the Blues," which of course was huge for pop star Guy Mitchell. We also discuss the merits of Marty Robbins' country version, which time has proven to actually be a superior vocal performance.

We've reported previously on the topic of "country crossovers," which are songs that were recorded as country/western music but rocketed up the pop charts anyway. And example of course would be Marty Robbins massive hit "El Paso," which went to #1 on both the pop and country charts. No, in this case we're talking about country artists who deliberately "covered" a pop recording, and we'll try to keep it focused on those that actually bounced back and made their own noise on the pop charts.

A song we mentioned a couple of months ago was "Top of the World," a song written by Richard Carpenter, recorded by the brother-sister duo. They used it as an album filler, until country singer Lynn Anderson grabbed it and marched it up the country charts. It soon followed on the pop charts, selling and gaining airplay until Herb Alpert rushed out a Carpenter's single, which more or less caused Lynn's country version to stall.

Just before "Top of the World" topped the charts in late 1973, a 13 year-old singer named Tanya Tucker was launching her career in country music. She recorded a song called "Delta Dawn," which did quite respectably on the country charts (#6) but stalled at #72 on the Billboard Hot 100. Helen Reddy and Bette Midler both liked Tucker's song, and rushed out their own more pop-oriented versions. Reddy's came out first, and rocketed up the charts. Midler's single was in the process of being pressed, so the promotional team at Atlantic flipped it over and pushed the B side, "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy." Reddy hit #1 on the pop charts with "Dawn." But we're supposed to be talking about country covers of pop hits, and here we are discussing pop covers of a country song. Let's try to get back on track...

Midler fared quite well with "Bugle Boy," reaching #8 on the Hot 100. It would be her highest charting hit single until "The Rose" in 1980, which went to #3. That song was covered by Nashville star Conway Twitty a couple of years later, and his version hit #1 on the country charts in 1983. Interestingly enough, it was covered yet again in 1997 by country/pop phenom Lee Ann Rimes. Rimes is an artist who launched her career as a 13 year-old, eerily similar to Tanya Tucker.

Conway Twitty's biggest contribution to the Great American Songbook was "It's Only Make Believe," which topped the pop charts in 1958. Twitty had a few more hits on the pop side until he unabashedly crossed over his entire career in 1966, going completely country. His first big cover hit came years before "The Rose," when he topped the country charts in 1972 with his version of the Ray Charles hit, "I Can't Stop Loving You." Some of you are way ahead of us, realizing that Ray Charles' version was itself a cover of Don Gibson's original, a country hit in 1957.

Twitty's next country cover hit was the unexpected "Slow Hand" in 1982, a song that had struck gold for the Pointer Sisters a year earlier. "Slow Hand" hit #2 on the pops for the Pointers, but went to #1 for Conway on the country side. In the early 1980s Twitty seemed to have a magic touch, releasing hit after hit with both original songs and covers. For this article we're focusing on the covers of pop songs, so we'll continue in that vein. After "Slow Hand" and "The Rose," all bets were off, so Conway covered an Eagles song from a few years earlier called "Heartache Tonight." He took that unlikely hit to #6, one of the few instances where his country version did not out-chart the pop original! But it happened again when he trotted out "Three Times a Lady" right afterward, only managing #7 on the country charts.

Sadly, Harold "Conway Twitty" Jenkins died at age 60 in 1993. He was one of the few country artists who routinely managed to have chart hits in his middle age. It's perhaps fitting that his final song to chart was also a cover, the postumously-released "Rainy Night in Georgia."

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featured performance

Here's Barry Manilow doing his signature song, the standard "I Write the Songs." He's written some great songs, but didn't write that one. Please note that you have to click on the little "play" arrow twice to get it to work.

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One of the most successful country acts of all time was a group from Staunton, Virginia called The Statler Brothers. Their contribution to the Great American Songbook is the classic "Flowers on the Wall," from 1965. At the time they were more of a folk act than anything else, but touring with Johnny Cash it was clear that they were leaning toward country music. The Statlers had always been fans of pop standards; their version of "This Ol' House" was a staple in their live performances for decades. In 1983 they had their first cover hit on the country charts, "(Oh Baby Mine) I Get So Lonely" which had been a hit for The Four Knights in 1954. The Statlers took it to #2. In 1985 they dug up "Hello Mary Lou" and topped out at #3. Their final cover to hit the country charts was "Only You (and You Alone)" in 1986. Peaking at #36, that song didn't fare quite as well.

Because of the number of monumental hits the Statlers had before, during, and after their three cover hits, they could hardly be considered "country cover artists" in the same vein as a Lynn Anderson or even Conway Twitty. In fact, their original "Flowers on the Wall" has since been covered by a wide range of artists, including Pat Boone, Nancy Sinatra, Brenda Lee, Herb Alpert, Trini Lopez, and Boots Randolph. It's even been covered by country artists, including Danny Davis and CW McCall.

And it's not the only quasi-country pop song that was performed by country artists, successful on the pop charts, to then be covered by country artists to make it more palatable for country audiences. Got that? Here's another example.

In 1969 Kenny Rogers and the First Edition had a top ten hit with "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town." This was before Rogers was branded as "country," although those in the rock universe would say he already was. The song was covered on the country charts by Mel Tillis -- although it wasn't really a cover, since Tillis wrote it. It was covered for real by country artist Waylon Jennings, who would go on to have other cover hits with "MacArthur Park" (which he somehow hit with twice) and "Suspicious Minds." In 1971 the song was covered by, of course, Danny Davis. For those of you who aren't familiar with him, Davis was a fabulous trumpeter who fronted Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass. Davis passed away earlier this year (2008) in his eighties.

Another Kenny Rogers and the First Edition hit from 1969 was "But You Know I Love You," written by First Edition performer Mike Settle. The song was covered that year by Bill Anderson, who had a substantial country hit with it. Another country hit came 11 years later, when Dolly Parton covered the song. Her version rocketed to #1 on the country charts, knocking "What Are We Doing in Love" out of the top spot, a duet by Dottie West and Kenny Rogers. Dolly's version did well enough to cross over to the pop charts, and of course she later scored a number of cross-over hits with Kenny Rogers. The most notable was "Islands in the Stream," which went to #1 in 1983 and was almost a cover itself -- supposedly the Gibb brothers had written the song for Diana Ross.

On of the most compelling country covers of all-time is Sonny James' version of "Running Bear." The song was a #1 hit on the pop charts for Johnny Preston in 1960. It was covered by Sonny James in 1969, a version that went to #1 on the country charts and made a little noise on the pop charts as well. In the years since it has become arguably better known than Preston's original! A little trivia here: Preston's "Running Bear" took the top spot aways from Marty Robbins' "El Paso." How about that.

Back to Sonny James. In 1956 Tab Hunter was tearing up the charts with "Young Love," which was actually a cover of a forgotten group called The Jiva-Tones. James' country cover battled Hunter on the charts, a battle which Hunter won. James' version ultimately garnered more radio airplay, and because his career lasted longer, the song eventually became his. He had another #1 country cover hit in 1970 with "My Love," a song that had hit the top of the pop charts for Petula Clark in 1966. It hardly mattered that this was a cover, as it came at a time when James records were routinely topping the country charts -- he had 16 singles in a row peak at #1.

Like the Statler Brothers, Sonny James could hardly be considered a "cover" specialist, he just happened to be hugely popular at a certain point. In 1972 he took a modest Ed Ames song from 1967, "When the Snow is On the Roses," and rode it to the top of the country charts. His last big cover hit came later in the same year, when a remake of Don Rondo's 1957 hit "White Silver Sands" went to #5 on the country rolls.

To revisit "Tidbits" from last month, focusing on "unlikely songwriters" and songs that were written by people you might not have expected, please click here.