13 Underrated Blasts from Country Music’s Past
They were legends in their time (the ’70s and ’80s), but what about now?
What becomes a country music legend most? The Statler Brothers offered a complete rundown of star-making qualities in 1979, via their hit “How to Be a Country Star.” The vocal quartet’s primer for supernovas-in-training ticked off a list of X factors and legends who perfected them (learn to sing like Waylon, pick like Jerry Reed, etc.).
Sadly, even for those who do become country stars, there are no guarantees that decades later their names will be on the lips of people who weren’t alive when their hits were in heavy rotation — or that their names will make it into the lyrics of a Top 10 song. The flashier legacies of the genre’s higher-profile icons easily could overshadow their accomplishments in hindsight. It’s hard to compete with the Johnny Cashes, the Dolly Partons, and the Willie Nelsons of country history!
Take Ronnie Milsap, one of the top crossover country stars of the ’70s and ’80s. He ticked so many of the right boxes. The Statler Brothers even name-dropped him in their song, which was written by Don and Harold Reid (the only actual siblings in the group).
Yet for all Milsap’s talent, memorable hits, longevity, pop success, and remarkable narrative — he’s blind, making him sort of the Ray Charles of country, with 35 number-one hits between 1974 and 1989, or nearly two-thirds of his singles! — people rarely talk about him today. The six-time Grammy winner and 1977 Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year didn’t even make it into the Country Music Hall of Fame until 2014.
Dionne Warwick covered “It Was Almost Like a Song,” a Milsap classic (number one country, number 16 pop, in 1977), on her 2012 Now album. Every review I read at the time identified it not as one of Milsap’s greatest hits, but as a song Hal David wrote without Burt Bacharach. (Archie Johnson was his co-writer.)
When David passed away in 2012, none of the obituaries I read mentioned the song. Meanwhile, not one of them failed to mention Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias’s “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” among David’s great compositions outside of his iconic songwriting partnership with Bacharach.
Some say you’re only as big as your last hit. Luckily for some (like Dionne Warwick, Burt Bacharach, Hal David, all enduring legends, though far removed from their commercial heyday), it doesn’t matter when you scored that last hit. Loretta Lynn hasn’t hit the country Top 10 since 1982’s “I Lie,” but she still wears the Queen of Country crown.
“Iconic” and “legendary” are reserved for a lucky few. Unfortunately, it’s not always extended to the most deserving. That brings us to 13 more of country-music’s great undersung talents (only two of which are in the Country Music Hall of Fame) who should be getting far more props than they do today.
There was so much more to Anderson, who died in 2015 at age 67, than “Rose Garden,” her 1970 number-one country hit that went to number three on Billboard’s Hot 100. The daughter of successful (and also undersung) country singer-songwriter Liz Anderson, she scored a run of hits in the early ’70s that made her the only woman giving Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, and Loretta Lynn competition for the country-queen throne at the time.
Today, everyone remembers her signature song, but how many of them know who made it a country-pop standard?
Not every country career kicks off with a Top 20 hit as brilliantly titled and cleverly self-referential as “I Just Started Hatin’ Cheatin’ Songs Today” (number 17, 1974). Although Bandy would go on to be best known in country music circles for his hit duets with Joe Stampley between 1979 and 1985, it’s his solo work — which, astonishingly, includes just one chart-topper, 1979’s “I Cheated Me Right Out of You” — that makes him so deserving of legendary status.
And tear-in-my-beer country doesn’t get better than “Barstool Mountain,” which directly preceded “I Cheated Me” in the Top 10 (number nine, 1979).
In the first episode of the TV series Nashville, Rayna James cited Conlee’s “Rose Colored Glasses” as the song that made her want to sing country music. Even if she hadn’t been played by the fabulous Connie Britton, I would have been rooting for Rayna from the moment she gave props to the man with the trio of number-two singles on Billboard’s country singles chart — “Friday Night Blues,” “She Can’t Say That Anymore,” and “Miss Emily’s Picture” — that helped define my 1980 and 1981.
Earl Thomas Conley
Same last name (with a slightly different spelling), more or less same fate — though I doubt that he’ll ever get name-dropped on a hit TV show. Between 1982 and 1989, 17 of 19 consecutive Conley singles topped the country singles chart (the other two peaked at number two), and “Fire and Smoke,” the first of his 18 number ones, was Billboard’s top country song of 1981.
The triple threat (singer, producer, and songwriter of hits for himself and for others) died in April at age 77, and his legacy seemed to be reduced to Blake Shelton’s fandom (sample headline: “Blake Shelton’s Hero Passes Away”) when Conley deserved to be the top-billed star of his own posthumous tributes.
Like Dolly Parton, Fargo wrote most of her ’70s hits (six of which topped the country singles chart), and she, too, had her town TV show. Alas, she lacked Parton’s outsized image, and being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1978 curtailed her music career. I still haven’t totally warmed up to “Funny Face,” her biggest hit (number one country, number five pop, in 1972), but more than any country song I can think of at the moment, her signature smash, “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.” (number one country, number 11 pop, in 1972), epitomizes the glow of love. Brilliant!
Maybe it was her floor-length hair, or her big sister Loretta Lynn. Both always seemed to upstage her music, despite the fact that Gayle had one of country’s biggest crossover hits of the ’70s in 1978 with “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” (number one country, number two pop). She had 17 other number ones on the country chart — in total, two more than Loretta, who had to share five of hers with Conway Twitty — some of them (“You Never Miss a Real Good Thing,” “Talking in Your Sleep,” “It’s Like We Never Said Goodbye”), the best songs the genre has produced, but how often do you hear her name today?
Alongside Dottie West, Gilley was country’s great re-inventor as the ’70s segued into the ’80s. He made his first mark as a honky-tonking, boogie-woogie piano virtuoso in the ’70s, and at the dawn of the new decade, he refashioned himself as a country-soul balladeer, with equal commercial and creative success.
Although the Urban Cowboy country phase of the early ’80s made him something of a household name via his cover of “Stand by Me,” a crossover hit from 1980’s Urban Cowboy soundtrack, and Gilley’s, his eponymous Pasadena, Texas, bar featured in the film, his Q rating has never matched that of his notorious cousins, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jerry Lee Lewis and televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. Dear Country Music Hall of Fame: It’s not too late to give the 83-year-old country institution his due.
He was one of two Latino country superstars in the 1970s (the other being the late Freddy Fender), but his string of hits are mostly unsung today. Only true students of country music history probably would immediately identify them with Rodriguez. Even 1974’s “That’s the Way Love Goes,” his signature song and his third straight number one, is probably more closely associated with Merle Haggard, who took it back to the top in 1984.
Fun fact: Rodriguez had a number-seven hit with “We Believe in Happy Endings” in 1978, 10 years before the aforementioned Earl Thomas Conley and Emmylou Harris took it to the summit.
He’s the owner of one of country music’s loveliest and most distinctive tenors. During the early ’80s, Skaggs, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2018, was traditional country when traditional country wasn’t resurgent cool … yet. I was a bit late to his fan club myself: His bluegrass-flavored songs were too twangy for my then-pop-leaning taste in the ’80s.
Now that I’m older and wiser with a better ear for great music, I’m a diehard Skaggs stan. His 1987 cover of The Everly Brothers’ “I Wonder If I Care As Much” (number 30) could make a heart of stone bleed. (Happy 65th, Ricky!)
So this ace yodeler didn’t have as many hits as some of the others on this list (though “Don’t Break the Heart That Loves You” and “It Only Hurts for a Little While” were back-to-back number ones in 1977/78). When all the guys (John Conlee, Jerry Lee Lewis, Conway Twitty, and others) were singing about mid-life crises (sort of a taboo topic for women, who were supposed to keep their age a secret), Smith was one of the few women (Billie Jo Spears was another) with the balls to tackle it head on. She did it with guts and gusto on 1979’s “Still a Woman,” a Top 10 single (number seven) and one of my favorite songs in any genre.
How unheralded was the woman who had a huge crossover hit in 1971 with “Help Me Make It Through the Night” (number one country, number eight pop)? She died in 2005 at age 61, and I didn’t even know about it until several years later.
Who else can sing a song called “Nothing Sure Looked Good on You” (number four, 1980) and make it sound like the classiest declaration of love? Between the mid-’70s and mid-’80s, Watson had a hit list as sturdy as any second-tier country star, and among country buffs, he’s a gold-star legend.
Unbelievably, he hit the top spot just once, with 1981’s “Fourteen Carat Mind,” a song whose lyrics went where Kanye West would go with “Golddigger” 24 years later.
And that brings us to another West. A 2018 Country Music Hall of Fame inductee best known for her hit late-’70s duets with Kenny Rogers, Dottie had been kicking around the genre as a more traditional country singer since the ’60s. By the early ’80s, she had reinvented herself as the Madonna of the genre, several years before Madonna’s arrival, when West was already well into her 40s. Late-blooming never sounded or looked as good as it did on wild wild West.
Lacy J. Dalton
Billie Jo Spears