It seems to me that, back in the 50s and 60s, Pop Music used to be more fun. Mainstream Country too, when it was still called Country and Western. Maybe this is just viewing the past through the rose colored lens of hindsight. Or in my case, rosy cataracts. If it was more fun, part of the reason was the answer song. You know, one artist would release a song and then, a few weeks later, another artist would issue a song commenting on the first, offering a different point of view on the subject, or telling another side of the story. Over the years I’ve collected a bunch of examples and I expect to be sharing them a pair at a time, every day or so, for awhile.
Let’s start with one of the most popular, and best known pairs. If you wanted to write a popular country song in the 50s you could do worse than start with a well known melody. In this case Arlie Carter and William Warren used the melody that the Carter Family used for “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes.” This is the same melody that Roy Acuff used for “The Great Speckled Bird.” Then you add lyrics about drinking, carousing, and, at least implied, infidelity. A hit to be sure!
Actually it’s not quite that simple as Arlie Carter and William Warren recorded this song in 1951 and it went nowhere. Then Hank Thompson got ahold of it and it spent an unprecedented 15 weeks at Number One on the Billboard Country Music Charts. Thompson first became popular at the end of the Western Swing era with his Brozos Valley Boys. He achieved mainstream success because, unlike say Bob Wills, he eschewed the kind of instrumental soloing associated with Western Swing. Same instrumentation, just without the solos. (BTW. Thompson is #3 on my list of favorite country music Hanks, after Williams and Snow.)
Thompson’s version of “The Wild Side of Life” came out in March of 1952 and by June of that year there was an answer from Kitty Wells. Set to the same tune, with lyrics by the legendary Jay Miller, it followed “Wild Side” onto the charts and became the first Billboard Country #1 by a woman. It was a very different time wasn’t it? In addition to an epic performance by Wells herself, she was assisted by her husband Johnnie Wright on bass and his partner Jack Anglin on guitar. Also listen for the fiddle of the versatile Paul Warren and the trailblazing steel guitar work of Shot Jackson.
Oddly, today I think the answer song “It Wasn’t God….” is probably better known that the song that inspired it. At least I’ve heard more Retro Country Bands play it that I have “Wild Side….” This is unusual in the genera, as you’ll discover when we push on.
Tomorrow: another lyin’, cheatin’, hurtin’, three chord country song, this time from Webb Pierce, with an answer from Kitty Wells. Hey, it worked for her once……