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Produced by Bob Ferguson; Written by Dolly Parton
RCA Victor 0538 1971 #4 country

“Coat of Many Colors” builds to a declaration—“One is only poor only if they choose to be”—that upon first listen seems more than a little naïve. After all, the choices Dolly Parton had in whether or not she would grow up poor in the east Tennessee hills numbered exactly zero. But then, that’s not what she’s saying. In the very next line, she concedes that “we had no money” so she’s clearly not denying her poverty. Rather, she’s claiming that her poverty need not define her. “One is only poor only if they choose to be,” she sings, a meaning that would have been obscured if Parton had deleted either one of those seemingly redundant “only”’s.

Not that “Coat of Many Colors” doesn’t indulge in a bit of nostalgia. Skillfully weaving her autobiography into the biblical tale of Joseph, Parton recalls how her mother once made her a coat from a box full of tiny, rainbow-colored rags and how the kids at school laughed and mocked her. It’s a painfully honest song, yet even so it leaves a lot out. Most notably, it omits the anger and humiliation Parton felt as her friends, who couldn’t have come from homes much better off than she did, pointed and laughed at her mangy coat. They yanked off its buttons and very nearly ripped it from her back (a terrifying possibility, she once told an interviewer, since she wasn’t wearing so much as a t-shirt beneath), before they locked her in the school’s closet. The song never confronts such levels of shame and cruelty. Instead, Parton presents herself merely as perplexed, and a little sad, that her friends can’t see how special this coat is and how special she is to be wearing it.

Which is just fine since “Coat of Many Colors” is not a documentary or even a memory, but a story she’s telling herself. How the adult Parton presents this childhood story says a lot about the survival tactics of poor kids generally, and of Dolly Parton specifically. It might, for example, explain Parton’s flamboyant stage dress through the years. More substantially, it tells how a poor kid from the Blue Ridge Mountains has to make sense of the world if she has ambitions, as we know Dolly Parton most certainly did, to get out of those mountains one day and conquer the world.

I refuse, Parton insists as she wanders back through the years, to believe a story about myself where poor is all I am. I am poor, but I will be more than that—I am more than that. Despite your contempt, the things I love are worth loving. And since my mother slaved over this amazing coat “just for me,” I must be worth loving too. –David Cantwell

OMMIE WISE, G. B. Grayson

No producer credited; G. B. Grayson
Victor 21625 1927 Pre-chart

Produced by Eli Oberstein; Traditional
Bluebird B-6480 1936 Pre-chart

KNOXVILLE GIRL, The Louvin Brothers

Produced by Ken Nelson; Traditional
Capitol 4117 1959 #19 country

The tales of murder and mayhem that made their way from England to America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries couldn’t have landed on more fertile ground than the rugged mountains of central Appalachia. The region’s savage, beautiful terrain–looming hills and dark hollows–teemed with the shadowy forces that seemed to conspire against the characters in the old Anglo-Celtic ballads. The ever-present threat of death posed by disease, violence, and hazardous work reminded mountain folk of what those ruinous British narratives had always known—life was brutish and short. The old ballads were more than just lively, moralistic tales to the people living in Appalachia during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were a reflection of the human condition, and of the world as many knew it, a harsh, forbidding place that offered few comforts. Too often, only death, whether in the bosom of the church or not, promised a way out.

This sense of being trapped pervades all three of these murder ballads. The names and places are different, but the archetypal drama is unchanging—a young man lures his fiancé to a remote spot and does her in, either by drowning her or by stabbing or bludgeoning her and then throwing her into the river to die. In “Down on the Banks of the Ohio” it’s because she wants to break off their engagement; in the other two the motives aren’t as clear. Maybe the bride-to-be is pregnant and her fiancé doesn’t want the baby. Maybe he just doesn’t want to marry her. Or, as one might infer from “Ommie Wise,” he may fear her love of “money and fine things” will be his undoing.

Each story leaves much to the imagination, its skeletal plot unfolding relentlessly, as if in a nightmare or fever-dream. In “Knoxville Girl” and “Banks of the Ohio,” both of which are told in the first person, the killer shows no remorse, betraying a disturbing lack of emotion. The same is true of “Ommie Wise,” although perhaps understandably given that it’s narrated by a third party. But even here we have no reason to believe the killer feels any compunction over what he’s done. This isn’t to say that any of these men welcomes the consequences of his deed, which in each case lands him in jail. The predominant emotion in these ballads is that of feeling stuck in a situation and reckoning that taking some action, any action, no matter how dire, is better than taking none at all.

None of which excuses the misogyny, the utter disregard for women’s lives, inherent in these ballads. Each is ultimately too bleak to be called tragic, at least not in the Greek sense of a tale that affirms life as meaningful, or even beautiful, in the face of irrevocable loss. Each does, however, testify to an ethic of resistance, a fundamental instinct, however reprehensible its expression, that finds its protagonist unwilling to succumb to resignation despite his seeming inability to transcend his circumstances. His desperate straits are not so different from the grim lives most mountain folk knew, and they’re not nearly as cruel as those known by many of the workers who spent their lives entombed in the mines.

Despite their common wellspring, these records are hardly interchangeable. “Ommie Wise” is the earliest and most primitive of the recordings, with G. B. Grayson’s unvarnished tenor accompanied only by the rough sawing of his baleful fiddle. It’s also the least embellished of the three; Grayson’s narrative gives us no more information about Ommie’s ruin than he likely heard in the historical account of her murder, which was his source. The Blue Sky Boys’ “Banks of the Ohio” augments the proceedings with a second voice (Bill Bolick’s tenor harmonies to brother Earl’s lead) as well as instrumentation that features both mandolin and acoustic guitar. But perhaps the biggest change is the song’s graphic depiction of the murder in question. The killer doesn’t just shove his victim into deep water; he first pulls a knife on her and threatens to slit her throat. Even that pales, however, compared to the grisly scene that unfolds in the Louvin Brothers’ latter-day recording of “Knoxville Girl” where, backed by a full stringband, the killer describes how he beat his victim bloody and senseless before dragging her by the hair and tossing her into the river.

Musically, there’s an evolution of sorts here, one born, in the Louvins’ case, of technological advances in recording, and reinforced by the need to deliver a performance vivid enough to compete with television and the movies. But it would be rash to see a progression in the increasingly graphic content of these ballads, one that has them presaging, among others, the cold-blooded killer in Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” or the rapper Eminem’s recorded fantasies about murdering his estranged wife. One problem with arguing for a such a progression, as some critics might want to do, is that “Knoxville Girl,” the most explicitly violent of the three ballads, is likely also the oldest, an East Tennessee rewrite of the eighteenth century ballad “Wexford Girl.” Better then to view these records as prototypes. That is, as stories of a more timeless sort that, whether set in nineteenth century Appalachia or twenty-first century Detroit, enable people to vent, if only vicariously, their feelings of stuckness, as well as the dark, murderous impulses that surface with them. –Bill Friskics-Warren

ODE TO BILLIE JOE, Bobbie Gentry
Produced by Kelly Gordon; Written by Bobbie Gentry
Capitol 5950 1967 #17 country; #1 pop (four weeks)

If “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” earns Hank the title of Hillbilly Shakespeare, then this slice of Southern Gothic qualifies Bobbie Gentry as country-soul’s answer to Carson McCullers. Yet not even McCullers could have crafted as taut and riveting a tale as this account of the murky events surrounding the suicide of young Billie Joe McAllister. Of course Gentry’s medium gives her an edge over McCullers. The itchy guitar lick Bobbie plays to open the record–the sonic equivalent of someone picking a scab or scratching a mosquito bite—suffuses her story with foreboding; aggravated by Jimmie Haskell’s acerbic string arrangement, the music speaks volumes before she utters a word.

“It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day/I was out choppin’ cotton and my brother was balin’ hay,” Bobbie drawls in a languid alto, heightening the tension. From that point until near the end of the narrative Gentry’s protagonist falls silent. By turns gossipy, distracted, and suspicious, the young woman’s mama, papa, and brother proceed, over Sunday dinner, to comment on Billie Joe’s death as if they were talking about the weather. Of all the lines that get passed back and forth along with the biscuits and the black-eyed eyes, the one that grabs most folks, and on which the story pivots, is an offhand remark the mother makes while rambling on about having “that nice young preacher Brother Taylor” to dinner. “Oh, by the way,” she begins, paying no more attention to what she’s saying than her husband and son do. “He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge, and she and Billie Joe were throwing something off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

Everyone has a theory about what went into the water that day—the main contenders being an unwanted baby and a spurned engagement ring, although neither makes much sense. Wouldn’t the narrator’s family have noticed it if she’d been pregnant? And why, if she had rejected Billie Joe’s marriage proposal, would they both be flinging the ring he bought her into the river?

From the war in Vietnam to race riots up north, the nation was being torn apart as “Ode to Billie Joe” hit #1 during the ironically dubbed Summer of Love. Citing this turmoil, writer Ron Carlson submitted as good an answer as any in the Oxford American’s 1998 southern music issue, contending that what went over the side of that bridge was the collective innocence of the American people. Yet not even that accounts for the indifference of the narrator’s family to her grief over Billie Joe’s suicide. Her papa wouldn’t have noticed anyway, but her mama certainly should have suspected something was wrong from the way the young woman picks at her food.

Likely it was out of grief for this apathy, as well as for the indifference of a nation that sat down to dinner each night talking around but never about what was going on in its midst, that Gentry had her narrator take to tossing flowers into the Tallahatchie’s muddy waters. –Bill Friskics-Warren

YOU BETTER MOVE ON, Arthur Alexander

Produced by Rick Hall; Written by Arthur Alexander
Dot 16309 1962 #24 pop

SOUL SONG, Joe Stampley

Produced by Norro Wilson; Written by George Richey, Norro Wilson, and Billy Sherrill
Dot 17442 1972 #1 country (one week); #37 pop

The most important development in country music history, between Elvis and Garth, was the arrival in Nashville of the original Muscle Shoals rhythm section. After bassist Norbert Putnam, pianist David Briggs, and drummer Jerry Carrigan left Alabama for Nashville in late 1964, they anchored a second-generation A-team that would help fashion a new soul-and-pop-inflected country music. The record that set all this in motion was Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On.” Alexander’s chart debut paved the way for producer Rick Hall and a talented cast of northern Alabama musicians to make a success, first, of FAME Studios and, later, of what became known as the Muscle Shoals Sound—home of classic hits by everyone from Aretha Franklin and Wilson Picket to Paul Simon and Lynryd Skynyrd.

Fact is the Muscle Shoals gang was on its way to changing country music even before those famous records were made. Convinced they had a hit with “You Better Move On,” Hall and Alexander had unsuccessfully made the rounds of the Nashville labels, but until Dot took a chance on the record, it was always the same thing: Good song, but the singer’s too black. Or so they were told. Heard today, Alexander’s work on “You Better Move On” puts one very much in mind of Charley Pride, which makes sense for a kid who’d grown up on singing cowboys and the Grand Ole Opry. With Alexander delivering his lines in a soulful twang that’s part C&W restraint, part good old boy threat, “You Better Move On” sounds like a southern, down-home take on Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.” The strings are gone, the backing vocals suggest the Nashville Sound more than urban R&B, and the groove has lost its Afro-Cuban feel. In its place Briggs, Carrigan, and Putnam, along with guitarist Terry Thompson (who died of a drug overdose, in 1965), have laid the foundation for country soul.

Prior to Alexander’s hit, the Muscle Shoals rhythm section had been busy backing singer/songwriter Dan Penn in the legendary blue-eyed soul outfit the Mark V’s. But after the Alexander record took off, they began spending even more of their time at FAME, laying down a country-soul groove for Jimmy Hughes, Tommy Roe, Joe Simon, and a host of others. At least that’s what they did until friends began telling them they could be making a lot more money, in a lot less time, by doing the same thing 100 miles to the north in Nashville. So that’s what they did. On thousands of sessions over the next decade, both together and as parts of other configurations, the members of the original Muscle Shoals rhythm section played country music. The stirring results can be heard on scores of country classics, many included in these very pages.

Briggs, Carrigan, and Putnam didn’t affect this transformation all by themselves, of course. Producer Billy Sherrill, who himself had been present at the birth of FAME Studios before moving to Nashville, played an inestimable role in this shift. Also important was the influx throughout the late fifties and early sixties of other rock-and-soul bred musicians, songwriters, and producers, particularly those from Atlanta’s Lowery Music group like Chip Young, Joe South, and Jerry Reed. But the more or less en masse arrival of Briggs, Carrigan, and Putnam established critical mass, and by the early seventies, the more soulful rhythms and quiet-loud-quiet pop dynamics that the Muscle Shoals boys had helped transport across state lines were the dominant sound on country radio.

One example of how these influences played out is the career of Joe Stampley. Prior to becoming among the most successful country stars of the seventies, Stampley had admired, and once met, Hank Williams. But he’d also recorded R&B sides for both Imperial and Chess before being produced by Dale Hawkins in a pop-rock outfit called the Uniques. These strands came together on his biggest hit, “Soul Song.” From the a cappella shout of the title phrase that summons the record out of thin air, it’s clear Stampley has heard his fair share of R&B and soul. But it’s been filtered through Elvis and Jerry Lee, Conway Twitty and Charlie Rich, which is to say it’s R&B and soul as country singers had already been absorbing them for a decade. Behind Stampley, the rhythm section (including Carrigan on drums) is a more recent hybrid—straight-up-and-down country with pulsing soul. That’s how something called “Soul Song” could top the country charts without ever risking charges of false advertising. From either direction. –David Cantwell