Check This Out: Countrypolitan

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The legendary RCA studios in Nashville.

It all started for me with Dean Martin’s recordings for Reprise Records. Early in my exploration of the Great American Songbook, I of course checked out Dino’s records and soon realized that there was a difference between his early songs and his later work. Then I learned that Frank Sinatra had started his own record label, Reprise, in the early ’60’s and began recruiting his friends to join the roster, Dean being one of the first.

At first the new label didn’t know what to do with Dean and had him turning out themed albums; French songs, cha-cha, Italian music. When Dean had one of the biggest hits of the 1960’s with “Everybody Loves Somebody” in 1964, his producers stuck with that formula for the next ten-odd years. When I made a playlist of Dean Martin’s songs from Capitol Records in the 1950’s, I called it Hollywood and Vine. The playlist of his Reprise recordings I called Country Crooner. Isn’t it interesting, I said to myself, that Dean is basically singing country music but with the strings, orchestras and back-up singers that he used at Capitol. I soon applied the “country crooner” tag to singers like Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold. I didn’t realize that this music already had a name; countrypolitan.

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Gentleman Jim Reeves in RCA’s Studio B.
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Chet Atkins with engineer Bill Porter at the controls.

In response to the onslaught of rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1950’s, music producers in Nashville decided to make a change from traditional country music; gone were the steel guitars, fiddles and nasal vocals of the honky tonks, to be replaced by smooth crooning, strings and orchestras and vocal choirs, all the hallmarks of popular singing. Producers like Steve Shoals and Owen Bradley began creating slick settings for singers and this new sub-genre was initially called the “Nashville sound”. The record that is generally considered the very first to bear this new sound is “Four Walls” by Jim Reeves from February of 1957 and another is Don Gibson’s “Oh, Lonesome Me” from the same year, a record that was produced at RCA Records by Chet Atkins, who is considered the original “artistic creator” of the Nashville sound.

Early examples of the Nashville sound

  • “Gone” by Ferlin Husky (1957)
  • “Only the Lonely” by Roy Orbison (1960)
  • “Last Date” by Floyd Cramer (1960)
  • “I’m Sorry” by Brenda Lee (1960)
  • “I Fall to Pieces” by Patsy Cline (1961)
  • “The End of the World” by Skeeter Davis (1963)
  • “Make the World Go Away” by Eddy Arnold (1965)

The Nashville sound lost two of its greatest practitioners – and the music world at large lost two of its legends – when both Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves were killed in separate plane crashes only 14 months apart. In the late ’60’s then, with the music landscape constantly in flux, the Nashville sound morphed into countrypolitan. This saw country music’s pop song structure become more pronounced and these songs were aimed directly at the pop market. Producer Billy Sherrill came to the fore particularly with his guidance of Tammy Wynette’s career. Other artists that took countrypolitan to the masses through the late ’60’s and into the ’70’s included Glen Campbell, George Jones, Charlie Rich and Charley Pride. Perhaps the biggest countrypolitan artist was Lynn Anderson. Now, I know what you’re saying; Lynn Anderson bigger than George Jones?! What I mean to say is that in terms of an association with countrypolitan, Lynn’s name stands out more than any other as she is the artist most associated with the genre and with little else. Lynn’s major hit was “Rose Garden”, written by Joe South, author of “Down in the Boondocks”, the Grammy-winning “Games People Play” and “Hush”.

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Lynn Anderson

For me, “Rose Garden” is the flagship song of countrypolitan as it is the very essence of a country-flavoured pop song. Joe South produced the original version by his regular collaborator, Billy Joe Royal, in 1967 and South himself recorded it the following year. Dobie Gray then had a minor success with the song in ’69 and then Lynn wrapped her velvet tone around it in October of 1970. It wasn’t intended to be a single until Columbia’s Clive Davis heard it being mixed and declared it a smash and strongly suggested releasing it. “Rose Garden” won Lynn Anderson a Grammy – and, frankly, made her career – and was a worldwide hit. It was #1 on the Hot Country Singles chart, #3 on the pop charts and #5 Easy Listening. It was a #1 song in 9 other countries, Top Ten in a total of 14 countries. On a personal note, my first exposure to “Rose Garden” came courtesy of Canadian synthpop duo Kon Kan who sampled it heavily for their song “I Beg Your Pardon”, which went to #19 in Canada and #15 in the US. You MUST check it out here.

Examples of countrypolitan

Into the 1980’s, Kenny Rogers emerged as one of the biggest-selling artists in the world and his brand of smooth country is the perfect example of countrypolitan. To hear him sing “You Decorated My Life” or “Islands in the Stream” with Dolly Parton is to hear very slick, almost adult contemporary sounds. With Kenny, the “country” seemed to come from his rep in the C&W world, the character of his voice and the subject matter of some of his songs but his music was very much in a pop vein. This lead to the emergence of many artists that took countrypolitan and cleaned it up even more resulting in the creation of “country/pop”; a VERY glossy sound that had major crossover appeal and that moved millions and millions of units. Think Canada’s Shania Twain, Garth Brooks and Faith Hill. You can certainly trace a straight line from Lynn Anderson to Carrie Underwood.

Purists bristled when countrypolitan became popular and this lead to the creation of “outlaw country”, plied by singers like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter and Merle Haggard. So, you have to decide how you like your country music. Me, I like it all and what I listen to – as always – depends on my mood. Sometimes I need to taste the sawdust and smell the leather. Other times I long for the crisp production and polished sounds of Nashville’s city streets.

2 comments

  1. Fascinating and enlightening as usual. Personally, I think I lean more toward the Waylon and Willie style . It was interesting to see Sunday Morning Coming Down on the tracklisting for the Lynn Anderson album.

    • I tend to agree about the Waylon & Willie. And, yes, when I listened to her version of that Kristofferson song it was odd to hear her sweet voice sing those lyrics. Of course she ended up a hopeless drunk, sadly.

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