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The Worst Country Songs of the 1980s
By Bobby "Ten Pound Hammer" Peacock
(in alphabetical order)
"American Me" by S-K-O (Schuyler, Knoblock, and Overstreet)
Yeah, by now, you've probably gathered that I hate jingoism and list songs. What other song could name-drop the New York Yankees, Leave It to Beaver, Fred Astaire, foot-long hot dogs, pizza, ribs (seriously, so many food references in this song!), soldiers dying "in the foreign mud", and "Da Doo Ron Ron" of all songs? And have a lyric so awkward as "a nose full of freedom" on top of it? I'm actually surprised that the usually more reliable Thom Schuyler (who sings lead here in an overly nasal vibrato) and J. Fred "How the Hell Do You Spell My Last Name, Anyway" Knobloch wrote this one, because it's the kind of corniness I'd expect from Paul Overstreet -- and I'm not sure he's even on this song. At least the production has aged pretty well, other than the lame doo-wop ending.
"Americana" by Moe Bandy
Speaking of jingoism... I just don't get the Norman Rockwell-esque romanticism so often directed at small towns in songs like these (with a few exceptions). In all my travels, I've never seen a town that even came remotely close to the images seen here. They weren't full of kids playing hopscotch and drinking malts at the Rexall. If anything, these towns -- even in the early 90s when I was a child -- usually consisted of boarded-up businesses (one of the many reasons Alan Jackson's "Little Man" succeeded at this trope where almost all others have failed), rundown farmhouses, elderly people shopping at Dollar General, and rusty old pickups flying the stars and bars. But Moe doesn't care; he's gonna keep hyping them up with that syrupy delivery and sell hyper-sanitized memories of a lifestyle that never existed in the first place.
"Attitude Adjustment" by Hank Williams Jr.
It's hard to play violence for laughs. For example, "Goodbye Earl" succeeds because its revenge-murder is a.) done to an absolute asshole of a person, and b.) sung in an obviously comedic manner by self-aware artists who clearly do not condone the actions. "Attitude Adjustment", on the other hand, does neither. The first verse is actually okay in its portrayal of an average bar brawl. But in the second verse, the (not-drunk) narrator clocks his brother-in-law with a tire tool just for being drunk. Then the girlfriend beats the narrator up for literally no stated reason (wait, he has both a wife and a girlfriend?), driving him to beat her into submission. While this does lead to the narrator getting sent to jail, and claiming his sentence as the fourth and final "attitude adjustment", he already completely lost me with the blatant sexism of the verse before it. What's more, the smug, cocky delivery of the ending lines does not convince me that he's actually learned anything at all.
The only thing not bad about this song is the surprisingly strong production, with considerably more drums and electric guitar than usual for the era. But just like almost every other Sawyer Brown song from the '80s, this one is laden with juvenile lyrics ("she's gonna be bad 'til the whole town stinks" and "a .45's quicker than 409 / Betty cleaned house for the very last time" being particular offenders -- speaking of playing violence for laughs), along with a bad bad bad chorus that doesn't even scan or end properly. All of this adds up to an absolutely confusing hodgepodge so tonally dissonant that you don't even realize it's a murder ballad. How these guys survived long enough to make some truly phenomenal music in the 90s, I'll never know.
"Bobbie Sue" by The Oak Ridge Boys
Hat tip to Jim Malec for waking me up on this song... I admit, I like the Oak Ridge Boys a bit more than I should. (I'm a sucker for harmonies and basso profondo voices. Sue me.) But peel those harmonies back on this song, and yeah, it's kinda squicky. A young girl is groomed to be the narrator's lover against the parents' wishes; even though she's only just turned 18, he's chomping at the bit to get her. There's barely even any indication that Bobbie Sue is consenting to all of this. Maybe a younger act might have softened the edges a bit and made it seem less like the work of a creepy old man... but yeah, once I noticed it, I couldn't not notice it. Not even Richard Sterban oom-papa-mow-mow'ing the title can save this one.
"Dancin' Cowboys" by the Bellamy Brothers
The first thing that made this song propel itself onto the worst list is one of the worst choruses I've ever heard in my life: "Dancin' cowboys, singin' horses / Gypsy music, ringin' voices / Dancin' cowboys, singin' horses / Gypsy music, songs about love." (No offense meant to any Romani people who might read this.) The rest is no better, consisting entirely of a laundry list of vaguely cowboy-related imagery, claiming such things to be "the things we live and what we are". It can't even stick to the premise, as dancehalls and cafés aren't really "cowboy" related at all. Unlike "If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body Would You Hold It Against Me", there's no clever wordplay or self-aware tone either. This song embodies all the worst elements of the post-Urban Cowboy boom of rich white people pretending to be country despite having no idea what it even consists of. You know, kinda like bro-country was.
"Dixie Man" by Randy Barlow
There's a lot to like about Randy Barlow. He's one of the few country singers from my home state of Michigan, and he's got a decent country-soul voice that reminds me a bit of Razzy Bailey. So it figures that the first song of his that I actually catch in the wild is this obnoxiously repetitive mess (seriously, taking a shot every time he says "Dixie" is a great way to make your liver explode in two-and-a-half minutes). It's otherwise got a boring formula of listing a girl in each city to whom no other attributes are given, with his randy (pun intended) tone suggesting that he's probably boned all of them. Horny and obnoxious, this wastes the talents not only of Barlow, but also of its three writers (Ken Bell, Terry Skinner, and J. L. Wallace of the band Bama, who would later write much better stuff for Alabama, the Forester Sisters, and... Air Supply?!). I just can't help it; I'm not a Dixie man.
"Doo-Wah Days" by Mickey Gilley
I had at least four or five people ask me why I didn't put "Bop" by Dan Seals on this list. You'd think I'd hate Boomer nostalgia on principle, right? Well, "Bop" is off the hook for two reasons: number one, it's lighthearted enough to work for me, and number two, I found two songs that did the same tropes a million times worse. First is this one: it burns out its under the boardwalk, sha-na-na, Peggy Sue clichés halfway through in favor of just generic "remember when" phraseology with no connection to the theme at all. Mickey Gilley's voice is as strident as ever, and the production couldn't be further from country (even by mid-80s standards) if it tried. It sounds more like something you'd find on one of those K-Tel "re-recorded by the original artist" albums I used to find at Dollar General, right down to the inability to find real drums. And just like those albums, it's an extremely shallow and plastic re-creation of the past.
"Dreamland Express" by John Denver
John Denver's perpetually schmaltzy style has always had me wondering how he was one of the few saccharine seventies singers to succeed in the '80s too. Especially because his style didn't change one iota in the ensuing years. Here, his cavity-inducing delivery dips into talk-singing that's every bit as cloying as his full-singing; the cheery female backing vocals and keyboards are so present as to almost drown him out; and the lyrics are what you'd expect from a title like that. Portraying a reunion wtih a lost love as a boat ride is actually kind of inspired and romantic, but not when it's given a dopey name like "Dreamland Express". Or lyrics that are as dopey as "Let me be the end of your rainbow, let me be the stars up above"... or as cringeworthy as "hey there sweet daddy, everything is all right". Altogether, this sounds like something that would play in an episode of The Care Bears, not on country radio.
"God Bless the USA" by Lee Greenwood
Perhaps the easiest target on this list. Entirely on its own merits, this is a barely structured list song that wastes half of its run time just listing off landmarks. It's got dated production even for its time, made only worse by the cheesy keyboards, huge backing vocals, and unnecessary crash cymbals. And I've barely ever even seen anyone review it -- if anything, it's more of a punchline for codifying nearly every flag-waving anthem after it and/or for its perennial rerelease schedule. But worst of all, I just hate that it keeps reinforcing those 'MURICA stereotypes so long after the fact -- not just for country music as a whole, but also for Greenwood, who has some markedly better material in his catalog. If "Ring on Her Finger, Time on Her Hands" were the one Greenwood song that everyone and their mom knew, then I'd have a lot less to complain about.
"Gonna Go Huntin' Tonight" by Hank Williams Jr.
Maybe it's just the extreme sexism lingering from that third verse of "Attitude Adjustment", but there's just something that really doesn't sit right about comparing a one-night stand to hunting wild game. No attributes are given to the women other than "long claws, long legs, and a skin already tanned in the sun" and an aggressive, animalistic attitude. Not like the narrator is any less so; his swaggering tone and lack of restraint ("ain't no limit" you say? You mean other than the ones that aren't interested in you? Or interested in men in general?) make him sound like a completely reckless man whose sole goal is to prove himself to be the alpha male. To quote an old Garfield strip: "What do you suggest for an animal who's madly in love?" "I usually prescribe neutering."
"Grandpa (Tell Me 'bout the Good Ol' Days)" by the Judds
The "Automatic" of the '80s. Yet another song painting an overly rose-colored image of a time before Wynonna was even alive. Even if it's phrased questioningly ("Did X really happen?") I think it's clear that the writers want this to be true. They want "respect your elders", "shove religion into literally everything", and "don't divorce, ever" to be truisms still. And in doing so, it comes off as incredibly sanctimonious to the point of anachronism (seriously, did this song set the precedent of artists waxing nostalgic for bygone eras they're too young to know about, such as the above-mentioned "Americana?"). At least Jamie O'Hara went on to do old-fashioned folk-country the right way in The O'Kanes, and the next song he wrote for Wynonna to sing ("When Love Starts Talkin'") was good, too.
"The Greatest Love Affair" by Chuck Woolery
Yes, that Chuck Woolery. Back when people knew him only for Wheel of Fortune and not for Love Connection, Lingo, or being a COVID-19 denier. The song starts out as an overly melodramatic spoken-word narrative full of lost-love nothingness ("I wondered if I'd ever get over you / And for the first time in a long time, I cried") that has no time for rhyme or meter and drags on for way too long. The twist? That lost love he's pining for is none other than... the United States of America! Cue the big cheery chorus and Chuck's schmaltzy crooning of "I love you, America." Thankfully, his musical career wasn't back in two and two, and he found a more fitting career as a game show host.
"Hey! Baby" by Anne Murray
How do you ruin a classic like Bruce Channel's "Hey! Baby"? How about removing that iconic harmonica riff in favor of cheesy organ that sounds like the easy-listening Muzak you stereotypically hear in grocery stores? And then giving it to the most soporific female country vocalist of the '80s, best known for her schmaltzy love ballad from Urban Cowboy? Yeah, that sounds like a pretty foolproof method to me. (Even Alabama got the "harmonica" and "soulful vocal" parts right with their cover, one of the only highlights of the otherwise mostly embarrassing Dancin' on the Boulevard.) Could I have this dance? Yes, but only if it's to a better cover song than this.
"I Love My Truck" by Glen Campbell
The opening line of this song says "Everybody's saying something, none of it's true." Like, say, all the people who say that country songs are all about dogs and trucks. (Well yeah, there are country songs about trucks, but they usually have eighteen wheels [and a dozen roses], not four.) And it's Glen Campbell of all people -- a man known for a big lush pop sound that still has at least some grounding in country -- who grinds out an overly twangy, overly simplistic ode to pickups. Lyrics like "It don't matter who lived, it don't matter who lied" are just too banal to attach any emotion to, and the bare-bones production utterly wastes the talents of the Wichita Lineman.
"I'm into Lovin' You" by Billy Swan
Billy Swan was one of the last dregs of 1970s bubblegum feelgood cheese who somehow resurfaced in the 1980s long after his style had gone out of vogue. While his momentary comeback started off with the actually not that bad "Do I Have to Draw a Picture" (probably improved by merit of being a Guy Clark co-write), he went right back into full-blown cheese territory with this number. His trademark syrupy delivery is a horrible mismatch for beyond banal observations on the vague things other guys do like "some like to hunt with guns", "I know two who just like to run", or "playing some kind of ball". Add on the big chorus of backing vocals and chintzy keyboards, and the song dissolves into so much syrup that I can feel my teeth rotting just writing this. Somehow in the journey from "I Can Help" to here, Swan seems to have learned almost nothing. (The album he did as Black Tie was good, though.)
"If the South Woulda Won" by Hank Williams Jr.
I swear, for every decent Hank Jr. song, there's one that's worse by a factor of like, ten trillion. Violently aggressive (promoting lynchings); bigoted (forcing Hispanics out of Miami, cutting off automotive trade from China); egotistical (putting his dad's picture on money); creepy (forcing smiles and Southern drawls on young girls to drive men wild); and not even making sense at times (I couldn't find any proof that Virginia has a known history of making fiddles) -- you name it, it's in this jumbled mess of Southern-fried WTF. It's all presented in a blustering tone that sounds like the deranged ramblings of a madman who is desperately grasping at straws to defend a cause he's already lost. Which, sadly enough, is way too fitting for Bocephus. And possibly much of his fanbase, too.
"Love Ain't Never Hurt Nobody" by Bobby Goldsboro
Yeah, what a surprise. The guy that sang "Honey" made a terrible song in the 80s too. And it looks like nothing changed in his style since. With his voice and lyrics as saccharine as ever, his thesis is that love doesn't hurt people, people do. Because people never change their minds or misjudge or anything. Nothing bad has ever happened in a good-faith attempt at love. The second verse sees him casually dismissing a woman who's mourning her lost love in an undermining of the central theme; on top of that, banal rhymes like shelf/yourself and the jaw-droppingly awful bridge "a little love can bring us all togther / If we will only open up our hearts" just make the song get worse and worse with each line. The sterile, cheery production -- replete with bouncy keyboards, a sea of backing vocalists, and even a key change -- is just the final layers of sugar coating on top of an already way-too-sweet offering.
"Nag, Nag, Nag" by Bobby Braddock
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the legendary songwriter of such classics as "He Stopped Loving Her Today", "Golden Ring", and "People Are Crazy" also had a recording career. But for some reason, he chose to do a novelty album in 1980. It's impossible to buy his promises that he still loves her anyway because of how hard the nagging theme is beaten into the ground (complete with a high-pitched "nag nag nag" droning all throughout literally more than half of the song!), combined with his over-the-top attempts at sounding playfully disgusted. Lines like "sometimes I'd like to shove you" give the impression that he's okay with abuse, and the fact that the last chorus ends on a gunshot-- implying that his nagging drove her to suicide -- is just one more shockingly tasteless "punch line" to a joke that wasn't even remotely funny in the first place. At least his comedic songwriting (and treatment of women) got better by the time he wrote ‘I Wanna Talk About Me’.
"Out Goin' Cattin'" by Sawyer Brown with Cat Joe Bonsall
Yes, that really was how he was credited. Remember when I said earlier that I found two other songs that do the "Boomer nostalgia" thing way, way wrong? This is the other. Shoehorning in the Oak Ridge Boys' tenor vocalist for literally no reason, and adding the most blatantly synthesized horns in history (which become really jarring when a very real saxophone blares on top of them), this one plows through all the soda shop tropes in the most sterile and cheesy way imaginable. Mark Miller's attempts at doo-wop singing are laughable at best, and he is horribly mismatched to Bonsall, himself the only flash of energy in this otherwise listeless tale of (I guess) fucking every girl at the juke joint? As if the dirty old man vibes of "Bobbie Sue" weren't bad enough. Don't go tellin', don't go rattin'; this song is an utter embarrassment for all six people on it.
"Rainbows and Butterflies" by Billy Swan
As if he hadn't already burned out the last of his lovey-dovey shtick on the last song on this list... how much more syrupy can you get than a lyric like "I love rainbows and butterflies, wildflowers and starry skies / And dreams that aren't afraid to come true / Sunsets and autumn leaves, snowfall and make-believe / But mostly, just being with you"? (What does "make-believe" have to do with the rest of the items on that list?) Like most of his other stuff, the utterly saccharine delivery and childish melody are buried under so many keyboards and strings that make it sound like someone hired Raffi to sing one of those stock "sentimental moment" cues on Full House. Really, do you expect anything else from a title like that?
"Ride That Bull (Big Bertha)" by Marlow Tackett
I knew that one of these obscure indie artists who churned out like a billion songs that never cracked Top 75 would give me something to work with... How about some good ol' fat shaming? The titular "Big Bertha" is challenged to ride a bull despite being morbidly obese, in order to win the heart of a honky-tonk man. While the man in the song should be commended for not letting outward appearances hold him back, the song itself plays her weight way too much. She's subjected to derision ("because she was fat, her chances with Jim were slim" and "you gotta admit, it's a pretty heavy story" being two big offenders) -- not to mention the fact that Big Bertha breaks the mechanical bull at the end! Ha ha, get it, because she's fat! Which is really an apt description of the song as a whole. If this was the best he had to offer, then it's probably for the better that he never hit the big time.
"The Rose" by Conway Twitty
As if the original Bette Midler version weren't sappy enough in its overblown cheesy love metaphors... Love is like a razor? A river that drowns a "tender reed"? And then it gives up on metaphors entirely, coasting along on vague platitudes until the very last line. Take those over-the-top lines, slather them in electric piano and strings, and have one of the weirdest vocal performances out of Conway ever, and the result is a bloated mess. He talk-sings his way through half of the lines, and delivers the other half in a blown-out melodramatic vocal so over-the-top it almost sounds like parody. Conway's at his best when he's in that passionate comfort zone -- whether it be having amazing sex, praising fathers, deconstructing moon-based metaphors, or taking down greedy pawn shop owners. But for the most part he had extremely questionable taste in cover songs, and this is handily the worst of the lot.
"Simple Man" by Charlie Daniels
Just barely squeaking into the 1980s list (and therefore keeping me from have to amend the 1990s list) is this apparent predecessor of "A Good Way to Get on My Bad Side". Much like that song, the protagonist is an old-school paranoiac who espouses dangerously old-school beliefs. Among these are his beliefs that lynchings are the solution to such ills as drug abuse (obviously pre-dating the stricter drug enforcement laws of the 1990s); that the only solution to burglary is to shoot the victim; that rapists and child abusers should be tortured by alligators (okay, maybe that one's not too bad); and that the best takeaway from The Bible is "an eye for an eye". (Apparently he owns a Bible that's missing John 13:34: "A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.") His use of now somewhat offensive language like "pantywaist" certainly doesn't help his over-defensive, violent, and xenophobic case any.
"Sowin' Love" by Paul Overstreet
I can always find room to deride Paul Overstreet's brand of sanctimoniousness, can't I? One of 847 odes to his mama and daddy, this one beats its "you reap what you sow" metaphor so far into the ground that it gives up halfway through and switches to sewing love like a quilt. But it can't even deliver on that homophone, since the chorus doesn't change and keeps the lines about harvesting. Not that any of the other phrases are better -- who calls harvests "sweet"? Who says that "patches" help you feel new every day? (Unless you're quitting smoking or on HRT?) And who even says "sowin' love" anyway? At least with most songs written and/or sung by Overstreet, I can usually find at least one element that makes all the preachiness bearable (after all, he wrote "When You Say Nothing at All", a song so exceptionally strong that two different versions of it are absolute classics), but this one just feels like a long rambling sermon from a substitute pastor who forgot his notes.
"Tokyo, Oklahoma" by John Anderson
Racial stereotypes are almost never funny. Here, a dude from Tulsa has the hots for a Miss Soo Ling Foo (yeah, that's not how Japanese names work), and he flies out to Japan just to find her. He looks all over, finds her in a bathroom, and then hears her say "be honorable number one wife to you" in a stereotypical "mix up L's and R's" accent. The whole thing, even for 1985, is predicated on geisha girl stereotypes that were ridiculously outdated even then, and downright cringeworthy to modern ears. It really says something when Buck Owens' "Made in Japan", released thirteen years prior, manages to pull off nearly the same idea with a far more sympathetic tone that has aged far better.
"War Is Hell (On the Homefront Too)" by T. G. Sheppard
Most of the country songs involving a teenager and an older lover don't bother me that much because, while in a moral gray area, songs like "That Summer" or "Atlanta Burned Again Last Night" at least have a tone of "this was kind of sketchy, but at least consensual". I don't think it's a double standard, either; if "Bobbie Sue" were sung by four forty-year-old women courting an 18-year-old man, it would still be about grooming a target who doesn't seem to have any say in the matter. So this song's story about a teenage boy sleeping with a woman whose husband is off in World War II chafes me not because of the storyline proper. Instead, it's the cloying, condescending tone with which Sheppard (who, by the way, wasn't even born yet in '42) sings such lines as "when a woman's fighting loneliness, it's a battle she can't win" and most jarringly, "The women had nothing to do". You mean other than taking the construction and manufacturing jobs that normally went to men? Is there a reason this lady isn't out there being Rosie the Riveter?
"Where's the Dress" by Moe Bandy and Joe Stampley
I wasn't there for the heyday of Culture Club, but I'm certainly familiar with their weirdly catchy music and Boy George's distinctively androgynous look. Just like anything else emerging from the new-wave era, they were a target ripe for parody at the time. So what do Moe and Joe do? They just lazily churn out nothing but tasteless misogynstic jokes about men cross-dressing and shaving their legs, because somehow that was their only takeaway from the band. No jokes about the oddities of their lyrics or music videos; no acknowledgment that they've even heard a single second of Culture Club's music (other than swiping the intro to "Karma Chameleon", which led to a lawsuit and was later edited out). I've heard better, more on-point, and less offensive parodies from morning zoo radio DJs.
"The Wind Beneath My Wings" by Gary Morris
Yet another one where the faults are purely on the song, and not the singer. Gary Morris has an amazing voice that can go for high notes and dynamics without feeling like an overblown bellow, and he turned out some damn fine songs that made use of his range. But the lyrics here are a mountain of pure syrup: "it must have been cold there in my shadow to never have sunlight on your face" alone gives me flashbacks to when I had to listen to "Love Can Build a Bridge" just to justify its placement on the last list. After that it's just a pile of motivational clichés ("all here in my heart", "nothing without you", blah blah blah) so huge you'd need wings just to get over it -- and it can't even be bothered to find a single rhyme in any of them. It's just a style I hate almost entirely on principle, and of all the versions of this song out there, I have yet to find one that cancels out even a single ounce of treacle.
"You're My Bestest Friend" by Mac Davis
Speaking of '70s cheese that somehow lingered well into the '80s... okay, some of Mac Davis' songs are all right. I like "Baby, Don't Get Hooked on Me", "It's Hard to Be Humble", and "Texas in My Rearview Mirror". But this cutesy string of unrelated scenarios -- including gravy on a shirt, making love in the dirt, family quarrels, and even having your fly open -- is sung in a sickening croon. Add to it an overly simplistic melody and the cringeworthy grammar faux pas that is "bestest" (I'll forgive most double-negatives and "ain't"s, but it's hard not to notice when the grammar actually makes the scansion worse), and it just becomes even worse. Much like Todd in the Shadows theorized with Bruno Mars putting masturbation references in "The Lazy Song", I think the lines about getting drunk and bailed out of jail were put in purely so people wouldn't think this was actually a Sesame Street song or something.