I’ve said this before: There are hits, and there are hits. Hundreds of country songwriters can boast of at least one song that made its way to the top of the country charts, and in October or November, garnered an ASCAP or BMI award that they hung proudly on the wall of their office.
Listeners all over America heard that song and assumed they were hearing a genuine hit song that was receiving repeated airplay all over America, because America wanted to hear that song… repeatedly.
The truth is that many country “hits” (and pop hits too) are strictly “radio hits,” songs that are played on the radio because music directors or consultants believe it fits their listeners’ need for background music that neither stimulates nor offends them. These tunes may have considerable merit, but usually they are with us for a couple of dozen weeks and then disappear, with an occasional reappearance on the radio as an oldie, or as a filler on a vintage compilation album.
But then there are hits, some of which become classics, legends. A career songwriter is lucky to have one of these, because if he or she is just a bit wise, that hit can keep him or her in necessities and goodies for the rest of their lives. You can get a hint about a song like that the first time around because it will probably cause a huge spike in the sales of a CD during the time it is playing on the radio. If it is a super-hit, that spike may last through the life of the CD and even push that artist up to the next sales level for years to come, especially if it is followed by another super-hit.
Another way to judge a super-hit is by the effect it has on an artist’s booking price. There have been artists who had multiple Number 1 hits who never were able to command high booking prices.
In the old days super-hits became standards because other artists – dozens of other artists or hundreds of other artists – also recorded the song. That doesn’t happen much (at all?) today, but there are still songs that become modern classics.
But what makes a song a classic?
I guess I’m reluctant to analyze a song and try to isolate the qualities that made it legendary, because songs are so subjective. The very popularity that makes a song like “Old Man River,” or “Moon River,” so ubiquitous for so long can also, after years and years of exposure, make it seem like a cliché and then folks start to make fun of it. But I do want to discuss three other songs, released as singles one after another, all classics. They are “I Fall To Pieces,” “Crazy,” and “She’s Got You.” They are the Patsy Cline Trilogy.
These songs were not Patsy’s first hits; in fact, “I Fall To Pieces” hit the country charts four years after her first hit, “Walkin’ After Midnight.” In between those two, Patsy had very little record activity. Written by Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard, “I Fall To Pieces” was a Billboard Number 1 country record (Top 12 pop) that stayed on the country charts for 39 weeks, an almost unheard of feat of longevity for that time. Its enormous popularity paved the way for her next two classics. The third record of this trilogy, “She’s Got You” – also Billboard Number 1 country (Top 14 pop) – was written by Cochran alone. Both of these records were huge sellers for Patsy and helped establish her as the definitive female country and pop torch singer of her time. Both songs were melodically and lyrically extremely powerful, and Owen Bradley’s production was flawless in fitting these recordings into both country and pop radio. Both songs are undisputed classics that can be found on pop and country oldies playlists as well as countless record compilations.
But the gem of this trilogy is the second of the three, Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” one of the great songs of any genre over the past 50 years. “Crazy” was a Number 1 country and Top 10 pop in 1962. Acquired by Tree International in 1969 as part of the Pamper publishing catalog, for decades “Crazy” was Tree’s top-earning copyright, and Tree was (with Acuff-Rose) one of Nashville’s two greatest publishing companies.
What was it that made “Crazy” such a great song? We can talk about its beautifully simple lyrics, it’s rangy yet singable melody, and Willie’s unique (for the time) chord sensibilities. We could sing the praises of Floyd Cramer and The Jordanaires for their incredible performances on the record and of course we could rave about Patsy’s very special treatment of the song. The Jordanaires’ Gordon Stoker remembers that Patsy and Owen Bradley had a major argument in the studio over how to record the song. “I think the reason she did such a super job is she was about half mad [when she did her vocal] on that song,” he says.
We can always speculate what it was that made a song a legendary hit. But in the end, the only certainty is that the folks loved it, and continued to love it year after year. I can only suggest that people acquire a copy, listen to it, and listen to it again. Slip it in your computer or CD player, get comfortable, and just let that opening piano riff into your soul. We might not know what makes a song a classic, but after the fact, we often know one when we hear it.