On the lost art of the recitation
Last year, Marty Stuart’s album Ghost Train reminded us of numerous things mainstream country music has lost over the past few decades: top-tier musicians, songwriting that was catchy without being generic, the Loretta and Conway-style duet, the instrumental solos, the talent, and, most importantly of all, the heart. Call it Americana, XXX, alt. country, roots rock, or whatever, but there is no doubt that the music we cover here on No Depression has picked up the slack on most of those things, but there is one of other thing covered on Stuart’s album that we haven’t carried over, unless you want to count the Drive-By Truckers’ “Three Great Alabama Icons”. I’m referring, of course, to the recitation, a form Stuart brilliantly embraced with the eerie yet uplifting “Porter Wagoner’s Grave.”
The most popular recitation in country music is probably future sausage-maker Jimmy Dean’s 1961 hit “Big Bad John,” but the form is nearly as old as country music itself and has continued through most of it’s history. Hank Williams himself even recorded his share of recitations, most of them credited to his morally upstanding alter ego Luke the Drifter. As with the Luke the Drifter songs, many recitations through the years have dealt with religious themes. “Deck of Cards,” a sentimental tale of a soldier who uses his playing cards as a Bible, was a hit for both T. Texas Tyler in 1948 and future television host Wink Martindale 11 years later. In the 1960’s stars like Porter Wagoner further popularized the gospel recitation and eventually even the hardest of outlaws got in on the act.
Another area in which the recitation has excelled is in the world of truck-driving songs. The 1975 novelty hit “Convoy” by C.W. McCall eventually led to the 1978 Sam Peckinpah film of the same name, but the king of the truck-driving recitation was undoubtedly Red Sovine. Sovine, along with Dave Dudley, actually made singing songs about trucks into a highly successful career and this climaxed with his 1976 #1 hit “Teddy Bear,” a recitation about a young paraplegic child who lost his father in a truck accident and spends his days communicating with truckers over his CB radio. Sovine recorded several other recitations of this nature, notably 1965’s “Giddyup Go,” but his crowning achievement remains one that is a bit less sentimental.
Recitations have also been used to great comedic effect, most famously the Shel Silverstein-penned Johnny Cash classic “A Boy Named Sue,” but another notable one is a forgotten Charlie Daniels number from 1973 called “Uneasy Rider.” Given Daniels’ political and religious stance these days, I highly doubt he performs it in concert much.
Although, it lands more on the western side of country and western, I must mention this little gem from 1964 that went to #1 on the Billboard charts. Perhaps Beatlemania had something to do with it.
Anyway, I don’t claim to be an expert on the form, but all of these songs and all of the others I’ve mentioned have long been favorites (with the exception of the Johnny Paycheck tune, which I just discovered a few weeks ago). So the big question is this: what great ones did I miss?