In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
In 2006, CNN published an article that called Bobby Goldsboro’s 1968 pop-country tearjerker “Honey” the “worst song of all time.” Well, “Honey” is not the worst song of all time. It’s not even the worst song ever to hit #1. In a world where “The Ballad Of The Green Berets” exists, it’s not even close. That said, “Honey” is a truly bad song, and its sustained success remains baffling 50 years later.
“Honey” is a gentle, plainspoken ballad about a woman who has died, sung by the man who she left behind. For a sentimental country song, that’s fertile ground. But “Honey” is widely and justifiably hated because of the lyrical details in the song. Basically, the guy who sings it seems like an absolute fucking asshole.
Songwriter Bobby Russell probably didn’t mean to make the narrator into a dickhead. But all of his folksy little details and anecdotes do not reflect well on him. Consider: “She was always young at heart / Kinda dumb and kinda smart.” Or the part where she “came running in all excited / Slipped and almost hurt herself / And I laughed till I cried.” He makes fun of her for crying over movies. He makes fun of her for wrecking his car and being “so afraid that I’d be mad.” He sings about how he loved her, how once got her a puppy or how he helped her plant a tree. But none of his stories make him sound even remotely supportive or even friendly.
The narrator never mentions how Honey died. (I guess I’ll call her Honey, since he never really gives her a name.) Instead, he simply says that “the angels came.” But just before telling of her death, he drops this: “I came home unexpectedly and caught her crying needlessly in the middle of the day.” So the implication, I guess, is that she died by suicide and that he was so unresponsive that he never gave her the help that she needed. (The “needlessly” is the real dagger there. Nobody cries needlessly. They might just cry for reasons you don’t understand.)
If “Honey” was a dark character study, maybe there would be something compelling about it. But the narrator never blames himself or even considers his own culpability in her death. All he can do is mawkishly repeat that he misses her. Goldsboro sings the song in a simpering half-spoken croon, daring anyone listening to find any of this charming, while producer Bob Montgomery piles on the strings and bells and backing vocals. So the only natural conclusion is that everyone involved thinks that this song is perfectly sincere, that it’s not the dark fable about emotional remoteness that it becomes when you give those lyrics even the slightest consideration.
Russell wrote “Honey” for the former Kingston Trio member Bob Shane. (Apparently, only people named Bob or Bobby were involved in the making of “Honey.”) But Goldsboro’s relatively lush version came out a week later, and that’s the one that hit. Goldsboro, who was born in Florida and raised in Alabama, had spent a few years as Roy Orbison’s guitarist and recorded a handful of hits before “Honey.” He kept recording hits after, too, including “Summer (The First Time),” a 1973 song where Goldsboro’s narrator remembers being 17 and losing his virginity to a 31-year-old woman. And in the mid-’90s, he created the kids’ PBS show The Swamp Critters Of Lost Lagoon. Let’s all imagine that the narrator of “Honey” was one of those swamp critters.
BONUS BEATS: “Honey” topped Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart for four weeks in the spring of 1968, which means “Honey” was more successful as a pop song than as a country song. Here are a few other songs that topped the Hot Country Songs chart, none of which went anywhere on the Hot 100 and all of which are better than “Honey” to an almost unfathomable degree:
THE NUMBER TWOS: The Box Tops’ “Cry Like A Baby,” which wasn’t that great but which still seems notable because it’s another pre-Big Star moment for Alex Chilton on the pop charts, peaked at #2 behind “Honey.” It would’ve maybe been a 6. Here it is: