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.
For most of its lifespan — a lifespan that has lasted considerably longer than almost any other strain of American popular music — country music has worked as a sort of parallel pop-music universe. Country has its own star system, its own rules, and its own borders. Country adapts musical ideas, and even musicians, from the pop-music mainstream, but it’s also protective of its own boundaries. That’s why Blanco Brown, a rapper with a novelty country-rap crossover hit, can do well on the country charts, while Lil Nas X, a rapper with a novelty country-rap crossover hit, can be removed from those same charts. Blanco Brown comes from within the Nashville system, and Lil Nas X does not. Within country, the distinction matters.
Sometimes, though, country’s parallel pop universe bleeds over into the other one. And in the mid-’70s, that was happening all the time. Charlie Rich, B. J. Thomas, and Freddy Fender had country #1 singles that also became pop #1 singles. Adult-contempo queen Olivia Newton-John found serious country airplay. Californian post-hippie types like the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt played around with country sounds and got absolutely huge as a result. And then there was John Denver, who came out of California’s folk-rock scene and became perhaps the biggest country star in the world, even though he arguably didn’t make country music.
This caused some consternation; as discussed in a previous column, when Charlie Rich was presenting Denver with the CMA Award for Entertainer Of The Year in 1975, Rich set fire to the envelope containing Denver’s name. In the eyes of Charlie Rich, and in those of a whole lot of other country insiders, Denver was insufficiently country. They had a point. Denver did, however, have a couple of huge hits with the word “country” in their titles. So he had that going for him.
Denver’s first “country” hit was 1971’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” and it was a sincere and lovely ode to the state of West Virginia. (That song peaked at #2, and it’s an 8.) “Country Roads” was the song that made Denver, on both pop and country radio. It wasn’t country, at least in Nashville’s understanding, but borders were relatively porous then, and it did have the word “country” in the title. Maybe that was enough. “Thank God I’m A Country Boy,” Denver’s other “country” hit, is another story. It’s a piece of cornpone kitsch that reduces the entire idea of country music to basic signifiers, to a wife and a fiddle and some cakes on the griddle. It’s bullshit.
John Martin Sommers, a multi-instrumentalist in Denver’s backing band, wrote “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” on a drive from Aspen to Los Angeles. Denver saw Sommers play it in a club one night, and he decided that he wanted to record the song himself. On the track, Sommers writes about country living as a sort of abstraction, a transcendentalist fantasy: “Well, a simple kind of life never did me no harm / A-raisin’ me a family and working on the farm / My days are all filled with an easy country charm.” It’s all hazy and unspecific and even silly, and the only way that you’re really certain John Denver isn’t joking is the simple fact that he’s John Denver.
A couple of lines from “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” express something at least adjacent to contempt for non-country life: “City folk driving in a black limousine / A lot of sad people thinking that’s a-mighty keen.” But the version of “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” that went to #1 was Denver playing to a room full of city folk, many of whom might’ve arrived in a black limousine. Denver had included “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” on his 1974 album Back Home Again. But the version that hit #1 came from the 1975 double live album An Evening With John Denver, which Denver taped on the first night of a sold-out six-night stand at LA’s Universal Amphitheatre. Like Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips (Pt. II)” or Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-A-Ling” before it, this is the rare live #1 single.
Presumably, there were plenty of transplanted country people in the audience that night. Maybe there were even some people who’d driven in from California farm country. But the handclaps we hear on “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” are pure play-acting. The song isn’t without its charms. Denver sounds like he’s having fun, and so does the audience. Sommers cannily wrote a whole bunch of fiddle-related lyrics and fiddle riffs, so the song works as a sort of showcase for his playing, which is rich and propulsive. The backing harmonies are nice. But none of that makes the song any less of a cartoon.
“Thank God I’m A Country Boy” replaced Freddy Fender’s “Before The Next Teardrop Falls” at #1, and the two songs show two different ideas of country music. “Before The Next Teardrop Falls” is conversational heartbreak, expressed simply and elegantly. Fender sings it in two different languages and draws in the sounds of Mexican conjunto music. It’s simple and weary and lovely. There will always be room for a song like that in country. There will also always be room for a song like “Thank God I’m A Country Boy”; there is, after all, a rich history of corny rural-pride anthems within country. Denver’s song is the barest, most obvious pantomime version of this. It’s a whole lot of country signifiers thrown at a wall, with nothing behind them. It’s the song that used to end Disneyland’s Country Bear Vacation Hoedown, which should really tell you all you need to know.
“Thank God I’m A Country Boy” has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Since 1975, the Baltimore Orioles, my hometown team, have used it as the traditional seventh-inning stretch song. When the Orioles won the World Series in 1983, Denver showed up to dance on the dugout as it played. Denver did that a bunch of times, including once just a couple of weeks before his death in 1997. I went to God knows how many Orioles games as a kid; the house I grew up in was within walking distance of Memorial Stadium. So I heard “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” God knows how many times. You’d think I’d have some sentimental attachment to the song, the same way I still feel a cellular urge to yell the letter “O!” every time I hear the National Anthem. Nope. “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” sucked when I was a kid, and it sucks now.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Pauly Shore using a combine harvester to write the word “Crawl,” his character’s name, in a cornfield, while singing along to “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” (and shouting out current #1 hitmaker Billy Ray Cyrus) in the 1993 movie Son In Law:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Soulja Boy, who will eventually appear in this column, sampled “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” on his 2011 track “Country Boy.” Here’s the video: