At the beginning of the 1980s, country music skyrocketed in popularity. It also underwent some drastic changes to do so, thanks in large part to movies like Urban Cowboy and pop artists crossing over into the genre. In other words, it was less country getting popular and more “disco country” making its first big splash.
Enter: Barbara Mandrell, who is one of the finest country instrumentalists and singers to come out of the era. Mandrell released a song in 1981 called “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool,” a direct response to the increasing popularity (and subsequent changing) of the genre. Sound familiar?
The song featured an uncredited appearance by George Jones in the chorus (and in fact references Jones in the lyrics). When it came time for Barbara Mandrell to sing the song live at the CMA Awards in 1981, ol’ no-show actually showed up.
The song was a huge hit, even if people didn’t know Jones was singing on it until they saw the live performance. It reached No. 1 fairly quickly after it was released.
Interestingly enough, the song was meant to be a live performance and was originally recorded to fit onto a live album. However, the single was recorded in a studio with audience applause added in later. The album version of the song is a live performance recorded at Roy Acuff theater in Nashville and featuring Jones.
The song itself is about being proud of your roots, whether or not it’s trendy. While it could be easy to misconstrue the song as a criticism of the increasing commercial appeal of the country lifestyle, it’s really just about sticking to your guns and staying who you are whether it’s popular or not.
It doesn’t take a country music historian to see how that message still rings true today in the face of trend-chasing tunes listing off a litany of clichés in hopes of radio play. In related news, have you heard Trace Adkins’ new single “Lit”?