Two things helped WWE (then called the WWF) connect with the MTV generation in the '80's: the superstar appeal of Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper and Andre the Giant, and a growing catalog of instantly recognizable entrance themes for its wrestlers.
The period in WWE history known as the Rock 'N' Wrestling Connection brought us not just WrestleMania but also The Wrestling Album, a full-length collection of songs sung by wrestlers. It was released in Nov. 1985 by Epic/CBS.
Decades later, the album's quite the novelty. It pairs the vocal stylings of future Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura and teenage rock 'n' roller turned announcer Gene Okerlund, just to name two, with a legitimate team of co-producers: Cyndi Lauper, her business partner David Wolff, composer and Meat Loaf collaborator Jim Steinman and the rock star behind Hogan's "Real American" theme, Rick Derringer.
Even with that crew, plus wrestling personality Jimmy Hart's rock 'n' roll past with Memphis band The Gentrys, the best song from WWE owner Vince McMahon's musical interlude involved a couple of unlikely names: singer-songwriter Marshall Chapman and Kentucky-born country music fan turned pro wrestler James Morris, better known as Hillbilly Jim.
Chapman learned of the opportunity to write a theme song for Hillbilly Jim through her friend and mentor Doc Pomus, a pop songwriter whose credits include "Viva Las Vegas" and "Save the Last Dance For Me."
"Only in America could something like this happen," Chapman remembers in her book Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller. "After all, this is the country that gave the world Tiny Tim, Mrs. Miller and Alvin and the Singing Chipmunks. So why not singing wrestlers? Makes perfect sense to me."
Chapman and Pomus rolled the dice and wrote "Don't Go Messin' With a Country Boy," a myth-building song in the spirit of "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," in about 15 minutes.
"It's the only song I ever wrote specifically to be recorded by someone besides myself.," Chapman told journalist Patrick Sauer for Vice's lengthy 30th anniversary oral history of The Wrestling Album. "I've written songs that had been covered by artists like Jimmy Buffet, Tanya Tucker and Emmylou Harris--and Jimmy and I co-wrote some songs in Key West--but they were all originally written for me. 'Don't Go Messin' with a Country Boy' is the lone exception in forty-some-odd years in music. I figured the whole thing was here today, gone tomorrow. If a project ever had flash-in-the-pan written all over it. Wouldn't you know it? The Wrestling Album was a blockbuster."
Morris, a Southern rock and country music lover known in part for his Sirius Satellite Radio program Hillbilly Jim's Moonshine Matinee, cut the purposefully absurd song in studio with jazz producer and songwriter Joel Dorn. Dorn, a Grammy award-winner for his production work with Roberta Flack, shares songwriting credit with Chapman and Pomus.
"I'm from the South, so I learned to play guitar and sing at 9 years old," Morris told Vice. "Way back when, I would go out and do little gigs. I didn't enjoy the hassle of it all that much, so I didn't stick with it. But the background helped both my careers, wrestling and radio. I'm happy I came along at the right time. If you missed the '60s, you've got a hole in your musical soul. Point is, I've been a big music fan my whole life. So the first time I read the lyrics they sent me for 'Don't Go Messin' with a Country Boy,' I said, 'Aww man, this sucks. I don't want to do this. It's hokey as hell.'"
Despite Morris' hangups over lyrics about about drinking moonshine as an infant and standing six feet tall by age 10, the song fit McMahon's cartoonish vision for pro wrestling. The presence of proven bluegrass, folk and old-time music talent in the studio helped matters, as well.
"My character was a big old guy from Mudlick, Kentucky, who wasn't supposed to be sharp or worldly," Morris told Vice. "I didn't have fancy moves. I had a gimmick: I'm a country boy. I read the sophomoric lyrics and knew what they were doing. There was one good part. They got the guy who played the fiddle in Deliverance (Eric Weissberg and his band) to do my music, so I went in and did my thing."
Piledriver: The Wrestling Album II hit shelves in 1987. It featured Hillbilly Jim and a duet partner (and total stranger to this day) billed only as Gertrude, singing a way less amusing tale about life on the road titled "Waking Up Alone." Who would've guessed that self-aware silliness would trump forced sincerity when pro wrestling's involved?
Although injuries kept Hillbilly Jim from reaching his full potential, he put together a WWE Hall of Fame career as an in-ring competitor and as a ringside manager (first for his similarly-dressed kinfolks Uncle Elmer, Cousin Luke and Cousin Junior and later for the tag team the Godwinns). In the process, he made sure that wrestling fans will continue to two-step to "Don't Go Messin' With a Country Boy" well beyond its expected shelf life.
This story first ran in April 2020.
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