Stories

The Surprising Origins of 7 Iconic Country Songs

Turns out, George Strait has Tom Hanks to thank for one of his hits.

Photograph by Chris Hollo

“Jolene” | Dolly Parton

The vision of a woman with “flaming locks of auburn hair” and “eyes of emerald green” is seared into the country music canon ever since Dolly Parton released her earworm “Jolene” in 1974. The song’s subject was a fictious bombshell who inspired envy in the heart of the singer whose husband had wandering eyes. But the real-life Jolene who inspired the song was a little less intimidating. Early in her career, Parton met a young fan, a girl around age 8 or 9, at one of her shows. When she asked for Parton’s autograph, the star was struck by the girl’s beauty and asked for her name. To which the girl responded, “Jolene.” Parton told the fan that she was going to write a song about her. To make sure she didn’t forget the name, Parton kept repeating the girl’s name in a singsong backstage before she got to write it down. That led to the opening line of the hit, which she wrote on the same day as “I Will Always Love You.”

“Blue Clear Sky” | George Strait

With hits like “Check Yes or No” and “The Chair,” George Strait is a consummate balladeer, but one of his songs sounds a little funny upon first listen. You might wonder why the adjectives in the title of his 1996 single “Blue Clear Sky” are flipped. Strait thought the same thing and called up songwriter Bob DiPiero to ask why the lyrics weren’t “clear blue sky.” DiPiero had a simple answer: Forrest Gump. In the film, Tom Hanks’ character, Forrest, was remarking about his relationship with fickle girlfriend Jenny Curran when he said, “Jenny was gone, then all of a sudden, out of the blue clear sky, she was back.” DiPiero thought the turn of phrase was fitting for a song about being unlucky in love — until you aren’t.

“Harper Valley P.T.A.” | Jeannie C. Riley

Every town has its busybodies, but not all busybodies inspire a hit song. When Tom T. Hall was a child, he was struck by the tenacity of a single mother who challenged the judgmental, meddling ways of the town establishment. Her gumption led Hall to create the fictional Mrs. Johnson, who is admonished by the parent-teacher association for wearing miniskirts. In the song, Mrs. Johnson sticks it to her critics in a meeting during which she calls out their hypocrisy. Jeannie C. Riley recorded “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” and it became a megahit. Bonus: Harpeth Valley Elementary School, which served as Hall’s muse in name alone, is still in operation in Bellevue, Tennessee.

“Keep on the Sunny Side” | The Carter Family

The Carter Family popularized dozens of Appalachian folk songs and old-time ballads as patriarch A.P. Carter went on frequent song-gathering trips across the region. One of the family band’s best-known songs “Keep on the Sunny Side” was adapted from a Pentecostal hymn written by Ada Blenkhorn in 1899. Blenkhorn’s nephew, who was disabled, always requested that his wheelchair was pushed on “the sunny side” of the street. The phrase became a hopeful metaphor for life and an early country music standard.

“I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail” | Buck Owens and the Buckaroos

The idea for a new song can strike anywhere, even in the most mundane of places. For Buck Owens, that place was an Esso gas station. As he was fueling up in 1964, he noticed Esso’s catchy slogan “Put a Tiger in Your Tank” and coined the song title “Tiger by the Tail.”  Accompanying Owens on the trip, songwriter Harlan Howard scrawled lyrics in the backseat as Owens extemporaneously created the melody. It became Buck Owens and the Buckaroos biggest hit. The song’s success just goes to show that you shouldn’t dismiss a novelty song — after all, just ask Johnny Cash how “A Boy Named Sue” faired

“New San Antonio Rose” | Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys

Bob Wills knew he could make his 1939 instrumental song “San Antonio Rose” an even bigger hit — he just needed to add some words. Wills enlisted the help of his publishing company to write lyrics for the song, but he hated the finished product. He had another idea in mind. As told by Ray Benson in Ken Burns’ Country Music, Wills gave a jug of whiskey and five bucks to one of his horns players so that he would “go write words.” The byproduct was “New San Antonio Rose.” It saw out-of-this-world success as the first country song broadcast from space when astronaut Pete Conrad played it on Apollo 12.

“Blue Suede Shoes” | Carl Perkins & Elvis Presley

Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley were Sun Records labelmates before they each went on to forge very different (but tremendously successful) careers. While Presley’s rock ’n’ roll ways were rejected by Nashville, Cash was responsible for the inception of a Presley classic: “Blue Suede Shoes.” When Cash served in the Air Force, he met an airman who was obsessed with keeping his blue suede shoes clean. Cash told fellow Louisiana Hayride act Carl Perkins to write a song about the shoes. Perkins was skeptical, but he did it anyway and recorded the song himself in 1955. Presley released his own version a year later. It was the perfect fit for a performer known for his panache.