Country Disco Songs: Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Ronnie Milsap - Rolling Stone
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Country Disco: 15 Great, Wild and WTF Songs

From Conway Twitty’s “Tight Fittin’ Jeans” to Dolly Parton’s “Baby I’m Burnin'”

conway twitty dolly parton country disco

Conway Twitty and Dolly Parton both married disco with country music during their careers.

Mike Prior/Getty Images, AP/REX Shutterstock

One of the instant head-turners on Kacey Musgraves’ new album Golden Hour was the disco-hyped track “High Horse,” which generated such buzz that Musgraves made her Saturday Night Live debut this weekend with an elaborate performance of the song.

But it’s hardly the first time that country music has embraced the Seventies dancefloor. Thanks to disco’s success on the charts and the popularity of both Saturday Night Fever and, later, Urban Cowboy, country artists were all too happy to dabble in those contemporary sounds: a four-on-the-floor beat, rubbery basslines and jittery hi-hats. The results were interesting, to say the least. Here’s 15 songs – some good, some head-scratchingly weird – that defined country-disco.

Mel McDaniel, “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On”

More cowbell, please. That persistent beat pulsing throughout Mel McDaniel’s 1985 chart-topper, “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On,” was sure to coax all the couples out on the dance floor at the honky-tonks dotting America in the early-to-mid Eighties. This hit would have come at the tail-end of the highly-produced Urban Cowboy movement as George Strait, Reba McEntire, the Judds and Ricky Skaggs stormed the country charts and the country awards shows to move the needle back to more traditional country sounds. Still, those women wearing cowboy hats and designer denim are singing along to every word in this vintage Mel McDaniel clip. Lord, have mercy! H.K.

Bill Anderson, “I Can’t Wait Any Longer”

Whispering Bill doing disco? Indeed he does. Anderson may be known for his country bona fides, but the Country Music Hall of Famer embraced steamy disco in this 1978 Top 5 country hit. A single off his 1978 album Love and Other Sad Stories, “I Can’t Wait Any Longer” found Anderson cooing – in a whisper, naturally – “I can’t wait any longer for our bodies to touch, for our souls to touch.” The racy intonations paired well with the thumping bass, which took the song out of the Opry and onto the dance floor. B.M.

The Bellamy Brothers, “Let Your Love Flow”

The Bellamy Brothers would eventually make their permanent home in country music, but their career kicked off with a bang with the 1976 international pop smash “Let Your Love Flow.” The laid-back message and sunny beat of the song was tailormade for the era’s AM Gold playlists, replacing Johnnie Taylor’s “Disco Lady” at the top of the Hot 100 in 1976. “Let Your Love Flow” just missed the Top 20 on the country chart, but it’s since gotten the blessing of the Coal Miner’s Daughter herself. Loretta Lynn covered the song in her live show for years. H.K.

Ronnie Milsap, “Get It Up”

Ronnie Milsap always camped out on the cutting edge of country-pop production, so it’s no surprise to hear him tapping into the disco trend with 1979’s “Get It Up.” The blaring horns, funky beat and overtly sexual lyrics are taken straight from the KC and the Sunshine Band playbook, and the track hit the lower reaches of the Dance Club Songs chart that year. Exploring pop sounds was in Milsap’s musical DNA from the start. He’d cut his teeth recording R&B-flavored pop for Scepter Records in New York in the mid-Sixties before making his way to Nashville via Memphis in the early Seventies. Beyond “Get It Up,” don’t miss Milsap’s later slice of pop perfection, 1983’s “Stranger in My House,” and his Top 5 Hot 100 hit, 1981’s “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me.” H.K.

Connie Smith, “I Just Want to Be Your Everything”

When 19-year-old Andy Gibb cut older brother Barry’s “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” as his debut single in 1977 he had his first Number One hit. A few months later, Grand Ole Opry star Connie Smith, whose career had been built on tear-stained traditional country since her own Number One debut, “Once a Day,” in 1964, surprised fans with a bubbly, danceable take on “Everything.” Smith would burn out on recording and touring for a few years but peppered this unlikely dance-floor hit – her last Top 20 entry – with typically effusive country charm and sweetness. S.B.

Kenny Rogers, “She’s a Mystery”

Kenny Rogers released an entire album, Eyes That See in the Dark, in 1983 produced by one of disco’s main architects, the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb. You may have heard the big hit from that project – “Islands in the Stream” with Dolly Parton. Two years after that smash, Rogers was still feeling the hangover from the Gibb collaboration as he performed a disco-fied arrangement of his 1979 album cut “She’s a Mystery” to kick off his set at the first-ever Farm Aid concert in 1985. As the high-hat sounds off, Rogers captivates the crowd with his music — as well as his fashion sense, wearing a white sports coat over a casual Adidas shirt. (Side note: Don’t miss Neil Young whispering in Brenda Lee’s ear at the top of the clip.) H.K.

George Jones, “I Ain’t Got No Business Doin’ Business Today”

This thumping tune, a 1979 Top Ten hit for Razzy Bailey and covered by Alabama in 1990, finds a funkified Jones calling in sick from work to stay home and play with the “little woman.” Perhaps it’s no coincidence that at the time the embattled country legend was having trouble showing up for his real-life job, sometimes even taking the stage in the persona of a demented duck he called “Dee-doodle.” OK, so it’s no “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” but it’s no “Disco Duck” either. S.B.

Conway Twitty, “Tight Fittin’ Jeans”

We wouldn’t have all these country disco gems without John Travolta. After his 1977 blockbuster Saturday Night Fever drove millions to the discos, Travolta created another pop-culture craze with his 1980 film Urban Cowboy, which had America trading in leisure suits for cowboy hats, boots and those “Tight Fittin’ Jeans” Conway Twitty sings about in his 1981 Number One hit. Urban Cowboy was set at Mickey Gilley’s massive Texas honky-tonk, Gilley’s, and that kind of country club provides the setting for Conway to cozy up to a rich lady who’s put on her western wear for a night out on the wilder side of life. As he takes her out on the dancefloor, she warns him, “Partner, there’s a tiger in these tight fittin’ jeans.” Ever the gentleman, Conway only alludes to exactly what he did with that well-heeled, denim-clad tiger after last call at the honky-tonk. “In my mind she’s still a lady, that’s all I’m gonna say…That night I knew a lady wearing tight fittin’ jeans.” H.K.

Dolly Parton, “Baby I’m Burnin'”

This sparkling cut from Dolly Parton’s 1978 album Heartbreaker is just another piece of evidence that there’s no genre the country legend can’t master. “Baby I’m Burnin'” not only cracked country’s Top 25 but also charted on the disco survey, a rare feat to this day. With its triumphant horns and punchy lyrics, it seamlessly blends disco’s dance sensibilities with country’s honest storytelling, making it a true classic of this niche but necessary canon. B.M.

Sylvia, “The Matador”

A year before she had a Top 20 pop-country
smash with “Nobody,” Sylvia had a 1981 chart-topping country hit with
“Drifter,” which featured swirling strings, Western guitars and a
sensual dance-floor beat. With her follow-up hit, she proved bullish on disco. Backed by an even more throbbing disco beat “The Matador” pulsates
with Spanish guitars, horns and a decidedly non-PC storyline that inspired one
of country music’s first concept videos. For a brief, shining moment, Sylvia
was Olivia Newton-John and ABBA rolled up into one. S.B.

Glen Campbell and Tanya Tucker, “Why Don’t We Just Sleep on It Tonight”

At the height of their ill-fated courtship in the early Eighties, Campbell and Tucker were admittedly less oil and water and more gasoline and matches. But for all the tabloid fodder their romantic union generated, on record, especially here, they’re like country’s answer to Peaches and Herb. Two of the genre’s most distinctive voices, his like a clear rippling stream, hers more raspy and mischievous, whatever transpired between them they transcended with soulful intensity in their far-too-few collaborations. S.B.

Narvel Felts, “Everlasting Love”

This oft-covered classic penned by two of Nashville‘s finest writers, Mac Gayden and Buzz Cason, was perfectly suited to the R&B version Carl Carlton took to pop’s Top 10 in 1974. In 1981, teen heartthrob Rex Smith and rocker Rachel Sweet cracked the Top 40 with a highly charged new-wave-inspired duet. Between the two, in 1979, Louise Mandrell recorded a version that fizzled, but prolific country hitmaker Narvel Felts notched a Top 15 hit in a version accentuating the song’s innate disco trappings and emphasizing the singer’s unusually dramatic vibrato. S.B.

Billie Jo Spears, “I Will Survive”

As anthems go, the original late-Seventies version of this screw-you tune spoke not only to the broken-hearted but to feminists, gays and anyone else suddenly feeling empowered in the Equal Rights Amendment era. Spears, a twangy Texan best known for the provocative “Blanket on the Ground,” released this zippy remake just months after Gloria Gaynor, making it the title cut of her 1979 LP. With the familiar piano opening by Hargus “Pig” Robbins and backing vocals from the Jordanaires, the Grammy-nominated country-meets-western-meets-Studio 54 concoction remains deliciously odd and totally irresistible. S.B. 

Barbara Mandrell, “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed”

Barbara Mandrell may have started her country career as a 12-year-old steel-guitar prodigy sharing a room on the road with Patsy Cline, but by the late Seventies her sound was slick as snot on a doorknob – listen to this Number One country hit from her 1978 album Moods. “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed” inverts that classic disco trope of starting off slow with a ballad feel before kicking into a zippy disco beat. Barbara jumps right into the extra-peppy chorus at the top of the song and brings you back down for the verse. The lyrics about drinking over a lost love are definitely country, but that beat and “La La La” background vocals are late Seventies pop gold. For more proof Barbara had her finger on the pulse of the R&B and pop worlds, check out her smooth 1980 cover of Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall ballad “She’s Out of My Life,” recast as “He’s Out of My Life.” H.K.

Emmylou Harris, “On the Radio”

What happens when you combine the queen of disco and the queen of Americana country? A reworking of “On the Radio,” of course. A signature song that originally appeared on Donna Summer’s 1979 greatest-hits album of the same name (it was first written for a movie soundtrack), Emmylou Harris reinterpreted the Top 5 hit in 1983 for her project White Shoes. In Harris’ version, which is stripped bare of the bells and whistles that producer Giorgio Moroder placed on Summers’ original, the track takes on an affecting vulnerability that adds striking dimension to country’s relationship with disco. B.M.

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