My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Who Was That Stranger?’

Although the movie had brought Loretta mainstream attention, her musical career was winding down in the 1980s. She had enjoyed only one top 10 hit that decade (‘I Lie’ in 1982), and her last single to reach the top 40 was the #19 ‘Heart Don’t Do This To Me’ in 1985. The neotraditional revival of the late 80s may have brought country sounds back to country radio, but older artists were, by and large, jettisoned along with the pop-country stars of the mid 80s. This album, Loretta’s swan song for MCA, was released in 1988. It was coproduced by Loretta herself with label president Jimmy Bowen and Chip Hardy.

She was not as prolific a songwriter as she had been earlier in her career, writing only two tracks here, the very short (just under two minutes) and bouncy up-tempo ‘Mountain Climber’, a look at working your way up the hard way with a tart sideswipe at those who want to start at the top, and the affectionate portrait of a old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone rural preacher, ‘Elzie Brooks’. It should come as no surprise that he was a real person, the preacher whose services Loretta attended as a child in Butcher Holler; she notes in her book Coal Miner’s Daughter that he never took a penny for his ministry, and in this song compares him to TV preachers with their demands for money. These are both bright and entertaining if less memorable than Loretta’s classics.

The title track and lead single faltered at #57 on Billboard. A brightly delivered tale about rescuing a tired marriage written by Curly Putnam, Max D Barnes and Don Cook, the production sounds a bit dated now and I must confess even after a number of listens I’m slightly unclear whether this is intended to depict a marriage which only comes alive after dark, or a complete fantasy. The follow-up single, the gospelly ‘Fly Away’, penned by Frank Dycus and featuring Bela Fleck’s banjo, did not chart at all, and that marked the end of Loretta’s long association with MCA and its predecessor Decca.

But there is plenty here worth hearing. Reminiscent of Loretta’s glory days is the satisfying mid-tempo ‘Married Ladies’, cautionary tale written by Walter Carter and Sandi Lifson using Loretta’s signature theme of a woman asserting herself when her husband threatens the marriage. This time the protagonist overhears her man bragging about his plans to cheat on her, and fixes on a way to make him see the error of his ways by threatening to turn the tables. When he protests, she declares,

Married ladies break the rules just like a married man
If you think that I’m a-waitin’ at home for you
Honey think again
Married ladies play the games
The stakes are just as high
So if you think that cheatin’s fair to do
Well, honey so do I

The lesson works, and the protagonist’s chastened husband never steps out of line again.

This is one of the highlights, alongside Michael Garvin and Bucky Jones’ carefully crafted ballad ‘Still In The Ring’, which uses a well-realized boxing analogy to look at another marriage threatened by infidelity, with virtually every line contributing another metaphor:

Well tonight I’m lying in his corner
And love is gonna chase some things
You’ll find out when the fight is over
His finger is still in the ring

You may be quite a knockout
But don’t you forget one thing
You’ve only won the first round
His finger is still in the ring

I believe this was a single for Tammy Wynette a couple of years earlier, but had failed to chart.

Also good is ‘Your Used To Be’, an emotional ballad about the after-effects of lost love, with the protagonist completely devastated and unable to get over “being your used to be”. The straightforward love song ‘Walk On Water’ and the sultry ‘You’re Gonna Catch Heaven When I Get You Home’ are pleasant but forgettable ballads. The least successful track, however, is the closing ‘Survivor’, full-scale mid 80s pop-country which is lacking in melody and on which Loretta does not sound comfortable vocally.

Overall, although it was not a commercial success, this is actually a pretty strong record, with Loretta mostly in good voice, but the songs did not have the sparkle of her great hits, and she could not compete with the younger faces which were crowding out radio playlists. Although the liner notes spoke optimistically of “making another album real soon”, it was to be more than a decade before she returned to the studios on her own.

Grade: B

Who Was That Stranger is since out of print, and even used copies are expensive, but can be found at amazon if you just have to have it. However, the title track is available as a digital download.

2 responses to “Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Who Was That Stranger?’

  1. Ken Johnson April 23, 2010 at 11:35 am

    The single “Still In The Ring” (Epic 04101) peaked at #63 on the Billboard country chart in October 1983 for Tammy Wynette. The song only charted for 6 weeks so if you blinked you might’ve missed it.

    I agree with your comments about the quality of this Loretta Lynn album. Many veteran country stars were still producing good material in the 1980’s but they were not considered a PRIORITY by record label promotion departments. Record labels preferred to push their new acts and would often tell radio stations to overlook veteran acts if their playlist slot could go to a newcomer instead. I’ll bet many acts would be hurt and disappointed if they knew what was going on behind their backs. The record industry is a souless, heartless business.

    • Razor X April 23, 2010 at 9:02 pm

      I liked this album a lot. It’s an overlooked gem, IMO but by 1988 country radio had written Loretta off, and MCA seemed to have as well. The album was produced by Jimmy Bowen; I am not sure if he produced her prior album, 1985’s Just a Woman or not. But in the mid to late 80s, his name was listed as the producer on almost every album that MCA Nashville produced. In her book, Still Woman Enough Loretta wrote that he was barely present during the recording of the album. She left the label after that album and said she never looked back. She also stated that after all the mergers and consolidations, the family feel at the label was gone.

      I wasn’t aware that Tammy Wynette had released “Still In The Ring”. It’s a great song.

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