January 18, 2017
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1979 saw a big shift in the direction of Crystal Gayle’s music when she switched record labels. Although she continued to work with producer Allen Reynolds, she delved even further into pop territory from the get go. Her first single for Columbia was “Half the Way”, which was her biggest hit for the label. Although it just missed the top spot on the Billboard country charts (peaking at #2), it landed at #15 on the Billboard Hot 100 (her final entry in the Top 20 of that chart) and #9 on the AC chart. The song is undeniably catchy, but does not sound even remotely country, although at least one its writers had solid country credentials. Ralph Murphy, a British born Canadian songwriter, penned the tune with Bobby Wood. The duo also wrote “He Got You” which was a hit for Ronnie Milsap the following year. Murphy had also written Jeannie C. Riley’s “Good Enough to Be Your Wife” and would go on to write hits for Randy Travis, Kathy Mattea, Don Williams and others and would eventually be inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame. “Half the Way” was Crystal’s biggest hit on the pop charts after “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” and set the tone for the sound of her music for the rest of her tenure with Columbia.
The second single from Miss the Mississippi was “It’s Like We Never Said Goodbye”, an uptempo number with a lush string arrangement. It reached #1 on the country chart and #17 on the AC chart but only reached #63 on the Hot 100 chart. Like “Half the Way”, it is barely country but irresistibly catchy. The more stripped-down ballad “The Blue Side” was the final single, charting at #8 country, #16 AC and #81 Hot 100.
Another tune that most people old enough to remember this era will recognize is the mid tempo pop number “Don’t Go My Love” written by James Valentini and Frank Saulino. Crystal never released it as a single but I definitely remember hearing it played on MOR radio stations, although I don’t know who the artist was. My research — admittedly very limited — shows that the song was recorded by a Greek singer named Nana Mouskouri who enjoyed quite a few international hits. Again, the song is a bit of an ear worm, but there’s nothing country about it.
Balancing out all this pop are a handful of songs that are more country in nature, at least by late 70s standards. Crystal does a capable job on “Dancing the Night Away” which had been a Top 20 country hit for Tanya Tucker in 1977. “Room for One More” is another one with appeal for country fans, and the concluding track is an exquisite reading of “Miss the Missippi and You”, which is far more polished than anything Jimmie Rodgers probably ever imagined.
Miss the Mississippi is not an album for everyone. If you’re looking for hardcore country it’s best to give it a miss. However, it provides an interesting glimpse at the direction country music was taking in the late 70s — and why there was the eventual backlash known as the New Traditionalist movement in the 1980s. Even though it’s not very country, I enjoyed listening to it.