Take Ronnie Milsap, one of the most successful country-pop crossover stars of the late '70s and early '80s, who ticked all of the above boxes. Yet for all his talent, great songs, longevity, pop success and memorable hook -- He's blind, making him the sort of the Ray Charles of country, with 35 No. 1 hits between 1974 and 1989, or nearly two-thirds of his singles! -- Milsap is rarely talked about today. The six-time Grammy winner and 1977 Country Music Association's Entertainer of the Year, hasn't even been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Ronnie Milsap "It Was Almost Like a Song"
"It Was Almost Like a Song," one of Milsap's biggest hits (No. 1 country, No. 16 pop, in 1977), was recently covered by Dionne Warwick on her new Now album, and every Now review I've read identified it not as one of Milsap's greatest hits, but as a song Hal David wrote without Burt Bacharach. (Archie Johnson was his co-writer.) And just a few months ago, the song was left out of every obituary I read (and the one I wrote) after David's passing, though not one of them failed to mention Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias's "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" among David's great compositions outside of his classic partnership.
One of the early lessons of Nashville is that you're still only as big as your last hit. Luckily for some (Willie Nelson, Dionne Warwick, Burt Bacharach, Hal David, all enduring legends, though far removed from their hit-making era ), that's only true part-time. Loretta Lynn hasn't had a Top 10 country single since 1982's "I Lie," but would anyone dare suggest she open for Taylor Swift in order to pay her mortgage? Iconhood and legendary status are reserved for the lucky few but not all of the most-talented few, which brings us to the great undersung (none of whom are in the Country Music Hall of Fame)...
John Conlee Even if she weren't played by Connie Britton, I would have been in love with Nashville's Rayna James from the minute she called Conlee's "Rose Colored Glasses" the song that made her want to sing country music in the series' pilot.
Earl Thomas Conley Same last name (with a slightly different spelling), more or less same fate -- though I doubt that he'll ever get name-dropped on Nashville. Between 1981 and 1989, 17 of his 19 singles topped the country chart (the other two peaked at No. 2), and "Fire and Smoke," the first of his 18 No.1s (the most by any artist on any Billboard chart in the '80s), was the No. 1 country song of 1981. Still, it's been years since I've seen Conley's name anywhere other than on the display screen of my iPod.
Gene Watson Who else can sing a song called "Nothing Sure Looked Good on You" (No. 4, 1980) and make it sound like the classiest declaration of love? Between the mid-'70s and mid-'80s, Watson had a hit list as sturdy as any second-tier country star, and among country buffs only, he's a gold-star legend. Astonishingly, he hit the top spot only once, with 1981's "Fourteen Carat Mind," which went where Kanye West would go with "Golddigger" 21 years earlier.
Johnny Rodriguez He was one of two Latino country superstars in the 1970s (the other being the late Freddy Fender), but his string of hits are mostly unsung today, and only true students of country music probably would immediately identify them with Rodriguez. Even 1974's "That's the Way Love Goes," his signature song and his third straight No. 1, is probably more closely associated with Merle Haggard, who took it back to the top in 1984. (Fun fact: Rodriguez had a No. 7 hit with "We Believe in Happy Endings" in 1978, 10 years before the aforementioned Earl Thomas Conley and Emmylou Harris took it to the summit.)
Ricky Skaggs During the '80s, his bluegrass-flavored country was too twangy for my then-pop-leaning taste. Now that I'm older and wiser, no country act is in heavier rotation on my iPod. His version of the Everly Brothers' "I Wonder If I Care As Much" (which, sadly, is not on YouTube) could make a heart of stone bleed.
Moe Bandy Currently Skaggs' closest country competition for supremacy on my Top 25 Most Played iPod playlist.
Lynn Anderson Her heyday was a little before my time, so for years I didn't realize there was more to her than "Rose Garden," her 1970 No. 1 country hit that went to No. 3 on Billboard's Hot 100. But her run of hits in the early '70s made her the only woman giving Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn a run for the country-queen throne at the time. Today, everyone remembers her signature song, but how many of them know who sang it?
Donna Fargo I can't believe how long it took me to warm up to her. When I was a kid, my mother had Fargo's debut album, Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A., and I'd cringe every time she'd stick it into the 8-track player. What was I thinking? Like Dolly Parton, Fargo wrote most of her '70s hits (six of which topped the country chart), and she, too, had her town TV show, but she lacked Parton's outsized image, and being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 1978 curtailed her music career. I still haven't totally warmed up to "Funny Face," her biggest hit (No. 1 country, No. 5 pop, in 1972), but more than any country song I can think of at the moment, "Happiest Girl in the U.S.A." (No. 1 country, No. 11 pop, in 1972) epitomizes the glow of love. Brilliant!
Sammi Smith How unheralded was the woman who had a huge crossover hit in 1971 with "Help Me Make It Through The Night" (No. 1 country, No. 8 pop)? She died in 2005 at age 61, and I didn't even know about it until several years later.
Margo Smith So this ace yodeler didn't have as many hits as some of the others on the list (though "Don't Break the Heart That Loves You" and "It Only Hurts for a Little While" were back-to-back No. 1s in 1977/78). When all the guys (John Conlee, Jerry Lee Lewis, Conway Twitty, and others) were singing about mid-life crises (sort of a taboo topic for women, who were supposed to keep their age a secret), Smith was the one woman with the balls to tackle it head on (on 1979's "Still a Woman," one of my favorite songs in any genre), for which I'll be eternally grateful.
Crystal Gayle Maybe it was the hair, or her big sister Loretta Lynn. Both always seemed to upstage her music, despite the fact that Gayle had one of country's biggest crossover hits of the '70s in 1978 with "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue" (No. 1 country, No. 2 pop). She had 17 other No. 1s on the country chart -- in total, two more than Loretta, who had to share five of hers with Conway Twitty -- some of them ("You Never Miss a Real Good Thing," "Talking in Your Sleep," "It's Like We Never Said Goodbye"), the best songs the genre has produced, but how often do you hear her name today?
Dottie West Best known for her hit duets with Kenny Rogers, West was country when country wasn't cool. And by the time it was, in the late '70s and early '80s, she had reinvented herself as the Madonna of the genre, several years before Madonna, when West was already well into her 40s. Blooming late never sounded or looked as good as it did on wild wild West.