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The Wild Side of Life

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A.P. Carter, patriarch of the Carter Family, the first family of country music, spent much of his adult life combing the hills and hollers of the Blue Ridge Mountains and beyond for songs. Many of the songs he found are among the classics that took the music he cherished out of those hills and hollers to the wider world beyond.

One of the songs A.P. found was called “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” which the Carter Family recorded in 1929. The song was a hit for the Carters, and it was one of four different titles and four different sets of lyrics, each one recorded by four different members of the Country Music Hall of Fame, that were set to the same tune.

The most famous version of the melody is the one Hank Thompson recorded in 1952 as “The Wild Side of Life,” which stayed at number one on the Billboard country charts for an astounding 15 weeks. The genesis of the song goes back to when William Warren, a musician and songwriter in Cameron, spied his wife at a honky-tonk, spending time with a man who wasn’t him. Using the melody A.P. Carter found somewhere in the hills, Warren went home and wrote the lyrics to the song, including the iconic chorus:

I didn’t know God made

honky-tonk angels

I might have known

you’d never make a wife

You gave up the only one

that ever loved you

And went back to

the wild side of life.

That wasn’t the first time someone put different lyrics to the old Carter Family tune. Eight years after the Carters recorded “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” Roy Acuff heard the same tune but with different lyrics from a band called The Black Shirts. Acuff recorded the song as “The Great Speckled Bird,” a song inspired by the 12th chapter and 9th verse of the Book of Jeremiah. The song was Acuff’s biggest hit, and it became his signature song, just as “Wild Side of Life” was Hank Thompson’s signature song.

When Warren scribbled down his anguished lyrics he set them to the tune of “The Great Speckled Bird,” which, of course, was set to the tune of “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes” which probably came over from somewhere across the sea before A.P. Carter found it. The tune was universal enough to support lyrics from the Bible and the honky-tonk alike.

Jimmy Heap and his band the Melody Masters, from Taylor, recorded “The Wild Side of Life” on the Imperial label. The band’s piano player, Arlie Carter, is credited as the song’s co-writer. The Melody Masters’ version sold about 10,000 copies before Hank Thompson picked it up as the “B” side of his single “Crying in the Deep Blue Sea.”

The “A” side didn’t get much response, so disc jockeys tried playing the “B” side. Fifteen weeks later they were still playing it more than any other song in the rotation. Songwriter J.D. Miller heard the song on his car radio and immediately wrote lyrics for a female response to the song called “It Wasn’t God (Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels)” and submitted the lyrics to Decca Records, which contacted Kitty Wells about recording it.

Ms. Wells, semi-retired at the time, was less than enthusiastic but her husband convinced her to record it anyway since she would be paid a session fee for stepping into the studio. Her song, still set to the melody A.P. Carter found in the hills somewhere a long time ago, took over the top spot on the country charts, stayed there for six weeks and became the first record by a female artist with sales of more than a million copies.

Since then, artists as diverse as Bill Haley and His Comets, Burl Ives, Ernest Tubb, Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings, Moe Bandy, Willie Nelson (with Leon Russell), Bonnie Tyler and many others have recorded the song.

All of which proves what musicians and listeners have known for a long time — A.P. Carter knew a good tune when he heard one.

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