Normally, Closet Classics would feature an album but I think this song deserves its own CC feature. “The Wild Side of Life” is a classic country song, which alienates most of the music snobs instantly. It’s great to see that country has finally become accessible, songwriters in the UK are admitting to being influenced by it and it’s hard to believe now that for decades the genre was seen as a bad joke.
This song played a huge part in my childhood. Country music has always been popular in Scotland. I’ve got a few theories about that, but I’m sure the sociologists and musicologists can give you much better-researched explanations; here’s a personal perspective.
In 60s and 70s Scotland there was a great tradition of families and friends gathering (usually after the pubs closed, which was 10 o’clock in those days) to sing songs and tell jokes, and maybe have a wee dram or two. Most of the songs were country: “Crying Time”, “Please Help Me I’m Falling”, “From a Jack to a King”, “He’ll Have to Go” and the occasional standard like “Summertime”. Everyone had their own song which they performed at every session. I’m guessing that they picked up those songs from American Forces Network (AFN) radio, American military bases and artists playing in working men’s and ex-servicemen’s clubs. However they did it, they learned those songs and passed them on in the age-old oral tradition. A lot of those songs made it on to the club circuit because you didn’t have to be a great guitar player to do passable job of supporting your voice with a few chords on an acoustic guitar to sell a good song; depending on your vocal range, you could get by with C, F and G at a push. Some combinations of those letters might have even helped you with hecklers.
So why “The Wild Side of Life”? Really simple, it was one of my grandad’s songs and he could really sing (and he fought in a world war, got shot, went to New York, and won a Fife Junior Cup football medal as well); when you grow up hearing a great song delivered with feeling by someone with a good voice, then it’s going to stick for life. And you’ve probably guessed that there was a bit of hero-worship in there as well. So the song was stuck in my consciousness and it wasn’t going away and, although the early 70s seemed to be a country-free zone on the surface (apart from the schlock that made the UK charts), my favourite singers and songwriters (Neil Young and Jackson Browne, for example) were heavily influenced by country singers; Neil Young even covered “Oh, Lonesome Me”. Towards the end of the 70s, it became acceptable to like “The Wild Side of Life” when it was covered by such rock tastemakers as Status Quo and Rod Stewart, but I was there way before all of those denim boys and feather cut fancy dans because I loved the original.
The classic version of the song, for me anyway, is the 1952 version by Hank Thompson, whose plaintive vocal perfectly matches the theme of loss in the song, but there are dozens of others by country artists before you even start to look at pop covers. The song even generated one of the earliest answer songs in Kitty Wells’ “Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”, which was also a No. 1 in 1952. As the 70s morphed into the 80s, more country acts crossed over into the mainstream and artists like Carlene Carter, Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash along with the bad boys like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Even angry young man Elvis Costello did an album of country covers and it was ok to admit that you always loved country music.
That should have been the end of the story, but there was still another twist. When I moved to London and worked with people whose parents came to the UK from the Caribbean, I discovered that they grew up listening to the same music that I had listened to as a kid in a Fife mining village. Now, that was a weird sensation; discovering a completely unsuspected common musical heritage with friends from a completely different background and maybe that says something about music being able to break down all sorts of barriers. Of course, the whole idea of country being big in the Caribbean in the 50s is old news now that Trevor Nelson has spoken about it, but it came as quite a shock at the time.
As for the song, well, whenever I pick up a guitar and start playing, it usually manages to poke its head in there and it’s a challenge to try to find a musical style you can’t fit it into. And it’s such a great song that it can make a mediocre player and singer sound reasonable. What more do you want?