In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re talking about great songs by non-musicians.
Vicki Lawrence, “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia” (1973)
As a child of the ’70s, I grew up surrounded by the story-song. Usually one-hit wonders, these sagas featured entire storylines from first verse to final chorus. So on the mostly AM, occasionally FM radio, ’70s kids like myself were treated to dramatic ditties like “Wildfire” (girl goes after horse, gets lost), “Run Joey Run” (girl’s crazed father goes after her boyfriend, shoots her instead), “Seasons In The Sun” (dying guy says goodbye to father, friend, girl), and “Angie Baby” (um, disturbed girl sucks unwanted suitors into her radio?).
Most of these were fairly straightforward (even “Angie Baby”) but not so with “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia.” There are a lot of characters thrown around, with Andy, and wives, and sisters, and an unfair justice system, and the hanging of an innocent man (fortunately, we get most of this from the chorus). A look at the complete lyrics reveal that the song is about a man who comes home after being out of town. He runs into his friend Andy, who tells him his wife has been unfaithful, and “to tell you the truth, I’ve been with her myself.” Later the betrayed man heads out to Andy’s house with a gun, only to find him already dead, and is hanged for the murder. In the last verse, we chillingly find out the real killer: It’s the narrator, the husband’s sister, who killed both her sister-in-law and her boyfriend. We don’t really find out why she takes such an interest in her brother’s love life, just that “Little sister don’t miss when she aims her gun.”
This convoluted plot didn’t stop the song from becoming an out-and-out smash, and the No. 11 Billboard single in 1973, by far the hugest hit ever for The Carol Burnett Show star Vicki Lawrence. No one can accuse Lawrence of not being opportunistic: She landed her gig on Carol Burnett by writing the show’s star and sending her clippings and photos that showed how much they resembled each other. Her then-husband Bobby Russell wrote “Georgia,” only to have Sonny Bono reject it for his then-wife Cher, thinking that it would anger her Southern fans. Lawrence, sensing a solid hit when she heard one, went off and recorded the song herself. Ironically, her album featuring the song also offered her weak version of Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps, And Thieves,” which is enough to make you think Cher is a goddamn genius.
Lawrence stayed with Carol Burnett for its duration, even leading the spinoff as Mama into Mama’s Family in the ’80s. And her most famous song also proved to have tremendous staying power. Reba McEntire’s version landed on the charts again in 1991. But few songs of this ilk can say that they inspired an entire movie, albeit loosely. The 1981 effort The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia offers post-Breaking Away Dennis Quaid as the brother, post-Family Kristy McNichol as the sister, and a post-Star Wars Mark Hamill as a state trooper. If you are a fan of any of those people, it’s an oddity worth checking out that falls somewhere in the so-bad-it’s-good category. The young, white-hot Quaid plays a rising country singer named Travis Child, and he and McNichol croon some onstage duets, with a few songs Quaid wrote himself. Unfortunately, none of the songs the two perform in the movie include the one the movie is named after: Tanya Tucker stepped in to record a revamped version for the soundtrack, with reworked lyrics for this story-song to fit the film’s altered plot.