Texas Trails

Clay Coppedge, Southern Livestock Standard

July 25, 2023

A timeless tune

A.P. Carter, patriarch of the first family of country music, the Carter family, 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 the 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 melody was a hit for the Carters, 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, and set to the same 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. 

The next person to get hold of the tune was William Warren, a musician and songwriter in Cameron who spied his wife at a honky-tonk one night with a man who was not him. Warren went home and wrote the lyrics to a new song called “The Wild Side of Life” which includes 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.” 

He set the lyrics to the tune of Acuff’s “The Great Speckled Bird,” which of course was the same tune as “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes.” Jimmy Heap and his band the Melody Masters, from Taylor, first 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.  

The song became a classic when Hank Thompson used it 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. “The Wild Side of Life” became Thompson’s signature song just as “The Great Speckled Bird” was Acuff’s.

Then songwriter J.D. Miller heard “The Wild Side of Life” on his car radio and immediately wrote lyrics for a femaleresponse to the song called “It Wasn’t God (Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels)” and submitted them to Decca Records, which contacted Kitty Wells about recording it.

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. 

So there you have it— four classic songs set to a timeless tune that has found a home in church choirs and honky-tonks alike. 

A.P. Carter sure knew a good tune when he heard one. 

Southern Livestock

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