Saturday, August 16, 2008

Juice Hails The Queen Of Hearts

There’s traditionally been a thin line between the country music scene and the mainstream pop charts. Since the pop music term was coined country artists have tried their luck on the big stage, some very successfully. Dolly Parton was arguably the female country artist who enjoyed the highest profile in pop music during the late 70s and early 80s, enjoying several crossover hits. But American country-pop singer Juice Newton challenged her for supremacy on the mainstream pop charts during the early 80s.

Born Judy Kay Newton, she was raised on a diet of folk-rock and country, being gifted her first guitar at age 13. After graduating from high school Newton began performing professionally, playing folk in various coffee houses and small club venues. It was during this period that she formed a creative partnership with guitarist/songwriter Otha Young. They formed a folk-rock band called Dixie Peach and became popular on the Californian folk-rock circuit.

Dixie Peach evolved into Juice Newton & Silver Spur (adding Tom Kealey to the mix), leaning more towards a straight country music sound. They scored a recording contract with R.C.A. in 1975, releasing their debut eponymous album soon after, featuring the minor country hit ‘Love Is A Word’. Two more albums followed, 1976’s ‘After The Dust Settles’ and 1978’s ‘Come To Me’, but both tanked and Silver Spur called it a day soon after.

Juice Newton retained a tenure with Capitol Records and continued her song writing partnership with Otha Young. Newton released her debut solo album later in 1978 with ‘Well Kept Secret’ Despite the minor mainstream hit ‘It’s A Heartache’ (US#86, #1 in Mexico) Newton remained a well kept secret to most, with another album ‘Take The Heart’ (1979) also failing to open the flood gates, despite minor flirtations with the country charts.

That would all change with the release of her 1981 album ‘Juice’ (US#22/OZ#46). The album featured a strong mix of country-pop numbers, with strong 60’s pop and even new wave roots rock undertones. The first single to break through on the pop charts was the majestic ballad ‘Angel Of The Morning’ (originally a top 10 hit for Merrilee Rush in 1968). Newton’s version climbed to #4 on the U.S. charts in early 1981, soon after soaring to #2 in Australia (UK#43). The follow up single would match ‘Angel Of The Morning’s performance in every respect. ‘Queen Of Hearts’ (written by Hank DeVito) had been a big hit for new wave blues rocker Dave Edmunds in Britain during 1979 (#11). Though Juice Newton missed the U.K. charts with her version, she did score the biggest hit of her career on the U.S. charts, ascending to #2 during mid ‘81, and rocketing to #8 in Australia, as well as the top 10 in Germany and Holland. The album ‘Juice’ yielded one more major hit on the pop charts with ‘The Sweetest Thing (I’ve Ever Known)’, the song peaking at #7 on the Hot 100 but also becoming Newton’s first #1 country hit in the process.

1982’s follow up album ‘Quiet Lies’ (US#20) proved a true hit as well, featuring Newton’s fourth straight top 10 pop hit ‘Love’s Been A Little Bit Hard On Me’ (US#7/OZ#90) with guitar provided by Andrew Gold (see earlier Wax post). The second single ‘Break It To Me Gently’ (remake of the Brenda Lee hit) broke the top 10 spell, only reaching #11 in the U.S., but it did gain Newton her one and only Grammy Award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. ‘Heart Of The Night’ was the third single, peaking at #25 on the Hot 100 pop chart late in 1982, and hinting that the pop world’s love affair with Juice Newton was starting to fade.

1983’s ‘Dirty Looks’ (US#52) fell well short of the bar set by Newton’s previous two albums, though the more rock oriented set did produce the top 30 hit ‘Tell Her No’ (US#27). 1984 saw Newton return to her original label R.C.A., resulting in the album ‘Can’t Wait All Night’ which not only missed the top 100 on the pop charts but only reached #42 on the country album charts. The album signalled Newton’s departure not only from the pop charts but from the pop-rock style of music, returning her to her country-folk roots. ‘A Little Love’ (US#44) and ‘Can’t Wait All Night’ (US#66 -written by Bryan Adams) marked a swansong effort on the Hot 100 charts for Juice Newton.

Newton’s return to the country fold was initially well received via the 1985 album ‘Old Flame’, which peaked at #12 on the country charts. But subsequent efforts ‘Old Flame’ (1987) and ‘Ain’t Gonna Cry’ (1989) were disappointments prompting Juice Newton to turn her back on the country scene. For a number of years she returned to performing pop-rock on the club circuit, combined with family duties and a keen interest in equestrian endeavours, and didn’t record any new material until 1998 when she reunited with her old producer John Landis for the album ‘The Trouble With Angels’, a mix of re-recorded previous hit with a few new songs thrown in. This was followed by the 1999 album ‘American Girl’. She has remained an active performer over the last decade, and has contributed tracks to a number of various artists compilations and tribute albums. Most recently Newton released the Christmas album ‘The Gift Of Christmas’ in 2007.

Artists such as Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes and Faith Hill would have to acknowledge a small debt of gratitude to the likes of Juice Newton, not necessarily for forging the crossover path between country and pop, but for helping to maintain that path during the 80s.

No comments: