I have a warm place in my vinyl nerd heart for ’70s AM Gold. We’re talking about singer-songwriter-dominated hits that told a story and mostly came from the folk, country, and soft-rock section of the record store. These tunes once played forever on terrestrial AM radio.
Is this music kinda cheesy? Yep, I think so. But it means you are alive. Feeling something.
For me, that music is attached to long car rides with my parents while traveling all over upstate New York as a wee lad. Half-choice and half-circumstance, the music came through at a time in which a cassette player in the car was not in the familial budget. So we were at the mercy of the car radio, and somehow, all the stations had Todd Rundgren and Carole King warm vibes. Black radio stations were nowhere to be found driving in the sticks, making those dead-zones a time for my youngster’s ear to explore.
Gordon Lightfoot, the Canadian singer-songwriter, seemed to command this radiophonic space. As soon as we hit the Adirondacks, there was Mr. Lightfoot, entering the chat. A nuclear Black family traveling in a Subaru wagon got the Lightfoot-friendly holler. It consisted of a brief, two to four minute ditty about trains, ships going down, waterways, interstates, lovers, and loneliness.
My man was knee-deep in his feelings, and all types of folks loved him for that prolific connection.
Lightfoot passed away on May 1 at the age of 84, and is credited with helping to define the folk-pop sound of the 1960s and 1970s. He is often referred to as Canada’s greatest songwriter.
How powerful was his AM radio grip?
When DJ Premier, one of hip hop’s greatest producers, gave a salute on Twitter to the late great writer of all types of wrecks, you knew old Gordon had a certain way with that soft-rock energy.
Allow us to break down some Lightfoot hits. Dude was kinda epic.
Sometimes I think it’s a sin When I feel like I’m winning when I’m losing again
In 1974, “Sundown” became his biggest hit. He documents a thing that is no longer a thang, groovy in that folkie type of twang. According to Marc Myers’ book Anatomy of 55 More Songs, the song is about jealousy and a failing relationship. Cathy Smith, the song’s unnamed subject, pleaded no contest to fatally injecting comedian John Belushi with heroin and cocaine in Hollywood in 1982 and served 15 months in prison. She passed away in August of 2020.
Isn’t it always the blues that gives the most thump?
IF YOU COULD READ MY MIND (1970)
If I could read your mind, love What a tale your thoughts could tell
Just like a paperback novel The kind the drugstore sells
Everything that comes with soft-rock royalty. Acoustic guitar, dramatic violins, and plenty of songwriter remorse. It’s a story about a failing relationship—do we see a pattern here?—that somehow feels like a comfort blanket in the middle of a blizzard. It’s repentant, not resentful.
Carefree Highway (1974)
Picking up the pieces of my sweet shattered dream
Homeboy kicks off the song with that line.
Wow. Who else would say, “We’re going to start it here.”
That takes stones. Snowball-sized onions, Jack.
But you can do it when you’re making earworms: Crunchy acoustic guitar lines between verses, two and three-part harmonies in the background, and syrupy strings to set the mood.
Another broken relationship fueling yet another inescapable—Lightfoot in the zone, for sure—hit song that did, in fact, chase “Sundown” up the charts.