Space Shuttle Columbia Explosion

CMT 1986

Country Music Television (CMT) conjures a very specific cluster of memories for me.  One crisp January morning in 1986, the CMT programming was interrupted when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded just after takeoff.

I like listening to background music when I work.  As a senior in high school, I would have Country Music Television (CMT) playing while doing math homework.  My three favorite videos were “Amarillo by Morning” by George Strait, “America” by Waylon Jennings, and “Pancho and Lefty” by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.  It turns out that these three tunes were written by lesser known artists in the early 1970s.

One crisp January day in 1986, the CMT programming was interrupted when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded just after takeoff.  My recollection is not precise; however, my gut tells me that one of these three songs was playing when the news broke.  So, to this day, whenever I hear these three songs, it takes me right back to Mr German’s Upper School Sixth Form Hall TV Room at The Hill School in Pottstown PA.

While doing a bit of background research for this post, I discovered that “Amarillo by Morning” was written by Terry Stafford and Paul Fraser and first recorded by Stafford in 1973.  I believe I first heard it performed by George Strait at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in 1983 or 1984, and I loved it instantly.  Besides the obvious Texas connection, It’s one of those songs that catapults me into a fantasy where I’m the one living the words being sung.  Phrases like: “I’ll be lookin’ for 8 when they pull that gate, and I hope that judge ain’t blind” might also have resonated with me as I was on the threshold of my adult life adventure and hoping that others would take notice of me and my talents.

Waylon Jennings was about 49 years old, my age now, when “America” was getting CMT play time.  I remember thinking to myself that ol’Waylon really seemed old sitting there strumming his six string in front of some old country gas station.  Now, 50 doesn’t seem as old as it used to.  Since I had just finished enrolling in the Naval ROTC program, the song’s red white and blue patriotism resonated with me especially.  The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster deepens this patriotic sentiment even further.  Coincidentally, “America” was also written and recorded in 1973 by a fellow named Sammy Johns.

“Pancho and Lefty,” written and recorded by Townes Van Zandt in the early 1970s, was a big smash hit for Willie and Merle in the early 1980s.  The captivating video suggests a vague story about an outlaw bandito named Pancho being pursued by Lefty, an American bounty hunter.  Pancho escapes from the law only to be found dead eventually.  The escapade fades into Mexican legend as Lefty ages anonymously in America’s frigid rust belt.  Townes Van Zandt makes a several cameo appearances in the video — first as a Mexican federale and towards the end strumming his guitar and singing the song’s chorus as Willie, Merle, and a bunch of friends play dominoes in a Texas diner.  Curiously, Townes never provided much substantive background about this song.  Probably for the best.