The ‘Proto-Taylor Swift’: Skeeter Davis’ Country Roots and Pop Evolution

In the early days of recorded music, country (often called “hillbilly music”) had often crossed over to a mainstream pop audience. In the mid-’50s, though, Nashville producers began making a concerted effort for crossover appeal, loading records with strings, restraining vocalists’ rural accents, and focusing on songs (often ballads) with a smooth, sleek sound.

Even among the mainstream-courting Nashville sound, however, Skeeter Davis’s records from the early to mid-’60s stand out for their blatant pop appeal, borrowing heavily from the era’s girl-group sound and often relying on songs penned by Brill Building songwriters like Gerry Goffin and Carole King.

Playback Records’ reissue of Davis’s 1964 LP Let Me Get Close to You — available on CD for the first time outside of Japan — fleshes out the album’s original dozen songs with an additional 13 bonus tracks from 1962-1965, painting the definitive portrait of Davis’s girl-pop era.

Davis (born Mary Frances Penick) first began performing in the late 1940s as a member of the country duo the Davis Sisters, alongside her high school classmate Betty Jack Davis. In 1953, shortly after releasing the country chart-topper (and Top 20 pop hit) “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” a car accident left Betty Jack dead and Skeeter seriously injured.

When Skeeter re-emerged as a solo performer later in the decade, producer Chet Atkins (often credited as the architect of the Nashville sound) hit on the idea of double-tracking her vocals to evoke the old Davis Sisters sound. With 1957’s “Lost to a Geisha Girl,” Davis started a string of solo country hits, two of which also managed to cross over into the pop Top 40.

No one, however, could have been prepared for the success of her 1962 single “The End of the World.” Toeing the line between the Nashville sound and girl-pop, the teary ballad soared to #2 on the pop and country charts, #1 on the easy-listening chart, and even #4 on the R&B chart, becoming the only record ever — to this very day — to make the Top 10 on all four of those charts.

It also inaugurated a new, decidedly more youthful sound for Davis. Never mind that she was already in her 30s by this point (note the crow’s feet on the cover of Let Me Get Close to You) and had already been recording for a decade: Davis was now one of teen pop’s biggest stars.

Playback’s edition of Let Me Get Close to You includes “The End of the World” as well as its follow-up “I’m Saving My Love,” a country-pop ballad with a bolero flair that just missed the pop Top 40. Davis had better luck with her next release, the perky Goffin-King composition “I Can’t Stay Mad at You,” which borrowed from Neil Sedaka’s hit “Breaking Up is Hard to Do.”

“I Can’t Stay Mad at You” was another Top 10 pop hit, Davis’s first to perform better on the Hot 100 than the country charts. The song became one of three Goffin-King credits to appear on the original Let Me Get Close to You along with the title track and “Easy to Love (So Hard to Get),” the latter of which was released by the Chiffons the same year.

The reissue includes a fourth Goffin-King track, the 1964 single “Don’t Let Me Stand in Your Way,” as well as “What Am I Gonna Do With You,” a song Goffin co-wrote with Russ Titelman and which would also be recorded by Lesley Gore.

The Goffin and King tracks are among the standouts on Let Me Get Close to You, but they aren’t the only highlights. Davis’s breezy revival of the ‘50s standard “Gonna Get Along Without You Now” is arguably the best version of the tune, and was a Top 10 country and Top 50 pop hit.

Two of Davis’s Grammy-nominated performances, “He Says the Same Things to Me” and “Sun Glasses,” also make the cut. “Sun Glasses,” a mid-tempo summer song penned by John D. Loudermilk, particularly demonstrates Davis’ knack for selling sorrow (“sunglasses to cry behind”) without ever seeming maudlin or self-pitying.

Davis didn’t just sing; she also wrote songs, and a couple of her numbers pop up on Let Me Get Close to You. The album opens with the melancholic “Now I Lay Me Down to Weep,” a co-write between Davis and her sister Carolyn Penick. Carolyn’s “The Face of a Clown” also turns up in the bonus tracks, as does Skeeter’s “Somebody Else on Your Mind” and “Now You’re Gone,” the latter a co-write with Lorene Mann. Davis also stuck to her country cred, covering Dottie West’s “Didn’t I” and Johnny Tillotson’s “Another You,” as if proving she hadn’t gone entirely pop.

Keeping her country ties turned out to be for the best: Davis’s brief pop stardom waned soon after the release of Let Me Get Close to You, although she’d continue to make regular appearances on the country charts well into the ’70s.

Playback’s Let Me Get Close to You not only summarizes the best of Davis’s girl-pop years, it also posits her as a predecessor to Taylor Swift, as one of the rare country artists who can effortlessly pass through the boundaries between country and pop without losing either audience.

Get your copy of Skeeter Davis’ Let Me Get Close to You on Amazon!

About Sally O'Rourke 205 Articles
Sally O’Rourke works in an office and sometimes writes about music. She blogs about every song to ever top the Billboard Hot 100 (in order) at No Hard Chords. She has also contributed to The Singles Jukebox, One Week // One Band, and PopMatters. Special interests include girl groups, soul pop, and over-analyzing chord changes and lyrics as if deciphering a secret code. She was born in Baton Rouge and lives in Manhattan. Her favorite Nugget is “Liar, Liar” by The Castaways.
  • mr bradley

    Big Skeeter Davis fan here. I’ve got 14 of her 45’s and this album in my collection. Great to see the LP being reissued domestically on CD, along with bonus material.

    My two favorite non-single album cuts are “My Sweet Loving Man” and “”Ladder Of Success.” Both songs are infectious cotton candy pop at its best. Skeeter was so good at this stuff, with just the sweetest little twang in her vocals.

    Just missing the cut for this compilation is her stunning nod to folk-rock from February 1966 entitled “Don’t Anybody Need My Love.” The single is a lost classic of the genre & available for listening on YouTube. Well worth checking out.