Country singer best known for 'Blanket on the Ground' hit


BILLIE JO SPEARS: BILLIE JO Spears, the American country singer probably best known for her version of Blanket on the Ground,has died of cancer aged 74. She was still touring earlier this year, playing on the same bill as her friend, Irish country star Philomena Begley.

Her 1975 recording of Blanket on the Ground, a wife’s warm invitation to her husband to blow on old flames – “just because we are married, don’t mean we can’t slip around” – was hugely popular and much played on radio in many countries, including Ireland. It featured on the soundtrack of the 1978 film Convoy. Country music fans maintained it was one of those songs that perfectly encapsulated what reticent lovers really wanted to say to each other.

It was followed in 1976 by What I’ve Got in Mind(“is making love to you”) which was also an international hit. She returned to the theme of passion remembered and rekindled in 1978 with ‘57 Chevrolet, recalling nights spent at drive-in picture shows, parking and necking. Her reputation as a sexy country star was maintained with her revival, in 1981, of Tammy Wynette’s Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad.

Spears grew up in a blue-collar family in Beaumont, Texas, and made her first public appearance as a singer at the age of 13. Encouraged by the songwriter and talent scout Jack Rhodes, she appeared on the Louisiana Hayride show, which attracted the interest of the Abbott label, for which she made some singles. An early sign of her career direction may be spied in her recording (under the name Billie Jo Moore) Too Old for Toys, Too Young for Boys.

In 1964 she tried her luck in Nashville, where she recorded for United Artists and Capitol. She first broke into the country music top 10 in 1969 with Mr Walker It’s All Over,a secretary’s lament disenchanted with life in Manhattan and a lascivious boss, set to an arrangement that was not accidentally reminiscent of the previous year’s most controversial song, Jeannie C Riley’s Harper Valley PTA,which Spears had covered.

She recorded further “issue” songs such as Pittsburgh General,about working as a nurse, Stepchild, about an abuse victim and Marty Gray, the story of a young girl’s unwanted pregnancy, with its deathless opening lines:

“Big Jimmy Baker and Marty Gray met at a teenage party;

Jimmy took Marty to school next day both of them were tardy.”

Spears was first exposed to European audiences in 1970 on a tour by a Capitol Country Caravan, but over the next few years she experienced problems with her vocal cords and lost her contract. Signing again with United Artists and working with the producer Larry Butler re-established her in the industry.

Although songs such as Blanket on the Groundwere seen by some as country-pop compromises – in the term of the day “countrypolitan” – Spears was voted most promising female vocalist in 1976 by the conservative Academy of Country Music.

She was in no doubt about her country credentials. “I have no desire to be a pop artist,” she said. “I couldn’t go pop with a mouthful of firecrackers.”

She made 30 albums, four of which went gold, the last of which was in 2005.

She was married five times.

Billie Jo Spears: born January 14th, 1937; died December 14th.