To those who remember only the singles “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.” and “Funny Face”, it may come as a surprise to learn that Donna Fargo is still out there performing. She’ll be performing at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville this month as part of a tribute to Kitty Wells. She also has released To the Love of my Life: A Collection of Love Poems, has her own line of greeting cards, and has recorded a ton of albums (none of which appear to be available in their entirety on CD at this writing). Since her more recent work has been done for a variety of labels outside the Universal Group, there is little on The Millennium Collection to change that perception. Covering the albums The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A., My Second Album, All about a Feeling, Miss Donna Fargo, and Whatever I Say Means I Love You, this collection is a good starting point for those not familiar with Fargo’s work or who want to hear her early hits presented in all their glory.
It’s easy to laugh now, but in 1972 Fargo was writing songs (all but two of the songs on this collection were penned by her) that fit completely into country music playlists yet managed to get into the top of the pop charts as well. The Southern California English teacher known as Yvonne Vaughn went to Nashville with her husband during a school break and recorded demos of four songs. She had already chosen the name Donna Fargo as a stage name. But the success of her song “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.” surprised even her. The public was entranced by the sound of her songs, country music that portrayed happy wives and happy families, people working hard and trying to make a good life for themselves and their families. Instead of the classic country themes of drinking, hard living, and cheating, Fargo portrayed a life that was much like her own and, not coincidentally, that of many of her listeners. Tapping the same vein of positive thinking, strength, and empowerment that propels the career of country fixture Reba McEntire, Fargo rode the wave to the top of the charts. While many of her songs after “Happiest Girl” only made it into the lower third of the pop Top 100, they routinely charted at or near the top of the country charts, and many made serious stands on the adult contemporary charts as well.
Beyond the well-known “Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.” and “Funny Face” (which was her husband’s nickname for her), the songs are, overall, solid country songwriting. By the time of her second album Fargo was opening for Roy Clark in Las Vegas and had given up teaching, moving, with her husband, to Nashville. “Superman” is a humorous female empowerment song. “Men have their own unique way of looking at things,” says Fargo. “It was my little rebellion with my feeling of ‘Hey, get off my back!’ that we all go through in a relationship.”
“You Were Always There” is a tearjerker about missing a parent who is no longer there and feeling that we took them for granted. The song, about Fargo’s mother who passed away in her fifties, is one everyone can relate to, no matter how cynical. “What would you do differently if you could live again / And are you glad that you gave life to me?” Fargo asks, and only a loser will resist the urge to pull out the Kleenex. “Little Girl Gone” is another song about growing up and leaving home, spryer and a little less regretful, but still tinged with melancholy. “I’ll Try a Little Bit Harder” from All About a Feeling is about giving a troubled relationship another try. Curiously it made #6 on the country charts but was one of her few early hits not to make the pop charts at all. Maybe it sounded too much like traditional country for the casual listener, but lyrically it fits with Fargo’s other songs and their view of marriage and relationships as something generally worth the effort. “I don’t think I’d beg you to stay / But I’ll try a little bit harder if you will / And if you think we’re worth trying to save” goes the chorus. Putting equal responsibility on her partner, Fargo was ahead of the country music curve.
Fargo’s cover of Marty Cooper’s “You Can’t Be a Beacon (If Your Light Don’t Shine)” from her album Miss Donna Fargo is pure country-gospel and it’s easy to hear Dolly Parton singing this in the ‘80s or the Dixie Chicks today. This one scored #57 on the pop chart and #14 on the adult contemporary chart (#1 country, of course), so it was clearly inspirational to many during the trying days of 1974, when Richard Nixon became the country’s first president to resign. That same album included the song “U.S. of A”, a patriotic showstopper that features the following spoken section: “As a citizen of my country / I believe it is my duty to obey your laws / To try to be a worthy individual, a positive example / And a productive and responsible citizen. To be informed and concerned about our nation’s affairs / And to voice my beliefs constructively. To practice diligently an attitude of brotherly love / And hold no hatred against anyone. And when one of my brothers makes a mistake / Be he peasant or president / I will try to treat him as I would want to be treated / With compassion and understanding. And I will be proud to continue to pay taxes for the opportunity to live in the greatest nation in the world”.
Sounds good, but then Fargo goes on to talk about the nation’s faith in God, getting her into the same hot water as the Pledge of Allegiance. Not that she cares, I’m sure. This is an artist who includes tributes to teachers and truckers on her website. And, after all, “it’s a skippidy-doo-dah-day”.