My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

When the dead roam the country charts: posthumous hits and manufactured “duets”

brad paisleyWhen Brad Paisley’s Wheelhouse was released last week, everybody was talking about “Accidental Racist”, the controversial duet with LL Cool J. Late night shows like Saturday Night Live and The Colbert Report were merciless in taking apart the song’s misguided message. And the discussion isn’t likely to be over anytime soon.

Another track on the album stood out to me too. “Outstanding In Our Field” features guest vocals from Dierks Bentley and the late Roger Miller, and Hunter Hayes on guitar. Miller’s contribution is used mostly to beef up the rhythm section of Paisley’s latest loud party anthem list song.  Paisley’s track rips off the entire ten-second opening of Miller’s “Dang Me” – the part where Roger sings  “boo doo boo ba ba bum bom” – but any similarities between the two songs ends with that sampling. If Paisley’s song charts, it could be Miller’s first showing on the Country Songs list since 1986.

Country music has a long history of singers hitting the charts after their deaths, with solo hits and with “duets” pieced together using studio master tapes. Hank Williams had 4 #1 hits and a handful of top 10’s after his death on New Year’s Day 1953. (Even though it was on the charts in 1952, because “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive” hit the top shortly after the singer’s death it is counted in Billboard as a posthumous hit.) In 1989, Hank Williams Jr. took a demo recording of his father singing “There’s a Tear In My Bear”, beefed up the production and added his own vocals to create a top 10 hit single, which would go on to win both Williamses a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Collaboration. The music video for that song featured old television footage of Hank Sr. performing merged with Hank Jr. and made for a cool illusion of the two singing together. It took home Video of the Year awards from the CMA and the ACM’s that year.

In May 1989, country music lost another great talent when Keith Whitley died. He too would hit the top spot after his death, with “I Wonder Do You Think of Me” and “It Ain’t Nothin'”. Whitley charted two more top 20 releases as a solo artist after his death, and two more in duets with wife Lorrie Morgan – “Til a Tear Becomes a Rose” – and with Earl Thomas Conley, on “Brotherly Love”. Unlike the duet with his widow, Whitley and Conley had recorded their song two years before, so it’s not an example of an electronic duet.

Gentleman Jim Reeves is country music’s biggest posthumous hit-maker. His string of hits after death is as impressive as what he charted during his lifetime. Reeves racked up 6 #1 country hits after he died in 1964, as well 13 top 10s, and over two dozen total country top 40 chart outings stretching to 1984 – two full decades later. He also consistently hit the top 10 on the charts in Norway and the U.K., Reeves even topped the U.K. singles chart with “Distant Drums” in 1966. Partly because of his continued popularity on the radio and in the record stores, Jim Reeves was also one of the first artists to have his vocals isolated and then remixed with another singer’s to form a duet. In 1979, Deborah Allen kickstarted her short solo career when she contributed to RCA’s unfinished master tapes of Reeves – which resulted in  3 consecutive top 10 hit duets. The Gentleman was then paired with his contemporary Patsy Cline – the two had recorded a number of the same songs – for a pair of albums on MCA and RCA, and they hit the top 5 with “Have You Ever Been Lonely” in 1982.

Those are just some highlights in country music’s history of posthumous duet creations. There are lots more, and some weren’t as well-received. Anita Cochran controversially added Conway Twitty to her “I Wanna Hear a Cheatin’ Song” in 2004. Several other artists and even the late singer’s family spoke out when Twitty’s vocals were spliced from former performances and interviews and added to the song, in what has correctly been called a case of “musical necrophilia“.

roger millerIs Paisley guilty of the same musical necrophilia? I say he is. Unlike all the hit duet creations I mentioned above, Conway Twitty and Roger Miller didn’t record a version of either “I Wanna Hear a Cheatin’ Song” or “Outstanding In Our Field”. These are songs that were written years after their deaths. And while Brad Paisley’s sampling of Roger Miller’s distinct and well-known song opening  works better as an homage than Anita Cochran’s creepy robotic-sounding creation, it still seems like a cutesy way of paying tribute to Miller. How about covering “England Swings” or “Old Toy Trains”? Or better yet, why not write an original song that sounds like it was inspired by Roger Miller?

Roger Miller is not here today to say whether or not he’d like to add his trademark scatting to a song all about a party in a field, with a tractor tire as a cooler for the beer and a bonfire to light up the night. A song with all the subtlety and charm of a drill sergeant at six a.m.  Roger Miller – a man renowned for his quick wit and quips like “Some people walk in the rain, others just get wet.” – would likely object to it. But that’s not really my call to make. None of us – music blogger or platinum-selling country star – should be making that call for Roger Miller.  Dang you, Brad Paisley. Dang you.

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6 responses to “When the dead roam the country charts: posthumous hits and manufactured “duets”

  1. Ken Johnson April 19, 2013 at 9:50 am

    Hank Williams, Jr.’s duets with his father date back to the mid-1960’s. Contemporary backing tracks and Jr.’s vocals were added to two dozen of Sr.’s recordings and issued on two albums, “Father And Son” (1965) and “Again” (1966) Considering audio technology was primitive compared to today’s standards the results were quite good. No singles were released.

    Jim Reeve’s widow, Mary deserves much of the credit for her judicious management of her late husbands master recordings after his death. Unreleased demo recordings received new backing tracks and thanks to multi-track technology previously released recordings received updated instrumental tracks as vocals could be easily isolated. Jim’s smooth voice never sounded dated so producers Chet Atkins, Jerry Bradley and Bud Logan just needed to create contemporary sounding musical arrangements to frame Jim’s vocals to make them acceptable to the current audience. The Deborah Allen duets repurposed three previously released solo recordings. “Oh How I Miss You Tonight” & “Take Me In Your Arms And Hold Me” were from the 1960 album “The Intimate Jim Reeves” (RCA Victor LSP-2216) and “Don’t Let Me Cross Over” was from a 1963 budget album “Good ‘N’ Country” (RCA Camden CAS-784) The two Jim Reeves & Patsy Cline duets, “Have You Ever Been Lonely (Have You Ever Been Blue)” and “I Fall To Pieces” were previously released as solos by each artist. Luckily they were recorded in the same key as AutoTune was not yet invented in June 1981 when Bradley produced them. Two albums were issued, one on RCA and another on MCA but each album contained just one duet with the remaining tracks devoted to Jim or Patsy solo efforts.

    J.R – Because Roger Miller had such a quirky sense of humor I actually think he would get a kick out of his recording being used in the Paisley song. The first time I met Brad Paisley was in early 1999 when he was on a radio station tour to promote his first single. An extremely friendly & likable guy Brad played a few songs on his guitar for our staff in the conference room and told some funny stories. What struck me at time was that his quick wit and clever songs reminded me of Roger Miller. Your comments made me recall that day. Paisley is a great candidate for a Roger Miller tribute album.

  2. Ben Foster April 19, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    I tend to agree with you, J.R. I don’t have a problem with duets being created from songs a deceased artist recorded during his lifetime, and I enjoy such duets as “Have You Ever Been Lonely” and “‘Til a Tear Becomes a Rose.” I also enjoy the version of “Lovesick Blues” on which Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Tammy Wynette added their vocals to Patsy Cline’s recording for the Honky Tonk Angels project.

    But I think an artist should have a say in whether he wants his name associated with a particular song, and they can’t make that call after they die. Thus, creating a duet out of a song an artist recorded while still alive is one thing, but I think adding his vocals to a song that he never recorded should be a no-no, and I consider it distasteful of Paisley to do such with Miller’s voice. It appears Roger Miller is even listed as a co-writer on “Outstanding In Our Field,” which is an added step too far in my book.

    That aside, Anita Cochran’s “I Wanna Hear a Cheatin’ Song” is, on its own merits, beyond creepy.

  3. Paul W Dennis April 19, 2013 at 9:20 pm

    Interesting discussion this far. I tend to agree with Ken on this one – I think that Roger would have goten a kick out of what was done on Paisley’s album – it actually isn’t any different than the sampling that has been done by R&B and Hip Hop artists for several decades or for that matter what RCA did with several of Elvis Presley’s recordings

    Ben – adding Miller’s name to the song’s writing credits, shows both class and integrity on the part of Paisley as it also means that Miller’s estate gets its share of the royalties for the song

    On the other hand , I do think the Anita Cochran endeavor was a bridge too far

  4. Jonathan Pappalardo April 20, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    The adding of Miller’s name to the writing credits reminds of the whole idea of sampling from songs, which would make its own post in and of itself. Rihanna sampled from “I’ve Been Everywhere” on her “Where Have You Been” single and I figured no one would know enough to credit Geoff Mack but they did. So, I have no problem with sampling as long as the original songwriter is given the appropriate credit.

    “Outstanding In Our Field” as a song is terrible. Or at least the ACM performance (the only time I’ve heard it) made it so. I couldn’t even hear a chorus. So I’m not much of a fan of the song to begin with.

  5. J.R. Journey April 20, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    Good points, Ken and Paul.

    Ken, I’d say you’re correct, but Wikipedia tells a totally different story about the making of “I Fall To Pieces” as a Reeves/Cline duet. “As the two performances were recorded a semitone apart in key, subsequently, at Columbia Studios, Nashville, producers matched the keys for the two vocals, edited it all down and recorded the final onto still another 24-track tape onto which they added new orchestration, new backing tracks and remixed for stereo.”

    Also, according to Deborah Allen’s bio on her website, she first sang along to “unfinished master tapes” of Jim Reeves. I didn’t know she was added on to previously-released singles. Thanks for the correction.

    I could be dead wrong in my opinion that Roger Miller wouldn’t like Paisley’s song. He may have loved it. Might be thrilled to be on it, and he may have even served as a mentor to Paisley if he had lived. (And Johnny Cash may very well have been a John McCain supporter.) But I still say it’s disrespectful to any person to speak for or through them after they’ve left this world. To me, Paisley’s addition of Miller to his song is a lot like the assholes who keep driving past a funeral procession.

    I’m not a fan of sampling classic songs either – whether it’s Rihanna, Kid Rock, or Brad Paisley doing it. I see it as a disservice to both the original artist and their musical legacy. Especially in this case because if (or when) the Brad Paisley song charts, it will forever be the last chart entry in Roger Miller’s discography.

    And I do think it was a nice gesture to add Roger Miller to the songwriter credits on this song.

  6. Leeann Ward April 20, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    I don’t have a problem with sampling, but I do have a problem with manufactured duets such as the unofficial Alison Krauss/Keith duet.

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