My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Stanley Brothers

Album Review: Tom T. Hall – ‘The Magnificent Music Machine’

magnificent music machineAfter a string of successful albums and singles between 1971 and 1976 in which seven of his nine albums reached the Billboard Country Top Ten, and twelve of his singles reached the Billboard Top Ten Country Singles chart (six reached number one on Billboard), Tom T Hall decided that it was time to give proper airing to his bluegrass roots. The end result, The Magnificent Music Machine would prove to be both an artistic success and a chart success, with the album reaching number eleven and the only single released, “Fox On The Run” reaching number nine.

For this project, Tom called on a number of his bluegrass friends plus some other leading lights of the genre: Kenny Baker, Johnny Gimble and Buddy Spicher on fiddle; Gene Bush on slide dobro; Bobby Thompson and J.D. Crowe on banjo; Donna Stoneman (of the legendary Stoneman Family) and Jodi Drumright on mandolin; and Trish Williams, J.T. Gray, Art Malin, and Jimmy Martin (!) on harmony vocals To try to give the album some commercial appear, Nashville session stalwarts Buddy Harmon (drums), Henry Strezelecki and Bob Moore (bass) were added to the mix.

Up to this point in his career, Hall’s albums had been almost exclusively his own compositions. While Tom T would write five of the eleven songs on this album, six of the songs came from outside sources.

The album opens up with “Fox On The Run”, a song which was added to the bluegrass repertoire by the Bill Emerson of the Country Gentlemen, but which started life as a rock song for British group Manfred Mann. The song was written by Tony Hazzard, an English songwriter who wrote hits for The Hollies, Herman’s Hermits, The Yardbirds, The Tremeloes and Lulu. The song reached #5 on the UK pop charts in late 1968 (at least one of the UK charts had it reaching #1). Tom T’s version was a hard driving affair and after the wide radio exposure and sales of the album, the song would be forevermore bluegrass

S

he walks through the corn leading down to the river
Her hair shone like gold in the hot morning sun
She took all the love that a poor boy could give her
And left him to die like a fox on the run

John Prine’s “Paradise” (sometimes titled “Muhlenburg County”) follows, a nostalgic yet bitter mid-tempo song that decries the damage that the coal industry has done to the environment

Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man

And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg county
Down by the green river where paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

“Mama’s Got The Catfish Blues” is a Tom T Hall composition, written, he says, in the spirit of something Carter Stanley would have written. I’m not sure I’m hearing Carter Stanley in this particular song, but it’s a good song, one that also might have made a good single

There’s a turtle on the stump and the toadfrog jump
And I guess, I could gig me a few
In settlin’ fog I caught a big water dog
Mama’s got the catfish blues

I don’t like to see her unhappy
She treats me like a water tree
I hate to see mama with the catfish blues
And the catfish are layin’ in the river asleep

“Bluegrass Break-up” is a Charlie Williams composition, about the sadness of a bluegrass band that is disbanding:

Well, we’re finally breakin’ up our bluegrass band
And the thought of it is more than I can stand
But if parting is our one chance to survive
You’ll take the dobro and I’ll take the five.

Once our music tore the world apart
When we used to pick and sing it from the heart
But then dissension came into our lives
So you’ll take the dobro and I’ll take the five.

Once our world was harmony and fun
Wildwood Flower and ten-one mighty run
We can’t patch it up, we made too many tries
So you’ll take the dobro and I’ll take the five.

“I Don’t Want My Golden Slippers” is a religious song with the sound and feel of a church choir and a mostly acoustic guitar accompaniment. Although Tom T wrote this song, it truly sounds as if it could have been written a century before.

“Molly and Tenbrooks” is derived from an old folk tale about a horserace and was made famous and fashioned into a viable song by the ‘Father of Bluegrass’ Mr. Bill Monroe. On this recording Bill Monroe guests playing the mandolin to Tom’s vocals. Interestingly, Tom T reports that Monroe had to refresh himself on the mandolin part in order to play the song – he normally played guitar or just sang when performing this song!

“The Fastest Rabbit Dog In Carter County Today” is another Tom T Hall composition, this one an up-tempo romp about a rabbit hunt.

“I’ll Never Do Better Than You” also comes from T’s pen. One of the slower songs on the album, it expresses a depth of feeling that sometimes gets overlooked among the pyrotechnics of the genre

Tom’s late brother Hillman Hall, was an accomplished songwriter, although not in Tom T’s class, of course. “The Magnificent Music Machine” is Hillman’s contribution to this album, a terrific song that I would have released as a single. For that matter, it would have made a great Jimmy Martin single.

He’s got nothing but talent and time on his hands
He loves his music, hangs out with his band
He’s got big-hit ambitions and number one dreams
He’s a high-rollin’, a magnificent music machine

He hit town with nothing but his old guitar
With visions of grandeur and being a star
He writes them and sings them like you’ve never seen
He’s a high-rollin’, a magnificent music machine

“Rank Stranger”, of course is a classic Stanley Brothers song, perhaps my favorite song from the entire Stanley canon, from which there are many classics. This song still gives me chills and Tom sings it well.

I wandered again to my home in the mountains
Where in youth’s early dawn I was happy and free
I looked for my friends but I never could find them
I found they were all rank strangers to me

Everybody I met seemed to be a rank stranger
No mother or dad, not a friend could I see
They knew not my name and I knew not their faces
I found they were all rank strangers to me.

The album closes, fittingly enough, with another Tom T Hall composition “Bluegrass Festival In The Sky”.

In the sweet by and by at that Bluegrass Festival in the sky.

There’ll be Monroe Flatt Scruggs and the Stanleys
The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers and the whole McGranner’s Family
Molly and the Stonemans and Martin and Crow
Dillard and Thompson and Smiley and Reno.

(And we will sing)
In the sweet by and by at that Bluegrass Festival in the sky.

There’ll be old Tige and Baker and Clements and Warren
Richmond and Harold Carl Story and Dorrin
Acker McMagaha Wiseman and Gray
The Osbornes Bill Clifton Sprung and Uncle Dave.

(And we will sing)
In the sweet by and by at that Bluegrass Festival in the sky…

It would be many years before Tom T Hall would return to his bluegrass roots when recording a solo album, but return he would. It just didn’t happen as soon as I would have liked.

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder – ‘Bluegrass Rules!’

When his mainstream career wound down, Ricky Skaggs decided to pick up his mandolin and returned to his roots in bluegrass.  He didn’t do it half heartedly – this is an uncompromisingly hard bluegrass set with high lonesome vocals, tight harmonies and nimble picking.  Produced by Skaggs himself, the album featured and credited his road band Kentucky Thunder, and was released on Rounder Records.

Opens with a spoken statement by the late gospel bass-vocalist J. D. Sumner, “country rocks but bluegrass rules” then the band swings straight into an uncompromising Bill Monroe-composed  instrumental, ‘Get Up John’. There are a couple of other instrumentals, another from Monroe bookending the project, and one composed by Ricky midway through the set.  They break up the vocal tracks but do feel a bit samey.

Virtually all the songs deal with tragedy and lost love.  In his teenage years, Ricky was a member of Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys (along with Keith Whitley), and that experience seems to be the overwhelming inspiration of this album.  The Stanley Brothers are a major source of material, with two songs written by each of Carter and Ralph.  Carter’s ‘Think Of What You’ve Done’ offers a measured reproach to the woman who has broken his heart by leaving him for another man.  It is excellent, as is the rhythmic ‘Ridin’ That Midnight Train’ with another broken heart lyric about leaving town with the blues in similar circumstances.  Ralph’s ‘Little Maggie’ with its high mountain lead vocals has a very pure heritage feel, while the perky ‘If I Lose’ is the record’s sole happy song, with love making gambling losses unimportant.

Although they did not write it (the credit goes to Southern hymn writer Albert Brumley), the somber spiritual classic ‘Rank Stranger’ is probably also best known as part of the Stanley Brothers’ repertoire.  Ricky’s version is a real highlight of this record, with gospel trio vocals from the band.

The quieter but intensely mournful ‘Another Night’ is another fine song dealing with the pain of lost love, as is the Earl Scruggs number ‘Somehow Tonight’.

‘I Hope You’ve Learned’ is a reproach from a man in prison to his cheating wife, wondering if she will wait for him when he is finally released.  A fine song in the high lonesome style, one is, however, left wondering what exactly he did, propelled by his jealousy (wifebeating?), and the fact that he is still blaming her for it is rather troubling.  This is one case where I don’t think I’d be waiting.

In a stern warning to ‘The Drunken Driver’, Ricky relates the story of a terrible accident:

These two dear kids walked side by side
Out on the state highway
Their loving mother, she had died
And their father had run away

They were talking of their loving parents
How sad their hearts did feel
When around the curve came a speeding car
With a drunk man at the wheel

The driver saw these two dear kids
And hooted a drunkard sound
“Get out of the road, you little fools”
And the car had brought them down

The driver staggered from his car
To see what he had done
His heart sank within him
When he saw his dying son

Yes, the drunken driver has managed to run over his own abandoned children.  The little boy then rubs it in for his penitent father, gasping out as he lies dying,

“Take us to our mother, Dad
She sleeps beneath the ground
It was you and her we were talking about
When the car had knocked us down
And please, dear Dad, don’t drink no more
While driving on your way
But meet us with our mother, Dad
In Heaven some sweet day”

The story is so melodramatic it might be hard for some contemporary listeners to take seriously, but Ricky’s dead straight reading gives it some impact, and it fits into a long standing tradition of songs of this kind which are a valuable part of bluegrass (and more general country music) heritage; it was recorded by country star Ferlin Husky in the ‘50s but has the feel of something 20 years older still.

This is a hard record to assign a grade to, as there is nothing to criticise, with excellent musicianship but it is not an easy listen for those with little exposure to bluegrass, and there is not much variety. I did enjoy it a lot, but it isn’t one of my favourite Skaggs albums, as I tend to prefer those where he mixes country and bluegrass.  Those with less of a taste for bluegrass without any country elements may want to pass.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Waitin’ for The Sun To Shine’

Ricky’s work with Emmylou Harris had brought him to the attention of Nashville, and in 1981 he signed a solo deal with Epic Records. His Epic debut was self-produced, and he played guitar, fiddle and mandolin himself, backed by some stellar pickers. Future wife Sharon White and her sister Cheryl sing harmonies, and their father Buck plays piano. It was country rather than bluegrass, with electric instruments, steel guitar and piano added to the mix, but there was a distinctly bluegrass and sensibility to it, particularly in the song selection. Where it is not rooted in bluegrass, the inspiration is in traditional country, with most of the songs being relatively obscure covers. The tasteful playing is excellent throughout, but remains in service to the songs.

A vibrant cover of Flatt & Scruggs’s bluegrass classic ‘Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’’ was Ricky’s first chart single, peaking at #16. The rhythmic ‘You May See Me Walkin’’ (written by Tom Uhr of bluegrass band the Shady Grove Ramblers) then sneaked into the top 10 at 9. Ricky scored his first chart topper with ‘Crying My Heart Out Over You’, another Flatt & Scruggs song, cowritten by county veteran Carl Butler. It works perfectly for Ricky, whose understated version has become the standard.

‘I Don’t Care’ also made it to #1, as it did for the original artist, honky tonk star Webb Pierce, in 1955. It was written by the great Cindy Walker and is a sweet love song refusing to pry into his sweetheart’s possibly murky past, which Ricky delivers with sincerity:

I don’t care if I’m not the first love you’ve known
Just so I’ll be the last

The gently resigned hurt of ‘If That’s The Way You Feel’, a cover of a Stanley Brothers classic, is delightful, with tasteful harmonies from Sharon and Cheryl. ‘Lost To A Stranger’ is a plaintive ballad with a lovely tune, which was originally recorded by its writer Hylo Brown in 1954.

‘Your Old Love Letters’, cover of a 1961 hit by Porter Wagoner, feels charmingly old fashioned now, with Ricky pondering a past love affair as he burns the titular letters (tied up in blue ribbons). The rhythmic ‘Low And Lonely’ is catchy, and another older song, a single for the legendary Roy Acuff in 1942. Merle Travis’s ‘So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed’ also dates from the 1940s.

The title track, virtually the only new song included, is a beautiful ballad which has become a modern country classic with perhaps the best known version by Lee Ann Womack on her superlative There’s More Where That Came From in 2005. Ricky’s version isn’t quite as gorgeous, but still very good, and the song is lovely with an optimistic feel about the likelihood of getting past current heartbreak.

There really is not a weak track on this excellent album. A real breath of fresh air in the Urban Cowboy era, it is astonishing to contemplate today how warmly such a bluegrass-influenced album was received in the country mainstream. Sales were excellent for the era, and the album was certified gold. Its follow up, Highways & Heartaches (which Razor X reviewed when it was reissued on Skaggs Family Records in 2009), was to do even better, and really set Ricky Skaggs up as a mainstream country star. Both albums stand up very well today, and cheap used copies of both can be found easily.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Marty Stuart and Vince Gill – ‘Rank Strangers’

Marty and Vince take on a Stanley Brothers classic. The third singer is Harry Stinson, whose name you might recognise from album liner notes:

The 10 best reissues of 2011

I probably spent more money on reissues of old music this year than I did on new music, although I purchased lots of new music. Here is my list of the best reissues of 2011 – just one man’s opinion, listed in no particular order.  No fellow travelers such as Americana, just real country music (at least in my top ten).

 

JESSI COLTER – I’M JESSI COLTER / DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH

The Australian label Raven, has issued a number of American country music albums, usually in the form of two-fers. Here Raven presents two albums from the talented Jessi Colter, mother of modern day artist Shooter Jennings and widow of legendary performer Waylon Jennings. While Jessi wasn’t the most prolific recording artist and is actually well served by several of the anthologies available, it is nice to have two of her Capitol albums available, as she originally conceived them.

Her first album for Capitol Records, I’M JESSI COLTER (1975), spawned the #1 Country / #5 Pop hit “I’m Not Lisa” and the follow-up hit “What’s Happened To Blue Eyes”. The album was produced by Waylon Jennings, and features many of the musicians who played on his albums (Reggie Young, Weldon Myrick, Ritchie Albright, Jim Gordon ) but no one would ever mistake the arrangements as anything that would ever appear on a Waylon album, as he deftly tailors the production to fit his bride’s  individual talents. An early take on “Storms Never Last” minus Waylon, is my favorite track on the album. DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH (1976) wasn’t quite as successful reaching #4 on the Country chart and yielding the hits “I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name” (No.29 Country) and “You Hung the Moon (Didn’t You Waylon?)”. The title track “Diamond in the Rough” gives Jessi a chance to stretch and show her blues sensibilities.

This set includes a nice and informative booklet and three bonus tracks from a later Capitol album. If you have no Jessi Colter in your collection, this is a good starting point. Read more of this post

Country Heritage: Sonny & Bobby, The Osborne Brothers

Bluegrass and Modern Country Music – kissin’ cousins or estranged relations ? Although they claim common ancestry (Ernest Tubb, Gene Autry and Bill Monroe were all hugely influenced by Jimmie Rodgers, and many others were influenced by the Original Carter Family), it has been many years since modern country and bluegrass music split off in different directions from their acoustic string band origins. Up until the end of the 1960s you could hear bluegrass played by some country radio stations (most frequently by smaller stations located in more rural areas), and artists such as Jimmie Skinner, the Willis Brothers, Lee Moore, Grandpa Jones and Frank “Hylo” Brown straddled the two genres. Mainstream artists such as Skeeter Davis, Carl Smith, Porter Wagoner and the duo of George Jones & Melba Montgomery would record albums of bluegrass songs. By the end of the 1960s, however, bluegrass was nearly extinct on country radio. True, there were a few songs, usually associated with movies (“Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “Dueling Banjos”) or television shows (“The Ballad of Jed Clampett”), which achieved some airplay, but those were few and far between.

Today bluegrass is largely banished from country radio. Yes, various performers such as Keith Urban or Rascal Flatts will gratuitously drop a banjo or a mandolin into their songs, but their music isn’t bluegrass. Yes, artists such as Alison Krauss or Rhonda Vincent will occasionally grace a Nashville artist’s album as a duet partner for a song or two, but those songs really aren’t bluegrass either. And yes, the soundtrack to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, sold millions of copies – but how often did your local country station play any of the songs from the soundtrack?

The last bluegrass act regularly to receive country radio airplay was the duo of banjo player Roland “Sonny” Osborne (born 10/29/37) and his mandolin-playing brother, Bobby Osborne (born 12/9/1931). Sonny and Bobby were born in Hyden, Kentucky, but when Sonny was very young, the family moved near Dayton, Ohio where they had their first experiences as performers. As children, their father instilled a love for traditional music. Bobby picked up the electric guitar as a teenager and played in various local bands. A few years after his brother began playing the guitar, Sonny picked up the banjo. Both were greatly influenced by the likes of Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Alton & Rabon Delmore and Bill Monroe.

Being six years older, Bobby was first out of the gate. During the autumn of 1949, he and friend/banjoist Larry Richardson joined the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. This effectively changed the band from Delmore Brothers sound-alikes into a pioneering bluegrass band. They recorded a number of sides together including the original version of “Pain In My Heart.”

In 1950, 13 year old Sonny joined his brother in the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. Following his tenure with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Bobby joined forces with Jimmy Martin to form a band called the ‘Sunny Mountain Boys’. Following the breakup with Martin, Bobby briefly joined the Stanley Brothers, singing high baritone above Carter’s lead and Ralph’s tenor. Unfortunately, before this trio was able to record, Bobby was drafted into the military in November of 1951.

During Bobby’s military service Sonny continued his musical career. During the summers of 1952 and 1953, Sonny played banjo for Bill Monroe. Also, Sonny recorded a number of singles for small record labels such as Kentucky and Gateway. I do not know how many sides were released by Gateway, but I am aware of at least forty-two songs being recorded, featuring Sonny on banjo and vocals, Carlos Brock on guitar and vocals, Billy Thomas on fiddle, Smokey Ward on bass and Enos Johnson on mandolin and vocals.

In late 1953, Bobby & Sonny teamed up with Jimmy Martin and performed on a local Detroit radio station billed as “Jimmy Martin and The Osborne Brothers.” Bobby & Sonny lasted two years with the mercurial Martin, during which time they recorded a few singles for RCA. They left in 1956 to work with Charlie Bailey on the WWVA Big Jamboree in Wheeling, West Virginia, where they would stay for four years. A few months later they joined forces with lead singer Harley “Red” Allen and formed their own band–thereafter becoming known as the Osborne Brothers.

Shortly after joining forces with Red Allen, The Osborne Brothers signed a deal with MGM records. Their fifth single for MGM, “Once More,” reached #13 in 1958. While no more singles charted nationally for MGM (many of their records were regional hits), the Osborne Brothers continued to record, refining their sound. Red Allen left the group after the first album, but Sonny & Bobby soldiered onward, with other outstanding vocalists such as Benny Birchfield helping complete the harmony trios. They would record three more albums for MGM before leaving for Decca in late 1963. Many of these albums included songs that would later become hits when re-recorded for Decca.

The Decca years found Sonny and Bobby experimenting with the instrumentation of their music. They experimented slowly at first, using an electric bass, then added additional instruments such as steel guitar and piano, and Sonny’s own creation, the electric six-string banjo. The hybrid country bluegrass sound proved quite popular with fans and disc jockeys alike. They were soon booked on the major country package shows of the day. With their voices being featured on their own major label recordings and on others from Conway Twitty to Bill Monroe, their name became synonymous with harmony singing. From 1966 to 1976, the Osborne Brothers would chart 16 times. While none of these songs were huge national hits, the records sold well and were mostly huge hits in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic areas. Several of their songs such as “Ruby (Are You Mad),” “Roll Muddy River,” “Son of A Sawmill Man” and “Rocky Top” became bluegrass standards, with the latter even being designated as an official Tennessee State song.

The Osborne Brothers were inducted as members of the Grand Ole Opry in 1964. They were voted as the CMA’s “Vocal Group of the Year” in 1971, and received nominations in the category in 1970, 1974 and 1975. From 1971-1978 they were honored by Music City News as the nation’s top bluegrass group. Along the way, they became one of the first major bluegrass groups to appear extensively at bluegrass festivals.

The eighteenth (and last) charted single for Sonny & Bobby was “I Can Hear Kentucky Calling Me” in early 1980, which peaked at #75. By 1980, the chasm between the sound of bluegrass and modern country music had grown too deep for bluegrass to get any airplay on country radio. Ricky Skaggs would have considerable success on country radio during the years just ahead, but the records that charted well for Skaggs were far less grassy than the hybrids that the Osborne Brothers had been charting in the 1960s and 1970s.

Following their departure from Decca/MCA in 1975, The Osborne Brothers signed with Country Music Heritage (CMH) records and gradually reverted to traditional bluegrass instrumentation and have stayed there ever since. The Osborne Brothers were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music’s Hall of Honor (the genre’s equivalent to the Country Music Hall of Fame) in 1994 and were elected to the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame in 2002.

He Osborne Brothers continued to perform until Sonny Osborne retired from performing in 2005 after a shoulder operation affected his ability to play the banjo. Bobby Osborne continues to perform to this day, with Rocky Top X-Press, the band he formed after Sonny’s retirement. At 79 years of age, Bobby still tours – his busy schedule can be checked out on his website www.bobbyosborne.com .

The Osborne Brothers were pioneers in being among the first bluegrass groups (possibly the first bluegrass group) to include modern country instruments such as drums, electric bass, electric guitar, electric banjo, guitjo (a banjo neck on a guitar body) and steel guitar into bluegrass music. Many other acts would follow suit, even traditionally oriented groups such as Jim & Jesse McReynolds. Perhaps of greater importance was the vocal trio style created by the Osborne Brothers in conjunction with Red Allen, sometimes dubbed as “inverted stacked harmony”. This sound, unique and electrifying, featured Bobby singing a high lead line, Sonny singing baritone, and finally Red Allen singing the tenor as the lowest part. Although Red left after the first MGM album, subsequent vocalist such as Benny Birchfield , Dale Sledd and others kept the excitement going, setting a pattern many other groups,both bluegrass and modern country tried to duplicate, although few with such panache.

Discography

VINYL

The Osborne Brothers recorded four albums for MGM and 14 albums for Decca/MCA during the vinyl era. All of these records are worthwhile. If you found all 18 of the albums and played them chronologically you would hear a detailed history of the evolution of bluegrass music as the Osborne Brothers occasionally strayed into “newgrass” before the term was invented. The Decca/MCA albums are especially interesting as the Osborne Brothers covered many classic country songs as well as contemporary country material.

Unfortunately, little of the classic MGM and Decca/MCA material is available on CD, except for on two terrific (and quite expensive) boxed sets issued by Bear Family which contain all of the MGM and Decca/MCA material.

Leaving MCA/Decca after 1975, the Osborne Brothers joined the tradition-oriented Country Music Heritage (CMH) label, issuing at least ten albums for CMH, including a wonderful double album with Mac Wiseman. The CMH albums straddle the vinyl, cassette and CD eras, so you may find those albums in any or all of those formats.

Four albums were issued on Sugar Hill and five on Pinecastle. The Pinecastle albums all were issued on CD, however, only Once More, Volumes 1 & 2 were released on CD by Sugar Hill.

There was a live album issued on RCA in April 1982 titled Bluegrass Spectacular. This album, recorded in October 1981 at Opryland’s Theater By The Lake, features the Osborne Brothers with guests the Lewis Family and Mac Wiseman. Hairl Hensley and Roy Acuff do the opening introductions. For this performance, Paul Brewster sings the additional harmony Hal Rug plays steel guitar and former Texas Troubadour Leon Rhodes plays electric lead guitar. As far as I know this is the only RCA album, although RCA Camden issued something in 1968 called Bluegrass Banjo Pickers which has a few Sonny Osborne tracks (I’ve never seen the actual album)

CD

The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has available both of the Bear Family Box Sets at $99.98 each. If you are a diehard fan, it’s definitely worth the money to buy these, but for the casual fan, they are overkill. It is possible (sometimes) to find these sets for less money on sites such as www.overstock.com and www.countysales.com . Also you may be able to find used sets on sites such as www.musicstack.com .

The only other CD available covering the Decca/MCA years is titled Country Bluegrass. It sells for $9.98 and has ten of their chart hits including “Rocky Top,” “Roll Muddy River” and “Ruby (Are You Mad).” It’s inadequate, but essential.

ET has eleven more titles available, all of which come from post-1975. They do have the terrific Essential Bluegrass Album (with Mac Wiseman) which was a double album with 24 songs.

ET also has available six solo albums that Bobby Osborne has issued plus an album with Jesse McReynolds titled Masters of The Mandolin. I have several of Bobby’s solo albums – they are good but something was definitely lost from the vocal blend when Sonny retired. Moreover, Bobby has lost some of his upper range over the years, especially on the more recent albums and when he performs some of the old Osborne Brothers classics, he has had to do them in lower keys. This point was brought home by Bobby’s performance on the Opry in July 2011, where Bobby has clearly changed the chord progression on the chorus of “Rocky Top” to make it easier to sing.

Currently www.bobbyosborne.com has six of Bobby’s solo albums available for sale as well as ten Osborne Brothers CDs and two DVDs of the Osborne Brothers in concert.

Classic Rewind: Stanley Brothers – ‘How Mountain Girls Can Love’

Classic Rewind: The Stanley Brothers – ‘Rank Strangers’

Album Review: Scott Holstein – ‘Cold Coal Town’

The last musical recommendation I got from the late lamented 9513 was Scott Holstein, who Brody Vercher pointed out a few weeks ago. His independent CD Cold Coal Town has been produced by Scott himself alongside dobro player extraordinaire Randy Kohrs. Impressively, the entire album was recorded in one night (in Kohrs’ studio in Nashville), and great credit goes to the very accomplished band. Bluegrass backings and a soulful fusion of bluegrass-country-blues in Scott’s passionately smoky voice set this record apart. The songs, all written by Scott, are mainly rooted in his West Virginia coalmining family background, and the quality is exceptionally high.

‘The Spell’ opens the set with the protagonist railing against the woman he loves despite her “wicked ways”. It seems quite appropriate for it to lead into ‘Walls Of Stone’, the blues-infused lament of a prisoner sentenced to 99 years in gaol after killing his unfaithful wife. The sprightly instrumental ‘Leavin Charleston’ showcases the band’s tight, sparkling musicianship. Their more lyrical playing comes to the fore in another instrumental cut, the stately ’The Holstein Waltz’, which is lovely. Scott does not play an instrument on the album, but composed the tunes.

‘Boone County Blues’ is one of those cheerful sounding expressions of deep sadness which are common in bluegrass, again with really great picking. It is, perhaps, the least exceptional song here, but is still very good. The charming ‘Clinch Mountain Hills’ is a tribute to the Stanley brothers, written by Carter Stanley’s graveside and channelling his voice. Don Rigsby provides the high tenor harmony counterpoint to Scott’s gravelly baritone.

I don’t remember ever seeing a country song with a Latin title before. ‘Montani Semper Liberi’ is the official motto of Scott’s home state of West Virginia (meaning “mountaineers [are] always free”), and the song tells a dramatic story, with a young man choosing not to take sides in the Civil War, just as the state was formed in June 1863, declaring:

Mama stitched my uniform
But no colors do I choose
They’ll never take this mountain
The gray nor the blue

Cause mountaineers are always free
And almost heaven’s good enough for me
Upon this land I’ll state my creed
Mountaineers are always free

The grim reality of life in the coal towns fuels much of Scott’s best work. The title track has the protagonist leaving his childhood home for a better future, and reminiscing about the hardworking miner father who “left one day and came back dead”, having advised his son not to follow him into the mines. In ‘Roll, Coal, Roll’, meanwhile, the protagonist is a weary trucker moving coal down from the mountain mines.

The acappella Black Water quietly and compellingly tells the true story of a fatal flood caused by a coal company’s unsafe practices in the 70s, when several communities were destroyed and over 100 people were killed at Buffalo Creek, West Virginia by coal slurry after a dam broke. Perhaps the highlight of a very fine record, this sounds like a traditional folk song, and has Don Rigsby and Randy Kohrs on harmony:

Coal company said “God is to blame”
They built the dam “but He brought the rain”
Truth was known throughout the land
Never do trust a company man

Black water, black water
So black and so deep
And under black water forever I’ll sleep
Death angels are calling out to me
Black water is rolling down Buffalo Creek

Death was the scene even high in the tree
Fathers and children and mothers to be
Nowhere to run as black water comes down
And so is the lie of a coal mining town

A similar flood seen from the first person, this time caused by a coal company’s reckless clearance of tree cover on the mountain, sees locals seeking refuge, but there ‘Ain’t No Higher Ground’ to run to.

This is a fantastic record, and definitely my favourite of the year so far. I’ll be very surprised if it doesn’t make my end of year top 10.

Grade: A+

You can currently purchase the CD from Scott’s website, although I understand wider distribution is being sought.

Album Review: Patty Loveless – ‘Honky Tonk Angel’

Honky Tonk AngelPatty Loveless’ third album, released in 1988, marked her real commercial breakthrough. It was her first gold-seller (and eventually reached platinum status), and it also built on her growing success on country radio. No less than five of the ten tracks were released as singles – an unusually high number at the time. It is a testament to the strength in depth of the material that every single one was a top ten hit.

Whereas Patty’s first two albums had been co-produced by Tony Brown with Emory Gordy Jr, this time Brown took sole charge, and he delivered a commercial, radio-friendly record with enough traditional influences to fit perfectly with the tune of the times. The title alone was something of a statement of intent, as a phrase which does not appear on any of the lyrics of the songs, but one which called to mind Kitty Wells’ 50s classic ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’. A predominantly up-tempo set of material drew on Patty’s rock-singing past and her mountain background, intermixed with some soaring ballads which showed off her beautiful voice and emotive interpretative ability.

The opening track, and lead-off single, was the beaty country-rock ‘Blue Side Of Town’, written by Hank DeVito and Paul Kennerley. It was followed by the pleading ballad ‘Don’t Toss Us Away’, written by rock musician Bryan MacLean, and previously recorded by the country-rock group Lone Justice featuring MacLean’s sister, future pop star Maria McKee, on vocals. Brown’s production and Patty’s vocals transformed it into a pure country song, one which allowed Patty to stretch out vocally and show how she could emote, supported by Rodney Crowell on harmony vocals, as she begs:

Don’t toss us away so thoughtlessly
It just ain’t right
Oh can’t you see
I still love you
I want you to stay
Darlin’ please, don’t toss us away

Patty’s first #1 single was the engaging up-tempo ‘Timber I’m Falling In Love’, one of several tracks here to benefit from Vince Gill’s prominent harmonies. It was also the first #1 for its writer, Kostas. The same combination of Kostas as writer, Patty on lead, and Vince Gill on harmony (together with bluegrass vocalist Claire Lynch) was responsible for the fourth single, the full-blooded ballad ‘The Lonely Side Of Love’. Only reaching #6, it was the least successful of the singles from the album, and is one of Patty’s less well remembered songs today, but it is still a fine recording.

Kostas wrote a third track on the album, the loungy ‘If You Think’, which is beautifully interpreted by Patty as a love song with an underlying hint of sadness as the protagonist defends her love against her lover’s doubts. The final single was my favorite, as Vince Gill’s harmonies again helped ‘Chains’ to the top of the chart. The downbeat lyrics about a woman emotionally tied to a hopeless love are married to an effervescent sound which is utterly irresistible.

Read more of this post

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 125 other followers