In the mid 1980s, Dolly Parton came up with the idea of an album pairing herself with her contemporaries Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. But for one reason or another, it just never came together for nearly a decade. Finally, during the country boom of the early 90s, the project came to life. Produced by Dolly Parton and Steve Buckingham, Honky Tonk Angels was a celebration of the sounds of yesterday and a less-than-subtle reminder of the abundance of talent being overlooked by country radio at the time. One single from the album stalled at #68 on the country singles chart in 1993 (a second failed to chart at all), but the album itself would land at #6 on the sales-based albums chart, and would go on to be certified gold, proving the continued demand for legendary stars.
Honky Tonk Angels opens with a graceful take on ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’, the song that made Kitty Wells a star. Kitty is even featured as a vocalist here in the song’s second verse, and provides harmony for the rest of the track, to great effect. Another country female vocalist standard, ‘I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know’, originally a hit for the Davis Sisters, is given the rootsy treatment of a scaled back arrangement and resonant harmonies. Wells isn’t the only star to make a guest appearance on the album. Patsy Cline’s vocal is added electronically to a cover of ‘Lovesick Blues’, allowing the departed songstress to take the lead vocal while the trio of Parton, Lynn, and Wynette provide harmony vocals as well as a few cat calls and ad-libs to give the track a live feel.
A music video was made for the punchy version of ‘Silver Thread and Golden Needles’ to promote the album, featuring a veritable who’s who of Music City and beyond as potential suitors turned away by the ladies. You’ll see Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Crowell, Charlie Chase, Ralph Emery, Bill Anderson, Jim Nabors, Little Jimmy Dickens, Marty Stuart, and Ronnie Milsap all make cameo appearances. Chet Atkins is the only visitor finally allowed in. A rousing version of the country-gospel standard ‘Wings of a Dove’, originally a hit for Ferlin Husky in 1960, provides some of the disc’s best harmony moments.
All three contribute an original song here as well. Loretta offers up the optimistic ‘Wouldn’t It Be Great’ while Tammy contributes ‘That’s The Way It Would Have Been’, a melancholy tale of chances lost and unrequited love. Dolly’s song is the gospel-tinged ‘Let Her Fly’, a song mourning the death of her mother, but celebrating her reunion with God. Such is the spirit of Dolly Parton, and all three of these exceptional women, and their three sole-compositions tell you volumes about them, just as the maker intended. Closing with another country standard, an updated take on Tex Ritter’s ‘I Dream of a Hillbilly Heaven’, complete with recitations and plenty of shout-outs.
In true form, all three legendary ladies deliver the goods on Honky Tonk Angels, and offer their own unique input to the sound and the material. This provides not only an album of traditional country music listening pleasure, but a lesson in how to do it from the architects of the modern country music sound.
Before this landmark album, Loretta Lynn had formed a partnership with fellow superstar Conway Twitty. The pair’s work together easily rivaled their own solo work in terms of artistry and commercial success. Not only did they win armloads of awards for their recordings, the public couldn’t get enough of the blending of the two voices either. Their first 5 of 12 singles together all went to #1, and the following 7 releases all cracked the top 10.
Loretta and Conway would release 11 studio albums together, between 1971 and 1989, including one every year between ’71 and ’79. At least 2 studio albums and 1 compilation of their recordings would be certified gold, and many are available on CD today. Together, they gave us such country classics as ‘After The Fire Is Gone’, ‘Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man’, and ‘I Still Believe In Waltzes’, among countless others. But still, Conway Twitty wasn’t Loretta’s first successful habitual pairing.
Just as she was starting out in Music City, the Texas Troubadour and Grand Ole Opry legend Ernest Tubb took a shine to the Kentucky girl. In 1964, the first Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn duet single was released to country radio stations. ‘Mr. and Mrs. Used to Be’, the title track to their first of three duet albums together, would be their biggest hit as a duo, resting at #11 on the charts. Two more would reach the inside of the top 30, the fun, if a bit corny ‘Who’s Gonna Take Your Garbage Out’ rose to #18, and ‘Our Hearts are Holding Hands’ to a #24 peak.
A favorite of mine, a cover of Nat Stuckey’s top 5 pop hit, ‘Sweet Thang’ is the best illustration of the best of the Loretta and Ernest duets. Where Stuckey saunters through the song and sells the lyrics with a bit of blase’ style, the personality and down-home charm in both Loretta Lynn’s and Ernest Tubb’s vocal is much more convincing to me. After all, both Texas and Kentucky are renowned for their charm. Loretta and Ernest, though not as successful as her pairing with Conway Twitty, would be a powerful concert draw and consistent fan-favorite throughout the rest of the 1960s.
Loretta Lynn never really changed her style once she had it firmly set in motion. Still, her natural wit and honest country girl spirit not only endeared her to her millions of fans, it provided a springboard for her creativity and a stage for some of the most interesting and satisfying collaborations of artists in the history of country music, providing new chapters in the histories of her superstar partners’ catalogues along the way. That’s no small feat for anyone.
Honky Tonk Angels is available inexpensively at amazon, in CD and digital format.
No studio albums by Loretta Lynn with Conway Twitty and Ernest Tubb are available on CD, but there are several compilations of her work with Conway, the best among these being The Definitive Collection, which is also available in CD and digital formats. No albums of Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn duets are available, unless you want to buy a vintage vinyl, but you can pick up ‘Sweet Thang’ as a digital download, available as part of Ernest Tubb’s 20th Century Masters collection.