My Kind of Country

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

Mining the archives

Mainstream country music has been in the doldrums for the past few years, which makes it difficult for longtime fans to find interesting new music. Precious little has caught my fancy, since most of my favorite artists are either no longer recording on a regular basis, or have compromised their music considerably in order to remain relevant as far as country radio is concerned. Unable to find much that is both new and to my liking, I’ve been concentrating on older music that I haven’t heard before, either because I overlooked it when it was new, or because it has only recently been made available for purchase again.

I’ve lost track of how many CDs are in my collection, but the last time I counted several years ago, it was around the 500 mark. The bulk of them were purchased between 1988 and 2000. I couldn’t possibly afford to buy every new release that I liked during the 90s, so I had a core group of artists for whom I kept up with every new release, and others for whom I only bought hits compilations and occasional studio albums. Trisha Yearwood fell into the latter category, so when Nashville’s creative well began to run dry a few years ago, I began to collect some of her albums that I hadn’t bothered with when they were first released. From there I moved on to collecting the catalogs of Pam Tillis and Emmylou Harris.

Many of my favorite artists peaked commercially before I was old enough to earn my own pocket money to buy their music, and most of their studio albums didn’t make it to CD until recent years, so I’ve spent a lot of time filling in the gaps in my collection. Thanks to Germany’s Bear Family Records, I’ve managed to acquire a decade’s worth of George Jones’ music, encompassing three boxed sets, as well as a boxed set covering Connie Smith’s first nine LPs for RCA. I’m looking forward to a second Smith boxed set, which reportedly is in the works, but won’t be released this year as originally announced.

More recently I’ve begun to purchase some of Merle Haggard’s early albums for Capitol, and I’m just beginning to tackle the daunting task of familiarizing myself with Johnny Cash’s catalog. Cash had fallen out of favor with country radio by the time I started listening to it, and I didn’t fully appreciate this musical genius when I was younger. About two years ago I downloaded Cash’s The Definitive Collection, not realizing at first that the well-known titles it contained were re-recordings that he’d made for Mercury Records after ending a 27-year association with CBS. Many critics consider his Mercury recordings to be his weakest, but I quite enjoyed both the remakes and newer material on The Definitive Collection, which led me to purchase the albums from which the tracks were culled. In doing so, I discovered 1988’s excellent Water From the Wells of Home, which is truly an understated gem.

Digging into the back catalogs of these great artists has underscored for me how cheated today’s country music fans are — and that is not just an indictment of the quality of today’s country music. Artists like Johnny Cash, George Jones, Connie Smith, Waylon Jennings, and Loretta Lynn have left behind sizable bodies of work, whereas contemporary artists, releasing only one album every two or three years, will not. Shania Twain’s legacy will rest primarily on the strength of three successful albums. While not every cut in the catalogs of Cash, Jones, Smith, Jennings, and Lynn is a gem, I’m extremely grateful for their large catalogs which are helping me get through these meager times.

Who are some of the artists whose catalogs you feel you need to examine more closely?


16 responses to “Mining the archives

  1. Jamie August 27, 2010 at 7:21 am

    Johnny Cash and Emmylou are on my list my list, as is Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, George Strait and Keith Whitley

  2. pwdennis August 27, 2010 at 9:28 am

    probably Rex Griffin, Molly O’Day, Doc & Chickie WIlliams, Bill Monroe and Cowboy COpas

  3. Sam August 27, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    I’m evidently a good bit older than you because I have all the Jones and Haggard music on original LPs that I’ve converted to mp3s for easier listening. But I totally, 100%, agree with you about the state of country music today and how uninformed “country fans” are nowadays. They don’t even know what they’re missing.

    When people tell me they hate country music, I now understand them completely. What’s to like about all that watered-down pop and soft rock passing for country these days?

    That said, I have done what you’re doing with Jones, Haggard, etc., only with artists a generation before them. I’m trying to find the complete catalogs of people like Jimmy Dickens, Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Porter Wagoner, etc. And that’s just a few of them. It gets expensive, but I’m finding so much “new” music that it’s been a real joy to discover what was country before I was old enough to know what was happening.

    Have fun.

  4. johnny August 27, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    The majority of todays country music is just plain awful.
    I’m glad I have XM and get to hear artist like Amber Digby, Justin Trevino, Bobby Flores, Ron Williams and others that you will never hear on FM since the big music giants like Sony will not let on air. They have way too much invested in the likes of Carrie Underwood, etc.
    I have many LP’s and CD’s of Cash, Haggard, Jim Reeves, Gary Stewart and others and there is no comparison to todays Country Music.

  5. Julia Hughan August 27, 2010 at 6:08 pm

    An alarmingly necessary post Razor.

    Currently at the top of my list: Keith Whitley, Buck Owens, Marty Stuart and George Jones.

    So far this year I have hit the catalogs of Alan Jackson, Ricky Skaggs, Randy Travis and Kitty Wells.

    Upside? Knowledge and appreciation. Downside? Expensive and time consuming.

  6. Drew August 27, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    I’ve only been a country fan for 3 or 4 years so I’ve got a lot to catch up on as far as the history of the genre.

    I’ve heard a ton of George Jones as well, plus the majority of the catalogs of Loretta, Dolly, Conway, and Hank.

    But I’ve got probably 20,000 songs I haven’t gone through yet on my computer that encompass the history of country music pretty well… just takes so long to go through all of those (and I don’t mean just listening to it once, I need to hear each song numerous times over in order for it to really register), in addition to some of the new music coming out.

    I would say the artists whose catalogs I’m most excited to go through would be Merle, Randy Travis, Marty Robbins, Buck Owens, and Faron Young.

  7. Ben Foster August 27, 2010 at 7:29 pm

    There’s a LOT of old stuff that I would like to get my hands on. One of my current priorities is to expand my Patty Loveless collection. I have a few Trisha Yearwood songs floating around on my iPod. Considering how much I’ve been singing her praises lately, I should probably see if I can actually get my hands on a few of her albums! Some more Pam Tillis and Kathy Mattea wouldn’t hurt either.

    This is going to take a LONG time. There’s just so much great country music left behind from the good old days! Yes, today’s country radio listeners are definitely VERY much cheated.

    • Razor X August 27, 2010 at 7:35 pm

      This is going to take a LONG time.

      That’s OK. The longer, the better. You don’t want to burn through too much music too quickly and be wondering what to investigate next. You have a whole lifetime to explore what’s out there.

  8. Rick August 27, 2010 at 8:13 pm

    I take a completely opposite approach! I’d much rather hear interesting older songs from a wide variety of lesser known artists than collect multiple albums from the big name acts. Unfamiliar music which is unusual and unique attracts me much more than a lot of songs from the same artist as varied as they may be. I am grateful though for “Greatest Hits” and “Essential” collection package CDs that allow me to hear many of each artist’s best songs on a single album.

    My exploration of 1950’s country music began in earnest with the acquisition of many Time-Life issued “Classic Country” series CDs that focused on 1950’s and early 60’s country hits. Although they feature many songs from the biggest names in classic country its the songs by artists like Warner Mack, Roy Drusky, Tommy Collins, Jimmy Elledge, and Bill Carlisle that I find most interesting.

    After listening to multiple songs by the likes of Faron Young and Carl Smith, or Webb Pierce and Hank Thompson I find most modern country from the early 1990’s onward to be lacking substance. I consider the mid to late 80’s neo-traditional country revival movement that last time Nashville put out a lot of quality, real country music. I honestly don’t expect the mainstream country scene to ever attain to that level of musical integrity again…

    • Sam August 27, 2010 at 9:19 pm

      I agree with your estimation on the timing of when mainstream country music crashed and burned. It was definitely sometime between the late ’80s and the very early ’90s. Heck, even Reba McEntire quit singing country music about 1988 and became some kind of weird singing feminist…boring crap.

      • Razor X August 27, 2010 at 11:18 pm

        I think the line-dancing craze in the mid-90s is about when things began to go wrong. It encouraged a lot of mindless, beat-driven music. And on the heels of that was the success of Shania Twain, which led to a lot of copycats producing watered-down pop. There were a lot of other factors as well — the consolidation of radio stations, the shift towards marketing to soccer moms and teenagers, pop and AC fans who were alienated by the inroads rap was making into those genres. And now with sales in the tank, labels are less willing to take chances on any new or different acts. I’m not sure how to get things back on track, or if it’s even possible.

  9. Ben Foster August 28, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    Another thought – since reading Rosanne Cash’s excellent memoir, I’ve been thinking it would be good to get some more of her music.

    Lately I’ve just been loving Loretta Lynn more and more. I could use some more Loretta and some more Patsy Cline. Also recently found out that I like the Statler Brothers.

    Wow, I could go on all day.

  10. Kevin Coyne August 28, 2010 at 4:39 pm

    There are still a few holes in my Haggard collection that I need to fill. But for the most part, I’m waiting for albums that I’m missing to become available on CD or through digital download. I remain mystified by the Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris albums that are out of print, especially in the case of Parton. Seems like they go out of their way to make her least essential music available. At least “The Fairest of Them All” finally hit CD, even if it was paired with “My Favorite Songwriter, Porter Wagoner” of all things.

    • Razor X August 28, 2010 at 5:11 pm

      Seems like they go out of their way to make her least essential music available.

      Not only that, but they keep releasing new compilation albums containing the same songs that have been released on CD countless times already.

      • Kevin Coyne August 28, 2010 at 6:53 pm

        And scattered among all of the compilations are a good chunk of the songs from those early albums anyway. A good half of The Bargain Store, My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy, Love is Like a Butterfly, and The Seeker are already done. Only Bubbling Over would require a lot of effort.

        I’ve got all the albums transferred from vinyl, but it seems like the best tracks from them aren’t the ones that make it on to the compilations. My kingdom for a high quality upgrade of “Don’t Let it Trouble Your Mind.”

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