Curly Putman, now 80 years old, is one of the great country songwriters. This record (apparently released via Curly’s publishing company Sony/ATV), allows him to offer his own interpretations of some of his classic songs. While his aging voice is not up to much technically, I always enjoy hearing songwriters deliver their own material, and he can still hold a tune better than some of today’s big names. His phrasing is perfect (as one might expect given that these are his own songs), and he is able to convey the emotions effectively. The album is well produced by Curly himself with percussionist Adam Engelhardt in traditional country style, with some fine musicians backing him and plenty of fiddle and steel. And the quality of the material is absolutely exceptional, with a focus, as the album title suggests, on the sad songs that form the heartblood of country music.
There are three duets with female vocalists, which are among the highlights. 80s star turned successful Music Row songwriter Deborah Allen joins Curly on a downbeat and tuneful version of ‘Only Oklahoma Away’, where the male protagonist’s longing is palpable. Dolly Parton sounds lovely on the tender love song ‘Made For Loving You’, one of the few positive-themed numbers. Sarah Johns is a revelation as the duet partner on ‘My Elusive Dreams’, a semi-autobiographical song which Curly released as a single back in 1967, just before Tammy Wynette and David Houston’s classic version. This is one of my favourite tracks, with Curly’s abraded voice (redolent of failed ambition) contrasting with Sarah’s pure, sweet voice (much better here than on her 2008 solo album Big Love In A Small Town, where she sometimes sounded shrill). It makes me hopeful for new music from Sarah in the future.
The tragic drama of ‘Radio Lover’ with its spoken verses and sung chorus, and the heartbreaking ‘Wino The Clown’ (also partly-spoken) were both written with Bucky Jones and Ron Hellard and recorded by George Jones in the mid-80s. Curly’s versions work well and are extremely convincing (although I think he was probably wise to avoid tackling his very best known George Jones cut, ‘He Stopped Loving her Today’).
My favorite track is the tragic prisoner’s dream ‘Green, Green Grass Of Home’, one of Curly’s most recorded, and greatest, compositions. There is a long and delicate instrumental intro leading into a low-key mournful vocal which sounds doomed right from the start, with every word sounding as though it comes straight from the heart. Technically speaking, I have heard better versions of the gorgeous sad ballad ‘Couldn’t Love Have Picked A Better Place To Die’, but once more, Curly’s version does effectively convey the intensity of the protagonist’s despair.
Opening track ‘Older The Violin’ (a late hit for Hank Thompson in 1974) is a sprightly lightly swinging defiance of middle age (the protagonist is 45) along the lyrical lines of the Johnny Paycheck 80s classic ‘Old Violin’, with the protagonist telling the woman who seems to be putting him out to grass in favour of a younger rival:
The older the violin, the sweeter the music
These specks of gray that’s in my hair
Just make me look distinguished
That don’t mean I’m over the hill
Baby I’m not extinguished
There are a few songs I hadn’t heard before, including the last-mentioned. Of the others, ‘That Runaway Woman’ is a Caribbean-flavored tale of a man chasing through various beach destinations after the woman who has left him, and fetching up in a bar somewhere to drink away the pain, which Curly wrote with Don Cook. ‘Magnolia In The Snow’ is a slow and rather depressing song about leaving Colorado for the sun, and regretting what has been left behind, which seems to include a dead child.
Ending the album on a more positive note, there is a moving expression of absolute faith in the face of a troubled life, in the emotionally sung religious closing track ‘Foot Prints’, a co-write with Don Cook and bluegrass singer Ronnie Bowman (who, with his wife Garnet, sings harmonies throughout):
I sail my ship in deep and troubled waters
I drift so far I cannot see the shore
Sometimes my soul feels lost at sea
And all my hope is gone
He left His footprints on the water
So I can find my way home
Before I knew, my heart believed
He loved the broken heart of me
He sacrificed His precious life
So He could give me mine
The proceeds of the sales of the album are partly devoted to the Sean Putman Memorial Fund at Cumberland University, Lebanon, TN, in memory of Curly’s grandson who died of cancer as a child, and to whom the record is dedicated.
This is a fascinating example of one of the greatest living country songwriters singing some of his best songs, and given his age, perhaps the last opportunity to do so.
It is available on iTunes, or as a hard copy CD from CDBaby or Amazon.
You can sample some of the songs via Curly’s Facebook page.