My Kind of Country

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

Monthly Archives: September 2011

Classic Rewind: Jimmy and Johnny – ‘If You Don’t, Somebody Else Will’

RIP “Country” Johnny Mathis, who died this week. This song, a duet with Jimmy Lee Fautheree, was a top 10 hit in 1953.

Album Review – Rosanne Cash – ‘Black Cadillac’

A musical memoir, Black Cadillac finds Cash channeling the pain of losing her stepmother June, her father Johnny, and her mother Vivian within a two-year period into her most personal album yet. A dark and often moody reflection on her life, Black Cadillac displays some strokes of genius and is easily the best album of her career.

It was also split down the middle with producers- half the tracks were produced by her husband John Leventhal while the other half was produced by Bill Bottrell. This split personality in production didn’t hinder the project one bit as both producers contributed to the greater whole of the project.

The centerpiece of the record, “I Was Watching You” is my favorite song she’s ever recorded. Solely written by Cash, it’s the haunting tale of a child watching their parent’s love affair from heaven long before conception. It then twists in the end to the parent watching the child from heaven, after they’ve died. A bleak tale, it’s so beautifully orchestrated and is so effortlessly perfect, you can’t help but be in awe of a master at work. The piano-laced production adds the ideal amount of heaviness to the track, grounding the tale in just enough sorrow without going overboard.

Another such song is “House on the Lake,” a personal reflection about the Hendersonville, Tennessee residence Johnny and June called home. The property, while undergoing a complete restoration by Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees, burned to the ground in 2007. “House” serves as a lasting legacy to the place with the “Blue bare room, the wood and nails” where “there’s nothing left to take” because “love and years are not for sale.” There’s something uniquely special in this tale about home – introspection is rarely executed this masterfully.  More than the average where I’m from song, “House” stands as a legacy to a home that natured one of country music’s greatest love stories.

And it’s that elevation from ordinary to a sense of importance that binds Black Cadillac. These aren’t just rants of a grieving woman but rather reflections of the life Cash was brought into and the legacy she now has to uphold. But it’s how she honors her parents that make this album truly shine.

In the opening track, we hear some faint crackling before the familiar voice, seemingly from beyond the grave, chimes in with “Rosanne C’mon.” From there Cash launches into “Black Cadillac” which juxtaposes the hearse that brought her father to his funeral with the car he used to drive. The production is cloudy yet doesn’t intrude on our ability to focus on the lyrics. And in another gesture of honor, the horns at the end of the song are meant to recall the distinctive horn work from her dad’s “Ring of Fire.”

What follows, “Radio Operator” is easily the most rocking song on the whole project. It comes as a bit of a jolt after the somber opening while “Burn Down This Town,” a song about Johnny’s love of fire, continues this rollicking trend.

“God Is In The Roses” is a haunting tale of reemergence and self-discovery. It isn’t so much about the omnipresent nature of the universe, but rather of redefining the meaning of place in the deepest parts of our souls – “The sun is on the cemetery/Leaves are on the stones/There never was a place on earth/That felt so much like home.” I’ve never heard it put that way before, but the transcendent power of the graveyard is very palpable.

The rest of the album follows suit in brilliantly articulating Cash’s sense of loss. “The World Unseen” is another tale of descent, this time into the unknown world of life without your guiding force. What on some level could be viewed as a simple break-up ballad is rendered so much more in the imagery Cash conveys – “You must be somewhere in the stars/’Cause from a distance comes the sound of your guitar.” Her ability to convey so much with very little only heightens the beauty of this song, as does the simple production of piano and light drums. They give the song just enough without overpowering the message.

“Like Fugitives” attacks the bitter side of grief, where anger replaces any sense of compassion. The theme of life without is still present here yet it’s everyone else’s inability to understand that insights the rage – “It’s a strange new world we live in/Where the church leads you to hell/And the lawyers get the money/For the lives they divide and sell.”  With that line, Cash perfectly articulates the weirdness of a dead parent and the mess the children are left with in their wake. As with “God Is In The Roses” she accurately puts into words what is often hard to communicate. And the understated production fits the song perfectly.

In listening to this album, I am in awe of how well Cash was able to put every emotion of grief into words. She’s made a very special album here, one relatable to anyone who has lost a parent or a grandparent. I especially like the sentiment behind “0:71,” the closing track which finds 71 seconds of silence for each year of her parent’s natural lives. Sometimes the perfect way to honor someone is by saying nothing at all.

Only one very slight complaint has hindered my enjoyment of this exceptional musical project. As a listening experience, Black Cadillac is weighted down with heaviness and too many similarly produced tracks leave need for variety. I’ve owned the project since its release in 2006, and have only really been into the first half of the album. But this isn’t a fault of anyone involved – the album perfectly conveys the grief and sorrow one feels when your elders have ascended into heaven. And for that, Black Cadillac elevates musical memoirs to new and exciting heights.

This is a very worthy addition to anyone’s music collection and essential listening for anyone who’s lost a parent or grandparent. Copies are very easy to find in either digital or hard copy from both Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A 

Classic Rewind: Rosanne Cash – ‘Motherless Children’

Random playlist 4

In the months that I’ve been compiling these lists of my current listening habits, I’ve noticed that a core group of acts have remained in my ears, though the material I’ve chosen from them has been different.  I’ve been neglectful to the new music in my collection this summer so you won’t find any reflections on new releases this time. Still, yet another season goes by and I’m left with another set of recent heavy-rotation tracks in my music library, and I’d like to share them with you.

Alan Jackson – “There Goes” … This comes from one of Jackson’s best albums yet, 1997’s Everything I Love. Hard as it may be for another artist to top the title track from that set, Jackson did it just two releases later with “There Goes” – and has since hit a new high-water mark countless times.  The barroom-inspired easy sway of the melody here draws the listener in much the same way the narrator sings about the woman who’s hooked him.  A rolling steel guitar accompaniment and crying fiddles keep with the melancholy nature of the song, even when the lyrics – “I’m still pretendin’ I don’t need you/I won’t let you know you’re killin’ me” – make you smile.  This is genuine country music pathos at its finest.

Reba McEntire – “Please Come To Boston” … Like her earlier hit with the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown”, Reba does a gender-reversal, and of course a narrative reversal in the process, when she tackles Dave Loggins’ 1974 #1 pop hit.  Singing from the other side of the wanderlust, the singer here plays the role of the sensible hometown girl with invitations aplenty from a rambling man, who summons her from Boston, Denver, and finally L.A. Each time she says no. But it’s in flipping pronouns on the song’s powerhouse bridge that McEntire changes things around, and becomes a pining-for-him protagonist when she reveals “Of all the dreams he’s lost or found and all that I ain’t got/He still needs to lean to, somebody he can sing to“.  She continues to turn down his calls to join him, but the tenderness of her tough love opens up the possibility for a happy ending – something the Loggins version never had.  Joan Baez and other females had done all this before, but none came close to Reba’s believability.

Rosanne and Johnny Cash – “That’s How I Got To Memphis” … Maybe it was the allure of Memphis over Boston or L.A. that changes the story, as the singer here elects to follow her love interest to destinations far away.  But she didn’t come here by his side. In this oft-recorded Tom T. Hall narrative, she’s followed the only trail she knows. Returning to the life her love interest knew before her knew her, she’s sure she’ll find him and be able to tell him all the things she wanted to say all along, and of course rescue him from his troubles.  Not just the engaging story told, it’s the elder Cash’s commanding vocal on the final verse and a walking bass line melody that keep this track repeating on my players.

Wynonna Judd- “No On Else On Earth” … Even the most brazen of us have a weakness. After all, the Texas Ranger himself finally succumbed to Alex Cahill. Rocks, fences, and keeping your senses are futile defenses sometimes. Wynonna Judd’s third single as a solo artist quickly introduced her with a signature sound that was all her own and an attitude never heard on those old Judds records.  Even 19 years later, no other tune in the singer’s catalog recalls what her fans would come to know Wynonna for in later years: rocking guitars, cool-as-ice lyrics, and her falsetto-into-growling vocals.

Jo Dee Messina – “Heads Carolina, Tails California” … Like Wynonna, Jo Dee Messina captured her musical essence with an early single. This – Messina’s first out of the chute and a #2 hit in 1996 – caught the lightning of the singer’s effervescent and spunky personality in a bottle, and combined it with an irresistibly reckless spirit.  The in-your-face mix of instruments that makes up the production here went out with the new millennium, which is a shame since this sounds as fresh today as 15 years ago. As was intended, it still leaves me feeling ready to pack a bag and hit the road.

Fleetwood Mac – “Dreams” … “Thunder only happens when it’s raining …”  Saying that line out loud 34 years after the rock supergroup hit the top of the Hot 100 with this Stevie Nicks-penned track, the words fall flat on the tongue in the most sanctimonious way. And certainly the production, heavy with synthetic bass lines and distorting harmonies, has lost a lot of its original sheen, leaving the song a dusty chestnut in the annals of classic rock.  But it’s in Nicks’ bemused performance and the all-inclusive theme that makes it worth repeating. No matter if you’re the one who says “you want your freedom” or the one giving it, after listening, you’ll never again call it quits without listening carefully “to the sound of your loneliness“.

Classic Rewind: Johnnie & Jack – ‘I Get So Lonely’

RIP Johnnie Wright, who died yesterday at the age of 97. He was best known as the husband of Kitty Wells, but enjoyed a successful career in partnership with Jack Anglin, who died in 1963. This was the duo’s only Billboard #1:

Album Review – Rosanne Cash – ‘Rules of Travel’

The years following Ten Song Demo were the most trying of Cash’s career. She began work on Rules of Travel in 1998, but the recording was delayed due to her pregnancy and a polyp forming on her vocal chords rendering her unable to sing for 2 and a half years. In March 2003, Travel, her first full studio album for Capitol Records, finally saw the light of day.

Travel not only marked Cash’s return to recording but it also ushered in a new period of her career, one where she would blend the sensibilities of both country and folk while embracing her ancestry in full-force.  While not quite a return to the sound that garnered her fame, Travel is firmly within the Americana genre, a place where artistry shines over commercialism.

All and all Rules of Travel is a solid if somewhat unspectacular effort. While the songs are easy on the ears and feature varying tempo, there aren’t many that stick out as truly outstanding. The only genuine masterpiece is the much-heralded “September When It Comes,” a duet with her father Johnny, made all the more eerie by his death in September of that year. Written by Cash and her husband John Leventhal,  “September” is arguably the most important track she’s recorded in recent years.

The rest of the album may not eclipse that level of importance, but it still manages to shine, despite the occasional missteps. Opening track “Beautiful Pain” benefits greatly from Sheryl Crow’s harmony vocal while any magic in “I’ll Change For You” is lost in the marriage of Steve Earle’s mumble and the repetitious lyrics. When I first bought the album eight years ago, I remember questioning the overuse of the line “I’ll Change For You” in the song. The imagination Cash may have been going for was lost for me.

The sentiment in “Rules of Travel,” however, never was, which is why it’s my favorite song on the album. A beautifully sung ballad, Cash’s vocal on the chorus always reminded me of Mary Chapin Carpenter. I love the effortless elegance of the production, how it keeps the song from being too soft yet too loud, and the guitars and drums infuse some much-needed life into the track.

Like “September,” “Travel” stands out by being different, a fact lost by the majority of tracks on the album. “Western Wall,” doesn’t sound much different here than on Ten Song Demo and the quiet slowness hinders my enjoyment, while “Three Steps Dow,” “Closer Than I Appear,” and “Last Stop Before Home” are so similar in sound and tempo, I find it hard to tell them apart.

While those tracks bleed together, adding up to less than the sum of their parts, there are those that rise above mediocrity. “44 Stories” is elevated by the haunting production track while “Will You Remember Me” is the rare gem that conveys the pain of two lovers split apart. She wants nothing more than to be remembered no matter where on earth he may be. And “Hope Against Hope” wins due to the driving drumbeat, which accomplishes bringing life to the track like it did for “Travel.”

All and all Rules of Travel is a very good Rosanne Cash album and a worthy addition to any fan’s collection, for “September When It Comes” alone, the shining moment for country music and Cash’s status as a legend in her own right. But the quiet production becomes a bit weighty leaving the listener in need of something rocking in the vein of “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me” or “Tennessee Flat Top Box.” But that being said, she proves why she was greatly missed as both a songwriter and performer.

Rules of Travel is available in both hard and digital copy from both Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Tommy Collins – ‘If You Can’t Bite, Don’t Growl’

Country Heritage Redux: Tommy Collins

An updated and expanded version of an article previously published by The 9513.

In the Spring of 1966, the local country music stations in Tidewater, Virginia (WCMS & WTID) were playing the sounds of Tommy Collins’ new single “If You Can’t Bite, Don’t Growl.”

I whistled at pretty girl, on a corner downtown
She saw me when I winked my eye and then she turned around
She came and took me by the arm, I told her that I meant no harm
She said to me with a certain kind of scowl
If you don’t mean it then don’t whistle, if you can’t bite don’t growl

The song was released on Columbia, Tommy’s first release for them after more than a decade recording for Capitol. It appeared to be a career renaissance for Tommy, reaching #7 on the Billboard and Cashbox Country Charts, and his first real hit since 1955. Instead, it proved to be a last hurrah as he never again cracked the top forty as a performer, although a number of his songs continued to chart well for other performers.

Buck Owens and Merle Haggard are the names that immediately come to mind when the term ‘Bakersfield Sound’ is mentioned, as should be expected given their staggering commercial success. While those are the two most prominent names, Tommy Collins and (slightly later) Wynn Stewart were at least as important to the development of the bright and tight electric guitar sound that came to dominate Bakersfield music.

Born Leonard Sipes on September 28, 1930, near Oklahoma City, OK, Tommy Collins was the first of the specifically Bakersfield artists to reach prominence, although there was an active California country music scene before his arrival. His second Capitol single “You Better Not Do That” reached No. 2 (for seven weeks) in 1954 and was the first of a string of six novelty hits that ran through the end of 1955. In contrast, Buck Owens was not to chart until 1959 and Merle Haggard did not chart until 1963.

Collins spent his entire childhood in Oklahoma, graduating from high school in 1948. After that he attended Edmond State Teachers college, recording his first singles for an independent label and working for radio station KLPR radio in Oklahoma City. While at KLPR he met and made friends with Wanda Jackson, who had her own show on the station. Collins served briefly in the military; after discharge, he and Wanda Jackson (and her family) moved to Bakersfield.

Wanda Jackson did not stay long before moving back to Oklahoma, but Collins made friends in the area, including Ferlin Husky (a/k/a Terry Preston and Simon Crum), with whom he roomed for a while. After recording some of Tommy’s songs, Husky convinced his label, Capitol, to sign Collins in June of 1953, at which time he adopted his stage name Tommy Collins. He immediately assembled a band featuring Alvis Edgar “Buck” Owens on lead guitar. Following the success of “You Better Not Do That,” Collins recorded more novelties. “Whatcha Gonna Do Now” was the immediate follow-up, reaching No. 4, followed by “Untied” (No. 10) and “It Tickles” (No. 5). In October 1955, the double A-sided single “I Guess I’m Crazy” and “You Oughta See Pickles Now” charted both sides into the top twenty, but that marked the end as far as his sustained success as a recording artist as he became more religiously oriented. He would not chart again until 1964.

In 1957, he enrolled in the Golden Gate Baptist Seminary with the intention of becoming a minister and did eventually become a pastor in 1959. While he continued to record for Capitol, including some novelties such “All of The Monkeys Ain’t in The Zoo,” his records received little promotion. His Capitol contract expired in 1960 and was not renewed.

In early 1963 Tommy decided he was not meant to be a minister. He headed back to Bakersfield, re-signed with Capitol and in 1964 he returned to the lower rungs of the charts with “I Can Do That,” a duet with his wife Wanda.

Collins then signed with Columbia in 1965 (apparently with an assist from friend Johnny Cash). After the aforementioned “If You Can’t Bite, Don’t Growl,” he had a string of minor hit singles, none of which cracked the country Top 40. Plagued by personal problems, including a drinking problem, Collins muddled through this period touring, at times with Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, usually opening the show for them. Both Owens and Haggard were artists who had recorded songs Tommy had written.

Tommy would not chart again after 1968 and from that point forward his importance to country music would be as a songwriter. In 1972 Haggard had a huge hit with “Carolyn,” and in 1981, Haggard again paid tribute to Collins with “Leonard”, which focused attention back on Collins for the first time in many years.

While all of Tommy’s success as a recording artist came with novelty songs, other artists had considerable success recording some of his more serious songs. Faron Young had a major hit with “If You Ain’t Lovin’ (You Ain’t Livin’),” reaching No. 2 for three weeks in 1955, and George Strait took the same song to No. 1 in 1988. Merle Haggard had hits with “The Roots of My Raising,” “Carolyn” and “Sam Hill.” Mel Tillis took “New Patches” near the top in 1980 and numerous other Tommy Collins songs can be found in various albums recorded by country singers of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.

Tommy Collins died March 14, 2000 at the age of sixty-nine.

Discography

Vinyl

Tommy Collins was not prolific as a recording artist–those who still honor vinyl can occasionally find his Capitol and Columbia albums online or in used record stores. They are all good, so if the album is in decent shape, don’t be afraid to purchase it. None of the Columbia material is available on CD.

CD

Several vendors including PureCountryMusic.com and the Ernest Tubb Record Shop have Tommy Collins material available.

The most exhaustive set available is the Bear Family box set Leonard which covers everything he recorded on Capitol and Columbia. Bear Family always does an excellent job, but these sets are expensive and they are overkill for all but the most diehard fan.

Probably the best single CD collection is titled The Capitol Collection. Released by Koch in 2005, it has 18 songs including all of his Capitol Hits. This collection is now out of print but may be located with some effort.

Tommy Collins/Singer, Songwriter, Comedian is on the Gusto label and includes material Tommy recorded for Starday after his major label days were over. Tommy re-recorded some of his hits for this label–they are okay but lack the sparkle of the originals.

The Best of Tommy Collins is available from Curb. Featuring songs culled from a pair of albums recorded for Tower Records (a Capitol subsidiary) in 1966 and 1968. While the title is misleading, the material is interesting. This CD sells for $5.99.

The British label Cherry Red Records recently released This Is Tommy Collins which is essentially a two-fer of the Capitol vinyl albums This Is Tommy Collins and Music County Style plus six bonus tracks from the religious album Light of The Lord. Although the juxtaposition of the religious material at the end of the disc is a bit incongruous, this is the best single disc collection currently available

The British Archive of County Music (BACM) issued a CD-R on Tommy Collins called Think It Over Boys. It covers 25 songs Tommy recorded from June 1953 to July 1956. This label specializes in the obscure and issues releases in CD-R format–you can order from them through several sources. They basically stick with music that has fallen out of copyright in the UK (50 years or older), but there doesn’t seem to be anything too obscure for them to issue–they feature US, Canadian, UK, Australian and New Zealand country music artists. BACM does not mass issue their high quality CD-Rs – they issue a small supply and then produce more as the demand warrants so you may have to wait a while for your order to be filled – but you will get it eventually.

Classic Rewind: T G Sheppard – ‘Last Cheaters’ Waltz’

Album Review: Rosanne Cash – ’10 Song Demo’

Rosanne’s debut for Capitol in 1996 was a new start for her in more ways than one. She was no longer concerned artistically with dissecting the failure of her marriage to Rodney Crowell, and no longer interested in making anything that might be regarded as conventional country music. Rosanne wrote all the songs (there are actually eleven rather than ten), all but one by herself, and this is really a showcase of Rosanne as a songwriter not tied to any genre. She was also pursuing prose writing at this time, publishing her first (and so far last) collection of short stories, Bodies Of Water, the same year. Recorded in New York and produced by Rosanne with her new husband John Leventhal as a demo for the record label, the executives liked the results enough to release it as it stood. This decision dictated the marketing of the record, with the title and artwork rather deliberately positioning this as the work of a serious artist rather than the hitmaker Rosanne had been a decade before.

The tastefully understated production and Rosanne’s vocals do sound very good, but as background listening (when not paying close attention to the lyrics), these songs have a real tendency to blend into one another without much variation in pace or mood.

‘The Summer I Read Collette’ harks back effectively to a clever girl’s teenage exploration of life and sensuality sparked by her reading; the title (embarrassingly mis-spelt on the liner notes and album cover) relates to Colette, the French novelist obsessed with youthful sexuality the anniversary of whose birth occurred when Rosanne was 18. It is melodic and passionate, and feels as autobiographical as anything else Cash has written. It is not a country song in concept or style, but the subject and theme convince, and this is perhaps the most memorable songs on the album, as the imagery is intense and the tune more distinctive than the remainder of the material.

The closing track, ‘Take My Body’ is also memorable, a strong defiance of cultural demands for modern American women as Rosanne admits to growing older

‘If I Were A Man’ beat Beyonce and Reba to the titular idea, and is a more thoughtful, low key and personal if decidedly less catchy take on the subject matter, and in fact it forms just one option in a sprawlingly discursive reflection.

The thoughtful piano-led ‘Price Of Temptation’ is good, with an intense lyric, although it gets a bit repetitive. It has a nice feel and beautifully judged vocal. ‘Bells & Roses’ is a hushed, velvety ballad about the depression following a breakup, which sounds decent, but is one-paced and repetitive, and frankly boring.

The Jerusalem-set and agnostic ‘Western Wall’ has a very dull melody, but must have been one of Rosanne’s favorites, as she chose to re-cut it for her next studio album, Rules Of Travel, and was also covered by the stellar pairing of Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. ‘List Of Burdens’ picks up the pace a little, the tenderly sung ‘Child Of Steel’, and the laid-back ‘I Just Don’t Talk About It’, the only cowrite (with Leventhal), and the closing ‘Mid-Air’ are all pleasant enough background listening, but tend to blur together.

Love song ‘I Want To Know’ has some good lines but is very repetitive and has the least attractive production choices.

I like the overall feel of this record better than some of her early 80s work where she seems to be striving too hard to be creating a new direction for country music. Here she abandons that struggle and lets the songs breathe in a way which doesn’t date, but too many of the songs fail to make an individual or lasting impact.

The album failed to chart and was understandably ignored by radio despite critical acclaim, leading to a hiatus in Rosanne’s recording career. It is available digitally, and cheap used copies of the CD are easy to find. It should appeal to Rosanne’s diehard fans, and to those who like literate female singer-songwriters of the ilk of post-major label Mary Chapin Carpenter, without any particular genre ties.

Grade: B-

Classic Rewind: Rosanne Cash – ‘500 Miles’

Week ending 9/24/11: #1 singles this week in country music history

1951: Always Late With Your Kisses — Lefty Frizzell (Columbia)

1961: Tender Years — George Jones (Mercury)

1971: The Year Clayton Delaney Died — Tom T. Hall (Mercury)

1981: You Don’t Know Me — Mickey Gilley (Epic)

1991: Leap of Faith — Lionel Cartwright (MCA)

2001: What I Really Meant To Say — Cyndi Thomson (Capitol)

2011: Barefoot Blue Jean Night — Jake Owen (RCA)

Classic Rewind: Rosanne Cash – ‘I Was Watching You’

Classic Rewind: Rodney Crowell ft Emmylou Harris – ‘Voila, An American Dream’

Rodney and Emmylou have recently announced plans to record a duet album together. Here’s a clip of them singing one of the songs on Rodney’s debut album, 1978’s Ain’t Living long Like This:

Album Review: Rosanne Cash – ‘The Wheel’

The 1990s ushered in an era of change for Rosanne Cash, both professionally and personally. Her marriage to Rodney Crowell was beginning to unravel, and as a result her music became more introspective and detached from mainstream country. Her first project of the decade was the (almost) career-killing Interiors, an album of dark and deeply depressing songs that she wrote and produced herself. Aware that the album would be a hard sell to country radio, Columbia Records turned promotional responsibilities for it over to its pop division, and shortly thereafter Rosanne’s contract was transferred from Nashville to New York. Though critically acclaimed, Interiors was a commercial failure, after which Rosanne took a sabbatical from recording for nearly three years.

Her follow-up disc The Wheel examines a lot of the same territory as Interiors, but by this time her outlook is much less bleak. Now divorced from Crowell, Rosanne co-produced The Wheel with John Leventhal, whom she would eventually marry. She wrote all eleven songs on the album, with Leventhal serving as a co-writer on four. Throughout the album she continues to put her failed marriage to Crowell under the microscope, although many of the songs also deal with moving on to a new relationship. What little marketing the album received was handled by Columbia’s New York division. Two singles were released. Neither reached the country chart in the US, though the title track did reach #45 on the adult contemporary chart and the follow-up single “Seventh Avenue” reached #63 on the country chart in Canada. Like Interiors, The Wheel was a commercial disappointment and it marked the end of Rosanne’s tenure with Columbia Records.

Both albums appear to have been created more for the benefit of the artist’s need to examine the changes in her personal life, rather than for the pleasure of the listener. While music is a perfectly legitimate means of self-expression, releasing two such albums consecutively comes across as rather self-indulgent. The Wheel is a much easier album to listen to than its predecessor. It is a quiet album, similar in style to some released by Mary Chapin Carpenter and Nanci Griffith; in fact, Carpenter contributed background vocals to some tracks. The songs are all tastefully produced and well sung. Unfortunately, they are also for the most part, quite dull. While I enjoyed a few tracks — namely, the title track, “You Won’t Let Me In”, and the excellent “Roses In the Fire” in which Rosanne burns the peace-offering of a cheating spouse — the remainder of the songs suffer from a lack of variety in tempo. Many of them are also too long, clocking in at about five minutes in length. They have a tendency to bleed together and by the fourth track I found myself wondering if the album was almost over yet.

While clearly not to my personal taste, The Wheel did receive considerable critical acclaim. It is essential listening only for diehard Rosanne Cash fans, but since cheap copies are widely available, more casual fans may be willing to add it to their collections.

Grade: C

Classic Rewind: Rosanne Cash – ‘September When It Comes’

Rosanne talks about recording with her father, and performs the song:

Single/Video Review: Joey + Rory – ‘Headache’

It’s always good to hear new music from Joey + Rory. Not only do they have a Christmas album due this year, but here is a brand new single and video, hopefully heralding another non-seasonal album in the not-too distant future.

Better still, this particular track is absolutely delightful, playing off the couple’s well-known real-life relationship. A wife has her husband’s weekend chores all planned out, and is less than pleased to see that his plans involve a fishing trip with friends. But she has a subtle revenge in mind for being left high and dry:

I hope you have more luck fishin’ than you will when you get home

I feel a headache coming on
And I think this one’s a doozy
It might last all week long

His birthday treat is also at risk, and as her wrath grows, her “headache” extends to a threatened month, and finally:

I think this one’s a migraine
It might last all year long

Eventually, the force of this threat persuades him to give in and relinquish the fishing trip in favour of his love life.

Joey’s lovely voice is at its best, with Rory contributing muted chorus harmonies, although he does play a bigger role as the erring husband in the equally charming video (directed by Bryan Allen), which playfully depicts the song’s story, intercut with performance scenes displaying the couple’s evident chemistry. The one thing I could have done without in the video are the line dancers, who really don’t add anything.

The song is neatly constructed and set to a bright mid-tempo tune. The arrangement and production are clean and crisp, and pure country, as we have come to expect from the pair’s music.

I was saddened to see they hadn’t made it to the shortlist for the CMA’s Duo of the Year this year, but in all honesty, Play the Song and its singles haven’t made as many waves as they deserved to do, and their label Sugar Hill does not have the clout of the majors. They are, however, the best duo in country music at the moment. Joey’s vocals carry the weight of the single, but Rory’s presence, and their interaction, add a genuine sweetness which is their trademark.

Grade: A

Watch the video on CMT.

Classic Rewind: Waylon Jennings – ‘Lonesome, On’ry and Mean’

Classic Rewind: Sonny James – ‘Young Love’

Sonny’s biggest hit:

A later version:

Country Heritage: Sonny James

“Let’s give a big Sarasota welcome to Capitol recording artist Sonny James and his Southern Gentlemen.”

Record labels do not have the aura that they had during the period of the 1940s–1970s, when artists were associated by the public with their record labels, and the record labels often put together tours of their artists. If you listen to live record radio programs of the period (or even live record albums), invariably the announcer would say something like this in introducing the artist “… and make welcome Capitol recording artist …”

The Big Four labels through the “Classic Period” of country music history (roughly 1950-1980) were, in order, Columbia/Epic, RCA, MCA/Decca and Capitol. Capitol was the smallest of the labels of the Big Four, with a shallower roster of artists, but during the period 1963-1972 Capitol had three artists who dominated in #1 records – Sonny James with 21 #1s, Buck Owens with 19 #1s and Merle Haggard with 13 #1s (according to Billboard). Yes, I know that all three artists had Billboard #1 records outside this decade, which ends when Sonny James left Capitol to sign with Columbia.

Sonny James is largely forgotten today, since when he retired, he really meant it. The raw numbers compiled by Billboard disguise the level of his success – Joel Whitburn has him as the #12 artist of the 1960s and the #10 artist of the 1970s but as of year-end 1997, Whitburn had Sonny James as #18 all-time. As of 2008, Whitburn still has him ranked at #22 all-time. Sonny James ranks ahead of many famous performers including Tanya Tucker, Kenny Rogers, Porter Wagoner, Tammy Wynette, Don Williams and Garth Brooks.

Born May 1, 1929 in the agricultural town of Hackleberg, Alabama, James Hugh Loden grew up in a musical family, singing with older sisters in the Loden Family group. While still a teen, Loden hosted his own radio show in Birmingham, Alabama. By the time James Loden entered the National Guard at the end of the 1940s, he was a seasoned professional entertainer. Although he had already finished his tour with the National Guard, the outbreak of hostilities in Korea resulted in Loden being recalled to active duty in September 1950, where he remained for the better part of two years.

Along the way James Loden had become friends with Chet Atkins who introduced Loden to Ken Nelson, famed record producer for Capitol Records. It was Ken Nelson who tagged James Loden with the Sonny James sobriquet, although apparently “Sonny” sometimes had been used as a nickname for Loden.

Ken Nelson started releasing singles on Sonny James in 1953. Some of the singles charted (others didn’t), starting with Sonny’s version of a song that Webb Pierce covered, “That’s Me Without You”, which reached #9 in 1953. Sonny would chart four more records through 1956, the biggest being “For Rent (One Empty Heart)” which reached #7 in early 1956. Sonny James was making inroads on television as well, appearing on the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, and on the nationally televised Ozark Jubilee hosting the first thirty minutes on a rotating basis with Porter Wagoner and Webb Pierce (Red Foley hosted the final hour of the show).

Sonny’s career song “Young Love” came to Sonny’s attention in 1956 through the recording of one of the co-writers, Ric Cartey. Ric’s record went nowhere but Sonny’s cover shot quickly up the charts reaching #1 for nine weeks in 1957 and reaching #1 on the Pop Charts as well, although Sonny’s recording was eclipsed on the Pop Charts by a note-for-note cover by actor Tab Hunter. Sonny feels that the opportunity for Tab’s cover to succeed came because Capitol could not keep up with the demand for the record.

Despite the success of “Young Love” (the flip side “You’re The Reason I’m In Love” reached #6) Sonny’s career did not kick into overdrive, as subsequent singles failed to maintain the momentum. By 1960 Sonny was off Capitol and recorded for NRC, RCA and Dot without notable success. From early 1958 until July 1963, Sonny charted only one single, that on the NRC label, “Jenny Lou”, which just missed the top twenty.

Reconnecting with producer Ken Nelson at Capitol in 1963, Sonny’s chart success resumed with some top ten singles. Then in January 1965 Sonny kicked off a run of singles that ran from 1965-1972 in which every single made it to the top three on Billboard’s country charts, a total of 25 in all, including a run in which sixteen consecutive singles made it to #1, a record later eclipsed by Alabama and tied by Earl Thomas Conley (the previous record holder had been Buck Owens with fifteen straight #1s). In reality, the string is more impressive than it sounds. After “You’re The Only World I Know” reached #1 for 4 weeks and “I’ll Keep Holding On” stalled out at #2, the next twenty-three singles would make it to #1 on at least one of the three major charts in use at the time (Billboard, Cashbox, Record World).

Sonny’s run of chart-toppers was the perfect blend of a smooth singer with a country sound that did away with fiddle and steel guitar but did not go to the extremes of Countypolitan and Nashville Sound recordings, being (mostly) easily replicated in live performance, and often featuring Sonny’s own excellent guitar playing. The songs were a mix of old Pop, Rock & Roll and R&B covers (13 songs) and original material (12 songs). While the earlier Sonny James hits did feature steel guitar (and he did keep a steel guitar player in his band) most of the later hits featured a guitar-organ, initially played on his stage show by band member Harland Powell.

How successful was the Sonny James during the 1960s and 1970s? Consider this:

1) According to Billboard for the decades of the 1960s and 1970s (1960-1979) Sonny’s recordings spent more time in the Number One chart position than any other artist in country music – a total of 57 weeks.

2) Also, according to Billboard, Sonny was the fifth ranking county artist for the two decade period, ranking behind only (in order) George Jones, Buck Owens, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard.

3) Sonny made more appearances on the Ed Sullivan show than any other country act. For those too young to remember, Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night variety show was “Must-See TV” introducing acts such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley to the American public and Sullivan was one of the first to prominently feature R&B, Motown and country acts on national television.

Clive Davis, President of Columbia Records, was a big fan of Sonny James, and lured him to Columbia where he scored his last #1 of the twenty-five song streak with “When The Snow Is On The Roses”. Sonny would score #1 and a handful of top ten records in his six years with Columbia before moving on to other labels. During his Columbia years Sonny seemed to become less interested in hit records and began recording theme-centered albums. In the chart below, the songs during 1972-1973 that charted at 30 or worse were older material released as singles by Capitol after Sonny left the label.

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