My Kind of Country

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

Monthly Archives: October 2011

Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard – ‘Ramblin’ Fever’

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today’

It is not unusual for a record label to release material it has “in the can” after an artist has left for another label. What is unusual is for that material to be top-flight and perhaps even better than the artist’s current musical releases. A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today is the first of two albums in which Haggard and Capitol wave goodbye to each other. The album made its chart debut on October 15, 1977, approximately five months after the release of his first album for MCA, Ramblin’ Fever.

Since the album didn’t have the promotional push of Capitol Records behind it, #28 was as high on the album charts as it would get and the singles released (“A Workin’ Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today”, “Making Believe” , and ”Running Kind”) all languished between #12 and #16 on the Billboard Country charts. Despite that the album remains one of my favorites.

More so than on his most recent Capitol releases, this album was founded on the blues. Since Haggard was already gone from Capitol, I assume that Ken Nelson was the guiding force behind the songs chosen for this album. If so, he did a magnificent job of protecting Hag’s legacy.

The album opens up with the title song, a song which echoes the sentiments of working people everywhere:

“A working man can’t get nowhere today
A working man ain’t got no time to play
Today I work my fanny off and leave it lay
A working man can’t get nowhere today”

The next track is one familiar to country fans of my generation and older, a song which was a major hit for Kitty Wells and Emmylou Harris, the Jimmy Work-penned “Making Believe”. An older generation would remember “Blues Stay Away From Me” as a major hit for Alton & Rabon Delmore.

Life is full of misery
Dreams are like a memory
Bringing back your love that used to be

Some have referred to the Delmore Brothers recording of this song as the first real rock and roll song; I think that is pushing it a bit, but it certainly is an excellent (and depressing song).

“Got A Letter From My Kid Today” was an old Tin Pan Alley song, with lyrics by Hy Zaret, who also wrote the Al Hibbler hit “Unchained Melody”. Bob Wills recorded and released it during the early years of WW2 but shellac shortages limited its distribution:

“Got a letter from my kid today
They let me read a line or two
I lost my teddy bear, I can’t remember where
Daddy is he there with you?”

“When My Last Song Is Sung” is a Haggard original, a highly introspective song about a singer looking back at his career and giving thanks to his maker. “Moanin’ The Blues” is the Hank Williams classic – not one of Hag’s stronger efforts but a nice recording anyway.

Merle Haggard’s boyhood idol was Lefty Frizzell. “Goodbye Lefty” is Merle’s goodbye to his recently departed idol and mentor. The song is a little gimmicky, working in various Lefty Frizzell song titles into the lyrics, but it works and is a thoughtful tribute to one of the greatest country singers of all time:

“I’d love to hear a jukebox play ‘I love you a thousand ways’
Or ‘If you’ve got the money I’ve got the time’
I’d walk a mile for mom and dad and the good times that we had
‘Look what thoughts will do’ when you sing ‘old pal of mine’.”

“Blues For Dixie” is a song recorded by Bob Wills in 1947 that has a Dixieland Jazz feel but a lyric consistent with the blues. “Running Kind” was a single that probably could have been a big hit with the proper promotional push behind it. Like many of Haggard’s best songs, it reflects the angst in his soul:

“I was born the running kind, leaving always on my mind
Home was never home to me at anytime
Every front door found me open I would find the back door open
There just had to be a lesson for the running kind

Within me there’s a prison, surrounding me alone
As real as any dungeon with a wall of stone
I know running’s not the answer, but running’s been my nature
And a part of me that keeps me moving on”

The best songs spring from unhappiness, despair and uneasiness. While this fact has made for some great songs, it also explains why it took Haggard so long to ever really settle down.

The title of “I’m A White Boy” is much less controversial than the title might suggest. Merle could easily have titled it ‘I’m A Poor Boy’ although the lyrical value would have been affected.

Haggard was always at his best when singing blues-based lyrics and this album gives him some outstanding songs to sink his teeth into. Haggard had gotten into a rut with his previous three or four Capitol albums, and the first two MCA albums Rambling Fever and My Farewell To Elvis really didn’t pull him out of it, although an artist rebirth was just around the corner.

Capitol would dredge up one more Haggard album before giving up, a tribute to Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell titled The Way It Was in ‘51.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard pays tribute to Bob Wills – ‘Cherokee Maiden’

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘My Love Affair With Trains’ and ‘The Roots Of My Raising’

After over a decade on Capitol, 1976 saw Haggard calling a halt to his association with the label. He was still at his peak, and that year he was to release three albums, two of which are avilable on one CD reissue. One of these was his first thematic concept album (as opposed to his tributes to two of the musical heroes who had inspired him), My Love Affair With Trains. Haggard wanted to document his lifelong love of trains at a time when this important element of American history was being swept away, and to pay tribute to the men who had worked and lived on the railroads.

It opens with an acoustic snippet from ‘Mama Tried’ with its reference to his childhood dreams of trains, leading into the first of a series of spoken reminiscences and comments over a selection of genuine train and whistle sounds, which are interspersed with the songs. Proceedings open with the Dolly Parton-penned title track, a cheerful mid-tempo number with solid train rhythms which belies the generally elegiac mood. The subdued and melancholy ‘Union Station’, written by Ronnie Reno (the bluegrass singer and musician who was then a member of the Strangers) about a station threatened with demolition, exemplifies the overall tone.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the obvious personal resonance of the subject matter, only one song is a Haggard original. That self-penned song is the firmly autobiographical ‘No More Trains To Ride’, a catchy mid-tempo song, with somewhat wistful lyrics as Merle reflects on his father’s railroad career and the hoboes in a vanished world. Red Lane’s ‘The Coming And Going Of The Trains’ narrates the story of the railways over history by dipping into the lives of those affected. There is the arrival of the railroads, displacing the Native Americans, providing a lifeline for drought stricken farmers in Texas, giving hope to prisoners measuring time by counting off trains, and finally the regret of an engineer about to be pensioned off. Mark Yeary’s ‘I Won’t Give Up My Train’ is a first person story song about a railroad engineer who can’t bring himself to leave the travelling life even when it conflicts with his family responsibilities. Read more of this post

Classic Rewind: Narvel Felts – ‘When Your Good Love Was Mine/Drift Away

Country Heritage Redux: Narvel Felts

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

“Give me the beat, boys, and free my soul
I want to get lost in your country song
And drift away”

Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios in Memphis had quite a roster of performers during the mid 1950s: Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Harold Lloyd Jenkins (aka Conway Twitty), Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Carl Mann, Warren Smith, Billy Lee Riley and Narvel Felts. Unfortunately only Carl Mann, Jerry Lee Lewis and Narvel Felts remain with us, and only Narvel Felts continues to perform on a regular basis and can still be considered at his vocal peak, his soaring tenor and high falsetto undiminished by the ravages of time. Among male artists who have had commercial success in Country Music, only Slim Whitman had a comparable ability to hit the high notes. Expand the discussion to include pop and rock music and you can add Jackie Wilson, Gene Pitney and Roy Orbison to the list. None, however, had quite the range that “Narvel the Marvel” possesses.

Felts was born November 11, 1938 in Keiser, Arkansas, and raised in Bernie, Missouri, where he became interested in music at an early age. During his teens Narvel worked in the cotton fields, saving his money to buy a guitar. While attending Bernie High School, Narvel entered (and won) a talent contest held at his school, singing Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes”. A deejay from Dexter, Missouri, was in the audience, and was so impressed that the next day he announced over the air that his station, KDEX, wanted to get in touch with Narvel Felts. Soon Felts was appearing at the station for his own Saturday afternoon show. This lead to further opportunities, especially with buddy Roy Orbison and noted record producer Jack Clement assisting Felts in getting placed on Sun Records. The first harvest came in the form of a rockabilly number titled “Kiss-a Me Baby.” Felts was only 16 years old at the time.
Unfortunately, rockabilly had a short shelf life as the dominant form of American popular music and artists that stayed with the format were quickly forgotten. Even the “King,” Elvis Presley, had to expand beyond rockabilly to keep his career moving forward. Nothing happened for Felts on Sun Records and he soon signed with Mercury where five singles were released without notable success. He recorded with minor labels for the next few years, achieving a minor pop chart success in 1960 with a cover of the Drifters’ “Honey Love.” This success led him to sign with MGM where he cut a number of singles.
Felts continued to perform and record throughout the 1960s with little commercial success as far as record sales were concerned, although he made many excellent records. Despite the lack of success, Felts was able to keep his career chugging forward as a popular gate attraction due to his dynamic stage presence. Hi Records had recording sessions with Felts at scattered times during the 1959-1973 period.
On April 30, 1962, Felts married Loretta Stanfield, a union that produced two children: a daughter Stacia and a son, Narvel “Bub” Felts, Jr. (Bub was a talented drummer, and a part of Felts’s touring band until his death in an auto accident in September 1995.)

Like former label-mate Charlie Rich, it took Narvel Felts until the 1970s for his career to hit high gear. Also like Rich, Felts’ talents were so diverse that it was difficult to pigeonhole him into any particular genre. While no one would ever describe Narvel Felts as being part of the “outlaw movement,” he unquestionably benefited from it as Nashville in the 1970s became more accepting of artists not cut from the Roy Acuff/Ernest Tubb/Merle Haggard mold. Recording on the small Cinnamon label, Felts started producing hit records.

In 1973, while signed with the Cinnamon label, his second single, the Mentor Williams composition “Drift Away” (#8BB/#5CB/#4 RW), became his first top ten country hit. This was followed by “All In The Name of Love” (#13BB & CB), “When Your Good Love Was Mine” (#14BB/#10CB), “Raindrops (#33BB/#30CB) and “I Want To Stay” (#26BB/#23CB).

In 1975 Cinnamon went out of business and Felts moved to ABC Records, where his first single, “Reconsider Me,” exploded onto the charts reaching #1 on the Cash Box and Record World country charts (inexplicably, it only reached #2 on Billboard’s chart), and received many honors both in the USA and abroad, including Cashbox Country Record of the Year, Billboard DJ’s Country Record of the Year and ASCAP Country Record of the Year.

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Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard – ‘The Roots Of My Raising’

This 1976 #1 hit was written by Tommy Collins, the singer who was to be immortalized in Haggard’s song ‘Leonard’:

Album Review: Merle Haggard & The Strangers – ‘It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)’ and ‘If We Make It Through December’

1972’s It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad) was Merle Haggard’s 15th studio album for Capitol Records. Like his previous efforts, it was produced by Ken Nelson and Fuzzy Owen. It was recorded entirely at California — part of it as early as 1970 — at Capitol Records Studio and United Recording Studio in Hollywood, and Buck Owens Studio in Bakersfield. He wrote five of the album’s eleven tracks, relying on writers such as Hank Cochran, Glenn Martin, Tommy Collins, and Red Lane to supply the rest of the album’s songs. Cochran and Glenn supplied the title track, which became Merle’s 13th #1 hit. It’s one of my favorite Merle Haggard tunes that he didn’t write himself. Emmylou Harris revived it a decade later when she included a version on her live Last Date album.

The title track was the only single released from the collection, so most of the tunes here will be unfamiliar to many fans; however, this is an excellent collection without a single dud among its eleven tracks. Haggard’s own “My Woman Keeps Lovin’ Her Man” and “New York City Blues” which finds him homesick in Yankee territory, are both excellent, with the latter showing a strong Jimmie Rodgers influence. Another Haggard original, “A Shoulder To Cry On” would become a #1 hit for Charley Pride a few months later. Pride had expressed an interest in the song upon hearing Haggard perform it shortly after it was written. Merle generously allowed Charley to record the song and release it as a single. Had he kept it for himself, it’s a safe assumption to say that his own version would have reached the top of the charts.

“Dad’s Old Fiddle” sounds like a Haggard-penned tune, but it was actually written by Glenn Martin, most likely with Merle in mind. It tells the story of a man who inherits his father’s fiddle and learns to play it. Merle’s own father had played the fiddle in Oklahoma, but gave it up before Merle was born, and Merle later taught himself how to play the instrument when he was preparing to record his Bob Wills tribute album.
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Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard – ‘It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)’

A Hank Cochran/Grady Martin song which Merle took to #1 in 1972:

Week ending 10/15/11: #1 singles this week in country music history

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

1961: Walk On By — Leroy Van Dyke (Mercury)

1971: How Can I Unlove You — Lynn Anderson (Columbia)

1981: Party Time — T.G. Sheppard (Warner Bros./Curb)

1991: Keep It Between The Lines — Ricky Van Shelton (Columbia)

2001: Where I Come From — Alan Jackson (Arista)

2011: Made In America — Toby Keith (Show Dog-Universal)

Week ending 10/15/11: #1 albums this week in country music history

1966: Bill Anderson – I Love You Drops (Decca)

1971: Ray Price – I Won’t Mention It Again (Columbia)

1976: Linda Ronstadt – Hasten Down The Wind (Asylum)

1981: Eddie Rabbitt – Step By Step (Warner Brothers)

1986: Randy Travis – Storms Of Life (Warner Brothers)

1991: Garth Brooks – Ropin’ The Wind (Capitol)

1996: LeAnn Rimes – Blue (Curb)

2001: Martina McBride – Greatest Hits (RCA)

2006: Alan Jackson – Like Red On A Rose (Arista)

2011: Lady Antebellum – Own The Night (Capitol)

Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard – ‘Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man)’

Classic Rewind: Barbara Mandrell – ‘(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want To Be Right’

Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard – ‘I Can’t Be Myself When I’m With You’

Album Review: LeAnn Rimes – ‘Lady & Gentlemen’

When LeAnn Rimes made her impressive debut aged just 13, she did so with a vintage song originally written for Patsy Cline. Her career subsequently veered popwards, with LeAnn often not seeming to be certain of her own musical identity. Most recently she has been producing solid pop-country, but her chart career has been overshadowed by a tangled personal life. So I was intrigued to hear that she might be returning to country classics – at least, until I heard the first single. I hated LeAnn’s manically speeded up and overwrought version of John Anderson’s hit ‘Swingin’, and was left gloomy about the album’s likely direction, despite Vince Gill being named as the producer. (He is in fact joined in that task on the bulk of the record by Justin Niebank, Darrell Brown (LeAnn’s regular co-writer) and John Hobbs, with Gill, Brown and Leann responsible for the arrangements). Happily, the end result is much better than I feared it might be, with the awful, misconceived assault on ‘Swingin’ the only track I really dislike.

There are a couple of other tracks which don’t quite work for me: a horn-accompanied and passionately sung ‘16 Tons’ sounds great if you don’t listen to the words, but is completely unconvincing as a working man’s anthem. Her reworking of producer Vince’s great ‘When I Call Your Name’ as a jazz-soul song wanders too far from the original melody and emotion for me, but is very accomplished in its way and will appeal to some.

Freddy Fender’s Tex-Mex ‘Wasted Days And Wasted Nights’ in contrast has a lovely retro, slightly loungy feel, with lovely phrasing and a small section sung in Spanish. I also enjoyed a new, mature version of her own first hit ‘Blue’, featuring Vince Gill’s side band the Time Jumpers. I enjoyed LeAnn’s enthusiastic take on Waylon’s ‘The Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line’, given a gender rewrite as ‘The Only Mama That’ll Walk The Line’. The Waylon/Willie hit ‘A Good Hearted Woman’ is speeded up a bit too much, but still quite enjoyable, expressed in the first person. John Conlee’s ‘Rose Colored Glasses’ is well sung but lacks the intensity of emotion of the original, although the production is more tasteful.

There are three outstanding tracks. While she cannot quite match George Jones on the hallowed ground of ‘He Stopped Loving her Today’, she gives a beautifully understated reading which works extremely well, with Vince adding harmony on the chorus. This is the one which best reveals LeAnn’s growth as an interpreter. A measured, emotional version of Haggard’s depiction of being trapped in an unhappy marriage where ‘I Can’t Be Myself’ is superb. LeAnn’s seductive and emotional plea to ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’ is almost as good.

Haggard’s ‘The Bottle Let Me Down’ (one of three afterthoughts produced by LeAnn with Darrell Brown) was a good addition to the tracklist. On first hearing I thought it paled in comparison to both the original and Emmylou Harris’s defiant cover, but over repeated listens, I have grown to appreciate the sense of defeat and regret in LeAnn’s version.

The other two are brand new songs, which have both been tried, and failed, as radio singles. They are out of place here, sounding much more contemporary, and they contradict the original conceit of the album, the idea that these were all “men’s songs” given a new interpretation by LeAnn. The aggressive Miranda Lambert style gender war of ‘Crazy Women’, written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Jessie Jo Dillon suffers from a cluttered modern production and rather limited melody, while the gentler but still contemporary ‘Give’, written by Jimmy Yeary and Connie Harrington has a well meaning message and is pleasant sounding but a little dull.

Interestingly, this is one of very few modern albums to get a vinyl release alongside CD and digital availability. Sales so far are reportedly low, which is a shame, because this is LeAnn’s best work for some time, and for me it fulfils for the first time the potential she had as a phenomenal teenager. Her vocals are great, and her sometimes muddy diction has also improved.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard – ‘Okie From Muskogee’

Perhaps Haggard’s best-known song, both within and beyond country music:

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘A Tribute To the Best Damn Fiddle Player In The World, Or My Salute To Bob Wills’

Unlike the Jimmie Rodgers tribute which celebrated a long dead and distant figure, this 1970 album was a tribute to a man still alive, and only about ten years removed from having been a viable recording artist.

Even so, by 1970 Western Swing was largely dead as a chart force, the only such artist still charting hit records being Hank Thompson, who had adapted his small-band swing sound into a more contemporary sound with some swing overtones. Spade Cooley was dead (after a stretch in prison for the murder of his wife) in prison, Tex Williams had become a Las Vegas lounge act, and Bob Wills himself had been traveling with a vocalist and using whatever house bands were available, few of whom had any real feel for western swing.

Meanwhile, hot on the heels of “Okie From Muskogee” (and a long string of other major hits), Merle Haggard had emerged as the biggest name in country music, releasing three albums (plus an album featuring his band) between the Jimmie Rodgers tribute and this album.

There would seem to be little to connect the music of Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. Jimmie’s music was that of the Great Depression, hard times and scraping by. Bob Wills’ music was, first and foremost, music for dancing and most of Bob Wills’ venues were dance halls. Both, however, were largely based in the blues. Moreover the two musical forces connected in Haggard’s music, probably because Wills was based in California for many years and his music was the music of the dance halls that Haggard heard growing up.

Emboldened by the success of the Rodgers tribute, Haggard set about working on a tribute to Bob Wills, producing three very commercially successful albums (two of them live albums) before pushing producer Ken Nelson into letting him produce another commercially questionable album. To prepare himself for the project, Haggard learned how to play fiddle, and, within a month of doing so, he started planning the album.

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Classic Rewind: Jimmie Rodgers – ‘T For Texas’

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Same Train, A Different Time: A Tribute To Jimmie Rodgers’

Merle Haggard was extremely fortunate that he landed with Capitol Records where he was granted considerable musical independence by his producer Ken Nelson. Nelson believed in letting his artists have freedom of expression. Nelson was there to ensure a quality production job and to give direction if needed, but to otherwise stay out of the way. In the case of artists such as Sonny James, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, this approach paid enormous dividends. It is difficult to imagine a different producer allowing one of his artists to issue as many non-commercial albums as Nelson allowed Haggard.

I was living in England when this album was issued in 1969 and purchased the single album British condensation of the US two-record set. When I got back Stateside I purchased the two record set, which I have to this day. I was delighted to find it on CD but when I’m home I still listen to the LP, reserving the CD for use in the car.

Same Train, A Different Time is something of a travelogue through Jimmie’s career with twenty of Jimmie’s songs interspersed with five narrations penned by Hugh Cherry and read by Haggard. This album features Haggard’s Strangers, with Roy Nichols often playing blues harmonica, instead of his customary lead guitar. The band, augmented by legendary guitarist James Burton on dobro, does a reasonable good job of replicating the feel (if not necessarily the sound) of the JR originals, and Haggard’s vocals are clearly a labor of love, complete with yodels. I should note that Jimmie Rodgers recorded in a number of settings, ranging from a simple guitar accompaniment to a full orchestra, with at least one recording featuring jazz legends Louis Armstong (trumpet) and Lil Hardin (piano). Haggard does not attempt to replicate the more complex settings sometimes found on Rodgers’ recordings but focuses on a basic blues or country setting. He also tends to focus more on songs that are based on the blues than Jimmie’s other inspirations.

Looking from the vantage point of 2011, it is difficult to comprehend just how important Jimmie Rodgers was to the development of country music as we know it. Such diverse performers as Jimmie Davis, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Bill Monroe, Grandpa Jones, Elton Britt, Wilf “Montana Slim” Carter and Lefty Frizzell all had Jimmie Rodgers as a primary influence in the development of their own musical styles – Snow and Tubb even worked overtime in helping establish the Jimmie Rodgers Festival Museum in Meridian, Mississippi.

Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933) was a railroad man who worked for many of America’s railroads until tuberculosis left him too weak to work. Jimmie had the heart and soul of a wanderer, and found his inspiration wherever music was played, incorporating blues, Appalachian ballads, jazz, vaudeville tunes, Tin Pan Alley and English parlor songs into his repertoire and creating a synthesis that inspired generations to come. Although Haggard grew up hearing Jimmie’s songs performed by others (such as Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow) it wasn’t until 1951 when Lefty Frizzell issued a series of 78 rpm recordings in tribute to Jimmie Rodgers (later issued as an LP), that Haggard went to the trouble of looking up the actual recordings of Jimmie Rodgers.

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Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard – ‘Workin’ Man Blues’