As is always the case, most of the best reissues of American Country Music come from Europe. There are several reasons for this:
1 – Until recently, European copyrights on recordings were only good for 50 years. This changed recently to 70 years, but the change was not retroactive. What this means is that all recordings made before 1963 have lost their copyright protection in Europe.
2 – The European customer for country music is more traditionally oriented than American audiences. This holds true for many forms of music including rockabilly, rock & roll, rhythm & blues, pop standards, you name it. European audiences, unlike their American counterparts, have not discarded the past.
3 – American Record labels simply don’t care – I’d elaborate, but there’s no point to it.
It should be noted that some of these albums may have been issued before 2015 but became generally available during 2015 through various markets.
We’ll start off with two box sets from the gold standard of reissue labels, Bear Family:
1. THE CHUCK WAGON GANG – THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS (1936-1955)
Released in late 2014, but not generally available until this year, this Bear Family five disc set compiles the gospel recordings of Dad Carter’s family gospel group. Marty Stuart wrote the forward to the accompanying book.
This Carter Family is NOT related to the Carter Family clan associated with A.P., Sara, Mother Maybelle, and June Carter, but was a successful gospel group that was with Columbia Records from 1936 to 1975, selling thirty-nine million records in the process. Consisting of D.P. (Dad) Carter and son Jim (Ernest) and daughters Rose (Lola) and Anna (Effie), this group was formed in 1935 in Lubbock, Texas, and became one of the most popular gospel groups of its time, performing a very traditional form of country gospel music. They were the first group to record Albert Brumley’s “I’ll Fly Away”.
The group continues to this day, although all of the original members have since passed away. This set won’t be to everyone’s taste in gospel music so I’d suggest that you listen to a few tracks before purchasing the set. The humble sincerity and beauty of the singing will likely have you reconsidering your idea of gospel music.
2. JOHNNY HORTON – THE SINGING FISHERMAN: THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS OF JOHNNY HORTON
Also released in late 2014, this nine disc set chronicles the recording career of one of the brightest stars of the Louisiana Hayride, whose life was cut short in 1960 when he was killed in an automobile accident. Some may recall that Johnny Cash was one of his best friends and some may remember that his widow was also the widow of Hank Williams Sr.
To the extent that Johnny Horton is remembered today, it is for the recordings he made with Columbia Records starting in 1956 with “Honky Tonk Man” and “I’m A One Woman Man”, songs thirty years later covered for hits later by Dwight Yoakam and George Jones.
Johnny’s biggest hit was “The Battle of New Orleans” which reached #1 on both the pop (six weeks) and country charts (ten weeks)in 1959. He had two other #1 records in “When It’s Springtime In Alaska” (1959) and “North to Alaska” released ten days after his death.
Those great Columbia Recordings are all here, but Johnny was an active recording artist from 1952 forward, recording with Abbott Records and Mercury Records, as well as some smaller labels. The Abbott Recordings were pretty pedestrian but Johnny cut some real treasures for Mercury, some of which were regional hits. Those long-lost earlier recordings are here as well, sounding as good as they will ever sound. These recordings encompass Johnny singing straight country , western, rockabilly and historical saga songs. The set comes with two hardcover books.
The good folks of Jasmine Records have been very busy this year:
3. NED MILLER – FROM A JACK TO A KING
Nice single disc set gathering Ned’s recordings from 1956-1962
4. RAY PRICE – THE ORIGINAL OUTLAW
This wonderful two disc set gathers up the albums Sings Heart Songs; Talk To Your Heart; Ray Price’s Greatest Hits & San Antonio Rose, plus 10 bonus tracks of various singles released during this period. Fifty eight songs of Cherokee Cowboy perfection.
5. PORTER WAGONER – THE FIRST TEN YEARS
Two disc set of early Porter Wagoner material – disc one is the complete albums Satisfied Mind and Misery Loves Company, and disc two is twenty-nine assorted singles. Most of the available Porter Wagoner product is either remakes on the Gusto family of labels, or else gospel music, so it is nice to have these RCA recordings available again at a nice price. This material (and more) is available from Bear Family, but the Bear Family recordings are overkill and expensive.
6. SLIM WHITMAN SINGS ANNIE LAURIE AND ANYTIME
This is a single disc set gathering up the albums Sings Annie Laurie (1961) and Slim Whitman Sings (1962), a pair of albums that find Slim getting away from the falsettos and yodels that made him famous and into a more ‘Nashville Sound’ approach at times verging upon easy listening. This isn’t my favorite Slim Whitman but it is worthy.
7. ROGER MILLER – SINGER/SONGWRITER THE EARLY YEARS (1957-1962)
This unique two disc set features a disc of early Roger Miller performances (some previously available digitally , but this time with better sound) and a disc of other artists performing Roger’s compositions
8. HAWKSHAW HAWKINS – THE SINGLES COLLECTION
Very nice single disc set collecting the Hawk’s singles for King, RCA and Starday through 1962. This set misses “Lonesome 7-7203” which was released in 1963, but catches everything else, including his theme song “On The Sunny Side of The Mountain”.
9. SHEB WOOLEY – GOODBYE TEXAS, HELLO TENNESSEE
This is a nice single CD that captures Sheb’s hits through 1962. Some straight ahead country songs, but also the more famous novelties including “Purple People Eater” and “That’s My Pa”. Most of Sheb’s recordings after this date would be released under the pseudonym ‘Ben Colder’.
10. GOLDIE HILL – THE GOLDEN HILLBILLY
B.A.C.M has released some material on CD-R, but beyond that, very little of Goldie’s material has been available. This single disc set catches the early 1960s Decca albums Goldie Hill and According To My Heart. Ultimately she would marry country superstar Carl Smith and largely retire from performing.
11. CLAUDE GRAY – I THOUGHT I HEARD YOU CALL MY NAME
Technically this was released in November 2014, but there is so little Claude Gray material available that this needed to be mentioned. This set includes Claude’s first two albums Songs of Broken Love Affairs (minus one track) & Country Goes to Town and features the singles “I’ll Just Have A Cup of Coffee (Then I’ll Go)” and “Family Bible” (an early Willie Nelson composition). If you’re not familiar with Claude think Jim Reeves, Jim Ed Brown or Eddy Arnold – if you like them, you’ll like Claude Gray.
I should mention that Jasmine Records takes recording from a variety of sources, sometimes original masters, sometimes needle drops. They take great care in their mastering and always have at least very good sound, and sometimes better. I’ve never been disappointed in a Jasmine release, regardless of genre.
The British BGO label has been releasing early Charley Pride albums in two disc sets, each covering four Charley Pride albums in chronological order. For my money the earlier the Charley Pride album, the better but all of these BGO releases are totally worthy of your attention. These sets cover through 1972:
12. Country Charley Pride / The Country Way / Pride Of Country Music / Make Mine Country
13. The Sensational Charley Pride / Songs Of Pride…Charley That Is / In Person / Just Plain Charley
14. Charley Pride’s 10th Album / From Me To You / Sings Heart Songs / I’m Just Me
I can’t say that I was overly impressed by the efforts of American recording labels during 2015. THere were not many good ‘Best Of’ or ‘Greatest Hits’ collections on contemporary artists, and as for the old-timers…
There were some noteworthy sets from Cracker Barrel restaurants, some of which (Mickey Gilley, Connie Smith, Faron Young) we reviewed on this blog. You can check their website to see what currently is available.
As for other American reissues, the following were especially noteworthy:
15. CHARLIE RICH – TWENTY-FIVE GREATIST HITS (Varese Sarabande)
This is a nice single disc set capturing 25 of Charlie’s biggest Epic and RCA hits. Not much has been available recently on Rich, so this set definitely fills a need.
16. CONWAY TWITTY – HELLO DARLIN’: GREATEST HITS LIVE (Airline)
Nothing new or revolutionary here, just nineteen live recordings released by Conway Twitty’s estate. The recordings are taken from performances in Branson, Missouri. During his lifetime neither Decca nor Warner Brothers ever released a live album on Conway so this is a nice souvenir for Conway’s fans. The studio versions are better, but the sound on these recordings is very good.
17. THE VERY BEST OF MARGO SMITH (Varese Vintage/Rhino)
Margo Smith was a second tier country star of the mid 1970s – early 1980s. She had fourteen chart hits, none of which had been available in their original hit versions until this year. There are other Margo Smith collections available but they either focus on her yodeling tracks (none of which were hits) or remakes of her hits. Margo is still alive and performing in Central Florida. Our friend Ken Johnson had a role in putting this collection together.
18. THE BEST OF CONWAY TWITTY: WARNER & ELEKTRA CHART SINGLES (Varese Vintage/Rhino)
First really well re-mastered recordings of the hits Conway had between his two Decca/MCA tenures. This album has unbelievably good crisp sound. Not Conway’s best material but there are some huge hits contained on this disc. Another set Ken Johnson assisted in putting together.
19. CHARLIE MONROE – THE STARDAY SESSIONS (Gusto)
This single CD set is comprised of twenty-four later vintage recordings by the older brother of Bill Monroe. While Charlie is less well known, in my opinion he was the better vocalist.
I suppose I should say a few words about Gusto. With the exception of the numerous gospel recordings made by Porter Wagoner during the last decade of his life, there is little new or original material on the Gusto Family of labels. Essentially, everything Gusto does is a reissue, but they are forever recombining older recordings into new combinations.
Gusto has accumulated the catalogs of King, Starday, Dixie, Federal, Musicor, Step One, Little Darlin’ and various other small independent labels and made available the music of artists that are otherwise largely unavailable. Generally speaking, older material on Gusto’s labels is more likely to be original recordings.
After 1970, these labels tended to be old age homes for over-the-hill country and R&B artists, and the recordings often were remakes of the artists’ hits of earlier days or a mixture of remakes of hits plus covers of other artists hits. These recordings range from inspired to tired and the value of the CDs can be excellent, as in the twenty-four song Charlie Monroe set referenced above and the boxed sets of Reno & Smiley, Mel Street and The Stanley Brothers, to wastes of plastic and oxides with numerous short eight and ten song collections.
To be fair, some of these eight and ten song collections can be worth having, if they represent the only recordings you can find by a particular artist you favor. Just looking at the letter “A” you can find the following: Roy Acuff, Bill Anderson, Lynn Anderson, Eddy Arnold, Leon Ashley, Ernie Ashworth, Chet Atkins and Gene Autry. If you have a favorite first or second tier country artist of the 1960s or 1970s, there is a good chance that Gusto has an album (or at least some tracks) on that artist.