My Kind of Country

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

Album Review: Don Williams – ‘Especially For You’

Don’s eleventh album, released in June 1981, continued Don’s string of successful albums, reaching #5, his ninth (of eleven) albums to reach the top ten. Three singles were released from the album, all of which made the top ten: “Miracles” (#4 Billboard/ #1 Cashbox ), the exquisite duet with Emmylou Harris “If I Needed You” (#3 Billboard/ #1 Record World) and “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good” (#1 across the board).

The instrumentation on this album is a bit unusual for a country album of this vintage as a variety of odd instruments appear including such things as bongos, congas, ukulele, shaker and tambourine. Fortunately only the second and ninth tracks feature synthesizer, and Lloyd Green is present on steel guitar to restore order on five of the tracks. Unlike Don’s earlier albums, dobro (or resonator guitar) does not show up in the mix at all, and I definitely miss its presence.

The album opens up with a tune from “The Man In Black” (Johnny Cash) in “Fair-weather Friends”. This is a religiously oriented track, but a nice song

Fair-weather friends, fair-weather sailors
Will leave you stranded on life’s shore
One good friend who truly loves you
Is worth the pain your heart endures

We never know which way the wind will blow
Nor when or where the next turmoil will be
But He’s a solid rock when troubles grow
And He’s holding out a saving hand for me

“I Don’t Want to Love You” comes from the pen of Bob McDill. Bob never did anyone wrong with a song and this song about the human dilemma is no exception

I think about you every minute
And I miss you when you’re not around
And every day, I’m gettin’ deeper in it
I’m scared to go on, but the feelin’s so strong
I can’t turn away from you now

No, no, no, I don’t want to love you
And oh, oh, oh, I’m tryin’ not to
No, no, no, I don’t want to love you
But oh, oh, oh, I think I do

“Years from Now” by Roger Cook and Charles Cochran is a tender ballad with no potential as a single

Still love has kept us together
For the flame never dies
When I look in your eyes
The future I see

Holding you years from now
Wanting you years from now
Loving you years from now
As I love you tonight

Dave Hanner was a familiar figure in the country music as a writer and performer (Corbin/Hanner). His songs have been recorded by the Oak Ridge Boys, Glen Campbell, Mel Tillis and the Cates Sisters but the capstone of his writing career is the classic “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good”, a chart topper for Don and recorded many times since then including nice versions by Lee Ann Womack and Anne Murray. Don had Corbin/Hanner for his opening act on one tour. Taken at mid-tempo, this is one of the songs that come to mind when Don’s name is mentioned.

Lord, I hope this day is good
I’m feelin’ empty and misunderstood
I should be thankful Lord, I know I should
But Lord, I hope this day is good

Lord, have you forgotten me
I’ve been prayin’ to you faithfully
I’m not sayin’ I’m a righteous man
But Lord, I hope you understand

I don’t need fortune and I don’t need fame
Send down the thunder Lord, send down the rain
But when you’re planning just how it will be
Plan a good day for me

“Especially You”, written by Rick Beresford has an artsy feel to it and has that “Nashville Sound” combination of strings and steel. I think that this song would have made a decent single

I see the rainbow in your eyes,
I see all the colors pass me by
I sure like the things my eyes can do,
Especially when they see you.

I hear the music of this day,
I sure like the songs this world can play
But most of all I like your tune,
When you whisper I love you.

My senses don’t like, I get a definite high
When you’re near I feel clear off the ground
Reach for my arms, and I will give you the stars
There is nothing that is holding us down.

Townes Van Zandt was the source of “If I Needed You”, Don’s successful duet with Emmylou Harris. I am not that much of a fan of Emmylou’s solo endeavors, but she can seemingly blend with anyone. Pair her with a good singer like Don Williams, and the end result is outstanding. I think that this is my favorite Townes Van Zandt composition:

If I needed you, would you come to me?
Would you come to me, for to ease my pain?
If you needed me, I would come to you
I would swim the sea for to ease your pain

Well the night’s forlorn and the mornin’s warm
And the mornin’s warm with the lights of love
And you’ll miss sunrise if you close your eyes
And that would break my heart in two

“Now and Then” (Wayland Holyfield) and “Smooth Talking Baby” (David Kirby, Red Lane) are acceptable album filler, but nothing more.

“I’ve Got You to Thank for That” by Blake Mevis and Don Pfrimmer is an upbeat mid-tempo love song song that grows on you over time. Blake Mevis had considerable success as a songwriter but may be best remembered as the producer of George Strait’s early albums.

I’ve got Sunday school to thank for Jesus
Got educated thanks to mom and dad
I can borrow money thanks to banker Johnson
Thanks to me I’ve spent all that I have.

I quit smoking thanks to coach Kowalsky
Thanks to lefty Thomson I can fight
It took a while learning all life’s lessons,
But I learnt about love just one night.

Honey I’ve got you to thank for that
It’s good from time to time to look back
It always reminds me that I love it where I am at
Honey I’ve got you to thank for that

The album closes with the first single released from the album “Miracles”. Written by Roger Cook, the song is yet another slow ballad. In the hands of anyone other than Don Williams, the song would seem turgid, but Don sells the song effectively. The use of strings with steel enhances the dramatic presentation

Miracles, miracles, that’s what life’s about
Most of you must agree if you’ve thought it out

I can see and I can hear, I can tell you why
I can think and I can feel, I can even cry
I can walk, I can run, I can swim the sea
We had made a baby son and he looks like me

I don’t think Don Williams is capable of issuing a bad album. It appears that Especially For You was only briefly available on CD (I’ve been reviewing from a vinyl copy), but is currently unavailable.

I prefer the more acoustic sound of Don’s earlier albums, but this is a good album that I would give a B+. Did I mention that I really missed that dobro?

Album Review: Don Williams – ‘You’re My Best Friend

Don’s fourth album, released in April 1975, found Don sharing the producer’s chair with Allen Reynolds, along with writing (or co-writing) four of the album’s ten songs.

The album opens with the title track, written by Wayland Holyfield. This was the first single released from the album and it soared to #1 on the US and Canadian country charts. It also hit internationally reaching the pop charts in the UK (#35) and Australia (#50).

“Help Yourselves to Each Other” is next up. A Bob McDill/Allen Reynolds collaboration, this song is a slow ballad about mutual dependency as part of the human condition:

What a time to turn your back on someone
What a day to be without a friend
What a shame when no-one seems to bother
Who will offer shelter to candles in the wind

And it follows we are only helpless children
Ever changing like sunlight through the trees
It’s a long road we must cling to one another
Help yourselves to each other,
That’s the way it’s meant to be

“ I Don’t Wanna Let Go” is yet another slow ballad from breaking up, this time from the pen of Jim Rushing. I cannot see this song ever being released as a single by anyone but it fits nicely within the context of the album:

Sweet bitter dreams gather gently inside me
As I roll with the earth finding nothing to hide me
For my love was my shelter my shore and my home
How can time repay what I gave away
When I don’t wanna let go

Don picks up the tempo (slightly) with “Sweet Fever”, from the pens of Dickey Lee and Bob McDill. The song features some nice steel guitar from Lloyd Green. I think we have all been here:

I don’t know what happens but you come walking by
I can’t speak my knees get weak I feel half paralyzed
My temperature keeps rising my head is feeling light
I sing love songs all day long I toss and turn all night

I got a sweet fever comin’ all over me
I got a sweet fever I wonder what can it be
I got a sweet fever comin’ all over me
I got a sweet fever I wonder what can it be

Dickey Lee and Bob McDill also collaborated in writing “Someone Like You”. I think this would have made an excellent single for Don, but the song was resurrected in as a single by Emmylou Harris in 1984, reaching #26. By 1984, Emmylou’s career as a singles artist had already slowed down, which is too bad as the song deserved to be a big hit for someone.

Others have touched me soft in the night
And others have kissed me and held me tight
Good times and lovers I’ve had a few
But I was just waiting for someone like you.

Others have loved me before your time
Some who were gentle, some who were kind
Don’t it seem funny I never knew
I was just waiting for someone like you.

“Turn Out the Light and Love Me Tonight” is another Bob McDill classic that Don took to #1. I love the imagery of the song. Some of the younger listeners may remember the song as an album track on Kenny Chesney’s 1996 album Me and You. Kenny did a nice job with the song but this version is the classic version. Don penned the next song, “Where Are You”, a slow ballad that makes a good album track.

Al Turney’s name shows up occasionally on Don’s early albums. The Alabama native’s “Tempted” is handled as a mid-tempo ballad by Don. While not released as a single, it received a little airplay here in Central Florida and apparently elsewhere as well. I feel this should have been released as a single:

Tempted, tempted, tempted to fall in again
Tempted, tempted, I’m tempted to fall in love again.

Sometimes love, can hurt you bad
Make you stop and wonder what you really had
But I guess it’s all part of the master plan
To be tempted to fall in love again.

Tempted, tempted, tempted to fall in again
Tempted, tempted, I’m tempted to fall in love again.

The album closes with a pair of Don Williams compositions “You’re The Only”, a mid-tempo ballad, and “Reason to Be” a philosophical, very slow ballad of introspection.

First I was love, then I came to be
I had a heart inside of me
And though my heart was working I found
Still there was something it had not found

So I went away, hoping to see
Maybe I’d find what’s missing in me
Knowing so well but not knowing why
If I didn’t find this something I’d die

And then I came to where I had been
I knew the first was still not the end
What I had left was not what I found
Because there was you, because there I found

First I was love, then I came to be
I had a heart inside of me
And though my heart is still part of me
You give my heart its reason to be

This album is not quite up to the standard of Don’s first three albums, but it is still an excellent album that I would give an A-

Ensemble:
Don Williams – acoustic guitar, vocals, producer
Jim Colvard & Jerry Stembridge – electric guitar, acoustic guitar
Joe Allen – bass / Lloyd Green – steel guitar, dobro
Shane Keister – keyboards / Danny Flowers – harmonica
Kenny Malone – drums, marimba, congas

Album Review: The Mavericks – ‘Brand New Day’

Lawrence Welk, Flaco Jimenez, Jimmy Sturr, Gene Pitney, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Marty Robbins, Louis Prima, Charles Magnante, Jacques Brel, Earl Scruggs, Tito Puente, Perez Prado and countless others inhabit the music on this album. None of them actually appear on this album, but all of them are among the influences apparent in the newest Mavericks album Brand New Day, the group’s first album to be released on their own Mono Mundo label.

[Note: Unfortunately the digital download of the album did not come with songwriter or musician credits, although I think Max Abrams handles the saxophone throughout the album and Michael Guerra is on the accordion. Malo usually writes most of his own material, so I would assume that he wrote most of this album.]

The album opens with the upbeat “Rolling Along”. Like polka band leader Jimmy Sturr, Mavericks lead singer and guiding force Raul Malo discovered long ago that Polka, Tejano, Cajun and Western Swing are essentially the same music, just played on different instruments. This basically falls within that group of genres with banjo, accordion, fiddle and trumpets all featured within the mix.

Life isn’t easy, it’s uphill, believe me
Whether you’re weak or you’re strong
Sometimes you feel like you’re back on your heels
And everything’s going all wrong

Through the confusion and all disillusion
Somehow life still goes on
I found a cure I know works for sure
And we just keep rolling along

So bring on the trouble and burst every bubble
I promise it won’t change a thing
I always find that my peace of mind
Still flies like a bird on the wing
What’s going to happen is still going to happen
The one thing that you can count on
Don’t fix what ain’t broken while Willie’s still smoking
We’ll just keep rolling along

Next up is the title track “Brand New Day” written by Raul Malo and Allen Miller, a big rock ballad love song of the kind that greats Gene Pitney might have recorded in the 1960s or Roy Orbison in the 1980s. It is derivative but gives Malo a chance to show that he is one of the few singers who should be allowed anywhere near this material.

Baby tomorrow’s a brand new day
We’re gonna love all our troubles away
I don’t wanna live like a ghost from the past
You’re not the first but you will be my last

There’ll come a time when all of your dreams
Will all disappear like a thief in the night
(A thief in the night)
It’s never too dark to keep out the light
There’s never a wrong that you couldn’t make right
(You couldn’t make right)

Baby tomorrow’s a brand new day
We’re gonna love all our troubles away

“Easy As It Seems” has a bossa nova arrangement with a lyric that one of Motown’s fine staff writers could have written:

Things are getting crazy, I beg to understand
The more I think I know, the more I know I can’t
So tell me what the point is with everything you say
Nowhere near the truth almighty a bunch of nothing said

Do you want to get mean?
Do you want to get cruel?
Do you think it’s wise
To play the fool?

I can mentally hear either Louis Prima or Dean Martin singing “I Think of You”, the arrangement and saxophones saying Prima but the actual lyric screaming Dino. Since I am a huge fan of both Louis Prima and Dean Martin, I would probably single this song out as my favorite track on the album.

“Goodnight Waltz” evokes the images of Parisian Café Society. Sung softly and taken at a slow waltz tempo, the lyric can be taken several ways, depending upon the frame of mind of the listener.

Here I stand before your eyes
I’m just a man who’s realized
Another dream has come to light
So I’ll say goodnight

I’ll say goodnight to you
I’ll say goodnight to you
So farewell but not goodbye
So I’ll say goodnight

Time has come and gone too soon
Tomorrow brings another tune
I’ll sing them all ’til the day I die
So I’ll say goodnight

“Damned (If You Do)” reminds me of a lot of other songs I’ve heard over the years, both lyrically and melodically (the first few bars had me wondering if I was about to hear the theme from the Munsters television show and there seem to be hints of that theme at several points in the song):

And sure as you are
Of lessons you’ve learned
Decisions you’ve made
Will all be overturned
But life all alone
Is a life unfulfilled
You may not miss the hurt
But you sure do miss the thrills

You’re damned if you do
And damned if you don’t
Damned if you will
And damned if you won’t

Next up is “I Will Be Yours”, a romantic ballad that a younger Engelbert Humperdinck would have recorded as an album track in the late 1960. I can even imagine Elvis Presley or Marty Robbins tackling this song.

If you should want to, or ever need to
Find yourself someone who would be true
I know the right one, to be that someone
And he has fallen in love with you

If you surrender to love so tender
Until forever I will be yours
Don’t ever leave me, darling believe me
Until forever I will be yours

“Ride With Me” has an early rock ‘n roll feel to it (with brass and accordion added), although the song also reminds me of Bobby Troup’s classic song “Route 66”. Basically a travelogue, it is a good song anyway. If you listen closely you will hear some Bob Wills style asides from Malo.

When I’m in New York City, I never sleep a wink
When I’m in New York City, I never get to sleep a wink
But when I cross that river all I want to do is drink

Well I have been to Chicago, they said it was the promised land
You know I’ve been to Chicago, they said it was the promised land
When I arrived as a child they promised that I’d leave a man

Phoenix, Arizona; Memphis, Tennessee
Southern California, Washington DC
I gotta go… a whole world to see
So pack your bags up baby
Come along and ride with me

Of all the songs on this album “I Wish You Well” is the one that I would describe as being like a prototypical Roy Orbison song. Malo does a fabulous job singing it and conveying the regret and angst of the lyric.

This is where the road divides
This is where we have to say goodbye
Say goodbye

After all that we’ve been through
How I wish for more than this to say to you
This to say to you

Here’s to all the good times
That we’ve ever known
To the memories
Yours and mine alone

Now you lie before me
Like a star that fell
Oh I wish you well
Oh I wish you well

The album closes with “For The Ages”, a celebratory love song, with an arrangement that, with the exception of the choral coda, could be called country, the only song on the album I would so describe, although like every other song on the album, accordion is in evidence.

For the ages… that’s what our love will be
For the ages… through all of history
For the ages… who could ask for more
For the ages… that’s what our love is for

I’ve never known a love to make me feel like this
I’ve never tasted wine sweeter than your kiss
I’ve never seen a star shining in the sky
Nearly half as bright as the twinkle in your eye

Describing the music of The Mavericks has always been difficult somewhat akin to trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole, only in their case the peg had a trapezoid shape. This album is no exception. It has been categorized as rock, which it is not, and I have seen it called country which it most certainly isn’t.

There is nothing new or revolutionary about any of the music on this album, and many of the songs on the album will remind long-time fans of songs on other Mavericks albums. Even so, this is one of the better albums that will be released this year, with its wide array of songs and musical styles. Raul Malo is in excellent voice throughout. My only criticism is that the album could be a little longer (it runs about 38 minutes).

Graded strictly in terms of the excellence of execution, this album is an A+. Graded on other criteria you might downgrade it to a B+ (shame on you if you do, though)

Album Review: Don Williams – ‘Volume One’

After briefly retiring from the music business, Don Williams reemerged as a songwriter and performer for Jack Clement, with the first album being released in June 1973*.

Despite JMI (Jack Music Inc.) being a bit player in the industry, Jack Clement was already a legendary figure with established contacts so this album features the cream of Nashville’s musicians. Allen Reynolds is listed as the album’s producer.

The album opens up with a song from the pen of Bob McDill, “Come Early Morning”.  This song was released as the second single reaching #12 on Billboard’s country chart and #9 on Cashbox. This is a laid back look at love

I been walking, walking in the moonlight
Tripping in the starlight, Lord and I’m feeling down
Walking in the shadows, sneaking down a side road
Come early morning I’ll be there on the edge of town

I was a thinking, thinking about a good thing
Thinking bout a sweet dream, in my honey’s eyes
And I was a sinking’, feeling kind of lonesome
Come early morning I’ll be home at my honey’s side

Next up is a Don Williams-Allen Reynolds composition “Too Late To Turn Back Now”. This is a nice mellow ballad about falling in love. This song is not to be mistaken for the pop hit by the Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose – it is a good song but not worthy of release as a single

Don covers a pop oldie with “Endless Sleep”, a huge hit for its writer, Jody Reynolds. The song was an interesting teen near-tragedy song that went to #5 pop in 1958. Many country artist covered the song as an album track, and Don’s is among the better covers

The night was black rain fallin’ down
I looked my baby she’s no where aroun’
Chased her footsteps down to the shore
Afraid she’s gone for ever more

Well I looked at the sea, seemed to say
I took your baby from you away
I heard a voice cry in the deep
Come join me baby in my endless sleep

“Shelter of Your Eyes” by Don Williams was the first single released from the album reaching #14 Billboard / #11 Cashbox. Like most Don Williams recording, this is taken at a relaxed tempo, but it tells a complete story and probably would have been a bigger hit had there been a major label pushing it forward.

In the shelter of your eyes
I have finally learned the song
It took so long to realize
I just can’t make it all alone

Words are only what they say
But this feeling isn’t wrong
I’m so glad I found my way
It’s good to be where I belong

And I’m, gonna stay,
Right here ’cause I’m
In rhythm with your mind

Tune out the world
And rest my head
‘Neath the shelter of your eyes

Although things had been slowly changing, country music at this time was still largely perceived of as the “endless ballads of booze and broads”. While a few county artists eschewed such topics (Slim Whitman comes to mind) most country artists would spend at least some time with those kind of songs. Don Williams mostly stayed away from the barroom songs.

“I Recall A Gypsy Woman” by Bob McDill and Allen Reynolds would have made a good single. Tommy Cash (1973) and BJ Thomas (1981) both released singles on the song, but neither had a big hit with it. In Central Florida several radio stations gave some airplay to Don’s version of the song, back in the days when Billboard did not chart album tracks. I love the imagery of the song:

Silver coins that jingle jangle
Fancy shoes that dance in time
Oh the secrets of her dark eyes,
They did sing a gypsy rhyme

Yellow clover in tangled blossoms
In a meadow silky green
Where she held me to her bosom,
Just a boy of seventeen

I recall a gypsy woman
Silver spangles in her eyes
Ivory skin against the moonlight
And the taste of life’s sweet wine

“No Use Running”, “How Much Time Does It Take”, “My Woman’s Love” and “Don’t You Believe” are pleasant ballads that Don penned.

The album closes with the Bob McDill classic “Amanda”. The song was the B-side of “Come Early Morning” and managed to chart, reaching Billboard #33/Cashbox #18, as many disc jockeys played both sides of the record. I think it could have been Don’s first top ten single if JMI had issued it as a separate single. Six years later Waylon Jennings would take the song to #1 on all of the country charts, and while Waylon’s version was good, I and many others preferred Don’s recording of the song

It’s a measure of people who don’t understand,
The pleasures of life in a hillbilly band.
I got my first guitar when I was fourteen,
Well I finally made forty, still wearing jeans.

Amanda, light of my life.
Fate should have made you a gentleman’s wife.
Amanda, light of my life.
Fate should have made you a gentleman’s wife.

Don Williams Volume One is a really fine album that I frequently revisit. It contains solid country production, well written songs sung with honest but not overwrought emotion. Don would have bigger chart hits and better selling albums upon movement to a major label but the foundation was laid here and few debut albums have been as impressive and satisfying as this one. Despite the lack of up-tempo songs, Don Williams is one of the few artists that can stay in a slow groove forever, without it becoming boring

Grade: A-

Musicians:

Bass – Joe Allen
Drums – Kenny Malone
Electric Guitar – Jimmy Colvard, Reggie Young
Fiddle – Buddy Spicher
Organ – Chuck Cochran
Piano – Bobby Wood, Chuck Cochran
Rhythm Guitar – Chip Young, Don Williams, Jimmy Colvard
Steel Guitar – Lloyd Green
Trumpet – Don Sheffield

* When Don moved over to ABC/Dot, this album was purchased by ABC/Dot and reissued on the ABC/Dot label.

Spotlight Artist: Don Williams

Our May Spotlight features Don Williams, an artist who had two successful careers in music. Don was born in 1939 grew up in Texas and started up the first of two successful singing careers in music. Aloing the way, he would amass many hit singles, successful albums, become a successful and beloved artist in the US, Canada, Ireland and England and achieve induction in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010.

The first career was that of a folk/rock artist with the Pozo Seco Singers (later Pozo Seco), a trio consisting of Don Williams, Susan Taylor and Loftin Kline, with Don and Susan as the primary lead singers. This career lasted from 1964 to 1970, and saw release of four albums and the following dozen singles:

“Time” (1966) – Pop #47, A/C #3, Canada #9
“I’ll Be Gone” – (1966) Pop #92, A/C #34
“I Can Make It With You” – (1966) Pop #32, Canada #21
“Almost Persuaded” – (1967) – RW Pop #51
“Look What You’ve Done” (1967) – Pop #32, Canada #33
“Morning Dew” (1967) – U.S. – did not chart
“I Believed it All” (1967) – Pop #96, A/C #8.
“Excuse Me Dear Martha” (1967) – Pop #102
“Louisiana Man” (1967) – Pop #97
“Creole Woman” (1968) – did not chart
“Comin’ Apart” (1970) – did not chart
“Strawberry Fields/Something” (1970) – Pop #115

During the latter part of the 1960s the folk/rock lost momentum as a subgenre of music as reflected in Pozo Seco’s declining chart success. The group disbanded in 1970, having worked as a duo the last couple of years after Kline and Kline’s replacement Ron Shaw had left. The last single, “Strawberry Fields/Something” was released after the group had already disbanded. Most of the Pozo Seco recordings are available between two CDs currently available and are worth the effort to find. While of a different genre, Don’s own singing style really never changed, so some of Don’s Pozo Seco recordings received some airplay on country radio after Don achieved success in the country field.

After the group’s breakup, both Don Williams and Susan Taylor (now known as Taylor Pie) eventually associated with JMI, the record label owned by the legendary Jack Clement. Taylor achieved success as a songwriter and was involved in the production of Williams’ early singles with JMI. Williams briefly dropped out of the music business after Pozo Seco, signing with JMI as a songwriter in late 1971 and as a recording artist in 1972.

Williams would issue two albums for JMI, the first (Volume One) being released in June 1973 with the second one (Volume Two) following in January 1974. This started a long string of successful albums with the next seventeen (including three hit collections) reaching the top twenty on Billboard’s Country Albums chart. Of these, twelve would reach top ten status.

Of course, there were limits to the promotional push that could be achieved by a small label like JMI so in 1974, Don signed with ABC/Dot (possibly pushed there by Clement) where he released the album Volume III, from which came the first of his seventeen Billboard #1 singles (another nine singles went to #1 according to Record World and/or Cashbox) with “I Wouldn’t Want To Live If You Didn’t Love Me”.

From that point forward Don would push his string of chart singles to 46, of which only four failed to make the top twenty. The string of chart singles ran out in 1992, but Williams continued to release albums of new music through 2014. I cannot say I’ve heard every Don Williams album, but of the many albums I have heard, I have yet to hear a track I really disliked.

Don Williams is now retired (his second announced retirement) but I suspect that this time he will stay retired. Certainly he has nothing left to prove, having left in his wake a tremendous discography of simple yet often highly sophisticated songs performed in a relaxed manner by the “Gentle Giant” of country music. He has been married to the same woman since 1960, raised two kids and certainly has earned the right to rest on his considerable array of laurels.

A complete discography is available here.

So kick back and enjoy our overview of May spotlight artist Don Williams.

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘This Thing Called Wantin’ and Havin’ It All’

This Thing Called Wantin’ and Havin’ It All was the eleventh studio album released by the former Don King Road Band and their fourth studio album for Curb Records.

Released in 1995, the album was the first top ten country album for the band since 1989’s The Boys Are Back, although it actually sold fewer copies than two of the three most recent prior albums. Four charting singles were released from the album: the title track, “‘Round Here”, “Treat Her Right”, and “She’s Gettin’ There”. Although this album and the next two albums would all be top ten albums, the success of the single releases was beginning to slow down. Whereas eleven of the previous twelve singles reached the top five, only one of the four singles would crack the top ten (and there would be only two more top ten singles after this album).

The album opens with “Nothing Less Than Love”, one of four Mark Miller-Hobie Hubbard collaborations on the album. This song is a mid-tempo ballad. “Big Picture” by Mark Miller & Mac McAnally is another mid-tempo song that might have been considered for single release. “I Will Leave the Light On” by band member Duncan Cameron is a nice slow ballad.

The up-tempo “(This Thing Called) Wantin’ and Havin’ It All” comes from the pens of Dave Loggins and Ronnie Samoset, and reached #11 on the country charts. I was surprised that the song didn’t crack the top ten since here in Central Florida it seemed as if I could not escape from the song as it received a little bit of pop and Adult Contemporary airplay. It is a good song (Loggins was always capable of cranking out good material) and one of my favorite Sawyer Brown songs. This was the first single taken from this album:

Rich man grew old, owned a mansion on top of the hill
Now he’s sitting at the table with his lawyer
Goin’ over his will ’cause he’s ill
The kids don’t call, they’re waitin’ for the man to die
He’s gonna leave ’em all a little somethin’
But they’re gonna be real surprised

There’s a poor man livin’ on a budget at the bottom of that hill
With a wife and two kids and a worried mind
About how he’s gonna pay the bills
Well, only the rich man knows, see
That’s where a lot of his money goes
To the man that brought wood in the winter
To take a little weight off his shoulders

There’s this thing called wantin’ and havin’ it all
If you’re gonna get there, you’re gonna have to walk
But first, you’ll have to crawl
And you know you’ve gotta do it step by step
Miss one and you’ll fall into this well
Called wantin’ and havin’ it all

“Another Mile” written by Miller & Hubbard is a typical ‘we can make it’ ballad that fits well in the context of the album although I can’t imagine it being released as a single.

The second single, “Round Here” has Miller & Hubbard joined by Scotty Emerick as the songwriters. This single reached #19 is a mid-tempo ballad extolling small town virtues:

Sue and Jack fell in love ’round here
They been goin’ steady now for years
He couldn’t afford much of anything
But he worked and bought her a diamond ring
And that’s the way we do it ’round here

That’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s done ’round here
That’s the way we live and that’s the way we love ’round here
Strong hearts and folded hands
A workin’ woman and a workin’ man
That’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s done ’round here

There is an old saying that too many cooks spoil the broth, and “She’s Gettin’ There” (composed by the team of Mark Miller, Scotty Emerick, John Northrup, and M.C. Potts (remember her?) is the weakest song on the album, a generic endeavor. It was released as the fourth single and died at #46, the first single to miss the top forty after fifteen consecutive top forty singles.

The third single, the Lenny LeBlanc-Ava Aldridge composition “Treat Her Right” was the big hit off this album, a tender ballad that peaked at #3.

A good woman ain’t easy to find
The faithful and the loving kind
And if you don’t hold her tight
She’ll slip right through your hands
Love gives more than it takes

So be willing for her sake
Stand by her when the strong winds blow
Even when it hurts, don’t let go

The album closes with two songs that are pitched to rural and small town America. The first song, a lovely ballad written by Mark Miller and Bill Shore, “Like a John Deere”, laments that hearts should be as reliable as John Deere tractors:

Oh, if hearts were built like John Deere tractors
There’d be happy ever afters
Strong, true and tough, and made of steel
They pull through when times get hard
And never fall apart
If hearts were built like a John Deere

The final Miller – Hubbard composition closes out the album with “Small Town Hero”, a story of what might have been and what actually happened.

I just turned twenty-nine three years in a row
Too young to be the president
Too old to turn pro
But when the seventies came and Elvis died
I could not fill his shoes
But oh, how I tried

It was the life and time of a small town hero
But it’s another day
I’ve got my wife, my kids, a job and it’s ok
This letter of intent now, is just for show
They say it’s lonely at the top
So I did not go

As I noted earlier, the album sold well, but the rural/small town orientation of the songs was not likely to entice urban country disc jockeys and programmers to be totally sold on the singles, a trend hat carried through on the next two albums, each of which featured one top ten single and several singles that missed the top ten. That said, this is a decent country album, which features three different steel guitar players (Jay Dee Maness, Dan Dugmore, Paul Franklin) and to my ears sounds how I think a country album should sound. Producers Mac McAnally and Mark Miller again demonstrate the ability to make an appealing album by keeping the tempos sufficiently varied to retain the listeners interest.

Mark Miller and Hobie Hubbard continued to progress as songwriters and there really isn’t a dud on this album. I suppose that I should try to find it on CD, as my copy is a well-worn cassette. I would give this an A-

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Buick’

Buick was Sawyer Brown’s first album of the 1990s, and the first album to feature a song by Mac McAnally, although it would be another two albums before McAnally became a major presence in the totality of Sawyer Brown’s sound. For this album, McAnally did vocal arrangements, and Mark Miller and Randy Scruggs co-produced the album.

Unlike most of their prior albums, gone was the dreaded 80s production, with more reliance on traditional musical instruments (alas, no steel guitar). More importantly, the songwriting of band members Hubbard and Miller continued to improve.

Three singles were released from the album. The first two singles “One Less Pony” and “Mama’s Little Baby Loves Me” both stiffed at radio reaching #70 and #68 respectively. The third single “The Walk”, reached #2, their first top ten recording after five consecutive records failed to reach the top twenty. Moreover, “The Walk” would kick off a string of eight straight singles (and eleven out of twelve) that would reach the top five of the Country singles chart.

The album opens up with a Gregg Hubbard-Mark Miller composition “Mama’s Little Baby Loves Me”. The song was not a terrible choice for a single, but this mid-tempo ballad was a little too similar to several other singles that had been released to radio by various other artists.

Miller collaborated with Randy Scruggs on “My Baby Drives A Buick”, a somewhat funky slow ballad. I’m not sure you could get away with this lyric in today’s PC environment:

“You think that you’ve been through it, But you ain’t seen nothin’ till your baby drives a Buick.”

Mac McAnally makes his Sawyer Brown debut with “When You Run From Love”, a song co-written with Mark Miller. The song has a meaningful lyric that foreshadows future efforts. The instrumental accompaniment has a blues/rock feel to it.

Love up and beat a path to my back door
I could always walk away before
I thought, I could get away untouched
But you think to much when you run from love
When you run from love
When you run from love

The quickest way ain’t fast enough and the
Trains and the planes will let you down
If you hide your eyes
You make a chain of pain and lies
And you know that
You’re only losing ground
When you run from love

Mark Miller’s “The Walk” may be the best song that Miller ever wrote. Since the Buick album was not an overwhelming sales success, Curb carried the song over to the next album, using it as the title song. This song definitely signaled a directional shift by the band to more lyrically sophisticated songs.

Down our long dusty driveway
I didn’t want to go
But I set out with tears in my eyes wonderin`
Daddy took me by the hand
Looked down at the school bus and his little man and said,
“Don’t worry boy it will be all right”

[Chorus]
‘Cause I took this walk you’re walking now
Boy, I’ve been in your shoes
You can’t hold back the hands of time
It’s just something you’ve got to do
So dry eyes I understand just what you’re goin` through
‘Cause I took this same walk with my old man
Boy, I’ve been in your shoes

“Forty-Eight Hours Till Monday” is another Miller-Hubbard collaboration, this time a mid-tempo song celebrating the weekend. I think this would have made a very decent single.

It’s Friday night and I’ve been workin’ all week long
After the rent all I have left is this old song
My baby’s right beside me, we’re gonna have a ball
Ain’t gonna care about anything, anything at all
I’ve got 48 hours and 25 dollars in change ’til Monday

Got on my skin tight jeans
And my shirt with the ketchup stains
I’ve got a hole in my pocket and the world by the tail
And everything is going my way
I’ve got 48 hours and 25 dollars in change

I’m not sure why Mark Miller wrote “Superman’s Daughter”, as the song is rather gimmicky. As a mid-tempo rocker, the song does no harm as an album track.

She was the most unusual girl I’d met
She stole my heart and she took my breath
She had these certain ways I did not understand
And when I made my move to execute my plan
She was leading me like a lamb to a slaughter

You don’t mess around with Superman’s daughter
Superman’s daughter got looks that kill
She got X-ray eyes, she got a heart of steel
When she fell in love, I never would have caught her
If I’d only known she was Superman’s daughter

“One Less Pony”, another Miller composition, is an up-tempo ballad that functions well as an album track but was too derivative to make a good single.

Donna McElroy has had a long career as a background singer, although little success as a recording artist. Her contributions to the Hubbard-Miller composition “Still Water” add a gospel quality to a lovely
song .

“Stealing Home” is yet another Hubbard-Miller composition, this time a mid-tempo ballad that makes use of baseball analogies

No, I’m not just crazy, I’ve lost more than my mind
Since I looked into your blue eyes
I’m swingin’ for the bleachers with my heart
Thinking this time that I might win looking at you
Stealin’ home, stealin’ home
I’m rounding third and I’m heading on in
Look at me taking chances again
Maybe this time, I’ll beat out the throw stealing home

The album closes with “Thunder Bay”, a Scruggs-Miller collaboration.

I never thought that anyone could do me like you do me
I never thought that love would get in the way
But there was magic in the air and there were stars out on the water
On a moonlit night in Thunder Bay

As with other Sawyer Brown albums, there is a nice mix of styles and tempo to keep things interesting.

I think that “The Walk” was a bit unlucky to not reach #1, and in general, this album represents an upgrade over earlier albums in terms of songwriting and production values. I would rate this an A-

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Out Goin’ Cattin”

Sawyer Brown was often excoriated for the frivolous and superficial lyrical content of the songs they recorded, at least in the days before they associated with ace Nashville songwriter Mac McAnally. While it is true that most of their early songs were not that sophisticated or relevant, the fact remains that none of Sawyer Brown’s early albums were b-o-r-i-n-g, being filled with good cheer and frequently danceable music.

Out Goin’ Cattin’ was Sawyer Brown’s third album and also their third top ten country album. While the album was not full of top ten singles, the album, produced by Randy Scruggs is a well produced and organized album, with varying tempos and varying styles of music encompassed within its ten songs.

The album opens with “Lady of the Evening”, a Mark Miller composition. The song is a nice mid-tempo ballad. I don’t like the production much – it reeks of 1980s – but the song is interesting:

She’s got my picture in her locket
I got my hand in her back pocket
Walkin” through the night, in our home town
We take our time as we go strollin’
We might go to a movie, might go bowling
She just says we’ll take on what the night will bring

[Chorus]
‘Cause she’s a lady of the evening
But only just for me man
I’m a wonderin’ why she set her likes on me
She’s got me overflowing
‘Cause she keeps me knowin’
I’ll be doin’ my leavin’
With a lady of the evening tonight

“Better Be Some Tears” is next. Written by Kerry Chater, Bill LaBounty and Beckie Foster, this up-tempo ballad might have been a reasonable choice for release as a single. As relationship songs go, this one is a bit flinty:

Some other fool with his head in the clouds
Might let you get away with what you done
But not me, Baby, not me
You fall out of love and now you’re comin’ around
Any time you want to get back on
We’ll see, Baby, we’ll see
I won’t be waitin’ here forever
Right now I’m tellin’ you

[Chorus:]
There better be some tears
I wanna see some cryin’
Now you do a little dying
To show me you’re sincere
There better be some tears
After the way you left me
Baby if you wanna get me
To let you come back here
There better be some tears

“Not Ready to Let You Go” by Steve Dorff and Mark Miller is a slow, tender ballad that has an easy listening/adult contemporary feel to it, again with typical 80s production.

“Out Goin’ Cattin'” by Randy Scruggs and Mark Miller was the first single released from the album, reaching #11 (it went to #4 in Canada). Frankly, it should have been a bigger hit as it is a fine song with a definite R&B vibe to it. Joe Bonsall, the fine tenor of the Oak Ridge Boys, is featured on the song and the addition of his voice to Mark Miller’s really makes this song work.

We still bop and our cars run hot
We’re out cuttin’ the fool
We’re tearin’ the town got the top laid down
Like we’re back in school
I got a white sport coat and blue suede shoes
We’re gonna find us a Betty and a Bobby Sue

[Chorus]
Well don’t go tellin’ don’t go rattin’
Hey baby baby we’re out goin’ cattin’
Juke joint jammin’ tit for tat
And mama don’t wait up, wait up
We’re out goin’ cattin’
Oh yeah, out goin’ cattin’
Oh yeah, out goin’ cattin’

“The House Won’t Rock” a Frank J. Myers – Mark Miller collaboration rocks but gently. The lyrics are not to be taken too seriously, harkening back to the sort of lyrics that permeated early rock and roll.

Next up is “New Shoes” (Bill LaBounty, Beckie Foster and Susan Longacre). Again the song doesn’t feature especially deep lyrics but it is a celebratory and a decent dance number:

She put me down and left me flat
Like a penny on a railroad track
The dust ain’t even settled yet
Now look at me take my first step
Gonna kick this heartache in the butt
Tonight I’m gonna strut

[Chorus:]
Puttin’ on some new shoes
Gettin’ rid of these old blues
All is takes is one quick change
And I’ll just dance away
In my new shoes

“Graveyard Shift” by Gene Nelson and Paul Nelson is the most meaningful song on the album, proof that even before connecting with McAnally that Miller and company were capable of handling more serious fare. As one who worked graveyard shifts for four years, I can identify with the sentiments expressed in this song.

The only way to make a livin’ round here
Is down there on the loading dock
My daddy done it for 35 years
And old is all he ever got

Guess I was meant to follow in his footsteps
Just like an assembly line
But it’s amazing how long the nights get
When I’m working on the graveyard shift
Yes I’m working on the graveyard shift

Wishin’ I could give someone a piece of my mind
There must be somethin’ better than this
Bein’ buried alive where the sun never shines
Workin’ on the graveyard shift

“Night Rockin’ “, another Scruggs-Miller collaboration, really doesn’t rock at all, being but another mid-tempo ballad. It serves its purpose in that it keeps the tempos varied within the album.
“Savin’ the Honey for the Honeymoon” by J. Barry and Rick Vito is kind of a silly song that was the third single released from the album, dying at #58. The song, which has an early Buck Owens tempo, is another one of those songs about the girl not giving it up until receipt of the wedding band. It makes for a great album cut and was probably a little unlucky not to do better as a single.

Mark Miller’s “Gypsies On Parade” is the closing track. Released as the second single, it just cracked the top thirty. The song, a slow ballad, tells the story of a band’s life on the road. The song is well constructed but not necessarily singles material:

We pulled out of Charlotte
The snow is fallin’ down
We make our way in a one eagle sleigh
‘Til we reach another town
Our name is in lights on the billboard sign
In every town we play
But if you may, all it really need say
Are gypsies, gypsies on parade

This is a pretty entertaining album, with good use of varying tempos, although I would have liked for the album to include at least one really fast song, such as “Step That Step”. The album is marred somewhat by the production, with saxophone passages (mercifully few) played by a Kenny G imitator. As a lead singer Mark Miller continued to show improvement and the band remains cohesive. I can’t quite give this album an A, but it is a solid B+ and one I listened to frequently in the first few years after it was released.

Album Reviews: Jessi Colter and Waylon Jennings duets

There currently isn’t much available by this duo, and they did not record much together since their voices really didn’t blend all that well.

Leather & Lace was issued on vinyl & cassette by RCA in February 1981 and features the following ten songs:

01) You Never Can Tell (C’est La Vie)
02) Rainy Seasons
03) I’ll Be Alright
04) Wild Side Of Life
05) Pastels And Harmony
06) I Believe You Can
07) What’s Happened To Blue Eyes
08) Storms Never Last
09) I Ain’t The One
10)You’re Not My Same Sweet Baby

All American Country was issued on CD by BMG in 2003 and features the following ten songs:

Suspicious Minds
Under Your Spell Again
I Ain’t The One *
Storms Never Last *
Wild Side Of Life *
You Never Can Tell (C’est La Vie) *
Sight For Sore Eyes
I’ll Be Alright *
What’s Happened To Blue Eyes *
You’re Not My Same Sweet Baby *

Songs marked by * also appear on Leather & Lace.

There are only four actual duets on Leather & Lace (01, 04, 08, 09) with Jessi being solo on 02 and 06 and Waylon being solo on the remaining four songs.

All American County has the four duets on Leather & Lace plus “Suspicious Minds”, “Under Your Spell Again” and “Sight For Sore Eyes” are duets, meaning that the modern era CD is the better collection if you are looking for actual duets. This CD is still readily available, whereas Leather & Lace has been out of print for a long time.

Waylon & Jessi did not have a tremendous amount of chart success as a duet, with “Wild Side of Life” (a medley of Hank Thompson’s hit and Kitty Wells’ answer song) reaching #10 in 1981 and “Storms Never Last” reaching #17” in 1981. The only other top twenty hit was “Suspicious Minds”, the old Elvis #1 pop hit from 1969 reaching #2 in 1976.

Truthfully, while I am a big Waylon Jennings fan, neither of these albums is particularly satisfactory. I would regard the best song (found on both albums) as “You Never Can Tell”, a Chuck Berry song from 1964. The solo efforts on Leather & Lace (especially the Waylon tracks) are throw-aways so I would give Leather & Lace a C. I would give All American Country a B for having more duets and better songs.

Album Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Way Out West’

Way Out West, the new album by Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives is one of the more eclectic albums I’ve encountered in recent years. I’m not sure who the target audience is, or even if there is a target audience.

There are those who would assert that the West has as much of a claim to the origins of country music as does Bristol, Nashville and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Certainly the cowboy heritage has made its way into the country persona, perhaps more so with the fashion than the music, but in any event Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and the Sons of The Pioneers are safely enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame, as is Bob Wills.

It is hard to know how to assess this collection of songs. There are vocal tracks and instrumental tracks, some tracks which are traditional sounding western ballads and at least two which seem almost psychedelic. The band flits between sounding like a good country band to having overtones of The Ventures, Duane Eddy, Don Rich, Grady Martin and more.

The album opens up with “Desert Prayer – Part 1” which sounds like some sort of chant with what sounds like sitar. This is followed up by “Mojave” an instrumental track that sounds like Nokie Edwards meets Duane Eddy.

The third track is “Lost On The Desert” is the story of an escaped robber who heads to the desert to reclaim the money he stole, tormented by the devil before he can find the money. I can mentally hear Marty Robbins singing this song, but I don’t think Marty Robbins ever recorded the song. Johnny Cash did, record the the Billy Mize-Dallas Frazier song, however, on his 1962 album The Sound of Johnny Cash.

A burnin’ hot su,n a cryin’ for water, black wings circle the sky
Stumblin’ and fallin’, somebody’s callin’, you’re lost on the desert to die
I had to give up and they took me to jail but I hid all the money I got
Way out on the desert where no one could get it and I left a mark at the spot
Then I got away and I ran for the desert the devil had taken control
I needed water but he said I’d make it near the money is a big waterhole
A burnin’ hot sun…

Just up ahead is where I left my mark or it may be to the left or the right
I’ve been runnin’ all day and they’ll catch up tomorrow, I’ve got to find it tonight
Then up jumped the devil and ran away laughin’, he drank all the waterholes dry
He moved my mark till I’m running in circles and lost on the desert to die
A burnin’ hot sun…
(Lost on the desert to die) lost on the desert to die (lost on the desert to die)

“Way Out West” is 5:42 long, and is a strange tale of the narrator having (or hallucinating) a number of experiences, while under the influence of pills. Somehow I mentally can hear Jefferson Airplane singing this song.

“El Fantasma Del Toro” sounds like Santo & Johnny are providing the music for this instrumental.

“Old Mexico” might be likened to “El Paso” in reverse, with the cowboy heading to Mexico where there isn’t a price on his head. There is some nice vocal trio work – this may be my favorite song on the album, and could have been a hit forty years ago, especially if Marty Robbins recorded it.

“Time Don’t Wait” is a good song, a little more rock than country, with a lyric that speaks the truth as we all know it.

“Quicksand” has a very martial sounding introduction before lapsing into a more standard rock sound.

“Air Mail Special” is the oldest song on the album, having been composed by Benny Goodman, James Mundy and Charlie Christian. For those not aware of the writers, Benny Goodman was probably the greatest jazz clarinetist ever and Charlie Christian was the first great electric guitar player. I assume that Mundy wrote the lyrics later since neither Goodman nor Christian were lyricists.

Left New York this morning early
Traveling south so wide and high
Sailing through the wide blue yonder
It’s that Airmail Special on the fly
Listen to the motors humming
She is streaking through the sky
Like a bird that’s flying homeward
It’s that Airmail Special on the fly
Over plains and high dark mountains
Over rivers deep and wide
Carrying mail to California
It’s that Airmail Special on the fly
Watch her circle for the landing
Hear her moan and cough and sigh
Now she’s coming down the runway
It’s that Airmail Special on the fly

Marty’s band is indeed superlative, and with “Torpedo” they are in their best Ventures mode. As far as I know the Ventures were strictly an instrumental group, and Torpedo is a fine instrumental.

“Please Don’t Say Goodbye” reminds me of something the Wagoneers might have recorded a couple of decades ago.

If you like the Flying Burrito Brothers “Whole Lotta Highway (With A Million Miles To Go)” definitely fits that vibe. Marty does a fine job. I must admit that it is nice to hear a new truck driving song again – the subgenre has nearly disappeared.

“Desert Prayer – Part 2” is just an interlude.

I really liked “Wait For The Morning” which features really nice vocal harmonies with a song that is a slow western-styled ballad, although not especially western in its subject matter. Lovely steel guitar work closes out the song.

“Way Out West” (Reprise) closes out the album – the reprise is largely instrumental and sounds like something from one of the spaghetti western soundtracks.

Unfortunately I do not have the booklet for the songs on this album, so mostly I don’t know who wrote which songs, or what additional musicians played on the album besides the Fabulous Superlatives. Mike Campbell, former guitarist for Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, produced and achieved a remarkable panoply of sounds. The Fabulous Superlatives are superlative, and Marty is in good voice throughout. I wouldn’t especially cite this album as being particularly thematic – it’s more a collection of songs loosely based on western themes.

B+

Where to find good ol’ country music – or the transition to bluegrass

I really like good ol’ country music from the period 1930 – 2005. Most of my favorite songs and performances dated from 1975 back to the days of Jimmie Rodgers and The Original Carter Family. I also like to see live music performances. Except in a few sections of the country, modern country radio has largely forsaken good ol’ country music. Yes, there is Sirius-XM Radio, but the stations that play pre-2005 country tend to have rather shallow playlists, and satellite radio can be a pricey proposition. I do have XM in my vehicle because I make a number of long trips on business.

Being able to see live good ol’ country music performed is getting more problematic. In some areas there are younger performers who have embraced the art form, but in other areas they can barely be found. Moreover, the classic country performers are ageing. Most of the great country performers of the 1950s and 1960s have moved on to that Great Opry Stage in The Sky. The same is increasingly true for many of the stars of the 1970s. We have even lost some of the stars of the 1980s.

What to do ?

During the 1940s and 1950s there wasn’t much difference between country and bluegrass except the instrumentation, with many artists (Jimmie Skinner, Lee Moore, Mac Wiseman) straddling the border between the two genres. As the 1960s arrived, there was more separation although artists such as the Osborne Brothers and Jim & Jesse McReynolds featured steel guitar and ‘Nashville’ sound trappings on their major label bluegrass recordings. Through the early 1970s it wasn’t unusual to see bluegrass acts chart on the country music charts.

By the mid-1970s, the two streams had completely separated. Bluegrass was no longer played on country radio (except an occasional song from a movie such as “Dueling/Feuding Banjos” might be played), and the repertoire had largely segmented as well.

Over the last twenty years or so, as the product on country radio has become more unlistenable, something strange has happened: bluegrass artists have become the guardians of the country music tradition. Many of today’s bluegrass artists grew up listening to that good ol’ country music and have been incorporating larger amounts of it into their repertoire. In some cases artists, such as Ricky Skaggs and Marty Raybon who had substantial country careers, returned to their bluegrass roots, bringing their country repertoire with them. In other cases bluegrass acts, often serious students of music, have gone back and founded the repertoire that country radio and young country artists seemingly lost.

Obviously, I’ve done no detailed study into the matter, but I’ve been attending bluegrass festivals over the last eight years, and have heard a tremendous amount of country songs performed. Almost every bluegrass group has at least a few classic country songs that they perform, and many have repertoires that are 30%-50% country songs.

So where should you start?

I must admit that the ‘high lonesome sound’ is an acquired taste. Even now, I really cannot listen to more than a few Bill Monroe vocals at a time. That said, Bill usually kept some other vocalist on board with such proficient singers as Lester Flatt, Jimmy Martin, Mac Wiseman and Peter Rowan all taking turns in Bill’s band. Consequently, one generally wasn’t stuck listening to Bill Monroe sing the lead.

You can develop a taste for that ‘High Lonesome Sound’ but rather than torture yourself with an overload of it, I would suggest easing yourself into it. Below are acts that feature good ol’ country music in their repertoires. Here’s where to start:

Classic Era/First Generation artists

Mac Wiseman – possessed of a pleasant and sleek Irish tenor, Mac can sing anything and everything and sing it well. There is a reason he is known as the “voice with a heart”. I think Mac is one of the few left alive from the gestation period of the music.

Jimmy Martin – Jimmy was more in the realm of the ‘high lonesome’ but unlike most such singers, who sound like the voice of gloom, agony and despair, Jimmy was such an unabashedly good natured and exuberant singer that you can help but like him.

Lester Flatt – whether singing with Bill Monroe, as part of Flatt & Scruggs or after the split with Scruggs, Lester’s lower tenor made bluegrass palatable to those not enamored of the high pitched vocals of Monroe and his acolytes.

Modern Era

While groups such as Trinity River, Flatt Lonesome, IIIrd Tyme Out and Balsam Range are very good, I would recommend you start with Chris Jones and the Night Drivers. Chris has an excellent, somewhat lower pitched voice that would have made him a star during the classic country days. Chris is a DJ on XM Radio’s Bluegrass Junction (Channel 62 on XM Radio) and he will occasionally feature one of his own recordings.

Next I would point you toward The Gibson Brothers, The Spinney Brothers and Rhonda Vincent and the Rage. If you are a big Statler Brothers fan, the Dailey & Vincent duo include a lot of Statler songs in their repertoire and on some numbers can make you think that the Statler Brothers have come out of retirement. Marty Raybon, lead singer of Shenandoah, features a lot of Shenandoah material in his performances with his current band Full Circle.

In recent years Rhonda Vincent (the “Queen of Bluegrass Music” has been occasionally performing with classic country acts such as Gene Watson, Moe Bandy and Daryle Singletary, so you might find these guys at bluegrass festivals.

I will note that I have left some of my personal favorites (The Osborne Brothers, Del McCoury, Reno & Smiley, James King, Dale Ann Bradley, Lorraine Jordan) out of this discussion. I’m not worried about leaving them out – you’ll work your way to them eventually.

Album Review: Jessi Colter – ‘Diamond In The Rough’

Released in July 1976, Diamond In The Rough was Jessi’s third album for Capitol, and her third album release in eighteen months. Like her first two Capitol album, it reached #4 on Billboard’s Country Albums Chart. Unlike its two predecessors, it generated no significant hits – the only single released, “I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name”, died at #29. Basically sales-wise this album coasted on the success of the first two Capitol albums.

Since the last single from the prior album had died at #50, it is pretty clear that the forward momentum her career received from “I’m Not Lisa” had already been lost. From this point forward none of her solo albums would crack the top forty and none of her singles would reach top twenty status.

Diamond In The Rough
is not a bad album but I am not sure as to the identity of the target audience since the song selection seems rather random.

The title track “Diamond in the Rough” written by Donnie Fritts (a long-time veteran of Kris Kristofferson’s band) and Spooner Oldham, is a bluesy ballad that is much closer to being piano jazz than anything resembling country music.

“Get Back” a Lennon-McCartney composition, was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1969, with Billy Preston’s energetic electric organ giving the song an energy that the Beatles had seemingly lost. Jessi’s rendition is not terrible, but is lethargic and not very interesting.

Better is Jessi’s “Would You Leave Now”, a lovely ballad, exquisitely sung by Jessi. The background features some gentle steel guitar amidst a light string accompaniment.

Although it was a massive hit, I never liked “Hey Jude”, the second Lennon- McCartney song on the album). Jessi sings it well, but at 7:16 the song is simply too long. Had she shortened it to about four minutes, I might have actually liked her gentle approach to the song, but at some point I simply lost interest – the only thing of interest in the coda is the fiddle.

Another Jessi Colter composition follows in “Oh Will (Who Made it Rain Last Night)”. This is another lovely ballad about the pain of leaving, this more of the folk variety rather than jazz. Jessi’s piano is impeccable and the song is quite lovely, just not country.

Oh Will who made it rain last night?
Who could take blue from my sky and paint it black night?
Who’s telling me to look so I’ll see the tears for years we will cry?
Talk to me Will.
You never told lies; who made it rain last night?

Lee Emerson’s “I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name” was the chart single from the album and is a country break-up song. I heard this song quite a bit upon its release and was surprised to find out later that this topped out at #29. There is an interesting story behind Lee Emerson’s death, but I won’t go into that here. Porter Wagoner and George Strait (Strait Out of The Box) both recorded the song.

I said goodbye to you this mornin’
With only these words to explain
I said I’d found someone I love better
But I still hear your voice call my name
I thought I heard you callin’ my name
Funny, I still feel this way.
Your voice seem so close, but I knew
That by now you were many miles away
I walk through the streets of the city
People passing by think it’s so strange
I’m talkin’ but there’s no one beside me
I thought I heard you call my name

“Ain’t No Way” by Tere Mansfield is a good country ballad which I think could have been a decent single. The problem for Jessi, is that she doesn’t have a really forceful voice, but on this song she gets across enough power to sell the song.

Obviously Jessi really loved Waylon, sticking with him through good times and bad times. “You Hung the Moon (Didn’t You Waylon)” is exhibit number one for this proposition. Too personal to be a single, the song leaves the listen with no doubts as to its sincerity.

You did hang the moon, didn’t you Waylon?
` You did hang that moon, didn’t you Waylon?
Weren’t you the one they called the seventh son?
You did hang the moon, didn’t you Waylon?

You take so many words and bring them all home with one
You walk into my room and it lights up like the sun
Each step you take leads a way for someone
And I know you’d never do love wrong

“Woman’s Heart is a Handy Place to Be” by Cort Casady and Marshall Chapman is a jog-along ballad with a story to tell about a charmer who can never be faithful, but whom the narrator wants anyway . Jessi does a nice job with the song, but Crystal Gayle also recorded the song to better effect.

He’s a charmer
He’s broken every heart that’s tried to hold him
It’s tearin´ me apart to know I want him
Knowin´ I can never tell him so

He’s a loner
Runnin´ from a friend to find a stranger
It makes me weak it makes me wonder
Will I ever make it on my own
Will I ever make it on my own

A woman’s heart’s a handy place to be
For a man afraid of givin’ and fightin´ to be free
Yes a woman’s heart’s a handy place to be
I just wish the heart that’s broken now was not a part of me

Ms Marshall Chapman has led an interesting existence (she is six feet tall and much more of a rock & roller than a country songsmith, but she has had considerable success in country music with Sawyer Brown having a major hit with Betty’s Being Bad”.

The album concludes with an unnecessary reprise of “Oh Will (Who Made it Rain Last Night)”. I would have much preferred an additional song.

This is a tough album to evaluate in that both of the Beatles’ covers were complete misfires and several of the songs seem to be out of context on this album.

Grade: C+

Spotlight Artist: Jessi Colter

Our March spotlight artist has led a very interesting life indeed as she not only is an accomplished performer in her own right, but she has been married to two legendary figures in the world of music and has a son who is an active performer.

ditrlpBorn in Phoenix Arizona, in 1943, as Miriam Johnson, Jessi (as we shall refer to her in this article, although she did not use the ‘Jessi Colter’ sobriquet until sometime after 1968) began singing professionally after graduating from high school in 1961. Along the way, she met legendary guitar player Duane Eddy, whose family had moved to Arizona during the early 1950s.  Duane and Jessi were married in 1961. Jessi toured with Duane until their divorce in 1968, and had a pair of non-charting singles in 1961 on the Jamie label (Duane’s early label). It would be over a decade before she recorded again.

In 1969, Jessi met and married rising country star Waylon Jennings. With Waylon’s help, Jessi landed a recording contract with RCA and recorded an album titled A Country Star Is Born. Although the album and singles released from the album went nowhere, at least they got her face (and voice) back in front of country audiences. During this period she adopted her stage name, taken from her great grandfather Jesse Colter.

In January 1975, Jessi signed with Capitol Record where her first single “I’m Not Lisa” would prove to be her biggest hit, reaching #1 on the Billboard Country chart and #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. While she would never again reach such heights, the release of the RCA album Wanted: The Outlaws would raise her profile considerably.

I’m not sure that Jessi Colter ever really aspired to be a big star as she spent much of her time being Mrs. Waylon Jennings, touring and occasionally recording with him, and serving as mother to their only child Waylon Albright “Shooter” Jennings (Jessi also has a daughter by Duane Eddy).  She would only issue ten albums from 1970 – 2006, plus a few duet albums with Waylon. Although she had only a few top ten hits, she had an ear for interesting material, performed with grace, style and elegance.

We hope you enjoy our look back at the career of our March Spotlight artist Jessi Colter.

 

Album Review: Joy Lynn White – ‘Wild Love’

51rfk9fctwlReleased in August 1994, Joy Lynn White’s second album for Columbia basically tanked, not charting at all. Moreover, only one of the two singles released charted at all with the title track reaching #73. To this very day, I remain mystified as to why this album was not her breakthrough to commercial success.

The album opens with “Tonight The Heartache’s On Me”, a song the Dixie Chicks would take to #6 Country/ #46 Pop in 1999.  Composed by Mary Francis, Johnny MacRae and Bob Morrison, I think Joy Lynn gives the song its definitive reading.

Next up is “Bad Loser”, a Bill Lloyd – Pam Tillis tough girl composition that I don’t think Pam ever recorded. Joy Lynn definitely nails the performance. The sing was released as the second single and failed to chart. Although I like the song, I don’t think I would have picked it as a single.

You’re bringing out a side of me I never knew was there
I took pride in cut’n dried goodbyes I never wasted a tear
Living in an easy come easy go world
Look what you’ve done to this girl

I’m a bad loser when love’s worth fightin’ for
I’m a bad loser don’t wanna ever see you walkin’ out my door
This love of ours took me by surprise it wasn’t part of my plans
Hey ain’t it easy sittin’ on the fence and ain’t it hard to make a stand
You took me farther than i’ve ever been
And baby now i’m playing to win

“Too Gone to Care”, written by John Scott Sherrill, is a tender ballad that demonstrates that Joy Lynn can handle more subtle, less rambunctious lyrics as well as she can handle the tougher songs

You see that big old yellow cab is always just a call away
And you can catch a Greyhound just about anytime of day
And all along the harbor ships are slipping out of town
Way out on the runway that’s where the rubber leaves the ground
She keeps thinking that it’s too hard to fake it
When it isn’t there

He’s gonna tell her he’ll be too late to make it
But she’ll be too gone to care
They got trains down at the station you know they run all night
They got tail lights on the highway that just keep fading out of sight   

 

The next song asks the eternal question “Why Can’t I Stop Loving You”. This is another John Scott Sherrill song ballad, but this song has very traditional country instrumentation (the prior song was a little MOR), but in any event, Ms White again nails the song:

I’ve put away all the pictures
All the old love letters too
There’s nothin’ left here to remind me
Why can’t I stop loving you?
Got back into circulation
Till I found somebody new
But there was always something missing
Why can’t I stop lovin’ you

“Whiskey, Lies and Tears” is the only song on this album that Joy Lynn had a hand in writing. The song is an up-tempo honky-tonker of the kind that Highway 101 sometimes did, and which has disappeared from country radio these days. Joy Lynn strikes me as a better vocalist than either Paulette Carlson or Nikki Nelson.  I wonder if Highway 101 ever considered Joy Lynn for the role. This song would have been my pick for the second single off the album.

The last time I said next time is the last time
And the last time came stumbling in last night
So now it’s time to say goodbye forever
To the whiskey your lies and my tears
Well I’ve almost gone insane…
All the whiskey your lies and my tears

“Wild Love” has bit of a heavy backbeat – I would describe it as more rock than country but it is well sung and melodically solid.   Then again, Dennis Linde always produced solid songs.

Pat McLaughlin wrote “Burning Memories”. This song is not to be mistaken with the Ray Price classic of bygone years, but it is sung well. I would describe the song as a sad country ballad.

“On And On And On” was written by “Whispering Bill” Anderson, one of country music’s great songsmiths. Joy Lynn gives a convincing and timeless interpretation to the song:

And this loneliness goes on and on and on
All the things come to an end
Yes that means we’ll never love again
The end of our love the end of my dreams
The end of almost everything it seems
Except these heartaches these teardrops
And this loneliness goes on and on and on

I’ve heard Bill Anderson sing the song, and Connie Smith recorded the song on her 1967 album Connie Smith Sings Bill Anderson. Connie’s version has the full ‘Nashville Sound’ trappings applied to it. Although Smith is the better vocalist, most modern listeners would probably prefer Joy Lynn White’s version.

The penultimate song is Jim Rushing’s “You Were Right From Your Side”. The song has interesting lyrics and Joy Lynn does a good job with it:

Starin’ out an airport window on a morning hard as stone
Watchin’ a big Delta Bird taxi through the dawn
A lonely chill sweeps over me as that smokin’ liner climbs
You were right from your side I was left from mine
Now you’re gone you’re flying high above the clouds
And I must walk my tears through this faceless crowd
And in the goodbye atmosphere I can hear a thousand times
You were right from your side I was left from mine

The album closes with “I Am Just a Rebel” written by the redoubtable trio of Bob DiPiero, Dennis Robbins and John Scott Sherrill. The trio wrote the song while they were in the band Billy Hill in the late 1980s. Confederate Railroad recorded the song later, but I prefer Joy Lynn’s version to any of the other versions

Being a hillbilly don’t get me down
I like it like that in fact you know it makes me proud
Yeah I’m American made by my ma and pa
Southern born by the grace of God
And I’m bound to be a rebel till they put me in the ground
I am just a rebel can’t you see
Don’t go looking for trouble it just finds me
When I’m a walking down the street people stop and stare
I know they’re talking about me they say there goes that rebel there

Wild Love  enabled Joy Lynn White to show all sides of her personality from tender to tough , from rocker to honky-tonker. With a crack band featuring Paul Worley and Richard Bennett (guitars); Dennis Linde (acoustic & electric guitar, clavinet); Dan Dugmore (electric & steel guitar); Tommy Spurlock (steel guitar); Dennis Robbins (slide guitar); Mike Henderson (guitar); Hank Singer, Blaine Sprouse (fiddles); and  featuring  Harry Stinson, Pat McLaughlin, Cindy Richardson, Hal Ketchum, Nanci Griffith, Suzi Ragsdale (background vocals), Wild Love should have propelled Joy Lynn White to the top.

It didn’t propel her career, but I still love the album and would grade it as a solid A, very close to an A+

Album Review: Lari White – ‘Lead Me Not’

lari-whiteLead Me Not was Lari White’s debut album, released in 1993 on the RCA label. This was Lari’s second stab at major label stardom as her prize for winning the television talent show Star Search in 1988 was a recording contract with Capitol Records.

Unfortunately the single released on Capitol (“Flying Above the Rain”) went nowhere and she was released by Capital . A person of many talents, including songwriting, Lari marked time by joining Ronnie Milsap’s publishing house, took acting lessons and performed in local theatre productions. In 1991 after attending an ASCAP showcase Rodney Crowell invited her to perform in his band. White signed to RCA, which brings us to this album, which Rodney Crowell produced.

Lead Me Not spotlights Lari’s vocal prowess and her talents as a songwriter as Lari wrote or co-wrote eight of the ten tracks on the album. The album only reached #36 on Billboard’s Heat Chart and missed charting on the Country Albums chart; however, all three of the singles released charted country (none cracked the top forty).

The album opens up with “Itty Bitty Single Solitary Piece of My Heart’, a co-write with John Rotch. The title sounds as if it would be a novelty number, but the song is actually a bluesy ballad warning off a would-be suitor. Jerry Douglas on dobro is featured prominently in the arrangement.

Chorus:

So you won’t get a taste of this, not even a kiss
The fact that your middle name is heartache is no coincidence
You made a livin’ out of lovin’ and leavin’ ‘em to fall apart
So now you better understand youi’ll never lay one hand on one
Itty bitty little single solitary piece o’ my heart

Next up is “Just Thinking” a romantic piece of cocktail jazz, written by Lari, and one that perhaps would have made a good single is pushed to another genre such as Lite Jazz or Adult Contemporary. Bergan White (no relation) arranged the string accompaniment as provided by the Nashville String Machine.

“Lay Around and Love On You” was written by Bobby David and David Gillon. Released as the third single, the song reached #68 on the country charts. The song isn’t remotely country having a strong New Orleans R&B vibe. It’s a great song, and if released during the mid 1970s or early 1980s, likely would have been a hit.

Time for me to go to work again
But all I want to do is
Lay around and love on you
Seven thirty, but I don’t care
What you’re doing is gonna keep me here
‘Cause all I want to do is
Lay around and love on you

Lay around and love
Lay around and love on you
You’ve got me so turned on
Honey, I can’t turn you loose
Hope nobody calls
Got the phone off the hook
We’re gonna try everything in the book
All I want to do is
Lay around and love on you

“Lead Me Not” was the second single from the album. Written by Lari, the song has a strong gospel feel to the arrangement, not surprisingly since the title is a play on a familiar religious theme. Nice saxophone work by the appropriately named Jim Horn is the highlight of the arrangement.

Well, I should have been home hours ago
I always lose track of the time
I’ll just hold up this wall while I try to recall
A thought from the back of my mind
Oh yeah I remember, it began with a wink
When you caught me looking at you

So don’t ask me if you can buy me a drink
I know what you’re trying to do
Lead me not into temptation
I already know the road all too well
Lead me not into temptation
I can find it all by myself

This is followed by another Lari White solo composition “Made To Be Broken” a lovely, well performed easy-listening ballad.

“What A Woman Wants” was the first single and biggest hit on the album reaching #44. Lari co-wrote this with soon-to-be husband Chuck Cannon (they married in 1994 and are still married, with two daughters). This song deals with the changing roles in society and the effort to try to explain to men what women today want. The song is taken at a quick tempo, and frankly I am surprised that the song wasn’t a bigger hit.

Come here darlin’, let me whisper in your ear
A precious little secret that I think you need to hear
With the way the women’s movement’s always making the news
I can see how a man might get confused
Now a woman doesn’t mind a man holding the door
But slaving in some kitchen ain’t what God made a woman for
We’ve come a long way baby, but way down deep we’re still the same
What a woman wants will never change

What a woman wants is to be treated like a queen
By a man who deserves to be treated like a king
What a woman wants, what keeps her holding on
Is a loving man who understands what a woman wants

The seventh track features a Suzi Ragsdale and Verlon Thompson composition “Anything Goes”. The song has a definite Mexican flair. Verlon’s career as a recording artist never took off, but he remains a prominent songwriter and instrumentalist.

It took until track eight to reach a song that I would regard as truly being country music, that song being “When The Lights Are Low”, a song Lari co-wrote with Chris Waters (bother of Holly Dunn). This song features classic steel guitar work by Tommy Spurlock, fiddle by Jonathan Yudkin and a great vocal by Lari. The song is a prototypical country ballad with lyrics any fans of traditional country music could enjoy and should have been released as the first single. While I don’t know whether or not this would have been a big hit at radio, at least it would have pegged Lari as a legitimate country artist. As it was, if I were a DJ dealing with Lari’s first three RCA singles, I would not known how to classify her (Con Hunley had the much same problem fifteen years earlier).

In the dark I’m just part of the crowd
It’s hard to tell who it is I’m there without
In some tall stranger’s arms
Your memory’s not so clear
I can cry all night long
‘Cause no one sees the tears
Where the lights are low

Where the jukebox plays
The saddest song it knows
Through a smoky haze
Since you’ve been gone
That’s where I go
‘Cause everything looks better
Where the lights are low

Lari collaborated with her future husband again on “Don’t Leave Me Lonely”, another easy listening/adult contemporary ballad. It’s a nice song, well sung but again not especially country. As on track two, Bergan White arranged the string accompaniment as provided by the Nashville String Machine.

The album closes as it began, with a Lari White – John Rotch collaboration in “Good Good Love”. As with the opening number with is a bluesy R&B tinged ballad, with gospel overtones in the production.

If you want a good good love
Hold on when the times are bad
‘Cause if you jump ship when trouble hits
Good for nothin’ is all you’ll have
You gotta anchor down in the winds of doubt
You can’t give in and you can’t bail out
If the water’s high hold your head above
And hang on for that good good love

When love sets sail it’s always a sunny day
And when the skies are blue it’s so easy to make love stay
But when the clouds roll in and the ship begins to strain
You gotta try a little harder
Go on, test the water
‘Cause the air is so much sweeter
After a real good rain

This album features a bewildering array of instruments: bells, bongos, cowbells, dobro, fiddle – you name it, it is probably on here somewhere.

I purchased the album on the recommendation of a friend. I really liked the album but I wasn’t sure where to place it in my collection, finally settling on filing it with my pop/rock/ R&B records. Lead Me Not is a very good album that I would not hesitate to recommend as fans of varying forms of music can find things to like about this album. On this album Lari White reveals herself as a very talented songwriter and vocalist, albeit one not easily pigeonholed. Her breakthrough would occur on her next album, and wouldn’t last long but her music is worth the search.

I would give this album an A-

She still performs and maintains a website where you can purchase most of her music.

Country Heritage: Clarence and Roland White

During February 2017, we will be reviewing the careers of several country performers bearing the last name ‘White’. Included in this review will be a family band and several excellent male and female singers and songwriters with fairly short discographies.

First, though, we will start with a pair of brothers who are known for their outstanding instrumental prowess. Clarence LeBlanc (June 7, 1944 – July 14, 1973) and his brother Roland LeBlanc (b, April 23, 1938) were born in Maine of French-Canadian parents. The family moved to California in 1954 and at some point before then Anglicized the family name to White.

Roland as the oldest made the first move into music organizing himself and his brothers Eric and Clarence (and sister Joanne) into a family bluegrass band. When the family moved to California the boys won a local talent contest and were hired by a local television station as ‘The Country Boys’. After a two year hiatus in the US Army, Roland rejoined the band in 1961, which was renamed as the Kentucky Colonels. In addition to Clarence on guitar and Roland on mandolin, the band featured Billy Ray Latham on banjo and Roger Bush on bass, with other members being part of the band at various times, most notably fiddler Scott Stoneman. The band became quite popular locally and even managed to score a pair of appearances on the Andy Griffith’s hit television show. The band issued three innovative albums but disbanded in 1965 with the individual members pursuing other interests. Clarence and Roland were in heavy demand as session musicians.

Clarence appeared in combinations with several noted west coast musicians and bands such as Nashville West. Clarence eventually replaced Gram Parsons with the Byrds in 1968 remaining until the group disbanded in 1973.

Roland was of a more traditionalist bent. After the Kentucky Colonels broke up, he spent a few years as one of Bill Monroe’ Bluegrass Boys, then joined Lester Flatts’ Nashville Grass until 1973.

At that point Clarence, Roland and Eric White reunited and formed the New Kentucky Colonels. Unfortunately this was to last but a short time as Roland and Clarence were struck by a drunk driver while loading their equipment into their car after a performance. Roland White suffered a dislocated shoulder, but Clarence was killed in the accident. At the time of his death Clarence had finished four tracks for a planned solo album. Sierra Records released the tracks on a various artists album titled Silver Meteor

After Clarence’s death Roland soldiered onward joining the bluegrass group Country Gazette, remaining there for 13 years. In 1987, he joined the Nashville Bluegrass Band, staying with that group until 2000. After that he formed the Roland White Band, which is still active.

Clarence White was a brilliant guitarist, the equal of Doc Watson or Brian Sutton or any other unbelievable guitarist you’d care to name. Most of his best work can be found on the Kentucky Colonels albums. Clarence White was only twenty nine years old when he died so there isn’t an extensive solo discography of his music. I would suggest the Sierra/Rural Rhythm CD 33 Acoustic Guitar Instrumentals, generally available for around $10.00.

Roland White is still with us and his work, like that of Clarence, can be found on the Kentucky Colonels albums, as well as on Country Gazette and Nashville Bluegrass Band albums. Roland is an exceptional mandolin player. He may not be quite as good on the mandolin as Clarence was on the guitar but he is 99% of the way there and better than all but a very few mandolin players. Frankly, I think everything Roland has played is worth hearing, and he is a pleasant vocalist. My favorite of his solo albums is Trying To Get To You (Sugar Hill, 1994), but I’d happily listen to any of his albums.

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘These Days’

41xt6655asl-_ac_us300_ql65_Released in August 1980, These Days was Crystal Gayle’s  second of three albums recorded for Columbia. Although very successful on Billboard’s Country Albums chart reaching #6 and being certified gold s also definitely NOT a country album. It is also my least favorite of her albums, although there are many redeeming moments. The album seems to run between 80’s lounge and classic pop standards.

The album opens up with “Too Many Lovers”, a #1 record written by Mark True, Ted Lindsay, Sam Hogin. This song is moderately up-tempo with a rock guitar break.  This is followed by “If You Ever Change Your Mind”, a nice ballad written by Parker McGee and Bob Gundry. The instrumentation is basically jazz piano with orchestration. This too reached #1.

“Ain’t No Love In the Heart of The City” is typical cocktail lounge pop. Crystal sings it well but the song itself leaves me cold. Written by Michael Price and Daniel Walsh, the song leans toward modern R&B, as does the next song “Same Old Story (Same Old Song)”, which I find disappointing as Will Jennings and Joe Sample have decent track records as country songsmiths. With a different arrangement, I might like “Same Old Story (Same Old Song)”, but the background vocals on the “Same Old Story (Same Old Song)” probably belong on a Patti Labelle record rather than anything recorded by Crystal Gayle, and the Kenny G style sax leaves me completely cold.

Allen Reynolds and Bob McDill usually crafted good songs, and “Help Yourselves to Each Other” is no exception. A slow ballad with flute and string accompaniment, I could see this song being released as a single to Adult Contemporary radio. Don Williams recorded the song as an album track but I think Crystal’s version is better, even exquisite.

What a time to turn your back on someone
What a day to be without a friend
What a shame when no-one seems to bother
Who will offer shelter to candles in the wind

And it follows we are only helpless children
Ever changing like sunlight through the trees
It’s a long road we must cling to one another
Help yourselves to each other, that’s the way it’s meant to be

The great Delbert McClinton wrote “Take It Easy’ which proved to be a minor hit for Crystal Gayle, reaching #17. Crystal handles it well but her version pales to the McClinton original, and I suspect grittier female country vocalists such as Gus Hardin, Lacy J Dalton, Gail Davies, Wilma Lee Cooper or Jean Shepard  could have done the song better (not that Wilma Lee or Jean could ever have been persuaded to record this song) .

“I Just Can’t Leave Your Love Alone” is another song by Sample and Jennings, this time a mid-tempo blues number , with a traditional jazz accompaniment including clarinet.

“You’ve Almost Got Me Believin'”, by Barbara Wyrick,  sounds like cocktail lounge pop. I really didn’t like this song at all, particularly after the Kenny G-styled sax kicks in. Crystal’s vocal is nice but the song is unworthy.

“Lover Man” is a pop standard classic by Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill. American listeners may recall Weill as the composer of “Mack The Knife”, but he penned many fine songs, including this one. While the song is often associated with Ella Fitzgerald, Crystal acquits herself well . The arrangement can be best describe as a very bluesy piece of piano jazz.

I don’t know why but I’m feeling so sad
I long to try something I never had
Never had no kissing
Oh, what I’ve been missing
Lover man, oh, where can you be

The night is cold and I’m so alone
I’d give my soul just to call you my own
Got a moon above me
But no one to love me
Lover man, oh, where can you be

The album reaches back to 1934 for its closing number “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”, from the pen of Tin Pan Alley writer Harry M. Woods. Harry wrote a number of pop standard classics including “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover”,  “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain”, “We Just Couldn’t Say Goodbye”, and “Try a Little Tenderness”.  The song is performed as an up-tempo traditional jazz number with honky-tonk piano similar to what Joanne Castle, Big Tiny Little or Joe “Fingers” Carr might have played, and a very nice clarinet solo.

Ooh, ooh, ooh
What a little moonlight can do
Ooh, ooh, ooh
What a little moonlight can do to you

You’re in love
Your heart’s fluttering
All day long
You only stutter
Cause your poor tone
Just will not utter the words
I love you

For me this is a mixed bag. I do like pop standards and traditional jazz balladry, but I don’t care for cocktail lounge jazz. There are some very nice song on this album and some songs about which I am utterly indifferent. There is nothing remotely country on this album. I think the first two and last two songs on this album, and “Help Yourselves to Each Other” are the best songs  on the album.

Grade: B

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘We Must Believe In Magic’

818pkpdvl6l-_sx522_Released in June 1977, We Must Believe In Magic was Crystal’s fourth album for United Artists. Fueled by her massive crossover hit “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”, it would prove to be her biggest selling album, reaching #2 on the Billboard Country Albums chart and #12 on the Billboard all-genres chart (her only top twenty entry on that chart). The album was certified platinum by the RIAA in 1978 and purportedly was the first platinum album recorded by a female country singer.

The album contains an eclectic mix of songs ranging from pop standards to rock ‘n’ roll hits to songs by contemporary country songsmiths.

The album opens with the first single and only single released from the album (and her biggest ever hit) “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”. Written by Richard Leigh, who had also supplied her three previous top ten hits, the sung justified the use of the word ‘magic’ in the album title by becoming a huge international hit as well as a hit in the United States and Canada. In the US the song reached #1 on the country charts, #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100, #1 on the Cashbox Top 100, and #4 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart. It sweep the boards in Canada reaching #1 on the country, pop and AC charts and reached the top ten in the UK, Ireland, Netherlands and New Zealand, and the top twenty in Australia

Don’t know when I’ve been so blue

Don’t know what’s come over you

You’ve found someone new and

Don’t it make my brown eyes blue

I’ll be fine when you’re gone

I’ll just cry all night long

Say it isn’t true and

Don’t it make my brown eyes blue

“I Want To Come Back To You” is a nice easy listening ballad with a flute weaving around the melody

The third song, “River Road” comes from the pen of Sylvia Fricker, an integral part of the 1960s folk movement, both as a songwriter and half of the Ian & Sylvia duo. I do not understand why this song was not released as a single.

Although my favorite pop standards songwriter was Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter comes a close second and Crystal shows her interpretive abilities with a fine recording of “It’s All Right With Me”, one of Cole Porter’s later songs, written for the 1953 musical CAN-CAN. The song has been recorded by many jazz and classic pop artists. My favorite rendition is by Ella Fitzgerald, but Crystal acquits herself well, giving a bit of a hoedown introduction to the song while still retaining the essence of the song

It’s the wrong time, and the wrong place
Though your face is charming, it’s the wrong face
It’s not his face, but such a charming face
That it’s all right with me

It’s the wrong song, in the wrong style
Though your smile is lovely, it’s the wrong smile
It’s not his smile, but such a lovely smile
That it’s all right with me

You can’t know how happy I am that we met
I’m strangely attracted to you
There’s someone I’m trying so hard to forget
Don’t you want to forget someone, too?

It’s the wrong game, with the wrong chips
Though your lips are tempting, they’re the wrong lips
They’re not his lips, but they’re such tempting lips
That, if some night, you are free
Dear, it’s all right, yes, it’s all right with me

“Going Down Slow is another easy listening ballad, nothing special but well sung by Crystal.

Producer Allen Reynolds takes a co-writing credit on “All I Want To Do In Life”. I’m not sure that the cowbell adds anything to the song, but Crystal turns in an impeccable vocal (“Cowboy” Jack Clement, by no means as good a singer as Crystal Gayle recorded a charming take on the song years later injecting far more personality into the song).

Larry Kingston’s “Make A Dream Come True” veers closer to actually being country than does most of the songs on this album, with effective use of steel guitar in the arrangement. Kingston wrote quite a few songs recorded by the ‘Country Caruso’ Johnny Bush.

If I try as hard as I can

Maybe I can paint you again

In my mind, the way you were when you used to love me

Before you learned to think you were above me

Track eight “Green Door” was composed by Bob Davie and Marvin Moore, and was a huge pop hit in 1956 for Jim Lowe knocking Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” out of the #1 slot. The song did better still in the UK where the song was a hit single several times for various artists. I’m not sure I would be accurate in describing this as a rock ‘n’ roll, as the song’s primary instrumentation on Lowe’s version is that of a honky-tonk piano. The lyrics describe a mysterious private club forbidden to the singer. The club has a green entrance door, behind which apparently the crowds have a lot of fun. Crystal’s rendition is a little less rollicking than the Lowe version.

(Midnight, one more night without sleepin’)
(Watchin’ till the mornin’ comes creepin’)
(Green door, what’s that secret you’re keepin?)
There’s an old piano
And they play it hot behind the green door
Don’t know what they’re doin’
But they laugh a lot behind the green door
Wish they’d let me in
So I could find out what’s behind the green door

“Green Door” is a song which has aged well and I would suggest that the reader find Jim Lowe’s recording on You Tube. Lowe (May 7, 1923 – December 12, 2016) was a successful songwriter with some connections to country music, including Rusty Draper’s million-selling pop & country hit of 1953, “Gambler’s Guitar”

If I try as hard as I can

Maybe I can paint you again

In my mind, the way you were when you used to love me

Before you learned to think you were above me

“Funny” has the sound and feel of something from the 1920s. The author is listed as L. Anderson, but I really could not find out much about the song. It sounds like something Ted Lewis and his Orchestra would have performed during the vaudeville era and as such it makes a nice change of pace.

The album closes with the title track. “We Must Believe In Magic,” by Allen Reynolds and Bob McDill. The song opens with some odd SF sounds and special effects, which retreat to the background once the vocals commence. Johnny Cash would record the song on his The Adventures of Johnny Cash album, giving it a more of a folk feel.

Mad is the captain of Alpha Centauri
We must be out of our minds
Still we are shipmates bound for tomorrow
And everyone here’s flying blind

[Chorus]
Oh, we must believe in magic
We must believe in the guiding hand
If you believe in magic
You’ll have the universe at your command

I really like this album, although I don’t find it very country at all. It is well produced and well sung.

Grade: A

Album Review: Flatt Lonesome – ‘Runaway Train’

runaway-trainThis is Flatt Lonesome’s third album and each has been a slight improvement on the album before, a difficult task since the debut and second albums were indeed excellent. On my list of favorite albums of 2016, I had Runaway Train at number two on my list and I gave serious thought to placing it at #1.

Flatt Lonesome hails from Callahan Florida, a town just big enough to avoid jokes about the entering and leaving signs being on the same signpost. They have become huge favorites at the bluegrass festivals for the simplest of reasons – they sing well, are very proficient on their instruments, and select great songs to record. The group is essentially a family band with sisters Kelsi Robertson Harrigill and Charli Robertson joining brother Buddy Robertson in handling most of the vocals. Kelli plays mandolin, Charli plays fiddle and Buddy plays guitar. Paul Harrigill, who entered the family by marrying Kelsi, plays banjo and other instruments as needed. Non-family members Michael Stockton (dobro & lap steel) and Dominick Illingworth (bass) round out the team.

The album opens with a tune written by Danny Roberts (of the Grascals) and Paul Harrigill titled “You’ll Pay”. Buddy takes the lead vocals with his sisters adding harmony vocals on this song about retribution.

Next up is “Still Feeling Blue”, a song by Gram Parsons, a would-be country artist of the 1960s. Kelli takes the lead vocals with her siblings providing the harmony vocals. Parsons was greatly influenced by the Louvin Brothers and it definitely shows on this composition. This really is a good song and the trio vocal work just shines on this song.

Time can pass and time can heal
But it don’t ever pass the way I feel
You went away a long time ago
And why you left I never knew
The lonely days and lonely nights
Guess the world knows I ain’t feelin’ right
And when you’re gone the hours pass so slow
And now I’m still feeling blue

Dwight Yoakam would seem to be an odd choice for a bluegrass group to cover, but “You’re The One” really is a great vehicle for Charli’s lead vocals and the harmony trios. This song, a slow ballad, was a huge hit on bluegrass radio.

Kelsi penned “In The Heat of The Fire” and takes the lead vocals on a fine religiously themed mid-temp ballad. Michael Stockton takes a nice dobro break and Charli does likewise on a fiddle break.

If you’re like Jonah
In the belly of the whale
Running so far
And headed for hell
Cry out to him
He’ll hear your voice
And answer your prayer

He’s in the valley
He’s in the storm
He’ll be your shelter
He’ll keep you warm
He is your solid rock
In the midst of the mire
You can still hear his voice
In the heat of the fire

The Bluegrass Cardinals wrote and recorded many fine songs during their two plus decade run. “Don’t Come Running” by the father and son team of Don and Dave Parmley is just one of the many fine songs, Buddy takes the lead on this song.

Well you tell me today you were going far away
You tell me you wanna be free
But if your new friend breaks your heart in the end
Don’t you come running back to me

Oh my darling go and stay if you want it that way
You don’t love me and that is plain to see
If your new love turns you down, I won’t be hangin’ round
So don’t you come running back to me

Kelsi penned “In The Morning”, a nice religious ballad. This time sister Charli takes the lead vocals.

“Road To Nottingham” is an instrumental written by Paul Harrigill and Brayden McMahon. The song gives the entire band an opportunity to shine.

Dolton Robertson II is the father of Charli, Kelsi and Buddy but it turns out that he is a pretty good songwriter as “New Lease On Life” attests. Charli sings the lead vocal and Kelsi takes the harmony vocals.

“Casting All Your Care On Him” was a husband and wife collaboration between Paul and Kelsi, with Kelsi taking the lead vocals and her siblings taking the harmony on this up-tempo religious song.

When I first heard “Mixed Up Mess of A Heart” on XM Radio I was floored that a group this young could unearth an old Tommy Collins-Merle Haggard classic from the mid 60s. The song first saw the light of day in 1966 on Collins’ first Columbia album The Dynamic Tommy Collins. Haggard recorded the song in 1967 on his I’m A Lonesome Fugitive album. It probably isn’t fair to compare Buddy Robertson to either Collins or Haggard, I would say that he acquits himself well, and manages to imbue the spirit of Tommy Collins into his vocals. It should be noted that both Collins and Haggard used the title “Poor Broke Mixed Up Mess of A Heart”.

Paul & Kelsi collaborated on “Letting Go”, a downer of a song that asks if love ever really existed.

The album closes with “Runaway Train”, written by Australian artist Kasey Chambers . This song isn’t even remotely a bluegrass song, but is the mark of a group’s excellence that they can take left field material such as this and make it fit in the context of a bluegrass album.

I’m gonna take you down to the railway line
I’m gonna take you down to the railway line
I’m gonna take ya where your heart won’t break ya
And the water tastes like wine
I’m gonna take you down to the railway line

We won’t take money, we won’t take the long way round
We won’t take money, we won’t take the long way round
We won’t take money, we’ll live off honey
When the train goes underground
We won’t take money, we won’t take the long way round

Flatt Lonesome won the IBMA’s Vocal Group of the Year, the first of many such awards that will be forthcoming for this talented group. In terms of trio harmony, they have few peers. This is a group will continue to grow in stature. I can hardly wait for their next album.

Paul W. Dennis’s favorite albums of 2016

real-country-musicBeing the old man of the blog, I suppose it is inevitable that my favorite albums would differ from those of Razor X and Occasional Hope. There is some overlap, however, and where overlap exists I will not comment on the album

(#) on Razor X’s list / ($) on Occasional Hope’s list

15) Tracy Byrd – All American Texan (#)

14) Mark Chesnutt – Tradition Lives (#) ($)

13) Rhonda Vincent – All The Rage, Volume One

Alison Krauss fans notwithstanding, Rhonda is the Queen of Bluegrass music and is also adept at country and western swing numbers. Rhonda has a great band and all of the members are featured. Her guitar player, Josh Williams, is on a par with any acoustic player currently going.

12) Balsam Range – Mountain Voodoo

Balsam Range has been around for about a decade, winning the 2014 IBPA “Entertainer of The Year” and Vocal Group of The Year” awards. Their newest album was nominated for several awards. This band is renowned for their vocal harmonies. Their current single “Blue Collar Dreams” is being played on Bluegrass Junction on XM Radio – it’s a goodie and indicative of their material.

11) John Prine – For Better Or Worse ($)

the-life-and-songs-of-emmylou-harris10) Various Artists – Life and Songs of Emmylou Harris
I suspect that Emmylou Harris is the most highly revered female country singer, particularly for younger country fans and pop music fans. The epitome of elegance and grace, Emmylou has also been a champion of traditional country music. This album contains nineteen tracks with a vast array of admirers who gathered at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington DC on January 10, 2015 to pay tribute. Emmy sings on a few of the tracks but mostly the guests sing songs at least loosely associated with Emmylou. Guests include Sheryl Crow, Alison Krauss, Buddy Miller, Rodney Crowell and others.

09) Karl Shiflett & Big Country Show – Sho Nuff Country

Although focusing on bluegrass, this veteran outfit has a strong propensity to record country music of the period before 1980, and they perform it well. For me the highlights are “Six Pack To Go” and “Why Baby Why”, but I really enjoyed the whole album.

08) Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (& guests) – Circling Back: Celebrating 50 Years
Knowing that this ban has been around for fifty years is making me feel old, since I purchased several of their early albums when they originally came out. This album was recorded live at the Ryman on September 14, 2015 and features the current membership (Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, Bob Carpenter and John McEuen) augmented by friends Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Byron House. The guest vocalists include former band members Jimmy Ibbotson and Jackson Browne with John Prine, Alison Krauss, Rodney Crowell and Jerry Jeff Walker also making appearances. Highlights include Alison Krauss singing “Catfish John” , Vince Gill singing “Tennessee Stud” and Sam Bush and Vince Gill teaming up on “Nine Pound Hammer”.

07) Willie Nelson – For The Good Times: A Tribute To Ray Price (#) ($)

06) Time Jumpers – Kid Sister (#)

05) Dallas Wayne – Songs The Jukebox Taught Me ($)

things-we-do-for-dreams04) Trinity River Band – Things I Do For Dreams
I find it odd that Callahan, Florida, a town of about 2000 people, has produced two of my favorite new bluegrass bands in Trinity River Band and Flatt Lonesome. Trinity River Band was nominated for the Emerging Artist award at the recent International Bluegrass Music Association award a few months ago. They play well, sing well and present an effective stage show.

03) Dale Watson – Under The Influence
Had he been born in the 1930s or 1940s, Dale Watson would have been a huge mainstream country star. This album finds Dale tackling a wide array of country and rockabilly classics from bygone years. My favorites from this disc include Dale’s take on the Eddie Rabbitt classic “Pure Love” and his take on the Phil Harris song from the 1940s “That’s What I Like About The South”.

02) Flatt Lonesome – Runaway Train
Flatt Lonesome won the IBMA Vocal Group of The Year award for 2016. They are just flat[t] out good. Their take on Dwight Yoakam’s “You’re The One” has to be heard to be believed, but my favorite track is their cover of the Tommy Collins tune “Mixed Up Mess of A Heart”.

01) Gene Watson – Real. Country. Music ($)
Okay, so I lied, but I cannot let the #1 album go by without the comment that I consider Gene Watson to be the best country male vocalist alive today and that I pray that 2017 sees another new release from Gene.