My Kind of Country

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

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Classic Review: Stonewall Jackson – ‘Stars Of The Grand Ole Opry’ (1981)

stars of the grand ole opryDuring the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s major labels trimmed their rosters, shedding veteran artists who were no longer cranking out the hits or generating decent album sales. Sometimes these veteran artists would find another major label deal but mostly these artists wound up on minor / independent labels. Even those artists who managed to find a major label deal found their stay at the new label to be a short one that lead to landing on a minor label (for example, Jimmy Dickens: Columbia > Decca > Gusto / Charlie Walker: Columbia > RCA > Plantation).

While on the minor / independent labels, most of the veteran artists recorded very little new material, usually producing an album or two of dreary remakes of their older hits with perhaps some covers of other big hits from artists (it is astounding how many artists issued albums listing songs such as “San Antonio Rose”, “There Goes My Everything” and “There Stands The Glass” among their greatest hits).
Most of these albums featured low budget production, thin sound, and were recorded with minimal numbers of disinterested musicians accompanying a bored vocalist singing songs sung literally thousands of times before.

First Generation Records was owned by Pete Drake (1932-1988), one of the great steel guitar players, and a musician who was not about to settle for the bored and tired performances described above. Producing the records himself, and often playing steel guitar on the recording sessions, Pete gathered a group of excellent musicians to play on his recording sessions. Rather than merely re-recording an artist’s older hits, Pete’s Stars of the Grand Ole Opry series generally featured five songs new to the artist (and often simply new songs) followed by five of the artist’s older hits but with a difference, that difference being energized singers and musicians. Among the artists featured on the series were Ferlin Husky, Jan Howard, Vic Willis, Stonewall Jackson, Billy Walker, Ernest Tubb, George Hamilton IV, Ray Pillow, Jean Shepard, The Wilburn Brothers and Charlie Louvin. While all were decent to very good albums, the album with Stonewall Jackson is the standout among the series.

Prior to this album, Stonewall Jackson has not spent much time in the recording studios since his last new Columbia album was issued in 1971. There had been an album in 1976 for GRT (I think the tracks were leased from MGM, intended for a never released 1973 album) reprising his Columbia hits in the manner of most remake albums, plus a deplorable new song from Foster & Rice titled “Herman Schwartz”. There was a pair of 1979 albums for Little Darling with little to recommend them. One of the Little Darlin’ albums was remakes and the other was largely undistinguished new material, although two of the songs had clever song titles, “The Pint of No Return” and “The Alcohol of Fame”.

For Stonewall Jackson’s First Generation sessions, in addition to playing steel himself, Pete gathered up an all-star lineup of Nashville session men including Jimmy Capps, Billy Sanford, Pete Wade and Bill Hullett (guitar), Jimmy Crawford and John Hughey (steel), Hargus “Pig” Robbins and Bobby Emmons (piano), Tommy Williams (fiddle), Bob Moore and Randy Best (bass).

The album opens up with the Billy Joe Shaver composition “I’m Just An Old Chunk of Coal”, a very recent hit for John Anderson (I think it is possible that Jackson’s version pre-dates Anderson’s recording, but I’m not certain); Billy Joe’s album also hit the streets in 1981. Whatever the timing, I feel that the Stonewall Jackson recording is the best recording I’ve ever heard of the song, far better than Billy Joe’s version and slightly better than John Anderson’s version. Stonewall sings the song with great enthusiasm as the lyric fits the ‘hardscrabble-pull up your own bootstraps’ upbringing of Stonewall’s youth:

Hey, I’m just an old chunk of coal
But I’m gonna be a diamond some day
I’m gonna grow and glow till I’m so blue, pure, perfect
I’m gonna put a smile on everybody’s face
I’m gonna kneel and pray every day
At last I should become vain along the way
I’m just an old chunk of coal now, Lord
But I’m gonna be a diamond some day

R.J. Jones and M. Kosser wrote “Full Moon, Empty Pockets”, a song that several artists subsequently recorded. The song tells a tale of woe that many of us have encountered – time on our hands but no money.

Full moon empty pockets
Stone broke on a Saturday night
Full moon empty pockets
Won’t a lady treat a cowboy right

Next up is “There Are No Shortcuts (To Get Me Over You)”, a good heartbreak ballad that of the kind that Stonewall Jackson always tackled well. This is followed by a song from Ben Peters and Curly Putman, “Breaking Up Breakdown”, a song that I could see as a successful single had it been issued in 1966 rather than 1981. The song is an up-tempo barroom ballad in which the narrator asks for the band to keep playing that song about breaking up.

The last of the newer songs is ”Let The Sun Shine On The People” by Frank Dycus and Larry Kingston. Frank Dycus, of course, wrote some of George Strait’s hits and Larry Kingston provided a number of songs to Johnny Bush and other singers.

At this point the nostalgia trip begins, but with an enthusiastic Stonewall Jackson leading the way on excellent new versions of some of his classic hits, starting off with his biggest hit (#1 Country / #4 Pop) “Waterloo”. For those familiar only with the ABBA hit of the same name, this song is a bit of a romp through history referencing Adam, Napoleon and Tom Dooley:

Now old Adam, was the first in history
With an apple, he was tempted and deceived
Just for spite, the devil made him take a bite
And that’s where old Adam met his Waterloo

Waterloo, Waterloo
Where will you meet your Waterloo
Every puppy has his day and everybody has his day
Everybody has to meet his Waterloo

Waterloo was such a big hit that Homer & Jethro took the time to spoof it:

The Lone Ranger and Tonto rode the trail
Catching Outlaws and putting them in jail
But the Ranger shot Tonto for it seems
He found out what ‘kemosabe’ means

Perhaps Stonewall’s most enduring song, “Don’t Be Angry,” is up next. Written by Stonewall’s brother Wade Jackson, not only was it a big hit for Jackson, but Donna Fargo took the song to the top during the 1970s and the song has been covered by many artists and remains in the active repertoires of county bar bands across the USA.

Don’t be angry at me darling if I fail to understand
All your little whims and wishes all the time
Just remember that I’m dumb I guess like any foolish man
And my head stays sorta foggy cause you’re mine

Well, I recall the first time that I flirted with you dear
When I jokingly said come and be my bride
Now that time has turned the pages it’s the sweetest joke on earth
That I have you near forever by my side

Joe Babcock authored the next Stonewall Jackson classic “I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water”, which also was a major hit for pop crooner Pat Boone and has also been a favorite of the R&B crowd and many of the rock & roll crowd as well, including Elvis Presley and Johny Rivers

I was born in Macon Georgia
They kept my daddy over in Macon jail
He told me if you keep your hands clean
You won’t hear them bloodhounds on your trail

Well I fell in with bad companions
Robbed a man, oh up in Tennessee
They caught me way up in Nashville
They locked me up and threw away the key

I washed my hands in muddy water
Washed my hands, but they didn’t come clean
Tried to do what my daddy told me
But I must have washed my hands in a muddy stream

Next up is Bill Johnson’s “A Wound Time Can’t Erase”, a sad and tender ballad that was a big hit for Stonewall and later for Gene Watson.

The fifth and final Stonewall Jackson classic is the Melvin Endsley / Stonewall Jackson composition “Why I’m Walkin’”, a song Ricky Skaggs covered during the 1980s. Melvin Endsley was a disabled person who wrote several classic country songs including “Singling the Blues” and “Knee Deep In The Blues”. Some readers may remember an alternate title “Got My Angel On My Mind”, but however you label this ballad, it’s a good one.

I’ve got an angel on my mind, that’s why I’m walkin’
There’s such an aching in this old heart, now I ain’t talkin’
The little hand that held mine tight, just waved goodbye tonite
I’ve got her sweet love on my mind, that’s why I’m walkin’

This album is still readily available on CD, as are most of the other albums in the series. Unfortunately, Pete Drake began experiencing health problems in 1985 and passed away in 1988. I would like to have seen Pete issue new albums on the next generation of veteran artists released by the major labels. It would have been much better music than much of what was actually released by other minor/ independent labels over the next decade. Anyway, almost unique among this class of minor label albums by veteran artists, this album rates a solid A, the first album for Stonewall in many years that I would rate that highly.

Album Review – Dolly Parton – ‘9 To 5 and Odd Jobs’

After her pervious album Dolly, Dolly, Dolly failed to fall in the good graces of her fans, Parton returned later that year with an album displaying what she does best – recording a mix of self-penned material and well-chosen covers. Heralded as a concept album about work, 9 to 5 is a companion piece to the movie of the same name in which Parton made her acting debut.

When the title track was released as a single in November of 1980, the trademark fusion of piano and horns meshed together to create one of country music’s campiest records. I’ve always enjoyed the individuality of this song, when it comes on the radio it’s unmistakable. And what amazes me, is the song doesn’t sound dated. The production is as timeless today (more than 30 years later) as the theme of getting your butt out of bed to work an eight-hour day.  It’s also among my favorites of Parton’s singles because it dared to be different. Like “On The Other Hand” and “Any Man of Mine,” it reinvented the notion of what a country song could be. (How often do you hear a typewriter on recorded music?) While it didn’t change the course of country music like the Travis and Twain singles, it added to the lineage of working people songs and employed the woman’s point of view for a change. The men have Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It,” while the workingwomen’s anthem is “9 To 5.”

Parton garnered two Grammy Awards for “9 to 5” in the Best Female Country Vocal Performance and Best Country Song categories. She would also be nominated for her first Oscar, losing to the title song from “Fame.” The album would eventually be certified gold for shipments of 500,000 copies. In another feat, “9 to 5” would mark only the second time a female country artist would top the Billboard Hot Country Songs and Hot 100 charts with the same single. (The first was Jeannie C. Riley and “Harper Valley PTA”).

Listening to the album, the title track plus “Sing for the Common Man,” “Working Girl,” and “Poor Folks Town” all fit the “working” theme but I’d hardly regard this as a concept album. Instead, it’s an above average pop/country fusion that leaned heavily on the pop influences. Unlike the pop-country of today however, producer Mike Post smartly kept the production soft so the listener could appreciate the lyrical content of the tracks. I have nothing wrong with pop-leaning country music as long as its good, and 9 to 5 is just that.

Post leaned heavy on muscular guitars to give the album a more rock feel and it works. Gone are the soft string-filled arrangements from the 1970s that almost put the listener to sleep, and in its place is a livelier sound that works with Parton’s voice, and her personality as well. Tracks such as “Hush A-Bye Hard Times,” “The House of the Rising Sun” (a #14 peaking single for Parton), “Working Girl” and “Poor Folks Town” all fit this theme perfectly. The varying degree of rock production on these tracks command the listener’s attention, but “Sun” could’ve done without the gospel choir. It was interesting to hear that song with such full production as I’m used to more intimate renditions, especially from American Idol contestants. I kept thinking classic Abba when listening to that track, which may or may not be a good thing on an album from a country singer, but since I generally like the 70s Swedish group, it didn’t bother me.

As for the ballads, my favorite track on the album was also the most perplexing. The inclusion of “Dark as a Dungeon,” Merle Travis’s masterpiece about working in the mines, didn’t sit well with me in terms of placement. The only way I can justify its inclusion is it fits the working theme in that there are people who make their living working in mines. But such a dark song didn’t seem right on such a sunny album. But as a recorded track, “Dungeon” is the closest thing to hinting at Parton’s country roots on the whole album, and the light production suits her voice and is a welcome reminder that Parton is still a country girl at heart.

The other standout ballad, “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” hints at the influence Emmylou Harris had on the genre at the time. To me, it sounds just like a cover tune she would’ve placed on any of her 70s masterpieces, and acts almost as a foreshadowing of the two working together on the Trio projects. The mix of light piano and acoustic guitar complements Parton’s vocals perfectly and proves that less is often so much more.

Other tracks “But You Know I love You” (another #1 country hit) and “Detroit City” are also very good with “Love You” being my favorite of the two. I honestly don’t have much familiarity with the latter, the Mel Tillis penned, Bobby Bare classic, so I have nothing to compare it to, but Parton does an okay job with a song I believe is usually done more understated. It’s an example of where the rock arraignment fell short. The heavy guitars didn’t fit the song.

Overall, 9 To 5 and Odd Jobs is a very solid album from Parton. She sings the fire out of the songs and proved to me why she belongs as one of country music’s greatest female singers. I thought a couple of the tracks ended too quickly, but this was back then when two-minute songs were still popular. This time around, there’s nothing offensive about the song choices, lyrical content, or production. If you only know the title track, I would urge you to go ahead and pick up the album. It’s well worth the listen but skip the bonus tracks in the 2009 reissue. “Everyday People” is a bit too loud and brash in comparison to the rest of the project, and the two remixes of the title track are pointless drivel in comparison to the original. These three additions are not worth the download, if you don’t already have them.

Grade: A- 

9 to 5 and Odd Jobs is readily available from Amazon in both hard copy and download form, and on iTunes.