My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Aretha Franklin

Album Review: The Flying Burrito Brothers – ‘The Gilded Palace of Sin’

gildedpalaceThe Flying Burrito Brothers were formed in 1968 by former Byrds members Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman. Pianist and bassist Chris Ethridge and steel guitarist Sneaky Pete Kleinow were also a part of the original line-up. The band released its first album, The Gilded Palace of Sin, on A&M Records the following year. In the forty-five years since the album’s release, country music has been defined and re-defined, and paired with almost every other genre of popular music. As such, it may be a little difficult for modern listeners to truly appreciate how revolutionary and cutting-edge The Flying Burrito Brothers’ fusion of country, rock, folk, R&B and psychadelic rock was at the time. Although it was a commercial failure at the time, the album was hugely influential on country music. Bearing testament to this is the fact that many listeners, though they may be unfamiliar with the band, will likely be familiar with many of the album’s songs.

Hillman and Parsons had a hand in writing the majority of the album’s eleven songs, with the exception of two R&B covers, “Do Right Woman”, a 1976 hit for Aretha Franklin and “Dark Side of the Street”, which was a hit for James Carr the same year. Both songs were written by Chips Moman and Dan Penn. Hillman and Parsons wrote most of the remaining songs together.

Many country fans will be familiar with the album’s best track “Sin City”, which was later covered by Dwight Yoakam and K.D. Lang, and “Wheels” and “Juanita”, which were both covered by Parsons’ protege Emmylou Harris. I wasn’t previously famiilar with a pair of unimaginatively titled songs — “Hot Burrito #1” and “Hot Burrito #2”, respectively — that were written by Parsons with Chris Etheridge. I quite liked the soulful “#1”, but didn’t much care for the R&B and gospel-tinged “#2”, finding the funky fuzzbox effect to be excessive and distracting.

In keeping with the times, there is a pair of topical tunes — “My Uncle”, which tells the story of young man who is planning to head to Canada upon receiving his draft card — and “Hippie Boy”, which deals with the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The latter is a plodding and overly long spoken-word number that I could have done without.

It is hard not to like anything that contains as much pedal steel guitar as this album does, but the rock and psychadelic elements make the production seem a bit dated and I can’t help preferring the cover versions which are more familiar to me. Parsons and Hillman’s vocals are good; their harmonies at times are reminiscent of The Everly Brothers. However, the album is mixed in such a way — again in keeping with the times — that the vocals are nearly drowned out by the instrumentation, something else I found a bit distracting.

The Gilded Palace of Sin is considered important, but to call it a landmark album might be overstating things just a bit. It is primarily interesting because of the future artists — Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and Steve Earle, to name a few — that it influenced. For that reason alone, it is worth a listen.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘Always On My Mind’

alwaysVoices like Willie Nelson’s are an often-cited reason why many people don’t like country music, so in many respects Willie was an unlikely pop star. Nevertheless, with albums like Stardust, he proved that he could not only handle non-country material, but that he could also appeal to worldwide audiences much broader than the typical country music fan base. 1982’s Always On My Mind is one of his most AC-leaning albums. Like Stardust, it reached outside the country genre for material, though the selections this time around were more contemporary.

The title track had first been introduced to country audiences by Brenda Lee a decade earlier. Her version peaked outside the country Top 40. A cover version by Elvis Presley the same year reached 16 on the AC charts, but the song remained relatively unknown despite being recorded by numerous other artists, until Willie’s version came along. His recording of the song became the biggest hit of his career; it topped the Billboard country singles chart in May 1982 and was the magazine’s #1 country single of the year. It also reached #5 on the all-genre Hot 100 chart and earned three Grammy Awards — one for Willie for Best Male Country Vocal Performance as well as Best Country Song and Song of the Year for its writers Mark James, Johnny Christopher and Wayne Carson Thompson. It was also widely honored by the Country Music Association, winning Single of the Year in 1982 and Song of the Year in both 1982 and 1983. Willie also took home the 1982 Album of the Year trophy.

It’s exceedingly difficult to follow up a career record, but Willie’s next two singles, while not matching the success of “Always On My Mind”, turned in respectable chart performances. His cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me” reached #2 on the country charts and #11 on the AC charts and just cracked the Top 40 on the Hot 100. “Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning”, a song that I did not initially like but now consider a favorite, also reached #2 on the country chart but did not enjoy any crossover success.

Aside from some harmonica and Willie’s trademark guitar, there is no country instrumentation on this album. The fiddle and steel guitar are absent, and the saxophone is used instead on tracks like “Let It Be Me” and “Old Fords and a Natural Stone”, and most of the non-single album cuts come from outside of country music. The opening track “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”, written by the album’s producer Chips Moman and Dan Penn, had been an R&B hit for Aretha Franklin in 1967. The song had been covered for the country market previously, by Barbara Mandrell whose version went to #17 in 1971, and surprisingly, it was also recorded by Kitty Wells at some point. “A Whiter Shade Of Pale”, on which Willie is joined by Waylon Jennings, is a remake of a 1967 psychadelic rock hit by the British group Procul Harum. Willie also does a very nice version of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”.

Always On My Mind was clearly designed with one eye on the pop market, but it avoids the excesses and overproduction that was typical of most recordings of the era that had crossover aspirations. Sufficient concessions were also made to keep country fans happy. Among the more country-sounding material are two songs penned by Willie: “Permanently Lonely” and “The Party’s Over”, a remake of his own earlier recording, which like some of the other remakes on this album, dates back to 1967. It’s my favorite track on the album.

Legacy Recordings reissued Always On My Mind in 2008, with two new tracks: “The Man Who Owes Everyone” and “I’m A Memory”, both of which are enjoyable, though they would have fit in better on one of his more country-sounding albums.

Selling more than 4 million copies in the United States and another 2 million in Canada, Always On My Mind is second only to Stardust in terms of commercial success. It’s always been a favorite of mine, primarily for nostalgic reasons, but due to its reliance on pop, R&B and rock material, it’s not an especially important album in terms of country music, aside from the three singles, which are widely available on numerous compilations. That being said, it is an enjoyable record, country or not, and a cheap used copy is well worth picking up.

Grade: A

Favorite country songs of the 1970s: Part 4

For part four of this series, I’ll be using the same criteria as before – just some songs I liked, one song per artist (although I will feel free to comment on other songs by the artist). This part stops in the middle of the letter M.

“Joy To The World” – Murray Kellum (1971)

A nice country cover of a #1 pop hit for Three Dog Night, this reached #26 and was Murray’s biggest hit. He died in a plane crash in 1990 at the too-young age of 47. Hoyt Axton wrote this song.

Honky Tonk Wine” – Wayne Kemp (1973)

Wayne Kemp was better known as a songwriter who penned major hits for the likes of George Jones (“Love Bug”), Conway Twitty (“The Image of Me”) and countless others. This song reached #17, and was Wayne’s biggest hit.

Sweet Desire” – The Kendalls (1978)

A father and daughter duo, Jeannie took on most of the lead vocals while father Royce sang harmony. The Kendalls kept the radio airwaves safe for real country music during the middle and late 1970s. I liked everything the Kendalls ever sang, and have no idea why the new traditionalist movement of 1986 failed to re-ignite their career.

Mama’s Got The Know-How” – Doug Kershaw (1974)

For someone as famous as he is, Doug Kershaw had only seven chart hits as a solo act, to go with his five hits as part of Rusty & Doug. This one got to #77, a fairly normal placing for his solo efforts. Although I liked this song, his Warner Brothers albums of the 1970s were mostly laconic efforts. Read more of this post

Head to head: rival versions of the same song

LeAnn Rimes has elected to premier her upcoming covers album Lady And Gentlemen by releasing a ramped-up version of John Anderson’s 1983 smash hit ‘Swingin’’ as the lead single. Self-evidently, covering another artist’s signature song means you have to bear comparison with the original. Unfortunately for LeAnn, she also has to compete with a much better cover getting attention at the moment in the form of Chris Young’s fresh acoustic take on the same song on his excellent new EP Voices (reviewed here recently by Razor X). Admittedly Chris’s version is not being promoted as a single, but it’s certainly the version I would prefer to hear on the radio.

LeAnn has of course been in a similar position before. As a teenager she was at the center of a public rivalry, when her recording of ‘How Do I Live’, intended for the soundtrack of the 1997 action movie Con Air, was rejected by the producers in favor of a version by Trisha Yearwood. As well as its appearance in the film, Trisha’s version was a big country hit single, reaching #2 on Billboard, and won a Grammy. LeAnn arguably got the last laugh that time, as her rival cut was a massive international pop hit and sold three million copies.

In fact, rival versions of the same song competing for sales and airplay, are something of a tradition. In the singles-dominated 1950s and 60s it was commonplace for artists to cover current hits, either as direct competition or as easy choices of popular songs to fill out an album. In an era when country fans had less disposable income, it made sense for an artist to record the most popular songs out there, so that if someone liked a particular song they might choose to buy the version by their favorite singer. Successful artists who sold well were almost unbelievably prolific, typically releasing several 12-track albums a year – George Jones, for instance, recorded over 150 songs when he was signed to United Artists, over the period 1962-1964. There was thus great demand for good material, even by singer-songwriters who simply couldn’t write enough on their own.

Merrle Haggard, for instance, wrote much of his material, but also included covers of contemporary hits. His 1968 album Mama Tried supplemented his own classic title song with covers of recent hits ‘The Green, Green Grass Of Home’, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, Dolly Parton’s ‘In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)’ , and the now-forgotten ‘Little Old Wine Drinker Me’. In turn, ‘Mama Tried’ and the previous year’s hit ‘Sing Me Back Home’ were covered by the Everly Brothers on their own 1968 release Roots.

It was also often common for singers in other genres to cover country hits, and vice versa. An early example is Hank Williams’ Cajun-styled ‘Jambalaya (On the Bayou)’. Hank’s original was a 14-week #1 in 1952; a cover by singer Jo Stafford saw top 10 success on the pop charts the same year. Stafford had quite an eye for country hits which could be brought to a new audience – she also covered Hank Snow’s 1952 country hit ‘A Fool Such As I’ in 1953, and had duetted with Frankie Laine on Hank Williams’ ‘Hey Good Lookin’. Laine also covered ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, but the biggest pop version was by Joni James, who recorded it the day Hank died. Patti Page’s 1950 country-pop crossover smash ‘Tennessee Waltz’ was another to see off several rival versions.

A decade later, nothing had changed. John Hartford’s ‘Gentle On My Mind’ won him a folk Grammy in 1968; Glen Campbell’s cover of the same song won the country Grammy the same year. Patti Page charted a pop version that year, and Aretha Franklin gave it an R&B twist the following year, while Rat Packer Dean Martin had an easy listening international hit, and Elvis Presley also covered the tune on an album. The Kris Kristofferson classic ‘Me And Bobby McGee’ was a top 20 country hit for Roger Miller in 1969, who recorded it before the Statler Brothers (who had been offered the song) could get into the studio. The same year a rival version by Canadian Gordon Lightfoot was a pop hit, and it was also an album track for Kenny Rogers. A year later it was a rock smash for Janis Joplin. ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town’ was a top 10 country hit for Johnny Darrell, and covered the same year by Waylon Jennings, Roger Miller and the Statler Brothers, before Kenny Rogers’ #1 a few years later displaced all previous versions.

Even as late as the 1990s, genre reinventions were bringing songs to new audiences. 90s country star Mark Wills saw his 1998 country hit ‘I Do (Cherish You)’ (written by Keith Stegall and Dan Hill) covered the following year by pop group 98 Degrees. He then covered R&B artist Brian McKnight’s 1999 pop hit ‘Back At One’, getting a country hit for himself in 2000. Weirdly, both versions of the latter got to #2 on their respective charts.

In more recent years, competing cuts tended to mean that one artist got the hit, and the other was forced to release another song instead. In some cases that changed the course of country music history.

1983 saw rival versions of the inspirational ‘The Wind Beneath My Wings’. The earliest cut was actually by English MOR singer Roger Whittaker in 1982, but in 1983 two pop-country stars went head to head. Actor-singer Gary Morris enjoyed a top 10 hit but it might easily have been Lee Greenwood, who included the song on his album Somebody’s Gonna Love You released the same year. In 1985 the fast-rising Reba McEntire’s recording of the lively ‘She’s Single Again’ was not released as a single – because Janie Fricke got there first, and enjoyed a #2 hit.

Keith Whitley saw his big breakthrough delayed when he was unable to release the two best tracks on his 1986 album LA To Miami as singles, due to rival versions getting to radio first. He might have had a big hit with Dean Dillon’s ‘Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her’, but George Strait‘s cut went to #1 instead, and is one of Strait’s most fondly remembered singles. ‘On The Other Hand’ was to become the signature hit for Randy Travis in 1986 – but it might so easily have served that function for Keith instead. Incidentally, a third recording of the song was also made by veteran Charley Pride on After All This Time, his 1987 album for independent label 16th Avenue. All three versions are good enough to have been hits.

George Strait also potentially stymied the chances of his favorite songwriter when his choice of Dean Dillon’s ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’ as a single in 1993 – a song Dillon had earmarked for his own next shot at the charts. Even our current Spotlight Artist Mark Chesnutt has drawn the short straw a couple of times. As Razor X mentioned in yesterday’s review of Too Cold At Home, that album featured a version of ‘Friends In Low Places’ – only to be forestalled when Garth Brooks had a smash hit with his version of the song. More recently, Joe Nichols recorded ‘Don’t Ruin It For The Rest Of Us’ on his Revelation album in 2004, the same year Mark recorded the song on his first independent release Savin’ the Honky Tonk, although in this case neither artist selected the song as a single.

I’ve only scratched the surface here – what rival versions can you think of? Did the best cut always win the chart battle?

Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Reba’

reba mcentire - rebaThis album is not even in my top ten Reba albums, though there are individual songs I dearly love on it. However, Reba’s 14th studio album was significant for Reba and her career for a number of reasons.

Reba reflected a time of important transition in her personal life. Her divorce became final in November of 1987, and as she says in her autobiography, Reba: My Story,

Something was shifting inside of me. Maybe the reason was my new freedom as an unmarried woman – for the first time in my life, not having to answer to anyone but myself; or maybe it was the sense of confidence that came from restructuring my organization and putting some of my long-held pet ideas into practice. Whatever the reason, in 1988, I found myself drawn to the old Aretha Franklin hit “Respect.” It just seemed to connect with my mental outlook at the time.

Reba talked with her producer, Jimmy Bowen, about using it to open the new 1988 show. Though he was a bit surprised she liked that one, Bowen suggested she record it as one of the needed up-tempo numbers for her next album. She did, along with others that were more R & B, jazz or pop.

Reba was released in April of 1988 and received more negative criticism from traditional country circles than any of her previous albums, though it stayed at #1 on Billboard’s Country chart for 8 weeks that summer and she continued to receive awards such as Favorite Female Country Artist (AMA), Favorite Female Vocalist (TNN), etc. She had previously been so outspoken about loving her country roots and recording traditional country music that it came as somewhat of a surprise she recorded an album with no fiddles and no steel, more keyboard and more synthesizer.

Her previous career-making album, “Whoever’s In New England,” had also had some numbers that many considered more cross-over songs. But Reba said about that one (again in her autobiography),

I never set out to record a “crossover” record. As I’ve said, I’ve always considered myself a country artist and never wanted to abandon my roots. I had simply come to the conclusion that it would be better for me just to do good material, and if it happened to reach across the pop charts – well, fine – that would be an unexpected little extra.

She similarly defended “Respect” on this album. In a segment on “Respect” in CMT’s “Reba McEntire: Greatest Stories,” Reba talks about the reaction she got when she performed it as a dance number on the CMAs that year. People asked her afterwards if she’d thought about the fact that she was doing a pop number on a country awards show and she said no, she really hadn’t. It was up-tempo and she loved the song and was a big fan of Aretha Franklin. Plus, she was excited to show people she could move after years of standing behind a microphone.

And “Respect” is certainly a great song. Rolling Stones rated Aretha’s version #5 on their 2004 list of the Top 500 Songs of All Time.  However, many of the other cuts on the album aren’t great and seem more like filler and actually detract from the other good songs in the set.

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