My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Barbara Mandrell

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent & The Rage – ‘All The Rage Volume 1’

all-the-rageMost bluegrass bands are at their best live, and great though she is as a recording artist, Rhonda Vincent and her road band The Rage are no exception. Her latest album, the result of a concert at Bethel University in Tennessee in May 2015, really allows her band the chance to shine on a selection of mainly lesser known tunes from Rhonda’s back catalog.

They open with a coruscating version of the Jimmie Rodgers classic ‘Muleskinner Blues’ with Rhonda wailing and yodelling impressively. This is a complete tour de force. In similar vein is ‘Kentucky Borderline’, written by Rhonda herself, while the closing ‘Mississippi River’ comes from the Mark Twain tribute album a few years back.

Slowing down the tempo, ‘Is The Grass Any Bluer (On The Other Side)’ is an affectionate tribute to Father of bluegrass Bill Monroe. There is an excellent version of the Barbara Mandrell hit ‘Midnight Angel’ (originally a bluegrass song, and also recorded by Highway 101). ‘Missouri Moon’ is a beautiful, melancholy ballad. The delicately understated ‘I’ve Forgotten You’ is one of those songs which means the absolute opposite of its title.

Rhonda takes the lead on a traditional bluegrass gospel quartet for the cheerfully judgmental ‘You Don’t Love God (If You Don’t Love Your Neighbour)’. She also sings a devout ‘The Old Rugged Cross’.

The guys are allowed to sing lead on several of the songs. The bands newest member Josh Williams, is an excellent singer in his own right, and he takes on the much-recorded rambler’s song ‘Freeborn Man’. Dobro player Brent Burke (one of Rhonda’s sons in law) shows off an attractive tenor voice on ‘The Girl From West Virginia’. Bassist Mickey Harris sings his own ‘If We Would Just Pray’.

A couple of fast paced instrumentals round out the set, a fiddle tune composed by Hunter Berry (Rhonda’s other son in law) and a banjo one by Aaron McDaris respectively.

The concert is also available as a DVD. It is an outstanding set of performances which I warmly recommend.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Tammy Wynette – ‘The First Lady’

tumblr_ls3bvtwziu1qf01xeo1_500The First Lady, Tammy Wynette’s eighth album, was her third and final release in 1970. The project’s sole number one was the chart topping cautionary tale, “Run Woman Run,” in which a woman advises a friend to work it out with her ex-lover:

Run woman, run

Go back to him and fix things up the very best you can

Tell him you missed him while you were gone

Run woman, run back to your man

 

You’re a young girl, so understand, it’s so hard to find a man

Who comes home every night to only you

You may not find true love again, so go home while you still can

And find a way to work it out with your man

While no other singles were released, The First Lady is notable for containing six songs written or co-written by Billy Sherill. Barbara Mandrell simultaneously covered the excellent “Playin’ Around With Love,” which was issued as the second single from her debut album. Jody Miller released a version of the similarly upbeat “Safe In These Lovin’ Arms of Mine,” which wasn’t released to radio. Wynette does a superb job on both songs, even surpassing Mandrell with a superior vocal performance.

Given Wynette’s success with songs regarding domestic life and marriage, it’s no surprise to find most of Sherill’s contributions cover similar thematic ground. “He’s Still My Man” finds Wynette devastated by the philandering spouse she chooses to forgive. On another she’s “The Lovin’ Kind” to a man who favors the emotionally detached.

She’s a next-door neighbor on “I Wish I Had a Mommy Like You,” one of Sherill’s creepier contributions. Wynette is left to comfort a boy abandoned by his father and left home alone by his mother. A twist ending only makes matters harder to swallow:

There lives a little boy in the house next door to me

And as usual his mommy was gone

So he came over this morning and sat down next to me

And asked why does mommy leave me alone

 

But he’ll find out someday why his mommy stays away

And why a woman needs arms to hold her tight

And that she would stay at home and not leave him all alone

If his daddy didn’t stay away at night

 

He said I wish I had a mommy like you just like you

To hold me in her arms the way you do

When I lay me down to sleep I pray the Lord my soul to keep

And I ask for a mommy like you

 

Though a tear fell from his eye he was trying not to cry

I said don’t worry everything will be all right

So you just wait and see and I held him close to me

Just like I held his daddy last night

As if that wasn’t enough, Sherill and Wynette team with Carmol Taylor for “My Daddy Doll,” in which Wynette observes her daughter explaining to her friend how she’s transferred the love she’s lost from the father that’s abandoned her:

My little girl was playing with her friend from down the street

She took her by the hand and said there’s someone you should meet

And then they went into her room to play another game

She picked up all her dolly’s and told them all by name

 

I listened as she said their names here’s Betty Sue and Kay

Jack and June and Mary Jo and then I’ve heard her say

This one is my Daddy Doll and she sat him on the floor

I make believe he’s daddy since he don’t live here no more

 

My daddy doll is always near to help put me to bed

He kisses me and says goodnight like my real daddy did

He talks with me and never failes to answer when I called

My Daddy Doll is special and I love him most of all

My Daddy Doll is special and I love him most of all

Taylor’s solely written “Buy Me A Daddy” plays as a companion piece to the aforementioned song, albeit in a much tamer way. The lyric, in which a little girl offers a simple request, is more heartbreaking than eerie:

I buy toys for my little girl almost every day

To try and keep her happy

Since her daddy went away

But today she looked so lonely

As she climbed upon my knees

And in her sweet tiny voice she said this to me

 

Mommy I love you and all of my toys

But I want a daddy like the other girls and boys

Then she gave me her pennies her nickels and dimes

And the next thing she told me broke this heart of mine

Buy me a daddy, he don’t have to be new

Just as long as he loves me any daddy will do

 

And we’ll make him promise daddy won’t go away

Please buy me a daddy let’s go get one today

Buy me a daddy let’s go get one today

Taylor’s final contribution is the serviceable yet bland “True and Lasting Love.” Also included on The First Lady is Wynette’s version of Bill Anderson and Jan Howard’s “I Never Once Stopped Loving You,” a #5 peaking hit for Connie Smith that very year.

The remaining cut on The First Lady is the fabulous Chet Atkins and Curly Putman composition “Sally Trash.” Wynette channels Loretta Lynn with a lyric that finally gives her woman-scorned persona a backbone:

The whole big town of Knoxville is your playground every night

It seems I’m just your everyday plaything and honey that ain’t right

But my kinda love turns strong and steady not off and on like a neon flash

But if you don’t like my sweet kinda love then baby

Then go on out and pick up Sally trash

 

She’s been picked up many times then dropped like a hot potatoe

And she’s been squeezed and handled like an overripe tomatoe

But she don’t really love your lovin’ she just likes your cash

So if you don’t want my sweet kinda love then baby

Then go on out and pick up Sally trash

Evaluating The First Lady isn’t as easy a task as it might seem. Despite just one single, the album is a complete body of work. The listener never gets the sense that Wynette or Sherill padded the project to rush a release full of filler to the marketplace. Despite the subject matter, which leaves a bad taste in my mouth, there honestly isn’t a throwaway track in the bunch.

Songs like “I Wish I Had A Mommy Like You” and “My Daddy Doll” aren’t necessarily to my tastes, and will likely alienate the majority of the audience, but they aren’t as poorly constructed as they are sinister. The twist in the former is actually kind of genius. I’m just glad country music has evolved away from these types of songs. It proves that some evolvement, in which the genre is correctly pushed forward, only benefited later generations.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Tammy Wynette – ‘Take Me To Your World/I Don’t Wanna Play House’

take-me-to-your-worldReleased in January 1968, Take Me To Your World/ I Don’t Wanna Play House, was Tammy’s second solo album and represented another step forward in Tammy Wynette’s career, rising to #3 on the Country Albums chart. Not only that, but the two singles released from the album both rose to #1 giving Tammy her first two solo #1 records and her third overall #1 (her duet of “My Elusive Dreams” with David Houston reached #1 in 1967).

For me, the apogee of female country singers was reached in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While female singers may have achieved better chart penetration later, qualitative the major label crop of female singers was abundant and excellent with the likes of Connie Smith, Wilma Burgess, Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, Jean Shepard, Dottie West, Skeeter Davis, Lynn Anderson, Liz Anderson, Norma Jean, Rose Maddox, Jeanie Seely, Jeannie C Riley, Barbara Mandrell and Wanda Jackson being among the competition. There also were a host of second-tier artists on the major labels and many female artists on minor and independent labels. Within a few years the likes of Tanya Tucker and Barbara Fairchild would appear on the scene. The ghost of Patsy Cline was also on the scene.

While Tammy Wynette did not have the sheer vocal power of a Jean Shepard or Loretta Lynn, she did have the advantage of a record producer who was perfectly able to overcome Tammy’s vocal limitations and devise accompaniments to perfectly frame the essential teardrop in Tammy’s voice, and to write (when necessary) to showcase the voice and the production.

(As an aside, when I refer to the term “Nashville Sound”, I am referring to recordings where steel guitars and fiddles are accompanied (or sometimes replaced) by symphonic arrangements and choral accompaniments. The chief architects of this style were Chet Atkins at RCA, Owen Bradley at Decca, and Billy Sherrill at Epic. In Sherrill’s hands the arrangements were sometimes referred to as ‘country cocktails’. The style was very effective in covering up a singer’s lack of range, particularly in the higher registers.)

The album opens with “I Don’t Wanna Play House” a Billy Sherrill-Glen Sutton composition that won the 1968 Grammy for Best Female Country Performance. In the song, the narrator, a woman whose husband has left her, hears her daughter tell a neighbor boy that she doesn’t want to play house and the reason why she doesn’t want to play. This is a very compelling song:

Today I sat alone at the window
And I watched our little girl outside at play
With the little boy next door like so many times before
But something didn’t seem quite right today

So I went outside to see what they were doing
And then the teardrops made my eyes grow dim
‘Cause I heard him name a game and I hung my head in shame
When I heard our little girl say to him.

I don’t want to play house; I know it can’t be fun
I’ve watched mommy and daddy
And if that’s the way it’s done
I don’t want to play house; It makes my mommy cry
‘Cause when she played house
My daddy said good-bye.

Next up is “Jackson Ain’t A Very Big Town”, a minor hit for Norma Jean in 1967. Tammy does as nice job with the song.

“Broadminded” comes from the pen of Leona Williams and Jimmy Payne. At some point Leona would become one of Merle Haggard’s wives and would have some success on the country charts, although never as much as her talent would have warranted. The Leona Williams version of the songs is far superior to Tammy’s rendition, but if you’ve not heard Leona’s version you will likely like Tammy’s recording. At this point in her career Tammy really hadn’t become quite assertive enough to give this sassy up-tempo song the proper reading.

Broadminded, narrow minded man
Every night I catch you sleepin’ with a smile on your face
And a-callin’ names that I don’t even know
If it ain’t Carmel, Pat and Gracie
Aand drinkin’ down at Stacey’s
It’s making plans to see a girly show

Broadminded, I just don’t understand
A broadminded, narrow minded man

“Cry” was a big 1950s hit for male pop singer Johnnie Ray. Tammy gives it a straight ahead reading, but the song works better in the hands of someone with a bigger voice – both Lynn Anderson (#3 in 1972) and Crystal Gayle (#1 in 1986) would have big hits with the song in the upcoming years.

“The Phone Call”, written by Norris “Norro” Wilson, is just album filler, a phone call between a daughter and her mother, telling her mother her tale of woe about a man who mistreated her.

“Take Me To Your World”, a Glen Sutton-Billy Sherrill collaboration, is given the full Nashville Sound treatment by Sherrill. The song is an outstanding effort and showcases Tammy vocals perfectly.

If you can find it in your heart to just forgive
I’ll come back and live the way you’ve wanted me to live
All I want is just to be your girl
Please come and get me, and take me to your world

Take me to your world, away from bar rooms filled with smoke
Where I won’t have to serve a drink, or hear a dirty joke
All I want is just to be your girl

“(Or) Is It Love” was written by Buddy Ray. It too, is given the full Nashville Sound treatment, turning a piece of filler into a worthwhile effort. Harry Mills’ “Fuzzy Wuzzy Ego” is a song about a woman essentially talking her man off the ledge and into returning home. The production on this song is very country, including use of a dobro.

With one elbow on the bar you’re drinking double
Tryin’ hard to drown up my memories
And you’re tellin’ all your buddies all your troubles
Layin’ the blame smack upon me.

If you set that bottle down and while I listen
You lose your pain inside that hurts you so
Neither one of us is all to blame baby
It’s your foggy woggy, wishy washy, fuzzy wuzzy ego.

My vinyl album contains “It’s My Way” a song credited to Wayne Walker and Webb Pierce. It is a good song, but it does not appear on my digital version of the album.

Glen Sutton’s “Good” would have made a good single, a tale of a woman torn between good and bad, who simply cannot keep herself in line. The production is subdued Nashville Sound.

Now I’m back here in a barroom,
A waitress again.
The good world I’ve lived in,
Just came to an end.

For temptation comes easy
To a woman like me.
And regardless of my chances,
I know that I’ll never be.

Good like I used to be;
I guess it’s just not in me.
With all my heart how I wish I proved
I’ve been good like he wanted me.

“Ode To Billy Joe” is a cover of the Bobbie Gentry hit from a few years earlier. Tammy gives the song a satisfactory rendition, but she does not have the soulful Gothic feel of Gentry’s original.

“Soaking Wet” is the bonus track on my digital copy of the album, a straight ahead country treatment devoid of Nashville Sound trappings. I have no other information concerning this song.

At this point in Tammy’s career she and Billy Sherrill were still looking for that magic formula that would turn Tammy into a full-fledged star. Consequently this album features songs with the full Nashville Sound treatment, some songs with scaled back Nashville Sound treatments and a few straight ahead country arrangements.

While Tammy and Billy were still experimenting here, the very next album would answer all the questions and set the trajectory for subsequent albums.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Blue Kentucky Girl’

51i+XrdZe0L._SS280By 1965, with three consecutive Top 5 hits under her belt, Loretta Lynn was on a hot streak and well on her way towards becoming country music’s next big female star. “Blue Kentucky Girl”, which was written by Johnny Mullins, who had also penned her breakthrough hit “Success”, didn’t fare quite as well on the charts but still finished at a very respectable #7. It’s one of my favorites of Loretta’s early recordings and is interesting today for a couple of reasons, aside from just being a very good song: the use of the banjo was quite unusual for the era, when the lush Nashville Sound was at its peak. It’s also notable because we are still seeing Loretta in the role of the downtrodden woman, who is pining for her man who has been lured away — at least temporarily — by the bright lights of the city. She would continue in this vein for just a little while longer, but soon the public would get to see a more assertive side of Loretta, beginning with 1966’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” and continuing on with “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” and the following year’s “Fist City”.

She asserts herself just a little bit on “Night Girl”, a co-write with Teddy Wilburn, which is one of the album’s four Loretta-penned songs. This one casts her as girl from the wrong side of the tracks who has fallen for rich man, but not enough to sacrifice her pride. She knows he’s ashamed to be seen with her publicly and tells him on no uncertain terms that she’s not willing to partake in a clandestine relationship with him. The pair also wrote “Love’s Been Here and Gone”, a filler song about a dying relationship. Her solo composition “Farther to Go” is similarly unmemorable, although it contains some nice Hank Williams-ish steel guitar licks. The uptempo “Two Steps Forward”, another Loretta original, is quite good. This one finds her trying to work up the nerve — and not quite succeeding — in walking away from a bad relationship.

Like most country albums of the era, Blue Kentucky Girl relies heavily on remakes of other artists’ hits. Though some have been critical of this practice, it is important to remember why it was done. First and foremost, most major stars were releasing at least three albums a year. It would have been difficult to come up enough good original material to fill out that many albums. Covers had the advantage of being already familiar to record buyers, as well as the studio musicians, which meant that they had to spend little or no time learning the songs, which made them relatively inexpensive to record. Loretta does a beautiful job on Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” and Hank Locklin’s “Send Me The Pillow You Dream On”, both of which showcase her voice nicely. Harlan Howard’s “I Won’t Forget You” had been a monster hit for Jim Reeves the previous year, and shows that Loretta was more than capable of handling more polished material. She does an adequate job on George Jones’ “The Race Is On”, but doesn’t really leave her stamp on the song.

Barbara Mandrell once said in an interview that early in her career before she had enough of her own hits to fill out a show, she was advised only to perform hits sung by men, because audiences were bound to make too many comparisons of a woman singing another female artist’s song. Loretta’s cover of “Then and Only Then” illustrates this point nicely. Written by Bill Anderson, it was Connie Smith’s Top 5 follow-up to “Once a Day”. It’s not that Loretta’s version isn’t good – it is and if I’d never heard Connie Smith’s version it might actually be my favorite song on the album. But there is no escaping the fact that it doesn’t really sound much like a Loretta Lynn song and that it still sounds very much like a Connie Smith song, no matter who is singing it.

That being said, I’m not as opposed to covering other artists’ hits as many people are. I consider Blue Kentucky Girl to be Loretta’s strongest album up to that point and I highly recommend it.

Grade: A

Album Review: Barbara Mandrell – ‘This Time I Almost Made It: The Lost Columbia Masters’

81U+RipV8TL._SX522_More than any other performer, Barbara Mandrell is the artist responsible for sparking my interest in country music. Even before there were any local country music radio stations in my area, her weekly TV series was my main source of keeping abreast of what was going on in the world of country music. This was in the early 80s, when she’d just become the first artist to win the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year award a second time. Her contributions to country music were significant, but her catalog has been criminally neglected. Fortunately, that grievance is starting to be addressed. With the reissue of This Time I Almost Made It, courtesy of Real Gone Music, all of Barbara’s solo albums for Columbia are now available on CD.

Barbara was signed to Columbia in 1969 by Billy Sherrill and remained with the label until 1975. During that time, she only released three solo albums, plus a duets album with David Houston. Most major country acts released three albums a year in those days, but like we often see today, the label was waiting for some radio hits before committing to album releases. Her debut album Treat Him Right, was released in 1971 and was a lackluster seller. 1973’s The Midnight Oil reached #8 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, buoyed by the success of the title track which reached #7 in Billboard and #1 in Cashbox, and “Tonight My Baby’s Coming Home”, which was Barbara’s first Top 10 hit. By the time This Time I Almost Made It was released in 1974, the momentum she had gained seemed to have been lost again; it only reached #41 on the albums chart. By that time, Barbara might have already initiated talks to negotiate her release from her Columbia contract. If so, the label obviously would have had little interest in promoting her records. At any rate, the quality of the material does not seem to have been the issue.

The title track was written by Sherrill when he realized that they didn’t have enough songs for an album. Though in some respects it may have been an afterthought, it is my favorite track on the album. It’s a beautiful ballad, not particularly country in arrangement but the production is tastefully restrained. It was released as a single in advance of the album, as a follow-up to “The Midnight Oil”, but it charted outside the Top 10 at #12. The second single was “Wonder When My Baby’s Coming Home”, another easy-listening style ballad, although it is a little more country thanks to the inclusion of some steel guitar. I wasn’t previously familiar with this one, but I like it a lot. The background vocals give it a slightly dated feel, though they are a lot less intrusive than many records of the era. This one stalled at #39 and was Barbara’s final single for Columbia.

Barbara is well known for making country versions of R&B songs, occasionally delving too far into R&B territory for my taste in later years but her take on “You’re All I Need to Get By”, which has been a 1968 R&B hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, is quite good. She also turned in good performances on some pop songs of the day: “Keep On Singing”, which had been a hit for Helen Reddy, The Bee Gees’ “Words”, and The Beatles’ “Something”, which closes out the original album. She also covered her country colleagues Merle Haggard (“Today I Started Loving You Again”) and Charlie Rich (“A Very Special Love Song”).

This CD would be worth buying for the original album alone, but Real Gone Music has included almost another album’s worth of bonus tracks. There are nine in total, seven of which have never been released before. First up is the very country “I Hope You Love Me”, which was recorded during Barbara’s first session with Columbia in 1969. Written by George Jones and Tammy Wynette, it was included on Tammy’s 1970 album The Ways To Love a Man under the title “I Know”. “You Can Always Come Back”, also recorded in 1969 is a cover of a Curly Putman hit. “Coming Home Solider” had been a 1966 pop hit for Bobby Vinton.

Though the album’s liner notes refer to Barbara’s version as “dramatic”, I found it a bit plodding and it’s my least favorite track on the disc. Although a bit tame, her reading of “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music)” is much better. It was written by Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, who had hired Barbara for a two-week stint in Las Vegas when she was only eleven years old. It’s proof positive that despite her reputation for interpreting pop and R&B material, she was just as adept at tackling traditional country. Ditto for “You Took Him Off My Hands”, a Wynn Stewart/Harlan Howard/Skeets McDonald song that had previously been recorded by Patsy Cline.

Though not one a landmark album in the Mandrell discography, This Time I Almost Made It provides an interesting opportunity to trace Barbara’s development as an artist, and the bonus material is a real treat for her fans. After leaving Columbia, Barbara signed with ABC/Dot, which was later absorbed by MCA. That era of her career, despite being the years of her greatest commercial success, is still largely unavailable on CD aside from a few hits compilations. Hopefully the sales of This Time I Almost Made It will be good enough to entice Universal to finally allowing some of Barbara’s most commercially important recordings a chance to once again see the light of day.

Grade: A

Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘Paint the Town’

51uqPseH44L1989’s Paint the Town, the third entry in Highway 101’s discography, was the band’s final full length album before Paulette Carlson’s departure as lead singer. Like its two predecessors it was produced by Paul Worley and Ed Seay. The songwriting credits boast a number of prestigious names including Kix Brooks, Matraca Berg, Pam Tillis, Bob DiPiero, Gretchen Peters, and Roger Miller. While not quite as commercially successful as their previous albums, the material is top notch and it received a warm reception from country radio.

“Who’s Lonely Now”, written by Don Cook and a pre-Brooks & Dunn Kix Brooks was the lead single, and it quickly became the last of Highway 101’s four chart toppers. It was followed by my all-time favorite Highway 101 song, “Walkin’, Talkin’, Cryin’, Barely Beatin’ Broken Heart”, which was written by Justin Tubb and the great Roger Miller, who made a memorable guest appearance in the song’s video. Despite the mournful sounding title and subject matter, it’s a bouncy uptempo tune with plenty of pedal steel. It peaked at #4 and was the band’s last excursion into the Top 10. “This Side of Goodbye” just missed the Top 10, peaking at #11.

The rest of the album is a mix of contemporary and traditional country. On the contemporary side are the opening track “I Can’t Love You Baby” and “Rough and Tumble Heart”, a Pam Tillis co-write that Tillis would cover herself a few years later. More traditional are the plaintive Gretchen Peters-penned “I’ll Paint the Town” (blue, not red — this is no party song) and a gorgeous, version of James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James”, which closes the album. Featuring acoustic guitar, harmonica, a touch of pedal steel and a stellar vocal performance by Paulette Carlson, the track is simply stunning and a good example of why it pays to dig a little deeper into any artist’s catalog to find the hidden gems that are overshadowed by the radio hits.

The album is a mere ten tracks, which was standard for the day, and plays for just over 33 minutes. Though lean and mean it may be, the songs are all winners, with just one dud. “Midnight Angel” had been a Top 20 hit for Barbara Mandrell in 1976. I’ve always liked the song very much and at first it seemed like a number that Carlson could easily nail, but the Highway 101 version is surprisingly lackluster. It’s probably my least favorite track on any of the band’s first three albums. That one misstep aside, however, Paint the Town is top-notch affair that sounds as fresh today as it did when it was first released 26 years ago.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Barbara Mandrell – ‘Kentucky Means Paradise’

Reissues wish list: part 3 – RCA and Columbia

carl smithWhen speaking of the big four labels we need to define terms
Columbia refers to records originally issued on Columbia, Epic, Harmony or Okeh labels. Okeh was used for so-called minority interest recordings. Columbia also owned Vocalion for a while. RCA refers to recordings on the RCA Victor and RCA Camden labels.

RCA

In addition to folks such as Chet Atkins, Jim Reeves, Dolly Parton, Eddy Arnold, Connie Smith and Charley Pride, RCA had a fine group of second tier artists including Kenny Price, Porter Wagoner, Jim Ed Brown, Stu Phillips, Nat Stuckey, Jimmy Dean, Norma Jean, Skeeter Davis, Dottie West, Bobby Bare, The Browns and Jerry Reed.

Bear Family has released multiple boxed sets on several RCA artists including Connie Smith, Don Gibson, Waylon Jennings and Hank Snow who have multiple boxed sets (essentially everything Hank Snow recorded while on RCA – forty plus years worth of recordings is available on Bear). Enough Waylon has been released that what remains doesn’t justify a wish list.

What is really needed is for someone to issue decent sets on Kenny Price, Jim Ed Brown (without his sisters or Helen Cornelius), Norma Jean, Dottsy, Liz Anderson and Earl Thomas Conley. There is virtually nothing on any of these artists. Jimmy Dean recorded for RCA for about six years but nothing is available from his RCA years which saw some really fine recordings, including the best version of “A Thing Called Love“.

I would have said the same thing about Charley Pride but recent years have seen various Charley Pride sets become available, so we can take him off our wish list.

COLUMBIA RECORDS

When you think of Columbia Records, names such as Johnny Cash, Ray Price, Carl Smith, Stonewall Jackson, Flatt & Scruggs and Marty Robbins spring immediately to mind, but the well is deep and that doesn’t even count sister label Epic which boasted names like David Houston, Tammy Wynette, Charlie Rich, Jody Miller, Johnny Paycheck and Bob Luman.

By and large foreign and domestic reissues abound for most of the bigger names, but even here there are some major shortfalls.

Carl Smith recorded for Columbia through the early 1970s and while his 1950s output has been thoroughly mined, his sixties output has barely been touched and his seventies output (“Mama Bear”, “Don’t Say Goodbye”) completely neglected. Smith’s recordings increasingly veered toward western swing as the sixties wore on, but he recorded a fine bluegrass album, and a tribute to fellow East Tennessean Roy Acuff. His outstanding Twenty Years of Hits (1952-1972) recast twenty of his classic tunes as western swing. A good three CD set seems in order.

I could make a good case for electing David Houston to the Country Music Hall of Fame. From 1966 he had thirteen #1 hits and a bunch more top ten and top twenty recordings. “Almost Persuaded” was his biggest hit but there were bunches of good songs scattered across his many albums. A good two CD set is a must, and I could easily justify a three CD set.

While Sony Legacy issued a decent Johnny Paycheck single disc hits collection, it is long on the later stages of his career and short on the earliest years. Paycheck released over thirty singles for Epic from 1972–1982 and it’s about time someone collected them on a good two (or preferably three) disc collection along with some key album cuts.

Moe Bandy achieved his greatest commercial success while recording for Columbia. Between chart singles and album cuts Moe warrants at least a decent two CD set, and please leave the ‘Moe & Joe’ nonsense out of the mix.

Columbia has a lot of artists that would justify a single or double disc hits collection: David Wills, Al Dexter, Ted Daffan, David Rodgers, Connie Smith, Carl & Pearl Butler, Tommy Cash, David Frizzell, Bob Luman, Jody Miller, Barbara Fairchild, Barbara Mandrell, Charlie Walker and Sammi Smith.

Reissues wish list part 2: MCA and Decca

webb pierceFor most of the Classic Country era, the big four of country record labels were Decca /MCA, RCA, Columbia and Capitol. Of these labels, MCA/Decca has done the poorest job of keeping their artists’ catalogues alive in the form of reissues.

When speaking of the big four labels we will need to define terms.
MCA/Decca refers to recordings released on MCA, Decca, Brunswick and for some periods, Vocalion.

During the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Decca (later MCA) can be argued as having the strongest roster of artists. Such titans as Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, Webb Pierce, Conway Twitty, Jack Greene, Bill Anderson, Jimmy Martin, The Osborne Brothers, Bill Monroe, Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn frequently dominated the charts with many strong second tier acts such as The Wilburn Brothers, Jimmie Davis, Roy Drusky, Jimmie C. Newman, Johnny Wright, Cal Smith, Bill Phillips, Crystal Gayle, Jeanie Seely, Jan Howard and Red Sovine passing through the ranks at various times. Crystal Gayle, of course, became a major star in the late 1970s and 1980s

In the early digital days MCA had virtually nothing of their classic artists available aside from some Loretta Lynn, Bill Monroe and Conway Twitty discs. Then in 1991 they started their County Music Hall of Fame Series, showcasing artists elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, because of industry politics, their biggest stars, Webb Pierce and Conway Twitty, had not yet been elected.

Each of the discs contained fifteen or sixteen tracks or about 38 minutes of music. Many of the CDs featured artists who had not been on Decca for many years, and many featured artists who just passed through on their way to bigger and better things or had been bigger stars in the past. Among the CDS in the series were The Carter Family (on Decca 1937-1938), Jimmie Davis, Red Foley, Grandpa Jones (with Decca in the late 1950s – several remakes of King label hits), Loretta Lynn, Uncle Dave Macon (a real old-timer), Tex Ritter (1930s recordings), Roy Rogers, Sons of The Pioneers (with Decca during the 1930s and again in 1954), Hank Thompson (ABC/Dot recordings of the late 1960s and 1970s – MCA purchased the ABC & Dot labels – Hank never actually recorded for MCA/Decca). Floyd Tillman (1939-1944), Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells, Bill Monroe and Bob Wills (Bob’s best years were on Columbia and MGM). The Bob Wills recordings were 1955-1967 recordings on the Decca & Kapp labels – the Kapp recordings usually featured Nashville session players with no real feel for swing and are the least essential recordings Wills ever made.

Each of the CDs mentioned above are undeniably worthy, but are either inadequate or not representative of the artists’ peaks.

Some MCA/Decca artists have been covered by Bear Family, most notably Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells, Bill Monroe, Bill Anderson, Jimmy Martin and The Osborne Brothers. One could wish for more on some of these artists, but what is available generally is enough; however, it is expensive. Good two-disc sets would be desirable.

During the 1960s, Decca had their artists re-record their hits in order to take advantage of modern stereo technology, since for artists who peaked before 1957, such as Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb, Webb Pierce and Red Foley, their biggest hits were recorded in monaural sound. An additional consideration for Ernest Tubb was that his then-current band was larger and better with musicians such as Billy Byrd and Buddy Emmons (to name just two) being members of the band. In the case of Ernest Tubb, the re-recordings were superior to the original string band recordings.

In the case of most other artists, I think the originals were better BUT for many years the original recordings were not available and listeners of my generation grew up hearing the stereo remakes whether on records or on the radio. Since the digital era began the stereo remakes have been unavailable except on Bear Family sets. It would be nice if the stereo remakes were available, and it would be nice if MCA/Decca artists were available on decent domestic collections.

Webb Pierce – several domestic releases of Webb Pierce’s hits are available but they generally contain about a dozen songs, all from the 1950s. There is a Bear Family set that covers up to 1958 – it’s great but it misses all of Webb’s lesser later hits. Webb was the #1 country artist of the 1950s according to Billboard, and while he slipped thereafter, he was still the sixth ranked artist of the 1960s with many hits, including a couple of Record World #1s. None of this has been released on CD. What is needed is a good three CD set gathering up Webb’s 1960s (and early 1970s) chart hits plus key album tracks and the stereo remakes of the fifties hits.

For as widely popular as she was. you would expect much of Barbara Mandrell‘s output to be available. Barbara moved from Epic to ABC/Dot and when ABC/Dot was absorbed by MCA, her music was issued on that label. Barbara had 30+ hits for ABC/Dot/MCA with many #1 and top five recordings. Currently, not much is available and she warrants a boxed set.

Jack Greene and Cal Smith both had fairly late starts to their solo careers. While there exist a few hit collections for each artist (on foreign labels), neither is very complete, leaving off key songs. For Cal Smith, since Kapp and MCA are both owned by the same company, a two disc set collecting Cal’s Kapp & MCA/Decca singles should suffice (possibly a single disc with about thirty tracks would be okay).

For Jack Greene, more is needed since Jack had over thirty chart singles for Decca and issued at least fourteen albums plus a hits collection while on MCA/Decca. Jack was a superior vocalist and his albums contain recordings of others’ hits that often were better than the original hits. While not a hit for Jack, his version of “The Last Letter” is the definitive recording of the song.

The Osborne Brothers were bluegrass innovators, developing an almost unique (Jim & Jesse were doing something similar) bluegrass and country hybrid with bluegrass instruments augmented by electric guitar, steel guitar and sometimes other amplified instruments. After leaving MCA/Decca for CMH and other labels, the Osborne Brothers went back to a more traditional bluegrass approach. Almost none of that classic hybrid material is available except for a gospel CD and an excellent but short (ten songs) collection titled Country Bluegrass which seems randomly put together. No bluegrass group ever has huge numbers of hit records on the country charts, but the Osborne Brothers did chart quite a few and they should be available domestically. I would think a single disc set of thirty tracks would be acceptable, although more would be better, of course.

Johnny Wright is better know as part of the duo Johnny & Jack (with Jack Anglin), but after Anglin’s death in 1963, Wright embarked on a successful solo career which saw the release of at least six albums on MCA/Decca plus twelve chart singles including the #1 “Hello Vietnam” , the first chart topper for a Tom T. Hall song. Johnny’s wife was Kitty Wells, and while he never reached her level of success as a solo artist, apparently it never bothered Wright as he and Kitty were married from 1937 until his death in 2011 at the age of 97. A good single disc collection would suffice here.

The bulk of Little Jimmy Dickens’ career occurred for another label, but his time on MCA/Decca saw the release of two albums of new material plus an album featuring remakes of his earlier hits. The Decca albums featured a staple of Jimmy’s live shows “I Love Lucy Brown” and an amusing novelty “How To Catch An African Skeeter Alive”. I think most of this would fit on a single CD.

Wilma Burgess was an excellent singer who came along about four decades too soon. While Wilma did not flaunt being lesbian, neither did she particularly hide it. Consequently, she never got much of a commercial push from her label. Many have recorded “Misty Blue” but none did it as well as Wilma Burgess. She recorded at least five albums for MCA/Decca plus some duets with Bud Logan, former band leader for Jim Reeves. A decent two disc set of this outstanding singer should be easy to compile.

I would like to see a collection on Loretta Lynn’s siblings, Peggy Sue and Jay Lee Webb. Since Loretta’s other well known sibling started on MCA/Decca as well, it should be possible to do a good two CD set of Loretta’s kinfolks. Jay Lee Webb’s “She’s Looking Better By The Minute” is an all-time honky-tonk classic.

Classic Rewind: Trisha Yearwood – ‘If I Had Only Known’

A song I never knew existed until I heard this performance:

Album Review: Shelby Lynne – ‘Sunrise’

sunriseShelby Lynne was teamed up with veteran producer Billy Sherrill for her first album in 1989. Her duet with George Jones and a cover of Buck Owens’ ‘Under Your Spell Again’ which had been her solo single debut were left off the tracklisting, which leans a little less traditional than either of those tracks. Shelby was only 20 when the album was released, but sounds considerably older.

Her big booming voice was front and center in ‘The Hurtin’ Side’, the album’s lead single, which just cracked the country top 40. Written by Mike Reid and Rory Michael Bourke, it’s a solid song about facing heartbreak. Reid and Bourke wrote two additional songs on the album, one of which is my favourite: ‘Till You Were Gone’, also recorded by John Conlee, is an agonized expression of regret at love discovered too late:

Every night right about now
I grow uneasy
Kinda restless somehow
It starts out like thunder on a slow steady roll
And I hit the floor half out of control

Baby I wonder if you look the same
Do you have children?
What are their names?
Does the one that you’re with
Need you all night long?
Like I never did
Until you were gone

Their third song, ‘Your Love Stays With me’ is a big ballad, more AC than country, and although it is well performed it doesn’t have a big impact.

The album’s only other single, ‘Little Bits And Pieces’ is a fine ballad recalling a broken relationship, penned by Dean Dillon and Hank Cochran, but unfortunately it did not catch on at radio. It is quite heavily strung and Shelby emotes intensely, perhaps a little too much. ‘Thinking About You Again’ is a slightly more understated but still deeply emotional ballad with a despairing lyric abut failing to move on after a breakup, written by Stephony Smith and Mike Porter.

Sherrill contributed one song, ‘This Time I Almost Made It’, an older song previously recorded by Barbara Mandrell, cited by Shelby as one of her big influences. A yearning cheating song, it had also been recorded by Tammy Wynette with Billy Sherrill at the helm, so perhaps it was his choice for Shelby, whose version stands up well to her illustrious predecessors.

The assertive ‘What About This Girl’, written by Randy Boudreaux with Madeline Stone, picks up the tempo but is not particularly country. The same goes for the bluesy ‘That’s Where It Hurts’, which starts out slow and then turns bold and brassy as she belts out a tale of heartbreak wherever she goes.

A languid jazzy take on Floyd Tillman’s classic ‘I Love You So Much It Hurts’ is effective, but the similarly jazz-inflected version of standard ‘I’m Confessin’’ is a little dull and feels self-indulgent.

Shelby’s voice and emotional intensity belied her youth, and this was an interesting debut. Although she did draw on the heritage of country music, her eclectic tastes and the fact that her retro tastes leaned more to the Nashville Sound and other genres, I wonder if she would have done better if she had been five or ten years older rather than making her debut during the heyday of the neotraditional movement. If you have eclectic tastes this is worth picking up: the vocals are strong, the songs pretty good, and the production suits her. But it was a little out of place in 1989.

Grade: B+

Album Review: T. Graham Brown – ‘Come As You Were’

come as you wereFor his third album, T Graham Brown moved to a new producer, Ron Chancey. The mixture of country, blues, soul and rock was similar to his previous work, but with a little more country mixed in. The production does feel a little dated, particularly the backing vocals, but the song quality is high, and the vocals are great.

The plaintive mid-paced love song ‘Darlene’ was the first single. It was very successful, becoming Brown’s third and last #1 hit, and although the production sounds a bit dated now, the vocal is solid and the song quite nice. The Paul Craft-penned title track, an excellent soulful ballad previously recorded by both Jerry Lee Lewis and Barbara Mandrell, is given an emotional delivery by Brown, backed up by a brass section, and peaked at #7.

The last single. ‘Never Say Never’ flopped in comparison, topping oyt at #30. A rather shouty blues/rock style number reminiscent of Eddy Raven, it has little to do with country music and sounds very dated today. This and the R&B ‘You Left The Water Running’ are the only tracks I don’t like at all on the album.

The remaining ballads are much more country sounding than any of the singles, and are all excellent songs. The slow agonised ‘This Wanting You’ was written by Brown with Bruce Bouton (a legendary steel player) and Bruce Burch, and is a highlight with relatively stripped down production. ‘I’ll Believe It When I Feel It’, also written by Brown, is another very good downbeat ballad with a little more of a bluesy feel as the protagonist fails to get over someone. The waltz-time ‘The Time Machine’ (a great Dennis Linde song) refers to a jukebox whose songs remind the protagonist of happier times with a lost love.

One of the best songs on the album, ‘The Best Love I Never Had’ is a regretful cheating song written by Kent Blazy and Jim Dowell:

We came so close
So close I thought I had her love – for a time
She could never break the ties that bind
She was never really mine

And I never will forget those nights
The taste of stolen love is sweet but never right
I’d face the fires of Hell just to hold her tight
But I wanted her that bad
Oh, but she belonged to someone else
I knew, but oh, I couldn’t help myself

The protagonist of the midpaced ‘I Read A Letter today’ (another Brown tune) gets a nasty surprise when he discovers his beloved is planning on leaving by opening her message to her secret love. A great song and passionate lead vocal is somewhat let down by dated production.

‘She’s Okay And I’m Okay’, written by Harlan Howard, revisits a failed relationship.

While certainly no New Traditionalist, T Graham Brown brought interesting diversity to country radio in the late 1980s, and this album is a good example of his style. Some of the production sounds dated now, but his vocals are always strong.

The album is unfortunately not available digitally, but it’s worth finding a cheap used CD.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Barbara Mandrell – ‘I Wish That I Could Fall In Love Today’

A look back at 1989. part 3: Barbara Mandrell

I'll be your jukebox tonightAs noted before, the year 1989 saw the debuts and/or emergence of a fine crop of new artists that would continue the neo-traditionalist movement that flickered in the early 1980s with the arrival of Ricky Skaggs and started building up steam in 1986 when Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam arrived.

Amidst the flood of newer artists, veteran artists struggled to remain relevant. The last of my three backward looks is Barbara Mandrell.

Unlike George Jones and Buck Owens who were in the vicinity of 60 years old in 1989, Barbara Mandrell was barely past forty. She had been the genre’s dominant female performer from 1977 until 1984, with a network television show for two of those years and twenty-one top ten records to her credit by 1984.

Then a near catastrophe struck, on September 11, 1984, when she was involved in a serious automobile accident in which the other driver crossed into her lane causing a head-on crash. In the accident Barbara suffered multiple fractures in her right leg, including a broken thigh bone, knee and ankle. She also suffered various lacerations, contusions and abrasions and received a severe concussion that caused temporary memory loss and speech difficulties.
Barbara would be out of commission until the middle of 1986. MCA had a sufficient backlog of material that they could continue to issue singles during the period, but without Barbara on the road working the singles, the hits became ever smaller.

Changing labels to EMI America (shortly to be merged into Capitol), the first truly new Barbara Mandrell material was released in July 1987 when “Child Support” reached #13. Between changing tastes and the loss of career momentum caused by the auto accident, Barbara would have only one more top ten single before retiring in 1997.
I’LL BE YOUR JUKEBOX TONIGHT was Barbara’s second post-MCA album and was released in late 1988, with three singles being released. “I Wish That I Could Fall In Love Today”, a slightly re-titled cover of an old Warren Smith hit from 1960, was the biggest hit on the album reaching #5. Two more singles were issued from the album, “My Train of Thought” which reached #19 in the spring of 1989) and “Mirror, Mirror” which peaked at #49 in early summer of 1989 and became Barbara’s final charting single. Personally I think the title track would have made a good single.

I’LL BE YOUR JUKEBOX TONIGHT was far more traditional sounding than anything Mandrell had released in twenty years. No doubt, this was because the ‘new traditionalist’ movement had overwhelmed the remnants of the Urban Cowboy and Nashville Sound styles; however, in her live shows, whenever she chose to get more traditional, she proved that she was completely comfortable with the style. I would regard this as a very good album and would point to her cover of Wynn Stewart’s “Big Big Love” as proof positive that Barbara Mandrell could be as country as anyone in the business.

This album did not project Barbara back into the top ranks of chart artists, and she would retire within a few years. There are many speculations as to why she retired but if I had to venture a guess, it would be that she never really recovered from the auto accident in 1984. Yes, bones heal, but with the extensive injuries she suffered, I would guessed that arthritis would become a major problem for her within a few years and made it painful, if not impossible, to perform at the energetic levels her fans expected of her and she expected of herself. If I were to recommend a single Barbara Mandrell album to anyone, this would be it.

Classic Rewind: Barbara Mandrell – ‘I Was Country (When Country Wasn’t Cool)’

Classic Rewind: Barbara Mandrell – ‘Standing Room Only’

Classic Rewind: Barbara Mandrell – ‘Only A Lonely Heart Knows’

Album Review: Johnny Cash – ‘Out Among The Stars’

johnnycashThere hasn’t been any shortage of “new” Johnny Cash music in the decade since the Man In Black’s death. But unlike most of those releases, this week’s Out Among The Stars isn’t a reissue, an alternate take, a demo or a recording made during the singer’s declining years when he was long past his vocal peak. Rather, Out Among The Stars is a full-fledged studio album that was mostly recorded in the 1980s and produced by Billy Sherrill. The nearly completed album was discovered two years ago by John Carter Cash, who was in the process of mining the Sony archives while trying to catalog his parents’ extensive discographies. He brought in some additional musicians, including Marty Stuart, Buddy Miller and Carlene Carter, to bring the project to completion. The final product was released last week.

Normally, news of this sort would be cause for great celebration but any excitement about the album had to be tempered with the knowledge that the 1980s were, as even the most die-hard Cash fans will admit , a period in which the singer released mostly less than stellar work. Add to that the fact that Billy Sherrill had been the producer behind “The Chicken In Black”, widely regarded to be one of the worst singles of Cash’s career, and no one was quite sure what to expect.

Considering that Out Among The Stars was mostly recorded in 1984, while Cash’s career was in the middle of a long dry spell and just two years before Columbia dropped him from its roster, it isn’t surprising that the album was forgotten. But those who were braced for the worst will be pleasantly surprised because it is far superior to most of his output from that era. So far the album has produced one non-charting single, “She Used To Love Me a Lot”, which David Allan Coe took to #11 in 1984. It was written by Charles Quillen with Dennis W. Morgan and Kye Fleming. Morgan and Fleming were one of Nashville’s top songwriting teams of the day, having written many hits for Ronnie Milsap, Barbara Mandrell and Sylvia.

Many other top 80s songwriters teams are also represented. Ed and Patsy Bruce contributed “After All”, a pop-tinged ballad that was a departure from Johnny’s usual fare and Paul Kennerley and Graham Lyle wrote “Rock and Roll Shoes”. Johnny himself contributed the sentimental “Call Your Mother” and the inspirational “I Came To Believe”, which was written while Johnny was struggling with addiction and completing a stint at the Betty Ford Center. Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman wrote the tongue-in-cheek “If I Told You Who It Was” about a country music fan who has a fling with a female Opry star after changing her flat tire. No names are named, but the lady’s identity is revealed (for those old enough to recognize it) by an uncredited vocal appearance near the end of the song. It’s not Dolly Parton; that’s all I’m going to say.

Although traditionalists like to claim Cash as one of their own, The Man In Black was no purist and frequently pushed the boundaries of the genre. In this collection he sticks close to his country roots, and unlike many of his records, there is plenty of steel guitar on this album. Among the most traditional tunes are two excellent duets with June Carter Cash — “Baby, Ride Easy” and a cover of Tommy Collins’ “Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time”. Johnny sounds relaxed and refreshed on these tracks, and June is also in fine vocal form. “Baby, Come Easy” features harmony vocals by Carlene Carter and “Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time” features some excellent picking by Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Bryan Sutton. Waylon Jennings joins Johnny for a faithful-to-the-original cover of the Hank Snow classic “I’m Movin’ On”. Jennings’ presence elevates a performance that otherwise wouldn’t be particularly memorable.

The album closes with a remixed version of “She Used To Love Me A Lot” that was produced by Elvis Costello. Not surprisingly, this version isn’t country but it is in keeping with some of Cash’s genre-pushing efforts. It doesn’t really add anything to the album, however, and I could have done without it. “I Came To Believe” would have been a more appropriate closing track, but that is the only negative thing I can say about an otherwise exceptional album.

It is unlikely that Out Among The Stars would have fared well commercially had it been released thirty years ago. It was not then and is not now what mainstream Nashville wanted. It won’t produce any big radio hits, but now there is a greater appreciation of Johnny Cash than there was in 1984. Sony is giving the release the promotional effort it deserves and I imagine it will sell quite well.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Barbara Mandrell – ‘Angels Love Bad Men’

Week ending 11/23/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

barbara1953 (Sales): There Stands The Glass — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1953 (Jukebox): A Dear John Letter — Jean Shepard & Ferlin Husky (Capitol)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know — Davis Sisters (RCA)

1963: Love’s Gonna Live Here — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1973: Paper Roses — Marie Osmond (MGM)

1983: One Of A Kind Pair Of Fools — Barbara Mandrell (MCA)

1993: Almost Goodbye — Mark Chesnutt (MCA)

2003: I Love This Bar — Toby Keith (DreamWorks Nashville)

2013: We Were Us — Keith Urban & Miranda Lambert (Capitol)

2013 (Airplay): Mine Would Be You — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)