My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Bill McCall

When is a singer-songwriter not really a singer-songwriter?

These days we often see singers signed to a major label getting credit on a high proportion of songs they record, usually credited alongside one or more full-time songwriters. While some of these are no doubt genuine contributions, it appears that in some cases the artist’s contribution is minimal.

In a fascinating recent article (linked to on Wednesday by the 9513) on the decline of solo-written songs in Nashville, the songwriter Craig Wiseman is quoted saying:

“There are a lot of artists co-writing now with professional writers, and in some ways I applaud that. Sometimes, though, the motivations aren’t quite so pristine. As the business has been decimated, money and how to get money has permeated every aspect of it. Most of the time — not all of the time — when you have three people or more in a room, one of them is an artist who is there to ensure the cut.”

Peter Cooper, author of the article in question, goes on to say,

There are times in Nashville when an artist sits in such a room, says, “I had a bad date last week” or “I get sad when it rains,” and then watches as the two professionals do the bulk of the work on a song that will, when released, be credited to all three.

I am sure this pernicious practice does not apply to all artists who write, and I am cautious about casting suspicion publicly on named individuals for the reasons stated above. It is certainly not new for songs’ true authorship to be concealed. In the 50s it was not uncommon for songs to be bought and sold outright. The unscrupulous publisher and label boss Bill McCall got his name (or, rather, that of a pseudonym) on a number of the songs he published – and then made his artists record them. As we saw during our coverage of Patsy Cline in January, that could be damaging to an artist’s career.

Frank Liddell, Miranda Lambert’s producer and Lee Ann Womack’s husband, is quoted in a follow-up piece saying,

I think perhaps the real problem we face today is the quality of the writing abilities of some of the people out there in these co-writes. There have always been politics in this business and there has always been bad music and marginal songwriting. This is nothing really new. But it does seem that there are a lot of great writers out there whose work is being overlooked because they really don’t know how to play the game. I also think a lot of artists are encouraged to write for financial reasons that would be better off recording outside songs.

Meanwhile another recent comment on the same lines came from veteran songwriter Bobby Braddock, noting,

“A lot of times when people co-write, one will often write more than the other”

It would be unfair to name names suspected of coasting on their “co-writers”’ coat tails (and depriving them of their full compensation) simply because if you aren’t there in the room, you don’t know what’s actually gone on. It would be wrong simply to tar all artists with the brush of suspicion, as many do actually turn out to be good songwriters. All those singer who turned to a songwriting career after putting their own dreams of stardom aside, who we looked at last week, obviously had the skills required, and the same must be the case for some of those still successfully performing.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Patsy Cline – ‘The Rockin’ Side: Her First Recordings, Volume 3′

Commercial success eluded Patsy Cline throughout the 1950s in no small part due to Owen Bradley’s sometimes radical (for the day) experimentation with a wide variety of musical styles, as they searched to find her niche. In an era in which Kitty Wells was the primary example of what a girl singer, as they were known at the time, should sound like, Patsy’s more polished vocal style was a hard sell to country audiences, despite her obvious talent. Patsy resisted Bradley’s efforts to push her in a more pop direction, for which he felt her voice was better suited. The emergence of rock and roll and the tremendous success of Elvis Presley perhaps made it inevitable that Patsy and Bradley would experiment with rockabilly. The final volume of Rhino Records’ trilogy of Patsy’s early recordings for Four Star, titled The Rockin’ Side, focuses on those rockabilly efforts.

The thirteen tracks were recorded between 1955 and 1959, spanning the duration of Patsy’s Four Star contract. W.S. Stevenson, which was the pseudonym for Four Star Music’s owner Bill McCall, shares songwriting credits on eight of the tracks. Despite her expressed preference for singing honky-tonk, Patsy sounds perfectly at ease with the rockabilly material, and one suspects that had any of these recordings caught on commercially, her career might well have taken a very different direction. She could easily have been a rival for Wanda Jackson and Rose Maddox for the title Queen of Rockabilly.
Read more of this post

Album Review – Patsy Cline – ‘Walkin’ Dreams: Her First Recordings Volume One’

In 1989 Rhino Records licensed Patsy’s recordings for the Four Star label, and released three compilation albums. This first volume concentrates on her very earliest sessions, with thirteen songs recorded between 1955 and 1957, with one later track added on for contrast. The selection offers an intriguing glimpse into a young artist struggling to find her musical direction. The earliest cuts reveal Patsy’s hillbilly roots in a way her more sophisticated later work perhaps glosses over.

Much has been written criticising label boss Bill McCall, but one benefit resulting from Patsy signing with him was that she was teamed up with producer Owen Bradley right from the start, and her first sessions were at Bradley’s Quonset studio in Nashville. Less beneficially, she was restricted to songs published by Four Star, but that did not mean that her material was poor, even the songs credited to McCall himself under the pseudonym W S Stevenson (I understand that in many cases these copyrights were purchased from the real writers). Indeed, an early highlight is the opening track, recorded at Patsy’s very first recording session on June 1, 1955, ‘A Church, A Courtroom And Then Goodbye’, which is credited to Stevenson and Eddie Miller. This song was suggested for Patsy by Ernest Tubb, and is a very traditional country song typical of its period with prominent fiddle, recounting the sad tale of a hurried marriage followed by divorce. Even at this early stage of her career, it was clear that Patsy had a great voice, and a natural ability to convey emotion, as she declares,

I hate the sight of that courtroom
Where man-made laws push God’s laws aside

The B-side of that single, which was recorded at the same time, was the sprightly ‘Honky Tonk Merry Go Round’, with Patsy sounding as though she is biting back laughter despite a lost-love lyric. A third song recorded at this first session, another Miller/Stevenson credit to be released as a single, was the excellent cheating song, ‘Hidin’ Out’, with honky tonk piano.

Read more of this post

Spotlight Artist: Patsy Cline (September 8, 1932 – March 5, 1963) – Part 1

From time to time throughout 2010, we’ll be taking a look at some of country music’s legendary artists. We’re starting with the great Patsy Cline, who was one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed vocalists, and whose influence is felt to the current day.

She was born Virginia Patterson Hensley in Winchester, Virginia, on September 8, 1932. When she was 15, her father abandoned the family, and Ginny, as she was then known, dropped out of high school to help support her mother and two younger siblings. From an early age, she’d wanted to be a singer. She entered a number of local talent shows and sang live on Winchester’s WINC-AM radio. This eventually led to a stint on Connie B. Gay’s Town and Country television show, which originated from Washington, DC. Among the cast members of Town and Country was an up and rising star and future sausage magnate by the name of Jimmy Dean. She even managed to take a trip to Nashville in 1948, landing a guest appearance on Roy Acuff’s Dinner Bell program on WSM-AM.

In 1953 she married a contractor named Gerald Cline, but the marriage ended in divorce after four years, due mainly to Cline’s lack of support of his wife’s (now known as Patsy Cline) career aspirations. In 1954, she met Bill McCall, who owned a song publishing company called Four Star Music. In what would prove to be the biggest mistake of her professional career, Patsy signed a five-year contract with Four Star. She returned to Nashville with McCall, who arranged a leasing agreement with Decca Records, whereby Decca would produce and distribute Patsy’s records, but Four Star would promote and retain ownership of the recordings and would have sole discretion over what material she recorded. This was a very one-sided deal in which Decca did most of the work and saw very little in financial renumeration, but Decca executive Paul Cohen and producer Owen Bradley recognized Patsy’s potential and agreed to McCall’s terms, in order to have the opportunity to sign Patsy to Decca when her Four Star contract lapsed.

This proved to be a disastrous arrangement for all involved. McCall would only allow Patsy to record songs for which Four Star owned the publishing rights. Both Patsy and Owen Bradley felt that much of the Four Star material was substandard, and though they experimented with a variety of musical styles, commercial success eluded them. The sole exception was “Walkin’ After Midnight”, which Patsy performed on the nationally-telecast Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts on January 21, 1957. Not only did Patsy win the competition, “Walkin’ After Midnight” became a smash hit, rising to #3 on Billboard’s country chart and #17 on the pop chart. Patsy became a regular on the Godfrey program, but was eventually fired after she repeatedly clashed with Godfrey over song selection. She wanted to sing country; he wanted her to sing pop.

1957 was also the year that Patsy met and married her second husband, Charlie Dick. After giving birth to a daughter in 1958, the family moved permanently to Nashville, where Patsy and Owen Bradley continued in their quest to find the elusive follow-up hit to “Walkin’ After Midnight”. Success continued to evade them, and by 1959 Bill McCall had written Patsy off as a lost cause and stopped promoting her singles.

Patsy’s fortunes began to change in 1960, which was the year that she was inducted as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. It was also the year that her Four Star contract expired, and she was formally signed to Decca Records. In her first session for Decca, she recorded “I Fall To Pieces”, which was written by Harlan Howard and Hank Cochran. It had been turned down by a number of other singers, and Patsy began to have second thoughts about it herself, after initially agreeing to record it. She feared that it was too pop. Bradley was experimenting with a hybrid style of music that Chet Atkins had pioneered at RCA with great success for artists such as Eddy Arnold and Jim Reeves. A mixture of country and pop, it would eventually become known as “the Nashville Sound”. Bradley wanted to try this style with Patsy. Meanwhile, he and Patsy argued about cutting “I Fall to Pieces”; Bradley prevailed and was eventually vindicated when it became Patsy’s first #1 country hit, and a #12 pop hit in August 1961, ending a four-year dry spell.