My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton – ‘The Right Combination • Burning the Midnight Oil’

porter.wagoner.and.dolly.parton.burning.the.midnight.oilPorter Wagoner and Dolly Parton released their seventh duets album on RCA Records in January 1972. The ten-track collection, entitled The Right Combination • Burning the Midnight Oil, was helmed by their longtime producer Bob Ferguson.

The album produced two top-twenty singles, both penned by Wagoner. “The Right Combination” is a somewhat cheesy ballad in which the pair boasts about enduring love. The record is wonderful, and Parton’s fiery vocal is fantastic, but the arrangement is spastic. Ferguson switches between lush strings typical of the Nashville Sound and the more appealing mixture of fiddle and steel so fast his intentions are difficult to pinpoint.

The only other single, “Burning The Midnight Oil, has an appealing honky-tonk groove and wonderful pedal steel that helps the mid-tempo ballad chug along quite nicely. The background singers are a dated add-on but not distracting enough to divert attention from the song’s positive qualities.

Beyond the minor radio hits, The Right Combination • Burning the Midnight Oil is notable for the inclusion of “Her and the Car and the Mobile Home,” written by Dave Kirby and Don Stock. The novelty tune, in which a philandering husband is left abandoned and homeless, is an excellent comedy bit the pair sells brilliantly. The song grows tired on repeated listenings, which likely kept it as an album cut, but it does have very considerable charms nonetheless.

The album also contains three Parton originals. The confrontative “I’ve Been This Way Too Long” is a delightful steel drenched number about old habits and unwavering routines. A bitter truth stands at the forefront of “In Each Love Some Pain Must Fall,” a pensive ballad about how fighting doesn’t mean the end of relationships. The arrangement is oddly cheery, and the parallels to their split are eerie, but the song itself is fantastic. Their love has truly died on “Somewhere Along The Way,” a mournful ballad with the arrangement to match.

Wagoner’s additional writing contributions include two more songs. “More Than Words Can Tell” is a ballad indicative of the generations in which love prevails and vows meant divorce wasn’t an option. The song finds Wagoner and Parton old and grey, enjoying their blissful golden years. The song is a perfect counterpart to “In Each Love Some Pain Must Fall.” His other song, “The Fog Has Lifted” isn’t the most lyrically strong cut on the album, but it has significant deeper meaning knowing the couple’s complicated history and reconciliation as a musical pair.

The remaining tracks were outside cuts. Eddie Sovine composed “On and On,” another of the records tracks devoted to steadfast love. “Through Thick and Thin,” by Bill Owens, might be the album’s strongest cut and is surely one of my favorites from the project. The fiddle heavy tune is an excellent examination of marriage and the tides that bind couples for life.

Though not necessarily billed as such, The Right Combination • Burning the Midnight Oil is a concept album exploring relationships through long-term love. As I’ve noted, these tracks examine marriage in a beautiful and honest manner without seeming sugary or overstated. The reflection on older love in “More Than Words Can Tell” is as heartwarmingly relatable as the stubborn couple at the center of “I’ve Been This Way Too Long.” The best of these, without question, is “In Each Love Some Pain Must Fall,” a sentiment as significant today as when Parton wrote it more than forty-four years ago.

I’ll admit that given my age (I’m 28) I haven’t explored the great duet partners in country music history beyond the singles that have become classics. Which means that, unlike my colleagues, I’m hearing this music for the first time with completely fresh ears. While that wasn’t an advantage with many of the other 1960s/1970s artists we’ve covered, it works in my favor here. The Right Combination • Burning the Midnight Oil is spectacular, with Parton (who I’ve also never spent significant time with) in stellar form. While none of these songs have truly amounted to anything, they combine to make a fine collection on their own.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton – ‘Once More’

folder-6August 1970, saw the release of the fifth Porter and Dolly duet album in Once More. The album featured five songs that Dolly had a hand in writing, plus two fine songs from the Don Reno and Red Smiley songbook, perhaps not so surprising since Porter’s fiddle player Mack Magaha had spent years playing with Reno and Smiley

The album opens up with “Daddy Was An Old Time Preacher Man” co-written by Dolly with her aunt Dorothy Jo Hope about the Reverend Jake Owens, Dolly’s maternal grandfather, who was a Pentecostal minister. Surprisingly, this would be the only single released from the album, reaching #4 on Record World, #7 on Billboard and #12 on the Canadian country chart. The song has the feel of an old-time gospel song and remains one of my favorite Porter & Dolly songs.

Daddy was an old time preacher man
He preacher the word of God throughout the land
He preached so plain a child could understand
Yes, Daddy was an old time preacher man
He told the people of the need to pray
He talked about God’s wrath and judgement day
He preached about the great eternity
He preached hell so hot that you could feel the heat

Yes, Daddy was an old time preacher man
Aunt Leanona would get up to testify
And we’d sing “In The Sweet By And By”
The we’d sing “I’m On My Way To Canaan Land”
Yes, Daddy was an old time preacher man

This is followed by a magnificent cut on the Reno and Smiley classic “I Know You’re Married But I Love You Still” a song that Mack Magaha wrote with Don Reno. The song, a quintessential forbidden fruit song was a staple of the Reno & Smiley repertoire for years and has been covered as an album track by many country artists. The duo of Bill Anderson and Jan Howard had a minor hit with the song as did Red Sovine.

The day I met you my heart spoke to me it said to love you through eternity
I know exact you were another’s pride I vowed I always be close by your side
I love you Darlin and I always will
I know you’re married but I love you still
You broke a heart dear that would die for you
I’d give the world if I could be with you

“Thoughfulness” is a modest ballad written by Dolly’s uncle Bill Owens. The song is a little subdued compared to most of the duo’s material but it makes a nice album track.

“Fight and Scratch” is one of those humorous ‘bickering couples’ songs that Dolly excelled in writing. I think it would have made for a good single but perhaps RCA was leery of issuing too many novelties as singles.

Fight and scratch fight and scratch that’s all we ever do
There surely must be more to love than to fight and scratch with you
You you to fight and scratch with you
Well you just bought a foal last month now you want a wig
It looks like you couldn’t understand my paycheck ain’t that big
Well what about the dough you lose in them poker games downtown
I figured you’d mention that smart aleck
Yeah and that brand new boat and that fishin’ gear
But no uhhuh I don’t reckon that’d count really
Fight and scratch fight and scratch…

Louis Owens wrote “Before Our Weakness Gets Too Strong” is a straight ahead country ballad, a let’s not cheat song. I’m guessing that Louis Owens might be one of Dolly’s kin.

“Once More” was the last top ten chart hit for the King of Country Music Roy Acuff back in 1958. Later the Osborne Brothers recorded the song for Decca. Porter and Dolly harmonize nicely on the song, but their recording sounds tame compared to the Acuff and Osborne versions. I think if the song had been considered as a single, the duo would have put more muscle into this Dusty Owens (no kin to Dolly) song.

Once more to be with you dear
Just for tonight to hold you tight
Once more I’d give a fortune
If I could see you once more

Forget the past this hurt can’t last
So I don’t want it to keep us apart
Your love I need say you’ll love me
And say you’ll give me all of your heart

Joe Babcock’s “One Day At A Time” is neither the same song has Marilyn Sellars gospel hit from 1974 and nor is the same song that Don Gibson hit from that same year. This song is a reflective song about the way to approach life.

Dolly wrote “Ragged Angel”, another one of those doomed children songs that Dolly apparently needed to write as a catharsis. It’s a good song but the lyrics are nothing special. What is of interest is the exquisite Porter and Dolly’s vocal harmonies, which are a little different than their usual fare.

“A Good Understanding” is one of Dolly’s compositions, which suggests a marital relationship in which the ground rules were agreed upon in advance. The opening lyric suggests that this might have been an open marriage but as the lyrics unfold a more traditional relationship is revealed.

The album closes with the Don Reno composition “Let’s Live For Tonight”. While still sticking with usual bluegrass array of instruments, Reno and Smiley probably were the bluegrass group whose music most closely resembled the country music of its era.

Bob Ferguson is listed as the producer on this album, but I suspect that Porter Wagoner carried the bulk of the production duties. There is a characteristic Porter Wagoner & The Wagonmasters sound that permeates all of Porter’s RCA records. That isn’t a bad thing because it made the production of Porter’s records sound different that the vast majority of RCA product, but I am sure that it must have gnawed at Dolly at least a little, because if you removed Dolly’s voice from the duet albums you would have a Porter Wagoner record that sounded incomplete, needing another voice or voices. I like this album quite a bit but for whatever reason, this album is not quite as exuberant as some of their prior (and future efforts). I’d give this a B+ but a little more emphatic treatment of a couple of the songs would have turned this into an A. 


Album Review: Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton – ‘Just Between You and Me’

Just_Between_You_and_Me_(Dolly_Parton_and_Porter_Wagoner_album_-_cover_art)Just Between You and Me was released in January 1968 and is notable for being the first collection of Porter Wagoner/Dolly Parton duets, as well as Dolly’s first recordings for the RCA label. Bob Ferguson is the credited producer; however, it has been revealed that Porter, not Ferguson, was the actual producer of Dolly’s early solo recordings for RCA, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that Porter was also involved with the production of the Porter/Dolly duets.

The album contains just one single – a common practice in those days — which was released a few months ahead of the album. “The Last Thing on My Mind” was a remake of Tom Paxton’s folk-pop smash that was recorded by dozens of artists in various genres. It is quite different from the rest of the album, as well as Porter and Dolly’s future work, which was almost always solidly in the traditional country camp. The single charted at #7 and paved the way for many more duets which would occur over the next decade or so.

The title track is one of my favorites. Written by Jack Clement, it had been a hit earlier that year for another recent RCA signee by the name of Charley Pride. Another favorite, “Before I Met You” had been a hit for Carl Smith in 1956. Charley Pride also covered this one shortly after arriving at RCA. Pride’s version did not chart, but his version is the one I’m most familiar with. Porter and Dolly’s version is also quite good but it inexplicably omits the song’s last verse.

One of the reasons given for the eventual demise of the Wagoner/Parton partnership was Porter’s domineering attitude; it was apparently made abundantly clear from the start that he was the employer and Dolly was the employee. Porter never denied the accusation; however, none of that is apparent from listening to this collection of songs. Porter was clearly the bigger, more established star at this stage of the game, but there is no hogging of the spotlight. In fact, there seems to have been a concerted effort to use this album to promote Dolly’s career. It includes several songs penned by Dolly, including “Love is Worth Living” (the B-side of “The Last Thing on My Mind”), and “Mommie, Ain’t That Daddy” which is my least favorite song on the album. The melodramatic tale of a hopelessly alcoholic husband and father (who doesn’t seem to have done anything to remedy his circumstances) is a crass attempt to tug at the heartstrings. It was not the last song of this type that Porter and Dolly would record together, although most of their future songs of this ilk involved dying children. It’s a dud, but thankfully it’s the only album’s only misfire.

The album also includes several songs that Dolly co-wrote with her uncle Bill Owens. “Because One of Us Was Wrong” and “Two Sides of Every Story” are typical of the type of song Porter and Dolly would become famous for. “Put It Off Until Tomorrow” had been the most successful Owens/Parton composition up to that time. Bill Phillips had scored a Top 10 hit with it in 1966 (featuring Dolly as the uncredited harmony vocalist). Dolly recorded the song herself for her one and only Monument album. This remake with Wagoner is unusual in that it is not a duet; Dolly sings the lead throughout, while Porter harmonizes. Another observation: unlike most modern “duets” where the artists sing around each other, Porter and Dolly actually sing and harmonize together much of the time.

Just Between You and Me might not contain any of Porter and Dolly’s most famous hits, but it was a more than satisfactory introduction to one of country music’s best male-female duos.

Grade: A-

Album Review – Ricky Skaggs – ‘Sweet Temptation’

Ricky Skaggs’ debut for Sugar Hill Records, Sweet Temptation was Skaggs’ second album overall when it was released in 1979. The album features backing vocals from Emmylou Harris, and is influenced sonically by her solo efforts.

The Carter Stanley composition “I’ll Take The Blame” was the album’s sole single reaching #86. A gorgeous stone cold traditional country ballad, it features Harris prominently on backing vocals and the overall track rests on the high twang of their vocals, a hit or miss depending on the style of country you find most appealing. I happen to love the bluegrass twang, but can see where others may not be able to warm up to it.

“Little Cabin Home On The Hill,” collaboration by Lester Flatt, John Hartford and Bill Monroe is another fiddle centric ballad, this time finding our protagonist mending a broken heart by crying out his pain in his cabin home. This bluegrass tune is stellar, as Skaggs and Harris’ vocals blend seamlessly and the mournful fiddle echoes the ache felt by the main character.

The fiddle also takes center stage on “Put It Off Until Tomorrow,” co-written by Dolly Parton and Bill Owens. Parton released the tune herself three years later as a duet with Kris Kristofferson from a double album entitled The Winning Hand, a project consisting of unreleased tracks on the Monument label. Skaggs’ version once again finds Harris on backing vocals, and the tune straddles the space between country and bluegrass, finding a nice home somewhere in the middle. I like the subdued atmosphere of Skaggs’ version the best although Parton provides a nice prospective by flipping the gender roles.

Skaggs keeps Sweet Temptation alive with a few banjo and dobro centric tunes in the middle of the album. “Baby I’m In Love With You” is a fabulously plucky love song that takes after old-time country, Stanley’s “Baby Girl” is a delightful traditional bluegrass thumper, while “I Know What It Means to be Lonesome” has a wonderfully fast acoustic arrangement that doesn’t quite fit with the sad themes of the song and Skaggs’ vocals are a rare misstep as he sings the track in too high a key. Skaggs rectifies this on “I’ll Stay Around,” another traditional bluegrass tune that ranks among my favorite tracks on the album.

The title track written by Cliffie Stone and Merle Travis is another masterful tune and an album highlight. I love everything about the song from the wonderful combination of dobro and steel that lead the arrangement, to Skaggs’ pitch perfect vocals. Travis also sang the song, (his version can be heard HERE), but I much prefer the vibrancy Skaggs brings to the song.

The quietest song on the album, Stanley’s “Could You Love Me On More Time” puts Skaggs’ vocal front and center, backing him solely with an acoustic guitar. In lesser hands this naked approach could’ve been disastrous, but Skaggs pulls it off with effortless ease.

The most blatantly country track on the project is “Forgive Me,” which Wayne Walker wrote with G. Paul Sullivan. Another stellar tune, it somewhat foreshadows the direction Skaggs would take in the 80s, when he became a genre superstar. It’s another standout track on the album.

What surprises me about Sweet Temptation is the level in which Skaggs knows himself as an artist. He was only in his early 20s in 1979 and yet he sang with a confidence of someone twice to three times his age. This keeps Sweet Temptation from sounding like a less then project, an early representation of an artist still learning where he fits in the country music landscape. Instead its essential listening from an artist who hadn’t yet hit his prime, although you wouldn’t know that from listening to this.

Grade: A