My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Bing Crosby

Favorite Christmas Albums: Bing Crosby – ‘Merry Christmas’

Christmas music is its own genre, or rather I should say people’s tastes in Christmas music tend to cross all genres. While, my tastes in music run to western swing, bluegrass and traditional jazz, when it comes to Christmas music I tend to get rather traditional with orchestral music mixing in with pop balladeers such as Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby.

It has been a long time since Bing Crosby died in October 1977, yet Merry Christmas has been in print, in one form or another, since the 1945 (and in its current configuration of songs since 1955). For millions of households, the album with a smiling Bing wearing a Santa Claus cap and a holly leaf bowtie on the cover was an honored part of the record collection, played annually and often.

So who was Bing Crosby? Well, to start with, for many years Bing was the most famous entertainer on Earth. According to Billboard historian Joel Whitburn, Bing Crosby was the number one recording artist for the entire decades of the 1930s and 1940s with some success spilling into the 1950s. He recorded 383 chart hits with 41 number one records and another 152 that landed in the top ten. His recording of “White Christmas” is the biggest selling single in US history. He introduced many songs now known as pop standards. While not a prolific songwriter, he wrote a few of his own hits.

If that isn’t enough, Bing Crosby was among the top ten movie box office stars fifteen times and from 1944 through 1948 he was the number one movie box office star. He won an Academy Award for his role in Going My Way. By any measure except dollars (due to ticket price inflation) Bing ranks in the top three of all-time movie stars with 1,077,900,000+ movie tickets sold. Moreover he was a successful radio star and at one time was part owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team, and he produced, through his production company, several successful television shows (most notably Ben Casey and Hogan’s Heroes).

Merry Christmas is something of a Christmas sampler as Bing performs a collection of traditional Christmas carols and popular Christmas songs and a few songs that are about faraway places. Most of the songs were originally released as singles so recording quality varies a bit.

The album opens up with a pair of traditional carols “Silent Night” (recorded in 1942) and “Adeste Fideles” (“Oh Come All Ye Faithful”), the latter, recorded in 1935 with Victor Young’s Orchestra, is sung in both English and Latin. “Adeste Fideles” is the only song recorded before 1942 – the quantum leap in sound engineering between 1935 and 1942 is a bit jarring, my only criticism of this album.

Next up is the Irving Berlin classic, “White Christmas” arguably the biggest selling record of all time. The song appeared in the 1942 film Holiday Inn and again in the 1954 film White Christmas (that year’s highest grossing film). The version featured here was recorded in 1947 with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra (this orchestra is on all songs except “Adeste Fideles” and songs featuring the Andrews Sisters, recorded with the Vic Shoen Orchestra).

Next up is another traditional Christmas song “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” followed by “Faith Of Our Fathers” which is a religious song rather than a Christmas song.

Almost as beloved as “White Christmas” is “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”. This song is sung from the point of view of a soldier stationed overseas during World War II, writing a letter to his family. For the veterans of that war, this song held special meaning.

“Jingle Bells” finds the Andrews Sisters joining Bing as does the jazzy “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”. The latter contains Bing’s memorable closing intonation ‘You mean the big fat man with the long white beard’ – followed by the Andrews Sisters refrain ‘he’s coming to town’.

“Silver Bells”, composed by the noted songwriting team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, is next followed by “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” composed by Meredith Willson. Willson would later achieve great fame with his play The Music Man.

The album ends with a couple of early 1950s songs about distant shores. “Christmas in Killarney” tells of a Irish Christmas. While not authentic (it is a Tin Pan Alley song), it is a fun song as is the closing number “Mele Kalikimaka” which is simply an approximation of the words ‘Merry Christmas’ in Hawaiian (the Hawaiian alphabet lacks some of the consonants found in European languages). The Andrews Sisters are back for this last song.

My parents wore through several copies of this album and when I was growing up, most of my friends’ parents had a copy of this album.

The album is currently available in the 1955 configuration under the title White Christmas. MCA has also released a two disc set (The Voice of Christmas) of every Christmas song Crosby recorded (44 tracks), except for “Little Drummer Boy” recorded much later with David Bowie for another label.

I come back to this album every year. Other albums may rotate in and out, and some haven’t been played in ages, but this album still delights me as much as when I was a child.

Merry Christmas to all of you!

Advertisements

Album Review: ‘The Little Darlin’ Sound of Johnny Paycheck: In The Beginning’

Released in May 2004, In The Beginning was the first in Koch Records’ series of reissues of Johhny Paycheck’s Little Darlin’ recordings. Founded by Paycheck and his producer Aubrey Mayhew, Little Darlin’ Records was Paycheck’s label from the mid-1960s until the end of the decade when it ceased operations. Paycheck’s Little Darlin’ years were only moderately successful, yielding one Top 10 hit (1966’s “The Lovin’ Machine”) and two more Top 20 hits (1966’s “Motel Charlie” and 1967’s “Jukebox Charlie”). None of those tracks are included on this disc, nor is Paycheck’s best-remembered record from that era, “A-11”, which topped out at #26 in 1965. I suspect that the 15 recordings on this disc may have been the first he recorded but not necessarily the first to be released.

Although nothing here rises to the level of a classic, all of the songs are well-crafted and enjoyable, which is in no small part due to the contributions of the legendary Lloyd Green whose steel guitar is prominent on most of the tracks. Most of these songs are hardcore honky-tonk, without any of the Nashville Sound trappings (vocal choruses, strings) that were typical of the mid to late 1960s. The influence of George Jones and 1950s Ray Price (whose band Paycheck was am member of at the beginning of his career) is readily apparent throughout the disc.

The album’s opening cut is the George Jones-esque “Don’t Start Countin’ on Me”, followed by “The Girl They Talk About”. “High Heels and No Soul” at first seems to be another take on the oft-visited shoes metaphor (i.e., Billy Walker’s “Charlie’s Shoes” and Patsy Cline’s “Shoes”) but it takes a different course and talks more about the subject’s demeanor rather than her footwear. It’s one of the album’s best tracks, as is “Don’t You Get Lonesome” which features a double-tracked vocal effect. “With Your Wedding Ring in One Hand (and a Bottle in the Other)” is another favorite. Not as enjoyable is “Passion and Pride”, which isn’t a bad song but I just can’t get past the similarity of its melody to Porter Wagoner’s “A Satisfied Mind”.

“Columbus Stockade Blues” is a bit of a change of pace, with a rockabilly feel that is more reminiscent of Conway Twitty than George Jones, but the album’s real outlier is Paycheck’s cover of “Galway Bay”. Popularized by Bing Crosby in 1947, the song is almost always performed with an orchestral arrangement. Although Paycheck’s version will have some screaming cultural appropriation, he does a decent job singing the song. However, this is one time the pedal steel seems a little out of place. It’s the only real misstep on the album, material-wise. A bigger problem is the audio quality, which is somewhat lacking throughout. Koch put little or nothing into remastering these tracks, but although they could have benefitted from some digital clean-up, they do not sound so poor to render the album unlistenable.

As someone who is more familiar with Johnny Paycheck’s later years, all of these recordings were new to me. In an age when new worthwhile country music is hard to come by, it’s always a treat to come across something one hasn’t heard before, even if it is decades old. While only hardcore fans will likely buy the album (used CD copies or digital download) more casual listeners may want to stream it.

Grade: B+

Fellow Travelers: Harry Lillis “Bing” Crosby (1903-1977)

bing crosbyBy many measures, Bing Crosby was the most successful entertainer of the 20th century. As such he dabbled in many forms of popular music be it pop, jazz, country, cowboy and rhythm & blues.

WHO WAS HE?

Bing has been dead long enough that if he is remembered at all by the under fifty set, it is for old black and white movies like GOING MY WAY and THE ROAD TO MOROCCO or as the artist singing “White Christmas” on their parents’ (or grandparents’) favorite Christmas album.

Bing was much more than that; he was for many years the most famous entertainer on Planet Earth.

According to Billboard historian Joel Whitburn, Bing Crosby was the number one recording artist for the entire decades of the 1930s and 1940s with some success spilling into the 1950s. He recorded 383 chart hits with 41 number one records and another 152 that landed in the top ten. His recording of “White Christmas” is the biggest selling single in US history. He introduced many songs now known as pop standards.

If that isn’t enough, Bing Crosby was among the top ten movie box office stars fifteen times and from 1944 through 1948 he was the number one box office star. He won an Academy Award for his role in GOING MY WAY. By any measure except dollars (due to ticket price inflation) Bing ranks in the top three of all-time movie stars with 1,077,900,000 movie tickets sold.

Moreover he was a successful radio star and at one time was part owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team and owned a number of successful racehorses.

WHAT WAS HIS CONNECTION TO COUNTRY MUSIC ?

Bing Crosby was a major factor in popularizing the western side of country music, making a number of movie westerns and introducing many western themed songs to the greater American public. Bing had hits on songs such as “Don’t Fence Me In”, “Along The Navajo Trail”, “Sioux City Sue”, “Blue Shadows On The Trail” , “Mule Train”, “Riders In The Sky”, “I’m An Old Cowhand”, The Last Round-up” and “Home On The Range”. He was elected to the Western Music Hall of Fame in 2008.

On the country side of the ledger, Bing covered such songs as “Walking The Floor Over You”, “San Antonio Rose” and “It Makes No Difference Now” for the pop market. When Billboard finally started tracking country music as a separate genre in January 1944, the very first number one record was “Pistol Packing Mama” by Bing Crosby accompanied by the Andrews Sister. It would stay there for five non-consecutive weeks, trading places with Al Dexter’s version (Dexter wrote the song). Bing would only chart one more record on Billboard’s country charts in 1952 when his recording (with Grady Martin & His Slewfoot Five) of “Till The End of The World” reached number ten.

Before his death in 1977 Bing Crosby would record many country songs as album tracks and would record at least one entire album of country music, for Capitol Records in 1963.

Fellow Travelers: Elvis Presley

elvis presleyHe was known as the “Hillbilly Cat”, but whether you know him as the “Hillbilly Cat”, the “Tupelo Mississippi Flash” or simply as “The King”, there is no doubt that Elvis Aron Pesley was the most important American Pop Singer during the second half of the twentieth century.

Some thought of him as the white hillbilly singer who sounded black, but that really wasn’t true. Elvis was the singer who, more than anyone else, helped meld the three great strains of American pop music (Tin Pan Alley, Rhythm & Blues and Country) into a unified whole. Who else could idolize Hank Snow, adore the music of Dean Martin and yet adapt the songs of artists such as Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and “Big Mama” Thornton into hits played by everyone.

Who Was He?

Elvis Presley (1935-1977) was the biggest star in American pop music during the second half of the twentieth century – for the period from 1930 onward, only Bing Crosby surpassed him in the number of hit records. According to Billboard reseacher Joel Whitburn through the year of his death (1977) Elvis had 113 top 40 pop hits with 38 top ten singles and 20 that reached number 1. If you include charted songs that missed the top forty, there are at least another 20 songs plus some songs that charted on various genre charts. Although singles were the primary focus during his peak years, he sold hundreds of million album units world-wide during his career.

Elvis Presley’s early hits such as “Don’t Be Cruel”, “Blue Suede Shoes” and “(You Ain’t Nothing But A) Hound Dog” continue to be staples of rock acts and rockabilly revival acts to this day.

What Was His Connection to County Music?

Elvis Presley had a magnificent voice with a wide range enabling him to cover the entire tenor and baritone ranges thus opening up to him the ability to sing country music, gospel music and pop standards, something many of his contemporaries could not do.

His first country #1 came in 1955 with “I Forgot To Remember To Forget” , a straight country song that did not chart on the pop charts. Such monster pop hits as “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Don’t Be Cruel” reached #1 on the country charts and lingered there for many weeks.

Along the way, songs that were not aimed at the country charts continued to chart country and his songs remained on DJ playlists throughout his career.

Through the end of 1977, Elvis charted 68 songs on the county charts of which 57 reached the top 40. Toward the end of his career he consciously had turned to county music and in 1977 three of his singles reached #1 on the Billboard and/or Cashbox County Charts (“Moody Blue”, “Way Down” and “My Way”).

More importantly, the entire generation of country stars who followed him for the next three decades, knew his songs, performed them in live concert and often recorded his songs.

His records and albums continue to sell world-wide to this day and continue to chart on occasion. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is fully qualified for both honors

He was something special indeed.

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘To All The Girls’

to all the girlsThe newest Willie Nelson album finds Willie treading familiar ground, recording eighteen duets with various female partners. These partners range from young to old, famous to fairly unknown and across a wide array of genres.

The album opens up with the “From Here To The Moon And Back”, an introspective ballad from the catalogue of duet partner Dolly Parton. This song has a very quiet arrangement with piano being the dominant sound, along with a very light string arrangement – very nice song.

Another very quiet song is “She Was No Good For Me” with the normally boisterous Miranda Lambert assisting Willie on an old Waylon Jennings tune. It is nice to hear Miranda sing a song that requires nuance and restraint.

She was a good looking woman no doubt
A high steppin’ mover that men talk about
Everything bad in me she brought it out
And she was just no good for me

[Chorus:]
Don’t be taken by the look in her eyes
If she looks like an angel
It’s a perfect disguise
And for somebody else she may be
But she was just no good for me

“It Won’t Be Very Long” opens with a harmonica intro which comes to a dead stop and then starts to a song with a very country gospel feel – something either Roy Acuff or the Nitty Gritty Dirt band might have tackled. The Secret Sisters aren’t really very well known but probably do the best job of any act on the album of actually harmonizing with Willie. Willie and producer Buddy Cannon wrote this song.

“Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends” is a Kris Kristofferson song that originally was a top ten hit for new Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby Bare (it reached #1 on Record World) in 1971. In 1974 it reached #1 on Billboard for Ronnie Milsap. I always preferred Bare’s version as I think the song benefited from Bare’s more laid back approach to the song. Nelson and duet partner Rosanne Cash adopt the more relaxed approach to the song, with Willie’s guitar being the dominant sound of the background, but with a tasteful organ undertone by Moose Brown. Willie and Rosanne’s voices really don’t mesh well together and Willie’s eccentric phrasing is difficult for any singer to handle, but actual harmonizing on this tune is kept to a dead minimum.

“Far Away Places” is one of the classics of the American Pop Standards canon. The song was written by Joan Whitney and Alex Kramer way back in 1948, and was an immediate hit by three artists in late 1948-early 1949, reaching #2 for the legendary Bing Crosby, #3 for Margaret Whiting and #6 for Perry Como. The Como version is probably the best remembered version since RCA kept the song available for most of the last 65 years whereas the other versions have frequently been out of print. Willie and partner Sheryl Crow harmonize well and recreate the dreamy feel of the 1948 versions. This is my favorite track on this album:

Far away places with strange soundin’ names
Far away over the sea
Those far away places with the strange soundin’ names
Are callin’, callin’ me

Goin’ to China or maybe Siam
I want to see for myself
Those far away places I’ve been readin’ about
In a book that I took from the shelf

I don’t know how many times Willie has recorded his own “Bloody Mary Morning” but this version must be the fastest version on disc. I’m not a big Wynonna Judd fan but this is the kind of song she handles well. Mike Johnson (steel) and Dan “Man of Constant Sorrow” Tyminski (acoustic guitar) really shine on this track.

Writers Wayne Carson, Mark James and John Christopher, Jr cashed in big time with “You Were Always On My Mind” as it was a hit thrice (Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson) and appeared on many albums generating many millions of sales (and royalties for the songwriters). On this recording Willie is joined by Carrie Underwood in a nice version with fairly minimal backing.

During the 1960s and 1970s semi-permanent male-female duos abounded, nearly all of whom tackled Merle Haggard’s “Somewhere Between”. It’s a great song and Willie is joined by the legendary Loretta Lynn, singing in better voice than anything I’ve heard from her recently. Willie and Loretta trade verses (usually in different keys) and do not harmonize except one line at the end. It’s a great song and full justice is done to the song.

“No Mas Amore” written by Keith Gattis and Sammy Barrett, is given the Mexican treatment by Willie and partner Alison Krauss complete with trumpets. Willies band member Mickey Raphael plays chord harmonica and bass harmonica; Alison’s band member Dan Tyminski adds background vocals and plays mandolin. Usually Alison Krauss duets produce a certain magic, but this one is merely pleasant listening.

“Back To Earth” features Melonie Cannon on this Willie Nelson ballad, taken at a languid pace. The song is nothing special but Melanie and Willie execute it well.

Mavis Staples is one of the best known gospel singers, carrying on the fine tradition of the legendary Staples Family. “Grandma’s Hands” was penned by Bill Withers, probably best known for his monster hits “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean On Me”. The song was about Wither’s own grandma and is an affectionate look at a loved one, now departed. Willie and Mavis give it a bit of a ‘swamp blues pop’ treatment that fits the song exactly.

“Walkin” features Wiliie’s good friend Norah Jones on a Willie composition. This is a bluesy slow ballad about leaving.

“Till The End of World” is an old Vaughn Horton standard given an up-tempo western swing arrangement. Back in 1949 Ernest Tubb, Jimmy Wakely and Johnny Bond all had top twelve hits with the song, then in 1952 Bing Crosby and ace guitarist Grady Martin took it back into the top ten. Shelby Lynne reestablishes her country credibility with this effort.

“Will You Remember Mine” is a lovely ballad from Willie’s pen. I don’t know anything about Lily Meola but she is a perfect complement to Willie on this song.

Gone are the times when I held you close
And pressed your lips to mine
Now when you kissed another’s lips
Will you remember mine?

I’m sure we’ve all had this thought – indeed.

“Dry Lightning” comes from the pen of Bruce Springsteen. Emmylou Harris can sing with anyone. Therefore it is no surprise that this song works as a duet. It’s another slow ballad, but Emmylou, as usual is exquisite.

I first ran across Brandi Carlile some years ago when the late and lamented Borders chain distributed sampler CDs of her work. On “Making Believe” she proves both that she can sing effective harmony and can sing country music with feeling. This song was written by Jimmy Work but is best remembered as a major hit for Kitty Wells in 1955, with Emmylou Harris taking it back to the top ten in 1977.

“Have You Ever Seen The Rain” is a John Fogarty composition given a slow folk arrangement that enables Willie and (I think) daughter Paula Nelson to convey the lyrics in an uncluttered manner. I really like this recording.

Tina Rose is the daughter of Leon & Mary Russell. Willie recorded an album with Leon Russell in 1979, so it seems only proper that he should record a song with Leon’s daughter. I’m not that impressed with Ms Russell’s vocals, but they work well enough on the vehicle chosen, L.E White’s “After The Fire Is Gone”, which White’s boss, Conway Twitty took to the top of the charts with Loretta Lynn in 1971. Willie and Tina don’t have the chemistry Conway and Loretta had (few do) but the end result is worthwhile.

It remains true:
There’s nothing cold as ashes
After the fire’s gone

All told, there is a very pleasant offering from Willie – I’d give it a B+, mostly because a few more up-tempo numbers were needed. Willie, of course, is always Willie, and as always, he was chosen well in his selection of female guests.

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘Influence, Vol. 1: The Man I Am’

randyA disappointing 25th anniversary album and the slightly underwhelming single “Tonight I’m Playing Possum”, as well as a general fatigue regarding the endless array of cover albums released in recent years left me feeling indifferent about Randy Travis’ new release Influence, Vol. 1: The Man I Am. In last July’s review of “Tonight I’m Playing Possum”, the only original song on the album, last July, we discussed at length Travis’ diminished vocal abilities, which further lowered my expectations for the full album.

Though the bar was admittedly set low, I was pleasantly surprised when the album was finally released last week. Though most of the songs are not that vocally challenging, I was quite pleased to hear Randy sounding better, for the most part, than he has on most of his recent recordings. Randy mostly avoids some of the obvious standards that have appeared on countless other tribute albums and dusts off some under-appreciated gems. Due to the death of George Jones earlier this year, I expected a number of the Possum’s tunes to be featured. Surprisingly, there is only one, “Why Baby Why”, which leads into “Tonight I’m Playing Possum” which closes the album. Instead, Travis digs deeply into the catalog of Merle Haggard for inspiration. Five of the album’s twelve cover tunes are some of the Hag’s lesser-known numbers, while the remaining songs are remakes of hits by Ernest Tubb, Waylon Jennings, and Lefty Frizzell. In addition, Randy reaches outside the genre for a few numbers: Louis Armstrong’s 1926 jazz hit “Butter and Egg Man” which is given a Western swing arrangement, and “Pennies From Heaven”, a pop standard first introduced by Bing Crosby in 1936. Both of these tunes are creative stretches for Travis, and both are extremely well done, with the Armstrong tune arguably being the best track on the album. Also included is “Trouble In Mind”, a blues standard dating back to 1924, which was later covered by both Haggard and Jones. It is one of the few tracks on the album were Randy’s vocal difficulties are apparent.

Ernest Tubb’s “Thanks a Lot” is given a by-the-numbers faithful-to-the-original treatment, while Travis’ interpretation of Waylon’s “You Asked Me To” is a little short on outlaw attitude. His take on Lefty Frizzell’s “Saginaw, Michigan”, however, is outstanding, though I could have done without the 1960s-style background singers. Randy has always named Lefty as one of his big influences and I would like to hear him sing more from the Frizzell catalog.

It is the Haggard tunes, however, that are the meat and potatoes of this album. If there are any criticisms of Influence, it is that it is a little Haggard-heavy. On the other hand, it’s nice to see Merle finally get his due; every male country singer to emerge during the past twenty years has claimed to have idolized George Jones, while the equally important Haggard usually went unmentioned.

The album opens with “Someday We’ll Look Back”, which Merle took to #2 in 1971. “What Have You Got Planned Tonight Diana” was originally released as the B-side to 1976’s “Cherokee Maiden”. Its lyrics are the deathbed reminiscences of an Alaskan homesteader as he prepares to join his departed wife. It is a beautiful number and is my favorite of the Haggard tunes included here. “Ever-Changing Woman”, written by Dave Kirby and Curly Putman is an obscure album cut mined from 1980’s Back to the Barrooms. It’s surprising that no one ever had a big hit with this song. “My Mary”, which is also quite well done, is from 1983’s Pancho and Lefty. “I’m Always On A Mountain When I Fall” is the the best-known of the Haggard songs included here and like the others, it is a pleasure to listen to.

I’m trying not to read too much into the inclusion of the words “Volume 1” in the album’s title, since I can think of numerous examples where a “Volume 1” was never followed up with any sequels. I do hope that a second set is planned, though that will depend on how quickly Randy recovers from his recent health problems. In the meantime, there is more than enough here to keep his fans happy.

Grade: A

Country Heritage: Jerry Lee Lewis

This article is about country singer Jerry Lee Lewis, who occupies and inhabits the same body as the somewhat demented rock ‘n roller about whom we will speak little further.

Jerry Lee Lewis was born on September 29, 1935 in Ferriday, Louisiana, and is a first cousin to famed evangelist Jimmy Swaggart and a second cousin to fellow country singer Mickey Gilley. Swaggart and Lewis were born in Ferriday, and Gilley across the river in Natchez, Mississippi, all within a ten month span, and grew up together.

Like most of his era Jerry Lee grew up singing in church. He also was influenced by the country and rhythm and blues music that surrounded him. While Jerry Lee has cited few specific influences to his music, one of those cited was Texas-born Moon Mullican, an exuberant performer who frequently toured Louisiana during the 1930s and 1940s. Moon, who is worth an article himself, played a pounding piano, barrelhouse boogie style, that would vibrate beer bottles off the tables.

Jerry Lee made his way to Memphis and the attention of Sam Phillips at Sun Records. While Jerry Lee was to gain great initial success doing other forms of music, Jerry Lee continued to record country music. His 1957 cover of Hank Williams’ “You Win Again” reached #2 for two weeks, and other songs, while not charting, demonstrated an artist comfortable with the most country of country songs. Jerry Lee’s cover of the Ray Price hit “Crazy Arms”, while bearing no strong resemblance to the Price hit, is worth seeking.

A minor scandal that erupted while Jerry Lee was touring England derailed the chart career of the ‘Ferriday Fireball’ after 1958 (Jerry Lee hadn’t actually done anything illegal – or even unusual for folks of his upbringing). While “Cold Cold Heart” would chart at #22 during August 1961, Jerry Lee would only hit the country charts once more time through 1967.

Jerry Lee Lewis never quit performing, playing small southern ‘tank towns’ and the ‘chitlin’ circuit’. After his Sun Record contract expired in 1963, Jerry Lee signed with Smash Records, a subsidiary of Mercury, which had Jerry Lee re-record his old Sun hits and record modern rhythm & blues classics. Several live albums were released that demonstrated that Jerry Lee had lost a thing when it came to live performing but between the lingering effects of scandal and the influence of Berry Gordy’s slick Motown enterprise, and the “British Invasion” of the mid-1960s, American audiences just weren’t buying Jerry Lee’s brand of pop music. Read more of this post

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

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘The Season For Romance’

Following the immense crossover success of “I Hope You Dance”, MCA Records continued to push Lee Ann Womack further in the pop direction, hoping to make her into a pop diva like Shania Twain or Faith Hill. Something Worth Leaving Behind, released in August 2002, bore very little resemblance to country music and was both a critical and commercial disaster. Two months later, Lee Ann released a Christmas collection, which also had little to no connection to country music. While it’s not uncommon for country stars to go for a more traditional pop or big band sound on holiday collections, the timing of The Season For Romance, on the heels of Something Worth Leaving Behind, added to the perception that what Lee Ann was leaving behind were her country roots.

Many people are nostalgic for Christmas music in the vein of Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Johnny Mathis, even if this isn’t the type of music they normally listen to throughout the year. In the past, country stars such as Vince Gill, Lorrie Morgan, and Martina McBride have attempted to recreate those sounds on their holiday albums, and it’s often been quite effective. But unfortunately, this is decidedly not the case with The Season For Romance. Seldom have I heard an album where the singer seemed so ill at ease with the material as is the case here. Throughout the entire album, Lee Ann seems to be working too hard to erase her Texas accent, and too often seems to be competing with the orchestra rather than singing with it. Songs such as “Let It Snow” and “Winter Wonderland” sound as though Lee Ann recorded the vocal track without any knowledge of the type of arrangements or instrumentation that would be used with it.

The album’s worst track is the remake of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, which has never been one of my favorite songs. A pop standard dating back to the 1940s, its best known version is probably Dean Martin’s 1966 recording (Martina McBride’s duet vocals were added in 2006). Lee Ann is joined by Harry Connick, Jr. I may perhaps be a little biased since I’ve never particularly liked this song, but I found Lee Ann’s very breathy performance that tries too hard to be sexy, to be quite annoying.

I don’t mind so much that this isn’t a country album; my main gripe is that Lee Ann seems uncomfortable and out of her element throughout most of it. The sole exception is “The Man With the Bag”, which is the one song on which she really seems to be engaged and enjoying herself. “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and “Silent Night” aren’t bad — though I could have done without the distracting saxophone on the latter — but this is, for the most part, a lackluster and poorly executed project. I really hate to pan a Christmas album, particularly one from an artist whose work I usually admire, but I found this album very painful to listen to. Lee Ann is capable of much, much better and hopefully one day she’ll release a better Christmas album.

Grade: D

Country Heritage Redux: Ernest Tubb (1914-1984)

An expanded and updated version of an article previously published by The 9513:

Disclaimer: Expect no objectivity at all from me with this article. Along with Webb Pierce and Merle Haggard, Ernest Tubb is one of my all-time favorite country artists. Yes, I know he started out most songs a quarter tone flat and worked his way flatter from there, and yes, I know that 80% of The 9513s readership has technically better singing voices than Tubb had. But no one in country music (and few outside the genre, Al Jolson, Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima, Phil Harris among them) was ever able to infuse as much warmth and personality into his singing.

Ernest Tubb, known as E.T. to nearly everyone, was born in 1914 in Crisp, Texas, a town in Ellis County which is no longer even a flyspeck on the map. Tubb grew up working on farms and used his free time learning to play guitar, sing and yodel. As with many who grew up in the rural southeast and southwest, E.T. grew up listening to the music of the legendary “Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933), and like such contemporaries as Gene Autry, Jimmie Davis , Bill Monroe, Jimmie Skinner and Hank Snow, E.T. started his career sounding like a Jimmie Rodgers clone. In Ernest’s case, he eventually met Jimmie’s widow, Carrie Rodgers, who was sufficiently impressed with Tubb to sponsor his career and give him one of Jimmie’s guitars to play. Tubb played clubs around Texas and the southwest and, with Mrs. Rodgers’ help, secured a record deal with RCA. As there had already been one Jimmie Rodgers, Tubb’s sound-alike records sold only modestly.

Good luck can take many forms. In Tubb’s case, his good luck came in the form of illness. In 1939 E.T. suffered a throat infection that necessitated a tonsillectomy, robbing him of his ability to yodel and thereby forcing him to develop a style of his own.

Moving to Decca Records in 1940, Tubb continued to record. Nothing happened initially, but his sixth release–a self-penned number titled “Walking the Floor Over You”–turned him into a star. The song was released in 1941, before the advent of Billboard’s country music charts. It did, however, appear on the pop charts, selling over a million records in the process. The song was covered by such luminaries as Bing Crosby and became Tubb’s signature song. Over the years the song has been recorded hundreds of times with artists including Pat Boone, Hank Thompson, Patsy Cline, Asleep at the Wheel and Glen Campbell being among the more notable.
Read more of this post

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘A Tribute To the Best Damn Fiddle Player In The World, Or My Salute To Bob Wills’

Unlike the Jimmie Rodgers tribute which celebrated a long dead and distant figure, this 1970 album was a tribute to a man still alive, and only about ten years removed from having been a viable recording artist.

Even so, by 1970 Western Swing was largely dead as a chart force, the only such artist still charting hit records being Hank Thompson, who had adapted his small-band swing sound into a more contemporary sound with some swing overtones. Spade Cooley was dead (after a stretch in prison for the murder of his wife) in prison, Tex Williams had become a Las Vegas lounge act, and Bob Wills himself had been traveling with a vocalist and using whatever house bands were available, few of whom had any real feel for western swing.

Meanwhile, hot on the heels of “Okie From Muskogee” (and a long string of other major hits), Merle Haggard had emerged as the biggest name in country music, releasing three albums (plus an album featuring his band) between the Jimmie Rodgers tribute and this album.

There would seem to be little to connect the music of Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. Jimmie’s music was that of the Great Depression, hard times and scraping by. Bob Wills’ music was, first and foremost, music for dancing and most of Bob Wills’ venues were dance halls. Both, however, were largely based in the blues. Moreover the two musical forces connected in Haggard’s music, probably because Wills was based in California for many years and his music was the music of the dance halls that Haggard heard growing up.

Emboldened by the success of the Rodgers tribute, Haggard set about working on a tribute to Bob Wills, producing three very commercially successful albums (two of them live albums) before pushing producer Ken Nelson into letting him produce another commercially questionable album. To prepare himself for the project, Haggard learned how to play fiddle, and, within a month of doing so, he started planning the album.

Read more of this post

Album Review: ‘Brad Paisley Christmas’

The following review was written by MKOC reader and commenter Ken Johnson:

My favorite holiday albums are those that reflect the true style and sound of the individual artist. Nothing has been more disappointing than when my favorite country star abandoned their distinctive style to morph into Nat “King” Cole or Bing Crosby complete with a lush orchestra and chorus. Brad Paisley did not make that mistake. His 2006 Brad Paisley Christmas CD mixed all-time standards with original holiday songs to perfectly mirror his style, personality, humor and versatility. Those are also the very qualities that helped Brad to win the Entertainer Of The Year Award from the CMA this year.

A bright and twangy “Winter Wonderland” leads off the collection. Brad modified the lyrics by adding lines about fellow Grand Ole Opry member Jim Ed Brown. He gave nods to two of Jim Ed’s best known hits: “Pop A Top” and “The Three Bells.”

In the meadow we can build a snowman and pretend that he is Jim Ed Brown.
We’ll sing “Pop A Top” with Mr. Snowman with chapel bells a-ringing all around.

“Santa Looked A Lot like Daddy” revives the Buck Owens – Don Rich 1965 holiday classic. Garth Brooks and Travis Tritt both recorded versions for their Christmas albums during the 1990’s that have kept this song alive on country radio holiday playlists. Brad doesn’t spare the twang here either by adding extended improvisational instrumental solos.

“I’ll Be Home For Christmas” begins with the song’s often deleted original intro.

I am dreaming tonight of a place I love even more than I usually do.
And although I know it’s a long road back, I promise you
I’ll be home for Christmas…

Brad’s laid back vocal blends perfectly with understated orchestration punctuated by outstanding lead guitar solos and smooth steel guitar and fiddle fills. This is my favorite track on the CD.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Patsy Cline – ‘Showcase’

In 1960, Patsy’s contract with Four Star expired, and she signed a new deal with Decca, which had been distributing her earlier singles. Patsy’s triumphant return to the spotlight in 1961 with ‘I Fall To Pieces’, her first hit single since ‘Walking After Midnight’ four years earlier led to the release of a full-length album, the appropriately titled Showcase, with the Jordanaires (best known for their work backing Elvis Presley) singing on most tracks and given almost equal billing when the set was rereleased after Patsy’s death. Owen Bradley remained at the helm, and by now he had found the right crossover template for Patsy’s recordings. They also had access to a wider variety of material than Four Star had allowed. The tracks other than that first single were recorded in August 1961, as Patsy was recovering from a serious car accident.

‘I Fall To Pieces’, which Patsy recorded at her first Decca session, was the breakthrough single, her first #1, and perhaps her most sublime moment on record. Written by Harlan Howard and Hank Cochran, the song is a perfect expression of the pain endured by a woman whose former lover just wants to be friends, while she falls apart every time she sees him. This track opens the album, and ‘Crazy’, the other big hit, was the opening track on side two of the original vinyl LP. The latter, famously penned by a young Willie Nelson, may be the quintessential Patsy Cline recording, the perfect epitome of her sophisticated country torch style. Heartbreak has rarely sounded more beautiful than it does on these two recordings.

Patsy offers the definitive version of another classic, Floyd Tillman’s agonized ‘I Love You So Much It Hurts’, again in her torch style, and this is another highlight. Also very good is ‘Have You Ever Been Lonely (Have You Ever Been Blue)’, an erring wife’s appeal for forgiveness, which has an excellent vocal along similar lines.

The album balanced pop and country in several ways. One was to give country songs a pop makeover.

Read more of this post