My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Bob Wills

Album Review: Johnny Paycheck – ‘Mr Hag Told My Story’

Nowadays when a tribute album is released, often it is more of a multi-artist gala event than an honest tribute with many of those paying tribute being mere poseurs. This was not always the case. Prior to the Urban Cowboy movement, it was common to see single artist albums that paid tribute to another artist. Kitty Wells, Faron Young and Del Reeves paid tribute to Jim Reeves. Similarly, Stonewall Jackson, Ernest Tubb and Charley Pride issued Hank Williams tribute albums and Loretta Lynn cut a tribute album to Patsy Cline. Even the great Merle Haggard issued tribute albums to Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers, as did Willie Nelson with his a salute to Lefty Frizzell. Most of these single artist tribute albums were sincere tributes, but they were seldom innovative or particularly soulful endeavors, just albums of adequate cover versions.

Mr. Hag Told My Story is different. For one thing Paycheck, a somewhat kindred spirit to Haggard, inhabits these songs, making them very personal indeed. Moreover, instead of merely recording a collection of Haggard’s hits, Paycheck goes deep catalog, recording some relatively obscure songs that were mostly album tracks for Haggard.

While Haggard and Paycheck had some similarities such as tough childhoods which resulted in both being hellions during their younger years, Haggard outgrew his demons and never was regarded as being part of the outlaw movement. This may be at least partially due to Haggard’s producer at Capitol, Ken Nelson, giving Haggard free reign to release some very personal albums with less commercial viability. Consequently, Haggard did not have much cause for rebellion.

I am not convinced that Johnny Paycheck ever truly conquered his demons, except when he grew too old to continue his self-destructive ways.

Haggard was a huge star with over 20 years of sustained chart success while Paycheck had three scattered periods of success scattered over a 15 year period. Both were successful songwriters and both got started in the bands of the biggest stars of the time.

For a brief period of time Haggard and Paycheck recorded for the same label, Epic, toured together and were able to record together.

Released in 1981, Mr. Hag Told My Story is an album of moody and/or introspective songs all of which were written by Haggard except for “Carolyn” a Haggard hit written by Tommy Collins. There were no hit singles released from the album, but there are a lot of classic performances, with Haggard’s band The Strangers providing much of the instrumental backing.

The structure of the album is that Paycheck introduces each of the songs with a spoken introduction. Haggard himself weaves in and out of the album, sometimes as a lead or harmony singer, sometimes as part of a conversation and sometimes playing his guitar. Make no mistake – this is a Johnny Paycheck album but Haggard’s presence is significant.

The album opens up with “(I’m) Turning Off A Memory”, the B-side of Haggard’s 1971 hit “Grandma Harp”. This is a great song that I think should have been an A-side for Haggard. Haggard adds some asides and sings on the choruses and takes on one of the verses.

You can find me in a dim lighted bar room
If your coldness should ever turn warm
But the chances of you ever changing
Are as slim as your two loving arms

So I’m turning off a memory
As quickly as time will allow
Yes, I’m turning off a memory
And the wine seems to help me somehow

“I’ve Got A Yearning” was an album track on Haggard’s 1978 Capitol album Eleven Winners. Taken slightly up-tempo, the song is another tale of loneliness:

I’ve got a yearning to hold you tight
A burning desire I live with day and night
Everything I lose keeps on hanging on
This feeling isn’t leaving and by now it should be gone.

I keep on thinking those thoughts that keep making me want you all the time
I should be trying to find me a way I can drive you from my mind
I know that you wanted to give and I know that you gave all you could
Wish I could accept what is over and done with for good.

Tommy Collins wrote “Carolyn”, a classic song of frustration and angst, that Haggard took to the top of the charts in 1972. Here Paycheck sings the verses and Haggard does the narrations. Don Markham’s horns give the song a more jazzy feeling than on Haggard’s earlier single.

Yes, Carolyn, a man will do that sometimes on his own
And sometimes when he’s lonely
I believe a man will do that sometimes out of spite
But Carolyn, a man will do that always
When he’s treated bad at home

“I’ll Leave the Bottle on the Bar” comes from Haggard’s 1968 album Sing Me Back Home. This song is another featuring a quicker tempo. The steel guitar sounds like that of Big Jim Murphy, Paycheck’s regular steel guitarist:

A loser doesn’t always know he’s losing
Till he’s lost the game and it’s too late to win
I hope I’ll call in time and you’ll forgive me
‘Cause I want so much to come back home again
And I’ll leave the bottle on the bar
If you’ll take me back to start anew
I’ll leave the bottle on the bar
I’ll sober up and come back home to you

I’m not sure that “All Night Lady” was ever issued on a Merle Haggard album. This song is about Death Row, not the first time Haggard wrote about the subject. Paycheck does a masterful job of singing the song.

Through the window he sits watching his last sunset
Like a blackout curtain closing out the light
It’s now he needs someone’s arms around him
Yes it’s now he needs someone to help him through the night

An all night lady
One who loves me
And won’t leave me when daylight comes
One who’ll stay with me until my life is done

At 9 AM they’re going to lead him to the death-house
And at 10 AM they’ll lay his soul to rest
I can see them giving him his last supper
I can hear him giving them his last request

“I Can’t Hold Myself in Line” was the only single issued from the album, dying at #41. The song originally appeared on Haggard’s Pride in What I Am album released in 1969. This song is basically a very bluesy conversation between Haggard and Paycheck, with twin steel by Jim Murphy and Norm Hamlet, plus some very funky lead guitar by Roy Nichols and terrific horns played by Don Markham.

I’m going off of the deep end
And I’m slowly losing my mind
And I disagree with the way (ha-ha) I’m living
But I can’t hold myself in line

You give me no reason for my drinkin’
But I can’t stand myself at times
And you’re better off to just leave and forget me
Cause I can’t hold myself in line

“Yesterday’s News Just Hit Home Today” is another bluesy track with the sage advice that ‘being a fool is one thing, but not knowing you’re a fool is another thing’.

“You Don’t Have Very Far to Go” was a Haggard co-write with Red Simpson that first surfaced on Haggard’s 1967 album Branded Man. I thought at the time that it would have made a good single for Haggard but then, most of his sixties albums were full of good singles material. Johnny gives it a more honky-tonk treatment that Hag had given it.

You always find the way to hurt my pride
If I’m not crying you’re not satisfied
And I don’t know why you want to hurt me so
If you’re tryin’ to break my heart
You don’t have very far to go
You don’t have very far to go

Before the heartache begins
I already feel the sadness
Of a heartbreak settin’ in
I don’t know why you want to hurt me so
If you’re tryin’ to break my heart
You don’t have very far to go

“No More You and Me” is a fairly generic honky-tonk ballad, executed perfectly by Paycheck.

The album closes with the bluesy title track “Someone Told My Story”:

I played a brand-new record on the jukebox
And I scarcely could believe the song I heard
It told of how you left me for another
It was almost like I’d written every word

Someone told my story in a song
The lyrics told of happiness and home
And then it told of how you’ve done me wrong

Someone told my story in a song
The writer must’ve seen the way you done me
For he told it all and never missed a line
He told of swinging doors and the jukebox

And he even knew I almost lost my mind
Someone told my story in a song

After listening to this album, I think you’d have to say that Haggard definitely told Paycheck’s story in his songs. This album is my favorite of the post-Little Darlin’ Johnny Paycheck. Really, how could this miss?

The great songs of Merle Haggard, as sung by Johnny Paycheck with an amplified version of Haggard’s Strangers providing most of the instrumental backing and Hag himself joining in at times.

Grade: A+

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Album Review: The Mavericks – ‘Brand New Day’

Lawrence Welk, Flaco Jimenez, Jimmy Sturr, Gene Pitney, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Marty Robbins, Louis Prima, Charles Magnante, Jacques Brel, Earl Scruggs, Tito Puente, Perez Prado and countless others inhabit the music on this album. None of them actually appear on this album, but all of them are among the influences apparent in the newest Mavericks album Brand New Day, the group’s first album to be released on their own Mono Mundo label.

[Note: Unfortunately the digital download of the album did not come with songwriter or musician credits, although I think Max Abrams handles the saxophone throughout the album and Michael Guerra is on the accordion. Malo usually writes most of his own material, so I would assume that he wrote most of this album.]

The album opens with the upbeat “Rolling Along”. Like polka band leader Jimmy Sturr, Mavericks lead singer and guiding force Raul Malo discovered long ago that Polka, Tejano, Cajun and Western Swing are essentially the same music, just played on different instruments. This basically falls within that group of genres with banjo, accordion, fiddle and trumpets all featured within the mix.

Life isn’t easy, it’s uphill, believe me
Whether you’re weak or you’re strong
Sometimes you feel like you’re back on your heels
And everything’s going all wrong

Through the confusion and all disillusion
Somehow life still goes on
I found a cure I know works for sure
And we just keep rolling along

So bring on the trouble and burst every bubble
I promise it won’t change a thing
I always find that my peace of mind
Still flies like a bird on the wing
What’s going to happen is still going to happen
The one thing that you can count on
Don’t fix what ain’t broken while Willie’s still smoking
We’ll just keep rolling along

Next up is the title track “Brand New Day” written by Raul Malo and Allen Miller, a big rock ballad love song of the kind that greats Gene Pitney might have recorded in the 1960s or Roy Orbison in the 1980s. It is derivative but gives Malo a chance to show that he is one of the few singers who should be allowed anywhere near this material.

Baby tomorrow’s a brand new day
We’re gonna love all our troubles away
I don’t wanna live like a ghost from the past
You’re not the first but you will be my last

There’ll come a time when all of your dreams
Will all disappear like a thief in the night
(A thief in the night)
It’s never too dark to keep out the light
There’s never a wrong that you couldn’t make right
(You couldn’t make right)

Baby tomorrow’s a brand new day
We’re gonna love all our troubles away

“Easy As It Seems” has a bossa nova arrangement with a lyric that one of Motown’s fine staff writers could have written:

Things are getting crazy, I beg to understand
The more I think I know, the more I know I can’t
So tell me what the point is with everything you say
Nowhere near the truth almighty a bunch of nothing said

Do you want to get mean?
Do you want to get cruel?
Do you think it’s wise
To play the fool?

I can mentally hear either Louis Prima or Dean Martin singing “I Think of You”, the arrangement and saxophones saying Prima but the actual lyric screaming Dino. Since I am a huge fan of both Louis Prima and Dean Martin, I would probably single this song out as my favorite track on the album.

“Goodnight Waltz” evokes the images of Parisian Café Society. Sung softly and taken at a slow waltz tempo, the lyric can be taken several ways, depending upon the frame of mind of the listener.

Here I stand before your eyes
I’m just a man who’s realized
Another dream has come to light
So I’ll say goodnight

I’ll say goodnight to you
I’ll say goodnight to you
So farewell but not goodbye
So I’ll say goodnight

Time has come and gone too soon
Tomorrow brings another tune
I’ll sing them all ’til the day I die
So I’ll say goodnight

“Damned (If You Do)” reminds me of a lot of other songs I’ve heard over the years, both lyrically and melodically (the first few bars had me wondering if I was about to hear the theme from the Munsters television show and there seem to be hints of that theme at several points in the song):

And sure as you are
Of lessons you’ve learned
Decisions you’ve made
Will all be overturned
But life all alone
Is a life unfulfilled
You may not miss the hurt
But you sure do miss the thrills

You’re damned if you do
And damned if you don’t
Damned if you will
And damned if you won’t

Next up is “I Will Be Yours”, a romantic ballad that a younger Engelbert Humperdinck would have recorded as an album track in the late 1960. I can even imagine Elvis Presley or Marty Robbins tackling this song.

If you should want to, or ever need to
Find yourself someone who would be true
I know the right one, to be that someone
And he has fallen in love with you

If you surrender to love so tender
Until forever I will be yours
Don’t ever leave me, darling believe me
Until forever I will be yours

“Ride With Me” has an early rock ‘n roll feel to it (with brass and accordion added), although the song also reminds me of Bobby Troup’s classic song “Route 66”. Basically a travelogue, it is a good song anyway. If you listen closely you will hear some Bob Wills style asides from Malo.

When I’m in New York City, I never sleep a wink
When I’m in New York City, I never get to sleep a wink
But when I cross that river all I want to do is drink

Well I have been to Chicago, they said it was the promised land
You know I’ve been to Chicago, they said it was the promised land
When I arrived as a child they promised that I’d leave a man

Phoenix, Arizona; Memphis, Tennessee
Southern California, Washington DC
I gotta go… a whole world to see
So pack your bags up baby
Come along and ride with me

Of all the songs on this album “I Wish You Well” is the one that I would describe as being like a prototypical Roy Orbison song. Malo does a fabulous job singing it and conveying the regret and angst of the lyric.

This is where the road divides
This is where we have to say goodbye
Say goodbye

After all that we’ve been through
How I wish for more than this to say to you
This to say to you

Here’s to all the good times
That we’ve ever known
To the memories
Yours and mine alone

Now you lie before me
Like a star that fell
Oh I wish you well
Oh I wish you well

The album closes with “For The Ages”, a celebratory love song, with an arrangement that, with the exception of the choral coda, could be called country, the only song on the album I would so describe, although like every other song on the album, accordion is in evidence.

For the ages… that’s what our love will be
For the ages… through all of history
For the ages… who could ask for more
For the ages… that’s what our love is for

I’ve never known a love to make me feel like this
I’ve never tasted wine sweeter than your kiss
I’ve never seen a star shining in the sky
Nearly half as bright as the twinkle in your eye

Describing the music of The Mavericks has always been difficult somewhat akin to trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole, only in their case the peg had a trapezoid shape. This album is no exception. It has been categorized as rock, which it is not, and I have seen it called country which it most certainly isn’t.

There is nothing new or revolutionary about any of the music on this album, and many of the songs on the album will remind long-time fans of songs on other Mavericks albums. Even so, this is one of the better albums that will be released this year, with its wide array of songs and musical styles. Raul Malo is in excellent voice throughout. My only criticism is that the album could be a little longer (it runs about 38 minutes).

Graded strictly in terms of the excellence of execution, this album is an A+. Graded on other criteria you might downgrade it to a B+ (shame on you if you do, though)

Album Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Way Out West’

Way Out West, the new album by Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives is one of the more eclectic albums I’ve encountered in recent years. I’m not sure who the target audience is, or even if there is a target audience.

There are those who would assert that the West has as much of a claim to the origins of country music as does Bristol, Nashville and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Certainly the cowboy heritage has made its way into the country persona, perhaps more so with the fashion than the music, but in any event Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and the Sons of The Pioneers are safely enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame, as is Bob Wills.

It is hard to know how to assess this collection of songs. There are vocal tracks and instrumental tracks, some tracks which are traditional sounding western ballads and at least two which seem almost psychedelic. The band flits between sounding like a good country band to having overtones of The Ventures, Duane Eddy, Don Rich, Grady Martin and more.

The album opens up with “Desert Prayer – Part 1” which sounds like some sort of chant with what sounds like sitar. This is followed up by “Mojave” an instrumental track that sounds like Nokie Edwards meets Duane Eddy.

The third track is “Lost On The Desert” is the story of an escaped robber who heads to the desert to reclaim the money he stole, tormented by the devil before he can find the money. I can mentally hear Marty Robbins singing this song, but I don’t think Marty Robbins ever recorded the song. Johnny Cash did, record the the Billy Mize-Dallas Frazier song, however, on his 1962 album The Sound of Johnny Cash.

A burnin’ hot su,n a cryin’ for water, black wings circle the sky
Stumblin’ and fallin’, somebody’s callin’, you’re lost on the desert to die
I had to give up and they took me to jail but I hid all the money I got
Way out on the desert where no one could get it and I left a mark at the spot
Then I got away and I ran for the desert the devil had taken control
I needed water but he said I’d make it near the money is a big waterhole
A burnin’ hot sun…

Just up ahead is where I left my mark or it may be to the left or the right
I’ve been runnin’ all day and they’ll catch up tomorrow, I’ve got to find it tonight
Then up jumped the devil and ran away laughin’, he drank all the waterholes dry
He moved my mark till I’m running in circles and lost on the desert to die
A burnin’ hot sun…
(Lost on the desert to die) lost on the desert to die (lost on the desert to die)

“Way Out West” is 5:42 long, and is a strange tale of the narrator having (or hallucinating) a number of experiences, while under the influence of pills. Somehow I mentally can hear Jefferson Airplane singing this song.

“El Fantasma Del Toro” sounds like Santo & Johnny are providing the music for this instrumental.

“Old Mexico” might be likened to “El Paso” in reverse, with the cowboy heading to Mexico where there isn’t a price on his head. There is some nice vocal trio work – this may be my favorite song on the album, and could have been a hit forty years ago, especially if Marty Robbins recorded it.

“Time Don’t Wait” is a good song, a little more rock than country, with a lyric that speaks the truth as we all know it.

“Quicksand” has a very martial sounding introduction before lapsing into a more standard rock sound.

“Air Mail Special” is the oldest song on the album, having been composed by Benny Goodman, James Mundy and Charlie Christian. For those not aware of the writers, Benny Goodman was probably the greatest jazz clarinetist ever and Charlie Christian was the first great electric guitar player. I assume that Mundy wrote the lyrics later since neither Goodman nor Christian were lyricists.

Left New York this morning early
Traveling south so wide and high
Sailing through the wide blue yonder
It’s that Airmail Special on the fly
Listen to the motors humming
She is streaking through the sky
Like a bird that’s flying homeward
It’s that Airmail Special on the fly
Over plains and high dark mountains
Over rivers deep and wide
Carrying mail to California
It’s that Airmail Special on the fly
Watch her circle for the landing
Hear her moan and cough and sigh
Now she’s coming down the runway
It’s that Airmail Special on the fly

Marty’s band is indeed superlative, and with “Torpedo” they are in their best Ventures mode. As far as I know the Ventures were strictly an instrumental group, and Torpedo is a fine instrumental.

“Please Don’t Say Goodbye” reminds me of something the Wagoneers might have recorded a couple of decades ago.

If you like the Flying Burrito Brothers “Whole Lotta Highway (With A Million Miles To Go)” definitely fits that vibe. Marty does a fine job. I must admit that it is nice to hear a new truck driving song again – the subgenre has nearly disappeared.

“Desert Prayer – Part 2” is just an interlude.

I really liked “Wait For The Morning” which features really nice vocal harmonies with a song that is a slow western-styled ballad, although not especially western in its subject matter. Lovely steel guitar work closes out the song.

“Way Out West” (Reprise) closes out the album – the reprise is largely instrumental and sounds like something from one of the spaghetti western soundtracks.

Unfortunately I do not have the booklet for the songs on this album, so mostly I don’t know who wrote which songs, or what additional musicians played on the album besides the Fabulous Superlatives. Mike Campbell, former guitarist for Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, produced and achieved a remarkable panoply of sounds. The Fabulous Superlatives are superlative, and Marty is in good voice throughout. I wouldn’t especially cite this album as being particularly thematic – it’s more a collection of songs loosely based on western themes.

B+

Album boxed set review: The Mac Wiseman Story

the-mac-wiseman-storyBorn in 1925, Malcolm “Mac” Wiseman is the renaissance man of county and bluegrass music – singer, songwriter, musician, A&R man, record producer, disc jockey, co-founder of the Country Music Association. Mac was an early pioneer of country music, performing with Molly O’Day, and was a very early member of Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, and later performed with Bill Monroe.

Mac survived polio, changing musical trends, changes in the structure of the recording industry, yet through it all, he has remained “the voice with a heart”, possessor of a slick Irish tenor with just enough “down home” in his voice to enable him to sing any form of music convincingly. Mac Wiseman is my absolute all-time favorite bluegrass vocalist.

Mac was elected into the International Bluegrass Hall of Honor in 1993 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2014, one of only three bluegrass acts (the others are Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs) to be inducted.

Mac Wiseman has recorded for a wide variety of record labels with performers as diverse as John Prine, Lester Flatt, Merle Haggard and Doc Watson. It would be presumptuous of any box set comprised of only six CDs and 153 songs to claim to tell the Mac Wiseman story, but this set gives it an awfully good try.

The Mac Wiseman Story is comprised of all of the albums that Mac recorded for the CMH (originally County Music Heritage) label from 1976 to 1982, plus some recordings Mac obtained from minor labels.

Disc One is comprised of The Mac Wiseman Story, a collection of twenty songs recorded with the Shenandoah Cutups, the band which accompanied the late great Red Smiley after his split from Don Reno. These are amiable straight-ahead bluegrass recordings of Mac’s most famous songs such as “Love Letters In The Sand”, “I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home” and “Tis Sweet To Be Remembered”. I think these are Vetco recordings from 1976-1977, but whatever the source, these are fine recordings.

I should note that in order to ensure that each disc is chock full of music, that tracks from the 1979 CMH double album The Essential Bluegrass Album (with the Osborne Brothers ) are scattered at the end of CDs 1,2,4,5 & 6.

Disc Two is comprised of Country Music Memories and Mac Wiseman Sings Gordon Lightfoot. The former is a 1976 set of classic, mostly 1950s, country music songs ably backed by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith and Clay Smith as well as some other acoustic instruments. The latter, released in 1977, contains Mac’s renditions of some of Canadian folk Singer Gordon Lightfoot’s classic songs as well as some lesser known songs. In addition to Arthur & Clay Smith on guitars, Eddie Adcock appears playing five string banjo.

The entirety of Disc Three is given to one of my favorite albums, The Clayton McMichen Story. Clayton McMichen (January 26, 1900 – January 4, 1970) was an American fiddler and country musician, whose band, the Georgia Wildcats, played a mix of country, pop, jazz and swing tunes. Clayton was regarded as one of the hottest fiddlers of his time. This album, in reality a tribute to Clayton and his band, finds Red Herron taking the role of Clayton McMichen, with Mac taking the role of vocalist Jack Dunnagan, Joe Maphis as tenor banjo player Jerry Wallace and Merle Travis as guitarist Slim Bryant. This album is a cohesive representation of what Clayton and his band sounded like, with an assortment of the reels, rags, blues and thirties pop tunes played.

Disc Four contains the excellent 1982 album Grassroots To Bluegrass. Some of the songs come from the early days of country music before bluegrass split off from country music. Included in this group would be “Kentucky”, “Short Life of Trouble”, and “Don’t Give Your Heart To A Rambler” and the rest are early bluegrass songs such as “I’m Using My Bible For A Roadmap”. Mac is accompanied by a stellar band that includes Eddie Adcock (banjo, guitar), Kenny Baker and Jim Campbell (fiddle), Martha Adcock (rhythm guitar), Josh Graves (dobro), Jesse McReynolds (mandolin) and Missy Raines (bass)

Disc Five finds Mac in the role of hard country/western swing artist on the 1980 album Songs That Make The Jukebox Play. The musicians with Mac on this album include a bunch of guys that played with Bob Wills or with Merle Haggard during his big band days – Johnny Gimble (fiddle & co-producer) , Jim Belken (fiddle), Dick Gimble (bass), Will Briggs (sax), Curley Hollingsworth (piano) , Herb Remington (steel guitar), Eldon Shamblin (lead guitar) and Bill Stone (trumpet). If you ever wondered how Mac does with western swing, wonder no more. Other than Hank Thompson and Tommy Duncan, I can’t think of any better swing vocalists than Mac Wiseman. I bought the vinyl version of this when it came out and kept hoping that Mac would revisit the genre. Among the classics covered are “Bubbles In My Beer”, “Time Changes Everything” , “Driving Nails In My Coffin” and “Wild Side of Life”.

Disc Six is a so-called bonus disc titled Mac Wiseman – Most Requested. This album contains a few songs not found earlier in the box set, plus it contains the remaining track from the Wiseman – Osborne Brothers collaboration.

This box set is released under the Wise Records label which is Mac’s own label. Mac has apparently obtained the rights for many of his recordings from the past. This set retails for $49.98 but you can obtain it for about five bucks less online.

Maybe this isn’t quite a comprehensive account of Mac’s career, but it is a really fine collection and an excellent place to start if you would like to explore Mac’s music. One thing is for sure – after listening to this collection, you will have no doubts as to why he is known as “the voice with a heart”.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Asleep At The Wheel – ‘Live From Austin, TX’

live-from-austin-txTheir albums are consistently enjoyable, but Asleep At The Wheel are undoubtedly at their best live. Unsurprisingly, they have recorded a number of live albums. This one, released on New West Records in 2006, consists of a 1992 performance from the Austin City Limits TV show, which saw the band teaming up with surviving members of the Texas Playboys, Bob Wills’ band (including fiddle legend Johnny Gimble who had worked with AATW before). It is also available in DVD format.

They open with the old ragtime instrumental ‘Black And White Rag’ (incorrectly credited on iTunes as a Ray Benson composition). It had been the B side to a recent single release of ‘Route 66’, also performed here.

‘Boot Scoootin’ Boogie’, a then-current Brooks & Dunn hit, had been cut first by AATW in their 1990 Arista album ‘Keeping me Up Nights; their Western swing take is slower and more relaxed than the more familiar version.

They include some of their hit singles – a nice relaxed version of the always likeable ‘Miles And Miles Of Texas’, and a racing ‘Boogie Back To Texas’ which really sets a party mood which is continued with ‘House of Blue Lights’. A lively ‘Hot Rod Lincoln’ with slightly busy accompaniment affects to reproduce the sounds of the race, with mixed results – some of it is very realistic but it sometimes feels a bit too busy. This is the kind of thing which has more impact when you are actually there.

‘Corine Corina’ is performed with great energy, with the Playboys’ Leon Rausch on lead vocals, and I also enjoyed his pacy ‘Sugar Moon’. ‘Blues For Dixie’, a duet between Rausch and Ray Benson, is less memorable, while ‘Roly Poly’ feels a bit rushed. The lesser-known Wills ballad ‘Misery’ is very good, but Ray and the guys stray a bit too far in the tasteful jazz direction for me on ‘You Don’t Know Me’.

This is an enjoyable recording, but the DVD (which I haven’t seen) would probably be a better indicator of their great live show.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Asleep At The Wheel – ‘Western Standard Time’

western-standard-time1988’s Western Standard Time, the band’s last for Epic, included various covers from the worlds not just of western swing, but country and R&B. As usual, it is played well and enthusiastically, making an entertaining listen.

It produced three modestly performing singles. My favourite is a very nice retro-styled cut on country classic ‘Walk On By’, which reached #55. The follow-up, ‘Hot Rod Lincoln’, a fun spoken rockabilly tune about a car, made it ten places lower. They recruited Willie Nelson to share the vocals on a likeable, relaxed ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’ which was the last, non-charting, single.

The band takes on a couple of Western Swing standards – Bob Wills classic ‘San Antonio Rose’ may be the quintessential Western Swing tune, while the quirky ode to a fat child, ‘Roly Poly’, allows the band to stretch out.

‘That’s What I Like About The South’ comes from the jazzier end of western swing – Bob Wills did record it but it was written by a New York based jazz musician. The bluesy ‘That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day’ gets a soulful treatment.

‘Don’t Let Go’ is a rather dull R&B hit from the 1950s which is the one track that left me cold.

The final track is a great version of ‘Walking The Floor Over You’, with Ray Benson doing his best Ernest Tubb impression.

Although there is nothing new here, this is great music, and worth hearing.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Asleep At The Wheel – ‘Texas Gold’

texas-goldAsleep At The Wheel’s third full-length album, and their first for Capitol Records, was released in 1975, It reveals them at the height of their powers, and also at the zenith of their commercial success.

‘The Letter That Johnny Walker Read’ was their most successful ever single, as a top 10 country hit. It’s a great story song with emotional impact, written by the band’s Ray Benson and Leroy Preston with Chris Frayne. Benson takes the lead vocal, with female vocalist Chris O’Connell plaintively singing the text of the letter, from the drunken protagonist’s abandoned wife.

The band shows off their instrumental chops throughout, but especially on a cover of the Bob Wills tune ‘Fat Boy Rag’, and on ‘Bump, Bounce Boogie’, although the latter is not a full instrumental but features a vocal from Chris O’Connell. It was the second single, but was probably not commercial enough, peaking just outside the top 30. O’Connell also sang lead on ‘Nothin’ Takes The Place Of You’, a sophisticated late Patsy Cline-style ballad with a brassy accompaniment – nice but not particularly distinctive, its chart peak was #35. O’Connell also takes the lead on a lovely version of the hymn ‘Where No One Stands Alone’.

‘Tonight The Bartender Is On The Wrong Side Of The Bar’ is an excellent Leroy Preston song about heartbreak and booze. ‘Runnin’ After Fools’ is a jazz-influenced mid-paced number which is well done but not so much to my taste.

‘Let Me Go Home Whiskey’ and ‘Roll ‘Em Floyd/Rebecca’ are old blues songs which the band liven up with a playful western swing twist. The album closes with a classic western swing version of ‘Trouble In Mind’ with a raucous brass outro.

This is an excellent album which is qunintessential Asleep at the Wheel. It is available digitally, and on a 2for1 CD with Comin’ Right At Ya.

Grade: A

Album Review: Asleep at the Wheel – ‘Asleep at the Wheel’ (1974)

r-6847990-1427926933-1911-jpeg1974’s Asleep at the Wheel was the band’s second release and the first for Epic Records. It was also the first of a pair of eponymous albums; another album titled Asleep at the Wheel would be released about a decade later by MCA.

Produced by Norro Wilson, the album was almost completely out of step with mainstream country, and as such it did not sell particularly well. It did, however, produce the band’s first chart single, “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie”, which peaked at #69. But because it did not follow the the commercial trends of the day, it does not sound as dated as many of the albums released in that era. In fact, it is every bit as enjoyable today as it was over 40 year ago.

It is an eclectic collection of Western swing, straight country and 1940s-style jump blues. Two singles were released: “Don’t Ask Me Why (I’m Going to Texas)” written by Ray Benson, Leroy Preston and Kevin Farrell, and the aforementioned “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” which had been a big R&B hit in 1946 for Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five. Despite the inclusion of some fiddle, steel and honky-tonk piano, “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” doesn’t sound very country at all but it is very well done. “Don’t Ask Me Why” is more Bob Wills-style Western swing and is also quite well done.

“You and Me Instead”, another Kevin Farrell composition, is a more contemporary number with a 70s-style string section. It’s a different style than we typically expect from Asleep at the Wheel and I wonder why no one though to release this one as a single. I wouldn’t rank it among my favorites on the album but it seems like it would have had some mainstream appeal in 1974.

“Jumpin’ at the Woodside” is a Count Basie tune that still sounds like mainstream 1940s big band music, despite some excellent fiddle from the great Johnny Gimble, who played on seven of the album’s eleven tracks, including “Don’t Ask Me Why”.

If pressed to pick a favorite, I would probably choose “Last Letter”, which is sung beautifully by band member Chris O’Connell, who at times sounds a bit like Connie Smith. The song itself was written by Rex Griffin, who had a hit with it in 1937. It is a story told by a jilted spouse as she writes a suicide note to the spouse who abandoned her. Griffin wrote the song based on his own real-life experience. O’Connell takes the spotlight again on one other track, “Our Names Aren’t Mentioned (Together Anymore)”, which is performed as a duet with its writer Leroy Preston. Cindy Walker’s “Miss Molly” is another highlight.

Leroy Preston is not as good a vocalist as Ray Benson, but he sings lead adequately on four tracks, the best of which is “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday”.

Asleep at the Wheel is an outstanding album from start to finish: the material is impeccable, and the musicians are excellent. The instrumental solos are as enjoyable as the vocals. I couldn’t find a single weak moment to criticize. I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in Western swing — or swing music in general.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Asleep At The Wheel – ‘Comin’ Right At Ya’

comin-right-at-yaUnited Artists released the first Asleep At The Wheel (“AATW”) album in 1973. The album featured a mix of straight ahead country and honky-tonk, along with western swing. No doubt United Artists felt a need to mix the western swing with country as it had been a good dozen years since western swing had been a viable force in the marketplace, aside from the small band swing novelties of Hank Thompson and his Brazos Valley Boys.

The core of this early version of AATW was Ray Benson on lead guitar and vocals, Leroy Preston on guitar, drums and vocals, Lucky Oceans on steel guitar, Jim Haber (aka Floyd Domino) on piano and Chris O’Connell on vocals and rhythm guitar. Guests Johnny Gimble, Buddy Spicher and Andy Stein augment the band on fiddle, with Gimble also playing electric mandolin.

The album opens with a Bob Wills-Tommy Duncan composition “Take Me Back To Tulsa”. The arrangement on this track swings but not nearly as much as it would in later years.

Track two is the Leroy Preston composition “Daddy’s Advice”, a straight ahead country song with a very traditional steel guitar sound paired with the fiddles. The vocal sounds like it may be Preston singing.

Leroy Preston also contributed “Before You Stopped Loving Me” is a nice ballad handled by the inimitable Chris O’Connell. I think that Chris may have been the best female vocalist AATW ever had.

Jerry Irby’s “Drivin’ Nails In My Coffin” was a hit for Ernest Tubb. Although Ernest was not a western swing artist, his recording of the song straddled the line between western swing and honky-tonk, as does this recording.

The Hank Williams classic “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” is given a straight-ahead country arrangement. Again, the vocal sounds like Leroy Preston.

Lucky, Leroy and Floyd wrote “Space Buggy” which has a barrelhouse boogie sound. Ms. O’Connell handles the lead vocals on this bright up-tempo song.

“Cherokee Boogie” was one of Moon Mullican’s great songs, one that was a hit for Moon and has graced the charts several times since them. Since Mullican was one of the great piano influences on Jerry Lee Lewis, it is only appropriate that Floyd Domino’s piano is featured heavily on this track.

Track eight on album is another Leroy Preston original titled “Hillbilly Nut”, a bit of a novelty with some instrumental snippets of other famous tunes. Preston sings this song.

Ray Benson and Leroy Preston collaborated on “Your Down Home Is Uptown”, a country ballad sung by Chris O’Connell.

Preston also penned “I’m The Fool (Who Told You To Go)” another straight ahead country ballad with Chris O’Connell shining on harmony vocals on the chorus. Ray Benson sings the lead.

Geoff Mack, an Australian country singer, penned “I’ve Been Everywhere”. The song originally featured Australian place names; however, with American place names, the song became a massive hit for Hank Snow. Leroy Preston takes the lead vocals on this song, which are NOT taken at the breakneck speed often associated with the song. The vocals of this song frequently have been rewritten to reflect the nationality of the singer.

The album closes with “The Son Shines Down On Me”, a nice gospel ballad sung by Chris O’Connell. The songwriter is credited as ‘L. Lee’ but I know nothing further about that person.

Comin’ Right At Ya is an album which sees the band finding itself. The album produced no hit singles, and while there are traces of western swing styled elements throughout the album, the album is less western swing than any of their future efforts would be. As a vocalist Leroy Preston isn’t all that good and his vocals would be less prominent on future albums. I liked this album (I picked up a copy on vinyl when it first came out) but it is mostly a harbinger of things to come. I’d give it a B.

Koch paired this with Texas Gold (a much better album) on a CD reissue in 2000. Texas Gold, released on Capitol in 1975, would feature the band’s biggest hit “The Letter That Johnnie Walker Read”.

Spotlight Artist: Asleep At the Wheel

asleep-at-the-wheel-1970Whatever the actual origins of Asleep At The Wheel, the holistic origins of the band date back to the decision by Merle Haggard in late 1969 to record a tribute album to the music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. At the time Haggard was the top dog in country music, with every single and album rising to the top of the country charts, and enough clout with his label Capitol to be allowed to record some albums of lesser commercial potential.

During the 1930s and 1940s Bob Wills had led hot string bands (the term “western swing” would become common after 1944) both large and small with success that sometimes dwarfed that of the more mainstream country artists. During the 1950s Wills toured with smaller units and by the 1960s, Wills usually travelled with a vocalist and used house bands that really did not understand his music. His health started failing in the 1960s, and in 1969 he suffered a stroke that forever robbed him of his ability to play the fiddle.

Haggard took the Wills project so seriously that he learned to play fiddle for the album and enlisted six former members of the Texas Playboys to join his band The Strangers in recording the album A Tribute To The Best Damn Fiddle Player in The World (or My Salute To Bob Wills). The album, recorded in April 1970, was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world in November 1969. The album sold reasonably well, reaching #2 on Billboard’ s Country Albums Chart (and #58 pop), and despite having no singles released from the album, the album would influence upcoming artists such as Commander Cody and George Strait and our October Spotlight artists Asleep At The Wheel.

Asleep At The Wheel (“AATW”) was formed in 1969 in West Virginia by a couple of Jewish fellows from the Philadelphia area named Ray Benson Seifert (aka Ray Benson) and Rueben Gosfield (aka Lucky Oceans). The band moved from West Virginia to San Francisco at the behest of Commander Cody. AATW was originally a country–rock band but switched gears upon hearing the Haggard album described above, becoming great students and disciples of the Wills art form now known as western swing. By the time the first album (Comin’ Right At Ya) was released in 1973, the transformation to being a western swing band had already been completed.

The band moved from West Virginia to San Francisco at the behest of Commander Cody but in 1974 Willie Nelson convinced the band that they should be headquartered in Austin, Texas. They have remained a part of the Austin music scene through the present day.

AATW has been comprised of anywhere from eight to fifteen musicians during its long history. As might be expected for a band that has been touring for forty-five plus years, there has been substantial turnover in personnel with band members coming and going (and sometimes coming back). The initial crew included Ray Benson, Lucky Oceans, Leroy Preston and female singer Chris O’Connell, but while only the 6’7” Ray Benson remains, the musicians that he has enlisted have always been top-notch performers. While in many bands the lead singer hogs the spotlight, whether on record or on stage, Benson has always shared the spotlight. Taking the lead from Merle Haggard, AATW has often toured with member of the Texas Playboys as part of the group.

Like Bob Wills before them, AATW finds its repertoire from a number of roots music sources, including classic western swing repertoire, original compositions, blues, “jump blues”, big band swing, jazz, roots rock, honky-tonk country and even pop standards. The core, of course, remains western swing, but virtually anything can become western swing in their capable hands.

AATW has recorded for many labels over the years with many different singers and musicians. Consequently, even if an AATW album features songs that they have recorded previously, the recording is likely to sound quite different from other AATW recordings of the same song. AATW has toured with many of the biggest names in music including Bob Dylan and George Strait, and served has the backup band for the “Last of The Breed” tour with Ray Price, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. They have appeared on television and in movies, written for theater plays, have won many awards and issued many fine albums
We will be reviewing a representative sample of the AATW’s studio albums, but be sure to check out their live albums and DVDs. Also many AATW alumni have gone on to be successful session musicians and/or have successful solo careers.

We trust you have and will enjoy the music of our October Spotlight Artists Asleep At The Wheel.

Album Review: Johnny Lee – ‘You Ain’t Never Been To Texas’

you aint never been to texasIt has been many years since Johnny Lee has released an entire album of new material. Born in 1946 in Texas City, Texas, Johnny was a good journeyman county singer playing the honky-tonks of his native Texas, with moderate recording success for GRT records between 1976- 1978 with five charting singles, with Johnny’s “Country Party” (a country cover of Rick Nelson’s “Garden Party”) reaching #15. Along the way Johnny became friend with Mickey Gilley and worked Mickey Gilley, on tour and at Gilley’s Club in Pasadena, Texas. The soundtrack from the 1980 hit movie Urban Cowboy, which was largely shot at Gilley’s, catapulted Lee to fame. The record spawned several hit singles, including Lee’s “Lookin’ for Love.”

In addition to “Lookin’ for Love”, Lee had five songs reach the top of the Billboard country singles chart: “One In A Million” (1980), “Bet Your Heart On Me” (1981), “The Yellow Rose” (1984), and “You Could Have Heard A Heartbreak” (1984). His other major hits include “Pickin’ Up Strangers” (1981), “Prisoner of Hope” (1981), “Cherokee Fiddle”, “Sounds Like Love”, “Hey Bartender” (1983), “Rollin’ Lonely”, and “Save The Last Chance” (1985).

The top twenty hits ceased at the end of 1985 but Johnny had some additional smaller hits through 1989, at which point he disappeared from the charts. Johnny continued to tour and as his hit recordings fell out of print, we occasionally released new recordings of his older hits with some newer material mixed in.

Johnny’s new album has a decidedly country album with a few songs having a distinct western swing feel to it, with Mike Johnson & Scotty Sanders on steel guitar and Brent Mason on lead guitar and an unacknowledged fiddle player.

“Lonesome Love List” is an up-tempo western swing number written by Wil Nance, Ted Hewitt and Jerry Kilgore, that I think would make a good single.

Next up is the Rafe Van Hoy composition” What’s Forever For”, a song that Michael Martin Murphey took to #1 in 1982. Johnny Lee’s version compares favorably to Murphey’s version.

“Who’s Left, Who’s Right” is country ballad written by Bill White and Allen Ross. It’s a bit moralistic but still a nice country ballad.

“Deep Water” is a classic western swing number, written by Bob Wills and successfully covered many times by such classic singers as Carl Smith and Gene Watson. Buddy Hyatt plays some classic swing piano.

“Never Been To Texas” was written by Roger Springer Tony Raymee & Jerry Lane. The song extols the virtues of Texas. The song has a solid seventies-eighties production.

“Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” was a 1973 hit for the great Ray Price, Ray’s last #1 record. Johnny is not Ray Price but his version holds up well. The song was written by Jim Weatherly and later poached by Gladys Knight & The Pips who took it to #1 on the R&B charts.

“Good Lovin’ Woman Bad” was written by Bill White, Mark Morton and Gary Lloyd – it sounds like a song that could have been a hit in the mid-1980s.

“Wish That I Could Love That Way Again” was co-written by Johnny Lee and Tony Raymee, Johnny’s only writing credit on the album. If Brooks & Dunn ever reunite to record another album they should cover this song.

“2 Steps From The Blues”, written by Don D. Robey & John Riley Brown, finds Johnny invading T. Graham Brown territory, complete with horns.

Mel Besher and Bobby Taylor teamed up to write the nice ballad “Who Did You Love”.

“Bullets First” by Kelly Kerning and Tony Raymee is an anti-gun control song (“if you’re coming for my guns, I’ll give them to you bullets first”).

“Worth Watching” by Tony Raymee and Trey Matthew, recounts the moments in a life worth watching.

I would like this album more if Johnny had spent more time exploring western swing, but all of the cuts are country, all of the songs are good, and Johnny Lee is in good voice throughout.

A-

Merle Haggard: An Appreciation

haggard4I cannot say that I was surprised to hear of Merle’s death yesterday, but I was tremendously saddened as Merle’s music has been an important part of my life since I was about 13 when “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers” hit the airwaves in versions by Roy Drusky and Merle Haggard. The Billboard charts say that Drusky had the bigger hit, but the DJs in Virginia mostly played the Haggard version with its driving telecaster and incomparable vocals. At the time I didn’t have much money but by 1968 I had a summer job and purchased the 45 RPM records of “Legend of Bonnie and Clyde” and “Mama Tried”, great songs both. Unlike most 45s, however, the B sides were hardly throwaways. In fact the B side of “Legend of Bonnie and Clyde” was “Today I Started Loving You Again”, arguably Haggard’s most famous and most covered song.

It didn’t take me long to switch to buying the Hag’s albums and I eagerly obtained each new Merle Haggard album as soon as it was available for purchase. Haggard issued a great many albums, and to me they are all cherished friends, although I do prefer the early Capitol albums. Although Merle was a great songwriter, he was also good at selecting material from other writers. Plus he had a strong sense of the past paying proper homage to the likes of Lefty Frizzell, Ernest Tubb, Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. Merle’s tribute to Bob Wills A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player In The World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills) kicked off the western swing revival that continues to this day,

I had three opportunities to see Haggard live and the shows I saw in 1968, 1975, and 1982 were all great shows, although they differed greatly from each other. The 1968 show was that of a tight little honky-tonk band with a young and enthusiastic Merle as the vocalist and rhythm guitar player. The 1975 show featured a slightly larger band with more western swing elements and featured Merle playing fiddle on some of the numbers. The 1982 featured a much bigger band with whatever survivors of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys were still playing, and the band featured horns and reeds. In 1968 Haggard may have had a set list but for the later two shows Hag was clearly winging it – and the audience ate it up.

I could cite a number of statistics to support my contention that Merle Haggard was the greatest country artist of all time. I could do that, but I won’t – all that is needed is to listen to the recordings. Kevin over at Country Universe listed the Hag as the #1 male country artist of all time and listed thirteen essential singles. I made the following comment on Kevin’s blog:

“Every Haggard album is filled with treasures that never made the radio, and most of the Haggard singles had very strong B-sides. Kevin’s list of essential singles doesn’t include my two favorite singles and that’s okay – they’re all essential and you can’t have a list that long.”

I still stand by that comment and as Merle makes his way up to that heavenly choir, I will leave you with the lyrics from my favorite Merle Haggard song, “I Can’t Be Myself”

It’s a way of mine to say just what I’m thinking

And to do the things I really want to do

And you want to change the part of me I’m proud of

So I can’t be myself, when I’m with you

CHORUS
I can’t be myself and be what pleases you

And down deep inside, I don’t believe that you’d want me to

And it’s not my way to take so long deciding

But I Can’t Be Myself When I’m With You
Oh, you never liked the clothes I wear on Sunday

Just because I don’t believe the way you do

But I believe the Lord knows I’m unhappy

‘Cause I can’t be myself when I’m with you

RIP.

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Before I’m Over You’

before i'm over youLoretta’s second album in 1964 saw her success continue with two top 5 singles, both written by Betty Sue Perry (1934-1974), a staff songwriter for Sure-Fire Music, the publishing company owned by the Wilburn Brothers. The title track, peaking at #4, is a plaintive lost love tune. The bouncy ‘Wine, Women And Song’ is more typical sassy Loretta fare, complaining about her man’s failings and threatening retribution. Loaded with honky tonk piano, it was her biggest hit to date at #3.

Loretta also wrote a couple of songs. ‘Where Were You’ is a good song about the recriminations after a failed relationship. The backing vocals sound a little dated but do not overwhelm it. ‘This Haunted House’ is another sad song about clinging to memories.

It was commonplace in the 1960s for artists to cover contemporary or slightly older hits on their albums. The up-tempo ‘Singin’ The Blues’ had been a country hit for Marty Robbins and a pop one for Guy Mitchell in 1957. It was revived by Gail Davies in the 1980s, and new Hall of Fame inductee Randy Travis covered it on his No Holdin’ Back album. Loretta’s robust version stands up well against other versions.

Freddie Hart’s ‘Loose Talk’ was a seven-week #1 in the 50s for Carl Smith. The lyric about false gossip threatening a marriage might be a credible cover by a contemporary artist plagued by tabloid rumors, and Loretta’s version is solid.

‘The End Of The World’ was a monster multi-genre hit for Skeeter Davis in 1962, and Loretta’s version is more conventionally country than Skeeter’s heavily orchestrated take, and nicely done. The songwriting team of Sylvia Dee and Arthur Kent also contributed ‘Who’ll Help Me Get Over You’, about the downside of being someone else’s shoulder to cry on. Sweet steel guitar adds the right touch of melancholy beneath Loretta’s emotional vocal, and I like this one a lot.

‘You Don’t Have To Be A Baby To Cry’ was originally a pop song of some vintage. It had most recently been a pop hit for British girl duo The Caravelles, but Loretta’ version owes more to Ernest Tubb’s 1950 country version.

Country standard ‘My Shoes keep Walking Back To You’ is actually a Bob Wills penned tune, but is a traditional country shuffle, which is a real highlight here, ideally suited to Loretta. The same goes for the plaintive ‘Fool No. 1’, which was originally a hit for Brenda Lee. It seems to be the only song written by Sure-Fire writer Kathryn Fulton, and was the song which Loretta demo’d to get her Decca deal (thanks to Ken Johnson for that snippet). Finally, album closer ‘Get Set For A Heartache’ is another classic country ballad, backed with prominent fiddle.

Although much of the material consisted of covers, this is an excellent album of real country music from a rising star.

Grade: A

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Sings’

loretta lynn singsLoretta Lynn Sings was Loretta Lynn’s debut album on Decca Records. Released in December 1963, the album followed on the heels of an uncharted single 1961 (“I Walked Away From The Wreck”), two 1962 singles including her first chart single “Success”, and another uncharted single (“World of Forgotten People”), and in 1963 another charted single, “The Other Woman”. There would be another single released in 1963, the #4 “Before I’m Over You” (not found on this album) before this album was released.

The album opens up with “Success” written by Johnny Mullins, who was a high school custodian. “Success” was a lament about how a husband’s career success was undermining their marriage. The song went to #6 as would “Blue Kentucky Girl”, another Johnny Mullins-penned song a few years later.

Since Loretta was a new artist that Decca was trying to break into the country markets, this album, more so than most country albums of the time, is full of covers rather than a few covers and some filler.

For many years Jimmy Gateley was the front man for Bill Anderson’s band. He was also an adept song-writer, as “The Minute You’re Gone” proves. Sonny James would have a top ten country hit with the song in 1963, and British rocker Cliff Richard would take the song to #1 on the UK pop charts (and top ten in seven other countries). Needless to say, Loretta sounds nothing like Cliff Richard but her presentation is strong and clear.

Betty Sue Perry would provide Loretta with quite a few songs during the 1960s. “The Other Woman”, not to be mistaken for the Ray Price song of the same title, tells the love triangle story from the perspective of the mistress.

According to Billboard, “Alone With You” was Faron Young’s biggest hit, spending a whopping ten weeks at #1. While I don’t think it was Faron’s biggest seller, it was a great song and Loretta acquits herself well on the song.

“Why I’m Walking” was writing by Stonewall Jackson and Melvin Endsley. A big hit for Stonewall Jackson, it resurfaced decades later as a hit for Ricky Skaggs. Again Loretta acquits herself admirably.

The first of Loretta’s own compositions “The Girl That I Am Now” is next. Although not released as a single, I think it would have made a good single and it demonstrates how proficient Loretta already was as a songwriter. This song is bout a wife who cheated on her husband and is racked by guilt and the hope that he never finds out about what she did.

He loves the girl I used to be
But could he love the girl I am now

I don’t think I need to say anything about the lineage of “Act Naturally’. Loretta tackles the song with aplomb. The instrumental arrangement remains up-tempo but the acoustic guitars have a very hootenanny era feel.

Another Loretta Lynn composition follows, “World of Forgotten People”. I don’t remember it being a hit single for anyone but everybody and his cousin recorded the song including the Osborne Brothers, George Jones, Conway Twitty, Vernon Oxford, The Wilburn Brothers, Ernest Tubb and countless others:

I live in the world world of forgotten people
Who’ve loved and lost their hearts so many times
I’m here in the world of forgotten people
Where every heart is aching just like mine

“The Color of The Blues” was written by George Jones and Lawton Williams and was a hit for George Jones. Lawton Williams, of course, wrote “Fraulein” and “Farewell Party”. Loretta handles the song effectively.

“Hundred Proof Heartache” is another of Loretta’s compositions. This works as an album cut but would not have made a good single for Loretta.

I’ve got a hundred proof heartache and a case of the blues
My baby’s gone and left me I’ve lost all I can lose
I’ve got a hundred proof heartache my world keeps turnin’ round
This hundred proof heartache’s got me down
You waded through my tears and said goodbye
You didn’t seem to care how much I’d cry
You made your home the tavern down the street
And this old heart cries out with every beat

Cindy Walker was a great songwriter, being a favorite writer for Bob Wills, Jack Greene and countless other country stars. “I Walked Away from the Wreck” equates a failed love affair with an automobile accident. Although released as a single, the song did not chart.

Justin Tubb’s “Lonesome 7-7203″ proved to be the only #1 record for Hawkshaw Hawkins, and a posthumous one at that for “The Hawk”, who died in the same plane crash that killed Cowboy Copas and Patsy Cline. The song would also be a hit for Tony Booth about a decade later. Whoever arranged the song took it at a far too slow tempo. Taken at a faster tempo I think Loretta could have really nailed the song.

There was a distinctive “Decca Records” sound during the 1960s that tends to permeate all of the label’s recordings. Since the same studio musicians and same arranger (Owen Bradley) were used on most of the major artists recordings, this is understandable. There was a little bit of an attempt to vary Loretta’s sound through occasional use of banjo or acoustic guitar on Loretta’s recordings but it was still basically a formulaic background production. Set apart Loretta’s recordings was her voice which could never be anything but country, no matter the pop trappings applied to the final product.

Loretta Lynn Sings would reach #2 on Billboard’s country albums chart. This album is a solid B+ but better albums would follow.

Album Review: Glen Campbell – ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’

by the time i get to phoenix‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ was the song which made Glen Campbell a star in 1967, thanks to a perfect combination of song, singer and arrangement. It is still an all-time, cross-genre classic, instantly recognisable and exceptionally good. A beautiful melody and wistful vocal are matched by a heavily orchestrated arrangement, which sweetens the record for pop consumption despite the bittersweet lyric, which tells of a man leaving his lover while she sleeps. Glen had already had a few minor country, and even more minor pop, hits, but this was the single which hurtled him into the bigtime, and deservedly so. It was a #2 country hit, and reached the top 20 AC and top 30 pop, although it doesn’t actually sound particularly country even by the standards of the Nashville Sound. It was in the contemporary pop and open categories that he won Grammies for the record (his earlier country single ‘Gentle On My Mind’ won the same year in the country category). Glen was mainly associated with country music professionally, but his work was often hard to categorise, and with a song this remarkable, one ceases to care. The song has enjoyed great staying power; by 1990 it had become the third most played song over the previous half-century, and is known internationally.

A second single, ‘Hey Little One’, was not so successful, but still made the top 20 on both country and AC charts. It was a cover of a Dorsey Burette pop hit from 1960, and it is capably sung by Glen but a little dull.

A cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s folk-rock/pop hit ‘Homeward Bound’ is nicely sung, but here the heavy orchestration (not dissimilar to that on ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’) inappropriately swamps a song about a ‘one man band’ folkie on his travels. A stripped down acoustic version would have been lovely.

Ernest Tubb’s ‘Tomorrow Never Comes’ works better with the Glen Campbell-and-orchestra reworking. Glen’s passionate vocal is impressive (although it verges on going over the top towards the end), and completely reimagines the song from Tubb’s original hard country shuffle. Another effective altered interpretation arises with a relaxed loungy version of a lesser known Bob Wills tune, ‘I’ll Be Lucky Someday’.

Glen is more faithful to the original when he takes on ‘My Baby’s Gone’, a Hazel Houser song best known for the Louvin Brothers’ version. Glen’s version is very nice indeed, beautifully sung and interpreted, and while the arrangement has dated a bit, especially the backing vocals, it still sounds good. This is my favourite track here after ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’.

Bill Anderson’s ‘Bad Seed’ has more of a rock feel. Neither Glen nor Bill comes across as much of a rebel, but the song works pretty well, about a bad boy drifter who shows little regret about leaving his latest girl. ‘You’re Young And You’ll Forget’, written by Jerry Reed, is another leaving song portraying a rambling soul. ‘Cold December (In Your Heart)’ is a 60s pop ballad, written by Alex Hassilev of the contemporary folk group The Limeliters, and is pleasantly performed.

Glen co-wrote a couple of the tunes. The perkily upbeat ‘Back In The Race’ is enjoyable. The closing ‘Love Is A Lonesome River’ is a melodic lost love number.

This is a very good album, but certainly not a traditional country one. It mixes country, folk, rock and sophisticated pop/AC sounds even handedly, and helped to set the template for Glen Campbell as an artist.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Mickey Gilley – ‘Here I Am Again’

here i am againIt probably isn’t fair to describe Mickey Gilley as a second tier artist since he had seventeen Billboard #1 hits and another seventeen songs that reached the top ten, and was the name behind the most famous country music nightclub ever. Born in 1936 in Natchez, MS, a second cousin to a pair of Ferriday, LA, fireballs in Jerry Lee Lewis and evangelist Jimmy Swaggart (Jerry Lee and Jimmy are first cousins to each other), Mickey probably was somewhat accustomed to being overlooked. In fact Mickey was 38 years old before he was regarded as more than a local artist. Mickey Gilley ran off a string of hits between 1974 and 1978 for Playboy Records, at which time his contract was purchased by Epic Records. His first singles on Epic were less successful than his Playboy singles. Then came the successful Urban Cowboy movie.

Cracker Barrel Restaurants, in conjunction with Country Rewind Records, have combined to make available these early Mickey Gilley recordings. Recorded after the initial success of “Room Full of Roses” and “I Overlooked An Orchid”, these recordings were probably meant to be a musical ‘souvenir’ to be sold at live performances. They feature Mickey Gilley on vocals and piano and apparently the four other musicians in his band. There are no strings and no vocal choruses. Many years later Country Rewind Records brought the recordings to Les Brown, Jr. (son of famed big band leader Les Brown) to add some additional musicians and production.

While the Cracker Barrel Connie Smith and Faron Young offerings were exciting news, this album doesn’t measure up as the recordings still could use still more production. While I am not a fan of strings and choral accompaniments, they do have their uses and this album could use them.

That is not to say that this is a bad album; far from it. The sound is just a bit thin at times and some of the tempos are rushed compared to Mickey’s commercially released recordings. Mickey is in good voice throughout and this is a bunch of really good songs

At the time these songs were recorded, Gilley did not have a long list of hits to call his own, so this album features mostly covers (for that matter, his first three hits were covers). His first three singles, “City Lights”, “I Overlooked An Orchid”, and “Room Full of Roses”, are here, as are the following songs (original artists in ( ) :

“Drinkin’ Thing” (Gary Stewart)
“Swingin’ Doors” (Merle Haggard)
“Someday (You’ll Want Me To Want You” (Elton Britt)
“Faded Love” (Bob Wills)
“You Win Again” (Hank Williams)
“Please Love Me Forever” (Cathy Jean and the Roommates)
“She Called Me Baby” (Carl Smith)
“Turn Around” (Carl Perkins)
Don’t Be Angry” (Stonewall Jackson)
“The Wild Side of Life” (Hank Thompson)
“San Antonio Rose” (Bob Wills)

There are no strings on the album but occasionally you’ll hear keyboards or synthesizers at work where strings might be expected. The sound of the band is a bit pedestrian, sometimes resembling a good bar band. Mickey’s vocals, however, are always excellent, except on “Drinkin’ Thing” where he does not tackle the song with a sufficient sense of irony.

While I would agree this album isn’t essential, it is still better than most of what I hear on country radio these days, and I would hope that Cracker Barrel and Country Rewind Records continue to unearth these gems.

I would give this a solid C+

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.

Album Review: Dale Watson – ‘Heah!!’/’Whiskey or God’

51V1Y7TJRXL-2Whiskey or God, released on Palo Dura Records in 2006 is exactly the same album as Heeah!!, which was issued on the Continental Song City label in 2005. Same songs, in the same sequence – if you have one album, you don’t need the other – but you should have one of them. Heck – buy ’em both and keep one as a spare!

Regardless of which title the album has, it is a great album which finds Watson delivering fourteen songs with the fire and passion he typically invests in all of his recordings.

The band that accompanies Dale on this album is top shelf all the way consisting of Dale (lead guitar), Herb Bolofsky (drums), Gene Kurtz (bass), Don Pawlak (pedal steel), Don Raby (fiddle), Jon Blondell (trombone), and former Asleep At The Wheel pianist Floyd Domino. Background ground vocals seem a bit sparse but Dale has such a compelling voice, this represents but a very minute shortcoming. On a few numbers Dale adds some tenor vocals.

The album opens with sad but upbeat “Sit And Drink And Cry.” Fabulous steel guitar and fiddle dominate the background. Watson’s forlorn lead vocal is forlorn in a very upbeat way,

The second track “Whiskey Or God” is pretty self-explanatory

Whiskey or God
Is gonna bring me relief
Believin or not
Bending my elbow or my knees
I’m gonna drink until my conscience bleeds
Before I fall asleep I’m gonna say a prayer for a brighter day
Whiskey or God
Bring salvation to me

“I Don’t Feel Too Lucky Today” is a song Merle Haggard, Bob Wills or Asleep At The Wheel would have been proud to record. Dale wrote this mid-tempo ballad and the song has lovely steel/fiddle tandem work.

“No Help Wanted” is the story of an unemployed truck driver, stuck in Pittsburgh perusing the classified ads but finding nothing.

Next up is a tender love ballad “My Heart Is Yours”

It’s been through hell and back
Been broke showin’ cracks
But it’s yours, my heart is yours

It’s been a while since it had to feel
Love shy and newly healed
But it’s yours, my heart is yours

Let’s take it easy, it’s easy to see girl
It still ain’t that strong
It’s barely beaten from being so beaten
For so long

It’s been through hell and back
Been broken, showin’ cracks
But it’s yours, my heart is yours

This is followed by “It Hurts So Good”, another song that has a strong western swing feel.

There aren’t too many songs about truck drivers who are transvestites or drag queens but Dale has never lacked for courage and takes an entertaining stab at the topic with “Truckin’ Queen ( I Got My Nightgown On)”. I suspect that this one never got any airplay.

“Darlin’ Look At Me Now” is another song about a guy who is nuts about a girl – nothing special in terms of either the lyrics or arrangement but certainly more than mere filler.

“I Wish I Was Crazy Again” is the first track on the album in which the trombone is prominent as an accent. The song reminds me of something Haggard might have written, and that is never a criticism, because I have never heard a bad Merle Haggard song, This song is taken at a medium -slow tempo

You left me, I left too
I went right out of my head
The old boy they all knew
They all knew was pretty much dead

You know, they say I went crazy
And by “crazy” I mean mentally insane
I had a world where I still had you
Oh I wish I was crazy again

Crazy again, crazy in love
Ignorantly bliss baby
That’s what dreams are made of
There was no hurtin’
I lived life without pain
You’d still be in my arms baby
If I was crazy again

I’ve never really associated Dale Watson with Cajun music, but here he proves that he is no stanger to the genre with happy and danceable “I Ain’t Been Right, Since I’ve Been Left.” Don Raby really kicks this one off with a great Cajun fiddle introduction.

Dale slows down the tempo with “Tequilla and Teardrops” which again features brass and a subdued mariachi feeling.

When I was single forty some-odd years ago I was often looking for “38..21..34” but rarely found it and when I did find it, I quickly realized it wasn’t that important. It’s a fun upbeat medium-fast song there Hank Williams song “Hey Good Looking” is sampled in the lyrics

“Outta Luck” is a honky-tonk romp about a fellow who keeps plugging along but can’t apparently catch a break , although it is unclear whose fault that is, he doesn’t necessarily blame himself or anyone else but knows he needs a change of scenery.

“Heaah!!” is the title song for that album as it was released in Europe. Jon Blondell’s trombone gives the song the feel of a big band or perhaps the feel of one of Bob Will’s larger, jazzier bands.

This is a very strong album that works the line between honky-tonk and western swing, with more lean toward western swing. The band is crisp throughout and I wouldn’t regard any of the songs as misses, and Dale’s vocals are strong throughout with any missteps.

Grade: A+

Favorite Country Songs Of The 80s: Part 7

It seems to me that I never did finish off this series, the last installment being posted on February 11, 2014 (and the installment before that appeared April 9,2013). Here are some more songs from the 1980s that I liked. This is an expanded and revised version of the February 11, 2014 article which was a rush job :

Shame On The Moon” – Bob Seger
Bob’s 1982 recording of a Rodney Crowell song charted on the country charts in early 1983, reaching #15 in the process. The song was a bigger hit on the pop charts, reaching #2 for four weeks.

Finally” – T. G. Sheppard
He worked for Elvis, sang background for Travis Wammack, and eventually emerged with a solo career worth noting, racking up 42 chart singles from 1974-1991. This 1982 single was one of fourteen #1 record racked up by Sheppard, eleven of them reaching #1 during the 1980s.

Doesn’t Anybody Get High On Love Anymore” – The Shoppe
The Shoppe was a Dallas based band that hung around for years after their 1968 formation. In the early 1980s they had eight chart records, but this was the only one to crack the top forty, reaching #33. They had a record deal with MTM Records in 1985, but that label vanished, taking the Shoppe with them.

Crying My Heart Out Over You” – Ricky Skaggs
Ricky Skaggs was one of the dominant artists of the first half of the 1980s with his bluegrass/country hybrid. Starting with 1981’s “You May See Me Walking” and ending with 1986’s “Love’s Gonna Get You Some Day“, Skaggs ran off sixteen consecutive top ten singles with ten of them reaching number one, This 1982 classic was the first chart topper. Eventually Ricky returned to straight bluegrass, but I like the hybrid recordings better. In my original article I spotlighted “Honey (Open That Door)“, a straight forward country Mel Tillis song recorded by Webb Pierce.

Don’t Stay If You Don’t Love Me” – Patsy Sledd
Stardom never really happened for Patsy, who was a good singer marooned early in her career on a bad label. She was part of the George Jones-Tammy Wynette show in the early 1970s. This song reached #79 in 1987.

“Nice To Be With You” – Slewfoot
This band replaced Alabama as the feature band at the Bowery Club in Myrtle Beach. This was their only chart single, a cover of Gallery’s #4 pop hit from 1972 that reached #85 in 1986.

King Lear” – Cal Smith
The last chart hit for the former Texas Troubadour. This song reached #75 in 1986.

“A Far Cry From You” – Connie Smith
After a six year recording hiatus, the greatest female country recording artist of all time returned with this one-shot single on the Epic label. It’s a great song but received no promotional push at all from the label landing at #71 in 1985. Unfortunately, this single has never appeared on an album.

“The Shuffle Song” – Margo Smith
Exactly as described – a shuffle song that reached #13 for Margo in early 1980. Margo had a brief run of top ten hits in the middle and late 1970s but the string was about over. In my prior article I featured “He Gives Me Diamonds, You Give Me Chills” but The Shuffle song is actually my favorite 80s hit from Margo. She lives in The Villages in Florida and still performs occasionally.

Cheatin’s A Two Way Street” – Sammi Smith
Her last top twenty song from 1981. Sammi only had three top ten hits but made many fine records. This was one of them.

Hasn’t It Been good Together” – Hank Snow and Kelly Foxton
The last chart record for the ‘Singing Ranger’. The record only got to #78 for the 65 year old Snow in 1980 but I couldn’t let pass the opportunity to acknowledge the great career of the most successful Canadian country artist. By any legitimate means of chart tracking, his 1950 hit “I’m Moving On” is still the number one country hit of all time. Hank had perfect diction and was a great guitar player.

Tear-Stained Letter” – Jo-El Sonnier
A late bloomer, this was the forty-two year old Jo-El’s second of two top ten records and my favorite. It reached #8 in 1988. There were brief periods in the past when Cajun music could break through for a hit or two. Eddy Raven was the most successful Cajun artist but most of his material was straight-ahead country.

Sometimes You Just Can’t Win” – J.D. Souther and Linda Ronstadt
George Jones charted this record twice, but it’s such a good song it was worth covering. This version went to #27 in 1982. J.D had a big pop hit in 1980 with “You’re Only Lonely” which reached #7.

Honey I Dare You” – Southern Pacific
Southern Pacific was a bunch of guys who previously played with other bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Doobie Brothers and Pablo Cruise, making some real good country music in the process. This was one of their four top ten hits of the 1980s. “A Girl Like Emmylou” from 1986 only reached #17 but the song tells you where this band’s heart was located.

Lonely But Only For You” – Sissy Spacek
Loretta Lynn wanted to Spacek to portray her in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter, and it turns out that Sissy can really can sing. This song reached #15 in 1983.

Standing Tall” – Billie Jo Spears
Billie Jo Spears, from Beaumont, Texas, was incredibly popular in England and Ireland, where “Blanket On The Ground” and “What I’ve Got In Mind” were top five pop hits in the mid 1970s and she had many more lesser successes. Many of her later albums were not released in the US but she had a substantial US career with thirty-four charted records, including two #1 hits. “Standing Tall” reached #15 in 1980.

Chain Gang” – Bobby Lee Springfield
More successful as a songwriter than as a performer, Springfield had two chart sings in 1987 with “Hank Drank” (#75) and “Chain Gang” (#66) which was NOT the Sam Cooke hit. Bobby Lee was both too country and too rockabilly for what was charting at the time. I really liked All Fired Up, the one album Epic released on him.

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Album Review: Aaron Watson – ‘Deep In The Heart Of Texas – Aaron Watson Live’

deep in the heart of texasThis was Aaron Watson’s ninth album and second live album. Like his three albums immediately preceding this album, it would reach Billboard’s Country Albums chart, peaking at #47 in 2009.

The real test of any artist is how they sound in live performance. With modern recording technology it is possible to make anyone sound decent on a recording, even if they can’t carry a tune in a bucket. On this album Watson proves he needs no such tricks to carry him.

Deep In The Heart Of Texas – Aaron Watson Live features songs from Aaron’s previous studio albums. The album opens up with three up-tempo songs “Love Making Song” (from Angels & Outlaws) “Heyday Tonight” and “Except For Jessie” (from San Angelo), before Aaron pauses for breath and tells a little story about “Hearts Are Breaking Across Texas”, a nice ballad from Angels & Outlaws.

Next Aaron picks up the tempo with the medium-fast ballad “Rollercoaster Ride” which was one of my favorites from Angels & Outlaws, followed by “Angels & Outlaws” (prefaced by a few comments) and followed by the lovely ballad “San Angelo” and the mid-tempo country rocker “All American Country Girl” (from San Angelo).

By now you’ve probably noticed that the first eight songs all came from the San Angelo or Angels & Outlaws albums. There will be more songs from these albums, but next Aaron covers the Waylon Jennings classic “Bob Wills Is Still The King”. Aaron gives this song a western swing arrangement that I would probably like better if I hadn’t heard Waylon’s version – it’s good but in arranging it as a swing song, it seems (to me at least) that Aaron lost Waylon’s original melody).

Next follows a brief narrative “Grandad, Paw Paw, John Pop & Mr. Pete” that serves as an introduction to the slow ballad “Barb Wire Halo” (also from Angels & Outlaws). The mid-tempo “3rd Gear & 17” (from San Angelo) is next followed by an extended fiddle introduction to the up-tempo “Wake Up and Smell The Coffee” (from Angels & Outlaws) and the slow ballad “Unbelievably Beautiful” (from San Angelo).

Aaron Watson takes a moment to pay tribute to America’s military veterans with “Thanks For Freedom” which serves as a spoken introduction to the Merle Haggard classic “The Fighting Side of Me”.

“Lonely Lubbock Lights” is from Aaron’s 2002 album shutupanddance, a slow ballad about the choices faced by many musicians – the girl or the road.

At one time “East Bound and Down”, written by Jerry Reed & Dick Feller as Jerry Reed’s calling card from the movie Smokey & The Bandit, would have been familiar to everyone in the US, but Jerry Reed has passed away in the last few years and country stations today consider an oldie to be a song from before 2013 but after 1995, so this song is not as ubiquitous as once was the case. Aaron does a nice job with this song but the problem with covering Jerry Reed songs is that they were written with Jerry Reed in mind and there is nobody past or present who reminds me of Jerry Reed.

Next up is “Breaker Breaker One Nine” (from Angels & Outlaws) is the perfect continuation to “East Bound and Down” both in subject matter and in tempo.

“Off The Record” is a slow ballad about divorce from shutupanddance. Aaron would reprise this song as a duet with Charla Corn on his 2012 album Real Good Time. It’s a beautiful song deserving of the additional exposure,

I got a letter from your lawyer
And you got one from mine
They say It’s gonna be final
Once we sign that dotted line

We’ll I guess we’ll get our freedom
And a so called fresh new start
But when you take half of everything
You’ll be taking half my heart
Our love got lost somewhere in life’s complications
Torn between two lawyers and all their legal litigations

“Orphans of The Brazos Band” is a spoken track in which Aaron introduces his band. The album concludes with “Restless”, an up-tempo song from The Honky Tonk Kid.

Aaron Watson’s milieu is live performances, so this is an effective representation of his music. Like all live albums, the songs are often taken at different tempos with instrumental breaks that vary from the studio recordings of the same songs. There is audible crowd noise so the sound is not as pristine as with the studio recordings, but this is a very enjoyable album from start to finish.

Track List
01. Love Makin’ Song
02. Heyday Tonight
03. Except for Jessie
04. Hearts Are Breaking Across Texas
05. Rollercoaster Ride
06. Angels & Outlaws
07. San Angelo
08. All American Country Girl
09. Bob Willis Is Still the King
10. Grandad, Paw Paw, John Pop & Mr. Pete
11. Barbed Wire Halo
12. 3rd Gear & 17
13. Wake Up & Smell the Coffee
14. Unbelievably Beautiful
15. Thanks for Freedom
16. The Fighting Side of Me
17. Lonely Lubbock Lights
18. East Bound and Down
19. Breaker Breaker One Nine
20. Off the Record
21. The Orphans of the Brazos Band
22. Restless