My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Brenda Lee

A half-dozen songs that never really were big hits (but may have been famous)

It is not so much true since the late 1970s but in all genres of music (except rock) there was a strong tendency for songs that were really big hits to be covered by many artists.

Here we will be looking at three really well-known country songs that never really were major hits for anyone, yet were so frequently covered that they became well-known hits, two songs that had Billboard not discontinued its regional charts, would have been recognized as big regional hits, and one song that was a huge copyright for a well known singer that isn’t well known and never charted at all.

1) Back in 1968, I purchased a few 45 rpm records. Lacking the patience to fool around with flipping records every 2:35, I soon switched to purchase of LPs. Among the few 45s that I purchased was Merle Haggard’s “The Legend of Bonnie & Clyde”. This record certainly was a hit reaching #1 on the Billboard and Record World country charts, but the B side was the revelation for me.

Back then I often didn’t get around to playing the B side of a 45 until later, but Dad had the Branded Man album that Haggard had issued the year before and every song on it was really good, so I flipped over the single to find one of the truly great country songs in “Today I Started Loving You Again”,

Back then Billboard did not usually track B sides and album tracks, so as far as Billboard is concerned the real hit on the song was Sammi Smith’s single from 1975 that reached #9. Kenny Rogers, Arthur Prysock and Emmylou Harris all issued singles that failed to crack the top forty. Record World, which did track B sides, had Haggard’s version reach #25.

I have no idea how many artists recorded “Today I Started Loving You Again” as an album track. Certainly, dozens of country artists did it (I probably have thirty country albums from the late 1968-1972 period that contain the song) and untold numbers of singers from other genres such as pop singer Al Martino, R&B singers Bobby Bland and Bettye Swann. I still hear country bands perform the song to this very day. For me, it’s a song I memorized on first hearing it and it has stuck in my memory since then

 What a fool I was to think I could get by

With only these few millions tears I cry

I should have known the worst was yet to come

And that crying time for me had just begun

2) Almost as well known as “Today I Started Loving You Again” is “Silver Wings”, which was an album track on Hag’s 1970 album A Portrait of Merle Haggard and was the flipside of “Working Man Blues. I can basically make the same comments about “Silver Wings” as I did about “Today I Started Loving You Again”. I heard the song frequently on the radio, but it never charted for Haggard. In fact, the only time the song ever charted was by the Hager Twins, Jim and Jon, who took it to #59 in late 1970.

 Silver wings shining in the sunlight

Roaring engines headed somewhere in flight

They’re taking you away, leaving me lonely

Silver wings slowly fading out of sight

“Don’t leave me,” I cried

Don’t take that airplane ride

But you locked me out of your mind

Left me standing here behind

3) Felice and Boudleaux Bryant wrote many famous songs that were big hits for the likes of the Everly Brothers, Carl Smith, Jimmie Dickens and countless others. While “Bye Bye Love” surely is their best-remembered song, I suspect that “Rocky Top” may be their second most famous song. The bluegrass duo of Sonny & Bobby Osborne got the song up to #33 on Billboard’s country chart in 1968 and Lynn Anderson got it to #17 in 1975 but that is it as far as chart success is concerned. The song ’s fame has spread far and wide beyond its limited chart placements it is an official Tennessee State Song, it is the University of Tennessee’s unofficial fight song, and has been recorded hundreds of times. The progressive bluegrass duo of Doug Dillard & Gene Clark (with Donna Washburn on vocals) issued the song in 1969, and that remains my favorite version of the song. Artists as diverse as Phish, Buck Owens, and Conway Twitty have recorded the song. Everybody knows the song and everybody sings along whenever the song is played

 Rocky Top you’ll always be

Home Sweet Home to me

Good ol’ Rocky Top

Rocky Top Tennessee

Rocky Top Tennessee

4) Bob Luman’s 1969 recording of “Come On Home And Sing The Blues To Daddy” probably was a regional hit in the southern states, reaching #24 on Billboard’s country charts (it reached #13 on Record World). Written by Ray Corbin, Luman’s record was featured in heavy rotation as a oldie when I returned to the US in August 1971; during its chart run WHOO DJ Clay Daniels told me that it often was the most requested song on the station and I know from personal experience that nearly every county cover band in Central Florida kept it in their playlist for a good decade after the song’s chart run.

Charley Pride, Wynn Stewart, Waylon Jennings and Bobby Bare recorded the song as an album track (so did many others) and I have heard Waylon and Bare perform it on stage.

 I hear say your new romance has faded

Just the way ours did some time ago

I’ve lost count of all the times I’ve waited

For you to tell me that you’ve missed me so

Come on home and sing the blues to daddy

If things don’t work out the way you planned

Come on home and sing the blues to daddy

Tell it all to one who understands

Just like a child that’s found a brand new plaything

Each one is more fun than those before

But there’s a faithful one that’s always waiting

To be picked up and kicked around some more

5) Nobody much remembers Pat Daisy, and RCA artist who got lost in the shuffle at RCA, but her recording of “Everybody’s Reaching Out for Someone” reached #20 on the Billboard country chart in 1972 (it reached #13 on Record World). Written by legendary songwriter Dickey Lee, the song reached #1 on the WHOO and WSUN Countdowns and I suspect that the tale for both Luman’s song and Daisy’s song is that either a station played the song and played it a lot, or simply never added the song at all (or perhaps added a different recording of the song). Whatever the case, the song was recorded by numerous artists including Lynn Anderson, Brenda Lee, Dickey Lee and Kitty Wells

Everybody’s reaching out for someone

Everybody’s knocking at some door

And long before I ever found you

You’re the one that I was reaching for

 

Just like the trees along the river bend

Lift up the branches to the sun above

We spent our lifetimes reaching for a friend

Cause everybody reach someone to love

 

And everybody’s reaching out …

Interestingly enough the song was revived in 1993 when the Cox Family recorded the song as the title cut for their first album on Rounder. The album was produced by Alison Krauss, and through their efforts, the song made its way into the bluegrass repertoire, where it is occasionally heard to this day.

6) Until “Harper Valley PTA” was released on August 24, 1968, Tom T Hall’s biggest copyright was a song that you may have never heard. By 1968 Tom had written a number a number of hits for other artists, including Johnny Wright’s #1 country hit “Hello Vietnam”, and had written a couple of minor hits for himself. “Hello Vietnam” received no pop airplay and sales of county singles in that era could be 50,000 copies.

On September 25, 1965, The Statler Brothers released a Tom T. Hall song as the B side of their debut single for Columbia. The single, “Flowers On The Wall” went #2 country, #4 pop and #1 in Canada, selling nearly a million copies in the process. The album Flowers On The Wall also sold well and for each 45 or album sold, Tom T Hall picked up a songwriting royalty. The song “Billy Christian” did not receive much airplay (I heard it a few times on WCMS) but I’m sure it helped keep the wolves away from Tom T’s door

It’s a pretty good song and is (or has been) available in a digital format

 If you’re listenin’ Billy Christian come on home

Are you listening Billy Christian if you are then go on home

Everything is like you left it she spends all the time alone

All that music never thrills her like it did when you were there

 

Go on home Billy Christian if you care

What a team they were together Billy Christian and his wife

People loved to hear them singin’ that was their success in life

But the eyes of Billy Christian were the wild and wandering kind

 

Now Billy’s wife sings solo all the time

Are you listening Billy Christian…

All the fellows tried to date me but she never blinked an eye

Every night she sings her same sad song and cries

 

Now where is Billy Christian does he ever hear the song

Does Billy Christian know he’s welcome home

Are you listening Billy Christian…

Go on home Billy Christian if you care

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Jonathan Pappalardo’s Ten Favorite singles of 2017

While it does become harder and harder to assemble this list each year, it always amazes me that quality country music does exist, even if the upper echelon of the airplay chart screams otherwise.  Sit back and enjoy what I consider the ten best singles released this year:



10. Tanya Tucker – Forever Loving You

Go online and you’ll find countless videos of Tucker where she details the volatility of her relationship with Glen Campbell. She freely admits to the drug and physical abuse that defined their union, which became a cornerstone of her early 20s. Even after they split, and she went onto some of her greatest success, she clearly never truly got over him.

More than a tribute to Campbell, “Forever Loving You” is an exquisite love song. Tucker is in fine voice, which makes the longing for new music all the more aching. Why does this have to be a standalone one-off and not the lead track to a new album?

9. Alan Jackson – The Older I Get

Easily Jackson’s greatest achievement since “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore.” He’s in a contemplative mood, looking back in the year he received induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. If this is any indication, I look forward to whatever he chooses to do next.

8. Jon Pardi – She Ain’t In It

The best mainstream single of 2017 comes from the newly crowned CMA New Artist of the Year. The lyric isn’t earth-shattering, but the drenching of fiddle and steel more than makes up the difference. With his solid foundation in traditional country and his willingness to stay true to himself no matter the cost, Pardi’s future is bright. As of now, he’s one of the good guys.

7. Lee Ann Womack – Hollywood

A housewife is begging her husband to engage with her. He won’t bite except to dismiss her feelings or downright ignore their partnership. She’s exhausted from their loveless marriage, and the part he’s playing in it, so much so she wonders, “either I’m a fool for asking or you belong in Hollywood.” The first of two songs in this vein comes with that killer hook and Womack’s equally effective performance.

6. Alison Krauss – Losing You

Krauss revives a somewhat obscure Brenda Lee hit from 1965 and knocks it out of the park. The covers album that followed is just as rich and deeply satisfying.

5. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – If We Were Vampires

If life didn’t come with an expiration date, would we love as hard? Isbell asks that central question on the stunning centerpiece from That Nashville Sound. He proves mortality is actually a good thing, not something to be feared. For my ears, “If We Were Vampires” is the love song of the year.

 4. Chris Stapleton – Either Way

In my more than twenty years of seriously consuming country music, no song has stuck with me as long or had as great an impact on my psyche as “Either Way.” Lee Ann Womack brought it to life eight years ago in what still remains the song’s definitive version. Stapleton sings the fire out of it, too, but his greatest achievement is being the man who wrote it. He’s easily among the upper tier of the greatest country songwriters of his generation.

3. Brandy Clark – Three Kids No Husband

Clark teamed with Lori McKenna on an anthem for the women who assume all titles without a man to even the score. Both have recorded it, but it’s Clark who found the subtly within the lyric and ultimately drove it home.

2. Sunny Sweeney – Bottle By My Bed

Many songs have been written about the struggle for a woman to conceive, but none are as achingly beautiful as Sweeney’s tale of heartbreak in the wake of a miscarriage. A powerful and universal tale for anyone who has suffered the same fate.

1. Erin Enderlin – Ain’t It Just Like A Cowboy

I didn’t have a clear favorite single this year until I played these ten songs back-to-back when considering the rankings. Enderlin blows away the competition with her story of a wife realizing how foolish she is for staying with the cheating bastard who probably never loved her in the first place. A true country ballad for the ages.

Album Review: Kenny Rogers – ‘She Rides Wild Horses’

When She Rides Wild Horses was released in 1999, his first release on Dreamcatcher, it had been a decade since Kenny had a top ten country album or a top ten country song, and fifteen years since a Kenny Rogers song had hit the top forty of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, so it is hard to believe that expectations were that high for this album, especially since Kenny had turned 61 years old, an antique as far as the increasingly youth oriented music world was concerned.

Dreamcatcher was Kenny’s own label and perhaps his proprietary interest in the label sparked renewed life in his recording career. While not a great album, the album did feature some very interesting songs that led to a mild resurgence in Kenny’s career, reaching #6 on the Country albums chart, and selling platinum, the last Kenny Rogers album to do so (and the first one in fifteen years).

The album opens with “Slow Dance More”, a nice mid-tempo homily to the virtues of appreciating one’s family. The song was the second single released from the album, reaching #67 on the country chart. This is the most country sounding song on the album with Russ Pahl on steel guitar, Jonathan Yudkin on fiddle and Richard Bailey on banjo (the only appearance for any of them on these instruments – Bruce Bouton would do the rest of the steel guitar on the album.

Grady Johnson was a common man
Four children and some bottom land
Early to bed, he said, “well that ain’t me
I gotta spend some time with my family
Left to its own device, May becomes June
But children grow up way too soon

[Chorus]
So love your neighbor as yourself
Don’t use money to measure wealth
Trust in God but lock your door
Buy low, sell high and slow dance more”

This is followed by “Buy Me A Rose”, the third single and a surprise #1 country hit that also cracked the top forty on the Hot 100 chart. This was Kenny’s first #1 on any chart since 1987. “Buy Me a Rose” is a ballad, the story of a husband who attempts to please his wife with material objects, such as a “three-car garage and her own credit cards“, before realizing that it is the little things and gestures that truly matter.

The song features Billy Dean and Alison Krauss singing background.

He works hard to give her all he thinks she wants
A three car garage, her own credit cards
He pulls in late to wake her up with a kiss good night
If he could only read her mind, she’d say:

“Buy me a rose, call me from work
Open a door for me, what would it hurt
Show me you love me by the look in your eyes
These are the little things I need the most in my life”

Now the days have grown to years of feeling all alone
And she can’t help but wonder what she’s doing wrong
Cause lately she’d try anything to turn his head
Would it make a difference if she said:

“Buy me a rose, call me from work
Open a door for me, what would it hurt
Show me you love me by the look in your eyes
These are the little things I need the most in my life”

Next up is “I Will Remember You” written by Irish balladeer and musician Seamus Egan. This song is a very slow ballad that Kenny sings well.

Eric Kaz and Linda Thompson-Jenner penned “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore”, a slow ballad of breakup and heartache.

The title track “She Rides Wild Horses” written by Bob Corbin and Ted Hewitt, was not released as a single. Although laden with keyboards and strings, I think that the song would have made a good single if pushed toward Adult Contemporary market.

It’s just her and the band and the clean up man
She’s countin’ up her tips, she did alright
She says goodnight
She drives home to a three room flat
Checks her machine and she feeds the cat
She’s almost asleep
Before she turns out the light

In her dreams, she rides wild horses
And they carry her away on the wind
And they never make a sound
As they fly above the ground
Tonight she rides wild horses again

“The Kind of Fool That Love Makes” was written by Brenda Lee (yes, that Brenda Lee), Michael McDonald and Dave Powelson

Anyone can read the signs
Or the writing on the wall
It’s all right there to see
Except someone like me
Who can’t see the truth at all.

It takes a special kind of fool
To stand out in the rain
Somewhere in between
Nothing left to lose
And nothing to be gained.

What kind of fool does it take?
To go on loving alone
Like there’s some answer in the ruins
Some silver lining to be found.

An even bigger fool might think
You would care if my arm breaks
Before the time that I admit
I’m just the kind of fool love makes.

Tom Jans’ “Loving Arms” was already an oldie, having been recorded many times since released by Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge in 1973. Dobie Gray had the biggest pop hit with the song in 1974 and Elvis hit the county top ten with his posthumous 1981 release. Kenny’s version is okay, but the slow tempo is too similar to the rest of the album.

If you could see me now
The one who said that he’d rather roam
The one who said he’d rather be alone
If you could only see me now

If I could hold you now
Just for a moment if I could really make you mine
Just for a while turn back the hands of time
If I could only hold you now

I’ve been too long in the wind, too long in the rain
Taking any comfort that I can
Looking back and longing for the freedom of my chains
And lying in your loving arms again

“I Can’t Make You Love Me,” was co-written by Allen Shamblin and Mike Reid and was a hit for Bonnie Raitt in 1981. The song is yet another slow ballad and is given a bland cocktail lounge arrangement that strips the song of any character.

Kenny recorded “Let It Be Me” with Dottie West for their album Classics. Tammy Fry sings the female harmony on this stringy ballad. This version does not compare well with his earlier rendition, and it is just another slow ballad.

The album closes with the fabulous Don Schlitz composition “The Greatest”. Although the song only reached #26 on the country singles chart, I suspect that the song reverberated with many male listeners and led them to seek out the album when it was released. I know that many times I was that little boy in the song, and I purchased the CD on the strength of this song alone without really caring about what was on the rest of the album.

Little boy, in a baseball hat
Stands in the field with his ball and bat
Says “I am the greatest player of them all”
Puts his bat on his shoulder and he tosses up his ball

And the ball goes up and the ball comes down
Swings his bat all the way around
The world’s so still you can hear the sound
The baseball falls to the ground

Now the little boy doesn’t say a word
Picks up his ball, he is undeterred
Says “I am the greatest there has ever been”
And he grits his teeth and he tries it again

And the ball goes up and the ball comes down
Swings his bat all the way around
The world’s so still you can hear the sound
The baseball falls to the ground

He makes no excuses, he shows no fears
He just closes his eyes and listens to the cheers

After a series of mediocre disappointing recordings, It was nice to see Kenny release a decent album. This isn’t a great album, and it isn’t very country, but it is good. Kenny is in good voice throughout, and several of the songs, especially the three released singles and the title track are outstanding. The album could stand some more variation in tempos, but as is, the album is worth a B

Album Review: Jessi Colter – ‘A Country Star Is Born’

51sgd4uaavl-_ss500Whatever optimist gave this album its title jumped the gun just a little, for although it marks the official beginning of Jessi Colter’s recording career (not counting two prior singles issued under her birth name), it would be another five years before her commercial breakthrough that propelled her to stardom.  Released in 1970, A Country Star Is Born was her first and only solo album for RCA.  She was presumably signed to the label because her husband Waylon Jennings was already on its roster, but the album’s  lack of commercial success suggests to me that she perhaps was not a huge priority for RCA.

The album was produced by Chet Atkins and Waylon Jennings, and upon the first listening, one might be a bit confused as to why it didn’t perform better in the marketplace.   In order to understand why, one has to bear in mind the way it would have been perceived back in 1970.   The album follows the standard practice of the day of using one or two hit singles to drive sales and padding it with covers of recent hits for other artists and perhaps some original songs by the artist and/or producer.   In this case, the lead (and non-charting) single was one of Jessi’s original compositions “I Ain’t The One”, performed as a duet with Waylon.    The second single was “Cry Softly”, another Colter original that also failed to chart.  Its melody is somewhat similar to “I’m Not Lisa”, which would become her breakthrough career record a few years later.  It’s a decent song that might have enjoyed some success if a more established artist had released it.

Filling out the rest of the album are three more songs Jessi wrote — all credited to her real name Miriam Eddy:  the uptempo “If She’s Where You Like Livin'”, the mid tempo “Don’t Let Him Go”, and the bluesy “It’s All Over Now”, none of which were strong enough to be considered for release to radio.  Along with these originals are two excellent songs written by Harlan Howard, which might have had hit potential had they not been relatively recent releases for other artists.  “Too Many Rivers” had been a Top 20 pop hit for Brenda Lee in 1965 and “He Called Me Baby” had been a minor posthumous hit for Patsy Cline in 1964.  The latter would go on to be recorded by many other artists and would eventually (with a pronoun change) become a big hit for Charlie Rich in 1974.   The album’s best track “It’s Not Easy” had previously been recorded by its composer Frankie Miller.  “Healing Hands of Time” was a non-charting Willie Nelson single from 1965.

I enjoyed all of the album’s songs, but I get the distinct impression that RCA only made a half-hearted effort to promote it.  Pairing her up with Waylon for her first release was a reasonable strategy.  It’s surprising that “I Ain’t The One” didn’t at least enter the charts.  A great song it is not, but his star power at the time was sufficient that it should have garnered some attention from radio.  When it failed, it was almost inevitable that the next single would also tank, since Jessi Colter was still an unknown entity.  Why they didn’t have more songs to try and promote her is somewhat puzzling.

RCA released two more solo singles in 1971 and 1972  (not on this album) — including “I Don’t Want To Be a One Night Stand” which would become Reba McEntire’s debut single a few years later.  There were also two minor hit duets with Waylon (“Suspicious Minds” and “Under Your Spell Again”), but it would be five years and a label change later before the world learned who Jessi Colter was.

A Country Star Is Born is available for download and streaming and is worth a listen.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Alison Krauss – ‘Windy City’

51paza96cml-_ss500I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first heard that Alison Krauss was about to release a new album.  Although I have always greatly admired her talent, her choices have not always aligned with my tastes. Her penchant for extremely slow tempo songs can grow a bit dull after a while, and more often than not I have not liked her artistic stretches – her 2007 collaboration with Robert Plant, for example.  Adding to my skepticism is the fact that Windy City was to be an album covering ten classic songs; I’ve lost track of the number of artists who have released similar projects over the last decade or so.  The concept no longer holds the inherent appeal it once did.

That being said, I was very pleasantly surprised when I finally sat down to listen to Windy City.  Krauss and producer Buddy Cannon managed to avoid falling into the trap of selecting well-known songs that have been over-recorded by others, instead opting for mostly more obscure deep cuts.    Only two of the songs were familiar to me.   Also surprising was the fact that none of these songs – including the Osborne Brothers and Bill Monroe covers — is performed in a bluegrass style.  There is however, a lot of prominent pedal steel and more uptempo material than we typically hear from Alison.  It’s a very different sound for her and it is very effective.

The opening track and lead single is “Losing You”, a richly melodic ballad that is perfectly suited to Alison’s voice.  There is a subtle and tasteful string arrangement along with the pedal steel.  Originally a pop hit for Brenda Lee in 1963, at times it sounds like another more famous song that was also released that year:  Skeeter Davis’ “End of the World”.   Another Brenda Lee cover “All Alone Am I” appears later in the album.

“It’s Goodbye and So Long to You” is an uptempo number that was a hit for both The Osborne Brothers and Mac Wiseman.   The harmonies hint at its bluegrass origins, but it is performed here a straight country with just a hint of Dixieland jazz.   My favorite tune is the title track, which is also taken from The Osborne Brothers’ catalog.  I don’t know what year this song was originally released, but Alison’s version sounds like something out of the Nashville Sound era, although the strings are more restrained than what we typically heard from that period.   “Dream of Me”,  originally a hit for Vern Gosdin in 1981,  is my second favorite.

“I Never Cared For You” was written and originally recorded by Willie Nelson in 1964.  His only single for Monument Records, it was popular in Texas but not well known elsewhere.  Alison’s version has a slight Spanish flavor to it.   She also pays tribute to the great Roger Miller, overlooking some more obvious choices in favor of the ballad “River in the Rain”, which Miller wrote for the 1985 Broadway musical Big River.

The two best known songs on the album:  “Gentle on My Mind” and “You Don’t Know Me” are tailor-made for Alison.  One can imagine her singing both of these songs without even having heard her versions.    The former was made famous by Glen Campbell in 1967 (although it was not a huge chart hit for him).  The latter, written by Cindy Walker, has been recorded many times, most famously by Eddy Arnold in 1956.

The deluxe version of the album contains four extra tunes, all “live” versions of songs from the standard release.  By “live” they mean live in the studio, not live in concert.  They are all well done but not sufficiently different to really be interesting.  That is the album’s only misstep, and it’s a minor one.   There is also a Target exclusive version of the album with two more cuts:  “Til I Gain Control Again” and “Angel Flying Too Close To the Ground”.   Windy City,is an outstanding album and it deserves the support of all of us who have complained about the direction of country music in recent years.  It won’t generate any big radio hits but I do hope it sells well. I would like to hear more music in this vein from Alison in the future.

Grade: A+

Single Review: Alison Krauss- ‘Losing You’

hqdefaultFor her first solo LP in seventeen years, Alison Krauss’ prerogative was to make a country album featuring songs older than her. She enlisted the aid of Buddy Cannon, who brought the recording sessions to life in 2013. The ten-track collection, Windy City, will finally see release on February 17.

I’ve been longing for new music from Krauss ever since Paper Airplane back in 2011, hoping she would give us something new, not another ballad-driven album with Union Station. I love when she plays with tempo and texture and doesn’t rest comfortably in her signature style.

To kick off the new set, Krauss has graced us with ‘Losing You,’ the Brenda Lee classic from 1963. Lee’s hit recording, it should be noted, wasn’t a country one – it peaked top 10 in pop and adult contemporary. It’s an excellent recording, too, with Lee singing the fire out of the torch ballad, which was perfectly produced by Owen Bradley.

In approaching anything with Krauss’ voice on it, it’s very easy to be swept away by the beautiful marriage of the arrangement with her angelic vocal. The result is stunning – Cannon perfectly complements her with lush AC-leaning tones that afford her opportunity to soar. Technically, this record is perfection.

But like most cover tunes, I have trouble deciphering the newness that separates this version from the original. We all know Krauss is otherworldly, but does she bring enough of a bite to her vocal to allow us into the complexities within the lyric? Or is beauty masking our judgment towards thinking critically about the recording? I truly cannot find anything wrong with it, although I cannot get Paul tearing apart her Don Williams’ covers out of my head. I loved those (especially ‘You’re Just A Country Boy’) as much, if not more so than ‘Losing You.’

I cannot wait to see what the rest of Windy City has in store. ‘Losing You’ is a fantastic first taste of what appears is going to be another early highlight of this already interesting year.

Grade: A

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Woman of the World/To Make a Man’

516eAlwAOmLAs the 1960s drew to a close, Loretta released her final solo LP of the decade. Woman of the World/To Make a Man was comprised of the two hit singles that composed its title as well as songs penned by Loretta, the Wilburn Brothers and their songwriting staff, and of course, the usual covers of recent hits for other artists.

The album is also the beginning of a slight shift in Loretta’s musical style, away from the honky-tonk she’d sung for most of the decade, towards an ever so slightly more sophisticated but still very country sound. “Woman of the World (Leave My World Alone)”, which became her third #1 hit in April 1969, finds her in the familiar territory of confronting a romantic rival, albeit in a much less combative manner than we saw in “You Ain’t Woman Enough” or “Fist City”. The Loretta-penned “To Make a Man (Feel Like a Man)” is an upbeat number dispensing advice to the sisterhood on how to be a good wife. It’s very different from her usual fare up to that point, and the message is more in the vein of what we were used to hearing from Tammy Wynette. It reached #3, but it’s not one of her better remembered hits today.

“The Only Time I Hurt” is another Loretta original that I very much enjoyed, but “Big Sister, Little Sister”, which she co-wrote with Frances Heighton, can only be classified as a misstep. It is a maudlin number, weighed down by dated-sounding Nashville Sound choruses, which casts Loretta as the victim: an older sister who was raised to indulge her younger sibling’s wishes, and carries the habit into adulthood, going as far as to surrender her fiancé to sister.

I enjoyed most of the album’s remakes. “Johnny One Time”, which had been an adult contemporary hit for Brenda Lee and a minor country hit for Willie Nelson the year before, is a bit of a stretch for Loretta but she carries it off credibly. “If You Were Mine To Lose” had been the B-side to a Conway Twitty single. It was also recorded by Waylon Jennings, Carl Smith, and Connie Smith. Apparently no one ever had a hit with it, but it’s a very good song that suits Loretta nicely. She also does a very nice cover of Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again”. Her version of “Stand By Your Man” is not bad, but the production is much more scaled back than the treatment Billy Sherrill gave Tammy Wynette’s version. This is one case where less is not more, and to be fair, no one has or ever will sing that song the way Tammy did.

Woman of the World/To Make a Man allowed Loretta to not only wrap up the 1960s on a high note, it also set the stage for the next and most successful decade of her career. She was still about a year away from releasing her signature tune “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, which would be followed by such hits as “One’s On The Way”, “Rated X” and “Love Is The Foundation”. In 1972 she would become the Country Music Association’s first female Entertainer of the Year, and in 1980 she would be named Artist of the Decade for the 1970s by the Academy of Country Music. Woman of the World/To Make a Man was her segueway from honky-tonk singer to American icon, and it is well worth a listen.

Grade: A

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: Wynonna – ‘The Other Side’

the other sideWhile mother Naomi Judd always had strong country sensibilities, daughter Wynonna was always an awkward fit in country music. The Other Side, Wynonna’s fourth solo studio album, finds Wynonna attempting to reposition herself as a bluesy rocker along the lines of Bonnie Raitt, Marcia Ball or Lou Ann Barton.

Wynonna has a very strong voice, more than suitable for the material but somehow this album isn’t all that convincing. I’m not sure if Wynonna was simply finding her footing with this album, or if the somewhat lackluster material is to blame.

The album opens with “When Love Starts Talkin'”, written by Brent Maher, Gary Nicholson and Jamie O’Hara. Released as a single (it reached #13), this up-tempo rocker works fairly well and is probably my second favorite song on the album.

I thought I had my life worked out
I thought I knew what it was all about
Then love started talkin’
Your love started talkin’

I had my mind on the open road
I thought I knew where I wanted to go
Then love started talkin’
Your love started talkin’

Kevin Welch wrote “The Other Side”, a rather bland ballad. It’s not bad just nothing special. I think I would like the track better without the vocal background singers.

So, you’re at the end of your wits
The end of your rope
You just can’t fix
Everything that’s broke
Got to turn it loose, babe
Hey, just let it ride

“Love Like That” (Gary Nicholson, Al Anderson, Benmont Tench) is much better, a mid-tempo rocker that failed to chart when released as a single, which mystifies me since it my favorite track on the album. The song features some nice slide guitar work by Steuart Smith.

You might tell me to mind my business
But I’ve been watchin’ and I’ve been a witness
To the things you do and say and the games you play
You better start cutting the man some slack
Or he’s gonna leave and he won’t be back
One day you’re gonna chase him away
If you keep on yankin’ that chain
Honey, if I was in your shoes
I tell you what I would do

CHORUS
If I had a love like that
A real fine love like that
I’d be treatin’ him right
And never do him any wrong
If you’re gonna do like that
With a good love like that
Sister, just like that you’re gonna wake up
And find him gone

“The Kind of Fool Love Makes” (Brenda Lee, Michael McDonald, Dave Powelson) is a dull ballad, pleasant but nothing more.

“Troubled Heart And A Troubled Mind” (Wynonna Judd, Brent Maher, O’Hara) is a nice up-tempo blues that would have made a good single. Again Steuart Smith shines on guitar

A troubled heart and a troubled mind
Is all I’m gonna leave behind
I’m movin’ on down the line
Don’t shout me down I’m doin’ fine
You’ve been hard and heavy on my soul
Gotta lighten the load and let you go
Life’s too short, ain’t got the time
For a troubled heart and a troubled mind

“Don’t You Throw That Mojo on Me” (Mark Selby, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Tia Sillers) features Kenny Wayne Shepherd on electric guitar and has Wynonna harmonizing with herself. I think this song would have made a good single.

“Come Some Rainy Day” (Billy Kirsch, Bat McGrath) was released as a single and reached #14. A gentle ballad, this may be Wynonna’s most effective vocal on a slower song. For my money, Wynonna’s better songs tend to be the faster songs. While I am not a big fan of the Nashville String Machine, the use of the NSM is subdued and greatly augments Wynonna’s vocal on this song.

“Love’s Funny That Way” (Tina Arena, Dean McTaggart, David Tyson) finds Wynonna over-singing the song slightly. At 4:46, the song is about a minute too long, since the dragging ending adds nothing to the song.

“The Wyld Unknown” (Cliff Downs, David Pack) is a mid-tempo rocker is that Wynonna sings effectively. I can’t say that the lyrics say anything important but it makes for a good album track.

Next up is “Why Now” (Downs, Pack, James Newton Howard) is another slow ballad dragging in at a flatulent four minutes and forty-nine seconds. A trimmed down version of this song would probably be better. The lyrics are actually pretty decent:

Somewhere off
In a distant dream
You were long ago
Like a memory

Now you’re back
Standing here
Sayin’ all the words
You think I want to hear

Did you finally realize
What I knew all along
That you never needed me
Until I was gone

“We Can’t Unmake Love” (Will Robinson, Aaron Saine) finds Wynonna singing a duet with John Berry, an artist with an excellent voice but somewhat addicted to tediously slow ballads. Having said that, I must admit that this is a pretty nice effort.

“Always Will” (Harry Stinson, John Hadley) was released as a single, reaching #45. The song has a very Celtic feel to it with Tammy Rogers on fiddle and Hunter Lee on Uillean pipes. At nearly five minutes, the song was a bit too long for radio to have had much interest in the song.

For me this album was a very mixed bag. The one word I would not use to describe it is “country”. I would give it a C+ but it is a very up and down C+. Some songs I like a lot, others I found boring. There was nothing on the album I loved, and nothing I hated.

Revelations from Music Vendor/ Record World

Hit_Country_RecordsAs the ‘last man standing’ Billboard‘s country charts have taken on an almost mythical importance, yet for most of the 1940s and 1950s, Billboard did a relatively poor job in recording the history of country singles in that their various country charts only went 10-15 places deep.

Music Vendor (later Record World) started tracking country music in 1954 and immediately started tracking 55 chart places for country records, a depth of country charts Billboard wouldn’t approach until 1964 when Billboard went to 50 places. For purposes of simplicity, I will always refer to Music Vendor/ Record World as ‘Record World‘.

Joel Whitburn’s new volume Hit Country Records 1954-1982: Music Vendor/Record World performs a valuable service in restoring to the known discography of country music a staggering 1700 songs and 200 artists that Billboard failed to chronicle.

I always thought that the Wilburn Brothers had a relatively thin representation on the Billboard charts with 31 chart entries from 1954-1972, with many songs that I knew to have been at least mid-level hits not being tracked by Billboard. Turns out that the Wilburn Brothers were the poorest served of all country artists by Billboard with a staggering 30 songs not tracked by Billboard. Other artists with huge holes in their Billboard chart discographies include Hank Snow (26 songs), Eddy Arnold (23 songs), Kitty Wells (21 songs), Hank Thompson (21 songs), Johnnie & Jack (20 songs) and Ernest Tubb, Marty Robbins, Ferlin Husky and George Jones (each with 19 songs).

Among Bluegrass artists, Flatt & Scruggs pick up an extra 15 chart entries, Mac Wiseman (13), Jimmy Martin (6), Bill Monroe (4), and the Osborne Brothers (4).

There were also apparently differences in how artists were classified. Country audiences always loved Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley, George Hamilton IV and Conway Twitty, a fact Billboard somehow failed to acknowledge. After missing “Jambalaya”, Billboard tracked “One Step At A Time”, and then missed the next eleven consecutive Brenda Lee songs including such monsters as “Dynamite”, “Sweet Nothings”, “Fool #1” and “Break It To Me Gently”.

The track record on Elvis was worse as Billboard failed to track “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Blue Suede Shoes”, along with 15 more songs.

Record World tracked six George Hamilton IV singles before Billboard got around to recognizing “Before This Day Ends” as a country single. Ditto for Conway Twitty who Billboard picked up as country with “Guess My Eyes Were Bigger Than My Heart”, after ten singles had already been tracked by Record World.

While most of the songs that Music Vendor/Record World picked up were second tier hits, there were some surprising Billboard misses uncovered such as the George Jones favorites “Tall Tall Trees”, “Eskimo Pie” and “Nothing Can Stop Me (Loving You)”. A very famous song from 1955 was Bobby Lord’s 1955 hit “Hawkeye”; Billboard missed the song entirely on any of its charts, whereas Record World had it charting for twelve weeks, reaching #16.

I mentioned that approximately 200 artists show up in this book that Billboard never tracked on its country charts. These include Carl Dobkins Jr (three songs including “My Heart Is An Open Book” which Record World has as a #2 country hit, and Billboard had reach #3 pop), Pete Drake (three instrumental singles), and Buddy Holly (four singles including “Peggy Sue” and “Maybe Baby”).

I’ve only had this fascinating book for two days and I will probably report further as time permits, but it would be remiss of me not to further examine the song that initially got me interested in charts. Yes – I do mean “Groovy Grubworm” by Harlow Wilcox and The Oakies. Cashbox had the record reach #1 on its country chart (#24 pop) for two weeks whereas Billboard had the record stall out at #42 on the country chart while reaching #30 on the pop charts. This was the biggest chart disparity ever between singles that reached #1 on either the Billboard or Cashbox country chart but not the other chart.

The record was hugely successful, selling a million copies between the US and Canadian markets (it was a top ten hit on several Canadian regional pop charts), so I was curious to see how Record World treated “Groovy Grubworm” on its country charts, recalling that Record World had the song chart higher on its pop chart (#23) than did either Cashbox or Billboard.

Drum roll please :

Record World had the song reach #3 for one week on its country chart during its thirteen week chart run.

Album Review: Ricky Van Shelton – ‘RVS III’

RVS IIIRVS III appeared in January 1990, a little more than a year after Loving Proof. Like its predecessors, it was produced by Steve Buckingham and was a mixture of both new material and some carefully selected covers of older songs that were suddenly back in vogue during the New Traditionalist era. This time around, however, there was slightly less emphasis on rockabilly-style numbers on more on ballads which were proving to be Ricky’s strong point.

Preceding the release of RVS III was a maginificent cover of “Statue of a Fool”, which had been a #1 hit for Jack Greene in 1969. Ricky’s version just missed the top spot, peaking at #2, but it remains one of the standout singles of his career and is his greatest moment of this album. The uptempo “I’ve Cried My Last Tear For You”, written by Tony King (who was engaged to Wynonna Judd at the time) and Chris Waters was the next single. This one did reach #1, but it’s not one of my favorites, which is a not a criticism of the song, but a testament to the strength of the rest of the album. Another great ballad “I Meant Every Word He Said”, in which the protagonist is forced to watch the woman he loves marry another man, also topped out at #2. The album’s fourth and final single was a cover of “Life’s Little Ups and Downs”. The blues-tinged track was an underperforming single for Charlie Rich in 1969. Ricky’s version reached #4, and although it provides a change of pace, it’s my least favorite track on the album.

There are only two rocking numbers on RVS III – “Love Is Burnin'”, which is in the same vein as “Crime of Passion” and a cover of Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman”. The rest of the album was comprised of ballads, most of which could have been hit singles, but Columbia was likely reluctant to release too many ballads in a row to radio. Among these choice tracks are “You Would Do The Same For Me”, a Rory Bourke-Mike Reid composition that I would have preferred to see as a single in lieu of “Life’s Little Ups and Downs”, “I’m Starting Over” written by Kix Brooks with John Wesley Ryles and Mark Sherrill, and a fantastic version of Cindy Walker’s “Not That I Care”. This beautiful waltz had been a minor hit for Jerry Wallace in 1966 (peaking at #44) and had also been recorded by The Wilburn Brothers.

Another standout is album’s closing track “Sweet Memories”, which had been an adult contemporary hit for Andy Williams in 1968 and covered by Willie Nelson in 1979. Ricky is joined by Brenda Lee, who was long past her commercial peak, but her voice was still strong and lovely and complemented his nicely. The track features a tasteful string arrangement which gives it a little more countrypolitan feel than the rest of the album.

Despite a couple of weak spots, namely “Life’s Little Ups and Downs” and the self-penned and forgettable “I Still Love You”, RVS III is packed with top-drawer material and it quickly attained platinum status as its two predecessors have. However, by this time the formula of a few rockabilly numbers and a lot of ballads, a few old songs and a few new was starting to become predictable and may partially account for Shelton’s relatively brief reign at the top of the charts. Nevertheless, it is an album well worth listening to and I enthusastically recommend it.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind – Brenda Lee – ‘Too Many Rivers’

One of Lee’s many classics, she recorded “Too Many Rivers” with Owen Bradley for Columbia Records in Jan 1964. The B Side of her single “No One,” radio favored this Harlan Howard penned tune to the official single and played it instead.  Lee would have a #13 peaking it with the tune. The Forester Sisters would take the tune up the charts again 22 years later where it would peak at #5.  Many other versions from the likes of Claude Gray, Eddy Arnold, Liz Anderson, Jean Shepherd, and a host of others exist as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘Always On My Mind’

alwaysVoices like Willie Nelson’s are an often-cited reason why many people don’t like country music, so in many respects Willie was an unlikely pop star. Nevertheless, with albums like Stardust, he proved that he could not only handle non-country material, but that he could also appeal to worldwide audiences much broader than the typical country music fan base. 1982’s Always On My Mind is one of his most AC-leaning albums. Like Stardust, it reached outside the country genre for material, though the selections this time around were more contemporary.

The title track had first been introduced to country audiences by Brenda Lee a decade earlier. Her version peaked outside the country Top 40. A cover version by Elvis Presley the same year reached 16 on the AC charts, but the song remained relatively unknown despite being recorded by numerous other artists, until Willie’s version came along. His recording of the song became the biggest hit of his career; it topped the Billboard country singles chart in May 1982 and was the magazine’s #1 country single of the year. It also reached #5 on the all-genre Hot 100 chart and earned three Grammy Awards — one for Willie for Best Male Country Vocal Performance as well as Best Country Song and Song of the Year for its writers Mark James, Johnny Christopher and Wayne Carson Thompson. It was also widely honored by the Country Music Association, winning Single of the Year in 1982 and Song of the Year in both 1982 and 1983. Willie also took home the 1982 Album of the Year trophy.

It’s exceedingly difficult to follow up a career record, but Willie’s next two singles, while not matching the success of “Always On My Mind”, turned in respectable chart performances. His cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me” reached #2 on the country charts and #11 on the AC charts and just cracked the Top 40 on the Hot 100. “Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning”, a song that I did not initially like but now consider a favorite, also reached #2 on the country chart but did not enjoy any crossover success.

Aside from some harmonica and Willie’s trademark guitar, there is no country instrumentation on this album. The fiddle and steel guitar are absent, and the saxophone is used instead on tracks like “Let It Be Me” and “Old Fords and a Natural Stone”, and most of the non-single album cuts come from outside of country music. The opening track “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”, written by the album’s producer Chips Moman and Dan Penn, had been an R&B hit for Aretha Franklin in 1967. The song had been covered for the country market previously, by Barbara Mandrell whose version went to #17 in 1971, and surprisingly, it was also recorded by Kitty Wells at some point. “A Whiter Shade Of Pale”, on which Willie is joined by Waylon Jennings, is a remake of a 1967 psychadelic rock hit by the British group Procul Harum. Willie also does a very nice version of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”.

Always On My Mind was clearly designed with one eye on the pop market, but it avoids the excesses and overproduction that was typical of most recordings of the era that had crossover aspirations. Sufficient concessions were also made to keep country fans happy. Among the more country-sounding material are two songs penned by Willie: “Permanently Lonely” and “The Party’s Over”, a remake of his own earlier recording, which like some of the other remakes on this album, dates back to 1967. It’s my favorite track on the album.

Legacy Recordings reissued Always On My Mind in 2008, with two new tracks: “The Man Who Owes Everyone” and “I’m A Memory”, both of which are enjoyable, though they would have fit in better on one of his more country-sounding albums.

Selling more than 4 million copies in the United States and another 2 million in Canada, Always On My Mind is second only to Stardust in terms of commercial success. It’s always been a favorite of mine, primarily for nostalgic reasons, but due to its reliance on pop, R&B and rock material, it’s not an especially important album in terms of country music, aside from the three singles, which are widely available on numerous compilations. That being said, it is an enjoyable record, country or not, and a cheap used copy is well worth picking up.

Grade: A

Willie Nelson: The early years

country favoritesWillie Nelson, alone among his contemporaries, continues to be an active and prolific recording artist. Not only is he releasing albums at a pace that would leave today’s stars thoroughly exhausted, but Willie continues to make guest appearances on the albums of other artists, famous and unknown alike.

The eighty year old Nelson continues to tour relentlessly, something he has been doing in one form or another for over fifty years.

Prior to “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”, most knew Willie Nelson (if they knew of him at all) as the man who wrote “Hello Walls” for Faron Young and “Crazy” for Patsy Cline, and some songs that other singers had success recording.

Outside of his home state of Texas, the public consciousness of Willie Nelson as a performer basically dates back to the two albums Willie recorded for Atlantic in the early 1970s after which time he moved to Columbia for his recording heyday. This article will discuss the major label albums issued before then.

The first album out of the box was … And Then I Wrote which was released on the Liberty label in September 1962. This album featured “Touch Me” as the single (it reached #7 on Billboard’s country chart) and featured some songs that other artists had recorded with some success such as “Hello Walls” and “Three Days” (Faron Young), “Crazy” (Patsy Cline), “Funny How Time Slips Away” (Joe Hinton, Billy Walker). Although not released as a singles, “Mr. Record Man” and “Darkness On The Face of The Earth” would become songs associated with Willie, and “Undo The Right” would be a top ten hit for long-time friend Johnny Bush in 1968 (Johnny Bush and Willie Nelson were both in Ray Price’s band the Cherokee Cowboys during the early 1960s, and played in each others bands at various points in time). “The Part Where I Cry” was the other single release from this album.

… And Then I Wrote was not a terribly successful album but it was the first opportunity most had to hear Willie’s quirky phrasing. Although marred by Liberty’s version of the ‘Nashville Sound’, it is certainly an interesting album.

Willie’s second and final album for Liberty was Here’s Willie Nelson. This album featured five songs that Willie wrote (“Half A Man”, “Lonely Little Mansion”, “Take My Word”, “The Way You See Me” and “Home Motel”). The originals compositions were nothing special – only “Half A Man” attracted much attention from other artists – but among the covers are the Fred Rose composition “Roly Poly” (a successful recording for Bob Wills and for Jim Reeves) and Rex Griffin’s “The Last Letter”.

There were no Country Album charts until 1964. Neither of the two Liberty albums made the pop charts.

From Liberty, Willie very briefly moved to Monument Records, with no success (I’m not sure if any tracks actually were released at the time). Some of these songs were released in 1980 on a two album set titled The Winning Hand featuring Brenda Lee, Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson and released to cash in on the popularity of Dolly and Willie. All four artists had recorded for Monument in the past, and Kristofferson and Lee recorded additional vocals to create duets (and some existing tracks were edited together to create duets). Twelve of the twenty tracks were duets, and despite the contrived origins of the project, it was critically well received and well worth owning.

Willie’s immense songwriting talents attracted the attention of Chester Burton (“Chet”) Atkins”, the head honcho of RCA’s Nashville operations, and he was signed to RCA.

There is the misconception that Willie Nelson’s RCA albums found Willie buried by syrupy string arrangements and soulless background choruses. While it is true that RCA was never really sure what to do with Willie, the reality is that only the occasional track suffered from over production. Unlike Decca where Owen Bradley buried his more traditional artist such as Webb Pierce and Ernest Tubb with unnecessary choral arrangements, Chet and his other producers went much lighter on the embellishments. Although what we would deem the classic ‘Willie and Family’ sound never completely emerged on the RCA recordings, many of Willie’s albums had relatively sparse production. In fact, when Mickey Raphael produced and released the 17 track Naked Willie album in 2009, an album in which he removed excess production off Willie’s RCA tracks, he probably corralled about 80% of the tracks on which the production could be deemed excessive. Whether or not RCA could turn Willie into a star, his records always featured some of the best musicians and arrangers on the planet.

Country Willie – His Own Songs features twelve songs Willie wrote or co-wrote. Some of the songs were also on his major label debut, but I prefer the RCA take on the ‘Nashville Sound’ to that of Liberty. The songs are great and Willie is in good voice.. Songs included are “One Day at a Time” (not the Marilyn Sellars/Cristy Lane gospel hit of the 1970s), “My Own Peculiar Way”, “Night Life”, “Funny How Time Slips Away”, “Healing Hands of Time”, “Darkness on the Face of the Earth”, “Hello Walls”, .”Are You Sure”, “Mr. Record Man”, “It Should Be Easier Now”, “So Much to Do” and “Within Your Crowd”. Pickers include Jerry Kennedy and Jerry Reed, and steel guitar is featured on some of the tracks. This could be considered a ‘best of’ compilation of Willie’s songs (not recordings) up to this point in time. This album reached #14 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Country Favorites – Willie Nelson Style is one of my two favorite RCA albums. This 1966 album was recorded with members of Ernest Tubb’s legendary Texas Troubadours, augmented by fiddler Wade Ray and pianist Hargus Robbins. Willie and Wade, of course were regulars on ET’s syndicated television show and the use of the Troubadours and the lack of the ‘Nashville Sound’ trappings made for a swinging set of western swing and honky-tonk classics. This version of the Texas Troubadours included Buddy Charleton (steel), Jack Drake (bass), Jack Greene (drums) , Leon Rhodes (lead guitar) and Cal Smith (rhythm guitar) augmented by Wade Ray and pianist Hargus Robbins. This album reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart .

Standout tracks on this album include “My Window Faces The South”, “Columbus Stockade Blues” and “San Antonio Rose” but the entire album is good. Willie sounds comfortable and relaxed on this entire set and his vocals, while sometimes an awkward fit , reflect the fun he was having performing with this collection of musicians , who were not credited on the initial release. A truncated version of this album was released on RCA Camden in 1970 as Columbus Stockade Blues.

Country Music Concert was recorded live in 1966 at Panther Hall in Dallas Texas, one of two live albums RCA would record there (the other was 1968’s Charley Pride Live at Panther Hall). This live performance featured Willie on guitar and vocals backed by his band members, Johnny Bush on drums and Wade Ray playing bass guitar. This album is my other favorite RCA album, again featuring Willie uncluttered by strings and choruses, singing mostly his own songs, but with a few covers. The album opens with Willie introducing the band and then starts with the music with a pair of long medleys in “Mr. Record Man”/”Hello Walls”/ “One Day At A Time” and “The Last Letter”/ “Half A Man”. To me the highlights of the album are Willie’s take on Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” and his own “I Never Cared For You” and “Night Life”. This album reached #32 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Make Way For Willie Nelson is a mixed bag of original compositions and covers. Released in 1967, some of the recordings are a bit overproduced and the album produced no real hits. The quasi-title track “Make Way For A Better Man” is one of those songs only Willie Nelson would write:

Hear me talkin’ now you tried to make her happy you couldn’t make her happy
Make way for a better man than you
You tried your brand of lovin’ she couldn’t stand your lovin’

Make way for a better man than you
I held back cause you and I were friends
But old buddy this is where our friendship ends
I’m takin’ over now those signals she keeps sendin’ means your romance is endin’
Make way for a better man than you

Willie’s own composition “One In A Row” reached #19 two years before this album was released. Notable covers on the album include “Born To Lose” and “Mansion On The Hill”. This album reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

“The Party’s Over” and Other Great Willie Nelson Songs featured the title song, which while never a big hit, was made famous by the late Don Meredith, one of the original trio of announcers for ABC Monday Night Football. When the result of the games was already determined (regardless of the time left in the game) Don would sing this song. “The Party’s Over” reached #24 for Willie, in a somewhat overproduced version. The rest of the album could be described as moody and downbeat. This album also reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Good Ol’ Country Singin’ was released on RCA’s budget Camden label in January 1968. RCA sometimes used the Camden label to release truncated versions of older albums, but RCA also used it to release material that would not be released on the main label. This album is the latter but RCA actually issued a single from the album, “Blackjack County Chain”, which reached #21. My favorite track on the album is a classic weeper “You Ought To Hear Me Cry”. Billboard did not chart budget albums.

Texas In My Soul was Willie’s 1968 tribute to his home state of Texas. Three of the songs, “Waltz Across Texas”, “There’s A Little Bit of Everything In Texas” and “Texas In My Soul” were songs performed by and associated with Ernest Tubb. “Who Put All My Ex’s In Texas” was one of the first songs written by Eddie Rabbitt to be recorded. This album reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Good Times is a little different and finds Willie breaking away from ‘The Nashville Sound’ mold to some extent. Other than Mickey Newbury’s “Sweet Memories” and the Jan Crutchfield-Wayne Moss composition “Down To Our Last Goodbye”, all of the songs were written or co-written by Willie. The title track has very minimal production. This album reached #29 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

My Own Peculiar Way, released in 1969, features eight Willie Nelson compositions (one, “Any Old Arms Won’t Do”, co-written with Hank Cochran) plus an exceptional cover John Hartford’s “Natural To Be Gone”. The title track wasn’t a hit, but it is quintessential Willie. This album reached #39 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart (are you seeing a pattern?).

Both Sides Now was released in 1970 and is basically a covers album with Willie penning only three of the eleven tracks. This album included two songs from the Roy Acuff catalogue (“Wabash Cannonball”, “Pins and Needles In My Heart”), a song from the Ray Price hit list (“Crazy Arms”) plus covers of pop songs “Both Sides Now” (penned by Joni Mitchell but a hit for Judy Collins) and and “Everybody’s Talking” (penned by Fred Neil but a hit for Nilsson). The single from this album was penned by soon-to be-ex-wife Shirley Nelson and reached #42. The now familiar “Bloody Mary Morning” makes its debut here – it would be re-recorded and released as a single after Willie moved to Atlantic.

While I like this album, it is a disjointed affair and Willie’s unusual phrasing on some of the songs won’t be to everybody’s taste. “Crazy Arms” features steel guitar and a walking base line whereas “Both Sides Now” features little more than a guitar. This album did not chart.

Laying My Burdens Down also was released in 1970 but by this time RCA had given up on having Willie score any hit singles. The title track reached #68 and the over-produced “I’m A Memory” would reach #28 and would be Willie’s last top fifty chart appearance while signed to RCA. This album is mostly composed of Willie originals but isn’t his best work. This album did not chart.

Willie Nelson and Family is a collection of songs released in 1971 as performed by Willie and the beginnings of his family band. Paul English was on board playing drums as was his sister Bobbie Nelson playing the piano. This album would set the template for future albums. Songs include the Willie Nelson-Hank Cochran collaboration “What Can You Do To Me Now” along with Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, Hank Sr.’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”, Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again”, plus some Nelson originals. This album reached #43 on Billboard Country albums chart.

Released with no fanfare in September 1971, Yesterday’s Wine contains some of Willie’s finest songs, and is Willie’s first concept album. The album contains the full complement of RCA’s finest session players but sounds surprisingly spare at times. The album has a deeply philosophical and religious feel to it without being too preachy (the premise is the life of an ‘Imperfect Man’ from birth to the day of his death). The single released from the album “Yesterday’s Wine” b/w “Me and Paul” barely dented the charts, but both are still loved and remembered today:

Miracles appear in the strangest of places
Fancy me finding you here
The last time I saw you was just out of Houston
Let me sit down, let me buy you a beer

Your presence is welcome with me and my friend here
This is a hangout of mine
We come here quite often and listen to music
And to taste yesterday’s wine

Yesterday’s wine, yesterday’s wine
Aging with time, like yesterday’s wine
Yesterday’s wine, yesterday’s wine
We’re aging with time, like yesterday’s wine

“Family Bible”, a song Willie wrote but sold in order to keep eating, makes an appearance here. This album did not chart.

There would be a couple more RCA albums, and RCA would re-release various permutations and combinations of old material after Willie hit it big in the middle 1970s (including an album an which Danny Davis and The Nashville Brass were overdubbed onto ten of Willie’s songs, but by the end of 1971 it was clear that Willie would need to look elsewhere if he was to achieve success as a recording artist.

It should be noted that RCA issued several singles on Willie that either never made it onto an album, or made it onto an album years later. Two notable examples were “Johnny One Time” which hit #36 for Willie in 1968 and was a minor pop hit for Brenda Lee in 1969, and “Bring Me Sunshine” which reached #13 in 1968 but wasn’t on an album until the 1974 RCA Camden release Spotlight On Willie.

In the digital age, there are plenty of good collections covering Willie’s earlier years, both anthologies and reissues of individual albums. For the obsessive Willie Nelson fan, Bear Family has issued an eight CD set with 219 recordings. That’s overkill for all but diehard fans, but there are numerous good anthologies available. There is also Naked Willie for those who would like to have multiple versions of some of Willie’s RCA recordings.

Album Review: Pam Tillis – ‘It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis

it's all relativeLeaving Arista might have marked the end of Pam’s commercial heyday, but it led to a taking stock and artistic resurgence which began with a reflection on her roots. As a youngster Pam Tillis had wanted to separate herself from her father’s legacy, hence her brief unsuccessful foray into pop music. But as a mature adult her respect for her father’s remarkable legacy as both artist and songwriter led to her recording an entire tribute album to him in 2002, when he turned 70. The depth of his catalog is revealed by the fact that not only did Mel write every song on this album, half of them on his own, but Pam had to leave many more on the shelf. Some were hits for Mel, others were songs he wrote for others. This album was Pam’s last hurrah on a major-related label, on Sony imprint Lucky Dog.

I love the outrage of ‘Unmitigated Gall’ (a top 10 for Faron Young in 1966), where Pam tells an ex in no uncertain terms just how she feels about his nerve coming back around now. This is definitely one of my favourite tracks. Catchy and confidently performed by Pam, it was a canny choice for the album’s lead single and just a few years earlier could easily have been a hit single all over again. By 2002, however, the tide had begun to turn in earnest, and it was far too country for country radio, failing to chart.

This attitude rises to new heights with the snarling declaration of hatred and ‘Mental Revenge’ (a top 20 for Mel himself in 1976 but better known for renditions by Waylon Jennings and Linda Ronstadt). Pam’s version is sultry and bluesy, and all her own.

Another highlight is the understated yet deeply emotional take on ‘Detroit City’, which brings out the melancholy of the song’s depiction of homesickness and failure with a barely concealed desperation underlying the vocal.

The charming ‘A Violet And A Rose’ is beautifully realised by Pam, with the help of very pretty trilling harmonies from Dolly Parton and a delicate acoustic arrangement. The original was Mel’s first chart single in 1958, and the much-recorded tune also gave its co-writer Little Jimmy Dickens his first top 10 hit in eight years in 1962.

‘Not Like It Was with You’ is an excellent lesser-known traditional country number about the after-effects of a breakup, which I enjoyed greatly. ‘Goodbye Wheeling’ is another fine relatively obscure song (a top 20 for Mel) which really suits Pam’s voice better than Mel’s. Delbert McClinton guests on harmonica.

‘Heart Over Mind’ (‘#3 for Mel and #5 for Ray Price) is transformed from a traditional shuffle to a sophisticated ballad. It is beautifully sung, with Emmylou Harris on harmony, and works well on its own merits, but the melody is barely recognisable slowed down so drastically.

Four tracks were co-produced by Asleep At The Wheel’s Ray Benson. He duets with Pam on an entertaining ‘Honey (Don’t Open That Door)’ (best known as a chart-topper for Ricky Skaggs); Trisha Yearwood and Rhonda Vincent sing close harmonies. The regretful western swing ballad ‘Burning Memories’ (a top 10 in 1977) is another delight with a delicately judged vocal and very retro arrangement, mixing traditional steel and fiddle with Nashville Sound backing vocals. The jazzy ballad ‘So Wrong’ is very much in the sophisticated later style of Patsy Cline, for whom Mel wrote it with Danny Dill and Carl Perkins, complete with a cameo by the Jordanaires. While it’s not my personal favourite sub-genre of country music, Pam sounds really good on this. It was the second attempt at a single to promote the album. Honky tonk classic ‘I Ain’t Never’ was one of the biggest hits for co-writer Webb Pierce, and is the only one of Mel’s own chart toppers to be included. Pam’s version is bouncy and entertaining but comes across as a little shallow emotionally, although I enjoyed the arrangement and instrumental work.

There are only a couple of duds. The singalong ‘Come On And Sing’ is a weak song featuring a children’s chorus, but it was a nice touch to include Mel on one track. I was bored by the very jazz ‘Emotions’. It had been a hit for pop and country artist Brenda Lee as a teenager, and has nothing to do with country music, although it does show the range of Mel Tillis’s talent.

Pam produced the bulk of the set alone, with help from Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson on a a handful of tracks. The result is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Pam’s most traditional album, and a worthy tribute to a truly great singer-songwriter whose contribution to country music has sometimes been overlooked. Yet while it is always respectful, Pam puts her own stamp on many of the songs, not completely reinventing them, but definitely interpreting them in her own way. It is a highly recommended purchase; luckily used copies can be found very cheaply.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Brenda Lee and Kris Kristofferson – ‘Born To Love Me’

Country Heritage Redux: Mel Tillis

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

“I figure we live in two worlds – public and private. It seems like I’ve got to prove myself in both all the time. I’ve got to climb mountains right to the top and then find new ones to climb. Whenever I finish writing a song, I always ask myself, “Well, Stutterin’ Boy, is that all you’ve got?’” — Mel Tillis

Introduction to Stutterin’ Boy – The Autobiography of Mel Tillis (1984)

“It seems like just yesterday that I left Florida head’n for Nashville, Tennessee in my ’49 Mercury with a busted windshield, a pregnant wife and $29.00 in my pocket. 2002 marks my 46th year in the music business. If I lost it all tomorrow, I guess I could say it only cost me $29.00 and it’s been one heck of a ride!”

From the biography on Tillis’ website.

Texas journalist and noted music critic John Morthland once described Mel Tillis as a journeyman country singer, intending it as praise. While he never quite reached the top echelon of country music stardom, he had a long and distinguished career as a singer and songwriter, writing many hits for other artists and having many hits of his own. His compositions continue to be performed and recorded today and he has left an additional legacy in the form of daughter Pam Tillis, an excellent singer in her own right, and Mel Tillis, Jr., who works mostly behind the scenes as a record producer.

Lonnie Melvin “Mel” Tillis was born in Tampa, Florida on August 8, 1932. His stutter developed during childhood, the result of a near-fatal bout with malaria. As a child, his family moved frequently around the Tampa area, but sometimes further as in the family’s 1940 move to Pahokee, FL, on the southeastern shore of Lake Okeechobee. In high school he learned to play drums, marching with the Pahokee High School Band. Later he would learn to play the guitar.

In late 1951 Tillis joined the United States Air Force. It was while in the Air Force that he started songwriting. One of his first songs was “Honky Tonk Song,” which became a major hit for Webb Pierce in 1957. While stationed in Okinawa, he played at local nightclubs with a band he formed called The Westerners.

After leaving the military in 1955, Tillis worked at various jobs. At some point he met Buck Peddy, who briefly served as his manager. Peddy and Tillis moved to Nashville in 1956. Initially unsuccessful at landing a writing deal, Tillis met Mae Boren Axton (writer of “Heartbreak Hotel”) who put in a good word for him with Jim Denny at Cedarwood Publishing. The first hit out of the box was “I’m Tired,” a song which was pitched to Ray Price. According to Tillis’ autobiography, Price wasn’t ready to issue a new single at the time the song was pitched to him by Buck Peddy but Webb Pierce heard the song and wanted it. Pierce only heard one of the verses so he had Wayne Walker write an additional verse and that’s the version that became the hit. Tillis only received a third of the royalties on this particular song, but it was a start. Unfortunately, it was also the start of a pattern; for the next few years he would suffer the addition of “co-writers” to most of his recorded songs, the chief culprits being Buck Peddy and Webb Pierce (a practice not uncommon at the time).

From this point forward a torrent of great songs flowed from his pen – over a thousand songs, of which over six hundred have been recorded by major artists. While it would take too long to list all of them, the following is a representative list of songs and artists:

•“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town” (Johnny Darrell, Kenny Rogers & The First Edition)

•“Detroit City” (Billy Grammer, Bobby Bare)

•“Emotions” (Brenda Lee)

•“I Ain’t Never” (Webb Pierce)

•“Burning Memories” (Ray Price)

•“Thoughts Of A Fool” (George Strait)

•“Honey (Open That Door)” (Ricky Skaggs)

In 1958, Tillis finally secured a recording contract with a major label, landing on Columbia Records. That same year he had his first Top 40 hit, “The Violet And A Rose,” followed by the #27 hit “Sawmill.” Unfortunately, while he made many fine recordings for Columbia, his singing career failed to catch fire. His records mostly charted but there were no big hits. During this period other artists continued to record his songs, both as hit singles, and as album tracks. From Columbia, he moved to Decca from 1962-1964.

In 1966 he moved to Kapp Records where he made many noteworthy records. In fact his first recording for Kapp had him performing on a Bob Wills album. “Wine” finally cracked the Top 20 for Tillis (#15), followed by “Stateside” (#17), “Life Turned Her That Way” (#11), “Goodbye Wheeling” (#20), and finally in 1969 that elusive Top 10 record, “Who’s Julie” (#10). After “Who’s Julie” the hits came easier as “Old Faithful” (#15), “These Lonely Hands of Mine”(#9), “She’ll Be Hangin’ Around Somewhere” (#10), and “Heart Over Mind” (#3) followed in quick succession. The Kapp years also found Tillis becoming more of a presence on television, first as a regular on the Porter Wagoner Show, and later on the Glen Campbell Good-Time Hour. He also guested on various other television shows.

In 1970 Tillis moved to MGM where, in my humble opinion, he made his finest records. A long string of hits followed in “Heaven Everyday” (#5), “Too Lonely, Too Long” (#15), “Commercial Affection” (#8), “The Arms of a Fool” (#4), “Brand New Mister Me” (#8), “Untouched” (#14), “Would You Want the World to End” (#12, but #1 in several regional markets), and finally in 1972, a #1 record in “I Ain’t Never” (which had languished at #2 for nine consecutive weeks for Webb Pierce in 1959). He continued to record for MGM through 1975 where he scored two more #2s in a remake of “Sawmill” and “Midnight, Me and The Blues” and three more #3s in “Neon Rose,” “Stomp Them Grapes,” and “Memory Maker.”

Tillis left MGM for MCA in 1976 where the string of hits continued, albeit more heavily produced records with more strings, keyboards, and background singers and far less fiddle and steel guitar. The string of hits continued. He scored nine Top 10 records, including four #1 records in “Good Woman Blues,” “Heart Healer,” “I Believe In You,” and the infamous “Coca-Cola Cowboy.” At #2, “Send Me Down To Tucson” just missed reaching the top on Billboard. A switch to Elektra in late 1979 saw Tillis rack up five more Top 10 singles, including the 1981 #1 “Southern Rain,” but by the end of 1982 his run as a high charting artist was over. There was one last Top 10 record, “New Patches” (released on MCA in 1984). He continued to record for a few more years, releasing an album for RCA in 1985, but eventually he faded off the major labels except for reissues and compilations.

Tillis had about an 18 year run as a top charting artist. He won many BMI awards, including Songwriter of the Decade. In 1976 he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters International Hall of Fame and that same year he was a surprise winner of the Country Music Association’s (CMA) Entertainer of the Year, beating out Waylon, Willie and Dolly for the honor. In June of 2001, he received a Special Citation of Achievement from BMI for three million broadcast performances of “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town.” He received two long-overdue recognitions in 2007 as he was finally inducted as a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 2007 (his daughter Pam performing the ceremony), and in October 2007 he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Along the way Tillis recorded more than 60 albums with 36 top ten singles, appeared on numerous television shows, starred in several movies (Cannonball Run, Cannonball Run II, Smokey and the Bandit II, The Villain, W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings, Uphill All The Way and Every Which Way But Loose) as well as several television movies, including Murder in Music City and A Country Christmas Carol.

Although it has been more than two decades since Tillis was a regularly charting artist, he has been anything but quietly retired. In 1998, he combined with old friends Bobby Bare, Waylon Jennings, and Jerry Reed to record a two-album set, written entirely by another old friend, Shel Silverstein, titled Old Dogs (later condensed into a single disc). Also in 1998, he recorded his first gospel album titled Beyond The Sunset and served as spokesman and honorary chairman for the Stuttering Foundation of America. In recent years he has recorded a Christmas album and a comedy album.

He continues to tour occasionally and for years he had his own theater in Branson, MO (1994-2002). He has since sold the theater, but still appears there during the holidays. He records only occasionally and enjoys life. He is an avid fisherman. In February 2012 he received the National Medal of the Arts, presented to him by President Obama.

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Classic Rewind: Brenda Lee – ‘Broken Trust’

Favorite country songs of the 1980s, Part 3

The 1980s got off to a poor start with the early 1980s producing some of the lamest country music ever recorded, as the Urban Cowboy movie wreaked havoc on the genre. Fortunately, there was still good country music being released. The first flowering of the late 1980s “New Traditionalist” movement arrived in 1981 with the first hits of Ricky Skaggs and George Strait, but they remained outliers until 1986 as far as good new artists were concerned. The latter part of the decade, however, produced some truly excellent country music with the 1986 arrival of Randy Travis and company.

Here are some more songs that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records.

Blue Blooded Woman
Alan Jackson
This 1989 ballad was the opening salvo for the career of Alan Jackson. While the song only reached #45, the next year it was released as the flip side of Alan’s first top five record “Here In The Real World”.

She’s Gone, Gone, GoneCarl Jackson
This 1984 cover of a Lefty Frizzell classic reached #44, the top chart performance for an incredibly talented musician better known for his work in bluegrass/ Americana.

Innocent Lies
Sonny James
After a two year chart absence, the Southern Gentleman resurfaced on the Dimension label for one last top twenty tune in early 1982. According to Billboard, Sonny had and forty-three top tens recordings of which twenty-three went all the way to the top.

Just Give Me What You Think Is FairTommy Jennings with Vern Gosdin
Tommy was Waylon’s younger brother. This was the biggest of his three chart hits, reaching #51 in mid-1980.

Theme From The Dukes of Hazzard
Waylon Jennings
Fess up – we all watched the show, mindless as it was at times . This song would reach the top slot in the fall of 1980, also reaching #21 on Billboard’s Pop Charts.

North WindJim & Jesse with Charlie Louvin
This song reached #56, a very good showing for a bluegrass act in 1982.

Give Me Wings Michael Johnson
The late 1970s-early 1980s were Johnson’s peak as a pop artist with “Bluer Than Blue”, reaching #12 Pop/#1 Easy Listening in 1978. A very talented guitarist and songwriter, Johnson found himself classified as country during the mid-1980s although his basic style remained unchanged. “Give Me Wings” and its follow up “The Moon Is Still On Her Shoulders” would both reach #1 in 1987.

Wine Colored RosesGeorge Jones
The 1980s were a huge decade for King George with three number one records and another fifteen songs that reached the top ten. George is at his best with sad songs and this wistful ballad from 1986 is one of my favorites.

Two Story House George Jones & Tammy Wynette
No longer a married couple, George and Tammy still had enough vocal chemistry to take this 1980 entry to #1 on Cashbox. There would be one more single released on Epic but this marked the end for a remarkable duo.

Why Not MeNaomi & Wynonna Judd
I was not a big fan of the Judds, but I liked this #1 record from 1984.

It’s Who You Love Kieran Kane
Basically an Americana artist, this 1982 hit was one of only two top twenty records Kane would have as a solo artist. A few years later he would be part of a more successful duo.

Thank God For The RadioThe Kendalls
I have no idea why the Kendalls faded away during the 1980s as I would have expected the “New Traditionalist” movement to have resurrected their career. The Kendalls had already started to fade away when this 1984 #1 hit returned them to the top ten for one last visit. Jeannie Kendall is about as good a female vocalist as the genre has seen in the last thirty years.

Oklahoma BorderlineVince Gill
It took Vince a while for his solo career to take off after leaving Pure Prairie League. This song reached #9 in early 1986 and was his second top ten recording. The really big hits would start in 1990 with “When I Call Your Name”.

Walk Softly On This Heart of Mine Kentucky Headhunters
This rocked up cover of a Bill Monroe song landed the group their first top thirty hit in 1989. While they would only have one top ten record, the Kentucky Headhunters brought something different and distinctive to county radio.

Cajun BabyDoug Kershaw with Hank Williams Jr.
This song was set to music by Hank Jr., from some lyrics he found among his father’s papers. Hank got to #3 with the song in 1969, but this time it topped out at #52.

Mister GarfieldMerle Kilgore with Hank Williams Jr. & Johnny Cash
Diehard Johnny Cash fans may remember the song from a 1960s album about the Old West. This 1982 record reached #52. Kilgore didn’t have a lot of chart success as a performer, but he wrote or co-wrote a number of huge hits for others such as “More and More”, “Wolverton Mountain” and “Ring of Fire”.

I Still Miss Someone
Don King
A nice take on a Johnny Cash classic, this 1981 recording topped out at #38 in 1981. Don King was a successful songwriter and publisher who was not wild about touring. When he quit working the road, his road band kept going, changing their name to “Sawyer Brown” and had considerable success.

Killin’ TimeFred Knoblock & Susan Anton
Fred Knoblock is a talented singer; Susan Anton was (is) really pretty. This record made it to #10 in 1981. Go figure.

They Killed HimKris Kristofferson
Most of Kris’s best songs date back to when he was a starving songwriter. This 1987 tribute to Jesus Christ, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King was one of his few later songs that reached his earlier standards. This song deserved a better fate than to be marooned at #67 in 1987, but back then, religious (or even quasi-religious) themes were normally the kiss of death for radio.

Sweet Sexy EyesCristy Lane
The follow up to “One Day At A Time “ (Cristy’s lone #1) this 1980 single saw Cristy returning to the shimmering pop country she had been recording. This record reached #8 in late 1980. This would be Cristy’s last top ten record. She would continue to record pop country for a few more years before turning into a largely religious performer.

Lock Stock and TeardropsKathy Dawn Lang (k.d. lang)
Lang was always a little too left field to have much success at country radio. This single reached #53 in 1988, her third of five charting singles. This song was penned by Roger Miller and this recording is the quintessential recording of the song.

Lady, Lady
Kelly Lang
Her father was Conway Twitty’s road manager, she is married to T.G. Sheppard and she is a very fine singer. Despite all that, this was Kelly’s sole chart entry reaching #88 in 1982.

That’s How You Know When Love’s RightNicolette Larson with Steve Wariner
Basically a pop artist, her “Lotta Love went to #1 on the AC charts in 1978. This song reached #9 in 1986, her only top ten country record. Nicolette sang background on may pop and country recordings. She died in 1997 at the age of 45.

I Wish I Had A Job To ShoveRodney Lay
His biggest hit, this song reached #45 in 1982. Rodney was better known as a musician and was on Hee Haw for a number of years as a member of the house band.

Ten Seconds In The SaddleChris LeDoux
This song reached #96 in 1980, no small feat considering it was pressed on LeDoux’s own label and sold at rodeos. The Garth Brooks tune mentioning him was still five years in the future

Broken TrustBrenda Lee with The Oak Ridge Boys
Brenda’s last top ten record, reaching #9 in 1980. Brenda would continue to chart for another five years, but even if she had ceased charting a decade earlier, she still had a remarkable career.

Cherokee Fiddle
Johnny Lee
Johnny Lee was the ultimate beneficiary of the Urban Cowboy movie. Johnny’s career had gone nowhere in he five years prior to the movie (six chart singles, only one reaching the top twenty). “Looking For Love” kicked off a strong five year run with five #1 records and a bunch more top twenty hits. This record reached #10 in 1982 and remains my favorite of all of his records. Charlie Daniels and Michael Martin Murphey provide backing vocals on this record.