My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: Janie Fricke and Johnny Duncan – ‘Nice ‘n Easy’

Nice ‘n’ Easy was released in October 1980, in response to significant demand for an album that collected the earlier Johnny Duncan recordings that prominently featured Janie Fricke, whether or not Janie was actually credited on the original recordings. It also served as a true duets album.

The album actually falls neatly into two categories: (1) new recordings made in order to have enough tracks to complete an album and give customers who already had the earlier tracks a reason to purchase this album, and (2) the earlier hit singles. The new recordings are on side one of the album, with the older tracks being on side two.

Billy Sherrill was the producer of the album. While albums of this era often did not provide musician credits, the album cover notes tell us that on side one the background singers were Lea Jane Berinati, Jackie Cusic, Larry Keith and Steve Pippin whereas on side two the Nashville Edition provided the background harmonies.

Side one opens with “He’s Out of My Life”, a song written by Tom Bahler. Pop artist Michael Jackson recorded the song on his 1979 album Off The Wall and released it as a top ten pop single. The original title was “She’s Out of My Life”, retitled for duet purposes with Duncan and Fricke swapping verses but most of the song told from the male perspective. I think it is a bit of an overwrought ballad (Bahler wrote it after breaking up with his girl friend) but it works. The song was a #20 country hit for Johnny & Janie in 1980.

He’s out of my life
He’s out of my life

And I don’t know whether to laugh or cry
I don’t know whether to live or die
And it cuts like a knife
He’s out of my life

It’s out of my hands
It’s out of my hands

To think the two years he was here
And I took him for granted, I was so cavalier
Now the way that it stands
He’s out of my hands

Track two is the title cut “Nice ‘n’ Easy” written by Alan Bergman, Marilyn Keith and Lew Spence. The song is best known for Frank Sinatra’s 1960 recording. The Sinatra album Nice ‘n’ Easy was nominated for a Grammy in 1960 and Frank took the title track onto the pop charts that year. Charlie Rich had a minor pop hit with it in 1964, and in later years country radio sometimes played the track (or a later 1970 Epic re-recording of it). It would be blasphemy to suggest that any of the covers were better than Sinatra’s recording (they weren’t) although Rich’s recording was nearly as good.

Let’s take it nice and easy
It’s gonna be so easy
For us to fall in love

Hey baby what’s your hurry
Relax and don’t you worry
We’re gonna fall in love

We’re on the road to romance – that’s safe to say
But let’s make all the stops along the way

The problem now of course is
To simply hold your horses
To rush would be a crime
‘Cause nice and easy does it every time.

Paul Anka is often thought of as a late50s-early 60s teen idol, but he was much more than that, providing a number of classic songs to other artists such as “My Way” to Frank Sinatra and “Guess It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” to Buddy Holly. “(I Believe) There’s Nothing Stronger Than Our Love” is a song that Paul kept this song for himself, recording it as a solo (#15 pop / #3 AC) in 1975 and later as a duet with Odia Coates. It works fine as a duet.

I believe there is nothing stronger than our love
I believe there is nothing stronger than our love
When I’m with you Baby
All my worries disappear

Troubles that surround me
Disappear when you are near
When you need my loving
I’ll be there

“Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)” is a 1960 song written by Clyde Otis, Murray Stein and Brook Benton. It was originally recorded as a duet by Dinah Washington and Brook Benton, and reached #5 pop / #1 R&B. Later recordings include Jerry Lee Lewis & Linda Gail Lewis, Charlie Louvin & Melba Montgomery, Michael Buble (with Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings) and Kevin Mahogany. Obviously it works as a duet, and it works for Duncan and Fricke, although they do not bring the soulfulness to the song that Dinah & Brook achieved, nor the excitement of the Jerry Lee & Linda Gail recording. By the way, if you are unfamiliar with Brook Benton and/or Dinah Washington, you really should check them out.

“Loving Arms” was written by Tom Jans and is a ballad of longing and loneliness that has been recorded many times, initially by Dobie Gray, then Elvis and many times since then including the great Etta James and acts such as the Dixie Chicks. To my knowledge no one has ever had a big hit with the song.

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

This concludes side one of the album. You will note that none of these songs were initially country songs, although all were songs of a good pedigree. By 1980, for better or worse, the ‘Nashville Sound’ era had passed and none of the songs featured string arrangements. The production could best be described as pop-country with steel guitar used mostly as background shading.

Side two collects the Johnny Duncan hits that featured Janie Fricke. Since these songs have already been discussed earlier I will simply touch them lightly.

“Come A Little Bit Closer” was a cover of a Jay & The Americans hit that Johnny and Janie took to #4 in 1977. This song was billed to both of them.

“It Couldn’t Have Been Any Better” went to #1 for Johnny in 1977, his second #1. The string arrangements on this recording are by Bill McElhiney.

“Atlanta Georgia Stray” was not released as a single for Johnny Duncan. It appears on Johnny’s 1977 album Johnny Duncan.

The song was recorded by Kenny Price for RCA in 1969 and made the country charts. I was living in England in 1969, but when I returned to the USA in 1970, I recall the song receiving some airplay as an oldie. I really liked Kenny’s version, but Fricke and Duncan do a reasonable job with the song. Bergan White does the string arrangements

On the Greyhound bus trip home I was feelin’ all alone
When a long haired gal sat down next to me
She said she was Atlanta bound, kill some time, maybe kick around
Cause it sounded like a friendly place to be

From Chicago to Kentucky we just talked awhile
And somewhere in between I was captured by her smile
But why I left the bus in Nashville has been a mystery till today
Cause for two years I’ve been tracking down that Atlanta Georgia stray

“Thinkin’of A Rendezvous” was Johnny’s first #1 county hit in 1976. Bergan White did the string arrangements.

“Stranger”,also from 1976, was Johnny’s second top ten hit reaching #4 country.

I do not mean to downplay Janie Fricke’s contributions to the songs on side two, but they were released as Johnny Duncan records and Janie’s role was less prominent on some of them than on some of the others.

In retrospect, most of our readers will think that the success of these recordings was due to Janie Fricke, since Johnny Duncan dropped out of the music scene for family reasons during the 1980s and then died too young in 2006. He had a significant career and some big hits that did not feature Janie Fricke, including several of my favorites.

Janie, of course, went on to have a brilliant career and is still active today

This album has never been released on CD. The hit singles are available on several Johnny Duncan CDs and possibly some various artist collections. As best as I can tell, the tracks from side one are not available anywhere.

Johnny Duncan and Janie Fricke were both very polished performers and I think most listeners would find the tracks on side one very interesting indeed. This is a well produced album that I would give a B+

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Album Review: The Judds – ‘River Of Time’

river of timeRiver Of Time, released in 1989, was the fifth of six studio albums issued by the Judds. By this time the act was becoming more centered on daughter Wynonna and material more suited to her vocal stylings.

The Judds’ first four full-length albums all went to #1 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, although River Of Time would stall out at #2 (it reached #1 in Canada). Consequently the Judds had Nashville’s A-Team of songwriters pitching material to them.

I do not regard this album as being especially country as the “Soap Sisters” (as Ralph Emery referred to the Judds on his early morning WSMV-TV show in the days before they hit it big) drifted more toward material suitable to Wynonna’s voice. This is an interesting album, with a wide array of material.

Track by Track

“One Man Woman” (Paul Kennerley) – this is a bluesy number about what the narrator is, and what she is looking for (a one woman man). This song was released as a single and reached #8.

“Young Love (Strong Love)” (Kennerley, Kent Robbins) – often simply called “Young Love” is not to be confused with the Sonny James mega-hit of thirty-two years earlier. This song is more of a story song than was Sonny’s classic. This song reached #1 as a single:

She was sitting crossed legged on a hood of a ford
Filing down her nails with a emory board
Talking to her friends about people they knew
And all of the things that young girls do
When she said you see that guy in the baseball cap
I’d like to spend some time with a boy like that

Betty said I seen him at the hardware store
I think his name is Billy, but I’m not sure
And as they talked a little while and he passed by
She smiled at him he just said “hi”
He was thinking to himself as he walked away
Man I’d like to find a girl like her someday

Chorus:
Young love, strong love, true love
It’s a new love
Their gonna make it through the hard times
Walk those lines
Yeah these ties that bind
Young love

“Not My Baby” (Brent Maher, Mike Reid, Mack David) – this is a mid-tempo number that strides the border between jazz and blues. Quitman Dennis takes a nice turn on the clarinet and Sonny Garrish’s tasteful work on the dobro accentuates the effect nicely.

“Let Me Tell You About Love” (Carl Perkins, Kennerley, Maher) – yes, that Carl Perkins. Fittingly, this up-tempo song reached #1:

Well ever since the day that time began
There’s been this thing ‘tween a woman and a manv We’ll, I don’t know but I do believe
It started in the garden with Adam and Eve
Sampson and Delilah had their fling
‘Til she cut his hair and clipped his wing
It don’t matter how the story’s told
Love stays young it can’t grow old

Chorus:
Let me tell you about love
About the moon and stars above
It’s what we’ve all been dreamin’ of
Let me tell you about love

“Sleepless Nights” (Felice Bryant, Boudleaux Bryant) – the husband and wife team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant were legendary songwriters writing many huge hits for the Everly Brothers as well as such country stalwarts as Carl Smith, Jimmie Dickens, Buddy Holly and The Osborne Brothers (“Rocky Top”)River of Time, released in 1989, was the fifth of six studio albums issued by the Judds. By this time the act was becoming more centered on daughter Wynonna and material more suited to her vocal stylings.
The Judds first four full-length albums all went to #1 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, although River of Time would stall out at #2 (it reached #1 in Canada). Consequently the Judds had Nashville’s A-Team of songwriter’s pitching material to them .

I do not regard this album as being especially country as the “Soap Sisters” (as Ralph Emery referred to the Judds on his early morning WSMV-TV show in the days before they hit it big) drifted more toward material suitable to Wynonna’s voice. This is an interesting album, with a wide array of material

Track by Track

“One Man Woman” (Paul Kennerley) – this is a bluesy number about what the narrator is, and what she is looking for (a one woman man). This song was released as a single and reached #8.

“Young Love (Strong Love)” (Kennerley, Kent Robbins) – often simply called “Young Love” is not to be confused with the Sonny James mega-hit of thirty-two years earlier. This song is more of a story song than was Sonny’s classic. This song reached #1 as a single:

She was sitting crossed legged on a hood of a ford
Filing down her nails with a emory board
Talking to her friends about people they knew
And all of the things that young girls do
When she said you see that guy in the baseball cap
I’d like to spend some time with a boy like that

Betty said I seen him at the hardware store
I think his name is Billy, but I’m not sure
And as they talked a little while and he passed by
She smiled at him he just said “hi”
He was thinking to himself as he walked away
Man I’d like to find a girl like her someday
Chorus:
Young love, strong love, true love
It’s a new love
Their gonna make it through the hard times
Walk those lines
Yeah these ties that bind
Young love

“Not My Baby” (Brent Maher, Mike Reid, Mack David) – this is a mid-tempo number that strides the border between jazz and blues. Quitman Dennis takes a nice turn on the clarinet and Sonny Garrish’s tasteful work on the dobro accentuates the effect nicely.

“Let Me Tell You About Love” (Carl Perkins, Kennerley, Maher) – yes, that Carl Perkins. Fittingly, this up-tempo song reached #1:

Well ever since the day that time began
There’s been this thing ‘tween a woman and a manv We’ll, I don’t know but I do believe
It started in the garden with Adam and Eve
Sampson and Delilah had their fling
‘Til she cut his hair and clipped his wing
It don’t matter how the story’s told
Love stays young it can’t grow old
Chorus:
Let me tell you about love
About the moon and stars above
It’s what we’ve all been dreamin’ of
Let me tell you about love

“Sleepless Nights” (Felice Bryant, Boudleaux Bryant) – the husband and wife team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant were legendary songwriters writing many huge hits for the Everly Brothers as well as such country stalwarts as Carl Smith, Jimmie Dickens, Buddy Holly and The Osborne Brothers (“Rocky Top”). This song apparently was written for the Everly Brothers and I remember the Everlys’ recording well (I am a huge Everly Brothers fan). The Judds acquit themselves well, achieving very nice harmonies on this song. I guess it is true that there is nothing like family harmony – I very much like this recording:

Somehow through the days
I don’t give in
I hide the tears
That wait within
Oh, but, then through sleepless nights
I cry again

“Water of Love” (Mark Knopfler) – I know Knopfler mostly from a duet album he cut with Chet Atkins but I understand that his band Dire Straits was hugely successful. This song definitely is not country, it is rather bluesy with a calypso beat:

High and dry in the long hot day
Lost and lonely in every way
Got the flats all around me, sky up above
Yes, I need a little water of love

I’ve been too long lonely and my heart feels pain
Cryin’ out for some soothing rain
I believe I’ve taken enough
Yes, I need a little water of love

“River of Time” (John Jarvis, Naomi Judd) – the title track is a Naomi Judd co-write. The song is a slow ballad with a cocktail lounge jazz piano accompaniment to open the song and more instruments coming in thereafter. The song is nice but at four plus minutes it is too long:

Flow on, river of time
Wash away the pain and heal my mind
Flow on, river of time
Carry me away
And leave it all far behind
Flow on river of time

“Cadillac Red” (Craig Bickhardt, Jarvis, Judd) – this song could be described neo-rockabilly. This kind of song makes for enjoyable listening but is nothing especially memorable. As an album track it serves the purpose of mixing things up after a pair of slow songs:

Well she’s washed and polished
And full of high octane
Ridin’ with the top down
Cruisin’ in the fast land
Her red hairs blowin’ bright as a flame
Cadillac Red’s her name

“Do I Dare” (Don Schlitz, Bickhardt, Maher) – this song addresses the dilemma faced by many a young woman (and perhaps older women as well):

Do I dare show him lovin’?
Do I go for double or nothin’?
Do I act like I don’t care?
Or, do I dare?

Do I do what my heart’s sayin’?
Do I hide my love awaitin’?
Make believe that he’s not there?
Or, do I dare?

This girl’s got a problem
She don’t know what to do
If there’s some way of tellin’
When a man is true

“Guardian Angels” (Schlitz, Jarvis, Judd) – 3:37 – this was the first Judds’ single in six years not to reach the top ten, peaking at #16. This is a nice story song that probably wasn’t a good choice for release as a single, but it is my nominee (along with “Sleepless Nights”) for the best song on the album:

A hundred year old photograph stares out from a frame
And if you look real close you’ll see, our eyes are just the same
I never met them face to face but I still know them well
From the stories my dear grandma would tell

Elijah was a farmer he knew how to make things grow
And Fanny vowed she’d follow him wherever he would go
As things turned out they never left their small Kentucky farm
But he kept her fed, and she kept him warm

Chorus:
They’re my guardian angels and I know they can see
Every step I take, they are watching over me
I might not know where I’m going but I’m sure where I come from
They’re my guardian angels and I’m their special one

I had heard the four singles from this album, plus my local radio station had played “Cadillac Red” a few times, so I had only heard half the album until a few weeks ago. The songs not previously heard provide a rich cornucopia of musical styles and point to Wynonna’s soon to follow solo career.

I would give this album a B+, mostly because I wasn’t that fond of “Water of Love” and “River of Time”. The album is worth seeking out and is available digitally.

Album Review: Hank Williams Jr and Lois Johnson – ‘Give Me Some Lovin”

1399982Hank Williams, JR followed Removing The Shadow with another duets record with Lois Johnson. Released in 1972, Send Me Some Lovin’ was Hank’s twentieth release for MGM Records.

The ten-track album was dominated by Hank’s versions of cover tunes. The title track was originally sung by the likes of Buddy Holly, Little Richard and Otis Redding. The pair transforms the ballad into a solid honky-tonker complete with ample steel guitar and appealing drum work.

“Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line” becomes charmingly playful in their hands, with the pair trading verses, as Hank turns cautionary as the song becomes about her father. The arrangement is faithful to the song, but strong nonetheless.

I first came to know “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” when Neil McCoy had a version I adored twenty years ago. I soon came to learn the song’s origins date back to Eddy Arnold. Hank and Lois sing beautifully, but the production is horrendous. I hate the early 1970s sheen on the track, which might’ve been hip at the time, but horribly dates the proceedings today.

Johnny Paycheck had the original version of “Someone To Give My Love To” before it was covered by the likes of Connie Smith and Tracy Byrd. Hank and Lois had their shot with the song, too, and their version is a lovely and tender ballad that I quite like.

“Why Should We Try Anymore” was originally made famous by Hank Sr. Hank and Lois turn in a stunning reading complete with delightful steel and a delicious ache in their voices. The pair also recorded “You’re Gonna Change (Or I’m Gonna Leave)” to similar results.

The album as a whole is a delightful affair even if it falls victim to the trappings of early 1970s music. The pair, whom I’d never heard sing together before, are wonderful together. Like a lot of music from this time, Send Me Some Lovin’ isn’t of my era so I’m not terribly familiar with the majority of songs. I really liked what I heard, though, even if I couldn’t really connect with it.

Grade: B

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.

Spotlight Artist: Waylon Jennings – the early years

waylon jennings 1960sAlthough Waylon Jennings didn’t quite make it to age sixty-five, he led a full and adventurous life, as related in his ‘warts and all” autobiography Waylon Jennings: An Autobiography. Starting out as a protégé of Buddy Holly (but not a member of the Crickets, as some have stated) and working his way thorough musical relationships with Herb Alpert, Bobby Bare, Jessi Colter, Johnny Cash, Chet Atkins, Willie Nelson and countless others, Waylon brought rock and roll sensibility without ever losing or burying the finest traditions of country music.

Waylon was first brought to prominence as a band member for Buddy Holly. When Holly died in that famous plane crash sometimes described as ‘the day the music died’, Waylon was racked by guilt as he had been slated to fly on that fateful flight that killed Holly, J.P. ‘Big Bopper” Richardson and Richard Valenzuela (aka Richie Valens) but had given up his seat to the Big Bopper. It took Waylon a while to get his bearings after that but he eventually landed with Herb Alpert, co-founder of A&M Records who produced some recordings on Waylon. While still on A&M, Bobby Bare brought Waylon to the attention of Chet Atkins at RCA and Alpert graciously released Waylon from his A&M contract.

I first had heard Waylon Jennings on the radio long before 1968, but the summer of 1968 was the first time I ever had money enough to buy record albums. During the 1960s and early 1970s most artists put out only one or two singles per album, so if you didn’t purchase the albums, the depth of a performer’s artistry could remain hidden.

In July of 1968, “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line” was released on an unsuspecting radio audience. Tougher and meaner than anything else on the radio, it gave Waylon his first #1 record reaching #1 on Record World’s country chart. The song didn’t quite reach the top on Billboard, reaching #2 for five weeks . The song also coincided with my increased exchequer so when the album Only The Greatest became available, I purchased it, the first of many Waylon Jennings albums I would purchase. Over the course of the next few years, I caught up on his RCA back catalogue and purchased the new albums as they became available. I still listen to those albums today and regard them as his finest endeavors.

Our August spotlight artist is the ‘pre-outlaw’ Waylon Jennings. While he didn’t have the raw sound of his stage band on these recordings, Waylon made a bunch of strong albums with rarely a dud track, let alone any dud albums, among them.

While the ‘outlaw’ recordings of Waylon Jennings are generally better remembered, what is overlooked is that generally Waylon, like his contemporary Willie Nelson, was not unhappy about the songs he was recording, but about the way the songs were being presented on his recordings. The 1960s were the era of the ‘Nashville Sound’ with its full complement of background singers (usually the Anita Kerr Singers on RCA), orchestral arrangements and RCA’s studio musicians, with resulting records that the artist could not replicate in live performance. Waylon was rebelling against all of the accoutrements and striving to achieve a more basic and more organic sound. The so-called ‘outlaw movement’ was about the singer having greater control over the music but there was also a strong ‘forward to the past’ element to it.

Most people, including my colleagues here at MY KIND OF COUNTRY, will be making their first acquaintance with many of these recordings. I envy them the thrill of discovery they will have upon first encountering these recordings, for in my opinion these recordings are ONLY THE GREATEST.

Album Review: Dean Dillon – ‘Out Of Your Ever Lovin’ Mind’

31zL+wHAa1LIt isn’t terribly difficult to understand why Dean Dillon never became a major recording star; as it has been noted by others several times already, at times he sounds like George Strait and, at other times, Keith Whitley, but he is a decidedly less distinctive vocalist than either of them. He’d also discovered that it was more lucrative to pitch his best material to country music’s heavy hitters, rather than saving them for himself. The combination of a lesser vocalist and less than first-rate material is hardly a formula for success.

Nevertheless, none of this means that Dillon’s recordings are not worthwhile; on the contrary, most his albums contain at least a handful of enjoyable tracks. 1991’s Out Of Your Ever Lovin’ Mind is a prime example. Co-produced with Blake Mevis, it was Dillon’s first release for Atlantic Records and his highest-charting solo album, peaking at #58. Because of his close ties with George Strait, Dean Dillon’s name is associated with traditional country music. It is, therefore, somewhat surprising to hear the pop influences that permeate many of the album’s tracks. Synthesized keyboards – which I thought were pretty much out of vogue by 1991 – are quite prominent on many songs, including the opening track “Friday Night’s Woman”, a somewhat dull number that was the collection’s only single to crack the Top 40 (landing at #39), as well as the schmaltzy “Best Love Friends”, which is a Dillon co-write with Buddy Cannon and Vern Gosdin. The saxophone-laced “She Knows What She Wants” sounds like something Dan Seals might have recorded during his “Bop” era. The more traditional “Holed Up In Some Honky Tonk”, which preceded “Friday Night’s Woman” as the album’s first single, draws more comparisons to Keith Whitley but unfortunately every time I listen to it I can’t help thinking that Whitley would have done a much better job with the song.

Fortunately, despite getting off to a rocky start, the album does pick up by the fifth track. “Holding My Own”, arguably the album’s best track, preceded the better-known George Strait version by a year. It’s a decent effort, but again, the keyboards make the track sound instantly dated. “Don’t You Even (Think About Leaving’)” is a pleasant, though not terribly memorable song that at least doesn’t cause the listener to think about other singers. It was the album’s third and final single, peaking at #62. “Her Thinkin’ I’m Doing Her Wrong (Ain’t Doing Me Right)” is another Keith Whitley type number but unlike “Holed Up In Some Honky Tonk”, it is a great song and it’s a bit surprising that someone else didn’t come along and have a hit with it.

“A Country Boy (Who Rolled The Rock Away)” is a surprisingly effective Buddy Holly tribute; “You Must Be Out Of Your Ever Lovin’ Mind” is superior to any of the album’s singles.

Out Of Your Ever Lovin’ Mind is not a great album, but it is an above-average effort that recovers nicely after the first three tracks, with a few moments (“Holding My Own”, “Her Thinkin’ I’m Doin’ Her Wrong” and the title track) that approach greatness. There is nothing ground-breaking or earth-shattering here, but it’s worth picking up a cheap copy.

Grade: B

Favorite Country Songs Of The 80s: Part 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Album Review: Aaron Watson – ‘San Angelo’

san angeloSan Angelo was Aaron Watson’s sixth album and his first album to reach Billboard’s Country Albums chart, peaking at #60 in 2006. From this point forward all of Aaron’s albums would receive nationwide exposure.

The album opens up with “Heyday Tonight” a good up-tempo country honker that would have fit in the repertoire of any dance hall band of the period. Aaron composed this song as he did the second song on the album “Good Thing Going” about a good love that got away due to the narrator’s failure to tend to business. It’s a bit lightweight in terms of lyrics, but it is pleasant listening.

The third song finds Aaron covering a Frank Dycus – Jim Lauderdale composition “In Harm’s Way” that could easily have been a hit for someone. Frankly, I would have expected George Strait to have wound up with this song.

I didn’t know my heart
Was in harm’s way
I couldn’t see the truth
Till it was in my face
If I’d seen it coming
I could have turned away
I didn’t know my heart
Was in harm’s way

Aaron co-wrote “3rd Gear & 17” with Drew Womack, another song of lost love, this one with a football backdrop about a fellow who left to play college football, losing the girl he left behind.

“Unbelievably Beautiful” is another Aaron Watson composition, with a laid-back, almost jazzy vibe to it. While I don’t think the song had any potential as a single, it makes a nice change of pace within the context of the album.

“Haunted House” is another Watson composition, this one a fine mid-tempo exposition of a love gone wrong.

Willie Nelson has written many fine songs in his long career. “I’m A Memory” wasn’t a huge hit for Willie (#28 for Willie on RCA in 1971) but it was always one of my favorite of his songs. Aaron does the song justice with an arrangement similar to Willie’s arrangement but with steel guitar and fiddle added to the mix.

I’m a game that you used to play
And I’m a plan that you didn’t lay so well
And I’m a fire that burns in your mind
So close your eyes I’m a memory

The title track “San Angelo” is one of those hard-edged about love and heartbreak that Aaron writes so convincingly. The medium-slow tempo fits the song perfectly.

She said time would heal my broken heart
And I’d find a true companion for my soul
You know she was right, we were wrong
Nothing more than a pretty song
About a boy who loved a girl
In San Angelo

“Except For Jessie” is Aaron’s wonderful tribute to Waylon Jennings and his lady Jessi Colter . The song is a four minute biography of Waylon’s life. Although a bit of a novelty, with a sound reminiscent of some of Waylon’s songs, it is an effective song. I doubt Waylon ever got to hear the song (I don’t know when it was written) but he surely would have approved.

Well, before she came along he was lonesome, on’ry and mean
It was his way or the highway
But she had a way that he’d never seen
He’d been livin’ hard and fast
All his takin’ was takin’ it’s toll
And it took a good hearted, hard headed angel
To help him gain control

Bruce Robison wrote the slow ballad “Blame It On Me”. It’s a nice song, and Aaron gives the song a proper reading.

‘All American Country Girl ” is the worst song on the album, a lightweight piece of fluff that is would work well on the dance floor. It’s not bad – I’d give the song a C+ – but the rest of the album is better.

Buddy Holly’s “True Love Ways” was an interesting choice for Aaron to cover. I am afraid that Buddy is slowly being forgotten as I hear no trace of his influence in today’s country music whereas through the 1980s it was fairly common for his songs to pop up on country albums. Mickey Gilley’s cover of this song in 1980 went to #1 and Peter & Gordon had a #14 pop hit with the song in 1965. I really like Aaron’s recording which nicely combines fiddle and steel as well as featuring more piano that the rest of the album.

Aaron co-wrote “Nobody’s Crying But The Baby” with Gary Nicholson. I think this song would have made an effective single for someone:

With her little one in one arm
And the laundry in the other
She could sure use a helping hand
But that’s just the life of a single mother

Somebody’s calling on the phone
Somebody’s knocking at the door
She forgets and burns the dinner
Throws it across the kitchen floor
And for a moment she wants to give up and break down

But nobody’s crying but the baby
She ain’t far from going crazy
And there are times she wonders how she’s going to make it
But she’s got to be strong enough for two
She’s gotta do what he wouldn’t do
No time for tears around here
Nobody’s crying but the baby

I thoroughly enjoy this album from start to finish each time I pull it out to play. I’d give it an 4.5 stars. Ray Benson produced the album, and this is a country album – no doubt about it.

Grade: A-

Fellow Travelers: Pure Prairie League

pure prairie leagueThere were many rock groups during the late 1960s and early 1970s that straddled the line between rock and country music. Most of them (Poco, The Byrds – but only for one album, Matthews Southern Comfort, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Crosby Stills & Nash) were definitely more rock than country.

My favorite of these rock-country/country rock groups was Pure Prairie League. The fact that they were my personal favorite probably explains their relative lack of commercial success.

Who Were They?

Pure Prairie League (“PPL”) was formed in the mid-1960s by Craig Fuller with the band carrying a number of names before then-band member Tommy McGrail came up with Pure Prairie League, named after a fictitious temperance union featured in the 1939 movie DODGE CITY starring Errol Flynn. From 1970 onward (and occasionally before), the band lineup featured a steel guitar.

During the early 1970s Pure Prairie League never received the country airplay they deserved, although many country stations would play an occasional track or two, but their success at college radio stations kept them in the public eye and in 1975 caused their initial label RCA for whom they had cut two albums in 1972 (PURE PRAIRIE LEAGUE and BUSTIN’ OUT) to track them down and re-sign them to the label to do some more recording. The single released by RCA from BUSTIN’OUT benefited from the additional promotion from RCA and charted in 1975 reaching #27 on Billboard’s Pop chart and making a bigger impact in Canada reaching #40 on the Canadian Pop chart and # 19 on the Canadian Adult Contemporary chart. Although “Amie”, with Craig Fuller on lead vocals, did not chart on the country charts, it did become a staple as a country ‘oldie’ on country stations everywhere. One single, their 1976 cover of Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be The Day” did creep into the lower reaches of the Country chart.

Over the years PPL recorded for a number of record labels and had various musicians flowing in and out of the band. PPL has disbanded and reunited at several points along the way. Although “Amie” is the best remembered of their songs, 1980’s “Let Me Love You Tonight” was their biggest hit reaching #10 Pop and #1 Adult Contemporary. From 1975-1981 the band charted eight pop singles. As of 2014, the band is still intact and performing about 100 dates annually. PPL also charted nine albums from 1972 to 1981 with TWO LANE HIGHWAY reaching #24 on Billboard’s POP album chart.

What Was Their Connection to County Music?

PPL’s importance to country music can be summarized as follows:

1) “Amie

2) Vince Gill – vocalist from 1978-1981 and lead vocalist on “Let Me Love You Tonight”

3) “I’ll Change Your Flat Tire, Merle” – track on 1975 album TWO LANE HIGHWAY, a track which does more than simply name-check the greatest singer in country music history

4) TAKIN’ THE STAGE – really fine two album live set from 1977 that shows that PPL wasn’t a studio creation as the bad nearly replicates the sound of their studio albums. I didn’t list this in my list of the greatest live country albums a few years back because I regard PPL as not quite country, but I sure was tempted to list it

Album Review: Martina McBride – ‘Timeless’

Timeless

Timeless

By 2005 Martina McBride’s music had seemingly progressed further and further away from her country roots. She showed she had not forgotten those roots by recording a classic covers album. Tt was received enthusiastically by her fans – in fact she achieved her highest ever first-week sales with this release, and the album was ultimately a platinum seller despite poor radio support.

The prospect of one of the finest and most naturally gifted country singers of her generation tackling great songs with mostly more traditional country arrangements was mouthwatering. There was also an exceptionally generous number of tracks – the standard US edition boasted 18 songs, with four added tracks on the European version. The vocals, as expected, are impeccable, and the beautifully realised arrangements are reverent recreations of the originals – but that is really the main criticism that the album faces – some critics complained that Martina was too faithful to the original versions and brought too little new. Martina had co-produced some of her earlier albums, but produced this one solo.

The lead single was Lynn Anderson’s signature song ‘Rose Garden’, which made it into the top 20 for Martina. This was probably a poor choice as it is one of the more dated sounding tracks with an efficient but somewhat anonymous vocal, and a timeless sounding ballad with more emotional weight would have been a more comfortable fit for Martina’s fans and country radio; my feeling is that this single choice set the tone for the album’s under-performance at radio., which was unfortunate.

The second, and much better, single was a beautiful version of ‘I Still Miss Someone’, with Dolly Parton harmonising. Unfortunately I think the poor showing of ‘Rose Garden’ meant radio had no enthusiasm for another cover, and it peaked at #50, but had this been the first release, I suspect it would have done better.

Another highlight comes with the beautiful, measured melancholy of Martina’s version of the Haggard classic ‘Today I Started Loving You Again’, where she brings out the sadness of the song’s emotion, and does succeed in making it her own (and entirely convincing). This is one of the finest moments of Martina’s career from an artistic viewpoint, and really deserved wider dissemination. ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’ and Tammy Wynette’s ‘Til I Can Make It On My Own’ are also exqusitely done with sensitively interpreted vocals and subtle interpretations.

A pensive ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ recalls the Nashville Sound with its dated backing vocals but lovely steel in the arrangement. Martina’s emotional vocal is one of her best performances, but this is a case where fidelity to the original version was unwise (because the strings overwhelm it towards the end).

The very authentic steel-heavy treatment of the Hank Williams classic ‘You Win Again’ is the most traditional Martina has ever been, with an arrangement identical to the original. What she does bring of her own to the performance, is a sensitive, believable vocal which works well.

Martina brings some personality to a perky ‘I’ll Be There’, backed up by Dan Tyminski and Rhonda Vincent. ‘You Ain’t Woman Enough’ (the third single) is confident and sassy but lightweight compared to Loretta Lynn’s original. Similarly, ‘Once A Day’ is fine, but not as good as Connie Smith’s peerless original and Martina does not convince the hearer of her emotional meltdown here. ‘Pick Me Up On Your Way Down’ and a brisk take on ‘Thanks A Lot’ also sound a bit too upbeat for the material.

‘Love’s Gonna Live Here Again’ isn’t bad but feels a little characterless vocally. ‘Heartaches By The Number’ is more successful, sung with great energy and characteristic harmonies from Dwight Yoakam. ‘Satin Sheets’ boasts another excellent performance from Martina.

‘I Don’t Hurt Anymore’ (one of the less remembered songs today, it was a massive hit in the 50s for Hank Snow, staying at #1 for over 20 weeks) is done well, with a bright, liquid vocal and attractive melody. ‘Make The World Go Away’ is nicely done (but pales compared to the most recent version of the song by Jamey Johnson and Alison Krauss).

Smoothly and sweetly sung, Buddy Holly’s ‘True Love Ways’ is rather reminiscent of some of Patsy Cline’s more sophisticated pop work from her later career; it seems rather a shame, in retrospect that Martina didn’t pick one of Patsy’s signature songs because I feel they would have suited her really well.

The European release included four bonus tracks. ‘Dreaming My Dreams With You’ has a very pretty piano-led arrangement and gentle, melodic vocal. An understated take on ‘Crying Time’ loaded with steel is very fine indeed, and I also enjoyed Martina’s version of ‘Take These Chains From My Heart’. The cheating song ‘Walk On By’ rounds out the selection with another fine performance.

Lack of originality aside, this album features great songs sung extremely well by a very fine singer, and is well worth catching up with, but get the European release if you can for the added material.

Grade: A

Favorite country songs of the 1980s, Part 1

The 1980s were a mixed bag, with the early 1980s producing some of the lamest country music ever recorded, as the Urban Cowboy movie wrecked 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.

This list is meant neither to be a comprehensive list of great country songs from the 1980s, nor any sort of ranking of records. It’s just a list of some songs that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records.

If You’re Gonna Play In Texas (You Gotta Have A Fiddle In The Band)“ – Alabama
Alabama made excellent music during the 1980s, although the country content of some of it was suspect. Not this song, which is dominated by fiddle. One of the few up-tempo Alabama records that swings rather than rocks.

I’ve Been Wrong Before” – Deborah Allen
An accomplished songwriter who wrote many hits for others, particularly with Rafe VanHoy, this was one of three top ten tunes for Ms. Allen, reaching #2 in 1984. This is much more country sounding than her other big hit “Baby I Lied”.

Last of The Silver Screen Cowboys” – Rex Allen Jr.
After some success as a pop-country balladeer, Rex Jr. turned increasing to western-themed material as the 1980s rolled along. This was not a big hit, reaching #43 in 1982, but it featured legendary music/film stars Roy Rogers and Rex Allen Sr. on backing vocals.

“Southern Fried” – Bill Anderson
This was Whispering Bill’s first release for Southern Tracks after spending over twenty years recording for Decca/MCA. Bill was no longer a chart force and this song only reached #42 in 1982, but as the chorus notes: “We like Richard Petty, Conway Twitty and the Charlie Daniels Band”.

Indeed we do. Read more of this post

Album Review – The O’Kanes – ‘Tired of the Runnin’

In 1988, The O’Kanes followed up their successful debut album with Tired of the Runnin’ which continued their short hot streak on the charts. It would also mark their commercial peak, as a third album, Imagine That, would come without much fanfare in 1990.

The first single, “One True Love” would peak just inside the top 5 in 1988. The tune perfectly showcases the duos distinct harmonies and features snarly guitar riffs that recall the California rock sounds of Fleetwood Mac and has echoes of Linda Ronstadt in the drum work. The production works to frame the duo vocally, but the lightness of the lyrical bed ultimately leave the song feeling a tiny bit less than memorable.

The second single, “Blue Love” marked the end in their streak of top ten singles, peaking at #10 in 1988. Written by the duo, the song stands as a warning to love and its effects on the human psyche:

One day, your love is, one day your love is, so true

Next day, you’re changin’, next day, you changin’, your mood

I just can’t take it, I just can’t take your blue love

A much better song than the first single, “Blue Love” succeeds on its sing-a-long melody and fusion of lead guitar and drumbeats. Vocally, it seems, the duo are channeling Buddy Holly and as a package the whole thing works.

A third single, “Rocky Road” was also released in 1988 but only managed to peak at #71. That radio ignored the tune isn’t entirely surprising; the nearly seven minute harmonica laced ballad about going down the “rocky road of love” was just out of step enough with the neotraditionalism favored by country radio at the time. But it’s still an outstanding track by all accounts and the folksy production is as delightful to listen to today as it was nearly 25 years ago.

“All Because of You,” another drum and mandolin soaked track is a love letter to the woman who has made life all the better:

Look at me feeling good

Who’d have thought I ever would

See my dreams come to light

See the dark turning bright

For the first time I feel more than good

All because of you

The hopeful message is another album standout and a delight to listen to. The catchy melody draws in the listener making them want to hear the song until the end.

Another great song is the Celtic flavored “If I Could Be There” which was covered by Emmylou Harris on her Live At the Ryman album from 1992. The sparse production made up of fiddle, mandolin and guitars works like magic to frame the duo vocally and draws the listener into the story of a person’s obligation to their work taking precedence over where they wish they could be:

If I could be there

I’d be there tonight comforting you

This road I’m on is so far away, too far away

If God would grant me wings to fly

I’d be in your arms by and by

If I could be there

I’d be there tonight comforting you

The funky “Highway 55,” which opens with a distinct plucking of strings, was nothing like I was expecting. I love the overall mood of the track and the harmonies elevate it to a higher level. Plus the overall sound is very reminiscent of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. But in context with the rest of the project, it doesn’t quite work.

Much like “Highway 55,” “All My Heart” features a similar funky arrangement but it’s paired with a somewhat haunting vocal. In comparison to the rest of the album the song is a little strange and stands out because of it. It’s safe to say it isn’t one of my favorite songs on the project.

Another weird song, “Isn’t That So” has somewhat of a party vibe suggested by what appears to be steel drums in the opening. Like “All My Heart,” this song also doesn’t gel with the rest of the project.

The bluegrass heavy title track features a driving melody in sharp contrast to the story of a fatherless boy. The story is quite effective and does a nice of job of outlining the effects of growing up without a father figure. I wasn’t sold on the contrast in lyrics and production at first, but the fast-paced melody succeeds in highlighting the fact this guy is still running his way through life sort of as a vagabond.

The album nicely picks up again with “I’m Lonely” which retains the sound featured on the singles. It’s hard to see why this wasn’t released instead of “Rocky Road” as it most likely would’ve extended the duo’s time in the top 10 by at least one more song.

All and all Tired of the Runnin’ is an above average collection of music from an underrated duo with a short chart life. I hadn’t heard their music prior to writing this review and liked most of what I heard. Unfortunately the album is out of print, but it’s worth seeking out a copy if you can find it.

Grade: B+ 

Classic Rewind: Sweethearts Of The Rodeo – ‘Changing All Those Changes’

Introduced by Kris Kristofferson, the sisters covering Buddy Holly:

Country Heritage: Hawkshaw Hawkins

In Rock & Roll, February 3, 1959, is known as “The Day The Music Died.” On that date a small plane crash in Iowa claimed the lives of Charles Hardin “Buddy Holly” Holley, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Richard “Richie Valens” Valenzuela. Holly was already a superstar, The Big Bopper was a songwriter with a few hits of his own, and Valens was a rising star, en route to becoming the first Latino Rock & Roll star.

If country music can be said to have a “Day The Music Died,” that date surely is March 5, 1963, when a plane crash claimed the lives of Virgina Hensley (aka Patsy Cline), Lloyd “Cowboy” Copas and Harold Franklin “Hawkshaw” Hawkins.” At the time of the crash Cline had arrived as a major country star with huge pop success on the horizon and Cowboy Copas was a major star in the late 1940s and early 1950s, who had experienced a late career renaissance in 1960 with “Alabam.” The third victim, Hawkshaw Hawkins, was a veteran artist who had been recording for 15 years but was on the verge of a major breakthrough at the age of 41.

Hawkshaw Hawkins was born in 1921, in Huntington, West Virginia.  The nickname ‘Hawkshaw’ dates to his childhood when he successfully helped a friend track down a pair of missing fishing poles. The friend dubbed him Hawkshaw the Detective based on a comic strip. The nickname was to stick with him throughout his life (he was also sometimes called “The Hawk”). At the age of 13, he is alleged to have traded five rabbits for a homemade guitar and taught himself to play it. Within a few years he had become sufficiently proficient with the guitar that he won a talent contest at local radio station WSAZ. Following his win, he began working at the station, eventually moving to WCHS in Charleston by the end of the 1930s.

In 1940 he married Reva Barbour, a 16 year old beauty from Huntington; the marriage lasted until 1958. During 1941, he traveled the United States with a wild west revue, but in late 1942 Hawkins entered the army and served as an engineer, stationed near Paris, Texas where he and friends would sneak out on Friday and Saturday nights to perform at local clubs. Later stationed in Europe, by now attaining the rank of Staff Sergeant, he participated in the Battle of the Bulge, winning four battle stars during his 15 months of combat duty. Afterward he spent time in Manila in the Philippines and had a radio show on WVTM.

Discharged from the military in late 1945, he returned to West Virginia and gained a spot on the WWVA Wheeling Jamboree, where he remained for over eight years. A large man (6’6″) with a deep voice, Hawkins became a popular performer due to his engaging personality. In fact, he became a huge star without becoming a recording star, although his recording career started shortly after joining the Jamboree in 1946. Hawkshaw and Reva adopted a daughter, Susan Marlene, in 1947, but, to the best of my knowledge, had no other children.

Hawkshaw had a few chart hits on King from 1948-51, then disappeared from the charts. The hits were “Pan American” (#9), “Dog House Boogie” (#6), “I Wasted A Nickel” (#15), “I Love You A Thousand Ways” (#8), “I’m Waiting Just For You” (#8) and “Slow Poke” (#7). Although his chart success was small, his records sold well and many were regional hits that did not chart nationally, including his signature song “Sunny Side of The Mountain.”

In 1953 he signed with RCA Victor, and by 1955 Hawkins had become a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry. He made some great recordings while with RCA but scored no hit records. A switch to Columbia in 1959 found “Soldiers Joy” reach #15 but there was no further action on the Billboard charts, although four of his other Columbia singles charted on Cash Box, most notably “Darkness On The Face of The Earth,” which reached #11 on the Cash Box country chart. He married future Country Music Hall of Fame member  Jean Shepard in 1960. In mid-1962, after an absence of nine years, he re-signed with King Records. The first two singles “Silver Threads And Golden Needles” and “Bad News Travels Fast (In Our Town)” received considerable acclaim, although neither charted on Billboard (“Bad New Travels Fast” did crack the Cash Box Top 40). On March 2, 1963, King released a Justin Tubb-penned song, “Lonesome 7-7203,” that they had high hopes would be Hawkins’ breakthrough single, just as “Alabam” had been for Cowboy Copas in 1960.

Unfortunately, that’s the end of the story as on March 5, 1963 Hawkshaw Hawkins died in the crash that took the lives of Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas and Randy Hughes (pilot, Patsy’s manager, and Copas’ son-in-law). At the time of his death Jean Shepard was pregnant with son Harold “Hawkshaw Jr,” who would be born a few weeks after the crash. The couple also had a son born the year before they named Don Robbin Hawkins after Don Gibson and Marty Robbins.

“Lonesome 7-7203” did everything King Records and Hawkins had hoped it would do, flying to #1 on both Billboard and Cashbox for four weeks. Unfortunately, King did not have much unreleased material in the vaults and so there were no further chart singles for Hawkshaw Hawkins.

Discography

Vinyl

Relatively few Hawkshaw Hawkins albums were issued during his lifetime; most of his recorded output before 1963 was in the form of 45 rpm and 78 rpm singles. In 1958 and 1959, King finally issued a pair of albums collecting old singles, Volume 1 (1958) and Volume 2 (1959). After Hawkins re-signed with King in 1962, the label released All New (1962), which included “Lonesome 7-7203,” the third single to be released from the album. After his death, King, RCA and Columbia emptied their vaults, releasing whatever material they had.

CD

Hawkshaw Hawkins received the usual neglect during the digital era, although King issued a few budget-line CDs with 10 songs, and threw his material on various anthologies with other artists. Finally in 1991, Bear Family released a comprehensive, three-disc overview of his RCA and Columbia Records called Hawk that sells for around $80.

If $80 is too rich for your budget, Collectibles has issued a set titled Country Gentleman: Hawkshaw Hawkins Sings that collects two old RCA Camden albums. Also, Bear Family has finally relented and started issuing smaller sets. Car Hoppin’ Mama, part of their “Gonna Shake This Shack” series has 16 older King tracks and 17 RCA tracks.

Other than that there isn’t much except for the miscellaneous Gusto/King/Starday/Federal/TeeVee/Cindy Lou/Nashville reissues that generally contain 9-12 tracks and overlap each other considerably–and are variously in and out of print. The Collectibles and Bear Family set are highly recommended. The other sets are variable in terms of digital remastering but worth picking up if you can find them cheaply enough.

If you don’t mind high quality CD-R recordings the British Archive of Country Music, an obsessive bunch who carry much otherwise unavailable country / roots music from the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, have two Hawkshaw Hawkins recordings available. Their product can obtained from their website – look around a little – you’ll be astounded at what can be obtained from them.

Hawkshaw’s widow, Jean Shepard, eventually remarried and continues to perform, mostly at the Grand Old Opry, although at 78 years old she is not as active as once was the case. Sometimes she performs with her son Hawkshaw Hawkins, Jr., who strongly resembles his father facially, although he is about six inches shorter. He’s a fine singer and has recorded several CDs which you may be able to find at the Ernest Tubb record shop.

Country Heritage: Sonny James

“Let’s give a big Sarasota welcome to Capitol recording artist Sonny James and his Southern Gentlemen.”

Record labels do not have the aura that they had during the period of the 1940s–1970s, when artists were associated by the public with their record labels, and the record labels often put together tours of their artists. If you listen to live record radio programs of the period (or even live record albums), invariably the announcer would say something like this in introducing the artist “… and make welcome Capitol recording artist …”

The Big Four labels through the “Classic Period” of country music history (roughly 1950-1980) were, in order, Columbia/Epic, RCA, MCA/Decca and Capitol. Capitol was the smallest of the labels of the Big Four, with a shallower roster of artists, but during the period 1963-1972 Capitol had three artists who dominated in #1 records – Sonny James with 21 #1s, Buck Owens with 19 #1s and Merle Haggard with 13 #1s (according to Billboard). Yes, I know that all three artists had Billboard #1 records outside this decade, which ends when Sonny James left Capitol to sign with Columbia.

Sonny James is largely forgotten today, since when he retired, he really meant it. The raw numbers compiled by Billboard disguise the level of his success – Joel Whitburn has him as the #12 artist of the 1960s and the #10 artist of the 1970s but as of year-end 1997, Whitburn had Sonny James as #18 all-time. As of 2008, Whitburn still has him ranked at #22 all-time. Sonny James ranks ahead of many famous performers including Tanya Tucker, Kenny Rogers, Porter Wagoner, Tammy Wynette, Don Williams and Garth Brooks.

Born May 1, 1929 in the agricultural town of Hackleberg, Alabama, James Hugh Loden grew up in a musical family, singing with older sisters in the Loden Family group. While still a teen, Loden hosted his own radio show in Birmingham, Alabama. By the time James Loden entered the National Guard at the end of the 1940s, he was a seasoned professional entertainer. Although he had already finished his tour with the National Guard, the outbreak of hostilities in Korea resulted in Loden being recalled to active duty in September 1950, where he remained for the better part of two years.

Along the way James Loden had become friends with Chet Atkins who introduced Loden to Ken Nelson, famed record producer for Capitol Records. It was Ken Nelson who tagged James Loden with the Sonny James sobriquet, although apparently “Sonny” sometimes had been used as a nickname for Loden.

Ken Nelson started releasing singles on Sonny James in 1953. Some of the singles charted (others didn’t), starting with Sonny’s version of a song that Webb Pierce covered, “That’s Me Without You”, which reached #9 in 1953. Sonny would chart four more records through 1956, the biggest being “For Rent (One Empty Heart)” which reached #7 in early 1956. Sonny James was making inroads on television as well, appearing on the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, and on the nationally televised Ozark Jubilee hosting the first thirty minutes on a rotating basis with Porter Wagoner and Webb Pierce (Red Foley hosted the final hour of the show).

Sonny’s career song “Young Love” came to Sonny’s attention in 1956 through the recording of one of the co-writers, Ric Cartey. Ric’s record went nowhere but Sonny’s cover shot quickly up the charts reaching #1 for nine weeks in 1957 and reaching #1 on the Pop Charts as well, although Sonny’s recording was eclipsed on the Pop Charts by a note-for-note cover by actor Tab Hunter. Sonny feels that the opportunity for Tab’s cover to succeed came because Capitol could not keep up with the demand for the record.

Despite the success of “Young Love” (the flip side “You’re The Reason I’m In Love” reached #6) Sonny’s career did not kick into overdrive, as subsequent singles failed to maintain the momentum. By 1960 Sonny was off Capitol and recorded for NRC, RCA and Dot without notable success. From early 1958 until July 1963, Sonny charted only one single, that on the NRC label, “Jenny Lou”, which just missed the top twenty.

Reconnecting with producer Ken Nelson at Capitol in 1963, Sonny’s chart success resumed with some top ten singles. Then in January 1965 Sonny kicked off a run of singles that ran from 1965-1972 in which every single made it to the top three on Billboard’s country charts, a total of 25 in all, including a run in which sixteen consecutive singles made it to #1, a record later eclipsed by Alabama and tied by Earl Thomas Conley (the previous record holder had been Buck Owens with fifteen straight #1s). In reality, the string is more impressive than it sounds. After “You’re The Only World I Know” reached #1 for 4 weeks and “I’ll Keep Holding On” stalled out at #2, the next twenty-three singles would make it to #1 on at least one of the three major charts in use at the time (Billboard, Cashbox, Record World).

Sonny’s run of chart-toppers was the perfect blend of a smooth singer with a country sound that did away with fiddle and steel guitar but did not go to the extremes of Countypolitan and Nashville Sound recordings, being (mostly) easily replicated in live performance, and often featuring Sonny’s own excellent guitar playing. The songs were a mix of old Pop, Rock & Roll and R&B covers (13 songs) and original material (12 songs). While the earlier Sonny James hits did feature steel guitar (and he did keep a steel guitar player in his band) most of the later hits featured a guitar-organ, initially played on his stage show by band member Harland Powell.

How successful was the Sonny James during the 1960s and 1970s? Consider this:

1) According to Billboard for the decades of the 1960s and 1970s (1960-1979) Sonny’s recordings spent more time in the Number One chart position than any other artist in country music – a total of 57 weeks.

2) Also, according to Billboard, Sonny was the fifth ranking county artist for the two decade period, ranking behind only (in order) George Jones, Buck Owens, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard.

3) Sonny made more appearances on the Ed Sullivan show than any other country act. For those too young to remember, Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night variety show was “Must-See TV” introducing acts such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley to the American public and Sullivan was one of the first to prominently feature R&B, Motown and country acts on national television.

Clive Davis, President of Columbia Records, was a big fan of Sonny James, and lured him to Columbia where he scored his last #1 of the twenty-five song streak with “When The Snow Is On The Roses”. Sonny would score #1 and a handful of top ten records in his six years with Columbia before moving on to other labels. During his Columbia years Sonny seemed to become less interested in hit records and began recording theme-centered albums. In the chart below, the songs during 1972-1973 that charted at 30 or worse were older material released as singles by Capitol after Sonny left the label.

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Finding your fix

In these times of un-fulfillment for the country music fan, I’m finding myself turning to my other favorite genres and artists for comfort.  The country fan that listens only to country music is rare, even among listeners like me for whom country is by far the primary source for music.  My tastes run to the extreme sometimes: from Alice Cooper to Amy Grant and from zydeco to the blues, and a lot in between.  I’m certainly not one of those ‘I’ll listen to anything’ fans; my preferences, while eclectic, are strongly defined.  And I would think that’s the case with all of us passionate music fans.

So, on to my original thought: finding great music outside country’s umbrella when the mainstream – and even the indies – just aren’t doing it for you at the moment.  Last Fall, I bought an impulse collection – a 3-CD collection from Linda Ronstadt.  I had only heard her own singing a couple of times, but I knew her songs from covers by the likes of Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood, and Martina McBride.  Terri Clark had a hit with Linda’s ‘Poor, Poor Pitiful Me’ early in her career.  Trisha Yearwood, especially, speaks very, very highly of Ronstadt.  And I know Hank Williams Jr. once name-checked her in one of his many hits.  But Hank Jr. name-checks everybody.  But with all that high praise from some of my favorite artists, I figured a bargain Linda Ronstadt collection would be worth my money.  After all, with 40 songs, I was bound to find something I liked.  Needless to say, like so many others before me, I was instantly drawn to Linda’s really big, really emotive voice.  Further listening to her catalog has also shown me that she has an incredible ear for material as well.

Linda Ronstadt’s catalog is possibly the most diverse among her contemporaries, and I readily admit that I don’t fully appreciate her forays into jazz and traditional Mexican music, among other styles she’s tackled.  However, I do find her to be an able performer of opera, rock, pop, and even country.  Linda charted 5 top 10 country singles in the ’70s, along with 3 #1 country albums.  That’s a better country track record than a lot of artists, but her real commercial success came in the mid to late ’70s when she was hailed ‘the highest paid woman in Rock’, and the genre’s ‘first lady’.  Not many singers or musicians from outside the country world have been as accepted by the country music industry as Ronstadt was.  I’ve now acquired a box set and 7 studio albums from Linda.

I’m still finding new music to add to my collection these days.  Admittedly, a lot of it is only new to me.  But I’m also finding that the more new artists that I add to my library lately, the fewer and fewer decidedly country artists I am adding.  Linda Ronstadt is just the brightest and best among many new non-country additions to my rotation.  And even when I do add a country artist, it seems to be one whose charting days are well behind them.

Are you digging deep into the catalogs of country’s older hit-makers?  Or, are you seeking out independent music or looking to other genres for your musical fix?

Here’s two of my favorite finds so far in the Linda Ronstadt collection:

‘Willin’, a real, old-fashioned trucking song, complete with nods to uppers and illegal backroad hauls.

‘It’s So Easy’, a 1977 hit for Ronstadt written by Buddy Holly and Norman Petty.

Album Review: Tanya Tucker – ‘TNT’

TNTfrontIn her 1997 autobiography Nickel Dreams , Tanya Tucker referred to TNT as her first million-selling album and the one that nearly killed her career. In 1977, in need of professional management, she was referred to a Los Angeles firm called Far Out Management, who had managed a number of pop and rock acts and had expressed an interest in helping a country act cross over. They managed to convince the 19-year-old Tucker that they could make her a platinum-selling act, unlike the “hicks” back in Nashville. TNT was the first project that resulted from this collaboration.

Released in 1978, the album created waves partly because it was a rock album. To their credit, neither Far Out nor MCA made any pretense about this being a country album. The sole exception was the closing track “Texas (When I Die)”, one of the most solidly country songs that Tucker has ever recorded, and the only single from the album to crack the Top 10 on the country charts.

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