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Album Review: Merle Haggard and Mac Wiseman – ‘Timeless’

timelessIt would never have occurred to me that Merle Haggard and Mac Wiseman would team up on an album, but I am sure glad that they did, and that the album is widely available through Cracker Barrel. Produced by Ronnie Reno, son of bluegrass legend Don Reno, the album finds Merle and Mac playing a bluegrass set with a band comprised of with Rob Ickes (dobro), Carl Jackson (guitar), Aubrey Haynie (fiddle), Andy Leftwich (fiddle/mandolin), Ben Isaacs (acoustic bass), and special guests Vince Gill (tenor vocals), Marty Stuart (mandolin/guitar), Sonya Isaacs (high harmony) and Becky Isaacs (tenor harmony).

Mac Wiseman has long been known as the “voice with a heart” , but perhaps he should also be known as “the voice with staying power” as the ninety year old Wiseman shows that he has lost little over the years. In contrast, the seventy-eight year older Haggard has lost more of his vocal prowess over the years. Even so, he still sings well.

Although Haggard is by far the bigger star of the two, the disc is truly a collaborative effort with more than half of the repertoire being songs associated with Wiseman, although one could argue that the entire program is Wiseman since Mac sings anything and everything in the broad spectrum of country music. Merle & Mac sing together on six of the album’s thirteen tracks, Vince Gill is on two tracks as a vocalist, one with Merle and one with Mac. Merle has three solo vocals and Mac has two solo tracks.

The disc opens up with “If Teardrops Were Pennies”, a Carl Butler composition that was a big Carl Smith hit from 1951 ( the duo of Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton covered it in the early 1970s). The song has been in Mac’s repertoire forever. Merle and Mac swap verses on this one. The song is taken at mid tempo.

Similarly, the Tommy Collins composition “High On A Hilltop” has been in Merle’s repertoire forever. This track features Vince Gill on harmony vocal. I’ve never heard the song done as bluegrass before, but good songs normally are adaptable to any treatment, and so it proves here.

It would be unthinkable to do this album without featuring the three songs most intimately associated with Mac Wiseman. The first of these songs, Mac’s “I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home” has Merle and Mac swapping verses. The song has become a bluegrass standard.

The same can’t be said for another Wiseman composition, “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight”, but it’s a good song on which Merle and Mac swap verses.

“Learning To Live With Myself” is a Merle Haggard composition that wasn’t ever a single, but is a thoughtful song that Merle sings as a solo. The harmony work by Sonya Isaacs and Becky Isaacs is very nice.

“Jimmy Brown The Newsboy” is the second of the three Wiseman signature songs on the album. I think every bluegrass band in the world has this song in their repertoire, as well they should. Mac sings the verses, Merle does the introduction and harmonizes on the chorus, This is a great track, possibly my favorite on the album. Ronnie Reno adds tenor vocals.

If there is one song people instantly associate with Merle Haggard, it has to be “Mama Tried”. Merle solos the vocal on this track. I love Rob Ickes’ dobro work on this track. This is the only track on the project of a song that was a hit single for Merle. Ronnie Reno, a former member of Haggard’s Strangers, plays guitar on this track.

“Sunny Side of Life”, also known as “Keep On The Sunny Side” is an old Carter Family song that has been sung by country, folk and bluegrass singers for the last 70+ years. Mac and Merle swap verses on this one with producer Ronnie Reno adding tenor vocals.

John Duffey, a founding member of both the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene, wrote “Bringing Mary Home” while a member of the Country Gentlemen. The song was one the Country Gentlemen’s signature songs, tackled here as a solo by Mac Wiseman. Mac has been singing the song forever and inhabits the verses of the song as only he can.

Vince Gill assists Mac on the third of Mac’s signature songs, Mac’s composition “Tis Sweet To Be Remembered”. I first heard the song with Mac singing it on the WWVA Big Jamboree radio show sometime during the mid-1960s. I loved the song then and now, and although it is impossible to pick a favorite Mac Wiseman song among the thousands of great songs he has sung, if I had to do it, it would be this song.

Both Merle Haggard and Mac Wiseman are devout Christians and the album closes out with three religious songs.

“Two Old Christian Soldiers” is a Merle Haggard composition that Merle and Mac swap verses on this one. Taken at mid-tempo, their battle is against the devil and time, “working off their debt to the Lord.”

The last two songs are a pair of solo efforts, “Lord Don’t Give Up On Me”, a Haggard song sung solo by Merle and “Hold Fast To The Right”, a Wiseman copyright which Mac solos and Ronnie Reno plays guitar.

These ‘two old Christian soldiers’ have had many hit records and successful albums, and it would have been too easy to record an album that romps through their greatest hits. Instead, what we have here is a thoughtful, organic program that forms a cohesive album. I can’t pick out one standout track since the album has so many great tracks. Suffice it to say, this disc has been playing in my car for the last three weeks.

Track Listing:
1. If Teardrops Were Pennies (Merle/Mac)
2. High On A Hilltop (Merle/Vince)
3. I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home (Mac/Merle)
4. I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight (Merle/Mac)
5. Learning To Live With Myself (Merle)
6. Jimmy Brown The Newsboy (Mac/Merle)
7. Mama Tried (Merle)
8. Sunny Side of Life (Mac/Merle)
9. Bringing Mary Home (Mac)
10. Tis Sweet To Be Remembered (Mac/Vince)
11. Old Christian Soldiers (Merle/Mac)
12. Lord Don’t Give Up On Me (Merle)
13. Hold Fast to the Right (Mac)

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Week ending 4/6/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

lynn_anderson21953 (Sales): Kaw-Liga — Hank Williams (MGM)

1953 (Jukebox): Kaw-Liga — Hank Williams (MGM)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): Kaw-Liga — Hank Williams (MGM)

1963: Don’t Let Me Cross Me Over — Carl Butler & Pearl (Columbia)

1973: Keep Me In Mind — Lynn Anderson (Columbia)

1983: When I’m Away From You — The Bellamy Brothers (Elektra/Curb)

1993: When My Ship Comes In — Clint Black (RCA)

2003: Have You Forgotten? — Darryl Worley (DreamWorks)

2013: Sure Be Cool If You Did — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

2013 (Airplay): Sure Be Cool If You Did — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

Week ending 3/30/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

joenichols1953 (Sales): Kaw-Liga — Hank Williams (MGM)

1953 (Jukebox): Kaw-Liga — Hank Williams (MGM)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): Kaw-Liga — Hank Williams (MGM)

1963: Don’t Let Me Cross Me Over — Carl Butler & Pearl (Columbia)

1973: The Teddy Bear Song — Barbara Fairchild (Columbia)

1983: Swingin’ — John Anderson (Warner Bros.)

1993: When My Ship Comes In — Clint Black (RCA)

2003: Brokenheartsville — Joe Nichols (Universal South)

2013: Sure Be Cool If You Did — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

2013 (Airplay): Sure Be Cool If You Did — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

Week ending 3/23/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

barbara fairchild1953 (Sales): Kaw-Liga — Hank Williams (MGM)

1953 (Jukebox): Kaw-Liga — Hank Williams (MGM)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): Kaw-Liga — Hank Williams (MGM)

1963: Don’t Let Me Cross Me Over — Carl Butler & Pearl (Columbia)

1973: The Teddy Bear Song — Barbara Fairchild (Columbia)

1983: I Wouldn’t Change You If I Could — Ricky Skaggs (Epic)

1993: Heartland — George Strait (MCA)

2003: Travelin’ Soldier — Dixie Chicks (Open Wide/Columbia)

2013: Sure Be Cool If You Did — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

2013 (Airplay): One Of Those Nights — Tim McGraw (Big Machine)

Week ending 3/16/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

Gary-Allan1953 (Sales): Kaw-Liga — Hank Williams (MGM)

1953 (Jukebox): Kaw-Liga — Hank Williams (MGM)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): Kaw-Liga — Hank Williams (MGM)

1963: Don’t Let Me Cross Me Over — Carl Butler & Pearl (Columbia)

1973: ‘Til I Get It Right — Tammy Wynette (Epic)

1983: The Rose — Conway Twitty (Elektra)

1993: What Part of No — Lorrie Morgan (BNA)

2003: Man to Man — Gary Allan (MCA)

2013: Sure Be Cool If You Did — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

2013 (Airplay): One Of Those Nights — Tim McGraw (Big Machine)

Week ending 3/9/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

donwilliams1953 (Sales): Kaw-Liga — Hank Williams (MGM)

1953 (Jukebox): Kaw-Liga — Hank Williams (MGM)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): Kaw-Liga — Hank Williams (MGM)

1963: Don’t Let Me Cross Me Over — Carl Butler & Pearl (Columbia)

1973: The Lord Knows I’m Drinking — Cal Smith (Decca)

1983: If Hollywood Don’t Need You (Honey, I Still Do) — Don Williams (MCA)

1993: What Part of No — Lorrie Morgan (BNA)

2003: The Baby — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

2013: Sure Be Cool If You Did — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

2013 (Airplay): One Of Those Nights — Tim McGraw (Big Machine)

Week ending 3/2/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

Lorrie+Morgan1953 (Sales): Kaw-Liga — Hank Williams (MGM)

1953 (Jukebox): Kaw-Liga — Hank Williams (MGM)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): No Help Wanted — The Carlisles (Mercury)

1963: Don’t Let Me Cross Me Over — Carl Butler & Pearl (Columbia)

1973: Rated X — Loretta Lynn (Decca)

1983: Why Baby Why — Charley Pride (RCA)

1993: What Part of No — Lorrie Morgan (BNA)

2003: The Baby — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

2013: Wanted — Hunter Hayes (Atlantic)

2013 (Airplay): Better Dig Two — The Band Perry (Republic Nashville)

Week ending 2/23/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

Blake_Shelton_21953 (Sales): Kaw-Liga — Hank Williams (MGM)

1953 (Jukebox): I Let The Stars Get In My Eyes — Goldie Hill (Decca)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): No Help Wanted — The Carlisles (Mercury)

1963: Don’t Let Me Cross Me Over — Carl Butler & Pearl (Columbia)

1973: I Wonder If They Ever Think Of Me — Merle Haggard (Capitol)

1983: Faking Love — T.G. Sheppard and Karen Brooks (Warner Bros./Curb)

1993: Can I Trust You With My Heart — Travis Tritt (Warner Bros.)

2003: The Baby — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

2013: Wanted — Hunter Hayes (Atlantic)

2013 (Airplay): Better Dig Two — The Band Perry (Republic Nashville)

Week ending 2/16/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

crystal1953 (Sales): Eddy’s Song — Eddy Arnold (RCA)

1953 (Jukebox): I Let The Stars Get In My Eyes — Goldie Hill (Decca)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): No Help Wanted — The Carlisles (Mercury)

1963: Don’t Let Me Cross Me Over — Carl Butler & Pearl (Columbia)

1973: She Needs Someone To Hold Her (When She Cries) — Conway Twitty (Decca)

1983: ‘Til I Gain Control Again — Crystal Gayle (Elektra)

1993: Can I Trust You With My Heart — Travis Tritt (Warner Bros.)

2003: 19 Somethin’ – Mark Wills (Mercury)

2013: Better Dig Two — The Band Perry (Republic Nashville)

2013 (Airplay): The Only Way I Know — Jason Aldean with Luke Bryan and Eric Church (Broken Bow)

Week ending 1/26/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

stampley_joe158011953 (Sales): I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive — Hank Williams (MGM)

1953 (Jukebox): Back Street Affair — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): I’ll Go On Alone — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1963: Don’t Let Me Cross Me Over — Carl Butler & Pearl (Columbia)

1973: Soul Song — Joe Stampley (Dot)

1983: (Lost His Love) On Our Last Date — Emmylou Harris (Warner Bros.)

1993: Look Heart, No Hands — Randy Travis (Warner Bros.)

2003: 19 Somethin’ – Mark Wills (Mercury)

2013: Cruise — Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

2013 (Airplay): Goodbye In Her Eyes — Zac Brown Band (Southern Ground/Atlantic)

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Waitin’ for The Sun To Shine’

Ricky’s work with Emmylou Harris had brought him to the attention of Nashville, and in 1981 he signed a solo deal with Epic Records. His Epic debut was self-produced, and he played guitar, fiddle and mandolin himself, backed by some stellar pickers. Future wife Sharon White and her sister Cheryl sing harmonies, and their father Buck plays piano. It was country rather than bluegrass, with electric instruments, steel guitar and piano added to the mix, but there was a distinctly bluegrass and sensibility to it, particularly in the song selection. Where it is not rooted in bluegrass, the inspiration is in traditional country, with most of the songs being relatively obscure covers. The tasteful playing is excellent throughout, but remains in service to the songs.

A vibrant cover of Flatt & Scruggs’s bluegrass classic ‘Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’’ was Ricky’s first chart single, peaking at #16. The rhythmic ‘You May See Me Walkin’’ (written by Tom Uhr of bluegrass band the Shady Grove Ramblers) then sneaked into the top 10 at 9. Ricky scored his first chart topper with ‘Crying My Heart Out Over You’, another Flatt & Scruggs song, cowritten by county veteran Carl Butler. It works perfectly for Ricky, whose understated version has become the standard.

‘I Don’t Care’ also made it to #1, as it did for the original artist, honky tonk star Webb Pierce, in 1955. It was written by the great Cindy Walker and is a sweet love song refusing to pry into his sweetheart’s possibly murky past, which Ricky delivers with sincerity:

I don’t care if I’m not the first love you’ve known
Just so I’ll be the last

The gently resigned hurt of ‘If That’s The Way You Feel’, a cover of a Stanley Brothers classic, is delightful, with tasteful harmonies from Sharon and Cheryl. ‘Lost To A Stranger’ is a plaintive ballad with a lovely tune, which was originally recorded by its writer Hylo Brown in 1954.

‘Your Old Love Letters’, cover of a 1961 hit by Porter Wagoner, feels charmingly old fashioned now, with Ricky pondering a past love affair as he burns the titular letters (tied up in blue ribbons). The rhythmic ‘Low And Lonely’ is catchy, and another older song, a single for the legendary Roy Acuff in 1942. Merle Travis’s ‘So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed’ also dates from the 1940s.

The title track, virtually the only new song included, is a beautiful ballad which has become a modern country classic with perhaps the best known version by Lee Ann Womack on her superlative There’s More Where That Came From in 2005. Ricky’s version isn’t quite as gorgeous, but still very good, and the song is lovely with an optimistic feel about the likelihood of getting past current heartbreak.

There really is not a weak track on this excellent album. A real breath of fresh air in the Urban Cowboy era, it is astonishing to contemplate today how warmly such a bluegrass-influenced album was received in the country mainstream. Sales were excellent for the era, and the album was certified gold. Its follow up, Highways & Heartaches (which Razor X reviewed when it was reissued on Skaggs Family Records in 2009), was to do even better, and really set Ricky Skaggs up as a mainstream country star. Both albums stand up very well today, and cheap used copies of both can be found easily.

Grade: A

Country Heritage Redux: David Rogers (1936-1993)

An updated version of an article originally published by The 9513:

David Rogers (1936-1993) is proof of the adage that it’s great to be on a major label, but only if the label is truly behind you.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, during the depths of the Great Depression, Rogers began playing guitar when he was eleven, and shortly thereafter began appearing in local bands. He successfully auditioned for Roger Miller in 1956, but was drafted before getting the opportunity to join Miller’s band.

In 1962, after Rogers’ was discharged from the service, he landed a regular gig at the Egyptian Ballroom–a gig which lasted several years. While performing there he recorded a demo tape which eventually came to the attention of Frank Jones at Columbia, and a recording contract was not far behind.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s Columbia was home to a great many country artists, including Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Ray Price, Carl Smith, Stonewall Jackson, Lefty Frizzell, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, Carl Butler & Pearl, Lynn Anderson, Jimmy Dickens, Johnny Duncan, Barbara Fairchild and a host of other minor artists. The label also controlled significant back catalogs on artists such as Ted Daffan, Gene Autry, Bill Monroe and Bob Wills.

With that array of artists (which doesn’t even count those on sister label Epic), there simply wasn’t much promotional oomph left for the likes of an aging bar-band singer, and so the recording of Roger’s albums was left to independent producer Pete Drake.

Drake, a great steel player famous for his “talking” steel guitar, used the “Country Cocktail” production style of Billy Sherrill and Glenn Sutton on Rogers’ records. Background vocals and symphonic strings were heavy, but because of Drake’s personal instrumental specialty, steel guitar played a far more prominent role than in the typical Sherrill or Sutton production.

Rogers’ first single, “Forgiven Fruit,” was release in 1967, but failed to chart. The next single, “I’d Be Your Fool Again,” checked in at #69, and the one after that, “I’m In Love With My Wife,” (bundled with “Tessie’s Bar Mystery”) finally cracked the top 40. Progress was slow but steady. In 1969, “A World Called You” hit #23. Meanwhile, Rogers made his debut on the Grand Ole Opry and started appearing regularly on the WWVA (Wheeling, WV) Big Jamboree, where I first heard him many Saturday nights on the radio.

Rogers’ breakthrough hit was 1970′s “I Wake Up In Heaven”, which peaked at #19 on the Cashbox Country Chart (Billboard had it at #26). The song was very strong in selected regional markets, hitting #1 in places like Orlando, FL, and Norfolk VA. The follow-up single, “She Don’t Make Me Cry” (#19 Billboard / #4 Cashbox) continued the upward momentum, and “Ruby You’re Warm” held place (#21 Billboard / #13 Cashbox).

According to Billboard, the next single, 1972′s “Need You,” was Rogers’biggest hit, reaching #9 (it went to #5 on Cashbox and, again, hit #1 in many markets). (“Need You” was a remake of the 1958 Donnie Owens pop hit and is, in fact, my favorite David Rogers recording.)

After that peak, Columbia apparently lost interest in Rogers as his next two singles barely cracked the top 40 on either Billboard or Cashbox. By 1973, Rogers was off Columbia and had signed with Atlantic Records, hardly a power in the world of country music, though the label was trying to penetrate the country market as they signed Willie Nelson at this time.

Atlantic actually had more success with Rogers than with Nelson –- Rogers achieved one top ten single with the late 1973 single “Loving You Has Changed My Life,” which peaked at #9 on both Billboard and Cashbox in January 1974.

Both Nelson and Rogers were gone from Atlantic by the end of 1974. Nelson, of course, went on to bigger and better things, but Rogers would slowly fade from the public eye. After recording one album for United Artists, he moved on to a series of minor labels including Republic, Kari, Music Master and Hal Kat, where he charted singles until 1984, with only 1979′s “Darling” cracking the top twenty.

Recordings

Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, none of David Rogers’ albums have ever been issued on CD, so you’ll need to do vinyl hunting (there may be some digital download available).

The three Columbia albums (A World Called You, She Don’t Make Me Cry and Need You) are quite good, especially the latter two. The Atlantic albums, which were again produced by Pete Drake, are also worthwhile, though they differ from the Columbia albums in that most of the “Country Cocktail” trappings were abandoned.

My favorite album from the Atlantic years is Farewell To The Ryman, issued in 1973 to commemorate the Opry’s move to Opryland. The track-list is a cornucopia of classic country songs: “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Great Speckled Bird,” “I’m Movin’ On,” “I Can’t Help It,” “Walking The Floor Over You,” “Send Me The Pillow That You Dream On,” “Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” “Release Me,” “Mexican Joe,” “Wondering,”, “I Walk The Line,” and “Satisfied Mind.”

Aside from the Republic records, Music Master issued one Rogers album titled The Best of David Rogers, a two record set comprised of 11 re-makes of his Columbia and Atlantic hits and nine new songs written by Harold Shields. The new songs aren’t bad; two of them–”Hold Me” and “Crown Prince of the Barroom”–charted, and the remakes are decent, finding Rogers in good voice.

In addition to the albums David Rogers charted 37 of the 45 rpm singles plus there are an untold number of uncharted singles. Used record stores may carry some of these records but the best place to look is http://www.musicstack.com

Happy hunting!

Album Review: Patty Loveless – ‘Sleepless Nights’

Sleepless NightsPatty Loveless was dropped by Epic following disappointing sales and minimal airplay for her last album for the label, Dreamin’ My Dreams. She was in no hurry to make her next move, taking some time off the road to move down to Georgia, and dealing with family deaths and illness, but in 2008 she signed with the independent label Saguaro Road, and in September that year she released a new album, produced as usual by husband Emory Gordy Jr. She cast aside thoughts of regaining her chart-topping status, and instead recorded a tribute to traditional country music. It was heralded as a kind of companion piece or counterpart to 2001’s Mountain Soul, as it was billed on the cover as “the traditional country soul” of Patty Loveless. What resulted was even better than we could have expected. Sleepless Nights is a masterpiece.

Classic cover albums have a tendency to fall into one of two main categories: excessively cautious tributes where the artist sounds frankly overwhelmed by the thought of competing with a much-loved original, and ends up producing a carbon copy or high quality karaoke; and trying too hard to put their own stamp on the material in such a way that the merits of the original song are stifled. Sleepless Nights triumphantly avoids either pitfall. Patty sounds thoroughly invested in the material and style, and makes it sound alive. Her versions of each of these songs sounds as though it could have been the original classic version.

George Jones is a very challenging artist to risk comparison with, although perhaps it is less dangerous for a female vocalist where the comparisons will inevitably be less deleterious. Patty had already successfully tackled one Jones classic in the form of ‘If My Heart Had Windows’ back in the early days, and she chose to open Sleepless Nights with George’s first hit single (in 1955), the honky tonking ‘Why Baby Why’ (with a couple of minor lyric changes to fit the change in gender) which also served as the single released to promote this album. Sadly, if predictably, it was far too traditional for today’s country radio, but it is a perfect opening to the album as Patty tears into the song, the most up-tempo on the set.

Patty also picked three more Jones songs, including a truly lovely version of one of his greatest classics (written by Dickey Lee). ‘She Thinks I Still Care’ is altered here to ‘He Thinks I Still Care’. There is a fantastic take on ‘Color Of The Blues’ on which Patty actually achieves the almost impossible: improving on a song once recorded by George Jones as she infuses the lyric with pain. The most obscure Jones cover is ‘That’s All It Took’, from one of his 1960s duet albums with pop singer Gene Pitney, which is probably best known today from the 1970s cover by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Patty’s version features her former guitarist, Australian Jedd Hughes, on harmonies.

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