My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Chris Hillman

New interview with Chris Hillman

An excellent new interview with our current Spotlight Artist Chris Hillman, about his music past and present, has just been posted at The Bluegrass Situation.

Classic Rewind: Desert Rose Band – ‘Glass Hearts’

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Album Review: The Desert Rose Band – ‘The Desert Rose Band’

desert rose bandThe Desert Rose Band was Chris Hillman’s biggest success in mainstream country music. The initial acoustic lineup, which crystallised on a tour with Dan Fogelburg, comprised Chris, Herb Pedersen, lead guitarist John Jorgensen, and bass player Bill Bryson. Drummer Steve Duncan and steel guitarist Jay Dee Maness were then added to the band, and a fresh yet mainstream sound emerged. They signed a deal with MCA/Curb and launched with their self-titled debut album in 1987, produced by Paul Worley. Their country-rock and traditional country influences combined to make an infectious and irresistible sound which was very radio-friendly.

A sturdy cover of ‘Ashes Of Love’, which Chris had recorded on his solo Desert Rose album, was the group’s first single, and peaked at #26. It was followed by the band’s first top 10 hit, ‘Love Reunited’, which was written by Chris with Steve Hill. The steel-laced song advises a couple not to separate but to work at their relationship. A second Hillman/Hill co-write here is ‘Glass Hearts’, a great up-tempo song about the conflicting emotions of a new relationship, with the fear of getting hurt if it doesn’t last.

Only love can set you free
I’ll open up so she can see
My glass heart will break
Cause it’s made of sand

‘One Step Forward’ almost made it to the top of the Billboard country chart, peaking at #2. A catchy and punchy number about the frustration of a relationship not going anywhere, it was one of three songs Hillman wrote for the record with Bill Wildes, with whom he had written ‘Desert Rose’ (although that song was never actually recorded by the band it gave its name to). The other Wildes co-writes here are both fine songs: the optimistic insistence that ‘Hard Times’ will pass, and the downbeat ‘Leave This Town’, which is about the disappointment of a failed relationship, with the protagonist complaining,

If she’s the one in trouble why’s it me that has to go?

Finally, the album’s fourth and last single topped the charts. ‘He’s Back And I’m Blue’, a sad ballad about being the rebound guy who is out of the picture when the ex returns.

Underlining the fact that the Desert Rose Band was a real group and not just a solo Hillman effort, Herb Pedersen sang lead on the country classic ‘Once More’. The wistful thoughts of the ‘One Who Got Away’ are (a Hillman co-write with Peter Knobler) are set to a sweet melody. The band revived Chris Hillman’s song ‘Time Between’, previously recorded by the Byrds, which is actually one of the less interesting songs.

Great harmonies, great musicianship and great songs make this a classic and irresistible record.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: The Desert Rose Band – ‘Time Between’

Album Review: Chris Hillman – ‘Desert Rose’

desert roseChris Hillman’s second album for Sugar Hill (produced by Al Perkins) wasn’t entirely acoustic, but electric instruments are kept to a minimum. Featuring future Desert Rose Band cohorts Herb Pedersen on harmony vocals and rhythm guitar and Jay Dee Maness on steel, sets the template for the sound of the Desert Rose Band. A selection of mainly old country and bluegrass songs is delivered with sparking musicianship and Chris Hillman’s most accomplished vocals to date. Hillman might have been making music for the best part of 20 years, but this is where he really found his voice as a singer as well as musician and songwriter. In addition, his musical partnership with Herb Pedersen is one of the unsung pairings of country music, and this (or technically on the preceding Sugar Hill album Morning Sky) is where it started.

Chris’s version of the mid-tempo Mickey Newbury song ‘Why You Been So Long’ has a loping country rock feel. He turns to classic country with the Wilburn Brothers’ ‘Somebody’s Back In Town’, a lonesome number in which the protagonist’s loved one is going back to a returning ex, meaning that his own chance of winning her is gone. It’s not that well known a song, although Loretta Lynn cut it on her Fist City album, and Ricky Van Shelton later covered it, but it is an excellent one.

The delicately subdued Reno & Smiley ballad ‘Wall Around Your Heart’ is another outstanding song with a downbeat emotion. Even better is Chris’s version of the Louvin Brothers’ plaintive ‘I Can’t Keep You In Love With Me’, which shows off Herb’s harmonies at their best. Byron Berline’s fiddle is particularly effective on this track.

Jimmie Rodgers’ Rough And Rowdy Ways’ is cheerier, with a rambler happy with who he is. ‘Treasure Of Love’ is a George Jones song about the value of love over material things which Chris sings with great warmth and tenderness. Chris takes on the old Johnnie & Jack hit ‘Ashes Of Love, which he was to redo in similar style a couple of years later with the Desert Rose Band; the lyric is sad enough, but the performance is joyous.

The gospel classic ‘Turn Your Radio On’ has great harmonies from Herb and from ex Eagle Bernie Leadon. (At the time Chris was a recently professed Evangelical Christian, although he later converted to Greek Orthodoxy).

Amidst the classic songs, there are two Hillman originals, both about a relationship in which the couple face frequent separation. The title track is a melodic song about a couple facing hard times; the protagonist wonders if his “sweet desert rose” will still love him while he’s away looking for work in another town. This was a cowrite with Bill Wildes, a California-based horse trainer and songwriter whose life and character was reportedly the inspiration for the Eagles’ song ‘Desperado’. In the breezy ‘Running The Roadblocks’ a man is rushing home to a loved one, not caring how far over the speed limit he is. These are both pretty good songs, but perhaps not quite up to the standard of the rest.

This is a fantastic record which should appeal to fans of the Desert Rose Band, and to anyone whose tastes lean to more traditional country with bluegrass influences. It’s easy to find cheaply, and is well worth adding to your collection. Predecessor Morning Sky is rarer, and not quite so good, but worth picking up if you can find it.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen – ‘Running The Road Blocks’

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Album Review: The Flying Burrito Brothers – ‘The Gilded Palace of Sin’

gildedpalaceThe Flying Burrito Brothers were formed in 1968 by former Byrds members Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman. Pianist and bassist Chris Ethridge and steel guitarist Sneaky Pete Kleinow were also a part of the original line-up. The band released its first album, The Gilded Palace of Sin, on A&M Records the following year. In the forty-five years since the album’s release, country music has been defined and re-defined, and paired with almost every other genre of popular music. As such, it may be a little difficult for modern listeners to truly appreciate how revolutionary and cutting-edge The Flying Burrito Brothers’ fusion of country, rock, folk, R&B and psychadelic rock was at the time. Although it was a commercial failure at the time, the album was hugely influential on country music. Bearing testament to this is the fact that many listeners, though they may be unfamiliar with the band, will likely be familiar with many of the album’s songs.

Hillman and Parsons had a hand in writing the majority of the album’s eleven songs, with the exception of two R&B covers, “Do Right Woman”, a 1976 hit for Aretha Franklin and “Dark Side of the Street”, which was a hit for James Carr the same year. Both songs were written by Chips Moman and Dan Penn. Hillman and Parsons wrote most of the remaining songs together.

Many country fans will be familiar with the album’s best track “Sin City”, which was later covered by Dwight Yoakam and K.D. Lang, and “Wheels” and “Juanita”, which were both covered by Parsons’ protege Emmylou Harris. I wasn’t previously famiilar with a pair of unimaginatively titled songs — “Hot Burrito #1” and “Hot Burrito #2”, respectively — that were written by Parsons with Chris Etheridge. I quite liked the soulful “#1”, but didn’t much care for the R&B and gospel-tinged “#2”, finding the funky fuzzbox effect to be excessive and distracting.

In keeping with the times, there is a pair of topical tunes — “My Uncle”, which tells the story of young man who is planning to head to Canada upon receiving his draft card — and “Hippie Boy”, which deals with the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The latter is a plodding and overly long spoken-word number that I could have done without.

It is hard not to like anything that contains as much pedal steel guitar as this album does, but the rock and psychadelic elements make the production seem a bit dated and I can’t help preferring the cover versions which are more familiar to me. Parsons and Hillman’s vocals are good; their harmonies at times are reminiscent of The Everly Brothers. However, the album is mixed in such a way — again in keeping with the times — that the vocals are nearly drowned out by the instrumentation, something else I found a bit distracting.

The Gilded Palace of Sin is considered important, but to call it a landmark album might be overstating things just a bit. It is primarily interesting because of the future artists — Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and Steve Earle, to name a few — that it influenced. For that reason alone, it is worth a listen.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Crosby, McGuinn & Hillman – ‘Turn Turn Turn’

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Classic Rewind: Emmylou Harris with Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen – ‘Wheels’

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Album Review – The Byrds – ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’

TheByrdsSweetheartoftheRodeo

For more background on Sweetheart of The Rodeo, including insights into the recording sessions, click here

Just as Chris Hillman was enrolling at UCLA, he got a call from his old manager Jim Dickson to join a new band as their Bass Guitar player. The Byrds as they came to be known consisted of Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, and Hillman. He’d never picked up a bass guitar before, but his bluegrass background led him to quickly master it while developing his own style with the instrument.

Although he remained quiet on the bands first two releases, he quickly rose to the forefront, and he blossomed as a singer and vocalist after Clark left the band. By 1968, the band was down to just Hillman and McGuinn after Crosby bid his farewell. To replace him they hired Gram Parsons, who along with Hillman changed the sound of the band to reflect a country rock style, which was unheard of in the music industry at the time. This revolution was captured on The Byrds’ Sweetheart of The Rodeo, which was released on August 30, 1968.

The album found Hillman playing a supporting role yet again, as Parsons and McGuinn shared the brunt of the vocal duties. Parsons, who was little known at the time, was brought to the forefront of mainstream rock because of this album.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo was originally supposed to be a reflection of American popular music incorporating elements of Jazz and R&B but Parsons steered the project into a pure country album instead. This move was highly controversial, as Nashville had little interest in embracing a band they thought of as longhaired hippies attempting to sabotage country music. In the mists of all the hoopla, Parsons left the band, and wasn’t even a member when the August release date came around.

A cover of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” was released in April as the project’s lead single. The band heard the tune on a collection of Dylan’s Woodstock demos and thought it appropriate for them to cover. The mid-tempo ballad features an assist from Lloyd Green on Pedal Steel and came more than three years before Dylan would commercially release the track himself. It peaked at #74 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.

Hillman and McGuinn arranged the second and finale single “I Am A Pilgrim,” which failed to chart. The folk song is a bit more country sounding than the Dylan cover thanks to McGuinn’s banjo and some lovely fiddle playing by John Hartford.

Even more famous than the two singles is Parsons’ “Hickory Wind,” a fiddle and steel ballad he co-wrote with Bob Buchanan on a train ride from Florida to Los Angeles. The song is marred in controversy, from claims it wasn’t Parsons but a blind folksinger named Sylvia Sammons who wrote it, to being the tune that got them banned from The Grand Ole Opry. As the story goes, Parsons sang it instead of their planned Merle Haggard cover of “Life In Prison” and thus ticked off the country music establishment and sent shockwaves through the audience. Nonetheless “Hickory Wind” is an excellent song that still endures today.

Parsons also wrote “One Hundred Years from Now,” a tune in which McGuinn and Hillman shared lead vocals and Green once again contributed pedal steel. It’s another excellent song and I love the production on it, too, thanks in a large part to Green’s beautiful flourishes of steel.

The remainder of Sweetheart of the Rodeo consisted of cover songs. The band revived soul singer William Bell’s debut single “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” which had only been released five years earlier. The band’s version is similar to Bell’s although they take out the horns in favor of steel guitar performed by JayDee Maness.

Songs by The Louvin Brothers and Cindy Walker also appear. Charlie and Ira’s “The Christian Life” doesn’t differ much in The Byrds’ hands, but they manage to turn it into a honky-tonk stunner (with a wonderful lead vocal by McGuinn) and one of the album’s more twang-centric songs. Walker’s “Blue Canadian Rockies” is in similar vain and one of my favorite of this albums’ numbers thanks to the twangy guitar and Hillman’s wonderful lead vocal.

The aforementioned Haggard (and Jelly Sanders) song “Life In Prison” appears here, too. It’s stunning through and through from Manass’ steel guitar to Parsons’ lead vocal. He finds a way to channel Haggard while still making the song his own.

I also adore their version of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” a folk song about the titular bank robber. The band dresses it up with Hartford’s otherwordly banjo riffs and Hillman’s gorgeous mandolin picking. McGuinn also has a natural knack for storytelling that serves him well as he shoulders the lead vocal duties.

Luke Daniels’ “You’re Still On My Mind” is another Parsons fronted number featuring Maness on steel guitar. The results are glorious as the sunny steel is ear candy for the listener. The album closes with a final Dylan cover, “Nothing Was Delivered.” McGuinn takes the lead and with Green on pedal steel, the results are wonderful.

Full disclosure – before writing this review I’d never listened to an album by The Byrds, Chris Hillman, or Gram Parsons (although I do own Grievous Angel on vinyl). And as a formal introduction it doesn’t get much better than Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The album is a classic in every sense of the word and a pure delight to listen to forty-six years later. I had an idea what to expect when I went in to listen, but I had no idea what a fabulous steel guitar record this would turn out to be. Lloyd Green and JayDee Maness are masters of their craft and just a pure joy to listen to. If you don’t own your own copy of this album I suggest you run out and buy one as Sweetheart of The Rodeo is a must own for any fan of country or roots music.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: The Flying Burrito Brothers – ‘Six Days On The Road’

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Classic Rewind: Chris Hillman and Vern Gosdin – ‘I’m Gonna Be Movin”

Chris is reunited with an old friend:

 

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Spotlight Artist: Chris Hillman and the Desert Rose Band

ChrisHillmanChristopher Hillman was born in rural California on December 4, 1944. His older sister got him interested in country and folk music when she was in college and he was a teenager, and he began learning guitar and mandolin. At 17 he joined his first band, the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, playing mandolin, and the group recorded an album, Bluegrass Favorites (now a rare collector’s item), in 1963. Other members included future Eagle Bernie Leadon. When they broke up later that year (something which seems to have been an occupational hazard of California bands of the period), Chris joined the Golden State Boys, another bluegrass band which featured Vern Gosdin on lead vocals. Soon afterwards, the band changed its name to the Hillmen. The band’s eponymous album was released in 1969, some years after their disbanding, and has been reissued a few times since with some additional tracks.

The lack of bigtime success was beginning to frustrate the young musician, who was contemplating abandoning music in favour of attending college, when he got a big break thanks to Jim Dickson, who had produced the Hillmen’s recordings and tried to get them a record deal. He was invited to join a new folk-rock band called The Byrds, playing bass guitar – a new instrument for him. The Byrds’s first single, a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, was an international hit in 1965. Hillman was initially one of the less prominent members of the band, but he continued to develop as a songwriter and musician, and began to take a bigger share in the vocals on albums like Younger Than Yesterday, which had quite a strong country influence. In 1968 he and new member Gram Parsons, a fellow country fan, were instrumental in the creation of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, often regarded as the seminal country-rock album.

Chris and Gram departed the Byrds the following year, and together formed the Flying Burrito Brothers, a slightly shambolic but talented outfit who continued in the pioneering of country-rock. While the albums they recorded were not particularly commercially successful, being too country for rock and too rock for country, they have over time proved extremely influential, and some of the songs the pair wrote stand up as classics (for instance, ‘Sin City’).

The California country-rock-folk scene was somewhat incestuous and very quarrelsome, with frequent changes of band personnel. In 1971, Chris, who had fallen out with the unreliable Parsons (who went on to a solo career and launching that of Emmylou Harris, who Chris had actually discovered and introduced to Parsons), joined the eclectic Stephen Stills (formerly of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) in the band Manassas; there was then a shortlived Byrds reunion; and then a venture with singer-songwriter J. D. Souther and Buffalo Springfield’s Richie Furay to form the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band. Later in the 1970s Chris made his first attempt at a solo career with a couple of not very successful albums, before rejoining old Byrds bandmates Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark as McGuinn-Clark-Hillman.

The 1980s saw a change of emphasis, as Chris turned to his first musical loves: country and bluegrass, and really found himself as an artist. He recorded two excellent semi-acoustic records for Sugar Hill, Morning Sky and Desert Rose, with the help of his friend Herb Pedersen, who he had known for 20 years. The pair then formed the nucleus of the Desert Rose Band, a country-rock band with the emphasis on country which was to provide Chris Hillman’s greatest mainstream country success.

Their breezy sound was a big mainstream country hit between 1987 and 1991. Chris Hillman’s lead vocals were supported by Herb’s high harmonies, and the latter also contributed the odd lead vocal. The remainder of the lineup varied, but notably included lead guitarist John Jorgensen, steelie Jay Dee Maness, and Steve Hill, who became Hillman’s chief songwriting partner. The band won the CMA Horizon Award in 1989, and the Vocal Group of the Year in 1990.

After the Desert Rose Band called it a day in 1994, Hillman explored a number of mainly acoustic projects, sometimes solo, sometimes with friends. He and Pedersen have continued to work together frequently, and the pair have also recorded with bluegrass legends Tony and Larry Rice. There have also been live reunions of the Desert Rose Band.

In 2004 the Americana Music Association gave Hillman a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to so many genres of American music.

Over the next month we will be exploring highlights of Chris Hillman’s eclectic career, concentrating on the country elements, especially his period of mainstream success with the Desert Rose Band.

Album Review: Marty Raybon – ‘When The Sand Runs Out’

sandrunsoutRarely is a stint as the lead singer of a successful band a good launching pad for a solo career; just ask Larry Stewart, Paulette Carlson, or any of the countless others who tried and failed. Marty Raybon is no exception. Although the Raybon Brothers enjoyed some modest success with the sales of “Butterfly Kisses”, Marty’s hitmaking days ended shortly before he left Shenandoah. He resumed his solo career when the Raybon Brothers disbanded. None of his solo efforts was released by a major label. One of his better efforts is 2006’s When The Sand Runs Out, a mostly acoustic effort that is part country and part bluegrass with the occasional bit of gospel thrown in.

The listener is immediately reeled in with the opening track “Looking For Suzanne”, the story of an absentee father seeking to be reunited with his now adult daughter. The parent-child relationship is examined again from a different angle later in the album with Michael A. Curtis’ “Who Are You”, which examines the lifelong relationship between a father and son, from the son’s birth, through the rebellious adolescent and teenage years, to the role reversals when the son becomes the caretaker for the now-ailing father who can no longer recognize him. Both are excellent songs that were way too serious for 21st century country radio to even consider touching with a ten-foot pole.

The upbeat “Shenandoah Saturday Night”, another Curtis composition co-written with Marty and Mike Pyle, is the closest this album gets to a commercial song. It pays homage to Marty’s days with Shenandoah and name checks many of the hits he scored during his dozen years as the band’s lead singer. The non-charting “Shenandoah Saturday Night” was the album’s only single. It leads into a highly enjoyable cover of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”, that might have been my favorite track on the album had I never heard the Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman version that appeared on The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Volume 2. The McGuinn/Hillman recording was the first version I ever heard and it remains my favorite.

The highlights of the album are the beautiful ballad “I Know Love”, which Marty wrote with his brother Tim, and “Come Early Morning”, which was written by the great Bob McDill. I also particularly enjoyed the album’s bluegrass numbers “Throw Dirt” and “Wish I’d Never”. These came as a bit of a surprise, since I’d never thought of Marty as a bluegrass artist. Admittedly, I’m not terribly familiar with his non-Shenandoah work, so I don’t know if he dabbled in bluegrass prior to this, but he proves that he is more than capable of pulling it off credibly.

When The Sand Runs Out is an album clearly not made with an eye on the charts. It is sparsely produced and sounds as though it may have been a live-in-the-studio recording as opposed to the usual practice of recording different tracks separately and assembling them later — just a guess on my part. This gives it a decidedly non-commercial feel, which coupled with first-rate material, only adds to the album’s appeal.

Grade: A

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Divided And United: Songs Of The Civil War’

divided & unitedI love history as much as I do country music, so a project like Divided And United, and the several other recent albums which have focussed on the musical legacy of the Civil War is of strong interest to me. Of all these projects, this two-disc set is the one to involve the greatest number of straight country artists, although bluegrass and other American roots music are both well represented. Almost all the songs are all of genuine Civil War vintage or older ones which were popular at the time, and performed as far as possible in the style of the period. Movie composer Randall Poster had the idea for the project and produces. Relatively sparse arrangements are similar to the way the songs would have been sung at the time of the war.

My favourite track is Vince Gill’s beautiful, thoughtful prayer by a dying drummer boy to the ‘Dear Old Flag’ for which he is sacrificing his life, set to a simple, churchy piano accompaniment. A choir including Sharon and Cheryl White and the Isaacs, mixed quite low, joins in the final chorus. Another highlight is Jamey Johnson’s haunting lament of a ‘Rebel Soldier’ far from home, a kind of proto-blues which the former serving Marine conveys with an emotional power which renders the song completely believable. Also wonderful is Lee Ann Womack (absent for far too long from the recording studio) on ‘The Legend Of The Rebel Soldier’, a touching story song about a soldier dying far from home, beautifully sung. These three tracks are pretty much perfect.

Ashley Monroe sings ‘Pretty Saro’, another fine sad song reflecting on death, although it does not relate directly to the war (and in fact the songs which significantly predates the period), it fits in nicely musically. The pretty ‘Aura Lee’, another non-war folk song, is sung by the genre-defying musician Joe Henry (who also produces a number of tracks), and was another I enjoyed despite a limited (if emotionally expressive) vocal. I also very much enjoyed Chris Hillman’s sympathetic reading of the classic ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’.

The sad (but not directly related to the war) ‘Listen To The Mocking Bird’ is prettily sung by the brilliant fiddler Stuart Duncan with Dolly Parton harmonising. (Dolly’s star power gets her the lead billing in this pairing, but Duncan is the true lead vocalist on the track). Ricky Skaggs’s quietly measured ‘Two Soldiers’ and Chris Stapleton’s ‘Two Brothers’ relate specifically Civil War tragedies, the latter being one of the few post-war compositions.

The septuagenarian Loretta Lynn is showing her age vocally, but this lends some realistic vulnerability to her convincing portrayal of a farmer’s wife bidding her husband off to war, undertaking that she will carry on the farm until his return. Another veteran, but this time from the world of bluegrass, the legendary Del McCoury plays the part of a soldier bidding farewell to his sweetheart ‘Lorena’. This plaintive tale is mirrored by the mournful sequel at the other end of the album, ‘The Vacant Chair, meditated on by Dr Ralph Stanley, while old-time specialists Norman and Nancy Blake give us ‘The Faded Coat Of Blue’, another melancholy reflection.

Steve Earle portrays a young soldier’s fears the night before going into action, in ‘Just Before The Battle Mother / Farewell Mother’; perhaps he tries a little too hard to sound like a rough, tough soldier, and not quite enough sounding vulnerable and fearful in the face of impending death. The old soldier’s jaundiced attitude to war in ‘Down By The Riverside’ is rather yelled by blues musician Taj Mahal, but it is in keeping with the song and works quite well, while. One can imagine the soldiers singing like this.

‘Dixie’, sung during the war by both sides but associated now with the South, is pleasantly but somewhat underwhelmingly sung by Karen Elson and the Secret Sisters. It just feels a little too winsomely pretty to fit the project. Perhaps the ladies would have been more suited to ‘Wildwood Flower’, one of the few disappointments for me. ‘Wildwood Flower’ would have been better sung by a female singer than by Sam Amidon, a folk singer whose rather pedestrian vocal falls rather flat compared to many other versions I’ve heard, although the picking is nicely done. A A Bondy is a bit too breathy and experimental for me on ‘Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier’.

‘The Fall Of Charleston’, performed by folk/Americana duo Shovels & Rope is rather cluttered and messy sounding, and I could have done without this. T Bone Burnett isn’t much of a singer, but his grizzled vocal is extremely effective portraying the gloomy soldier’s wearied despair in ‘The Battle of Antietam’. Also working well with an everyman style vocal, John Doe’s wearied ‘Tenting On The Old Campground’ feels very authentic. Chris Thile and Mike Daves on the perky-sounding ‘Richmond Is A Hard Road To Travel’ also deal with army life.

‘Old Crow Medicine Show’ take on the two-paced marching song ‘Marching Through Georgia’ quite enjoyably. In a similar vein the less well known (and more anonymous sounding) The Tennessee Mafia Jug Band take on ‘Secesh’ in a raucous singalong. The Civil War had a naval aspect as well as a land one, and this represented here by a quirky sea song, ‘The Mermaid Song’, sung
by musician Jorma Kaukonen.

Angel Snow’s dreamily dejected version of ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ is quite effective at adding an unexpected poignancy.
The late Cowboy Jack Clements closes proceedings with the wistful ‘Beautiful Dreamer’.

Lest we forget the underlying cause of the war, the view of the slaves is represented in two songs (although it is not quite a first-person testimony, as both were written by the white abolitionist composer Henry Clay Ward. Pokey Lafarge tackles the anticipation of freedom in ‘Kingdom Come’ with committed enthusiasm just short of shouting, set against a martial beat. Much better, The Carolina Chocolate Drops hail the ‘Day Of Liberty’ for the country’s enslaved African Americans with a part-narrated (by Don Flemons), part-upbeat vocal (Rhiannon Giddens) song.

A few instrumental tunes are included, beautifully played by Bryan Sutton, Noah Pikelny and David Grisman. This impeccably arranged project is a remarkable piece of work, a poignant re-imagining of the Civil War through its music. It won’t appeal to everyone, but I appreciated it a great deal, and on a purely musical level, it has a lot to offer anyone who likes acoustic music.

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

Spotlight Artist: Vern Gosdin

The April Spotlight Artist is one of the truly great vocalists in the history of the genre, Vern Gosdin. There are very few male recording artists who deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Geoge Jones, Ray Price and Gene Watson. It takes the ability to convey the depths of despair, the heights of jubilation and the serenity of an abiding faith – that’s all that is required to be known as “The Voice” and Vern was one of the few to fit the bill.

Born in Woodland, Alabama, Vern (1934-2009) and his brother Rex (1938-1983) first surfaced in the American conscious during the 1960s in various capacities in the Southern California music scene. Despite inclusion in the Byrds’ inner circle of musicians and friends, the Gosdin Brothers bluegrass/country/rock hybrid never achieved great success.

The Gosdin brothers grew up with their seven siblings on a farm. Since money was never in great supply, they, like many other poor rural children, turned to music to escape the drudgery of everyday life. Energized by their discovery of the Louvin Brothers, Rex and Vern (and a third brother) started singing together, mastering the art of vocal harmony, and performing regularly on local radio station WVOK as teenagers. In 1953 Vern moved to Atlanta and in 1956 he moved again to Chicago where he ran a country music nightclub. Meanwhile Rex had moved to California.

Vern moved to Los Angeles in 1961, where he joined up with Rex and they expanded their musical horizons as they found their way into a bluegrass group led by Chris Hillman called the Golden State Boys. The group later changed its name to the Hillmen. Their association with master musician Hillman led to their acceptance into the Los Angeles music scene from which the Byrds and such later stars as Poco, Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles emerged. During this period, the Gosdin Brothers picked up gigs when available, performed on recording sessions, and recorded a few songs as a duo. The duo expanded their musical repertoire, moving into an area somewhere between the folk-rock of the pre-Gram Parson Byrds and the Country-Rock that would emerge in the early 1970s.

In 1966 Vern and Rex contributed vocal harmonies to Gene Clark’s album Gene Clark and the Gosdin Brothers. In 1967 a single, “Hangin’ On,” cracked the charts, leading to the release of the duo’s only album, Sounds of Goodbye on Capitol in 1968. The title song, written by up and coming songwriter Eddie Rabbit was a hot commodity-so much so that three different acts recorded and released the song as a single, ensuring that no one would have a big hit with the record, although Opry veteran George Morgan came closest as his version was a big hit in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic areas. Tommy Cash’s record also made the national charts with the song. The Gosdin Brothers version did not chart nationally, but it did well on the left coast.

Since country music was a singles-driven genre, the failure of “The Sounds of Goodbye,” the most radio-friendly cut on the album, spelled finis to their recording career on Capitol. This was truly a pity as the album contains many great harmonies and otherwise worthwhile moments including original material in “For Us To Find” and “The Victim.” While the Gosdin Brothers sounded good collectively, Vern’s sparkling vocals were the highlight of the album. Discouraged, the Gosdin Brothers split up with Vern largely dropping out of the entertainment business for a while when he returned to Atlanta, where he ran a glass and mirror shop. Rex continued to perform.

Never Give Up – The Voice Returns

Vern Gosdin never entirely stopped performing. In 1976, he returned to recording for the Elektra label, charting his first solo chart hit, a solo version of “Hangin’ On” and enjoying Top 10 hits with “Yesterday’s Gone” (both featuring harmony vocals by Emmylou Harris, a friend from his California days) and “Till The End.” By this time he was forty-two years old. He left his sons to run the glass and mirror business and rejoined brother Rex for touring. Unfortunately, Rex died in May 1983 at the age of 45, some two weeks before his own solo recording of “That Old Time Feelin'” entered the charts.

Elektra’s country division folded in 1980 and Gosdin landed on smaller labels AMI (which folded) and Compleat where he enjoyed continued success. After landing with Compleat, Gosdin joined forces with songwriter Max D. Barnes (whose son Max T. Barnes also was a successful songwriter) to write some truly classic honky-tonk laments. In 1983 Gosdin had two top five hits (“If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong” and “Way Down Deep”) and in 1984 he had his first #1 single with “I Can Tell by the Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight)” and had two additional top 10 hits.

After 1984, his career hit a temporary lull, but the “New Traditionalist” movement lured Columbia into signing him in 1987 where he justified Columbia’s faith in signing him with a top 10 hit in the tormented “Do You Believe Me Now.” In 1988 Gosdin returned to the top of the charts with his Ernest Tubb tribute “Set ‘Em Up Joe.” The next year “Chiseled In Stone,” co-written with Barnes, won the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year and cemented his reputation as one of the all-time great song stylists. His 1989 album, Alone, chronicled the breakup of his own marriage.

As a solo artist, Vern Gosdin charted 41 country chart hits, with 19 top ten records and 3 chart toppers.

Vern was hospitalized in 1995 with a stroke and subsequently dropped by Columbia. He continued to record sporadically after that, most notably the 2004 album Back In The Swing of Things and the four CD set 40 Years of The Voice issued just months prior to his death in April 2009. In 2005, Gosdin was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Perhaps the Country Music Hall of Fame will see fit to do likewise.

“The Voice” is now silenced but he left behind an incredible legacy of recorded performances. Join us now as we explore the music of April’s Spotlight Artist, the incomparable Vern Gosdin.

Classic Rewind: Chris Hillman – ‘Runnin’ The Roadblocks’

Emmylou & Friends: Sweet Harmonies

From the very beginning, collaborations with other artists have been an integral part of Emmylou Harris’ career. Over the span of nearly 40 years, she is perhaps as well known for supplying harmony vocals to other artists records and championing promising newcomers as for her own solo work. It would perhaps be easier to list the names of the artists with whom she has not worked; like Willie Nelson she has worked with a variety of performers from both within and outside the country genre. It isn’t possible to do justice to such a large body of work in a single article, but I’d like to touch on some of my favorites.

Emmylou was performing in small venues in the Washington, DC area when she was discovered by Chris Hillman, who was then the bandleader of The Flying Burrito Brothers. It was he who recommended her to Gram Parsons, who hired her to be his duet partner and introduced her to the world of country music. She sang prominent harmonies on Parsons’ 1973 solo debut album GP, as well as on the follow-up Grievous Angel, which was released in 1974 after Parsons’ death from a drug overdose. Both albums were re-released on a single disc by Reprise. They are also available digitally and are well worth a listen. Emmylou later covered many of the songs on these two volumes on her solo albums. One of the best is a rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Love Hurts”, which also appears on Emmylou’s Duets compilation, which was released by Reprise in 1990 and is an excellent sampler of her non-solo work.

Duets also includes such hits as “We Believe In Happy Endings” with Earl Thomas Conley, “If I Needed You” with Don Williams, and “That Lovin’ You Feeling Again” with Roy Orbison, which won a Grammy in 1980 for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. Two new tracks were recorded for the project: “The Price I Pay” with Chris Hillman’s Desert Rose Band and a beautiful rendition of Nanci Griffith’s “Gulf Coast Highway” with Willie Nelson.

After the death of Gram Parsons and before she secured her solo deal with Reprise, Emmylou had sung backup on some of Linda Ronstadt’s records, and formed what was to become a lifelong friendship. Ronstadt eventually returned the favor, singing backup on Emmylou’s solo records, as did Dolly Parton, whose “Coat of Many Colors” Emmylou had covered on her Pieces of the Sky album. The three women formed an alliance and recorded together sporadically over the next several years. For many years, legal issues and record label politics thwarted their attempts to release an album together, but their collaborations occasionally turned up on Emmylou’s albums, notably “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” from 1979’s Blue Kentucky Girl and “Mister Sandman” from 1981’s Evangeline. Parton and Ronstadt also both contributed to 1980’s Roses In The Snow. Eventually the three women released Trio and Trio II in 1987 and 1999, respectively. Emmylou and Linda teamed up again in 1999 for Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions. Dolly wasn’t available to participate this time around; let’s just say that her presence is sorely missed as this particular album is not one of my favorites.

In 2007 Rhino Records released the four-disc boxed set Songbird: Rare Tracks and Forgotten Gems, which includes a generous sampling of Emmylou’s lesser-known solo and non-solo efforts. Some of the highlights include “Spanish Johnny” with Waylon Jennings, “One Paper Kid” with Willie Nelson and “Here We Are” with George Jones. It also contains some of the outtakes from the Trio sessions with Ronstadt and Parton, as well as some of their earlier recordings that had not previously seen the light of day, including 1978’s “Palms of Victory” and an exquisite reading of “Softly and Tenderly” from the second Trio sessions. Also of note are some of Emmylou’s contributions to tribute albums, such as the title track to the 1994 Merle Haggard tribute Mama’s Hungry Eyes, which she sings with Rodney Crowell, and “Golden Ring” from 1998’s Tammy Wynette Remembered, on which she is joined by Linda Ronstadt and Kate and Anna McGarrigle. “Mary Danced With Soldiers” from The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Volume 2 also makes an appearance, as does “I Don’t Love You Much, Do I” with Guy Clark and “Sonny”, sung with Ireland’s Mary Black and Dolores Keane. The third and fourth discs of Songbird rely heavily on duet material, including collaborations with artists such as Sheryl Crow, Patty Griffin, Mark Knopfler, Carl Jackson, Randy Scruggs, Iris Dement, The Pretenders, and The Seldom Scene. Songbird is a somewhat pricy collection, but it is one of the best music purchases I ever made.

In addition to the artists previously mentioned, Emmylou has lent her voice to recordings by Terri Clark, The Judds, Vince Gill, Trisha Yearwood, and countless others. As someone who became interested in country music during the Urban Cowboy’s heyday in the early 80s, Emmylou’s music was something of an acquired taste for me. It took a few years for me to fully appreciate her artistry, and it was primarily through her work with others that I became a huge fan.

Classic Rewind: Emmylou Harris ft Herb Pedersen and Chris Hillman – ‘If I Could Only Win Your Love/Sin City’