My Kind of Country

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Album Review: Hank Williams Jr – ‘The World Of Hank Williams Jr’

the world of hank williams jrIn our look at Hank Jr’s early career we have been concentrating on material which is mostly out of print and unlikely to be released digitally. If your appetite has been whetted, and your budget doesn’t stretch to the big box set Paul recommended yesterday, you need to look at the few compilations available. The budget option is this 20-track CD originally released by a German label in 1996. The songs are all covers of classic country songs, well produced and sung but not really essential. They do make a reasonably priced introduction to this era of Hank Williams Jr’s work, although the selection of material is a bit unbalanced, and it would have been nice to have some original material.

Half a dozen tracks come from the album of Johnny Cash covers Hank Jr did in 1970
https://mykindofcountry.wordpress.com/2016/01/08/35756/ : a pleasant but sleepy cover of ‘Ring Of Fire’ fails to excite. ‘I Walk the Line’ is solid, and ‘Folsom Prison Blues works well apart from the self-referential lyric changes which made me roll my eyes. ‘I Guess Things Happen That Way’ is also very good, and ‘Give My Love To Rose’ is excellent. ‘Understand Your Man’ is another decent cut.

Two of his duets with Lois Johnson are included, the Everly Brothers’ ‘So Sad’, and country classic ‘Together Again’, both very nicely done.

Pop star Connie Francis joined Hank less successfully on another Everly Brothers’ tune, ‘Bye Bye Love’. Their voices do not combine very effectively, with a somber vocal from Hank contrasting with a bouncier one from Connie and a Nashville Sound orchestrated backing. The mismatch is even more marked on an ill-judged ‘Singing The Blues’ with Connie entirely too perky, with Jr sounding like he is copying his dad’s vocal stylings. She is better on ‘Please Help Me, I’m Falling’, which is prettily performed.

The sophisticated ballad ‘Make The World Go Away’ is smothered with strings and backing singers, but there is a fine vocal from Hank. ‘Sweet Dreams’ gets the same treatment, with a very strong, emotional vocal. ‘There Goes My Everything’ is pretty good, too. The sole song of his father’s is ‘Your Cheatin Heart’ is pretty good vocally, with a Nashville Soundproduction.

The Gold Rush tale ‘North To Alaska’ is highly entertaining and suits the robustness of Hank’s voice. Lefty Frizzell’s ‘I Love You A Thousand Ways’ is lovely, while Hank Jr is extremely good on a tasteful and believable take on ‘The Long Black Veil’. A brave take on ‘The Window Up Above’ is surprisingly good.

The tragic story of death in ‘The Blizzard’ feels a bit dated now (but currently topical given the weather conditions in part of the US).

I enjoyed listening to the cuts on this compilation, but I don’t think I’d pick them over the originals. However, as one of the few available records covering Hank Jr’s early years, it may be worth checking out.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Hank Williams Jr – ‘Living Proof: The MGM Recordings (1963-1975’

living proof mgmFor the listener wanting a good overview of Hank Junior’s career with MGM Records, the best place to start is with this 3 CD boxed set released in 1992 by Polygram, the successor label to MGM.

The set is not perfect, far from it, but within its 82 tracks , it does a good job of showing the maturation process of Hank Williams, Jr. as a singer and as an artist. For a record label trying to give an overview of a major artist of the 1960s and 1970s the task is a daunting one. Not counting Christmas albums and hit collections, George Strait released 24 albums between 1981 and 2005. Using the same criteria, Hank released 29 albums between 1963 and 1975. Hank recorded quite a few more songs in thirteen years than did modern day icon Strait in twenty-five years. That’s a lot of songs for MGM/Polygram to wade through.

The set is essentially chronological, although it gives short shrift to the very earliest recordings. In one sense, this is a good thing in that it avoids the ridiculous pop duet album recorded with Connie Francis. In another sense, it is a bad thing in that it misses some of Hank’s efforts to break away from being a clone of his father. Missing are some of the more interesting album tracks from the albums Blue’s My Name and Ballads of The Hills and Plains and essential tracks from My Own Way (“I’m In No Condition”) and My Songs (“I Ain’t Sharin’ Sharon” and “I Wouldn’t Change A Thing About You [Except Your Name]”).

That’s not to say that the track on the collection are not worthy as they most certainly are worthy. It’s simply that the set should run one disc longer. If you listen carefully, you will find that this collection of songs represents Hank’s autobiography up to 1975 – it’s that powerful.

Included are twenty-five of Hank’s forty-one chart hits for MGM (including all six of his #1 singles), examples of Hank as a clone of his father, examples of Hank’s recordings while struggling with the ‘Nashville Sound’ (particularly “All For The Love of Sunshine”, a #1 hit with the Mike Curb Congregation), and the entire Hank Williams and Friends album that closed out his MGM career.

Along the way Hank showed sign of his versatility recording country classics, pop songs (“Endless Sleep”, “Splish Splash”), R&B classics such as Fats Domino’s “Aint That A Shame”, Joe Liggins’ “I’ve Got A Right To Cry”, Tony Joe White’s “Rainy Night In Georgia”, Smokey Robinson’s “My Girl” and a bunch of songs that he wrote himself, some of them really fine efforts. Not meaning to pick on George Strait, but there is more diversity of material and more challenging material in this box, than George has tacked in his thirty-five year recording career. Only Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard ever tackled such a far ranging repertoire.

This box set, for all my quibbles with it, is still an A+. It is still available and I would recommend it to anyone.

Spotlight Artist: Hank Williams Jr.

hqdefault-3The life story of Hank Williams Jr. is a familiar one. Hank was born on May 26, 1949 in Shreveport, the son of the legendary Hank Williams. Although referred to as ‘Hank Williams, Jr.’, Hank was born as Randall Hank Williams and his father was born as Hiram King (Hank) Williams. After his father’s untimely death on January 1, 1953, he was raised by his mother, Audrey Williams, who essentially forced Hank into the life of a singer, attempting to mold him into a clone of his father. Williams made his stage debut singing his father’s songs when he was eight years old. In 1964, he made his recording debut with “Long Gone Lonesome Blues”, one of his father’s classic songs.

The idea of Hank as a clone of his father became a more awkward fit as Hank grew older. Physically much sturdier that his father, Hank also did not have his father’s thin reedy voice. Hank could yodel but it was an effort. He also had a broader musical education since his mother Audrey could count various musical titans as friends and acquaintances. Hank himself has mentioned Fats Domino and Johnny Cash as strong musical influences.

At some point Hank rebelled against his mother’s efforts to turn him into a clone of his father. While Hank has always sung his father’s songs, he started to develop into a major mainstream country artist and remained there for over a decade.

His initial record label, MGM, had been his father’s label, so for much of Hank’s tenure with MGM the label would push for Hank Sr./Hank Jr. projects. Some of them, like Father & Son and Hank Williams/Hank Williams Jr. Again are gimmicky projects with Hank Jr. grafted onto his father’s recordings (if the masters still exist for these recordings, modern recording technology could make these sound far better than they do). Others like Songs My Father Left Me (unfinished songs completed and set to music by Hank Jr.) are first class efforts. There are two soundtracks, three duet albums (Connie Francis, Lois Johnson), two Luke The Drifter Jr. albums, a live album plus hit collections. Along the way there are at least fourteen albums of Hank Williams Jr. developing into a first rate mainstream country artist.

If you are fifty years old or younger, Hank Williams Jr. probably came onto your radar in 1979 with the release of “Family Tradition”. At the time was thirty years old, emerging from a transitional period in which he had not had a top ten single in over five years. From this point forward Hank would have a dozen year run of gold and platinum albums, with his 1982 Greatest Hits reaching quintuple platinum status. During that same stretch Hank would have an endless string of top ten singles with eight Billboard #1s. After a near fatal accident in 1975, Hank set out find his own muse and get his producers off his records, finally developing his own country/rock R&B hybrid.

The January Spotlight will focus on the early efforts of Hank Williams Jr., a period which saw Hank emerge from his father’s shadow and develop into a very successful artist in his own right. It was a period in which the ‘Nashville Sound’ dominated country production so there will be records with strings and choral accompaniments, but Hank’s voice is strong enough and distinctive enough to cut through the clutter. Many of my favorite Hank Williams Jr. singles come from this period, so kick back and enjoy.

Ten best reissues of 2012

2012 wasn’t a great year for reissues, but there were ten that struck me as exceptional enough to make a ten best list. Here is a list of my favorites (note: some of the foreign CDs may carry a 2011 date but did not hit the American market until 2012). My list is a mixed bag of single volume releases, affordable multi-disc sets and two rather expensive boxed sets

janiefricke Janie Fricke – The Country Side of Bluesgrass

An excellent set of Janie Fricke’s 1970s and 1980s hits recast as bluegrass. This album was advertised as the follow-up to her 2004 Bluegrass Sessions album, but it is actually a reissue of that album minus the bonus DVD – same songs, same “bonus track”, same musicians and producer. Only the packaging differs, so if you have the earlier CD you don’t need this one. If you don’t have the earlier version then you do need this one as Janie is one of the few female singers whose vocal chops have gotten better as she aged.

loudermilkSitting in the Balcony – The Songs of John D. Loudermilk

Although John D. Loudermilk wrote a large number of hit records for other performers, his hit songs (“Abilene”, “Waterloo”, “Talk Back Trembling Lips”, “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” , “Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian”, “Tobacco Road” , “A Rose And A Baby Ruth”, etc) were not at all typical of the material with which he filed his albums. A first cousin of Ira & Charlie Louvin (they were actually the Loudermilk Brothers before the name change), John D. Loudermilk had a decidedly offbeat outlook on life as evidenced by the songs in this two CD set. Loudermilk didn’t have a great singing voice and his offbeat songs resulted in no top twenty hits for him as a performer, but his songs are treasures.

Disc One (John D. Loudermilk: The Records) contains 32 recordings John made from 1957-1961. Disc Two (John D. Loudermilk: The Songs of John D. Loudermilk) contains 32 recordings made by other artists from 1956-1961, not necessarily big hits (although several are sprinkled in) but interesting songs by a wide array of artists, both famous and obscure (the famous names include Eddie Cochran, Johnny Cash, The Everly Brothers, Kitty Wells and Connie Francis). If you’ve never heard John D. Loudermilk, this is the place to start – it won’t be your stopping point

bradleykincaid Bradley Kincaid – A Man and His Guitar
Released by the British label JSP, this four CD set sells for under $30.00 and gives you 103 songs by one the individuals most responsible for preserving the musical heritage of rural America, through his song collecting and issuance of songbooks. Beyond being a preservationist, Kincaid was an excellent songwriter, singer and radio performer, as well as being Grandpa Jones’ mentor. This collection covers the period 1927-1950. An essential set for anyone interested in the history of country music

bootleg4 Johnny Cash – The Soul of Truth: Bootleg Vol. 4

You can never have too much Johnny Cash in your collection, and this 2 CD set includes the released albums A Believer Sings the Truth and Johnny Cash – Gospel Singer, plus unreleased material and outtakes. Various members of Cash’s extended family appear plus Jan Howard and Jessi Colter.

shebwooley Sheb Wooley –
White Lightnin’ (Shake This Shack Tonight)

Sheb Wooley had several careers – movie star, television actor (Rawhide), singer and comedian. Actually Sheb had two singing careers – a ‘straight’ country as Sheb Wooley and a comic alter-ego, the besotted Ben Colder.

This set covers the post WW2 recordings, recorded under the name Sheb Wooley. Sheb had a considerable sense of humor even when recording under his own name and there are quite a few humorous and offbeat songs in this thirty song collection released by Bear Family. Recorded on the west coast of the USA, many of these recordings feature steel guitar wizard Speedy West and the lightning fingers of guitarist Jimmie Bryant. Sheb’s biggest hit was “Purple People Eater”, which is not on this CD but there are many songs to make you smile including such classics as “That’s My Pa”, “You’re The Cat’s Meow” and “Rover, Scoot Over”, plus a number of boogies and a song titled “Hill Billy Mambo”.

martyrobbinsEl Paso: The Marty Robbins Story (1952-1960)

Marty Robbins was the “renaissance man” of country music. He could sing anything and everything. I always suspected that if rock and roll had not come along and momentarily wiped out the pop standards/classic pop market, Marty might have been competing against Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Julius Larosa and Tony Bennett, rather than competing as a county artist.

Whatever the case, Robbins was a truly great singer and this two CD set from the Czech label Jasmine proves it. This sixty (60) song collections gives us pop standards, rock and roll (“Maybelline”, “Long Tall Sally”, “That’s All Right, Mama”), ‘Mr. Teardrop’ ballads (“I Couldn’t Keep From Crying” , “Mr. Teardrop”, Teen Hits (“A White Sport Coat [And A Pink Carnation]”, “The Story of My Life”) , Country Standards (“Singing The Blues”, and lots of the great western ballads for which he was most famous”

If you don’t have any Marty Robbins this is a good place to start – sixty songs, under twenty bucks. Marty’s songs have been around and available in various configurations so this isn’t an essential album, merely an excellent one.

johnhartford

John Hartford – Aereo Plane/Morning Bugle: The Complete Warner Collection

John Hartford (December 30, 1937 – June 4, 2001) is best remembered for writing “Gentle On My Mind” but he was much more than a songwriter who happened to write a hit for Glen Campbell. Hartford was an extremely talented musician who could play any instruments, although banjo and fiddle were his main tools, a fine singer with a wry sense of humor and a scholar of the lore and history of the Mississippi River. While he sometimes is group settings, John was comfortable performing as a one-man band playing either banjo or guitar along with harmonica while clogging out the rhythm on an amplified piece of plywood while he played and sang.

Warner Brothers released these albums in 1971 and 1972, following his four-year run on RCA. Aereo-Plain has been described as hippie bluegrass, and its failure to sell well caused Warner Brothers to not bother with promoting the follow-up album Morning Bugle. Too bad as Aereo-Plain is chock full of quirky but interesting songs, with musicianship of the highest order with Norman Blake on guitar, Tut Taylor on dobro, and Vassar Clements on fiddle as part of the ensemble. I’ve always regard this album as the first “newgrass” album, and while others may disagree, it certainly is among the first. I don’t recall any singles being released from this album but I heard “Steam Powered Aereo Plane” and “Teardown The Grand Ole Opry” on the radio a few times.

While Aereo-Plain reached the Billboard album charts at #193, the follow-up Morning Bugle didn’t chart at all. Too bad as it is an imaginative album featuring Hartford with Norman Blake on guitar and mandolin, joined by legendary jazz bassist Dave Holland. The album features nine original compositions plus a couple of old folk songs. I particulary liked “Nobody Eats at Linebaugh’s Anymore” and “Howard Hughes’ Blues”, but the entire album is excellent. Following Warner Brothers’ failure to promote this album, Hartford asked to be released from his contract. He never again recorded for a major label, instead producing a series of fine albums for the likes of Flying Fish, Rounder and Small Dog A-Barkin’.

This reissue unearths eight previously unreleased tracks, making it a ‘must-have’ for any true John Hartford fan and a great starting point for those unfamiliar with his music.

bobbybare Bobby Bare – As Is/Ain’t Got Nothin’ To Lose

Bobby Bare was never flashy or gimmicky in his approach to music even though he recorded many novelties from the pen of Shel Silverstein. For Bare songs had stories to tell and that’s how he approached them. Whether the song was something from Shel, Tom T Hall, Billy Joe Shaver, Bob McDill or whomever, Bobby made sure that the song’s story was told. While this approach didn’t always get Bare the big hits, it always gained him the respect of the listener.

This reissue couples two of Bare’s early 1980s Columbia releases plus a few bonus tracks. The great John Morthland in his classic book The Best of Country Music, had this to say about As Is: “… It is the ideal Bobby Bare formula really: give him a batch of good songs and turn him loose. No concepts here, nothing cutesy, just ten slices-of-life produced to perfection by Rodney Crowell”.

My two favorite tracks on As Is were a pair of old warhorses, Ray Price’s 1968 “Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go) “ and the Ian Tyson classic “Summer Wages”.

While I Ain’t Got Nothing To Lose isn’t quite as stong an album, it gives Bare’s wry sense of humor several display platforms. The (almost) title track echos thoughts that many of us have felt at some point in our life (the first line is the actual song title:

If you ain’t got nothin’ you ain’t got nothin’ to lose
There ain’t no pressure when you’re singin’ these low down blues
Smokin’ that git down bummin’ them red men chews
If you ain’t got nothin’ you ain’t got nothin’ to lose

Hugh Moffat’s “Praise The Lord and Send Me The Money” is a clever jab at televangelistas . I’ll give you a middle verse and let you guess the rest:

I woke up late for work the next morning
I could not believe what I’d done
Wrote a hot check to Jesus for ten thousand dollars
And my bank account only held thirty-one

I consider virtually everything Bobby Bare recorded to be worthwhile so I jumped on this one the minute I knew of its existence. I already had As Is on vinyl but somehow the companion album slipped by me.

This brings us up to two rather expensive box sets that will set the purchaser back by several bills.

conniesmithThe obsessive German label Bear Family finally got around to releasing their second box set on Connie Smith. Just For What I Am picks up where the prior set left off and completes the RCA years. While many prefer Miss Smith’s earliest recordings, I am most fond of her work from the period 1968-1972, when her material was more adventurous, especially on the album tracks. During this period Smith had shifted from Bill Anderson being her preferred songwriter to focusing on the songs of Dallas Frazier, including one full album of nothing but Dallas Frazier-penned songs. The ‘Nashville Sound’ blend of strings and steel never sounded as good as it did on these tracks. There is a fair amount of religious music on the set, but for the less religiously inclined there is more than enough good solid country music on the set to be worth the effort in programming your CD player to skip the religious tracks. At her peak Connie Smith was the strongest vocalist the genre has ever generated – even today at age 71, she can blow away most female vocalists. Highlights are songs such as “Where Is My Castle”, “Louisiana Man”, “Ribbon of Darkness”, but when I listen to these discs, I just put ‘em on and let ‘em spin.

cashUp to this point, I actually own all of the albums and sets listed above. Not being made of money, I haven’t purchased Sony/Legacy’s massive 63 CD set The Complete Johnny Cash Columbia Album Collection, although the temptation is there. What is stopping me from making the purchase (other than my wife) is that already own 99% of what the set contains in one format or another.

What the set contains is an unbelievable array of material, it’s difficult to think of any singer whose work has been so varied. There are gospel albums, Christmas albums, a children’s album, soundtrack albums from a couple of movies, two Highwayman albums, a collaboration with former Sun label mates Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, a concert from a Swedish prison and other live albums and duet albums – a total of 59 albums as originally released on the Columbia label (no bonus tracks). There set also includes another four CDs of miscellaneous materials – singles and B-sides not originally on albums, Johnny’s guest vocals on other artist’s albums plus various oddities. Some of Cash’s later Columbia albums were not quite as strong as the earlier albums, but even the weaker albums contained some quite interesting material. This set usually sells for around $265 or $4 per disc.

Patsy Cline: The live recordings

The major contribution to Patsy Cline’s legacy made by these live releases, the first coming some 25 years after her death, was that they offered the listener a side of Patsy Cline that wasn’t heard on her studio recordings with Owen Bradley.  On the three collections of live recordings by Patsy Cline released in the span of about a decade by MCA, we get to know Patsy Cline as a woman, a performer, and a personality.

The performances on Live at the Opry were recorded as part of as a substitute for the actual Opry show for stations who could not get a live feed of the broadcast. The Opry engineers would record the transcripts of the stars performing and distribute them to affiliated stations.  The tracks on Live at the Opry were recorded between 1956 and 1962.  All her biggest hits are here including ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’, ‘I Fall to Pieces’, ‘Crazy’, as well as her take on other artists hits.  She ably tackles ‘Loose Talk’ and ‘There He Goes’, both hits for the recently deceased Carl Smith and Hank Williams’ ‘Lovesick Blues’.

Patsy’s personality comes across beautifully in these recordings too.  You can hear her growling and snarling, and even scatting a bit in between lyrics.  Additionally, the disc features introductions and commentary by fellow Opry stars Little Jimmy Dickens, Ray Price, Jim Reeves, and Hank Snow.  Upon its release in 1988, it peaked at #60 on the country albums chart, but served as an important footnote in country music’s history as the first collection of live recordings by one of the genre’s most important female vocalists.

Released as a companion set to Live at the Opry the following year in 1989, the title to Live Vol. 2 is a bit misleading, as the tracks weren’t recorded in front of a studio audience, but in a private studio as part of a series of military-themed radio shows.  To give the recordings a live feel, you can hear the musicians clapping and shouting out words of encouragement at the end of some of the songs.  Six of the tracks were recorded for 3 separate miliatry-recruitment ads, which featured Patsy fan Faron Young as the host.  These 6 come from a single Summer 1956 session.  The other half are from various military broadcasts, recorded between 1960 and 1962.  The disc doesn’t contain any of Patsy’s hits, with only 7 of the 12 being in her recorded catalog, the material leans heavily on covers.  Notably, Patsy’s swinging rendition of the pop standard ‘Side by Side’ is a personal favorite.  Also good is her take on Roger Miller’s ‘When Your House Is Not a Home’ and her own ‘Stop, Look and Listen’.

Live at the Cimarron Ballroom was recorded live at the venue in Tulsa, Oklahoma on July 29, 1961.  This collection features all of Patsy’s hits to date, with sublime versions of ‘A Poor Mans Roses’, ‘I Fall to Pieces’, and ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’  Of the two new songs, it’s telling that ‘Stupid Cupid’, the Connie Francis hit is also found on Live Vol. 2.  The song was obviously part of Patsy’s regular repetoire, and one she was clearly fond of.  Closing the show is the previously unrecorded ‘When My Dreamboat Comes’.  In between the hits and covers, the most enjoyable part of this set is the dialog, where we find the singer talking about country music being the ‘sweetest music this side of heaven’.  On another track she is discussing her car crash and the plastic surgery still needed to ‘make her face look like new’.  She comes across as a confident woman, and one able to see the humor in her own hard times.  Proving Patsy’s continued popularity, the album managed to chart at #32 on the country albums chart upon its release in 1997.

Both Live at the Opry and Live at the Cimarron Ballroom are available very reasonably from amazon.  Live Vol. 2 is since out of print, but available if you really want it.