My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Count Basie

Album Review: Asleep at the Wheel & Leon Rausch – ‘It’s a Good Day’

91xsgyplbl-_sx522_Leon Rausch was the lead singer for Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys during the late 1950s and early 1960 and rejoined the band for its final recordings in 1973.  In 2010, he joined forces with Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel for It’s a Good Day, a diverse collection of western swing, big band, jazz and mainstream swing (if there is such a thing) tunes.  He is front and center for the album, handling most of the lead vocals, with AATW acting as his backing band. Floyd Domino, AATW’s original pianist, rejoins the group for this project, as he did for the previous year’s Willie and the Wheel.  The album was produced by Ray Benson.

At age 83, Rausch’s voice is gravelly but still quite strong and he sings surprisingly well for his age.  He holds his own with AATW’s Elizabeth McQueen who duets with him on “Alright, OK, You Win”, a Count Basie tune written by Maymie Watts and Sid Wyche.  It had also been a hit for Peggy Lee in the 1950s, and he outsings Willie Nelson, who acts as his duet partner on “Truck Driver’s Blues”.

I’m sure it won’t surprise anyone to hear that my favorite songs on the album are the more country ones, although I really do like all kinds of swing music and enjoyed the entire album.  The best ones are those that were penned by the great Bob Wills himself:  “I Didn’t Realize”, “Cotton Patch Blues”, “Sugar Moon” (a co-write with Cindy Walker) and “Osage Stomp”, the instrumental jam-session album closer.  I also quite enjoyed “Mean Woman with the Green Eyes”, which was not written by Bob Wills but was recorded by The Texas Playboys.

Benson and his band take a back seat to Rausch on this project, but Asleep at the Wheel , which is one of the best bands in any genre of music, is the glue that holds everything together. As always, the musicianship is excellent.  It’s not a strictly country album, but there isn’t a bad song to be found here.

Grade:  A

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Album Review: Asleep at the Wheel – ‘Asleep at the Wheel’ (1974)

r-6847990-1427926933-1911-jpeg1974’s Asleep at the Wheel was the band’s second release and the first for Epic Records. It was also the first of a pair of eponymous albums; another album titled Asleep at the Wheel would be released about a decade later by MCA.

Produced by Norro Wilson, the album was almost completely out of step with mainstream country, and as such it did not sell particularly well. It did, however, produce the band’s first chart single, “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie”, which peaked at #69. But because it did not follow the the commercial trends of the day, it does not sound as dated as many of the albums released in that era. In fact, it is every bit as enjoyable today as it was over 40 year ago.

It is an eclectic collection of Western swing, straight country and 1940s-style jump blues. Two singles were released: “Don’t Ask Me Why (I’m Going to Texas)” written by Ray Benson, Leroy Preston and Kevin Farrell, and the aforementioned “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” which had been a big R&B hit in 1946 for Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five. Despite the inclusion of some fiddle, steel and honky-tonk piano, “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” doesn’t sound very country at all but it is very well done. “Don’t Ask Me Why” is more Bob Wills-style Western swing and is also quite well done.

“You and Me Instead”, another Kevin Farrell composition, is a more contemporary number with a 70s-style string section. It’s a different style than we typically expect from Asleep at the Wheel and I wonder why no one though to release this one as a single. I wouldn’t rank it among my favorites on the album but it seems like it would have had some mainstream appeal in 1974.

“Jumpin’ at the Woodside” is a Count Basie tune that still sounds like mainstream 1940s big band music, despite some excellent fiddle from the great Johnny Gimble, who played on seven of the album’s eleven tracks, including “Don’t Ask Me Why”.

If pressed to pick a favorite, I would probably choose “Last Letter”, which is sung beautifully by band member Chris O’Connell, who at times sounds a bit like Connie Smith. The song itself was written by Rex Griffin, who had a hit with it in 1937. It is a story told by a jilted spouse as she writes a suicide note to the spouse who abandoned her. Griffin wrote the song based on his own real-life experience. O’Connell takes the spotlight again on one other track, “Our Names Aren’t Mentioned (Together Anymore)”, which is performed as a duet with its writer Leroy Preston. Cindy Walker’s “Miss Molly” is another highlight.

Leroy Preston is not as good a vocalist as Ray Benson, but he sings lead adequately on four tracks, the best of which is “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday”.

Asleep at the Wheel is an outstanding album from start to finish: the material is impeccable, and the musicians are excellent. The instrumental solos are as enjoyable as the vocals. I couldn’t find a single weak moment to criticize. I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in Western swing — or swing music in general.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Raul Malo – ‘After Hours’

51tOoPsggiLThere is always risk in releasing an album of “covers”. First, the possibility always exists that the material is too familiar to attract much attention. Second, there is the risk of being unfavorably compared to the earlier versions of the material being covered.

After Hours mostly avoids the first risk by focusing on material from before 1973, ensuring that most of the audience will not be terribly familiar with the material. The second risk is more problematic as there are some definite misfires in the tempos at which some of the songs are performed.

The album opens with “Welcome To My World”, a ballad generally associated with either “Gentleman” Jim Reeves or Dean Martin, two of the premier balladeers of the twentieth century. Jim Reeves had a smooth, velvety voice capable of conveying warmth like few others (Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Ray Price) ever could. Dean Martin was the King of Cool with great warmth but a more casual feel to his vocals than Reeves could achieve. If you have not heard either Reeves or Martin perform this song, then you will really like Malo’s performance. Raul does not have the warmth of his predecessors, but does an admirable job with the song and the accompaniment is excellent.

“(Now and Then) There’s A Fool Such As I” is a slight misstep, taken at a tempo that is too fast and bouncy for the sad lyrics. This song was a big hit for Hank Snow in 1952 and was covered by some guy named Elvis Presley (himself a big Hank Snow fan) a few years later. A honky-tonk style piano takes a break in the song but the basic arrangement is big band swing.

Malo gets back on track with the Kris Kristofferson classic “For The Good Times”, a song which revitalized Ray Price’s career in the early 1970s. Again, I prefer Ray’s version, but Raul’s take is very nice.
Steel Guitar is heard on this song toward the very end of the song

The two newest songs on the album come from the pen of Dwight Yoakam. The first of these is “Pocket of A Clown”, a song that just missed the top twenty for Dwight in 1994 (it reached #4 on the Canadian country chart). Raul’s arrangement is a little slower than the original and has a 40s/50s feel to the horn arrangements.

“Crying Time” was written by Buck Owens, who regarded the song as album filler. A few years later Ray Charles resurrected the song causing Buck to add it to his set list (usually as part of a medley). It’s a great song, and Malo does it justice, although he can’t deliver it with the same soul that Ray did (no one else could either).

A serious misstep follows with the Hank Williams classic “Cold Cold Heart”. It certainly is possible to treat the song as a pop song (Tony Bennett sold millions of copies with his cover) but here the tempo is much too fast and much too happy for such a morose set of lyrics

“You Can Depend On Me” is the oldest song on the album written sometime before 1931 by Charles Carpenter, Louis Dunlap and jazz piano great Earl “Fatha” Hines. The song was recorded by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Nat King Cole. In 1961 Brenda Lee took it to #6 on the pop charts. Malo handles this song quite effectively. The basic arrangement would be that of cocktail lounge jazz.

Oh if you ever, if you ever need a friend
I’ll be right by your side until the end
And you can depend on me
You can depend on me

My favorite song on the album is “Husbands and Wives”, which was written by Roger Miller and went top five country, #2 adult contemporary and top thirty pop for Roger in 1966. Subsequently, the duo of David Frizzell and Shelly West had a top twenty county hit with it in 1981, and Brooks & Dunn took it to #1 country and #36 pop in 1998. This song features steel guitar as part of the instrumentation, the only truly country sounding song of the album. For me, it as a toss-up whether Neil Diamond’s album track from his 1971 album Stones or Raul’s version on this album is my favorite version of this song.

The angry words, spoken in haste
Such a waste of two lives
It’s my belief, pride is the chief cause and the decline
In the number of husbands and wives

Speaking of Roger Miller, one of the last songs Roger wrote was a co-write with Dwight Yoakam on “It Only Hurts Me When I Cry” a #7 country hit for Yoakam in 1991. Again, Malo uses an arrangement very similar to Dwight’s original and performs the song well. There are horns on this track and they serve to create a swinging effect, even though the tempo is no faster than the Yoakam original.

The album closes with a very nice rendition of the Hy Heath-Fred Rose composition “Take These Chains From My Heart”, best known as a posthumous #1 hit for Hank Williams in 1953, and in 1963, a #8 pop hit Ray Charles (Ray’s version also reached #5 in the UK). The accompaniment on this final track starts out with just a single guitar then expands with the subsequent verses, but remains at all times uncluttered, with tasteful saxophone and piano solos between the vocals.

After Hours is an enjoyable album which I would rate as good, but not great, as it is marred by the tempo errors noted above. Malo is in good voice throughout and he is accompanied by what could be essentially described as a jazz quintet of himself on guitar, Robert Chevrier on piano, Jay Weaver on bass, Tom Lewis on drums and Jim Hoke on sax, clarinet and steel guitar. The album was recorded live, with only Hoke being overdubbed occasionally (it’s tough to play three instruments simultaneously). Malo and producer Evan York, keep the focus on the melodies and lyrics, never obscuring either.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘Swing’

swingAlthough there was a swing revival that lasted for a few years (roughly 1998-2003), swing as a musical genre had its heyday during the period from 1935-1946, the period in which swing was America’s popular music. The economics of trying to keep a large band on the road after World War II led to the great swing bands breaking up and the music scene becoming the domain of smaller musical groups and solo singing stars.

Suzy Bogguss falls into that small group of country artists who comfortably perform in a wide variety of musical genres. Western, folk, country, pop and jazz all are areas which Ms. Bogguss has conquered.

The title of the album, Swing, suggests an album full of classic swing-era music from the Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie era. I would love for Suzy to record such an album, but this one isn’t it, although she does reach into the past for some classic swing numbers.

Swing could be described as Suzy’s tribute to modern day swing/jazz, with five of the twelve songs on the album coming from the pen of April Barrows.  Ms. Barrows, an excellent singer in her own right, composes and sings songs with the feel of swing, but with more modern and introspective lyrics than customarily found in the swing of the big band era.

In order to achieve an authentic feel for this album, Suzy engaged country music’s leading purveyor of swing, Ray Benson and members of Asleep at the Wheel.  Ray Benson plays guitar, Floyd Domino is on piano, David Sanger beats and brushes the drums and Jason Roberts plays fiddle.   Suzy and Ray produced the album.

Swing opens up with the Nat King Cole-Irving Mills composition “Straighten Up and Fly Right”, a major hit for the Nat King Cole Trio during the middle 1940s reaching #1 on the Harlem Hit Parade and spending six weeks at #1 on Billboard’s country chart . The song was based on a folk tale that Cole’s minister father had used as a theme for one of his sermons. In the song, a buzzard who had been taking different animals for joy rides would bounce them off and eat them after they were smashed on the rocks below. The monkey who is riding the buzzard in this humorous song is much too smart to fall for this trick, hanging onto the buzzard’s neck, with the admonition to “straighten up and fly right”.  There are people who swear that Nat King Cole was the best male vocalist ever in any genre of popular music (they may be right). Suzy handles the song effectively, although perhaps not with the quite the humor permeating her vocal that Cole had in his version.

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