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Album Review: Johnny Paycheck – ‘Someone to Give My Love To’

While the Little Darlin’ Recordings served to get Johnny’s name known, at some point the label lost steam and was folded by Aubrey Mayhew. In fact the last of the Mayhew-Paycheck collaborations was released on the Certron label. Once again Paycheck found himself on the outside looking in.

There´s an old saying that ‘The honky-tonk life kills off the honky-tonk singers’, In Johnny Paycheck’s case, that almost proved to be true as the twin demons of alcohol and drug abuse momentarily brought his career to a halt. Fortunately for Johnny, a talent as formidable as he was, rarely stayed forgotten in Nashville during the early 1970s. While he was drying out, the country music genre was undergoing some changes. Bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, Matthews Southern Comfort, The Byrds, Poco and Pure Prairie League were adding country sounds to their forms of rock music. Meanwhile, former rockers like Jerry Lee Lewis and Conway Twitty were experiencing success on country radio. Hoping to capitalize on the new energy affecting country music, CBS record executive and fan Nick Hunter tracked Paycheck down (there are stories of him sleeping under freeway bridges and on park benches). Hunter brought Paycheck to the attention of producer Billy Sherrill, who signed him to Epic Records and recorded him as a straight-ahead country balladeer. Success came immediately as the first single “She’s All I Got” reached #2 Billboard/#1 Cashbox/#1 Record World, and the album of the same name reached #4 upon its release in December 1971.

Someone To Give My Love To was Johnny’s second release for Epic, released in May 1972. The title track, released as the first single from the album replicated the success of his first Epic single reaching #1 on Record World (#2 Cashbox /#4 Billboard). This song was written by the successful songwriting team of Bill Rice and Jerry Foster. Paycheck would record many more of their songs.

I could search from now till the end of time
And never find another you
I’m so glad because I know you’re mine
Someone to give my love to

Now I believe my love that you’re one of a kind
For there’s no one else like you
You’re the light of my life so let it shine
Someone to give my love to

[Chorus]
I found happiness is loving you
And I’ll do my best to make your dreams come true
I will follow you to the end of the earth
For my place will be with you
I have taken you for better or worse
Someone to give my love to

Tracy Byrd would cover this song 30 years later.

Next up is “Smile Somebody Loves You”, a generic ballad that makes a decent album track. “Something” by English songwriter George Harrison is a song that has been covered hundreds of times. Welsh torch singer Shirley Bassey had a huge hit with the song while I was living in England, reaching #4 on the UK pop charts while being a top ten record in numerous other countries. Johnny does a nice job with the song, but with the exception of a little steel guitar, the arrangement is nearly a clone of Bassey’s recording.

Johnny wrote “Your Love Is The Key To It All”. A nice ballad that has a generic instrumental backing that sounds like it was intended as a Tammy Wynette track.

The sun always shines in my world down even when the rain should fall
The light of happiness is always shining and your love is the key to it all
One day you just walked into these arms of mine
Lift me up and with your love made me stand tall
Now I know what happiness in life is all about and your love is the key to it all

Your love is the key that fits every lock to every single door in failure’s wall
Now I’m strong enough to do anything I have to and your love is the key to it all
One day you just walked…
Your love is the key to it all

Jerry Jeff Walker never had any real hit records, but he sure wrote a winner in “Mr. Bojangles”. Walker has said he was inspired to write the song after an encounter with a street performer in a New Orleans jail, after he was jailed for public intoxication. Contrary to popular belief the song was not inspired by famed black dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, but by a homeless white man who called himself “Mr. Bojangles” to conceal his true identity from the police.

Walker’s own 1968 recording of the song died at #77, but the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band pushed the record to #9 on the US pop charts (and #2 on the Canadian pop charts) and performers such as Sammy Davis, Jr. and William Shatner have performed the song. Paycheck’s version is performed in a straight-forward manner – it makes a nice album track.

“Love Is A Good Thing” is another song from the Foster-Rice songbook. According to Billboard the song only reached #12 (#13 Record World/#11 Cashbox). Given how frequently I heard the song on country radio, I suspect that the song was more popular in some areas than others. It is a great song

Girl, you give your precious love to me and we’ve got a good thing goin’
There’s no end in sight that I can see cause our love just keeps on growin’
Bring on happiness let us sing love is a good thing
We can take what life may offer us and when trouble comes around
There’s no way it’s gonna break us up nothing gets a good love down
Bring on sunshine let us sing love is a good thing
Yeah love is a good thing let us sing love is a good thing

“A Heart Don’t Need Eyes” and “She’ll All I Love For” are a pair of Paycheck’s compositions, both decent album tracks. The former is a standard weeper that would have made a decent, but not great single for Paycheck (or George Jones for that matter.) The latter is a upbeat love song to his wife .

“The Rain Never Falls In Denver” is a mid-tempo upbeat Foster & Rice love song. It could have made a decent single for someone but as afar as I know, it was never released by anyone as a single.

Oh, the rain never falls in Denver
‘Cause you make the sun shine all the time
Oh, the rain never falls in Denver
Since you came along and brought your love to this heart of mine

One time in Chicago, Illinois
A pretty woman turned my head around
That city woman said she love this poor country boy
Any cloudy in Chicago and the rain came pouring down

But the rain never falls in Denver
‘Cause you make the sun shine all the time
Oh, the rain never falls in Denver
Since you came along and brought your love to this heart of mine

“High On The Thought of You” is a interesting song about a love that is gone. Johnny does an effective job of singing the song

I don’t need the help of the red wine in the glass to ease my mind
I found out the way to forget the way you left me here behind
I drink up a mem’ry and it takes me back to places that I’ve been
I just think about you and I’m high on the thought of you again

The album closes with “It’s Only A Matter of Wine”, the title a takeoff on the title of an old Brook Benton classic. The song itself, written by Frank Dycus and Larry Kingston, has nothing to do with Benton’s song.

They’re stackin’ the chairs on the table again they block down the Budwiser sign
`Soon they’ll be callin’ a taxi for me it’s only a matter of wine
Yes it’s only a matter of wine till I’m something that words can’t divine
Yes she’ll soon be out of my mind and it’s only a matter of wine

Outside a big truck is washing the street leaving our dream world behind
While inside I’m washing your mem’ry away cause it’s only a matter of wine
Yes it’s only a matter of wine…
Yes it’s only a matter of wine

Johnny Paycheck was a very distinctive vocalist whose voice could occasionally (but only rarely) be mistaken for George Jones – but for no one else. His ability to put across emotion could be matched by few and exceeded by none. The albums released by Epic are generally very good, but that distinctive instrumental sound and style of the Little Darlin’ years had been lost, replaced by the “country cocktails” sound of Billy Sherrill. Unfortunately, album covers from this era did not routinely list musician credits and I haven’t been able to find them elsewhere.

On a few of the tracks, it sound as if tracks were produced first; then a vocalist selected to sing the song. With an artist as distinctive as Paycheck, the vocals cut through the clutter and produce recordings worth hearing.

Grade: B+

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Album Review: Alabama – ‘Mountain Music’

mountain musicThe band’s third album for RCA, 1982’s Mountain Music, was produced by the band with Nashville veteran Harold Shedd. It continued the recipe as before, with similarly successful results.

All three singles were chart toppers, starting with the title track. Opening with the strains of a solo harmonica (played by Michael Douchette), and then a short verbal imitation of an elderly countryman by the band’s roadie Bob Martin, Randy Owen’s song, inspired by his memories of growing up in the shadow of Lookout Mountain, Alabama, paints an idyllic picture of a rural Southern childhood. It is an unexpectedly charming mixture of country-rock and bluegrass influences, with bright effervescent fiddle alongside the electric guitar. There are great harmonies, with Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook getting a few solo lines to boot.

The second single was competently performed but not at all country sounding (and not to my taste). ‘Take Me Down’ was a cover of a failed pop single by the band Exile (who soon afterwards decamped to country music) also got some pop airplay for Alabama, reaching the top 20 on that chart.

Finally, ‘Close Enough To Perfect’ is a very nice romantic ballad, with a sweet string arrangement.

There are a couple of excellent songs among the remaining tracks. The dramatic ‘Words At Twenty Paces’, which applies Western movie metaphors to a troubled romance, was written by troubadour High Moffatt:

Just like a Western movie
A challenge has been made
A shot was fired in anger
And pride stepped off the train
Won’t we ever stop this
Killin’ me and you,
Till our hearts are up on Boot Hill
And there’s nothing we can do.

Words at twenty paces,
Anger at high noon
This house ain’t big enough for both of us
it’s comin’ soon
We’ll finish off our happiness
And run hope out of town
With words at twenty paces, Lord,
It’s love we’re gunnin’ down.

How did we ever lose
The dreams we used to share?
The gentle touch, the words of love,
The way we used to care
Sometimes your words
Cut like a bullet in my side
Oh, which is more important
Wounded hearts or wounded pride?

I got my ammunition
I know you got yours too
We know each other’s weakness
Lord, the damage we can do
Why can’t we just step aside
And put our guns away
Let love come like a cavalry
Ride in and save the day

Had it been recorded a few years later, it would have been prime fodder for a video treatment. The arrangement is contemporary country, and works well.

‘Changes Comin’ On’ was written by Dean Dillon, Buddy Cannon and Jimmy Darrell, and chronicles the changes in music and American society since the 1960s. It is an excellent song, and Alabama’s version is great – for the first three and a half minutes. Unfortunately, the track then goes “on and on and on” (as they sing themselves) for the same length of time again, without actually going anywhere. Pointless and self indulgent.

Jeff Cook’s vocals are mediocre compared with those of his cousin Randy Owen, but he got his chance to sing lead on two songs here, both heavier of the rock than country. His own ‘Lovin’ You Is Killin’ Me’ is no better than average, while a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Green River’ is dull. Neither song is helped by the monotonous vocal.

Teddy Gentry takes the lead on his own ‘Never Be One’, a sentimental ode to a toddler daughter, which is sweet to the border of saccharine. The child makes a small cameo appearance. In a complete change of tone, the faux sexy ‘You Turn Me On’ (written by Gentry and Owen) features an overdone Conway Twitty impersonation (although Randy sings the verses pleasantly enough).

The record closes with the enjoyably rowdy ‘Gonna Have A Party, written by Kieran Kane (future member of The O’Kanes’), 60s rocker Bruce Channel, and Cliff Cochran.

Mountain Music was the group’s first album to hit the platinum mark, and has now sold five times that. It’s a bit of a mixed bag in terms of material, but has some pretty good tracks.

Grade: B+

Favorite Country Songs Of The 80s: Part 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fellow Travelers: Pure Prairie League

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

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

Who Were They?

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

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

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

What Was Their Connection to County Music?

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

1) “Amie

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

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

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

Classic Rewind: John Fogerty and Wynonna Judd – ‘Proud Mary’

Fellow Travelers: Creedence Clearwater Revival / John Fogerty

john fogertyFor a Californian who had never resided in the southeastern United States, John Fogerty sure sounded like someone from that region of the country and his band reeked of a swamp-rock vibe. For a few years, Creedence was an overwhelming force on both Billboard’s singles and albums pop charts. After an acrimonious break up, Fogarty soldiered on alone, continuing his successful ways

Who Were They?

Creedence Clearwater Revival was basically a garage band with a very talented singer-songwriter in John Fogerty. The real breakthrough for CCR came with the 1968 single “Proud Mary” which hit #2 in the US and Canada (and reached #1 in Austria). The next single “Bad Moon Rising” also reached #2 (#1 in Great Britain). This was followed by “Lodi” (#52), “Green River” (#2), “Down On The Corner” (#3), “Who’ll Stop The Rain” (#2) and “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” (#2). Curiously , CCR never had a #1 single in the US although various singles went to #1 outside of the US.

CCR’s first six albums were all certified by the RIAA as platinum or multiple platinum. Their final album, released in 1972 was certified gold.

By 1973 the group was no more, racked by internal disagreements and squabbles with their record label. Their label, Fantasy, continued thereafter reissuing various hit collections and anthologies.

John Fogerty had considerable success as a solo artist issuing a number of successful singles and albums

What Was The Connection to County Music?

While CCR only landed one single on the country charts (a reissued album track “Cotton Fields” in 1982), country acts recorded many of their songs as singles and album tracks. Anthony Armstrong Jones had a country hit with “Proud Mary”, Buddy Alan Owens hit the country charts with “Lodi”, and such stalwarts as Dave Dudley recorded “Bad Moon Rising” and Proud Mary”. “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” established CCR’s country credibility with the lyric:

There’s a giant doing cartwheels, a statue wearing high heels
Look at all the happy creatures dancing on the lawn
Dinosaur Victrola, listenin’ to Buck Owens
Doot doot doot lookin’ out my back door

John Fogerty was never afraid of anything as he battled record labels and bandmates over the years. He also, at a time country wasn’t cool, wasn’t afraid to show his country roots. In fact his first solo album (a one-man band effort) titled THE BLUE RIDGE RANGERS featured John singing a bunch of classic country songs, including the 1973 single “Jambalaya” which charted in 1973.

Fogarty would wait awhile before doing another country album but 2009’s BLUE RIDGE RANGERS RIDE AGAIN proved worth the wait. In some ways this album was better than the original as he eschewed the one-man band gimmick and used some of the genre’s finest sidemen in addition to having some vocal partners like Don Henley and Bruce Springsteen.

Country Heritage Redux: Johnny Paycheck

A version of this article originally appeared on the now defunct 9513 weblog. Because the series in which it appeared was titled ‘Forgotten Artists’, I referred to the subject of the article as either Donald Lytle (his real name) or Donnie Young (his original sobriquet) so that I could get into his background without giving away his more famous sobriquet, that of Johnny Paycheck. Thanks to one monster song, “Take This Job And Shove It”, Johnny Paycheck’s name will be remembered for a long time; however, that song was hardly typical of the artistry of Johnny Paycheck. For this article we will refer to him as Johnny Paycheck.

Very few artists have been as successful at reinventing themselves as Johnny Paycheck (May 31, 1938-February 19, 2003). Born Donald Eugene Lytle, and later known as Donnie Young, Johnny Paycheck, John Austin Paycheck and perhaps a few other names that have slipped by me, Paycheck was possessed of enormous talent as a vocalist, but not as much talent at keeping himself in check. As a result, he continually found himself in hot water.
Johnny Paycheck was born in the small rural town of Greenfield, Ohio. Greenfield, located about 70 miles to the northeast of Cincinnati and 60 miles south of Columbus, is a typical Midwest small town, the sort of place Hal Ketchum sang about in his song “Small Town Saturday Night”, It’s the kind of town people either remain in forever or can’t wait to leave. For a restless spirit like Paycheck, leaving was first and foremost in his thoughts.

He hit the road in 1953 with his clothing and his guitar, eventually winding up at a Navy recruiting center where he lied about his age and signed up for a tour of duty. Needless to say, restless spirits such as Johnny Paycheck rarely function well under the yoke of military discipline. While in the Navy, he got into a fight with an officer. Paycheck was court-martialed and sentenced to hard time in a Navy brig. Released after approximately three years, Johnny headed to Nashville to see if he could put his musical talent to good use. Since he had been playing the bars, skull orchards and juke-joints for side money ever since leaving Greenfield, it seemed like a logical thing to do.

Nashville during the late 1950s was not the cosmopolitan city that it is today. Nashville, in those days, was a boisterous town, a hangout for country musicians and a place where hard-working (and hard drinking) country boys came to blow off steam and have a good time. Paycheck fit right in, and before too long, his songwriting and instrumental abilities – and his unique vocals – came to the attention of the country music community. Soon, he was working as a sideman in the bands of some of the biggest stars in Nashville, including Ray Price (who recorded Johnny’s composition “Touch My Heart”), Faron Young, Porter Wagoner, and, later, George Jones.
His tempestuous nature led to him changing employers with some frequency. Difficulties with the likes of Faron Young and George Jones, both notorious carousers, were destined to occur.

Paycheck cut a couple of country and rockabilly sides for Decca and Mercury in the late ´50s under the moniker Donnie Young, before signing on as the full-time bassist and harmony vocalist with George Jones in 1960. Interestingly enough, Paycheck/Young´s first single, “On This Mountain Top” was billed as a duet with another restless soul – Roger Miller (although Miller functions basically as a background singer). The single gave Johnny his first chart success as the single reached #31 on Cashbox´s country chart. While this was a promising start, it would be more than a decade before he achieved sustained success as a recording artist.
During this period, Paycheck was in demand as a high tenor harmony singer, appearing on recordings with Faron Young, Ray Price, Skeets McDonald and countless others. His appearances with George Jones are often claimed to have influenced Jones´ vocals, and listening to Jones´ recordings of the 1960s, it is easy to discern a stylistic shift from those of the Starday/Mercury years. Whether or not this shift was as a result of Johnny Paycheck’s influence will forever be subject to debate.

In 1964, the Beatles´ music finally crossed the Atlantic Ocean (they had been big in Great Britain for about 18 months) and had some influence on the landscape of pop music. Of even greater importance in 1964 was another event – the convergence of the vocal stylings of Johnny Paycheck with the production genius of Aubrey Mayhew, a maverick Nashville record producer. Read more of this post

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Right Out Of Nowhere’

By the middle of the 2000s, it was clear Kathy’s time in the limelight was over. One last album for MCA (The Innocent Years) failed to score any hit singles, and she moved to independent label Narada, where she was able to concentrate on artistry with little thought for commercial viability.  The second of her albums for this label came out in 2005.  This is not a very country sounding record, but it bears the hallmarks of evident thought and attention throughout, and is clearly a serious artistic endeavour.

‘Live It’, the solo single failed to chart.  Not one of Harley Allen’s better songs, it’s a cluttered and unoriginal exhortation to live life to the full and concentrate on love.  ‘Hurt Some’ is a jazzy AC ballad with a gospel feel (particularly in the vocals).  The rather obvious lyrics attempt to be insightful, advising a woman to expect a range of emotional ups and downs, written by Tia Sillers and Mark D Sanders.

‘Only Heaven Knows’ is quite a pretty ballad about acceptance of one’s lot, which is much better.  ‘Give It Away’ is an artfully constructed, melodic and beautifully sung song written by Kathy with husband Jon Vezner and Bob Halligan.  The three-story structure narrates encounters with individuals (a veteran star backstage, a woman in a doctor’s waiting room, and finally the protagonist saving herself from breaking off a love affair in a fit of pique following an argument), giving the sage advice that with music and love,

The only way to keep is to give it away

The best of the more philosophical songs here is Darrell Scott’s ‘Love’s Not Through With Me Yet’, given a plaintive Celtic sound and with Suzy Bogguss on harmony.

The title track is an okay but unexciting story song about a woman moving on, with an attractive melody.  The breakup song ‘Loving You, Letting You Go’ is lyrically forgettable but the wheezy harmonica gives it some sonic character.

The best song is ‘I Hope You’re Happy Now’, a subtly cutting piano ballad written by Skip Ewing and Angela Kaset, which sounds tailor-made for Trisha Yearwood, although Kathy does a fine job.  It narrates a meeting with the woman the protagonist’s ex left her for, finding he has moved on again:

I thought the only thing wrong with her was you

Cause you don’t find joy within
You’re always wanting out
That’s not what love is all about
You’ll never find happiness
Til you let your heart invest
Baby you don’t know how
I hope you’re happy now

This is an excellent song which is well worth downloading even if nothing else here appeals.

Kathy extended her artistic range with a couple of unexpected rock covers.  The Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ is performed confidently, and is the biggest departure from preconceived ideas of what a Kathy Mattea record sounds like.  It’s not to my taste, but is interestingly done with inventive acoustic production, and Kathy deserves credit for trying something so different.  Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Down On The Corner’ is an enjoyable singalong.  ‘Wade In The Water’, meanwhile, is a traditional gospel song which is played around with a little too much.

This record was an interesting experiment.  Not everything works, but a period in the commercial doldrums is the obvious time to try branching out. Used copies can be found very cheaply

Grade: B-

Album Review: Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers – ‘At The Ryman’

With her singles increasingly ignored by country radio as a new generation swept in, Emmylou decided to disband the Hot Band and make a new start. She launched the replacements by recording a live album, at the Ryman Auditorium, historic home of the Grand Ole Opry, which was at the time basically disused. One of the big tests of any artist who sounds good recorded is whether the voice holds up in a live setting. Emmylou Harris’s certainly does, and over her career she has released several live recordings. However, typically of Emmylou, she has never chosen the most trodden path and released a concert of her greatest hits, performed in close imitation of the records. Her 1981 album Last Date, which produced three hit singles including the #1 title track, had consisted of all new material (or at least covers she had not done before). It was not a true live album, though, as the tracks were taken from a series of live dates with her legendary Hot Band. This album, similarly, is not a single gig, but was recorded over three days, 30 April-2 May 1991, and released early the following year. Producers Allen Reynolds and Richard Bennett, and the engineers who worked on the project, deserve special credit for making the final result a seamless whole which sounds like an authentic representation of the experience of seeing Emmylou in concert with her new band.

The material is, once more, all covers of songs she had not previously recorded, mixing up country classics, bluegrass, folk and rock, given an acoustic makeover by Emmylou’s new lineup, the Nash Ramblers. The group, easily as talented as the Hot Band at their hottest and without the assistance of electricity, comprised progressive bluegrass virtuoso Sam Bush on mandolin and fiddle; Roy Huskey Jr on upright bass; West Coast veteran Al Perkins on dobro and banjo, Canadian Larry Atamaniuk on drums and percussion, and a talented young Texan named Jon Randall Stewart on acoustic guitar, mandolin and taking the high tenor harmony, although all four contribute vocals where necessary. Their playing and singing are impeccable throughout. The audience seems to enjoy the occasion rather politely.

For my money. the concert seems to take a while to get going, opening with an enjoyable but fairly sedate version of Steve Earle’s ‘Guitar Town’, followed by a plaintive ‘Half As Much’. ‘Cattle Call’ is prettily and tastefully performed, with delicate yodeling. The chugging ‘Guess Things Happen That Way’ (a Cowboy Jack Clement song made famous by Johnny Cash) is enjoyable, but sounds a little too cheery for the resigned stoicism of the lyric.

It really picks up with a subtly impassioned ‘Hard Times’, dating from the 1850s, which Emmylou opens with a crystalline accapella phrase, and which is one of my favourite tracks. There is more contemporary folk music on a socio-political theme with Nanci Griffith’s idealistic but frankly depressing ‘It’s A Hard Life Wherever You Go’, battling racism and sectarian hatred, segueing into the low key Civil Rights theme of ‘Abraham, Martin and John’, a 60s tribute to Messrs Lincoln, King and Kennedy, all of course victims of assassination. Emmylou also covers rock star Bruce Springsteen’s downbeat and down-tempo memories of a working class child remembering the ‘Mansion On The Hill’ overlooking the town and factories. I must admit would have rather have heard the Hank Williams gospel song of the title, as this is beautifully done, but feels a little lifeless. Southern rock gets a nod with an enjoyable take on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Lodi’, although perhaps it feels a little too good humored for the stagnated frustration expressed in the lyrics.

The bluegrass songs have a lot more life, with lovely, sparkling playing as Bill Monroe’s suitably Celtic sounding instrumental ‘Scotland’ allows the band to stretch out while Emmylou buck-danced with the Father of Bluegrass himself (this is where the video version, which I haven’t seen, would come in handy). The mood carries over into the charming western themed ‘Montana Cowgirl’. There is more Monroe with the driving ‘Walls Of Time’ which he wrote with onetime Bluegrass Boy Peter Rowan, which is okay. Better is a committed performance of ‘Get Up John’, with lyrics written by Marty Stuart and Jerry Sullivan for a Bill Monroe tune, with the Nash Ramblers singing call and response vocals.

Emmylou recalls her 70s peak with a really beautiful version of the wistful ‘Like Strangers’ (one of many Boudleaux Bryant songs made into classic Everly Brothers records, and my favorite track on the album). The spiritual ‘Calling My Children Home’ (co-written by another great bluegrass musician Doyle Lawson) is sung exquisitely acappella with the band members on harmony. I also love Emmylou’s version of the O’Kanes’ ‘If I Could Be There’, with Jon Randall Stewart’s ethereal high harmony; it sounds gentler and more wistful than the original (also great).

There is a nice finish with ‘Smoke Along The Track’ with effective train sounds and appropriate lyrics about moving on.

Sales of this fine record and the accompanying video were disappointing and airplay nonexistent, but the album won Emmylou a Grammy. It also helped to inspire interest in the neglected historic Ryman Auditorium itself, which was restored and reopened as a concert venue in 1994.The CD is easy to find inexpensively. The video was never released on DVD but unused copies of the VHS tape seem to be around.

Grade: B+

Album Review: James Dupre – ‘It’s All Happening’

Louisiana paramedic James Dupre has become something of a youtube phenomenon with his covers of country classics.  He has now managed to use that exposure to record an album in Nashville, produced by Kyle Lehning and Jerry Douglas (who also contributes dobro and lap steel), with a fine set of musicians and some well-chosen songs, mostly from Nashville songwriters.  Most are set to a broadly similar slowish-mid-tempo, with a laid back feel.  James has a warm voice with a pleasing tone and relaxed style with phrasing which is often reminiscent of Alan Jackson or Don Williams.

The outstanding song is the melancholy ‘Ring On The Bar’, written by Byron Hill and Brent Baxter, a beautifully constructed lyric set to a beautiful, gentle melody, about the aftermath of a failed marriage which opens the set.  The title hook refers in the opening verse to the watermark left by the protagonist’s beer as he thinks over his situation, and later to the wedding ring he abandons there:

There’s a ring on the bar
One that’s shiny and gold
The symbol of a promise
And the heart that he broke

It’s the one thing she left
When she packed up the car
It was light on her finger
Now it’s heavy on his heart

And the ring shines bright in the colored light
Of a lonesome neon star
When its closing time he’ll leave the hurt behind
With a tip in the jar and the ring on the bar

That bartender’s gonna think someone forgot it
And he’ll wonder who could be that big a fool

Another fine song on the theme of a man struggling with the aftermath of a failed relationship is ‘Alright Tonight’, written by Tom Douglas and Casey Beathard:

I can’t stand to think of you with anybody else
There ain’t a bottle or a bar so far that seems to help
Today was not a good day to convince myself that I’m alright
Hey but I’m alright tonight

I guess I really should have called before
I showed up drunk at your front door
I had to see with my own eyes
That you’re alright tonight

Perfectly understated in its conflicting emotions, we really don’t believe him when he says that he’s “alright”, tonight or at any other time.

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