My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Curly Putman

Album Review: Kenny Rogers – ‘The Gambler’

The Gambler was Kenny Rogers’ third album of 1978, after Love or Something Like It and Every Time Two Fools Collide, a duet album with Dottie West. Thanks to its career-defining title track, The Gambler was also Kenny’s best-selling studio album, with more than five million copies sold in the US.

Written by Don Schlitz, “The Gambler” was a story song, the type at which Rogers excelled. It tells the tale the down-on-his-luck narrator who receives some unsolicited advice from a professional gambler during a late-night chance meeting on a “train bound for nowhere”. It was a monster hit, reaching #1 on the country chart, #3 on the adult contemporary chart and #16 on the Hot 100, and is Rogers’ best-remembered song today. Surprisingly, he wasn’t the first to record it. Bobby Bare and Johnny Cash had both released it as an album cut and Schlitz recorded his own version, which maxed out at #65. The album’s other hit single was the ballad “She Believes in Me”, a lush ballad about a struggling musician and the supportive wife he repeatedly takes for granted. It’s a bit too AC-leaning for a lot of people, but it’s a song I’ve always liked a lot. It reached #1 on the country and AC charts, and reached #5 on the Hot 100.

“I Wish That I Could Hurt That Way Again” is another nice ballad, written by Rafe Van Hoy, Don Cook and Curly Putman, that would go on to be a big hit for T. Graham Brown in 1986. I think Kenny’s version could have been a big hit, but perhaps United Artists didn’t want to release another ballad on the heels of “She Believes In Me”. Sonny Throckmorton’s “A Little More Like Me (The Crucifixion)”, about a charismatic celebrity — a thinly veiled metaphor for Christ — is another track I really enjoyed.

In the 1970s, country artists with crossover potential rarely released albums that were country through and through, preferring instead to include a variety of styles in order to appeal to as wide an audience as possible (although more often than not they managed to please no one). Kenny Rogers was no exception. I expected The Gambler to be a more country-leaning album, but a number of tracks: “Makin’ Music for Money”, “The Hoodooin’ of Miss Fannie DeBerry” (both written by Alex Harvey) and “Tennessee Bottle” incorporate a bluesy, funky vibe that might have been considered cutting edge in the late 70s, but it hasn’t aged at all well. I didn’t like any of these songs. Add to that list Rogers’ original composition “Morgana Jones”, a hot mess of a song that features some jazz scatting along with the R&B and funk.

Overall, The Gambler is a mixed bag. Only the two hit singles are essential listening. The album can be streamed, and it may be worth picking up a cheap copy if you can find it, but I recommend cherry-picking the handful of decent songs and forgetting about the rest.

Grade: B-

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Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘The Pride Of Country Music’

Charley Pride’s second album was released in June 1967, and was the record which broke him through into stardom. There were two top 10 singles, both of which were written by Charley’s producer Cowboy Jack Clement and became instant classics. ‘Just Between You And Me’, the breakthrough hit, which peaked at #9, is an excellent song about a broken heart. Perhaps better known today thanks to the Garth Brooks cover, is the ultra-traditional ‘I Know One’, which reached #6. The song is almost perfect in its simplicity.

Another Clement tune, ‘Spell Of The Freight Train’, is a pleasant song about a rambler who doesn’t want to settle down, with some nice harmonica. The endearing ‘Best Banjo Picker’, about an aspiring musician, features some great banjo (some deliberately faltering to illustrate the song), played by bluegrass great Sonny Osborne who also gets a name drop.

‘Take Me Home’, written in slightly tongue in cheek fashion by Clement with Allen Reynolds, is about a wanderer’s rather more rueful longing to return home:

Well, I’ve slept all night in a water trough
Had the flu and the croup and the whoopin’ cough
Had the mumps and the measles and the seven year itch
And I can’t count the times that I’ve had a cold (and sore throat)
Not to mention all the times that I cut my fingers on a sardine can

Take me home
My heart is heavy and my feet are sore
Take me home
I don’t want to roam no more

It had also been recorded by Johnny Cash and Bobby Bare.

As was customary at this date, Charley included a selection of recent and older covers, which make for enjoyable listening but cannot be described as essential. The delightful mandolin-led ‘A Good Woman’s Love’ was first recorded by Hank Locklin in 1955 but has also become a bluegrass standard following Bill Monroe’s recording. The mandolin is played by Bobby Osborne, brother of Sonny. There is a slow, emotional version of the Johnny Paycheck-penned ‘Apartment #9’, which was Tammy Wynette’s debut hit. ‘Touch My Heart’ is a broken hearted ballad which had been a big hit for Ray Price in 1966.

Tom Paxton’s contemporary folk classic ‘The Last Thing On My Mind’ was a popular choice of cover for country artists in the 60s, and Charley’s version is nice but forgettable set next to Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton’s hit version same out the same year. ‘The Middle Of Nowhere’ also has a somewhat folky feel, with its melancholy tale of a return to a childhood home where the narrator is now a stranger out of place.

‘I‘m Not The Boy I Used To Be’, written by Curly Putman, is a shamefaced confession from an ex-con on his way home:

You see, mama,
I’ve spent time in prison
For a crime that I’m too ashamed to tell
And when you meet me there tomorrow
Don’t be surprised at what you see
Cause mama I’m not the boy I used to be

For I’ve been gone away too long
And I’ve done everything that’s wrong
But I think I’ve finally found myself at last
And just you wait and see
Another chance is all I need
But mama I’m not the boy I used to be

Charley is a little too clean cut to completely sell the part of the guiltridden sinner. ‘Silence’, written by Margie Singleton and Leon Ashley, is a steel laced ballad about loneliness and missing an ex.

The music on this record stands up pretty well today, although it is the singles which have endured the best. The Nashville Sound trappings of the arrangements do not overwhelm what is essentially solid country music from one of the great country singers. You can find it on a joint CD with three other early Pride albums.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘Country Charley Pride’

RCA took an unconventional approach in introducing Charley Pride to country audiences. Legend has it that they avoided putting his picture on the sleeves of his singles, in order to conceal his race and increase the likelihood that radio would play them. However, his debut album Country Charley Pride, which does have his photo on the cover, was released in 1966 before he’d scored any charting singles.

Produced by Jack Clement, Country Charley Pride consists mostly of covers of well-known songs of the day. The only original song is Pride’s debut single, the non-charting “The Snakes Crawl at Night”, a tale of infidelity and revenge, written by Mel Tillis and Fred Burch. Given the subject matter, it is a surprisingly upbeat number about a cuckolded husband who sentenced to hang after shooting his unfaithful wife and her paramour. The album’s other non-charting single was “Before I Met You”, one of my favorite Charley Pride songs. Originally a hit for Carl Smith a decade earlier, the song was later recorded by Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. Reba McEntire also covered it in 1984 on her My Kind of Country album.

It was unusual in the 1960s (and now) to release a full album for a new artist that had yet to prove himself at radio but for whatever reason, RCA did sanction an album release. Interestingly, the lack of a radio hit did not impede the album’s sales. It reached #16 on the album charts and earned gold status — a rare feat for a country album, particularly one as traditional as this one. Clearly audiences connected with Pride’s voice. It also didn’t hurt that Clement and Pride played it safe and went with mostly well-known songs of the day, beginning with Harlan Howard’s “Busted”, and including credible covers of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City” (another Mel Tillis tune co-written with Danny Dill). Curly Putman’s “Green, Green Grass of Home” is also included, as are a pair of Jack Clement tunes, “Miller’s Cave” and “Got Leavin’ on Her Mind”, which closes out the disc.

None of these tunes lent themselves particularly well to 1960s Nashville Sound orchestral arrangements, so strings are mercifully absent from the album. Most of the songs do contain vocal choruses, though, which are quite intrusive at times as they tend to drown out Pride’s voice. That is my sole complaint about an otherwise stellar album. In addition to very strong material and wonderful singing by Pride, there is also a lot of prominent steel guitar work throughout.

Charley Pride is one of those artists, who despite being a huge star in his hey-day, is not as well remembered today as he ought to be. This is partially because he peaked before the CD era and for decades RCA did a poor job of managing its back catalog and allowed most of his work (and many of their other artists) to go out of print. That error is finally being rectified. Country Charley Pride is available on a 2-disc import set that also contains three of Pride’s other early albums, all of which are worthy of a listen.

Grade: A

Album Review: Tammy Wynette – ‘Heart Over Mind’

515m5b-5vol-_ss500There comes a point in even the most respected and revered artist’s career when the hits stop coming. Tammy Wynette’s commercial success began tapering off in the 1980s. 1985’s “Sometimes When We Touch”, a duet with Mark Gray, was her last Top 10 record. 1987’s Higher Ground found her embracing the New Traditionalist movement. That disc spawned two Top 20 hits. 1989’s Next To You was in many ways a throwback to the style for which she was known in the 1960s and 1970s. Neither of that album’s two singles reached the Top 40. Wynette never stopped trying to get back to the top of the charts, and her label, to its credit, stuck by her. 1990’s Heart Over Mind, produced by Bob Montgomery, was an attempt to modernize her sound without sacrificing the element that made her identifiable and unique. And for a brief moment, it appeared that the strategy might actually work.

The album’s lead single “Let’s Call It a Day Today” was one of those tear-jerkers that Tammy sang like no one else could. It finds her packing her things and plotting her escape from a floundering marriage while her soon-to-be ex sleeps. Her voice was showing some signs of age, but the production was contemporary and fresh. And country radio, which had ignored her last several releases, seemed to be paying attention. I heard the record quite a lot on my local station when it was first released. Unfortunately, it soon lost its momentum and topped out at #57. The songs lyrics make reference to the couple’s children and imply that Wynette is taking them with her, but the video which was directed by Tammy’s former lover interest Burt Reynolds, shows her leaving them behind, casting her in a slightly less sympathetic vein.

The second single “I’m Turning You Loose” is a light-hearted uptempo kiss-off written by Sonny Throckmorton and Curly Putman. It failed to chart. The third and final single “What Goes With Blue” is another uptempo number which finds Tammy picking out a wardrobe as she prepares to re-enter the dating scene. It charted at #56. It is the fourth song on the album and I’ve always thought of it as the follow-up to the story told in the album’s third track, “Suddenly Single”, a ballad which finds Tammy still picking up the pieces following a break-up.

Although it produced no hits, Heart Over Mind is a consistently strong effort from beginning to end, from the bouncy title track to “Half the Way Home”, a poignant look back at al lifelong friendship, and “If You Were The Friend”, which finds Tammy agonizing over whether to tell her best friend that her husband is cheating on her, and wondering what the friend would do if the situation were reversed.

Heart Over Mind was valiant effort to regain Wynette’s commercial momentum, but sadly it confirmed for once and for all that radio was through with her. With the exception of “Where’s The Fire”, which is ill-suited for Tammy’s voice, there are no missteps. Although she continued to record until almost the end of her life, this was her final solo album. Her subsequent releases were all collaborative efforts: 1993’s Honky Tonk Angels teamed her up with Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, 1994’s Without Walls found her singing with a variety of guest artists from both within and outside the country music community, and 1995’s One reunited her with George Jones. Epic also released a three disc boxed set, Tears of Fire, in 1992 to commemorate Wynette’s 25 years with the label. None of the tracks from Heart Over Mind were included, and it’s highly likely that this album was overlooked by some fans. It’s well worth a listen if you’ve missed it.

Grade: A

Album Review: Tammy Wynette – ‘The First Lady’

tumblr_ls3bvtwziu1qf01xeo1_500The First Lady, Tammy Wynette’s eighth album, was her third and final release in 1970. The project’s sole number one was the chart topping cautionary tale, “Run Woman Run,” in which a woman advises a friend to work it out with her ex-lover:

Run woman, run

Go back to him and fix things up the very best you can

Tell him you missed him while you were gone

Run woman, run back to your man

 

You’re a young girl, so understand, it’s so hard to find a man

Who comes home every night to only you

You may not find true love again, so go home while you still can

And find a way to work it out with your man

While no other singles were released, The First Lady is notable for containing six songs written or co-written by Billy Sherill. Barbara Mandrell simultaneously covered the excellent “Playin’ Around With Love,” which was issued as the second single from her debut album. Jody Miller released a version of the similarly upbeat “Safe In These Lovin’ Arms of Mine,” which wasn’t released to radio. Wynette does a superb job on both songs, even surpassing Mandrell with a superior vocal performance.

Given Wynette’s success with songs regarding domestic life and marriage, it’s no surprise to find most of Sherill’s contributions cover similar thematic ground. “He’s Still My Man” finds Wynette devastated by the philandering spouse she chooses to forgive. On another she’s “The Lovin’ Kind” to a man who favors the emotionally detached.

She’s a next-door neighbor on “I Wish I Had a Mommy Like You,” one of Sherill’s creepier contributions. Wynette is left to comfort a boy abandoned by his father and left home alone by his mother. A twist ending only makes matters harder to swallow:

There lives a little boy in the house next door to me

And as usual his mommy was gone

So he came over this morning and sat down next to me

And asked why does mommy leave me alone

 

But he’ll find out someday why his mommy stays away

And why a woman needs arms to hold her tight

And that she would stay at home and not leave him all alone

If his daddy didn’t stay away at night

 

He said I wish I had a mommy like you just like you

To hold me in her arms the way you do

When I lay me down to sleep I pray the Lord my soul to keep

And I ask for a mommy like you

 

Though a tear fell from his eye he was trying not to cry

I said don’t worry everything will be all right

So you just wait and see and I held him close to me

Just like I held his daddy last night

As if that wasn’t enough, Sherill and Wynette team with Carmol Taylor for “My Daddy Doll,” in which Wynette observes her daughter explaining to her friend how she’s transferred the love she’s lost from the father that’s abandoned her:

My little girl was playing with her friend from down the street

She took her by the hand and said there’s someone you should meet

And then they went into her room to play another game

She picked up all her dolly’s and told them all by name

 

I listened as she said their names here’s Betty Sue and Kay

Jack and June and Mary Jo and then I’ve heard her say

This one is my Daddy Doll and she sat him on the floor

I make believe he’s daddy since he don’t live here no more

 

My daddy doll is always near to help put me to bed

He kisses me and says goodnight like my real daddy did

He talks with me and never failes to answer when I called

My Daddy Doll is special and I love him most of all

My Daddy Doll is special and I love him most of all

Taylor’s solely written “Buy Me A Daddy” plays as a companion piece to the aforementioned song, albeit in a much tamer way. The lyric, in which a little girl offers a simple request, is more heartbreaking than eerie:

I buy toys for my little girl almost every day

To try and keep her happy

Since her daddy went away

But today she looked so lonely

As she climbed upon my knees

And in her sweet tiny voice she said this to me

 

Mommy I love you and all of my toys

But I want a daddy like the other girls and boys

Then she gave me her pennies her nickels and dimes

And the next thing she told me broke this heart of mine

Buy me a daddy, he don’t have to be new

Just as long as he loves me any daddy will do

 

And we’ll make him promise daddy won’t go away

Please buy me a daddy let’s go get one today

Buy me a daddy let’s go get one today

Taylor’s final contribution is the serviceable yet bland “True and Lasting Love.” Also included on The First Lady is Wynette’s version of Bill Anderson and Jan Howard’s “I Never Once Stopped Loving You,” a #5 peaking hit for Connie Smith that very year.

The remaining cut on The First Lady is the fabulous Chet Atkins and Curly Putman composition “Sally Trash.” Wynette channels Loretta Lynn with a lyric that finally gives her woman-scorned persona a backbone:

The whole big town of Knoxville is your playground every night

It seems I’m just your everyday plaything and honey that ain’t right

But my kinda love turns strong and steady not off and on like a neon flash

But if you don’t like my sweet kinda love then baby

Then go on out and pick up Sally trash

 

She’s been picked up many times then dropped like a hot potatoe

And she’s been squeezed and handled like an overripe tomatoe

But she don’t really love your lovin’ she just likes your cash

So if you don’t want my sweet kinda love then baby

Then go on out and pick up Sally trash

Evaluating The First Lady isn’t as easy a task as it might seem. Despite just one single, the album is a complete body of work. The listener never gets the sense that Wynette or Sherill padded the project to rush a release full of filler to the marketplace. Despite the subject matter, which leaves a bad taste in my mouth, there honestly isn’t a throwaway track in the bunch.

Songs like “I Wish I Had A Mommy Like You” and “My Daddy Doll” aren’t necessarily to my tastes, and will likely alienate the majority of the audience, but they aren’t as poorly constructed as they are sinister. The twist in the former is actually kind of genius. I’m just glad country music has evolved away from these types of songs. It proves that some evolvement, in which the genre is correctly pushed forward, only benefited later generations.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Tammy Wynette – ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E’

mi0003064266Tammy Wynette, once again, teamed with Billy Sherill for her third album, D-I-V-O-R-C-E, released in 1968. It would be Wynette’s first chart-topping album, fueled by the success of the now-classic title track.

The Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman penned ballad was Wynette’s fastest rising single to date and quickly topped the charts. She had gained a reputation for selecting material highlighting the woman’s perspective, a fascist sorely lacking in mainstream country music at the time. I first became familiar with the song through Rosanne Cash, who recorded a more contemporary take for Tammy Wynette Remembered following her death in 1998.

As was customary at the time, the album features a bevy of covers. Wynette turns in a rather strong rendition of “Gentle On My Mind” and a fantastic cover of “Honey,” which I’d never heard from a woman’s perspective before. I wasn’t as crazy about “Yesterday,” which with a country arrangement just doesn’t work. “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde,” however, is one of the record’s strongest cuts. “Sweet Dreams,” on the other hand, is much too maudlin for my tastes.

George Richey, Wynette’s widower co-wrote “Come On Home,” an excellent ballad about an ‘old faithful’ wife perfectly content with her husband’s cheating. Sherrill co-wrote “Kiss Away,” a fabulous steel-soaked showcase for Wynette’s impressive vocal range. The jaunty “When There’s A Fire In Your Heart,” also wonderful, was co-written by Merle Kilgore. The final cut, “Lonely Street,” another very good ballad, was co-written by country singer Carl Belew.

D-I-V-O-R-C-E is the rare 1960s country album that hits all the right notes. The covers worked well with Wynette’s voice and I really liked the arrangements. If you haven’t heard this one before, I highly recommend seeking it out.

Grade: A

In Memoriam: Curly Putnum (1930-2016)

Legendary songwriter Claude “Curly” Putman, Jr passed away yesterday at age 85. Along with Bobby Braddock he co-wrote the country classics ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E‘ and ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today.’ The latter is often considered the greatest country song ever written.

Putnum’s other iconic songs include:

Porter Wagoner, ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’ (#4, 1965):

Tammy Wynette and David Houston, ‘My Elusive Dreams’ (#1, 1967):

Tanya Tucker, ‘Blood Red and Going Down’ (#1, 1973): 

Album Review: Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton – ‘Just The Two of Us’

R-6803309-1426956528-3477.jpegThe album opens up with “Closer By The Hour”, a song about a relationship moving towards its inevitable consummation. The song is a jog-along ballad written by Al Gore (not the same Al Gore as either of the two Tennessee hack politicos of yesteryear).

Next up is an outstanding version of Tom T. Hall’s “I Washed My Face In The Morning Dew”, This song was Tom T’s first charted single as a singer, reaching #30 in 1967. I think Porter & Dolly missed a bet in not releasing this as a single.

“Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark” is one of those morbid dead child ballads that Dolly excelled in writing. The song was the B-side of “We’ll Get Ahead Someday” but was sufficiently popular that it charted separately at #51 in late 1968 (Record World had it reach #31).

Her two little feet would come running into
Our bedroom almost every night
Her soft little face would be wet from her tears
And her little heart pounding with fright
She’d hold out her arms, then she’d climb in beside us
In her small voice, we’d hear her remark
“Mommie and Daddy, can I sleep here with you
‘Cause Jeannie’s afraid of the dark”

Jerry Chesnut’s “Holding On To Nothin’”was the second Porter & Dolly single released, and the first single from this album. Released in April 1968, the single spent 16 weeks on the charts reaching a peak of #17. The song is a mid-tempo ballad about what happens when the flame burns out.

Oh, why do we keep holding on with nothin’ left to hold on to

Let’s be honest with each other that’s at least that we can do

I feel guilty when they envy me and you

We’re holding on with nothin’ left to hold on to

Curly Putman’s “Slip Away Today” is a bit more introspective than many of the pair’s songs, sort of in the vein of Carl & Pearl Butler’s “Don’t Let Me Cross Over”. It is a good song but not one with any real potential as a single.

“The Dark End of the Street” by Dan Penn and Chips Moman, is a song about slipping around and trying to keep it secret by stealing away at the dark end of the street.

At the time this album was released Jerry Chesnut was one of Nashville’s leading songsmiths. The next tow songs “Just The Two of Us” and “Afraid To Love Again” are both nice ballads well suited to Porter and Dolly’s vocal harmonies.

Mack Magaha, the fiddler in Porter’s Wagonmasters and before that in Don Reno & Red Smiley’s Tennessee Cutups , isn’t normally thought of as a songwriter, but he did some song writing with both Reno & Smiley and Porter & Dolly recording his songs. Mack’s “We’ll Get Ahead Someday” is a humorous up-tempo song that was the lead single from the album reaching #5.

The paper says there’s a sale downtown I gotta have some money today

Well there’s things at home that’s never been used you bought last bargain day

Well you go out one Saturday night just spend too much money on wine

Well I work hard all week long and I gotta have a little fun sometimes

We’ll get ahead someday…

If the sun comes up and my wife cuts down we’ll get ahead someday

Even in 1967, Merle Haggard’s songs were in great demand, and Porter and Dolly latched onto a good one in “Somewhere Between”, one of many Haggard compositions that the Hag never got around to releasing as a single (many years later Suzy Bogguss released it as a single). It works well as a duet for Porter and Dolly.

Somewhere between your heart and mine

There’s a window, I can’t see through
 T
here’s a wall so high, it reaches the sky

Somewhere between me and you

I love you so much, I can’t let you go

And sometimes I believe you love me

But somewhere between your heart and mine

There’s a door without any key


The album closes with a pair of Dolly Parton compositions in “The Party” and “I Can”. “The Party” is another one of those morbid ballads that Dolly seemed to crank out so easily. The highlight of the song is Porter’s narration:

The party started out wild and it grew wilder as the night wore on

With drinking laughing teling dirty jokes nobody thinkin’ of home

Then the stranger feeling came over me and it chilled me to the bones

And I told my wife that we’d better leave the party

Cause I felt that we were needed at home

As we rode along I got to thinking of how the kids that mornin’

Had asked if we would take them to church the next day

And how I’d put ’em off like I’d so often done

By sayin’ we’d probably get home too late

Then my thoughts were interrupted by the sound of sirens

As they cut through the still night air
 Then we turned down our street that’s when we saw the fire

The rest was like a nightmare 

We took their little bodies to church the next day

Though we’d left the party early we still got home too late

“I Can” has the feel of folk music. Both of these two Dolly Parton compositions are good album tracks.

Porter and Dolly would record stronger albums as far as song quality is concerned, but of more importance than that was that this early in the game, they had their vocal style down pat. The production on the album sounds like Porter’s solo albums, but that’s a good thing.

Tracks
01. “Closer by the Hour” Al Gore 2:15
02. “I Washed My Face in the Morning Dew” Tom T. Hall 2:45
03. “Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark” Dolly Parton 2:44
04. “Holding On to Nothin'” Jerry Chesnut 2:26
05. “Slip Away Today” Curly Putman 2:37
06. “The Dark End of the Street” Dan Penn, Chips Moman 2:15
07. “Just the Two of Us” Jerry Chesnut 2:36
08. “Afraid to Love Again” Jerry Chesnut, Theresa Beaty 1:53
09. “We’ll Get Ahead Someday” Mack Magaha 1:55
10. “Somewhere Between” Merle Haggard 2:13
11. “The Party” Dolly Parton 2:54
12. “I Can” Dolly Parton 2:06

Album Review: Barbara Mandrell – ‘This Time I Almost Made It: The Lost Columbia Masters’

81U+RipV8TL._SX522_More than any other performer, Barbara Mandrell is the artist responsible for sparking my interest in country music. Even before there were any local country music radio stations in my area, her weekly TV series was my main source of keeping abreast of what was going on in the world of country music. This was in the early 80s, when she’d just become the first artist to win the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year award a second time. Her contributions to country music were significant, but her catalog has been criminally neglected. Fortunately, that grievance is starting to be addressed. With the reissue of This Time I Almost Made It, courtesy of Real Gone Music, all of Barbara’s solo albums for Columbia are now available on CD.

Barbara was signed to Columbia in 1969 by Billy Sherrill and remained with the label until 1975. During that time, she only released three solo albums, plus a duets album with David Houston. Most major country acts released three albums a year in those days, but like we often see today, the label was waiting for some radio hits before committing to album releases. Her debut album Treat Him Right, was released in 1971 and was a lackluster seller. 1973’s The Midnight Oil reached #8 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, buoyed by the success of the title track which reached #7 in Billboard and #1 in Cashbox, and “Tonight My Baby’s Coming Home”, which was Barbara’s first Top 10 hit. By the time This Time I Almost Made It was released in 1974, the momentum she had gained seemed to have been lost again; it only reached #41 on the albums chart. By that time, Barbara might have already initiated talks to negotiate her release from her Columbia contract. If so, the label obviously would have had little interest in promoting her records. At any rate, the quality of the material does not seem to have been the issue.

The title track was written by Sherrill when he realized that they didn’t have enough songs for an album. Though in some respects it may have been an afterthought, it is my favorite track on the album. It’s a beautiful ballad, not particularly country in arrangement but the production is tastefully restrained. It was released as a single in advance of the album, as a follow-up to “The Midnight Oil”, but it charted outside the Top 10 at #12. The second single was “Wonder When My Baby’s Coming Home”, another easy-listening style ballad, although it is a little more country thanks to the inclusion of some steel guitar. I wasn’t previously familiar with this one, but I like it a lot. The background vocals give it a slightly dated feel, though they are a lot less intrusive than many records of the era. This one stalled at #39 and was Barbara’s final single for Columbia.

Barbara is well known for making country versions of R&B songs, occasionally delving too far into R&B territory for my taste in later years but her take on “You’re All I Need to Get By”, which has been a 1968 R&B hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, is quite good. She also turned in good performances on some pop songs of the day: “Keep On Singing”, which had been a hit for Helen Reddy, The Bee Gees’ “Words”, and The Beatles’ “Something”, which closes out the original album. She also covered her country colleagues Merle Haggard (“Today I Started Loving You Again”) and Charlie Rich (“A Very Special Love Song”).

This CD would be worth buying for the original album alone, but Real Gone Music has included almost another album’s worth of bonus tracks. There are nine in total, seven of which have never been released before. First up is the very country “I Hope You Love Me”, which was recorded during Barbara’s first session with Columbia in 1969. Written by George Jones and Tammy Wynette, it was included on Tammy’s 1970 album The Ways To Love a Man under the title “I Know”. “You Can Always Come Back”, also recorded in 1969 is a cover of a Curly Putman hit. “Coming Home Solider” had been a 1966 pop hit for Bobby Vinton.

Though the album’s liner notes refer to Barbara’s version as “dramatic”, I found it a bit plodding and it’s my least favorite track on the disc. Although a bit tame, her reading of “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music)” is much better. It was written by Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, who had hired Barbara for a two-week stint in Las Vegas when she was only eleven years old. It’s proof positive that despite her reputation for interpreting pop and R&B material, she was just as adept at tackling traditional country. Ditto for “You Took Him Off My Hands”, a Wynn Stewart/Harlan Howard/Skeets McDonald song that had previously been recorded by Patsy Cline.

Though not one a landmark album in the Mandrell discography, This Time I Almost Made It provides an interesting opportunity to trace Barbara’s development as an artist, and the bonus material is a real treat for her fans. After leaving Columbia, Barbara signed with ABC/Dot, which was later absorbed by MCA. That era of her career, despite being the years of her greatest commercial success, is still largely unavailable on CD aside from a few hits compilations. Hopefully the sales of This Time I Almost Made It will be good enough to entice Universal to finally allowing some of Barbara’s most commercially important recordings a chance to once again see the light of day.

Grade: A

Classic Review: Stonewall Jackson – ‘Stars Of The Grand Ole Opry’ (1981)

stars of the grand ole opryDuring the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s major labels trimmed their rosters, shedding veteran artists who were no longer cranking out the hits or generating decent album sales. Sometimes these veteran artists would find another major label deal but mostly these artists wound up on minor / independent labels. Even those artists who managed to find a major label deal found their stay at the new label to be a short one that lead to landing on a minor label (for example, Jimmy Dickens: Columbia > Decca > Gusto / Charlie Walker: Columbia > RCA > Plantation).

While on the minor / independent labels, most of the veteran artists recorded very little new material, usually producing an album or two of dreary remakes of their older hits with perhaps some covers of other big hits from artists (it is astounding how many artists issued albums listing songs such as “San Antonio Rose”, “There Goes My Everything” and “There Stands The Glass” among their greatest hits).
Most of these albums featured low budget production, thin sound, and were recorded with minimal numbers of disinterested musicians accompanying a bored vocalist singing songs sung literally thousands of times before.

First Generation Records was owned by Pete Drake (1932-1988), one of the great steel guitar players, and a musician who was not about to settle for the bored and tired performances described above. Producing the records himself, and often playing steel guitar on the recording sessions, Pete gathered a group of excellent musicians to play on his recording sessions. Rather than merely re-recording an artist’s older hits, Pete’s Stars of the Grand Ole Opry series generally featured five songs new to the artist (and often simply new songs) followed by five of the artist’s older hits but with a difference, that difference being energized singers and musicians. Among the artists featured on the series were Ferlin Husky, Jan Howard, Vic Willis, Stonewall Jackson, Billy Walker, Ernest Tubb, George Hamilton IV, Ray Pillow, Jean Shepard, The Wilburn Brothers and Charlie Louvin. While all were decent to very good albums, the album with Stonewall Jackson is the standout among the series.

Prior to this album, Stonewall Jackson has not spent much time in the recording studios since his last new Columbia album was issued in 1971. There had been an album in 1976 for GRT (I think the tracks were leased from MGM, intended for a never released 1973 album) reprising his Columbia hits in the manner of most remake albums, plus a deplorable new song from Foster & Rice titled “Herman Schwartz”. There was a pair of 1979 albums for Little Darling with little to recommend them. One of the Little Darlin’ albums was remakes and the other was largely undistinguished new material, although two of the songs had clever song titles, “The Pint of No Return” and “The Alcohol of Fame”.

For Stonewall Jackson’s First Generation sessions, in addition to playing steel himself, Pete gathered up an all-star lineup of Nashville session men including Jimmy Capps, Billy Sanford, Pete Wade and Bill Hullett (guitar), Jimmy Crawford and John Hughey (steel), Hargus “Pig” Robbins and Bobby Emmons (piano), Tommy Williams (fiddle), Bob Moore and Randy Best (bass).

The album opens up with the Billy Joe Shaver composition “I’m Just An Old Chunk of Coal”, a very recent hit for John Anderson (I think it is possible that Jackson’s version pre-dates Anderson’s recording, but I’m not certain); Billy Joe’s album also hit the streets in 1981. Whatever the timing, I feel that the Stonewall Jackson recording is the best recording I’ve ever heard of the song, far better than Billy Joe’s version and slightly better than John Anderson’s version. Stonewall sings the song with great enthusiasm as the lyric fits the ‘hardscrabble-pull up your own bootstraps’ upbringing of Stonewall’s youth:

Hey, I’m just an old chunk of coal
But I’m gonna be a diamond some day
I’m gonna grow and glow till I’m so blue, pure, perfect
I’m gonna put a smile on everybody’s face
I’m gonna kneel and pray every day
At last I should become vain along the way
I’m just an old chunk of coal now, Lord
But I’m gonna be a diamond some day

R.J. Jones and M. Kosser wrote “Full Moon, Empty Pockets”, a song that several artists subsequently recorded. The song tells a tale of woe that many of us have encountered – time on our hands but no money.

Full moon empty pockets
Stone broke on a Saturday night
Full moon empty pockets
Won’t a lady treat a cowboy right

Next up is “There Are No Shortcuts (To Get Me Over You)”, a good heartbreak ballad that of the kind that Stonewall Jackson always tackled well. This is followed by a song from Ben Peters and Curly Putman, “Breaking Up Breakdown”, a song that I could see as a successful single had it been issued in 1966 rather than 1981. The song is an up-tempo barroom ballad in which the narrator asks for the band to keep playing that song about breaking up.

The last of the newer songs is ”Let The Sun Shine On The People” by Frank Dycus and Larry Kingston. Frank Dycus, of course, wrote some of George Strait’s hits and Larry Kingston provided a number of songs to Johnny Bush and other singers.

At this point the nostalgia trip begins, but with an enthusiastic Stonewall Jackson leading the way on excellent new versions of some of his classic hits, starting off with his biggest hit (#1 Country / #4 Pop) “Waterloo”. For those familiar only with the ABBA hit of the same name, this song is a bit of a romp through history referencing Adam, Napoleon and Tom Dooley:

Now old Adam, was the first in history
With an apple, he was tempted and deceived
Just for spite, the devil made him take a bite
And that’s where old Adam met his Waterloo

Chorus
Waterloo, Waterloo
Where will you meet your Waterloo
Every puppy has his day and everybody has his day
Everybody has to meet his Waterloo

Waterloo was such a big hit that Homer & Jethro took the time to spoof it:

The Lone Ranger and Tonto rode the trail
Catching Outlaws and putting them in jail
But the Ranger shot Tonto for it seems
He found out what ‘kemosabe’ means

Perhaps Stonewall’s most enduring song, “Don’t Be Angry,” is up next. Written by Stonewall’s brother Wade Jackson, not only was it a big hit for Jackson, but Donna Fargo took the song to the top during the 1970s and the song has been covered by many artists and remains in the active repertoires of county bar bands across the USA.

Don’t be angry at me darling if I fail to understand
All your little whims and wishes all the time
Just remember that I’m dumb I guess like any foolish man
And my head stays sorta foggy cause you’re mine

Well, I recall the first time that I flirted with you dear
When I jokingly said come and be my bride
Now that time has turned the pages it’s the sweetest joke on earth
That I have you near forever by my side

Joe Babcock authored the next Stonewall Jackson classic “I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water”, which also was a major hit for pop crooner Pat Boone and has also been a favorite of the R&B crowd and many of the rock & roll crowd as well, including Elvis Presley and Johny Rivers

I was born in Macon Georgia
They kept my daddy over in Macon jail
He told me if you keep your hands clean
You won’t hear them bloodhounds on your trail

Well I fell in with bad companions
Robbed a man, oh up in Tennessee
They caught me way up in Nashville
They locked me up and threw away the key

Chorus
I washed my hands in muddy water
Washed my hands, but they didn’t come clean
Tried to do what my daddy told me
But I must have washed my hands in a muddy stream

Next up is Bill Johnson’s “A Wound Time Can’t Erase”, a sad and tender ballad that was a big hit for Stonewall and later for Gene Watson.

The fifth and final Stonewall Jackson classic is the Melvin Endsley / Stonewall Jackson composition “Why I’m Walkin’”, a song Ricky Skaggs covered during the 1980s. Melvin Endsley was a disabled person who wrote several classic country songs including “Singling the Blues” and “Knee Deep In The Blues”. Some readers may remember an alternate title “Got My Angel On My Mind”, but however you label this ballad, it’s a good one.

I’ve got an angel on my mind, that’s why I’m walkin’
There’s such an aching in this old heart, now I ain’t talkin’
The little hand that held mine tight, just waved goodbye tonite
I’ve got her sweet love on my mind, that’s why I’m walkin’

This album is still readily available on CD, as are most of the other albums in the series. Unfortunately, Pete Drake began experiencing health problems in 1985 and passed away in 1988. I would like to have seen Pete issue new albums on the next generation of veteran artists released by the major labels. It would have been much better music than much of what was actually released by other minor/ independent labels over the next decade. Anyway, almost unique among this class of minor label albums by veteran artists, this album rates a solid A, the first album for Stonewall in many years that I would rate that highly.

Album Review: Johnny Cash – ‘Out Among The Stars’

johnnycashThere hasn’t been any shortage of “new” Johnny Cash music in the decade since the Man In Black’s death. But unlike most of those releases, this week’s Out Among The Stars isn’t a reissue, an alternate take, a demo or a recording made during the singer’s declining years when he was long past his vocal peak. Rather, Out Among The Stars is a full-fledged studio album that was mostly recorded in the 1980s and produced by Billy Sherrill. The nearly completed album was discovered two years ago by John Carter Cash, who was in the process of mining the Sony archives while trying to catalog his parents’ extensive discographies. He brought in some additional musicians, including Marty Stuart, Buddy Miller and Carlene Carter, to bring the project to completion. The final product was released last week.

Normally, news of this sort would be cause for great celebration but any excitement about the album had to be tempered with the knowledge that the 1980s were, as even the most die-hard Cash fans will admit , a period in which the singer released mostly less than stellar work. Add to that the fact that Billy Sherrill had been the producer behind “The Chicken In Black”, widely regarded to be one of the worst singles of Cash’s career, and no one was quite sure what to expect.

Considering that Out Among The Stars was mostly recorded in 1984, while Cash’s career was in the middle of a long dry spell and just two years before Columbia dropped him from its roster, it isn’t surprising that the album was forgotten. But those who were braced for the worst will be pleasantly surprised because it is far superior to most of his output from that era. So far the album has produced one non-charting single, “She Used To Love Me a Lot”, which David Allan Coe took to #11 in 1984. It was written by Charles Quillen with Dennis W. Morgan and Kye Fleming. Morgan and Fleming were one of Nashville’s top songwriting teams of the day, having written many hits for Ronnie Milsap, Barbara Mandrell and Sylvia.

Many other top 80s songwriters teams are also represented. Ed and Patsy Bruce contributed “After All”, a pop-tinged ballad that was a departure from Johnny’s usual fare and Paul Kennerley and Graham Lyle wrote “Rock and Roll Shoes”. Johnny himself contributed the sentimental “Call Your Mother” and the inspirational “I Came To Believe”, which was written while Johnny was struggling with addiction and completing a stint at the Betty Ford Center. Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman wrote the tongue-in-cheek “If I Told You Who It Was” about a country music fan who has a fling with a female Opry star after changing her flat tire. No names are named, but the lady’s identity is revealed (for those old enough to recognize it) by an uncredited vocal appearance near the end of the song. It’s not Dolly Parton; that’s all I’m going to say.

Although traditionalists like to claim Cash as one of their own, The Man In Black was no purist and frequently pushed the boundaries of the genre. In this collection he sticks close to his country roots, and unlike many of his records, there is plenty of steel guitar on this album. Among the most traditional tunes are two excellent duets with June Carter Cash — “Baby, Ride Easy” and a cover of Tommy Collins’ “Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time”. Johnny sounds relaxed and refreshed on these tracks, and June is also in fine vocal form. “Baby, Come Easy” features harmony vocals by Carlene Carter and “Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time” features some excellent picking by Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Bryan Sutton. Waylon Jennings joins Johnny for a faithful-to-the-original cover of the Hank Snow classic “I’m Movin’ On”. Jennings’ presence elevates a performance that otherwise wouldn’t be particularly memorable.

The album closes with a remixed version of “She Used To Love Me A Lot” that was produced by Elvis Costello. Not surprisingly, this version isn’t country but it is in keeping with some of Cash’s genre-pushing efforts. It doesn’t really add anything to the album, however, and I could have done without it. “I Came To Believe” would have been a more appropriate closing track, but that is the only negative thing I can say about an otherwise exceptional album.

It is unlikely that Out Among The Stars would have fared well commercially had it been released thirty years ago. It was not then and is not now what mainstream Nashville wanted. It won’t produce any big radio hits, but now there is a greater appreciation of Johnny Cash than there was in 1984. Sony is giving the release the promotional effort it deserves and I imagine it will sell quite well.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Marty Raybon & Full Circle – ‘This, That & The Other’

this that and the otherMarty followed up the excellent When The Sand Runs Out with a gospel record, What I Came Here To Do, and then 2009 saw the release of This, That & The Other, a generous 14-track collection which he recorded with his live band, Full Circle. While it is predominantly bluegrass, it draws also from his country and Christian influences. It was self-released, and initially only available at a high price from Marty’s website, which meant it got limited attention at the time. Marty didn’t write any of the songs, and a number of them are familiar, but the arrangements and vocals give them an individuality which is worth hearing.

He opens the set with a nice bluegrass cover of Joe Diffie’s exuberant ‘Leavin’ On The Next thing Smokin’’. At the other end of the album is a similar arrangement on ‘Any Ol’ Stretch Of Blacktop’, which was an early Collin Raye album track. Shenandoah also did a version as a bonus track on their first Greatest Hits collection, but it was never a single.

The much-recorded Dickey Lee/Allen Reynolds song ‘Everybody’s Reaching (Out For Someone)’ is prettily done with a sincerely delivered vocal, and it works well in a bluegrass context.

Perhaps the most unexpected cover is the rapid-paced and tongue-in-cheek Bobby Braddock-penned George Jones hit ‘Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half As Bad As Hurting You)’. While Marty doesn’t sound as on-the-edge as Jones, who recorded it in his days of alcohol abuse, his performance is still very entertaining. The light but bright ‘Ain’t Love A Lot Like That’ was also previously cut by Jones.

His love of bluegrass gospel wasn’t forgotten here. ‘I Cast My Bread Upon The Water’ is a pleasant mid-paced song, but more memorable is the impressive acappella performance of ‘Didn’t It Rain, Rain, Children’.

On a more sober note, the downbeat ballad ‘Going Through Hell (To Get There)’ was written by Curly Putman, Dale Dodson and Billy Ryan. It is the thoughtful reflection of a man realising he is on the wrong path in life, beautifully sung and played, with some stately fiddle leading in:

I’m tired and weary
Got a heavy load
But I’ll find my way
With each prayer I pray
This road will lead
On a brighter day

Cause I’ve been lost out here
On this road to nowhere
I went through Hell to get there

On a similar theme, but handled more dramatically, ‘The Devil’s Ol’ Workshop’ is a great story song about succumbing to temptation and ending up with disaster, written by Larry Cordle and Larry Shell. Red Lane’s ‘Blackjack County Chain’ (recorded in the past by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, and also by bluegrass legend Del McCoury) offers another dark story song, about a man trapped into a chain gang by a dirty sheriff, and taking a bloody revenge.

‘The Immigrant Song’ (written by Billy Lawson) is a feelgood story song about a first generation American who marries a Cherokee girl and becomes the narrator’s great-great-grandfather, it has a Celtic feel reflecting its protagonist’s Scottish roots. On a picky note: Ellis Island, mentioned in the opening lines, only opened in 1892, which seems a bit late for the other clues in the song, but the song really works emotionally.

Marty goes Cajun with the lively ‘Luzianna Man’; the lyrics are predictable but the arrangement infectious. The up-tempo ‘Timber (Stand Back And Watch It Fall)’ is pleasant with a nice arrangement and great vocals but not very memorable. ‘You Get Me’ is a contemporary country love song written by Wendell Mobley and Neil Thrasher; it isn’t a great song, but Marty’s intensely soulful vocal lifts it to a higher plane.

This may be Marty Raybon’s most overlooked album, but it is very good indeed, with a lot of variety, and excellent vocals throughout. I recommend it to all fans of the singer’s voice.

He has since gone on to release a number of fine albums, and is currently signed to Rural Rhythm Records.

Grade: A

Album Review – Doug Stone – ‘From The Heart’

DougfromheartDoug Stone was riding high with the success of his platinum selling sophomore album when he began feeling dizziness, arm & chest pain, and feelings of disorientation while on tour. He canceled his appearance at the 1992 ACM Awards and underwent Quintuple Bypass Surgery. Stone changed his eating and exercise habits in order to quickly resume his tour schedule.

His third album, the aptly titled From The Heart, was released that August with Doug Johnson producing once again. Upon its release critics had a field day with the irony of the album’s title in the wake of his medical issues.

Lead single “Warning Labels” was released in June. The uptempo shuffle, written by Kim Williams and Oscar Turman, casts Stone as a broken man in a barroom observing that “they ought to put warning labels on those sad country songs” coming from the jukebox. It’s an excellent and memorable lyric, but the production comes off forceful (and dated 21 years later), a little too in-your-face, and drowns out Stone’s vocal at times. The single was his seventh top-five hit in two years and peaked at #4.

Gary Burr and Victoria Shaw wrote “Too Busy Being In Love,” which topped the charts in early 1993. Like most of Stone’s trademark ballads, “Too Busy Being In Love” plays like a cheesy Lifetime movie, down to the slick piano-laced production. That being said, Stone’s tender vocal coupled with the production is still a winning combination to my ears, no matter how cheesy and horrid this sounds today.

“Made for Loving You” broke Stone’s streak of top five singles when it peaked at #6 (his second song to do so) in mid-1993. Previously recorded by both Clinton Gregory and Dan Seals, and written by Sonny Throckmorton and Curly Putman, the track is very similar in style to “Too Busy Being In Love,” though not nearly as polished, or hook-laden.

Stone returned to #1 with the album’s finale single, Paul Harrison and Bob McDill’s “Why Didn’t I Think of That.” A regretful uptempo honky-tonker, in which a man plays his last relationship out in his head after she’s moved on, is the album’s best single because it gets everything right – vocal, lyric, and production. It is also Stone’s most played (and remembered) recurrent single and the only one from this record that’s aged gracefully. It’s one of my favorite things Stone has ever done.

“Leave The Radio” exemplifies one of country music’s worst trends from the era, the clichéd breakup song with a woman packing her suitcase, leaving her man, etc. This variation has him begging her to leave him the radio. It’s nothing more then a horrid piece of embarrassing filler. “Left, Leaving, Going, or Gone” boasts a better execution, but is still as tired as “Leave The Radio” thematically. “She’s Got A Future In The Movies” (another Burr and Shaw co-write) is one of those novelty songs you hear once and like, but it grows grating on repeated listenings.  Meanwhile, “Working End of a Hoe,” an ode to farming cotton fields, has a nicely restrained production that works well. The chugging beat, laced with harmonica, works nicely with Stone’s twangy vocal.

Thankfully the remaining ballads are of a much higher quality. Stone co-wrote neo-traditional weeper “This Empty House” and brings palpable pain to his vocal performance. This would’ve been a home run if the steel had been more pronounced and heavier while Stone’s vocal is a bit too quiet.

The most outstanding and easily the strongest of the album cuts is Bucky Jones, Red Lane, and Royce Porter’s “Ain’t Your Memory Got No Pride At All.” The neo-traditional production is fabulous and Stone delivers one of the project’s strongest vocals. This should’ve been the single in place of “Made for Loving You,” and I bet it would’ve done really well.

There’s nothing wrong with an album that ties itself this closely to mainstream trends per se, but you wouldn’t know that from listening to From The Heart. Stone and Johnson highlight the worst of commercial country, forgoing any attempts to create a project with a long shelf life. Considering his contemporaries released everything from Hearts In Armor (Trisha Yearwood), I Still Believe In You (Vince Gill), The Chase (Garth Brooks), and A Lot About Livin’ (and A Little ‘Bout Love) (Alan Jackson) that same year, this is as mailed in as efforts get.

Grade: B- 

The best reissues of 2013

2013 was a bad year for fans of traditional country music and its near cousins.Not only was radio virtually devoid of traditional country sounds, but Billboard bastardized its country charts to the point of meaninglessness, accepting remixes and reissues with other artists and treating them all as one record. Worse yet, a good many of our radio heroes passed away, starting on January 1, 2013 with the death of Patti Page, a country girl who went on to become a great classic pop singer, and who continued to showcase country songs throughout her illustrious career. Along the way we lost Jack Greene, Cal Smith, George Jones, Kitty Wells, Tompall Glaser, Ottis “Slim” Whitman, Claude King, Jack Clements, Lorene Mann, George Beverly Shea, and too many more for me to recount. We ended the year with the death of the great Ray Price.

Fortunately, we live in an age where the musical legacy of our radio heroes can and does live on. While not the absolute best year for reissues, it was a very strong year, with most of the great reissues coming from foreign soil.

On the domestic front Sony Legacy has been redoing their Essential series, issuing a series of two disc sets. The Essential Tammy Wynette is easily the best Tammy Wynette collection we will see, unless Bear Family decides to do a box set. The collection is arranged chronologically and without skipping the lesser hits. Fans of Tammy will hear some songs that rarely have been anthologized, and hear her catalog of hits in the order in which they were released. The forty songs are digitally remastered to sound superb, and even though I have such other Tammy Wynette collections as Tears of Fire and Anniversary: Twenty Years of Hits, still I regard this as an essential purchase for Tammy’s fans and a great introduction for those unfamiliar with her work.

I’m not a big Martina McBride fan but Sony Legacy’s two disc The Essential Martina McBride, issued in late 2012 and not widely available until this year, is probably the best collection you’ll see on Martina – terrific sound, with forty songs. A few minor hits have been omitted in favor of other material, which I don’t like, but that’s just me.

***

The UK based Jasmine label has probably been the leading purveyor of reasonably pricced reissues, issuing a series of two CD sets, either featuring intact four older albums of a particular artist or issuing some sets that are simply collections of songs. Some of the Jasmine releases below were actually issued in late 2012, but not widely available until 2013.

Oh Lonesome Me, Singles Collection 1956-1962 is an outstanding two CD collection of Don Gibson’s singles from 1956-1962. Not only does the set capture Don’s earliest and biggest RCA hits (“Oh Lonesome Me”, “Sea of Heartbreak”, “Blue Blue Day”), but it also revisits Don’s rarely found MGM singles, including the earliest take on “Sweet Dreams”. Forty-six songs, hours of listening pleasure.

Love Is The Sweatest Thing: The Early Album Collection collects four of Ferlin Husky’s early Capitol albums. The albums are not overrun with hit singles (during the 1950s albums were often marketed to a different audience than were singles) but has four albums that are quite different from one another. 1956’s Songs of Home and The Heart features older country songs. Boulevard of Broken Dreams (1957) and Sittin’ On A Rainbow (1958) both feature what would today be referred as classic pop or pop standards – in other words, not very country at all. The last album in the set, Walkin’ And A Hunmin’ (1961), which Ferlin referred to as his Hank Williams album, does feature seven songs associated with Hank Williams. This collection gives a good overview of the breadth of Ferlin’s talent.

Headin’ Down The Wrong Highway: The Early Albums features four Hank Thompson albums from 1958-1961. For me the standout album is 1961’s Live At The Golden Nugget, but all of the albums are great listening. Relatively few hits are in this collection, but once you start the disc playing, you won’t care about the lack of hit records as Hank and his Brazos Valley Boys always exude good cheer and lotsa fun.

The First Lady of Country: The Early Album Collection is what I would deem to be an essential Jean Shepard album, including as it does one of the very first ‘concept’ albums in 1956’s Songs of A Love Affair. There are not a lot of hit singles in this 2 CD collection, but there are a lot of songs capturing the heart and soul of this pioneering female singer.

Queen of Honky Tonk Angels: Four Original Albums by Kitty Wells, captures an early hit collection in Country Hit Time, a gospel album, Dust On The Bible, and a pair of albums largely comprised of covers. Kitty Wells had a strong clear voice that didn’t waver until very late in life. She treats her material and herself with respect, the end result being albums really worth hearing.

Folk Ballads, Hits and Hymns – Four Stereo LPs finds legendary bluegrass singer Mac Wiseman traveling down other more mainstream country roads. Fans of bluegrass may be disappointed with the albums, but fans of Mac Wiseman will love this set comprised of two gospel albums, an album of some current (as of 1960) folk and country hits plus an album of folk songs. One of the gospel albums features the Jordanaires throughout, not that Mac ever really needed help to perform a gospel song.

I don’t know that you can really call Walter Brennan a country artist at all, but Jasmine released a single disc CD on Grandpa McCoy titled Reminiscing With Walter Brennan which definitely catches the essence of a beloved actor and perfermer. Brennan only had one hit “Old Rivers” (#3 Country / #5 pop) but it’s here along with 27 other favorites including his wonderful take on “The Shifting Whispering Sands”

***

If the name Curly Putman means anything at all to the casual fan, it is as the writer of “Green Green Grass of Home” and co-writer of “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today” . Curly did have a bit of a singing career and issued a some albums on ABC Records. Omni has collected two of Curly’s albums The Lonesome Country Of Curly Putman (1967) and Curly Putman’s World Of Country Music (1969) on a single disc. He’s hardly a compelling singer, but it is always interesting to hear a songwriter interpret his own material. “My Elusive Dreams” was released as a single and reached #41.

New West Records issued Dwight Yoakam’s 21st Century Hits: Best-Of 2000-2012, a nice collection of fourteen singles and miscellaneous tracks . Hardly Dwight’s best work, but still a useful collection, gathering together tracks not easily found.

***

Omnivore Recordings, a label out of Los Angeles, CA started releasing albums in late 2012. Probably their most important release was the George Jones collection The Complete United Artists Solo Singles. I’ve always regarded the best recordings George Jones ever made as coming from his tenure with United Artists 1962-1965. From this period the finely nuanced singer emerged with such great singles as “She Thinks I Still Care” , “Sometimes You Can’t Win” , “A Girl I Used To Know” , “You Comb Her Hair” and “The Race Is On”. All of these titles have been available as re-recordings made for Musicor and/or Epic , but these are the original hit versions – 32 songs, the A and B sides of his 16 United Artist singles – an absolutely essential collection (unless you own the Bear Family box set of the United Artists years).

Omnivore also has released some Buck Owens, Don Rich and Buckaroos collections.

Buck Em! : The Music of Buck Owens 1955-1967 is billed as the companion to the recently published Buck Owens autobiography, but as a stand-alone collection it is a worthy acquisition if there is a hole in your Buck Owens catalog. Some alternative and live recordings are among the two CD sets fifty tracks. Not essential but a nice collection spanning the Pep and early Capitol years.

Omnivore’s Honky Tonk Man: Buck Sings The Country Classics collects eighteen tracks recorded for use on the television show Hee Haw. Many of these tracks were recorded after the death of Don Rich, so the classic harmonies aren’t always present, and these are very short recordings designed to fit the pace of the television show, but they are songs that Buck didn’t otherwise record for commerical release, covering country classics from 1945-1973 by the likes of Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Johnny Horton and Ray Price.

With “Live” At The White House (… And In Space), Omnivore makes available a live Buck Owens album that Capitol had a available for a short time of Buck’s September 9, 1968 White House performance for President Lyndon Johnson. The original album only ran about 22 minutes so in order to get a usable length CD, Omnivore coupled the album with a program recorded for the Apollo 16 astronauts to take on their mission with them. A bit gimmicky, but Buck Owens completists will want the album.

The late Don Rich was a fine singer in his own right and an excellent musician that Omnivore has focused upon. That Fiddlin’ Man restores to print a 1971 Buckaroos allbum featuring Don Rich on fiddle and adds an additional ten tracks of Don fiddlin’ around from other Buckaroo albums. I got to see Buck & Don in person three times and it was always a highlight of the show when Buck has Don pull out his ‘cherry apple red fiddle’ and play “Cajun Fiddle”, “Orange Blossom Special” or some other tune. Don Rich Sings George Jones features ten George Jones songs that were recorded for a never released Don Rich solo album, augmented with four Buck Owens tracks of George Jones covers. The Buckaroos Play Merle and Buck couple a pair of Buckaroos albums, 1965’s The Buck Owens Songbook with 1971’s The Songs of Merle Haggard. These are all instrumental numbers featuring Don Rich (mostly) on telecaster.

There are many fine Merle Haggard collections available so Omnivore’s The Complete 60s Capitol Singles is hardly an essential collection but it is definitely an excellent one and anyway one can never have too much Merle Haggard in their collection. Twenty-eight songs – the A & B sides of Merle’s fourteen singles, and Merle’s B sides were hardly throw-aways, “Today I Started Loving You Again” and “Silver Wings” both being B sides. Merle’s peak years were with Capitol and this is all great stuff – it doesn’t get any better than this !

***

I will close out with a Bear Family boxed set that is beyond the price range for most of us, probably even beyond the Christmas ‘wish list’: Tall Dark Stranger – Buck Owens and The Buckaroos Recordings: 1968-1975. This eight CD set covers Buck’s slightly post-peak eriod with Capitol Records, a period that saw Buck experimenting with and updating the ‘freight train’ sound that had become his hallmark. Includes his duet albums with son Buddy Alan Owens, the Susan Raye duets, some Buckaroos recordings and even a duet with a duet with R&B singer Bettye Swann. Buck had about 20 chart hits during this period and the set features many previously unreleased songs

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘Influence, Vol. 1: The Man I Am’

randyA disappointing 25th anniversary album and the slightly underwhelming single “Tonight I’m Playing Possum”, as well as a general fatigue regarding the endless array of cover albums released in recent years left me feeling indifferent about Randy Travis’ new release Influence, Vol. 1: The Man I Am. In last July’s review of “Tonight I’m Playing Possum”, the only original song on the album, last July, we discussed at length Travis’ diminished vocal abilities, which further lowered my expectations for the full album.

Though the bar was admittedly set low, I was pleasantly surprised when the album was finally released last week. Though most of the songs are not that vocally challenging, I was quite pleased to hear Randy sounding better, for the most part, than he has on most of his recent recordings. Randy mostly avoids some of the obvious standards that have appeared on countless other tribute albums and dusts off some under-appreciated gems. Due to the death of George Jones earlier this year, I expected a number of the Possum’s tunes to be featured. Surprisingly, there is only one, “Why Baby Why”, which leads into “Tonight I’m Playing Possum” which closes the album. Instead, Travis digs deeply into the catalog of Merle Haggard for inspiration. Five of the album’s twelve cover tunes are some of the Hag’s lesser-known numbers, while the remaining songs are remakes of hits by Ernest Tubb, Waylon Jennings, and Lefty Frizzell. In addition, Randy reaches outside the genre for a few numbers: Louis Armstrong’s 1926 jazz hit “Butter and Egg Man” which is given a Western swing arrangement, and “Pennies From Heaven”, a pop standard first introduced by Bing Crosby in 1936. Both of these tunes are creative stretches for Travis, and both are extremely well done, with the Armstrong tune arguably being the best track on the album. Also included is “Trouble In Mind”, a blues standard dating back to 1924, which was later covered by both Haggard and Jones. It is one of the few tracks on the album were Randy’s vocal difficulties are apparent.

Ernest Tubb’s “Thanks a Lot” is given a by-the-numbers faithful-to-the-original treatment, while Travis’ interpretation of Waylon’s “You Asked Me To” is a little short on outlaw attitude. His take on Lefty Frizzell’s “Saginaw, Michigan”, however, is outstanding, though I could have done without the 1960s-style background singers. Randy has always named Lefty as one of his big influences and I would like to hear him sing more from the Frizzell catalog.

It is the Haggard tunes, however, that are the meat and potatoes of this album. If there are any criticisms of Influence, it is that it is a little Haggard-heavy. On the other hand, it’s nice to see Merle finally get his due; every male country singer to emerge during the past twenty years has claimed to have idolized George Jones, while the equally important Haggard usually went unmentioned.

The album opens with “Someday We’ll Look Back”, which Merle took to #2 in 1971. “What Have You Got Planned Tonight Diana” was originally released as the B-side to 1976’s “Cherokee Maiden”. Its lyrics are the deathbed reminiscences of an Alaskan homesteader as he prepares to join his departed wife. It is a beautiful number and is my favorite of the Haggard tunes included here. “Ever-Changing Woman”, written by Dave Kirby and Curly Putman is an obscure album cut mined from 1980’s Back to the Barrooms. It’s surprising that no one ever had a big hit with this song. “My Mary”, which is also quite well done, is from 1983’s Pancho and Lefty. “I’m Always On A Mountain When I Fall” is the the best-known of the Haggard songs included here and like the others, it is a pleasure to listen to.

I’m trying not to read too much into the inclusion of the words “Volume 1” in the album’s title, since I can think of numerous examples where a “Volume 1” was never followed up with any sequels. I do hope that a second set is planned, though that will depend on how quickly Randy recovers from his recent health problems. In the meantime, there is more than enough here to keep his fans happy.

Grade: A

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘Aces’

acesThe first time I heard Suzy Bogguss sing, I was sure that she was on the verge of becoming country music’s next big female superstar. It was, therefore, both surprising and disappointing when her first two albums and the singles released from them all performed poorly on the charts. Her commercial fortunes began to change in 1991 when she teamed up with her Capitol labelmate Lee Greenwood for a duet, the Keith Whitley, Curly Putman and Don Cook-penned “Hopelessly Yours”, which rose to #12, her best performance to date on the Billboard country singles chart. The record’s success proved to be the breakthrough she needed and paved the way for her subsequent solo recordings.

Suzy was always a bit of a folkie at heart, as opposed to a hardcore country traditionalist, and the song selections on Aces, her third album for Capitol Nashville, reflect that preference. The album’s advance single was a revival of Ian & Sylvia Tyson’s “Someday Soon”, which had been recorded numerous times by a number of artists, including Judy Collins and Moe Bandy. Suzy’s excellent version reached #12, matching the success of “Hopelessly Yours.” Suzy and co-producer Jimmy Bowen slowed down the tempo ever so slightly on Nanci Griffith’s “Outbound Plane”, giving the song more mainstream appeal than Griffith’s original and more quirky recording from a few years earlier. “Outbound Plane”, which peaked at #9, found Suzy cracking the Top 10 for the first time. Recognizing that the folk connection was proving successful, Capitol selected the album’s title track, written by folk singer/songwriter Cheryl Wheeler, as Suzy’s next single. Like “Outbound Plane”, it reached #9 and is one of the songs for which Suzy is best remembered today.

The album’s fourth single — and its most successful was the more conventional “Letting Go”, written by Suzy’s husband Doug Crider and Matt Rollings. A tale about leaving home and the adjustments required by both parent and child, it peaked at #6 in the fall of 1992 and made an appearance on Suzy’s next album Voices In The Wind.

More often than not, I find that there are always one or two songs on every album that should have been a single, but for one reason or another, was not. Tony Arata’s “Part of Me” falls into that category this time around, although for the most part, Capitol showed good judgement in its selection of singles. There’s nothing particularly memorable about “Yellow River Road”, which is noteworthy only because it is the album’s only song in which Suzy had a hand in writing. The bluesy numbers “Save Yourself” and “Let Goodbye Hurt” require more soulful performances than Suzy was able to provide, and her version of “Still Hold On”, though good, cannot compare with Tanya Tucker’s grittier performance from a few years earlier.

Aces was the best and most successful of Suzy’s major label albums, and the only one to earn platinum certification. Inexpensive copies are easy to obtain.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Dan Seals – ‘On Arrival’

Released in February 1990, On Arrival was Dan Seals’ final studio album for Capitol Records, his label home since 1985. The album, produced yet again by Kyle Lehning, would extend Seals’ success into the 1990s, although it would be short lived.

The first two singles marked Seals’ final trips to the top of the charts. The title track, a Seals original, preceded the album. A honky-tonk charger, “Love on Arrival” features a committed vocal by Seals, but the drum and guitar centric arrangement hasn’t held up over the years.

More interesting was the second single, a cover of Sam Cooke’s 1964 hit “Good Times.” Lehning frames Seals vocal in a pleasantly uncluttered arrangement, while the sing-a-long nature of the recording recalls vintage Eddie Rabbit. Unfortunately, the horns were dated, even for 1990, and give an unwelcoming campy vibe to the proceedings. But I quite appreciate what Seals was going for here, even though the polish was a bit too shiny.

The third and fourth singles, the Seals and Bob McDill co-write “Bordertown” and Bruce Burch and J.P. McMean’s “Water Under The Bridge” were the first of Seals career not to crack the top 40. The lack of airplay was surprising, seeing as both tunes were comfortably within Seals straightforward acoustic ballad wheelhouse, although neither proved as good, or memorable, as his classic hits in this vein.

The rest of On Arrival sounds like an album typical of its era, with a mixed bag of results. Roger Ferris’ “She Flew The Coupe” is a bloated (and forgettable) honky-tonk thumper, Charlie Black and Rory Michael Bourke’s “A Heart In Search Of Love” is overly sentimental and slightly predictable, while Paul Brady’s “Game Of Love” is too sugary sweet.

Slightly better is “Lonestar,” a Seals and J.D. Souther co-write about a girl who can’t get the affection of her desired man. Seals infuses the track with a wonderful vocal while the soaking of steel guitar keeps the accompaniment rather enjoyable on the ears.

Another good one is “Wood,” a Seals original finding him back in his “Everything That Glitters” vein. The track tells a sweet story about a relationship between a father and son, complete with life lessons:

I left a little taller

wiser, and free

I learned the use of tools

for the carpenter in me

I don’t have all the answers

but one thing I have have found

We are the choices that we make

when the chips are down, wood.

I also enjoy “Made For Lovin’ You” a Curly Putman and Sonny Throckmorton penned tune that went on to be a #6 peaking single for Doug Stone in 1993. Easily the best lyric, vocal, and musical track on the whole project, its hard to understand why the song was never a single for Seals, who easily has the superior version of the song.

Overall, On Arrival finds Seals up to his usual tricks while trying to stay relevant in the changing musical climate of the early 90s. The album is sentimental, marking the end of an era in which Seals topped the charts eleven times and turned out some of the best country music of its time.

On Arrival proves his previous solo singles were near impossible to match let alone top and he had somewhat mixed results in trying to do that here. But even though the results weren’t as consistent as in the past, he still managed to find (and sometimes write) a few great songs.

Grade: B

Album Review: Merle Haggard & The Strangers – ‘Mama Tried’ and ‘Pride In What I Am’

Mama Tried was Merle Haggard’s third album release of 1968, following Sing Me Back Home and The Legend of Bonnie & Clyde, each of which added one more #1 hit to his growing list of accomplishments. By now his albums were relying more heavily on outside songwriters and Capitol was only releasing one single per LP, but that in no way suggests that there was a decline in quality. On the contrary, Haggard shows considerable skill in putting his own stamp on these songs. Case in point: Curly Putman’s “Green, Green Grass of Home” had previously been popularized by Porter Wagoner, Bobby Bare, Charley Pride, and Tom Jones, but Merle’s version, which ties in perfectly with the album’s prison theme, sounds as though it were written specifically for him. His interpretative ability is further tested as he tackles Dolly Parton’s “In The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)”. It isn’t easy to convincingly sing a highly personal, autobiographical song that someone else has written, but Merle passes with flying colors and his version easily holds its own with Parton’s original version. No one could ever outdo Johnny Cash on “Folsom Prison Blues”, but Haggard comes close. In his heyday he was a superior vocalist to Cash, and it is quite possible that those who are unfamiliar with the original version might prefer Merle’s take on the song.

The album’s main attraction, is of course, the title track, which became Haggard’s fifth #1 record. “Mama Tried” is my all-time favorite Haggard tune, and it arguably would be his signature song had he not later recorded “Okie From Muskogee”. Though only semi-autobiographical, the song is clearly an attempt to make amends for the pain Merle caused his mother when he was sent to prison. Though the lyrics are mournful, this is an uptempo honky-tonk number, heavy on the pedal steel and featuring some excellent electric guitar work from Roy Nichols. It must have stood in stark contrast to most of the other records on the charts at the time, which were mostly in the Nashville Sound or countrypolitan style. Another highlight is the very traditional “I Could Have Gone Right”, another prison song that sounds like a Haggard original, but which was actually penned by a still relatively unknown Mel Tillis. “Two Many Bridges To Cross Over”, written by the great Dallas Frazier, closes out the original album. This 2-for-1 reissue contains two bonus tracks, “I’m Looking for My Mind” and the religious number “You’re Not Home Yet.”

Pride In What I Am was the first of three Haggard albums released in 1969. He changes direction slightly, taking a break from the convict theme which had dominated his music over the previous two years. It was a wise move, since he would have quickly been pigeon-holed had he continued to release prison songs, but overall, the more mellow Pride In What Am is less interesting than Mama Tried or the two or three albums that preceded it.

This time around, Haggard wrote six of the album’s twelve tracks, including the title track, which temporarily interrupted his string of #1 hits, peaking at #3. Throughout this album, Merle seems to be backing away a bit from the hard-edged Bakersfield sound that had characterized his earlier albums. Pride In What I Am is a little closer to what was being produced in Nashville at the time. It uses Nashville Sound-like vocal choruses but eschews the lush string arrangements which were still in vogue in Music City. The production on “I Take A Lot Of Pride In What I Am” reminds me somewhat of Glen Campbell’s “Gentle On My Mind” which had been a minor hit on the country charts about two years earlier. The album’s best track is the blues-tinged Haggard original “I Can’t Hold Myself In Line”. I’m also partial to “I’m Bringing Home Good News”, another Haggard-penned tune that brings some welcome energy to a largely mellow-sounding album.

Among the best of the non-Haggard written tunes are Merle’s tributes to his idols Lefty Frizzell and Jimmie Rodgers. He covers the former’s “It Meant Goodbye To Me (When You Said Hello To Him” and the latter’s “California Blues (Blue Yodel No. 4)”

The CD reissue contains three bonus tracks, “California On My Mind”, “White Line Fever” and “Streets of Berlin”. Germany is an unusual setting for a Haggard song; this sounds like a song that would have been better suited for Marty Robbins, and Merle’s vocal performance sounds as though it were heavily influenced by his good friend.

Mama Tried and Pride In What I Am are easy to find, both separately, and as a 2-for-1 CD or digital download (the 2-for-1 option is better value). Mama Tried is essential listening, and while Pride In What I Am doesn’t quite reach that lofty level, it is still worth a listen.

Grades:

Mama Tried: A
Pride In What I Am: B+

Country Heritage Redux: Charley Pride (1938 – )

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

While he’s not exactly forgotten, it’s been twenty-five years since Charley Pride received much airplay on country radio – which seems unbelievable considering the dominant force he was on the charts. For the ’70s, Billboard has Charley listed as its third ranking singles artist behind only Conway Twitty and Merle Haggard. Pride also shows up as fourth on the Billboard Country Album chart for the same decade, while Cashbox has him as its number one artist for the period of 1958-1982.

Younger listeners who have not previously heard Pride will have a real treat coming when they sample his music from the ’60s and ’70s. He has a very distinctive voice; one not easily forgotten once it’s been heard.

Originally planning on a career in Major League Baseball, Pride grew up in the cotton fields near Sledge, Mississippi, where he listened to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights. For whatever reason, Pride’s taste in music leaned towards country – perhaps he sensed (correctly) that his voice fit the genre perfectly. While pitching in semi-pro baseball in Montana, Pride was “discovered” by Red Sovine, who urged him to try his luck in Nashville. Pride did just that after his hopes of a career in baseball were gone, and soon thereafter he came to the attention of legendary producer Jack Clement. Clement did everything within his power to get Pride recorded and on a label, going so far as to self-producing the singer’s early recording sessions and shopping the masters. Clement even eventually persuaded Chet Atkins to add Pride to RCA.

Racial relations have come a long way since Pride emerged as country music’s top star and its first African-American superstar. The situation in America was so tense in 1965 that RCA issued his first few singles without the customary picture sleeves and promotional information, hoping to get country audiences hooked before they realized his race. To get the disk jockeys to play the records, they made them as hard-core country as was possible for the time, and listed the label’s four big name producers (Chet Atkins, Jack Clement, Bob Ferguson and Felton Jarvis) as the co-producers on the singles. DJs of the ’60s might not have known who Charley Pride was, but Atkins, Clement, Ferguson and Jarvis were known to all within the industry, so the records were destined to get at least some airplay.

Eventually country audiences tumbled onto Charley’s “permanent suntan” (as he put it), but it was too late. They simply loved his singing and would demonstrate this love by purchasing millions of his albums over the next 30 years, pushing four albums to gold status, a rarity for country albums with no cross-over appeal.

The first album, appearing in 1966, was Country Charley Pride; it had solid country arrangements and contained no hit singles as it was basically an album designed to introduce Pride to the marketplace. The songs included:

“Busted” — a 1963 hit for Johnny Cash & the Carter Family, and later a successful single for Ray Charles and John Conlee. It was written by the Dean of country songsmiths, Harlan Howard.

“Distant Drums”
— this Cindy Walker-penned song was a posthumous #1 for Jim Reeves in early 1966–the first of several such songs for Reeves.

“Detroit City” was a 1963 hit for Bobby Bare. Earlier in 1963, Billy Grammer had a hit with the song, recording it under the title “I Want To Go Home.” Mel Tillis and Danny Dill wrote this classic song.

“Yonder Comes A Sucker” — Jim Reeves took this self-penned song to #4 in 1955.

“Green Green Grass of Home”
— Johnny Darrell and Porter Wagoner hit with this Curly Putman classic in 1965, Porter scoring the much bigger hit of the pair.

“That’s The Chance I’ll Have To Take”
— label mate Waylon Jennings had a minor hit with this in 1965.

“Before I Met You”
— charted at #6 for Carl Smith in 1956. Smith’s star had faded by 1966, but he had been one of the biggest stars in the genre during the 1950s. This was Charley’s second single, issued in mid-1966. It would be the last non-charting single for Charley Pride for the next 28 years.

“Folsom Prison Blues”
— this was not as obvious a trendy pick as you might think. Johnny Cash took this song to #4 in 1956 – the #1 hit version and album were still 18 months away at the time this album was issued.

“The Snakes Crawl At Night”
was Pride’s first single, and while it did not chart nationally, it got significant regional airplay in the south and southwest. It was, in fact, the song that introduced me to Charley Pride.

“Miller’s Cave”
— Hank Snow had a hit in 1960 and Bobby Bare had one in 1964 with this Jack Clement-penned song (both top ten records). Clement was not simply padding his coffers by having Charley record his songs, as he was a top-flight songsmith. He wrote several Johnny Cash hits, including “Ballad of a Teenage Queen,” (Cash’s top charting record), and “I Guess Things Happen That Way.”

“The Atlantic Coastal Line”
— this was the “B” side of “The Snakes Crawl At Night” but it got some radio airplay. Mel Tillis wrote this song.

“Got Leavin’ On Her Mind”
— Jack Clement wrote this song, which was never a big hit, although Mac Wiseman had a terrific record on the song in 1968, and many others recorded it as well.

Normally, the strategy of introducing an artist to the public through an album entirely composed of oldies does not succeed. This time, however, the “country classics” strategy worked to perfection in priming the demand for more. Subsequent Charley Pride albums would feature newer songs and more of Pride’s own hits – lots of hits. Before long, all of Nashville’s leading writers were pitching their best material to him, with Dallas Frazier being his early favorite. So successful was Pride that an incredible string of 35 consecutive songs reached #1 on the Billboard and/or Cashbox Country Charts. Starting with 1969′s “Kaw-Liga” and ending with 1980′s “You Almost Slipped My Mind”, every Charley Pride single (except the 1972 two-sided gospel record “Let Me Live”/”Did You Think To Pray” and the 1979 “Dallas Cowboys” NFL special souvenir edition) reached #1. After the streak ended, Charley would have another 6 songs that were #1 on either Billboard and/or Cashbox. “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” released in 1971, would, of course become his signature song.

In addition to the above milestones, Charley Pride recorded a live album in 1968 at Panther Hall in Dallas, simply one of the best live albums ever. During his career, RCA issued three best of Charley Pride albums and two Greatest Hits albums with absolutely no overlap between the albums; moreover, several major hits were left off completely. He won the CMA Entertainer of the Year award, induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the ACM’s Pioneer Award (a fitting award, if ever there was one), and several Grammy awards. Global sales reportedly brought 30 of his albums up to gold status.

During the CD era, Pride was very poorly served, at least until recently. At one point in the mid-1990s, he re-recorded 25 of his classic songs for Honest Entertainment, using the original arrangements, producer Jack Clement, and as many of the original musicians as he could find. For several years these re-makes were the only versions available, as RCA neglected its back catalog of anyone not named Elvis Presley.

Charley Pride continues to perform and record. While his voice has lost some tonal quality over the years, he still sings very well indeed. His success did not herald a phalanx of African-American singers into county music. Perhaps, that was an unrealistic expectation, since voices as good as that of Charley Pride rarely come around.


Charley Pride on Vinyl

Charley’s peak period coincides with the period in which the biggest stars issued three or four albums per year. From 1966-1979 RCA released 31 albums – 28 regular albums plus 3 ‘Best of’ collections. Generally the albums from before 1972 are the best, although all of them are worthwhile. After Pride hit the big time the albums became more formulaic and contained more filler, but the hit singles remained top-notch.

From 1980 to 1986 RCA issued 11 albums including two Greatest Hitscollections. A switch to 16th Avenue saw three more albums released before the end of the vinyl era.

After leaving RCA at the end of 1986, Charley recorded for 16th Avenue Records where he charted eight singles through 1989 when the label folded. His albums on 16th Avenue were released on vinyl and audio cassette. His two biggest hits for 16th Avenue were “Shouldn’t It Be Easier Than This” (1988 – #5) and “I’m Gonna Love Her On The Radio” (1988 – #13) and he released three albums while on 16th Avenue in After All This Time, I’m Gonna Love Her On The Radio and Moody Woman.


Charley Pride’s RCA recordings on CD

The Essential Charley Pride – BMG 1997 — an adequate overview with 20 songs, 19 hits plus a cover of “Please Help Me I’m Falling.”
The Essential Charley Pride – BMG 2006 – this two CD set replaced the prior entry and contains forty of Charley’s hits. An excellent set and an excellent value.
Charley Pride’s Country – Readers Digest 1996 — for years this was best available American collection. Containing 72 songs, 20 or so hits plus some good album cuts and cover versions.
The Legendary Charley Pride — BMG Australia 2003 — 50 songs, 40 hits plus a few other songs. Now out of print, this collection still is as good as any hits collection .
36 All Time Greatest Hits — RCA Special Products 193 — 36 songs — about 50-50 hits and other songs.

Several of Charley Pride’s other RCA albums have been available on CD over the years including Greatest Hits, Greatest Hits V2 (both truncated versions of the vinyl albums), There’s A Little Bit of Hank In Me (his Hank Williams tribute) and Charley Pride In Person at Panther Hall .


Other CDs and Recent Output

The 16th Avenue recording have been available on CD under a variety of names and for a variety of labels. The Curb CD The Best of Charley Pride is mostly 16th Avenue Recordings.

As noted above, so little of his music was available during the 1990s, that Charley re-recorded twenty-five of his biggest hits for Honest Entertainment. He also recorded some newer material, along with some other songs. These recordings have been licensed to a variety of labels including the Gusto, King, Tee Vee family of companies. These aren’t bad recordings but the originals are better.

Charley continues to record, although only occasionally. Three noteworthy albums from recent years include the following:

A Tribute To Jim Reeves (2001) – Charley recorded many Jim Reeves songs during his early peak years, so this album of all Jim Reeves songs was a natural for him to record. Charley does right by Jim’s memory.

The Comfort of Her Wings (2003) – new material – a pretty good album, although it produced no hits.

Choices (2011) – more new material, given a good run by one of the most distinctive voices in the business.

Some hidden treasures of 2010

I restricted my top 10 singles list for the year to tracks which were formally released as singles, but a lot of the best music of the year was hidden away on albums. So to finish up our review of the year in country music, here are my favorite tracks from albums released this year. I’ve restricted the selection to one per artist (not counting duets), and I’ve excluded the albums which made it to my top 10 albums list to avoid too much duplication and to prevent the list being too long.

20. Trace Adkins – ‘Still Love You’ (Cowboy’s Back In Town)
Moving to Toby Keith’s label seems to have encouraged the talented but often artistically misguided Trace Adkins to give in to his worst instincts, but there is still some decent material on his latest album. This ballad swearing enduring love (written by love song specialist Jeff Bates with Robert Arthur and Kirk Roth) is a little heavily orchestrated, but has a great, understated vocal from one of the best voices around. It’s a shame the rest of the album wasn’t up to the same standard.

19. Gretchen Wilson – ‘I’m Only Human’ (I Got Your Country Right Here)
Gretchen has just scored an unexpected Grammy nomination for ‘I’d Love To Be Your Last’ from her self-released I Got Your Country Right Here, prompting general bewilderment from country fans online. But while that track isn’t bad, this song is rather better, a plaintive bar-room tale of a woman trying to resist the temptation of dalliance with a married man, which Gretchen wrote with Vicky McGehee, Dave Berg and Rivers Rutherford.

18. Jon Wolfe – ‘Play Me Something I Can Drink To’ (It All Happened In A Honky Tonk)
If you think Easton Corbin sounds like George Strait, you need to check out the Strait stylings of Jon Wolfe on his strong independent debut album. I particularly liked this classic country style bar room song (written by Kevin Brandt and Bobby Terry) about a guy seeking to get his broken heart temporarily cured by whiskey and a jukebox stocked with Hank and Jones.

17. Jamie Richards – ‘Half Drunk’ (Sideways)
A great song from a Texas-based artist about trying to get over an ex by drinking, but running out of money halfway through.

16. Miss Leslie – ‘Turn Around’ (Wrong Is What I Do Best)
A lovely steel-led heartbreak ballad written by honky tonker Miss Leslie herself, but sounding as though it could be a forgotten classic from the 60s.

15. Shawn Camp – ‘Clear As A Bell’ (1994)
This lovely song was my favorite from Shawn’s “lost” album which was resurrected from the Warner Bros vaults this year.

14. Zac Brown Band – ‘Martin’ (You Get What You Give)
Jamey Johnson personified a guitar in the title track of The Guitar Song, but Zac Brown sang a love song about one on their latest release. Charming and unusual.

13. Gary Allan – ‘No Regrets’ (Get Off On The Pain)
I’ve been disappointed by Gary’s musical direction over the past couple of albums, but the heartbreaking honesty of this touching song expressing his feelings about his late wife (which he wrote with the help of Jon Randall and Jaime Hanna) was a reminder of his excellent early work.

12. Jolie Holliday – ‘I’ll Try Anything’ (Lucky Enough)
A gorgeous cover of a sad song previously recorded by its co-writer Amber Dotson about struggling to cope with lost love. I can’t find a link for you to listen to the studio version, but here she is singing it live (after a nice version of ‘San Antonio Rose’. And as a bonus, here she is singing ‘Golden Ring’ live with Randy Travis.

11. Curly Putman – ‘Green Green Grass Of Home’ (Write ‘Em Sad – Sing ‘Em Lonesome)
The songwriter’s own version of his classic prisoner’s dream is as convincing as any version I’ve herd of this celebrated song.

10. Toby Keith – ‘Sundown‘ (Bullets In The Gun, deluxe version)
Toby is always a bit hit and miss for me, but this surprisingly restrained live version of the sultry folk-country classic is a definite hit.

9. Darin & Brooke Aldridge – ‘The Last Thing On His Mind’ (Darin & Brooke Aldridge)
I loved this husband and wife team’s sweet bluegrass album and this somber Easter song (written by Dennis K Duff) was the highlight for me.

8. Teea Goans – ‘I Don’t Do Bridges Anymore’ (The Way I Remember It)
Teea Goans’ retro independent release featured this lovely classic-styled ballad, written by Jim McBride, Don Poythress and Jerry Salley. Her voice is sweet but not that distinctive, but this breakup song is definitely worth hearing.

7. Catherine Britt – ‘Sweet Emmylou’ (Catherine Britt)
The Australian singer’s latest album was a bit hit and miss for me, but there were some very strong moments, including Catherine’s lovely version of her tribute to the healing power of the music of Emmylou Harris, which she wrote some years ago with Rory Feek. It has been released as a single in Australia.

6. Bill Anderson – ‘The Songwriters’ (Songwriter)
My favorite comic song of the year is the legendary Bill Anderson’s celebration (more or less) of songwriters’ lives, complete with the protagonist’s mother’s preference for a career as drug dealer for her son. Bill isn’t much of a singer, but this song (co-written with Gordie Sampson)is irresistible.

5. Randy Kohrs – ‘Die On The Vine’ (Quicksand)
One of the first songs to grab my attention this year was this lovely song warning a son against taking refuges from trouble in alcohol, written by famed dobro player and songwriter Randy Kohrs with Dennis Goodwin.

4. James Dupre – ‘Ring On The Bar’ (It’s All Happening)
I loved this sensitively sung low-key mid-tempo Byron Hill/Brent Baxter song about a man trying to figure out what happened to his marriage from youtube discovery James’s independent debut album, produced by Kyle Lehning.

3. Lee Ann Womack – ‘Liars Lie’ (Country Strong soundtrack)
I’m beginning to get impatient for a new album from Lee Ann, and this soundtrack cut has really whetted my appetite. This excellent song, written by Sally Barris, Morgane Hayes and Liz Rose, and the combination of Lee Ann’s beautiful vocals and the harmony from Charlie Pate, a pure country production (thanks to Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell and Chuck Ainlay), and a fine song make this a sheer delight.

2. Chris Young – ‘Chiseled In Stone’ (Voices EP)
Song for song, this young neotraditionalist’s three song EP of covers was the most impressive release of the year, allowing Chris to exercise his outstanding baritone voice on really top quality material – something sadly missing on his two full length albums. This Vern Gosdin song was my favorite of the three, but his takes on Keith Whitley’s ‘I’m Over You’ and John Anderson’s ‘Swingin’ were also great.

1. Alan Jackson ft Lee Ann Womack – ‘Til The End’ (Freight Train)
This particular treasure is not very well hidden, as although it hasn’t been released as a single it gained sufficient attention to get a well-deserved nomination as Musical Event of the Year at the recent CMA awards. This exquisite reading of another Vern Gosdin classic was by far the best thing on Alan’s latest (and possibly last) album for Arista.

Do you have any special favorite album tracks from this year which haven’t gained the attention they deserve?