My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Dallas Frazier

Album Review: Tammy Wynette – ‘Next To You’

next-to-youThe singles from Higher Ground were to prove to be Tammy’s final top 40 country hits as radio moved on to a new generation of singers. She turned to veteran Norro Wilson to produce her next album, 1989’s Next To You.

There were two singles from the album. The title track peaked just outside the top 50; it is a subdued, rather downbeat ballad about finding love again, with some rather pretty fiddle. The nostalgic midtempo ‘Thank The Cowboy For The Ride’ (about childhood playmates turning to lifelong love) did even less well, and may be a little too sweet for some despite a little humor.

‘The Note’ is a passionate ballad about heartbreak previously recorded by Gene Watson (and later covered by Daryle Singletary). It is a great song, but the production on Tammy’s version somewhat cloaks it with excessive backing vocals. ‘You Left Memories Layin’ (All Over The Place)’ is in much the same style as the wife left behind.

Even better known was ‘I’m So Afraid Of Losing You Again’, a Dallas Frazier/Doodle Owens song which was one of Charley Pride’s biggest hits. Tammy’s version is delightful, and the song itself is so perfectly constructed it cannot fail.

‘If You Let Him Drive You Crazy (He Will)’is an excellent song written by Curly Putnam, Don Cook, and Max D Barnes. The jaundiced lyric about the failings of men, as seen through the eyes of a mother giving advice to her daughter just embarking on life, tells volumes about her own married life:

The man always gets what he’s after
Then leaves you just over the hill
You oughta understand why it’s over
If you let him drive you crazy, he will

There isn’t a real resolution, just the suggestion that the daughter’s trust in her own boyfriend might be plagued by doubt. Rather more positively, ‘We Called it Everything But Quits’ is a good-humored reflection on surviving hard times and an enduring marriage.

‘I Almost Forgot’, written by Karen Staley, is a very nice song about an encounter with an ex briniging up painful memories. ‘Liar’s Roses’ is a delicate ballad written by Bill and Sharon Rice about a woman who is not fooled for an instant by her cheating husband:

The doorbell rings
It’s flowers for me
Roses again
It’s the third time this week
What kind of fool
Must he picture me to be
To be blinded by a dozen liar’s roses?

Guilt-stained words on beautiful cards
But not a single one that comes from the heart
He’s seein’ her again
‘Cause that’s when he starts
Sendin’ me these lovely liar’s roses

Oh, I’m sleepin’ in a bed of liar’s roses
While he dreams of somebody else
He lies to me and thinks that I don’t know it

‘When A Girl Becomes A Wife’ written by Tammy and husband George Richey is deliberately old fashioned in its lyric, but it feels odd even in the 1989 context, let alone 2016.

Tammy’s voice was showing signs of strain, but this is generally a solid album with the odd misstep.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Tammy Wynette – ‘My Man’

my-manTammy’s second release of 1972 produced two chart topping singles – three, if you count ‘Good Lovin’ (Makes It Right)’, which was a #1 single the previous year, but was originally released to promote Tammy’s Greatest Hits Volume II rather than this album.

The title track, ‘My Man (Understands)’ is not one of my favorite Tammy Wynette songs, a mid tempo love song which is just not terribly interesting and is given a brassy production. The second song has held up much better over time. ‘Til I Get It Right’ is a beautiful ballad written by Red Lane and Larry Henley with an inspiring message about facing a disastrous love life with optimism.

‘Walk Softly On The Bridges’ is an excellent song written by the legendary Dallas Frazier and A L “Doodle” Owens. It was a hit single for Mel Street the following year, and has been covered a number of times, but Tammy’s subtly emotional version was the first and arguably the best, as she offers advice to a friend tempted to cheat:

Don’t be careless with your darling
If you love him, don’t let him down
If you’re faithful he won’t leave you
Lost and wasted the way I am

Walk softly on the bridges that you’re crossing
Don’t break his heart then cry cause it won’t mend
Be careful not to slam the door behind you
You may need to knock upon his door again

She covered a recent hit for her husband George Jones, ‘Loving You Could Never Be Better’, a nice love song which works well for Tammy who gives it a hushed sensual reading. Maybe they should have cut the song as a duet. Donna Fargo’s breakthrough hit ‘The Happiest Girl In The Whole USA’ has aged distinctly less well, although Tammy sings it with enthusiasm.

Tammy wrote the subdued ballad ‘Things I Love To Do’ with Earl Montgomery, about a happy housewife . She sings it beautifully, but the song does not go anywhere. She also co-wrote the brassier ‘Hold On (To The Love I Got)’, another piece of filler.

She is more assertive telling her man ‘You Can’t Hang On’ if he isn’t going to give her enough loving; or that if he cheats on her she’ll be ‘Gone With Another Man’.

‘The Bridge Of Love’ (written by Jae J Kay) has a folky nursery rhyme quality, and combines a progressive message about a multiracial America with a sense of impending failure, which is a bit of a departure for Tammy:

Watch the happy children go round and round
Some are black, some are brown
The bridge is strong but when things go wrong
It’s down, down, down

Hear the little children singin’ their song
Everything’s right and they belong
All the little children are gonna be sad
When the bridge falls down, no mom, no dad

When the bridge of love starts fallin’ down
Fallin’ down, fallin’ down
The bridge is strong but when things go wrong
It’s down, down, down

One hand a-reachin’ out to another
Makes a bridge of love – will you be my brother?…
Look at our country, what do you see
The bridge of all colors standing free
The bridge is strong but when hearts go wrong
It’s down, down, down

There may be a few too many upbeat filler tunes, but there is some excellent material as well, and this is worth seeking out. It is available on a 2-4-1 deal with Bedtime Stories.

Grade: B

Album Review: Tammy Wynette – ‘Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad’

your-good-girls-gonna-go-badTammy’s first single, ‘Apartment #9’, written by Johnny Paycheck, had helped her to get her record deal with Epic Records in 1966, but it was only a modest success, peaking outside the top 40. Mainly due to Tammy’s later superstardom in subsequent years, the song has become a country classic. Laden with steel guitar, it is a doleful tune about a woman abandoned by her lover which is an excellent fit to Tammy’s voice.

Her real breakthrough came with the title track to her debut album in 1967, which reached #3 on the Billboard country chart. Written by her producer Billy Sherrill and Glenn Sutton, it is a tongue in cheek riposte to a husband’s partying ways, with the unspoken implication being that he might not care to see his wife behaving the way he does himself, and a little nod to the classic ‘Wild Side Of Life’:

I’m gonna be the swingin’est swinger you’ve ever had
If you like ’em painted up
Powdered up
Then you oughta be glad
‘Cause your good girl’s a-gonna go bad

I’ll even learn to like the taste of whiskey
In fact, you’ll hardly recognize your wife
I’ll buy some brand new clothes and dress up fancy
For my journey to the wilder side of life

As was usual in the 60s, much of the rest of the material comprises covers of current or recent hits for other artists. ‘Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind’) was the current hit for Loretta Lynn (just established as a star); it’s a great song but Tammy’s version is basically a carbon copy of Loretta’s. Hank Cochran’s ‘Don’t Touch Me’ had been a #1 hit for his wife Jeannie Seely, whose career song it would be, the previous year, and was awarded a Grammy in 1967. Tammy’s vocal is exquisite on this yearning song, but once more it is not very different from the original.

Tammy is able to bring a different slant with the covers of hits by male artists: she does a nice job with Jack Greene’s 1966 emotional hit ballad ‘There Goes My Everything’ (another classic, this time from the pen of Dallas Frazier). ‘Walk Through This World With Me’ was the current big hit for Tammy’s future husband George Jones. ‘Almost Persuaded’ was the Grammy-winning career song of David Houston, and as it was written by Sherrill and Sutton, is an unsurprising choice of cover for Tammy; her vocal is outstanding on this song.

Less familiar was ‘Send Me No Roses’, a gently melancholy tune about separation from a married lover:

The doorbell rings
You’re sending roses again
In my room old petals fall
But darling that’s not all
I read your card
Then a million tears begin

Though the love we once knew
Still lives inside of you
The one who holds you now
Won’t set you free
To see me you don’t dare
But roses say you care
Tell her goodbye
Then please return to me
But send me no roses
Please, no more roses

‘I’m Not Mine To Give’ is an excellent song about forbidden love, with Tammy’s conscience preventing anything more:

If I’d met you sooner things might not be the same
But life is one thing you just can’t relive
Please go on without me and find someone to love
It can’t be me cause I’m not mine to give

‘I Wound Easy (But I Heal Fast)’, written by Bonnie Owens, comes from the point of view of the betrayed wife, who knows her husband will stay with her in the end.

This was an excellent debut for Tammy, and one which deservedly set her on the path to superstardom.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Lorraine Jordan and Caroline Road – ‘Country Grass’

country-grass-2016If you like real country music, the kind that was played before 2005, with meaningful lyrics written by master craftsmen like Dallas Frazier, Cindy Walker, Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran, Merle Haggard and Tom T Hall, where do you go to hear it live?

Unless you live in Texas, your best choice is to visit a bluegrass festival. Today’s bluegrass acts are vitally concerned about finding good songs, regardless of the copyright dates. They are not concerned about the feeding and watering of mediocre songwriters simply because they are part of the pool of co-writers. A typical bluegrass group will include anywhere from 20% upwards of classic country songs in their repertoire.

Exhibit number one is the most recent album, Country Grass, by Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road. This album is a bit of an outlier, because all of the songs are classic country, but one listen to this album and you will plainly hear that the legacy of 60s-90s country music is in good hands.

Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road are a veteran act, having performed at the bluegrass festivals for over fifteen years. Lorraine plays mandolin and handles most of the lead vocals. She is joined by Ben Greene (banjo), Josh Goforth (fiddle), Brad Hudson (dobro) and Jason Moore (upright bass).

In putting this album together of classic country songs, Lorraine assembled a fine cast of guest stars, obtaining the services of the original artist where possible.

The album opens up with the Kentucky Headhunters’ song “Runnin’ Water”, a track from the Kentucky Headhunters’ fourth album. Doug Phelps of the Kentucky Headhunters sings lead on this entertaining track with bandmate Richard Young contributing harmony vocals. This track is straight ahead bluegrass.

Eddy Raven had a #1 record in 1984 with “I Got Mexico” and he chips in with the lead vocals on a track that is more bluegrass flavored than actual bluegrass.

“Darned If I Don’t, Danged If I Do” was a Shenandoah song. Shenandoah’s lead sing Marty Raybon has spent much of the last decade on the bluegrass circuit performing bluegrass versions of Shenandoah hits with his band Full Circle. The song is done in overdrive, but Marty remains one of the premier vocalists.

John Conlee is a long-time Opry veteran who had a decade (1978-1987) long run of top ten hits, including his 1983 #1 hit “Common Man”, taken at about the same tempo as his 1983 hit. Brad Hudson takes a verse of the lead vocal.

country-grass-2015Crystal Gayle had a #1 Country / #18 Pop hit in 1978 with “Waiting For The Times To Get Better”. Crystal and Lorraine trade verses on this one, an elegant sounding song and arrangement.

Lee Greenwood had a #1 record with “Dixie Road” in 1985. Unfortunately, Lee’s voice has eroded over the years so having Troy Pope sing a verse is welcome.

Jim Ed Brown has a top twenty recording of “You Can Have Her” back in 1967. This was probably one of Jim Ed’s last recording before his recent death, but he was in very fine voice indeed. Tommy Long takes part of a verse and harmonizes on this jazzy ballad.

“Boogie Grass Band” was a big hit for Conway Twitty in 1978, the title explaining the feel of the song completely. Unfortunately, Conway has been gone for over twenty years so Lorraine simply got everyone involved in this project to take short vocal turns, preserving the original tempo.

Randy Travis was in no shape to perform so Tommy Long handles the vocals on “Digging Up Bones”. Meanwhile T. G. Sheppard is still with us, so he and Tommy Long handle the vocals on “Do You Want To Go To Heaven”. The instrumentation here is bluegrass, but the tempo remains that of the country ballad that T.G. took to #1 in 1980.

Jesse Keith Whitley is the son of Lorrie Morgan and the late great Keith Whitley. Jesse sounds quite similar to his father and acquits himself well on “Don’t Close Your Eyes”. Jeannette Williams contributes gorgeous harmony vocals to this track which is taken at the same tempo as Keith’s original.

It would be hard to conceive of a bigger country/pop hit than Joe South’s “Rose Garden”, taken to the top of the charts in 1970-1971 by Lynn Anderson. Not only did the song top the country and pop charts in the USA, it went top four or better in nine foreign countries. Lynn Anderson and Lorraine Jordan share the lead vocals on this song, which probably sounds the least similar to the original of all the tracks on this album. Lynn passed away last summer, so this is one of the last tracks (perhaps the last track) she ever recorded.

Lorraine’s band shines on the last track of the album “Last Date”. Although there were several sets of lyrics appended to Floyd Cramer’s piano classic, I don’t really like any of the lyrics I’ve heard, so I appreciate that this was left as an instrumental.

I picked up this disc about a month ago and it has been in heavy rotation in my CD player since them. I was inspired to write this when Jonathan Pappalardo posted a video of John Anderson singing with Lorraine and Carolina Road. John is not on the original (2015) version of the album, but his performance can be purchased on Lorraine’s website http://www.carolinaroadband.com/, and is on the new re-released version.

Even if you do not particularly care for bluegrass you might really like this album, chock full of solid country gold songs, fine vocals and exquisite musicianship. I give it an A-, docking it very slightly for the eroded voices of a few of the guests.

Album Review: Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton – ‘Love And Music’

love and musicLove And Music was the tenth duet album by Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton. Released in July 1973, only one single was released from the album, a cover of a Carl Smith oldie from 1951, “If Teardrops Were Pennies”, a song which Carl took to #8, but Porter and Dolly took to #3. As always, Bob Ferguson is listed as the producer.

The album opens up with “If Teardrops Were Pennies”. I don’t happen to own a vinyl copy of this album, but I’ve seen it and if I recall correctly Carl Butler, who wrote this song, also wrote the liner notes to this album. The song is a mid-tempo romp that Porter & Dolly do very well indeed, although I also like Carl Smith’s version of the song and the recordings that Carl & Pearl Butler made of the song.

If teardrops were pennies and heartaches were gold
I’d have all the treasures my pockets would hold
I’d be oh so wealthy with treasures untold
If teardrops were pennies and heartaches were gold

An acre of diamonds I’d offer to you
A solid gold mansion, an airplane or two
This whole world would be yours to have and to hold
If teardrops were pennies and heartaches were gold

Next up is the first of four Porter Wagoner tunes on the album “Sounds of Night” a gentle ballad with a nice fiddle intro by Mack Magaha. The song describes the lonely sounds of night (whippoorwills, church bells) and how they translate to human emotions

I don’t know much about Howard Tuck, other than what I found in his obituary (http://www.mywebtimes.com/obituaries/howard-red-tuck/article_e67fea9d-9ee8-5b24-8d2c-e7e5cf4e0300.html ) but his song “Laugh The Years Away” is a good song that would have made a good single. The song is a humorous look at married life, happy even if not blessed with material wealth.

A corporation owns the factory I work in
Someone else owns the house we call our home
The bank owns the car we drive around
And we’ve got something we can call our own

We’ve got love happiness surrounds us
And we thank the Lord for every single day
And with love we’ll always have each other
And together we can laugh the years away

Next up is the first of four Dolly Parton tunes on this album “You”, a rather bland ballad of domestic bliss.

Porter’s “Wasting Love” also would have made a good single, an up-tempo song about a couple growing apart. While the lyrics are good, the strength of the song is the melody.

“Come To Me” is a slow, serious ballad, that essentially finds Porter and Dolly trading verses. The song is inspirational without being religious. The song had no potential as a single, but it is a nice song.

Porter co-wrote “Love Is Out Tonight” with Tom Pick. The song is a slow ballad with very vivid imagery.

As blue skies and daylight darken into night
Surrounding us with beauty as the stars make their light
They spell out our names all the stars up above
As they flicker and shine like letters of love

Then a warm breath of air whispers through the trees
As the leaves on their branches have blown to the breeze
Ripples of water seemed to echo the sound
Love’s out tonight there’s love all around

Small drops of dew act as nature’s perfume
Placing its fragrance on all that’s in blue
While I hold you so close your lips touching mine
With nature all around us watching our love entwine

Porter Wagoner penned “In The Presence of You”. The song features a nice piano intro to a slow ballad of a people who cannot find the right words to say to each other, although they love each other deeply.

In the presence of you I wonder
Why I can’t say the things that I want to
All the pretty words that I planned to say when I’m with you
I lose them in the presence of you

Your nearness makes my voice tremble
There’s a weakness that I feel through and through
Searching for words to describe how I love you
Don’t come easy in the presence of you

Dolly penned “I Get Lonesome By Myself”, another of Dolly’s lonesome little girl songs. In this song the narrator stumbles across the daughter he abandoned a few years back. Dolly’s part is spoken in a somewhat creepy effort at a six year old girl’s voice.

The album closes with the forth Dolly Parton composition “There Will Always Be Music”, a nice capstone to the album.

As the farmer works the fields he sings a song
The songbirds in the trees sing along
And the wind makes melodies as it whistles through the trees
Man’s burdens are made lighter with a song

There’ll always be music as long as there’s a story to be told
There’ll always be music cause music is the voice of the song
There’ll always be music

Dolly Parton has a well deserved reputation as a songwriter, but Porter was no slouch either, although neither Porter nor Dolly would rank up there with Cindy Walker, Dallas Frazier, Harlan Howard or Hank Cochran. On this album at least, Porter’s songs are stronger than Dolly’s.

This is a pretty decent album, although not necessarily one of their better albums. As Jonathan Pappalardo noted in his excellent review of The Right Combination/Burning The Midnight Oil, “[w]hile none of these songs have truly amounted to anything, they combine to make a fine collection on their own”.

My feelings exactly – B+

Album Review: Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton – ‘Two of a Kind’

Porter_Wagoner_&_Dolly_Parton_-_Two_Of_A_KindPorter and Dolly released their sixth albums of duets in February 1971. Strangely, no singles were released from Two of a Kind, but this in no way suggests that the material was in any way sub-par. As usual, most of the album’s songs are from the pen of Dolly, including three co-writes with Porter. The first of those co-writes is “The Pain of Loving You”, which features a horn arrangement similar to that of “Just Someone I Used To Know”. It should have been released as a single. The Osborne Brothers apparently did release it as a single — presumably around that same time, which may explain why Porter and Dolly’s version was relegated to album cut status. About a year later the track resurfaced as the B-side to the duo’s single “The Right Combination”. Similarly, the title track — another Wagoner/Parton composition — was the B side of “Better Move It On Home”, which was part of a hits compilation released later in 1971. The duo’s third composition is the catchy but lyrically light mid-tempo “There’ll Be Love” which serves as the album’s closing track.

The collection also includes three of Dolly’s solo compositions: the excellent “Is It Real?”, “The Flame”, and “The Fighting Kind”, which was another of those bickering husband and wife songs for which Porter and Dolly were well known. Although enjoyable, this one lacks the spunk of “I’ve Been Married Just as Long as You Have”, “Fight and Scratch” or “Better Move It On Home”.

One of the album’s best cuts — and one of only three in which Dolly did not have a hand in writing — is “Possum Holler”, a novelty tune penned by the great Dallas Frazier. It is a humorous reminiscence of a clandestine courtship that ends with a shotgun wedding. And although it’s not one of the album’s best songs, the most interesting one was penned by Dolly and Louis Owens. “Curse of the Wild Weed Flower” is a rare example of social commentary from Porter and Dolly. The anti-counterculture theme, speaking of the evils of marijuana, is certainly at odds with contemporary thinking and modern listeners would likely dismiss it as a quaint relic of a bygone era.

With no singles to support it, Two of a Kind didn’t chart quite as high as the duo’s earlier albums (reaching #13) but today it is only one of two of their original albums that is available for digital download in its original form. Bob Ferguson’s (or perhaps Porter’s) production is heavy on Nashville Sound choruses, but there are plenty of wonderful steel guitar licks throughout the album and that alone makes it worth listening to.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Shenandoah – ‘Good News Travels Fast’

61ZTbWBogJL._SS280Good News Travels Fast is the first new Shenandoah album in a decade and the first since Marty Raybon rejoined the band as lead singer. Billed as a Gospel album, it is more accurately described as a religious or Christian album. There are no traditional hymns or old Gospel favorites; the album is collection of eleven new, mostly solid tunes, a few of which have a traditional Gospel sound, a few more are more pop and rock flavored, but most are country-sounding (or what country used to sound like) songs with religious or inspirational themes, in the vein of “Sunday in the South” and “Mama Knows”.

The excellent bluegrass-tinged title track is the album’s first single. I’m not sure if it’s being marketed to country radio, where it is unlikely to garner much attention, but it may bet some airplay on Christian radio stations. The first verse, about a former hellraiser who finds salvation is reminiscent of Dallas Frazier’s classic “The Baptism of Jesse Taylor”, while the second and third verses deal with the birth and resurrection of Christ. “Didn’t It Rain” and “Sunday Morning Sermon” are in a traditional Gospel style. Both sound like something that might be sung at an old-style revival meeting and both are excellent.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the album’s two weakest tracks – “Hallelujah for the Cross” which is a little more contemporary Christian in style, and “If I’m Right”, which takes issue with those who look down on believers, is a little too rock-leaning for my tastes.

The remaining tracks sound like what we’ve come to expect from Shenandoah. “I Know He Knows” is a nice acoustic number about a father and son relationship, which also serves as a metaphor for the relationship between God and man. “Just Wait, Be Still” is another excellent acoustic tune. Marty Raybon wrote this one with Jerry Smalley and bandmate Mike McGuire. Raybon and McGuire also wrote, along with Mark Narmore, “A Cross Between a Sinner and a Saint”, the album’s opening track. The first verse deals with the protagonist’s struggles to walk the straight and narrow. Midway through the song, however it switches course and talks about the two criminals who were crucified alongside Christ. In this verse the “saint” is the criminal who repents and the “sinner” is the one who still does not believe, and Jesus is on the cross between a sinner and a saint. The analogy doesn’t quite work, however, because clearly among that trio, it is Jesus, not the repentant criminal, who is the saint. But that is probably nitpicking at what is an otherwise good song.

There aren’t any huge surprises here; Shenandoah fans are bound to enjoy this album unless they dislike religious themed music. I wasn’t in the best of moods when I started listening to it but found I was feeling better by the time it finished playing. In that respect, at least, the album accomplishes its goal.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Connie Smith – ‘Did We Have To Come This Far (To Say Goodbye)?’

Album Review: Ricky Van Shelton – ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’

friedgreentomatoes2000’s Fried Green Tomatoes has nothing to do with the 1991 film of the same title. It was Ricky Van Shelton’s ninth studio album — and his last, aside from a Christmas album released later that year. It was his only entirely self-produced album. It was released on the Audium label, which gave it the potential to reach a wider audience than 1998’s WalMart exclusive Making Plans. Unfortunately, it didn’t perform any better commercially than its predecessor.

Like his earlier albums, Fried Green Tomatoes is a combination of contemporary songs and covers of old country classics. On the newer material, Shelton seems to have made a conscious decision to update his sound just a little; many of the uptempo numbers such as “Call Me Crazy”, “I’m The One”, and “From The Fryin’ Pan” all have more of a rock edge to them. For the most part, he is able to perform these contemporary songs credibly, without sounding like he is out of his league. However, as always, it is on the more traditonal numbers that he truly excels. The Dallas Frazier-A.L. “Doodle” Owens tune “All I Have To Offer You Is Me” had been Charley Pride’s first #1 hit in 1969. Ricky’s version doesn’t match the original, but it is quite good and it’s a shame that it hadn’t appeared on one of his Columbia albums where more people might have heard it. It’s my favorite song on the album, followed closely by “Foolish Pride” written by Ernie Rowell and Mel Tillis. This song doesn’t appear to have been recorded before, but it certainly sounds like an older song with its rich melody and generous helpings of fiddle and steel.

Another beautiful traditional ballad, “You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Crazy)” is a forgotten gem whose first appearance seems to have been on a 1966 Jan Howard album. It was later covered by Alan Jackson. “Who’s Laughin’ Now”, written by Tom Littlefield, Rick Rowell and Mel Tillis Jr. also sounds like it may be an older song given a second lease on life.

“The Decision”, co-written by Ricky with Jerry Thompson, was the album’s sole single and its biggest misstep. With a more pop-oriented sound than typically heard from Ricky, it tells the story of an unwed 17-year-old expectant mother who is wrestling with whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. The saccharine arrangement and Ricky’s easy-going delivery are all wrong for a song about a life and death decision. I suppose Shelton and Thompson should be given credit for attempting to tackle such a serious and emotionally difficult topic, but it is done in a very superficial manner and seems like a missed opportunity. Incidentally, we are never told what the girl ultimately decides.

Aside from this one clunker, Fried Green Tomatoes is a solid album that allowed Ricky Van Shelton to wrap up his recording career on a high note. He released a Christmas album later in 2000. He continued to tour for a few more years before announcing his retirement from the music business in 2006. It’s a shame that he didn’t enjoy as much post-major label success as many of his contemporaries. His retirement was a loss for country music. We can only hope that he will one day decide to treat his fans to another album. Until then, pick up a cheap used copy of Fried Green Tomatoes if you haven’t already heard it.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Dallas Frazier – ‘There Goes My Everything’

Legendary songwriter Dallas Frazier performs one of his classic songs:

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘Old Loves Never Die’

oldlovesAlthough his name is rarely mentioned as one of the leaders of the New Traditionalist movement, Gene Watson was among the relatively small number of artists that stayed true to country music’s roots while the rest of the genre was deeply entrenched in Urban Cowboy pop. 1981’s Old Loves Never Die was about as out of touch with the mainstream trends of the day as it could get, and was as tradtional as the music that Ricky Skaggs and George Strait — two artists usually named as the era’s holdouts against the trend toward pop — were making at the time.

Co-produced by Gene with Russ Reeder, Old Loves Never Die wasn’t a huge seller — it peaked at #57 on the albums chart — but it has the distinction of producing two of his best remembered hits, “Speak Softly (You’re Talking To My Heart)” and “Fourteen Carat Mind”, his only chart-topper. The latter, which was written by the great Dallas Frazier with Larry Lee, was released in October and reached #1 in January 1982. It spent 19 weeks on the chart altogether. “Speak Softly” wasn’t quite as big a hit, but it still charted at a respectable #9.

In keeping with the standard practice of the time, only two singles were released from the album. “Fourteen Carat Mind” and “Speak Softly” are hands down the album’s two best songs, but I also quite liked the title track, which could easily have been another hit single, and “Nothing About Her Reminds Me of You”, which is sort of in the same vein as Merle Haggard’s “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)” — the protagonist has moved on to a new relationship and though his new partner may not be the love of his life, at least she isn’t breaking his heart the way his ex did.

Although I enjoyed all ten of the album’s songs, the production is a bit dated on some of its ballads. The vocal choruses are more restrained here than on some of Watson’s earlier projectes, but the keyboard arrangements on “Till Melinda Comes Around”, “Lonely Me” and “The Sun Never Comes Up” betray the album’s age.

Unfortunately, Old Loves Never Die has never been released on compact disc or as a digital download. Used vinyl copies are available, but most modern music fans probably won’t hear this album in its entirety until one of the European reissue labels decide to dust it off and give it another chance in the marketplace. If and when that happens, it’s worth picking up a copy.

Grade: A –

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘Love in the Hot Afternoon’

hotafternoonGene Watson’s major label debut appeared in 1975. Produced by Russ Reeder, it gave him his first taste of commercial success when two of its singles, the title track and “Where Love Begins” reached the Top 5. Preceding these two hits was “Bad Water” a remake of a song he had previously recorded during his days as an indie artist. The re-recording for Capitol reached the lowe rungs of the chart, peaking at #87. It’s one of my least favorite tracks on the album, in no small part due to the instrusive vocal chorus that was typical of the era. This is a problem that is pervasive throughout the album, although not nearly to the extent as “Bad Water”.

Despite the choruses, Love in the Hot Afternoon is alot more rootsy than most country music at the time. There is plenty of fiddle and steel throughout, although some of the tracks sound like they were produced by Billy Sherrill; “Through The Eyes of Love” is a ballad that sounds like something David Houston might have recorded and the decidedly more country-sounding “Harvest Time” has a melody that is at times similar to Tanya Tucker’s “Old Dan Tucker’s Daughter.” Meanwhile, the excellent “Where Love Begins” sounds like something out of Conway Twitty’s catalog.

The album’s highlight is the title track, a steamy waltz about an illicit love affair on a hot New Orleans afternoon. I also particularly enjoyed “This Just Ain’t No Good Day For Leaving”, a Dallas Frazier and Sanger D. Shafer composition that deserved to be a single, and “This Is My Year For Mexico”, a tune about a couple that has grown apart but has stayed together out of habit.

Nearly forty years after its release, these songs hold up well for the most part. The production is admittedly a bit dated, and I’d like to hear these songs stripped of the choruses, a la Naked Willie. However, every album is a product of its time and that is something that needs to be kept in mind when listening to vintage recordings.

Love in the Hot Afternoon is available on a 2-for-1 CD along with Paper Rosie, courtesy of the British label Hux. Both albums are worth picking up.

Grade: A

Country Heritage: Ferlin Husky

ferlin husky

I hear Little Rock calling
Homesick tears are falling
I’ve been away from Little Rock way too long
Gonna have a troubled mind
Til I reach that Arkansas line
I hear Little Rock calling me back home

From “I Hear Little Rock Calling” — music and lyrics by Dallas Frazier

In a career in which he was a humorist, a singer, a dramatic actor on Kraft TV Theater, a movie star and talent scout, it seems only appropriate that Ferlin Husky was one of the first to record and take a Dallas Frazier lyric up the country charts. Moreover, Husky is one of the few country stars to have three career songs in “A Dear John Letter”, his 1953 duet with Jean Shepard that spent 6 weeks at #1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Chart (and reached #4 on the pop charts); “Gone”, a 1957 hit that spent 10 weeks at #1 on Billboard (and also reached #4 on the pop chart); and finally, in 1960, “The Wings Of A Dove”, a massive hit that Cashbox lists as the biggest country song of the period 1958-1984 with 19 weeks at #1 (Billboard had it at #1 for 10 weeks).

Ferlin Husky (December 3, 1925 – March 17, 2011) was born on a farm midway between the Missouri towns of Flat River, Hickory Grove and Cantwell. As a youngster, Ferlin obtained a guitar and, aided by his uncle Clyde Wilson, he learned to play it. Upon graduation from high school, Ferlin moved to the region’s biggest city, St. Louis, where he briefly worked odd jobs to survive before joining the US Merchant Marines in 1943. Ferlin would spend five years in the Merchant Marines, where in his off hours he would entertain shipmates with his vocals and musicianship. In 1948 Ferlin left the Merchant Marines to return to St. Louis where he worked for over a year with Gene Autry’s sidekick Smiley Burnett at radio station KXLW.

Moving to California in 1949, Husky landed some bit parts in western movies before moving to Bakersfield, where he sang at local clubs and worked as a disc jockey. By 1950 he was recording for Four Star Records under the name ‘Terry Preston,’ a name Ferlin felt less contrived than his given name. While none of the Terry Preston recordings became hits, they favorably impressed Cliffie Stone, a Southern California disc jockey whose television show Hometown Jamboree was quite popular. Stone played the Terry Preston records on his morning show on KXLA and eventually got Ferlin signed to Capitol Records, still under the name Terry Preston. Recording for legendary Capitol producer Ken Nelson, several fine singles resulted, including a cover of an old Roy Acuff hit “Tennessee Central #9,” none of which charted.

Nelson urged Ferlin to use his real name and the first single released under that name (“Huskey”–with an E–being the spelling used on records until 1957) hit the jackpot as the 1953 recording of “A Dear John Letter,” sung by Jean Shepard with recitation by Ferlin, resonated with returning Korean War veterans and launched both careers.

A follow up record with Ms. Shepard, “Forgive Me John”, also went Top 10 in late 1953, but it took another year for the solo hits to start. Finally, in 1955, Ferlin hit with four songs, two Top 10 records in “I Feel Better All Over” and “Little Tom”, a Top 20 record in “I’ll Baby Sit With You,” and a #5 hit recorded under the name of his comic alter-ego Simon Crum, “Cuzz Yore So Sweet”.

Growing up in the Great Depression and coming of age during World War II gave Ferlin a sense of the importance of helping others. As one of the first artists to reach Bakersfield, Ferlin was an influence and mentor to such struggling entertainers as Tommy Collins, Billy Mize, Dallas Frazier, Buck Owens and Roy Drusky. In fact, it was Ferlin who renamed Leonard Sipes as Tommy Collins.
During his years with Capitol, Ferlin Husky would push the boundaries of country music, whether by the sophisticated balladry of “Gone”, or the gentle ribbing of his #2 hit “Country Music Is Here To Stay” (as recorded by Crum).

Ferlin would stay with Capitol Records until 1972 charting forty-one records along the way, although after “The Wings of A Dove” in 1960 Top Ten hits would be scarce for the singer, with only “Once” (1967) and “Just For You” (1968), both which reached #4, scaling the heights. (“Heavenly Sunshine” reached #10 on Cashbox in 1970, stalling out at #11 on Billboard.)

After 1972, Ferlin would sign with ABC where he would chart nine times with hits including “Rosie Cries A Lot” (#17). A very nice record called “A Room for A Boy … Never Used” got lost in the shuffle; it peaked at #60 but is well worth hunting down.
After his stint with ABC, Ferlin would record sporadically for minor labels, often remaking earlier hits but sometimes coming up with new material. In 2005, at the age of eighty, Ferlin issued an excellent new CD, The Way It Was (Is The Way It Is), on the Heart of Texas label. This CD featured both old and new material, with Leona Williams on two tracks, and backed by a cast of fine Texas swing musicians.

Ferlin Husky was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010. Many years before that, he became one of the first country artists to get his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Read more of this post

Country Heritage: Jack Greene

jack greeneAlthough I had listened to country music for many years and had occasionally been able to purchase a 45 rpm or two, the summer of 1968 was the first time I had a summer job and was able to purchase records on a regular basis. My place of work, the Beach Theater on Atlantic Avenue in Virginia Beach, was about a thirty second walk away from a record store that carried a good supply of country 45s. Although I quickly switched over to collecting albums, my first purchase that summer was the Jack Greene single “Love Takes Care of Me,” a song which remains one of my all-time favorites. In fact, I had the lyrics of the song memorized by the time I’d heard it twice.

Jack Greene was born on January 7, 1930, in Maryville, Tennessee. From there he moved to Atlanta where he performed for a number of years before moving to Nashville in 1959, where he formed his own band — The Tennessee Mountain Boys, serving as drummer and lead singer. Jack’s big break came in 1961 when his band opened for Ernest Tubb. Jack Drake, Ernest’s bass player and band leader, noticed Greene’s talents and auditioned him for the band (Greene told Tubb biographer Ronnie Pugh that his knowledge of diesel mechanics may have played into the hiring decision as well). For the next few years, he was a drummer, guitarist, vocalist, and front man for the Texas Troubadours.

Before long, he was playing guitar and singing as an opener for Tubb, who believed in promoting his band members’ careers. Various members of Tubb’s band received occasional spots on his albums and he also had the band record several albums of their own on Decca. In 1964, Jack released his first solo record on Decca with “The Last Letter,” which was followed by “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurtin’ Me” in 1965 (the Ray Price version, released at the same time received most of the radio spins). Jack’s first Top 40 hit came in early 1966 with “Ever Since My Baby Went Away.” Later that same year, while still a member of the Texas Troubadours, he released his career-making record with the Dallas Frazier composition “There Goes My Everything.”

To say it was just a hit would be understating it considerably. The song stayed on top of the Billboard country chart for 7 weeks and crossed over onto the pop charts. The album of the same name stayed #1 for 9 weeks. The song and the singer won single of the year, song of the year, male vocalist and album of the year awards at the First Annual Country Music Association awards in 1967, as well as numerous BMI, Billboard and Cash Box awards. The song also generated a pop cover in 1967 by Engelbert Humperdinck that went top twenty pop in the USA and reached #2 in the UK. Elvis Presley recorded the song in 1971 and had a top ten country hit, as well.

Jack, by now on his own as a solo performer, continued rolling in 1967 with another #1 record, “All The Time” (on top for 5 weeks), and a #2 hit (#1 on Cash Box) with “What Locks The Door.” He also became a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1967.

In 1968, he enjoyed a #1 single with “What Locks The Door” and a #4 (#3 Cashbox) with “Love Takes Care of Me.” The year 1969 saw more of the same. “Until My Dreams Come True” and “Statue of A Fool” (possibly his best remembered song today) reached #1, and “Back In The Arms of Love” went to #4. It was that year he began a professional association with Jeannie Seely, which saw the release of a number of duet singles, and roughly a decade of joint stage shows. The first single, “Wish I Didn’t Have To Miss You,” was released in late 1969 and reached #1 on Record World, #2 on Billboard but only #9 on Cash Box.

In 1970, Jack recorded a song that I regard as his masterpiece — the Dallas Frazier penned “Lord Is That Me.” In retrospect, the song was a career killer. The hedonistic late ’60s to early ’70s saw radio stations shy away from music with overtly religious themes. Where Kristofferson’s 1973 hit “Why Me” was a very positive and uplifting song and can be appreciated in a secular context, “Lord Is That Me” is a song of despair and foreboding:

I can see a long line of cars with their headlights on
I can see kinfolks cryin’ cause somebody’s gone
Then they gather around as they let the sinner men down
I can see an old preacher prayin’ there with a frown

Chorus
Lord is that me, tell you bout this vision I see
Lord is that me, if it is have mercy have mercy on me

Many radio stations wouldn’t play the song, or would only play it if specifically requested by a caller. Our esteemed colleague Ken Johnson also noted that the song was roughly four minutes long in an era in which country songs rarely ran over three minutes.

Although Jack was coming off a run of nine consecutive top 4 records, after “Lord Is That Me” he never again had a top ten record. Even great songs like 1970’s “The Whole World Comes To Me,” 1971’s “There’s A Whole Lot About A Woman (A Man Don’t Know)” and 1973’s “I Need Somebody Bad” stalled outside the top ten. All three could have been top five records had they been recorded and released before “Lord Is That Me.” By the end of Jack’s Decca/MCA tenure he had charted twenty-nine times with seventeen records reaching the top twenty. It should be noted that recordings are typically purchased by younger listeners with chart success following the same dynamic. In 1970 Jack Greene was forty years old and looked even older.

Jack left Decca/MCA after 1975, quit recording for a few years and then emerged on Frontline Records in 1980 where he had a few minor chart placements. In 1983-1984 he had a few more minor hits for Step One Records.

Since then, he has continued to record occasionally — mostly self-produced albums or for reissue/remake labels such as Gusto. His focus largely has been on gospel music and most of his gospel albums have been available on CD at one time or another. Jack, a lifelong Christian, had Dallas Frazier recast his biggest hit into “He Is My Everything” and often segues from “There Goes My Everything” into “He Is My Everything” in his live performances.

Now 82 years old, Jack rarely performs anymore due to declining health. When he does perform it is mostly on the Grand Ole Opry. When he came to the now-defunct Florida Sunshine Opry (Eustis, FL) as recently as 2008 he was still in very good voice. He has a website where you can catch up with him. His newest album is available for sale there, as well as a thousand-plus photographs for your viewing enjoyment. Read more of this post

Ten best reissues of 2012

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

janiefricke Janie Fricke – The Country Side of Bluesgrass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

johnhartford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Album Review: Connie Smith – ‘Just For What I Am’

The past decade or so hasn’t produced much great country music, forcing many fans to mine the back catalogs of some of the genre’s legends, in search of material that they might have initially overlooked. Germany’s Bear Family Records has released numerous extensive box sets of many legendary artists and in doing so has been a Godsend to fans of classic country music. Last month they released a second set of Connie Smith’s music, a little more than a week after it was announced that the Sweetheart of the Grand Ole Opry would finally be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Just For What I Am
is a companion piece to 2001’s Born To Sing, picking up where the earlier collection left off. Together the two collections represent the singer’s entire RCA catalog, marking the first time in decades that many of these classic recordings have been commercially available. It covers the period from 1967 through 1972, and contains 151 tracks, spanning five discs. It contains 14 Top 20 singles, several Gospel numbers, and Connie’s take on many of the then-current hits of her contemporaries, such as Loretta Lynn, Dottie West, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty and Waylon Jennings. It also contains nine tracks that were never released by RCA. The highest charting single in the collection is “Just One Time”, a Don Gibson number that Connie took to #2 in 1971. My personal favorites among the singles are “I Never Once Stopped Loving You” written by Bill Anderson and Jan Howard, and the Dallas Frazier compositions “Where Is My Castle” and “If It Ain’t Love (Let’s Leave It Alone)”, both of which feature the great Johnny Gimble on fiddle and stands in stark contrast to the countrypolitan that was dominating the country charts at the time.

Smith’s singles from this era were great, but most of them have been available for quite some time on the small handful of compilations that RCA saw fit to release on CD. The real gems are the album cuts, most of which have been unavailable since their initial release 40 years ago or more. Of particular interest are the covers of other artists’ hits. Waylon Jennings’ “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line” seems like an unlikely choice for Connie Smith, but she attacks it with gusto, altering the lyrics slightly to represent the female point of view. Jerry Reed’s “Natchilly Ain’t No Good” gets a similar treatment, as do Conway Twitty’s signature tunes “Hello, Darlin'” and “I Can’t Believe You Stopped Loving Me”. Her rendition of Loretta Lynn’s “Before I’m Over You” rivals the original, and her version of “Here Comes My Baby” is superior to Dottie West’s Grammy winning record. My favorite of the cover songs is “If My Heart Had Windows”, which had been a Top 10 for George Jones in 1967. Patty Loveless would later score her first Top 10 hit when she covered the tune in 1988. Another highlight is Harlan Howard’s heartbreaking “The Deepening Snow”. I’d previously heard this song on Tammy Wynette’s 1992 box set; inexplicably, neither Wynette’s nor Smith’s version was ever released as a single.

It was common in the 60s and 70s for male and female labelmates to become duet partners. RCA wanted to pair Connie up with Waylon Jennings, but she resisted, fearing that a hit Jennings-Smith duet would require her to spend more time on the road promoting it. In retrospect, it’s regrettable because Jennings and Smith would have been an amazing pairing. Instead, Connie teamed up with Nat Stuckey, a singer-songwriter who had written such hits as Jim Ed Brown’s “Pop A Top” and Buck Owens’ “Waiting In Your Welfare Line”, and who would go on to co-write “Diggin’ Up Bones” with Paul Overstreet and Al Gore (not the former Vice President). That tune would become a #1 hit for Randy Travis in 1986. Smith recorded two duet albums with Stuckey, and although he was a fine vocalist, it is here that the material falters a bit. Still, there are some gems among their duets. I especially like their take on The Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me” and the Gospel standard “Whispering Hope.” Connie also recorded a handful of duets with Dallas Frazier, who is a great songwriter but not much of a singer.

Among the previously unreleased tracks are Connie’s interpretations of Mel Tillis’and Webb Pierce’s “I Ain’t Never”, Johnny Paycheck’s “(S)he’s All I Got”, Porter Wagoner’s “What Ain’t To Be Just Might Happen” and Dottie West’s somewhat sappy “Country Girl”.

Producer Bob Ferguson was largely responsible for creating the unique Connie Smith sound, but much of the credit should go to steel guitarist Weldon Myrick, who was featured prominently on many of Connie’s recordings. His tribute “Connie’s Song” closes out the collection. It is a steel guitar-led instrumental medley of some of Connie’s biggest hits: “Once A Day, “Then and Only Then”, and “I Can’t Remember”.

Just For What I Am
comes with extensive liner notes written by Barry Mazor, which are contained in a hardcover book. Like all Bear Family projects, it is beautifully packaged and contains a wealth of material, however, it avoids the trap of exhausting the listener with multiple takes of the same song, false starts and studio chatter which were characteristics of many other Bear Family releases. It is expensive, and will probably only appeal to diehard fans. The price, however, can be rationalized by taking into account that it contains twelve albums’ worth of material. If you’ve got some extra cash in your music budget, it is well worth checking out.

Grade: A+

Razor X’s Top 10 Albums of 2011

2011 was actually a slightly better year for country music than the past several years, though you’d never know it from listening to country radio. A lot of my old favorites released new albums this year, so it was a little easier than usual for me to find new music to listen to. Here are my favorite releases of 2011:

10. Working in Tennessee — Merle Haggard
While the material was not quite up to the standards of last year’s I Am What I Am, Haggard shows that he’s not ready to hang up his guitar just yet. Though he’s well past his vocal peak, his music is still worth listening to. An eclectic set that runs from Dixieland Jazz to more contemporary fare, with some social commentary and Hag’s views on the current state of country music, this set deserved more attention than it received. It is currently available for download for $4.99 at Amazon.

9. Remember Me, Volume 1 — Willie Nelson
This set picks up where last year’s Country Music left off, and even includes a re-recording of a track (a cover of Porter Wagoner’s “Satisfied Mind”) that appeared on that 2010 release. The album consists entirely of cover material, some of which Willie had recorded in the past, and none of which are his original compositions. It is to traditional country music what his Stardust collection was to pre-rock-and-roll pop. As the title suggests, a second volume is planned for sometime in 2012.

8. Neon — Chris Young
Chris Young is easily the best of the new male singers to emerge in the past few years, but his material has tended to be somewhat inconsistent. Neon is a huge step in the right direction.

7. Better Day — Dolly Parton
I was little skeptical when I first heard about this release, thinking that the last thing country music needs is another set of accentuate-the-positive songs, but Dolly pulls off this project quite well. She wrote all 12 tracks (one is a co-write with Mac Davis), and the lead single “Together You and I” is a remake of one of her old duets with Porter Wagoner. Overall, it’s a much stronger and more consistent set than her previous studio release, 2008’s Backwoods Barbie.

6. Where Country Grows — Ashton Shepherd
I really wanted to love Ashton’s debut album, 2008’s Sounds So Good, but found the material lacking in a lot of cases. After three long years, she finally released her sophomore disc, which is much more to my liking than the first. She’s tweaked her sound just enough to appeal to current commercial tastes, but sadly, the marketplace doesn’t seem to be paying much attention. If you haven’t heard this album yet, “Look It Up”. It’s currently available for download for $4.99 from Amazon.

5. Guitar Slinger — Vince Gill
The follow-up to These Days was long overdue but well worth the wait. As usual, Gill covers a wide range of musical territory from blues and contemporary Christian to adult contemporary and more mainstream county fare. But no matter what the label, it’s excellent music from start to finish.

4. Here For A Good Time — George Strait
I can’t remember a time when George Strait wasn’t at the top of the country charts. He’s been a constant presence for 30 years, and as such he is sometimes taken for granted. He hasn’t gotten a lot of critical acclaim in recent years, and admittedly, his last couple of albums didn’t compare with most of his earlier work. Here For A Good Time is his strongest effort since 2005’s Somewhere Down In Texas, and despite the title, is not a collection of party tunes. There is upbeat fare to be sure, but there are also darker and more serious offerings, such as “Drinkin’ Man”, “A Showman’s Life”, and “Poison”. For most of his career, Strait was well known for not writing the overwhelming majority of the songs he recorded, but he and his son Bubba wrote seven of the eleven tracks here, usually collaborating with Dean Dillon and Bobby Boyd.

3. Your Money and My Good Looks — Rhonda Vincent & Gene Watson
Two of country music’s best and most underrated artists teamed up for this project, which is a pure delight to listen to from beginning to end. It mixes a little bit of the old with a little bit of the new, but it is 100% pure country from beginning to end. No fancy studio trickery will be found here, just some excellent, well sung songs. My favorite tracks are the covers of Vern Gosdin’s “Till The End” and “This Wanting You”, which appeared on George Jones’ 1999 album Cold Hard Truth.

2. Hell on Heels — Pistol Annies
This collection from Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angeleena Presley has got to be the year’s most pleasant surprise. I really wasn’t expecting much but this ended up being one of my most-played albums of the year. Despite Lambert’s current popularity — or perhaps because of it — the album isn’t getting a lot of attention from radio. Hopefully radio’s tepid response and the demands of the group members’ solo careers won’t prevent another Pistol Annies collection from being released before too long.

1. Long Line of Heartaches — Connie Smith
I rarely get excited about upcoming album releases anymore, but this was a definite exception. It’s difficult not to get excited about a new Connie Smith album, since they are such infrequent events; Long Line of Heartaches was her first new album in 13 years, and prior to that there was a 20-year gap between albums. It was produced by Smith’s husband Marty Stuart, and like his Ghost Train (my #1 pick of 2010), it was recorded in the famous RCA Studio B, where so many of Connie’s classic hits from the 1960s and 1970s were laid on tape. Half of the album’s songs were written by Smith and Stuart, with the remainder coming from the pens of legends such as Harlan Howard, Dallas Frazier and Johnny Russell. It simply does not get any better than this. It is currently available for download for $4.99 at Amazon.

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+

Album Review: Connie Smith – ‘Long Line of Heartaches’

When I interviewed Connie Smith in March 2009, we both lamented the current state of country music, particularly the fact that an entire generation of fans — and performers — are unaware of the genre’s rich heritage. “It’s not their fault,” she commented, “because no one taught them.” With Long Line of Heartaches, her first studio album in 13 years, she undertakes the task of finally showing the younger generation how it’s done. The 12-track collection is both a homage to tradition and a sampling of what country music might once again (hopefully) become.

Comparisons to Smith’s husband Marty Stuart’s recent Ghost Train are inevitable. Both albums were produced by Stuart and feature a generous sampling of the couple’s original compositions. In addition, both albums seek to recreate the traditional sound, while maintaining a contemporary feel, and both albums were recorded in RCA’s legendary Studio B, where most of Connie’s 1960s classics were created.

Long Line of Heartaches makes no concessions to the latest radio trends, perhaps in acknowledgement that it is unlikely to receive much mainstream airplay. As such, no singles have been released. Instead, Stuart and Smith concentrate on creating a collection that sounds right at home with Connie’s 60s hits; the steel guitar is up front and center, as it should be, throughout the album. And as with Ghost Train, they’ve managed to recreate that sound without sounding dated or retro.

The couple contributed five original songs to the album, including the title track, which opens the set. It’s a traditional country shuffle that sets the tone for the entire album, serving notice that this isn’t going to be the typical Nashvegas pop fare. “The Pain of a Broken Heart” was written by Stuart and Smith several years ago, on the same day they wrote “Farmer’s Blues” which Marty recorded with Merle Haggard. The uptempo waltz has a melody that is reminiscent of “The Long Black Veil”, albeit at a faster pace. Connie steps outside of her comfort zone just a bit for “Blue Heartaches”, which proves that she’s as comfortable tinging her country wtih blues as she is at singing straight honky-tonk. Of all the songs she and Marty have written, Connie says this is one of the ones of which she is most proud. My favorite of the Stuart-Smith compositions, however, is “I’m Not Blue”, which they co-wrote with the famed songwriter Kostas. It’s a little more contemporary than the other songs they wrote for the album, and I can’t help but think that somebody could have a big hit on their hands if they covered this song.

In addition to their own compositions, Stuart and Smith armed themselves with stellar material from an impressive line-up of outside songwriters. Harlan Howard and Kostas’ “I Don’t Believe That’s How You Feel” has been recorded many times; Tanya Tucker included it on her 1997 disc Complicated. It’s usually given a Tex-Mex feel complete with mariachi horns, which Connie and Marty omitted on this version. The legendary Dallas Frazier makes a contribution with “A Heart Like You”. Written after a 30-year hiatus from songwriting, it contains one of country music’s all-time great lines — “what’s a heart like you, doing in a fool like me?”, which one wonders why someone didn’t think of before. “My Part of Forever” is another beautiful ballad, which, surprisingly, was originally recorded by Johnny Paycheck. But my favorite song on the album by far is “That Makes Two of Us” which was written by Kostas along with Patty Loveless and Emory Gordy, Jr. This is a beautiful number, impeccably sung, and in a sane world it would be a monster hit. The album closes with a stripped-down, acoustic hymn “Take My Hand”, on which Connie is joined in harmony by her three daughters.

Dolly Parton once named Connie Smith as country music’s greatest female singer in her now famous quote, “There’s really only three female singers in the world: Streisand, Ronstadt and Connie Smith. The rest of us are only pretending.” That may have been an exaggeration, but only a slight one and as strong a case can be made for Smith’s greatness today as when Dolly first spoke those words many years ago. There isn’t a single dud among the twelve tracks on this album. It’s great to have new music from Connie Smith; hopefully she can be persuaded to record more frequently. I don’t want to have wait another 13 years for her next record.

Long Line of Heartaches
can be purchased from Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A+

Album Rewind: Randy Travis – ‘No Holdin’ Back’

In 1989, Randy Travis was at the peak of his career. But his superstardom had led to a tidal wave of competitors as rival record labels rushed to sign young traditional country singers. Randy’s fourth album, released in September 1989, was another big seller for him, but his star was beginning to wane just a little.

The lead single was something of a departure for Randy – a non-country cover. ‘It’s Just A Matter Of Time’ had originally been an R & B hit for Brook Benton in 1959, although a country cover by Sonny James had been a country hit in 1970, and more recently, Randy was probably aware of Glen Campbell’s cover which had been a top 10 country hit as recently as 1986. Randy’s version was actually recorded for Rock, Rhythm and Blues, a multi-artist, cross-genre compilation of 50s covers, on which Randy was the sole country representative. I have a vague recollection this was released in aid of HIV research, but I can’t find any confirmation of this. Produced by celebrated rock/pop producer, Richard Perry, it features synthesiser and strings, plus booming doo-wop style backing vocals courtesy of Perry himself, and is one of my personal least favorite Randy Travis records despite a fine performance which allows Randy to explore the lower reaches of his vocal range. However, it saw him back at the top of the charts after the failure of ‘Promises’.

Apparently Perry suggested Randy should cover another 50s song with both pop and country heritage, ‘Singing The Blues’. It is pleasant and quite enjoyable but forgettable apart from the bass backing vocals similar to those on ‘It’s Just A Matter Of Time’.

Much better was Randy’s next #1 hit, Hugh Prestwood’s melodic ‘Hard Rock Bottom Of Your Heart’ . This finds the artist in more familiar territory, playing the part of a penitent cheater:

I keep waiting for you to forgive me
And you keep saying you can’t even start
And I feel like a stone you have picked up and thrown
To the hard rock bottom of your heart

The third and last single, ‘He Walked On Water’, peaked at #2. It is a tender tribute to a great-grandfather and childhood hero, written by Allen Shamblin with great attention to detail, and is a highlight.

Opening track ‘Mining For Coal’ is a rather good and beautifully sung ballad about unexpectedly finding love (like finding diamonds when looking for coal), written by Ronnie Samoset and Matraca Berg (who also sings harmony). Also good is the pretty but subdued ‘Somewhere In My Broken Heart’ (later a hit for its co-writer, Billy Dean).

My favorite track, however, is ‘When Your World Was Turning For Me’, written by the great Dallas Frazier and A L “Doodle Owens. It has a beautiful melody and wistful lyric about a man’s regrets for a failed relationship, whose lyrics seem to nod back to Randy’s blockbuster 1987 album:

I know that it’s over
I know that you’re leaving
I know that you’ve prayed to be free…

What happened to “always and forever I’ll love you”
And the future that was so plain to see?

Mark O’Connor’s plaintive fiddle adds to the poignant mood.

The vivacious ‘Card Carrying Fool’ is a fun up-tempo song written by Byron Hill and Tim Bays with vibrant fiddle which had also made an appearance on the soundtrack of Clint Eastwood’s movie Pink Cadillac earlier in 1989. The ironic breakup song ‘Have A Nice Rest Of Your Life’ (written by Verlon Thompson and Mark D Sanders) has a jazzy feel. Randy’s own ‘No Stoppin’ Us Now’ is filler, although his voice sounds good; this track provides the album’s title, which is perhaps a little misleading, because the overall feel is really rather restrained and mature.

Certified double platinum, the album doesn’t include any of Randy’s best remembered songs, but it is a good collection which stands up well which is worth adding to your collection. The overall feel is mellow and low-key, with Kyle Lehning’s light touch on production complementing Randy’s vocals. The resolute unflashiness has helped it stand the test of time, and I think I like it better now than I did when it first came out.

Cheap copies are easy to find.

Grade: A-