My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: David Allan Coe

Album Review: The Bellamy Brothers – ‘Howard & David’

The Bellamy Brothers released their tenth album in partnership between MCA Nashville and Curb Records in 1985. The record was produced by Emory Gordy Jr and Jimmy Bowen.

David Bellamy solely wrote lead single “Old Hippie,” which is my absolute favorite song the duo has ever released. David’s brilliant character sketch follows an unnamed man staring down forty disenfranchised by the changing times:

He turned thirty-five last Sunday

In his hair he found some gray

But he still ain’t changed his lifestyle

He likes it better the old way

So he grows a little garden in the backyard by the fence

He’s consuming what he’s growing nowadays in self defense

He get’s out there in the twilight zone

Sometimes when it just don’t make no sense

 

Yeh he gets off on country music

‘Cause disco left him cold

He’s got young friends into new wave

But he’s just too frigging old

And he dreams at night of Woodstock

And the day John Lennon died

How the music made him happy

And the silence made him cry

Yea he thinks of John sometimes

And he has to wonder why

 

He’s an old hippie

And he don’t know what to do

Should he hang on to the old

Should he grab on to the new

He’s an old hippie

This new life is just a bust

He ain’t trying to change nobody

He’s just trying real hard to adjust

 

He was sure back in the sixties

That everyone was hip

Then they sent him off to Vietnam

On his senior trip

And they force him to become a man

While he was still a boy

And behind each wave of tragedy

He waited for the joy

Now this world may change around him

But he just can’t change no more

The song peaked at #2. The Bellamy Brothers would revisit this character again, on two subsequent occasions. “Old Hippie (The Sequel)” came ten years later (1995) and updated the story to reveal the guy still felt disenfranchised by society but had softened since marrying and having kids. He would convert to Christianity eleven years later (2007) in “Old Hippie III (Saved),” featured on a gospel-themed project they released.

Another excellent number, “The Single Man and His Wife” is the story of an adulterer who takes advantage of his woman by stepping outside his marriage for loveless companionship with other women. “Everybody’s Somebody’s Darlin’” is also very good, although the production is a bit dated to modern ears.

“I’m Gonna Hurt Her On The Radio” was released that same year by David Allan Coe in the song’s original version. Charley Pride would take it to #13 in 1987 under the title “I’m Gonna Love Her On The Radio” and Shenandoah would release their version in 1989. Keith Whitley’s take on the song surfaced on Keith Whitley: A Tribute Album in 1994. All the versions seem to be about comparable to one another, with little variation. To that end, Howard and David cope with the song extremely well.

The remaining singles, which both peaked at #2, weren’t that great, either. “I’d Lie To You For Your Love” is a very good song that suffers from a horrendous arrangement that hasn’t aged particularly well. “Feelin’ That Feelin’” is lightweight filler.

Howard and David do a subpar job on “Wheels,” the Dave Loggins’ composition Restless Heart would take to #1 in 1987. “Seasons of the Wind” and “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time” are also unremarkable. “Jeannie Rae” is at least something different, and decidedly upbeat, but I didn’t care for it at all.

Howard and David is an uneven album with some bright spots along the way. I have a feeling that a number of these tracks would’ve been better had they been treated with more tasteful production in the vein of “Old Hippie” or “The Single Man and His Wife.” This isn’t a bad album at all, but the majority of it feels forgettable after listening to it just once.

Grade: B 

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Album Review: Johnny Paycheck – ‘Take This Job And Shove It’

1977 was the peak of Johnny Paycheck’s career, seeing the success of his signature song, the only chart topping single of his career. The album from which it came was also his most successful, his only platinum record, and was arguably his best. By now Billy Sherrill knew what kind of production suited Paycheck, and he gives him the right backings for this excellent selection of songs.

‘Take This Job And Shove It’, written by fellow Outlaw David Allan Coe, is a true country classic which is still instantly recognisable – and relatable – today. More casual country fans may think of it solely as an assertive blue collar walkout from an underpaid, boring factory job with bosses he despises, but at heart it is a heartbreak song. The narrator’s motivation is the woman he loves. He has been enduring the job he loathes in order to try and make a home for her – but now she has left, he plans on making is true feelings known. Paycheck’s growling delivery is completely convincing. The song had such a popular impact it even loosely inspired a movie a few years later, in which both Paycheck and Coe had cameo roles.

The spoken ‘Colorado Kool-Aid’ is a rather bizarre intended-to-be-funny tale of a bar fight in which the narrator’s Mexican friend cuts off a drunken aggressor’s ear as payback for the latter spitting beer at him:

If you’re ever ridin’ down in south Texas
And decide to stop and drink some Colorado Kool-Aid
And maybe talk to some Mexicans
And you get the urge to get a little tough
You better make damn sure you got your knife-proof ear-muff

Hey, ain’t that right, big man?
I said, ain’t that right, big man?
Ah, hell he can’t hear
Nnot on this side anyway, he ain’t got no ear

It was the B side to the physical single of ‘Take This Job And Shove It’, and it got some airplay in its own right.

The album’s other single, the booze-drenched Bobby Braddock’s ‘Georgia In A Jug’, was less successful, peaking at #17, even though it is an excellent song. Younger fans may know it better from Blake Shelton’s cover. Like ‘Take This Job’, it appears to be one kind of song, in this case a drinking song, with an underlying narrative of heartbreak over the woman who has left. Mexican horns, Caribbean steel drums, and Hawaiian steel are used sparingly, and tastefully, to illustrate the exotic destinations the happy couple will never now visit in real life. A similar alcoholic tour, this time of the US, to try and get over a woman, take space in ‘The Spirits Of St Louis’.

Another superb song, ‘From Cotton To Satin (From Birmingham To Manhattan)’ (covered by Gene Watson a few years later) is about a marriage which founders due to financial pressures. The poor farmer hero scrapes together just enough to take his wife on a vacation to New York City, where she dumps him for a rich man. Ironically, just after she has done so, his Alabama farm turns out to be the site of an oilwell.

‘Barstool Mountain’ was written by Donn Tankersley and Wayne Carson (who recorded it first), and also recorded by Moe Bandy. A classic honky tonk ballad about “drinking away I love you”, it’s another great tune.

‘The Fool Strikes Again’ (written by Steve Davis, Mark Sherrill and Gary Cobb) is a delicate ballad about a loyal wife whose man continually lets her down:

Lady Luck never smiles on those who cheat to win
Every time I get her back
The devil tempts me into sin
And with a smile on his face
The fool strikes again

It was subsequently a single for Charlie Rich, although not a particularly successful one.

‘When I Had A Home To Go’, penned by Billy Sherrill and Glenn Sutton, might depict the same relationship a little later. The wealthy protagonist admits to the bartender,

She loved me more than life itself
But the liquid diet I was on starved our love to death
So it’s not hard to figure out why my baby’s gone
‘Cause when I had a home to go to
I never did go home

Luckily for him, she actually seeks him out in the bar where he has taken refuge, and offers him a second chance, and he has suffered enough to take it up:

So forget the double
Keep the change
And you can call me gone
Cause while I’ve got a home to go to
This time I’m going home

‘The Four F Blues’ is more light hearted, with Paycheck cheerfully playing the field:

I ain’t never seen a woman that didn’t like the 4-F blues

Ooh I like to find ’em, fool ’em, free ’em and forget ’em
And love ’em till they’re satisfied
Then look around for something new

‘The Man From Bowling Green’ is a nice, rather sad story song written by Max D Barnes and Troy Seals., about a naïve young girl seduced by an older man, a musician who moves swiftly on once he has got what he wanted.

This is a great album, which I strongly recommend. If you have nothing else by Johnny Paycheck nin your collection, this is the album to go for. You can find it on a joint CD with Armed And Crazy, and half the tracks from Mr Hag Told My Story, reviews for both which will follow later this week.

Grade: A+

Razor X’s top 10 singles of 2015

Compiling a list of the year’s best singles has become one of my least favorite tasks. It seems as though with each passing year country radio gets a little worse. I stopped listening to it in 2007; there is plenty of good music available outside the mainstream, but non-mainstream artists don’t always bother releasing singles to radio. Twenty years ago I’d have had trouble paring my list down to just ten songs; nowadays it is challenge to find ten singles that I like. But in the end, I always manage to find a little wheat among the mountain of chaff. It will come as no surprise to longtime readers to discover that my list is dominated by old favorites who are mostly past their commercial peaks. In fact, my list contains only one bonafide hit, and even that hit #1 without much help from country radio:

fae8ca732384cd6a272747f48c4ebbe010. I Met a Girl — William Michael Morgan

In a stronger year, I wouldn’t have taken much notice of this song but it stands out from the pack because it is a legitimate attempt to get country music back on track without all the hip-hop, bro-country and R&B influences that have come to all but drown out traditional country sounds. It peaked just outside the Top 40, but Morgan has got a good voice and is an artist I’m keeping an eye on for the future.

9. Boy and a Girl Thing — Mo Pitney

Like “I Met a Girl”, this tune is a bit generic but it’s a step in the right direction towards bringing the genre back to its roots. It failed to make the Top 40, but Pitney is an artist that deserves to be heard. Hopefully his music won’t be held hostage by his record label (Curb)

8. Time For That — Clint Black

Clint Black was one of a handful of my old favorites who made a comeback in 2015. It was a shame, but no surprise, that this single did not chart. But regardless of its commercial performance, it sure was good to hear from Clint again.

ashley-monroe-48th-annual-cma-awards-2014-arrivals_44470897. On to Something Good — Ashley Monroe

Ashley Monroe is a very talented artist whose shot at stardom has been hampered by bad timing; she’s had the ill fortune to come along at a time when female artists — particularly traditional-leaning ones — are not given much consideration by country radio. The Blade, produced by Vince Gill and Justin Niebank, is one of the year’s best albums. This single, which got stuck at #53, makes some compromises in an attempt to be heard. Hardcore country it is not, but it is very good, and in another era it would have been a big hit.

6. Cold Beer Conversation — George Strait

The title track of an album that took everyone by surprise proves that drinking songs don’t have to be mindless party songs. It also unofficially marks the beginning of Strait’s post-radio career. After an impressive 35-year-run at the top of the country singles charts, this is his fourth consecutive record not to make the Top 20, and as such, as forced his fans to finally acknowledge that even King George is no longer welcome at country radio.

5. Jim and Jack and Hank — Alan Jackson

This catchy kiss-off tune would have been a big hit during the 90s line-dancing craze. It’s a little light in the lyrics department but is an example of what passed for a fun song on the radio before country music became one big frat party in a cornfield.

lwomack4. Send It On Down — Lee Ann Womack

A beautifully crafted ballad that is a prayer to the Almighty for the strength to make it through adverse times.

3. If I Was Over You — Amanda Watkins feat. Jamey Johnson

This independent release is an interesting pairing between Amanda Watkins (formerly of the pop-country Miss Willie Brown) and Jamey Johnson, which works surprisingly well. It is a stripped down, beautifully produced and well-sung ballad, that can’t possibly have been expected to succeed commercially. However, if Watkns’ forthcoming album is as strong as the lead single, she could be well poised to be country music’s next critics’ darling.

2. Tennessee Whiskey — Chris Stapleton

I surprised myself by ranking this one so highly. When I reviewed Traveller last spring, I commented that Stapleton’s bluesy take on this Dean Dillon tune that was previously recorded by David Allan Coe and a hit for George Jones, was not to my taste. While I still greatly prefer Jones’ version, Stapleton’s remake has grown on me. It is the only decent song to make it to #1 this year, having been driven up the charts by download sales after Stapleton’s CMA wins, and without much help from country radio. It’s a ray of hope that mainstream country may finally start to improve before too much longer.

images-91. I Remember You — Trisha Yearwood

Trisha Yearwood is another old favorite who finally released some new music in 2015. This beautiful, stripped down ballad, on which her sister sings harmony, is a tribute to their late mother, and shows that although radio may have left Trisha Yearwood behind, she can still deliver the goods. This is about as good as it gets.

In Memoriam: Billy Sherrill (1936-2015)

They say that things like this happen in threes. Right on the heels of the deaths of Buddy Emmons and Lynn Anderson, comes the word that legendary producer Billy Sherrill has died. Sherrill was famous for his work with David Houston, David Allan Coe, George Jones, Tanya Tucker and Charlie Rich, but he will be remembered most as the man who discovered Tammy Wynette.

http://www.tennessean.com/story/entertainment/2015/08/04/breaking-legendary-producer-billy-sherrill-dies/31110363/

Classic Rewind: David Allan Coe – ‘Willie, Waylon And Me’

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+

Spotlight Artist: Willie Nelson

willie_nelson300Our October spotlight artist is one of the most prolific and most recognizable figures in American music, regardless of genre. With his career now in its seventh decade, the impact of Willie Nelson as both a singer and a songwriter can not be overestimated. He was born in Abbott, Texas on April 29, 1933 and began his recording career in Vancouver, Washington in 1956 with song called “Lumberjack”. Two years later he returned to Texas and signed with the Houston-based label D Records, which twenty years later would launch the career of another Texan named George Strait.

Although his early recordings did not catch on, Willie enjoyed success as the songwriter responsible for such classics as “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Hello Walls”. He moved to Nashville in 1960 and a year later he had his biggest success to date when his song “Crazy” was recorded by Patsy Cline. He was signed by Liberty Records in 1961 and managed to score a couple of hits with “Willingly” and “Touch Me”, a duet with Shirley Collie, who would soon become the second of his four wives. Sustained success as a recording continued to elude him, however. Nevertheless, he was offered a deal with RCA Records in 1964, partly so the label could get first crack at his songs for its other artists. He scored some minor hits with his compositions “One In a Row” and “The Party’s Over” and a cover of Morecambe & Wise’s “Bring Me Sunshine”, but he had difficulty finding his niche, as the genre was still largely dominated by The Nashville Sound. Discouraged by his lack of success, he decided to retire from music and returned to Texas, settling in Austin. He found the hippie scene there more to his liking and it was there that the kernels were sown for what would eventually become known as Outlaw — a movement for which Willie, along with Waylon Jennings, Tompall Glaser and David Allan Coe, is credited with creating. When his deal with RCA ended in 1972, he signed with Atlantic Records and traveled to New York City to record the critically acclaimed Shotgun Willie, which was released the following year.

After a second critically acclaimed album for Atlantic, 1974’s Phases & Stages, Nelson signed a contract with Columbia Records that allowed him complete creative control over his music. The concept album Red Headed Stranger wasn’t exactly what the suits at Columbia had in mind, but when it was released in 1975 it became an instant critical and commercial success, ushering in the most successful phase of his career. The album included a cover version of Fred Rose’s “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”, which became Willie’s first #1 hit. He followed up the success of Red Headed Stranger with Stardust, a collection of pop standards that again proved the naysayers wrong by spawning three Top Five hits and spending the next decade on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. It sold more than 5 million copies in the United States alone. It was also an international success, proving that Nelson had widespread appeal beyond the typical country music audience. He was named Entertainer of the Year by the Country Music Association in 1979.

Wille remained a mainstay on country radio through the end of the 1980s but after that his success on the charts began to decline. He remained with Columbia through 1993 and after departing the label he continued to be prolific recording artist with output on a variety of major and independent labels throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. In the current decade, he is once again recording for Sony Music; Legacy Recordings will release a duets album, To All The Girls later this month.

Though Willie is also well-known for his activities outside of country music for a variety of reasons, including political activism, organizing the humanitarian Farm Aid concerts, getting into trouble with the IRS and indulgingin illegal substances, it is his musical legacy that we will focus on. Though we can’t possibly do justice to his acclaimed career in just one month, we’ll try to include as many of the highlights as we can.

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘American Folk Songbook’

americanfolksongbookFrom the earliest days of her career, Suzy Bogguss showed a penchant for folk and western songs, so it was no surprise when she decided to release an album of traditional American folk songs. These tunes, once universally taught to young children are in danger of being lost, now that many public school districts no longer have adequate funding to devote to music education. American Folk Songbook, which was released in August 2011, is Bogguss’ attempt to remedy that situation and prevent at least 17 of these treasures from fading into obscurity.

The best of these is “Shenandoah”, a 19th century tune about a wanderer who is waxing nostalgia for her Virginia home. The song was prominently featured in the 1965 James Stewart film of the same name. The tune is usually performed instrumentally; Suzy’s version is a rare opportunity to hear the lyrics. She sings it beautifully, her voice every bit as clear and strong as it was in her hit-making days.

One favorite that I remember from my own childhood is “Red River Valley”, a sad tune of farewell and unrequited love. The song is set in the central region of the North American continent, an area that crosses the 49th parallel and encompasses parts of modern day North Dakota, Minnesota, and Manitoba. Some claim that the song is Canadian in origin, and that the departing lover is returning to his home in Ontario; however a line in the final verse — “as you go to your home by the ocean” — conclusively kills this argument. Either way, it is a highly enjoyable slice of North Americana.

“Froggy Went A-Courtin'” is a children’s ditty that has existed in many forms; the earliest known of which dates back to sixteenth century Scotland when Mary Stuart was queen. `This version clearly has updated lyrics, since it makes reference to a president. It was one of my favorites when I was growing up, though I wouldn’t rank it as one of the very best numbers on this album.

There are a handful of tunes that should be familiar to most listeners of (relatively) more contemporary country music. Like most of the songs on American Folk Songbook, “Wayfaring Stranger” dates back to the 19th century. It was popularized in the 1940s by Burl Ives, but most modern country fans are probably more familiar with the version that Emmylou Harris took to #7 on the Billboard country singles chart in 1980. I like Suzy’s performance, but Emmylou’s recording remains the definitive version. “Sweet Betsy From Pike”, about the trials and tribulations of an unmarried couple traveling west during the California gold rush of 1849, is another tune that was popularized by Burl Ives, and later covered for country fans by David Allan Coe and Johnny Cash. “Wildwood Flower” dates back to the 1860s, but will be forever associated with Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family.

One of the more recent numbers in this collection is “Erie Canal”, written by Thomas S. Allen. The song is about mule-drawn barges, but travel on the canal was powered by steam engines by the time the song first appeared in 1905. “Rock Island Line”, about a train engineer who successfully avoids paying tax on the freight he is hauling, is of unknown origin, but it was first recorded in 1934 and was later popularized by the American blues musician Lead Belly. This is one of the few songs on the album with which I was not previously familiar.

When I first heard about this project, I expected it to be mostly comprised of songs written by Stephen Foster, the father of American music, but as far as I can tell only one of his compositions appears here — a quiet and whispery version of “Beautiful Dreamer”, which closes out the album.

Even though American Folk Songbook contains a generous 17 tracks, it is inevitable with a project like this that a few popular favorites will be omitted. I hope that a second volume will eventually follow; there is a treasure trove of material available, and I can’t think of anyone more suited than Suzy Bogguss to sing these songs.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: David Allan Coe – ‘Mona Lisa Lost Her Smile’

Country Heritage Redux: Johnny Paycheck

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favorite country songs of the 1980s, Part 1

The 1980s were a mixed bag, with the early 1980s producing some of the lamest country music ever recorded, as the Urban Cowboy movie wrecked havoc on the genre. Fortunately, there was still good country music being released. The first flowering of the late 1980s “New Traditionalist” movement arrived in 1981 with the first hits of Ricky Skaggs and George Strait, but they remained outliers until 1986 as far as good new artists were concerned. The latter part of the decade, however, produced some truly excellent country music with the 1986 arrival of Randy Travis and company.

This list is meant neither to be a comprehensive list of great country songs from the 1980s, nor any sort of ranking of records. It’s just a list of some songs that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records.

If You’re Gonna Play In Texas (You Gotta Have A Fiddle In The Band)“ – Alabama
Alabama made excellent music during the 1980s, although the country content of some of it was suspect. Not this song, which is dominated by fiddle. One of the few up-tempo Alabama records that swings rather than rocks.

I’ve Been Wrong Before” – Deborah Allen
An accomplished songwriter who wrote many hits for others, particularly with Rafe VanHoy, this was one of three top ten tunes for Ms. Allen, reaching #2 in 1984. This is much more country sounding than her other big hit “Baby I Lied”.

Last of The Silver Screen Cowboys” – Rex Allen Jr.
After some success as a pop-country balladeer, Rex Jr. turned increasing to western-themed material as the 1980s rolled along. This was not a big hit, reaching #43 in 1982, but it featured legendary music/film stars Roy Rogers and Rex Allen Sr. on backing vocals.

“Southern Fried” – Bill Anderson
This was Whispering Bill’s first release for Southern Tracks after spending over twenty years recording for Decca/MCA. Bill was no longer a chart force and this song only reached #42 in 1982, but as the chorus notes: “We like Richard Petty, Conway Twitty and the Charlie Daniels Band”.

Indeed we do. Read more of this post

Classic Rewind: David Allan Coe – ‘Mona Lisa Lost Her Smile’

Album Review: Jamey Johnson – ‘The Guitar Song’

Jamey Johnson’s much-anticipated follow-up to That Lonesome Song was finally released last week, laying to rest the fears expressed by some that he would be unable to match that dark 2008 masterpiece. The two discs in the set are grouped loosely by theme into the “black” and “white” albums, the former supposedly comprised of darker, more menacing songs like its predecessor, and the latter made up of more positive fare. In reality, this seems to be more marketing hype than anything, as the definition of what is dark and menacing as opposed to positive turns out not to be so — well, black and white, if you’ll pardon the pun. After listening to a digital copy of the first disc, I wasn’t quite sure if I’d just heard the black or white album. The issue of which songs belong on which disc, however, is a minor quibble that in no way detracts from the listener’s enjoyment.

Like its predecessor, The Guitar Song is made up of mostly original material — Johnson wrote or co-wrote 20 of the 25 tracks — and a handful of covers of country classics. His band, The Kent Hardly Playboys are once again present and credited as producers, with Dave Cobb and Arlis Albritton listed as co-producers on a few selected tracks.

The black album opens with “Lonely At The Top”, written in 1988 by Don Cook, Chick Rains and the late Keith Whitley. A demo of Whitley’s version exists, but as far as I’m aware, this is the first time the song has been commercially recorded and released. It tells the tale of a rising country music star who complains about the pressures of fame and fortune to a stranger in a bar. The stranger accepts the singer’s offer of a drink, responding:

… Thanks, I’ll have a double
I’ve worked up a powerful thirst
Just listening to all your troubles
And while he makes that drink,
I’ll smoke one, if you’ve got ’em
It might be lonely at the top
But it’s a bitch at the bottom.

The next track, “Cover Your Eyes”, written with Wayd Battle and Bobby Bare, is decidedly darker fare, in which the protagonist breaks up with his girlfriend over the telephone. “Poor Man Blues” is sounds like something David Allan Coe would have sung back in his heyday. The tune, though not the lyrics, are reminiscent of Coe’s 1983 hit “The Ride.” Next is Johnson’s tribute to the late, great Vern Gosdin, a cover of “Set ‘Em Up Joe”, the highlight of the first disc.

“Can’t Cash My Checks”, which Jamey wrote with James Otto, Jason Cope, and Shannon Lawson, is a timely tale of a man struggling in hard economic times, to which many listeners will unfortunately be able to relate. Of all the tracks on the first disc, this one seems the most likely to be released as a single at some point.

Nothing on the black disc was as bleak and desperate as the songs on That Lonesome Song. Based solely on the marketing hype, I was expecting to want to slash my wrists after listening to it; however, I found it much more enjoyable than I had expected. I didn’t think that the white disc could possibly live up to the high standards set by the black disc and after hearing the first track on Disc 2, the slightly disappointing “By The Seat Of Your Pants” — which is a bit more Southern Rock for my taste, it appeared that I was correct. However, things began to improve with track #2, “California Riots” — which seems like it should have been on the black disc — and the unusual “Dog In The Yard”, which I really liked. The title track, on which Johnson is joined by co-writer Bill Anderson, is a gem. It is followed by the best song in the collection, “That’s Why I Write Songs”, a stripped-down song consisting solely of Johnson singing lead vocals and playing an acoustic guitar. Recorded at The Ryman Auditorium, it gives the listener a rare glimpse of Johnson’s sensitive side, as he pays tribute to the great songwriters who inspired him — a list that includes Harlan Howard, Bob McDill, Whitey Shafer, Bill Anderson, and Hank Cochran.

Things swing back into Southern Rock mode with “Macon” and back into Outlaw Country with “Good Times Ain’t What They Used To Be”, on which Johnson channels Waylon Jennings. This is followed by a surprisingly good cover version of “For The Good Times”, the Kris Kristofferson classic made famous by Ray Price. It’s worth listening to if only for Eddie Long’s magnificent steel guitar work.

Overall, this is a very satisfying album, without the pop pretensions and overwrought production that mar so many contemporary country releases. The utilization of Johnson’s road band gives the album a more live feel than most studio recordings. The band often breaks into lengthy jam sessions at the end of certain tracks — a bit too lengthy at times, bordering on self-indulgence. Fans of bubble-gum pop country will find little here to appeal to them, but those who yearn for the type of country music that Nashville used to produce with regularity, will be more than satisfied. This is without a doubt one of the best albums of 2010, and one that deserves a home in any country fan’s collection.

Grade: A

CD Giveaway: Mark Chesnutt – ‘Outlaw’

Congratulations to:  Dee, Jake, Lorendasue, Adam, and Stephanie.  We’ll be contacting you shortly to get your shipping information.  Thanks for commenting everybody, and we hope you come back for our George Jones Spotlight all throughout August.

The Outlaw movement, which reached the peak of its popularity in the late 1970s, was a backlash against the then-prevalent Nashville Sound. The two most famous outlaws were Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, both Nashville veterans whose careers skyrocketed when they were given creative control, which they used to challenge the conventional wisdom of the day. Other famous outlaws included David Allan Coe, Tompall Glaser, Hank Williams Jr., Kris Kristofferson, and Jessi Colter. The first country album to earn platinum certifcation was a 1976 compilation album released by RCA called Wanted! The Outlaws, which included tracks from Waylon, Willie, Glaser and Colter.

Our June spotlight artist Mark Chesnutt pays tribute to these musical outlaws with his latest album Outlaw, which I reviewed earlier this month. It’s an interesting project for Mark, since he generally has not been thought of as a part of any outlaw movement. So that leads us to the question:

Who are today’s Outlaws and why are they considered as such? Five lucky people who answer that question between now and midnight on June 30 will win a copy of Mark Chesnutt’s Outlaw CD.

Single Review: Jamey Johnson – ‘Macon’

Jamey Johnson’s long-awaited new single starts off with a somewhat misleading piano intro that gives the impression that “Macon” is one of those pop-infused power ballads that Lonestar and Collin Raye used to turn out regularly in the 90s. But about thirty seconds in, someone seems to have remembered that this is a Jamey Johnson record, and the piano gives way to the pedal steel and acoustic guitar and the song gets underway for real. Suddenly, the polished pop ballad becomes a Southern rock-infused anthem that is one part Waylon Jennings, one part David Allan Coe, and one part Marshall Tucker Band.

The tune is a little light in the lyrics department — Johnson has to get his big rig home to Macon ASAP because the lady in his life has made it abundantly clear that she doesn’t want to be left alone too long. That’s pretty much all the song has to say, which is probably a huge advantage from a commercial standpont; there is nothing controversial a la “That Lonesome Song” so country radio has no built-in excuses to ignore Johnson this time around.

“Macon” has a very retro sound, in a 1970s Southern rock sort of way. It’s definitely not traditional and it’s likely that had it been released in the 70s, radio programmers might have deemed it too rock-oriented to fit in with the country radio format. But things have changed considerably at country radio in the past forty years, so it would appear that Johnson has got a decent shot at getting some airplay. He’s managed to craft a record that will satisfy country fans’ nostalgia for some Outlaw music, but more importantly, he’s created one that lacks the blandness and cliches that have fatally flawed so many contemporary country releases.

Written by Jamey Johnson & Kacey Coppola

Grade: A-

“Macon” is available for download at iTunes and Amazon.

Album Review: Mark Chesnutt – ‘Outlaw’

His fourteenth studio release finds Mark Chesnutt joining the ranks of many other artists who have released a covers album in the past two years or so. As the title suggests, Mark’s offering is a tribute to the Outlaw movement, paying tribute to the likes of Hank Williams Jr., David Allan Coe, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and borrowing heavily from the catalog of Waylon Jennings, in particular. Covering classic songs is an endeavor fraught with peril; comparisons with the original versions is inevitable. Deviating from the original version too much can alienate longtime fans, while sticking too close to the original leads to charges of not making the song one’s own. Though there are a few missteps along the way, Chesnutt largely succeeds in bringing these vintage songs back to life.

Hank Williams Jr. is a difficult artist to cover, since much of his material is autobiographical in nature. Two Bocephus songs — “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound” and “Country State of Mind” — appear here, and Chesnutt sings both of them with gusto, sounding as though he is thoroughly enjoying himself. He tackles David Allan Coe’s “A Little Time Off For Good Behavior” with equal relish, and Willie Nelson’s “Bloody Mary Morning” is also an enjoyable listen.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is Mark’s take on the Kris Kristofferson classic “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”. Johnny Cash’s definitive recording of one of the very best country songs ever written, simply cannot be topped. Chesnutt seems to realize this and unfortunately at times this seems like a phoned-in performance. His delivery lacks emotion and does not convincingly convey the feeling of loneliness and angst that the lyrics are trying to express. In additon, Pete Anderson’s production tends to get in the way. The accordian, presumably played by Flaco Jiminez, seems a bit out of place as does the organ that is meant to underscore the lyrics in the third verse about the hymns coming from a Sunday school. The overall result is a song that just plods along for nearly five minutes and made me wish I’d just listened to Cash’s version instead.

Also disappointing is Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting For A Train.” A minor hit for The Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings) in 1985, it was also recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker and David Allan Coe. It tells the story of a relationship between a relatively young man and a much older one. It starts out well enough, but about halfway through the production begins to drown out the vocals.

Half of the songs on the album are remakes of Waylon Jennings hits, so at times, Outlaw seems more of a Jennings tribute album than a salute to the Outlaw movement in general. Since Chesnutt is a huge Jennings fan, and even named his eldest son Waylon, this is not entirely unexpected. At times it’s hard to take Mark seriously as an outlaw, unlike Waylon who actually lived through much of what he sang about, but for the most part the Jennings covers work well. He wisely avoids some of Waylon’s better known material such as “Luchenbach, Texas” and “Just To Satisfy You” opting instead to cover some lesser-known gems such as “Black Rose” and “Freedom To Stay”.

“A Couple More Years”, written by Dennis Locorriere and Shel Silverstein, and previously recorded by both Jennings and Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show, is by far the best song on the album. Chesnutt is joined by Amber Digby on this one, and though lyrically it makes for a somewhat awkward duet — they each sing to each other, “I’ve got a couple more years on you babe, and that’s all” — the vocal peformances by Chesnutt and Digby more than compensate for this lack of logic. Another highlight of the album is “Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)”. This seems like the type of song that might have been a hit if it had been released during Mark’s MCA years, though the chances that radio will play this song now are slim. It is however, an example of Mark Chesnutt at his best; on this track he truly shines.

I’m not sure that there’s much on Outlaw to appeal to casual fans, but longtime Mark Chesnutt fans will want to seek it out. It will be released on June 22 on the Saguaro Road label. It is currently available for pre-order at Amazon.

Grade: B+

Recommendation: Songs to love

Country music has never been particularly well-known or renowned for our steamy love songs.  Country is at its best when dealing with the less-than-cuddly emotions of heartache, loss, loneliness, etc.  Maybe that’s why Merle Haggard never covered Marvin Gaye’s ‘Let’s Get It On’ and why the Zac Brown Band won’t be ‘bringing sexy back’.  Still, I’ve managed to corral a selection of country songs designed to get your libido moving.  Here’s a playlist to get you started:

Charlie Rich – ‘Behind Closed Doors’ … Charlie Rich’s breakthrough hit from 1973 topped the country charts before crossing over to the Top 40 on the pop charts.  The swaying number, where the narrator sings the praises of his demure woman, would go on to win Single and Song of the Year honors from both the CMA and ACM as well as a Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal.

Conway Twitty – ‘I Want To Know You’/‘I’d Love To Lay You Down’ … Conway Twitty was perhaps the king of the bedroom anthem.  These are just two personal favorites in his repertoire of come-hither tunes.  The former makes a plea to get to know one another before the love-making while the latter simply tells the lady what he’d like to do, and promises he’ll still want to lay her down when her hair has turned silver.

‘Faith Hill ‘Breathe’ … After eight years of scoring major country hits, Faith Hill hit the big time with this sexy song.  The video featured a gorgeous Faith writhing around in silk sheets with the golden desert in the background, and the song itself is just as sexy.  In what is perhaps her finest moment vocally, she purrs the verses before a chorus that would make any man smile.

Alabama – ‘Feels So Right’ /‘Take Me Down’ /‘The Closer You Get’ … Like Twitty, country’s first supergroup Alabama, were masters of steamy love songs. These three come from a two-year run between 1981 and 1983 when Alabama was smoking hot.  The distorted guitar and vocals turned off some purists at the time, but the sound would prove to have lasting effects, and these songs sound the least dated of almost any 1980s country recordings.  This is backseat country at its finest.

Sammi Smith – ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’ … This Kris Kristofferson-penned song simply asks for another’s company to help ease the loneliness until the sun comes up.   Simple is almost always best.

Tanya Tucker‘Would You Lay With Me (In A Field of Stone)’ … It incited fury from some upon its release; not just because of its racy subject matter, but because the singer was only 15 years old.  David Allan Coe painted a picture of a tortured soul, seeking comfort from another.

Trisha Yearwood ‘Like We Never Had a Broken Heart’ … When Trisha Yearwood sings, it’s always great.  When Garth Brooks joins her for harmony, it’s almost other-worldly.  This song is one of my first memories of 90s country, but my young mind didn’t comprehend what they were singing about until much later.  When I finally understood the story of two heartbroken lovers who were holding on to each other to ease the pain, I found it was a sweet story set to smart lyrics and a sing-along melody.  Brilliant.

What are some of your favorite country love songs?  What would you recommend as great examples of backseat country?

Classic Rewind: George Jones with David Allan Coe – ‘Tennessee Whiskey’

The bottle that pours the wine: Songs about songwriting

Stephanie DavisIt’s always about the song in country music. Whether the writer sings the song or not, a topic Razor X raised last week, the song itself is what everything else ultimately depends on. One of the things I love about country music is the range of subjects it tackles, but the thing most songwriters know the most about is, of course, writing songs.  So it should come as no surprise that some writers have chosen to reflect on that process within their work: the nature of inspiration; the way lives and pain are transmuted into art; and complaining about or celebrating the state of the music industry. Self-referential, perhaps – but also a fascinating insight into songwriters’ thoughts about the songs they write. So here are some of my favorite songs on the theme.

‘Sixteenth Avenue’, the ultimate tribute to the professional songwriters of Music Row, written by one of their own, Thom Schuyler, and made famous by Lacy J Dalton, speaks briefly of the magical moment of inspiration when some struggling writer finds the perfect words:
One night in some empty room where no curtains ever hung
Like a miracle some golden words rolled off someone’s tongue

Another nod to the idea that the music comes from some place beyond is expressed in David Ball’s lovely ‘The Bottle That Pours The Wine’, which he wrote with Allen Shamblin for his 1996 album Starlite Lounge, as he answers a young fan asking where the songs come from:
“I’m just a bottle that pours the wine
A fragile vessel for melody and rhyme

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Single Review: Tanya Tucker – ‘Would You Lay With Me (In A Field Of Stone)?’

tanyatuckerwouldyoulaywithmeAs we have already seen, Tanya was never afraid of controversial song choices, and in 1973, when she was still only 15, she picked David Allan Coe’s song ‘Would You Lay With Me (In A Field Of Stone)?’ as the title track and lead-off single of her third album, released in December that year. In fact, this song was controversial mainly because it was someone of Tanya’s tender years singing it rather than because it was intrinsically shocking.

It was undoubtedly an adult lyric. Defenders of the song pointed out that the ‘field of stone’ of the title referred to a graveyard, and the song was about til-death-do-us-last true love, rather than anything sordid, but the imagery is quite strong at times, and Tanya’s earthy vocal belied her youth. If her age was not known, no-one would guess this was sung by such a young girl. The controversy did not affect the single’s commercial success to any degree. It became her third straight #1 hit early in 1974.

Does the track stand up today? Unquestionably yes; I’ve been listening to it repeatedly while working on this review, and it hasn’t grown tiresome. The production is impeccable. It opens in rather subdued fashion, with Tanya’s voice starting unaccompanied, joined within a couple of bars by a soft bell-sound. The song is allowed to build gradually as Tanya’s vocal becomes more urgent and is joined by a choir of echoing background singers, with more instruments joining the mix and swelling strings as the vocal gets yet more intense in the chorus.

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