My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Doc Watson

Album boxed set review: The Mac Wiseman Story

the-mac-wiseman-storyBorn in 1925, Malcolm “Mac” Wiseman is the renaissance man of county and bluegrass music – singer, songwriter, musician, A&R man, record producer, disc jockey, co-founder of the Country Music Association. Mac was an early pioneer of country music, performing with Molly O’Day, and was a very early member of Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, and later performed with Bill Monroe.

Mac survived polio, changing musical trends, changes in the structure of the recording industry, yet through it all, he has remained “the voice with a heart”, possessor of a slick Irish tenor with just enough “down home” in his voice to enable him to sing any form of music convincingly. Mac Wiseman is my absolute all-time favorite bluegrass vocalist.

Mac was elected into the International Bluegrass Hall of Honor in 1993 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2014, one of only three bluegrass acts (the others are Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs) to be inducted.

Mac Wiseman has recorded for a wide variety of record labels with performers as diverse as John Prine, Lester Flatt, Merle Haggard and Doc Watson. It would be presumptuous of any box set comprised of only six CDs and 153 songs to claim to tell the Mac Wiseman story, but this set gives it an awfully good try.

The Mac Wiseman Story is comprised of all of the albums that Mac recorded for the CMH (originally County Music Heritage) label from 1976 to 1982, plus some recordings Mac obtained from minor labels.

Disc One is comprised of The Mac Wiseman Story, a collection of twenty songs recorded with the Shenandoah Cutups, the band which accompanied the late great Red Smiley after his split from Don Reno. These are amiable straight-ahead bluegrass recordings of Mac’s most famous songs such as “Love Letters In The Sand”, “I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home” and “Tis Sweet To Be Remembered”. I think these are Vetco recordings from 1976-1977, but whatever the source, these are fine recordings.

I should note that in order to ensure that each disc is chock full of music, that tracks from the 1979 CMH double album The Essential Bluegrass Album (with the Osborne Brothers ) are scattered at the end of CDs 1,2,4,5 & 6.

Disc Two is comprised of Country Music Memories and Mac Wiseman Sings Gordon Lightfoot. The former is a 1976 set of classic, mostly 1950s, country music songs ably backed by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith and Clay Smith as well as some other acoustic instruments. The latter, released in 1977, contains Mac’s renditions of some of Canadian folk Singer Gordon Lightfoot’s classic songs as well as some lesser known songs. In addition to Arthur & Clay Smith on guitars, Eddie Adcock appears playing five string banjo.

The entirety of Disc Three is given to one of my favorite albums, The Clayton McMichen Story. Clayton McMichen (January 26, 1900 – January 4, 1970) was an American fiddler and country musician, whose band, the Georgia Wildcats, played a mix of country, pop, jazz and swing tunes. Clayton was regarded as one of the hottest fiddlers of his time. This album, in reality a tribute to Clayton and his band, finds Red Herron taking the role of Clayton McMichen, with Mac taking the role of vocalist Jack Dunnagan, Joe Maphis as tenor banjo player Jerry Wallace and Merle Travis as guitarist Slim Bryant. This album is a cohesive representation of what Clayton and his band sounded like, with an assortment of the reels, rags, blues and thirties pop tunes played.

Disc Four contains the excellent 1982 album Grassroots To Bluegrass. Some of the songs come from the early days of country music before bluegrass split off from country music. Included in this group would be “Kentucky”, “Short Life of Trouble”, and “Don’t Give Your Heart To A Rambler” and the rest are early bluegrass songs such as “I’m Using My Bible For A Roadmap”. Mac is accompanied by a stellar band that includes Eddie Adcock (banjo, guitar), Kenny Baker and Jim Campbell (fiddle), Martha Adcock (rhythm guitar), Josh Graves (dobro), Jesse McReynolds (mandolin) and Missy Raines (bass)

Disc Five finds Mac in the role of hard country/western swing artist on the 1980 album Songs That Make The Jukebox Play. The musicians with Mac on this album include a bunch of guys that played with Bob Wills or with Merle Haggard during his big band days – Johnny Gimble (fiddle & co-producer) , Jim Belken (fiddle), Dick Gimble (bass), Will Briggs (sax), Curley Hollingsworth (piano) , Herb Remington (steel guitar), Eldon Shamblin (lead guitar) and Bill Stone (trumpet). If you ever wondered how Mac does with western swing, wonder no more. Other than Hank Thompson and Tommy Duncan, I can’t think of any better swing vocalists than Mac Wiseman. I bought the vinyl version of this when it came out and kept hoping that Mac would revisit the genre. Among the classics covered are “Bubbles In My Beer”, “Time Changes Everything” , “Driving Nails In My Coffin” and “Wild Side of Life”.

Disc Six is a so-called bonus disc titled Mac Wiseman – Most Requested. This album contains a few songs not found earlier in the box set, plus it contains the remaining track from the Wiseman – Osborne Brothers collaboration.

This box set is released under the Wise Records label which is Mac’s own label. Mac has apparently obtained the rights for many of his recordings from the past. This set retails for $49.98 but you can obtain it for about five bucks less online.

Maybe this isn’t quite a comprehensive account of Mac’s career, but it is a really fine collection and an excellent place to start if you would like to explore Mac’s music. One thing is for sure – after listening to this collection, you will have no doubts as to why he is known as “the voice with a heart”.

Grade: A+

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Spotlight Artist: Dale Watson

dale watsonAs noted British detective Sherlock Holmes might have observed, “It’s really elementary, my good fellow. If you want to hear good country music, go listen to Watson”

We have already spotlighted the great Gene Watson and the young Texas swing/honky-tonk star Aaron Watson, and perhaps sometime we will spotlight the great Doc Watson. This month, however, we spotlight the most iconoclastic (or perhaps sardonic) of the Watson clan, Dale Watson.

While I regard Dale Watson as being quintessentially country, Dale no longer refers to himself as “country” preferring to distance himself from the fodder currently being produced in Nashville, but to listeners of my generation, Dale Watson is unquestionably country. Whether you use Dale’s preferred term “Ameripolitan” or “country”, Dale Watson is the real deal.

Dale Watson was born in October 1962 near Pasadena, Texas. Watson wrote his first song as a pre-teen and make his first recording at age 14. Apparently Watson had a contentious upbringing as he was emancipated before the normal age of eighteen. He spent the next several years playing the juke joints, skull orchards and night clubs in Texas.

Dale moved to Los Angeles in 1988 on the advice of Rosie Flores and soon joined the house band at North Hollywood’s famous Palomino Club. Dale first came to national attention when he appeared on the third volume of the compilation series A Town South of Bakersfield, in 1992, an interesting album I highly recommend (this was my introduction to Dale Watson). From there, he moved to Nashville and eventually to Austin, Texas.

Once back in Texas, Dale formed his band, the Lone Stars, and landed a recording deal with Hightone Records, a very forward thinking independent label. His first album Cheatin’ Heart Attack, was released in 1995. The album featured a shot-across-the bow at radio country in “Nashville Rash.” This was followed by the excellent Hightone albums Blessed or Damned (1996) and I Hate These Songs.

Changing labels to Koch, Dale next released The Truckin’ Sessions (1998), the first of three such albums that Dale would record over the years devoted to truck-driving songs.

In 2000 Dale suffered a tragedy in his life when his girlfriend Terri Herbert was killed in an automobile accident. The story of Dale’s attempts to cope after this tragedy is the subject of the Zalman King documentary Crazy Again. Dale’s next album Every Song I Write Is For You (2001) served as a catharsis for Dale.

Since then, Dale Watson has released (or has had released by former labels) an album or more per year on a wide variety of labels. Although he is a proficient and accomplished songwriter, he has no reluctance to cover the material of other writers and/or recording artists, if he feels the material to be worthy of recording. At least one of his albums has charted on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, but Dale Watson’s focus is on making good music, not making the charts. Since I’ve never heard a bad Dale Watson album, I’d say his focus has been proper.

We hope you enjoy this month’s Spotlight Artist, Dale Watson.

Discography (since 1999)

People I’ve Known, Places I’ve Been 1999
Christmas in Texas 2000
Preachin’ to the Choir 2001
Every Song I Write Is for You 2001
Live in London…England 2002
One More, Once More 2003
Dreamland 2004
Heeah!! 2005
Whiskey or God 2006
Live at Newland, NL 2006
From the Cradle to the Grave 2007
The Little Darlin’ Sessions 2007
Help Your Lord 2008
To Terri with Love 2008
The Truckin’ Sessions Vol. 2 2009
Carryin’ On 2010
The Sun Sessions 2011
El Rancho Azul 2013
The Truckin’ Trilogy 2014
The Truckin’ Sessions, Vol. 3 2015
Call Me Insane 2015

The best re-issues of 2014

pathway of my lifeAs is always the case, most of the best reissues of American Country Music come from Europe. There are several reasons for this:

1 – Until recently, European copyrights on recordings were only good for 50 years. This changed recently to 70 years, but the change was not retroactive. I am not sure what the cut-off point is for application of the 70 year copyright as I’ve seen varying reports, but it appears that recordings already out of copyright protection will remain in the public domain, but recordings released after 1962 will have the longer copyrights applicable (at least in the UK).

2- The European customer for country music is more traditionally oriented than American audiences. This holds true for many forms of music including rockabilly, rock & roll, rhythm & blues, pop standards, you name it. European audiences, unlike their American counterparts, have not discarded the past.

3- American Record labels simply don’t care – I’d elaborate, but there’s no point to it.

It should be noted that some of these albums may have been issued before 2012 but became generally available during 2014 through various markets.

We’ll start off with two box sets from the gold standard of reissue labels, Bear Family:

1. HANK THOMPSON – THE PATHWAY OF MY LIFE (1966-1984)
Released in late 2013, but not generally available until this year, this Bear Family extravaganza grabs Hank’s recordings made for Warner Brothers, Dot , ABC, Churchill and MCA/Dot in a Deluxe 8 CD set with a booklet compiled with the assistance of Hank himself.

Hank Thompson’s biggest hits were recorded during his years with Capitol, but he still had a large number of hits after that. More importantly, he still was making great recordings. Although there are other artists I prefer to Hank Thompson, I regard Hank Thompson and Doc Watson as the two most consistent country artists of all time – neither of them ever made a bad recording. Hank’s four biggest hits of the post-Capitol era were “On Tap, In The Can or In The Bottle” (#8) , “Smoky The Bar” (#5), “The Older The Violin the Sweeter The Music “ (#8) and “Who Left The Door To Heaven Open” (10). They are all here along with six more top twenty hits and a bunch of other chart records.

If you wonder how significant Hank Thompson was just ask George Strait. Ol’ George made one of his few guest appearances (and probably his first such appearance) with Hank Thompson on a mid 1980s recording of “A Six Pack To Go”.

just between you and me2. PORTER WAGONER & DOLLY PARTON – JUST BETWEEN YOU AND ME – 1967-1976
Porter & Dolly were roughly contemporaries of the teams Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty and George Jones & Tammy Wynette. I have always regarded Porter & Dolly as the best male-female duet pairing ever. Their hits were not quite as big as those of the other two duets, but consider this: Loretta, Conway, George and Tammy were all top-tier stars. At the time these recordings were made, Porter Wagoner was a journeyman country singer who had a major label contract, an over-the-top personality and a syndicated television show to cover the fact that his big hits were fairly few, although he had experienced a bit of a revival in 1964-1969. Meanwhile Dolly Parton was an up and comer with no major hit records until 1970.

What made the pairing so special was the chemistry they had between them. George & Tammy may have been married for a while, but that spark that made the most trivial of songs special for Porter & Dolly was missing (I always regarded George’s best duet partner as Melba Montgomery, and although they did not especially get along, I felt Tammy’s best duets were with David Houston)

Conway & Loretta had more chemistry than George & Tammy but were never as involved in being a duet as Porter & Dolly as both had ‘big star’ careers to maintain.

Porter and Dolly recorded a lot of songs, and they are all here: sad songs (“Jeanie’s Afraid of The Dark“, “Just Someone I Used To Know”), happy songs (“Lost Forever In Your Kiss”), totally ridiculous songs (“Her and The Car and The Mobile Home Were Gone”, “Run That By Me One More Time”) and a plethora of simply good country songs from songwriters as diverse as Jack Clement, Dave Kirby, Tom Paxton and dozens of others. Six CDs worth of the best harmonies ever recorded with lavish book and the superb sound engineering for which Bear Family is famous.

Next some American labels get into the act …

ronnie milsap -the rca albums collection3. RONNIE MILSAP – THE RCA ALBUMS COLLECTION
Charley Pride was one of early supporters and many subsequent singers have cited Ronnie Milsap as a primary influence, including Vince Gill and Hunter Hayes. Since Milsap is a musical chameleon who can cover the gamut from Cajun to R&B to stone cold country and classic pop, it figures that he would have influenced a wide range of artists. Ronnie rang up a staggering number of hits including 40 #1 records in his long career. This set , consisting of 21 CDs covering his RCA output is overkill, but for a performer as gifted as Ronnie Milsap perhaps the overkill can be justified.

4. ZAC BROWN BAND – GREATEST HITS SO FAR …
They may look like something from Duck Dynasty but these fellows have a lot of talent. Moreover, this is an honest hits collection – no previously unissued tracks, jut fourteen hit singles starting with their first #1 from 2008 in “Chicken Fried” and finishing with “Sweet Annie” from 2013. If you haven’t purchased any of their albums yet, this is a ‘must-have’ (and if you haven’t purchased any of their albums yet, shame on you).

back to the Europeans …

the louvin brothers - complete recorded works5. THE LOUVIN BROTHERS – COMPLETE RECORDED WORKS 1952-1962
This is one of those European sets consisting of six CDs (143 songs) encompassing the Louvins’ output on Capitol Records – generally available for $20.00 or less. I don’t know much about the label (Enlightenment), and their product comes with fairly bare bones packaging but it is the music that matters, and few acts ever mattered as much as Ira & Charlie Louvin. The digital sound is quite decent. The set encompasses twelve of the Louvins’ albums, several of which are primarily religious material. The set isn’t quite complete as there were a few singles which did not make it to an album until much later including “When I Stop Dreaming” and “Must You Throw Dirt In My Face”.

6. GEORGE JONES SINGS HANK AND BOB
Hank Williams and Bob Wills were two of the country greats and George Jones paid tribute to them in three albums recorded in the late 1950s – early 1960s. Collected here on the Not Now label are the Mercury album George Jones Salutes Hank Williams and the United Artist albums George Jones Sings Bob Wills and My Favorites of Hank Williams. Supposedly, George wasn’t much of a Bob Wills fan, but you couldn’t prove it by me. If George felt he didn’t have much feel for western swing he must be judging by an impossibly high standard as this is great stuff. Every album should be like this: great music sung by a master singer.

My biggest complaint about this set is the sequencing – two CDs each with 12 Hank songs followed by six of Bob’s songs.

7. JOHNNY CASH – THE SUN SINGLES COLLECTION
This collection, also on the Not Now label, is comprised of two CDs containing 38 songs. This is material that has been endlessly available over the last 50+ years and now it is available again. Available for under $20, if you don’t have this material already, this is a good value – the sound is good and the songs contained herein are beyond essential. This is where it all started for the man in black. IMHO, there is no such thing as too much Johnny Cash. There have been better collections of the Sun recordings, but this one is available now, and at a nice price.

8. CARL PERKINS – THE ROCKABILLY YEARS
This collection, on the One Day label, is comprised of two CDs containing 40 songs. As with the Cash collection above, this is material that has been endlessly available over the last 50+ years and now it is available again. No complaints about the material, the performances or the sound quality. Available for under $20, if you don’t have this material already, this is a must – just don’t step on my blue suede shoes in your haste to buy this set.

eddy arnold -the complete chart singles9. EDDY ARNOLD – THE COMPLETE CHART SINGLES (1945-1962)
In terms of the number of weeks his singles stayed at #1 (143 weeks according to Billboard) Eddy Arnold is the all-time country music leader, 33 weeks ahead of Webb Pierce and miles ahead of George Strait, Dolly Parton or anyone else. This three CD set collects 77 of Eddy’s chart hits through 1962 which means that it pulls up just short of Eddy’s mid 1960s revival that started with “What’s He Doing In My World” and “Make The World Go Away”. No matter – the 1940s material was better than anything Eddy contrived to record during the 1960s and the 1950s recordings, while not always the biggest hits , were usually fairly interesting as Eddy experimented with his sound and expanded his repertoire to include folk and pop material. I would consider the first to CDs to be absolutely essential and the third CD as very good. The folks at Acrobat released this fine collection and included a fine booklet to go with the set.

10. JOHNNY HORTON – NORTH TO ALASKA AND OTHER GREAT HITS (The Early Albums)
Johnny Horton (1925-1960) was one of Johnny Cash’s best friends (and fishing buddy) and had a brief period of time in which his material dominated the country charts and made serious inroads onto the pop charts. This set collects his earlier (and largely unsuccessful) recordings for Dot and his initial recordings for Columbia. Don’t let the ‘early albums’ description fool you – since Horton was killed in a car crash in 1960, there are no later albums except label creations.

The set contains two CDs and 60 songs including all of the Columbia hits including “The Battle of 1814” and “North To Alaska” – good stuff. This is on the Jasmine label – apparently briefly available in 2012 and now available again in the USA

I didn’t review any of the Gusto/Starday/King/ Cindy Lou recordings this time around but check out the Gusto website. Gusto has the habit a repackaging earlier albums into nice box sets – for instance a few years ago they combined three Mel Street albums into a 58 song boxed set. Another label to check on is Heart of Texas Records which has reissued old Capitol and Step One sets on artists such as Tony Booth and Curtis Potter.

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume III’

will the circle 317 years passed between the original Will The Circle Be Unbroken and Volume II. 13 years after that, in 2002, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band decided it was time for a third instalment, which they released on Capitol. It did not make as much of a stir as either of the previous instalments, but is still a pretty solid collection of bluegrass and oldtime music with some guests old and new.

The opening ‘Take Me In Your Lifeboat’ is beaty bluegrass gospel performed with Del McCoury and his sons. The McCourys are back on the secular ‘Love Please Come Home’, which is well done but not memorable.

I preferred the contributions from bluegrass great Jimmy Martin (1927-2005), who had taken part in both previous versions, and who belies his age with confident upbeat performances here. He sings his own ‘Hold Whatcha Got’ (which Ricky Skaggs had made into a hit in the late 80s), and also the lively ‘Save It, Save It’.

In contrast, June Carter Cash (1929-2003) takes the lead vocal on the Carter Family’s ‘Diamonds In The Rough’, with Earl Scruggs on banjo. She does not sound at all well, and indeed died the following year. Although Johnny Cash (1932-2003) was also in poor health, he sounds much better than his wife on a self-penned tribute to the late Maybelle and Sara Carter, ‘Tears In The Holston River.

Willie Nelson, not involved in previous versions, gets two cuts here. Willie sounds good on ‘Goodnight Irene’, but the tracks is irredeemably ruined by the presence of duet partner Tom Petty. Petty is out of tune and the harmony is embarrassingly dissonant. A cheery Nelson version of ‘Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms’ is better although it does feel a bit perfunctory.

Dwight Yoakam (another newcomer to the series) is great on his two tracks. He shows his Kentucky roots on the mournful and authentic ‘Some Dark Holler’. He is outstanding on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ ‘Wheels’, which he makes sound like. Vince Gill’s ‘All Prayed Up’ is an excellent piece of up-tempo bluegrass gospel.

Emmylou Harris sings her ex-husband Paul Kennerley’s ‘I’ll Be Faithful To You’, a sweet declaration of eternal love, exquisitely. She also duets with Matraca Berg (Mrs Jeff Hanna) on Berg’s folk-styleode to the river running through Nashville, ‘Oh Cumberland’. Alison Krauss exercises her angelic tones on ‘Catfish John’.

Iris Dement sings beautifully on her own nostalgic ‘Mama’s Opry’. Ricky Skaggs and Rodney Dillard team up for the pacy folk of ‘There Is A Time’. Band members’sons Jaime Hanna and Jonathan McEuen (who were the duo Hanna-McEuen at the time) are a bit limp for me on ‘The Lowlands’, a folky Gary Scruggs song.

Sam Bush takes it high mountain lonesome on Carter Stanley’s ‘Lonesome River’. ‘Milk Cow Blues’ is taken back to its blues roots and features Josh Graves and Doc Watson. Watson also sings the traditional ‘I Am A Pilgrim’. More contemporary is ‘I Find Jesus’, penned by Jimmy Ibbotson. ‘Roll The Stone Away’ (written by Jeff Hanna with Marcus Hummon) uses religious imagery but it is a bit dull. The Nashville Bluegrass Band take on A. P. Carter’s ‘I Know What It Means To Be Lonesome which is OK.

Gravel-voiced bluesman Taj Mahal and legendary fiddler Vassar Clements guest on the good-humored ‘Fishin’ Blues, which is mildly amusing. Taj Mahal and Alison Krauss guest on this album’s take on the title song which falls rather flat with Alison sounding a bit squeaky and therest of them dull and lifeless.

This album lacks the groundbreaking nature of Volume I, and the cosy atmosphere of either previous set, making more of a standard collection of older material. There are definitely some tracks well worth hearing, and I’d still be interested if there was a Volume 4.

Grade: B+

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken?’

will the circle be unbrokenEven if the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had never made another album after this one, they would have still deserved a place in country music history. This groundbreaking album teamed up the young folk-rockers with country hearts with a selection of veterans including some from the early days of recorded country music, performing music mostly from the same era. It was a triple LP, but was remastered and released as a double CD in 2002, and is also available digitally. There is a friendly living room atmosphere, with snippets of the chat in the studio between tracks.

The various instrumental tracks and backings are brilliantly played by the Nitty Gritties and their guests, often anchored by Earl Scruggs and fiddler Vassar Clements.

The album opens with bluegrass singer Jimmy Martin (1927-2005) singing Hylo Brown’s ‘Grand Ole Opry Song’, which pays affectionate tributes to the stars of the Opry past and present. The song’s subject sets the mood for the whole project. This was one of the singles released to promote the album. It is very charming, but wasn’t very commercial even in the 1970s. Martin’s former boss Bill Monroe had declined to take part in the sessions, distrusting the young men from California, and reportedly regretted that decision once he heard the end result; but Martin’s piercing tenor is a strong presence on a number of tracks. ‘Sunny Side Of The Mountain’ and ‘My Walkin’ Shoes’ are a bit more standard pacy bluegrass – brilliantly performed, but they don’t really hit the heartstrings. The plaintive ‘Losin’ You (Might Be The Best thing Yet)’ is more affecting, and ‘You Don’t Know My Mind’ is also good.

Roy Acuff (1903-1992) was also dubious about the project, but having agreed to take part was quickly won over by the long haired youngsters’ genuine love of country music and their musicianly skills. Known as the King of Country Music, Acuff was the biggest star in country in the 1940s, and one of the influences on artists like George Jones. Even after his commercial star had faded, he remained a very visible presence in the genre, as a stalwart of the Opry and as co-owner of the music publishing company Acuff Rose. He sings some of his signature gospel-infused tunes ‘The Precious Jewel’, the gloomy ‘Wreck On The Highway’, plus the lonesome love song ‘Pins And Needles In My Heart’. He also takes the lead on Hank William’s joyful country gospel classic ‘I Saw The Light’, enthusiastically backed by the NGDB and Jimmy Martin on the chorus.

Mother Maybelle Carter (1909-1978) represents the earliest country recordings and the crystallization of country as a genre from Appalachian folk and the popular music of the day. She sings the lead on the optimistic ‘Keep On The Sunny Side’, a turn of the century religious tune which was one of the Carter Family’s first recordings in the 1920s. Her vocals are thickened with age (and she was never the lead voice in the original Carter Family, taking second place vocally to sister in law Sara), but backed by a chorus of other participants there is a warm familial atmosphere which is quite endearing, and the playing is impeccable. ‘I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes’, another Carter Family classic, and ‘Wildwood Flower’ are also charming.

Flatpicking guitarist Merle Travis sings ‘I Am A Pilgrim’, the coalmining ‘Dark As A Dungeon’ and ‘Nine Pound Hammer’; these are delightful and among my favorite tracks, particularly ‘Dark As A Dungeon’. Another guitar legend, Doc Watson, who surprisingly only met Travis for the first time at these sessions, takes on vocal duties for Jimmie Driftwood’s always enjoyable story song ‘Tennessee Stud’ as well as the traditional ‘Way Downtown’.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band harmonise nicely on a tasteful version of A P Carter’s delicately pretty ‘You Are My Flower’. Their vocal style betrays their folk-rock roots, but the instrumentation is perfectly authentic. They also picked out some Hank Williams classics to spotlight their own vocals. Jimmie Fadden leads on ‘Honky Tonking’, and Jeff Hanna gives ‘Honky Tonk Blues’ a Jimmie Rodgers style edge with his voice sounding as though at any moment he’s going to break into a fully fledged yodel. Jimmy Ibbotson takes on ‘Lost Highway’ (penned by Leon Payne but most associated with Hank)..Their vocals sound a little tentative compared with their more confident later work, but the songs are beautifully played. That is actually a reasonable assessment of the whole album – there is nothing to criticise musically, but the vocals, while honest and authentic, are not up to the standard of, say, today’s best bluegrass.

Pretty much the entire lineup participates in the title song, an inspired choice. The song’s own message is a spiritual one but in the context of this project it has a metaphorical second meaning. The messages of unity and tradition are underpinned by the cover art with its use of US and Confederate flags, and the legend “Music forms a new circle”.

This album is a towering achievement and one of the most significant in country music history. It united two generations, linking the up and coming country rockers with the men and women who had in effect created country music as a unique and definable genre. If you have any interest in music history, it’s a must-have.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Old Crow Medicine Show – ‘Remedy’

remedyThe rowdy string band Old Crow Medicine Show best known for ‘Wagon Wheel’ have released their latest studio album.

The album is bookended by two songs with a prison theme. The opening ‘Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer’ is typical OCMS fare, with a jovially shouted vocal from leader Ketch Secor, catchy tune, cheerfully strummed instruments (plus harmonica), and is quite entertaining with its light hearted story of a conjugal visit from a prisoner’s wife. The closing ‘The Warden’ is more somber. The prisoners question their gaoler’s emotions and potential feelings of guilt:

Down in this pen full of sorrow and sin
Do the days weigh on his chest?
When the warden goes home
To his house made of stone
How does he get any rest?

How does the warden sleep at night
After the long day’s through
Does he toss and turn?
Does his conscience burn?
Is he a prisoner too?

Oh warden. dear warden
Are you so different from me?
Hey warden, mmm, warden
What does it mean to be free?

This is a very fine song with a perfect stripped down arrangement and simple but extremely effective harmonies.

‘Dearly Departed Friend’ is a nicely observed description of the funeral of a young soldier killed in the army, from the viewpoint of a friend and fellow soldier. It is reminiscent of Tom T. Hall, with a gently melancholic feel. This is very moving indeed, and perhaps the best song on the record.

Also very good, ‘Firewater’ is a wearied confession to God of a man’s fall from churchgoer to the homelessness and degradation of helpless alcoholism, written by the band’s Critter Fuqua:

It’s a mean ol’ world when you get to the gutter
And the firewater is the one thing that put out the flame

A gentle melody is sweet to the ears, but the message as bitter and dark as it gets.

In contrast, ‘8 Dogs, 8 Banjos’ opens with a dog’s barking and swings into a fast paced bluegrass number. The lyric is rather rudimentary with its listing of things bringing pleasure, and the vocals are mostly shouted. It probably works better live than on record. ‘Shit Creek’ also very fast, so fast it’s tricky to decipher the lyrics, although there seems to be an interesting story buried in there.

‘Sweet Amarillo’ is more conventional and quite likable. Like Wagon Wheel it is a Bob Dylan co-write, although it lacks ‘Wagon Wheel’s infectious charm and the rhymes are a bit simplistic (e.g. Sweet Amarillo/tears on my pillow/weeping willow). The influence of Bob Dylan is also strong on the harmonica-led ‘Mean Enough World’, an idealistic plea for peace and understanding.
‘Doc’s Day’ is a charming tribute to another influence of the band – the legendary Doc and Merle Watson.

There are a couple of older songs included from the dawn of recorded music, when country was coalescing as a genre from folk and traditional music. The optimistic ‘Tennessee Bound’ has a charmingly authentic old-time feel. ‘Sweet Home’ is a cheery gospel tune which is also enjoyable.

‘O Cumberland River’ is quite a pleasant ode to the river which runs through Nashville. Finally the raucous ‘Brave Boys’ has a Celtic feel; the playing is more impressive here than the vocals.

This record won’t be for everyone – particularly not for anyone who sets a lot of store on high quality vocals. But there’s a lot of substance here which is worth pursuing.

Grade: A-

Album Review – Robert Plant & Alison Krauss – ‘Raising Sand’

raising_sandI remember the instance where I logged onto CMT.com in August 2007 and saw a story about Alison Krauss teaming up with Robert Plant for a duets project. Having immersed myself in country music since I was a kid, I had no idea who Plant was, although I had heard of Led Zeppelin. Like everything Krauss does, I eagerly anticipated the album knowing it would result in a musical journey worth taking.

The genesis of Raising Sand came during a Lead Belly tribute at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in which the two singers performed together for the first time. O, Brother Where Art Thou mastermind T-Bone Burnett produced the sessions, taking place in both Los Angeles and Nashville. The album consists mostly of cover tunes, with Plant and Krauss acting out a role reversal – he tackles her trademark bluegrass while she embraces the bluesy style that penetrates his solo work.

A faithful to the original cover of the Everly Brothers “Gone, Gone, Gone (Done Moved On)” preceded the project, allowing Plant to lead with his signature wail. The version is excellent, with some gorgeous lead guitar riffs and drumbeats to give the track a distinctively lively yet retro feel. The pair won The Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals Grammy for the track in 2008.

The second single was “Please Read The Letter,” an original tune that Plant released as a collaboration with Jimmy Page in 1998. This version is wonderful, with Plant once again taking lead, and Krauss turning in an intoxicating fiddle solo reminiscent of Martie Maguire’s work with Dixie Chicks. Plant’s vocal is a bit shaky so Burnett was smart to employ a minimal production that allowed the pair’s harmonies to take center stage. The track was named Record of the Year at the 2009 Grammy Awards.

The third and final single was “Rich Woman,” a nice enough track but my least favorite of the three thanks to a rocking beat and choral refrain that grows grating after repeated listenings. It isn’t a bad song at all, just not to my personal taste. Like it’s predecessors, “Rich Woman” also won a Grammy, taking home Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals in 2009.

“Killing The Blues,” written by Rowland Salley of Chris Issak’s band Sivertone is my favorite track on the project, a rootsy country masterpiece drenched in steel guitar. The track is simply gorgeous, and very much deserving of the Best Country Collaboration with Vocals Grammy it won in 2009. Possibly even better then “Killing The Blues” is the Tim Burton-esque “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us,” a Krauss-led number with a fabulous banjo driven arrangement written by female singer-songwriter Sam Phillips. I love the twisty Halloween-esque vibe of the track, creepy and strange, anchored by Krauss’ crystal-clear vocal. Both songs are worth the price of the album, hands down.

Doc Watson and Rosa Lee Watson co-wrote “The Long Journey,” the project’s lone spiritual number that has a surprisingly sing-song-y feel. The track closes the album, which makes sense, because it feels more produced than the other numbers and has more of a shimmer to it. Come from nowhere is a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Nothin’” which shakes up the pace of the project with a loud electric guitar driven sound that helps it stand out, for the wrong reasons. It’s a good song lyrically, which a more understated arrangement would’ve made clearer. Mel Tillis wrote “Stick With Me Baby,” another track christened by The Everly Brothers in the 1960s. Plant and Krauss’ version is mellow and slow, almost a bit sleepy.

Unfortunately, nothing else from Raising Sand stood out to me. As a whole the project is kind of uneven but that’s likely do to my need to hear more steel and banjo to appreciate what everyone involved was going for here. But the best tracks (which I highlighted) are near incredible, making Raising Sand a unique album on the musical landscape and a bright spot when it first came out six years ago. In addition to the Grammys for individual tracks, the record itself won Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album and the overall Album of The Year (a first for Rounder Records) categories in 2009. All involved reunited for a follow-up shortly after their Grammy Sweep, but those sessions proved unsuccessful. It’s too bad, because I would like to hear more from this duo. I saw them when they toured off the record and it proved they still had more up their sleeve (the live show was much better then the album). But if Raising Sand is all we get, this is a fine collaboration from two worthy talents.

Grade: B

Country Heritage: Merle Travis

merle travisIt troubles me no end that the artistry of Merle Travis has been lost in the sands of time. It troubles me, but does not surprise me, as Travis–the victim of changing tastes and a lifelong battle with John Barleycorn–had largely disappeared from the airwaves by the time I started really following country music in the mid-60s. Although the general public lost sight of Merle’s genius, he has fared better in the esteem of Nashville’s pickers and singers and has been cited as a primary influence by many of the world’s best pickers, including Chet Atkins, Doc Watson, Earl Hooker, Scotty Moore and Marcel Dadi.

Chet Atkins admired and initially tried to emulate the Travis style, once commenting that it was fortunate that he did not have as much opportunity to hear Travis growing up as he would have liked or his own style might have become a clone. The great Arthel “Doc” Watson thought so much of Travis that he named his son Merle after him. Glen Campbell’s parents were such big fans that they reportedly gave their son the middle name “Travis.” The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had him as a featured performer on their classic Will the Circle Be Unbroken album issued in 1972.

Travis was born and raised in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, a coal mining center that would prove to be the source of inspiration for many of his finest musical compositions. In the hard and bleak life of a coal mining town, he found escape in the guitar–an instrument played by his brother Jim, who was also believed to have made Merle’s first guitar.

Music was one of the few recreations available in the area of western Kentucky, particularly during the heights of the Great Depression. There were many guitar players in the vicinity of Muhlenberg, and Travis freely acknowledged his debt to such earlier players as black country blues guitarist Arnold Shultz, and more directly to guitarists Mose Rager, a part-time barber and coal miner, and Ike Everly, the father of Don and Phil Everly. The Travis style eventually evolved into the ‘Travis Pickin’’ style of playing a steady bass pattern with the thumb and filling out some syncopated rhythms with the fingers of the right hand. Meanwhile, he developed a “talking bluesman” style of singing that was instantly recognizable by the perpetual smile in his voice. Read more of this post

Album Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Busy Bee Cafe’

It’s common to hear today’s singers speak about their country roots, but it’s relatively rare to come across an artist who not only talks the talk but walks the walk as Marty Stuart has done. He was already a seasoned veteran at the age of 24 when his second solo album, 1982’s Busy Bee Cafe, was released. Instead of using the album as a platform to propel himself to stardom, he seems to content to share the spotlight with the many guest artists — Johnny Cash, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Merle Watson, Carl Jackson and Jerry Douglas — who contributed to the project. It perhaps should have been billed as an album by “Marty Stuart and Friends”. An acoustic and heavily bluegrass-flavored collection, it seems like an odd choice for a young artist trying to make his breakthrough. Instead, it appears to be one of those rare projects made for the love of the music, without much regard for commercial considerations.

The album contains a few traditional numbers, a few written by Marty himself, and a few more written by his musical mentors Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and Johnny Cash. Cash lends his vocals to three tracks — the album opener “One More Ride”, Lester Flatt’s “Get In Line Brother” and a remake of Cash’s 1954 hit “Hey Porter”. All three songs are billed as duets, but Cash’s vocal is much more prominent than Marty’s on “One More Ride”. “Hey Porter” is strictly a Cash vehicle; Stuart’s voice can only be heard occasionally as he gives shout-outs to the other musicians playing on the track. “Get In Line Brother” is arranged more as a vocal quartet, with Cash again dominating. Marty’s voice can be heard, but it is overwhelmed by Cash and the other two uncredited singers. Marty’s singing is more prominent on tracks like “Blue Railroad Train”, “Busy Bee Cafe”, and “Down The Road” — which features the unmistakable banjo-picking of Earl Scruggs — but he sounds very little like the singer we’re familiar with today. His voice is not as strong, nor his style as distinct. The only glimpse of the singer who would one day break through with “Hillbilly Rock” is the album’s closing track, the rockabilly-flavored “Long Train Gone.”

Though Stuart was yet to fully blossom as vocalist at the time of this album’s release, this project is more noteworthy for the picking than the singing, as evidenced in its several instrumental tracks such as “I Don’t Love Nobody”, “Watson’s Blues”, “Soldier’s Joy”, and “Boogie For Clarence”. The entire project has a feel of a bunch of friends sitting around the living room and just letting the music happen. It won’t appeal to those who don’t like bluegrass or instrumental music, but it will be very much enjoyed by those who do.

Grade: B+

Favorite country songs of the 1970s, Part 8

Here are some more songs that I like; one song per artist, not necessarily his or her biggest hit. As always, I consider myself free to comment on other songs by the artist.

Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” – Billy Joe “B.J.” Thomas (1975)
His biggest country hit reached #1 and also topped the pop charts. Despite his long-time appeal to country audiences this song was his first to chart country.

Next Time I Fall In Love (I Won’t)” – Hank Thompson (1971)
This song got to #15, Hank’s 59th chart hit. Hank never lost his vocal chops. Hank charted records from 1948 to 1983, a total of seventy-nine songs, including two top tens in “The Older The Violin, The Sweeter The Music” and “Who Left The Door To Heaven Open”. Hank Thompson was so highly regarded in his day that George Strait made one of his very few guest appearances on one of Hank’s albums.

Smooth Sailin’”/ “Last Cheater’s Waltz” – Sonny Throckmorton (1976)
Sonny wasn’t much of a singer and this record only reached #47. He was, however, one heck of a songwriter, and T. G. Sheppard took both of these songs into the top ten. His most famous copyright probably is “I Wish I Was Eighteen Again” which was a major hit for George Burns in 1980.

What Time of Day” – Billy ThunderKloud & The Chieftones (1975)
Billy and his group were native Indian musicians from Northwest British Columbia. This song reached #16, the biggest of their five chart hits.

“Midnight, Me and the Blues” – Mel Tillis (1974)
Just a song I happened to like, one of 24 top ten hits Mel would chart during the 70s. This song reached #2, one of twelve top ten hits on MGM. Mel had a long career in country music, with a recording career that saw chart records from 1958-1989, but he was never better than during his years with MGM.

It’s A Man’s World” – Diana Trask (1973)
Australian born singer, first charted in 1968 with “Lock Stock and Tear Drops.” This record reached #20, one of four top twenty hits.

“I’ve Got All The Heartaches I Can Handle” – Ernest Tubb (1973)
The last MCA/Decca chart hit for the legendary Texas Troubadour. This record only reached #93 for the then 59 year-old Tubb. His recording career was kaput by this time, but not his legacy. This wasn’t quite the end of his recording career as he charted several more songs on other labels, the most noteworthy being “Leave Them Boys Alone” (with Hank Williams, Jr. and Waylon Jennings) which reached #6 in 1983.

As long as there’s a honky-tonk, people will play “Set Up Two Glasses, Joe,” “Waltz Across Texas” and “Walking The Floor Over You.”

Delta Dawn” – Tanya Tucker (1972)
What else? Record World had this record reach #1 (Billboard #6/Cashbox #3). Tanya’s recordings through the end of 1974 are sometimes described as “American Gothic’s last stand.”

Sometimes” – Mary Lou Turner & Bill Anderson (1976)
This record reached #1 in early 1976, one of only two top ten records for Ms. Turner, both of them duets with “Whispering Bill” Anderson.

This Time I’ve Hurt Her More Than She Loves Me” – Conway Twitty (1976)
One of many #1 records Conway would enjoy during this decade. Yes, I know “Hello Darlin’“ was the biggie, but Conway had many records I liked better, including “I See The Want To In Your Eyes,” “I Can’t See Me Without You” and “How Much More Can She Stand.”

“Johnny One Time” – Kathy Twitty (1976)
This cover of a minor Willie Nelson hit works, but Kathy is not a compelling singer. The label on the 45 has her billed as ‘Jessica James.’ Kathy had three charting singles.

It’s a Heartache” – Bonnie Tyler (1978)
Raspy-voiced pop singer from Wales, this song reached #10 on the country charts, selling a million copies in the process.

Just When I Needed You Most” – Randy Vanwarmer (1979)
A few country stations gave this song some airplay, enabling it to reach #71 en route to selling a million copies.

“Until The End of Time” – Sharon Vaughn with Narvel Felts (1974)
Sharon isn’t a great singer and had much more success as a songwriter than as a performer. Narvel Felts, however, is a great singer and he salvages the record. This record was Sharon Vaughn’s only top 40 hit.

What Ain’t To Be Just Might Happen” – Porter Wagoner (1972)
Hard as it is to believe, this was Porter’s last solo top 10 recording, reaching #8 on Billboard and #6 on Cashbox. Another interesting record for Porter during this period is “The Rubber Room,” a record which Billboard failed to chart, but which spent seven weeks on Cashbox’s country chart (just missing the top 40).

When A Man Loves A Woman (The Way That I Love You)” – Billy Walker (1970)
Billy was never a dominant chart performer but he did have three consecutive singles reach #3 in 1970-71 and continued to have occasional top forty singles until 1975. In 1975, Billy signed with RCA–his short stint there produced “Word Games,” Billy’s last top ten single and one of my favorites.

Odds And Ends (Bits And Pieces)” – Charlie Walker (1974)
By 1974, it had been seven years since Charlie had a top 20 single. This was Charlie’s last charting song, dying at #66. The song and performance are quite effective, a remake of a Warren Smith hit from 1961 but by this time his recording career was completely dead.

If You Leave Me Tonight I’ll Cry” – Jerry Wallace (1972)
Jerry Wallace was more of a pop singer than a country singer. He had several huge pop/easy listening hits during the 1960s, but then hit lean times causing Jerry to re-launch his career as a country singer. This song got to #1 on all of the country charts, fueled by exposure on an episode of the popular television show Night Gallery.

Big Blue Diamond” – Jacky Ward (1972)
Recorded on the Target label, this song only got to #39 although it was really huge in some markets. This song landed him at Mercury where he had some bigger hits. The original version of this song has not been available for many years and none of the remakes have the sizzle of the original.

I’m Already Taken” – Steve Wariner (1978)
An early version of a song Wariner had more success with fifteen years later. This charted at #63, the first of many chart hits for Steve Wariner.

“Bottle of Wine” – Doc & Merle Watson (1973)
Legendary blind guitarist Doc Watson only charted twice, both times accompanied by his equally talented son Merle (1949-85). Anyone who has not heard Doc Watson truly has a gaping hole in their musical education. Fortunately, many of his fine albums remain in print.

The Old Man and His Horn” – Gene Watson (1977)
This is absolutely my favorite Gene Watson song, although it’s close between this song and 75 others. Gene was never quite the chart presence a singer of his enormous talent deserved, but he had a pretty strong run of top 10 records from 1975 to 1984, with four records making it to #1 on Billboard, Cashbox or Record World. This wasn’t one of the bigger hits, reaching #11 on both Billboard and Cashbox, but its strong New Orleans feel makes it perhaps Gene’s most distinctive hit record. My recommendation for those who want to delve deeper into Gene’s music is … buy everything!

I’ll Still Love You” – Jim Weatherly (1975)
Much better known as a songwriter; Ray Price recorded one album of nothing but Jim Weatherly songs and another album of mostly Jim Weatherly songs. Jim’s most famous song was “Midnight Train To Georgia,” which was a huge hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips. This was Jim’s only top 10 hit.

“The Happiness of Having You” – Jay Lee Webb (1971)
This was the last of three chart records for Loretta Lynn’s brother. Charley Pride would have a much bigger hit with this in 1976.

Dueling Banjos” – Eric Weissberg & Steve Mandell (1973)
Featured in the movie Deliverance, this song was written by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith during the mid 1950s. There is an interesting back story arising out of the movie, as the producers of the movie tried to use the song without paying Smith any royalties. Smith sued (after first trying to negotiate and being stonewalled) – Weissberg testified at trial that he originally learned the song from a record his grandfather had of Don Reno and Arthur Smith playing the tune!

“Ballad of A Hillbilly Singer” – Freddy Weller (1972)
Freddy Weller was part of Paul Revere and The Raiders from 1967-71. He launched his country career in 1969 with a #1 Cashbox hit in “Games People Play” and continued to have top 10 country success for the next four years. A very successful songwriter with songs such as “Jam Up Jelly Tight” and “Dizzy” both being big pop hits for Tommy Roe. His biggest country copyright was “Lonely Women Make Good Lovers” which was a big hit for both Bob Luman and Steve Wariner. John Michael Montgomery, Reba McEntire, George Jones and countless others have recorded his songs.

This song was somewhat of an insider joke, containing instrumental signatures of artists such as Roy Acuff, David Houston, Johnny Cash, Ernest Tubb and Marty Robbins. Consequently it only reached #26, but I love the song. I would also commend “Perfect Stranger” to anyone who wants to check out Freddy Weller.

“Wild Side of Life” – Kitty Wells and Rayburn Anthony (1979)
Kitty Wells had no top forty hits during the 1970s. This was Kitty’s last charting record, her 81st chart hit. This record reached #60, and found Kitty interjecting answer verses into Rayburn’s recording of the old Hank Thompson hit. By the time this record hit, Kitty was 60 years old. In a few months she will turn 93. She still is the Queen of Country Music.

Country Sunshine” – Dottie West (1973)
Record World had this record reach #1, Cashbox and Billboard both had it at #2. If I recall correctly, this song was inspired by a Coca Cola commercial. Dottie was lost in the shuffle at RCA and later signed with United Artists where she had some huge hits on some of the most contrived material I’ve ever heard.

Una Paloma Blanca” – Slim Whitman (1977)
A cover of an international pop hit by the Dutch band George Baker Selection, Slim’s version did not chart, but it certainly showed off his vocal prowess.

Classic Rewind: Doc Watson – ‘Tennessee Stud’

Album Review: The Wronglers with Jimmie Dale Gilmore – ‘Heirloom Music’

Veteran Texan singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore has teamed up with the fabulously named Wronglers for a look back into the roots of country music. This is a convincing reconstruction of the acoustic string band music which was to grow into country music. The Wronglers’ Heidi Clare and Colleen Browne (who play fiddle and bass respectively) add harmony vocals throughout; the talented Heidi was also responsible for all the arrangements.

Jimmie Dale’s distinctive voice, with its echoes of Willie Nelson, works well on songs like the plaintive Johnny Bond classic ‘I Wonder Where You Are Tonight’. A pained version of the Bob Wills classic ‘Time Changes Everything’ is a real highlight, and my favorite track is a lovely, tender take on the Carter Family’s ‘I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes’. Country music pioneer Charlie Poole originally recorded ‘Leavin’ Home’, the story of Frankie and Johnny, back in 1926. It has a sprightly feel belying the dark lyrics of this murder ballad. Jimmie Davis’s ‘Columbus Stockade Blues’ is another authentic-sounding song from the roaring ’20s. The fanciful Depression-era ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ is rather charming; it is performed as a duet with the Wronglers’ frontman and banjo player, Warren Hellman, a retired financier who is the promoter of California’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. I also enjoyed ‘Foggy Mountain Top’, a folk song which A.P. Carter found and copyrighted.

Bluegrass gets a nod with Flatt and Scruggs’ ‘If I Should Wander Back’, which is a bit dull, the oddly jubilant ‘Footprints In The Snow’, and an enjoyably sedate version of Bill Monroe’s ‘Uncle Pen’. The latter’s namechecking of older songs seems perfectly appropriate on this heritage-infused album. The traditional blues number ‘Deep Ellum Blues’ harks back to yet another source of American roots music. Less effective for me are the groups’ versions of Doc Watson’s ‘Way Downtown’ and the Delmore Brothers’ ‘Brown’s Ferry Blues’, while the traditional ‘In The Pines’ drags a bit.

The very elaborate packaging and artwork with the band dressed up in 19th century outfits adds to the mood of historical recreation. Perhaps this dressing up rather than letting the music speak for itself makes it more redolent of modern reenactors of historic battles than the real thing, but on the whole I am enjoying listening to this and having a bygone era evoked.

Grade: B

Buy it at amazon.