My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Don Everly

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: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Love’s Gonna Get Ya!’

Ricky Skaggs’ career can be said to have reached its peak in 1985, when he was named the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year. The following year, Randy Travis scored his big breakthrough and the New Traditionalist movement exploded. Ironically, that same year, Ricky Skaggs’ career began to show the first signs of decline. Although it reached #3 on the Billboard Top Country chart, Love’s Gonna Get Ya! failed to produce any #1 hits and became his first release for Epic not to earn gold certification.

Like its predecessors, Love’s Gonna Get Ya! was produced by Ricky himself, but it doesn’t contain the bluegrass flourishes that hallmarked most of his earlier work, with the exception of the spiritual tune “Walking In Jerusalem”. “Love’s Gonna Get You Someday”, written by Carl Chambers, was the album’s first single. The Western-swing flavored tune was a bit of a departure for Ricky, but it was well received by radio and made it to #4 on the Billboard country singles chart. The Don Everly-penned “I Wonder If Care As Much”, which had been a #2 pop hit for the Everly Brothers in 1958, didn’t fare as well. Reaching #30, it was the lowest-charting single of Skaggs’ major label career up to that point. With its double-track harmony, it’s instantly recognizable as an Everly Brothers tune, and though it may have been an artistic stretch for Ricky, it was a decent effort. He rebounded with the next single, a Cajun-flavored duet with his wife Sharon White called “Love Can’t Ever Get Better Than This”, which reached the Top 10, albeit barely. It’s my favorite track on the album.

There are some fine cuts among the album tracks, many of them written by some of Nashville’s finest songwriters, such as Larry Cordle, Jim Rushing, and Gary Burr. The production is occasionally dated, particularly the use of the synthesizer on “I Won’t Let You Down” and the James Taylor duet “New Star Shining” — not atypical of the era but unusual on a Ricky Skaggs album — but it didn’t diminish my overall enjoyment of the album. Rushing’s “Hard Row To Hoe”, one of many country songs dealing with the plight of the American farmer, was perhaps inspired by the first Farm Aid concert which had been held a few months before this album’s release. “Artificial Heart”, written by Johanna Hall and John Hall, suffers from some contrived lyrics but its excellent steel guitar solo more than compensates.

It’s a bit ironic that having been a key player in bringing country music back to its roots, Skagg became a victim of the success of the New Traditionalist movement. Having to compete with a new crop of talent for sales and airplay may partially account for this album’s relative lack of success compared to his earlier work. However, it’s a fine album that deserves a second listen — or a first one if you missed it the first time around. The original Epic version is out of print but it was re-released on a 2-for-1 CD along with Comin’ Home To Stay. This is probably the most economical way to acquire both albums.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Blue Kentucky Girl’

Emmylou Harris’ fourth album for Warner Brothers contains more traditional and straightforward country fare than before.  This is partially because, after being involved in the mixing of Quarter Moon In a Ten Cent Town, she felt it was too slick-sounding.  But the more traditional arrangements were mostly created as a response to the outcry that the healthy mixing of pop and rock hits on past albums were the primary reason for their success. Shucking Tin Pan Alley for more Printer’s Alley, the set includes songs by country stalwarts Dallas Frazier, The Louvin Brothers, Willie Nelson, and others.  It’s biggest flaw – and only downfall – is in the lack of tempo, as too many of the tracks begin to bleed together with their like-minded and plodding melodies. Blue Kentucky Girl also features an all-star line-up of guest vocalists, including Tanya Tucker, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Don Everly, and like its predecessors would earn a gold certification, though it was her first since her Reprise debut not to hit the top 40 of the pop albums chart.

Things are kicked off with the bouncy, if unremarkable, ‘Sister’s Coming Home’ with Tanya Tucker duetting.  Willie Nelson wrote the repetitive tale of a honky tonking sibling returning home, which is smothered in the pedal steel playing of Hank DeVito and Ricky Skaggs’ fiddling.  As the album’s only up-tempo, it’s a forgettable tune with no real storyline and the annoying repeats of lines several times.  The Skaggs family is also represented on ‘Sorrow In The Wind’. Sharon and Cheryl White contribute angelic harmonies to this sparse take on the old British folk song. Known professionally as The Whites, the sister duo scored several country top 10s in the early to mid-1980s. Sharon White also married Hot Band member Ricky Skaggs in 1982.

The uncertainty of the road ahead following the exit of a relationship filled with hard times is contemplated in ‘Rough and Rocky’.  A kind-to-the-ears melody and a driving accordion lead the track, and it’s a personal favorite.  Another standout is ‘Even Cowgirls Get The Blues’ with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt.  It was recorded during the first ill-fated Trio sessions. It would take another 10 years before the three women’s careers and schedules would permit the album to be produced.  Roadhouse country is the main influence on the Rodney Crowell-tune.(Crowell also plays lead acoustic guitar here.)

‘Everytime You Leave’, with Don Everly was written and originally recorded by The Louvin Brothers.  The narrator’s heartbreak is the result of a revolving-door relationship to which she can never say no, and even with its stellar arrangement, Harris doesn’t sound terribly invested in the song’s ultimate melancholy.  Likewise flat, to me, is ‘Never Take His Love From Me’, the Leon Payne-written tune, most famously recorded by Hank Williams.  Here, Emmylou flips the pronoun and offers her weakest performance on the album.

Harris has never been more than a competent vocalist; never a powerhouse belter nor a burning balladeer. That’s most evident on Blue Kentucky Girl when she wraps her raspy vocal around Gram Parsons’ signature tune ‘Hickory Wind’. The deep, desolate lyric calls for more range than Harris can muster at the climax of the song, yet the simple vocal of Harris, even when it reaches for a note it simply cannot find, still conveys all the pathos and longing of a first-class vocalist. That’s because, wide range or no, Harris’ emotive skills place her among the best of the belting divas.

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