My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Floyd Tillman

Reissues wish list part 2: MCA and Decca

webb pierceFor most of the Classic Country era, the big four of country record labels were Decca /MCA, RCA, Columbia and Capitol. Of these labels, MCA/Decca has done the poorest job of keeping their artists’ catalogues alive in the form of reissues.

When speaking of the big four labels we will need to define terms.
MCA/Decca refers to recordings released on MCA, Decca, Brunswick and for some periods, Vocalion.

During the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Decca (later MCA) can be argued as having the strongest roster of artists. Such titans as Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, Webb Pierce, Conway Twitty, Jack Greene, Bill Anderson, Jimmy Martin, The Osborne Brothers, Bill Monroe, Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn frequently dominated the charts with many strong second tier acts such as The Wilburn Brothers, Jimmie Davis, Roy Drusky, Jimmie C. Newman, Johnny Wright, Cal Smith, Bill Phillips, Crystal Gayle, Jeanie Seely, Jan Howard and Red Sovine passing through the ranks at various times. Crystal Gayle, of course, became a major star in the late 1970s and 1980s

In the early digital days MCA had virtually nothing of their classic artists available aside from some Loretta Lynn, Bill Monroe and Conway Twitty discs. Then in 1991 they started their County Music Hall of Fame Series, showcasing artists elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, because of industry politics, their biggest stars, Webb Pierce and Conway Twitty, had not yet been elected.

Each of the discs contained fifteen or sixteen tracks or about 38 minutes of music. Many of the CDs featured artists who had not been on Decca for many years, and many featured artists who just passed through on their way to bigger and better things or had been bigger stars in the past. Among the CDS in the series were The Carter Family (on Decca 1937-1938), Jimmie Davis, Red Foley, Grandpa Jones (with Decca in the late 1950s – several remakes of King label hits), Loretta Lynn, Uncle Dave Macon (a real old-timer), Tex Ritter (1930s recordings), Roy Rogers, Sons of The Pioneers (with Decca during the 1930s and again in 1954), Hank Thompson (ABC/Dot recordings of the late 1960s and 1970s – MCA purchased the ABC & Dot labels – Hank never actually recorded for MCA/Decca). Floyd Tillman (1939-1944), Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells, Bill Monroe and Bob Wills (Bob’s best years were on Columbia and MGM). The Bob Wills recordings were 1955-1967 recordings on the Decca & Kapp labels – the Kapp recordings usually featured Nashville session players with no real feel for swing and are the least essential recordings Wills ever made.

Each of the CDs mentioned above are undeniably worthy, but are either inadequate or not representative of the artists’ peaks.

Some MCA/Decca artists have been covered by Bear Family, most notably Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells, Bill Monroe, Bill Anderson, Jimmy Martin and The Osborne Brothers. One could wish for more on some of these artists, but what is available generally is enough; however, it is expensive. Good two-disc sets would be desirable.

During the 1960s, Decca had their artists re-record their hits in order to take advantage of modern stereo technology, since for artists who peaked before 1957, such as Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb, Webb Pierce and Red Foley, their biggest hits were recorded in monaural sound. An additional consideration for Ernest Tubb was that his then-current band was larger and better with musicians such as Billy Byrd and Buddy Emmons (to name just two) being members of the band. In the case of Ernest Tubb, the re-recordings were superior to the original string band recordings.

In the case of most other artists, I think the originals were better BUT for many years the original recordings were not available and listeners of my generation grew up hearing the stereo remakes whether on records or on the radio. Since the digital era began the stereo remakes have been unavailable except on Bear Family sets. It would be nice if the stereo remakes were available, and it would be nice if MCA/Decca artists were available on decent domestic collections.

Webb Pierce – several domestic releases of Webb Pierce’s hits are available but they generally contain about a dozen songs, all from the 1950s. There is a Bear Family set that covers up to 1958 – it’s great but it misses all of Webb’s lesser later hits. Webb was the #1 country artist of the 1950s according to Billboard, and while he slipped thereafter, he was still the sixth ranked artist of the 1960s with many hits, including a couple of Record World #1s. None of this has been released on CD. What is needed is a good three CD set gathering up Webb’s 1960s (and early 1970s) chart hits plus key album tracks and the stereo remakes of the fifties hits.

For as widely popular as she was. you would expect much of Barbara Mandrell‘s output to be available. Barbara moved from Epic to ABC/Dot and when ABC/Dot was absorbed by MCA, her music was issued on that label. Barbara had 30+ hits for ABC/Dot/MCA with many #1 and top five recordings. Currently, not much is available and she warrants a boxed set.

Jack Greene and Cal Smith both had fairly late starts to their solo careers. While there exist a few hit collections for each artist (on foreign labels), neither is very complete, leaving off key songs. For Cal Smith, since Kapp and MCA are both owned by the same company, a two disc set collecting Cal’s Kapp & MCA/Decca singles should suffice (possibly a single disc with about thirty tracks would be okay).

For Jack Greene, more is needed since Jack had over thirty chart singles for Decca and issued at least fourteen albums plus a hits collection while on MCA/Decca. Jack was a superior vocalist and his albums contain recordings of others’ hits that often were better than the original hits. While not a hit for Jack, his version of “The Last Letter” is the definitive recording of the song.

The Osborne Brothers were bluegrass innovators, developing an almost unique (Jim & Jesse were doing something similar) bluegrass and country hybrid with bluegrass instruments augmented by electric guitar, steel guitar and sometimes other amplified instruments. After leaving MCA/Decca for CMH and other labels, the Osborne Brothers went back to a more traditional bluegrass approach. Almost none of that classic hybrid material is available except for a gospel CD and an excellent but short (ten songs) collection titled Country Bluegrass which seems randomly put together. No bluegrass group ever has huge numbers of hit records on the country charts, but the Osborne Brothers did chart quite a few and they should be available domestically. I would think a single disc set of thirty tracks would be acceptable, although more would be better, of course.

Johnny Wright is better know as part of the duo Johnny & Jack (with Jack Anglin), but after Anglin’s death in 1963, Wright embarked on a successful solo career which saw the release of at least six albums on MCA/Decca plus twelve chart singles including the #1 “Hello Vietnam” , the first chart topper for a Tom T. Hall song. Johnny’s wife was Kitty Wells, and while he never reached her level of success as a solo artist, apparently it never bothered Wright as he and Kitty were married from 1937 until his death in 2011 at the age of 97. A good single disc collection would suffice here.

The bulk of Little Jimmy Dickens’ career occurred for another label, but his time on MCA/Decca saw the release of two albums of new material plus an album featuring remakes of his earlier hits. The Decca albums featured a staple of Jimmy’s live shows “I Love Lucy Brown” and an amusing novelty “How To Catch An African Skeeter Alive”. I think most of this would fit on a single CD.

Wilma Burgess was an excellent singer who came along about four decades too soon. While Wilma did not flaunt being lesbian, neither did she particularly hide it. Consequently, she never got much of a commercial push from her label. Many have recorded “Misty Blue” but none did it as well as Wilma Burgess. She recorded at least five albums for MCA/Decca plus some duets with Bud Logan, former band leader for Jim Reeves. A decent two disc set of this outstanding singer should be easy to compile.

I would like to see a collection on Loretta Lynn’s siblings, Peggy Sue and Jay Lee Webb. Since Loretta’s other well known sibling started on MCA/Decca as well, it should be possible to do a good two CD set of Loretta’s kinfolks. Jay Lee Webb’s “She’s Looking Better By The Minute” is an all-time honky-tonk classic.

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Album Review: Shelby Lynne – ‘Sunrise’

sunriseShelby Lynne was teamed up with veteran producer Billy Sherrill for her first album in 1989. Her duet with George Jones and a cover of Buck Owens’ ‘Under Your Spell Again’ which had been her solo single debut were left off the tracklisting, which leans a little less traditional than either of those tracks. Shelby was only 20 when the album was released, but sounds considerably older.

Her big booming voice was front and center in ‘The Hurtin’ Side’, the album’s lead single, which just cracked the country top 40. Written by Mike Reid and Rory Michael Bourke, it’s a solid song about facing heartbreak. Reid and Bourke wrote two additional songs on the album, one of which is my favourite: ‘Till You Were Gone’, also recorded by John Conlee, is an agonized expression of regret at love discovered too late:

Every night right about now
I grow uneasy
Kinda restless somehow
It starts out like thunder on a slow steady roll
And I hit the floor half out of control

Baby I wonder if you look the same
Do you have children?
What are their names?
Does the one that you’re with
Need you all night long?
Like I never did
Until you were gone

Their third song, ‘Your Love Stays With me’ is a big ballad, more AC than country, and although it is well performed it doesn’t have a big impact.

The album’s only other single, ‘Little Bits And Pieces’ is a fine ballad recalling a broken relationship, penned by Dean Dillon and Hank Cochran, but unfortunately it did not catch on at radio. It is quite heavily strung and Shelby emotes intensely, perhaps a little too much. ‘Thinking About You Again’ is a slightly more understated but still deeply emotional ballad with a despairing lyric abut failing to move on after a breakup, written by Stephony Smith and Mike Porter.

Sherrill contributed one song, ‘This Time I Almost Made It’, an older song previously recorded by Barbara Mandrell, cited by Shelby as one of her big influences. A yearning cheating song, it had also been recorded by Tammy Wynette with Billy Sherrill at the helm, so perhaps it was his choice for Shelby, whose version stands up well to her illustrious predecessors.

The assertive ‘What About This Girl’, written by Randy Boudreaux with Madeline Stone, picks up the tempo but is not particularly country. The same goes for the bluesy ‘That’s Where It Hurts’, which starts out slow and then turns bold and brassy as she belts out a tale of heartbreak wherever she goes.

A languid jazzy take on Floyd Tillman’s classic ‘I Love You So Much It Hurts’ is effective, but the similarly jazz-inflected version of standard ‘I’m Confessin’’ is a little dull and feels self-indulgent.

Shelby’s voice and emotional intensity belied her youth, and this was an interesting debut. Although she did draw on the heritage of country music, her eclectic tastes and the fact that her retro tastes leaned more to the Nashville Sound and other genres, I wonder if she would have done better if she had been five or ten years older rather than making her debut during the heyday of the neotraditional movement. If you have eclectic tastes this is worth picking up: the vocals are strong, the songs pretty good, and the production suits her. But it was a little out of place in 1989.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Only Me’

onlymeAlthough she is primarily known as a bluegrass artist, Rhonda Vincent has moved back and forth between bluegrass and country a number of times over the course of her career. She’s done bluegrass albums and she’s done country albums, and she’s done albums that blended the two genres. This time around, instead of hybridizing the two styles, she has released a collection of twelve songs, six of which are bluegrass, and six traditional country numbers. In its physical form, the album was released on two discs, which seems a little odd when all twelve songs could easily fit on one.

Both Willie Nelson and Daryle Singletary appear on the album as Rhonda’s duet partners. Interestingly, both appear on the bluegrass part of the album. Willie, who has had a hand in almost every musical style over his long career, is not particularly known for bluegrass, but he sounds right at home singing the title track with Rhonda. Singletary lends his vocals to a remake of “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds”, a 1963 hit for George Jones and Melba Montgomery. One could argue that this one really isn’t bluegrass, but that would be nitpicking. Vincent and Singletary stick close to the original version and while this rendition doesn’t bring anything new to the table, it does give a deserving song a crack at reaching a new audience.

Although I’m a huge fan of Rhonda’s bluegrass recordings, on this particular album, the country songs are where she really shines. The country half of the album kicks off with her original composition “Teardrops Over You”. The rest of the songs on the album are remakes of country classics — with plenty of steel guitar that will keep purists happy. She bravely tackles “Once A Day”, and though she does a good job, nobody can sing this song like Connie Smith. I like her take on another Bill Anderson number — “Bright Lights and Country Music” better. She pays homage to Emmylou Harris on “Beneath Still Waters” and to George Jones (again) on “When The Grass Grows Over Me”, my favorite song on the entire album, and then kicks up her heels on the closing track, a barnburner called “Drivin’ Nails” which was a hit in 1946 for both Floyd Tillman and Ernest Tubb.

There are no surprises here, no real artistic stretches or groundbreaking moments, just some great bluegrass and country music. Sometimes that’s enough.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Willie Nelson and Family – ‘Let’s Face The Music And Dance’

let's face the music and danceAt 80 Willie Nelson remains one of the most prolific, and eclectic, of musicians. His latest album showcases his jazzy side, and the influences of the popular music of his childhood, but the relatively stripped down accompaniments should appeal to Willie’s country fans. Tastefully understated production from the estimable Buddy Cannon, and backings mainly from Willie’s ‘Family’ band (in fact the record is credited to Willie Nelson and Family) lead to a relaxed sounding set. Always a stylist rather than a great vocalist, Nelson’s voice has not deteriorated significantly enough to hamper his interpretations of these songs.

A quietly jazzy reading of 1930s Irving Berlin-penned standard ‘Let’s Face The Music And Dance’ with Spanish guitar backing sets the mood for the album. Much of the album has a very similar pace, and although it works very well, occasionally it gets a bit samey.

Nelson has recorded ‘Twilight Time’ before, and this version is pleasant but feels redundant. Some of the remaining songs (Berlin’s ‘Marie (the Dawn Is Breaking)’, ‘You’ll Never Know’ and ‘I Wish I Didn’t Love You So’) have that classical Great American Songbook feel and Willie and band perform them impeccably, but I found my attention wandering a little while they were playing. The similarly vintage ‘Walking My Baby Back Home’ has a lot more charm and the prominent harmonica from Mickey Raphael and Bobbie Nelson’s piano licks add character.

I also liked ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’, which is even older, dating from a 1920s musical rooted in Harlem jazz, the most popular African-American music of the period. It suits Willie’s laid back vocal and the band sound great on the extended instrumental intro.

‘I’ll Keep On Loving You’ was a country hit in 1940 for country/Western Swing legend Floyd Tillman, and is another song well-suited to Nelson and band. Nelson also tackles ‘Shame On You’, a song from western swing pioneer Spade Cooley, sadly better known for the savage murder of his wife, which makes this song, castigating an unfaithful wife, rather uncomfortable listening.

Most of the songs come from the 1920s through the 1940s. The most modern song is Willie’s own ‘Is The Better Part Over’ (from the 1989 album A Horse Called Music). It is a distinctly downbeat number about calling time on a failing relationship, but it is an excellent song and Willie’s understated and subtle interpretation make this a highlight.

A couple of nicely played jazz instrumentals (both associated with Django Reinhardt) allow the band to stretch out.

First recorded for a movie by singing cowboy Gene Autry, ‘South Of The Border’ has a relaxed Mexican feel which rings the changes a bit. I also enjoyed the mid-paced harmonica-led take on the Carl Perkins rockabilly classic ‘Matchbox’.

This is a fine record from a man it would be no exaggeration to call a living legend.

Grade: A

Buy Let’s Face the Music and Dance at amazon.

Listen to the album on Spotify.

Classic Rewind: Floyd Tillman – ‘Slippin’ Around’

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘The Way I Am’

After leaving Capitol it took Haggard a while to get himself back on track in the studio, as this period found Haggard focusing mostly on his live performances, operating larger and more swinging ensembles. Seeing a live Merle Haggard performance during the late 1970s was indeed a treat; however, his recorded output (and songwriting) suffered in the process. Losing the steady (and unobtrusive) hand of Ken Nelson as producer didn’t help either.

The Way I Am was Merle’s fifth album for MCA. After Ramblin’ Fever and My Farewell To Elvis things seemed to stagnate. I’m Always On A Mountain When I Fall, peaked at #17 while spending twenty weeks on the charts and featured three singles that reached #2. Serving 190 Proof also peaked at #17 and spent twenty-five weeks on the charts while featuring four singles that each peaked at #4.

While The Way I Am only reached #16 on the charts, it had a long chart run of thirty-nine weeks and primed the pump for further success. Only the title track was released as a single, reaching #2 for two weeks (it reached #1 on both Cashbox and Record World charts) but with this album Haggard got back to focusing on his recorded vocals.

The Sonny Throckmorton title track probably describes the life most of us lead:

“Wish I was down on some blue bayou,
With a bamboo cane stuck in the sand.
But the road I’m on, don’t seem to go there,
So I just dream, keep on bein’ the way I am.

Wish I enjoyed what makes my living,
Did what I do with a willin’ hand.
Some would run, but that ain’t my way
So I just dream and keep on bein’ the way I am”

“Skybo” is one of two tracks on which Porter Wagoner shares production credits. Updating Jimmie Rodgers’ hobos to the last quarter of the twentieth century, “Skybo” tells the story of a man who works airports and hitches rides to new destinations. The song has a distinct Cajun feel to it.

“No One To Sing For But The Band” is a song of lost love. Not one of Hag’s better songs but still good.

“(Remember Me) I’m The One Who Loves You” is one of five older songs on the album. Written by Stuart Hamblen, a writer better known for gospel songs, the song is given a bluesy Dixieland feel. The song was a major hit several times and has been recorded by many including hit versions by Dean Martin, Ernest Tubb and Stuart Hamblen:

“If you’re all alone and blue
No one to tell your troubles to
Remember me cause I’m the one who loves you”

“Life’s Just Not The Way It Used To Be” is a decent piece of Haggard-penned filler, dealing with a topic Haggard dealt with many times in his songs. “Wake Up” is the other song co-produced by Porter Wagoner. While the song intro has a Dixieland feel to it, the song lapses into straight-forward country. The song has lyrics that could be interpreted in differing ways:

“Wake up, don’t just lay there like cold granite stone
Wake up, we’re too close to be alone
Wake up, and please, Darling, hold me if you would
Don’t just lay there like you’ve gone away for good

There’s too many empty pages with so many things in store
I can’t believe it’s over and you’ve closed the final door
And I’m not prepared to handle these things we’re going through
I wish God would grant me just one more night with you

“Where Have You Been” is the tale of a husband and family dealing with a wayward spouse. While not a classic Haggard song, it is a good enough effort to warrant listening.

The last four songs are songs often associated with the legendary Texas Troubadour, Ernest Tubb. During the period 1944-1956 honky-tonk was the dominant form of country music and Ernest Tubb and Floyd Tillman were the primary architects of the style.

At this point in his career Haggard no longer had the clout to get away with issuing whole albums with little apparent commercial appeal; however, he still had free rein to sprinkle his albums with oldies. “Take Me Back And Try Me One More Time” was penned by Tubb and initially issued in 1942. War-time shellac shortages prevented the record from receiving wide distribution so the record was re-released and charted in 1947. Haggard’s performance on this track makes me regret that Merle never got to do an entire Ernest Tubb tribute album as ET’s songs fit Merle’s voice so perfectly:

“Yes, I know I’ve been untrue
And I have hurt you through and through
But please have mercy on this heart of mine
Take me back and try me one more time”

“I’ll Always Be Glad To Take You Back” is another Tubb-penned song that Haggard handles to perfection. “It Makes No Difference Now” was penned by Floyd Tillman, the other pillar of the subgenre. There were several hit versions of the song (Cliff Bruner, Jimmie Davis) in the late 1930s and more in the early 1940s (Tillman, Tubb). The careful crafting of the lyrics led Ray Charles to record the song and include it in his classic Modern Sounds In County and Western Music album, released in 1961.

“Makes no difference now what kind of life fate hands me
I’ll get along without you now, that’s plain to see
I don’t care what happens next, ‘ cause I’ll get by somehow
I don’t worry ’cause it makes no difference now”

The album closes with another song written by Tubb, “It’s Been So Long Darling”. At the time this album was released, Ernest Tubb was in declining health (emphysema) so the song royalties were probably quite helpful to Tubb. This song was written about soldiers drafted into service during WW2 although it could have been written about soldiers in any war:

“It’s been so long, darlin’
But it won’t be long now
It’s been so long, darlin’
But I’ve kept ev’ry vow
I pray that you’ll be waiting
As you did in days gone by
It’s been so long, darlin’
Please don’t blame me if I cry.”

Merle Haggard would record one more secular studio album and a live album for MCA before moving to Epic, his label from late 1981 until mid-1989, where he experienced a renaissance that produced a number of successful albums and singles. Although Haggard’s tenure with MCA was brief, this album and the live Rainbow Stew album are reasons to remember his tenure with MCA.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Merle Haggard & The Strangers – ‘It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)’ and ‘If We Make It Through December’

1972’s It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad) was Merle Haggard’s 15th studio album for Capitol Records. Like his previous efforts, it was produced by Ken Nelson and Fuzzy Owen. It was recorded entirely at California — part of it as early as 1970 — at Capitol Records Studio and United Recording Studio in Hollywood, and Buck Owens Studio in Bakersfield. He wrote five of the album’s eleven tracks, relying on writers such as Hank Cochran, Glenn Martin, Tommy Collins, and Red Lane to supply the rest of the album’s songs. Cochran and Glenn supplied the title track, which became Merle’s 13th #1 hit. It’s one of my favorite Merle Haggard tunes that he didn’t write himself. Emmylou Harris revived it a decade later when she included a version on her live Last Date album.

The title track was the only single released from the collection, so most of the tunes here will be unfamiliar to many fans; however, this is an excellent collection without a single dud among its eleven tracks. Haggard’s own “My Woman Keeps Lovin’ Her Man” and “New York City Blues” which finds him homesick in Yankee territory, are both excellent, with the latter showing a strong Jimmie Rodgers influence. Another Haggard original, “A Shoulder To Cry On” would become a #1 hit for Charley Pride a few months later. Pride had expressed an interest in the song upon hearing Haggard perform it shortly after it was written. Merle generously allowed Charley to record the song and release it as a single. Had he kept it for himself, it’s a safe assumption to say that his own version would have reached the top of the charts.

“Dad’s Old Fiddle” sounds like a Haggard-penned tune, but it was actually written by Glenn Martin, most likely with Merle in mind. It tells the story of a man who inherits his father’s fiddle and learns to play it. Merle’s own father had played the fiddle in Oklahoma, but gave it up before Merle was born, and Merle later taught himself how to play the instrument when he was preparing to record his Bob Wills tribute album.
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Country Heritage: Gary Stewart – A Short Life Of Trouble (1944-2003)

Readers of The 9513 will be familiar with Paul W. Dennis’ excellent Country Heritage (aka Forgotten Artists) series. We are pleased to announce that Paul has agreed to continue the column for My Kind of Country:

A few years ago, the venerable Ralph Stanley issued an album titled A Short Life of Trouble: Songs of Grayson and Whitter. Neither Grayson nor Whitter, a musical partnership of the late 1920s, lived to be fifty years old. Beyond that I don’t know much about the duo, but the title certainly would apply to the life of Gary Stewart.

Gary Stewart was a hard rocking, hard drinking artist who arrived at the wrong time and in the wrong place. Often described as “too country for rock radio and too rock for country radio”, Gary simply arrived on the market at the wrong time for his rocking brand of hard-core honky-tonk music to achieve general acceptance, for his music was neither outlaw nor countrypolitan, the two dominant strains of country music during the 1970s.

Gary Stewart was born in Kentucky, the son of a coal miner who suffered a disabling injury when Gary was a teenager. As a result Gary’s family relocated to Fort Pierce, Florida, where Gary learned to play guitar and piano and started writing songs. Playing the clubs at night, while working a full-time job in an airplane factory, Gary had the good fortune to meet Mel Tillis. Mel encouraged Gary to travel to Nashville to pitch his songs. While early recording efforts for minor labels failed to interest radio, Gary achieved some success pitching songs to other artists. Among the early efforts were “Poor Red Georgia Dirt”, a 1965 hit for Stonewall Jackson and “Sweet Thang and Cisco” a top ten record for Nat Stuckey in 1969 . Other artists also recorded his songs, most notably Billy Walker (“She Goes Walking Through My Mind,” “Traces of a Woman,” “It’s Time to Love Her”) and Cal Smith (“You Can’t Housebreak a Tomcat”, “It Takes Me All Night Long”).

In 1968 Gary was signed by Kapp Records where he recorded several unsuccessful singles. Disheartened, Gary headed back to Fort Pierce, again playing the skull orchards and juke joints.
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Album Review: George Jones – ‘Step Right Up 1970-1979: A Critical Anthology’

George had become disillusioned with Pappy Daily’s business practices. His marriage to Tammy Wynette in 1969 encouraged him to make the momentous decision to move to her label Epic, and to co-opt her producer Billy Sherrill. George was forced to buy himself out of his Musicor contract, but it was money well spent, even though his chart record remained somewhat inconsistent. George’s move to Epic saw him at the peak of his vocal prowess, married to Billy Sherrill’s smooth, Nashville Sound production.

This superb compilation contains six of George’s last tracks for Musicor, and over 20 of the finest tracks he recorded in his first eight years on Epic. These were the years of his troubled marriage to and divorce from Tammy Wynette, and the years his intensifying battles with drugs and alcohol earned him the inglorious nickname ‘No Show Jones’ and saw his health break down, but in the studio George Jones was creating magic and leading up to what many will call his finest moment on record. Step Right Up mixes classic hits with some well-chosen lesser known album cuts. The material is almost uniformly great here, concentrating on the sad songs at which George Jones has always excelled. Vocally George does not put a foot wrong, although some aspects of the production, mainly the backing vocals, now sound a little dated. The only reason to debate whether this album is worth buying is whether you might not try to get hold of the constituent albums, at least some of which are available on CD reissues.

George’s first single of the 70s, as he approached the end of his time with Musicor, was ‘Where Grass Won’t Grow’, a bleak, echoey tale of rural poverty in Tennessee,

Trying to grow corn and cotton on ground so poor that grass won’t grow

culminating in the death of the protagonist’s wife, buried in that same soil. The song, written by George’s old friend and drinking partner Earl Montgomery, was perhaps too downbeat to chart higher than the lower reaches of the top 30, but its quality led it to become regarded as a classic Jones record.

The exquisite expression of emotional devastation in ‘A Good Year For The Roses’ (written by Jerry Chestnut) is one of George’s most masterly vocal performances, reaching #2 on Billboard.

A handful of less well-known late Musicor cuts are also included. The tender steel-laced ballad of love for the protagonist’s motherless child, ‘She’s Mine’, co-written by George with Jack Ripley, was a top 10 hit. Slightly less successful, peaking at #13, was a great Dallas Frazier/Sanger D Shafer composition ‘Tell Me My Lying Eyes Are Wrong’, in which George manfully tries to pretend everything’s alright and his wife isn’t cheating on him, unusually featuring the Jones Boys’ backing. Another Dallas Frazier song (this time with A L Owens), ‘She’s As Close As I Can Get To Loving You’, has another great lead vocal, but is marred by excessive Nashville Sound backing vocals. Wayne Kemp’s ballad ‘Image Of Me’ has the protagonist confessing his shame that he has “dragged down” a simple old-fashioned country girl and made her into a honky-tonk angel, with another very fine vocal performance. Earl Montgomery’s ‘Right Won’t Touch A Hand’, a passionate confession of regret for jealousy which destroyed a relationship, was yet another top 10 hit in 1971.

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Album Review: Patsy Cline – ‘Showcase’

In 1960, Patsy’s contract with Four Star expired, and she signed a new deal with Decca, which had been distributing her earlier singles. Patsy’s triumphant return to the spotlight in 1961 with ‘I Fall To Pieces’, her first hit single since ‘Walking After Midnight’ four years earlier led to the release of a full-length album, the appropriately titled Showcase, with the Jordanaires (best known for their work backing Elvis Presley) singing on most tracks and given almost equal billing when the set was rereleased after Patsy’s death. Owen Bradley remained at the helm, and by now he had found the right crossover template for Patsy’s recordings. They also had access to a wider variety of material than Four Star had allowed. The tracks other than that first single were recorded in August 1961, as Patsy was recovering from a serious car accident.

‘I Fall To Pieces’, which Patsy recorded at her first Decca session, was the breakthrough single, her first #1, and perhaps her most sublime moment on record. Written by Harlan Howard and Hank Cochran, the song is a perfect expression of the pain endured by a woman whose former lover just wants to be friends, while she falls apart every time she sees him. This track opens the album, and ‘Crazy’, the other big hit, was the opening track on side two of the original vinyl LP. The latter, famously penned by a young Willie Nelson, may be the quintessential Patsy Cline recording, the perfect epitome of her sophisticated country torch style. Heartbreak has rarely sounded more beautiful than it does on these two recordings.

Patsy offers the definitive version of another classic, Floyd Tillman’s agonized ‘I Love You So Much It Hurts’, again in her torch style, and this is another highlight. Also very good is ‘Have You Ever Been Lonely (Have You Ever Been Blue)’, an erring wife’s appeal for forgiveness, which has an excellent vocal along similar lines.

The album balanced pop and country in several ways. One was to give country songs a pop makeover.

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