My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Fred Rose

Classic Album Review — ‘The Carl Smith Anniversary Album: 20 Years of Hits’

During the late 1960s-early 1970s, Columbia Records tried to mine their back catalog of songs by releasing two album sets with gatefold covers. These typically took three different directions:

A) Mixed artists compilations of singles, album tracks (often Columbia artists covering hits of artists on other labels).

B) Compilations of an artists’ miscellaneous older singles and album tracks into a two-album set. In some cases (The World of Ray Price comes to mind) the singles would represent remakes of the original hits recorded in stereo and often with slick ‘Nashville Sound’. In other cases (such as The World of Johnny Cash, The World of Lynn Anderson, The World of Tammy Wynette or The World of Flatt & Scruggs) the compilation consisted of album tracks from out of print albums with perhaps a few singles mixed in 1960. C) Re-recordings of an artist’s greatest hits, but not utilizing the slick ‘Nashville Sound” production often associated with country production of the period. I can think of only two albums that fit

C) Re-recordings of an artist’s greatest hits, but not utilizing the slick ‘Nashville Sound” production often associated with country production of the period. I can think of only two albums that fit in this category. One of these albums was The World of Johnny Horton, where Columbia had some material in the can which had light post-production applied to some tracks after Horton’s premature death in 1960.

The other album was The Carl Smith Anniversary Album: 20 Years of Hits. 

Largely forgotten today, or remembered as the father of Carlene Carter, during the 1950s Carl Smith was a huge star, ranking behind only Webb Pierce, Eddy Arnold and, Hank Snow among the stars of the 1950s. His songs were solidly country; however that was nothing revolutionary or pioneering about his sound as many of Carl’s hits could have fit comfortably on 1940s country playlists. Although his success fell off sharply after rock & roll hit, still he persevered long enough to roll up 93 chart hits by the time he retired in the mid-1970s.

Although Carl had a very good voice, there was too much east Tennessee in Carl’s voice for him to make the Jim Reeves/Eddy Arnold/Ray Price turn toward pop balladry and his voice was far too deeply masculine for him to record the effeminate sounds of rock & roll or doo wop. Still he continued to have a number of top twenty hits during the 1960s. Although Merle Haggard is given deserved credit for the western swing resurgence of the 1970s, Carl’s music had been turning toward western swing sounds during the latter 1960s.

With this album, many of Carl’s biggest hits were recast as western swing, with other songs given a more jazzy feel just short of western swing.

Here are the songs on the album with some comments on each:

“Hey Joe” was a 1953 hit for Carl, spending eight weeks at #1 in 1953. This recording has a definite swing arrangement.

“Back Up Buddy” reached #2 for Carl in 1954 

“She Called Me Baby” was a minor hit for Carl (#32 Billboard / #20 Record World) in 1965. The song was a cover of a Patsy Cline hit from 1962 and Charlie Rich would take the song to #1 in 1974. The arrangement on this version differs little from Carl’s 1965 recording with some extra horns being the main difference.

“Deep Water” would prove to be Carl’s biggest hit of the 1960s, reaching #6 on Record World and #10 on Billboard in 1967. Written by Fred Rose and recorded by Bob Wills (among others), this version differs little from Carl’s 1967 recording, with some extra horns being the main difference. 

“Foggy River” was the follow-up to “Deep Water” breaking into the top twenty. The arrangement is an up-tempo modern country arrangement minus the strings of the Nashville Sound. Kate Smith had a pop hit with the song in 1948.

“Pull My String And Wind Me Up” was a top twenty hit for Carl in 1970. I recall hearing this on the radio so I think that this was the jazzy version released as a single. 

“Heartbreak Avenue” was released as a single in1969. The song is a slow ballad and features a bluesy arrangement and vocal by Carl. 

“Good Deal Lucille” was a single released in 1969 that broke into the top twenty. The version on this album swings a little harder than the single release.   

“It’s All Right” was not released as a single but has a nice swing feel with some nice saxophone. 

“I Love You Because” was a #3 pop hit for Al Martino in 1963 and was recorded as an album track that same year by Jim Reeves (and was released as a posthumous Jim Reeves single in 1976). The song was written by blind country singer Leon Payne and reached #4 for Leon in 1949. Carl’s 1969 release reached #14 – the single was very similar to this recording. Basically, the steel guitar is the lead instrument for much of this track.   

“I Overlooked An Orchid” was an early recording for Carl Smith. Released in 1950, the song never charted but was a regional hit for Carl, and apparently sold quite well despite its lack of chart activity. The song would become a #1 hit for Mickey Gilley in 1974.   

‘Mister Moon” was Carl’s second hit from 1951, a song that reached #4 and spent 17 weeks on the charts. The song features standard country production but no strings or background singers.

“I Feel Like Cryin’” reached #7 in early 1956 as the B side of “You’re Free To Go” which topped out at #6. Again the song features standard production minus strings, but with some harmony vocals. 

“There She Goes” reached #3 for Carl in 1955 and spent 25 weeks on the charts. Jerry Wallace would have a pop hit with the song in 1961. Once again the song features standard production minus strings, but with some harmony vocals. 

“Let Old Mother Nature Have Her Way” was Carl’s fourth chart hit for 1951 and his biggest ever hit reaching #1 for eight weeks and spending thirty-three weeks on the charts. This recording is a slow ballad with a jazzy, but not western swing, feel to it.   

“Loose Talk” was Carl’s last #1 single reaching the top in early 1955 and staying there for seven weeks during its thirty-two week chart run. The song would be a big hit for the duo of Buck Owens & Rose Maddox in 1961 and become a country standard. The song was written by Freddie Hart and verges on western swing in this version.

“Are You Teasing Me” is a cover of a Louvin Brothers song that reached #1 for Carl in 1952, his third consecutive #1 record. This version is given a jazzy arrangement. 

“Don’t Just Stand There” was the following up to “Let Old Mother Nature Have Her Way” and it also spent eight weeks at #1, although it faded off the charts after only twenty-four weeks. I would describe this recording as solidly western swing. 

“If Teardrops Were Pennies” reached #8 for Carl in 1951, his third charted single of the year. Porter & Dolly would take the song to #3 in 1973. 

“I Betcha My Heart I Love You” dates back to Bob Wills, and while no one ever had a hit with the song, it was a staple of many country bands for years. Wanda Jackson had a nice recording of the song, but Carl’s rendition here really swings. Carl himself recorded the song in 1950 but without any chart action.

The Carl Smith Anniversary Album: 20 Years of Hits remains one of my favorite albums, one that I pull out and play frequently. Over the years I have dubbed it onto cassette tapes and also made digital copies of the album. To my knowledge, it has only ever been released on vinyl.

Carl Smith is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and while his 1950s output has been adequately available his post-1950s output has been shamefully under-represented in the digital era.

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Classic Album Review: Hank Locklin – ‘The Country Hall Of Fame’

Released in 1966 by RCA Records (my copy is a German pressing on RCA/Telefunken), Hank’s tribute takes a different approach from Wanda Jackson’s album from two years earlier, being centered around the 1967 hit single “The Country Hall of Fame”.

Largely forgotten today, Hank had a substantial career as a songwriter, performer, and occasional hitmaker, although he never was headquartered in Nashville, so he didn’t get as much promotional push from his label, and he never really maintained his own band. He was a huge favorite in England and Ireland making many trips there.

His biggest copyright as a songwriter, “Send Me The Pillow That You Dream On”, was a top five county hit for Hank in 1957 (it had been a regional hit for him in the late 1940s on another label ) and earned him a boatload of money by being frequently covered by other artists such as Dean Martin and Johnny Tillotson both had top five easy listening/top twenty pop hits with the song. Tillotson’s recording also became a top ten or top twenty pop hit in a number of European countries.

As a singer, Locklin was a wobbly Irish tenor whose voice wasn’t a perfect match for every song, but when the right song reached him, he could deliver some really big hits. “Let Me Be The One” spent three weeks at #1 in 1953, and “Please Help Me I’m Falling” spent fourteen weeks at #1 in 1960. Hank had ten top ten hits through spring 1962, but after that Arnold, even the top twenty became nearly impossible for him, until the title song to this album.

When the earlier Wanda Jackson album was released the Country Music Hall of Fame was comprised of the following performers: Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Roy Acuff, Tex Ritter and Ernest Tubb. By the time Hank’s album arrived there had been multiple inductions (in 1966 and 1967), but of the eight new inductees, four were non-performers. The newly inducted performers were “Uncle” Dave Macon, Jim Reeves, Eddy Arnold and Red Foley.

In selecting songs for this album, Hank and his producers Chet Atkins and Felton Jarvis selected songs by persons either in the Country Hall of Fame or assumed to be inducted in the upcoming years.

The album opens up with “High Noon”, a hit for Frankie Laine, but forever associated with Tex Ritter, who sang the song in the famous movie starring Gary Cooper. Hank’s voice is pitched much higher than that of Ritter, but the song, taken at a slightly faster tempo than Ritter’s version, works. The song has a straightforward country backing with a vocal chorus.

Do not forsake me oh my darling on this our wedding day
Do not forsake me oh my darling, wait wait along
I do not know what fate awaits me, I only know I must be brave
And I must face the man who hates me
Or lie a coward, a craven coward
Or lie a coward in my grave

Next up is “Four Walls”, a million seller for the then-recently departed Jim Reeves in 1957.

Track three is the title song, Hank’s last Billboard top thirty country hit, reaching #8. In concept, the song, written by Karl Davis is somewhat similar to an Eddie Dean composition, “I Dreamed of Hillbilly Heaven”, which Tex Ritter took to #5 in 1961, although “Hillbilly Heaven” is a dream sequence song about a mythical place, whereas Karl Davis was inspired by his visit to the actual Country Hall of Fame museum. This song features a full string arrangement by Bill Walker. Although the only song on this album to feature the full string arrangement, such arrangements would become increasingly common in the next few years:

I was roaming round in Nashville in the state of Tennessee
For I love that country music, it’s as soulful as can be
I have gathered there the records for I cherished every name
So I found myself a standing in the Country Hall of Fame

My heart beat somewhat faster as I walked in through the door
For I heard the sound of voices I had often heard before
A happy kind of sadness brought a teardrop to my eye
Now I’ll tell you what I saw there and I’m sure that you’ll see why

Jimmie Rodgers’ railroad lantern and his faithful old guitar
I could hear that old blue yodel coming from somewhere afar
Roy Acuff in bronze likeness with the great Fred Rose his friend
And I heard that Wabash Cannonball somewhere around the bend

The guitar of Eddy Arnold memories of Cattle Call
Chet Atkins will be with him when the work’s all done this fall
From the autoharp of Maybelle, Wildwood Flower seems to ring
Riley Puckett and Gid Tanner how they all could pick and sing

I could hear George Hay announcin’ as I stood there in the room
I could hear Tex Ritter singing his classic song High Noon
Minnie Pearl so glad to be there and Hank Snow keeps Movin’ On
May the Lord bless those still living and the ones who’s joined his throne

Cowboy Copas, Hankshaw Hawkins, Gentleman Jim and Patsy Cline
Rod Bradsfield, Ira Louvin, these stars will always shine
Ernest Tubb, the great Red Foley and Hank Williams bless his name
Though some are gone they’ll live forever in the Country Hall of Fame

“I’ll Hold You In My Heart (Until I Can Hold You In My Arms)” was a massive hit for Arnold, spending 21 weeks at #1 in 1947/1948. Hank acquits himself well on this song as he does on the next track, Ernest Tubb’s 1941 hit “Walking The Floor Over You”.

Side One closes out with Hank’s cover of the “Lovesick Blues”, written by Tin Pan Alley songsmiths Cliff Friend and Irving Mills back in 1922. Emmet Miller (1928) and Rex Griffin (1939) recorded the song, but Hank Williams had the biggest hit with the song in 1949. Countless others, including Patsy Cline, have recorded the song. To really do the song justice, a singer needs to be a good yodeler, and here Locklin yodels the chorus with ease.

Side Two opens up with a mid-tempo take on Roy Acuff’s “Night Train To Memphis” with a modern arrangement (no dobro, banjo or fiddles), but with a bit of the old tent revival show feeling to it.

This is followed by “Sign Sealed and Delivered”, a hit for Lloyd “Cowboy” Copas in 1948). I think the assumption was that Copas would be elected to the Country Hall of Fame eventually, although that has yet to happen. Of the three stars who died in the 1963 plane crash (Copas, Patsy Cline, Hawkshaw Hawkins) Copas was the most famous at the time of his death.

“No One Will Ever Know” was written by Fred Rose, inducted as an executive and songwriter. The biggest hit on the song was by Gene Watson, #11 RW in 1980, although many others have recorded the song, including Hank Williams and Jimmie Dickens. Hank Locklin takes the song at a slow tempo with guitar and piano dominating the arrangement. The vocal choruses are present but not misused. It is a great song and I don’t know why no one has ever had a monster hit with the song

No one will ever know my heart is breaking
Although a million teardrops start to flow
I’ll cry myself to sleep and wake up smiling
I’ll miss you but no one will ever know

I’ll tell them we grew tired of each other
And realized our dreams could never be
I’ll even make believe I never loved you
Then no one will ever know the truth but me

The Jimmie Rodgers classic brag “Blue Yodel #1 a/k/a ‘T’ for Texas” gives Hank a chance to again show off his skill as a yodeler. On this album, Hank one uses the “blue yodel” technique but he was quite capable of doing the “rolling” (or Swiss) technique such as used by Elton Britt, Kenny Roberts and Margo Smith

The album closes with the classic Louvin Brothers hit “When I Stop Dreaming” which finds Locklin at the top of his vocal range, and a nice cover of the Red Foley gospel favorite “Peace In The Valley”.

As was customary for albums of this vintage no musician credits are given, although PragueFrank’s website suggests that the following were present :

Pete Wade, Wayne Moss, Jerry Reed Hubbard and Ray Edenton – guitars
Roy M. “Junior” Huskey, Jr. – bass / Jerry Kerrigan – drums
Hargus “Pig” Robbins and Floyd Cramer – piano / The Jordanaires – background vocals

I know that Hank Locklin’s voice is not to everyone’s taste but I think most listeners would enjoy this album because of the variety and quality of the songs. Interestingly enough, there is no overlap in songs between this album and Wanda Jackson’s earlier tribute album. I would give this album a B+

Classic Album Review: Wanda Jackson ‘Salutes The Country Music Hall Of Fame’

Released in 1966 by Capitol Records (my copy is a British pressing on Capitol / EMI), Wanda’s album may be the first album to expressly salute the recently established Country Music Hall of Fame. At the time the album was recorded only six persons had been inducted into the County Music Hall of Fame:

1961 – Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Fred Rose
1962 – Roy Acuff
1964 – Tex Ritter
1965 – Ernest Tubb

Of the six above, Fred Rose was a publisher & songwriter but not a performer. The other five would today be described as very traditional performers, so this album gave Wanda, more commonly regarded as a rockabilly or rock ‘n roll performer (she is in both the Rockabilly and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame) a chance to display her credentials as a country performer. Reaching #12 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, this album would prove to be Wanda’s second highest charting album.

While no singles were released from this album, I frequently heard tracks from the album played on the various county stations around the southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina. This at a time that when Billboard did not chart album tracks.

Produced by Ken Nelson, no musician credits are given but I suspect that members of Buck Owen’s Buckaroos and Merle Haggard’s Strangers are in the mix somewhere.

The album opens up with the Hank Williams classic “Jambalaya” taken at mid-tempo. The song has a standard 1960s country arrangement with steel guitar and piano feature in the arrangement and the lyrics clearly enunciated.

Next up is one of my favorite Ernest Tubb songs “Try Me One More Time”. This was Ernest’s first chart entry when Billboard started its County Charts in 1944. The song was a crossover pop hit. This song is taken at a medium slow tempo that could be described as plodding, but which fits the song perfectly.

Yes I know I’ve been untrue
And I have hurt you through and through
Please have a mercy on this heart of mine
Take me back and try me one more time

If my darling you could see
Just what your leaving done to me
You’d know that love is still a tie that binds
And take me back and try me one more time

In my dreams I see your face
But it seems there’s someone in my place
Oh does she know you were once just mine
Take me back and try me one more time

“There’s A New Moon Over My Shoulder” was a huge hit for cowboy actor Tex Ritter in 1944. Again, this is a slow ballad.

Wanda enters another dimension with her cover of the 1929 Jimmie Rodgers tune “Blue Yodel #6” with its bluesy arrangement (nearly acoustic) and, of course, Jimmie Rodgers style blue yodel

He left me this morning, midnight was turning day
He left me this morning, midnight was turning day
I didn’t have no blues till my good man went away

Got the blues like midnight, moon shining bright as day
Got the blues like midnight, moon shining bright as day
I wish a tornado would come and blow my blues away

Now one of these mornings, I’m gonna leave this town
Yeah one of these mornings, I’m gonna leave this town
‘Cause you trifling men really keep a good gal down

When a woman’s down, you men don’t want her round
When a woman’s down, you men don’t want her round
But if she’s got money, she’s the sweetest gal in town

“Fireball Mail” was a beloved and oft-covered Roy Acuff song with writer credits to Floyd Jenkins, an alias of Fred Rose. This song is taken at a medium fast tempo with modern 1960s instrumentation (no dobro, fiddle or banjo).

Here she comes, look at her roll, there she goes eatin’ that coal
Watch her fly huggin’ the rails, let her by by by the fireball mail
Let her go look at her steam, hear her blow, whistle and scream
Like a hound waggin’ his tail Dallas bound bound bound, the fireball mail

Engineer makin’ up time, tracks are clear, look at her climb
See that freight clearin’ the rail, bet she’s late late late, the fireball mail
Watch her swerve, look at her sway, get that curve out of the way
Watch her fly, look at her sail, let her by by by the fireball mail
Let her by by by the fireball mail, let her by by by the fireball mail

Side one of the album closes out with another Ernest Tubb classic “Let’s Say Goodbye Like We Said Hello”, a 1948 hit for the redoubtable Tubb. The arrangement on this track plays direct tribute to Tubb retaining the three note guitar signature featured on nearly all of Ernest’s recordings. The song is taken at a medium slow tempo.

Side two opens up with “Jealous Heart” a 1944 ballad for Tex Ritter that reached #2 and was a top twenty pop hit. Wanda takes the song at a slightly faster tempo than did Tex (she also lacks Tex’s drawl).

Jealous heart, oh jealous heart, stop beating, can’t you see the damage you have done
You have driven him away forever jealous heart, now I’m the lonely one
I was part of everything he planned for and I know he loved me from the start
Now he hates the sight of all I stand for all because of you, oh jealous heart

Jealous heart, why did I let you rule me when I knew the end would bring me pain
Now he’s gone, he’s gone and found another, oh I’ll never see my love again
Through the years his memory will haunt me even though we’re many miles apart
It’s so hard to know he’ll never want me cause he heard your beating, jealous heart

Next up is “Great Speckled Bird”, a Roy Acuff classic from the 1930s. One of the all-time favorite religious songs of country audiences Wanda does a creditable job with the song but Roy Acuff she’s not.

“The Soldier’s Last Letter” was a huge Ernest Tubb hit from 1944 reaching #1 for four weeks. According to Billboard this was Ernest’s biggest chart hit (there were no country charts in 1941 when “I’m Walking The Floor Over You” was released, as one that was a big pop hit and sold (according to various sources) over a million copies. Merle Haggard would revive the song as a single taking it to #1 on Record World in 1971.

I think everyone has heard “The Wabash Cannonball” a song credited to A.P. Carter and popularized by Roy Acuff. Taken at a medium-fast tempo, and using a standard arrangement Wanda does a nice job with the song.

The final track is my favorite on the album, Jimmie Rodgers’ “Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues”, one of Jimmie’s lesser known songs. Wanda opens the song with a rolling yodel and gets to demonstrate her yodeling skills on this song.

I’m always blue, feeling so blue, I wish I had someone I knew
Just to help me tuck away my blues, lonesome blues
Won’t you be that someone to help me lose the blues
I really need someone to love me, someone to kiss
Someone to scold me, someone to miss
Won’t you be that someone to help me lose the blues
I really need someone to love me.

None of these songs are taken at a really fast tempo, so the entire album gives Wanda to demonstrate her skill as a balladeer. This is my favorite Wanda Jackson album and I’m grateful that I got to see her on several Capitol package programs where she focused on country songs and stayed away from the rockabilly stuff.

I am not sure why Wanda’s career as a country artist never really caught fire – she had a good clear voice with character and personality, she could yodel and she could tackle anything. I think she took off some years in mid-career to raise a family, and perhaps she never got the push from Capital that she deserved. Regardless, she was a fine singer – I’d give this album an “A”.

Classic Album Review – Mac Wiseman – ‘Mac Wiseman’

Growing up as a military brat during in the 1950s and 1960s, we didn’t always live in an area where there were full time country music stations. Since Dad had a decent record collection, I was always able to listen to country music, but bluegrass wasn’t really Dad’s favorite subgenre of the music. As I recall, he had one Flatt & Scruggs album and a cheapie album by some non-descript group called Homer & The Barnstormers. Consequently, unless we lived in an area with a country radio station, I really didn’t often hear bluegrass music.

While in college I finally purchased a couple of bluegrass albums. One of the albums, Tennessee by Jimmy Martin, was on Decca. It is a great album that I highly commend to everyone.

The other album, Mac Wiseman, was on the Hilltop label. Hilltop was a reissue album that labels such as Dot, Capitol (and a few other labels that did not have their own cheap(er) reissue label) would reissue older material. Released in 1967, Hilltop JS 6047 consisted of Mac Wiseman tracks licensed from Capitol Records. While I only paid $1.29 for it brand-new, I regard it as one of the true treasures of my record collection.

With tracks recorded between 1960 and 1964, the album features a stellar collection of country and bluegrass musicians such as Ray Edenton (guitar), Benny Williams (mandolin), Joe Drumright and Buck Trent (banjo), Lew Childre (dobro) and Tommy Jackson, Buddy Spicher and Chubby Wise on fiddles.

Since it was on a budget label, the album contains only ten tracks, instead of the customary twelve tracks found on full price albums.

The album opens up with an up-tempo traditional tune “Footprints In The Snow” about a fellow who finds the love of his life by rescuing her from a blizzard. Buddy Spicher and Chubby Wise are featured on twin fiddles on this track and the next two tracks. Everyone from Bill Monroe onward recorded the song, but Mac’s version remains my favorite.

Now some folks like the summertime when they can walk about
Strolling through the meadow green it’s pleasant there no doubt
But give me the wintertime when the snow is on the ground
For I found her when the snow on the ground

I traced her little footprints in the snow
I found her little footprints in the snow
I bless that happy day when Nellie lost her way
For I found her when the snow was on the ground

Next up is “Pistol Packin’ Preacher”, written by Slim Gordon, another up-tempo romp, about a preacher who brought the gospel to the west, while being armed to defend himself and others when necessary.

“What’s Gonna Happen To Me?” is a slower song about a fellow lamenting the loss of love. This song was composed by the legendary Fred Rose with Gene Autry sometimes receiving co-writer credit. I’ve heard Autry’s version but I think Wiseman’s version is slightly better.

The flower of love came to wither and die
Our romance was never to be
No matter what happens I know you’ll get by
But what’s gonna happen to me

I’ll never be able to love someone new
Cause somehow I’ll never feel free
I’m sure you’ll find someone to care about you
But what’s gonna happen to me

“Tis Sweet To Be Remembered” is one of Mac’s signature songs. Originally recorded for Dot Records in 1957, this remake is in no way inferior to the original version. Mac is joined by Millie Kirkham and the legendary Jordanaires Quartet on this number and on the closing track of Side One, “I Love Good Bluegrass Music”.

‘Tis sweet to be remembered on a bright or gloomy day
‘Tis sweet to be remembered by a dear one far away
‘Tis sweet to be remembered remembered, remembered
‘Tis sweet to be remembered when you are far away

Side Two opens up with the lively “What A Waste of Good Corn Likker” about a fellows girl friend who falls into a vat of corn liquor and has to be ‘buried by the jug’. Unfortunately I have no session information at all about this track.

Cousin Cale upon the Jew’s harp
Played a mighty mournful tune
Kinfolks bowed their heads and gathered ’round
Then I heard the parson sing
Drink me only with thine eyes
As we watch them pour poor Lilly in the ground

Oh, what a waste of good corn liquor
From the still they pulled the plug
All the revenuers snickered ’cause she melted in the liquor
And they had to bury poor Lilly by the jug

Now I’m sitting in the twilight
‘Neath the weeping willow tree
The sun is slowly sinking in the west
And I’m clasping to my bosom
A little jug of Lilly Mae
With a broken heart I’m longing for the rest

Next up is the Marty Robbins-penned nostalgic ballad “Mother Knows Best”. Tommy Jackson and Shortly Lavender handle the twin fiddles on this track, and the next track, penned by Cindy Walker –
“Old Pair of Shoes”.

The album closes with a pair of country classics. “Dark Hollow” was penned by Bill Browning and has been recorded by dozens (maybe hundreds) of country and bluegrass artists and even such rock luminaries as the Grateful Dead. Jimmie Skinner, who straddled the fence between the two genres, had a top ten single with the song in 1959. Mac inflects the proper amount of bitterness into the vocal.

I’d rather be in some dark hollow where the sun don’t ever shine
Then to be at home alone and knowin’ that you’re gone
Would cause me to lose my mind

Well blow your whistle freight train carry me far on down the track
Well I’m going away, I’m leaving today
I’m goin’, but I ain’t comin’ back.

The album closes out with Kate Smith’s signature song “When The Moon Comes Over The Mountain”, a nostalgic ballad composed long ago by Harry Woods, Howard Johnson and Kate Smith. Kate took the song to #1 in 1931 and used it as her theme song for her various radio shows and personal appearances.

When the moon comes over the mountain
Every beam brings a dream, dear, of you
Once again we’ll stroll ‘neath the mountain
Through that rose-covered valley we knew
Each day is grey and dreary
But the night is bright and cheery
When the moon comes over the mountain
I’ll be alone with my memories of you

Many of these songs appear to be from previously uncollected singles but whatever the source, Mac Wiseman is in good voice throughout and the band completely meshes with what Mac is attempting to do. Bear Family eventually released these tracks in one of their expensive boxed sets, but for me, this album boils down the essence of Mac Wiseman in ten exquisite tracks. I still play this album often.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Conway Twitty – ‘Hello Darlin’

Note: I never owned this album on vinyl so I am working off a CD released on MCA Special Products in 1991, The songs are the same as on the initial vinyl release but the sequence of the songs is different on the CD.

Issued in June 1970, Hello Darlin’ was the ninth solo studio album released by Conway Twitty on Decca. The album was Conway’s first #1 country album and was eventually certified “Gold”. It also reached #65 on Billboard’s all genres chart, the highest that any of Conway’s country albums would reach, although reporting of country albums on the all-genres chart was very suspect and country albums were frequently under-reported by record shop personnel.

The CD opens with the Felice & Boudreaux Bryant classic “Rocky Top”. At the time, “Rocky Top” was a fairly new song that had not been covered to death. The Osborne Brothers had a hit with the song in 1968 and the combination of Doug Dillard, Gene Clark and Donna Washburn had a really nice version of the song on a Dillard & Clark album from that same year. Conway’s version has a banjo on it with what is otherwise an up-tempo Nashville production. Needless to say, Conway sings the song very well although he changes the words very slightly to accommodate his own phrasing.

Next up is “I’ll Get Over Losing You” a song written by Conway, a somewhat generic ballad about lost love. As always Conway sings it well, making for pleasant listening.

Conway also penned “Up Comes The Bottle” a mid-tempo song about the effects of alcohol. It’s a good song, well sung by Conway

Up comes the bottle and down goes the man

I can’t help him but I can understand

When up comes the bottle

And down, down, down, goes the man.

 

You may find him anywhere there’s heartache and despair

With loneliness so heavy you can feel it in the air

And the only thing that matters is the drink in his hand

Then up comes the bottle

And down, down, down, goes the man.

Bill Anderson wrote “You and Your Sweet Love”, which charted for Connie Smith in 1969, While I prefer Connie’s version, it would have made a good Conway Twitty single, one of many such songs stranded as album tracks on the early Conway Twitty albums. I seem to recall that Connie Smith wrote the liner notes for the vinyl album’s back cover.

The self-penned “Hello Darlin’” is the song for which Conway is best remembered, although “It’s Only Make Believe” was a huge pop hit in 1958 and by far his biggest seller. “Hello Darlin’“ reached #1 and stayed there for four weeks. The song is about a man who runs into an old flame, reigniting old feelings in the process. This was the only single released from the album.

 Hello darlin’

Nice to see you

It’s been a long time

You’re just as lovely

As you used to be

 

How’s your new love

Are you happy?

Hope you’re doin’ fine

Just to know means so much to me

 

What’s that darlin’

How am I doin’?

I’m doin’ alright

Except I can’t sleep

I cry all night ’til dawn

 

What I’m tryin’ to say is

I love you and I miss you

And I’m so sorry

That I did you wrong

Conway would revisit the theme with his next single “Fifteen Years Ago”. I saw Conway in concert several times before this song was released and several times after. From 1971 onward, this was his opening number and “It’s Only Make Believe” his closing number, perfect bookends for a great show.

“Rose” (not to be mistaken for the maudlin Amanda McBroom composition “The Rose” that Bette Midler would record later and Conway would cover) was written by L.E. White, a staff writer for Conway’s publishing company. This song is a ballad about a brother whose sister has strayed off-track in life.

“Reuben James” was a top thirty pop hit for Kenny Rogers and The First Edition (it went top ten in Canada, New Zealand and Australia) that was covered by a large number of American country artists. This is a nice mid-tempo track.

Bill Anderson also wrote “I Never Once Stopped Loving You”, which reached #5 for Connie Smith in 1970, Again, I prefer Connie’s version, but Conway does a nice job with this ballad

It is difficult to find a country album of the late 1960s-early 1970s that does not contain a Dallas Frazier composition. This album features “Will You Visit Me On Sundays” which was a top twenty single for Charlie Louvin in 1968, and the title track of a 1970 George Jones album. I can’t say that Conway’s version is better than Charlie Louvin or George Jones (the lyric seems perfect for Charlie’s weathered voice) but this would have made a good Conway Twitty single.

 Just outside these prison bars

The hanging tree is waitin’

At sunrise I’ll meet darkness

And death will say hello

Darling, touch your lips to mine

And tell me you love me

Promise me again before you go

 

Will you visit me on Sundays?

Will you bring me pretty flowers?

Will your big blue eyes be misty?

Will you brush away a tear?

Fred Rose write the classic “Blue Eyes Crying in The Rain”, a song that both Hank Williams and Rof Acuff had recorded. Since Willie Nelson had yet to record this song (Willie’s version would be released in 1975), this was not a cover of somebody else’s hit single, but simply case of Conway going “deep catalog” in finding a song that he liked. Conway’s version is not the sparse recording that Willie released but a normal Owen Bradley production applied to a classic Fred Rose composition from the 1940s.

The album closes with “I’m So Used To Loving You”, the fourth of Conway’s own compositions on the album. This is a good song that somebody somewhere should have released as a single.

I’m so used to loving you sweetheart

You’re on my mind each minute we’re apart

And I love you more each day that we go through

You’re my life and I’ll live it loving you

 

I’m so used to loving you it seems

I can’t stand the thought of losing you not even in my dream

Hold me close and tell me what I’d do without you

I couldn’t take it, I’m so used to loving you

Conway Twitty was a good and prolific songwriter who would use his own compositions on his albums, but, unlike some singer-songwriters, only if they were good songs. Through this album, the highest number of Conway Twitty and/or Mickey Jaco compositions on an album was four. There would be one future album in which he wrote eight of the ten songs (there must be a story behind this since it is a complete outlier) and several on which he wrote one or none of the songs

None of the Conway Twitty compositions that I’ve ever heard were duds, and many of them fell in the very good-to-great category

This album is a solid A with solid country production throughout

Album Review: Willie Nelson & Ray Price – ‘San Antonio Rose’

nelson priceThe Urban Cowboy days of the early 1980s are justifiably criticized as an era in which country music was drowning in a sea of pop influences and overproduction and on the brink of losing touch with its roots. While that may sound a lot like an assessment of the contemporary country scene, the key difference is that thirty-odd years ago, it was still possible for tradition-based music by artists past the age of 45 to find an outlet on the radio and have a shot at success.

In 1980, Ray Price was 54 years old when he teamed up with Willie Nelson for San Antonio Rose, a collection of classic songs that drew heavily upon the back catalogs of both artists, as well as the discography of Bob Wills. In 1961 Willie had performed as a musician on Price’s Wills tribute album of the same title. Nearly two decades later, Willie’s star power was able to provide Price with a brief commercial resurgence. San Antonio Rose was produced by Willie himself, and released as a side project between his solo albums Electric Horseman and Honeysuckle Rose. Like many of Willie’s projects, it became a success despite appearing as though it would not have much commercial viability.

In addition to the title track, the album contains two Bob Wills covers, the Fred Rose-penned “Deep Water” and “Faded Love”, which served as the album’s sole single. This was the first version of “Faded Love” that I ever heard and it is still a favorite today. It reached #3 on the Billboard country singles charts, returning Ray Price to the Top 10 for the first time since 1975’s “Roses and Love Songs”. Of course “Faded Love” had been recorded by a number of other artists, including Patsy Cline, who is also memorialized by the duo’s cover of “I Fall To Pieces”, which was written by Harlan Howard and Hank Cochran.

Cochran also wrote “Don’t You Ever Get Tired (Of Hurting Me)”, which had been a hit for Price in 1965. It appears here as a duet, along with other Ray Price hits such as “Release Me” (1954), “I’ll Be There (If You Ever Want Me)” (also 1954), “Crazy Arms” (1956), and the jazzy “Night Life” (1963), which had been written by Willie along with Walt Breeland and Paul Buskirk. Willie’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” is also covered. “Just Call Me Lonesome”, a cover of an old Eddy Arnold hit, was added to 2008 Legacy Recordings re-release.

Even in 1980, San Antonio Rose didn’t offer anything new, but it was then, as it is now, a breath of fresh air amongst all the pop-laden material on the charts. In addition to pairing one of country music’s best known icons with one of its most under-appreciated vocalists, it is a real treat for steel guitar fans and fans of good country music in general. Nelson and Price would team up in the studio two more times for 2003’s Run That By Me One More Time and 2007’s Last of the Breed, a collaboration with Merle Haggard. San Antonio Rose, however, remains my favorite of the albums they made together.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘Red Headed Stranger’

redheadedstrangerWillie Nelson’s brief stint with Atlantic Records yielded only modest commercial success, but the two albums he recorded for the label helped him land his deal with Columbia, where his labors finally began to bear some fruit. His first single for the label, a remake of “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”, written by Fred Rose and recorded by Roy Acuff thirty years earlier, reached #1, becoming the first of 25 Nelson chart-toppers.

His contract with Columbia gave Willie complete creative control over his records, a decision that initially resulted in some buyer’s remorse for the label when Willie submitted his first project, Red Headed Stranger. The album had been recorded on a shoestring budget in Garland, Texas and was produced by Willie himself. In stark contrast to the heavily produced fare that dominated country music at the time, Red Headed Stranger was a stripped-down affair, that used only eight musicians. Most of the arrangements consisted only of Willie’s vocals and guitar, some harmonica and occasional percussion, and the piano-playing of Willie’s sister Bobbie. Upon hearing the finished product, the executives at Columbia thought they were listening to a demo recording and were understandably reluctant to release what seemed at the time to be a decidedly non-commercial album. But release it they did, and to their credit, they did their job promoting it because Red Headed Stranger was blockbuster success, far exceeding everyone’s expectations. It’s hard to imagine an album in this vein being released today, especially by a major label, and even harder imagining it achieving a similar level of success.

Red Headed Stranger is built around the title track, which Willie had performed at his live shows in Austin. Encouraged by his then-wife, Connie Koepke, he wrote a backstory for the song’s protagonist and incorporated some of his own orignal compostions and some classic country songs, and created a western concept album that played a huge role in changing the country music landscape. The album opens with Willie’s self-penned “Time Of The Preacher”, which tells of a preacher who suspects his wife of infidelity. In the next track, Eddy Arnold and Wally Fowler’s “I Couldn’t Believe It Was True”, his suspicions are confirmed. A brief reprise of “Time Of The Preacher” follows, and then a medley of “Blue Rock Montana” and “Red Headed Stranger”, in which the cuckolded husband kills his unfaithful wife and her lover, and then becomes a fugitive. The preacher laments the loss of his wife in “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” before committing another murder in the full-length version of “Red Headed Stranger”. The fugitive kills a woman whom he mistakenly believes is trying to steal his pony, to which he attached great sentimental value because it had belonged to his late wife. He avoids prosecution because apparently according to frontier justice, “you can’t hang a man for killin’ a woman who’s tryin’ to steal your horse.”

Another brief 27-second reprise of “Time Of The Preacher” comes next, followed by the instrumental “Just As I Am” and another short number, “Denver”, which tells the listener that the Preacher has traveled south, where another woman catches his fancy. Another pair of brief instrumental numbers help to make the transition to a very nice version of Hank Cochran’s “Can I Sleep In Your Arms Tonight” and Melba Mable Bourgeois’ “Remember Me”, which show that the Preacher is ready to bury his past and begin a new relationship. “Remember Me” was the album’s second and final single, landing at #2. “Hands On The Wheel”, which finds the Preacher as an old man with a new love and a young boy, concludes the story. The instrumental “Bandera” closes out the original album.

Sony’s Legacy imprint reissued a remastered version of Red Headed Stranger in 2000, along with four new tracks, which though very enjoyable, don’t add to the story and certainly don’t blend as seamlessly as the album’s original tracks do. They do have merit as standalone tracks, however. I particularly like Willie’s take on the Hank Williams classic “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)” and “Bonaparte’s Retreat”, a Pee Wee King number that had been a hit for Glen Campbell in 1974.

A sparsely-produced album such as Red Headed Stranger was as huge a commercial risk in 1975 as it would be today, and as I noted earlier, such a risk would not likely be undertaken today. However, Nashville record executives might be well served to look back as projects such as this one, which sold more than two million copies and is now regarded as a landmark album for country music. It is essential listening that deserves a place in the library of every country music fan.

Grade: A+

Willie Nelson: The early years

country favoritesWillie Nelson, alone among his contemporaries, continues to be an active and prolific recording artist. Not only is he releasing albums at a pace that would leave today’s stars thoroughly exhausted, but Willie continues to make guest appearances on the albums of other artists, famous and unknown alike.

The eighty year old Nelson continues to tour relentlessly, something he has been doing in one form or another for over fifty years.

Prior to “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”, most knew Willie Nelson (if they knew of him at all) as the man who wrote “Hello Walls” for Faron Young and “Crazy” for Patsy Cline, and some songs that other singers had success recording.

Outside of his home state of Texas, the public consciousness of Willie Nelson as a performer basically dates back to the two albums Willie recorded for Atlantic in the early 1970s after which time he moved to Columbia for his recording heyday. This article will discuss the major label albums issued before then.

The first album out of the box was … And Then I Wrote which was released on the Liberty label in September 1962. This album featured “Touch Me” as the single (it reached #7 on Billboard’s country chart) and featured some songs that other artists had recorded with some success such as “Hello Walls” and “Three Days” (Faron Young), “Crazy” (Patsy Cline), “Funny How Time Slips Away” (Joe Hinton, Billy Walker). Although not released as a singles, “Mr. Record Man” and “Darkness On The Face of The Earth” would become songs associated with Willie, and “Undo The Right” would be a top ten hit for long-time friend Johnny Bush in 1968 (Johnny Bush and Willie Nelson were both in Ray Price’s band the Cherokee Cowboys during the early 1960s, and played in each others bands at various points in time). “The Part Where I Cry” was the other single release from this album.

… And Then I Wrote was not a terribly successful album but it was the first opportunity most had to hear Willie’s quirky phrasing. Although marred by Liberty’s version of the ‘Nashville Sound’, it is certainly an interesting album.

Willie’s second and final album for Liberty was Here’s Willie Nelson. This album featured five songs that Willie wrote (“Half A Man”, “Lonely Little Mansion”, “Take My Word”, “The Way You See Me” and “Home Motel”). The originals compositions were nothing special – only “Half A Man” attracted much attention from other artists – but among the covers are the Fred Rose composition “Roly Poly” (a successful recording for Bob Wills and for Jim Reeves) and Rex Griffin’s “The Last Letter”.

There were no Country Album charts until 1964. Neither of the two Liberty albums made the pop charts.

From Liberty, Willie very briefly moved to Monument Records, with no success (I’m not sure if any tracks actually were released at the time). Some of these songs were released in 1980 on a two album set titled The Winning Hand featuring Brenda Lee, Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson and released to cash in on the popularity of Dolly and Willie. All four artists had recorded for Monument in the past, and Kristofferson and Lee recorded additional vocals to create duets (and some existing tracks were edited together to create duets). Twelve of the twenty tracks were duets, and despite the contrived origins of the project, it was critically well received and well worth owning.

Willie’s immense songwriting talents attracted the attention of Chester Burton (“Chet”) Atkins”, the head honcho of RCA’s Nashville operations, and he was signed to RCA.

There is the misconception that Willie Nelson’s RCA albums found Willie buried by syrupy string arrangements and soulless background choruses. While it is true that RCA was never really sure what to do with Willie, the reality is that only the occasional track suffered from over production. Unlike Decca where Owen Bradley buried his more traditional artist such as Webb Pierce and Ernest Tubb with unnecessary choral arrangements, Chet and his other producers went much lighter on the embellishments. Although what we would deem the classic ‘Willie and Family’ sound never completely emerged on the RCA recordings, many of Willie’s albums had relatively sparse production. In fact, when Mickey Raphael produced and released the 17 track Naked Willie album in 2009, an album in which he removed excess production off Willie’s RCA tracks, he probably corralled about 80% of the tracks on which the production could be deemed excessive. Whether or not RCA could turn Willie into a star, his records always featured some of the best musicians and arrangers on the planet.

Country Willie – His Own Songs features twelve songs Willie wrote or co-wrote. Some of the songs were also on his major label debut, but I prefer the RCA take on the ‘Nashville Sound’ to that of Liberty. The songs are great and Willie is in good voice.. Songs included are “One Day at a Time” (not the Marilyn Sellars/Cristy Lane gospel hit of the 1970s), “My Own Peculiar Way”, “Night Life”, “Funny How Time Slips Away”, “Healing Hands of Time”, “Darkness on the Face of the Earth”, “Hello Walls”, .”Are You Sure”, “Mr. Record Man”, “It Should Be Easier Now”, “So Much to Do” and “Within Your Crowd”. Pickers include Jerry Kennedy and Jerry Reed, and steel guitar is featured on some of the tracks. This could be considered a ‘best of’ compilation of Willie’s songs (not recordings) up to this point in time. This album reached #14 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Country Favorites – Willie Nelson Style is one of my two favorite RCA albums. This 1966 album was recorded with members of Ernest Tubb’s legendary Texas Troubadours, augmented by fiddler Wade Ray and pianist Hargus Robbins. Willie and Wade, of course were regulars on ET’s syndicated television show and the use of the Troubadours and the lack of the ‘Nashville Sound’ trappings made for a swinging set of western swing and honky-tonk classics. This version of the Texas Troubadours included Buddy Charleton (steel), Jack Drake (bass), Jack Greene (drums) , Leon Rhodes (lead guitar) and Cal Smith (rhythm guitar) augmented by Wade Ray and pianist Hargus Robbins. This album reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart .

Standout tracks on this album include “My Window Faces The South”, “Columbus Stockade Blues” and “San Antonio Rose” but the entire album is good. Willie sounds comfortable and relaxed on this entire set and his vocals, while sometimes an awkward fit , reflect the fun he was having performing with this collection of musicians , who were not credited on the initial release. A truncated version of this album was released on RCA Camden in 1970 as Columbus Stockade Blues.

Country Music Concert was recorded live in 1966 at Panther Hall in Dallas Texas, one of two live albums RCA would record there (the other was 1968’s Charley Pride Live at Panther Hall). This live performance featured Willie on guitar and vocals backed by his band members, Johnny Bush on drums and Wade Ray playing bass guitar. This album is my other favorite RCA album, again featuring Willie uncluttered by strings and choruses, singing mostly his own songs, but with a few covers. The album opens with Willie introducing the band and then starts with the music with a pair of long medleys in “Mr. Record Man”/”Hello Walls”/ “One Day At A Time” and “The Last Letter”/ “Half A Man”. To me the highlights of the album are Willie’s take on Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” and his own “I Never Cared For You” and “Night Life”. This album reached #32 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Make Way For Willie Nelson is a mixed bag of original compositions and covers. Released in 1967, some of the recordings are a bit overproduced and the album produced no real hits. The quasi-title track “Make Way For A Better Man” is one of those songs only Willie Nelson would write:

Hear me talkin’ now you tried to make her happy you couldn’t make her happy
Make way for a better man than you
You tried your brand of lovin’ she couldn’t stand your lovin’

Make way for a better man than you
I held back cause you and I were friends
But old buddy this is where our friendship ends
I’m takin’ over now those signals she keeps sendin’ means your romance is endin’
Make way for a better man than you

Willie’s own composition “One In A Row” reached #19 two years before this album was released. Notable covers on the album include “Born To Lose” and “Mansion On The Hill”. This album reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

“The Party’s Over” and Other Great Willie Nelson Songs featured the title song, which while never a big hit, was made famous by the late Don Meredith, one of the original trio of announcers for ABC Monday Night Football. When the result of the games was already determined (regardless of the time left in the game) Don would sing this song. “The Party’s Over” reached #24 for Willie, in a somewhat overproduced version. The rest of the album could be described as moody and downbeat. This album also reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Good Ol’ Country Singin’ was released on RCA’s budget Camden label in January 1968. RCA sometimes used the Camden label to release truncated versions of older albums, but RCA also used it to release material that would not be released on the main label. This album is the latter but RCA actually issued a single from the album, “Blackjack County Chain”, which reached #21. My favorite track on the album is a classic weeper “You Ought To Hear Me Cry”. Billboard did not chart budget albums.

Texas In My Soul was Willie’s 1968 tribute to his home state of Texas. Three of the songs, “Waltz Across Texas”, “There’s A Little Bit of Everything In Texas” and “Texas In My Soul” were songs performed by and associated with Ernest Tubb. “Who Put All My Ex’s In Texas” was one of the first songs written by Eddie Rabbitt to be recorded. This album reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Good Times is a little different and finds Willie breaking away from ‘The Nashville Sound’ mold to some extent. Other than Mickey Newbury’s “Sweet Memories” and the Jan Crutchfield-Wayne Moss composition “Down To Our Last Goodbye”, all of the songs were written or co-written by Willie. The title track has very minimal production. This album reached #29 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

My Own Peculiar Way, released in 1969, features eight Willie Nelson compositions (one, “Any Old Arms Won’t Do”, co-written with Hank Cochran) plus an exceptional cover John Hartford’s “Natural To Be Gone”. The title track wasn’t a hit, but it is quintessential Willie. This album reached #39 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart (are you seeing a pattern?).

Both Sides Now was released in 1970 and is basically a covers album with Willie penning only three of the eleven tracks. This album included two songs from the Roy Acuff catalogue (“Wabash Cannonball”, “Pins and Needles In My Heart”), a song from the Ray Price hit list (“Crazy Arms”) plus covers of pop songs “Both Sides Now” (penned by Joni Mitchell but a hit for Judy Collins) and and “Everybody’s Talking” (penned by Fred Neil but a hit for Nilsson). The single from this album was penned by soon-to be-ex-wife Shirley Nelson and reached #42. The now familiar “Bloody Mary Morning” makes its debut here – it would be re-recorded and released as a single after Willie moved to Atlantic.

While I like this album, it is a disjointed affair and Willie’s unusual phrasing on some of the songs won’t be to everybody’s taste. “Crazy Arms” features steel guitar and a walking base line whereas “Both Sides Now” features little more than a guitar. This album did not chart.

Laying My Burdens Down also was released in 1970 but by this time RCA had given up on having Willie score any hit singles. The title track reached #68 and the over-produced “I’m A Memory” would reach #28 and would be Willie’s last top fifty chart appearance while signed to RCA. This album is mostly composed of Willie originals but isn’t his best work. This album did not chart.

Willie Nelson and Family is a collection of songs released in 1971 as performed by Willie and the beginnings of his family band. Paul English was on board playing drums as was his sister Bobbie Nelson playing the piano. This album would set the template for future albums. Songs include the Willie Nelson-Hank Cochran collaboration “What Can You Do To Me Now” along with Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, Hank Sr.’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”, Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again”, plus some Nelson originals. This album reached #43 on Billboard Country albums chart.

Released with no fanfare in September 1971, Yesterday’s Wine contains some of Willie’s finest songs, and is Willie’s first concept album. The album contains the full complement of RCA’s finest session players but sounds surprisingly spare at times. The album has a deeply philosophical and religious feel to it without being too preachy (the premise is the life of an ‘Imperfect Man’ from birth to the day of his death). The single released from the album “Yesterday’s Wine” b/w “Me and Paul” barely dented the charts, but both are still loved and remembered today:

Miracles appear in the strangest of places
Fancy me finding you here
The last time I saw you was just out of Houston
Let me sit down, let me buy you a beer

Your presence is welcome with me and my friend here
This is a hangout of mine
We come here quite often and listen to music
And to taste yesterday’s wine

Yesterday’s wine, yesterday’s wine
Aging with time, like yesterday’s wine
Yesterday’s wine, yesterday’s wine
We’re aging with time, like yesterday’s wine

“Family Bible”, a song Willie wrote but sold in order to keep eating, makes an appearance here. This album did not chart.

There would be a couple more RCA albums, and RCA would re-release various permutations and combinations of old material after Willie hit it big in the middle 1970s (including an album an which Danny Davis and The Nashville Brass were overdubbed onto ten of Willie’s songs, but by the end of 1971 it was clear that Willie would need to look elsewhere if he was to achieve success as a recording artist.

It should be noted that RCA issued several singles on Willie that either never made it onto an album, or made it onto an album years later. Two notable examples were “Johnny One Time” which hit #36 for Willie in 1968 and was a minor pop hit for Brenda Lee in 1969, and “Bring Me Sunshine” which reached #13 in 1968 but wasn’t on an album until the 1974 RCA Camden release Spotlight On Willie.

In the digital age, there are plenty of good collections covering Willie’s earlier years, both anthologies and reissues of individual albums. For the obsessive Willie Nelson fan, Bear Family has issued an eight CD set with 219 recordings. That’s overkill for all but diehard fans, but there are numerous good anthologies available. There is also Naked Willie for those who would like to have multiple versions of some of Willie’s RCA recordings.

Spotlight Artist: Willie Nelson

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

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

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

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

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

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Solo: Songs My Dad Loved’

After a series of vibrant and critically acclaimed bluegrass albums on his own Skaggs Family Records, In 2009 Ricky Skaggs decided to go back to the very earliest roots of his musical career – the old songs he heard at home. A very personal labor of love sees Ricky playing every instrument (mostly guitar, mandolin, and banjo with the odd bass and even piano) and singing all the harmony vocals. It reveals what a consummate musician he is, yet there is never a hint of showing off, even on the three tasteful instrumentals.

Ricky Skaggs and his fans ultimately owe a major debt to Hobert Skaggs, who gave the five year old Ricky his first mandolin, and taught him his first chords. Here he repays the favour by recording a very personal tribute. Sharing it with the rest of us offers a nostalgic reminder of the past, while bringing to life songs which are mostly at their heart timeless.

Reproaching a cold-hearted lover, the gently rhythmic ‘Foggy River’ is a Fred Rose copyright redolent of 1940s/50s country music. A subdued version of the Ralph Stanley classic ‘Little Maggie’ with characteristic banjo accompaniment reminds us of Ricky’s teenage stint in Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys, encouraged by his father.

Roy Acuff’s ‘Branded Wherever I Go’ is an ex-convict’s lament pre-dating the better known Haggard songs on the same theme. With its closely multitracked harmonies, this is a favourite for me. I also love the melodic and plaintive ‘What Is A Home Without Love’. The spiritual ‘The City That Lies Foursquare’ which is partly acappella is another great sounding track, and sounds a little more menacing although the subject is eternal life in heaven.

‘Sinners You Better Get Ready’ sounds quite cheery despite the dire warning of the lyric against forthcoming death and judgment. ‘This World Is Not My Home’ is similarly upbeat about the thought of death and what comes after. ‘Green Pastures In The Sky’ is quieter and more subdued in its steadfast declaration of faith in times of trial.

The most left-field inclusion, ‘I Had But 50 Cents’ is rather fun and redolent of the 1930s or earlier (the lyrics actually date back to the 1880s) with its story of a man with not much cash and the woman he takes out to eat, only to find she has a really big appetite. The restaurateur is not impressed when it comes time to pay. A very catchy tune and the novelty lyrics make this quite a change from the generally serious mood.

I can see why Ricky’s dad loved these songs. I love them too. While it’s not for everyone , this album is a charming evocation of evenings in a rural home in the first half of the 20th century with family members playing their favourite tunes to while away the dark nights.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘Heroes’

Nearly two decades after he departed Columbia Records, Willie Nelson has rejoined the Sony Music family with Heroes, which was produced by Buddy Cannon and released last week on the Legacy Recordings imprint. He is joined by a number of guest artists, including Merle Haggard, Ray Price, Kris Kristofferson, Jamey Johnson, Sheryl Crow, Billy Joe Shaver, and Snoop Dogg. Also participating are Nelson’s sons Micah and Lukas. Sounding very much like a younger version of his 79-year-old father, Lukas performs on most of the album’s tracks and does the heavy lifting much of the time.

As is usually the case with a Willie Nelson album, the selection of songs is eclectic. A cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist” was released as a single late last year. Three more singles were released almost simultaneously last month. “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die”, a lighthearted number that makes pokes fun at Willie’s well-known marijuana habit, was released on April 20th, or “420 Day”, which apparently is significant in the cannabis subculture. “Just Breathe”, a Pearl Jam cover and “Come On Back Jesus” were released the following day in celebration of Record Store Day. I particularly like the latter, which calls for the second coming of Christ and asks him to “pick up John Wayne on the way.” I’m cool with that. Rounding out the track list are some covers of some western swing classics: Bob Wills’ “My Window Faces The South” and Fred Rose’s “Home In San Antone”, as well as the Ray Price classic “This Cold War With You”, on which Price makes a guest appearance. Also included are some original tunes written by Willie, Lukas, and Buddy Cannon.

Some of the guest appearances are my favorite moments on the album. While I wasn’t too excited to see Snoop Dogg’s name on the guest roster, his contribution to “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me While I Die” wasn’t bad. Sheryl Crow, the lone female guest artist, chimes in on “Come On Up To The House”. But the album’s true highlights are “A Horse Called Music”, which reunites Willie with Merle Haggard and “Cold War With You” featuring Ray Price. Although the presence of Lukas Nelson on most the album’s tracks is clearly to compensate for the elder Nelson’s fading vocal prowess, both Willie and Merle Haggard are in surprisingly good vocal form. Ray Price’s voice, on the other hand, is showing signs of wear and tear, and Kris Kristofferson was never much of a vocalist anyway.

Although I’m biased towards some of the album’s older songs, the contemporary fare is almost as good. I quite enjoyed “That’s All There Is To This Song” and “The Sound Of Your Memory”, which was written by Lukas Nelson with Elizabeth Rainey. Despite the inclusion of the Coldplay and Pearl Jam numbers, this is very much a country album, and one that does not pander to current commercial trends. There is much here for the country fan to enjoy, and Heroes is almost certain to end up on many this year’s best albums lists.

Grade: A

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘A Tribute To the Best Damn Fiddle Player In The World, Or My Salute To Bob Wills’

Unlike the Jimmie Rodgers tribute which celebrated a long dead and distant figure, this 1970 album was a tribute to a man still alive, and only about ten years removed from having been a viable recording artist.

Even so, by 1970 Western Swing was largely dead as a chart force, the only such artist still charting hit records being Hank Thompson, who had adapted his small-band swing sound into a more contemporary sound with some swing overtones. Spade Cooley was dead (after a stretch in prison for the murder of his wife) in prison, Tex Williams had become a Las Vegas lounge act, and Bob Wills himself had been traveling with a vocalist and using whatever house bands were available, few of whom had any real feel for western swing.

Meanwhile, hot on the heels of “Okie From Muskogee” (and a long string of other major hits), Merle Haggard had emerged as the biggest name in country music, releasing three albums (plus an album featuring his band) between the Jimmie Rodgers tribute and this album.

There would seem to be little to connect the music of Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. Jimmie’s music was that of the Great Depression, hard times and scraping by. Bob Wills’ music was, first and foremost, music for dancing and most of Bob Wills’ venues were dance halls. Both, however, were largely based in the blues. Moreover the two musical forces connected in Haggard’s music, probably because Wills was based in California for many years and his music was the music of the dance halls that Haggard heard growing up.

Emboldened by the success of the Rodgers tribute, Haggard set about working on a tribute to Bob Wills, producing three very commercially successful albums (two of them live albums) before pushing producer Ken Nelson into letting him produce another commercially questionable album. To prepare himself for the project, Haggard learned how to play fiddle, and, within a month of doing so, he started planning the album.

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