My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Gene Autry

Album Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Way Out West’

Way Out West, the new album by Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives is one of the more eclectic albums I’ve encountered in recent years. I’m not sure who the target audience is, or even if there is a target audience.

There are those who would assert that the West has as much of a claim to the origins of country music as does Bristol, Nashville and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Certainly the cowboy heritage has made its way into the country persona, perhaps more so with the fashion than the music, but in any event Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and the Sons of The Pioneers are safely enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame, as is Bob Wills.

It is hard to know how to assess this collection of songs. There are vocal tracks and instrumental tracks, some tracks which are traditional sounding western ballads and at least two which seem almost psychedelic. The band flits between sounding like a good country band to having overtones of The Ventures, Duane Eddy, Don Rich, Grady Martin and more.

The album opens up with “Desert Prayer – Part 1” which sounds like some sort of chant with what sounds like sitar. This is followed up by “Mojave” an instrumental track that sounds like Nokie Edwards meets Duane Eddy.

The third track is “Lost On The Desert” is the story of an escaped robber who heads to the desert to reclaim the money he stole, tormented by the devil before he can find the money. I can mentally hear Marty Robbins singing this song, but I don’t think Marty Robbins ever recorded the song. Johnny Cash did, record the the Billy Mize-Dallas Frazier song, however, on his 1962 album The Sound of Johnny Cash.

A burnin’ hot su,n a cryin’ for water, black wings circle the sky
Stumblin’ and fallin’, somebody’s callin’, you’re lost on the desert to die
I had to give up and they took me to jail but I hid all the money I got
Way out on the desert where no one could get it and I left a mark at the spot
Then I got away and I ran for the desert the devil had taken control
I needed water but he said I’d make it near the money is a big waterhole
A burnin’ hot sun…

Just up ahead is where I left my mark or it may be to the left or the right
I’ve been runnin’ all day and they’ll catch up tomorrow, I’ve got to find it tonight
Then up jumped the devil and ran away laughin’, he drank all the waterholes dry
He moved my mark till I’m running in circles and lost on the desert to die
A burnin’ hot sun…
(Lost on the desert to die) lost on the desert to die (lost on the desert to die)

“Way Out West” is 5:42 long, and is a strange tale of the narrator having (or hallucinating) a number of experiences, while under the influence of pills. Somehow I mentally can hear Jefferson Airplane singing this song.

“El Fantasma Del Toro” sounds like Santo & Johnny are providing the music for this instrumental.

“Old Mexico” might be likened to “El Paso” in reverse, with the cowboy heading to Mexico where there isn’t a price on his head. There is some nice vocal trio work – this may be my favorite song on the album, and could have been a hit forty years ago, especially if Marty Robbins recorded it.

“Time Don’t Wait” is a good song, a little more rock than country, with a lyric that speaks the truth as we all know it.

“Quicksand” has a very martial sounding introduction before lapsing into a more standard rock sound.

“Air Mail Special” is the oldest song on the album, having been composed by Benny Goodman, James Mundy and Charlie Christian. For those not aware of the writers, Benny Goodman was probably the greatest jazz clarinetist ever and Charlie Christian was the first great electric guitar player. I assume that Mundy wrote the lyrics later since neither Goodman nor Christian were lyricists.

Left New York this morning early
Traveling south so wide and high
Sailing through the wide blue yonder
It’s that Airmail Special on the fly
Listen to the motors humming
She is streaking through the sky
Like a bird that’s flying homeward
It’s that Airmail Special on the fly
Over plains and high dark mountains
Over rivers deep and wide
Carrying mail to California
It’s that Airmail Special on the fly
Watch her circle for the landing
Hear her moan and cough and sigh
Now she’s coming down the runway
It’s that Airmail Special on the fly

Marty’s band is indeed superlative, and with “Torpedo” they are in their best Ventures mode. As far as I know the Ventures were strictly an instrumental group, and Torpedo is a fine instrumental.

“Please Don’t Say Goodbye” reminds me of something the Wagoneers might have recorded a couple of decades ago.

If you like the Flying Burrito Brothers “Whole Lotta Highway (With A Million Miles To Go)” definitely fits that vibe. Marty does a fine job. I must admit that it is nice to hear a new truck driving song again – the subgenre has nearly disappeared.

“Desert Prayer – Part 2” is just an interlude.

I really liked “Wait For The Morning” which features really nice vocal harmonies with a song that is a slow western-styled ballad, although not especially western in its subject matter. Lovely steel guitar work closes out the song.

“Way Out West” (Reprise) closes out the album – the reprise is largely instrumental and sounds like something from one of the spaghetti western soundtracks.

Unfortunately I do not have the booklet for the songs on this album, so mostly I don’t know who wrote which songs, or what additional musicians played on the album besides the Fabulous Superlatives. Mike Campbell, former guitarist for Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, produced and achieved a remarkable panoply of sounds. The Fabulous Superlatives are superlative, and Marty is in good voice throughout. I wouldn’t especially cite this album as being particularly thematic – it’s more a collection of songs loosely based on western themes.

B+

Best reissues of 2016

As always most of the best reissues come from labels outside the USA. In those cities that still have adequate recorded music stores (sadly a rare commodity these days) , it can be a real thrill finding a label you’ve not encountered before reissuing something you’ve spent decades seeking. It can be worthwhile to seek out the foreign affiliates of American labels for recordings that Capitol hasn’t reissued might be available on the UK or European EMI labels.

The fine folks at Jasmine Records (UK) can always be counted on for fine reissues:

SHUTTERS AND BOARD: THE CHALLENGER SINGLES 1957-1962 – Jerry Wallace
Jerry Wallace wasn’t really a country artist during this period, but he was a definite fellow traveler and a very popular artist and very fine singer. This thirty-two track collection includes all his early hits (except 1964’s “In The Misty Moonlight”) , such as million (and near million) sellers such as “How The Time Flies”, “Primrose Lane”, “There She Goes” and “Shutters And Boards”. From about 1965 forward his focus become more country and he would have two #1 county singles in the 1970s

THE NASHVILLE SOUND OF SUCCESS (1958-1962) – Various Artists
I will just list the tracks for this fine two disc set. This is a good primer on a very important era in country music

Disc 1 1958-1959
1 THE STORY OF MY LIFE – Marty Robbins
2 GREAT BALLS OF FIRE – Jerry Lee Lewis
3 BALLAD OF A TEENAGE QUEEN – Johnny Cash
4 OH LONESOME ME – Don Gibson
5 JUST MARRIED – Marty Robbins
6 ALL I HAVE TO DO IS DREAM – The Everly Brothers
7 GUESS THINGS HAPPEN THAT WAY – Johnny Cash
8 ALONE WITH YOU – Faron Young
9 BLUE BLUE DAY – Don Gibson
10 BIRD DOG – The Everly Brothers
11 CITY LIGHTS – Ray Price
12 BILLY BAYOU – Jim Reeves
13 DON’T TAKE YOUR GUNS TO TOWN – Johnny Cash
14 WHEN IT’S SPRINGTIME IN ALASKA (It’s Forty Below) – Johnny Horton
15 WHITE LIGHTNING – George Jones
16 THE BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS – Johnny Horton
17 WATERLOO – Stonewall Jackson
18 THE THREE BELLS – The Browns
19 COUNTRY GIRL – Faron Young
20 THE SAME OLD ME – Ray Price
21 EL PASO – Marty Robbins

Disc 2 1960-1962
1 HE’LL HAVE TO GO – Jim Reeves
2 PLEASE HELP ME, I’M FALLING – Hank Locklin
3 ALABAM – Cowboy Copas
4 WINGS OF A DOVE – Ferlin Husky
5 NORTH TO ALASKA – Johnny Horton
6 DON’T WORRY – Marty Robbins
7 HELLO WALLS – Faron Young
8 HEARTBREAK U.S.A – Kitty Wells
9 I FALL TO PIECES – Patsy Cline
10 TENDER YEARS – George Jones
11 WALK ON BY – Leroy Van Dyke
12 BIG BAD JOHN – Jimmy Dean
13 MISERY LOVES COMPANY – Porter Wagoner
14 THAT’S MY PA – Sheb Wooley
15 SHE’S GOT YOU – Patsy Cline
16 CHARLIE’S SHOES – Billy Walker
17 SHE THINKS I STILL CARE – George Jones
18 WOLVERTON MOUNTAIN – Claude King
19 DEVIL WOMAN – Marty Robbins
20 MAMA SANG A SONG – Bill Anderson
21 I’VE BEEN EVERYWHERE – Hank Snow
22 DON’T LET ME CROSS OVER – Carl Butler and Pearl
23 RUBY ANN – Marty Robbins
24 THE BALLAD OF JED CLAMPETT – Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys

Another UK label, Hux Records, continues to issue delightful product:

HERE’S FARON YOUNG/ OCCASIONAL WIFE – Faron Young
After mucking about with more pop-oriented material for a number of years, these two fine Mercury albums (from 1968 and 1970) find Faron making his way back to a more traditional country sound. It must have worked for the singles from these albums (“’She Went A Little Bit Farther”, “I Just Came To Get My Baby”, “Occasional Wife” and “If I Ever Fall In Love (With A Honky Tonk Girl)” all returned Faron to the top ten, a place he had largely missed in the few years prior.

THE BEST OF TOMMY OVERSTREET – Tommy Overstreet (released late 2015)
Tommy Overstreet had a fine run of country singles in the early 1970s, most of which are included in this albums twenty-six tracks, along with about eight album tracks. While Tommy never had a #1 Billboard Country song, four of his song (“Gwen-Congratulations”, “I Don’t Know You Any More”, “Ann, Don’t Go Running” and “Heaven Is My Woman’s Love”) made it to #1 on Cashbox and/or Record World. Tommy’s early seventies records sounded very different from most of what was playing on the radio at the time.

Hux only releases a few new items per year, but in recent years they have reissued albums by Johnny Rodriguez, Connie Smith, Reba McEntire, Ray Price and others.

http://huxrecords.com/news.htm

Humphead Records releases quit a few ‘needle drop’ collections which our friend Ken Johnson has kvetched. The bad news is that for some artists this is necessary since so many masters were destroyed in a warehouse fire some years ago. The good news is that Humphead has gotten much better at doing this and all of my recent acquisitions from them have been quite good, if not always perfect.

TRUCK DRIVIN’ SON OF A GUN – Dave Dudley
This two disc fifty-track collection is a Dave Dudley fan’s dream. Not only does this album give you all of the truck driving hits (caveat: “Six Days On The Road” and “Cowboy Boots” are the excellent Mercury remakes) but also key album tracks and hit singles that were not about truck driving. Only about half of these tracks have been available previously

BARROOMS & BEDROOMS : THE CAPITOL & MCA YEARS – Gene Watson
This two disc, fifty-track set covers Gene’s years with Capitol (1975-1980) and MCA 1980-1985. Most of the tracks have been available digitally over the years, but the MCA tracks have been missing in recent years. The collection is approximately 70% Capitol and 30% MCA. These are needle drop but the soiund ranges from very good to excellent. There are a few tracks from the MCA years that have not previously been available in a digital format, but most of the material will be familiar to Gene Watson fans. Of course, if you buy this collection and are not already a Gene Watson fan, you will become one very quickly. I would have preferred more tracks from the MCA years since most of the Capitol tracks have been readily available, but the price is right and the music is timeless.

The folks at Bear Family issued quite a few sets this year; however, very little of it was country and none of it essential. There is an upcoming set to be issued in 2017 that will cover the complete Starday and Mercury recordings of a very young George Jones. I’m sure it will be a terrific set so be on the lookout for it. We will discuss it next year.

Although not essential FERLIN HUSKY WITH GUESTS SIMON CRUM AND TERRY PRESTON is a nice single disc entry in Bear Family’s Gonna Shake This Shack Tonight series. Simon Crum, of course, was Ferlin’s comedic alter-ego, and Terry Preston was a stage name Ferlin used early in his career. The set contains thirty-two tracks of country bop, proto-rockabilly and comedy that should prove enjoyable to everyone, along with Bear’s usual impeccable digital re-mastering and an informative seventy-two page booklet.

I don’t know that the music available from Cracker Barrel can always be described as reissues since some of it has never been commercially available before.

During the last twelve months we reviewed WAYLON JENNINGS – THE LOST NASHVILLE SESSIONS

Our friend Ken Johnson helps keep the folks at Varese Vintage on the straight and narrow for their country releases

THAT WAS YESTERDAY – Donna Fargo
This sixteen track collection gathers up Donna’s singles with Warner Brothers as well as two interesting album tracks. Donna was with Warner Brothers from 1976 to 1980 and this set is a welcome addition to the catalogue.

FOR THE GOOD TIMES – Glen Campbell
This sixteen track collections covers the 1980s when Glen was still charting but no longer having huge hits. These tracks mostly were on Atlantic but there are a few religion tracks and a song from a movie soundtrack from other sources. For me the highlights are the two previously unreleased tracks “Please Come To Boston” (a hit for Dave Loggins) and the title track (a hit for Ray Price).

SILK PURSE – Linda Ronstadt
This is a straight reissue of Linda’s second Capitol album, a fairly country album that features her first major hit “Long Long Time” plus her takes on “Lovesick Blues”, “Mental Revenge” and “Life’s Railway To Heaven”

On the domestic front Sony Legacy issued a few worthy sets:

THE ULTIMATE COLLECTION – Roy Orbison
This twenty-six track set covers Roy’s work on several labels including a couple of Traveling Wilbury tracks. All of these songs have been (and remain) available elsewhere, but this is a nice starter set.

THE HIGHWAYMEN LIVE: AMERICAN OUTLAWS
This is a three disc set of live recordings featuring the Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. To be honest, I prefer the studio recordings, but this is a worthwhile set

Meanwhile Real Gone Music has become a real player in the classic country market:

LYNN ANDERSON: THE DEFINITIVE COLLECTION
This two disc set provides a nice overview of one of the leading ladies of country music during the mid-1960s through the mid- 1970s, covering her work for the Chart and Columbia labels. Although not quite as comprehensive on the Chart years as the out-of-print single disc on Renaissance, this is likely to be the best coverage of those years that you are likely to see anytime soon on disc. Forty tracks (15 Chart, 25 Columbia) with excellent sound, all the hits and some interesting near-hits.

PORTER WAGONER: THE DEFINITIVE COLLECTION
There is a lot of Porter Wagoner material available, although much of it is either remakes or gospel songs from the Gusto family of labels. For a comprehensive look at Porter’s career it has been necessary to purchase one of the pricey (albeit excellent) Bear Family collections.

This two disc set has forty tracks, twenty seven of Porter’s biggest hits and thirteen key album cuts and shows the evolution and growth of Porter as an artist. While there is some overlap with the Jasmine set released last year (The First Ten Years: 1952-1962) about 60% of this set covers from 1963 onward, making it a fine complement to the Jasmine collection. This is straight Porter – no duets.

DIAMOND RIO: THE DEFINITIVE HITS COLLECTION
I’m not a real big Diamond Rio fan, but I have quite a few of their albums. If someone is interested in sampling Diamond Rio’s run of hits during the 1990s, this would be my recommendation. Fabulous digital re-mastering with all the major Arista hits such as “Meet in the Middle,” “How Your Love Makes Me Feel,” “One More Day,” “Beautiful Mess,” and “I Believe,” plus favorites as “Love a Little Stronger,” “Walkin’ Away,” “You’re Gone,” and one of my favorites “Bubba Hyde”.

EACH ROAD I TAKE: THE 1970 LEE HAZELWOOD & CHET ATKINS SESSIONS – Eddy Arnold
This is one of the more interesting collections put out by Real Gone Music.

The first half of the disc is the album Love and Guitars, the last album produced for Eddy by Chet Atkins. Missing is the usual Nashville Sound production, replaced by an acoustic setting featuring Nashville super pickers guitarists including Jerry Reed, Harold Bradley, Ray Edenton, and Chet himself, playing on an array of contemporary county and pop material.

The second half features the album Standing Alone, produced (in Hollywood) by Lee Hazelwood and featuring Eddy’s take on modern Adult Contemporary writers such as John Stewart, Steve Young, Ben Peters, and Mac Davis.

The album closes with four singles heretofore not collected on a domestic CD. On this album Eddy is cast neither as the Tennessee Plowboy nor the Nashville Sound titan. If you’ve not heard this material before, you might not believe your ears !

TAKE THIS JOB AND SHOVE IT: THE DEFINITIVE JOHNNY PAYCHECK
MICKEY GILLEY: THE DEFINITIVE COLLECTION

These albums were reviewed earlier. Needless to say, both are is highly recommended

Real Gone Music does not specialize in country music – they just do a good job of it. If you are a fan of jazz, folk, rock or even classical, Real Gone Music has something right up your alley

There is a UK based label that also calls itself Real Gone Music but in order to avoid confusion I will refer to this label as RGM-MCPS. This label specializes (mostly) in four disc sets that compile some older albums, sometimes with miscellaneous singles. The sound quality has ranged from fair to very good depending upon the source material, and the packaging is very minimal – no booklet, basically the names of the albums and very little more. Usually these can be obtained from Amazon or other on-line vendors. These are bargain priced and can fill holes in your collection

SIX CLASSIC ALBUMS PLUS BONUS SINGLES – Kitty Wells
This collection collects six fifties and early singles albums plus some singles. Much Kitty Wells music is available but if you want to collect a bunch of it cheaply, this is the way to go

The British Charly label doesn’t specialize in country records but they have a fabulous catalogue of rockabilly, including some very fine collections of recordings of the legendary Memphis label Sun. For legal reasons they cannot market much of their product in the USA but their product can be found on various on-line vendors. Their reissue of Townes Van Zandt albums is excellent.

I suppose I should again say a few words about the Gusto family of labels. It appears that Gusto is in the process of redesigning their website but plenty of their product can be found from other on-line vendors
As I mentioned last year, with the exception of the numerous gospel recordings made by Porter Wagoner during the last decade of his life, there is little new or original material on the Gusto Family of labels. Essentially, everything Gusto does is a reissue, but they are forever recombining older recordings into new combinations.
Gusto has accumulated the catalogs of King, Starday, Dixie, Federal, Musicor, Step One, Little Darlin’ and various other small independent labels and made available the music of artists that are otherwise largely unavailable. Generally speaking, older material on Gusto’s labels is more likely to be original recordings. This is especially true of bluegrass recordings with artists such as Frank “Hylo” Brown, The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Stringbean and Curley Fox being almost exclusive to Gusto.

After 1970, Gusto’s labels tended to be old age homes for over-the-hill country and R&B artists, and the recordings often were remakes of the artists’ hits of earlier days or a mixture of remakes of hits plus covers of other artists hits. These recordings range from inspired to tired and the value of the CDs can be excellent, from the fabulous boxed sets of Reno & Smiley, Mel Street and The Stanley Brothers, to wastes of plastic and oxides with numerous short eight and ten song collections.

To be fair, some of these eight and ten song collections can be worth having, if they represent the only recordings you can find by a particular artist you favor. Just looking at the letter “A” you can find the following: Roy Acuff, Bill Anderson, Lynn Anderson, Eddy Arnold, Leon Ashley, Ernie Ashworth, Chet Atkins and Gene Autry. If you have a favorite first or second tier country artist of the 1960s or 1970s, there is a good chance that Gusto has an album (or at least some tracks) on that artist.

Retro Album Review: Merle Haggard and George Jones – ‘Kickin’ Out The Footlights … Again’ (2006)

kickin out the footlightsBack in the days writing for the 9513 Blog, I would post occasional reviews on Amazon. We are republishing updated versions of some of those reviews here.

This was the best CD issued this year, a romp through some of the great songs associated with George Jones and Merle Haggard. On this collection, Hag sings five songs that were hits for the Possum (“The Race Is On”, “She Thinks I Still Care”, “Things Have Gone To Pieces”, “I Always Get Lucky With You” and “Window Up Above”), while Jones tackles five Haggard classics (“The Way I Am”, “Strangers”, “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink”, “Sing Me Back Home” and “You Take Me For Granted”). There are also four duets in “Footlights” (a Haggard album cut that should ring true for every veteran musician), “Born With The Blues”, “Sick, Sorry and Sober” (an up-tempo western swing number often associated with Gene Autry’s pal Johnny Bond), and a light-hearted and amusing take on the Duke Ellington number “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”. This latter song features Haggard’s band The Strangers; the rest of the recordings are with a very inspired group of session musicians.

These arrangements are fairly true to the spirit of the original hit recordings. Curiously enough, when Jones sings the songs associated with Haggard, there is never any doubt that Jones is doing the vocalizing; however, when Haggard sings the Jones songs, you sometimes feel that you’re listening to a younger George Jones at work, so accurate and subconscious a mimic is Haggard. I suppose I ought to pick out a few highlights but the truth is I love every, repeat, every track on this album. This is country music at its best.

Grade: A+

The best reissues of 2015

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

1 – Until recently, European copyrights on recordings were only good for 50 years. This changed recently to 70 years, but the change was not retroactive. What this means is that all recordings made before 1963 have lost their copyright protection in Europe.

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

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

It should be noted that some of these albums may have been issued before 2015 but became generally available during 2015 through various markets.

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

chuck wagon gang1. THE CHUCK WAGON GANG – THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS (1936-1955)

Released in late 2014, but not generally available until this year, this Bear Family five disc set compiles the gospel recordings of Dad Carter’s family gospel group. Marty Stuart wrote the forward to the accompanying book.

This Carter Family is NOT related to the Carter Family clan associated with A.P., Sara, Mother Maybelle, and June Carter, but was a successful gospel group that was with Columbia Records from 1936 to 1975, selling thirty-nine million records in the process. Consisting of D.P. (Dad) Carter and son Jim (Ernest) and daughters Rose (Lola) and Anna (Effie), this group was formed in 1935 in Lubbock, Texas, and became one of the most popular gospel groups of its time, performing a very traditional form of country gospel music. They were the first group to record Albert Brumley’s “I’ll Fly Away”.

The group continues to this day, although all of the original members have since passed away. This set won’t be to everyone’s taste in gospel music so I’d suggest that you listen to a few tracks before purchasing the set. The humble sincerity and beauty of the singing will likely have you reconsidering your idea of gospel music.

singing fisherman2. JOHNNY HORTON – THE SINGING FISHERMAN: THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS OF JOHNNY HORTON
Also released in late 2014, this nine disc set chronicles the recording career of one of the brightest stars of the Louisiana Hayride, whose life was cut short in 1960 when he was killed in an automobile accident. Some may recall that Johnny Cash was one of his best friends and some may remember that his widow was also the widow of Hank Williams Sr.

To the extent that Johnny Horton is remembered today, it is for the recordings he made with Columbia Records starting in 1956 with “Honky Tonk Man” and “I’m A One Woman Man”, songs thirty years later covered for hits later by Dwight Yoakam and George Jones.
Johnny’s biggest hit was “The Battle of New Orleans” which reached #1 on both the pop (six weeks) and country charts (ten weeks)in 1959. He had two other #1 records in “When It’s Springtime In Alaska” (1959) and “North to Alaska” released ten days after his death.

Those great Columbia Recordings are all here, but Johnny was an active recording artist from 1952 forward, recording with Abbott Records and Mercury Records, as well as some smaller labels. The Abbott Recordings were pretty pedestrian but Johnny cut some real treasures for Mercury, some of which were regional hits. Those long-lost earlier recordings are here as well, sounding as good as they will ever sound. These recordings encompass Johnny singing straight country , western, rockabilly and historical saga songs. The set comes with two hardcover books.

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Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘The King’s Gift’

the king's giftI am very much a traditionalist when it comes to Christmas music, so my staples for Christmas listening include the likes of pop artists such as Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, Burl Ives and Perry Como with orchestral music by Mannheim Steamroller (my wife’s favorite) thrown in for good measure. When I do listen to Christmas albums by country artists, it tends to be music not overburdened with rock guitars and twanging steel guitars. Lorrie Morgan’s Merry Christmas From London (with the New World Philharmonic) is my favorite Christmas album by a country artist (aside, of course, from the Gene Autry album with “Frosty The Snowman” and “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Rain Deer”).

To my list of favorite Christmas albums, I’ve added The King’s Gift by country star Trace Adkins. Please note that this is NOT a country or bluegrass album, although you will hear instruments often found in those genres such as mandolins and fiddles (a/k/a violins). Steel guitars, dobros and rock guitars are nowhere to be found in this mix. What you will find here is a collection of traditional collection of Celtic and other folk carols, all performed with traditional Celtic accompaniments or gentle folk arrangements.

The only possible downside to the album for some listeners will be that Trace’s Louisiana accent isn’t quite a perfect match for the material, although his deep rich resonant baritone voice more than compensates. After about 30 seconds into the first song, I no longer noticed the accent, but noticed the beauty and vitality of the material and the accompanying orchestration of, mandolin, uilleann bagpipes, penny whistle, violin, viola, cello, harp, organ and Weissenborn (a brand of German non-resonator slide guitars).
Trace has several distinguished guests assisting him on the album on the album. The world-famous Irish troubadours the Chieftains and Scottish singer Alyth lend a lovely Celtic lilt to “I Saw Three Ships”. I didn’t know that actor Kevin Costner could sing, but he and his daughter Lily acquit themselves admirably on “Silent Night”.
Modern bluegrass star Sonya Isaacs joins Trace for “We Three Kings” and powerhouse rock drummer Kenny Aronoff makes an appearance on “Little Drummer Boy”.

Trace is currently touring in support of this album, performing only Christmas music. According to Trace, he’s very proud of this album, and I certainly think he should be. If you love Christmas music with a strong folk or Celtic feel, you’ll love this album.

Track List:

1. Wexford Carol
2. O Tannenbaum
3. O’ Come Emmanuel
4. Away in a Manger
5. I Saw Three Ships (with the Chieftains & Alyth MacCormack)
6. Silent Night (with Kevin Costner & Lily Costner)
7. We Three Kings (with Sonya Isaacs)
8. Carol of the Drums (with drummer Kenny Aronoff)
9. Oh Holy Night (with the Isaacs)
10. What Child is This ?

Grade: A

Country Heritage: Patsy Montana

Patsy MontanaAs we enter the holiday season, I thought it might be worthwhile to remember one of the true female pioneers of country music.

The recently departed Kitty Wells may have had the first number one single for a solo female country artist, and she undoubtedly deserved her crown as the “Queen of Country Music,” but she was not the first country female to sell a million copies of a single release. That honor belongs to Patsy Montana, who in 1935, during the depths of the Great Depression, recorded a song that sold well over a million copies in “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” A steady seller for years, the song even became a top ten pop hit in 1936 (there were no country charts until January 1944).

Patsy Montana was born with the name Ruby Rebecca Blevins on October 30, 1908, in Hot Springs, Arkansas (there is some controversy about the year of birth) the only girl of eleven children born to Augustus Blevins and Amanda Meeks. Growing up with 10 brothers, Montana inevitably grew up a tomboy, but a tomboy with musical inclinations. Later famous for her yodeling abilities, she listened to her parents’ Jimmie Rodgers records, learned and absorbed his yodels, and also learned to play the fiddle.

A year after graduating from high school in 1928, Montana moved to Los Angeles and began music studies at the University of the West (later the UCLA). In addition to the “highbrow” music taught in college, she associated with hillbilly musicians and after winning first place in a singing contest, performed on radio station KTMR as Rubye Blevins, “the Yodeling Cowgirl from San Antone.”

Eventually Montana came to the attention of future gospel great Stuart Hamblen, who invited her to sing for more money on a rival radio station. She joined Lorraine McIntire and Ruthy DeMondrum as the Montana Cowgirls. This is the point at which the name change to Patsy Montana occurred, given to her by Hamblen upon learning that she was of Irish descent, and not wanting a “Ruthie” and a “Rubye” in the same group.

In the summer of 1932, she returned home for a vacation, and received a week’s booking on KWKH in Shreveport, Louisiana. Following these performances, Jimmie Davis (future two-time Governor of Louisiana and also a future Country Music Hall of Fame member) called her and invited her to travel to New York to record. Initially skeptical, she changed her mind when one of her brothers advised her that Davis was an important Victor recording artist. During the next two years, Montana sang backup for Davis on some recordings and recorded her first single, “When the Flowers of Montana Were Blooming.” She eventually returned to California and rejoined the Montana Cowgirls. When the group dissolved in 1933, she returned home to Arkansas.

Montana stayed home only briefly, as her brothers Kenneth and Claude decided to enter a huge watermelon into competition at the Chicago World’s Fair. She tagged along and upon arrival she sought out Dolly Good of the Girls of the Golden West, who tipped her off to a band looking for a new lead singer. She auditioned and began an eight-year relationship with the (soon to be named) Prairie Ramblers. During this period, Montana and the band would record dozens of songs and make hundreds of personal appearances. Although based in Chicago at WLS’s National Barn Dance, the band also performed for a year on WOR in New York. In 1934 she married Paul Rose, an organizer of the traveling portion of the WLS program. With Rose, she would have two daughters: Beverly and Judy.

Although record sales during this period plunged precipitously, the American Record Company (ARC) decided to record Patsy Montana and the Prairie Ramblers in New York during August of 1935. They recorded “Nobody’s Darling but Mine,” which became one of the biggest hits of the decade. Future Columbia A&R director “Uncle” Art Satherly, suggested that she record a song she had written titled “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” The rest is history. While not a hit right out of the box, the recording slowly built momentum eventually becoming an intrinsic part of the American culture. The song, a paean of love and independence, is still loved and performed to this day.

While Montana never again had another huge hit recording, she stayed busy as an entertainer for another 60 years, appearing in a Gene Autry movie in 1939, recording with groups such as the Sons of the Pioneers and the Light Crust Doughboys, and hosting an ABC network radio show in 1946-47, Wake Up and Smile (which featured her trademark greeting, “Hi, pardner! It’s Patsy Montana,” accompanied by the thunder of horses’ hooves). She continued to make personal appearances and occasionally recorded new material. She became an influence on many cowgirl wannabes and an idol to many female singers during the ensuing years. Montana received the Academy of Country Music’s Pioneer Award in 1970. Her signature song “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart” has been recorded many times in recent years, most notably by Suzy Bogguss in 1988 and by Montana herself, during her last recording sessions in 1995. In fact the song is played over the end credits of John Sayles’s 1996 film Lone Star, which was released just weeks after Montana’s death.

Patsy Montana passed away on May 3, 1996 in San Jacinto, CA and was elected that same year into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Her autobiography The Cowboy’s Sweetheart was published posthumously. Read more of this post

Country Heritage: Ferlin Husky

ferlin husky

I hear Little Rock calling
Homesick tears are falling
I’ve been away from Little Rock way too long
Gonna have a troubled mind
Til I reach that Arkansas line
I hear Little Rock calling me back home

From “I Hear Little Rock Calling” — music and lyrics by Dallas Frazier

In a career in which he was a humorist, a singer, a dramatic actor on Kraft TV Theater, a movie star and talent scout, it seems only appropriate that Ferlin Husky was one of the first to record and take a Dallas Frazier lyric up the country charts. Moreover, Husky is one of the few country stars to have three career songs in “A Dear John Letter”, his 1953 duet with Jean Shepard that spent 6 weeks at #1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Chart (and reached #4 on the pop charts); “Gone”, a 1957 hit that spent 10 weeks at #1 on Billboard (and also reached #4 on the pop chart); and finally, in 1960, “The Wings Of A Dove”, a massive hit that Cashbox lists as the biggest country song of the period 1958-1984 with 19 weeks at #1 (Billboard had it at #1 for 10 weeks).

Ferlin Husky (December 3, 1925 – March 17, 2011) was born on a farm midway between the Missouri towns of Flat River, Hickory Grove and Cantwell. As a youngster, Ferlin obtained a guitar and, aided by his uncle Clyde Wilson, he learned to play it. Upon graduation from high school, Ferlin moved to the region’s biggest city, St. Louis, where he briefly worked odd jobs to survive before joining the US Merchant Marines in 1943. Ferlin would spend five years in the Merchant Marines, where in his off hours he would entertain shipmates with his vocals and musicianship. In 1948 Ferlin left the Merchant Marines to return to St. Louis where he worked for over a year with Gene Autry’s sidekick Smiley Burnett at radio station KXLW.

Moving to California in 1949, Husky landed some bit parts in western movies before moving to Bakersfield, where he sang at local clubs and worked as a disc jockey. By 1950 he was recording for Four Star Records under the name ‘Terry Preston,’ a name Ferlin felt less contrived than his given name. While none of the Terry Preston recordings became hits, they favorably impressed Cliffie Stone, a Southern California disc jockey whose television show Hometown Jamboree was quite popular. Stone played the Terry Preston records on his morning show on KXLA and eventually got Ferlin signed to Capitol Records, still under the name Terry Preston. Recording for legendary Capitol producer Ken Nelson, several fine singles resulted, including a cover of an old Roy Acuff hit “Tennessee Central #9,” none of which charted.

Nelson urged Ferlin to use his real name and the first single released under that name (“Huskey”–with an E–being the spelling used on records until 1957) hit the jackpot as the 1953 recording of “A Dear John Letter,” sung by Jean Shepard with recitation by Ferlin, resonated with returning Korean War veterans and launched both careers.

A follow up record with Ms. Shepard, “Forgive Me John”, also went Top 10 in late 1953, but it took another year for the solo hits to start. Finally, in 1955, Ferlin hit with four songs, two Top 10 records in “I Feel Better All Over” and “Little Tom”, a Top 20 record in “I’ll Baby Sit With You,” and a #5 hit recorded under the name of his comic alter-ego Simon Crum, “Cuzz Yore So Sweet”.

Growing up in the Great Depression and coming of age during World War II gave Ferlin a sense of the importance of helping others. As one of the first artists to reach Bakersfield, Ferlin was an influence and mentor to such struggling entertainers as Tommy Collins, Billy Mize, Dallas Frazier, Buck Owens and Roy Drusky. In fact, it was Ferlin who renamed Leonard Sipes as Tommy Collins.
During his years with Capitol, Ferlin Husky would push the boundaries of country music, whether by the sophisticated balladry of “Gone”, or the gentle ribbing of his #2 hit “Country Music Is Here To Stay” (as recorded by Crum).

Ferlin would stay with Capitol Records until 1972 charting forty-one records along the way, although after “The Wings of A Dove” in 1960 Top Ten hits would be scarce for the singer, with only “Once” (1967) and “Just For You” (1968), both which reached #4, scaling the heights. (“Heavenly Sunshine” reached #10 on Cashbox in 1970, stalling out at #11 on Billboard.)

After 1972, Ferlin would sign with ABC where he would chart nine times with hits including “Rosie Cries A Lot” (#17). A very nice record called “A Room for A Boy … Never Used” got lost in the shuffle; it peaked at #60 but is well worth hunting down.
After his stint with ABC, Ferlin would record sporadically for minor labels, often remaking earlier hits but sometimes coming up with new material. In 2005, at the age of eighty, Ferlin issued an excellent new CD, The Way It Was (Is The Way It Is), on the Heart of Texas label. This CD featured both old and new material, with Leona Williams on two tracks, and backed by a cast of fine Texas swing musicians.

Ferlin Husky was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010. Many years before that, he became one of the first country artists to get his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Read more of this post

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.

Album Review: The Oak Ridge Boys – ‘Christmas Time’s A-Coming’

We kicked off the Christmas season with Wednesday’s review of Spotlight Artist Sammy Kershaw’s A Sammy Klaus Christmas. Continuing the theme, veteran performers the Oak Ridge Boys also have a new Christmas album out. It’s their sixth since 1982, but perhaps surprisingly there isn’t much overlap of material even though most of the songs are pretty familiar.

A delightful ‘Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!’ opens proceedings genially. Gene Autry’s ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’ makes great use of Richard Sterban’s gravelly bass. Sterban slightly overdoes it, though, on an otherwise attractive ‘White Christmas’.

The muscular ‘Peterbilt Sleigh’, written by Lonestar’s Richie McDonald (who has recorded it himself) with Philip Douglas and Ron Harbin, is a silly but quite entertaining story of Santa needing to call on a trucker for help when his sleigh breaks down one Christmas Eve. In contrast, the Harlan Howard song ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ is a sweet, understated seasonal love song, with Sterban on lead.

The group sadly bring little new to ‘Christmas Time’s A Coming’ (although it’s enjoyable enough) or the overused ‘The Christmas Song’. I didn’t like their ridiculously overblown version of ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ at all, and could also have done without a dragging take on ‘I’ll be Home For Christmas’.

The bulk of the material (as with Kershaw’s album) offers secular cheer, but brace of religious numbers appears three-quarters through the set. The best of these is the delicately tender ‘Getting Ready For A Baby’, written by Jerry Salley, Sue C Smith and Lee Black, and which touchingly explores the emotions of Mary and Joseph. An intimate ‘Mary, Did You Know’ is also feelingly interpreted.

‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ (not the nursery rhyme, but a new song about the baby Jesus) has a faint Celtic feel but drags a bit. ‘Glorious Impossible’ is okay but a little forgettable. The hymn ‘Joy To The World’ seems on paper perfect fare for the quartet’s four part gospel harmonies, but an arrangement with electric guitars bursting in is horribly misjudged.

Overall, this makes a pleasant if inessential addition to the ranks of Christmas albums.

Grade: B

Country Heritage Redux: Ernest Tubb (1914-1984)

An expanded and updated version of an article previously published by The 9513:

Disclaimer: Expect no objectivity at all from me with this article. Along with Webb Pierce and Merle Haggard, Ernest Tubb is one of my all-time favorite country artists. Yes, I know he started out most songs a quarter tone flat and worked his way flatter from there, and yes, I know that 80% of The 9513s readership has technically better singing voices than Tubb had. But no one in country music (and few outside the genre, Al Jolson, Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima, Phil Harris among them) was ever able to infuse as much warmth and personality into his singing.

Ernest Tubb, known as E.T. to nearly everyone, was born in 1914 in Crisp, Texas, a town in Ellis County which is no longer even a flyspeck on the map. Tubb grew up working on farms and used his free time learning to play guitar, sing and yodel. As with many who grew up in the rural southeast and southwest, E.T. grew up listening to the music of the legendary “Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933), and like such contemporaries as Gene Autry, Jimmie Davis , Bill Monroe, Jimmie Skinner and Hank Snow, E.T. started his career sounding like a Jimmie Rodgers clone. In Ernest’s case, he eventually met Jimmie’s widow, Carrie Rodgers, who was sufficiently impressed with Tubb to sponsor his career and give him one of Jimmie’s guitars to play. Tubb played clubs around Texas and the southwest and, with Mrs. Rodgers’ help, secured a record deal with RCA. As there had already been one Jimmie Rodgers, Tubb’s sound-alike records sold only modestly.

Good luck can take many forms. In Tubb’s case, his good luck came in the form of illness. In 1939 E.T. suffered a throat infection that necessitated a tonsillectomy, robbing him of his ability to yodel and thereby forcing him to develop a style of his own.

Moving to Decca Records in 1940, Tubb continued to record. Nothing happened initially, but his sixth release–a self-penned number titled “Walking the Floor Over You”–turned him into a star. The song was released in 1941, before the advent of Billboard’s country music charts. It did, however, appear on the pop charts, selling over a million records in the process. The song was covered by such luminaries as Bing Crosby and became Tubb’s signature song. Over the years the song has been recorded hundreds of times with artists including Pat Boone, Hank Thompson, Patsy Cline, Asleep at the Wheel and Glen Campbell being among the more notable.
Read more of this post

Country Heritage: Sonny & Bobby, The Osborne Brothers

Bluegrass and Modern Country Music – kissin’ cousins or estranged relations ? Although they claim common ancestry (Ernest Tubb, Gene Autry and Bill Monroe were all hugely influenced by Jimmie Rodgers, and many others were influenced by the Original Carter Family), it has been many years since modern country and bluegrass music split off in different directions from their acoustic string band origins. Up until the end of the 1960s you could hear bluegrass played by some country radio stations (most frequently by smaller stations located in more rural areas), and artists such as Jimmie Skinner, the Willis Brothers, Lee Moore, Grandpa Jones and Frank “Hylo” Brown straddled the two genres. Mainstream artists such as Skeeter Davis, Carl Smith, Porter Wagoner and the duo of George Jones & Melba Montgomery would record albums of bluegrass songs. By the end of the 1960s, however, bluegrass was nearly extinct on country radio. True, there were a few songs, usually associated with movies (“Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “Dueling Banjos”) or television shows (“The Ballad of Jed Clampett”), which achieved some airplay, but those were few and far between.

Today bluegrass is largely banished from country radio. Yes, various performers such as Keith Urban or Rascal Flatts will gratuitously drop a banjo or a mandolin into their songs, but their music isn’t bluegrass. Yes, artists such as Alison Krauss or Rhonda Vincent will occasionally grace a Nashville artist’s album as a duet partner for a song or two, but those songs really aren’t bluegrass either. And yes, the soundtrack to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, sold millions of copies – but how often did your local country station play any of the songs from the soundtrack?

The last bluegrass act regularly to receive country radio airplay was the duo of banjo player Roland “Sonny” Osborne (born 10/29/37) and his mandolin-playing brother, Bobby Osborne (born 12/9/1931). Sonny and Bobby were born in Hyden, Kentucky, but when Sonny was very young, the family moved near Dayton, Ohio where they had their first experiences as performers. As children, their father instilled a love for traditional music. Bobby picked up the electric guitar as a teenager and played in various local bands. A few years after his brother began playing the guitar, Sonny picked up the banjo. Both were greatly influenced by the likes of Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Alton & Rabon Delmore and Bill Monroe.

Being six years older, Bobby was first out of the gate. During the autumn of 1949, he and friend/banjoist Larry Richardson joined the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. This effectively changed the band from Delmore Brothers sound-alikes into a pioneering bluegrass band. They recorded a number of sides together including the original version of “Pain In My Heart.”

In 1950, 13 year old Sonny joined his brother in the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. Following his tenure with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Bobby joined forces with Jimmy Martin to form a band called the ‘Sunny Mountain Boys’. Following the breakup with Martin, Bobby briefly joined the Stanley Brothers, singing high baritone above Carter’s lead and Ralph’s tenor. Unfortunately, before this trio was able to record, Bobby was drafted into the military in November of 1951.

During Bobby’s military service Sonny continued his musical career. During the summers of 1952 and 1953, Sonny played banjo for Bill Monroe. Also, Sonny recorded a number of singles for small record labels such as Kentucky and Gateway. I do not know how many sides were released by Gateway, but I am aware of at least forty-two songs being recorded, featuring Sonny on banjo and vocals, Carlos Brock on guitar and vocals, Billy Thomas on fiddle, Smokey Ward on bass and Enos Johnson on mandolin and vocals.

In late 1953, Bobby & Sonny teamed up with Jimmy Martin and performed on a local Detroit radio station billed as “Jimmy Martin and The Osborne Brothers.” Bobby & Sonny lasted two years with the mercurial Martin, during which time they recorded a few singles for RCA. They left in 1956 to work with Charlie Bailey on the WWVA Big Jamboree in Wheeling, West Virginia, where they would stay for four years. A few months later they joined forces with lead singer Harley “Red” Allen and formed their own band–thereafter becoming known as the Osborne Brothers.

Shortly after joining forces with Red Allen, The Osborne Brothers signed a deal with MGM records. Their fifth single for MGM, “Once More,” reached #13 in 1958. While no more singles charted nationally for MGM (many of their records were regional hits), the Osborne Brothers continued to record, refining their sound. Red Allen left the group after the first album, but Sonny & Bobby soldiered onward, with other outstanding vocalists such as Benny Birchfield helping complete the harmony trios. They would record three more albums for MGM before leaving for Decca in late 1963. Many of these albums included songs that would later become hits when re-recorded for Decca.

The Decca years found Sonny and Bobby experimenting with the instrumentation of their music. They experimented slowly at first, using an electric bass, then added additional instruments such as steel guitar and piano, and Sonny’s own creation, the electric six-string banjo. The hybrid country bluegrass sound proved quite popular with fans and disc jockeys alike. They were soon booked on the major country package shows of the day. With their voices being featured on their own major label recordings and on others from Conway Twitty to Bill Monroe, their name became synonymous with harmony singing. From 1966 to 1976, the Osborne Brothers would chart 16 times. While none of these songs were huge national hits, the records sold well and were mostly huge hits in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic areas. Several of their songs such as “Ruby (Are You Mad),” “Roll Muddy River,” “Son of A Sawmill Man” and “Rocky Top” became bluegrass standards, with the latter even being designated as an official Tennessee State song.

The Osborne Brothers were inducted as members of the Grand Ole Opry in 1964. They were voted as the CMA’s “Vocal Group of the Year” in 1971, and received nominations in the category in 1970, 1974 and 1975. From 1971-1978 they were honored by Music City News as the nation’s top bluegrass group. Along the way, they became one of the first major bluegrass groups to appear extensively at bluegrass festivals.

The eighteenth (and last) charted single for Sonny & Bobby was “I Can Hear Kentucky Calling Me” in early 1980, which peaked at #75. By 1980, the chasm between the sound of bluegrass and modern country music had grown too deep for bluegrass to get any airplay on country radio. Ricky Skaggs would have considerable success on country radio during the years just ahead, but the records that charted well for Skaggs were far less grassy than the hybrids that the Osborne Brothers had been charting in the 1960s and 1970s.

Following their departure from Decca/MCA in 1975, The Osborne Brothers signed with Country Music Heritage (CMH) records and gradually reverted to traditional bluegrass instrumentation and have stayed there ever since. The Osborne Brothers were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music’s Hall of Honor (the genre’s equivalent to the Country Music Hall of Fame) in 1994 and were elected to the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame in 2002.

He Osborne Brothers continued to perform until Sonny Osborne retired from performing in 2005 after a shoulder operation affected his ability to play the banjo. Bobby Osborne continues to perform to this day, with Rocky Top X-Press, the band he formed after Sonny’s retirement. At 79 years of age, Bobby still tours – his busy schedule can be checked out on his website www.bobbyosborne.com .

The Osborne Brothers were pioneers in being among the first bluegrass groups (possibly the first bluegrass group) to include modern country instruments such as drums, electric bass, electric guitar, electric banjo, guitjo (a banjo neck on a guitar body) and steel guitar into bluegrass music. Many other acts would follow suit, even traditionally oriented groups such as Jim & Jesse McReynolds. Perhaps of greater importance was the vocal trio style created by the Osborne Brothers in conjunction with Red Allen, sometimes dubbed as “inverted stacked harmony”. This sound, unique and electrifying, featured Bobby singing a high lead line, Sonny singing baritone, and finally Red Allen singing the tenor as the lowest part. Although Red left after the first MGM album, subsequent vocalist such as Benny Birchfield , Dale Sledd and others kept the excitement going, setting a pattern many other groups,both bluegrass and modern country tried to duplicate, although few with such panache.

Discography

VINYL

The Osborne Brothers recorded four albums for MGM and 14 albums for Decca/MCA during the vinyl era. All of these records are worthwhile. If you found all 18 of the albums and played them chronologically you would hear a detailed history of the evolution of bluegrass music as the Osborne Brothers occasionally strayed into “newgrass” before the term was invented. The Decca/MCA albums are especially interesting as the Osborne Brothers covered many classic country songs as well as contemporary country material.

Unfortunately, little of the classic MGM and Decca/MCA material is available on CD, except for on two terrific (and quite expensive) boxed sets issued by Bear Family which contain all of the MGM and Decca/MCA material.

Leaving MCA/Decca after 1975, the Osborne Brothers joined the tradition-oriented Country Music Heritage (CMH) label, issuing at least ten albums for CMH, including a wonderful double album with Mac Wiseman. The CMH albums straddle the vinyl, cassette and CD eras, so you may find those albums in any or all of those formats.

Four albums were issued on Sugar Hill and five on Pinecastle. The Pinecastle albums all were issued on CD, however, only Once More, Volumes 1 & 2 were released on CD by Sugar Hill.

There was a live album issued on RCA in April 1982 titled Bluegrass Spectacular. This album, recorded in October 1981 at Opryland’s Theater By The Lake, features the Osborne Brothers with guests the Lewis Family and Mac Wiseman. Hairl Hensley and Roy Acuff do the opening introductions. For this performance, Paul Brewster sings the additional harmony Hal Rug plays steel guitar and former Texas Troubadour Leon Rhodes plays electric lead guitar. As far as I know this is the only RCA album, although RCA Camden issued something in 1968 called Bluegrass Banjo Pickers which has a few Sonny Osborne tracks (I’ve never seen the actual album)

CD

The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has available both of the Bear Family Box Sets at $99.98 each. If you are a diehard fan, it’s definitely worth the money to buy these, but for the casual fan, they are overkill. It is possible (sometimes) to find these sets for less money on sites such as www.overstock.com and www.countysales.com . Also you may be able to find used sets on sites such as www.musicstack.com .

The only other CD available covering the Decca/MCA years is titled Country Bluegrass. It sells for $9.98 and has ten of their chart hits including “Rocky Top,” “Roll Muddy River” and “Ruby (Are You Mad).” It’s inadequate, but essential.

ET has eleven more titles available, all of which come from post-1975. They do have the terrific Essential Bluegrass Album (with Mac Wiseman) which was a double album with 24 songs.

ET also has available six solo albums that Bobby Osborne has issued plus an album with Jesse McReynolds titled Masters of The Mandolin. I have several of Bobby’s solo albums – they are good but something was definitely lost from the vocal blend when Sonny retired. Moreover, Bobby has lost some of his upper range over the years, especially on the more recent albums and when he performs some of the old Osborne Brothers classics, he has had to do them in lower keys. This point was brought home by Bobby’s performance on the Opry in July 2011, where Bobby has clearly changed the chord progression on the chorus of “Rocky Top” to make it easier to sing.

Currently www.bobbyosborne.com has six of Bobby’s solo albums available for sale as well as ten Osborne Brothers CDs and two DVDs of the Osborne Brothers in concert.

Country Heritage Redux: David Rogers (1936-1993)

An updated version of an article originally published by The 9513:

David Rogers (1936-1993) is proof of the adage that it’s great to be on a major label, but only if the label is truly behind you.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, during the depths of the Great Depression, Rogers began playing guitar when he was eleven, and shortly thereafter began appearing in local bands. He successfully auditioned for Roger Miller in 1956, but was drafted before getting the opportunity to join Miller’s band.

In 1962, after Rogers’ was discharged from the service, he landed a regular gig at the Egyptian Ballroom–a gig which lasted several years. While performing there he recorded a demo tape which eventually came to the attention of Frank Jones at Columbia, and a recording contract was not far behind.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s Columbia was home to a great many country artists, including Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Ray Price, Carl Smith, Stonewall Jackson, Lefty Frizzell, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, Carl Butler & Pearl, Lynn Anderson, Jimmy Dickens, Johnny Duncan, Barbara Fairchild and a host of other minor artists. The label also controlled significant back catalogs on artists such as Ted Daffan, Gene Autry, Bill Monroe and Bob Wills.

With that array of artists (which doesn’t even count those on sister label Epic), there simply wasn’t much promotional oomph left for the likes of an aging bar-band singer, and so the recording of Roger’s albums was left to independent producer Pete Drake.

Drake, a great steel player famous for his “talking” steel guitar, used the “Country Cocktail” production style of Billy Sherrill and Glenn Sutton on Rogers’ records. Background vocals and symphonic strings were heavy, but because of Drake’s personal instrumental specialty, steel guitar played a far more prominent role than in the typical Sherrill or Sutton production.

Rogers’ first single, “Forgiven Fruit,” was release in 1967, but failed to chart. The next single, “I’d Be Your Fool Again,” checked in at #69, and the one after that, “I’m In Love With My Wife,” (bundled with “Tessie’s Bar Mystery”) finally cracked the top 40. Progress was slow but steady. In 1969, “A World Called You” hit #23. Meanwhile, Rogers made his debut on the Grand Ole Opry and started appearing regularly on the WWVA (Wheeling, WV) Big Jamboree, where I first heard him many Saturday nights on the radio.

Rogers’ breakthrough hit was 1970′s “I Wake Up In Heaven”, which peaked at #19 on the Cashbox Country Chart (Billboard had it at #26). The song was very strong in selected regional markets, hitting #1 in places like Orlando, FL, and Norfolk VA. The follow-up single, “She Don’t Make Me Cry” (#19 Billboard / #4 Cashbox) continued the upward momentum, and “Ruby You’re Warm” held place (#21 Billboard / #13 Cashbox).

According to Billboard, the next single, 1972′s “Need You,” was Rogers’biggest hit, reaching #9 (it went to #5 on Cashbox and, again, hit #1 in many markets). (“Need You” was a remake of the 1958 Donnie Owens pop hit and is, in fact, my favorite David Rogers recording.)

After that peak, Columbia apparently lost interest in Rogers as his next two singles barely cracked the top 40 on either Billboard or Cashbox. By 1973, Rogers was off Columbia and had signed with Atlantic Records, hardly a power in the world of country music, though the label was trying to penetrate the country market as they signed Willie Nelson at this time.

Atlantic actually had more success with Rogers than with Nelson –- Rogers achieved one top ten single with the late 1973 single “Loving You Has Changed My Life,” which peaked at #9 on both Billboard and Cashbox in January 1974.

Both Nelson and Rogers were gone from Atlantic by the end of 1974. Nelson, of course, went on to bigger and better things, but Rogers would slowly fade from the public eye. After recording one album for United Artists, he moved on to a series of minor labels including Republic, Kari, Music Master and Hal Kat, where he charted singles until 1984, with only 1979′s “Darling” cracking the top twenty.

Recordings

Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, none of David Rogers’ albums have ever been issued on CD, so you’ll need to do vinyl hunting (there may be some digital download available).

The three Columbia albums (A World Called You, She Don’t Make Me Cry and Need You) are quite good, especially the latter two. The Atlantic albums, which were again produced by Pete Drake, are also worthwhile, though they differ from the Columbia albums in that most of the “Country Cocktail” trappings were abandoned.

My favorite album from the Atlantic years is Farewell To The Ryman, issued in 1973 to commemorate the Opry’s move to Opryland. The track-list is a cornucopia of classic country songs: “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Great Speckled Bird,” “I’m Movin’ On,” “I Can’t Help It,” “Walking The Floor Over You,” “Send Me The Pillow That You Dream On,” “Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” “Release Me,” “Mexican Joe,” “Wondering,”, “I Walk The Line,” and “Satisfied Mind.”

Aside from the Republic records, Music Master issued one Rogers album titled The Best of David Rogers, a two record set comprised of 11 re-makes of his Columbia and Atlantic hits and nine new songs written by Harold Shields. The new songs aren’t bad; two of them–”Hold Me” and “Crown Prince of the Barroom”–charted, and the remakes are decent, finding Rogers in good voice.

In addition to the albums David Rogers charted 37 of the 45 rpm singles plus there are an untold number of uncharted singles. Used record stores may carry some of these records but the best place to look is http://www.musicstack.com

Happy hunting!

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘Wind In The Wire’

1993’s Wind In The Wire is probably the most overlooked album in Randy Travis’ discography. By the early 90s, Randy had begun to dabble in acting, somewhat to the detriment of his singing career. Wind In The Wire was something of a side project, intended to accompany a made-for-TV film of the same title, in which Travis appeared. It is, for the most part, a collection of cowboy and western-themed songs, totally non-commercial in its approach and as such, it was mostly shunned by country radio.

Wind In The Wire was the first Randy Travis album since his major label debut not to earn platinum or gold certification, and the first that failed to produce any Top 40 hits. It was also his first release without longtime producer Kyle Lehning. Instead, production duties were handled by Steve Gibson. The album is in large part, a tribute to the singing cowboys and one can easily imagine Gene Autry or Roy Rogers singing many of the songs. Most of the tunes have a traditional Western sound, though only one — “The Old Chisolm Trail” is actually a vintage song. Others such as the opening track “Down At The Old Corral”, “Blue Mesa” and “Roamin’ Wyoming” were written by the contemporary songwriting team of Roger Brown and Luke Reed, but all three songs sound as though they are much older. “Memories of Old Santa Fe” written by Roger Brown and Rick Peoples is in a similar vein, while Mark Shutte Jr’s “Paniolo Country” is a little more contemporary. “Hula Hands”, as the title implies, has a Hawaiian them, and though it is a very good song, it really doesn’t belong in this collection.

“Cowboy Boogie”, the album’s first single, is not a traditional cowboy song per se. It is more of a Western swing tune, but the lyrics deal with cowboys and the Old West. It was greeted at country radio with a big yawn and stalled at #46 on the charts. It fared much better in Canada, however, reaching #10 on the RPM Country Tracks chart there. The title track, which is the most contemporary song on the album, only reached #65 and no further singles were released.

Clearly, the album’s release was timed to coincide with the broadcast of the film, but the timing was not fortuitous for Randy’s music career. It followed two volumes of greatest hits, which were released simultaneously the preceding year. Those two volumes had produced the #1 hits “If I Didn’t Have You” and “Look Heart, No Hands”, but a third single, “An Old Pair Of Shoes” had peaked outside the Top 20. By the time Wind In The Wire was released, Travis had been absent from the radio airwaves for a while, and with Garthmania at its peak, a collection of cowboy tunes wasn’t what radio programmers wanted. Although Randy rebounded commercially with his next album, 1994’s This Is Me, he never again achieved the level of success that he’d enjoyed up to this point.

The commercial failure of Wind In The Wire notwithstanding, it is a solid album that was a nice antidote to the increasingly pop-oriented fare dominating the charts both now and at the time of its release. It holds up surprisingly well. Travis is in good voice and seems comfortable and at ease with the material. Though it’s not essential listening, it is worth seeking out, particularly since a lot of people may have missed out on this one at the time of its release. It is still in print, though it is a little expensive for a nearly 20-year-old commercial flop, but it is worth downloading, at least. It can be purchased from Amazon or iTunes, with the latter having the better price.

Grade: A-

Country Heritage: Leonard Slye (1911-1998)

The Billboard Chart career of Leonard Slye ran from 1946 to 1991, a lengthy span of time that only resulted in a total of twelve chart records of which only four hit the top ten and only three more reached the top twenty. Moreover, there were some long gaps in charting records. After a #8 record in 1950 with “Stampede”, Leonard would not chart again until 1970 when “Money Can’t Buy Love” reached #35, followed in 1971 by “Lovenworth” (#12), “Happy Anniversary” (1971 – #47), “These Are The Good Old Days” (1972- #73) and “Hoppy, Gene and Me” (1975 – #15). After that only two more chart singles, one in 1980 and one in 1991 a duet with Clint Black on “Hold On Partner”.

This sounds like I am writing about a singer on the fringes of stardom, and based solely upon his Billboard success, that might be a fair assessment. But please read on …

Leonard Franklin Slye was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, although he raised and grew up in Lucasville, Ohio. In 1921, young Leonard traveled to California where he joined a western group called the Rocky Mountain Pioneers. While with the group, Leonard met Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer, fine singers and writers both. In 1933 Leonard, Bob and Tim split off and formed the Pioneer Trio and performed on KFWB radio. Leonard played guitar and sang lead on many of the trio’s songs. As the group expanded, adding additional musicians and singers, the name was changed to The Sons of The Pioneers. Under this name, the group had many hit records, most occurring before the advent of Billboard’s Country Charts on January 1, 1944.

The Sons of The Pioneers were major recording stars during the period 1935-1949. Moreover, they had the opportunity to appear in many films of the newly emerging “singing cowboy” genre, including major roles in films starring Gene Autry. In at least one of these films, Leonard was billed as Dick Weston and played a villain who turned into a good guy by the end of the film.

In 1938, a studio dispute between Autry and Republic Pictures, left Republic without a star for the upcoming film Under Western Skies. Republic transformed Leonard Slye into Roy Rogers and a star was born. From that point forward Roy left the Sons of The Pioneers as a member but continued his association with them through numerous recordings and films.

Other than Gene Autry, Roy Rogers was the most successful star of western movies and there were years in which Roy was the top dog. Roy was listed in the Motion Picture Herald ‘Top Ten Money-Making Western Stars’ poll, for fifteen consecutive years from 1939 to 1954, holding first place from 1943 to 1954. He was in the top ten for all movie genres in 1945 and 1946. So big a star was Roy, that most of his post-war films were shot in color when most western films were still shot in black and white.

Roy’s first wife Arline died in childbirth in 1946 during the birth of Roy “Dusty” Rogers, Jr. Prior to that, Roy and Arline had a daughter and had adopted a daughter. In late 1947, Roy married Dale Evans, an actress who had appeared in a film with Roy in 1944. They remained married and maintained largely joint careers until Roy’s death in 1998. Roy and Dale adopted several children during their marriage, and had a daughter with Downs Syndrome who died at age two from complications of the mumps. They remained active in charity work and as active advocates of adoption throughout their lives.

Roy’s films were always kid-friendly so it was natural that Roy Rogers would emerge as one of the early stars of television, moving his radio show of nine years duration to television, where it ran from 1951-1957.

All told Roy Rogers appeared in over ninety movies, sold countless millions of records, both as a member of The Sons of The Pioneers and as a solo artist. While best remembered today for his television show and his theme song “Happy Trails To You” (written by his wife Dale Evans), Roy Rogers was a giant figure in the world of county music. Roy was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame as part of the original Sons of The Pioneers in 1980 and elected as a solo artist in 1988, the only artist elevated to the pantheon twice.

DISCOGRAPHY

VINYL
Roy Rogers was most active as a recording artist during the 1930s and 1940s, meaning that much of his original output was on 78 rpm records. During the 1950s and later relatively few albums were issued, including some aimed at children and some religious album. To be honest, I don’t have much Roy Rogers vinyl in my collection.

COMPACT DISC
Roy is fairly well represented on CD. My usual source, the Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has eight titles available. I’d recommend the following

The Best of Roy Rogers (Curb Records) collects all of Roy’s Capitol singles from the early 1970s, including “Money Can’t Buy Love”, Lovenworth”, “Happy Anniversary” and “These Are The Good Old Days” plus some covers of some classic county songs. Twelve songs in all – budget priced.

Biography: Musical Anthology (Capitol Records) – this was the soundtrack, so to speak, for an episode of television show Biography. This album is a mixed bag, some Capitol songs from the 1970s, some songs with Dale Evans from the 1950s including two songs (“Happy Trails” and “The Bible Tells Me So”) that will always be associated with Roy, and some songs from the 1940s including his biggest Billboard charting record, “My Chickashay Gal” which hit #4 in 1947.

A Cowboy Has To Sing – three CDs – 43 songs – I don’t know the source material but it’s nicely priced and the titles sound like they are from the 1940s.

Other titles have been available in the past and may be found with a little effort. CDs of the Sons of The Pioneers from 1935-1937 often feature lead vocals by Roy Rogers, as well as fabulous harmonies and hot instrumental work.

Not currently in print, but worth finding:

Roy Rogers Tribute – issued in 1991 by BMG. Although not so credited, I think the driving force behind this CD was Clint Black, whose duet with Roy, “Hold On Partner”, was the single released from the album. Other duet partners on the album include The Kentucky Headhunters, Randy Travis, KT Oslin & Restless Heart, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Van Shelton, Willie Nelson (of course), Kathy Mattea, Lorrie Morgan & The Oak Ridge Boys and Dusty Rogers. Riders In The Sky provide background vocals on some of the songs and “Happy Trails” features everyone named earlier plus Daniele Alexander, Baillie & The Boys, Holly Dunn, Roger Miller, Johnny Rodriguez, Eddie Rabbitt and Tanya Tucker.

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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Week ending 1/9/10: #1 singles this week in country music history

1950: Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer — Gene Autry (Columbia)

1960: El Paso — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1970: Baby, Baby (I Know You’re A Lady) — David Houston (Epic)

1980: Coward of the County — Kenny Rogers (United Artists)

1990: Who’s Lonely Now — Highway 101 (Warner Bros).

2000: Breathe — Faith Hill (Warner Bros.)

2010: Consider Me Gone — Reba McEntire (Starstruck/Valory)