My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Gene Clark

A half-dozen songs that never really were big hits (but may have been famous)

It is not so much true since the late 1970s but in all genres of music (except rock) there was a strong tendency for songs that were really big hits to be covered by many artists.

Here we will be looking at three really well-known country songs that never really were major hits for anyone, yet were so frequently covered that they became well-known hits, two songs that had Billboard not discontinued its regional charts, would have been recognized as big regional hits, and one song that was a huge copyright for a well known singer that isn’t well known and never charted at all.

1) Back in 1968, I purchased a few 45 rpm records. Lacking the patience to fool around with flipping records every 2:35, I soon switched to purchase of LPs. Among the few 45s that I purchased was Merle Haggard’s “The Legend of Bonnie & Clyde”. This record certainly was a hit reaching #1 on the Billboard and Record World country charts, but the B side was the revelation for me.

Back then I often didn’t get around to playing the B side of a 45 until later, but Dad had the Branded Man album that Haggard had issued the year before and every song on it was really good, so I flipped over the single to find one of the truly great country songs in “Today I Started Loving You Again”,

Back then Billboard did not usually track B sides and album tracks, so as far as Billboard is concerned the real hit on the song was Sammi Smith’s single from 1975 that reached #9. Kenny Rogers, Arthur Prysock and Emmylou Harris all issued singles that failed to crack the top forty. Record World, which did track B sides, had Haggard’s version reach #25.

I have no idea how many artists recorded “Today I Started Loving You Again” as an album track. Certainly, dozens of country artists did it (I probably have thirty country albums from the late 1968-1972 period that contain the song) and untold numbers of singers from other genres such as pop singer Al Martino, R&B singers Bobby Bland and Bettye Swann. I still hear country bands perform the song to this very day. For me, it’s a song I memorized on first hearing it and it has stuck in my memory since then

 What a fool I was to think I could get by

With only these few millions tears I cry

I should have known the worst was yet to come

And that crying time for me had just begun

2) Almost as well known as “Today I Started Loving You Again” is “Silver Wings”, which was an album track on Hag’s 1970 album A Portrait of Merle Haggard and was the flipside of “Working Man Blues. I can basically make the same comments about “Silver Wings” as I did about “Today I Started Loving You Again”. I heard the song frequently on the radio, but it never charted for Haggard. In fact, the only time the song ever charted was by the Hager Twins, Jim and Jon, who took it to #59 in late 1970.

 Silver wings shining in the sunlight

Roaring engines headed somewhere in flight

They’re taking you away, leaving me lonely

Silver wings slowly fading out of sight

“Don’t leave me,” I cried

Don’t take that airplane ride

But you locked me out of your mind

Left me standing here behind

3) Felice and Boudleaux Bryant wrote many famous songs that were big hits for the likes of the Everly Brothers, Carl Smith, Jimmie Dickens and countless others. While “Bye Bye Love” surely is their best-remembered song, I suspect that “Rocky Top” may be their second most famous song. The bluegrass duo of Sonny & Bobby Osborne got the song up to #33 on Billboard’s country chart in 1968 and Lynn Anderson got it to #17 in 1975 but that is it as far as chart success is concerned. The song ’s fame has spread far and wide beyond its limited chart placements it is an official Tennessee State Song, it is the University of Tennessee’s unofficial fight song, and has been recorded hundreds of times. The progressive bluegrass duo of Doug Dillard & Gene Clark (with Donna Washburn on vocals) issued the song in 1969, and that remains my favorite version of the song. Artists as diverse as Phish, Buck Owens, and Conway Twitty have recorded the song. Everybody knows the song and everybody sings along whenever the song is played

 Rocky Top you’ll always be

Home Sweet Home to me

Good ol’ Rocky Top

Rocky Top Tennessee

Rocky Top Tennessee

4) Bob Luman’s 1969 recording of “Come On Home And Sing The Blues To Daddy” probably was a regional hit in the southern states, reaching #24 on Billboard’s country charts (it reached #13 on Record World). Written by Ray Corbin, Luman’s record was featured in heavy rotation as a oldie when I returned to the US in August 1971; during its chart run WHOO DJ Clay Daniels told me that it often was the most requested song on the station and I know from personal experience that nearly every county cover band in Central Florida kept it in their playlist for a good decade after the song’s chart run.

Charley Pride, Wynn Stewart, Waylon Jennings and Bobby Bare recorded the song as an album track (so did many others) and I have heard Waylon and Bare perform it on stage.

 I hear say your new romance has faded

Just the way ours did some time ago

I’ve lost count of all the times I’ve waited

For you to tell me that you’ve missed me so

Come on home and sing the blues to daddy

If things don’t work out the way you planned

Come on home and sing the blues to daddy

Tell it all to one who understands

Just like a child that’s found a brand new plaything

Each one is more fun than those before

But there’s a faithful one that’s always waiting

To be picked up and kicked around some more

5) Nobody much remembers Pat Daisy, and RCA artist who got lost in the shuffle at RCA, but her recording of “Everybody’s Reaching Out for Someone” reached #20 on the Billboard country chart in 1972 (it reached #13 on Record World). Written by legendary songwriter Dickey Lee, the song reached #1 on the WHOO and WSUN Countdowns and I suspect that the tale for both Luman’s song and Daisy’s song is that either a station played the song and played it a lot, or simply never added the song at all (or perhaps added a different recording of the song). Whatever the case, the song was recorded by numerous artists including Lynn Anderson, Brenda Lee, Dickey Lee and Kitty Wells

Everybody’s reaching out for someone

Everybody’s knocking at some door

And long before I ever found you

You’re the one that I was reaching for

 

Just like the trees along the river bend

Lift up the branches to the sun above

We spent our lifetimes reaching for a friend

Cause everybody reach someone to love

 

And everybody’s reaching out …

Interestingly enough the song was revived in 1993 when the Cox Family recorded the song as the title cut for their first album on Rounder. The album was produced by Alison Krauss, and through their efforts, the song made its way into the bluegrass repertoire, where it is occasionally heard to this day.

6) Until “Harper Valley PTA” was released on August 24, 1968, Tom T Hall’s biggest copyright was a song that you may have never heard. By 1968 Tom had written a number a number of hits for other artists, including Johnny Wright’s #1 country hit “Hello Vietnam”, and had written a couple of minor hits for himself. “Hello Vietnam” received no pop airplay and sales of county singles in that era could be 50,000 copies.

On September 25, 1965, The Statler Brothers released a Tom T. Hall song as the B side of their debut single for Columbia. The single, “Flowers On The Wall” went #2 country, #4 pop and #1 in Canada, selling nearly a million copies in the process. The album Flowers On The Wall also sold well and for each 45 or album sold, Tom T Hall picked up a songwriting royalty. The song “Billy Christian” did not receive much airplay (I heard it a few times on WCMS) but I’m sure it helped keep the wolves away from Tom T’s door

It’s a pretty good song and is (or has been) available in a digital format

 If you’re listenin’ Billy Christian come on home

Are you listening Billy Christian if you are then go on home

Everything is like you left it she spends all the time alone

All that music never thrills her like it did when you were there

 

Go on home Billy Christian if you care

What a team they were together Billy Christian and his wife

People loved to hear them singin’ that was their success in life

But the eyes of Billy Christian were the wild and wandering kind

 

Now Billy’s wife sings solo all the time

Are you listening Billy Christian…

All the fellows tried to date me but she never blinked an eye

Every night she sings her same sad song and cries

 

Now where is Billy Christian does he ever hear the song

Does Billy Christian know he’s welcome home

Are you listening Billy Christian…

Go on home Billy Christian if you care

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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: Chris Hillman – ‘Bidin’ My Time’

Veteran folk-country-rocker Chris Hillman is always eclectic, but his latest album (produced by the late Tom Petty and longterm confrere Herb Pedersen) leans a little more in the folk-rock direction than the acoustic country work he had been making in recent years.

The opening ‘Bells Of Rhymney’ is a rather depressing song about struggling Welsh miners, written by Pete Seeger based on a 1930s poem by Idris Davies. Hillman previously recorded the song with The Byrds in 1965, in their jangly folk-rock period. The new version is rather better sung (with ex-Byrd David Crosby on harmonies), but it makes for a rather depressing opening.

There are a couple of co-writes with Hillman’s old Byrds bandmate Roger McGuinn, including a revival of ‘Here She Comes Again’, an older song but one they had not previously recorded. This is OK but a bit too Byrdsy for me, with McGuinn’s guitar prominent in the mix. ‘Old John Robertson’ has been revised (and retitled ‘New Old John Robertson’), and is very charming if very short, with a bluegrass arrangement. Another jangly Byrds cover comes with the Gene Clark-penned ‘She Don’t Care About Time’, which is quite pleasant.

Most of the new material comes from the longstanding songwriting partnership of Hillman and Steve Hill. The title track is a lovely waltztime reflection on the longing to return home to the countryside, prettily ornamented by Hillman’s mandolin. ‘Restless’ is a short and quite nice midpaced song about passage through life.

‘Different Rivers’ is a gentle, poetic ballad painting the portrait of a couple navigating a difficult world. ‘Given All I Can See’ is a vaguely spiritual plea for God’s “mercy and grace” on himself and the world in dark times. ‘Such Is The World That We Live In’ is a charming bluegrass influenced mid-tempo tune with an engaging melody, airy vocals and lyrics addressing the state of the USA from the point of view of a pair of fictional characters:

I never thought the day would come
When I’d see America on the run
And not sure what they’re running from
When all that’s lost in our schools
When the godless ones attempt to rule
We can only wonder who’s the fool

The pretty, lilting ‘Wildflowers’ is a cover of a Tom Petty song, and has a charming acoustic arrangement. ‘Walk Right Back’ was a pop hit for the Everly Brothers, and a country one for Anne Murray. Herb Pedersen’s close Everlys style harmony makes this track another joy. A more obscure cover is of ‘When I Get A Little Money’, a charming folk-style song written and previously recorded by Nathan G Barrow.

Overall I enjoyed this album, but it is not as commercially appealing as, say, Hillman’s work with the Desert Rose Band.

Grade: B

Album Review – The Byrds – ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’

TheByrdsSweetheartoftheRodeo

For more background on Sweetheart of The Rodeo, including insights into the recording sessions, click here

Just as Chris Hillman was enrolling at UCLA, he got a call from his old manager Jim Dickson to join a new band as their Bass Guitar player. The Byrds as they came to be known consisted of Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, and Hillman. He’d never picked up a bass guitar before, but his bluegrass background led him to quickly master it while developing his own style with the instrument.

Although he remained quiet on the bands first two releases, he quickly rose to the forefront, and he blossomed as a singer and vocalist after Clark left the band. By 1968, the band was down to just Hillman and McGuinn after Crosby bid his farewell. To replace him they hired Gram Parsons, who along with Hillman changed the sound of the band to reflect a country rock style, which was unheard of in the music industry at the time. This revolution was captured on The Byrds’ Sweetheart of The Rodeo, which was released on August 30, 1968.

The album found Hillman playing a supporting role yet again, as Parsons and McGuinn shared the brunt of the vocal duties. Parsons, who was little known at the time, was brought to the forefront of mainstream rock because of this album.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo was originally supposed to be a reflection of American popular music incorporating elements of Jazz and R&B but Parsons steered the project into a pure country album instead. This move was highly controversial, as Nashville had little interest in embracing a band they thought of as longhaired hippies attempting to sabotage country music. In the mists of all the hoopla, Parsons left the band, and wasn’t even a member when the August release date came around.

A cover of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” was released in April as the project’s lead single. The band heard the tune on a collection of Dylan’s Woodstock demos and thought it appropriate for them to cover. The mid-tempo ballad features an assist from Lloyd Green on Pedal Steel and came more than three years before Dylan would commercially release the track himself. It peaked at #74 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.

Hillman and McGuinn arranged the second and finale single “I Am A Pilgrim,” which failed to chart. The folk song is a bit more country sounding than the Dylan cover thanks to McGuinn’s banjo and some lovely fiddle playing by John Hartford.

Even more famous than the two singles is Parsons’ “Hickory Wind,” a fiddle and steel ballad he co-wrote with Bob Buchanan on a train ride from Florida to Los Angeles. The song is marred in controversy, from claims it wasn’t Parsons but a blind folksinger named Sylvia Sammons who wrote it, to being the tune that got them banned from The Grand Ole Opry. As the story goes, Parsons sang it instead of their planned Merle Haggard cover of “Life In Prison” and thus ticked off the country music establishment and sent shockwaves through the audience. Nonetheless “Hickory Wind” is an excellent song that still endures today.

Parsons also wrote “One Hundred Years from Now,” a tune in which McGuinn and Hillman shared lead vocals and Green once again contributed pedal steel. It’s another excellent song and I love the production on it, too, thanks in a large part to Green’s beautiful flourishes of steel.

The remainder of Sweetheart of the Rodeo consisted of cover songs. The band revived soul singer William Bell’s debut single “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” which had only been released five years earlier. The band’s version is similar to Bell’s although they take out the horns in favor of steel guitar performed by JayDee Maness.

Songs by The Louvin Brothers and Cindy Walker also appear. Charlie and Ira’s “The Christian Life” doesn’t differ much in The Byrds’ hands, but they manage to turn it into a honky-tonk stunner (with a wonderful lead vocal by McGuinn) and one of the album’s more twang-centric songs. Walker’s “Blue Canadian Rockies” is in similar vain and one of my favorite of this albums’ numbers thanks to the twangy guitar and Hillman’s wonderful lead vocal.

The aforementioned Haggard (and Jelly Sanders) song “Life In Prison” appears here, too. It’s stunning through and through from Manass’ steel guitar to Parsons’ lead vocal. He finds a way to channel Haggard while still making the song his own.

I also adore their version of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” a folk song about the titular bank robber. The band dresses it up with Hartford’s otherwordly banjo riffs and Hillman’s gorgeous mandolin picking. McGuinn also has a natural knack for storytelling that serves him well as he shoulders the lead vocal duties.

Luke Daniels’ “You’re Still On My Mind” is another Parsons fronted number featuring Maness on steel guitar. The results are glorious as the sunny steel is ear candy for the listener. The album closes with a final Dylan cover, “Nothing Was Delivered.” McGuinn takes the lead and with Green on pedal steel, the results are wonderful.

Full disclosure – before writing this review I’d never listened to an album by The Byrds, Chris Hillman, or Gram Parsons (although I do own Grievous Angel on vinyl). And as a formal introduction it doesn’t get much better than Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The album is a classic in every sense of the word and a pure delight to listen to forty-six years later. I had an idea what to expect when I went in to listen, but I had no idea what a fabulous steel guitar record this would turn out to be. Lloyd Green and JayDee Maness are masters of their craft and just a pure joy to listen to. If you don’t own your own copy of this album I suggest you run out and buy one as Sweetheart of The Rodeo is a must own for any fan of country or roots music.

Grade: A+

Spotlight Artist: Chris Hillman and the Desert Rose Band

ChrisHillmanChristopher Hillman was born in rural California on December 4, 1944. His older sister got him interested in country and folk music when she was in college and he was a teenager, and he began learning guitar and mandolin. At 17 he joined his first band, the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, playing mandolin, and the group recorded an album, Bluegrass Favorites (now a rare collector’s item), in 1963. Other members included future Eagle Bernie Leadon. When they broke up later that year (something which seems to have been an occupational hazard of California bands of the period), Chris joined the Golden State Boys, another bluegrass band which featured Vern Gosdin on lead vocals. Soon afterwards, the band changed its name to the Hillmen. The band’s eponymous album was released in 1969, some years after their disbanding, and has been reissued a few times since with some additional tracks.

The lack of bigtime success was beginning to frustrate the young musician, who was contemplating abandoning music in favour of attending college, when he got a big break thanks to Jim Dickson, who had produced the Hillmen’s recordings and tried to get them a record deal. He was invited to join a new folk-rock band called The Byrds, playing bass guitar – a new instrument for him. The Byrds’s first single, a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, was an international hit in 1965. Hillman was initially one of the less prominent members of the band, but he continued to develop as a songwriter and musician, and began to take a bigger share in the vocals on albums like Younger Than Yesterday, which had quite a strong country influence. In 1968 he and new member Gram Parsons, a fellow country fan, were instrumental in the creation of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, often regarded as the seminal country-rock album.

Chris and Gram departed the Byrds the following year, and together formed the Flying Burrito Brothers, a slightly shambolic but talented outfit who continued in the pioneering of country-rock. While the albums they recorded were not particularly commercially successful, being too country for rock and too rock for country, they have over time proved extremely influential, and some of the songs the pair wrote stand up as classics (for instance, ‘Sin City’).

The California country-rock-folk scene was somewhat incestuous and very quarrelsome, with frequent changes of band personnel. In 1971, Chris, who had fallen out with the unreliable Parsons (who went on to a solo career and launching that of Emmylou Harris, who Chris had actually discovered and introduced to Parsons), joined the eclectic Stephen Stills (formerly of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) in the band Manassas; there was then a shortlived Byrds reunion; and then a venture with singer-songwriter J. D. Souther and Buffalo Springfield’s Richie Furay to form the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band. Later in the 1970s Chris made his first attempt at a solo career with a couple of not very successful albums, before rejoining old Byrds bandmates Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark as McGuinn-Clark-Hillman.

The 1980s saw a change of emphasis, as Chris turned to his first musical loves: country and bluegrass, and really found himself as an artist. He recorded two excellent semi-acoustic records for Sugar Hill, Morning Sky and Desert Rose, with the help of his friend Herb Pedersen, who he had known for 20 years. The pair then formed the nucleus of the Desert Rose Band, a country-rock band with the emphasis on country which was to provide Chris Hillman’s greatest mainstream country success.

Their breezy sound was a big mainstream country hit between 1987 and 1991. Chris Hillman’s lead vocals were supported by Herb’s high harmonies, and the latter also contributed the odd lead vocal. The remainder of the lineup varied, but notably included lead guitarist John Jorgensen, steelie Jay Dee Maness, and Steve Hill, who became Hillman’s chief songwriting partner. The band won the CMA Horizon Award in 1989, and the Vocal Group of the Year in 1990.

After the Desert Rose Band called it a day in 1994, Hillman explored a number of mainly acoustic projects, sometimes solo, sometimes with friends. He and Pedersen have continued to work together frequently, and the pair have also recorded with bluegrass legends Tony and Larry Rice. There have also been live reunions of the Desert Rose Band.

In 2004 the Americana Music Association gave Hillman a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to so many genres of American music.

Over the next month we will be exploring highlights of Chris Hillman’s eclectic career, concentrating on the country elements, especially his period of mainstream success with the Desert Rose Band.

Spotlight Artist: Vern Gosdin

The April Spotlight Artist is one of the truly great vocalists in the history of the genre, Vern Gosdin. There are very few male recording artists who deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Geoge Jones, Ray Price and Gene Watson. It takes the ability to convey the depths of despair, the heights of jubilation and the serenity of an abiding faith – that’s all that is required to be known as “The Voice” and Vern was one of the few to fit the bill.

Born in Woodland, Alabama, Vern (1934-2009) and his brother Rex (1938-1983) first surfaced in the American conscious during the 1960s in various capacities in the Southern California music scene. Despite inclusion in the Byrds’ inner circle of musicians and friends, the Gosdin Brothers bluegrass/country/rock hybrid never achieved great success.

The Gosdin brothers grew up with their seven siblings on a farm. Since money was never in great supply, they, like many other poor rural children, turned to music to escape the drudgery of everyday life. Energized by their discovery of the Louvin Brothers, Rex and Vern (and a third brother) started singing together, mastering the art of vocal harmony, and performing regularly on local radio station WVOK as teenagers. In 1953 Vern moved to Atlanta and in 1956 he moved again to Chicago where he ran a country music nightclub. Meanwhile Rex had moved to California.

Vern moved to Los Angeles in 1961, where he joined up with Rex and they expanded their musical horizons as they found their way into a bluegrass group led by Chris Hillman called the Golden State Boys. The group later changed its name to the Hillmen. Their association with master musician Hillman led to their acceptance into the Los Angeles music scene from which the Byrds and such later stars as Poco, Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles emerged. During this period, the Gosdin Brothers picked up gigs when available, performed on recording sessions, and recorded a few songs as a duo. The duo expanded their musical repertoire, moving into an area somewhere between the folk-rock of the pre-Gram Parson Byrds and the Country-Rock that would emerge in the early 1970s.

In 1966 Vern and Rex contributed vocal harmonies to Gene Clark’s album Gene Clark and the Gosdin Brothers. In 1967 a single, “Hangin’ On,” cracked the charts, leading to the release of the duo’s only album, Sounds of Goodbye on Capitol in 1968. The title song, written by up and coming songwriter Eddie Rabbit was a hot commodity-so much so that three different acts recorded and released the song as a single, ensuring that no one would have a big hit with the record, although Opry veteran George Morgan came closest as his version was a big hit in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic areas. Tommy Cash’s record also made the national charts with the song. The Gosdin Brothers version did not chart nationally, but it did well on the left coast.

Since country music was a singles-driven genre, the failure of “The Sounds of Goodbye,” the most radio-friendly cut on the album, spelled finis to their recording career on Capitol. This was truly a pity as the album contains many great harmonies and otherwise worthwhile moments including original material in “For Us To Find” and “The Victim.” While the Gosdin Brothers sounded good collectively, Vern’s sparkling vocals were the highlight of the album. Discouraged, the Gosdin Brothers split up with Vern largely dropping out of the entertainment business for a while when he returned to Atlanta, where he ran a glass and mirror shop. Rex continued to perform.

Never Give Up – The Voice Returns

Vern Gosdin never entirely stopped performing. In 1976, he returned to recording for the Elektra label, charting his first solo chart hit, a solo version of “Hangin’ On” and enjoying Top 10 hits with “Yesterday’s Gone” (both featuring harmony vocals by Emmylou Harris, a friend from his California days) and “Till The End.” By this time he was forty-two years old. He left his sons to run the glass and mirror business and rejoined brother Rex for touring. Unfortunately, Rex died in May 1983 at the age of 45, some two weeks before his own solo recording of “That Old Time Feelin'” entered the charts.

Elektra’s country division folded in 1980 and Gosdin landed on smaller labels AMI (which folded) and Compleat where he enjoyed continued success. After landing with Compleat, Gosdin joined forces with songwriter Max D. Barnes (whose son Max T. Barnes also was a successful songwriter) to write some truly classic honky-tonk laments. In 1983 Gosdin had two top five hits (“If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong” and “Way Down Deep”) and in 1984 he had his first #1 single with “I Can Tell by the Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight)” and had two additional top 10 hits.

After 1984, his career hit a temporary lull, but the “New Traditionalist” movement lured Columbia into signing him in 1987 where he justified Columbia’s faith in signing him with a top 10 hit in the tormented “Do You Believe Me Now.” In 1988 Gosdin returned to the top of the charts with his Ernest Tubb tribute “Set ‘Em Up Joe.” The next year “Chiseled In Stone,” co-written with Barnes, won the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year and cemented his reputation as one of the all-time great song stylists. His 1989 album, Alone, chronicled the breakup of his own marriage.

As a solo artist, Vern Gosdin charted 41 country chart hits, with 19 top ten records and 3 chart toppers.

Vern was hospitalized in 1995 with a stroke and subsequently dropped by Columbia. He continued to record sporadically after that, most notably the 2004 album Back In The Swing of Things and the four CD set 40 Years of The Voice issued just months prior to his death in April 2009. In 2005, Gosdin was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Perhaps the Country Music Hall of Fame will see fit to do likewise.

“The Voice” is now silenced but he left behind an incredible legacy of recorded performances. Join us now as we explore the music of April’s Spotlight Artist, the incomparable Vern Gosdin.