My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Gordon Lightfoot

Album Review: Jim Lauderdale and Roland White

We interrupt this program to present an album that was recorded before ANY of the albums we’ve reviewed up to this point. Lost for many years, the masters for this album were recently recovered and are now released for your listening pleasure by the good folks at Yep Roc.

It has always been the case that musicians and singers have been quicker to recognize Lauderdale’s talents than record executives, radio programmers and the general public.

Lauderdale arrived in Nashville and started hanging around with Roland White, brother of the legendary guitarist Clarence White, and then (as now) one of the great mandolin players. Roland was (and is) an astute judge of talent and saw in Lauderdale an up and comer. White arranged to cut an album with Lauderdale in Earl Scruggs’ home studio with a band that included Marty Stuart on guitar, Gene Wooten on Dobro, Johnny Warren (of current Earls of Leicester fame) on fiddle, and of course White on mandolin. For reasons I will never understand the album was never released and presumed lost.

The album is comprised of two Lauderdale originals and ten songs from the folk and bluegrass canon.

The album opens with a Lauderdale original “Forgive & Forget” that has the sound of a burnished country classic. The song is taken at a medium fast tempo with fine fiddle and Dobro solos and that country harmony.

“Gold and Silver” comes from the pen of Shirley “Milo” Legate. I don’t know much about him, but it is a fine song that was originally recorded by George Jones. Legate also wrote some songs for Sonny James and placed bass for Sonny as part of his Southern Gentlemen.

“(Stone Must Be) the Walls Built Around Your Heart” is an old classic Don-Reno & Red Smiley composition on which Jim sings the verses and Roland joins in on the chorus.

Clyde Moody is largely forgotten now, but he was a fine singer and songwriter whose “Six White Horses” is a song that fits in the cracks between folk and bluegrass. Dobro dominates the arrangement on this bluesy song, but there is also a nice walking bass line in the song.

L-Mack penned “I Might Take You Back Again”, a mid-tempo song about a fellow contemplating taking his wayward love back.

Donovan Leitch (a/k/a “Donovan), a Scottish folk singer, was a major pop star in the US, UK and Australia with his greatest success in the UK. “Catch The Wind” was top five in the UK and Australia but just missed the top twenty in the US. While not his biggest hit, it is probably his most covered tune, covered by nearly every folk act and many country and pop acts. Even Flatt & Scruggs covered the song

In the chilly hours and minutes
Of uncertainty, I want to be
In the warm hold of your loving mind
To feel you all around me
And to take your hand, along the sand
Ah, but I may as well try and catch the wind

“Don’t Laugh” was a classic brother-style duet originally performed by Rebe Gosdin & Rabe Perkins.
Gosdin wrote the song which is definitely part of the bluegrass canon. I’ve heard recordings by the County Gentlemen, the Louvin Brothers and J. D. Crowe and have heard other acts perform the song in live concert . Rebe may have been a distant relative of country great Vern Gosdin.

If I cry when I kiss you when we say goodbye
Don’t laugh, don’t laugh
If I say I’ve always loved you and I will til I die
Don’t laugh, don’t laugh

I could never find another there’s no use for me to try
I beg of you my darling, please don’t laugh if I cry
If I say I’ve always loved you and I will til I die
Don’t laugh, don’t laugh

“Regrets and Mistakes” is the other Lauderdale original on the album. The song is a slow ballad with Lauderdale singing lead and White singing an echo and harmony. The song is nothing special but it definitely is not out of place on this album.

It is rather difficult to categorize Shel Silverstein as a songwriter – he was all over the place. On “February Snow” Shel serves as a straight-ahead ballad writer. Bobby Bare recorded the song on an album.

“That’s What You Get) For Loving Me” was written by Gordon Lightfoot, and covered by the likes of Johnny Cash, Peter, Paul & Mary, Waylon Jennings and Ian & Sylvia. In fact, it was Waylon’s first top ten single.

That’s what you get for lovin’ me
That’s what you get for lovin’ me
Ev’ry thing you had is gone
As you can see
That’s what you get for lovin’ me

I ain’t the kind to hang around
With any new love that I found
‘Cause movin’ is my stock in trade
I’m movin’ on
I won’t think of you when I’m gone

The album closes with a pair of Alton Delmore compositions “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar”and “Nashville Blues”. The Delmore Brothers were perhaps the quintessential brother act. Roland and Jim do them proud .

My only criticism of the album is that I would like for Roland’s mandolin to have been a little more forward in the mix. Lauderdale mostly sings the leads, and while he is a good guitar player, I think he left the pickin’ to the ace musicians that Roland collected for the project – when you look at the names below, you’ll see that leaving the pickin’ to them could never be a mistake.

im Lauderdale – vocals
Roland White – vocals, mandolin
Stan Brown – banjo
Terry Smith – bass
Marty Stuart – guitar
Johnny Warren – fiddle
Gene Wooten – dobro

To me this album is a very solid A.

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Johnny Cash: A Look Back

We lost Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter Cash within months of each other back in 2003, so 2018 marks a very sad 15th-anniversary farewell to the “Man In Black”.

The release last year of UNEARTHED, a nine album 180 gram vinyl box set (originally released on CD two months after his death) of unreleased tracks recorded by Rick Rubin, (it features some interesting pairings such as Fiona Apple providing guest vocals on Cat Stevens’ “Father & Son,” and the late Joe Strummer’s duets with Cash on Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”) provides us with a excuse to take another look back at his career.

While modern country radio has no use for the likes of Johnny Cash, preferring more commercial fodder, other sections of the music industry have kept his music alive, whether on Willie’s Roadhouse (Sirius XM Radio) or through the musical press. Cover bands continue to play his music and while younger so-called country singers play music that bears little connection to country music, his music remains a staple of Roots-Rock, Texas Red-Dirt and Bluegrass performers

Make no mistake about it: Johnny Cash was a huge commercial success, despite his own apparent lack of concern about how commercial his music was at any given moment–Cash’s inquisitive artistry meant that he flitted from realm to realm, sometimes touching down in areas with limited commercial appeal.

Cash had 24 songs reach #1 on the Billboard, Cashbox or Record World country charts (often all three), but unlike more chart-oriented artists including Webb Pierce, Buck Owens, Sonny James, Alabama, Conway Twitty or George Strait, Cash never ran off a long string of consecutive #1s, with his longest streak being four during 1968 when “Roseanna’s Going Wild,” “Daddy Sang Bass,” “A Boy Named Sue,” and his iconic “Folsom Prison Blues” all reached the top of one of the charts.

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Album Review: Conway Twitty Sings

Conway Twitty’s first country album was released by Decca in 1966. It shared its title with his first rock-and-roll album that had come out seven years earlier. Unlike other rock-and-roll artists like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, none of Conway’s rock records had crossed over to the country charts. Although he had grown up listening to country and professed that it was his first musical love, he was initially viewed by many in the country music community with skepticism and suspicion. Later in his career he would introduce influences from pop and R&B into his music, but at this early stage he and producer Owen Bradley bent over backwards to establish his country credibility. This is a hardcore, steel guitar drenched country album from start to finish, that largely eschews the Nashville Sound trappings that were prevalent in the 60s. The vocal choruses are kept to a minimum. Stylistically, the album reminds me of the music that Connie Smith and Charley Pride were making at the time over at RCA.

Conway Twitty Sings contains Conway’s first charted country hit, “Guess My Eyes Were Bigger Than My Heart”, written by Liz Anderson. A mid tempo number with a rich melody and plenty of pedal steel, this would probably have been a bigger hit had it been released a few years later. It charted at a modest #18, but that was enough to give Conway a toehold on the country market. There were no further singles released from the album and it would be another two years and five more singles before Conway reached the Top 20 again (with 1968’s “The Image of Me”, which would peak at #5).

The rest of the album follows the standard 1960s practice of covering other artists’ recent hits. The Gordon Lightfoot-penned “Ribbon of Darkness” had been a #1 hit a year earlier for Marty Robbins — and would be a hit again in 1969 for Connie Smith. Twitty’s version is too reminiscent of the original Robbins recording; even some of Conway’s enunciations sound like he was channeling Marty. I was a little disappointed in this one; nor did I care for his take on the Johnny Horton (and 20 years later, Dwight Yoakam) hit “Honky Tonk Man”. One would think that this rockabilly number — the only one of its kind on the album — would be tailor-made for Conway Twitty, but this version just doesn’t work.

The rest of the album, however, is stellar and his versions of these songs are all at least equal to the original artists’ renditions — from the Curly Putman-penned Porter Wagoner hit “Green, Green Grass of Home” and Bill Anderson’s “Tip of My Fingers” to “Truck Driven’ Man” which had been a hit for Terry Fell in 1954. A young Buck Owens had sung harmony on the Fell recording and Buck later went on to record “Together Forever”, which Conway also covers on this album.

My favorite track is the country weeper “I’ll Have Another Cup of Coffee (Then I’ll Go)”, in which the protagonist is trying to prolong a visit with his soon to be ex-wife and children. I wasn’t previously familiar with the one but it was a Top 5 hit for Claude Gray in 1961.

Conway Twitty Sings is not one Twitty’s best remembered works, nor is it essential listening. It provides only a glimpse of what Conway would go on to become, but the material is exceptionally strong and it’s always interesting to look back at a legend at the very beginning of his or her career. It is available on a 2-for-1 CD along with his next Decca LP Look Into My Teardrops. These sound like needle-drop recordings; the original masters may have been destroyed in the infamous Universal fire, but the sound quality, while not stellar, is quite adequate.

Grade: A

Album Review: Mac Wiseman and Friends – ‘I Sang The Song: Life Of The Voice With A Heart’

If you consider Bill Monroe and those who recorded with his early bands to be Generation 1A in Bluegrass, with those immediately followed in his wake to be Generation 1B (Reno & Smiley, Flatt & Scruggs (Lester & Earl personally were 1A), Carter & Ralph Stanley, Bobby & Sunny Osborne, Jim & Jesse McReynolds, Jimmy Martin), then the last surviving member of generation 1A is Mac Wiseman.

Born in 1925, Mac Wiseman is the great survivor: he survived polio, the Great Depression, Molly O’Day, Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, Dot Records (as an executive) Rock ‘n Roll, The Hootenanny Era, The WWVA Jamboree, the WSM Grand Ole Opry and The Nashville Sound. Along the way he forged a stellar career as a solo artist recording pop, country and bluegrass music. He was friends with Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard and Gordon Lightfoot, helped organize the CMA and has been inducted into both the Country and Bluegrass Music Halls of Fame.

This album arises from a series of interviews (or perhaps visits) Peter Cooper and Thomm Jutz had with Wiseman in which they discussed his life, listened to his stories and realized that many of the stories would make good songs. All songs are credited to Wiseman, Cooper & Jutz with the exception of the last track on the album.

Mac was past ninety years old when this album was recorded, no longer is very mobile and his voice isn’t quite what it was even a few years ago. Consequently Mac does very little singing on this album, his contributions mostly limited to the beginning or the end of some of the tracks.

Instead a phalanx of his admirers and colleagues do most of the singing with Shawn Camp, Buddy Melton, Junior Sisk, and Ronnie Bowman, among the featured vocalists. Needless to say these vocal performances are terrific. From outside the field of bluegrass, several other vocalists were enlisted.

The album opens up with “The Guitar” a song about Mac’s first guitar, a mail order guitar from Sears, and his experiences in leaning the guitar. Sierra Hull and Justin Moses do the singing on this song (Mac takes a refrain at the end). Sierra (mandolin) and Justin (banjo.fiddle, dobro) team with Mark Fain (bass) and Thom Jutz (guitar) to serve as the backing band for the entire project, with Jutz and Cooper providing harmony vocals on some of the tracks.

“Somewhere Bound” is next up, a song about Mac’s childhood dreams of seeing the world, Buddy Melton, Milan Miller and Andrea Zonn provide the vocals.

“The Wheat Crop” opens and closes with Mac singing a chorus of “Bringing In the Sheaves”, followed by this song about the responsibilities and problems of managing the wheat crop. Junior Sisk, Sonya Isaacs Yeary and Becky Isaacs Bowman provide the remaining vocals.

Jim Lauderdale has always been one of my favorite singers and I firmly believe that if he had come along in the 1950s or 1960s he would have been a huge country music star. “Barefoot ‘Til After the Frost” recounts Mac’s childhood as a school boy. I can’t personally identify with the song, but my father and anyone who grew up in rural America during the Great Depression certainly could – I can remember Dad speaking of this very thing.

“Manganese Mine” is the tale of a property owner taken advantage of and conned nto selling his mineral rights too cheaply. A sad story too often repeated, especially in Kentucky and West Virginia.
The trio of Melton, Miller and Zonn return for “Three Cows and Two Horses” are Mac’s homespun story of the fortunes of many rural families.

“Simple Math,” sung by Jim Lauderdale, is one of my two favorite songs on the album. The song follows Mac’s experiences breaking in as a professional musician including his big break playing with the great Molly O’Day. Lauderdale, who can sing anything and everything is the perfect vocalist to relate the pithy truths of Mac’s observations (“You Can’t Spend The Money You Don’t Have, That’s How It Works – It’s Simple Math”.

Junior Sisk and Ronnie Bowman join up to sing the sing the religiously-themed “Crimora Church of The Brethren”. The song is about going to church during the Great Depression.

“Going Back To Bristol” is my other favorite from the album, and the song currently getting the most airplay. Sung by Shawn Camp, the song is an excellent summary or snapshot of Mac’s career. Shawn Camp was originally pushed as a country artist by Reprise around 2000, but it didn’t take (too much bluegrass in his soul) so he returned to his first love and has had great success as a bluegrass artist, In addition to his solo endeavors (song writer, Grammy winning record producer, etc.), Shawn is the vocalist for the Earls of Leicester.

I’m not really a John Prine fan, but there is no questioning that he has a great appreciation for the music of Mac Wiseman and he and Mac are friends (in 2007 they cut a terrific album together of mostly classic country songs titled Standard Songs for Average People). John was a perfect choice to sing the title cut, the gentle ballad “I Sang The Song”. Prine has the weathered voice necessary to convey the optimistic but weary lyrics.

“I Sang The Song” was originally planned as the last cut on the album, but the decision was made to reprise Mac’s first hit from 1951 (and the only song on the album written entirely by Mac himself) “”Tis Sweet To Be Remembered”. Mac is joined by Alison Krauss on the choruses, a fitting end to the album.

Although these songs fit together to tell Mac’s life story, the fact is that each of the songs works as a stand-alone song, a remarkable achievement indeed, I picked out two of the songs above as my favorites, but the truth is that I love all of these songs and all of the performances. Modern day country music fans may not be too familiar with bluegrass artists but the pickers and singers on this album are an elite group paying proper homage to a truly legendary performer.

Grade: A++

Album boxed set review: The Mac Wiseman Story

the-mac-wiseman-storyBorn in 1925, Malcolm “Mac” Wiseman is the renaissance man of county and bluegrass music – singer, songwriter, musician, A&R man, record producer, disc jockey, co-founder of the Country Music Association. Mac was an early pioneer of country music, performing with Molly O’Day, and was a very early member of Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, and later performed with Bill Monroe.

Mac survived polio, changing musical trends, changes in the structure of the recording industry, yet through it all, he has remained “the voice with a heart”, possessor of a slick Irish tenor with just enough “down home” in his voice to enable him to sing any form of music convincingly. Mac Wiseman is my absolute all-time favorite bluegrass vocalist.

Mac was elected into the International Bluegrass Hall of Honor in 1993 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2014, one of only three bluegrass acts (the others are Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs) to be inducted.

Mac Wiseman has recorded for a wide variety of record labels with performers as diverse as John Prine, Lester Flatt, Merle Haggard and Doc Watson. It would be presumptuous of any box set comprised of only six CDs and 153 songs to claim to tell the Mac Wiseman story, but this set gives it an awfully good try.

The Mac Wiseman Story is comprised of all of the albums that Mac recorded for the CMH (originally County Music Heritage) label from 1976 to 1982, plus some recordings Mac obtained from minor labels.

Disc One is comprised of The Mac Wiseman Story, a collection of twenty songs recorded with the Shenandoah Cutups, the band which accompanied the late great Red Smiley after his split from Don Reno. These are amiable straight-ahead bluegrass recordings of Mac’s most famous songs such as “Love Letters In The Sand”, “I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home” and “Tis Sweet To Be Remembered”. I think these are Vetco recordings from 1976-1977, but whatever the source, these are fine recordings.

I should note that in order to ensure that each disc is chock full of music, that tracks from the 1979 CMH double album The Essential Bluegrass Album (with the Osborne Brothers ) are scattered at the end of CDs 1,2,4,5 & 6.

Disc Two is comprised of Country Music Memories and Mac Wiseman Sings Gordon Lightfoot. The former is a 1976 set of classic, mostly 1950s, country music songs ably backed by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith and Clay Smith as well as some other acoustic instruments. The latter, released in 1977, contains Mac’s renditions of some of Canadian folk Singer Gordon Lightfoot’s classic songs as well as some lesser known songs. In addition to Arthur & Clay Smith on guitars, Eddie Adcock appears playing five string banjo.

The entirety of Disc Three is given to one of my favorite albums, The Clayton McMichen Story. Clayton McMichen (January 26, 1900 – January 4, 1970) was an American fiddler and country musician, whose band, the Georgia Wildcats, played a mix of country, pop, jazz and swing tunes. Clayton was regarded as one of the hottest fiddlers of his time. This album, in reality a tribute to Clayton and his band, finds Red Herron taking the role of Clayton McMichen, with Mac taking the role of vocalist Jack Dunnagan, Joe Maphis as tenor banjo player Jerry Wallace and Merle Travis as guitarist Slim Bryant. This album is a cohesive representation of what Clayton and his band sounded like, with an assortment of the reels, rags, blues and thirties pop tunes played.

Disc Four contains the excellent 1982 album Grassroots To Bluegrass. Some of the songs come from the early days of country music before bluegrass split off from country music. Included in this group would be “Kentucky”, “Short Life of Trouble”, and “Don’t Give Your Heart To A Rambler” and the rest are early bluegrass songs such as “I’m Using My Bible For A Roadmap”. Mac is accompanied by a stellar band that includes Eddie Adcock (banjo, guitar), Kenny Baker and Jim Campbell (fiddle), Martha Adcock (rhythm guitar), Josh Graves (dobro), Jesse McReynolds (mandolin) and Missy Raines (bass)

Disc Five finds Mac in the role of hard country/western swing artist on the 1980 album Songs That Make The Jukebox Play. The musicians with Mac on this album include a bunch of guys that played with Bob Wills or with Merle Haggard during his big band days – Johnny Gimble (fiddle & co-producer) , Jim Belken (fiddle), Dick Gimble (bass), Will Briggs (sax), Curley Hollingsworth (piano) , Herb Remington (steel guitar), Eldon Shamblin (lead guitar) and Bill Stone (trumpet). If you ever wondered how Mac does with western swing, wonder no more. Other than Hank Thompson and Tommy Duncan, I can’t think of any better swing vocalists than Mac Wiseman. I bought the vinyl version of this when it came out and kept hoping that Mac would revisit the genre. Among the classics covered are “Bubbles In My Beer”, “Time Changes Everything” , “Driving Nails In My Coffin” and “Wild Side of Life”.

Disc Six is a so-called bonus disc titled Mac Wiseman – Most Requested. This album contains a few songs not found earlier in the box set, plus it contains the remaining track from the Wiseman – Osborne Brothers collaboration.

This box set is released under the Wise Records label which is Mac’s own label. Mac has apparently obtained the rights for many of his recordings from the past. This set retails for $49.98 but you can obtain it for about five bucks less online.

Maybe this isn’t quite a comprehensive account of Mac’s career, but it is a really fine collection and an excellent place to start if you would like to explore Mac’s music. One thing is for sure – after listening to this collection, you will have no doubts as to why he is known as “the voice with a heart”.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Waylon Jennings – ‘Good Hearted Woman’

220px-Good_Hearted_Woman_cover_artReleased in 1972, Good Hearted Woman found Waylon Jennings making large strides in the direction towards the Outlaw Movement for which he’s most associated. Songwriting credits from the likes of Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson were paramount in making the musical shift.

Chet Atkins enlisted Ronnie Light to produce the project after Danny Davis exited the fold to focus his attention on his Brass Band. Jennings noted he put Light through hell during production although his anger was directed at the musicians who didn’t truly understand his artistic vision.

The #3 peaking title track served as the album’s first single. Famous for a version that featured Jennings singing with his co-writer Willie Nelson, “Good Hearted Woman” is presented here with Jennings singing solo (the duet came three years later on Wanted! The Outlaws). The background vocalists are dated and distracting, but the track is otherwise perfect.

Jennings solely penned the harmonica laced “Do No Good Woman” while Nelson took a sole writing credit on “It Should Be Easier Now.” The pedal steel soaked Nelson composition afforded Jennings the opportunity to give a tour de force vocal performance while his own track feels a bit run of the mill.

Chip Taylor and Al Gorgoni’s shuffle “Sweet Dream Woman” peaked at #7. The pesky background vocalists rear their ugly heads again, but other than that the track is excellent. I love Jennings’ vocal, too, but I get the sense he was being constricted. If I had to guess, I bet he would’ve desired to cut loose a lot more than he was able to.

Kristofferson composed the album’s closing track, the excellent recitation “To Beat the Devil.” Jennings’ baritone is the perfect vehicle to convey the story, about a man who happens upon a tavern on a cold winter’s night.

Harlan Howard contributed the honky-tonker “One of my Bad Habits.” With an ear-catching chugging beat the track details the plight of a man coming clean about his reckless behaviors (smoking, drinking, his woman) and trying to do something about them. I love the bright production, complete with both steel and twangy guitars.

Swamp rocker Tony Joe White contributed “Willie and Laura Mae Jones,” one of the album’s standout tracks. White composed the masterful lyric, about a friendship between a white family and their black neighbors, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement; three years prior to the release of Good Hearted Woman. The subtly is masterful. With just one line (‘that was another place, another time’) he’s able to get his message across beautifully.

Canadian Folk-Rocker Gordon Lightfoot graces Good Hearted Woman with his stone country ballad “Same Old Lover Man.” The tender qualities in the lyric and production are equally matched in Jennings’ vocal, which makes use of his higher register. There’s nothing wrong with the track but in the context of the album it feels a bit too light.

“Unsatisfied” is a more typical ballad, with Jennings using his lower register to convey the lyric. While I was listening the melody seemed somewhat familiar and it came to me. To my ears the track is similar to Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey,” which might’ve been intentional or just something I heard. Otherwise, it’s a solid recording.

“I Knew You’d Be Leavin’” is another ballad, but unlike the previous two, has a peppier production that really caught my ear. I wasn’t fond of Jennings’ vocal, it seemed to low for my tastes, but the track itself is very good.

Good Hearted Woman is a wonderful album and well worth checking out to get a better view of Jennings’ recorded output during this era of his career. The proceedings are too clean and careful and “Willie Mae and Laura Jones” should’ve been the album’s second single. But I would still recommend this album as it is another strong entry in Jennings’ discography.

Grade: A 

Album Review: Raul Malo, Pat Flynn, Rob Ickes and Dave Pomeroy – ‘The Nashville Acoustic Sessions’

nashville acoustic sessionsOne of Raul Malo lesser known recordings, yet perhaps my personal favourite, is the acoustic album he released in collaboration with three virtuoso musicians: Pat Flynn of New Grass Revival (on acoustic guitar and mandolin), dobro genius Rob Ickes and bassist Dave Pomeroy. Malo takes care of all the lead vocals, and despite the democratic equal billing, to all intents and purposes this works as a solo Raul Malo album – and the best he has made. It was released in 2004, just after the breakup of the Mavericks.

The record opens with a beautiful version of ‘Blue Bayou’, with Raul Malo’s vocal measured yet soaring to challenge the Orbison original.

Raul’s vocal on the Louvin Brothers’ ‘When I Stop Dreaming’ is exquisite, and for once one doesn’t miss the harmonies. He is joined by the harmonies of Flynn and Ickes in a committed take on the Louvins’ Cold War-inspired gospel song ‘The Great Atomic Power’.

An ethereally mournful wail is used for a haunting version of Hank Williams’s ‘Weary Blues From Waiting’. Jimmie Rodgers ‘Waiting For A Train’ is, a little disappointingly, relegated to an instrumental – perhaps to make the point that it isn’t technically a Malo album, but I would have liked to hear him sing this, although it goes without saying that it is beautifully played.

‘Hot Burrito #1’ (the Gram Parsons/Flying Burrito Brothers’ song in which the protagonist bemoans “I’m your toy”) has another stellar vocal and stripped down arrangement.

Gordon Lightfoot’s gentle folk-country ‘Early Morning Rain’ is delivered smoothly, while Van Morrison’s ‘Bright Side Of The Road’ is perky. Bob Dylan’s ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’ is strongly performed, with additional harmonies from R&B singer Siedah Garrett, but is one of the less memorable tracks.

Pop/Great American Songbook standards ‘Moon River’ and ‘I Love You (For Sentimental Reasons)’ are beautifully sung, particularly the former.

This may not appeal to those Mavericks fans most drawn to the Latin party side of the band – but Raul Malo’s magnificent voice is showcased at its very best. I rather wish he had continued in this vein, but he had more eclectic paths in mind.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Tom T. Hall – ‘Homecoming’

homecomingBy the time Tom T’s second album was ready for release, Jeannie C. Riley’s version of Hall’s composition “Harper Valley PTA” had been a big hit, and “Ballad of Forty Dollars” had become Hall’s first top ten record. Although Homecoming would not be issued until November 1969, Mercury started issuing singles off the album in May 1969, starting with “Strawberry Farms”.

The first single “Strawberry Farms” was a very personal song, ostensibly about an orphan’s home, but more a reflection on Hall’s life as his mother passed away when he was barely a teen, and his dad was disabled soon thereafter. The song barely cracked the top forty, marred by an arrangement reminiscent of “Ode To Billie Joe” with elements of “If You Could Read My Mind” (a future hit for Gordon Lightfoot).

Summer comes early to strawberry farms
Oh the sun always shines but an orphan can’t go
My mother is dead, she doesn’t care where I go
My father left a long long time ago

Basically, the song was far too depressing to have been a big hit.

The next single, “Homecoming”, was unlike anything else on the radio, reflecting Tom T’s attempts to explain to his father exactly how it was that he made his living. Basically the song is heard through Hall’s responses to his father’s questions:

You heard my record on the radio, oh, well it’s just another song
But I’ve got a hit recorded and it’ll be out on the market ‘fore too long
I got this ring in Mexico, no, it didn’t cost me quite a bunch
When you’re in the business that I’m in, the people call it puttin’ up a front

I know I’ve lost a little weight, I guess I am looking kind of pale
If you didn’t know me better, Dad, you’d think that I’d just gotten out of jail
No, we don’t ever call them beer joints, night clubs are the places that I work
You meet a lot of people there, but no, there ain’t much chance of gettin’ hurt

“Homecoming propelled Hall back into the top ten, reaching #5 and staying in the charts for fifteen weeks. While Hall would never consistently be a top ten chart artist, most of his singles through 1979 would at least reach the top twenty.

The third single “A Week In A County Jail” would be the first chart topping single for Tom T Hall. According to this song was based on something that actually happened to him:

“I was arrested for not having my driver’s license with me in Paintsville, Kentucky. And the judge’s grandmother dies so he left town for a week. I was only supposed to be in jail overnight, but I just had to wait ‘til he got back …”

Two days later when I thought I’d been forgotten
The sheriff came in chewin’ on a straw
He said, ‘ where’s the guy who thinks this is Indianapolis ?
I’d like to talk to him about the law

“A Week In A County Jail“ reached #1 on January 31, 1970, staying there for two weeks.

The fourth and final single from the album was “Shoeshine Man”, a jaunty talking blues number that reached #8 and features a smart harmonica driven arrangement that fit Hall’s voice perfectly:

I’m a shoeshine man number one in the land
A shoeshine man make you shine where you stand
Leave me a tip if you can I’m a shoeshine man

Well I can sing, I can dance, I can play the harmonica too
I got a brand new thing on the South Side Montgomery Blues
You better stick around and watch me cause I’m an entertainin’ fool

There were two more big hit records on the album, but one of Hall’s friends, Bobby Bare, released “(Margie’s At) The Lincoln Park Inn” as a single for RCA before Mercury could get around to releasing it as a single (if ever they planned to do so). Tom T Hall rarely recorded his songs if other artists had already recorded the songs; consequently, unless Tom recorded the song before the other artist, there won’t be a Tom T Hall recording against which to compare it. Bare’s version charted in March 1969, eventually reaching #4).

The song is told from the perspective of a father, who describes his everyday life and activities as the backdrop to his tale of temptation as personified by his adulterous relationship with a woman named Margie. It is not clear whether or not Margie is a prostitute or mistress / girl friend, but he knows that she’s waiting at the Lincoln Park Inn, and the temptation is strong to go see her.

Next Sunday it’s my turn to speak to the young people’s class
They expect answers to all of the questions they ask
What would they say if I spoke on a modern day sin
And all of the Margies at all of the Lincoln Park Inns

The bike is all fixed and my little boy is in bed asleep
His little ol’ puppy is curled in a ball at my feet
My wife’s baking cookies to feed to the bridge club again
I’m almost out of cigarettes and Margie’s at the Lincoln Park Inn

Hall’s version was not as dramatic as Bare’s hit single but I suspect that it could have been a hit for Tom as the subject matter was unlike anything else on the radio at the time and tells a compelling story.

“The Carter Boys” is an autobiographical song that Hall wrote about himself and his brothers. The song title refers to the county in which Hall lived. The song has the talking blues-style arrangement that Kennedy had worked out for Hall’s voice

We had an old car that we kept tied together with pieces of baling wire and hope
Well they knew when we got there and they knew when we left
They could tell by the noise and the smoke
Anytime the sheriff had nothing to do he’d get out and chase us around
The old women prayed the old men laughed and the middle aged people all frowned

“Flat–Footin’ It” would have made a good single. An up-tempo song about a dance craze popular while Hall was attending college, the arrangement is bluegrass in everything but its instrumentation.
Not a substantial song but a fun song:

And you’ll be flat footin’ it, flat gettin’ it
You don’t know just how good it is until you hear that guitar pickin’ it, pick it

The other big hit record on the album, “George (and The North Woods)” is lyrically the most interesting song on the album as it is subject to varying interpretations. Old friend Dave Dudley snagged the song for a top ten single in the autumn of 1969. In Dudley’s version, it is strongly hinted that George is the narrator’s dog. In Hall’s version it seems that George is a friend of the narrator. The song is a perfect fit for Dave Dudley’s voice and the Dave Dudley version has a more contemporary sound than does the Tom T Hall recording. I doubt Hall’s version would have been as big as Dudley’s version if released as a single.

George, I guess you knew how much it hurt me
The day that old judge gave her both my kids
But she said she wouldn’t care if I’s to drop dead
With all that insurance I don’t guess she would

Most people think the wilderness is quiet
Would you listen to the wolves out in the woods
Well tomorrow when I’ll leave here I’ll be a changed man
I’m gonna ride those trains when they yell all aboard

You spent a lotta time here in the big woods
I’m really glad you’re goin’ with me George
George, George, George, are you there?
Hey man, you’re not puttin’ me on, are you George?

Other songs include “Nashville Is A Groovy Little Town” which is just another song, in this case about the life of a songwriter.

Remember how I used to sit and drink and play guitar
And I’d get up and sing for all those folks at Jody’s bar
Well I found out it ain’t too bad, the way I pick and sound
Nashville is a groovy little town

“Kentucky In The Morning”, a salute to Tom’s home state:

I will sing of a place that you may have seen in the eastern half of our land so green
Where the sun is warm and the sky is blue and the love of a girl is true
Kentucky in the morning trimmed in green and blue
Kentucky in the morning I was only passing through

The album closes with another talking blues arrangement, featuring a different twist on the old theme of leaving someone behind crying at the station. If Jimmie Rodgers were alive in the 1960s, he might have written a song like this one. I am, of course, a big Jimmie Rodgers fan.

When the train pulls in the station, you’ll be waiting by the track
You’re having trouble sleeping nights, you want me to come back
But that old train will roll on by, you’ll know I never came
While I sleep good and miss a lot of trains

I sleep good and I miss a lot of trains
That one way track to no man’s love, I’ll never ride again
I used to lie awake like you, calling out your name
Now I sleep good and miss a lot of trains

At the time the album came out, I didn’t give the matter a lot of thought, but in retrospect, you can hear Tom T Hall’s bluegrass roots throughout much of this album. I’d give this album an “A” but even better albums would be forthcoming.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Gordon Lightfoot – ‘If You Could Read My Mind’

Fellow Travelers: Gordon Lightfoot (1938-)

gordon lightfootThis is the sixth in a series of short articles about artists who, although not country artists, were of some importance to country music.

WHO WAS HE?

Gordon Lightfoot arguably is Canada’s most successful folk performer with a long string of pop successes in the United States and Canada and some hits in Australia and the UK as well. Gordon had many hits in Canada before breaking through as a singer in the US, but many of his compositions were made hits by American artists including songs such as “Ribbon of Darkness” (Marty Robbins) and “Early Morning Rain” (Peter, Paul & Mary, George Hamilton IV) . Among the other artists who have recorded Lightfoot’s songs are Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Jr., The Kingston Trio, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Mathis, Viola Wills, Richie Havens, The Dandy Warhols, Harry Belafonte, Tony Rice, Sandy Denny (with Fotheringay), The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Scott Walker, Sarah McLachlan, John Mellencamp, Toby Keith, Glen Campbell, Anne Murray, The Irish Rovers and Olivia Newton-John.

As a singer, Gordon’s most successful records were “Sundown”, “If You Could Read My Mind” and “The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald”, the first two reaching #1 in the US and Canada and the latter (a Canadian #1) reaching #2 in the US despite its six-minute length.

WHAT WAS HIS CONNECTION TO COUNTRY MUSIC?

Although Gordon Lightfoot charted eight times on Billboard’s Country charts, only “Sundown” cracked the top fifteen. His real importance to country music is in the huge number of country artists who recorded his songs. George Hamiliton IV recorded many of his songs on various albums scoring hits with “Steel Rail Blues” and “Early Morning Rain”. As noted above, Marty Robbins scored a #1 hit with “Ribbon of Darkness, a song also recorded by Connie Smith, Jack Greene and countless others. Glen Campbell had a hit with “Wherefore and Why”. Legendary bluegrass artists Mac Wiseman and Tony Rice each recorded entire albums of nothing but Gordon Lightfoot songs. Country albums of the late 1960s and the 1970s frequently included a Gordon Lightfoot song.

Gordon doesn’t seem to have an official website but there is a fan site. The site is a bit disjointed but contains much information about Lightfoot, including tour dates.

Country Heritage: George Hamilton IV

george hamilton iv

I’ve been travelin’ down the highways with my guitar for so long
Shakin’ hands and meetin’ lots of folks
Living my life my way with a handshake and a song
Caring little if I was rich or broke
Cause there’s country music in my soul
People music for the young and the old
I’ll keep on singing my song keep on keeping on
Cause there’s country music in my soul

From “County Music In My Soul” written by Bobby Bond

Many musicians who have met Freddie Hart have commented to me that he is the one of the nicest people that they have ever encountered. I‘ve never had the pleasure of meeting Freddie Hart, but if he is nicer person than George Hamilton IV, he must qualify for sainthood. I’ve met George IV on a number of occasions over the last 39 years, and a finer gentleman can’t be found.

George Hamilton IV has always had country music in his soul, although his recording career, like that of a number of country stars, started off in pop. Unlike other country boys such as Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash, Narvel Felts and Billy Craddock, who started off as rockabilly stars, George’s early endeavors were straightforward pop rather than rockabilly or rock and roll.

Hamilton was born on July 19, 1937 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He was raised on the country music loved by his grandfather, George Hamilton II, and he learned to play the guitar at the age of 12. While in high school he formed a country band, and while still a freshman at the University of North Carolina, he met John D. Loudermilk, first cousin of Ira and Charlie Louvin (formerly Loudermilk), at the time a struggling songwriter. Landing a contract with the Colonial label, Hamilton recorded “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” Loudermilk’s first attempt at teen pop. The single did very well regionally during 1956 and was picked up by ABC-Paramount later that same year. Since the song hit #6 on the pop charts and sold over a million copies in the process, ABC-Paramount signed Hamilton to a regular contract. During this time he transferred to American University in Washington DC to continue his studies.

Since Hamilton was never really comfortable recording pop music, subsequent efforts failed to achieve the heights of “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” although the next four singles made the pop top 40, with “Why Don’t They Understand” reaching #10 in early 1958. After an appearance on The Jimmy Dean Show 1957-58, Hamilton was given his own short-lived show by ABC-TV in 1959.

Even while signed to ABC-Paramount, Hamilton was recording country songs such as “Why I’m Walking,” “Even Tho’” and at least seven songs associated with Hank Williams. His first entry on the country charts (“Before This Day Ends”) rose to #4 in late 1960.

In 1961 George switched labels, moving to RCA Victor, where Chet Atkins promised that he could record as a country artist. After top ten entries in 1961 (“Three Steps to the Phone,” “Millions of Miles”) and 1962 (“If You Don’t Know I Ain’t Gonna Tell You”), Hamilton finally hit the top of the country charts in 1963 with “Abilene,” a song penned by his old friend John D. Loudermilk. The single topped the country charts for four weeks in June and crossed over to #15 on the pop charts. During 1964, Hamilton charted three singles and returned to the top ten with “Fort Worth, Dallas or Houston.”

Deeply influenced by the folk music artists of the “Hootenanny Era,” George became a major conduit for introducing such future folk deities as Gordon Lightfoot, Ian Tyson, and Joni Mitchell to American audiences. Indeed, Hamilton probably recorded more Gordon Lightfoot songs during the mid 1960s to early 1970s than any other artist including such classics as “Steel Rail Blues” and “Early Morning Rain,” both hits in 1966. George’s version of “Urge for Going” (written by Joni Mitchell) hit #7 in 1967; “Break My Mind,” another John D. Loudermilk song, hit #6 later in the year. During this period Hamilton recorded songs by the likes of Leonard Cohen, James Taylor, Buffy St. Marie and countless other singer-songwriters. Not ignoring his country favorites, in 1965 he recorded an album in tribute to Ernest Tubb, enjoying a hit with “Walking The Floor Over You.”

George continued to record for RCA until 1974, but major chart success largely eluded him except for the #3 hit “She’s a Little Bit Country” in 1970. This is not to say that he quit making great records, as some of my personal favorite Hamilton tracks such as “Ten Degrees (and Getting Colder)”, “West Texas Highway” and “Country Music In My Soul” came after 1970.

While his stature as a singles star waned, George took on a greater prominence as the “International Ambassador of Country Music” thanks to his several world tours, 10 visits to Great Britain, numerous visits to Europe, and his BBC television programs (seven seasons). He became the first country artist to perform behind the Iron Curtain, and also toured Africa, Asia, New Zealand, Australia, and even the Middle East.

In recent years Hamilton has focused on gospel music, although he still plays dates in which he performs secular music. I saw George five years ago at the Florida Sunshine Opry in Eustis, Florida; he still put an an excellent show, and hung around as long as anyone wished to speak with him. Two years later I saw him at the Rolling Hills Moravian Church in Longwood, Florida where he performed an excellent show that was about 2/3 religious material – just GH4 and his guitar. Hamilton once mentioned to me that he’d like to live long enough to meet George Hamilton VII. It seems that GH1 (his great grandfather) was alive long enough for George to remember him, and son George Hege Hamilton V has a son George Hege Hamilton VI who should soon be of age to start a family.

Imagine that – getting to know seven generations of George Hege Hamiltons. I hope he makes it.

Read more of this post

Country Heritage: Pop Stoneman and the Stoneman Family

stoneman familyMost people trace the dawn of recorded country music back to the famous Bristol sessions of 1927, from which Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family rose to prominence. While I am not sure that even Ernest V. Stoneman (May 25, 1893 – June 14, 1968) represents the dawn of recorded country music, he has a far better claim to it than do Jimmie Rodgers and the Carters.

Born in 1893 in Carroll Country, Virginia, near the mining community of Iron Ridge, Ernest Van Stoneman was raised by his father and three cousins who taught him traditional Blue Ridge Mountain songs. Ernest married Hattie Frost in 1919. He and his wife set about having a family, eventually having 23 kids, of which 13 lived to be adults. Stoneman worked at various jobs and played music for his own entertainment. He was a talented musician who could play (and make) a variety of instruments, including banjo, guitar, fiddle and autoharp, although the autoharp would become his trademark during his recording career.

Legend has it that Stoneman heard a recording by Henry Whittier, a popular artist of the time and a friend of her father’s (according to daughter Roni), and swore he could sing better. In 1924 he traveled to New York and received a recording contract. The first single, “The Sinking of the Titanic”, was issued on the Okeh label and became the biggest hit he ever had. Sales figures for the 1920s are not terribly reliable, but several sources have sales pegged at four million copies sold – a remarkable total for the time and certainly one of the biggest hits of the 1920s. Read more of this post

Favorite country songs of the 1970s: Part 4

For part four of this series, I’ll be using the same criteria as before – just some songs I liked, one song per artist (although I will feel free to comment on other songs by the artist). This part stops in the middle of the letter M.

“Joy To The World” – Murray Kellum (1971)

A nice country cover of a #1 pop hit for Three Dog Night, this reached #26 and was Murray’s biggest hit. He died in a plane crash in 1990 at the too-young age of 47. Hoyt Axton wrote this song.

Honky Tonk Wine” – Wayne Kemp (1973)

Wayne Kemp was better known as a songwriter who penned major hits for the likes of George Jones (“Love Bug”), Conway Twitty (“The Image of Me”) and countless others. This song reached #17, and was Wayne’s biggest hit.

Sweet Desire” – The Kendalls (1978)

A father and daughter duo, Jeannie took on most of the lead vocals while father Royce sang harmony. The Kendalls kept the radio airwaves safe for real country music during the middle and late 1970s. I liked everything the Kendalls ever sang, and have no idea why the new traditionalist movement of 1986 failed to re-ignite their career.

Mama’s Got The Know-How” – Doug Kershaw (1974)

For someone as famous as he is, Doug Kershaw had only seven chart hits as a solo act, to go with his five hits as part of Rusty & Doug. This one got to #77, a fairly normal placing for his solo efforts. Although I liked this song, his Warner Brothers albums of the 1970s were mostly laconic efforts. Read more of this post

Album Review – Sweethearts of the Rodeo – ‘Rodeo Waltz’

Much like Patty Loveless’s Sleepless Nights and LeAnn Rimes’s Lady & Gentleman, Rodeo Waltz is an album comprised mainly of classic country covers. Released in 1993, it marked the duo’s debut for Sugar Hill Records. Although it didn’t produce any singles, it offered a simple honky-tonk sound that still holds up well today.

The album opens with a spirited cover of Johnny Cash’s “Get Rhythm” that benefits from the abundance of petal steel and fiddle flourishes throughout and the distinct drum beat. While they stick moderately close to Cash’s original recording, save for updating the sound, they keep the sing-a-long nature of the song intact.

They continue to honor tradition with the rest of the covers, too. Don Robertson and Hal Blair’s “Please Help Me I’m Falling” is turned into a gorgeous mandolin soaked ballad and their sultry take on Tex Ritter and Frank Harford’s “Long Time Gone” brings a new appreciation to story of a woman anticipating their man’s reaction to their leaving.

Equally as well executed is their take on Gordon Lightfoot’s folksy “Steel Rail Blues” which benefits greatly from the use of harmonica and gently persistent drumbeat. I love how they seem to build on Lightfoot’s original recording by infusing the song with a bit more energy. I also enjoy their folksy almost mountain-y reading of Jesse Winchester’s “Brand New Tennessee Waltz.” It isn’t my favorite of the cover tunes included here but it’s enhanced by the sweet vocal and use of fiddle throughout.

They also do a fine job covering Robbie Robertson’s “Broken Arrow.” Known primarily as a pop song done by Rod Stewart, the sisters exceed in turning it into a country song complete with fiddle and harmonica. I love the melody and the use of mandolin to give the musical accompaniment some life.

Placed among the cover tunes is a crop of original songs, led by Don Shultz’s “Things Grow” which is their ode to life on a farm and small town existence. It isn’t as cringe worthy as that particular sub-genre today, but I’m not jumping up and down at the inclusion of them exploring that theme. Betty Harrison’s “Hoping That You’re Hoping” is better musically, but the song lacks any substance in the lyrics and is forgettable today.

I wasn’t aware they had their own version of “Jenny Dreamed of Trains,” which Janis’s then husband Vince Gill wrote with Guy Clark. Gill did an excellent job when he recorded the song on High Lonesome Sound and they do a stellar version here. The sweet story of the girl Jenny (presumably written about their daughter) and her love of trains over dolls is a great lyric.

“Bluegrass Boy,” written by Gill with Shultz is an engaging love song about a guy this girl once knew and while good, it comes off a tad underwhelming. There’s nothing wrong with the song at all – it just isn’t up to the material on the rest of the project. Same goes for the traditional “Deep River Blues” arranged by Gill. I enjoyed the swampy vibe and touches of harmonica but the whole thing was a tad underwhelming. But the album turns around with the great “There One Morning.”

Rodeo Waltz is a fine country album of both well-chosen covers and original material. I can easily see why there weren’t any singles despite strong material – it just doesn’t have a sound that sits right on radio playlists. But like most non-commercial country projects, it demands to be heard. This album is widely available digitally (from Amazon and iTunes) and is worth seeking out for a listen.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘Bullets In The Gun’

Toby Keith is one of the most prolific major label artists these days, consistently releasing an album a year, and writing most if not all of the material himself. He also produces his work, and now co-owns the label, so if anything is not quite up to par there is absolutely no one to blame but Toby himself. Bullets In The Gun is, on the whole, his strongest release for some time, but with no really outstanding moments and one major weak spot. Toby deserves credit for his production work, as the sound of the album is generally restrained with some variation in textures which keeps the interest even where the songs are not that interesting.

The title track, Toby’s latest single, is a gripping if somewhat derivative story song (written with Rivers Rutherford) with a drawled delivery about a drifter who hooks up with a bar dancer who leads him into a career of crime and bloody end. It is one of my favorite tracks here. Former single ‘Trailerhood’ is a nicely detailed and good-humored ode to a working class backwoods neighbourhood which paints a convincing picture, and has an engagingly bouncy tune and production, although it did less well on radio than usual, just scraping into the top 20.

‘Think About You All Of The Time’ is catchy but rather fluffily written about being hung up over an ex. I could see this as a future single. Toby teamed up with old friend Scotty Emerick and the great Dean Dillon to write the rather good ‘Is That All You Got’, a stoic demand of the woman who has left him, with just a hint of a wistful subtext.

The similarly themed ‘Ain’t Breakin’ Nothing’ paints an interesting picture of a man who readily confesses to being his “own worst enemy”. He combines defiance in the face of the inevitable breakup with proffering a kind of consolation to the woman leaving him:

You ain’t breakin’ nothin’ that ain’t already broke

This is one of no less than six songs here which Toby co-wrote with Bobby Pinson, who had a short-lived attempt at a solo career in the middle of the last decade. I loved Bobby’s debut album, and it would be good to see his work with Toby leading to another shot for him as an artist with Show Dog Universal, although his songs here are not his best work. The best of these collaborations (and one of the highlights of the album) is ‘In A Couple Of Days’, a plaintive and somewhat wry response to the woman who has just left him reeling from the shock of her departure and uncertain as to his feelings and now wants to know how he feels. I really like this one.

On the same theme is ‘Somewhere Else’, an pleasant if unexceptional mid-paced number about killing time in bars after an ex has walked out. ‘Drive It On Home’ is a fast paced and cheery trucking song with almost no tune. ‘Kissin’ In The Rain’ is an atmospheric slice of nostalgia about thwarted teenage romance between a rebellious daughter and a working class boy, but lacks much melody.

Pinson also co-wrote the worst song here, the banjo-led ‘Get Out Of My Car’, a crude demand for (immediate) sex from a date which is astonishingly crass even from Toby Keith. The only redeeming feature of this (apart from the playful banjo high in the mix) is that he gets turned down, which leads me to believe that the writers did not actually intend this to be quite as offensive as it is to a female listener (at least to me), and were merely monumentally clueless. Indeed, I’m pretty sure it was intended to be funny. It isn’t.

The unpleasant aftertaste is cleansed by the deluxe version of the album’s selection of four live covers as bonus tracks, although none of them is really essential listening. A shouted bluesy version of Johnny Paycheck’s ’29 Months and 29 Days’ lacks the intensity and conviction of the original. Waylon’s ‘Waynore’s Blues’ (given the wrong title on the cover) and Roger Miller’s ‘Chug A Lug’ work better for Toby, but the highlight is his version of the gorgeous ‘Sundown’, a top 20 country hit for Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot in the 70s, which would be hard to sing badly.

Grade: B-

Our friends at Country Universe are giving away an autographed copy this week.

Classic Rewind: Gordon Lightfoot – ‘Sundown’

Head to head: rival versions of the same song

LeAnn Rimes has elected to premier her upcoming covers album Lady And Gentlemen by releasing a ramped-up version of John Anderson’s 1983 smash hit ‘Swingin’’ as the lead single. Self-evidently, covering another artist’s signature song means you have to bear comparison with the original. Unfortunately for LeAnn, she also has to compete with a much better cover getting attention at the moment in the form of Chris Young’s fresh acoustic take on the same song on his excellent new EP Voices (reviewed here recently by Razor X). Admittedly Chris’s version is not being promoted as a single, but it’s certainly the version I would prefer to hear on the radio.

LeAnn has of course been in a similar position before. As a teenager she was at the center of a public rivalry, when her recording of ‘How Do I Live’, intended for the soundtrack of the 1997 action movie Con Air, was rejected by the producers in favor of a version by Trisha Yearwood. As well as its appearance in the film, Trisha’s version was a big country hit single, reaching #2 on Billboard, and won a Grammy. LeAnn arguably got the last laugh that time, as her rival cut was a massive international pop hit and sold three million copies.

In fact, rival versions of the same song competing for sales and airplay, are something of a tradition. In the singles-dominated 1950s and 60s it was commonplace for artists to cover current hits, either as direct competition or as easy choices of popular songs to fill out an album. In an era when country fans had less disposable income, it made sense for an artist to record the most popular songs out there, so that if someone liked a particular song they might choose to buy the version by their favorite singer. Successful artists who sold well were almost unbelievably prolific, typically releasing several 12-track albums a year – George Jones, for instance, recorded over 150 songs when he was signed to United Artists, over the period 1962-1964. There was thus great demand for good material, even by singer-songwriters who simply couldn’t write enough on their own.

Merrle Haggard, for instance, wrote much of his material, but also included covers of contemporary hits. His 1968 album Mama Tried supplemented his own classic title song with covers of recent hits ‘The Green, Green Grass Of Home’, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, Dolly Parton’s ‘In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)’ , and the now-forgotten ‘Little Old Wine Drinker Me’. In turn, ‘Mama Tried’ and the previous year’s hit ‘Sing Me Back Home’ were covered by the Everly Brothers on their own 1968 release Roots.

It was also often common for singers in other genres to cover country hits, and vice versa. An early example is Hank Williams’ Cajun-styled ‘Jambalaya (On the Bayou)’. Hank’s original was a 14-week #1 in 1952; a cover by singer Jo Stafford saw top 10 success on the pop charts the same year. Stafford had quite an eye for country hits which could be brought to a new audience – she also covered Hank Snow’s 1952 country hit ‘A Fool Such As I’ in 1953, and had duetted with Frankie Laine on Hank Williams’ ‘Hey Good Lookin’. Laine also covered ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, but the biggest pop version was by Joni James, who recorded it the day Hank died. Patti Page’s 1950 country-pop crossover smash ‘Tennessee Waltz’ was another to see off several rival versions.

A decade later, nothing had changed. John Hartford’s ‘Gentle On My Mind’ won him a folk Grammy in 1968; Glen Campbell’s cover of the same song won the country Grammy the same year. Patti Page charted a pop version that year, and Aretha Franklin gave it an R&B twist the following year, while Rat Packer Dean Martin had an easy listening international hit, and Elvis Presley also covered the tune on an album. The Kris Kristofferson classic ‘Me And Bobby McGee’ was a top 20 country hit for Roger Miller in 1969, who recorded it before the Statler Brothers (who had been offered the song) could get into the studio. The same year a rival version by Canadian Gordon Lightfoot was a pop hit, and it was also an album track for Kenny Rogers. A year later it was a rock smash for Janis Joplin. ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town’ was a top 10 country hit for Johnny Darrell, and covered the same year by Waylon Jennings, Roger Miller and the Statler Brothers, before Kenny Rogers’ #1 a few years later displaced all previous versions.

Even as late as the 1990s, genre reinventions were bringing songs to new audiences. 90s country star Mark Wills saw his 1998 country hit ‘I Do (Cherish You)’ (written by Keith Stegall and Dan Hill) covered the following year by pop group 98 Degrees. He then covered R&B artist Brian McKnight’s 1999 pop hit ‘Back At One’, getting a country hit for himself in 2000. Weirdly, both versions of the latter got to #2 on their respective charts.

In more recent years, competing cuts tended to mean that one artist got the hit, and the other was forced to release another song instead. In some cases that changed the course of country music history.

1983 saw rival versions of the inspirational ‘The Wind Beneath My Wings’. The earliest cut was actually by English MOR singer Roger Whittaker in 1982, but in 1983 two pop-country stars went head to head. Actor-singer Gary Morris enjoyed a top 10 hit but it might easily have been Lee Greenwood, who included the song on his album Somebody’s Gonna Love You released the same year. In 1985 the fast-rising Reba McEntire’s recording of the lively ‘She’s Single Again’ was not released as a single – because Janie Fricke got there first, and enjoyed a #2 hit.

Keith Whitley saw his big breakthrough delayed when he was unable to release the two best tracks on his 1986 album LA To Miami as singles, due to rival versions getting to radio first. He might have had a big hit with Dean Dillon’s ‘Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her’, but George Strait‘s cut went to #1 instead, and is one of Strait’s most fondly remembered singles. ‘On The Other Hand’ was to become the signature hit for Randy Travis in 1986 – but it might so easily have served that function for Keith instead. Incidentally, a third recording of the song was also made by veteran Charley Pride on After All This Time, his 1987 album for independent label 16th Avenue. All three versions are good enough to have been hits.

George Strait also potentially stymied the chances of his favorite songwriter when his choice of Dean Dillon’s ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’ as a single in 1993 – a song Dillon had earmarked for his own next shot at the charts. Even our current Spotlight Artist Mark Chesnutt has drawn the short straw a couple of times. As Razor X mentioned in yesterday’s review of Too Cold At Home, that album featured a version of ‘Friends In Low Places’ – only to be forestalled when Garth Brooks had a smash hit with his version of the song. More recently, Joe Nichols recorded ‘Don’t Ruin It For The Rest Of Us’ on his Revelation album in 2004, the same year Mark recorded the song on his first independent release Savin’ the Honky Tonk, although in this case neither artist selected the song as a single.

I’ve only scratched the surface here – what rival versions can you think of? Did the best cut always win the chart battle?