My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Grady Martin

Album Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Way Out West’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B+

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Chill Factor’

chill factorMerle Haggard turned fifty shortly before Chill Factor was released in October 1987. To those of us who remember when the blues and jazz were still influences on country music (rather than the hip-hop and rock that seem to be today’s influences) this album is an overlooked treasure out of the Merle Haggard catalogue. The album is compromised of eleven songs of which Merle wrote six by himself, with three co-writes and two songs from outside sources.

I’m not sure, but I think this was the first complete Merle Haggard album recorded without longtime Stranger Roy Nichols (1932-2001) on lead guitar. Roy, who was a truly great guitar player, and a quintessential part of the Merle Haggard sound, retired in early 1987 due to health issues.

The album opens with the title track, a solo Haggard composition. “Chill Factor” is a very melancholy song about a down period in the singer’s life. Taken at a slow tempo the song features horns and winds during the last third of the song and comes to a fade ending. “Chill Factor” was the first single from the album and reached #9 on the Billboard country chart:

The long nights get longer
And I wish a friend would come by
The forecast is zero
And the chill factor is high

“Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star”, another Haggard composition, was the second single released from the album. It would prove to be Merle’s final #1 single. A mid-tempo song, the song finds the narrator wishing upon a star.

Like two ships on the ocean
We drifted apart …

Twinkle twinkle lucky star
Can you send me luck from where you are
Can you make a rainbow shine that far
Twinkle twinkle lucky star

“Man From Another Town” is yet another melancholy song, this time from the pens of Haggard and his most frequent co-writer at the time, Freddy Powers, This song reflects on relationship that should not be in that the man is thirty years older than the woman.

The great Hank Cochran wrote “We Never Touch At All”, a song that would have been a #1 record if it had been released twenty years earlier. The song features a 1960s style country accompaniment with excellent steel guitar by longtime Stranger Norm Hamlet. The song was released as the third single from the album and reached #22. The song is about a relationship that is slowly unraveling. I think it is the best song on the album:

Are we afraid we’ll wind up alone
Is this the tie that keeps us hanging on
Why don’t we just stay out
While we can still climb the wall
We hardly ever talk
And we never touch at all

“You Babe” was the fourth and final single pulled from this album, reaching #23. The song is a mid-tempo ballad, full of hope, by a man who has found what was truly important. The comes from the pen of Sanger D “Whitey” Shafer who was a friend and co-writer with Lefty Frizzell:

And if there’s nothin’ else I do
To spend my whole life through
Lovin’ you, babe, you babe
I’ll always be in command
Just as long as I’m the man
Lovin’ you, babe, you babe

“Thanking The Good Lord” is an upbeat and up-tempo written ny Merle and T.A. Lane:

The pieces are all falling together
The picture is coming in view
When I thought the end was upon me
I found my purpose in you

And let the power that made
Help me to prosper and be fair in all things that I do
The love I’ve been needin’ I just found in your heart
And I’m thanking the good Lord for you

I could easily see Leon Redbone recording “After DarK”, a very jazzy and reflective mid-tempo song with some instrumental breaks that give sax and trumpet player Don Markham a chance to stretch out.

Merle’s solo composition “1929” opens up with some nice dobro playing by Norm Hamlet, and the general feel of the instrumental accompaniment sounds like something that the legendary “Blue Yodeler” Jimmie Rodgers (aka “the father of country music” or the “Singing Brakeman”) would have felt perfectly comfortable singing. This song looks to possible bad times ahead. Like many of Jimmie’s songs, some Memphis style horns kick in during the latter part of the song:

All my life I’ve heard about hard depression days
They so resemble times we’re living now
And old news of yesteryear sounds like yesterday
And hunger lines always look the same somehow

Are we living now or is it 1929
A dollar bill ain’t worth one thin dime
And tricks are sometimes played upon the mind
Are we living now or 1929

I can really relate to “Thirty Again”, a slow introspective ballad with a hint of a chuckle in the vocal. Like several of the songs on this album, this song straddles the border between country and jazz.

Similar to the narrator of the song I don’t think I’d care to be a teenager again but thirty sounds like a good age to be.

Youth should be saved for the last
But it’s wasted on the young and fast…

Wish I could be thirty again
Wish time didn’t wrinkle my skin
They say life begins at fifty
We’ve been lied to my friend
And I just wish I could be
Thirty again

The album closes up with a pair of fairly traditional country ballads.

“I Don’t Have Any Love Around” opens with a fiddle and steel guitar introduction and generally keeps the feel of slow traditional country music ballad. I could see this song as a single during the 1950-1975 heyday of the genre.

“More Than This Old Heart Can Take” is a typical barroom crying-in-your-beer song, a solid mid-tempo country ballad with plenty of fiddle and dobro and an ageless story:

You walk into his arms before my very eyes
You can’t even wait to be somewhere alone
The ties that bind have broken loose and I’m about to break
Loving you is more than this old heart can take

There was a place in time when I was always on your mind
And now I’m nothing more than just a fool
I thought that I was strong enough to live with my mistake
But loving you is more than this old heart can take

I mentioned that this was the first full Haggard album to be missing Roy Nichols. In his place we have the great Grady Martin handling much of the lead guitar work. I think Martin’s presence lends itself to the jazzy feel Haggard seemed to be seeking with this album.

As for the album itself, I think that the album accurately reflects the roller coaster ride that Merle was experiencing at the time. He had one marriage (to Leona Williams) break rather acrimoniously, but at the point this album was released, Hag was a relative newlywed having married Debbie Parret in 1985, a marriage that would last until 1991. Like many veteran artists, he was having a hard time getting radio play as the singles from this album would prove. In all, Merle is revealed as being clear-minded and perceptive, with some nostalgic longings, but still firmly rooted in the present . When initially released this album received mixed reviews, (but remember that jazz has always been an anathema to rock audiences – there was even a band calling itself Johnny Hates Jazz) and most music critics had no feel for jazz in any form.

I liked this album when it was initially issued and I like it even more today – I regard it as a solid A.

Merle Haggard – vocals, guitar, background vocals
Biff Adam – drums / Jim Belken – fiddle
Gary Church – trombone / Steve Gibson – guitar
Norm Hamlet – dobro, pedal steel guitar
Jim Haas – background vocals / Jon Joice – background vocals
Bonnie Owens – background vocals
Red Lane – guitar Mike Leech – bass
Don Markham – saxophone, trumpet
Grady Martin – guitar / Clint Strong – guitar
Bobby Wayne – guitar / Mark Yeary – keyboards

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Kern River’

KernrivermerlehaggardMerle Haggard released Kern River on Epic Records in 1985. The album was produced by Grady Martin and marked his third LP for the label.

The only single from the album is the self-penned title track, which peaked at #10. The song, although highly repetitive, is a brilliant piece of songwriting. The story entails a man’s grief over the drowning of his true love in the river where they first met. Emmylou Harris had the good sense to reprise the tune twenty-eight years later on All I Intended To Be. Her haunting version is incredible and benefits from an added depth Haggard only hinted at.

Besides the classic title track, Kern River is also known for its slew of covers and other Haggard goodies. He adds a distinctive horn element to “Old Flames Can’t Hold A Candle To You,” a chart topper for Dolly Parton five years earlier. He remains faithful to Parton’s version despite the added sonic texture. His version of Eddie Rabbitt’s “You Don’t Love Me Anymore” is far superior to the original and far more country. “Big Butter and Egg Man” is a pleasant version of the Jazz standard complete with some rather excellent piano frills throughout.

Those other goodies include tracks that previously appeared on other Haggard projects. “Natural High” makes its second appearance on a Haggard album in two years. This is the single version, that hit #1, with Janie Fricke on harmonies. “I Wonder Where I’ll Find You At Tonight” first surfaced in 1972, with classic production from the era. This version is an updated mid-tempo honky-tonker that proves both recordings are equally excellent. The mournful ballad “There’s Somebody Else On Your Mind” is the third and final track on Kern River Haggard had a hand in writing.

“There, I’ve said It Again” benefits from rather charming fiddle but not much else production-wise. “Ridin’ High” and “There Won’t Be Another Now” are typical-of-their-era ballads that are good, but nothing too memorable. “Old Watermill” is an excellent up-tempo number that perfectly bookends the album.

Listening to Kern River I can clearly hear the vocal similarities between Haggard and Clint Black, who would explode on the charts just five years later. It’s a very good album with some excellent material that shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s overloaded with a few too many ballads, but that’s only a slight criticism. I highly recommend seeking out a copy.

Grade: A

Album Review: Hank Williams Jr – ‘Ballads Of The Hills And Plains’

balladsBy 1965, it was becoming apparent that Hank Williams, Jr. would not be content to simply remake his father’s songbook. The first shot across the bow was this album of western and folk songs and similar songs by Nashville songsmiths. While it was a rebellion of sorts, it was a gentle rebellion as Hank gathered his own footing with this, his fourth album, and first not to feature any songs written by his father.

The band for this album was billed as the Cheatin’ Hearts but in reality it was a group of session musicians consisting of Grady Martin, Jerry Kennedy, Harold Bradley and Ray Edenton on guitars, Bob Moore on electric bass, Hargus “Pig” Robbins on piano with the Jordanaires providing vocal accompaniment. While Hank did have a touring band of Cheatin’ Hearts in future years, I doubt that this group ever backed Hank on stage unless it was on the Opry stage, since Hank was still only 16 years old.

The great outdoors, the old west and cowboys are themes Hank would turn to at many points in the future. This was the starting point.
Side One of the album opens with “The River”, an early Mack Vickery co-write with Cliff Friend and Jack Sanders that is a slow ballad about a young lad going after the man who gunned down his father. Unlike the lad in Johnny Cash’s “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town”, the young man here heads back home to his mother.

Next up is “Doc Holiday”, John Paulovic’s tale about Wyatt Earp’s old sidekick. This song is not about the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral, but simply an incident (probably fictional) in the life of Doc Holiday. The dominant instrument in this arrangement is Pig Robbins honky-tonk piano.

Have another drink on me, Doc Holiday
The kid ain’t gonna shoot you down

“Cowpoke” comes from the pens of Tillman Franks and David Houston. Houston was about to emerge as a first tier star, at least for a few years, but this song is western fare, which finds Hank displaying his cowboy yodel/falsetto:

I’m lonesome but happy,
Rich but I’m broke,
And the good Lord knows the reason,
I’m just a cowpoke.

From Cheyenne to Douglas,
All the ranges i know,
I drift with the wind,
No one cares where i go.

Well I ain’t got a dime,
In these old worn out jeans,
So i’ll quit eatin’ steak,
And go back to beans.

“Blood’s Thicker Than Water” by ace songwriters Danny Dill and Wayne P. Walker is a western ballad with a Mexican feel to the guitar work about a gunfight between two brothers that is broken up, at great personal cost by the boys’ mother. A very dramatic ballad.

Jim Reeves had a major hit with Harlan Howard’s “The Blizzard” in 1961. Hank is not a smooth balladeer in the same league as Reeves (very few are in that class) but this song is a narration rather than a crooner’s ballad and so Hank is very much in his element.

“Stampede” by Jim Dale and Frances Paulin is a nice western ballad that closes out side one of the vinyl album.

Side Two starts with “The Rainmaker”, another song from the trio of Cliff Friend, Jack Sanders and Mack Vickery. This narrative song is about a stranger who shows up in the town of Dry Gulch promising to make it rain. This lyric has an interesting twist to the lyric.

Nearly every folk singer and cowboy singer has sung “The Streets of Laredo”, a tune which appears in the folk music of nearly every English-speaking culture, albeit sometimes with very different lyrics. Hank’s vocal is very effective and the backing is very sparse as befits the stark nature of the song.

“Black Lightning” is a jog-along ballad about a gunfighter on the run, speaking to his horse (and himself) as he is about to be run down by the posse chasing him.

“Big Twenty” is another ballad, the story of a muleskinner being pursued by the Apache , the title referring to his twenty mule team pulling a load of borax.

“The Eyes of Death” written by Danny Dill is the story of an inmate who knows that the brother of the man he killed is an inmate in the same prison, but he doesn’t even know what the brother looks like and the anticipation of being killed is worse than actually being killed.

The album ends with “I’m Afraid” by Allen Nelson and Carolyn Stringer. This is an up-tempo about an impending gunfight with a former friend. The dispute, of course, is over a woman.

Unfortunately this album has never been released in a digital format and only “The Blizzard” and “The River” are to be found on the MGM boxed set Living Proof.

All is not lost, however, as ten of the songs have been posted to You Tube as audio clips.

This album is essentially a western or cowboy album, a genre that Hank handles very effectively. The accompaniment is appropriately subdued and Hank is in great vocal form. The musicians and arrangements are all top flight and this is an album I greatly enjoy. As a first attempt at getting away from being a clone, this is a solid effort – at least a B+ or maybe an A-

Classic Review: Marty Robbins – ‘Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs’

71yKlXRWvsL._SL1072_Marty Robbins was that rare bird, a jack of all trades and the master of all of them. It didn’t matter whether the source of the music was rock and roll, rockabilly, R&B, cowboy, western swing, country, pop or Spanish-tinged, Marty could sing it and sing it well. Since Marty was born in Arizona, his first love was western songs and his western albums were indeed labors of love and represent the apogee of his career.

Released in 1959, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs was a massive seller that has remained in print almost continuously since it was released 56 years ago. The album sold platinum, reached #6 on the pop album charts and #20 in the United Kingdom, and spawned two hugely successful singles in “El Paso” (#1 Country/#1 Pop/ #19 UK) and “Big Iron” (#5 Country / #26 Pop/ #48 UK).  Most critics regard the album as the most influential album of western and cowboy songs in American music history, and I couldn’t disagree with them since I wore out two vinyl copies and a cassette copy before the album was finally released on CD. Story songs sometimes get old from re-telling but every time I play this album, it seems new and fresh to me. The vocals are clear and melodious, the subdued and tasteful vocal harmonies (Jim, Tompall & Chuck Glaser) never intrude on the lead and the instrumental accompaniment, mostly the guitars of Grady Martin, and Jack Pruett, with Bob Moore on upright bass, are crisp and clear.

The album opens with “Big Iron”, the second single from the album, a Marty Robbins that is still often performed by western singing groups. The song concernes the fate of a bad outlaw who meets his fate

It was over in a moment and the crowd all gathered ’round
There before them lay the body of the outlaw on the ground
Oh, he might have went on livin’ but he made one fatal slip
When he tried to match the ranger with the big iron on his hip,
Big iron on his hip

Big iron, big iron,
Oh he tried to match the ranger with the big iron on his hip,
Big iron on his hip

Next up is the Bob Nolan classic “Cool Water”, forever associated with Bob’s group the Sons of the Pioneers. I liked the Sons version but Marty and the Glaser Brothers own the song

“Billy The Kid” is a traditional western ballad abut a western villain who is often lionized in ballad.

Dave Kapp’s “A Hundred and Sixty Acres is next up.

“They’re Hanging Me Tonight” by Jimmy Lowe and Art Wolfe, is the tale of a man being hung for gunning down his woman and the man who stole her:

As I walked by a dim cafe
And I looked through the door
I saw my Flo with her new love
And I couldn’t stand no more
I couldn’t stand no more
I took my pistol from my hip
And with a tremblin’ hand
I took the life of pretty Flo
And that good for nothin’ man
That good for nothin’ man

I think about the thing I’ve done
I know it wasn’t right
They’ll bury Flo tomorrow
But they’re hangin’ me tonight
They’re hangin’ me tonight

The final track on Side One of the original vinyl album is “Strawberry Roan” a traditional western ballad that has been sung by hundreds of artists; however, rarely with the aplomb of Marty Robbins.

Side Two opens with “El Paso”. For many years polls taken of the top country songs of all time usually listed this song in the top three, mostly at the very top. In my humble opinion, it is still the greatest country record of all time (with “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry by Hank Williams at #2). Because of its length (4:23) Columbia hedged its bets by releasing a shorter version of the song on the flip side of the record so DJs could decide which version to play. In my area, the DJs ignored the short version of the song and played the full song. The song spent six weeks at #1 and has been performed by all manner of performers over the years, including The Grateful Dead who performed the song 389 times before disbanding. The song recounts the tale of a young cowboy who, in a jealous rage, kills another man who had eyes for his girl Felina, then flees Texas until he is driven by loneliness to return. Upon returning he is gunned down, probably for the act of stealing a horse when he escaped before.

Out in the West Texas town of El Paso
I fell in love with a Mexican  girl
Nighttime would find me in Rosa’s Cantina
Music would play and Felina would  whirl

Blacker than night were the eyes of Felina
Wicked and evil while casting a spell.
My love was strong for this  Mexican maiden
I was in love, but in vain I could  tell.

Next up is another Marty Robbins original “In the Valley” about a guy pining for his gal’s return. The next song is “The Master’s Call”, another Marty Robbins original, this one about a young hellion caught up in  cattle stampede, saved for unknown reasons:

My wicked past unfolded, I thought of wasted years
When another bolt of lightning killed a hundred head of steers
And the others rushed on by me, and I was left to live
The Master had a reason, life is His to take and give.
A miracle performed that night, I wasn’t meant to die
The dead ones formed a barricade least 6 or 7 high
Right behind it, there was I, afraid but safe and sound
I cried and begged for mercy kneeling there upon the ground
A pardon I was granted, my sinful soul set free,
No more to fear the angry waves upon life’s stormy sea
Forgiven by the love of God, a love that will remain,
I gave my life and soul the night the Saviour called my name

One generally doesn’t associate Jim and Tompall Glaser with western gunfighter ballads but they produced an excellent one in “Running Gun”, a song which would have made an excellent single. In this song the protagonist meets his end at the hands of a bounty hunter


I knew someday I’d meet him for his hand like lightning flashed
My own gun stayed in leather as his bullet tore it’s path
As my strength was slowly fading, I could see him walk away
And I knew that where I lie today, he too must lie some day

Now the crowd is slowly gathering and my eyes are growing dim
And my thoughts return to Jeannie and the home that we had planned
Oh please tell her won’t you mister that she’s still the only one
But a woman’s love is wasted when she loves a running gun

The “Little Green Valley” comes from the pen of the legendary Carson Robison, a contemporary of Vernon Dalhart and a singing star in his own right. The song is a gentle ballad about the singer’s idyllic home

The original album closes out with “Utah Carol” a traditional song about a cowboy friend of the narrator who dies in a cattle stampede  saving the life of the boss’s daughter.

This album has been reissued numerous times, sometimes with the songs in a different sequence than on the original album. No  matter – the songs are all great and most listeners simply listen to the album, all the way through. In 1999 Sony issued an extended version of the album with the longest version of “El Paso” as a bonus cut, along with “The Hanging Tree” which was issued as a single the following year and “Saddle Tramp” which was the B-side of “Big Iron”.

Marty would revisit western themes on subsequent albums and release several sequels to “El Paso”.  Although all are very worthwhile, this is Marty’s masterpiece, an album any true country music fan will want in his collection.

Fellow Travelers: Harry Lillis “Bing” Crosby (1903-1977)

bing crosbyBy many measures, Bing Crosby was the most successful entertainer of the 20th century. As such he dabbled in many forms of popular music be it pop, jazz, country, cowboy and rhythm & blues.

WHO WAS HE?

Bing has been dead long enough that if he is remembered at all by the under fifty set, it is for old black and white movies like GOING MY WAY and THE ROAD TO MOROCCO or as the artist singing “White Christmas” on their parents’ (or grandparents’) favorite Christmas album.

Bing was much more than that; he was for many years the most famous entertainer on Planet Earth.

According to Billboard historian Joel Whitburn, Bing Crosby was the number one recording artist for the entire decades of the 1930s and 1940s with some success spilling into the 1950s. He recorded 383 chart hits with 41 number one records and another 152 that landed in the top ten. His recording of “White Christmas” is the biggest selling single in US history. He introduced many songs now known as pop standards.

If that isn’t enough, Bing Crosby was among the top ten movie box office stars fifteen times and from 1944 through 1948 he was the number one box office star. He won an Academy Award for his role in GOING MY WAY. By any measure except dollars (due to ticket price inflation) Bing ranks in the top three of all-time movie stars with 1,077,900,000 movie tickets sold.

Moreover he was a successful radio star and at one time was part owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team and owned a number of successful racehorses.

WHAT WAS HIS CONNECTION TO COUNTRY MUSIC ?

Bing Crosby was a major factor in popularizing the western side of country music, making a number of movie westerns and introducing many western themed songs to the greater American public. Bing had hits on songs such as “Don’t Fence Me In”, “Along The Navajo Trail”, “Sioux City Sue”, “Blue Shadows On The Trail” , “Mule Train”, “Riders In The Sky”, “I’m An Old Cowhand”, The Last Round-up” and “Home On The Range”. He was elected to the Western Music Hall of Fame in 2008.

On the country side of the ledger, Bing covered such songs as “Walking The Floor Over You”, “San Antonio Rose” and “It Makes No Difference Now” for the pop market. When Billboard finally started tracking country music as a separate genre in January 1944, the very first number one record was “Pistol Packing Mama” by Bing Crosby accompanied by the Andrews Sister. It would stay there for five non-consecutive weeks, trading places with Al Dexter’s version (Dexter wrote the song). Bing would only chart one more record on Billboard’s country charts in 1952 when his recording (with Grady Martin & His Slewfoot Five) of “Till The End of The World” reached number ten.

Before his death in 1977 Bing Crosby would record many country songs as album tracks and would record at least one entire album of country music, for Capitol Records in 1963.

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘To All The Girls’

to all the girlsThe newest Willie Nelson album finds Willie treading familiar ground, recording eighteen duets with various female partners. These partners range from young to old, famous to fairly unknown and across a wide array of genres.

The album opens up with the “From Here To The Moon And Back”, an introspective ballad from the catalogue of duet partner Dolly Parton. This song has a very quiet arrangement with piano being the dominant sound, along with a very light string arrangement – very nice song.

Another very quiet song is “She Was No Good For Me” with the normally boisterous Miranda Lambert assisting Willie on an old Waylon Jennings tune. It is nice to hear Miranda sing a song that requires nuance and restraint.

She was a good looking woman no doubt
A high steppin’ mover that men talk about
Everything bad in me she brought it out
And she was just no good for me

[Chorus:]
Don’t be taken by the look in her eyes
If she looks like an angel
It’s a perfect disguise
And for somebody else she may be
But she was just no good for me

“It Won’t Be Very Long” opens with a harmonica intro which comes to a dead stop and then starts to a song with a very country gospel feel – something either Roy Acuff or the Nitty Gritty Dirt band might have tackled. The Secret Sisters aren’t really very well known but probably do the best job of any act on the album of actually harmonizing with Willie. Willie and producer Buddy Cannon wrote this song.

“Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends” is a Kris Kristofferson song that originally was a top ten hit for new Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby Bare (it reached #1 on Record World) in 1971. In 1974 it reached #1 on Billboard for Ronnie Milsap. I always preferred Bare’s version as I think the song benefited from Bare’s more laid back approach to the song. Nelson and duet partner Rosanne Cash adopt the more relaxed approach to the song, with Willie’s guitar being the dominant sound of the background, but with a tasteful organ undertone by Moose Brown. Willie and Rosanne’s voices really don’t mesh well together and Willie’s eccentric phrasing is difficult for any singer to handle, but actual harmonizing on this tune is kept to a dead minimum.

“Far Away Places” is one of the classics of the American Pop Standards canon. The song was written by Joan Whitney and Alex Kramer way back in 1948, and was an immediate hit by three artists in late 1948-early 1949, reaching #2 for the legendary Bing Crosby, #3 for Margaret Whiting and #6 for Perry Como. The Como version is probably the best remembered version since RCA kept the song available for most of the last 65 years whereas the other versions have frequently been out of print. Willie and partner Sheryl Crow harmonize well and recreate the dreamy feel of the 1948 versions. This is my favorite track on this album:

Far away places with strange soundin’ names
Far away over the sea
Those far away places with the strange soundin’ names
Are callin’, callin’ me

Goin’ to China or maybe Siam
I want to see for myself
Those far away places I’ve been readin’ about
In a book that I took from the shelf

I don’t know how many times Willie has recorded his own “Bloody Mary Morning” but this version must be the fastest version on disc. I’m not a big Wynonna Judd fan but this is the kind of song she handles well. Mike Johnson (steel) and Dan “Man of Constant Sorrow” Tyminski (acoustic guitar) really shine on this track.

Writers Wayne Carson, Mark James and John Christopher, Jr cashed in big time with “You Were Always On My Mind” as it was a hit thrice (Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson) and appeared on many albums generating many millions of sales (and royalties for the songwriters). On this recording Willie is joined by Carrie Underwood in a nice version with fairly minimal backing.

During the 1960s and 1970s semi-permanent male-female duos abounded, nearly all of whom tackled Merle Haggard’s “Somewhere Between”. It’s a great song and Willie is joined by the legendary Loretta Lynn, singing in better voice than anything I’ve heard from her recently. Willie and Loretta trade verses (usually in different keys) and do not harmonize except one line at the end. It’s a great song and full justice is done to the song.

“No Mas Amore” written by Keith Gattis and Sammy Barrett, is given the Mexican treatment by Willie and partner Alison Krauss complete with trumpets. Willies band member Mickey Raphael plays chord harmonica and bass harmonica; Alison’s band member Dan Tyminski adds background vocals and plays mandolin. Usually Alison Krauss duets produce a certain magic, but this one is merely pleasant listening.

“Back To Earth” features Melonie Cannon on this Willie Nelson ballad, taken at a languid pace. The song is nothing special but Melanie and Willie execute it well.

Mavis Staples is one of the best known gospel singers, carrying on the fine tradition of the legendary Staples Family. “Grandma’s Hands” was penned by Bill Withers, probably best known for his monster hits “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean On Me”. The song was about Wither’s own grandma and is an affectionate look at a loved one, now departed. Willie and Mavis give it a bit of a ‘swamp blues pop’ treatment that fits the song exactly.

“Walkin” features Wiliie’s good friend Norah Jones on a Willie composition. This is a bluesy slow ballad about leaving.

“Till The End of World” is an old Vaughn Horton standard given an up-tempo western swing arrangement. Back in 1949 Ernest Tubb, Jimmy Wakely and Johnny Bond all had top twelve hits with the song, then in 1952 Bing Crosby and ace guitarist Grady Martin took it back into the top ten. Shelby Lynne reestablishes her country credibility with this effort.

“Will You Remember Mine” is a lovely ballad from Willie’s pen. I don’t know anything about Lily Meola but she is a perfect complement to Willie on this song.

Gone are the times when I held you close
And pressed your lips to mine
Now when you kissed another’s lips
Will you remember mine?

I’m sure we’ve all had this thought – indeed.

“Dry Lightning” comes from the pen of Bruce Springsteen. Emmylou Harris can sing with anyone. Therefore it is no surprise that this song works as a duet. It’s another slow ballad, but Emmylou, as usual is exquisite.

I first ran across Brandi Carlile some years ago when the late and lamented Borders chain distributed sampler CDs of her work. On “Making Believe” she proves both that she can sing effective harmony and can sing country music with feeling. This song was written by Jimmy Work but is best remembered as a major hit for Kitty Wells in 1955, with Emmylou Harris taking it back to the top ten in 1977.

“Have You Ever Seen The Rain” is a John Fogarty composition given a slow folk arrangement that enables Willie and (I think) daughter Paula Nelson to convey the lyrics in an uncluttered manner. I really like this recording.

Tina Rose is the daughter of Leon & Mary Russell. Willie recorded an album with Leon Russell in 1979, so it seems only proper that he should record a song with Leon’s daughter. I’m not that impressed with Ms Russell’s vocals, but they work well enough on the vehicle chosen, L.E White’s “After The Fire Is Gone”, which White’s boss, Conway Twitty took to the top of the charts with Loretta Lynn in 1971. Willie and Tina don’t have the chemistry Conway and Loretta had (few do) but the end result is worthwhile.

It remains true:
There’s nothing cold as ashes
After the fire’s gone

All told, there is a very pleasant offering from Willie – I’d give it a B+, mostly because a few more up-tempo numbers were needed. Willie, of course, is always Willie, and as always, he was chosen well in his selection of female guests.

Willie Nelson: the country duet albums

Whatever else one may think about Willie Nelson, there are two things that are absolutely true about the man – he has a strong sense of the history of the genre and he believes in paying it forward and back.

Take a stroll through the sales pages of a website such as CD Baby and count the number of country albums by unheralded artists that feature a track or two in which Willie Nelson does a guest duet or harmony vocal. As for duet albums, Willie has recorded more duet albums than most regular duos record in their career.

In this article we will take a look at some of the many duet albums that Willie has recorded with other country artists. We won’t be looking at the albums he cut with Ray Price (someone else will do that article) and we won’t be looking at the albums that Willie cut with artists outside the genre such as Ray Charles, Julio Iglesias, Wynton Marsailles, Leon Russell or Norma Jones. This will be country music – period.

1) Willie Nelson & Roger Miller – Old Friends (Columbia, 1982)

Willie Nelson and Roger Miller (1936-1992) were contemporaries and old friends who both played in Ray Price’s band. Roger was a unique talent, perhaps the greatest entertainer the world has ever seen. Roger barely needed even a guitar to keep an audience enthralled for hours, but before breaking through as a performer, he was a solid country songsmith, writing hits for other singers such as Jim Reeves and Ray Price.

This album, partially recorded at Willie’s Pedernales Recording Studio and using Willie’s band augmented by a few extra musicians such as Johnny Gimble (fiddle and mandolin), Grady Martin (guitar) and Jimmy Day (steel guitar) has the sound of a Willie Nelson album but all of the material is associated with Roger Miller (Roger wrote all ten songs, one a co-write with Bill Anderson). Staying away from the obvious Miller hits (most of them novelties that don’t lend themselves to duets) Willie and Roger tackle Roger’s solid classics that were hits for others such as “Invitation To The Blues” (Ray Price), “Half A Mind” (Ernest Tubb) “When Two Worlds Collide” (Jim Reeves) and “Husbands & Wives” (a hit for Roger, Jack Jones, Brooks & Dunn and also recorded by many others such as Neil Diamond). The single released from the album, “Old Friends”, also featured Ray Price, and scraped into the top twenty. Oddly enough only three of the songs are actual duets at all (Roger solos on three songs, including the only novelty on the album “Aladambama”, and Willie solos on four songs), but they do represent an enlightening dip into the Roger Miller song-bag.

2) Willie Nelson & Faron Young – Funny How Time Slips Away (Columbia, 1985)

Faron Young (1932-1996), although only a year older than Willie, had already been a star for six-plus years when Willie hit Nashville. Faron gave Willie his first two big breaks as a songwriter: he recorded “Hello Walls” (a million seller in 1961) and he refused to let Willie (the proverbial starving songwriter) sell him the song for $500, lending him the money instead. At the time, Faron had already seen the preliminary sales figures for the song and knew the songwriters’ royalties would be thousands of dollars. Willie never forgot this and the two remained friends until the end of Faron’s life. Faron would have hits on several other songs written by Willie and this album features most of them.

Side one of the album featured six songs written by Willie Nelson of which three (“Hello Walls”, “Congratulations” and “Three Days” were hits for Faron). Side two of the record features five of Faron’s hits supplied by other songwriters (“Live Fast – Love Hard – Die Young”, “Sweet Dreams” , “Four In The Morning” ,
“Life Turned Her That Way” and “Going Steady”, plus the title track – written by Willie but not a Faron Young hit.

This album was released in 1985. By then Faron’s 22 year run at the top of the charts was long over, but Faron could still sing. Consequently, even though this album was recorded at Pedernales studio, the musicians are Nashville session men and the album does not come across as a Willie Nelson album, but as a true collaborative effort. Faron solos on “Four In The Morning” and Willie solos on “She’s Not For You” but the rest is duets including possibly the best versions you’ll ever hear on “Hello Walls” and “Funny How Time Slips Away”.

3) Willie Nelson & Webb Pierce – In The Jailhouse Now (Columbia 1982)

Webb Pierce (1921-1991) was the biggest star in country music during the decade of the 1950s and remained a viable star until about 1967, after which time his high nasal style permanently fell out of vogue (except in bluegrass music). Most observers have failed to see Willie’s connection with Webb Pierce, who never recorded any of Willie’s songs, except as album cuts, and never had any working relationship with Webb, and it is a bit tenuous to see the connection, although Willie’s vocal phrasing and pinched nasal vibrato seem influenced by Webb’s vocals of the 1950s.

This album features duets on nine of Webb’s 1950s recordings, including Webb’s mega-hits “Slowly”, “There Stands The Glass”, More and More”, “Wondering” , “I Don’t Care” and “Back Street Affair” (a sextet of songs that spent eighty weeks at #1) plus three more songs that appeared on Webb’s albums and one new song written by Willie Nelson, Webb Pierce and Max Powell , the bluesy “Heebie Jeebie Blues #2” . The album was recorded at Pedernales Studio using Willie’s band augmented by Johnny Gimble, Grady Martin, Jimmy Day, Leon Russell and Richard Manuel.

The only single released from the album, “In The Jailhouse Now” barely dented the charts at #72, but Webb’s voice had dropped enough in pitch to make him an effective duet partner for Willie. Both singers obviously had fun recording this album and I regard this as the most effective of Willie’s major label duet albums.

Willie Nelson & Curtis Potter – Six Hours At Pedernales (Step One Records, 1994)

Curtis Potter (1940 – ) is part of the Willie’s Texas connection, having served as Hank Thompson’s band leader from 1959-1971 and one of Willie’s circle of friends including Johnny Bush, Darrell McCall and who knows how many others. Curtis never became a big star outside of his native Texas but he is an impressive singer and he and Willie harmonize well on this collection of country songs. Produced by Ray Pennington, the in-house producer at Step One Records, this collection features three songs written by Pennington, three written by Nelson, plus some outside material. This album features none of Willie’s band members, aiming instead for a Texas Swing/Honky-Tonk feel with outstanding fiddle work by Rob Hajacos and steel by Buddy Emmons.

For me the highlights are “The Party’s Over” and “My Own Peculiar Way” in which Willie and Curtis swap verses on a pair of Willie classics, and Willie’s solo turn on Ray Pennington’s “Turn Me Loose and Let Me Swing”. That said, I really like this entire album. It’s been in my car CD player for the last week.

4) Willie Nelson & Johnny Bush – Together Again (Delta Records, 1982)

Delta Records is a long-defunct Texas independent label that never had much distribution outside of Texas and had some of its inventory confiscated by the IRS during Willie’s tax problem days. Johnny Bush Shinn (1935 – ) is a long-time friend of Willie’s dating back to the 1950s. Both were in Ray Price’s band and have been members of each other’s bands at various times.

This twelve song album features ten duets plus Johnny Bush solos on “Driving Nails In My Coffin” and his own “Whiskey River” (taken at a very different tempo than Willie usually performs it). The album opens up with the Buck Owens classic “Together Again” and works its way through a solid program of songs including the Paul Simon song “Still Crazy After All These Years” plus Willie Nelson tunes “I Let My Mind Wander”, “I’ve Just Destroyed The World I’m Living In” , “The Party’s Over” and “My Own Peculiar Way”.

“Whiskey River” was released as a single just denting the top 100, and “You Sure Tell It Like It Is, George Jones” was also released as a single, although it didn’t chart (it is a great track). “The Party’s Over is a standout track as is “The Sound of A Heartache”, a song written by Johnny Bush.

The album was recorded at Willie’s Pedernales Studio, but produced by Johnny Bush. Willie’s band was not used on this album, so the sound is more that of a conventional country band. This album was recorded after Johnny was struck with spastic dysphonia so he was not at his vocal peak , but still he was still a tremendous singer, if not quite the ‘country Caruso’ (later medical discoveries would restore him to peak condition).

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Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard – ‘It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)’

A Hank Cochran/Grady Martin song which Merle took to #1 in 1972: