My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Gram Parsons

Classic Rewind: Jim Lauderdale – ‘The King Of Broken Hearts’

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Album Review: Jim Lauderdale – ‘Planet Of Love’

Jim Lauderdale was already a successful songwriter when he secured his first album deal with Reprise Records, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers. His debut album in 1991 was produced by Rodney Crowell and John Leventhal, and Lauderdale wrote every song, mostly with Leventhal.

The label tried three singles, none of which saw any chart action. ‘Maybe’, co-written by Lauderdale and Leventhal with Crowell, may not have been the best choice to launch Lauderdale as a solo artist. It is a decent mid-tempo song with an optimistic message about taking a chance in love, but it is not very interesting musically.

‘I Wasn’t Fooling Around’ is much more on the mark, and it is a shame it didn’t get airplay. A great traditional country shuffle, it was picked up by George Strait a couple of years later. The third single, ‘Wake Up Screaming’, is a minor keyed country rock number later recorded by Gary Allan on his debut album, but I don’t’ particularly like it.

Other artists also saw potential hits from this album’s set list. My favorite is ‘The King Of Broken Hearts’, later covered by George Strait, and still later by Lee Ann Womack. This is a loving tribute to George Jones and Gram Parsons, ornamented by tasteful steel guitar from Glen D. Hardin. Emmylou Harris adds harmonies. ‘Where The Sidewalk Ends’ was another Strait pick, and was also recorded by Jann Browne. It’s a very good song about a breakup, but I prefer both the covers to Lauderdale’s own version.

The jazzy and sophisticated title track was covered by Mandy Barnett and the pre-Natalie Maines incarnation of the Dixie Chicks. The soulful ‘What You Don’t Know’ was later recorded by Jon Randall.

‘Heaven’s Flame’ is a midpaced warning against a femme fatale. ‘Bless Her Heart’ is a low-key love song and is rather sweet, with gospel style backing vocals. The valedictory ‘My Last Request’ is slow and sad, with Rodney Crowell adding a prominent harmony.

Lauderdale’s main problem as an artist was that his vocals were not strong enough. He may also have been a bit too eclectic. However, he is a great songwriter, and this album has a lot to offer, especially if you have more adventurous tastes.

Grade: B

Album Review: Erin Enderlin – ‘Whiskeytown Crier’

“Ain’t It Just Like A Cowboy,” is a “stop me if you’ve heard this one” tale of a woman jilted by a man who repeatedly abandons her. But Erin Enderlin and her co-writer Heather Little turn the concept on its head. The song isn’t about rodeos, but rather another more universal pain:

He’s holdin’ her like he held me

God I should know better than to cry

The steel-adorned ballad serves as the lead single from Whiskeytown Crier, which finds Enderlin teaming with Jamey Johnson and Jim “Moose” Brown on a collection of songs culled from the female perspective, of the women who inhabit a fictional residential area known as Whiskeytown. Enderlin imagines the album as a newspaper, with the songs serving as the articles.

Whiskeytown Crier consists of many songs where the woman is in various states of dealing with the man who’s left her. He’s a cowboy one minute, the next he’s the self-absorbed litterer at the heart of “Jesse Joe’s Cigarettes,” which she smokes since she has nothing better to do. The feelings are so complex that to deal with them requires a “Whole Nuther Bottle of Wine.” “Till It’s Gone” finds her maxing out on all these pleasures, accented with a stunning twenty-nine-second steel guitar solo.

Her solely-penned “Broken” is a stunner of self-awareness that acts as a prequel of sorts, detailing the woman’s marriage at eighteen to the man who saw in her what she saw in him:

A broken limb

From a crooked family tree

“The Coldest In Town” is a spellbinding duet with Randy Houser that details a disintegrating marriage from both perspectives. It could be the woman from “Broken” when her life falls apart, but it also works as a standalone composition.

The album also contains two muscular southern gothic murder ballads. “Caroline” is the sadistic tale of a teenage pregnancy and a father’s revenge on the man who made her a mother. “Baby Sister” shows blood is thicker than love, with a shocked sibling proclaiming:

I knew you were a pistol

But I never knew you owned a gun

“The Blues Are Alive and Well” purposely evokes Merle Haggard. “Home Sweet Home” finds a woman enjoying the pleasures of the United States – a game at Wrigley Field, Broadway Shows – but finding comfort in her southern roots, where she prefers to live. “His Memory Walks on Water” is a tale of innocence – a little girl remembering her dad, a degenerate, in death as the man he never was on Earth. To his youngest daughter, though, he was everything.

Enderlin also included two covers to round out the set. She turns in a competent reading of “Till I Can Make It On My Own,” which is very good but could’ve been more subtle. Her take on Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind” is excellent.

Whiskeytown Crier is a very fine album that could’ve stood less intrusive production on occasion, namely eliminating the intrusive electric guitar that permeates “Jesse Joe’s Cigarettes.” But the music shines through, putting the focus on Enderlin’s apt storytelling, right where it should be.

Grade: A

Country Heritage: Clarence and Roland White

During February 2017, we will be reviewing the careers of several country performers bearing the last name ‘White’. Included in this review will be a family band and several excellent male and female singers and songwriters with fairly short discographies.

First, though, we will start with a pair of brothers who are known for their outstanding instrumental prowess. Clarence LeBlanc (June 7, 1944 – July 14, 1973) and his brother Roland LeBlanc (b, April 23, 1938) were born in Maine of French-Canadian parents. The family moved to California in 1954 and at some point before then Anglicized the family name to White.

Roland as the oldest made the first move into music organizing himself and his brothers Eric and Clarence (and sister Joanne) into a family bluegrass band. When the family moved to California the boys won a local talent contest and were hired by a local television station as ‘The Country Boys’. After a two year hiatus in the US Army, Roland rejoined the band in 1961, which was renamed as the Kentucky Colonels. In addition to Clarence on guitar and Roland on mandolin, the band featured Billy Ray Latham on banjo and Roger Bush on bass, with other members being part of the band at various times, most notably fiddler Scott Stoneman. The band became quite popular locally and even managed to score a pair of appearances on the Andy Griffith’s hit television show. The band issued three innovative albums but disbanded in 1965 with the individual members pursuing other interests. Clarence and Roland were in heavy demand as session musicians.

Clarence appeared in combinations with several noted west coast musicians and bands such as Nashville West. Clarence eventually replaced Gram Parsons with the Byrds in 1968 remaining until the group disbanded in 1973.

Roland was of a more traditionalist bent. After the Kentucky Colonels broke up, he spent a few years as one of Bill Monroe’ Bluegrass Boys, then joined Lester Flatts’ Nashville Grass until 1973.

At that point Clarence, Roland and Eric White reunited and formed the New Kentucky Colonels. Unfortunately this was to last but a short time as Roland and Clarence were struck by a drunk driver while loading their equipment into their car after a performance. Roland White suffered a dislocated shoulder, but Clarence was killed in the accident. At the time of his death Clarence had finished four tracks for a planned solo album. Sierra Records released the tracks on a various artists album titled Silver Meteor

After Clarence’s death Roland soldiered onward joining the bluegrass group Country Gazette, remaining there for 13 years. In 1987, he joined the Nashville Bluegrass Band, staying with that group until 2000. After that he formed the Roland White Band, which is still active.

Clarence White was a brilliant guitarist, the equal of Doc Watson or Brian Sutton or any other unbelievable guitarist you’d care to name. Most of his best work can be found on the Kentucky Colonels albums. Clarence White was only twenty nine years old when he died so there isn’t an extensive solo discography of his music. I would suggest the Sierra/Rural Rhythm CD 33 Acoustic Guitar Instrumentals, generally available for around $10.00.

Roland White is still with us and his work, like that of Clarence, can be found on the Kentucky Colonels albums, as well as on Country Gazette and Nashville Bluegrass Band albums. Roland is an exceptional mandolin player. He may not be quite as good on the mandolin as Clarence was on the guitar but he is 99% of the way there and better than all but a very few mandolin players. Frankly, I think everything Roland has played is worth hearing, and he is a pleasant vocalist. My favorite of his solo albums is Trying To Get To You (Sugar Hill, 1994), but I’d happily listen to any of his albums.

Album Review: Flatt Lonesome – ‘Runaway Train’

runaway-trainThis is Flatt Lonesome’s third album and each has been a slight improvement on the album before, a difficult task since the debut and second albums were indeed excellent. On my list of favorite albums of 2016, I had Runaway Train at number two on my list and I gave serious thought to placing it at #1.

Flatt Lonesome hails from Callahan Florida, a town just big enough to avoid jokes about the entering and leaving signs being on the same signpost. They have become huge favorites at the bluegrass festivals for the simplest of reasons – they sing well, are very proficient on their instruments, and select great songs to record. The group is essentially a family band with sisters Kelsi Robertson Harrigill and Charli Robertson joining brother Buddy Robertson in handling most of the vocals. Kelli plays mandolin, Charli plays fiddle and Buddy plays guitar. Paul Harrigill, who entered the family by marrying Kelsi, plays banjo and other instruments as needed. Non-family members Michael Stockton (dobro & lap steel) and Dominick Illingworth (bass) round out the team.

The album opens with a tune written by Danny Roberts (of the Grascals) and Paul Harrigill titled “You’ll Pay”. Buddy takes the lead vocals with his sisters adding harmony vocals on this song about retribution.

Next up is “Still Feeling Blue”, a song by Gram Parsons, a would-be country artist of the 1960s. Kelli takes the lead vocals with her siblings providing the harmony vocals. Parsons was greatly influenced by the Louvin Brothers and it definitely shows on this composition. This really is a good song and the trio vocal work just shines on this song.

Time can pass and time can heal
But it don’t ever pass the way I feel
You went away a long time ago
And why you left I never knew
The lonely days and lonely nights
Guess the world knows I ain’t feelin’ right
And when you’re gone the hours pass so slow
And now I’m still feeling blue

Dwight Yoakam would seem to be an odd choice for a bluegrass group to cover, but “You’re The One” really is a great vehicle for Charli’s lead vocals and the harmony trios. This song, a slow ballad, was a huge hit on bluegrass radio.

Kelsi penned “In The Heat of The Fire” and takes the lead vocals on a fine religiously themed mid-temp ballad. Michael Stockton takes a nice dobro break and Charli does likewise on a fiddle break.

If you’re like Jonah
In the belly of the whale
Running so far
And headed for hell
Cry out to him
He’ll hear your voice
And answer your prayer

He’s in the valley
He’s in the storm
He’ll be your shelter
He’ll keep you warm
He is your solid rock
In the midst of the mire
You can still hear his voice
In the heat of the fire

The Bluegrass Cardinals wrote and recorded many fine songs during their two plus decade run. “Don’t Come Running” by the father and son team of Don and Dave Parmley is just one of the many fine songs, Buddy takes the lead on this song.

Well you tell me today you were going far away
You tell me you wanna be free
But if your new friend breaks your heart in the end
Don’t you come running back to me

Oh my darling go and stay if you want it that way
You don’t love me and that is plain to see
If your new love turns you down, I won’t be hangin’ round
So don’t you come running back to me

Kelsi penned “In The Morning”, a nice religious ballad. This time sister Charli takes the lead vocals.

“Road To Nottingham” is an instrumental written by Paul Harrigill and Brayden McMahon. The song gives the entire band an opportunity to shine.

Dolton Robertson II is the father of Charli, Kelsi and Buddy but it turns out that he is a pretty good songwriter as “New Lease On Life” attests. Charli sings the lead vocal and Kelsi takes the harmony vocals.

“Casting All Your Care On Him” was a husband and wife collaboration between Paul and Kelsi, with Kelsi taking the lead vocals and her siblings taking the harmony on this up-tempo religious song.

When I first heard “Mixed Up Mess of A Heart” on XM Radio I was floored that a group this young could unearth an old Tommy Collins-Merle Haggard classic from the mid 60s. The song first saw the light of day in 1966 on Collins’ first Columbia album The Dynamic Tommy Collins. Haggard recorded the song in 1967 on his I’m A Lonesome Fugitive album. It probably isn’t fair to compare Buddy Robertson to either Collins or Haggard, I would say that he acquits himself well, and manages to imbue the spirit of Tommy Collins into his vocals. It should be noted that both Collins and Haggard used the title “Poor Broke Mixed Up Mess of A Heart”.

Paul & Kelsi collaborated on “Letting Go”, a downer of a song that asks if love ever really existed.

The album closes with “Runaway Train”, written by Australian artist Kasey Chambers . This song isn’t even remotely a bluegrass song, but is the mark of a group’s excellence that they can take left field material such as this and make it fit in the context of a bluegrass album.

I’m gonna take you down to the railway line
I’m gonna take you down to the railway line
I’m gonna take ya where your heart won’t break ya
And the water tastes like wine
I’m gonna take you down to the railway line

We won’t take money, we won’t take the long way round
We won’t take money, we won’t take the long way round
We won’t take money, we’ll live off honey
When the train goes underground
We won’t take money, we won’t take the long way round

Flatt Lonesome won the IBMA’s Vocal Group of the Year, the first of many such awards that will be forthcoming for this talented group. In terms of trio harmony, they have few peers. This is a group will continue to grow in stature. I can hardly wait for their next album.

Album Review: Waylon Jennings – ‘Singer of Sad Songs’

516hawgUbnL._SS2801970’s Singer of Sad Songs didn’t sell as well as some of Waylon Jennings’s earlier LPs, but in spite of that — or perhaps because of it — it is an important entry in his discography. The album was mostly recorded in Los Angeles, and freed from the restraints of Nashville, we begin to get a glimpse of the “outlaw” Waylon that would emerge a few years later. Lee Hazlewood, a pop musician and producer best known for his work with Nancy Sinatra and Gram Parsons, took over production duties from Chet Atkins.

The album finds Waylon covering The Rolling Stones with a competent version of “Honky Tonk Woman”, never one of my favorite songs, Tim Rush’s “No Regrets” and Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter”, which was largely considered a folk, rather than country song, although Johnny Cash and June Carter had taken their definitive version of the song to #2 on the country charts earlier that year. Produce Hazlewood wrote “She Comes Running”, an enjoyable but slightly dated-sounding pop tune. Because the album had been recorded outside of Nashville and relied on some non-country songwriters, it received very little promotional support from RCA, which added to the building tensions between artist and label and setting the stage for Waylon’s demands for more creative control over his music.

The title track was the album’s sole single and the only song on the album to be recorded in Nashville with Danny Davis in the producer’s chair. The #12 peaking single would be my favorite song on the album, were it not for the presence of Bill Anderson’s excellent “Must You Throw Dirt In My Face”, which really should have been released as a single. A rocked-up version of “Ragged But Right” is a far cry from the George Jones original and is an early example of the “outlaw” Waylon. The understated and underrated “Time Between Bottles of Wine” rounds out my favorites.

Lacking any of Waylon’s best known hits, Singer of Sad Songs is an easy album in his discography to overlook. For that matter, I’ve overlooked it myself up to now. But it’s a good example of how it’s often worth digging a little deeper into an artist’s musical archives to find some under appreciated gems.

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: Kelly Willis – ‘Bang Bang’

KellyWillisBangBangThe early 1990s were an interesting time for Kelly Willis. Razor X, in his review of her debut, motioned that Willis was signed to MCA in 1989 in an effort to expand the definition of country music. In accordance with her musical output at the time, MCA also went all out with a marketing campaign that saw Willis gaining national exposure both on news magazines and in movies, where she scored bit parts.

While the efforts at maximizing her exposure were well received, Willis never really caught on with the mainstream nor was she able to sell many records. That being said, MCA continued to try and her sophomore album Bang Bang was released just a year after Well Traveled Love. Produced once again by Tony Brown, the album contained a variety of songs from a mix of both left of center and mainstream songwriters.

For the album’s lead single, MCA went with “Baby Take A Piece of My Heart,” an excellent uptempo tune Willis co-wrote with Kostas, a male songwriter who was in high demand at the time. The tune, which peaked at #58, is Willis’ only charting song from her tenure with MCA and easily her best known single from this period of her career.

The second and third singles failed to chart. Kostas and Willis’ husband Mas Palermo co-wrote “The Heart That Love Forgot,” a mid-tempo guitar and drum centric number that is more Texas than Nashville country. Texas country singer/songwriter Joe Ely self-penned “Settle For Love,” an upbeat rocker that perfectly showcases Willis’ biting twang. While both are excellent songs, neither was in line with the radio trends of the era making it unsurprising they didn’t catch on.

The remainder of Bang Bang features mostly uptempo rockers that are heavy on drums, and while light on commercial country, are excellent just the same. “I’ll Try Again” is a honky-tonk rocker while “Too Much To Ask” and “Standing By The River” borrow from Gram Parsons’ signature style. The title track rocks just as hard although Brown smartly adds steel and electric guitars to give it needed spice.

My main complaint with Bang Bang lies with Brown’s production. His slick arrangements drown Willis’ distinctive voice when they should’ve been highlighting it instead. Problem is, as evidenced by “Sincerely (Too Late to Turn Back Now),” Willis hadn’t yet found voice as an artist. As good as the Steve Earle and Robert Earl Keen ballad is, her vocal isn’t nearly as confident as it would be if she recorded it today. The same is true for the sinister “Not Afraid of the Dark,” which seems out of place in comparison to the rest of the album.

Those concerns are elevated on “Hidden Things,” which proves she was already a gifted vocalist in 1991, and while she might not have completely understood how to best use her talents, she could turn in a stellar performance if given the right vehicle. Unlike the majority of the Bang Bang Brown’s production actually aids the track and frames her quite nicely.

It’s always a pleasure to go back and listen to early music from gifted artists, especially recordings made before they found their authentic voice within the industry. In the twenty-three years since Bang Bang it’s remarkable how much Willis has grown which is even more astonishing given that she was a knockout vocalist back then, too. This might not be the most essential album in her collection but it provides a fine listening experience and comes recommended for those looking to fully understand Willis as an artist.

Grade: A-

Album Review: The Flying Burrito Brothers – ‘The Gilded Palace of Sin’

gildedpalaceThe Flying Burrito Brothers were formed in 1968 by former Byrds members Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman. Pianist and bassist Chris Ethridge and steel guitarist Sneaky Pete Kleinow were also a part of the original line-up. The band released its first album, The Gilded Palace of Sin, on A&M Records the following year. In the forty-five years since the album’s release, country music has been defined and re-defined, and paired with almost every other genre of popular music. As such, it may be a little difficult for modern listeners to truly appreciate how revolutionary and cutting-edge The Flying Burrito Brothers’ fusion of country, rock, folk, R&B and psychadelic rock was at the time. Although it was a commercial failure at the time, the album was hugely influential on country music. Bearing testament to this is the fact that many listeners, though they may be unfamiliar with the band, will likely be familiar with many of the album’s songs.

Hillman and Parsons had a hand in writing the majority of the album’s eleven songs, with the exception of two R&B covers, “Do Right Woman”, a 1976 hit for Aretha Franklin and “Dark Side of the Street”, which was a hit for James Carr the same year. Both songs were written by Chips Moman and Dan Penn. Hillman and Parsons wrote most of the remaining songs together.

Many country fans will be familiar with the album’s best track “Sin City”, which was later covered by Dwight Yoakam and K.D. Lang, and “Wheels” and “Juanita”, which were both covered by Parsons’ protege Emmylou Harris. I wasn’t previously famiilar with a pair of unimaginatively titled songs — “Hot Burrito #1” and “Hot Burrito #2”, respectively — that were written by Parsons with Chris Etheridge. I quite liked the soulful “#1”, but didn’t much care for the R&B and gospel-tinged “#2”, finding the funky fuzzbox effect to be excessive and distracting.

In keeping with the times, there is a pair of topical tunes — “My Uncle”, which tells the story of young man who is planning to head to Canada upon receiving his draft card — and “Hippie Boy”, which deals with the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The latter is a plodding and overly long spoken-word number that I could have done without.

It is hard not to like anything that contains as much pedal steel guitar as this album does, but the rock and psychadelic elements make the production seem a bit dated and I can’t help preferring the cover versions which are more familiar to me. Parsons and Hillman’s vocals are good; their harmonies at times are reminiscent of The Everly Brothers. However, the album is mixed in such a way — again in keeping with the times — that the vocals are nearly drowned out by the instrumentation, something else I found a bit distracting.

The Gilded Palace of Sin is considered important, but to call it a landmark album might be overstating things just a bit. It is primarily interesting because of the future artists — Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and Steve Earle, to name a few — that it influenced. For that reason alone, it is worth a listen.

Grade: B+

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

TheByrdsSweetheartoftheRodeo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A+

Spotlight Artist: Chris Hillman and the Desert Rose Band

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Album Review – Holly Dunn – ‘Across The Rio Grande’

HollyDunnAcrosstheRioGrandeFor her third MTM release Across The Rio Grande, Holly Dunn took a co-producing credit for the first time, working with Tommy West (who produced her previous two releases) and Warren Peterson. Her career was also gaining traction by the time this was released in 1988 and she was now in the good graces of country radio.

Chick Rains and Bill Caswell penned the first single, “That’s What Your Love Does To Me.” The track is an excellent dobro infused uptempo number oozing with charm and personality from Dunn who’s voice is the perfect vehicle for the song. Radio and the fans agreed and the song made it to #5. Michael Johnson and the Forester Sisters also recorded versions of the song around the same time.

Slightly less successful was the second and final single, the #11 peaking “(It’s Always Gonna Be) Someday.” With country music in the thick of the new traditionalist movement by 1988, I would’ve thought this would’ve done much better, maybe even peaking higher than “That’s What Your Love Does To Me.” Could it have been the backup singers or Dunn retro style that was the issue? The song is surely excellent on its own merits even if it may’ve been a little too retro even for 1988.

Dunn and her “(It’s Always Gonna Be) Someday” co-writers Tom Shapiro and Chris Waters teamed up to write three other songs for the project. “City Limit” is a wonderful uptempo number dosed in fiddle with a rather engaging drumbeat. Dunn does a wonderful job vocally too, bringing out the song’s infectious charm. “Have A Heart” is the same sort of dobro infused track and Dunn does a wonderful job here as well. The best of the four is “If Nobody Knew My Name,” an album highlight thanks to gorgeous high lonesome harmonies from Cheryl and Sharon White. The production on the ballad, light guitars and fiddle, is impeccable, too.

“Lonesome Highway” found Dunn teaming up with Budd Lee to write a mid-tempo dobro centric number that was another of the stronger songs on the project and possibly my favorite thing on the whole album thanks in part to the production and Dunn’s vocal delivery. Dunn’s final co-write came courtesy of “On The Wings of an Angel,” which she wrote with Don Schlitz. Her crystal-clear voice is the perfect counterpart to the striking fiddle-laced production.

Billy Joel, three years before he gave Garth Brooks the okay to record “Shameless,” had a country connection with Dunn, who included his “Travelin’ Prayer” on this album. Originally released on Joel’s 1973 album Piano Man, “Travlin’ Prayer” has a chugging beat similar to Gram Parson’s “Luxury Liner.” Dunn veers little from Joel’s recording although she does convert it into a bluegrass song, which works well. Dunn’s vocal is incredible, too, as she’s able to keep up with the rapid fire pace of the song with ease.

Mandolin riffs are front and center on Shapiro and Waters’ “The Stronger The Tie.” The spiritual number is reminiscent of something Kathy Mattea would record and quite good even if it leans in a more contemporary vein. Spanish infused “Just Across The Rio Grande,” the album’s title track, is excellent although somewhat thematically out of place.

Across The Rio Grande is a wonderful album complete with many stellar moments from Dunn. The album isn’t as commercial as the albums her contemporaries were releasing at the time, but its still full of excellent songs with nice production and Dunn’s beautiful voice. Across The Rio Grande definitely has a late 80s sheen to it and thus it hasn’t aged as gracefully as it could’ve, but that doesn’t hinder the listener’s enjoyment at all. It’s also a shame the album is out of print as it’s a worthwhile addition to any record collection.

Grade: A 

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘The Big E: A Salute to Buddy Emmons’

51GQ-c5OGdL._SL500_AA280_The steel guitar has been an iconic instrument in country music since it was first used in the genre. That doesn’t mean its use has been unchanged; more than almost any other instrument its specification and capabilities have changed with time. a large part of that is down to the legendary Buddy Emmons, one of the most brilliant and innovative musicians ever to be involved in country music, and creators of various new styles of steel guitar.

Emmons is saluted in this fine tribute record. Steel player Steve Fishell, currently touring with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, produced, and his steel player’s natural understanding for and love of the instrument and the man being paid tribute to help to make this a worthy tribute to one of the giants of country (and not just country) musicianship – Emmons has also been active in jazz. The selected songs are ones where Emmons performed on the classic recording; some of them he wrote. The steel playing, courtesy of a dozen or so of today’s most accomplished steel players, is gorgeous throughout (although it doesn’t feature on every track), and the record recommends itself to a wider audience by the use of some starry guest vocalists on most tracks. A couple of great non-steel guitarists contribute too (Duane Eddy and Albert Lee).

A brace of instrumentals place the instrument center stage, but good though they are, it is the vocal tracks which non-specialists will gravitate to. Fishell plays on my favorite track, a lovely duet by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell on Gram Parsons’ ‘That’s All It Took’. Emmylou swoops and soars as a counterpoint to Rodney’s more measured vocal as they swap lines.

Also very fine is Willie Nelson on the questioning ‘Are You Sure’, which he wrote with Emmons in the 60s. Nelson belies his age with his usual precise, distinctive phrasing and understated but believable emotional commitment. John Anderson is at his best on ‘Half A Mind’, originally recorded by Ernest Tubb with Emmons. It’s always a pleasure to hear Anderson singing hard country, and this is great, with Buck Reid’s steel backing him up nicely in very traditional style.

Gill and Franklin turn from the Bakersfield sound of their wonderful recent project together to some very retro western swing on ‘Country Boy’ (a 1949 hit for Little Jimmy Dickens, before Emmons joined him, but one he must have played many times).

Raul Malo is ideally suited to a loungy jazzy take on ‘Night Life’, but Chris Stapleton’s take on ‘Feel So Bad’ is a bit too far in the blues direction for my personal taste. Both tracks do, however, help to show the breadth of Emmons’s contributions to music in general.

Veteran Little Jimmy Dickens sounds fairly wrecked vocally on ‘When Your House Is Not A Home’, but then he is over 90 and not in the best of health. His inclusion is a nice touch as he was Emmons’ first major employer in the 1950s, bringing the remarkably talented teenager to Nashville.

The lesser-known Joanie Keller Johnson fails to match the Suzy Bogguss version of cowboy classic ‘Someday Soon’ (Emmons played on the recording by folk singer Judy Collins), although it is quite pleasant, with Keller’s husband Mike Johnson on steel. (Incidentally, as Joanie Keller, the singer has released some attractive independent records.)

A couple of guitarists try singing, with mixed results. I quite enjoyed the folky vocal at the end of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ by steel player Greg Leisz, following a long, lyrical steel solo, but British-born Albert Lee (once a member of Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band and writer of Ricky Skaggs’s hit ‘Country Boy’) isn’t much good as a vocalist, and ‘Rainbows All Over Your Blues’ is one track which would have been much better off as a pure instrumental.

This is an excellent tribute to someone worthy of all the acclaim he is given, and it is all the better that (unlike the equally good Hank Cochran tribute from last year) it is released in Emmons’s lifetime. It is also genuinely great music in its own right. I recommend it to all country music fans, especially if you like the steel guitar showcased.

Grade: A

“Remember country music?” – An Evening with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell at Birmingham Symphony Hall, Friday 10 May 2013

promo for emmylou harris rodney crowell birminghamHaving relished their new album together, Old Yellow Moon, I couldn’t pass up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Emmylou Harris reunited live with Rodney Crowell when their tour to promote the record came over to Europe. I was joined at Birmingham Symphony Hall by an enthusiastic audience; it was almost, but not quite a sell-out, and the crowd clearly enjoyed every second.

It was a generous set; two hours and twenty minutes revisiting highlights of the pair’s past careers (mainly the 70s when they first worked together with a sprinkling of songs from the new millennium), as well as songs from Old Yellow Moon. There was no opening act, and no time for one. The focus was on music rather than chat, with the first four songs completed before anyone spoke a word.

The evening opened with a reminder of Emmylou’s time with Gram Parsons as the band walked on stage and launched straight into ‘Return Of The Grievous Angel’, followed by his song ‘Wheels’ which Emmylou included on Elite Hotel and which was magical here.

A change of pace led to a beautifully understated version of ‘Pancho And Lefty’, opening with Emmylou and her acoustic guitar, with the band later coming in and finally Rodney adding his vocal – a stylistic template for many of the evening’s best songs.

Rodney then sang his own ‘Earthbound’ (from 2003’s Fate’s Right Hand), which I enjoyed much more live than on record. Emmylou then introduced the wonderful ‘Til I Gain Control Again’ as the first song Rodney ever sang for her. He sang a tender lead on the song, with a lovely harmony from Emmylou. The pair then sang ‘Tragedy’, a song they wrote together for her Red Dirt Girl album; while okay, it was not my favorite moment of the evening.

Emmylou paid tribute to the late Susanna Clark by singing Clark’s song ‘I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose’, which Emmylou recorded on 1978’s Luxury Liner. This was just delightful, with honky tonk piano. It was followed by a stripped down ‘Red Dirt Girl’, which was very good.

Rodney then spoke for the first time, unexpectedly sounding a little nervous, before singing his autobiographical ‘Rock Of My Soul’.

The couple then duetted on ‘Heaven Only Knows’, a song written by Emmylou’s ex-husband Paul Kennerley. It was perhaps the most unexpected song choice as it came from Emmylou’s largely overlooked 1989 record Bluebird, and the only song in the set to date from that decade. It sounded very good, though, and was a welcome inclusion.

The swooping melody of ‘Love Hurts’ was a highlight, with emotional vocals from both Emmylou and Rodney (who is a much better singer than the late Gram Parsons). I was less impressed by the martial beat of ‘Luxury Liner’, although I was probably alone in that reaction – it seemed to get a particularly enthusiastic amount of applause, perhaps to reward the band’s virtuoso performances. The sound was a bit muddy for me on this song, although generally the acoustics were superb, and I wasn’t surprised when Emmylou asked for the sound to be turned down for the next song.

The band took a much needed break while Emmylou sat down for a simple acoustic number, ‘Darlin’ Kate’, her lament for her late friend Kate McGarrigle. Friendship was perhaps the overarching theme of the night. Rodney returned on stage to join Emmylou on a lovely traditional version of the Louvin Brothers’ ‘The Angels Rejoiced’. Emmylou then sang ‘Longtime Girl Gone By’, the song she sang on Rodney Crowell’s Kin album of songs written with poet Mary Karr. She didn’t know the song well, and had to use a lyric sheet, while Rodney accompanied her on guitar (he confessed he didn’t know the songs from that album all that well either).

By now the rest of the band was back, and Rodney sang ‘I Know Love Is All I Need’, which he introduced as something he had dreamed.

The Old Yellow Moon portion of the evening then arrived, with a joyful version of the album’s opener ‘Hanging Up My Heart’, followed by a excellent (if slightly too loud) ‘Invitation To The Blues’. Emmylou asked pointedly,

“Remember country music? It’s hard to find sometimes back in the States. But it’s in our hearts, and it’s on our record.”

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Classic Rewind: Emmylou Harris – ‘She’

Emmylou Harris sings a song co-written by her mentor Gram Parsons with Chris Ethridge (1947-2012), the country rock musician who died yesterday:

Spotlight Artist: Vern Gosdin

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never Give Up – The Voice Returns

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 Greatest Live Country Albums

All readers of this website are fans of recorded music. I would assume that most also enjoy seeing and hearing music performed live. After all, there is electricity which permeates a live performance, the interaction of performer and audience coupled with the ambiance of the venue. Tempos are usually faster, there is banter between the performer and the band and/or audience, and often songs are performed that never are recorded by the artist.

That said, it can be very difficult to capture that electricity and the landscape is littered with poor live recordings, victims of either poor recording technology, poor venue acoustics or sub-par backing bands (I had a cassette copy – probably a bootleg – of a live Chuck Berry performance in France where he was backed by what was essentially a polka band, complete with tuba and accordion). Below is my  listing of the greatest live country albums.  My list is solid country, without too many fellow travelers such as Americana or alt-country artists. I may admire John Prine and Townes Van Zandt as songwriters but I cannot stand to listen to either of them sing. The less said about the Eagles and Gram Parsons, the better.  In putting my list together, I’ve limited any given artist to one album, although I may comment on other live albums issued by the artist.

Yes, I know that bluegrass and western swing are underrepresented in my list as are modern era artists, although if I expanded to a top forty list, I’d have albums by Alabama, Tracy Lawrence, Tom T. Hall, Brad Paisley, The Osborne Brothers, Glen Campbell, Bob Wills, Hank Thompson, Rhonda Vincent and Hank Williams to include. Moreover, over time there have been improvements in recording technology and the sound of live recordings has improved, so sonically, some of the albums I’ve left off will sound better than some I’ve included.

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Country Heritage: Patti Page

People such as Gram Parsons, Linda Ronstadt, The Eagles and the Byrds all are occasionally credited as being the catalyst for breaking country music to the larger pop markets. No doubt, all were of some significance in introducing country music to a portion of the pop market, but long before any of them came along, there was “the singing rage”, Miss Patti Page.

Most of today’s listeners look no further back than 1955 when rock ‘n roll began to emerge. Consequently, aside from a specific few, such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney and Perry Como, most of the great pop singers of the immediate post-WW2 period largely have been forgotten.

Born in 1927 as Clara Ann Fowler, a product of Oklahoma, Patti Page would serve an apprenticeship as a country singer with Al Clauser’s Oklahoma Outlaws during the early 1940s. Clauser’s band appeared on KTUL in Tulsa; as a result of this exposure, Patti Became the featured vocal on a program sponsored by the Page Milk Company. It was as a result of this program that she became known as Patti Page. From here she moved to the Jimmy Joy Band, a pop swing band which toured the Midwest. While in Chicago she became friends with members of Benny Goodman’s orchestra, which in turn led to a recording contract with Mercury.

Patti’s first single, “Confess” came out during one of the Petrillo strikes in 1947, meaning that background singers were not available for recording purposes. Mercury thought that Patti’s voice was sufficiently versatile that she could do her own harmony backgrounds, and so developed the practice of Patti overdubbing her own harmony vocals on record, the first artist with which this was done. “Confess” was one of three top twenty records she would chart from 1947-1949.

1950 was Patti’s breakthrough year as “With My Eyes Wide Open, I’m Dreaming” became her first million selling single, quickly followed by another million seller “All My Love (Bolero)” and then a song that would represent a career for anyone, her cover of the Pee Wee King-Redd Stewart classic “Tennessee Waltz”. Not only did this record reach #1 on Billboard’s Pop charts, staying there for 13 weeks, but it would reach #2 on Billboard’s country chart selling over six million copies in the United States alone.

While Patti Page is primarily thought of as a pop singer, and a very successful one with over 100 million singles sold world-wide, she continued to record country songs for the pop market having hits with such titles “Detour”, “Down The Trail of Aching Heart”, “Mister and Mississippi”, “I Went To Your Wedding”, “You Belong To Me” (another Pee Wee King-Redd Stewart collaboration). So popular was she with country audiences that country comics Homer & Jethro even lampooned her pop hit “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window”. All told, Patti Page would have 16 gold singles.

Even after the onset of the rock and roll blight, Patti continued to chart on the pop charts, although after 1958 the really big hits were a thing of the past, with the exception of her 1964 hit “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte”, from the movie of the same name. Since she always had sung and recorded country songs as part of her repertoire, Patti made the natural turn to recording straight country songs during the late 1960s, with sixteen songs charting on Billboard’s country charts between 1970-1982 including the #14 duet with Tom T. Hall “Hello We’re Lonely” in late 1972.

After the 1980’s Patti focused more on jazz in her recorded music. Since Patti is now over 83 years old, I am not sure how active she is as a live performer, but she was quite active until very recently.

I wouldn’t try to convince anyone that Patti Page was a great country artist, but she was a great recording artist and did as much as (and probably more than) any other non-country performer to help spread the popularity of country music around the world

DISCOGRAPHY


VINYL

A search of used record shops will turn up a huge number of Patti Page vinyl albums – there were at least thirty albums released on Mercury, at least another ten or so on Columbia and then for miscellaneous other labels over the years. Her best pop recordings were on Mercury – any of her Mercury albums will reveal a consummate professional at work – if you like the songs, you’ll like the albums.

CD

Patti Page is not as well represented on CD as should be the case – she does have a website which offers some titles for sale

http://www.misspattipage.com/

Collectors Choice Music currently has 19 CDs and a DVD available

SINGLES 1946-1952 gives you 84 of her Mercury hits
LIVE AT CARNEGIE HALL: THE 50th ANNIVERSARY CONCERT demonstrates that Patti still could bring it
HUSH HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE / GENTLE ON MY MIND is a two-fer of Columbia albums, a 1965 pop album and a country flavored album from 1968. It’s an odd pairing but a good value

Other titles have been in and out of print over the years.

All about the image?

The latest episode of CMT’s current reality competition, CMT’s Next Superstar, which you can catch up with on the CMT website if you havent been watching the show live, focussed on image. Viewers saw the five surviving competitors each getting a makeover and doing a photo shoot for an album, as well as recording a classic song, before selling themselves to staff at Warner Music, whose votes counted towards that week’s elimination. Image seems to be increasingly important in marketing country music today, and has been ever since music videos became a major way of selling artists.

While an artist’s looks and fashion choices have nothing to do with the quality of their music, they do help to form the general public’s expectations, particularly for a new artist. If New Singer X is pictured wearing jeans and a cowboy hat, I do expect to hear something different from what I expect to hear from New Singer Y, whose outfit is indistinguishable from his/her pop star counterparts.

Modern traditionalists like Alan Jackson and George Strait may seem to pay little attention to image matters, but their style is as (or more) effective in it its way by signalling to the audience that here is an unquestionably country singer. The neo-traditional wave of the early 90s fizzled out in a sea of “Hat Acts”, many of them fine artists in their own right, but they tended to merge into one to many listeners when they shared a similar look and musical style. Chris Young, one of the brightest young traditionalists, often wears that cowboy hat, although Strait-style Easton Corbin does not. Compare him to, say, Jimmy Wayne or the men in Lady Antebellum, who have a much more “fashionable” appearance – and a much less country sound. Of course, it can be misleading; other cowboy hat wearers include rocker Jason Aldean. Sometimes the cowboy hat is a visual equivalent of singing lyrics about how country you are, without necessarily being supported by the music. In the 90s, Marty Stuart was making energetic country rock, but was keenly carrying on country traditions by wearing Nudie style outfits reminiscent of veterans like Porter Wagoner. It was only later that he returned to more traditional musical styles.

Nudie’s elaborate bejewelled and embroidered outfits were almost a uniform for the biggest country stars of the 1950s and 60s, even though they were a world removed from their poverty-stricken rural roots. Porter Wagoner is perhaps the most famous wearer, but even Hank Williams, whose heart wrenching music might seem far removed from image considerations, famously wore a Nudie suit adorned with musical notations. When Gram Parsons encouraged the Byrds to venture into country music with the seminal country-rock album Sweetheart Of the Rodeo, he wore a custom-made Nudie suit with designs of marijuana leaves – combining an appeal to rebellious 60s teenagers with the “country star” outfit. But for most of their wearers, the outfits symbolized showmanship and stardom, just as Loretta Lynn always wore evening gowns on stage and most of her album covers. Using an identifiable image as shorthand to signal an artist as country is thus nothing new. The young Patsy Cline wore western-style dresses, and had to be persuaded to dress in a more sophisticated way when her music began to adopt more pop influences. Dolly Parton’s highly artificial image helped to make her an international superstar in the 70s and 80s, and is still instantly recognised today across the world, even among those who have heard little of her music. In contrast, when last month’s Spotlight Artist Emmylou Harris started her solo career after Gram Parsons’ death, she looked more like the folk singer she had been as a girl, with her long hair hanging down unadorned, whereas most of her contemporaries had big hair – often wigs.

Record labels invest money in artwork for CDs, in order to attract attention on store shelves. It’s never made much of a difference to me, and I would assume not to most passionate fans who spend a lot of time listening to the music, but it may help bring in more casual purchasers. I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but my own brother once asked for a record for Christmas, purely because he liked the picture on the cover and was intrigued to see how the music reflected it. Going back to CMT’s Next Superstar, one young female contestant was quite rightly criticized for picking a picture of herself smiling for the title ‘Cold Cold Heart’, just because she thought it made her look prettier than other pictures from the photo-shoot. Songwriter Wynn Varble, who is 50 years old and not exactly competing for heart-throb of the year, went for a simple honest look which would tell any potential purchaser that this was a country record.

Changing musical styles can also be flagged by a changing image. When Lee Ann Womack moved in a poppier direction in the early 200s, she took on a more overtly sexy look (left); then when she defiantly reverted to a retro style in 2005 with There’s More Where That Came From, she went for an equally retro 70s country album cover style (right). The music is, of course, what really matters, but the image helps signal the direction. Similarly, Reba progressed from traditional country and a semi-cowgirl look in the 1980s to a much more sophisticated style, both aurally and visually, in the 90s.

How much does an artist’s image affect what you expect to hear? Have you ever been surprised – pleasantly or otherwise – by a disconnect between the album cover and the music inside?

J.R. Journey’s American Noise excerpts #1

For the past 5 weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to get to share my thoughts on 10 of the latest country singles in my Weekly Country Songs Roundup column at American Noise.  I have to first say a very big thanks to Jim Malec for giving me the chance, and a first-rate venue, to review the newest releases to country radio.  This is the first in a bi-weekly installment where I’ll share few excerpts from the past few weeks, some of my critics picks.

Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter – “You and Tequila”

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Kenny Chesney and Vermont rocker Grace Potter offer my favorite Chesney single since “Better As a Memory” with this sparse and brooding number, written by Matraca Berg and Deana Carter. The two lament the liquor and the love that make them crazy on the song’s winning chorus, with Potter’s silky vocal being the perfect match for Chesney’s smooth crooning. The verses tell of the willingness of the narrator to self-destruct for one more night flying high, offering a bit of self-realization along the way (“It’s so easy to forget, the bitter taste the morning left”) as the acoustic rhythm guitar that makes up the bulk of the production plays on.

Grade: A

Zac Brown Band featuring Jimmy Buffett – “Knee Deep”   

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At this point in their ascension to country’s reigning supergroup, Zac Brown and Band have earned the right to show off their musical chops a bit, and even to flaunt their famous friends. From the snazzy opening to the solo verse performed by island king Jimmy Buffett, this reggae-infused number allows these six talented musicians some jam time on-stage, while the singer “searches for paradise.” There’s little else to the lyrics than that utopian pursuit, but it’s warm now, and with a melody like this nobody’s pondering the lyrics anyway.

Grade: B


Emmylou Harris – “The Road”

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Addressing the loss of Gram Parsons directly in song for the first time since the epic “Boulder to Birmingham,” Emmylou Harris’ self-penned “The Road” is more an open elegy to her late mentor than song of heartbreak. It’s swelling alt-country sound doesn’t lend itself to quiet contemplation as much as it marks a turning point when wounds begin to heal, and forging ahead is inevitable, even though you never forget. Harris’ emotive skills are on full-display here and she sounds utterly despondent at crucial moments, such as when she sings, “So I carried on, you can’t be haunted by the past/People come and people go and nothing ever lasts.” Still, she always brings the listener back to that place of peace she’s found.

Grade: A-

Martina McBride – “Teenage Daughters”

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Leading off an upcoming album for Republic Nashville, Martina McBride offers this tongue-in-cheek take on child-rearing, made all the more believable because we know Martina has teenage daughters of her own, but also because she has carefully cultivated an image of being a fellow soccer mom to her female listeners. Far from being just another tale of unconditional love between parent and child, “Daughters” focuses on the often funny, always chaotic period when teenagers begin to assert their independence by avoidance of their parents at all costs. As she sings of remembering when her daughter “used to think she was cool” and bemoans the current state of their relationship which has left her “tired,” “crazy,” and “in need of a drink,” McBride offers up her most restrained vocal in years. Chunky and scattered rhythms make the track melodically clunky, but that is salvaged by the smart message and a to-the-point vocal.

Grade: B+

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