My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Grandpa Jones

Classic Rewind: Loretta Lynn, the Wilburn Brothers and Grandpa Jones – ‘In The Sweet Bye And Bye’

Country Heritage: Kenny Price (1931-1987)

kenny priceFans of the long running television show Hee Haw may remember Kenny Price. He played various roles in Hee Haw’s skits, including the over-protective father of a pretty teenage daughter (whose suitor, Billy Bob, did not meet his approval), a backwater sheriff and a country bumpkin lounging on the lawn in front of the general store. He also appeared in two of the regular musical spots, the “Gloom, Despair and Agony” snippets and the glorious Hee Haw Gospel Quartet segment wherein Kenny, Grandpa Jones, Buck Owens and Roy Clark would lend their talents to old-time gospel favorites. Many viewers considered the Hee Haw Gospel Quartet to be their favorite portion of the show. He also appeared as Kenny Honey, the father on the spin-off Hee Haw Honeys and hosted a travel show on TNN called Wish You Were Here with his wife Donna.

Unfortunately, few today remember Kenny Price as a country music recording star for Boone and RCA records. A solid journeyman performer, known as ‘The Round Mound of Sound’, he charted 34 singles during his 15 year chart run, but never had a number one record or a sustained run of top ten records.

Standing six-feet tall and weighing well over 300 pounds, Kenneth James Price is remembered by fellow performers and fans alike as one of the nicest individuals to ever sing a country song. Born near Florence in Boone County, Kentucky, he was raised on a ranch and learned to play the guitar when he was only five. Initially at least, Price aspired to be a farmer but eventually he changed the focus of his endeavors. He got his start in 1945 playing on WZIP-Cincinnati and over the next few years, played a few dates in the Kentucky-Ohio border area. Uncle Sam called in 1952 and Price spent the next two years in the military. While stationed in Korea, he auditioned for a USO show. By the time he was discharged in 1954 Price had decided on music as a career and studied briefly at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. From there he appeared on Midwestern Hayride at WLW-Cincinnati and by 1957 was appearing on Hometown, a Cincinnati television show hosted by Buddy Ross. Meanwhile, in 1955, he issued two singles on the “X” label (an RCA subsidiary) called “Cold Hearted Love” and “Worryin’”. Neither single charted.

Nearly nine years passed before Price again landed a recording contract, this time with Boone Records, out of Boone, NC. After four non-charting singles he finally hit it big with his third single, “Walking on the New Grass”, which cracked the Top 10 in 1966–as did his next single “Happy Tracks”. While none of his following Boone singles charted in the top ten nationally (“Southern Bound” came close), they did well enough in regional markets to land him a recording contract with RCA. Moreover, RCA thought highly enough of him that they purchased the masters for his two albums on Boone and reissued them as his first two RCA albums.

The first RCA hit was achieved in 1969 when “Northeast Arkansas Mississippi County Bootlegger” reached #17. This was followed by two more top ten hits in “Biloxi” (#10 in 1970) and “The Sheriff of Boone County” which reached #8 at the end of 1970 and appeared briefly on the pop charts (the song was inspired by a series of amusing Dodge automobile commercials). After that, Top 10 success eluded Price, although he did have a few more minor hits. His tenure with RCA ended in late 1975, but he kept busy when Hee Haw beckoned in 1976. He remained a member of the cast until his death in 1987.

I never had the pleasure of seeing Kenny perform live, but I’ve met several musicians who worked with him and all of them had fond memories of him. Read more of this post

Country Heritage: Pop Stoneman and the Stoneman Family

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

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

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

Country Heritage: Merle Travis

merle travisIt troubles me no end that the artistry of Merle Travis has been lost in the sands of time. It troubles me, but does not surprise me, as Travis–the victim of changing tastes and a lifelong battle with John Barleycorn–had largely disappeared from the airwaves by the time I started really following country music in the mid-60s. Although the general public lost sight of Merle’s genius, he has fared better in the esteem of Nashville’s pickers and singers and has been cited as a primary influence by many of the world’s best pickers, including Chet Atkins, Doc Watson, Earl Hooker, Scotty Moore and Marcel Dadi.

Chet Atkins admired and initially tried to emulate the Travis style, once commenting that it was fortunate that he did not have as much opportunity to hear Travis growing up as he would have liked or his own style might have become a clone. The great Arthel “Doc” Watson thought so much of Travis that he named his son Merle after him. Glen Campbell’s parents were such big fans that they reportedly gave their son the middle name “Travis.” The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had him as a featured performer on their classic Will the Circle Be Unbroken album issued in 1972.

Travis was born and raised in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, a coal mining center that would prove to be the source of inspiration for many of his finest musical compositions. In the hard and bleak life of a coal mining town, he found escape in the guitar–an instrument played by his brother Jim, who was also believed to have made Merle’s first guitar.

Music was one of the few recreations available in the area of western Kentucky, particularly during the heights of the Great Depression. There were many guitar players in the vicinity of Muhlenberg, and Travis freely acknowledged his debt to such earlier players as black country blues guitarist Arnold Shultz, and more directly to guitarists Mose Rager, a part-time barber and coal miner, and Ike Everly, the father of Don and Phil Everly. The Travis style eventually evolved into the ‘Travis Pickin’’ style of playing a steady bass pattern with the thumb and filling out some syncopated rhythms with the fingers of the right hand. Meanwhile, he developed a “talking bluesman” style of singing that was instantly recognizable by the perpetual smile in his voice. Read more of this post

Ten best reissues of 2012

2012 wasn’t a great year for reissues, but there were ten that struck me as exceptional enough to make a ten best list. Here is a list of my favorites (note: some of the foreign CDs may carry a 2011 date but did not hit the American market until 2012). My list is a mixed bag of single volume releases, affordable multi-disc sets and two rather expensive boxed sets

janiefricke Janie Fricke – The Country Side of Bluesgrass

An excellent set of Janie Fricke’s 1970s and 1980s hits recast as bluegrass. This album was advertised as the follow-up to her 2004 Bluegrass Sessions album, but it is actually a reissue of that album minus the bonus DVD – same songs, same “bonus track”, same musicians and producer. Only the packaging differs, so if you have the earlier CD you don’t need this one. If you don’t have the earlier version then you do need this one as Janie is one of the few female singers whose vocal chops have gotten better as she aged.

loudermilkSitting in the Balcony – The Songs of John D. Loudermilk

Although John D. Loudermilk wrote a large number of hit records for other performers, his hit songs (“Abilene”, “Waterloo”, “Talk Back Trembling Lips”, “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” , “Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian”, “Tobacco Road” , “A Rose And A Baby Ruth”, etc) were not at all typical of the material with which he filed his albums. A first cousin of Ira & Charlie Louvin (they were actually the Loudermilk Brothers before the name change), John D. Loudermilk had a decidedly offbeat outlook on life as evidenced by the songs in this two CD set. Loudermilk didn’t have a great singing voice and his offbeat songs resulted in no top twenty hits for him as a performer, but his songs are treasures.

Disc One (John D. Loudermilk: The Records) contains 32 recordings John made from 1957-1961. Disc Two (John D. Loudermilk: The Songs of John D. Loudermilk) contains 32 recordings made by other artists from 1956-1961, not necessarily big hits (although several are sprinkled in) but interesting songs by a wide array of artists, both famous and obscure (the famous names include Eddie Cochran, Johnny Cash, The Everly Brothers, Kitty Wells and Connie Francis). If you’ve never heard John D. Loudermilk, this is the place to start – it won’t be your stopping point

bradleykincaid Bradley Kincaid – A Man and His Guitar
Released by the British label JSP, this four CD set sells for under $30.00 and gives you 103 songs by one the individuals most responsible for preserving the musical heritage of rural America, through his song collecting and issuance of songbooks. Beyond being a preservationist, Kincaid was an excellent songwriter, singer and radio performer, as well as being Grandpa Jones’ mentor. This collection covers the period 1927-1950. An essential set for anyone interested in the history of country music

bootleg4 Johnny Cash – The Soul of Truth: Bootleg Vol. 4

You can never have too much Johnny Cash in your collection, and this 2 CD set includes the released albums A Believer Sings the Truth and Johnny Cash – Gospel Singer, plus unreleased material and outtakes. Various members of Cash’s extended family appear plus Jan Howard and Jessi Colter.

shebwooley Sheb Wooley –
White Lightnin’ (Shake This Shack Tonight)

Sheb Wooley had several careers – movie star, television actor (Rawhide), singer and comedian. Actually Sheb had two singing careers – a ‘straight’ country as Sheb Wooley and a comic alter-ego, the besotted Ben Colder.

This set covers the post WW2 recordings, recorded under the name Sheb Wooley. Sheb had a considerable sense of humor even when recording under his own name and there are quite a few humorous and offbeat songs in this thirty song collection released by Bear Family. Recorded on the west coast of the USA, many of these recordings feature steel guitar wizard Speedy West and the lightning fingers of guitarist Jimmie Bryant. Sheb’s biggest hit was “Purple People Eater”, which is not on this CD but there are many songs to make you smile including such classics as “That’s My Pa”, “You’re The Cat’s Meow” and “Rover, Scoot Over”, plus a number of boogies and a song titled “Hill Billy Mambo”.

martyrobbinsEl Paso: The Marty Robbins Story (1952-1960)

Marty Robbins was the “renaissance man” of country music. He could sing anything and everything. I always suspected that if rock and roll had not come along and momentarily wiped out the pop standards/classic pop market, Marty might have been competing against Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Julius Larosa and Tony Bennett, rather than competing as a county artist.

Whatever the case, Robbins was a truly great singer and this two CD set from the Czech label Jasmine proves it. This sixty (60) song collections gives us pop standards, rock and roll (“Maybelline”, “Long Tall Sally”, “That’s All Right, Mama”), ‘Mr. Teardrop’ ballads (“I Couldn’t Keep From Crying” , “Mr. Teardrop”, Teen Hits (“A White Sport Coat [And A Pink Carnation]”, “The Story of My Life”) , Country Standards (“Singing The Blues”, and lots of the great western ballads for which he was most famous”

If you don’t have any Marty Robbins this is a good place to start – sixty songs, under twenty bucks. Marty’s songs have been around and available in various configurations so this isn’t an essential album, merely an excellent one.

johnhartford

John Hartford – Aereo Plane/Morning Bugle: The Complete Warner Collection

John Hartford (December 30, 1937 – June 4, 2001) is best remembered for writing “Gentle On My Mind” but he was much more than a songwriter who happened to write a hit for Glen Campbell. Hartford was an extremely talented musician who could play any instruments, although banjo and fiddle were his main tools, a fine singer with a wry sense of humor and a scholar of the lore and history of the Mississippi River. While he sometimes is group settings, John was comfortable performing as a one-man band playing either banjo or guitar along with harmonica while clogging out the rhythm on an amplified piece of plywood while he played and sang.

Warner Brothers released these albums in 1971 and 1972, following his four-year run on RCA. Aereo-Plain has been described as hippie bluegrass, and its failure to sell well caused Warner Brothers to not bother with promoting the follow-up album Morning Bugle. Too bad as Aereo-Plain is chock full of quirky but interesting songs, with musicianship of the highest order with Norman Blake on guitar, Tut Taylor on dobro, and Vassar Clements on fiddle as part of the ensemble. I’ve always regard this album as the first “newgrass” album, and while others may disagree, it certainly is among the first. I don’t recall any singles being released from this album but I heard “Steam Powered Aereo Plane” and “Teardown The Grand Ole Opry” on the radio a few times.

While Aereo-Plain reached the Billboard album charts at #193, the follow-up Morning Bugle didn’t chart at all. Too bad as it is an imaginative album featuring Hartford with Norman Blake on guitar and mandolin, joined by legendary jazz bassist Dave Holland. The album features nine original compositions plus a couple of old folk songs. I particulary liked “Nobody Eats at Linebaugh’s Anymore” and “Howard Hughes’ Blues”, but the entire album is excellent. Following Warner Brothers’ failure to promote this album, Hartford asked to be released from his contract. He never again recorded for a major label, instead producing a series of fine albums for the likes of Flying Fish, Rounder and Small Dog A-Barkin’.

This reissue unearths eight previously unreleased tracks, making it a ‘must-have’ for any true John Hartford fan and a great starting point for those unfamiliar with his music.

bobbybare Bobby Bare – As Is/Ain’t Got Nothin’ To Lose

Bobby Bare was never flashy or gimmicky in his approach to music even though he recorded many novelties from the pen of Shel Silverstein. For Bare songs had stories to tell and that’s how he approached them. Whether the song was something from Shel, Tom T Hall, Billy Joe Shaver, Bob McDill or whomever, Bobby made sure that the song’s story was told. While this approach didn’t always get Bare the big hits, it always gained him the respect of the listener.

This reissue couples two of Bare’s early 1980s Columbia releases plus a few bonus tracks. The great John Morthland in his classic book The Best of Country Music, had this to say about As Is: “… It is the ideal Bobby Bare formula really: give him a batch of good songs and turn him loose. No concepts here, nothing cutesy, just ten slices-of-life produced to perfection by Rodney Crowell”.

My two favorite tracks on As Is were a pair of old warhorses, Ray Price’s 1968 “Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go) “ and the Ian Tyson classic “Summer Wages”.

While I Ain’t Got Nothing To Lose isn’t quite as stong an album, it gives Bare’s wry sense of humor several display platforms. The (almost) title track echos thoughts that many of us have felt at some point in our life (the first line is the actual song title:

If you ain’t got nothin’ you ain’t got nothin’ to lose
There ain’t no pressure when you’re singin’ these low down blues
Smokin’ that git down bummin’ them red men chews
If you ain’t got nothin’ you ain’t got nothin’ to lose

Hugh Moffat’s “Praise The Lord and Send Me The Money” is a clever jab at televangelistas . I’ll give you a middle verse and let you guess the rest:

I woke up late for work the next morning
I could not believe what I’d done
Wrote a hot check to Jesus for ten thousand dollars
And my bank account only held thirty-one

I consider virtually everything Bobby Bare recorded to be worthwhile so I jumped on this one the minute I knew of its existence. I already had As Is on vinyl but somehow the companion album slipped by me.

This brings us up to two rather expensive box sets that will set the purchaser back by several bills.

conniesmithThe obsessive German label Bear Family finally got around to releasing their second box set on Connie Smith. Just For What I Am picks up where the prior set left off and completes the RCA years. While many prefer Miss Smith’s earliest recordings, I am most fond of her work from the period 1968-1972, when her material was more adventurous, especially on the album tracks. During this period Smith had shifted from Bill Anderson being her preferred songwriter to focusing on the songs of Dallas Frazier, including one full album of nothing but Dallas Frazier-penned songs. The ‘Nashville Sound’ blend of strings and steel never sounded as good as it did on these tracks. There is a fair amount of religious music on the set, but for the less religiously inclined there is more than enough good solid country music on the set to be worth the effort in programming your CD player to skip the religious tracks. At her peak Connie Smith was the strongest vocalist the genre has ever generated – even today at age 71, she can blow away most female vocalists. Highlights are songs such as “Where Is My Castle”, “Louisiana Man”, “Ribbon of Darkness”, but when I listen to these discs, I just put ‘em on and let ‘em spin.

cashUp to this point, I actually own all of the albums and sets listed above. Not being made of money, I haven’t purchased Sony/Legacy’s massive 63 CD set The Complete Johnny Cash Columbia Album Collection, although the temptation is there. What is stopping me from making the purchase (other than my wife) is that already own 99% of what the set contains in one format or another.

What the set contains is an unbelievable array of material, it’s difficult to think of any singer whose work has been so varied. There are gospel albums, Christmas albums, a children’s album, soundtrack albums from a couple of movies, two Highwayman albums, a collaboration with former Sun label mates Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, a concert from a Swedish prison and other live albums and duet albums – a total of 59 albums as originally released on the Columbia label (no bonus tracks). There set also includes another four CDs of miscellaneous materials – singles and B-sides not originally on albums, Johnny’s guest vocals on other artist’s albums plus various oddities. Some of Cash’s later Columbia albums were not quite as strong as the earlier albums, but even the weaker albums contained some quite interesting material. This set usually sells for around $265 or $4 per disc.

Country Heritage: Bradley Kincaid (1895 – 1989)

In a manner similar to Alan Lomax, William Bradley “The Kentucky Mountain Boy” Kincaid was one of the great American musicologists and collectors of American folk, country and parlor songs, and helped preserve a rich heritage through publication of his songbooks. Unlike Lomax, however, Kincaid was also a top-flight songwriter and performer.

Unfortunately, if Kincaid is remembered at all today, it is usually as the man who tagged Louis Marshall Jones with the nickname of “Grandpa,” the name by which one of the most beloved country performers, Grandpa Jones, would be known throughout his life. Grandpa continued to perform Kincaid’s songs throughout his life with songs such as “Gooseberry Pie” and “What Will I Do With The Baby-O” remaining favorites of audiences everywhere.

Bradley Kincaid was born in Point Level, Garrard County, Kentucky, but would come to prominence through radio appearances in Chicago, starting with his first radio appearance on the National Barn Dance on WLS in 1926. Kincaid stayed at WLS for four years, performing folk and country songs with his most requested song being “Barbara Allen.” This song inspired Kincaid to name his first two children, twin daughters, Barbara and Allyne. Kincaid was so popular as a performer that he annually received over 100,000 fan letters during his time at WLS. While working for the station, Kincaid would use his radio shows as the launching pad for his live appearances, making appearances in the general broadcast area of the station–a pattern that would continue throughout his radio days. Read more of this post

Country Heritage: Sonny & Bobby, The Osborne Brothers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discography

VINYL

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

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

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

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

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

CD

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

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

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

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

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

Country Heritage: Stonewall Jackson (1932- )

Never a country music superstar, Stonewall Jackson is the kind of “Joe Lunch Bucket” journeyman performer that hit the road for decades, always performing good country music, always keeping to what he did best and never disappointing an audience. He never had any delusions about his crossover potential, and when such an opportunity actually presented itself in 1959 on the heels of “Waterloo”, he made no effort to turn his career in a pop direction.

Stonewall Jackson’s back story is an unusual one for a singer in that he submitted a demo tape to Wesley Rose of Acuff-Rose publishing, and Wesley landed Stonewall slot on the Grand Ole Opry before he even had a landed a recording contract. Something about Stonewall’s sincerity and rural phrasing appealed to Wesley and to Ernest Tubb, who took Stonewall on the road with him. Before long, he was signed to Columbia Records, where he would remain until 1972.

The first single out of the box, 1958’s “Don’t Be Angry”, written by Stonewall’s brother Wade, failed to chart but impressed a lot of people. The next single, the George Jones-penned “Life To Go” reached #2 in early 1959. Then came “Waterloo”. The late 1950s and early 1960s were a period in which historical and quasi-historical songs were in vogue. Songs such as “Battle of New Orleans”, “Sink The Bismarck”, “Ten Thousand Drums” , “P.T. 109” and “Johnny Reb” were all hits, along with rather lengthy story songs, the best remembered of which was “El Paso”.

Released in June 1959, “Waterloo” , debuted at #9, moved up to #5, spent five weeks at #2, then moved into the top spot where it stayed for five weeks before sliding to #2, then #3, #4 and #5. Eighteen of its nineteen chart weeks were spent in the top ten. The flip side, “Smoke Along The Tracks”, reached #24 (Dwight Yoakam had a nice recording of the song years later), and “Waterloo” itself reached #4 on Billboard’s Pop Charts. It also charted on the British pop charts.

Hot on the heels of “Waterloo”, Columbia issued the first Stonewall Jackson album The Dynamic Stonewall Jackson, an album which featured five chart singles – his first three chart hits, plus two singles drawn from the album in “Why I’m Walkin’ “ and “Mary Don’t You Weep” . Although currently out of print, Columbia has kept it in print (occasionally under a different title) for much of the last fifty years.

Stonewall Jackson probably came along at the wrong time for he never lost that hard country edge or his rural Georgia accent, so as time wore on and the “Nashville Sound” came to dominate country music, his music became out of synch with what was happening in Nashville. He continued charting until 1973, and with the right song, he could still have the occasional big hit, but never had more than two consecutive top ten records. Between 1958 and 1973 Stonewall Jackson charted forty-four times. There were two #1 records in “Waterloo” and 1963’s “B.J. The D.J.”, nine more that reached the top ten including a re-release of “Don’t Be Angry” in 1964 that reached #4.

The prime of Stonewall Jackson’s career was 1958-1965. During this period 1965 Stonewall recorded a number of classic singles in addition to those previously mentioned. “A Wound Time Can’t Erase” reached #3 in 1962 and has been covered many times. “I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water” reached #8 in 1967, and became a top twenty pop hit the next year for Johnny Rivers.

After 1965 Stonewall charted nineteen records but only two made the top ten “(Help) Stamp Out Loneliness” which reached #5 in 1967 (the duo of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood covered the song for the pop market) and his cover of Lobo’s “You and Me and A Dog Named Boo” which reached #7 in 1971, after a drought in which eleven straight singles failed to get as high as #15, four of them not even cracking the top forty. Stonewall reportedly was opposed to recording Lobo’s song and parted ways with Columbia after three more singles, none of which reached the top fifty.

Signed to MGM, Stonewall made his last chart appearance with the single “Herman Schwartz” which reached #41 in autumn of 1973. The tracks, which included remakes of some of his earlier hits, were leased to other labels and have been reissued over the years. GRT released an album of these tracks in 1976.

After 1973 there would be no further major label recordings from Stonewall Jackson other than reissues. An album released as part of Pete Drake’s First Generation label series Stars of the Grand Ole Opry featured an excellent recording of “I’m Just An Old Chunk of Coal” that was as good as (or better than) any other version of the song. Jackson landed with a revived Little Darlin’ label in 1979, where two albums were issued that were a mixed bag of remakes and new material. Although he had no hits, songs such as “The Alcohol of Fame” and “The Pint of No Return” represented honky-tonk music in its purest form.

After 1980 Stonewall Jackson recorded rarely, although he continues to perform occasionally. He was involved in some litigation over the Opry’s non-use of its veteran talent, litigation which was recently settled and finds him back performing occasionally on the Opry.

DISCOGRAPHY

VINYL
All vinyl is, of course, out of print. Columbia issued seventeen albums, including three hit collections and a live recording recorded on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. There were also three budget reissues on the Harmony label. Stonewall never gave in to pop trends, so his albums will appeal to those who love traditional country music. Two especially noteworthy albums are The Great Old Songs (1968), a collection of songs from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, and A Tribute To Hank Williams (1969).

Stonewall also never gave in to any pressures to be politically correct so you will find among his albums songs with titles such as “Knock Off Your Naggin’ “, “Blues Plus Booze (Means I Lose)” and “The Minute Men (Are Turning In Their Graves)”.

After leaving Columbia in 1972, Stonewall issued some tracks for major label album on MGM (which have been reissued on various reissue labels). After that it has been minor labels where he mostly re-recorded old hits with long gaps between recordings and an eventual descent into an undeserved obscurity.

CD
The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has available nine titles. The crown jewel, of course is the four disc Bear Family set Waterloo that covers roughly the first 70% of Stonewall’s career (through 1967) on Columbia, including most of the biggest hits. There are several discs of Columbia material, and the recordings for MGM, First Generation and Little Darlin’ are actually currently in print, sometimes on mish-mash anthologies or as stand-alone collections.

The Ernest Tubb Record Shop actually released the last CD of new recordings made by Jackson. Released around 2000, but recorded over a period of about a decade Stonewall Jackson And Friends: A Tribute features sixteen of Stonewall’s biggest hits, some religious tunes, and about fifty guest artists ranging from old-timers like Roy Acuff, Grandpa Jones and Mac Wiseman, to newer artists such as Alison Krauss, Joe Diffie, Tim McGraw and Garth Brooks. The recording of “Waterloo” features Stonewall singing with Garth Brooks, Larry Gatlin and Joe Diffie, with seemingly a cast of thousands on the chorus (actually 26 different acts make up the chorus). It’s not quintessential Stonewall Jackson, but I love the disc anyway

BOOK
Stonewall Jackson had a rather rough and abusive upbringing, which he details in his short and long out-of-print autobiography From The Bottom Up. Released in 1991, it is only 134 pages long and really doesn’t deal with his career much. It is a good and inspiring story, if you can find a copy