My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Hank Cochran

A look back at 1989: Part 1 – George Jones

one woman manThe year 1989 saw the debuts and/or emergence of a fine crop of new artists that would continue the neo-traditionalist movement that flickered in the early 1980s with the arrival of Ricky Skaggs and started building up steam in 1986 when Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam arrived. Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Alan Jackson and Travis Tritt were the biggest names to emerge in 1989, but there were others as well.

This is not to say that the old guard didn’t produce some excellent records that year, even if they were having difficulty getting playing time. I will look at three of the old guard whose records particularly appealed to me in 1989 starting with the acknowledged master of the genre, the one and only “King George” – Jones, that is.

GEORGE JONES – ONE WOMAN MAN (1989)

The decade of the 1980s was a good one for George Jones as he finally got himself clean and remained in good voice; however, Father Time waits for no one and as the 1990s approached George’s chart success was beginning to wane.

By 1989 when ONE WOMAN MAN was issued, George was 58 years old and beginning to struggle for airplay as he was crowded out by the vaunted “Class of 89”.

George Jones albums during the 1980s tended to follow the formula of three or four singles (some of which were covers of old country classics) plus some other songs – often some more covers of old country classics – and some top grade new material. Even though the hot young songwriters weren’t necessarily pitching their good stuff at him, he was still finding enough good material to make some great albums.

My favorite George Jones album of the 1980s was ONE WOMAN MAN. More so than any of his earlier albums in the decade, this album relied on older material.

“One Woman Man”, the first single off the album would prove to be George’s last top twenty single as a solo artist, peaking at #5, this after a run of five consecutive singles that had missed the top twenty. The song, written by Johnny Horton and Tillman Franks had reached #7 for Horton in 1956. I liked Horton’s version but there is a decided difference between a pretty good singer like Horton and a great singer like George Jones.

Track 2 on the album was a Louvin Brothers classic, “My Baby’s Gone. You really can’t beat the Louvins at their own material (although this song was written by Hazel Houser), but George does quite well with the song. The Louvins had that brotherly harmony going for them but the vocal harmony singers here are put to good use and the steel and fiddle are used effectively. My one criticism of the song is that it is taken at a slightly too fast tempo.

Track 3 is the old Hank Cochran classic “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me”, recorded previously by, among others, Ray Price, Ronnie Milsap, Jack Greene. The Greene version remains my favorite version, but Jones never did wrong by a good song.

Track 4 is “Burning Bridges” another old-timer, but this one originally by rock/pop star Jack Scott. Jack Scott’s version was excellent, as was that of Ray Price, but George takes a back seat to no one in being able to wring the pathos and emotion out of a song.

Track 5 is a novelty song, originally titled “Yabba-Dabba-Do” but changed to “The King Is Gone (and So Are You)” in order to avoid threatened copyright litigation (which the songwriter & publisher would likely have won, but at great expense). In the song, a man whose girl has left him, laments the fact by pulling the head of Elvis off a Jim Beam decanter, pouring it into a Flintstones jelly bean jar and drinking up, imagining conversations with Elvis Presley and Fred Flintstone in the process. He eventually comes to the realization that his girl was never coming back. The song wasn’t a big hit but in the hands of almost anyone else, it would have been a total flop – it seems that only George Jones and Hank Thompson could get away with recording novelties (some of them really ludicrous) and scoring hits with them. This was the second single off the album and it reached #31 on the charts. The track features some nice dobro or slide guitar.

George gets back to serious songs on Track 6 with “Radio Lover”. Thematically this song is very similar to Porter Wagoner’s “Cold Hard Facts of Life”, except that the protagonist is a radio disk jockey rather than a truck driver and the song has a less ominous set up than Porter’s classic. Our hero pre-tapes his show so he can spend his first wedding anniversary with his wife, walks in on her with her lover in bed with her and he dispatches with both of them – meanwhile his radio show is playing on her radio. This was the fourth single and it topped out at #62. Here in Central Florida the song seemed to get the radio airplay one would expect of a top ten single.

I know I heard someone else perform Track 7, “A Place In The Country” before George Jones wrap his vocal cords around it. This song is about a man who worked in the city for thirty years but whose dream was to retire to the country.

Track 8 was a Patsy Cline song, “Just Out of Reach”. It was not released as a single but was taken as the title track for Patsy’s third Decca album and became well known in the years following her death. While I prefer Patsy’s version, George has nothing for which to apologize here.

The album closes with some original material in “Writing On The Wall” (track 9) and “Pretty Little Lady from Beaumont, Texas” (track 10). In the hands of most other performers, these songs would be filler, but in the hands of George Jones they are decent songs . They also point out why George was turning to so much older material – he simply wasn’t being pitched the best new material.

“Writing On The Wall” was the third single taken from the album and it reached #31. The year before the song had reached #96 for Kenny Carr.

For his next album, 1990’s YOU OUGHTA HERE WITH ME, George reversed course and obtained a batch of new songs. None of them would become hits (and the two singles released from the album would not chart at all) but one of the songs, “Ol’ Red” would reach #14 for Blake Shelton in 2002.

YOU OUGHTA BE WITH ME marked the end of the line for George Jones with Epic. From here Jones would go to MCA for a few albums and then to MCA and various other labels, eventually settling into elder statesman status. George’s solo albums from here would be spottier affairs, but there would be a number of special projects involving guest artists that would keep his face in front of the public.

Still, his penultimate album for Epic was a fine effort well worth digging out to play, and I do, periodically. It would be in my top ten albums for 1989.

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘In a Perfect World’

perfectworldI’m not sure whether I’d call Shanachie a major label or not – it certainly is one of the big three when it comes to Irish/Celtic music, but however you chose to characterize the label, this album, produced by Brent Rowan, found itself issued on Shanachie, one of two Watson albums released on this particular label.

By the time this album was released in 2007, Gene had been bouncing from label to label for a decade since leaving Step One Records. In fact much of the output of the period (1998-2007) consisted of Gusto reissues of material taken from Step One albums and other material released on independent labels such as Broadlands.

Unlike previous albums, which never saw Watson other than as a solo vocalist, Watson entered new territory, recording six songs featuring guest artists (mostly as harmony vocalists rather than true duets) out of the eleven songs on the album. Also unlike recent albums, this album does not contain remakes of earlier Gene Watson hits, focusing instead on some old classic country songs, with some newer material mixed in.

While this album could never be described as innovative (a value-neutral term as innovation can be bad) or cutting edge, it is yet another example of a master craftsman applying his talents to a terrific set of songs.

The album opens with the old Hank Cochran classic “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me”. Released during the 1960s this recording would have been a major hit. This song is followed by Vince Gill harmonizing with Gene on the Harlan Howard’s “Let Me Be The First To Go”, a song initially recorded by the great Wynn Stewart. This song is a tearjerker in which Watson asks God to call him home first as he couldn’t handle life without his wife. Aubrey Haynie’s fiddle and Sonny Garrish’s steel guitar really standout on this track

“What Was I Thinking” follows next – this was not the Dierks Bentley hit of a few years earlier but a Skip Ewing ballad lamenting the breakup of a relationship.

“Today I Started Loving You Again” is one of Merle Haggard’s most famous songs, even though it was never a hit for the Hag (it was the B-side of “The Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde”) although Sammi Smith had a minor hit with it. The song has been recorded many times, but never better than this version which features Lee Ann Womack’s harmony vocals, especially noteworthy on the repeat chorus.

Harley Allen and Tim Mensy penned the title track “In A Perfect World” , a song of a man who has reached bottom and is imagining life as it could be, not as it really turned out to be. Joe Nichols harmony vocals provide the proper shading for this very desolate song:

In A Perfect World It Never Rains on Saturday
In A Perfect World I Wouldn’t Hate The Holidays
I’d Sleep Just Like A Baby and Have One Down The Hall
You’d Still Be My Girl, In A Perfect World

Tim Mensy also contributed “She’s Already Gone” and “This Side of he Door” (co-written with Shawn Camp). “She’s Already Gone” is just another good song about a relationship that is already dead except for someone actually leaving, but “This Side of The Door is really good. Guest vocalist Mark Chesnutt has some solo lines on this song, which Chesnutt originally recorded on his What a Way to Live album released in 2004. This songs rocks a little harder than is customary for Gene.

It is hard to image that “Together Again” was the B-Side of “My Heart Skips A Beat” for Buck Owens never wrote a better song. Buck’s A-side spent seven weeks at #1 but so many DJs flipped the record that the B-side also spent two weeks at #1. Rhonda Vincent guest on this song, the only true duet on the album, an a harbinger of more collaborations to come. In my opinion, this is the standout track on the album.

Another Tim Mensy song “I Buried Our Love” was released as a single although I never heard it played on the radio. It has a strong lyric and should have received at least some airplay.

Connie Smith is one of the few country singers on a par with Watson in terms of being a master vocalist. I think this song was first recorded by Point of Grace but I doubt that many would consider this rendition in any way inferior to the original. I would like for Connie’s voice to have been more prominently featured.

The album closes with yet another Tim Mensy song, “Like I Wasn’t Even There”. This song sounds more like the stuff currently played on the radio (only sung better) than like classic country. The storyline of this ballad is one of a man encountering his ex and seeing her behave as if he didn’t exist.

Reaction to this album at the time of its release varied although all reviewers considered it a good collection of songs sung by an excellent singer, while docking it stars for not pushing the boundaries of the genre. In my humble opinion when an album is this good, I don’t care whether or not it breaks new ground.

From this point forward Gene would feature more duets – his next Shanachie album would feature actual duets with Trace Adkins and Rhonda Vincent and Alison Krauss providing harmony vocals on a track.

Grade: A

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘My Heroes Have Always Been Country’

my heroes have always been countryA new album from Gene Watson always is cause for celebration, and My Heroes Have Always Been Country is no exception to the rule. What you get with this album is eleven excellent traditional country songs sung by one of the best male vocalists in the business. Although Gene is now seventy years old, his voice is still in fine shape although perhaps pitched a little lower than in his prime.

The album kicks off with Dottie West’s biggest copyright as a songwriter, “Here Comes My Baby Back Again”. The song won Dottie a Grammy in 1965 and provided her with her first solo top ten record in 1964. Gene’s version is true to the spirit of the original recording although minus the ‘Nashville Sound’ trappings of strings and choral accompaniment. I don’t know if the effect was intentional, but the female backing singer, Cindy Walker, sounds like Dottie West would in singing harmony on the choruses of this song. Producer Dirk Johnson’s work on keyboards is prominently featured in the arrangement as are the fiddle of Aubrey Haynie and the steel guitars of Mike Johnson and Sonny Garrish.

Here comes more tears to cry
Here comes more heartaches by
Here comes my baby, back again
Here comes more misery
Here comes old memories
Here comes my baby, back again

“Don’t You Believe Her” comes from the pen of Nat Stuckey. While never a hit single, both Ray Price and Conway Twitty had nice recordings of the song as album tracks

She can give you a reason to live if she wants to She can make you forget other loves that you have known She has two lips and two arms that thrill you as very few do And if you want her to give them to you, just ask and she will

Don’t you believe her – I did and soon she’ll be leaving me
Don’t you believe her – if you do then soon she’ll be leaving you too

It takes a brave man to cover Johnny Paycheck’s “Slide Off Of Your Satin Sheets” (a number seven hit for Paycheck in 1977) but Gene is up to the task. In fact I actually like Gene’s version better than the original.

Gene has been featuring Hank Cochran’s “Make The World Go Away” in recent performances, and why not? Although the song was a hit at least three times (Timi Yuro, Ray Price, Eddy Arnold) it is a great song well worth hearing again. Gene’s version is a little more straight-forward country than the Price or Arnold versions, but Gene is as skilled and nuanced a singer as either Ray or Eddy and delivers a memorable performance of the song.

“The Long Black Veil” receives a dramatic, but not melodramatic, reading from Gene Watson that burnishes the Danny Dill / Marijohn Wilkin classic with a new luster. I think Lefty Frizzell would approve of Gene’s version.

I suppose you can’t do an album of modern classic country without reaching into the Merle Haggard song bag. In this case Gene has pulled out a tune written by Glenn Martin and Hank Cochran titled “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)”. Gene has always been the master of the medium-slow ballad and this song is no exception.

No, it’s not love, not like ours was, it’s not love
But it keeps love from driving me mad
And I don’t have to wonder who she’s had
No, it’s not love but it’s not bad

Haggard took “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)” to number one in November 1972.

Gene reached deep into the George Jones catalog and found the Sandra Seamans / Kay Savage-penned “Walk Through This World With Me”. The song spent two weeks at number one in 1967 and is one of the many great songs that George recorded for the Musicor label. For my money, the best George Jones recordings came from the United Artists and Musicor labels during the 1960s. I prefer George’s recording but just by a hair.

Walk through this world with me,
Go where I go
Share all my my dreams with me,
I need you so
In life we search and some of us find
I’ve looked for you a long, long time

And now that I’ve found you,
New horizons I see
Come take my hand
And walk through this world with me

Those of us over 60 remember “(Turn Out The Lights) The Party’s Over” as the song ‘Dandy Don’ Meredith sang on ABC Monday Night Football as soon as the game was out of hand and the winner inevitable. Younger folks may remember hearing the venerable songwriter Willie Nelson sing it in concert. After hearing Gene’s version, you’ll think of it as a Gene Watson classic.

“I Forget You Everyday” was written by Merle Haggard but was never issued as a single. The truth is that during his peak years Merle Haggard was writing more great songs than he could ever get around to issuing as singles. Consequently, this song languished as an album cut on one of Hag’s fine Capitol albums, unheard to any but those who purchased the album. I hope Gene issues this as a single, although I don’t expect radio will play the song.

Memory is a gift a man can’t live without
And in times we can’t control the things we think about
So sometimes I still remember you in every way
But for a little while I forget you every day

“Count Me Out” was written by Jeanne Pruett, a song that she recorded for RCA during the mid-1960s. It didn’t chart for her and Marty Robbins’ 1966 recording of the song only reached number fourteen but it’s a really good song and kudos to Gene for unearthing it.

Taking me for granted was your first mistake
And that was the beginning of my last heartache.
And then you added insult to my injury
When you started treating me just as you please.

Count me out of future plans you might be making.
No more foolish chances am I taking.
You played love’s game too rough.
As for me, I’ve had enough
‘Cause the going’s got too rough so count me out.

Gene closes out this album with a song commonly associated with Buck Owens. Although Buck never issued the record as a single, he did cut it as an album cut and kept it in his live shows for a decade. Orville Couch co-wrote “Hello Trouble” and took it to number five in 1962. In 1989 the Desert Rose Band took it to number eleven on both the US and Canadian country charts. The song is a short (1:55) up-tempo song that makes a perfect closing note for yet another fine album. While cheerful in its sound and feel, the narrator of the song knows that the cheer is but of short duration.

Gene Watson covers no new ground in this recording, instead doing what he does best, singing good and great songs as well as anyone ever will sing them.

Producer Dirk Johnson’s production is solidly modern traditional country with fiddle and steel featured prominently throughout. In lieu of the symphonic strings featured on the original versions of some of these songs, fiddlers Aubrey Haynie and Gail Rudisill-Johnson have created some nice string arrangements that complement the songs without overwhelming them.

Although hardly an essential part of the Gene Watson canon (except to the extent that every Gene Watson album is essential), it will please all of his many fans and hopefully gain him some new fans.

Grade: A (or 4.5 Stars)

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘Because You Believed In Me’

becauseyouBecause You Believed In Me was Gene’s second major label album, following on the heels of his successful major label debut Love in the Hot Afternoon. While there weren’t any blockbuster hits on the album, the album was the affirmation of the arrival of a superior vocalist with staying power

“Because You Believed In Me” was a song that originally appeared on Gene’s 1969 debut album on the World Wide label. The original recording was good, but Gene had developed as a vocalist in the ensuing five years. Written by the legendary A.L. ‘Doodle’ Owens, this song was a straightforward ballad which reached #20 as a single.

I would have picked “If I’m A Fool For Leaving (I’d Be Twice The Fool To Stay)” for release as a single. Written by Skip Graves and Little Jimmy Dickens, the song showcases the fiddle of Buddy Spicher and the steel guitar of Lloyd Green to good effect, coupled with a superb vocal. This track is my favorite track on the album but, of course, I like my country music a little more country than most.

This morning I am leaving, I’ve been up all night long
You’re right I’m tired of waiting for you to come home
I’ve begged and tried to change you but you’ve grown worse each day
If I’m a fool for leaving I’d be twice the fool to stay

Larry Gatlin penned and had a minor hit in 1974 with “Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall”, a great song that was also recorded by the likes of Elvis Presley, Anne Murray and Dottie West and various others. This is the best rendition of the song, bar none, although I would have preferred that they not used a fade-out ending for the song.

“My World Left Town” is a fairly typical my-girl-left-me song written by Tom Ghent and R. Paul, that in the hands of a typical artist would be nothing special. With a nice fiddle and steel arrangement and Gene’s vocals, the song is elevated beyond that. It’s not an immortal classic, but the song reaches its full potential with this recording.

Roger Miller penned “Sorry Willie” and while it is sometimes thought to be about Willie Nelson (and Roger & Willie recorded the song on their Old Friends album), I don’t think Roger would ever have visualized Willie Nelson as the loser portrayed in this song. The song is a slow ballad with the piano of Hargis ‘Pig’ Robbins being a highlight of the arrangement.

See her dancing see there Willie see how reckless she is
She’s a wild one as everyone knows
Why what’s wrong Willie why you’re cryin’ what have I done
Sorry Willie I didn’t know you didn’t know

And I wouldn’t have said all those things that I’d known
That she was your darling your sweetheart your own
Don’t ask how well I know her I might lie I don’t know
Sorry Willie I didn’t know you didn’t know

Canadian Ray Griff was a prominent singer-songwriter of the late 1960s – mid 1970s. Although he had some mostly mid-chart success as a vocalist on the American Country charts (he was a far bigger star in his native Canada with 41 chart records), his U.S. success came in the form of the hits that he wrote for others such as Faron Young, George Hamilton IV and Jerry Lee Lewis. Gene rounded up four of Ray’s songs for this album. “How Good A Bad Woman Feels” would have made a good single.

I’d forgotten how good a real passion can be
In a honky tonk girl’s warm embrace
I’d forgotten the sound of a woman’s soft sigh
And that how-did-you look on her face

Griff’s “Her Body Couldn’t Keep You (Off My Mind)” was the second single released from this album. It stalled at #52, but perhaps Capitol learned something from the relative failure of this song because the next twelve singles all made the top twenty (mostly) the top ten. I not sure what it was they learned because I though this was a pretty good song.

I could call her up again tonight
And chances are she’ll see me
She’d be ready like she was the other time
She was willing with her warm red lips
And she kept nothing from me
But her body couldn’t keep you off my mind

Her body couldn’t drive my love for you out of my sight
Her kisses weren’t enough to make me wanna spend the night
It’s been two long years since I came home
And found your goodbye letter
Still I can’t get over what you left behind
I tried turning to a woman who was burning up with passion
But her body couldn’t keep you off my mind

Hank Cochran was the writer on “When You Turned Loose (I Fell Apart) “, a slow ballad that to me is just another good Hank Cochran song made better by Gene’s vocals.

Yes I’m down and might be here forever
I could get up but I don’t have the heart
‘Cause you’re all that held me together
And when you turn loose I fell apart

And baby I can’t get me back together
‘Cause without you I don’t even want to start
‘Cause you’re all that held me together
And when you turn loose I fell apart

A pair of Ray Griff compositions, “Hey Louella” and “Then You Came Along” close out the album.
“Hey Louella” is an up-tempo number with a Cajun feel to it. It’s fun but it’s a song that any half decent singer could have sung and doesn’t really give Gene a chance to demonstrate his vocal prowess. “Then You Came Along” is a nice jog-along ballad of the kind that Gene always performs well.

Gene would go on to bigger and better things, but this album maintained the momentum from his major label debut album. Although I’ve pointed out their contribution in conjunction with specific songs, the contributions of Buddy Spicher, Lloyd Green and Pig Robbins to the overall sound of the recording cannot be overstated. There are vestiges of the ‘Nashville Sound’ production (strings and choruses) but those are kept to a minimum and are unobtrusive. Capitol released this album in May 1976. Currently it is available on CD paired with Beautiful Country, an album that will be reviewed next.

Grade: A

Album Review: Chris Hillman & Herb Pedersen – ‘Bakersfield Bound’

chrishillmanAlthough not marketed as such, 1996’s Bakersfield Bound is, in many ways, a Desert Rose Band reunion album, as it finds Chris Hillman working with both Herb Pedersen and DRB steel guitarist Jay Dee Maness again. The music is decidedly more traditional and less commercial than anything that the Desert Rose Band ever attempted and that may be why Hillman and Pedersen avoided labeling it as such.

Despite its title and Hillman’s and Pedersen’s west coast roots, this is not, strictly speaking, a salute to the Bakersfield sound in the same vein as many of the tribute albums that have been released since Buck Owens died in 2006. There is a healthy dose of Bakersfield, to be sure, but there are plenty of non-Bakersfield influences as well. Hillman and Pedersen harmonize on the albums 13 tracks in ways that are in reminiscent at times of The Everly Brothers, The Louvin Brothers, and the Willburn Brothers as well as Buck Owens and Don Rich. The album’s first track “Playboy” was written by Eddie Miller, who was more famous for having written “There She Goes” for Carl Smith, “Thanks a Lot” for Ernest Tubb, and “Release Me” which was recorded by Kitty Wells and countless others. Hillman and Pedersen effectively channel The Louvin Brothers with an excellent cover of “My Baby’s Gone”. Also excellent is their version of “Lost Highway”, a 1948 composition by Leon Payne, which was most famously recorded by Hank Williams in 1949..

Perhaps the most surprising cover here is “Time Goes So Slow”, a beautiful waltz that was written by Skeeter Davis and Marie Wilson, which finds Herb Pedersen harmonizing at what has to be the very top of his register.

These songs aside, the meat and potatoes of this album are the Bakersfield tunes, which pay tribute to such legends as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Owens is saluted with covers of “He Don’t Deserve You Anymore”, “There Goes My Love”, and “Close Up The Honky Tonks”, which was written by Red Simpson. Haggard is represented by a cover of the Hank Cochran and Glenn Martin-penned “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)”. The album closes with two Hillman co-writes, “Just Tell Me Darlin'” and the title track.

This an outstanding album with impeccable song choices and excellent singing and picking throughout. It’s virtually impossible to select any favorite tracks, because they are all so good. It is a must-have for fans of Chris Hillman, The Desert Rose Band, and fans of roots music in general.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Jamey Johnson and Alison Krauss – ‘Make The World Go Away’

Album Review: Willie Nelson & Ray Price – ‘San Antonio Rose’

nelson priceThe Urban Cowboy days of the early 1980s are justifiably criticized as an era in which country music was drowning in a sea of pop influences and overproduction and on the brink of losing touch with its roots. While that may sound a lot like an assessment of the contemporary country scene, the key difference is that thirty-odd years ago, it was still possible for tradition-based music by artists past the age of 45 to find an outlet on the radio and have a shot at success.

In 1980, Ray Price was 54 years old when he teamed up with Willie Nelson for San Antonio Rose, a collection of classic songs that drew heavily upon the back catalogs of both artists, as well as the discography of Bob Wills. In 1961 Willie had performed as a musician on Price’s Wills tribute album of the same title. Nearly two decades later, Willie’s star power was able to provide Price with a brief commercial resurgence. San Antonio Rose was produced by Willie himself, and released as a side project between his solo albums Electric Horseman and Honeysuckle Rose. Like many of Willie’s projects, it became a success despite appearing as though it would not have much commercial viability.

In addition to the title track, the album contains two Bob Wills covers, the Fred Rose-penned “Deep Water” and “Faded Love”, which served as the album’s sole single. This was the first version of “Faded Love” that I ever heard and it is still a favorite today. It reached #3 on the Billboard country singles charts, returning Ray Price to the Top 10 for the first time since 1975’s “Roses and Love Songs”. Of course “Faded Love” had been recorded by a number of other artists, including Patsy Cline, who is also memorialized by the duo’s cover of “I Fall To Pieces”, which was written by Harlan Howard and Hank Cochran.

Cochran also wrote “Don’t You Ever Get Tired (Of Hurting Me)”, which had been a hit for Price in 1965. It appears here as a duet, along with other Ray Price hits such as “Release Me” (1954), “I’ll Be There (If You Ever Want Me)” (also 1954), “Crazy Arms” (1956), and the jazzy “Night Life” (1963), which had been written by Willie along with Walt Breeland and Paul Buskirk. Willie’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” is also covered. “Just Call Me Lonesome”, a cover of an old Eddy Arnold hit, was added to 2008 Legacy Recordings re-release.

Even in 1980, San Antonio Rose didn’t offer anything new, but it was then, as it is now, a breath of fresh air amongst all the pop-laden material on the charts. In addition to pairing one of country music’s best known icons with one of its most under-appreciated vocalists, it is a real treat for steel guitar fans and fans of good country music in general. Nelson and Price would team up in the studio two more times for 2003’s Run That By Me One More Time and 2007’s Last of the Breed, a collaboration with Merle Haggard. San Antonio Rose, however, remains my favorite of the albums they made together.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘Red Headed Stranger’

redheadedstrangerWillie Nelson’s brief stint with Atlantic Records yielded only modest commercial success, but the two albums he recorded for the label helped him land his deal with Columbia, where his labors finally began to bear some fruit. His first single for the label, a remake of “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”, written by Fred Rose and recorded by Roy Acuff thirty years earlier, reached #1, becoming the first of 25 Nelson chart-toppers.

His contract with Columbia gave Willie complete creative control over his records, a decision that initially resulted in some buyer’s remorse for the label when Willie submitted his first project, Red Headed Stranger. The album had been recorded on a shoestring budget in Garland, Texas and was produced by Willie himself. In stark contrast to the heavily produced fare that dominated country music at the time, Red Headed Stranger was a stripped-down affair, that used only eight musicians. Most of the arrangements consisted only of Willie’s vocals and guitar, some harmonica and occasional percussion, and the piano-playing of Willie’s sister Bobbie. Upon hearing the finished product, the executives at Columbia thought they were listening to a demo recording and were understandably reluctant to release what seemed at the time to be a decidedly non-commercial album. But release it they did, and to their credit, they did their job promoting it because Red Headed Stranger was blockbuster success, far exceeding everyone’s expectations. It’s hard to imagine an album in this vein being released today, especially by a major label, and even harder imagining it achieving a similar level of success.

Red Headed Stranger is built around the title track, which Willie had performed at his live shows in Austin. Encouraged by his then-wife, Connie Koepke, he wrote a backstory for the song’s protagonist and incorporated some of his own orignal compostions and some classic country songs, and created a western concept album that played a huge role in changing the country music landscape. The album opens with Willie’s self-penned “Time Of The Preacher”, which tells of a preacher who suspects his wife of infidelity. In the next track, Eddy Arnold and Wally Fowler’s “I Couldn’t Believe It Was True”, his suspicions are confirmed. A brief reprise of “Time Of The Preacher” follows, and then a medley of “Blue Rock Montana” and “Red Headed Stranger”, in which the cuckolded husband kills his unfaithful wife and her lover, and then becomes a fugitive. The preacher laments the loss of his wife in “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” before committing another murder in the full-length version of “Red Headed Stranger”. The fugitive kills a woman whom he mistakenly believes is trying to steal his pony, to which he attached great sentimental value because it had belonged to his late wife. He avoids prosecution because apparently according to frontier justice, “you can’t hang a man for killin’ a woman who’s tryin’ to steal your horse.”

Another brief 27-second reprise of “Time Of The Preacher” comes next, followed by the instrumental “Just As I Am” and another short number, “Denver”, which tells the listener that the Preacher has traveled south, where another woman catches his fancy. Another pair of brief instrumental numbers help to make the transition to a very nice version of Hank Cochran’s “Can I Sleep In Your Arms Tonight” and Melba Mable Bourgeois’ “Remember Me”, which show that the Preacher is ready to bury his past and begin a new relationship. “Remember Me” was the album’s second and final single, landing at #2. “Hands On The Wheel”, which finds the Preacher as an old man with a new love and a young boy, concludes the story. The instrumental “Bandera” closes out the original album.

Sony’s Legacy imprint reissued a remastered version of Red Headed Stranger in 2000, along with four new tracks, which though very enjoyable, don’t add to the story and certainly don’t blend as seamlessly as the album’s original tracks do. They do have merit as standalone tracks, however. I particularly like Willie’s take on the Hank Williams classic “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)” and “Bonaparte’s Retreat”, a Pee Wee King number that had been a hit for Glen Campbell in 1974.

A sparsely-produced album such as Red Headed Stranger was as huge a commercial risk in 1975 as it would be today, and as I noted earlier, such a risk would not likely be undertaken today. However, Nashville record executives might be well served to look back as projects such as this one, which sold more than two million copies and is now regarded as a landmark album for country music. It is essential listening that deserves a place in the library of every country music fan.

Grade: A+

Willie Nelson: The early years

country favoritesWillie Nelson, alone among his contemporaries, continues to be an active and prolific recording artist. Not only is he releasing albums at a pace that would leave today’s stars thoroughly exhausted, but Willie continues to make guest appearances on the albums of other artists, famous and unknown alike.

The eighty year old Nelson continues to tour relentlessly, something he has been doing in one form or another for over fifty years.

Prior to “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”, most knew Willie Nelson (if they knew of him at all) as the man who wrote “Hello Walls” for Faron Young and “Crazy” for Patsy Cline, and some songs that other singers had success recording.

Outside of his home state of Texas, the public consciousness of Willie Nelson as a performer basically dates back to the two albums Willie recorded for Atlantic in the early 1970s after which time he moved to Columbia for his recording heyday. This article will discuss the major label albums issued before then.

The first album out of the box was … And Then I Wrote which was released on the Liberty label in September 1962. This album featured “Touch Me” as the single (it reached #7 on Billboard’s country chart) and featured some songs that other artists had recorded with some success such as “Hello Walls” and “Three Days” (Faron Young), “Crazy” (Patsy Cline), “Funny How Time Slips Away” (Joe Hinton, Billy Walker). Although not released as a singles, “Mr. Record Man” and “Darkness On The Face of The Earth” would become songs associated with Willie, and “Undo The Right” would be a top ten hit for long-time friend Johnny Bush in 1968 (Johnny Bush and Willie Nelson were both in Ray Price’s band the Cherokee Cowboys during the early 1960s, and played in each others bands at various points in time). “The Part Where I Cry” was the other single release from this album.

… And Then I Wrote was not a terribly successful album but it was the first opportunity most had to hear Willie’s quirky phrasing. Although marred by Liberty’s version of the ‘Nashville Sound’, it is certainly an interesting album.

Willie’s second and final album for Liberty was Here’s Willie Nelson. This album featured five songs that Willie wrote (“Half A Man”, “Lonely Little Mansion”, “Take My Word”, “The Way You See Me” and “Home Motel”). The originals compositions were nothing special – only “Half A Man” attracted much attention from other artists – but among the covers are the Fred Rose composition “Roly Poly” (a successful recording for Bob Wills and for Jim Reeves) and Rex Griffin’s “The Last Letter”.

There were no Country Album charts until 1964. Neither of the two Liberty albums made the pop charts.

From Liberty, Willie very briefly moved to Monument Records, with no success (I’m not sure if any tracks actually were released at the time). Some of these songs were released in 1980 on a two album set titled The Winning Hand featuring Brenda Lee, Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson and released to cash in on the popularity of Dolly and Willie. All four artists had recorded for Monument in the past, and Kristofferson and Lee recorded additional vocals to create duets (and some existing tracks were edited together to create duets). Twelve of the twenty tracks were duets, and despite the contrived origins of the project, it was critically well received and well worth owning.

Willie’s immense songwriting talents attracted the attention of Chester Burton (“Chet”) Atkins”, the head honcho of RCA’s Nashville operations, and he was signed to RCA.

There is the misconception that Willie Nelson’s RCA albums found Willie buried by syrupy string arrangements and soulless background choruses. While it is true that RCA was never really sure what to do with Willie, the reality is that only the occasional track suffered from over production. Unlike Decca where Owen Bradley buried his more traditional artist such as Webb Pierce and Ernest Tubb with unnecessary choral arrangements, Chet and his other producers went much lighter on the embellishments. Although what we would deem the classic ‘Willie and Family’ sound never completely emerged on the RCA recordings, many of Willie’s albums had relatively sparse production. In fact, when Mickey Raphael produced and released the 17 track Naked Willie album in 2009, an album in which he removed excess production off Willie’s RCA tracks, he probably corralled about 80% of the tracks on which the production could be deemed excessive. Whether or not RCA could turn Willie into a star, his records always featured some of the best musicians and arrangers on the planet.

Country Willie – His Own Songs features twelve songs Willie wrote or co-wrote. Some of the songs were also on his major label debut, but I prefer the RCA take on the ‘Nashville Sound’ to that of Liberty. The songs are great and Willie is in good voice.. Songs included are “One Day at a Time” (not the Marilyn Sellars/Cristy Lane gospel hit of the 1970s), “My Own Peculiar Way”, “Night Life”, “Funny How Time Slips Away”, “Healing Hands of Time”, “Darkness on the Face of the Earth”, “Hello Walls”, .”Are You Sure”, “Mr. Record Man”, “It Should Be Easier Now”, “So Much to Do” and “Within Your Crowd”. Pickers include Jerry Kennedy and Jerry Reed, and steel guitar is featured on some of the tracks. This could be considered a ‘best of’ compilation of Willie’s songs (not recordings) up to this point in time. This album reached #14 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Country Favorites – Willie Nelson Style is one of my two favorite RCA albums. This 1966 album was recorded with members of Ernest Tubb’s legendary Texas Troubadours, augmented by fiddler Wade Ray and pianist Hargus Robbins. Willie and Wade, of course were regulars on ET’s syndicated television show and the use of the Troubadours and the lack of the ‘Nashville Sound’ trappings made for a swinging set of western swing and honky-tonk classics. This version of the Texas Troubadours included Buddy Charleton (steel), Jack Drake (bass), Jack Greene (drums) , Leon Rhodes (lead guitar) and Cal Smith (rhythm guitar) augmented by Wade Ray and pianist Hargus Robbins. This album reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart .

Standout tracks on this album include “My Window Faces The South”, “Columbus Stockade Blues” and “San Antonio Rose” but the entire album is good. Willie sounds comfortable and relaxed on this entire set and his vocals, while sometimes an awkward fit , reflect the fun he was having performing with this collection of musicians , who were not credited on the initial release. A truncated version of this album was released on RCA Camden in 1970 as Columbus Stockade Blues.

Country Music Concert was recorded live in 1966 at Panther Hall in Dallas Texas, one of two live albums RCA would record there (the other was 1968’s Charley Pride Live at Panther Hall). This live performance featured Willie on guitar and vocals backed by his band members, Johnny Bush on drums and Wade Ray playing bass guitar. This album is my other favorite RCA album, again featuring Willie uncluttered by strings and choruses, singing mostly his own songs, but with a few covers. The album opens with Willie introducing the band and then starts with the music with a pair of long medleys in “Mr. Record Man”/”Hello Walls”/ “One Day At A Time” and “The Last Letter”/ “Half A Man”. To me the highlights of the album are Willie’s take on Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” and his own “I Never Cared For You” and “Night Life”. This album reached #32 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Make Way For Willie Nelson is a mixed bag of original compositions and covers. Released in 1967, some of the recordings are a bit overproduced and the album produced no real hits. The quasi-title track “Make Way For A Better Man” is one of those songs only Willie Nelson would write:

Hear me talkin’ now you tried to make her happy you couldn’t make her happy
Make way for a better man than you
You tried your brand of lovin’ she couldn’t stand your lovin’

Make way for a better man than you
I held back cause you and I were friends
But old buddy this is where our friendship ends
I’m takin’ over now those signals she keeps sendin’ means your romance is endin’
Make way for a better man than you

Willie’s own composition “One In A Row” reached #19 two years before this album was released. Notable covers on the album include “Born To Lose” and “Mansion On The Hill”. This album reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

“The Party’s Over” and Other Great Willie Nelson Songs featured the title song, which while never a big hit, was made famous by the late Don Meredith, one of the original trio of announcers for ABC Monday Night Football. When the result of the games was already determined (regardless of the time left in the game) Don would sing this song. “The Party’s Over” reached #24 for Willie, in a somewhat overproduced version. The rest of the album could be described as moody and downbeat. This album also reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Good Ol’ Country Singin’ was released on RCA’s budget Camden label in January 1968. RCA sometimes used the Camden label to release truncated versions of older albums, but RCA also used it to release material that would not be released on the main label. This album is the latter but RCA actually issued a single from the album, “Blackjack County Chain”, which reached #21. My favorite track on the album is a classic weeper “You Ought To Hear Me Cry”. Billboard did not chart budget albums.

Texas In My Soul was Willie’s 1968 tribute to his home state of Texas. Three of the songs, “Waltz Across Texas”, “There’s A Little Bit of Everything In Texas” and “Texas In My Soul” were songs performed by and associated with Ernest Tubb. “Who Put All My Ex’s In Texas” was one of the first songs written by Eddie Rabbitt to be recorded. This album reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Good Times is a little different and finds Willie breaking away from ‘The Nashville Sound’ mold to some extent. Other than Mickey Newbury’s “Sweet Memories” and the Jan Crutchfield-Wayne Moss composition “Down To Our Last Goodbye”, all of the songs were written or co-written by Willie. The title track has very minimal production. This album reached #29 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

My Own Peculiar Way, released in 1969, features eight Willie Nelson compositions (one, “Any Old Arms Won’t Do”, co-written with Hank Cochran) plus an exceptional cover John Hartford’s “Natural To Be Gone”. The title track wasn’t a hit, but it is quintessential Willie. This album reached #39 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart (are you seeing a pattern?).

Both Sides Now was released in 1970 and is basically a covers album with Willie penning only three of the eleven tracks. This album included two songs from the Roy Acuff catalogue (“Wabash Cannonball”, “Pins and Needles In My Heart”), a song from the Ray Price hit list (“Crazy Arms”) plus covers of pop songs “Both Sides Now” (penned by Joni Mitchell but a hit for Judy Collins) and and “Everybody’s Talking” (penned by Fred Neil but a hit for Nilsson). The single from this album was penned by soon-to be-ex-wife Shirley Nelson and reached #42. The now familiar “Bloody Mary Morning” makes its debut here – it would be re-recorded and released as a single after Willie moved to Atlantic.

While I like this album, it is a disjointed affair and Willie’s unusual phrasing on some of the songs won’t be to everybody’s taste. “Crazy Arms” features steel guitar and a walking base line whereas “Both Sides Now” features little more than a guitar. This album did not chart.

Laying My Burdens Down also was released in 1970 but by this time RCA had given up on having Willie score any hit singles. The title track reached #68 and the over-produced “I’m A Memory” would reach #28 and would be Willie’s last top fifty chart appearance while signed to RCA. This album is mostly composed of Willie originals but isn’t his best work. This album did not chart.

Willie Nelson and Family is a collection of songs released in 1971 as performed by Willie and the beginnings of his family band. Paul English was on board playing drums as was his sister Bobbie Nelson playing the piano. This album would set the template for future albums. Songs include the Willie Nelson-Hank Cochran collaboration “What Can You Do To Me Now” along with Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, Hank Sr.’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”, Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again”, plus some Nelson originals. This album reached #43 on Billboard Country albums chart.

Released with no fanfare in September 1971, Yesterday’s Wine contains some of Willie’s finest songs, and is Willie’s first concept album. The album contains the full complement of RCA’s finest session players but sounds surprisingly spare at times. The album has a deeply philosophical and religious feel to it without being too preachy (the premise is the life of an ‘Imperfect Man’ from birth to the day of his death). The single released from the album “Yesterday’s Wine” b/w “Me and Paul” barely dented the charts, but both are still loved and remembered today:

Miracles appear in the strangest of places
Fancy me finding you here
The last time I saw you was just out of Houston
Let me sit down, let me buy you a beer

Your presence is welcome with me and my friend here
This is a hangout of mine
We come here quite often and listen to music
And to taste yesterday’s wine

Yesterday’s wine, yesterday’s wine
Aging with time, like yesterday’s wine
Yesterday’s wine, yesterday’s wine
We’re aging with time, like yesterday’s wine

“Family Bible”, a song Willie wrote but sold in order to keep eating, makes an appearance here. This album did not chart.

There would be a couple more RCA albums, and RCA would re-release various permutations and combinations of old material after Willie hit it big in the middle 1970s (including an album an which Danny Davis and The Nashville Brass were overdubbed onto ten of Willie’s songs, but by the end of 1971 it was clear that Willie would need to look elsewhere if he was to achieve success as a recording artist.

It should be noted that RCA issued several singles on Willie that either never made it onto an album, or made it onto an album years later. Two notable examples were “Johnny One Time” which hit #36 for Willie in 1968 and was a minor pop hit for Brenda Lee in 1969, and “Bring Me Sunshine” which reached #13 in 1968 but wasn’t on an album until the 1974 RCA Camden release Spotlight On Willie.

In the digital age, there are plenty of good collections covering Willie’s earlier years, both anthologies and reissues of individual albums. For the obsessive Willie Nelson fan, Bear Family has issued an eight CD set with 219 recordings. That’s overkill for all but diehard fans, but there are numerous good anthologies available. There is also Naked Willie for those who would like to have multiple versions of some of Willie’s RCA recordings.

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan – ‘War Paint’

warpaintBy 1994, with three platinum albums and ten Top 10 singles (including two #1s) under her belt, Lorrie Morgan appeared to be at her commercial peak when her career unexpectedly lost some of its momentum. War Paint produced three singles, all of which tanked at country radio at a time when Morgan was pretty much an automatic add at most stations. The first single, the rock-tinged “My Night To Howl”, which finds Lorrie preparing for a night on the town, is admittedly not one of her best and its #31 peak seems justified, but the failure of the follow-up single was rather surprising. She finally tackled the subject of Keith Whitley’s death head-on with deeply personal and soul-baring “If You Came Back From Heaven”, which she co-wrote with producer Richard Landis. It’s the song that many fans had expected from her immediately after Whitley’s passing, but when it finally arrived, it was met with a huge ho-hum from radio. Peaking at #51, it was her worst-performing single since her breakthrough. Country radio’s lack of interest was perhaps a result of how much the country music landscape had changed in the five years since Whitley’s death. The catchy, uptempo and pop-tinged “Heart Over Mind” seemed like a safe radio-friendly choice for a third single but it too failed gain a foothold at radio, and only reached #39.

After three misfires, BNA declined to release any further singles from the album, although there were a few worthy potential candidates, including “The Hard Part Was Easy” and “Exit 99”, which is one of my all-time favorite songs from Lorrie. Foreshadowing Sara Evans’ “Three Chords And The Truth”, which would be released three years later, the tune finds Morgan hopping into her car and driving off after a fight with her husband. The further she drives, the more her anger subsides and by the time she reaches Exit 99 near the end of the song, she’s reconsidered and ready to turn around and go home. “Exit 99” was omitted from the cassette version of the album, as BMG was still engaging in its practice of including extra tracks on the CD versions of its releases, to entice buyers to purchase the more expensive format.

Lorrie has covered classic country songs on many of her albums, and on War Paint she takes on two revered numbers: “A Good Year For the Roses”, which George Jones had taken to #2 in 1970, and the Hank Cochran-penned “Don’t Touch Me”, which was a #2 hit for Cochran’s then-wife Jeannie Seely in 1966. “A Good Year For The Roses” pairs Lorrie up for the first time on record with Sammy Kershaw, who she would eventually marry. Both songs are well-performed, particularly “Don’t Touch Me”, but neither was commercial enough in the mid-1990s to be considered for single release.

Despite containing many gems, War Paint is not without its missteps. I’m not particularly fond of the lead single “My Night To Howl” or the somewhat overproduced and lyrically unsubtle title track that Lorrie co-wrote with Tom Shapiro. Likewise, I could have done without the dull Angela Kaset number “Evening Up The Odds”, which serves as the album’s closing track. None of these songs is truly terrible, but their inclusion make this album a more uneven listening experience than Morgan’s earlier work.

Even though it failed to produce any hit singles, War Paint sold respectably and earned gold certification, suggesting that Lorrie had a fan base that would remain loyal to her even if radio was beginning to cool towards her. Although she did enjoy a few more big hits on subsequent albums, her performance on the singles chart became inconsistent from this point on.

Despite its flaws, there are enough solid tracks on War Paint to recommend it. Although it is out of print, inexpensive used copies are easy to find.

Grade: B+

Country music’s fellow travelers: Burl Ives

burl ivesThis is the first in a series of short articles about artists who, although not country artists, were of some importance to country music. In a sense, a previous article I wrote about Patti Page would logically belong in this category. First up, America’s troubadour Burl Ives.

WHO WAS HE ?
Burl Ives (1909-1995) was the Renaissance Man among folk singers. Not only was he a folk balladeer but he also had success on Broadway, television and movies. Mostly though, he was a folk singer and anthologist , publishing several books of folk songs and recording dozens of albums of folk music, sometimes by themes (Folk Songs of Ireland, Folk Songs of Australia, Women: Songs About The Fair Sex, Down To The Sea In Ships) and other albums that were simply collections of songs. The warm friendly voice of Burl Ives could sell any song, without faking accents or use of any artifice. So wildly popular was he that Queen Elizabeth II requested that he perform at her Coronation Concert in 1953.

WHAT WAS HIS CONNECTION TO COUNTRY MUSIC?
In the days before folk became too politically left-wing, many radio stations billed themselves as paying country and folk music, so his records got some airplay on country radio stations. Also he often recorded some country songs on his albums, placing on Billboard’s country charts in 1949 and 1952 and recording country material on some of his 1950s albums. In the early 1960s, his records were produced by noted producer Owen Bradley, who marketed Burl’s records to the country music market with some success as the 52 year old Ives hit Cashbox’s top slot (#2 Billboard) with Hank Cochran’s “A Little Bitty Tear Let Me Down”. This was followed by two more top ten country singles “Funny Way of Laughing” and “Mr. In Between” and several more charting singles, including the amusing “Evil Off My Mind”, an ‘answer’ song to Jan Howard’s biggest solo hit “Evil On Your Mind”. His otherwise 1964 country album, Pearly Shells and Other Favorites, produced a surprise pop hit with the title track, a Hawaiian song written by Webley Edwards and Leon Pober.

Since Ives never stayed anchored too long in any one realm, Burl drifted off into other areas of folk music, recording albums of children’s music, seasonal music and yes, another album or two of country music.

Album Review – Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison – ‘Cheater’s Game’

MI0003484229If there exists a constant within country music in 2013, it’s the collaborative album. Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell are teaming up for a long-awaited record, tour partners Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan recently completed work on an album, Vince Gill and Paul Franklin have a record of their own in the works, and Steve Martin is branching out from The Steep Canyon Rangers to release a CD with Edie Brickell.

Yet another project, and first of these to see release, is Cheater’s Game, the inaugural duets album from Kelly Willis and her husband Bruce Robison. Produced by singer/songwriter Brad Jones, it’s the first album from either artist in more than five years, and well worth the wait.

The majority of the project strikes a mournful tone, allowing Willis to showcase her fine interpretive skills as a honky-tonk balladeer. She does it best on the stunning title track, a couple’s lament on their marriage in the wake of unfaithful behavior. But she’s equally superb on “Ordinary Fool,” the story of a woman who understands a friend’s predicament following the end of a relationship. Both boast excellent lyrics (Robison co-wrote the title track with Liz Foster and The Trishas’ Savannah Welch and penned “Ordinary Fool” solo) and fine production work by Jones who uses wistful steel and lush acoustic guitars to effectively set the mood.

“Waterfall,” also written solely by Robison, showcases Willis’ gifts a singer better than any track on the album, opening with her gorgeous twang backed by a mandolin so light and weightless, it need not exist. The track, about a woman begging a bartender to pour her a waterfall of drinks to drown her sorrows, is one of the best and most delicately handled drinking songs I’ve ever heard.

Robison is a criminally underrated songwriter, on par with the likes of Bobby Braddock, Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard. His innate ability to take well-worn themes and vigorously bring them back to life with dynamic hooks elevates Cheater’s Game from ordinary to extraordinary. Even better is the pair’s ability to weave in outside material that blends with, opposed to distract from, the originals.

My favorite of the covers is Dave Alvin’s “Border Radio,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on a George Strait album. It took me a minute to warm up to the Tex-Mex vibe, but the duo brings it to life wonderfully. Also excellent is Robison’s laid-back reading of Don Williams’ “We’re All The Way,” which brings out the sensual side of his voice and showcases a tender moment for the pair as a duo.

I much prefer Willis and Robison’s take on “Long Way Home” to Hayes Carll’s original, as they exude a warmth missing from the gruffness of his version. Only Razzy Bailey’s “9,999,999 Tears” (a #3 hit for Dickey Lee in 1976) doesn’t fit the vibe of project, and while Willis sings it wonderfully, the catchy sing-a-long aspects of the track take away from the album as a whole.

Robison takes the lead on many of the project’s uptempo moments and adds a pleasing contrast to the seriousness of the songs sung by his wife. A fabulous mixture of acoustic guitar and fiddle prove the perfect backdrop for his take on Lawrence Shoberg’s “Born To Roll,” and he brings a calming easiness to his solely penned “Leavin,” a road song with an appealing singer-songwriter vibe and Spanish-y acoustic guitar.

“But I Do,” a co-write with Jedd Hughes, has an attractively plucky acoustic aura and playful vocals from the duo that match the vibrancy of the backing track. It’s a sharp contrast from “Dreamin,” a delicate acoustic ballad about budding love. I especially love the banjo on “Lifeline,” and the way the fiddle and steel gently guide his somewhat sleepy vocal on Robert Earl Keen Jr’s, “No Kinda Dancer,” which would otherwise have been too slow for me to fully appreciate.

Before Cheater’s Game I had begun to think that the heart and soul of country music had been lost, replaced by sound-a-like party anthems extenuated by an 80s rock mentality. Thank goodness Willis and Robison remain unaffected by the glitz of mainstream Nashville and put authentically raw and uncomplicated gems like this out into the world. Music in this vein isn’t made much anymore, which makes albums like this such a treat. I highly recommend it to anyone who appreciates and loves traditional country music.

Grade: A+ 

Predictions and analysis: The 55th Annual Grammy Awards

Grammy-AwardsIt’s that time of year again, to celebrate music’s biggest night. The 55th Grammy Awards are set to air this Sunday on CBS. In a rather surprising move, it’s the females who’ll be representing our genre at the show. Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift, and Miranda Lambert are all slated to perform, with Lambert teaming up with her ‘Locked and Reloaded’ tour partner Dierks Bentley for a special collaboration. The country nominees are below, and it turns out they’re much stronger than was expected. The Recording Academy seems to have found a happy medium between commercial and artistic popularity. We’ll have to see if any of the artistic nominees (Jamey Johnson, The Time Jumpers, and others) will prevail against their commercial contemporaries. Predictions are below:

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Razor X’s Top Albums of 2012

Finding good new country music is not as easy as it once was, and due to a number of other things that were going on in my life, I’m afraid I didn’t put much effort into seeking out new music this year but I was able to find a few gems:


10. Heroes — Willie Nelson

Willie’s return to the major labels was an eclectic collection that found him covering Coldplay and Pearl Jam, but also reunited him with Merle Haggard and Ray Price, as well as sharing the spotlight a bit with his sons Lukas and Micah.

dierks9. Home — Dierks Bentley

2010’s Up On The Ridge was successful critically but not commercially, so it’s not surprising that Dierks chose to follow it up with a much more radio-friendly collection. The strategy worked, as Home produced three # 1 singles.

8. Nashville, Volume 1: Tear The Woodpile Down — Marty Stuart

Not quite the masterpiece that 2010’s Ghost Train was, this collection was still one of my favorite listens of the year. I would have rated it higher if it hadn’t contained some recycled material (“Sundown In Nashville”, “Truck Driver’s Blues”).

kelliepickler7. 100 Proof — Kellie Pickler

I never thought that Kellie Picker’s name would ever appear on any of my best of lists, but she really blossomed with this collection of more traditional-sounding tunes. Unfortunately, just as she was finally making music that allowed her to be taken seriously as an artist, she was dropped by her record label. What the future holds for her remains to be seen. There was a time when I would have said that she wouldn’t be missed very much, but now I’m curious to see what direction she goes in next.

6. Calling Me Home — Kathy Mattea

I wasn’t a huge fan of 2008’s Coal, but I like Kathy’s second visit to her Appalachian roots much better. This is a less bleak look at her heritage.

zbb5. Uncaged — Zac Brown Band

Creepy cover art aside, this collection allowed the Zac Brown Band to further expand on their increasing eclectic but always interesting catalog.

4. Thirty Miles West — Alan Jackson

There weren’t any real surprises or stretches in Alan’s EMI Nashville debut; it’s very much in the same vein as most of the other albums he’s released over the past twenty-odd years — which is exactly what country music needs right now.

terriclark3. Classic — Terri Clark

Terri Clark and I were born just a few weeks apart, so we grew up listening to much of the same music. This collection, in which she covers tunes by Linda Ronstadt, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Reba McEntire and Tanya Tucker, provided a wonderful trip down memory lane and is the best album of her career.

2. Restless — Sweethearts of the Rodeo

This long overdue new release was well worth the wait. It’s a shame that it won’t be as widely heard as it deserves.

jameyjohnson1. Living For A Song – A Tribute to Hank Cochran — Jamey Johnson

By the time I was three tracks into listening to this album for the first time, I knew it was my favorite of the year. It’s a beautifully crafted masterpiece with an impressive guest roster that pays homage to one of the greatest country songwriters of all time. I can’t say enough good things about this album.

Occasional Hope’s Top Albums of 2012

It’s not been a bad year for country music – as long as you ignore the charts and mainstream country radio. My #1 album of the year was released on a major label but with no singles success, and most of my other selections came from independent labels, although some of the names will be familiar. Just missing the cut were, among others, albums from Joey + Rory (some delicious moments but more hit and miss than their previous efforts), Terri Clark’s classic covers, the always reliable Alan Jackson, Kathy Mattea, and current star Dierks Bentley.

For full reviews, and purchase details, click on the links in the album title and artist name respectively.

10. Alive At Brushy Mountain PenitentiaryMark Collie

The live prison album was recorded in 2001, but only escaped the vaults of MCA this year. It was worth the wait, with an energetic set of suitably themed mainly original songs.

Best tracks: ‘I Could’ve Gone Right’, ‘Rose Covered Garden’, ‘Maybe Mexico’, ‘On The Day I Die‘.

marty raybon9. Southern Roots And Branches: Yesterday and TodayMarty Raybon

Former Shenandoah lead singer Marty Raybon released a pair of albums this year. This, the secular one of the pair, was the better, with Marty’s smoky voice sounding as good as ever on a bluegrass influenced set including the odd reworking of a few Shenandoah hits.

Best tracks: ‘Long Hard Road’, ‘Big Pain’, ‘Ghost In This House’, ‘Get Up In Jesus’ Name’.

8. Honky Tonk Till I DieEric Strickland and the B Sides

Solidly enjoyable, unpretentious honky-tonk with some great original songs written by the North Carolinian lead singer. It may be obscure, but it’s really good.

Best tracks: ‘Haggard And Hell’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Standing In The Headlights’, ‘Womankind‘.

wesley dennis7. Country EnoughWesley Dennis

An excellent return from one of the best singers who never made it. The former Mercury Records artist has a classic country voice and has written some fine songs for this independent releases.

Best tracks: ‘A Month Of Sundays’, ‘Lady’s Choice’, ‘That Dog Won’t Hunt’, ‘Sun, Surf And The Sand (And My Ties)‘.

6. The Time JumpersThe Time Jumpers

The part-time supergroup featuring Vince Gill and Dawn Sears came up with a delightful confection of country, jazz and western swing for their first studio alum together. The musicianship sparkles and this is a real celebration of the joy of making music.

Best tracks: ‘So Far Apart’, ‘Three Sides To Every Story’, ‘The Woman Of My Dreams’, ‘Someone Had To Teach You’.

gene watson5. Best Of The BestGene Watson

I wasn’t sure whether to include this album in my list but in the end the quality shone through and I had to keep it in. A veteran star who still has the vocal goods to shame most of his younger, more commercially successful rivals, Gene Watson has chosen to revisit some of his best-loved recordings for this release. I would really have preferred new material from him, but this is just a lovely listening experience.

Best tracks: ‘Farewell Party’, ‘What She Don’t Know Won’t Hurt Her’, ‘Nothing Sure Looked Good On You’, ‘Between This Time And The Next Time’.

4. Pourin’ Whiskey On PainTim Culpepper

The unknown newcomer gave me my most pleasant surprise this year with his traditional sound and some excellent songs.

Best tracks: ‘One More For The Road’, ‘When Misery Finds Company’, ‘Pourin’ Whiskey On Pain’, ‘Toss And Turn’.

jason eady3. AM Country HeavenJason Eady

I called this a “low-key delight” when I reviewed it earlier this year, and my judgment stands. This mature thoughtful record has no weak spots at all. Patty Loveless duetting on one track is an unexpected bonus.

Best tracks (though everything is worth hearing): ‘AM Country Heaven’, ‘Man On A Mountain’ (with Patty Loveless), ‘Water Into Wine’, ‘Old Guitar And Me’.

2. Too Much Ain’t EnoughClinton Gregory

Sweet voiced singer/fiddler Clinton Gregory is back after years of silence with a lovely set of mainly sad songs.

Best tracks: ‘Too Much Ain’t Enough’, ‘Too Country For Nashville’, ‘Has Love Taken Its Toll?’, ‘Chase Away The Lonely’.

jamey johnson21. Living For A Song: A Tribute To Hank CochranJamey Johnson

It was obvious as soon as I listened to this album that it was going to be this year’s highlight. Songs by one of the greatest country songwriters ever, performed by Jamey Johnson and some of his friends including legends like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Ray Price and Emmylou Harris, and more recent stars like Lee Ann Womack, Ronnie Dunn and George Strait. From the exquisite opening notes of ‘Make The World Go Away’, with Alison Krauss’s angelically sweet counterpoint to Jamey’s gruff tenderness, every single song here is a gem, and almost every track is excellent. This really is an outstanding album.

Best tracks: hard to pin down, but if I must then ‘Would These Arms Be In Your Way’ solo; ‘Make The World Go Away’ with Alison Krauss; ‘You Wouldn’t Know Love’ with Ray Price; and ‘Don’t Touch Me’ with Emmylou Harris.

Razor X’s Top Singles of 2012

Every year it seems that it becomes more difficult to compile a list of the year’s top singles. I seldom listen to country radio anymore and as such I’ve become much more album oriented and barely aware of which songs on my favorite albums were actually released as singles. However, I have managed to identify a few bright spots in a genre that is still sadly headed in the wrong direction. Here are my favorite choices of 2012:

dierks10. 5-1-5-0 — Dierks Bentley

Though not as good as his previous single “Home”, which made my list of 2011’s top singles, the title of this catchy number refers to the section of the California Welfare and Institutions Code which allows law enforcement officers to involuntarily confine individuals with mental disorders. In the case of the narrator of this story, it is his love interest who is making him crazy.

9. Neon — Chris Young

Songs paying homage to one’s favorite watering hole have long been a staple in country music, but this tune by the best of country music’s current crop of male vocalists does it in a fresh and interesting way, comparing the colors of the bar’s neon signs to the blue of a Wyoming sky, the red of a Santa Fe sunset, and the yellow of Texas sunflowers. It underperformed on the charts, peaking at a disappointing #23.

martina8. Marry Me — Martina Bride featuring Pat Monahan

It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to get excited about anything Martina McBride has done, but I was pleasantly surprised by this cover version of a hit for the group Train. Given country radio’s current pop leanings I expected this one to perform well on the charts, but it stalled at #45.

7. Diamonds Make Babies — Bradley Gaskin

I prefer Dierk Bentley’s version of this tune that delves into the six degrees of separation between engagement and parenthood, but it’s a fun song no matter who sings it.

terri6. Love Is A Rose — Terri Clark
If I were compiling a list of this sort a decade ago, it would have been inconceivable that the vast majority of my selections would be by male vocalists. Terri Clark is one of the few females who has released anything that I found remotely interesting this year. Sixteen years after she topped the charts with “Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me”, Clark shows that she can still wrap her vocal cords around a Linda Ronstadt tune. Unfortunately, Terri’s record is unlikely to get any chart action in the U.S., but hopefully it will gain some traction in Canada.

5. Living For A Song– Jamey Johnson featuring Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson and Hank Cochran

The capstone of Johnson’s magnficient tribute album to one of country music’s greatest songwriters finds him joining forces with legends Nelson, Haggard and Kristofferson, and the late Hank Cochran himself. Predictably, it was ignored by country radio.

Zac Brown Band in Concert on NBC's "Today Show" at Rockefeller Center in New York City on July 13, 20124. No Hurry — Zac Brown Band

I really liked everything that the Zac Brown Band released this year and was tempted to include all three of their single releases but that seemed like taking the lazy way out. “No Hurry”, which peaked at #2 early this year, is my favorite of the bunch.

3. Loving You Is Fun — Easton Corbin
This laid back tune, which I reviewed back in February, reminds me of the type of song Clint Black used to do in the 90s. Country music needs more artists like Easton Corbin.

2. So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore — Alan Jackson
Alan’s second single under a new deal with EMI Nashville is well written and impeccably performed but unfortunately, it did nothing to reverse his chart decline. The production and his vocal performance are nicely understated.

george1. Drinkin’ Man — George Strait
After phoning it in for the past couple of years, George Strait came back in a big way with this tune about a lifelong struggle with alcoholism. He tackles the topic in a straightforward and effective manner, never becoming maudlin or preachy. He co-wrote the song with his son Bubba and Dean Dillon. It stands in stark contrast with most of the fluff on country radio — or at least it would have had it received more airplay. It stalled at #37, which is nothing short of tragic because it likely means that the major labels will not be inclined to release material like this in the future. But even though it is the lowest charting single of Strait’s long and illustrious career, it is an artistic triumph.

Classic Rewind: Hank Cochran – ‘A Good Country Song’

A top 30 hit for the legendary songwriter as an artist in his own right. You may recognise the tune.

Album Review: Jamey Johnson – ‘Living For A Song: A Tribute To Hank Cochran’

One of today’s greatest singer-songwriters salutes one of the great country songwriters of all time by recruiting an all-star cast to revive some of Cochran’s greatest songs. Every song here is a timeless classic, and Johnson and his friends do them justice in what is for me unquestionably the album of the year so far. Fellow songwriters Buddy Cannon and Dale Dodson produce with taste. Jamey was close to Hank in his later years, and was one of those who visited the hitmaker the night before he died to sing with him. Furthermore, while his reputation is based on his writing, he is also a fine singer, who shows his interpretative skills throughout this album. It came out on vinyl for collectors on September 25, and gets its mass market release digitally and on CD this week.

Alison Krauss’s angelic tones contrast exquisitely with Jamey’s gruffer but intensely emotional vocal on a beautiful version of the Cochran-penned standard ‘Make The World Go Away’, where they seek comfort from their troubles by reviving the love in a longstanding relationship. Tasteful steel is prominent in the sympathetic arrangement, while Krauss’s soothing voice provides the sweetness given by string arrangements in the hit versions, which epitomized the Nashville Sound. First recorded by Ray Price in 1963, it was the era’s superstar Eddy Arnold who had the biggest hit with the ballad, but many others have covered the song, both within and beyond country music – even Elvis Presley. The lovely Johnson/Krauss version stands up well against previous takes, and is one of the finest tracks on this album.

‘I Fall To Pieces’, which Cochran wrote with the equally great Harlan Howard, is one of the finest country songs of all time. Jamey sings this with Merle Haggard, and this is another superlative recording with the emotion and pain of lost love stripped down to its core, and completely believable performances from both men. Read more of this post

Country Heritage Redux: Johnny Paycheck

A version of this article originally appeared on the now defunct 9513 weblog. Because the series in which it appeared was titled ‘Forgotten Artists’, I referred to the subject of the article as either Donald Lytle (his real name) or Donnie Young (his original sobriquet) so that I could get into his background without giving away his more famous sobriquet, that of Johnny Paycheck. Thanks to one monster song, “Take This Job And Shove It”, Johnny Paycheck’s name will be remembered for a long time; however, that song was hardly typical of the artistry of Johnny Paycheck. For this article we will refer to him as Johnny Paycheck.

Very few artists have been as successful at reinventing themselves as Johnny Paycheck (May 31, 1938-February 19, 2003). Born Donald Eugene Lytle, and later known as Donnie Young, Johnny Paycheck, John Austin Paycheck and perhaps a few other names that have slipped by me, Paycheck was possessed of enormous talent as a vocalist, but not as much talent at keeping himself in check. As a result, he continually found himself in hot water.
Johnny Paycheck was born in the small rural town of Greenfield, Ohio. Greenfield, located about 70 miles to the northeast of Cincinnati and 60 miles south of Columbus, is a typical Midwest small town, the sort of place Hal Ketchum sang about in his song “Small Town Saturday Night”, It’s the kind of town people either remain in forever or can’t wait to leave. For a restless spirit like Paycheck, leaving was first and foremost in his thoughts.

He hit the road in 1953 with his clothing and his guitar, eventually winding up at a Navy recruiting center where he lied about his age and signed up for a tour of duty. Needless to say, restless spirits such as Johnny Paycheck rarely function well under the yoke of military discipline. While in the Navy, he got into a fight with an officer. Paycheck was court-martialed and sentenced to hard time in a Navy brig. Released after approximately three years, Johnny headed to Nashville to see if he could put his musical talent to good use. Since he had been playing the bars, skull orchards and juke-joints for side money ever since leaving Greenfield, it seemed like a logical thing to do.

Nashville during the late 1950s was not the cosmopolitan city that it is today. Nashville, in those days, was a boisterous town, a hangout for country musicians and a place where hard-working (and hard drinking) country boys came to blow off steam and have a good time. Paycheck fit right in, and before too long, his songwriting and instrumental abilities – and his unique vocals – came to the attention of the country music community. Soon, he was working as a sideman in the bands of some of the biggest stars in Nashville, including Ray Price (who recorded Johnny’s composition “Touch My Heart”), Faron Young, Porter Wagoner, and, later, George Jones.
His tempestuous nature led to him changing employers with some frequency. Difficulties with the likes of Faron Young and George Jones, both notorious carousers, were destined to occur.

Paycheck cut a couple of country and rockabilly sides for Decca and Mercury in the late ´50s under the moniker Donnie Young, before signing on as the full-time bassist and harmony vocalist with George Jones in 1960. Interestingly enough, Paycheck/Young´s first single, “On This Mountain Top” was billed as a duet with another restless soul – Roger Miller (although Miller functions basically as a background singer). The single gave Johnny his first chart success as the single reached #31 on Cashbox´s country chart. While this was a promising start, it would be more than a decade before he achieved sustained success as a recording artist.
During this period, Paycheck was in demand as a high tenor harmony singer, appearing on recordings with Faron Young, Ray Price, Skeets McDonald and countless others. His appearances with George Jones are often claimed to have influenced Jones´ vocals, and listening to Jones´ recordings of the 1960s, it is easy to discern a stylistic shift from those of the Starday/Mercury years. Whether or not this shift was as a result of Johnny Paycheck’s influence will forever be subject to debate.

In 1964, the Beatles´ music finally crossed the Atlantic Ocean (they had been big in Great Britain for about 18 months) and had some influence on the landscape of pop music. Of even greater importance in 1964 was another event – the convergence of the vocal stylings of Johnny Paycheck with the production genius of Aubrey Mayhew, a maverick Nashville record producer. Read more of this post

Last hurrahs and late career resurgences

I became interested in country music at a time when many of the genre’s legends were still scoring hits. Within a few years however, the landscape changed dramatically as the New Traditionalist movement swept a lot of veterans off the charts. Though it was an exciting time with a lot of new talent emerging, it was also a bit sad to see a number of old favorites disappearing from the airwaves all at once. In their struggle to remain commercially relevant, many of these veterans produced some of their finest work. In some cases it resulted in one last big hit; in a few rare cases it resulted in a temporary halt in their slide down the charts, but above all, it usually resulted in some really great music. Here are a few examples of memorable late career moments from some of my favorite artists:

1. “Two Story House” — George Jones & Tammy Wynette (1980)
Though this duo continued to record together after their divorce, their collaborations became less frequent as Jones battled his personal demons. “Two Story House”, a tale of a marriage destroyed by materialism, was their last big hit, charting at #2. They scored one more Top 20 hit later the same year with “A Pair of Old Sneakers”. After that there were no more Jones/Wynette collaborations until 1994 when they remade their biggest hit, 1976’s “Golden Ring” for George’s Bradley Barn Sessions album, which led to one final album of duets, 1995’s One.

2. “Another Chance “– Tammy Wynette (1982)
This bouncy tune was Tammy’s last Top 10 hit as a solo artist, peaking at #8 in 1982. It’s largely forgotten today but it received a lot of airplay at the time and I’ve always thought it was one of her best singles. She would hit the Top 10 one more time in 1985 with “Sometimes When We Touch”, a duet with Mark Gray.

3. “I Lie” — Loretta Lynn (1982)
Loretta’s chart decline paralleled that of Tammy Wynette. This #9 hit from 1982 is one of her glossiest singles. It was her first Top 10 solo hit in three years, and her only appearance in the Top 10 as a soloist in the 1980s, though she did enjoy three more Top 10 duets with Conway Twitty.

4. “Shouldn’t It Be Easier Than This” — Charley Pride (1987)
Charley Pride’s hits began to taper off in the mid-80s. He ended a twenty-year association with RCA Records in 1986 and signed with the independent 16th Avenue label. He scored one final Top 5 hit the following year.

5. “I Wish That I Could Fall In Love Today” — Barbara Mandrell (1988)
Barbara was at the peak of her popularity in 1984 when she was seriously injured in a car accident. Her career never quite regained its momentum, which she partially blames on the bad publicity she received when she filed a lawsuit against the estate of the driver that struck her car — a requirement under Tennessee law in order for her to collect from her own insurance company. She ended a three-year dry spell in 1988 when she returned to a more traditional sound. I was unfamiliar with the Ray Price original, but I loved Barbara’s take on this song and consider it to be one of her very best recordings. By coincidence, my colleague Paul also gave this record a shout-out in the latest installment of his Favorite Country Songs of the 1980s series.

6. “Don’t You Ever Get Tired Of Hurting Me” — Ronnie Milsap (1989)
Ronnie had a voice tailor made for country music, but unfortunately much of his output during the 1980s leaned heavily towards pop and R&B. He was still enjoying chart success when he got on board with the New Traditionalist movement and covered this Hank Cochran tune.

7. “Wrong “– Waylon Jennings (1990)
This whimsical tune about a marriage that didn’t quite turn out as expected was Waylon’s first single released during a brief stint with Epic Records. It reached #5 and was the last hit of his career.

8. “Feed This Fire“– Anne Murray (1990)
Anne regularly scored hits in both pop and country throughout the 1970s, but during the 1980s her successes were primarily on the country charts. In 1986, in an attempt to regain her popularity outside of country, she deliberately moved in a more pop direction. Ironically, her first release under this new strategy, “Now and Forever (You and Me)” became a #1 country hit, even though it was not remotely country. After that she fell out of favor with both pop and country radio, and by the beginning of the 1990s, she was trying hard to get back on country radio. She succeeded with this excellent Hugh Prestwood tune, which she took to #5 in the US and #6 in Canada. It was her last Top 10 country hit in the US.

9. “Three Good Reasons” — Crystal Gayle (1992)
Loretta Lynn’s little sister managed to buck the commercial trend towards more traditional country and stay on the charts through most of the 1980s. By the end of the decade, however, the hits began to taper off. Like many others she eventually switched to a more traditional sound. This 1992 tune did not chart, although it did get a lot of airplay in the Philadelphia market because Crystal was one of the artists appearing at the local country radio station’s annual anniversary concert that year.

10. “Buy Me A Rose” — Kenny Rogers (1999)
Kenny Rogers hadn’t scored a Top 10 hit in a decade, but age 61 he defied the odds and became the oldest person in country music history to score a #1 hit when he took this tune to the top of the charts in 1999.