My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Hank Thompson

Album Review: Conway Twitty – ‘Look Into My Teardrops’

Look Into My Teardrops was the second album Conway Twitty released in 1966, as well as his second release for Decca Records. The album consists of many covers of then-popular hits, as was the tradition at the time.

The album produced two low to mid charting singles. The title track, which peaked at #36 is a lovely mid-paced number co-written by Harlan Howard. “I Don’t Want To Be With Me,” a wonderfully catch up-tempo number with an engaging melody, was self-penned and hit #21.

Nat Stuckley’s “Don’t You Believe Her” was recorded by both Ray Price, with whom it is most associated, and Gene Watson. Twitty’s version is excellent, although I would hardly recognize it’s him singing if I didn’t already know.

“Almost Persuaded” had been a signature #1 hit for David Houston that same year. Twitty’s take on the steel-drenched ballad is excellent. The same is true for “I Made Her That Way,” co-written by George Jones. Twitty also included Jones’ “Take Me,” which is as good as one would expect.

Twitty follows with his fabulous take on “The Wild Side of Life,” which Hank Thompson had made iconic fourteen years earlier. “There Stands The Glass” is arguably one of the hardest country songs to sing and Twitty, unsurprisingly, knocks it out of the park.

“If You Were Mine To Lose,” the album’s other Twitty original, is very good. If you’ve been following our #1 singles this week in country music history posts, then you know Bobby Helms had a massive #1 with “Fraulein” sixty years ago this year. Twitty reprises it here, with smashing results.

Howard’s “Another Man’s Woman” is an additional track original to Twitty. While very good, the song is far from iconic. The album closes with “Before I’ll Set Her Free,” which falls along similar lines, but with a very engaging lyric.

As far as albums from the 1960s that I’ve reviewed go, Look Into My Teardrops is one of the better ones. Twitty does a wonderful job throughout tackling both iconic and new songs. I highly recommend seeking it out if you’ve never heard it.

Grade: A

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Album Reviews: Jessi Colter and Waylon Jennings duets

There currently isn’t much available by this duo, and they did not record much together since their voices really didn’t blend all that well.

Leather & Lace was issued on vinyl & cassette by RCA in February 1981 and features the following ten songs:

01) You Never Can Tell (C’est La Vie)
02) Rainy Seasons
03) I’ll Be Alright
04) Wild Side Of Life
05) Pastels And Harmony
06) I Believe You Can
07) What’s Happened To Blue Eyes
08) Storms Never Last
09) I Ain’t The One
10)You’re Not My Same Sweet Baby

All American Country was issued on CD by BMG in 2003 and features the following ten songs:

Suspicious Minds
Under Your Spell Again
I Ain’t The One *
Storms Never Last *
Wild Side Of Life *
You Never Can Tell (C’est La Vie) *
Sight For Sore Eyes
I’ll Be Alright *
What’s Happened To Blue Eyes *
You’re Not My Same Sweet Baby *

Songs marked by * also appear on Leather & Lace.

There are only four actual duets on Leather & Lace (01, 04, 08, 09) with Jessi being solo on 02 and 06 and Waylon being solo on the remaining four songs.

All American County has the four duets on Leather & Lace plus “Suspicious Minds”, “Under Your Spell Again” and “Sight For Sore Eyes” are duets, meaning that the modern era CD is the better collection if you are looking for actual duets. This CD is still readily available, whereas Leather & Lace has been out of print for a long time.

Waylon & Jessi did not have a tremendous amount of chart success as a duet, with “Wild Side of Life” (a medley of Hank Thompson’s hit and Kitty Wells’ answer song) reaching #10 in 1981 and “Storms Never Last” reaching #17” in 1981. The only other top twenty hit was “Suspicious Minds”, the old Elvis #1 pop hit from 1969 reaching #2 in 1976.

Truthfully, while I am a big Waylon Jennings fan, neither of these albums is particularly satisfactory. I would regard the best song (found on both albums) as “You Never Can Tell”, a Chuck Berry song from 1964. The solo efforts on Leather & Lace (especially the Waylon tracks) are throw-aways so I would give Leather & Lace a C. I would give All American Country a B for having more duets and better songs.

Album boxed set review: The Mac Wiseman Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A+

Album Review: Asleep At The Wheel – ‘Comin’ Right At Ya’

comin-right-at-yaUnited Artists released the first Asleep At The Wheel (“AATW”) album in 1973. The album featured a mix of straight ahead country and honky-tonk, along with western swing. No doubt United Artists felt a need to mix the western swing with country as it had been a good dozen years since western swing had been a viable force in the marketplace, aside from the small band swing novelties of Hank Thompson and his Brazos Valley Boys.

The core of this early version of AATW was Ray Benson on lead guitar and vocals, Leroy Preston on guitar, drums and vocals, Lucky Oceans on steel guitar, Jim Haber (aka Floyd Domino) on piano and Chris O’Connell on vocals and rhythm guitar. Guests Johnny Gimble, Buddy Spicher and Andy Stein augment the band on fiddle, with Gimble also playing electric mandolin.

The album opens with a Bob Wills-Tommy Duncan composition “Take Me Back To Tulsa”. The arrangement on this track swings but not nearly as much as it would in later years.

Track two is the Leroy Preston composition “Daddy’s Advice”, a straight ahead country song with a very traditional steel guitar sound paired with the fiddles. The vocal sounds like it may be Preston singing.

Leroy Preston also contributed “Before You Stopped Loving Me” is a nice ballad handled by the inimitable Chris O’Connell. I think that Chris may have been the best female vocalist AATW ever had.

Jerry Irby’s “Drivin’ Nails In My Coffin” was a hit for Ernest Tubb. Although Ernest was not a western swing artist, his recording of the song straddled the line between western swing and honky-tonk, as does this recording.

The Hank Williams classic “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” is given a straight-ahead country arrangement. Again, the vocal sounds like Leroy Preston.

Lucky, Leroy and Floyd wrote “Space Buggy” which has a barrelhouse boogie sound. Ms. O’Connell handles the lead vocals on this bright up-tempo song.

“Cherokee Boogie” was one of Moon Mullican’s great songs, one that was a hit for Moon and has graced the charts several times since them. Since Mullican was one of the great piano influences on Jerry Lee Lewis, it is only appropriate that Floyd Domino’s piano is featured heavily on this track.

Track eight on album is another Leroy Preston original titled “Hillbilly Nut”, a bit of a novelty with some instrumental snippets of other famous tunes. Preston sings this song.

Ray Benson and Leroy Preston collaborated on “Your Down Home Is Uptown”, a country ballad sung by Chris O’Connell.

Preston also penned “I’m The Fool (Who Told You To Go)” another straight ahead country ballad with Chris O’Connell shining on harmony vocals on the chorus. Ray Benson sings the lead.

Geoff Mack, an Australian country singer, penned “I’ve Been Everywhere”. The song originally featured Australian place names; however, with American place names, the song became a massive hit for Hank Snow. Leroy Preston takes the lead vocals on this song, which are NOT taken at the breakneck speed often associated with the song. The vocals of this song frequently have been rewritten to reflect the nationality of the singer.

The album closes with “The Son Shines Down On Me”, a nice gospel ballad sung by Chris O’Connell. The songwriter is credited as ‘L. Lee’ but I know nothing further about that person.

Comin’ Right At Ya is an album which sees the band finding itself. The album produced no hit singles, and while there are traces of western swing styled elements throughout the album, the album is less western swing than any of their future efforts would be. As a vocalist Leroy Preston isn’t all that good and his vocals would be less prominent on future albums. I liked this album (I picked up a copy on vinyl when it first came out) but it is mostly a harbinger of things to come. I’d give it a B.

Koch paired this with Texas Gold (a much better album) on a CD reissue in 2000. Texas Gold, released on Capitol in 1975, would feature the band’s biggest hit “The Letter That Johnnie Walker Read”.

Classic Rewind: Hank Thompson – ‘Whoa Sailor’

Album Review: Mickey Gilley – ‘Here I Am Again’

here i am againIt probably isn’t fair to describe Mickey Gilley as a second tier artist since he had seventeen Billboard #1 hits and another seventeen songs that reached the top ten, and was the name behind the most famous country music nightclub ever. Born in 1936 in Natchez, MS, a second cousin to a pair of Ferriday, LA, fireballs in Jerry Lee Lewis and evangelist Jimmy Swaggart (Jerry Lee and Jimmy are first cousins to each other), Mickey probably was somewhat accustomed to being overlooked. In fact Mickey was 38 years old before he was regarded as more than a local artist. Mickey Gilley ran off a string of hits between 1974 and 1978 for Playboy Records, at which time his contract was purchased by Epic Records. His first singles on Epic were less successful than his Playboy singles. Then came the successful Urban Cowboy movie.

Cracker Barrel Restaurants, in conjunction with Country Rewind Records, have combined to make available these early Mickey Gilley recordings. Recorded after the initial success of “Room Full of Roses” and “I Overlooked An Orchid”, these recordings were probably meant to be a musical ‘souvenir’ to be sold at live performances. They feature Mickey Gilley on vocals and piano and apparently the four other musicians in his band. There are no strings and no vocal choruses. Many years later Country Rewind Records brought the recordings to Les Brown, Jr. (son of famed big band leader Les Brown) to add some additional musicians and production.

While the Cracker Barrel Connie Smith and Faron Young offerings were exciting news, this album doesn’t measure up as the recordings still could use still more production. While I am not a fan of strings and choral accompaniments, they do have their uses and this album could use them.

That is not to say that this is a bad album; far from it. The sound is just a bit thin at times and some of the tempos are rushed compared to Mickey’s commercially released recordings. Mickey is in good voice throughout and this is a bunch of really good songs

At the time these songs were recorded, Gilley did not have a long list of hits to call his own, so this album features mostly covers (for that matter, his first three hits were covers). His first three singles, “City Lights”, “I Overlooked An Orchid”, and “Room Full of Roses”, are here, as are the following songs (original artists in ( ) :

“Drinkin’ Thing” (Gary Stewart)
“Swingin’ Doors” (Merle Haggard)
“Someday (You’ll Want Me To Want You” (Elton Britt)
“Faded Love” (Bob Wills)
“You Win Again” (Hank Williams)
“Please Love Me Forever” (Cathy Jean and the Roommates)
“She Called Me Baby” (Carl Smith)
“Turn Around” (Carl Perkins)
Don’t Be Angry” (Stonewall Jackson)
“The Wild Side of Life” (Hank Thompson)
“San Antonio Rose” (Bob Wills)

There are no strings on the album but occasionally you’ll hear keyboards or synthesizers at work where strings might be expected. The sound of the band is a bit pedestrian, sometimes resembling a good bar band. Mickey’s vocals, however, are always excellent, except on “Drinkin’ Thing” where he does not tackle the song with a sufficient sense of irony.

While I would agree this album isn’t essential, it is still better than most of what I hear on country radio these days, and I would hope that Cracker Barrel and Country Rewind Records continue to unearth these gems.

I would give this a solid C+

Revelations from Music Vendor/ Record World

Hit_Country_RecordsAs the ‘last man standing’ Billboard‘s country charts have taken on an almost mythical importance, yet for most of the 1940s and 1950s, Billboard did a relatively poor job in recording the history of country singles in that their various country charts only went 10-15 places deep.

Music Vendor (later Record World) started tracking country music in 1954 and immediately started tracking 55 chart places for country records, a depth of country charts Billboard wouldn’t approach until 1964 when Billboard went to 50 places. For purposes of simplicity, I will always refer to Music Vendor/ Record World as ‘Record World‘.

Joel Whitburn’s new volume Hit Country Records 1954-1982: Music Vendor/Record World performs a valuable service in restoring to the known discography of country music a staggering 1700 songs and 200 artists that Billboard failed to chronicle.

I always thought that the Wilburn Brothers had a relatively thin representation on the Billboard charts with 31 chart entries from 1954-1972, with many songs that I knew to have been at least mid-level hits not being tracked by Billboard. Turns out that the Wilburn Brothers were the poorest served of all country artists by Billboard with a staggering 30 songs not tracked by Billboard. Other artists with huge holes in their Billboard chart discographies include Hank Snow (26 songs), Eddy Arnold (23 songs), Kitty Wells (21 songs), Hank Thompson (21 songs), Johnnie & Jack (20 songs) and Ernest Tubb, Marty Robbins, Ferlin Husky and George Jones (each with 19 songs).

Among Bluegrass artists, Flatt & Scruggs pick up an extra 15 chart entries, Mac Wiseman (13), Jimmy Martin (6), Bill Monroe (4), and the Osborne Brothers (4).

There were also apparently differences in how artists were classified. Country audiences always loved Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley, George Hamilton IV and Conway Twitty, a fact Billboard somehow failed to acknowledge. After missing “Jambalaya”, Billboard tracked “One Step At A Time”, and then missed the next eleven consecutive Brenda Lee songs including such monsters as “Dynamite”, “Sweet Nothings”, “Fool #1” and “Break It To Me Gently”.

The track record on Elvis was worse as Billboard failed to track “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Blue Suede Shoes”, along with 15 more songs.

Record World tracked six George Hamilton IV singles before Billboard got around to recognizing “Before This Day Ends” as a country single. Ditto for Conway Twitty who Billboard picked up as country with “Guess My Eyes Were Bigger Than My Heart”, after ten singles had already been tracked by Record World.

While most of the songs that Music Vendor/Record World picked up were second tier hits, there were some surprising Billboard misses uncovered such as the George Jones favorites “Tall Tall Trees”, “Eskimo Pie” and “Nothing Can Stop Me (Loving You)”. A very famous song from 1955 was Bobby Lord’s 1955 hit “Hawkeye”; Billboard missed the song entirely on any of its charts, whereas Record World had it charting for twelve weeks, reaching #16.

I mentioned that approximately 200 artists show up in this book that Billboard never tracked on its country charts. These include Carl Dobkins Jr (three songs including “My Heart Is An Open Book” which Record World has as a #2 country hit, and Billboard had reach #3 pop), Pete Drake (three instrumental singles), and Buddy Holly (four singles including “Peggy Sue” and “Maybe Baby”).

I’ve only had this fascinating book for two days and I will probably report further as time permits, but it would be remiss of me not to further examine the song that initially got me interested in charts. Yes – I do mean “Groovy Grubworm” by Harlow Wilcox and The Oakies. Cashbox had the record reach #1 on its country chart (#24 pop) for two weeks whereas Billboard had the record stall out at #42 on the country chart while reaching #30 on the pop charts. This was the biggest chart disparity ever between singles that reached #1 on either the Billboard or Cashbox country chart but not the other chart.

The record was hugely successful, selling a million copies between the US and Canadian markets (it was a top ten hit on several Canadian regional pop charts), so I was curious to see how Record World treated “Groovy Grubworm” on its country charts, recalling that Record World had the song chart higher on its pop chart (#23) than did either Cashbox or Billboard.

Drum roll please :

Record World had the song reach #3 for one week on its country chart during its thirteen week chart run.

Reissues wish list part 4: Capitol Records

wanda jacksonThe final part of this series looks at recordings issued on Capitol Records. Capitol didn’t have its own budget label but would lease old recordings to Pickwick and Hilltop.

Capitol Records was the smallest of the big four labels. Co-founder Johnny Mercer, a noted songwriter and performer, intended the label to be artist-friendly and so its rosters were relatively small. The major country artists for Capitol were Merle Travis, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Hank Thompson, Jean Shepard, Tommy Collins, Ferlin Husky, Tex Ritter, Faron Young, Sonny James, Wanda Jackson (not really a major country star), The Louvin Brothers, Charlie Louvin, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Glen Campbell, Freddie Hart and Gene Watson.

For whatever reason, most of the major Capitol artists are well represented on CD, whether through Capitol’s own reissues, or the efforts of foreign labels such as Ace, Bear Family and Jasmine. Among the Capitol artists listed above I would like to see more domestic re-issues on Faron Young, Charlie Louvin and Sonny James, but there is much product available even for them.

Kenny Dale was a fine singer who had a few hits reach as high as #11 on Billboard’s country charts (some of them, such as “Bluest Heartache Of The Year” reached #1 in some regional markets). While Capitol’s New Zealand affiliate issued a nice compilation (and Kenny has frequently performed ‘down under’) there has been nothing available domestically.

While Bobbie Gentry was a relatively minor presence in country music, a good two CD set of her material is needed as she had some success in the international markets along with her domestic hits.

The Hager Twins (aka Jim & Jon Hager) spent many years on the television show Hee Haw and toured with great success right up to the day Jim Hager died on May 1, 2008 (Jon died on January 9, 2009). While they never had great recording success, they remained a popular act and did chart a few records. The Hager Twins issued three albums on Capitol and it is likely, since most Capitol albums of the era ran 25-27 minutes in length, that all three could fit onto a single CD.

Hailing from Beaumont, Texas (home of George Jones), Billie Jo Spears was a fine artist who would have her biggest hits later while with United Artists and would enjoy great success with audiences in Great Britain and Ireland. While with Capitol, Billie Jo released six albums and a minimum of thirteen singles with one top ten single. I believe that Capitol, Liberty and United Artists now are all owned by the same conglomerate so it should be possible to take the Capitol Recordings and her eight United Artist and two Liberty albums and make a really nice three or four CD set.

Tony Booth would be on my wish list; however, Heart of Texas Records has reissued all six of Tony’s early 1970s albums on three CDs, as well as some recent recordings. Tony stayed in the business as a front man for Gene Watson, and perhaps others. He is a very fine singer.

On the other hand, other than two now out-of print anthologies, nothing has been released on Susan Raye other than her duets with Buck Owens. A good two CD set should suffice for her.

After knocking around the business as a songwriter and an excellent journeyman performer for over fifteen years, “Easy Loving” propelled Freddie Hart to superstar status for the better part of a decade. Already 43 years old when “Easy Loving” hit #1, while with Capitol Freddie had six #1 records, five more that reached the top three, three more top ten singles and a bunch more chart records to go long with eighteen albums (and a hits collection). Freddie is fully worth a boxed set of 60-80 songs based on his Capitol years alone.

Gene Watson still is very active as a touring and recording artist. While he is still in great voice and issuing terrific albums, his commercial peak occurred during his years with Capitol Records. Gene released seven albums and two hits collections while with Capitol. The British Hux label issued six of the albums on two-fers, but the albums should be released domestically. Capitol should release all three albums on a three CD set and there wouldn’t be a bad song in the bunch.

Mel McDaniel was a journeyman artist with a few big hits and a bunch of lower charting records that were good recordings but that have never been collected in digital form. There is a hits collection with ten or twelve songs on it, and some minor labels have issued re-recordings of some of his hits along with some extraneous new material. What is needed is a two CD set covering all of his 40+ Capitol chart records. Although they weren’t big radio hits, songs such as “Love Lies”, “Play Her Back To Yesterday”, “Hello Daddy, Good Morning Darling”, “Henrietta” and “Blue Suede Blues” are all worth preserving.

Most people identify Wanda Jackson as a Rock & Roll or Rockabilly artist rather than a country artist and that fact may have impaired her career as a country artist. That said, she had a substantial country career as a performer and released at least fifteen country albums while with Capitol. There have been a few decent Wanda Jackson country anthologies, mostly on foreign labels but a really good box set of 80-100 country recordings is warranted. Wanda Jackson Salutes The Country Music Hall of Fame is one of my favorite albums and none of its tracks have made it to a digital format.

Reissues wish list part 2: MCA and Decca

webb pierceFor most of the Classic Country era, the big four of country record labels were Decca /MCA, RCA, Columbia and Capitol. Of these labels, MCA/Decca has done the poorest job of keeping their artists’ catalogues alive in the form of reissues.

When speaking of the big four labels we will need to define terms.
MCA/Decca refers to recordings released on MCA, Decca, Brunswick and for some periods, Vocalion.

During the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Decca (later MCA) can be argued as having the strongest roster of artists. Such titans as Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, Webb Pierce, Conway Twitty, Jack Greene, Bill Anderson, Jimmy Martin, The Osborne Brothers, Bill Monroe, Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn frequently dominated the charts with many strong second tier acts such as The Wilburn Brothers, Jimmie Davis, Roy Drusky, Jimmie C. Newman, Johnny Wright, Cal Smith, Bill Phillips, Crystal Gayle, Jeanie Seely, Jan Howard and Red Sovine passing through the ranks at various times. Crystal Gayle, of course, became a major star in the late 1970s and 1980s

In the early digital days MCA had virtually nothing of their classic artists available aside from some Loretta Lynn, Bill Monroe and Conway Twitty discs. Then in 1991 they started their County Music Hall of Fame Series, showcasing artists elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, because of industry politics, their biggest stars, Webb Pierce and Conway Twitty, had not yet been elected.

Each of the discs contained fifteen or sixteen tracks or about 38 minutes of music. Many of the CDs featured artists who had not been on Decca for many years, and many featured artists who just passed through on their way to bigger and better things or had been bigger stars in the past. Among the CDS in the series were The Carter Family (on Decca 1937-1938), Jimmie Davis, Red Foley, Grandpa Jones (with Decca in the late 1950s – several remakes of King label hits), Loretta Lynn, Uncle Dave Macon (a real old-timer), Tex Ritter (1930s recordings), Roy Rogers, Sons of The Pioneers (with Decca during the 1930s and again in 1954), Hank Thompson (ABC/Dot recordings of the late 1960s and 1970s – MCA purchased the ABC & Dot labels – Hank never actually recorded for MCA/Decca). Floyd Tillman (1939-1944), Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells, Bill Monroe and Bob Wills (Bob’s best years were on Columbia and MGM). The Bob Wills recordings were 1955-1967 recordings on the Decca & Kapp labels – the Kapp recordings usually featured Nashville session players with no real feel for swing and are the least essential recordings Wills ever made.

Each of the CDs mentioned above are undeniably worthy, but are either inadequate or not representative of the artists’ peaks.

Some MCA/Decca artists have been covered by Bear Family, most notably Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells, Bill Monroe, Bill Anderson, Jimmy Martin and The Osborne Brothers. One could wish for more on some of these artists, but what is available generally is enough; however, it is expensive. Good two-disc sets would be desirable.

During the 1960s, Decca had their artists re-record their hits in order to take advantage of modern stereo technology, since for artists who peaked before 1957, such as Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb, Webb Pierce and Red Foley, their biggest hits were recorded in monaural sound. An additional consideration for Ernest Tubb was that his then-current band was larger and better with musicians such as Billy Byrd and Buddy Emmons (to name just two) being members of the band. In the case of Ernest Tubb, the re-recordings were superior to the original string band recordings.

In the case of most other artists, I think the originals were better BUT for many years the original recordings were not available and listeners of my generation grew up hearing the stereo remakes whether on records or on the radio. Since the digital era began the stereo remakes have been unavailable except on Bear Family sets. It would be nice if the stereo remakes were available, and it would be nice if MCA/Decca artists were available on decent domestic collections.

Webb Pierce – several domestic releases of Webb Pierce’s hits are available but they generally contain about a dozen songs, all from the 1950s. There is a Bear Family set that covers up to 1958 – it’s great but it misses all of Webb’s lesser later hits. Webb was the #1 country artist of the 1950s according to Billboard, and while he slipped thereafter, he was still the sixth ranked artist of the 1960s with many hits, including a couple of Record World #1s. None of this has been released on CD. What is needed is a good three CD set gathering up Webb’s 1960s (and early 1970s) chart hits plus key album tracks and the stereo remakes of the fifties hits.

For as widely popular as she was. you would expect much of Barbara Mandrell‘s output to be available. Barbara moved from Epic to ABC/Dot and when ABC/Dot was absorbed by MCA, her music was issued on that label. Barbara had 30+ hits for ABC/Dot/MCA with many #1 and top five recordings. Currently, not much is available and she warrants a boxed set.

Jack Greene and Cal Smith both had fairly late starts to their solo careers. While there exist a few hit collections for each artist (on foreign labels), neither is very complete, leaving off key songs. For Cal Smith, since Kapp and MCA are both owned by the same company, a two disc set collecting Cal’s Kapp & MCA/Decca singles should suffice (possibly a single disc with about thirty tracks would be okay).

For Jack Greene, more is needed since Jack had over thirty chart singles for Decca and issued at least fourteen albums plus a hits collection while on MCA/Decca. Jack was a superior vocalist and his albums contain recordings of others’ hits that often were better than the original hits. While not a hit for Jack, his version of “The Last Letter” is the definitive recording of the song.

The Osborne Brothers were bluegrass innovators, developing an almost unique (Jim & Jesse were doing something similar) bluegrass and country hybrid with bluegrass instruments augmented by electric guitar, steel guitar and sometimes other amplified instruments. After leaving MCA/Decca for CMH and other labels, the Osborne Brothers went back to a more traditional bluegrass approach. Almost none of that classic hybrid material is available except for a gospel CD and an excellent but short (ten songs) collection titled Country Bluegrass which seems randomly put together. No bluegrass group ever has huge numbers of hit records on the country charts, but the Osborne Brothers did chart quite a few and they should be available domestically. I would think a single disc set of thirty tracks would be acceptable, although more would be better, of course.

Johnny Wright is better know as part of the duo Johnny & Jack (with Jack Anglin), but after Anglin’s death in 1963, Wright embarked on a successful solo career which saw the release of at least six albums on MCA/Decca plus twelve chart singles including the #1 “Hello Vietnam” , the first chart topper for a Tom T. Hall song. Johnny’s wife was Kitty Wells, and while he never reached her level of success as a solo artist, apparently it never bothered Wright as he and Kitty were married from 1937 until his death in 2011 at the age of 97. A good single disc collection would suffice here.

The bulk of Little Jimmy Dickens’ career occurred for another label, but his time on MCA/Decca saw the release of two albums of new material plus an album featuring remakes of his earlier hits. The Decca albums featured a staple of Jimmy’s live shows “I Love Lucy Brown” and an amusing novelty “How To Catch An African Skeeter Alive”. I think most of this would fit on a single CD.

Wilma Burgess was an excellent singer who came along about four decades too soon. While Wilma did not flaunt being lesbian, neither did she particularly hide it. Consequently, she never got much of a commercial push from her label. Many have recorded “Misty Blue” but none did it as well as Wilma Burgess. She recorded at least five albums for MCA/Decca plus some duets with Bud Logan, former band leader for Jim Reeves. A decent two disc set of this outstanding singer should be easy to compile.

I would like to see a collection on Loretta Lynn’s siblings, Peggy Sue and Jay Lee Webb. Since Loretta’s other well known sibling started on MCA/Decca as well, it should be possible to do a good two CD set of Loretta’s kinfolks. Jay Lee Webb’s “She’s Looking Better By The Minute” is an all-time honky-tonk classic.

Favorite Country Songs Of The 80s: Part 7

It seems to me that I never did finish off this series, the last installment being posted on February 11, 2014 (and the installment before that appeared April 9,2013). Here are some more songs from the 1980s that I liked. This is an expanded and revised version of the February 11, 2014 article which was a rush job :

Shame On The Moon” – Bob Seger
Bob’s 1982 recording of a Rodney Crowell song charted on the country charts in early 1983, reaching #15 in the process. The song was a bigger hit on the pop charts, reaching #2 for four weeks.

Finally” – T. G. Sheppard
He worked for Elvis, sang background for Travis Wammack, and eventually emerged with a solo career worth noting, racking up 42 chart singles from 1974-1991. This 1982 single was one of fourteen #1 record racked up by Sheppard, eleven of them reaching #1 during the 1980s.

Doesn’t Anybody Get High On Love Anymore” – The Shoppe
The Shoppe was a Dallas based band that hung around for years after their 1968 formation. In the early 1980s they had eight chart records, but this was the only one to crack the top forty, reaching #33. They had a record deal with MTM Records in 1985, but that label vanished, taking the Shoppe with them.

Crying My Heart Out Over You” – Ricky Skaggs
Ricky Skaggs was one of the dominant artists of the first half of the 1980s with his bluegrass/country hybrid. Starting with 1981’s “You May See Me Walking” and ending with 1986’s “Love’s Gonna Get You Some Day“, Skaggs ran off sixteen consecutive top ten singles with ten of them reaching number one, This 1982 classic was the first chart topper. Eventually Ricky returned to straight bluegrass, but I like the hybrid recordings better. In my original article I spotlighted “Honey (Open That Door)“, a straight forward country Mel Tillis song recorded by Webb Pierce.

Don’t Stay If You Don’t Love Me” – Patsy Sledd
Stardom never really happened for Patsy, who was a good singer marooned early in her career on a bad label. She was part of the George Jones-Tammy Wynette show in the early 1970s. This song reached #79 in 1987.

“Nice To Be With You” – Slewfoot
This band replaced Alabama as the feature band at the Bowery Club in Myrtle Beach. This was their only chart single, a cover of Gallery’s #4 pop hit from 1972 that reached #85 in 1986.

King Lear” – Cal Smith
The last chart hit for the former Texas Troubadour. This song reached #75 in 1986.

“A Far Cry From You” – Connie Smith
After a six year recording hiatus, the greatest female country recording artist of all time returned with this one-shot single on the Epic label. It’s a great song but received no promotional push at all from the label landing at #71 in 1985. Unfortunately, this single has never appeared on an album.

“The Shuffle Song” – Margo Smith
Exactly as described – a shuffle song that reached #13 for Margo in early 1980. Margo had a brief run of top ten hits in the middle and late 1970s but the string was about over. In my prior article I featured “He Gives Me Diamonds, You Give Me Chills” but The Shuffle song is actually my favorite 80s hit from Margo. She lives in The Villages in Florida and still performs occasionally.

Cheatin’s A Two Way Street” – Sammi Smith
Her last top twenty song from 1981. Sammi only had three top ten hits but made many fine records. This was one of them.

Hasn’t It Been good Together” – Hank Snow and Kelly Foxton
The last chart record for the ‘Singing Ranger’. The record only got to #78 for the 65 year old Snow in 1980 but I couldn’t let pass the opportunity to acknowledge the great career of the most successful Canadian country artist. By any legitimate means of chart tracking, his 1950 hit “I’m Moving On” is still the number one country hit of all time. Hank had perfect diction and was a great guitar player.

Tear-Stained Letter” – Jo-El Sonnier
A late bloomer, this was the forty-two year old Jo-El’s second of two top ten records and my favorite. It reached #8 in 1988. There were brief periods in the past when Cajun music could break through for a hit or two. Eddy Raven was the most successful Cajun artist but most of his material was straight-ahead country.

Sometimes You Just Can’t Win” – J.D. Souther and Linda Ronstadt
George Jones charted this record twice, but it’s such a good song it was worth covering. This version went to #27 in 1982. J.D had a big pop hit in 1980 with “You’re Only Lonely” which reached #7.

Honey I Dare You” – Southern Pacific
Southern Pacific was a bunch of guys who previously played with other bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Doobie Brothers and Pablo Cruise, making some real good country music in the process. This was one of their four top ten hits of the 1980s. “A Girl Like Emmylou” from 1986 only reached #17 but the song tells you where this band’s heart was located.

Lonely But Only For You” – Sissy Spacek
Loretta Lynn wanted to Spacek to portray her in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter, and it turns out that Sissy can really can sing. This song reached #15 in 1983.

Standing Tall” – Billie Jo Spears
Billie Jo Spears, from Beaumont, Texas, was incredibly popular in England and Ireland, where “Blanket On The Ground” and “What I’ve Got In Mind” were top five pop hits in the mid 1970s and she had many more lesser successes. Many of her later albums were not released in the US but she had a substantial US career with thirty-four charted records, including two #1 hits. “Standing Tall” reached #15 in 1980.

Chain Gang” – Bobby Lee Springfield
More successful as a songwriter than as a performer, Springfield had two chart sings in 1987 with “Hank Drank” (#75) and “Chain Gang” (#66) which was NOT the Sam Cooke hit. Bobby Lee was both too country and too rockabilly for what was charting at the time. I really liked All Fired Up, the one album Epic released on him.

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The best re-issues of 2014

pathway of my lifeAs is always the case, most of the best reissues of American Country Music come from Europe. There are several reasons for this:

1 – Until recently, European copyrights on recordings were only good for 50 years. This changed recently to 70 years, but the change was not retroactive. I am not sure what the cut-off point is for application of the 70 year copyright as I’ve seen varying reports, but it appears that recordings already out of copyright protection will remain in the public domain, but recordings released after 1962 will have the longer copyrights applicable (at least in the UK).

2- The European customer for country music is more traditionally oriented than American audiences. This holds true for many forms of music including rockabilly, rock & roll, rhythm & blues, pop standards, you name it. European audiences, unlike their American counterparts, have not discarded the past.

3- American Record labels simply don’t care – I’d elaborate, but there’s no point to it.

It should be noted that some of these albums may have been issued before 2012 but became generally available during 2014 through various markets.

We’ll start off with two box sets from the gold standard of reissue labels, Bear Family:

1. HANK THOMPSON – THE PATHWAY OF MY LIFE (1966-1984)
Released in late 2013, but not generally available until this year, this Bear Family extravaganza grabs Hank’s recordings made for Warner Brothers, Dot , ABC, Churchill and MCA/Dot in a Deluxe 8 CD set with a booklet compiled with the assistance of Hank himself.

Hank Thompson’s biggest hits were recorded during his years with Capitol, but he still had a large number of hits after that. More importantly, he still was making great recordings. Although there are other artists I prefer to Hank Thompson, I regard Hank Thompson and Doc Watson as the two most consistent country artists of all time – neither of them ever made a bad recording. Hank’s four biggest hits of the post-Capitol era were “On Tap, In The Can or In The Bottle” (#8) , “Smoky The Bar” (#5), “The Older The Violin the Sweeter The Music “ (#8) and “Who Left The Door To Heaven Open” (10). They are all here along with six more top twenty hits and a bunch of other chart records.

If you wonder how significant Hank Thompson was just ask George Strait. Ol’ George made one of his few guest appearances (and probably his first such appearance) with Hank Thompson on a mid 1980s recording of “A Six Pack To Go”.

just between you and me2. PORTER WAGONER & DOLLY PARTON – JUST BETWEEN YOU AND ME – 1967-1976
Porter & Dolly were roughly contemporaries of the teams Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty and George Jones & Tammy Wynette. I have always regarded Porter & Dolly as the best male-female duet pairing ever. Their hits were not quite as big as those of the other two duets, but consider this: Loretta, Conway, George and Tammy were all top-tier stars. At the time these recordings were made, Porter Wagoner was a journeyman country singer who had a major label contract, an over-the-top personality and a syndicated television show to cover the fact that his big hits were fairly few, although he had experienced a bit of a revival in 1964-1969. Meanwhile Dolly Parton was an up and comer with no major hit records until 1970.

What made the pairing so special was the chemistry they had between them. George & Tammy may have been married for a while, but that spark that made the most trivial of songs special for Porter & Dolly was missing (I always regarded George’s best duet partner as Melba Montgomery, and although they did not especially get along, I felt Tammy’s best duets were with David Houston)

Conway & Loretta had more chemistry than George & Tammy but were never as involved in being a duet as Porter & Dolly as both had ‘big star’ careers to maintain.

Porter and Dolly recorded a lot of songs, and they are all here: sad songs (“Jeanie’s Afraid of The Dark“, “Just Someone I Used To Know”), happy songs (“Lost Forever In Your Kiss”), totally ridiculous songs (“Her and The Car and The Mobile Home Were Gone”, “Run That By Me One More Time”) and a plethora of simply good country songs from songwriters as diverse as Jack Clement, Dave Kirby, Tom Paxton and dozens of others. Six CDs worth of the best harmonies ever recorded with lavish book and the superb sound engineering for which Bear Family is famous.

Next some American labels get into the act …

ronnie milsap -the rca albums collection3. RONNIE MILSAP – THE RCA ALBUMS COLLECTION
Charley Pride was one of early supporters and many subsequent singers have cited Ronnie Milsap as a primary influence, including Vince Gill and Hunter Hayes. Since Milsap is a musical chameleon who can cover the gamut from Cajun to R&B to stone cold country and classic pop, it figures that he would have influenced a wide range of artists. Ronnie rang up a staggering number of hits including 40 #1 records in his long career. This set , consisting of 21 CDs covering his RCA output is overkill, but for a performer as gifted as Ronnie Milsap perhaps the overkill can be justified.

4. ZAC BROWN BAND – GREATEST HITS SO FAR …
They may look like something from Duck Dynasty but these fellows have a lot of talent. Moreover, this is an honest hits collection – no previously unissued tracks, jut fourteen hit singles starting with their first #1 from 2008 in “Chicken Fried” and finishing with “Sweet Annie” from 2013. If you haven’t purchased any of their albums yet, this is a ‘must-have’ (and if you haven’t purchased any of their albums yet, shame on you).

back to the Europeans …

the louvin brothers - complete recorded works5. THE LOUVIN BROTHERS – COMPLETE RECORDED WORKS 1952-1962
This is one of those European sets consisting of six CDs (143 songs) encompassing the Louvins’ output on Capitol Records – generally available for $20.00 or less. I don’t know much about the label (Enlightenment), and their product comes with fairly bare bones packaging but it is the music that matters, and few acts ever mattered as much as Ira & Charlie Louvin. The digital sound is quite decent. The set encompasses twelve of the Louvins’ albums, several of which are primarily religious material. The set isn’t quite complete as there were a few singles which did not make it to an album until much later including “When I Stop Dreaming” and “Must You Throw Dirt In My Face”.

6. GEORGE JONES SINGS HANK AND BOB
Hank Williams and Bob Wills were two of the country greats and George Jones paid tribute to them in three albums recorded in the late 1950s – early 1960s. Collected here on the Not Now label are the Mercury album George Jones Salutes Hank Williams and the United Artist albums George Jones Sings Bob Wills and My Favorites of Hank Williams. Supposedly, George wasn’t much of a Bob Wills fan, but you couldn’t prove it by me. If George felt he didn’t have much feel for western swing he must be judging by an impossibly high standard as this is great stuff. Every album should be like this: great music sung by a master singer.

My biggest complaint about this set is the sequencing – two CDs each with 12 Hank songs followed by six of Bob’s songs.

7. JOHNNY CASH – THE SUN SINGLES COLLECTION
This collection, also on the Not Now label, is comprised of two CDs containing 38 songs. This is material that has been endlessly available over the last 50+ years and now it is available again. Available for under $20, if you don’t have this material already, this is a good value – the sound is good and the songs contained herein are beyond essential. This is where it all started for the man in black. IMHO, there is no such thing as too much Johnny Cash. There have been better collections of the Sun recordings, but this one is available now, and at a nice price.

8. CARL PERKINS – THE ROCKABILLY YEARS
This collection, on the One Day label, is comprised of two CDs containing 40 songs. As with the Cash collection above, this is material that has been endlessly available over the last 50+ years and now it is available again. No complaints about the material, the performances or the sound quality. Available for under $20, if you don’t have this material already, this is a must – just don’t step on my blue suede shoes in your haste to buy this set.

eddy arnold -the complete chart singles9. EDDY ARNOLD – THE COMPLETE CHART SINGLES (1945-1962)
In terms of the number of weeks his singles stayed at #1 (143 weeks according to Billboard) Eddy Arnold is the all-time country music leader, 33 weeks ahead of Webb Pierce and miles ahead of George Strait, Dolly Parton or anyone else. This three CD set collects 77 of Eddy’s chart hits through 1962 which means that it pulls up just short of Eddy’s mid 1960s revival that started with “What’s He Doing In My World” and “Make The World Go Away”. No matter – the 1940s material was better than anything Eddy contrived to record during the 1960s and the 1950s recordings, while not always the biggest hits , were usually fairly interesting as Eddy experimented with his sound and expanded his repertoire to include folk and pop material. I would consider the first to CDs to be absolutely essential and the third CD as very good. The folks at Acrobat released this fine collection and included a fine booklet to go with the set.

10. JOHNNY HORTON – NORTH TO ALASKA AND OTHER GREAT HITS (The Early Albums)
Johnny Horton (1925-1960) was one of Johnny Cash’s best friends (and fishing buddy) and had a brief period of time in which his material dominated the country charts and made serious inroads onto the pop charts. This set collects his earlier (and largely unsuccessful) recordings for Dot and his initial recordings for Columbia. Don’t let the ‘early albums’ description fool you – since Horton was killed in a car crash in 1960, there are no later albums except label creations.

The set contains two CDs and 60 songs including all of the Columbia hits including “The Battle of 1814” and “North To Alaska” – good stuff. This is on the Jasmine label – apparently briefly available in 2012 and now available again in the USA

I didn’t review any of the Gusto/Starday/King/ Cindy Lou recordings this time around but check out the Gusto website. Gusto has the habit a repackaging earlier albums into nice box sets – for instance a few years ago they combined three Mel Street albums into a 58 song boxed set. Another label to check on is Heart of Texas Records which has reissued old Capitol and Step One sets on artists such as Tony Booth and Curtis Potter.

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.

Classic Rewind: Hank Thompson – ‘A Sixpack To Go’

Week ending 2/22/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

rodriguez1954 (Sales): Slowly — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Jukebox) (tie): Wake Up Irene — Hank Thompson (Capitol)
There Stands The Glass — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): Bimbo — Jim Reeves (Abbott)

1964: Begging To You — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1974: That’s The Way Love Goes — Johnny Rodriguez (Mercury)

1984: Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown — Ricky Skaggs (Epic)

1994: I Swear — John Michael Montgomery (Atlantic)

2004: American Soldier — Toby Keith (DreamWorks)

2014: Drink A Beer — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

2014 (Airplay): Drink A Beer — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

The best reissues of 2013

2013 was a bad year for fans of traditional country music and its near cousins.Not only was radio virtually devoid of traditional country sounds, but Billboard bastardized its country charts to the point of meaninglessness, accepting remixes and reissues with other artists and treating them all as one record. Worse yet, a good many of our radio heroes passed away, starting on January 1, 2013 with the death of Patti Page, a country girl who went on to become a great classic pop singer, and who continued to showcase country songs throughout her illustrious career. Along the way we lost Jack Greene, Cal Smith, George Jones, Kitty Wells, Tompall Glaser, Ottis “Slim” Whitman, Claude King, Jack Clements, Lorene Mann, George Beverly Shea, and too many more for me to recount. We ended the year with the death of the great Ray Price.

Fortunately, we live in an age where the musical legacy of our radio heroes can and does live on. While not the absolute best year for reissues, it was a very strong year, with most of the great reissues coming from foreign soil.

On the domestic front Sony Legacy has been redoing their Essential series, issuing a series of two disc sets. The Essential Tammy Wynette is easily the best Tammy Wynette collection we will see, unless Bear Family decides to do a box set. The collection is arranged chronologically and without skipping the lesser hits. Fans of Tammy will hear some songs that rarely have been anthologized, and hear her catalog of hits in the order in which they were released. The forty songs are digitally remastered to sound superb, and even though I have such other Tammy Wynette collections as Tears of Fire and Anniversary: Twenty Years of Hits, still I regard this as an essential purchase for Tammy’s fans and a great introduction for those unfamiliar with her work.

I’m not a big Martina McBride fan but Sony Legacy’s two disc The Essential Martina McBride, issued in late 2012 and not widely available until this year, is probably the best collection you’ll see on Martina – terrific sound, with forty songs. A few minor hits have been omitted in favor of other material, which I don’t like, but that’s just me.

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The UK based Jasmine label has probably been the leading purveyor of reasonably pricced reissues, issuing a series of two CD sets, either featuring intact four older albums of a particular artist or issuing some sets that are simply collections of songs. Some of the Jasmine releases below were actually issued in late 2012, but not widely available until 2013.

Oh Lonesome Me, Singles Collection 1956-1962 is an outstanding two CD collection of Don Gibson’s singles from 1956-1962. Not only does the set capture Don’s earliest and biggest RCA hits (“Oh Lonesome Me”, “Sea of Heartbreak”, “Blue Blue Day”), but it also revisits Don’s rarely found MGM singles, including the earliest take on “Sweet Dreams”. Forty-six songs, hours of listening pleasure.

Love Is The Sweatest Thing: The Early Album Collection collects four of Ferlin Husky’s early Capitol albums. The albums are not overrun with hit singles (during the 1950s albums were often marketed to a different audience than were singles) but has four albums that are quite different from one another. 1956’s Songs of Home and The Heart features older country songs. Boulevard of Broken Dreams (1957) and Sittin’ On A Rainbow (1958) both feature what would today be referred as classic pop or pop standards – in other words, not very country at all. The last album in the set, Walkin’ And A Hunmin’ (1961), which Ferlin referred to as his Hank Williams album, does feature seven songs associated with Hank Williams. This collection gives a good overview of the breadth of Ferlin’s talent.

Headin’ Down The Wrong Highway: The Early Albums features four Hank Thompson albums from 1958-1961. For me the standout album is 1961’s Live At The Golden Nugget, but all of the albums are great listening. Relatively few hits are in this collection, but once you start the disc playing, you won’t care about the lack of hit records as Hank and his Brazos Valley Boys always exude good cheer and lotsa fun.

The First Lady of Country: The Early Album Collection is what I would deem to be an essential Jean Shepard album, including as it does one of the very first ‘concept’ albums in 1956’s Songs of A Love Affair. There are not a lot of hit singles in this 2 CD collection, but there are a lot of songs capturing the heart and soul of this pioneering female singer.

Queen of Honky Tonk Angels: Four Original Albums by Kitty Wells, captures an early hit collection in Country Hit Time, a gospel album, Dust On The Bible, and a pair of albums largely comprised of covers. Kitty Wells had a strong clear voice that didn’t waver until very late in life. She treats her material and herself with respect, the end result being albums really worth hearing.

Folk Ballads, Hits and Hymns – Four Stereo LPs finds legendary bluegrass singer Mac Wiseman traveling down other more mainstream country roads. Fans of bluegrass may be disappointed with the albums, but fans of Mac Wiseman will love this set comprised of two gospel albums, an album of some current (as of 1960) folk and country hits plus an album of folk songs. One of the gospel albums features the Jordanaires throughout, not that Mac ever really needed help to perform a gospel song.

I don’t know that you can really call Walter Brennan a country artist at all, but Jasmine released a single disc CD on Grandpa McCoy titled Reminiscing With Walter Brennan which definitely catches the essence of a beloved actor and perfermer. Brennan only had one hit “Old Rivers” (#3 Country / #5 pop) but it’s here along with 27 other favorites including his wonderful take on “The Shifting Whispering Sands”

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If the name Curly Putman means anything at all to the casual fan, it is as the writer of “Green Green Grass of Home” and co-writer of “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today” . Curly did have a bit of a singing career and issued a some albums on ABC Records. Omni has collected two of Curly’s albums The Lonesome Country Of Curly Putman (1967) and Curly Putman’s World Of Country Music (1969) on a single disc. He’s hardly a compelling singer, but it is always interesting to hear a songwriter interpret his own material. “My Elusive Dreams” was released as a single and reached #41.

New West Records issued Dwight Yoakam’s 21st Century Hits: Best-Of 2000-2012, a nice collection of fourteen singles and miscellaneous tracks . Hardly Dwight’s best work, but still a useful collection, gathering together tracks not easily found.

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Omnivore Recordings, a label out of Los Angeles, CA started releasing albums in late 2012. Probably their most important release was the George Jones collection The Complete United Artists Solo Singles. I’ve always regarded the best recordings George Jones ever made as coming from his tenure with United Artists 1962-1965. From this period the finely nuanced singer emerged with such great singles as “She Thinks I Still Care” , “Sometimes You Can’t Win” , “A Girl I Used To Know” , “You Comb Her Hair” and “The Race Is On”. All of these titles have been available as re-recordings made for Musicor and/or Epic , but these are the original hit versions – 32 songs, the A and B sides of his 16 United Artist singles – an absolutely essential collection (unless you own the Bear Family box set of the United Artists years).

Omnivore also has released some Buck Owens, Don Rich and Buckaroos collections.

Buck Em! : The Music of Buck Owens 1955-1967 is billed as the companion to the recently published Buck Owens autobiography, but as a stand-alone collection it is a worthy acquisition if there is a hole in your Buck Owens catalog. Some alternative and live recordings are among the two CD sets fifty tracks. Not essential but a nice collection spanning the Pep and early Capitol years.

Omnivore’s Honky Tonk Man: Buck Sings The Country Classics collects eighteen tracks recorded for use on the television show Hee Haw. Many of these tracks were recorded after the death of Don Rich, so the classic harmonies aren’t always present, and these are very short recordings designed to fit the pace of the television show, but they are songs that Buck didn’t otherwise record for commerical release, covering country classics from 1945-1973 by the likes of Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Johnny Horton and Ray Price.

With “Live” At The White House (… And In Space), Omnivore makes available a live Buck Owens album that Capitol had a available for a short time of Buck’s September 9, 1968 White House performance for President Lyndon Johnson. The original album only ran about 22 minutes so in order to get a usable length CD, Omnivore coupled the album with a program recorded for the Apollo 16 astronauts to take on their mission with them. A bit gimmicky, but Buck Owens completists will want the album.

The late Don Rich was a fine singer in his own right and an excellent musician that Omnivore has focused upon. That Fiddlin’ Man restores to print a 1971 Buckaroos allbum featuring Don Rich on fiddle and adds an additional ten tracks of Don fiddlin’ around from other Buckaroo albums. I got to see Buck & Don in person three times and it was always a highlight of the show when Buck has Don pull out his ‘cherry apple red fiddle’ and play “Cajun Fiddle”, “Orange Blossom Special” or some other tune. Don Rich Sings George Jones features ten George Jones songs that were recorded for a never released Don Rich solo album, augmented with four Buck Owens tracks of George Jones covers. The Buckaroos Play Merle and Buck couple a pair of Buckaroos albums, 1965’s The Buck Owens Songbook with 1971’s The Songs of Merle Haggard. These are all instrumental numbers featuring Don Rich (mostly) on telecaster.

There are many fine Merle Haggard collections available so Omnivore’s The Complete 60s Capitol Singles is hardly an essential collection but it is definitely an excellent one and anyway one can never have too much Merle Haggard in their collection. Twenty-eight songs – the A & B sides of Merle’s fourteen singles, and Merle’s B sides were hardly throw-aways, “Today I Started Loving You Again” and “Silver Wings” both being B sides. Merle’s peak years were with Capitol and this is all great stuff – it doesn’t get any better than this !

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I will close out with a Bear Family boxed set that is beyond the price range for most of us, probably even beyond the Christmas ‘wish list’: Tall Dark Stranger – Buck Owens and The Buckaroos Recordings: 1968-1975. This eight CD set covers Buck’s slightly post-peak eriod with Capitol Records, a period that saw Buck experimenting with and updating the ‘freight train’ sound that had become his hallmark. Includes his duet albums with son Buddy Alan Owens, the Susan Raye duets, some Buckaroos recordings and even a duet with a duet with R&B singer Bettye Swann. Buck had about 20 chart hits during this period and the set features many previously unreleased songs

Willie Nelson: the country duet albums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Week ending 8/31/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

ronnie-mcdowell1953 (Sales): A Dear John Letter — Jean Shepard & Ferlin Husky (Capitol)

1953 (Jukebox): Rub-A-Dub-Dub — Hank Thompson (Capitol)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): It’s Been So Long — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1963: Ring of Fire — Johnny Cash (Columbia)

1973: Everybody’s Had The Blues — Merle Haggard (Capitol)

1983: You’re Gonna Ruin My Bad Reputation — Ronnie McDowell (Epic)

1993: Can’t Break It To My Heart — Tracy Lawrence (Atlantic)

2003: It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere — Alan Jackson with Jimmy Buffett (Arista)

2013: That’s My Kind Of Night — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

2013 (Airplay): Don’t Ya — Brett Eldredge (Atlantic)

Country Heritage: Jean Shepard

jean shepard 1You gaze at that guitar on your knee
In a way that you never look at me
This love affair of yours has gone too far
And I’m tired of playing second fiddle to an old guitar

— From “Second Fiddle (To an Old Guitar),” Capitol Records, 1964

Kitty Wells may have been the reigning Queen of Country Music during the 1950s, but in the eyes of many (including myself) Jean Shepard had at least as good a claim to the title. Whereas Kitty Wells, after the uncharacteristically defiant “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” reverted back to songs of domestic bliss and of being the “wronged woman,” Jean Shepard kept pushing the boundaries for female country singers. Jean may not have pushed things as far as Loretta Lynn did during the late 1960s and 70s, but she laid the groundwork for Loretta and those to follow. Among Europeans, whose tastes in country music run to more traditional sounds, many regard her as the greatest of all female country singers, a sentiment that was echoed by such leading British county music journalists as Pat Campbell, Bob Powell, and David Allen. While I don’t regard Shepard quite that highly, on my personal list of the greatest female country singers of all time, she would be in my top three (greatest, as opposed to most popular or most influential) singers. During her peak years (roughly 1953-75) she was a definite force of nature

Born Ollie Imogene Shepard on November 21, 1933 in Oklahoma, she was the child of parents who moved to Bakersfield, California, as a result of the Dust Bowl that engulfed the midwest during the 1930s. Since Shepard has been staunchly performing modern traditional country music for over sixty years, it seems only fitting that she grew up and started her career in the area surrounding Bakersfield, California.

Jean began her career as a bass player in the Melody Ranch Girls, an all-female band formed in 1948. Not long thereafter, she came to the attention of Hank Thompson, who, impressed by her talents, helped her get a record deal with Capitol Records–where she worked with Thompson’s producer, Ken Nelson. At the time she inked her deal, Shepard was still a teenager.

On her Capitol recordings, Shepard was a honky-tonker whose hard-core sound could rival any of her male counterparts. While her first single “Crying Steel Guitar Waltz” failed to chart, it showed enough promise for Capitol to team her with another promising singer, Ferlin Husky, for the 1953 chart-topper “A Dear John Letter,” a song which resonated with many returning Korean War veterans. After this, the solo hits started coming with “Beautiful Lies” and “A Satisfied Mind” being among the biggest hits of 1955 ( “A Satisfied Mind” was also a major hit for Porter Wagoner and Red Foley, but after you’ve heard Jean Shepard’s version, you will forget about the others).

Along the way, Shepard became a part of Red Foley’s Ozark Jubilee (broadcast from Springfield, MO on ABC TV) from 1955 to 1957, and she was inducted as a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1956, where she has remained a member to this day. It was during this period that Jean released what may have been country music’s first album centered around a theme in Songs of a Love Affair. Shepard had a hand in writing all twelve songs on this album.

She continued to have hits throughout the fifties and sixties, although like many other traditional country singers her hits became increasingly smaller as rock ‘n roll and the Nashville sound came into prominence. Lost in the shuffle were such excellent singles as “Act Like A Married Man,” “Tomorrow I’ll Be Gone,” “I Used To Love You,” and “Have Heart, Will Love.”

In 1960 Shepard married Hawkshaw Hawkins, a minor star whose forte was his live stage shows rather than recording success. Jean was pregnant with his son Hawkshaw Hawkins, Jr. at the time of the 1963 plane crash that claimed Hawkins’ life (as well as those of Lloyd “Cowboy” Copas and Patsy Cline).

After her son’s birth, Shepard dealt with the tragedy of her husband’s death by pouring herself back into her career. In 1964 she rebounded back near the top of the charts with the feisty “Second Fiddle (To an Old Guitar),” a song which spotlighted her yodeling ability. The next few years would produce more hits including “Seven Lonely Days,” “Many Happy Hangovers To You,” and a rare ballad “Another Lonely Night.” She also teamed up with Ray Pillow for several duets, including the big hit “I’ll Take the Dog” in 1966.

Between 1965 and 1970 Shepard charted fifteen Top 40 hits. Eventually, though, Capitol –- blessed with a deep roster that included Wanda Jackson, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Glen Campbell and Sonny James –quit pushing her recordings to radio.

A switch to United Artists (UA) in 1973 re-ignited her career as her first single for the label, the Bill Anderson-penned “Slippin’ Away,” went to #4  Billboard /#1 Cashbox /#1 Record World  , and was followed by such great singles as “At The Time,” “I’ll Do Anything It Takes (To Stay With You),” “Poor Sweet Baby,” “Tip of My Fingers,” and “Another Neon Night.” One of her UA albums, Poor Sweet Baby, was composed entirely of songs written by Bill Anderson.  Shepard remained with UA for five years.  Since then she has recorded only occasionally for various minor labels.

Along the way, Shepard married Benny Birchfield, (best known for his tenor harmonies during his tenure with the Osborne Brothers bluegrass group). She also served as president of the Association of Country Entertainers, the perfect spokesperson for this very traditionalist organization.

In 2010, Jean was inducted into the Oklahoma Country Music Hall of Fame. Then in 2011, Jean was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, an honor three decades overdue.

Jean Shepard has been a member of the Grand Ole Opry since 1955 and continues to perform regularly on the Grand Old Opry where she is indeed, the “Grand Lady of the Opry,” and a national treasure. She also tours occasionally, (in the past she sometimes performed with her son Hawkshaw Hawkins, Jr. but I haven’t heard much about him recently).  She’s lost a little off her vocal ‘chops’ over the course of time, but even 85% of Jean Shepard is a lot more than 100% of most singers.

Discography

Vinyl

Capitol Records issued twenty-one albums on Jean Shepard from 1956 to 1975 (one of these was a duet album with Ray Pillow) plus there were some budget reissues released on the Hilltop label. United Artists issued five albums plus a Greatest Hits collection from 1973 to 1976.

Albums on either Capitol or United Artist  will capture Jean at the peak of her vocal prowess. Later albums will still catch Jean in good voice but with less care given to the accompaniment and production, although the album Stars of the Grand Ole Opry issued in 1981 on Pete Drake’s First Generation Records, is a pretty good effort.

CD / Digital

The CD catalog for Shepard isn’t what it should be, although the Bear Family boxed set titled Melody Ranch Girl is available. The folks at Collector’s Choice Music described it thus, “151 legendary Capitol sides from the woman who broke through the thick gender barrier in country music without looking back! This is everything Jean recorded from 1952–1964—from ‘A Dear John Letter’ up through ‘Second Fiddle (to an Old Guitar)’—including her landmark album Songs of a Love Affair, the first concept album recorded by a female country artist, plus her Got You on My Mind, Lonesome Love and Heartaches and Tears albums. A 36-page book with a newly researched biography, discography and rare photos completes the story.”

For folks wanting to sample Jean’s work without shelling out over $100, there are some decent alternatives available.

The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently lists nine titles available, including the above-mentioned Melody Ranch Girl boxed set and the CD version of Stars of the Grand Ole Opry and an outstanding two disc set released recently by the UK label Jasmine titled The First Lady of Country, which is composed of four of Jean’s early Capitol albums (Songs of A Love Affair, Lonesome Love, This Is Jean Shepard, and Got You On My Mind).

I am not sure of the vintage of the recordings on the other sets available from Ernest Tubb, but if you call them, the folks taking your order often can give useful information.

The Country Music Foundation in 1995 issued the stellar Jean Shepard: Honky-Tonk Heroine, which has 24 songs taken from her tenure at Capitol. It may still be possible to obtain this disc. That same year Castle Communications (Australasia) issued A Satisfied Mind which has 26 tracks (17 Capitol recordings and 9 United Artist recordings)– this is the only set (of which I am aware) that contains original United Artist recordings.

Other collections available are of uncertain vintage. Jean has issued some CDs herself (Jean, Personal Favorites, and perhaps other titles) that are often remakes but contain some song titles otherwise unavailable. I have several of these discs and they are worth obtaining.

Amazon (and probably other sites, as well) have some of Jean’s music available as digital downloads. The available music appears to be a mixed bag of originals and remakes but fortunately you can hear samples before purchasing.   While recording quality can vary, there are no bad Jean Shepard vocal performances on any of the recordings that I’ve heard.

Week ending 8/10/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

etc1953 (Sales): It’s Been So Long — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1953 (Jukebox): Rub-A-Dub-Dub — Hank Thompson (Capitol)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): It’s Been So Long — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1963: Ring of Fire — Johnny Cash (Columbia)

1973: Lord, Mr. Ford — Jerry Reed (RCA)

1983: Your Love’s On The Line — Earl Thomas Conley (RCA)

1993: Chattahoochie — Alan Jackson (Arista)

2003: It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere — Alan Jackson with Jimmy Buffett (Arista)

2013: Cruise — Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

2013 (Airplay): Runnin’ Outta Moonlight — Randy Houser (Stoney Creek)

Week ending 8/3/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

hankthompson1953 (Sales): It’s Been So Long — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1953 (Jukebox): Rub-A-Dub-Dub — Hank Thompson (Capitol)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): It’s Been So Long — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1963: Ring of Fire — Johnny Cash (Columbia)

1973: You Were Always There — Donna Fargo (Dot)

1983: I Always Get Lucky With You — George Jones (Epic)

1993: Chattahoochie — Alan Jackson (Arista)

2003: Red Dirt Road — Brooks & Dunn (Arista)

2013: Cruise — Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

2013 (Airplay): Done — The Band Perry (Republic Nashville)