My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Hank Williams

Album Review: Conway Twitty – ‘Hello Darlin’

Note: I never owned this album on vinyl so I am working off a CD released on MCA Special Products in 1991, The songs are the same as on the initial vinyl release but the sequence of the songs is different on the CD.

Issued in June 1970, Hello Darlin’ was the ninth solo studio album released by Conway Twitty on Decca. The album was Conway’s first #1 country album and was eventually certified “Gold”. It also reached #65 on Billboard’s all genres chart, the highest that any of Conway’s country albums would reach, although reporting of country albums on the all-genres chart was very suspect and country albums were frequently under-reported by record shop personnel.

The CD opens with the Felice & Boudreaux Bryant classic “Rocky Top”. At the time, “Rocky Top” was a fairly new song that had not been covered to death. The Osborne Brothers had a hit with the song in 1968 and the combination of Doug Dillard, Gene Clark and Donna Washburn had a really nice version of the song on a Dillard & Clark album from that same year. Conway’s version has a banjo on it with what is otherwise an up-tempo Nashville production. Needless to say, Conway sings the song very well although he changes the words very slightly to accommodate his own phrasing.

Next up is “I’ll Get Over Losing You” a song written by Conway, a somewhat generic ballad about lost love. As always Conway sings it well, making for pleasant listening.

Conway also penned “Up Comes The Bottle” a mid-tempo song about the effects of alcohol. It’s a good song, well sung by Conway

Up comes the bottle and down goes the man

I can’t help him but I can understand

When up comes the bottle

And down, down, down, goes the man.

 

You may find him anywhere there’s heartache and despair

With loneliness so heavy you can feel it in the air

And the only thing that matters is the drink in his hand

Then up comes the bottle

And down, down, down, goes the man.

Bill Anderson wrote “You and Your Sweet Love”, which charted for Connie Smith in 1969, While I prefer Connie’s version, it would have made a good Conway Twitty single, one of many such songs stranded as album tracks on the early Conway Twitty albums. I seem to recall that Connie Smith wrote the liner notes for the vinyl album’s back cover.

The self-penned “Hello Darlin’” is the song for which Conway is best remembered, although “It’s Only Make Believe” was a huge pop hit in 1958 and by far his biggest seller. “Hello Darlin’“ reached #1 and stayed there for four weeks. The song is about a man who runs into an old flame, reigniting old feelings in the process. This was the only single released from the album.

 Hello darlin’

Nice to see you

It’s been a long time

You’re just as lovely

As you used to be

 

How’s your new love

Are you happy?

Hope you’re doin’ fine

Just to know means so much to me

 

What’s that darlin’

How am I doin’?

I’m doin’ alright

Except I can’t sleep

I cry all night ’til dawn

 

What I’m tryin’ to say is

I love you and I miss you

And I’m so sorry

That I did you wrong

Conway would revisit the theme with his next single “Fifteen Years Ago”. I saw Conway in concert several times before this song was released and several times after. From 1971 onward, this was his opening number and “It’s Only Make Believe” his closing number, perfect bookends for a great show.

“Rose” (not to be mistaken for the maudlin Amanda McBroom composition “The Rose” that Bette Midler would record later and Conway would cover) was written by L.E. White, a staff writer for Conway’s publishing company. This song is a ballad about a brother whose sister has strayed off-track in life.

“Reuben James” was a top thirty pop hit for Kenny Rogers and The First Edition (it went top ten in Canada, New Zealand and Australia) that was covered by a large number of American country artists. This is a nice mid-tempo track.

Bill Anderson also wrote “I Never Once Stopped Loving You”, which reached #5 for Connie Smith in 1970, Again, I prefer Connie’s version, but Conway does a nice job with this ballad

It is difficult to find a country album of the late 1960s-early 1970s that does not contain a Dallas Frazier composition. This album features “Will You Visit Me On Sundays” which was a top twenty single for Charlie Louvin in 1968, and the title track of a 1970 George Jones album. I can’t say that Conway’s version is better than Charlie Louvin or George Jones (the lyric seems perfect for Charlie’s weathered voice) but this would have made a good Conway Twitty single.

 Just outside these prison bars

The hanging tree is waitin’

At sunrise I’ll meet darkness

And death will say hello

Darling, touch your lips to mine

And tell me you love me

Promise me again before you go

 

Will you visit me on Sundays?

Will you bring me pretty flowers?

Will your big blue eyes be misty?

Will you brush away a tear?

Fred Rose write the classic “Blue Eyes Crying in The Rain”, a song that both Hank Williams and Rof Acuff had recorded. Since Willie Nelson had yet to record this song (Willie’s version would be released in 1975), this was not a cover of somebody else’s hit single, but simply case of Conway going “deep catalog” in finding a song that he liked. Conway’s version is not the sparse recording that Willie released but a normal Owen Bradley production applied to a classic Fred Rose composition from the 1940s.

The album closes with “I’m So Used To Loving You”, the fourth of Conway’s own compositions on the album. This is a good song that somebody somewhere should have released as a single.

I’m so used to loving you sweetheart

You’re on my mind each minute we’re apart

And I love you more each day that we go through

You’re my life and I’ll live it loving you

 

I’m so used to loving you it seems

I can’t stand the thought of losing you not even in my dream

Hold me close and tell me what I’d do without you

I couldn’t take it, I’m so used to loving you

Conway Twitty was a good and prolific songwriter who would use his own compositions on his albums, but, unlike some singer-songwriters, only if they were good songs. Through this album, the highest number of Conway Twitty and/or Mickey Jaco compositions on an album was four. There would be one future album in which he wrote eight of the ten songs (there must be a story behind this since it is a complete outlier) and several on which he wrote one or none of the songs

None of the Conway Twitty compositions that I’ve ever heard were duds, and many of them fell in the very good-to-great category

This album is a solid A with solid country production throughout

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Album Review: Willie Nelson and The Boys: ‘Willie’s Stash, Volume 2’

This collection is a follow-up to Willie Nelson’s 2014 collaboration his sister Bobbie, December Day:  Willie’s Stash, Volume 1.   This time around Willie is teamed up with his two youngest sons, Micah and Lukas, who join him on eleven country classics and one contemporary number that leans heavily on the Hank Williams catalog.

Material-wise, there are no real surprises here.   As always when Willie Nelson records cover material, the unknown is always how much Willie will deviate from the originals.  In the case of this album, the answer is not much.   The seven Williams songs are handled reverently.   The two younger Nelsons, despite their youth, show great enthusiasm for the material and one gets the distinct impression that they have great respect and passion for, it and that these are not just a bunch of old songs that Dad forced them to record.    The three Nelsons harmonize well together, as family groups typically do, and there are some fantastic steel guitar solos courtesy of Mike Johnson.  Rarely have these old chestnuts sounded so energetic.

The one thing that did surprise me is how good Willie’s voice sounds throughout the album, with little signs of the wear-and-tear that has been apparent on some of his recent work.  From what I can gather, these recordings were made in 2011 and 2012, so that partially explains it.  However, his voice is noticeably stronger than it was on 2010’s Country Music collection for Rounder.  Whatever the reason, it’s good to hear Willie in such good vocal form.

This album could have been titled The Nelsons Sing Hank, since some of country music’s famous Hanks wrote the marjority of the album’s songs.  In addition to the seven Williams numbers (“Move It On Over”, “Mind Your Own Business”, “ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” , “Cold Cold Heart”, “Mansion on the Hill”, and “Why Don’t You Love Me”), the album contains a remake of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On”, Hank Locklin’s “Send Me The Pillow You Dream On”, and Hank Cochran’s “Can I Sleep In Your Arms”, which is my favorite song on the album.  Set to the melody of “Red River Valley”, it was a hit in 1973 for Cochran’s then-wife Jeannie Seely, and it was later recorded by Willie for his Red Headed Stranger album in 1975.

The album is rounded out by a cover of Willie’s original composition “Healing Hands of Time” and a modern-folk tune “My Tears Fall” written by singer/songwriter Alyssa Miller.  This contemporary number fits in surprisingly wel l with these old classics and doesn’t sound out of place at all next to them.

Buddy Cannon’s production is tastefully understated and for the most part the album has a sitting around the living room jam-session type feel to it.  I cannot find any fault with it, other than to say I wish it had been released as a double album.   I highly recommend it without reservation.

Grade:  A+

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘The Sensational Charley Pride’

Produced by Jack Clement with Felton Jarvis (best known for his work with Elvis Presley), The Sensational Charley Pride was released in May 1969. The record is in the same style which fans had come to expect from Charley – solid country with a restrained version of the Nashville Sound.

It produced only one single, the #4 ‘Let The Chips Fall’. Written by Clement, it is a dramatic, slightly ponderous, ballad about a suspicious husband prepared to fond out the worst. It is not among my favorite Charley Pride hits, but Pride’s vocal is excellent. Another Clement tune, ‘She’s Still Got A Hold On You, is a nice song about not getting over an old love.

A song that perhaps should have been a single (and was by Mickey Gilley), ‘(It’s Just A Matter Of) Making Up My Mind’, is my personal favorite song on the album. A slow ballad about coping with a breakup, it is one of two Foster & Rice songs on the set. The other, ‘Even After Everything She’s Done’, serves as a kid of sequel to the former, and is also pretty good. Here the protagonist realises the day after a tumultuous goodbye that love endures despite all the angst:

I said I could despise her by the dawn of another day
But there’s the sun and I don’t hate her
Even after everything she’s done

I tried to make myself believe that I’m much better off
I’ve told myself she’s nothing special
And still I find that she’s the only one

‘Come On Home And Sing The Blues To Daddy’ is an enjoyable midpaced song, addressed to an ex whose new romance has faltered, with Charley once more playing the protagonist we met in ‘I Know One’, but sounding a little less rueful:

You’re like a child who’s found a brand new plaything
Each one is more fun than those before
But there’s a faithful one who’s always waiting
To be picked up and kicked around some more

It was also recorded by several the artists including Waylon Jennings, Faron Young and Bobby Bare.

Charley goes playfully Cajun for a pair of songs – a cheery cover of the classic ‘Louisiana Man’, and the less well remembered Jim Reeves hit ‘Billy Bayou’ (a Roger Miller penned tune). Both recordings are great fun, with Charley tackling them them with the same joie de vivre he showed in his live take on the Hank Williams song ‘Kaw Liga’, not included on this album but a #3 hit for him in 1969.

There are three songs written by Alex Zanetis, all quite good. ‘Never More Than I’ is a ballad with an attractive melody, comparing the poor man’s love to his richer rival. The steel-dominated ‘Let Me Live Again’ pleads a former love to take him back. In ‘Take Care Of The Little Things’ he regrets neglecting home and wife, versed as a message to the man who has taken his place.

The similarly titled ‘It’s The Little Things’ is a tender love song, paying tribute to a wife’s care. Lots of steel guitar ornaments the song beautifully. The album closes with ‘We Had All the Good Things Going’, a wistful look back at love. This song was a minor hit for Jan Howard in 1969, and also recorded by Dolly Parton.

This album is another strong offering from Charley Pride, and well worth finding. It is available individually or on a bargain 4-on-1 CD and has been certified gold.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Johnny Paycheck – ‘Mr Hag Told My Story’

Nowadays when a tribute album is released, often it is more of a multi-artist gala event than an honest tribute with many of those paying tribute being mere poseurs. This was not always the case. Prior to the Urban Cowboy movement, it was common to see single artist albums that paid tribute to another artist. Kitty Wells, Faron Young and Del Reeves paid tribute to Jim Reeves. Similarly, Stonewall Jackson, Ernest Tubb and Charley Pride issued Hank Williams tribute albums and Loretta Lynn cut a tribute album to Patsy Cline. Even the great Merle Haggard issued tribute albums to Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers, as did Willie Nelson with his a salute to Lefty Frizzell. Most of these single artist tribute albums were sincere tributes, but they were seldom innovative or particularly soulful endeavors, just albums of adequate cover versions.

Mr. Hag Told My Story is different. For one thing Paycheck, a somewhat kindred spirit to Haggard, inhabits these songs, making them very personal indeed. Moreover, instead of merely recording a collection of Haggard’s hits, Paycheck goes deep catalog, recording some relatively obscure songs that were mostly album tracks for Haggard.

While Haggard and Paycheck had some similarities such as tough childhoods which resulted in both being hellions during their younger years, Haggard outgrew his demons and never was regarded as being part of the outlaw movement. This may be at least partially due to Haggard’s producer at Capitol, Ken Nelson, giving Haggard free reign to release some very personal albums with less commercial viability. Consequently, Haggard did not have much cause for rebellion.

I am not convinced that Johnny Paycheck ever truly conquered his demons, except when he grew too old to continue his self-destructive ways.

Haggard was a huge star with over 20 years of sustained chart success while Paycheck had three scattered periods of success scattered over a 15 year period. Both were successful songwriters and both got started in the bands of the biggest stars of the time.

For a brief period of time Haggard and Paycheck recorded for the same label, Epic, toured together and were able to record together.

Released in 1981, Mr. Hag Told My Story is an album of moody and/or introspective songs all of which were written by Haggard except for “Carolyn” a Haggard hit written by Tommy Collins. There were no hit singles released from the album, but there are a lot of classic performances, with Haggard’s band The Strangers providing much of the instrumental backing.

The structure of the album is that Paycheck introduces each of the songs with a spoken introduction. Haggard himself weaves in and out of the album, sometimes as a lead or harmony singer, sometimes as part of a conversation and sometimes playing his guitar. Make no mistake – this is a Johnny Paycheck album but Haggard’s presence is significant.

The album opens up with “(I’m) Turning Off A Memory”, the B-side of Haggard’s 1971 hit “Grandma Harp”. This is a great song that I think should have been an A-side for Haggard. Haggard adds some asides and sings on the choruses and takes on one of the verses.

You can find me in a dim lighted bar room
If your coldness should ever turn warm
But the chances of you ever changing
Are as slim as your two loving arms

So I’m turning off a memory
As quickly as time will allow
Yes, I’m turning off a memory
And the wine seems to help me somehow

“I’ve Got A Yearning” was an album track on Haggard’s 1978 Capitol album Eleven Winners. Taken slightly up-tempo, the song is another tale of loneliness:

I’ve got a yearning to hold you tight
A burning desire I live with day and night
Everything I lose keeps on hanging on
This feeling isn’t leaving and by now it should be gone.

I keep on thinking those thoughts that keep making me want you all the time
I should be trying to find me a way I can drive you from my mind
I know that you wanted to give and I know that you gave all you could
Wish I could accept what is over and done with for good.

Tommy Collins wrote “Carolyn”, a classic song of frustration and angst, that Haggard took to the top of the charts in 1972. Here Paycheck sings the verses and Haggard does the narrations. Don Markham’s horns give the song a more jazzy feeling than on Haggard’s earlier single.

Yes, Carolyn, a man will do that sometimes on his own
And sometimes when he’s lonely
I believe a man will do that sometimes out of spite
But Carolyn, a man will do that always
When he’s treated bad at home

“I’ll Leave the Bottle on the Bar” comes from Haggard’s 1968 album Sing Me Back Home. This song is another featuring a quicker tempo. The steel guitar sounds like that of Big Jim Murphy, Paycheck’s regular steel guitarist:

A loser doesn’t always know he’s losing
Till he’s lost the game and it’s too late to win
I hope I’ll call in time and you’ll forgive me
‘Cause I want so much to come back home again
And I’ll leave the bottle on the bar
If you’ll take me back to start anew
I’ll leave the bottle on the bar
I’ll sober up and come back home to you

I’m not sure that “All Night Lady” was ever issued on a Merle Haggard album. This song is about Death Row, not the first time Haggard wrote about the subject. Paycheck does a masterful job of singing the song.

Through the window he sits watching his last sunset
Like a blackout curtain closing out the light
It’s now he needs someone’s arms around him
Yes it’s now he needs someone to help him through the night

An all night lady
One who loves me
And won’t leave me when daylight comes
One who’ll stay with me until my life is done

At 9 AM they’re going to lead him to the death-house
And at 10 AM they’ll lay his soul to rest
I can see them giving him his last supper
I can hear him giving them his last request

“I Can’t Hold Myself in Line” was the only single issued from the album, dying at #41. The song originally appeared on Haggard’s Pride in What I Am album released in 1969. This song is basically a very bluesy conversation between Haggard and Paycheck, with twin steel by Jim Murphy and Norm Hamlet, plus some very funky lead guitar by Roy Nichols and terrific horns played by Don Markham.

I’m going off of the deep end
And I’m slowly losing my mind
And I disagree with the way (ha-ha) I’m living
But I can’t hold myself in line

You give me no reason for my drinkin’
But I can’t stand myself at times
And you’re better off to just leave and forget me
Cause I can’t hold myself in line

“Yesterday’s News Just Hit Home Today” is another bluesy track with the sage advice that ‘being a fool is one thing, but not knowing you’re a fool is another thing’.

“You Don’t Have Very Far to Go” was a Haggard co-write with Red Simpson that first surfaced on Haggard’s 1967 album Branded Man. I thought at the time that it would have made a good single for Haggard but then, most of his sixties albums were full of good singles material. Johnny gives it a more honky-tonk treatment that Hag had given it.

You always find the way to hurt my pride
If I’m not crying you’re not satisfied
And I don’t know why you want to hurt me so
If you’re tryin’ to break my heart
You don’t have very far to go
You don’t have very far to go

Before the heartache begins
I already feel the sadness
Of a heartbreak settin’ in
I don’t know why you want to hurt me so
If you’re tryin’ to break my heart
You don’t have very far to go

“No More You and Me” is a fairly generic honky-tonk ballad, executed perfectly by Paycheck.

The album closes with the bluesy title track “Someone Told My Story”:

I played a brand-new record on the jukebox
And I scarcely could believe the song I heard
It told of how you left me for another
It was almost like I’d written every word

Someone told my story in a song
The lyrics told of happiness and home
And then it told of how you’ve done me wrong

Someone told my story in a song
The writer must’ve seen the way you done me
For he told it all and never missed a line
He told of swinging doors and the jukebox

And he even knew I almost lost my mind
Someone told my story in a song

After listening to this album, I think you’d have to say that Haggard definitely told Paycheck’s story in his songs. This album is my favorite of the post-Little Darlin’ Johnny Paycheck. Really, how could this miss?

The great songs of Merle Haggard, as sung by Johnny Paycheck with an amplified version of Haggard’s Strangers providing most of the instrumental backing and Hag himself joining in at times.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Johnny Paycheck – ‘Slide Off Of Your Satin Sheets’

Although his first “outlaw” album, 11 Months and 29 Days didn’t exactly set the Billboard charts on fire, Johnny Paycheck and producer Billy Sherrill continued in a similar vein with his next album, the much more successful Slide Off Of Your Satin Sheets, which marked the beginning of a commercial resurgence for Paycheck, albeit a brief one. The album spawned two hit singles, which carried him into the Top 10 for the first time since “Song and Dance Man” peaked at #8 four years earlier.

The first single was the title track, penned by Wayne Carson and Donn Tankersley, which finds the protagonist only too happy to reunite with an ex for clandestine meetings, despite the fact that she had jilted him for a richer suitor. The bouncy number landed at #7. The follow-up was the equally enjoyable “I’m The Only Hell (Mama Ever Raised)”, which revisits the tried-and-true “Mama Tried” theme. The protagonist’s mother tried to “turn him on to Jesus” but he “turned on to the Devil’s ways” and by the end of the song he has been arrested for armed robbery. It peaked at #8. Both of these numbers are among Paycheck’s most memorable songs; it’s a little surprising that they didn’t chart a little higher.

This collection is considered one of Johnny Paycheck’s “outlaw” albums, although only one track , “Woman You Better Love Me” is what I would consider a true outlaw song in the sense that it sounds like something Waylon Jennings would have done. The rest, for the most part have an in-your-face attitude but I’d classify them more as honky-tonk than outlaw. One track — Bobby Braddock’s “I Did The Right Thing” is an outlier on the album in that it is a tender ballad that shows Johnny’s sensitive side as he laments ending an extramarital affair and returning to his wife. It is more conventional than the rest of the album, retaining some of the countrypolitan trappings of the day (strings, vocal choruses) for which Billy Sherrill was well known. The rest of the album, however, is more hardcore country and is certainly more traditional than anything Sherrill was doing with other male stars like Charlie Rich and George Jones during the 70s.

I particularly enjoyed Johnny’s take on “You’re Still On My Mind”, which had charted at #28 for George Jones in 1962 (an updated duet version with Marty Stuart was included on Jones’ 2008 album Burn Your Playhouse Down.) “Hank”, in which Johnny sings about those mansions on the hill that Hank Sr. sang about is also quite good. I’d have made this the album’s opening song instead of the fourth track, since it reads like a prequel to “Slide Off Of Your Satin Sheets” — Johnny’s lost the girl of his dreams to a richer man, but she hasn’t yet come crawling back. Those are my two favorites, along with the two singles. All of the tracks are quite good, though if pressed I’d rank the slightly maudlin “I Did The Right Thing” as my least favorite.

Throughout the 50s and 60s, and for about the first half of the 70s, albums were of significantly less importance than singles in country music. By the latter half of the 70s, however, some artists were beginning to make more of an effort to create quality albums from start to finish, instead of just finding some filler to accompany a hit single or two. Slide Off Of Your Satin Sheets seems to be a reflection of that change in attitude. It’s a surprisingly solid album and my only real beef with it is that it plays for a scant 28 minutes.

Grade: A

Album Review: Don Williams – ‘Currents’

Before we get underway with our Johnny Paycheck spotlight, we have some unfinished business concerning last month’s spotlight artist Don Williams.  Through an oversight, this review was not published on Monday, May 29th as originally intended, so we are bringing it to you now — a little late but worth the wait.

The year 1992 was an interesting year in country music as the ‘New Traditionalist’ movement reached its zenith following the first flowering in 1986 (Randy Travis, Travis Tritt,  Dwight Yoakam) and the vaunted class of 1989 led by Alan Jackson, Clint Black and Garth Brooks. By 1992 so-called hat acts proliferated and even when the music was not strictly traditionalist, fiddle and steel guitar were prominently featured in the music.

In 1987 Hank Williams Jr.  and a cadre of younger artists presaged the 1992 music scene with the video “Young Country”, but with one exception: while the listeners may have been listening to both the new acts and the older acts in concert (and through their cassette and CD collections), radio had completely discarded Haggard and Jones and almost discarded the 48 year old Hank Williams Jr.

Currents, which was released in April 1992, was the third (and final) Don Williams album to be released on the RCA label.  Don had enjoyed three top ten hits off the previous album True Love, but those would prove to be the last top forty chart hits of Don’s career.  Make no mistake about it, Currents, like every album Don released before it (or even after it, for that matter) is a very good album. The problem with the album was the ‘Young Country’ movement was in full swing and the fifty-three year old Williams looked like ‘Old Country’ even if his music was not exactly of the Ernest Tubb/Hank Sr. old school vintage. In fact with his rapidly graying beard, Don looked even a bit older than his age. Radio simply quit playing him.

The album opens up with a Hugh Prestwood song, “Only Water (Shining In The Air)”, mid-tempo ballad with a little different sound than previous efforts:

Not that long ago, I was on the run
People telling me I should be someone
And the things I’d learnt were forgotten in my haste
Till I reached the end of the rainbow I had chased
It was only water shining in thin air
I put out my hand and there was nothing there
After all the promise, after all the prayer
It was only water shining in the air
Now I’ve got a wife and she sees me through
And I’ve got a friend I can talk straight to
And I’ve got some dreams just a bit more down to earth
And I don’t forget what a rainbow’s really worth

“Too Much Love” has a sing-a-long quality to it and, again, a little more of a contemporary sound to it. Written by Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway, the song has rather bouncy lyrics of not much substance. The song was released as the second single; it deserved a better fate than dying at #72.

Too much coffee, too much tea, too much sugar isn’t good for me.
Too much money and too much fame, too much liqueur drives a man insane.
But too much love, too much love, there’s no such thing as too much love.
Too much fighting and misery, there’s too much trouble in this world for me.
There’s too much of this and too much of that and too much of anything will make you fat.
But too much love, too much love, there’s no such thing as too much love.

I really liked “That Song About The Water”, in fact it is my favorite song on the album. I think it would have made a good single but I doubt radio would have played it either. Penned by Charles John Quarto and Steve Gillette, the song is a slow ballad that sounds like a typical late 60s – early 70s production with steel guitar and (to a lesser degree) harmonica very prominent in the arrangement. I can hear this as a track on a Charley Pride album from that period.

I have seen the paddle wheelers
Rolling south on a summers day
I’ve seen the lovers at the guardrails
With stars in their lemonade
And I’ve heard the hobos gather
Heard their banjos brace the blade
Heard them sing about the river
Called it the lazy mans parade
Sing me that song about the river
Green going away
You know I always did feel like a drifter
At this time of day

Alex Harvey wrote “Catfish Bates” the third single from the album and the first Don Williams single not to chart after fifty-three consecutive solo chart singles. This mid-tempo ballad also features mid-70s country production. If released as a single 15-18 years earlier, I think it would have been a substantial hit. Of course, I may be prejudiced since fried catfish is my favorite form of seafood:

They call me Catfish Bates
‘Cause I can catch a catfish anytime I want to
Even when the moon man tells me they won’t bite
They call me Catfish Bates
‘Cause I know where that big ole flathead’s a hidin’.
I’m a gonna take him home with me tonight
I am the king of the Loosahatchie
My home is on the river
And them catfish they all know me by my sigh

I keep my nose on the westwind
My eye on the water
And my mind on my business all the time

Don turns to Dobie Gray for the next two songs. Gray was essentially an R&B singer who had two huge pop hits, “The In Crowd” (1965) and “Drift Away” (1972). Country fans may remember “Drift Away from Narvel Felts top ten record in 1973.

“So Far, So Good” is a slow ballad about a breakup that the narrator thinks is about to happen, but which hasn’t happened yet. “In The Family” features a Caribbean rhythm verging on reggae. It’s different but it works

 

Well I was raised up by the golden rule
In an old house with a patched up roof
We had a hard home but it pulled us close
We were family
Oh that summer, when the crops all died
Was the first time I saw Daddy cry
An’ I heard Momma say what goes on here stays
In the family

[Chorus]

Well our clothes weren’t new, that old car was used
We held our own
Whoa you just can’t buy, that sense of pride
We grew up on, In the family

I was stunned that “Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying of Thirst)”, written by the crack team of Bob McDill and Dickey Lee, was not released as a Don Williams single. Instead Kathy Mattea took it to the top twenty in 1993. I like Kathy Mattea but Don’s version is better.

Friends I could count on I could count on one hand with a left over finger or two.
I took them for granted, let them all slip away, now where they are I wish I knew.
They roll by just like water & I guess we never learn,
Go through life parched and empty standing knee deep in a river, dying of thirst.

Pat Alger contributed “Lone Star State of Mind” a song which barely cracked the top forty for Nanci Griffith in 1987. Charles John  Quarto and Steve Gillette contributed “The Old Trail”, a jog-along ballad that isn’t as cowboy as the title suggests. Both songs are good album tracks.

The album closes up with “It’s Who You Love” a top twenty hit for writer Kieran Kane back in 1982. This song was released as the first single from the album. It died at # 73, the first indication that Don’s career as a chart singles act was through. I really like Don’s version – he is a more distinctive vocalist than Kieran Kane – but the song did not do great things in 1982, either.

Lying here beside her I’ve come to understand
If you want to be happy you can
It don’t take living like a king, it doesn’t cost you anything
All it takes is a woman and a man
Because its who you love and who loves you
It’s not where you are if she’s there too
It’s not who you know or what you do
It’s who you love and who loves you
This modern world we live in is a sad state of affairs
Everybody wants what isn’t theirs
While the race for money and success in search of happiness
We turn out the light and go upstairs

Kathy Mattea contributes backing vocals on “The Old Trail”, Dobie Gray does likewise on the two songs he wrote. Kieran Kane plays mandolin and Russ Pahl plays steel guitar. Something called the Bhundu Boys plays on “In The Family” providing guitars, handclaps and cowbells.

I doubt that there was a great conspiracy on radio to not play Don Williams records in 1992 (but I could be convinced otherwise). This is a fine album, with subtle and appropriate instrumentation and featuring a bunch of good songs. This album fits comfortably in the B+ to A- range where most of Don’s albums reside.

No further chart singles would occur for Don Williams, although his subsequent albums would occasionally reach the lower reaches of the Country Albums charts.

I guess Jerry Reed Hubbard was correct when he said “When You’re Hot You’re Hot, When You’re Not,You’re Not”.

 

Album Review: Curtis Grimes – Undeniably Country’

undeniably-countryTexan neotraditionalist Curtis Grimes had a run on The Voice a few years ago, but his main musical success has been regionally. Produced by Trent Willmon, this new release is his most traditionally rooted by far, and it is well worth hearing.

Curtis is clearly an enormous Keith Whitley fan, showing his natural good taste. In ‘If You Ask Me’, a beautifully sung but otherwise ordinary statement of country philosophy-cum-love song, he is clearly referring to him when he says “The best of country music died in 1989”.

‘Everything Hank Did But Die’ was one of the songs recorded by Keith Whitley and never released (probably because it was thought to be a little too close to home to do so posthumously). Curtis sounds very much like Keith in his vocal stylings on this track, and it is great to finally hear a full produced version of the tune (Keith’s demo can be found on youtube.)

Old Hank was my hero, since I was a kid.
And I grew up relivin’ all the crazy things he did.
Whiskey drinkin’, honky tonk singin’, stayin’ out all night,
Livin’ hard and dyin’ young was just a way of life.

I’ve done everything Hank did but die
And it ain’t because I did not try
Sometimes it amazes me that I got out alive
‘Cause I’ve done everything Hank did but die

I didn’t know how dangerous that lost highway could be
Till one too many whiskey binges brought me to my knees
I saw the light that very night
Ol’ Hank is still the King
But I found out that I don’t have to kill myself to sing

Great song, excellent performance.

Much in the same vein is the somber ‘Had A Thing’, a superb self-written song in which he considers pain, sin, the life of a musician, and final salvation:

I had a thing for whiskey, women and weed
Seemed to be ‘bout all I’d ever need
Three vices with a visegrip on
Wouldn’t numb the pain for me…

I had a thing for a guitar and old dime bars
They can pay the rent or tear a home apart…

I had all I ever wanted
Thought I wanted a whole lot more
It takes a heavy toll on a Lone Star troubadour
When the price you pay ain’t worth the things you lose along the way
You come crawlin’ back to lay in the bed you made

I had a thing for sad old country songs
Tuggin’ on your heartstrings one by one
Puttin’ into words the way it feels to be alone

But having reached this low point, enduring religious faith saves him in the end, as the melody syncs into an outro of ‘Amazing Grace’.

He continues the religious mood with ‘Born To Die’, a nice song about Jesus.

The pacy shuffle ‘Right About Now’ is a highly entertaining song written in the second person, addressed to a stubborn man who prefers clinging to his hurstpride to backing down:

Well you were in the right and she was in the wrong
And sometimes a man’s gotta stand on principle…
You really kinda miss her but
You don’t wanta let her know
All you gotta do to bring her back is apologize
But hey, what’s a fella got if he ain’t got his pride

Right about now she’s out on the town
Without a reason not to be havin’ her a good time
And right about now
One of your pals is buyin’ her a third (fourth, fifth) round of applepie moonshine
You bit the bullet
You stuck to your guns
And I bet by golly you’re proud
You sure got somethin’ to be right about now

He ends wryly with the thought that the woman he has made cry has got the last laugh:

If you think she’s about to do you wrong
You just might be correct
You drew that line and she crossed it
I think you got yourself an Ex

‘Ten Year Town’ tackles Nashville and the state of country music:

I came out here so I could write and sing
Not rap on stage wearing skinny jeans

The lead single, ‘From Where I’m Standing’ is a mellow sounding romantic ballad written by Thomas Rhett, Chris Janson and Jaron Boyer, which is much better than one might expect with those origins. It’s attractive melodically, although the lyrics are a little cliche’d. ‘Put My Money On That’ is a bit generic and the album’s weakest entry, but it is pleasant enough listening.

The only real disappointment is that there are only eight tracks.

Grade: A

Listen here.

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”.

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘I Like ‘Em Country’

i like em countryLoretta’s fifth album was released in 1966. The material is very much along the same lines as its predecessors, with a lot of covers, but all very high quality. It was the first of her records to have two singles, which may be an indicator of her growing commercial appeal.

The plaintive ‘The Home You’re Tearing Down’, addressed to the other woman who is breaking up the protagonist’s marriage, was a top 10 hit, written for Loretta by Betty Sue Perry. Although it’s not remembered as one of Loretta’s best known hits today, it’s a stellar example of pure country music. Betty Sue also wrote ‘Go On And Go’, an excellent response to the man in the story:

Between your passion and your pride, you’re half a man
I don’t want your kiss without your sweet love too
Go on and go
If you need her like I need you

The controversial ‘Dear Uncle Sam’, the only song on the album written by Loretta, was a bold and topical choice for a single, and peaked at #4. US ground troops had been deployed in Vietnam since March 1965, and in August of that year married men also became subject to conscription, as increasing numbers of US soldiers were needed to fight in that controversial war. Loretta’s emotional song does not debate the merits of the war itself at all, but movingly shows the effects on one woman whose husband is called on to fight, and who is killed in action.

Loretta recorded her brother Jay Lee Webb’s song ‘Today Has Been Day’, a mournful tale of lost love and unsatisfactory refuge in a neon-lit bar. Jay Lee was about to launch his own attempt at a country career.

As usual a lot of covers were included. Ernest Tubb’s ‘It’s Been So Long Darling’ had been a hit for Loretta’s duet partner some 20 years earlier. Loretta’s version of this sweet song about an impending reunion of lovers (whose original context was that of the end of the Second World War) is very good, and is an interesting counterpoint to ‘Dear Uncle Sam’, where the reunion can never happen.

The Hank Williams classic ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, one of the greatest songs of all time, is always good to hear, and Loretta offers a fine reading. Country standard ‘If Teardrops Were Pennies’ is nicely done too, and Johnny Cash’s ‘Cry, Cry, Cry’ gets an energetic workout. ‘Jealous Heart’, another much- recorded tune is also beautifully performed, with some interesting organ backing.

The tongue in cheek ‘Two Mules Pull This Wagon’ was written by Johnny Russell is a highly entertaining song with a housewife complaining that her husband doesn’t appreciate her hard work at home:

Well, you come home most every night as grouchy as can be
And start right in a pickin’ on our little kids and me
I’m sick and tired of hearin’ how your work keeps you a braggin’
Cause you seem to forget big boy that two mules pull this wagon

Yeah two mules pull this wagon
You don’t do it by yourself
I know you’ve got a heavy load
But I give you lots of help
I do my share of pullin’ and I don’t mean to be braggin’
But you seem to forget big boy that two mules pull this wagon

Well, I guess you think while you’re at work I sit and watch TV
But you’d learn different, honey, if you’d spend one day with me
I’m washin’, ironin’, cookin’, sewin’, and find time for your naggin’

The attitude is the kind of song many listeners expect from Loretta, and it is a fine example of its kind.

‘Sometimes You Just Can’t Win’ was written by Smokey Stover, a songwriter and DJ who issued a few honky tonk singles himself (plus a novelty song about Jimmy Hoffa). A wonderful sad song about losing at love, it had been recorded by George Jones a few years earlier.

Most of the album has a timeless classic country feel. Only the vivacious ‘Hurtin’ For Certain’ feels dated, thanks to the backing vocals.

It is available on a 2-4-1 CD with Blue Kentucky Girl. The package is well worth picking up.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Blue Kentucky Girl’

51i+XrdZe0L._SS280By 1965, with three consecutive Top 5 hits under her belt, Loretta Lynn was on a hot streak and well on her way towards becoming country music’s next big female star. “Blue Kentucky Girl”, which was written by Johnny Mullins, who had also penned her breakthrough hit “Success”, didn’t fare quite as well on the charts but still finished at a very respectable #7. It’s one of my favorites of Loretta’s early recordings and is interesting today for a couple of reasons, aside from just being a very good song: the use of the banjo was quite unusual for the era, when the lush Nashville Sound was at its peak. It’s also notable because we are still seeing Loretta in the role of the downtrodden woman, who is pining for her man who has been lured away — at least temporarily — by the bright lights of the city. She would continue in this vein for just a little while longer, but soon the public would get to see a more assertive side of Loretta, beginning with 1966’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” and continuing on with “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” and the following year’s “Fist City”.

She asserts herself just a little bit on “Night Girl”, a co-write with Teddy Wilburn, which is one of the album’s four Loretta-penned songs. This one casts her as girl from the wrong side of the tracks who has fallen for rich man, but not enough to sacrifice her pride. She knows he’s ashamed to be seen with her publicly and tells him on no uncertain terms that she’s not willing to partake in a clandestine relationship with him. The pair also wrote “Love’s Been Here and Gone”, a filler song about a dying relationship. Her solo composition “Farther to Go” is similarly unmemorable, although it contains some nice Hank Williams-ish steel guitar licks. The uptempo “Two Steps Forward”, another Loretta original, is quite good. This one finds her trying to work up the nerve — and not quite succeeding — in walking away from a bad relationship.

Like most country albums of the era, Blue Kentucky Girl relies heavily on remakes of other artists’ hits. Though some have been critical of this practice, it is important to remember why it was done. First and foremost, most major stars were releasing at least three albums a year. It would have been difficult to come up enough good original material to fill out that many albums. Covers had the advantage of being already familiar to record buyers, as well as the studio musicians, which meant that they had to spend little or no time learning the songs, which made them relatively inexpensive to record. Loretta does a beautiful job on Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” and Hank Locklin’s “Send Me The Pillow You Dream On”, both of which showcase her voice nicely. Harlan Howard’s “I Won’t Forget You” had been a monster hit for Jim Reeves the previous year, and shows that Loretta was more than capable of handling more polished material. She does an adequate job on George Jones’ “The Race Is On”, but doesn’t really leave her stamp on the song.

Barbara Mandrell once said in an interview that early in her career before she had enough of her own hits to fill out a show, she was advised only to perform hits sung by men, because audiences were bound to make too many comparisons of a woman singing another female artist’s song. Loretta’s cover of “Then and Only Then” illustrates this point nicely. Written by Bill Anderson, it was Connie Smith’s Top 5 follow-up to “Once a Day”. It’s not that Loretta’s version isn’t good – it is and if I’d never heard Connie Smith’s version it might actually be my favorite song on the album. But there is no escaping the fact that it doesn’t really sound much like a Loretta Lynn song and that it still sounds very much like a Connie Smith song, no matter who is singing it.

That being said, I’m not as opposed to covering other artists’ hits as many people are. I consider Blue Kentucky Girl to be Loretta’s strongest album up to that point and I highly recommend it.

Grade: A

Album Review: Wynonna – ‘Sing, Chapter 1’

81hrny-Ha0L._SX522_I always felt that Wynonna was miscast as a country singer but was otherwise a great vocal performer. This album is the proof of my latter assertion, a twelve song collection of great songs perfectly executed by a master singer.

The album opens up with a thirty’s classic “That’s How Rhythm Was Born”, a Boswell Sisters hit from the 1930s, long forgotten but well worth reviving. The Boswell Sisters pre-dated and were an inspiration for the Andrews Sister. The song sounds very Andrews-ish with Vickie Hampton and Wynonna doing harmonies to create that trio sound. There is an old-time, non-bluegrass banjo in the mix played by Ilya Toshinsky.

Next up is the greatest country song ever written, Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. While there are versions I prefer to Wynonna’s, she does an excellent job with the song. The Nashville String Machine provides tasteful and effective orchestral accompaniment.

Wynonna gives the sisterhood some wise advice in the very bluesy “Women Be Wise”.

Dave Bartholomew was a noted New Orleans songwriter closely associated with the legendary Fats Domino. “I Hear You Knocking” was a big R&B hit for Smiley Lewis in 1955 (#2 R&B) and a big pop hit (#2) for actress Gale Storm. Fats Domino also recorded the song a few years later, and because of his sustained success, Fats’ version is probably the best remembered. Wynonna’s version has a more New Orleans style rock feel. It is quite good

Larry Henley and Red Lane penned “Til I Get It Right”, a major Tammy Wynette hit from 1973. The focus is on Wynonna’s vocal with spare but graceful accompaniment that includes unobtrusive strings.

Another country classic follows, Merle Haggard’s “Are The Good Times Really Over For Good”. Not one of my favorite Hag songs, but still a good song. I do like the brass instrumentation in Wynonna’s arrangement.

I was not a big Stevie Ray Vaughan fan but I could take him in small doses and Wynonna’s take on “The House is Rockin'” is just enough Stevie Ray for me. Wynonna’s take on this song rocks just enough.

The almost forgotten Bill Withers had a relatively short career as a recording artist (he is still alive) but the music he did produce was exceptional leading to his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Ain’t No Sunshine” was one of those classics and Wynonna gives it the appropriately moody reading.

Jerry Lieber & Mike Stoller are arguably one of the two or three greatest pop songwriting tandems in history. “I’m a Woman” was initially released in 1962 by Christine Kittrell, but is best remembered as a classic Peggy Lee track. Wynonna’s version is as good as any of them albeit very different from Peggy Lee’s sexy rendition, Wynonna’s being a very assertive R&B track

I am not a big fan of most Burt Bacharach-Hal David compositions, other than those written for the great Gene Pitney. That said, “Anyone Who Had A Heart” had a distinguished pedigree with British songbird Cilia Black taking her George Martin-produced record to #1 in the UK for three weeks in 1964. Cilla’s version also went to #1 in Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa, but I don’t think it was released in the US. Dionne Warwick also had a notable hit (#8 pop/ #2 adult contemporary) with the song in the US but only got as high as #47 in the UK. Both versions competed in various global markets, basically to a draw in Europe. Wynonna’s version is a pretty standard, but effective presentation.

“When I Fall In Love” is a pop standard that has been recorded by many artists, most notably Jeri Southern and Doris Day. Wynonna gives it a fairly standard interpretation with the Nashville String Machine setting the mood for Wynonna’s strong vocal.

The album closes with a Rodney Crowell original “Sing”. I think that this is the weakest song on the album, but I would also give it a B+ which should tell you what I think of this album

Of all the Wynonna albums I’ve heard, this one is my favorite, both in terms of the strength of Wynonna’s vocals and the quality of the material. To me this is a definite A+.

Album Review: Buddy Miller and Friends – ‘Cayamo Sessions At Sea’

cayamo sessions at seaBuddy Miller’s latest project comprises a series of collaborations with other artists recorded between 2012 and 2015 on the cruise ship Cayamo, as part of a music festival the ship puts on annually. The eclectic selection of artists tackle some classic country songs, with the odd outlier given a country arrangement, and the result is a joy to listen to from start to finish. Buddy does an excellent job producing, and sings either harmonies or duet vocals on each track.

The album opens with a tremendous version of the classic duet ‘After The Fire Is Gone’, performed with the always wonderful Lee Ann Womack. Kacey Musgraves is charming on Buck Owens’ upbeat ‘Love’s Gonna Live Here Again’. I also enjoyed the duet with the underrated Elizabeth Cook on ‘If Teardrops Were Pennies’.

Kris Kristofferson sings his own ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’, and sounds more controlled vocally than he usually does live. Lucinda Williams, another singer who can be unpredictable, is intensely emotional on a slow, measured version of ‘Hickory Wind’. The legendary British folk singer, Richard Thompson, has a longstanding love of traditional country music, and he sings Hank Williams’ somber ‘Wedding Bells’. Doug Seegers, an equally towering figure of American folk, joins Buddy for the gospel number ‘Take The Hand Of Jesus’.

Nikki Lane, whose music I had not heard previously, is soulful on ‘Just Someone I Used To Know’. Another unfamiliar name, Jill Andrews sings ‘Come Early Morning’ charmingly, duetting with Buddy.

Singer songwriter Shawn Colvin tackles the Rolling Stones’ most country-sounding song, the wistful ballad ‘Wild Horses’, to beautiful effect. Brandi Carlile, who falls somewhere in between alt-country and folk-rock, is joined by the Americana band The Lone Bellow for ‘Angel From Montgomery’. If this is my least favourite track, this is only because it is merely very, very good, and everything else is even better.

This is a superb album, which is my favorite of everything Buddy Miller has recorded. It is highly recommended.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Buddy Miller – ‘Midnight and Lonesome’

51BcEdcn+IL2002’s Midnight and Lonesome was Buddy Miller’s most successful solo album to date. It was the first to chart (reaching a modest #50), in no small part due to the success of the previous year’s duets project with wife Julie. He produced the album himself. He and Julie wrote some of the album’s songs, but separately and together but there are also a fair number of songs, including covers, provided by outside songwriters. Though mostly a country effort, it does find him delving into rock and blues, with somewhat mixed results. I was a bit worried after hearing the opening track, “The Price of Love”, a rock-leaning Everly Brothers tune with which I was previously unfamiliar. Fortunately, things get back on track with the second track “Wild Card”, which he and Julie wrote, which finds him turning up the twang. It sounds very much like a number Hank Williams might have recorded in the early 50s.

One of the album’s best moments is the third track “I Can’t Get Over You”, a beautiful steel-laced ballad written by Julie Miller, with delicately understated harmony vocals provided by Lee Ann Womack. It is topped only by another ballad – “A Showman’s Life”, written by Jesse Winchester. Previously recorded by Gary Allan with Willie Nelson and George Strait with Faith Hill, it describes the hardship and loneliness experienced by musicians on the road. Buddy is joined by Emmylou Harris and the result is nothing short of magic. It easily trumps both the Allan/Nelson and Strait/Hill versions (although both of those are also quite good).

The mournful lyrics and high-lonesome harmonies (provided by Julie) of the title track are at odds with its up-tempo pace but it works surprisingly well.

I wasn’t particularly impressed with “When It Comes To You”, a bluesy number written by Buddy and Julie with Jim Lauderdale. It sounds like something Conway Twitty might have scored a big hit with in the early 80s. It’s not a bad song but it is marred beyond redemption by the production. It has a decidedly low-fidelity sound; the vocals are muffled as though Buddy were singing through some sort of filter. I found it very distracting. Another bluesy number, a cover of Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love”, works much better. It’s a bit of an artistic stretch for Buddy, but one that pays off nicely. I’m not familiar with the original version and my first impression was that the melody was very similar to Ray Price’s “Night Life”.

The Cajun-flavored “Oh Fait Pitie D’Amour (Lord Have Mercy on Me)” provides another interesting change of pace, although it’s not particularly memorable.

Another highlight is the closing track “Quecreek”, an acoustic folk-leaning ballad which finds Buddy accompanied only by an acoustic guitar and Julie’s harmony vocals. Slightly reminiscent of Merle Travis’ classic “Dark as a Dungeon”, it tells the true story of a coal mining accident in Pennsylvania.. The nation waited with baited breath when nine miners were trapped for 77 hours between July 24 and July 28, 2002. Miraculously, all nine were rescued and Buddy’s emotional retelling of the ordeal likens their recovery to Christ’s Resurrection.

Midnight and Lonesome was nominated for Album of the Year in 2003 by the Americana Music Association. Though it did not win, it is a stellar collection (“The Price of Love” and “When It Comes to You” nothwithstanding). It is perhaps most accurately described as a roots album but country is the predominant influence.

Grade: A –

Album Review: The Cactus Blossoms – ‘You’re Dreaming’

youre dreamingThe Cactus Blossoms are Jack Torrey and Page Burkum, a pair of brothers from Minneapolis who discovered a deep love for the country music of the 1950s and formed their duo in2009. Their fresh, timeless music is something like a mixture of the Louvin Brothers and the Everlys. This album,their first for Red House records after a couple of self-releases, was recorded in live takes in Chicago with simple, stripped down arrangements allowing their sibling harmonies to take center stage. Oklahoma singer-songwriter J D McPherson (a Rounder artist also worth checking out) produces sympathetically.

Their material is mostly written by Jack Torrey, one of the brothers (he changed his stage name), who writes literate, poetic lyrics and delicate, pretty. melodies, which work petrfectly with the close sibling harmonies. The opening ‘Stoplight Kisses’, which was a single last year, is an engaging upbeat number remiscent of the Everly Brothers.

The title track is a dreamy ballad which is rather lovely. Equally sweet is the gently romantic ‘Queen Of Them All’. ‘Mississippi’ is mellow and atmospheric.

‘Clown Collector’ picks up the pace a bit, but while a solid tune, is the least effective track on a very good album.

There is another change of mood with the wailing hillbilly blues of ‘Change Your Ways Or Die’, which is one of my favourite tracks, and sounds like something Hank Williams might have written:

The buffalo was here to stay
Til a fool with a gun came and took him away
If you go too far you can’t come back
When the river changes so does the map

You’ve got to change your ways or die…

A sip of whiskey gets your toes wet
If you dive too deep you’ll get caught in a net
Love and fire burn to the core

Also downbeat lyrically, but more gentle in its sound, is ‘If I Can’t Win’. The very pretty ‘Adios Maria’ is a sad story song about love and loss remiscent of Marty Robbins.

Brother Page Burkum contributed one tune – the beautiful, languid love song ‘Powder Blue’. There is one cover thrown in, ‘No More Crying The Blues’, a rockabilly tune from 1959, written and originally recorded by Sun duo Alton & Jimmy. The song works well and offers a nice change of pace.

The album closes with the wistfully valedictory ‘Traveler’s Prayer’.

I strongly recommend this album to anyone who like their country music subtle.

Grade: A

The duo is touring in northern states this month, some dates supporting Kacey Musgraves.

Album Review: Hank Williams Jr – ‘The World Of Hank Williams Jr’

the world of hank williams jrIn our look at Hank Jr’s early career we have been concentrating on material which is mostly out of print and unlikely to be released digitally. If your appetite has been whetted, and your budget doesn’t stretch to the big box set Paul recommended yesterday, you need to look at the few compilations available. The budget option is this 20-track CD originally released by a German label in 1996. The songs are all covers of classic country songs, well produced and sung but not really essential. They do make a reasonably priced introduction to this era of Hank Williams Jr’s work, although the selection of material is a bit unbalanced, and it would have been nice to have some original material.

Half a dozen tracks come from the album of Johnny Cash covers Hank Jr did in 1970
https://mykindofcountry.wordpress.com/2016/01/08/35756/ : a pleasant but sleepy cover of ‘Ring Of Fire’ fails to excite. ‘I Walk the Line’ is solid, and ‘Folsom Prison Blues works well apart from the self-referential lyric changes which made me roll my eyes. ‘I Guess Things Happen That Way’ is also very good, and ‘Give My Love To Rose’ is excellent. ‘Understand Your Man’ is another decent cut.

Two of his duets with Lois Johnson are included, the Everly Brothers’ ‘So Sad’, and country classic ‘Together Again’, both very nicely done.

Pop star Connie Francis joined Hank less successfully on another Everly Brothers’ tune, ‘Bye Bye Love’. Their voices do not combine very effectively, with a somber vocal from Hank contrasting with a bouncier one from Connie and a Nashville Sound orchestrated backing. The mismatch is even more marked on an ill-judged ‘Singing The Blues’ with Connie entirely too perky, with Jr sounding like he is copying his dad’s vocal stylings. She is better on ‘Please Help Me, I’m Falling’, which is prettily performed.

The sophisticated ballad ‘Make The World Go Away’ is smothered with strings and backing singers, but there is a fine vocal from Hank. ‘Sweet Dreams’ gets the same treatment, with a very strong, emotional vocal. ‘There Goes My Everything’ is pretty good, too. The sole song of his father’s is ‘Your Cheatin Heart’ is pretty good vocally, with a Nashville Soundproduction.

The Gold Rush tale ‘North To Alaska’ is highly entertaining and suits the robustness of Hank’s voice. Lefty Frizzell’s ‘I Love You A Thousand Ways’ is lovely, while Hank Jr is extremely good on a tasteful and believable take on ‘The Long Black Veil’. A brave take on ‘The Window Up Above’ is surprisingly good.

The tragic story of death in ‘The Blizzard’ feels a bit dated now (but currently topical given the weather conditions in part of the US).

I enjoyed listening to the cuts on this compilation, but I don’t think I’d pick them over the originals. However, as one of the few available records covering Hank Jr’s early years, it may be worth checking out.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Ashley Monroe – ‘Hank’s Cadillac’

Album Review: Hank Williams Jr – ‘Living Proof: The MGM Recordings (1963-1975’

living proof mgmFor the listener wanting a good overview of Hank Junior’s career with MGM Records, the best place to start is with this 3 CD boxed set released in 1992 by Polygram, the successor label to MGM.

The set is not perfect, far from it, but within its 82 tracks , it does a good job of showing the maturation process of Hank Williams, Jr. as a singer and as an artist. For a record label trying to give an overview of a major artist of the 1960s and 1970s the task is a daunting one. Not counting Christmas albums and hit collections, George Strait released 24 albums between 1981 and 2005. Using the same criteria, Hank released 29 albums between 1963 and 1975. Hank recorded quite a few more songs in thirteen years than did modern day icon Strait in twenty-five years. That’s a lot of songs for MGM/Polygram to wade through.

The set is essentially chronological, although it gives short shrift to the very earliest recordings. In one sense, this is a good thing in that it avoids the ridiculous pop duet album recorded with Connie Francis. In another sense, it is a bad thing in that it misses some of Hank’s efforts to break away from being a clone of his father. Missing are some of the more interesting album tracks from the albums Blue’s My Name and Ballads of The Hills and Plains and essential tracks from My Own Way (“I’m In No Condition”) and My Songs (“I Ain’t Sharin’ Sharon” and “I Wouldn’t Change A Thing About You [Except Your Name]”).

That’s not to say that the track on the collection are not worthy as they most certainly are worthy. It’s simply that the set should run one disc longer. If you listen carefully, you will find that this collection of songs represents Hank’s autobiography up to 1975 – it’s that powerful.

Included are twenty-five of Hank’s forty-one chart hits for MGM (including all six of his #1 singles), examples of Hank as a clone of his father, examples of Hank’s recordings while struggling with the ‘Nashville Sound’ (particularly “All For The Love of Sunshine”, a #1 hit with the Mike Curb Congregation), and the entire Hank Williams and Friends album that closed out his MGM career.

Along the way Hank showed sign of his versatility recording country classics, pop songs (“Endless Sleep”, “Splish Splash”), R&B classics such as Fats Domino’s “Aint That A Shame”, Joe Liggins’ “I’ve Got A Right To Cry”, Tony Joe White’s “Rainy Night In Georgia”, Smokey Robinson’s “My Girl” and a bunch of songs that he wrote himself, some of them really fine efforts. Not meaning to pick on George Strait, but there is more diversity of material and more challenging material in this box, than George has tacked in his thirty-five year recording career. Only Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard ever tackled such a far ranging repertoire.

This box set, for all my quibbles with it, is still an A+. It is still available and I would recommend it to anyone.

Classic Rewind: Hank Williams Jr and Waylon Jennings – ‘The Conversation’

Album Review: Hank Williams Jr – ‘Live At Cobo Hall Detroit’

live at cobo hallAfter fifteen assorted albums in roughly a five year period, MGM finally got around to releasing a live album on Hank Jr. Released in July 1969, MGM SE-4644 was the third of five albums MGM would release in 1969. To my knowledge the album has never been released in any digital format, although Polygram did reissue it on vinyl a few years later.

Cobo Hall (now the Cobo Center) in Detroit might seem a strange venue in which to record a country album, but judging from the album that emerged from the concert it was just fine. Built in 1960 and named for Albert E Cobo (Detroit Mayor 1950-1957), Cobo Hall was one of the nation’s first really large convention centers and I believe that Hank Williams Jr. – Live At Cobo Hall was the first time a major recording label had recorded an album at such a venue.

This 1969 album catches Hank Jr. at a time when he was beginning to be his own man, and not merely a clone of his famous father. While the album has the obligatory Hank Sr. songs, it also features his own hit “Standing In The Shadows” and some covers of more recent material
Side One of the album opens with “Jambalaya”, one of Hank Sr.’s hits. Written by Hank Sr. (possibly with Moon Mullican as co-writer although not so credited) Hank Jr. tackles the song with the proper tempo and enthusiasm.

Next up is the Mel Tillis – Danny Dill classic “Detroit City” which was a hit twice in 1963 by Billy Grammer (under the title “I Wanna Go Home”) and by Bobby Bare. Hank does a nice job with the song.
Hank shows his total comfort with rock songs on his fast take on the Joe South composition “Games People Play”. This would have made a good single but Freddy Weller, a member of the rock group Paul Revere & The Raiders who was attempting to forge a career in country music, beat Hank to the punch taking the song to #1 on the Cashbox and Record World country charts a few months earlier.

That Hank chose to record the song at all was a harbinger of things to come in country music. Until 1968 what some would describe as songs of social consciousness had been rare in country music, in fact aside from Johnny Cash’s songs, they been virtually non-existent. In 1968 three songs, Roy Clark’s “Do You Believe This Town”, Henson Cargill’s “Skip A Rope” and Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA”, had cracked the door open further for this kind of material:

Oh the games people play now
Every night and every day now
Never meaning what they say now
Never saying what they mean

While they wile away the hours
In their ivory towers
Till they’re covered up with flowers
In the back of a black limousine

Chorus
La-da da da da da da da
La-da da da da da de
Talking ’bout you and me
And the games people play

Oh we make one another cry
Break a heart then we say goodbye
Cross our hearts and we hope to die
That the other was to blame

But neither one ever will give in
So we gaze at an eight by ten
Thinking ’bout the things that might have been
And it’s a dirty rotten shame

It would be unthinkable for Hank to have done a live album without showcasing one of this own hits, so “Standing In The Shadows” is up next. The song got a rousing ovation from the audience.

I know that I’m not great
And some say I imitate
Anymore I don’t know
I’m just doing the best I can

After all I’m standing in the shadows
Of a very famous man

The band is feature on an instrumental, the recent Flatt & Scruggs hit (from the movie Bonnie and Clyde)”Foggy Mountain Breakdown”. It is a good rendition although the banjo player is definitely not in Earl Scrugg’s league. Snippets of several other songs are performed within this track (in jazz they call these ‘signatures’).

Side One closes out with an effective version of another Hank Sr. classic “You Win Again”.

Side Two opens with a classic George Jones song penned by Dickey Lee Lipscomb & Steve Duffy, “She Thinks I Still Care”. Hank Jr. isn’t George Jones (who is?) but he handles the song quite well.

Conway Twitty had a many #1 records in his illustrious career but “Darling You Know I Wouldn’t Lie” (#1 Cashbox / #1 Record World / #2 Billboard) is barely remembered today. Hank’s version opens with a nice steel guitar intro – in fact, the steel dominates the whole arrangement. This Wayne Kemp-Red Lane classic is the kind of song Conway Twitty really excelled at, and I really like Hank’s take on the song:

Here I am late again for the last time
And like I promised I just told her goodbye
Please believe me for this time it’s really over
And darling you know I wouldn’t lie

Didn’t I come and tell you about her
How temptation lured she and I
Now I know it was only fascination
And darling you know I wouldn’t lie

I had to let her down easy as slow as I could
After all she’s got feelings too
But it took a little longer than I thought it would
But this time she knows we’re really through

She wanted to hold me forever
And this lipstick shows her final try
And these tears on my shoulders are proof that she failed
And darling you know I wouldn’t lie
And darling you know I wouldn’t lie

The album closes with three Hank Sr. songs. In his earliest recordings Hank Jr. tried to be a clone of his father, but by now he was putting his stamp on the material.

There are many who consider “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” as the greatest country song ever written (personally I’m torn between this song, “El Paso”, and “The Last Letter”), but it is a great song, even if Hank Jr.’s version does not live up to his father’s version (no one else’s version does either). It’s a great song and should be appreciated for what it is.

This is followed by “Your Cheatin’ Heart”; again Hank Jr. cannot quite get that lonesome sound in his voice that his father does, but he does a fine job. For whatever reason, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” is not listed on the album cover, which caused me to think this was a shorter album than is actually the case.

The album closes with “I Saw The Light”. Country albums and live country shows frequently closed with gospel songs during this period of time. Unfortunately that tradition faded away in the 1970s
Unfortunately I was unable to find definitive information on the musicians playing on this album. Even PragueFrank’s website did not provide any information. Suffice it to say, it’s a very good band with a proficient steel player, a competent banjo and an excellent honky-tonk style pianist. I hope someday this gets released in a digital format with the missing tracks restored as bonus tracks. By the time this album was issued Hank Jr. had already scored a few more hits on non-Hank Sr. material, so I presume he might performed a few of them.

A few years ago I did an article on the twenty-five greatest live country albums. At that time, I placed this album sixteenth on my list, docking it a bit for the short playing time (based on the album’s back cover). The actual playing time is actually around thirty-two minute, which still seems too short – the album ended with me wanting more.

Obviously I give this album a solid A.

Album Review: Hank Williams Jr. & Lois Johnson – ‘Removing the Shadow’

R-4659119-1371346861-1435.jpegRemoving the Shadow sounds like it ought to be Hank Jr.’s declaration of independence from his father’s legacy, but instead it is a song about forgetting an old love and moving on to a new relationship. It’s also the title track of Hank Jr.’s 1970 duets album with Lois Johnson.

Lois Johnson was minor country artist who was active from 1969 to 1984. Her singles for MGM all peaked outside the Top 40, if they charted at all, and the label never released an album of her solo work. After moving on to 20th Century Records, she scored one Top 10 hit in 1975 with “Loving You Will Never Grow Old”. The mere fact that she was Hank Jr.’s labelmate is the most likely the reason she was paired up with him. Whether MGM was looking for a duet partner for Hank or just seeking to increase Johnson’s exposure is unclear. She had a pleasant voice but it was not very distinctive. As as a team, the two lacked the chemistry of the more successful duos of the era: Conway and Loretta, Porter and Dolly, George and Tammy. Hank Jr. needed to be teamed someone with the vocal prowess of a Melba Montgomery or a Connie Smith, but in those days labels limited their choices to someone who was already signed to their roster.

Like many albums of the era, Removing the Shadow relies a lot on cover material. Lois and Hank tackle Johnny and June’s “If I Were a Carpenter”, “Why Don’t You Love Me” (the obligatory Hank Sr. cover), and “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)”, a 1960 pop hit for The Everly Brothers, which has been recorded many times, including versions by Connie Smith in 1976, Steve Wariner in 1978, and Emmylou Harris in 1983. My favorite version is a 1986 album cut by The Sweethearts of the Rodeo with Vince Gill. No one has ever scored a Top 10 hit on the country charts with this song, but Hank and Lois came the closest, taking it to #12. The song is a particular favorite of mine and it’s easily the best cut on this album.

“Removing the Shadow”, which is also quite good, preceded “So Sad” as a single, peaking at #23. I also enjoyed the Cajun-flavored “Party People” and the upbeat honky-tonker “Settin’ the Woods on Fire”. This is an album that has a lot of appeal to traditionalists; it contains very little of the countrypolitan trappings of the era and has plenty of pedal steel. This probably limited its commercial appeal, though it sold well enough that the duo released a follow-up album in 1972. Removing the Shadow peaked at #21 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, but it has never been released on CD. While a digital version could possibly appear in the future, I think it is unlikely, which is somewhat unfortunate. It’s not essential listening but the material is top notch. If you’re a fan of classic country and can find a used vinyl copy somewhere, it’s worth seeking out.

As an aside, Lois Johnson’s last album was released in 1984. She died in Nashville in July 2014 at age 72.

Grade: B+