My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Harlan Howard

Album Review: Jessi Colter – ‘A Country Star Is Born’

51sgd4uaavl-_ss500Whatever optimist gave this album its title jumped the gun just a little, for although it marks the official beginning of Jessi Colter’s recording career (not counting two prior singles issued under her birth name), it would be another five years before her commercial breakthrough that propelled her to stardom.  Released in 1970, A Country Star Is Born was her first and only solo album for RCA.  She was presumably signed to the label because her husband Waylon Jennings was already on its roster, but the album’s  lack of commercial success suggests to me that she perhaps was not a huge priority for RCA.

The album was produced by Chet Atkins and Waylon Jennings, and upon the first listening, one might be a bit confused as to why it didn’t perform better in the marketplace.   In order to understand why, one has to bear in mind the way it would have been perceived back in 1970.   The album follows the standard practice of the day of using one or two hit singles to drive sales and padding it with covers of recent hits for other artists and perhaps some original songs by the artist and/or producer.   In this case, the lead (and non-charting) single was one of Jessi’s original compositions “I Ain’t The One”, performed as a duet with Waylon.    The second single was “Cry Softly”, another Colter original that also failed to chart.  Its melody is somewhat similar to “I’m Not Lisa”, which would become her breakthrough career record a few years later.  It’s a decent song that might have enjoyed some success if a more established artist had released it.

Filling out the rest of the album are three more songs Jessi wrote — all credited to her real name Miriam Eddy:  the uptempo “If She’s Where You Like Livin'”, the mid tempo “Don’t Let Him Go”, and the bluesy “It’s All Over Now”, none of which were strong enough to be considered for release to radio.  Along with these originals are two excellent songs written by Harlan Howard, which might have had hit potential had they not been relatively recent releases for other artists.  “Too Many Rivers” had been a Top 20 pop hit for Brenda Lee in 1965 and “He Called Me Baby” had been a minor posthumous hit for Patsy Cline in 1964.  The latter would go on to be recorded by many other artists and would eventually (with a pronoun change) become a big hit for Charlie Rich in 1974.   The album’s best track “It’s Not Easy” had previously been recorded by its composer Frankie Miller.  “Healing Hands of Time” was a non-charting Willie Nelson single from 1965.

I enjoyed all of the album’s songs, but I get the distinct impression that RCA only made a half-hearted effort to promote it.  Pairing her up with Waylon for her first release was a reasonable strategy.  It’s surprising that “I Ain’t The One” didn’t at least enter the charts.  A great song it is not, but his star power at the time was sufficient that it should have garnered some attention from radio.  When it failed, it was almost inevitable that the next single would also tank, since Jessi Colter was still an unknown entity.  Why they didn’t have more songs to try and promote her is somewhat puzzling.

RCA released two more solo singles in 1971 and 1972  (not on this album) — including “I Don’t Want To Be a One Night Stand” which would become Reba McEntire’s debut single a few years later.  There were also two minor hit duets with Waylon (“Suspicious Minds” and “Under Your Spell Again”), but it would be five years and a label change later before the world learned who Jessi Colter was.

A Country Star Is Born is available for download and streaming and is worth a listen.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘We Should Be Together’

we-should-be-togetherThe end of the 1970s saw Crystal Gayle in a point of transition as she left United Artists for Columbia. Her sixth and final album for longtime label, We Should Be Together, was released in mid-June.

The album, helmed as per usual by Allan Reynolds, produced two top ten hits. Lead single “Your Kisses Will” came from a recording session three years prior in November 1976. It peaked at #7 upon release. The song was written by Van Stephenson, a then unknown singer/songwriter who would go onto a solo career with MCA Records in the 1980s, while continuing to compose hits for other artists. In 1992 he joined Henry Paul and Dave Robbins in the formation of Blackhawk, his biggest success as an artist. He passed from Melanoma in 2001 at age 47. “Your Kisses Now” was the start of his career.

Another 1976 recording session produced “Your Old Cold Shoulder,” which peaked at #5. The track reunited her with Richard Leigh and was a rare instance where a single by the pair did not top the country singles chart. Leigh had another track on the album, “Too Deep For Tears,” a lovely piano ballad.

Harlan Howard provided “Time Will Prove That I’m Right,” a jaunty horn-drenched slice of ragtime complete with honky-tonk piano. Reynolds wrote the title track, an excellent up-tempo number. Gayle and Bill Gatzimos had two cuts on the album, the re-record of “Beyond You” and “Through Believing In Love Songs,” a lush ballad without much pep. “Sneakin’ Out The Back Door” is one of the records’ most uptempo numbers.

The album itself is very good, although a bit too pop-leaning for my tastes. I just couldn’t get into the AC balladry this time around. But this is a solid set from Gayle nonetheless.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Asleep at the Wheel – ‘Keepin’ Me Up Nights’

0001597610Released in 1990 as their only studio album for Arista Records, Keepin’ Me Up Nights will do just that as it is a interesting effort throughout.

Asleep At The Wheel (“AATW”) can often feature an astounding number of musicians on stage but this album finds the band being comprised of Ray Benson on lead vocals and guitar; Larry Franklin on fiddle, guitar, and harmony vocals; Tim Alexander on piano, accordion and harmony vocals; John Ely on pedal and lap steel; Michael Francis on saxophone, Joe Mitchell on acoustic and electric bass; and David Sanger on drums. The band is augmented by Greg Jennings playing guitars and six string bass.

The album opens with “Keepin’ Me Up Nights”, a bluesy/jazzy number written by James Dean Hicks and Byron Hill.  In the albums notes Benson says the intent was to do a ‘Ray Charles sings western swing’ arrangement. I would say there were successful.

“Boot Scootin’ Boogie” was written by Ronnie Dunn and would prove to be a major hit for Brooks & Dunn two years later. Since I heard AATW’s version jazzy version first, I found myself surprised at the Brooks & Dunn arrangement and frankly I think AATW did it better, albeit quite differently and definitely not suitable for line dancing.

“Dance With Who Brung You” is a Ray Benson original inspired by a phrase used by former Texas football coach Darrell Royal. This song is done as a mid-tempo ballad.

You got to dance with who brung you, swing with who swung you,
Don’t be a fickle fool,You came here with a gal, who’s always been your pal
Don’t leave her for the first unattached girl, it just ain’t cool
You got to dance with who brung you, swing with who swung you,
Life ain’t no forty-yard dash, be in it for the long run,
’cause in the long run you’ll have more fun, if you dance with who brung You to the bash

Ray collaborated with co-producer Tim Dubois on “Quittin’ Time”, a boogie with real nice sax solos by Michael Francis.

Lisa Silver (who played fiddle on AATW’s second album), Judy Rodman and Carol Chase join the band to provide background vocals on Bobby Braddock’s lovely “Eyes”, an exquisite slow ballad.

Troy Seals and John Schneider wrote “Goin’ Home” is a ballad about the joys of going home after being away too long. This song has a rhythmic arrangement suitable for line dancing.

Well I’ve got a lot of friends on the West Coast,
Got a lot of memories
Well I want you to know that I won’t forget
Everything you’ve done for me
But it’s been too long, just too long
T-T-T-T-T-Too long, I’m a-goin’ home
New York, Detroit, Chicago
You were really somethin’ else
You treated me just like kinfolk y’all,
And I swear I can’t help myself
But it’s been too long, way too long
T-T-T-T-T-Too long, I’m a-goin’ home

I’m gonna write a letter,
I’m gonna send a telegram
Gonna tell everybody this wanderin’ boy is packing his bags right now
And I’m’a goin’ home

“That’s The Way Love Is” was written by former (and founding) AATW member Leroy Preston in 1989. The song, a mid-tempo ballad with a strong Cajun feel to the arrangement (fiddle and accordion), tells of the ups and downs of life. John Wesley Ryles, briefly a star in his own right, chips in background vocals

“Gone But Not Forgotten” was penned by Fred Knobloch and Scott Miller is an up-tempo western swing song about where money goes. We’ve all lived this story …

The great Harlan Howard wrote “You Don’t Have To Go To Memphis”. The premise of the song is that you don’t have to go to Memphis to get the blues, just fall for the wrong woman. The song features nice piano and fiddle solos

You don’t have to go to Memphis to get the Blues
You just fall in love with the kind of women I do
Well, I’ve had me a dozen but I never had me one that
Did not fall through
You don’t have to go to Memphis to get the Blues
There she goes, here I stand
Watching good love slip away
Once again, I’m all alone
Love has come and gone

“Beat Me Daddy (Eight To The Bar)” is a classic boogie from 1940, originally recorded by Will Bradley’s Orchestra (with Ray McKinley on lead vocals). The song was a huge hit for Bradley and has been recorded many times since Bradley’s recording including Commander Cody, Ella Fitzgerald and The Andrews Sisters. The song was completely written by Don Raye although some other names also show up on the writer’s credits

In a little honky-tonky village in Texas
There’s a guy who plays the best piano by far
He can play piano any way that you like it
But the way he likes to play is eight to the bar
When he plays, it’s a ball
He’s the daddy of them all
The people gather around when he gets on the stand
Then when he plays, he gets a hand
The rhythm he beats puts the cats in a trance
Nobody there bothers to dance
But when he plays with the bass and guitar
They holler out, “Beat me Daddy, eight to the bar”

“Texas Fiddle Man” was written by fiddler Larry Franklin and he takes the lead vocals on this song, which features some extended fiddle solos. The folks at Alabama (the band) contributed the idea for the closing riffs.

The album concludes with “Pedernales Stroll” a gentle instrumental tribute to finger pickers such as Chet Atkins, Merle Travis. The song is the only instrumental on the album and as such, the perfect ending to an exciting album

Grade: A+

Album Review: Lorraine Jordan and Caroline Road – ‘Country Grass’

country-grass-2016If you like real country music, the kind that was played before 2005, with meaningful lyrics written by master craftsmen like Dallas Frazier, Cindy Walker, Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran, Merle Haggard and Tom T Hall, where do you go to hear it live?

Unless you live in Texas, your best choice is to visit a bluegrass festival. Today’s bluegrass acts are vitally concerned about finding good songs, regardless of the copyright dates. They are not concerned about the feeding and watering of mediocre songwriters simply because they are part of the pool of co-writers. A typical bluegrass group will include anywhere from 20% upwards of classic country songs in their repertoire.

Exhibit number one is the most recent album, Country Grass, by Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road. This album is a bit of an outlier, because all of the songs are classic country, but one listen to this album and you will plainly hear that the legacy of 60s-90s country music is in good hands.

Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road are a veteran act, having performed at the bluegrass festivals for over fifteen years. Lorraine plays mandolin and handles most of the lead vocals. She is joined by Ben Greene (banjo), Josh Goforth (fiddle), Brad Hudson (dobro) and Jason Moore (upright bass).

In putting this album together of classic country songs, Lorraine assembled a fine cast of guest stars, obtaining the services of the original artist where possible.

The album opens up with the Kentucky Headhunters’ song “Runnin’ Water”, a track from the Kentucky Headhunters’ fourth album. Doug Phelps of the Kentucky Headhunters sings lead on this entertaining track with bandmate Richard Young contributing harmony vocals. This track is straight ahead bluegrass.

Eddy Raven had a #1 record in 1984 with “I Got Mexico” and he chips in with the lead vocals on a track that is more bluegrass flavored than actual bluegrass.

“Darned If I Don’t, Danged If I Do” was a Shenandoah song. Shenandoah’s lead sing Marty Raybon has spent much of the last decade on the bluegrass circuit performing bluegrass versions of Shenandoah hits with his band Full Circle. The song is done in overdrive, but Marty remains one of the premier vocalists.

John Conlee is a long-time Opry veteran who had a decade (1978-1987) long run of top ten hits, including his 1983 #1 hit “Common Man”, taken at about the same tempo as his 1983 hit. Brad Hudson takes a verse of the lead vocal.

country-grass-2015Crystal Gayle had a #1 Country / #18 Pop hit in 1978 with “Waiting For The Times To Get Better”. Crystal and Lorraine trade verses on this one, an elegant sounding song and arrangement.

Lee Greenwood had a #1 record with “Dixie Road” in 1985. Unfortunately, Lee’s voice has eroded over the years so having Troy Pope sing a verse is welcome.

Jim Ed Brown has a top twenty recording of “You Can Have Her” back in 1967. This was probably one of Jim Ed’s last recording before his recent death, but he was in very fine voice indeed. Tommy Long takes part of a verse and harmonizes on this jazzy ballad.

“Boogie Grass Band” was a big hit for Conway Twitty in 1978, the title explaining the feel of the song completely. Unfortunately, Conway has been gone for over twenty years so Lorraine simply got everyone involved in this project to take short vocal turns, preserving the original tempo.

Randy Travis was in no shape to perform so Tommy Long handles the vocals on “Digging Up Bones”. Meanwhile T. G. Sheppard is still with us, so he and Tommy Long handle the vocals on “Do You Want To Go To Heaven”. The instrumentation here is bluegrass, but the tempo remains that of the country ballad that T.G. took to #1 in 1980.

Jesse Keith Whitley is the son of Lorrie Morgan and the late great Keith Whitley. Jesse sounds quite similar to his father and acquits himself well on “Don’t Close Your Eyes”. Jeannette Williams contributes gorgeous harmony vocals to this track which is taken at the same tempo as Keith’s original.

It would be hard to conceive of a bigger country/pop hit than Joe South’s “Rose Garden”, taken to the top of the charts in 1970-1971 by Lynn Anderson. Not only did the song top the country and pop charts in the USA, it went top four or better in nine foreign countries. Lynn Anderson and Lorraine Jordan share the lead vocals on this song, which probably sounds the least similar to the original of all the tracks on this album. Lynn passed away last summer, so this is one of the last tracks (perhaps the last track) she ever recorded.

Lorraine’s band shines on the last track of the album “Last Date”. Although there were several sets of lyrics appended to Floyd Cramer’s piano classic, I don’t really like any of the lyrics I’ve heard, so I appreciate that this was left as an instrumental.

I picked up this disc about a month ago and it has been in heavy rotation in my CD player since them. I was inspired to write this when Jonathan Pappalardo posted a video of John Anderson singing with Lorraine and Carolina Road. John is not on the original (2015) version of the album, but his performance can be purchased on Lorraine’s website http://www.carolinaroadband.com/, and is on the new re-released version.

Even if you do not particularly care for bluegrass you might really like this album, chock full of solid country gold songs, fine vocals and exquisite musicianship. I give it an A-, docking it very slightly for the eroded voices of a few of the guests.

Album Review: Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton – ‘Love And Music’

love and musicLove And Music was the tenth duet album by Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton. Released in July 1973, only one single was released from the album, a cover of a Carl Smith oldie from 1951, “If Teardrops Were Pennies”, a song which Carl took to #8, but Porter and Dolly took to #3. As always, Bob Ferguson is listed as the producer.

The album opens up with “If Teardrops Were Pennies”. I don’t happen to own a vinyl copy of this album, but I’ve seen it and if I recall correctly Carl Butler, who wrote this song, also wrote the liner notes to this album. The song is a mid-tempo romp that Porter & Dolly do very well indeed, although I also like Carl Smith’s version of the song and the recordings that Carl & Pearl Butler made of the song.

If teardrops were pennies and heartaches were gold
I’d have all the treasures my pockets would hold
I’d be oh so wealthy with treasures untold
If teardrops were pennies and heartaches were gold

An acre of diamonds I’d offer to you
A solid gold mansion, an airplane or two
This whole world would be yours to have and to hold
If teardrops were pennies and heartaches were gold

Next up is the first of four Porter Wagoner tunes on the album “Sounds of Night” a gentle ballad with a nice fiddle intro by Mack Magaha. The song describes the lonely sounds of night (whippoorwills, church bells) and how they translate to human emotions

I don’t know much about Howard Tuck, other than what I found in his obituary (http://www.mywebtimes.com/obituaries/howard-red-tuck/article_e67fea9d-9ee8-5b24-8d2c-e7e5cf4e0300.html ) but his song “Laugh The Years Away” is a good song that would have made a good single. The song is a humorous look at married life, happy even if not blessed with material wealth.

A corporation owns the factory I work in
Someone else owns the house we call our home
The bank owns the car we drive around
And we’ve got something we can call our own

We’ve got love happiness surrounds us
And we thank the Lord for every single day
And with love we’ll always have each other
And together we can laugh the years away

Next up is the first of four Dolly Parton tunes on this album “You”, a rather bland ballad of domestic bliss.

Porter’s “Wasting Love” also would have made a good single, an up-tempo song about a couple growing apart. While the lyrics are good, the strength of the song is the melody.

“Come To Me” is a slow, serious ballad, that essentially finds Porter and Dolly trading verses. The song is inspirational without being religious. The song had no potential as a single, but it is a nice song.

Porter co-wrote “Love Is Out Tonight” with Tom Pick. The song is a slow ballad with very vivid imagery.

As blue skies and daylight darken into night
Surrounding us with beauty as the stars make their light
They spell out our names all the stars up above
As they flicker and shine like letters of love

Then a warm breath of air whispers through the trees
As the leaves on their branches have blown to the breeze
Ripples of water seemed to echo the sound
Love’s out tonight there’s love all around

Small drops of dew act as nature’s perfume
Placing its fragrance on all that’s in blue
While I hold you so close your lips touching mine
With nature all around us watching our love entwine

Porter Wagoner penned “In The Presence of You”. The song features a nice piano intro to a slow ballad of a people who cannot find the right words to say to each other, although they love each other deeply.

In the presence of you I wonder
Why I can’t say the things that I want to
All the pretty words that I planned to say when I’m with you
I lose them in the presence of you

Your nearness makes my voice tremble
There’s a weakness that I feel through and through
Searching for words to describe how I love you
Don’t come easy in the presence of you

Dolly penned “I Get Lonesome By Myself”, another of Dolly’s lonesome little girl songs. In this song the narrator stumbles across the daughter he abandoned a few years back. Dolly’s part is spoken in a somewhat creepy effort at a six year old girl’s voice.

The album closes with the forth Dolly Parton composition “There Will Always Be Music”, a nice capstone to the album.

As the farmer works the fields he sings a song
The songbirds in the trees sing along
And the wind makes melodies as it whistles through the trees
Man’s burdens are made lighter with a song

There’ll always be music as long as there’s a story to be told
There’ll always be music cause music is the voice of the song
There’ll always be music

Dolly Parton has a well deserved reputation as a songwriter, but Porter was no slouch either, although neither Porter nor Dolly would rank up there with Cindy Walker, Dallas Frazier, Harlan Howard or Hank Cochran. On this album at least, Porter’s songs are stronger than Dolly’s.

This is a pretty decent album, although not necessarily one of their better albums. As Jonathan Pappalardo noted in his excellent review of The Right Combination/Burning The Midnight Oil, “[w]hile none of these songs have truly amounted to anything, they combine to make a fine collection on their own”.

My feelings exactly – B+

Album Review: Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton – ‘Always, Always’

51OLaYLMOxL._SS500_SS280Released in the summer of 1969, Always, Always was the third duet album from Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. Today it is one of only two of their original albums that is available for digital download. Why this one was chosen to be made available over some of the others is a mystery, as it does not contain any of the duo’s best remembered hits. It is, however, a very solid collection and well worth listening to.

Two singles were released from the album, both of them ballads. The first was Harlan Howard’s “Yours Love” in which the pair profess their undying love for each other. It reached #9. The second single, the slightly bland title track written by Joyce McCord reached #16. The album’s best cut is the opening number, “Milwaukee, Here I Come”, a remake of a song that had reached #13 the prior year for George Jones and Brenda Carter. The tongue-in-cheek uptempo number is about a starstruck Wisconsin couple who are about to return home after an extended stay in Nashville:

I’m gonna get on that old turnpike and I’m gonna ride
I’m gonna leave this town ’til you decide
Which one you want the most them Opry stars or me
Milwaukee here I come from Nashville, Tennessee

Another winner is a very nice cover of “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby”, which had been a #1 hit for The Louvin Brothers in 1956. Younger listeners may be familiar with the Alison Krauss version released in 1995. “Why Don’t You Haul Off and Love Me” is very nice mid tempo toe tapper that features an excellent steel guitar solo, as do many of the other songs on the album.

The album also contains three of Dolly’s original compositions. “My Hands are Tied” and “No Reason To Hurry Home” are both solid efforts, while “Malena” finds Dolly once again revisiting the dying child theme. It’s a pretty song with a nice vocal performance from Dolly, followed by a recitation by Porter which reveals the child’s fate, but it’s a little too maudlin and morbid for my liking. I could have done without this one but the rest of the album is first-rate.

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: Loretta Lynn – ‘Songs From My Heart’

Loretta_Lynn-Songs_from_My_HeartLoretta Lynn’s third solo album, Songs From My Heart, was released on Decca Records in 1965. The twelve track record was produced by Owen Bradley.

“Happy Birthday (Merry Christmas and Happy New Year)” was the only single released. Lynn was pitched the song while performing in Canada, where she promptly put it on hold. The track was an instant success and peaked at #3.

She had a hand in composing two of the album’s tracks. “When Lonely Hits Your Heart” is a mid-tempo ballad with light, yet attractive, percussion. “It Just Looks That Way” is much the same but with some delightful riffs of steel guitar weaved throughout. “You Made Me What I Am” has solid piano and a strong lyric written by her husband Oliver Doolittle.

Songs From My Heart is also notable for cover versions of popular hits and tracks penned by notable songwriters. Lynn is foolish for tackling “Once a Day” after Connie Smith laid down the definitive version, but she copes with the track and vocal comparisons as best she can. She gives Don Gibson’s “Oh, Lonesome Me” a female spin, which works beautifully. “I Don’t Believe I’ll Fall in Love Today” is an excellent mid-tempo Harlan Howard number while “Half A Mind” showcases Roger Miller at his most straight-laced.

“You’re The Only Good Thing” is a nice steel drenched ballad while “Boy Like You” is a gorgeous honky-tonker. “When Dreams Go Out of Style” and “Wound You Can’t Erase” are more of the same – maudlin but nicely executed ballads.

Songs From My Heart is a very solid album that doesn’t really seem to go anywhere. Each track is wonderful, but there aren’t enough rocklin honky tonkers or tracks that feel distinctive. As it stands this is just a very fine album, at least to me.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Barbara Mandrell – ‘This Time I Almost Made It: The Lost Columbia Masters’

81U+RipV8TL._SX522_More than any other performer, Barbara Mandrell is the artist responsible for sparking my interest in country music. Even before there were any local country music radio stations in my area, her weekly TV series was my main source of keeping abreast of what was going on in the world of country music. This was in the early 80s, when she’d just become the first artist to win the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year award a second time. Her contributions to country music were significant, but her catalog has been criminally neglected. Fortunately, that grievance is starting to be addressed. With the reissue of This Time I Almost Made It, courtesy of Real Gone Music, all of Barbara’s solo albums for Columbia are now available on CD.

Barbara was signed to Columbia in 1969 by Billy Sherrill and remained with the label until 1975. During that time, she only released three solo albums, plus a duets album with David Houston. Most major country acts released three albums a year in those days, but like we often see today, the label was waiting for some radio hits before committing to album releases. Her debut album Treat Him Right, was released in 1971 and was a lackluster seller. 1973’s The Midnight Oil reached #8 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, buoyed by the success of the title track which reached #7 in Billboard and #1 in Cashbox, and “Tonight My Baby’s Coming Home”, which was Barbara’s first Top 10 hit. By the time This Time I Almost Made It was released in 1974, the momentum she had gained seemed to have been lost again; it only reached #41 on the albums chart. By that time, Barbara might have already initiated talks to negotiate her release from her Columbia contract. If so, the label obviously would have had little interest in promoting her records. At any rate, the quality of the material does not seem to have been the issue.

The title track was written by Sherrill when he realized that they didn’t have enough songs for an album. Though in some respects it may have been an afterthought, it is my favorite track on the album. It’s a beautiful ballad, not particularly country in arrangement but the production is tastefully restrained. It was released as a single in advance of the album, as a follow-up to “The Midnight Oil”, but it charted outside the Top 10 at #12. The second single was “Wonder When My Baby’s Coming Home”, another easy-listening style ballad, although it is a little more country thanks to the inclusion of some steel guitar. I wasn’t previously familiar with this one, but I like it a lot. The background vocals give it a slightly dated feel, though they are a lot less intrusive than many records of the era. This one stalled at #39 and was Barbara’s final single for Columbia.

Barbara is well known for making country versions of R&B songs, occasionally delving too far into R&B territory for my taste in later years but her take on “You’re All I Need to Get By”, which has been a 1968 R&B hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, is quite good. She also turned in good performances on some pop songs of the day: “Keep On Singing”, which had been a hit for Helen Reddy, The Bee Gees’ “Words”, and The Beatles’ “Something”, which closes out the original album. She also covered her country colleagues Merle Haggard (“Today I Started Loving You Again”) and Charlie Rich (“A Very Special Love Song”).

This CD would be worth buying for the original album alone, but Real Gone Music has included almost another album’s worth of bonus tracks. There are nine in total, seven of which have never been released before. First up is the very country “I Hope You Love Me”, which was recorded during Barbara’s first session with Columbia in 1969. Written by George Jones and Tammy Wynette, it was included on Tammy’s 1970 album The Ways To Love a Man under the title “I Know”. “You Can Always Come Back”, also recorded in 1969 is a cover of a Curly Putman hit. “Coming Home Solider” had been a 1966 pop hit for Bobby Vinton.

Though the album’s liner notes refer to Barbara’s version as “dramatic”, I found it a bit plodding and it’s my least favorite track on the disc. Although a bit tame, her reading of “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music)” is much better. It was written by Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, who had hired Barbara for a two-week stint in Las Vegas when she was only eleven years old. It’s proof positive that despite her reputation for interpreting pop and R&B material, she was just as adept at tackling traditional country. Ditto for “You Took Him Off My Hands”, a Wynn Stewart/Harlan Howard/Skeets McDonald song that had previously been recorded by Patsy Cline.

Though not one a landmark album in the Mandrell discography, This Time I Almost Made It provides an interesting opportunity to trace Barbara’s development as an artist, and the bonus material is a real treat for her fans. After leaving Columbia, Barbara signed with ABC/Dot, which was later absorbed by MCA. That era of her career, despite being the years of her greatest commercial success, is still largely unavailable on CD aside from a few hits compilations. Hopefully the sales of This Time I Almost Made It will be good enough to entice Universal to finally allowing some of Barbara’s most commercially important recordings a chance to once again see the light of day.

Grade: A

Compilation Review: The Best of Hank Williams Jr, Volume One: Roots and Branches’

MI0002768558Released in 1992, The Best of Hank Williams Jr: Roots and Branches is a compilation of songs Hank recorded between the mid 1960s – mid 1970s. The songs trace Hank’s career before he developed his own sound and became the superstar country-rocker he’s best known as today.

All and all, the collection consists of twenty songs including six that Hank wrote himself. “Standing In The Shadows” is an excellent honky-tonk ballad as is “I Was With Red Foley,” which features a nice spoken word lyric. “Rock in My Shoe” and “Stoned At the Jukebox” is more contemporary in nature, with flourishes of harmonica and 1970s-era acoustic guitar pairing nicely with the ribbons of steel still heard throughout. “Living Proof” showcases Hank just as he began to shape his own identity. In contrast, “It’s All Over But the Crying” appears to be from his earliest days, with Hank framed in a Nashville Sound-era arrangement.

Hank’s father had a hand with three of the tracks. “Cajun Baby” is billed as being written by both father and son, and it’s an excellent fiddle-based uptempo tune. “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” and “Cold, Cold Ground” are mid-tempo honky-tonkers.

The rest of the compilation features tunes written by a bevy of different songwriters. “I’d Rather Be Gone” is a Merle Haggard-penned straight country ballad as is the Harlan Howard-penned “I Walked Out on Heaven.” Toy Caldwell had “Losing You” and “Can’t You See,” two of the meatiest tunes on the whole project.

The whole album is indeed a first-rate run down of Hank’s career during this period. Unlike most of the albums we’ve highlighted this month, Roots and Branches is still available (although not digitally) and worth seeking out.

Grade: A

Album Review: Hank Williams Jr – ‘Ballads Of The Hills And Plains’

balladsBy 1965, it was becoming apparent that Hank Williams, Jr. would not be content to simply remake his father’s songbook. The first shot across the bow was this album of western and folk songs and similar songs by Nashville songsmiths. While it was a rebellion of sorts, it was a gentle rebellion as Hank gathered his own footing with this, his fourth album, and first not to feature any songs written by his father.

The band for this album was billed as the Cheatin’ Hearts but in reality it was a group of session musicians consisting of Grady Martin, Jerry Kennedy, Harold Bradley and Ray Edenton on guitars, Bob Moore on electric bass, Hargus “Pig” Robbins on piano with the Jordanaires providing vocal accompaniment. While Hank did have a touring band of Cheatin’ Hearts in future years, I doubt that this group ever backed Hank on stage unless it was on the Opry stage, since Hank was still only 16 years old.

The great outdoors, the old west and cowboys are themes Hank would turn to at many points in the future. This was the starting point.
Side One of the album opens with “The River”, an early Mack Vickery co-write with Cliff Friend and Jack Sanders that is a slow ballad about a young lad going after the man who gunned down his father. Unlike the lad in Johnny Cash’s “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town”, the young man here heads back home to his mother.

Next up is “Doc Holiday”, John Paulovic’s tale about Wyatt Earp’s old sidekick. This song is not about the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral, but simply an incident (probably fictional) in the life of Doc Holiday. The dominant instrument in this arrangement is Pig Robbins honky-tonk piano.

Have another drink on me, Doc Holiday
The kid ain’t gonna shoot you down

“Cowpoke” comes from the pens of Tillman Franks and David Houston. Houston was about to emerge as a first tier star, at least for a few years, but this song is western fare, which finds Hank displaying his cowboy yodel/falsetto:

I’m lonesome but happy,
Rich but I’m broke,
And the good Lord knows the reason,
I’m just a cowpoke.

From Cheyenne to Douglas,
All the ranges i know,
I drift with the wind,
No one cares where i go.

Well I ain’t got a dime,
In these old worn out jeans,
So i’ll quit eatin’ steak,
And go back to beans.

“Blood’s Thicker Than Water” by ace songwriters Danny Dill and Wayne P. Walker is a western ballad with a Mexican feel to the guitar work about a gunfight between two brothers that is broken up, at great personal cost by the boys’ mother. A very dramatic ballad.

Jim Reeves had a major hit with Harlan Howard’s “The Blizzard” in 1961. Hank is not a smooth balladeer in the same league as Reeves (very few are in that class) but this song is a narration rather than a crooner’s ballad and so Hank is very much in his element.

“Stampede” by Jim Dale and Frances Paulin is a nice western ballad that closes out side one of the vinyl album.

Side Two starts with “The Rainmaker”, another song from the trio of Cliff Friend, Jack Sanders and Mack Vickery. This narrative song is about a stranger who shows up in the town of Dry Gulch promising to make it rain. This lyric has an interesting twist to the lyric.

Nearly every folk singer and cowboy singer has sung “The Streets of Laredo”, a tune which appears in the folk music of nearly every English-speaking culture, albeit sometimes with very different lyrics. Hank’s vocal is very effective and the backing is very sparse as befits the stark nature of the song.

“Black Lightning” is a jog-along ballad about a gunfighter on the run, speaking to his horse (and himself) as he is about to be run down by the posse chasing him.

“Big Twenty” is another ballad, the story of a muleskinner being pursued by the Apache , the title referring to his twenty mule team pulling a load of borax.

“The Eyes of Death” written by Danny Dill is the story of an inmate who knows that the brother of the man he killed is an inmate in the same prison, but he doesn’t even know what the brother looks like and the anticipation of being killed is worse than actually being killed.

The album ends with “I’m Afraid” by Allen Nelson and Carolyn Stringer. This is an up-tempo about an impending gunfight with a former friend. The dispute, of course, is over a woman.

Unfortunately this album has never been released in a digital format and only “The Blizzard” and “The River” are to be found on the MGM boxed set Living Proof.

All is not lost, however, as ten of the songs have been posted to You Tube as audio clips.

This album is essentially a western or cowboy album, a genre that Hank handles very effectively. The accompaniment is appropriately subdued and Hank is in great vocal form. The musicians and arrangements are all top flight and this is an album I greatly enjoy. As a first attempt at getting away from being a clone, this is a solid effort – at least a B+ or maybe an A-

Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘Highway 101’

albuma37Highway 101 debuted in January 1987 as the newest artist signed to Warner Brothers Records Nashville. Their spectacular eponymous debut introduced the world to Paulette Carlson, a honky-tonk wonder who has always reminded me of a country Stevie Nicks. The record had four major hit singles and was produced by Paul Worley.

The band launched with the impressive honky-tonk rocker “The Bed You Made For Me,” which deservedly hit #4. Carlson, who solely penned the track, is a woman taking the upper hand while confronting her cheating man (it’s not clear if she’s the mistress or the spouse). She brilliantly uses the bed he cheated in to drive home her argument when laying him out in lavender:

And did you tell her she was sleeping in the bed you made for me?

Did she like my satin sheets and did you sing her to sleep?

And my pillow that she slept on did it bring her sweet dreams?

Did you tell her she was sleeping in the bed you made for me?

***

The pillow that you made for me it was soft with feather down

And the headboard, it came from an old house

That was about to be torn down

And the songs you always sang to me oh as I fall asleep

Did they sound the same to her in the bed you made for me?

***

Now you can take my old pillow and throw it out the door

You can buy another bed you can find another headboard

‘Cause I ain’t gonna lie beneath those satin sheets you tore

The bed you made for me it isn’t mine anymore

Their second single, which peaked at #2, was the incredible steel guitar drenched “Whiskey, If You Were A Woman,” a slice of songwriting gold penned by Mary W. Francis, Johnny MacRae and Bob Morrison. The clever lyric finds Carlson coping uniquely with her man’s grip on the bottle:

Oh, oh, whiskey, if you were a woman

I’d fight you and I’d win, Lord knows I would

Oh, oh, whiskey, if you were a woman

I’d drive you from his tangled mind for good

***

No matter what you do, I do it better

You’ll never be the woman I could be

But you don’t have a heart or any feelings

So I can’t even ask for sympathy

They clinched their first chart topper with the luminescent “Somewhere Tonight,” penned by Harlan Howard and Rodney Crowell, who was a rising star at the time. The track, about a lonesome woman whose man took off for brighter horizons, is surprisingly jaunty for the subject matter. (A bit of trivia: “Somewhere Tonight” was #1 the week I was born).

Final single “Cry, Cry, Cry” was the band’s first consecutive #1. It’s another excellent jaunty honky-tonk rocker, this time with Carlson having quite a difficult time getting over the relationship that just ended:

It’s just a little creek now

But when the rain comes down it’s gonna be a raging river

I just heard my baby say goodbye

He left me here holding back my tears, now he’s gone forever

The dam’s gonna break and I’ma gonna cry, cry, cry

***

I’ma gonna cry and I don’t care who sees

I wonder if he knows what he’s done to me

Gonna love that boy till the day I die

Till the day I do I’m gonna cry, cry, cry

The singles from the band’s debut album were sonically and lyrically cohesive, which helped endear them to radio programmers. The rest of the album somewhat breaks the mold. The band’s drummer Cactus Moser, now married to Wynonna Judd, co-penned the twangy “One Step Closer” with Curtis Stone. The track finds Carlson in a bar with her eye on a guy across the room. She’s hesitant to make a move because ‘One step closer and Mama always told me, don’t go fallin’ till you see the whites of his eyes.’

Carlson solely penned one other track, the equally uptempo “Are You Still Mine,” which could’ve easily been another hit single. She also co-wrote (with Bob DiPiero and Pat McManus) the breakneck paced “Good Goodbye,” about a woman who’s happy to see her current relationship has ended. Matraca Berg lends her pen to “Bridge Across Forever,” a co-write with Ronnie Samoset. It isn’t Berg’s most distinctive lyric and the track unfortunately falls short in comparison to the rest of the album.

The album’s most famous ballad is “Woman Walk The Line,” written by Emmylou Harris and Paul Kennerley. Harris and Trisha Yearwood have both recorded their own versions, which bring out the palpable hurt within the lyric. Highway 101 gives the track pep, which is a bit jarring, but it works as another way of presenting the story.

The final ballad, “Someone Believed” is the most distinctly different from any other track on the album. The song tells a two-act story about a girl who wishes to leave her life on the farm and a city boy who cannot imagine any other life than the girl’s. The cohesiveness is found in the idea that anything is possible in life if you just believe.

Highway 101 is a near perfect debut album. The majority of the tracks are stunning and the production is nicely within the neo-traditional meets contemporary style that was popular at the time. My only slight complaint is that the album is almost too cohesive. I wish Worley had given the album tracks a bit more sonic variety and thus presented the album with a few more surprises. It’s still an essential album 28 years later, with all of the band’s biggest hits in one place. If you were going to check out Highway 101 this is absolutely where you would begin.

Grade: A

Album Review: Waylon Jennings – ‘Good Hearted Woman’

220px-Good_Hearted_Woman_cover_artReleased in 1972, Good Hearted Woman found Waylon Jennings making large strides in the direction towards the Outlaw Movement for which he’s most associated. Songwriting credits from the likes of Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson were paramount in making the musical shift.

Chet Atkins enlisted Ronnie Light to produce the project after Danny Davis exited the fold to focus his attention on his Brass Band. Jennings noted he put Light through hell during production although his anger was directed at the musicians who didn’t truly understand his artistic vision.

The #3 peaking title track served as the album’s first single. Famous for a version that featured Jennings singing with his co-writer Willie Nelson, “Good Hearted Woman” is presented here with Jennings singing solo (the duet came three years later on Wanted! The Outlaws). The background vocalists are dated and distracting, but the track is otherwise perfect.

Jennings solely penned the harmonica laced “Do No Good Woman” while Nelson took a sole writing credit on “It Should Be Easier Now.” The pedal steel soaked Nelson composition afforded Jennings the opportunity to give a tour de force vocal performance while his own track feels a bit run of the mill.

Chip Taylor and Al Gorgoni’s shuffle “Sweet Dream Woman” peaked at #7. The pesky background vocalists rear their ugly heads again, but other than that the track is excellent. I love Jennings’ vocal, too, but I get the sense he was being constricted. If I had to guess, I bet he would’ve desired to cut loose a lot more than he was able to.

Kristofferson composed the album’s closing track, the excellent recitation “To Beat the Devil.” Jennings’ baritone is the perfect vehicle to convey the story, about a man who happens upon a tavern on a cold winter’s night.

Harlan Howard contributed the honky-tonker “One of my Bad Habits.” With an ear-catching chugging beat the track details the plight of a man coming clean about his reckless behaviors (smoking, drinking, his woman) and trying to do something about them. I love the bright production, complete with both steel and twangy guitars.

Swamp rocker Tony Joe White contributed “Willie and Laura Mae Jones,” one of the album’s standout tracks. White composed the masterful lyric, about a friendship between a white family and their black neighbors, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement; three years prior to the release of Good Hearted Woman. The subtly is masterful. With just one line (‘that was another place, another time’) he’s able to get his message across beautifully.

Canadian Folk-Rocker Gordon Lightfoot graces Good Hearted Woman with his stone country ballad “Same Old Lover Man.” The tender qualities in the lyric and production are equally matched in Jennings’ vocal, which makes use of his higher register. There’s nothing wrong with the track but in the context of the album it feels a bit too light.

“Unsatisfied” is a more typical ballad, with Jennings using his lower register to convey the lyric. While I was listening the melody seemed somewhat familiar and it came to me. To my ears the track is similar to Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey,” which might’ve been intentional or just something I heard. Otherwise, it’s a solid recording.

“I Knew You’d Be Leavin’” is another ballad, but unlike the previous two, has a peppier production that really caught my ear. I wasn’t fond of Jennings’ vocal, it seemed to low for my tastes, but the track itself is very good.

Good Hearted Woman is a wonderful album and well worth checking out to get a better view of Jennings’ recorded output during this era of his career. The proceedings are too clean and careful and “Willie Mae and Laura Jones” should’ve been the album’s second single. But I would still recommend this album as it is another strong entry in Jennings’ discography.

Grade: A 

Classic Rewind: Waylon Jennings – ‘The Chokin’ Kind’

A great Harlan Howard song which was Waylon’s biggest hit so far:

Album Review: Waylon Jennings – ‘Only The Greatest’

only the greatestThe title of Only The Greatest, released in 1968, may suggest a compilation, but in fact it was another new album, produced as before by Chet Atkins. The material focuses on broken hearts.

the initial single, ‘Walk On Out Of My Mind’ was Waylon’s iggest hit to date, reaching #5 on Billboard.

The album’s best remembered track was the booming assertive second single, #2 hit ‘Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line’, the first real example of his mature style. This stands up today as an all-time classic.

The next best song is the Hank Cochran ballad ‘You’ll Think Of Me’, addressed to the protagonist’s ex-wife’s new husband, warning him of what lies ahead:

When the new wears off
And the glamor’s gone
But the ties that bind
Keep holdin’ on –
And they’re strong

You’ll think of me being with her
Like I thought of her
Being with them and you
And God knows who
You’re happy now but wait and see
When she treats you
Like she’s treated me
As you wake to see
Who the next will be
You’ll think of me

The perky ‘California Sunshine’, written by Harlan Howard has the lovelorn protagonist heading west to get over a heartbreak by finding new love. Waylon’s vocal is solid and committed, but the production has dated a bit.

Waylon shows his skills as a tender ballad singer on the Jerry Chesnut-penned ‘Weakness In A Man’. The Nashville Sound backing vocals, while dated, actually work quite well on this song, in which a disturbing threat of murdering his straying wife is masked by a gentle melody.

Waylon co-wrote just a couple of tunes: the pleasant sounding if lyrically doleful ‘Sorrow (Breaks A Man Down)’ is okay, but I really enjoyed the mid-tempo ‘Wave Goodbye To Me’, which he wrote with Don Bowman and Jackson King.

‘Christina’ is a Spanish-flavored number in the style of Marty Robbins, with bright horns. Red Lane wrote ‘Walk On Out Of My Mind’, a sad song about the aftermath of a breakup. ‘Such A Waste Of Love’ is a downbeat tune written by Bobby Bare, while ‘Long Gone’ is a Jerry Reed cover, and quite enjoyable.

One misstep is a cover of pop singer-songwriter Neil Diamond’s ‘Kentucky Woman’, which just doesn’t translate into a country song – Waylon’s version is very similar to the original. While not precisely a misstep, Waylon’s perfectly good version of the beautiful ‘Too Far Gone’ (written by the late Billy Sherrill) pales a little in comparison to Emmylou Harris’s cover a few years later.

On the whole, though, this is a very good album which shows Waylon developing into the artist he was to become.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Waylon Jennings – ‘Love of the Common People’

51wqa0MBekL._SS280In the 1960s, sales of single records were far more important to the music industry than album sales. Albums consisted of one or two hit singles, and 8 to 10 “filler” songs, which were often cover versions of the current hits of other artists or less commercially viable songs written by the artist and/or producer. Country artists typically released an average of three albums a year. Waylon Jennings’ 1967 collection Love of the Common People was his fifth album for RCA, released a year after his debut collection for the label.

Produced by Chet Atkins, Love of the Common People is a little unusual in that none of its tracks were released as singles. It consists of the usual cover songs and original artist/producer compositions as well as a few contributions from well known songwriters of the day, such as Sonny James and Harlan Howard. Despite its lack of radio hits, the album’s material is stronger and less uneven than many albums of the day, and it sold reasonably well, peaking at #3 on the Billboard country albums chart. And although this is a slightly more polished Waylon than we would hear a few years later, the album largely avoids some of the excesses of the Nashville Sound era.

My favorite track is “Young Widow Brown”, a light-hearted tune written by Waylon and Sky Corbin, concerning a fun-loving young woman who drives her husband to an early grave and doing her best to send her many suitors to a similar fate. While not as edgy as Waylon’s later work, it’s not as far removed from his Outlaw music as one might expect.

The title track is a folk-rock tune that had been a pop hit earlier in the year for The Four Preps. It sounds like something that might have fit on Waylon’s earlier effort Folk-Country. “Taos, New Mexico”, written by RCA in-house producer Bob Ferguson, is a very nice Tex-Mex tune that’s a little ahead of its time. It sounds like something that Freddy Fender or Marty Robbins would have success with a few years later. “I Tremble For You” is a little known Johnny Cash song written by the man in black and Lew DeWitt, who was part of the original Statler Brothers lineup. It’s not the usual boom-chicka-boom style usually associated with Cash, and it shows Waylon’s strength as a ballad singer. Shoulda been a single. “If The Shoe Fits” by Harlan Howard and Freddie Hart, “Destiny’s Child” by Sonny James, and “The Road” by Ted Harris are all worth a listen.

The album does contain a couple of missteps: a cover of the John Lennon/Paul McCartney tune “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”, and Mel Tillis’ “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”. The latter about a wounded warrior suffering from physical injuries and PTSD, long before those terms were coined. His wife callously prepares to leave him on his own while she seeks her pleasures elsewhere, making no attempts to hide her intentions. The song had been a Top 10 hit earlier in the year for Johnny Darrell and two years later would become a huge pop smash for Kenny Rogers and The First Edition. It’s a good song, but Jennings’ delivery is surprisingly stiff and devoid of emotion.

Waylon Jennings, of course, had a long and distinguished career in country music and left behind a catalog so huge that it’s easy to overlook some of the entries that weren’t big hits. Love of the Common People is a gem well worth exploring.

Grade: A

Album Review: Waylon Jennings – ‘Folk Country’

folk countryDuring the mid-1960s RCA attempted to catch the dying embers of the ‘Hootenanny’ movement of the early 1960s by positioning their artists to appeal to both country and folk audiences. Obviously this wasn’t a strategy that could be employed for every RCA country artist, but there were some artists such as George Hamilton IV, Bobby Bare and Waylon Jennings who (sort of) straddled the line between folk and country.

Folk-Country was Waylon’s debut album for RCA, released in March 1966, preceded by 1965 chart singles “That’s The Chance I’ll Have To Take”, “Stop The World And Let Me Off” and “Anita You’re Dreaming”. The first two singles would show up on Waylon’s debut album.

Around the time Folk-Country was released, RCA had signed Don Bowman to the label. Bowman and Jennings had been friends for a number of years and Bowman, an extraordinary comic (with a very offbeat sense of humor) and a pretty good songwriter, supplied Waylon with three songs on the debut album.

The album opens up with the Harlan Howard tune “Another Bridge To Burn” which most will remember as the title song of a Ray Price album from 1966. Ray included the song in his live performances, but the only charting single of the song was by Little Jimmy Dickens who hit #28 in 1963. Piano and background singers dominate the arrangement and Waylon sings it well but the song would work better with different instrumentation.

“Stop The World and Let Me Off”, a Carl Belew classic, was Waylon’s first top twenty single, reaching #16. I think Waylon’s version is the definitive version of the song.

Waylon had a hand in writing several songs on this album. “Cindy of New Orleans” was a solo endeavor by Jennings. It has a very folk arrangement with an acoustic guitar arrangement . The song is a flip on the usual theme of the woman waiting her lover to return:

One day a riverboat gambler chanced by
And captured her heart with his sweet words and lies
He told her come with me and you’ll be a queen
So they left together to see New Orleans
Each day you can see Jim though years have gone by
Down by the river where the big boats go by
She wrote she’d return at the first sign of spring
He’s waiting for Cindy to see New Orleans

“Look Into My Teardrops” was one of Conway Twitty’s early efforts to have a country hit, barely cracking the top forty . Written by Don Bowman and Harlan Howard, it has always been one of my favorite Conway Twitty recordings. Waylon does a fine job on the song, although the song fits Conway’s voice better. Harmonica and acoustic guitar dominate the arrangement:

Look into my teardrops
And darlin’ you will see
The reflection of an angel
That made a fool of me

Look into my teardrops
And you will see the eyes
That promised me so many things
But all of them were lies

Look into my teardrops
The mirror of my soul
And you will see the girl
Who’s still my only world but I couldn’t hold

“Down Came the World” is a Bozo Darnell-Waylon Jennings collaboration. The song is a mid-tempo ballad about a love gone wrong.

Not everything from the pen of Harlan Howard was a classic, as witness “I Don’t Mind”. It is not a bad song, it’s just nothing special, a typical jog-along ballad about a man wronged by a woman.

“Just for You” was a Waylon Jennings, Don Bowman and Jerry Williams collaboration:

Do you ever think about the one who thinks about you
Do you ever wonder dear why he’s always waiting here for you
In spite of all the things you’ve said and done I’m a fool and you’re the only one
I’ll keep waiting while you’ll have your fun just for you
Can’t you see you’re a part of me and everything I do
And every dream I dream is just for you
Do you ever think about the one who thinks about you
Do you ever wonder dear why he’s always waiting here for you
It makes no difference what you do or say I’ll be waiting here the same old way
Living every moment of each day just for you

Don Bowman was the sole writer of “Now Everybody Knows”. This song is about a woman who makes no effort to hide her philandering ways.

The first single off the album was Waylon’s solo composition “That’s the Chance I’ll Have to Take”, which nudged onto the charts at #49. It is an excellent song that might have been a substantial hit had it been released later in Waylon’s career. Quite a few artists covered the song as an album track, most notably Charley Pride, whose version rivals Waylon’ as the definitive version of the song:

Troubles and a worried mind
It seems that’s all I’ve ever known
But now I’ll leave that all behind
If you’ll just leave me alone.

And if I go on loving you
If to leave is a mistake
If I’m wrong in what I do
That’s the chance I’ll have to take

“What Makes a Man Wander” is a Harlan Howard composition that I first heard performed by Harlan’s then-wife Jan Howard. I think the song works a little better sung from the distaff side, but Waylon acquits himself well on the song:

What makes me wanna roam
When I got so much love at home
What makes a man wander
What makes a man wander?
The whistle of a train
Does something to my brain
What makes a man wander
What makes a man wander?

The first version of “Man of Constant Sorrow” that I recall hearing was Waylon’s version of the song. WCMS disc jockey “Carolina Charlie” Wiggs liked Waylon’s version of the song and played it occasionally. To this day, I still like Waylon’s understated version of the song better than any of the more bombastic versions.

The album closes with the Harlan Howard composition “What’s Left of Me” , a wry ballad:

I’ve been cheated, mistreated, broken man, defeated
No one wanted or needed any part of me
I’ve been bothered and shattered till my heart’s torn and tattered
Baby, are you sure you want what’s left of me?
I’ve been busted, disgusted, hurt by those I trusted
There’s a big old hurt inside where my heart should be
I’ve been lied on and cried on, cheated on and spited on
Even dogs think that I’m a tree
Baby, are you sure you want what’s left of me?

There was a tendency for RCA recording artists to have musical accompaniments that sounded very similar. This was due to the use of RCA’s studio musicians. While RCA had some truly excellent musicians in its stable, the use of these musicians (along with string and choral arrangements) resulted in recordings whose sound the artists could not replicate in live performance. Waylon (along with Willie Nelson and some others) would address this problem in the future, but at this stage of the game, none of them had sufficient leverage (or a sufficient track record) to exert that kind of influence.

Because RCA was pushing this album as folk-country, the arrangements are less cluttered than the usual RCA recordings, but even with the semi-folk arrangements, the likes of the Anita Kerr Singers can be heard. Truly distinctive voices such as Waylon Jennings and Charley Pride could cut through the background clutter, but most of the smooth voiced vocalists (Eddy Arnold, Stu Phillips, Jim Ed Brown) tended to make recordings that any other similar such artist could have recorded. Even such unique vocalists as Don Gibson and Hank Locklin tended to get lost in the accompaniment.

That said, Waylon’s vocals make any of his albums stand out from the usual RCA fare, and the album contains a number of interesting lyrics. I would not regard Folk-Country as one of Waylon’s best albums, but it is a very good one that bears repeated play. I’d give it a B+ and I am grading on a downward curve. There are many successful performers who never make an album as good as Folk-Country. Mercifully, RCA gave up on the folk-country concept and started cutting Waylon with more straight-forward country arrangements. Acoustic six and twelve string guitars appear throughout this album but if there was any fiddle or steel guitar, I missed it.

Album Review: The Mavericks – ‘What A Crying Shame’

51C7p4ENGmL._SS2801994’s What A Crying Shame was The Mavericks’ third album overall, their second for a major label and the first to have any significant commercial impact. It paired them for the first time with Don Cook who would produce (or co-produce with Raul Malo) all of the group’s albums for MCA from this point forward.

The Mavericks made their first chart appearance in 1992 with a remake of Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Looking'”, which peaked at #74. “What A Crying Shame” did significantly better, reaching #25. There were four additional singles released from the album. two of them – “O What A Thrill” and “There Goes My Heart”, reached the Top 20. “I Should Have Been True” reached #30 and the final single “All That Heaven Will Allow” topped out at #49.

As noted in some other discussions, The Mavericks were largely considered to be a “fringe” act; however, What A Crying Shame is bonafide country with plenty of fiddle and pedal steel — albeit with glossy production and highly polished vocals from Raul Malo that are often reminiscent of Roy Orbison. It is solidly within what was considered mainstream country at the time, which makes radio’s tepid response a bit puzzling. I can only speculate that it is because there was a lot of formidable competition in the 90s. Perhaps in another era The Mavericks would have made more of an impact.

What A Crying Shame may not have received a lot of support from radio, but it did connect with fans, and generated platinum-level sales. It’s a shame that it didn’t get more airplay because it is an excellent album from start to finish. Most of the songs have a 60s feel to them. Raul Malo had a hand in writing seven of the album’s eleven tracks, teaming up on several of them — including the title track and my favorite “There Goes My Heart”, with Kostas, who was one of the hottest songwriters in Nashville at the time.

In addition to Raul Malo and Kostas, What A Crying Shame boasts some impressive songwriting credits, including Jesse Winchester who wrote “O What A Thrill”, Bruce Springsteen who wrote “All That Heaven Will Allow” and the great Harlan Howard who co-wrote “Ain’t Found Nobody” with Kostas.

Even though it sold more than a million copies in the US, the album’s limited radio airplay means that few outside of the million people that bought it have heard most of these songs, and younger fans are unlikely to have heard them at all. I strongly recommend that anyone who hasn’t heard the album pick up a copy; this is exactly the sort of country music that Nashville should be making today.

Grade: A

Album Review: T. Graham Brown – ‘Come As You Were’

come as you wereFor his third album, T Graham Brown moved to a new producer, Ron Chancey. The mixture of country, blues, soul and rock was similar to his previous work, but with a little more country mixed in. The production does feel a little dated, particularly the backing vocals, but the song quality is high, and the vocals are great.

The plaintive mid-paced love song ‘Darlene’ was the first single. It was very successful, becoming Brown’s third and last #1 hit, and although the production sounds a bit dated now, the vocal is solid and the song quite nice. The Paul Craft-penned title track, an excellent soulful ballad previously recorded by both Jerry Lee Lewis and Barbara Mandrell, is given an emotional delivery by Brown, backed up by a brass section, and peaked at #7.

The last single. ‘Never Say Never’ flopped in comparison, topping oyt at #30. A rather shouty blues/rock style number reminiscent of Eddy Raven, it has little to do with country music and sounds very dated today. This and the R&B ‘You Left The Water Running’ are the only tracks I don’t like at all on the album.

The remaining ballads are much more country sounding than any of the singles, and are all excellent songs. The slow agonised ‘This Wanting You’ was written by Brown with Bruce Bouton (a legendary steel player) and Bruce Burch, and is a highlight with relatively stripped down production. ‘I’ll Believe It When I Feel It’, also written by Brown, is another very good downbeat ballad with a little more of a bluesy feel as the protagonist fails to get over someone. The waltz-time ‘The Time Machine’ (a great Dennis Linde song) refers to a jukebox whose songs remind the protagonist of happier times with a lost love.

One of the best songs on the album, ‘The Best Love I Never Had’ is a regretful cheating song written by Kent Blazy and Jim Dowell:

We came so close
So close I thought I had her love – for a time
She could never break the ties that bind
She was never really mine

And I never will forget those nights
The taste of stolen love is sweet but never right
I’d face the fires of Hell just to hold her tight
But I wanted her that bad
Oh, but she belonged to someone else
I knew, but oh, I couldn’t help myself

The protagonist of the midpaced ‘I Read A Letter today’ (another Brown tune) gets a nasty surprise when he discovers his beloved is planning on leaving by opening her message to her secret love. A great song and passionate lead vocal is somewhat let down by dated production.

‘She’s Okay And I’m Okay’, written by Harlan Howard, revisits a failed relationship.

While certainly no New Traditionalist, T Graham Brown brought interesting diversity to country radio in the late 1980s, and this album is a good example of his style. Some of the production sounds dated now, but his vocals are always strong.

The album is unfortunately not available digitally, but it’s worth finding a cheap used CD.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Ricky Van Shelton – ‘Wild-Eyed Dream’

220px-Wild-Eyed_Dream_album_cover_by_Ricky_Van_SheltonRicky Van Shelton released his debut album, Wild-Eyed Dream in May 1987. Produced by Steve Buckingham on Columbia Nashville the record went platinum and spawned three number one hits.

The title track, written by Alan Rhody, served as the first single. The mid-tempo traditional yet contemporary number, which is generic as far as Shelton singles go, peaked at #24. Second single “Crimes of Passion,” an uptempo number, was much better and marked his first appearance in the top 10.

Starting with his third single, Shelton would score five consecutive number one hits between Wild-Eyed Dream and his sophomore effort Loving Proof. The first of those was the stone cold “Somebody Lied,” which Conway Twitty also recorded the same year. It’s an excellent number that perfectly showcases Shelton’s unique vocal phrasing backed by a glorious helping of steel and piano.

The next single, my favorite track on the album, is sonically similar yet even stronger than “Somebody Lied.” “Life Turned Her That Way” is a brilliant Harlan Howard number previously recorded by a slew of artists including Little Jimmy Dickens, Mel Tillis, George Jones, Willie Nelson, and Ernest Tubb. Shelton’s version is the most recognizable, the perfect marriage of singer, arrangement, and lyric.

Roger Miller’s similarly structured ballad “Don’t We All Have The Right” served as the final single. The track is given a slightly more contemporary arrangement with less steel guitar, but works just the same.

For a debut album, it’s surprising how many cover songs Shelton was able to record. More than half of Wild-Eyed Dream is peppered with tracks nodding to country music’s heritage, which seems appropriate given Shelton’s vintage vocal stylings and throwback image.

Shelton resurrects the Buck Owens’ classic “I Don’t Care,” giving it a similar arrangement to the original. He makes the track his own, though, by singing it in his own style opposed to imitating Owens. It’s a smart move that pays off in spades. Shelton closes out the album with his version of Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues,” once again nodding to Haggard through the production while vocally making the song his own. Like “I Don’t Care,” it’s excellent and worthy of inclusion on the project.

“Crazy Over You” wasn’t a cover when Shelton recorded it, just another version of the song that would introduce Foster & Lloyd the following year. Both versions are nearly identical; marking one place Shelton doesn’t bring uniqueness to a track. The remaining tracks on Wild-Eyed Dream consisted of original material. “Baby, I’m Ready” is a bluesy honky-tonk number while “Ultimately Fine” is an ear-catching slice of rockabilly.

As a whole, Wild-Eyed Dream is an excellent introduction to Shelton as an artist who kept one foot in the genre’s past while staying on top of the neo-traditional trends that were dominating at the time. He also didn’t sound like anyone else on the radio, which helped him standout even more. As far as debut albums go, this is one of the better ones, and comes highly recommended.

Grade: A