My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Harlan Howard

Album Review: Conway Twitty – ‘Country’

1967 saw the release of the unimaginitvely titled Country. There were two singles from this album, both credited to Conway’s wife Mickey Jaco. ‘Don’t Put Your Hurt In My Heart’ is a measured ballad turning down an ex’s advances. It is quite a nice song, beautifully song by Conway, but performed indifferently on the charts, peaking outside the top 30. Even less successful was ‘Funny (But I’m Not Laughing)’, which I like, although it comes across as a pale copy of ‘The Window Up Above’. It is a sad ballad in which Conway’s vocal exudes the sense of betrayal. Another Jaco song, ‘Go Woman Go’ has more of a 60s country-meets-rock and roll feel. (I have read that these songs were actually written or co-written by Conway but credited to Mickey for tax reasons – not sure if this is true, though,). Conway himself wrote one song, the midpaced ‘Walk Me To The Door’, which is okay.

‘But I Dropped It’ is an excellent song written by the great Harlan Howard, a regretful ballad about past choices derailing a relationship, which might have been a better choice for a single. The backing vocals are a bit dated, but not too intrusive. I didn’t much like another original, the rock leaning ‘Working Girl’ (written by Wes Buchanan). ‘Two Of The Usual’ had been recorded by several other artists, but was never a single. It is another strong song about betrayal.

The remainder of the set consists of the usual 60s country album practice of covers of current or recent hits for other artists. Conway showed great taste in music in his selections of some genuinely great songs. ‘Things Have Gone To Pieces’ is one of George ones’ greatest recordings; Conway’s version is a good copy but definitely a copy. Another Jones classic, ‘Walk Through This World With Me’ allows Conway more of a chance to put his own stamp on the song (although I still prefer the Jones cut). Conway’s cover of Merle Haggard song ‘I Threw Away The Rose’ is quite good, but again pales compared to the original.

Conway does, however, turn in a superlative version of Harlan Howard’s ‘Life Turned Her That Way’, which was a current hit Mel Tillis, but will be most familiar to younger fans from Ricky Van Shelton’s chart topping 90s version. This is by far my favorite track on this album. I also quite liked ‘A Wound Time Can’t Erase’, a Stonewall Jackson hit later covered by Ricky Skaggs.

This is not a bad album, but there is not enough uniqueness in Conway’s imterpretations to really recommend it over the classic versions of the cover songs, and the originals are less distinguished. It is available as a 2-4-1 deal, so may be worth checking out if you can find it cheaply.

Grade: B+

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Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘The Lonely, The Lonesome And The Gone’

Lee Ann Womack’s latest album is something of a departure, leaning in a bluesier direction than previously. This arose largely out of the lyrical theme of the album, adrressing hard times and lost love.

The opening ‘All The Trouble’ (written by Lee Ann with Adam Wright and Waylon Payne) is a hushed blues with a doomladen air, rising into a wail as she bemoans her life. Lee Ann’s vocals are fabulous, but the guitar work is unnecessarily muddy for my taste. It sets the tone for the album as a whole.

The same writing partnership is responsible for a further trio of songs. The sophisticated 60s pop/R&B ballad ‘Hollywood’ (apart from intrusive backing vocals) is a well written and exquisitely sung song about a troubled marriage which I would have preferred in a more traditional country arrangement. ‘Mama Lost her Smile’ is a closely observed story song reminiscing about the protagonist’s childhood and musing over the lacunae of memory. ‘Sunday’ is a pure blues tune which doesn’t do much for me.

‘Wicked’, written by Lee Ann with Adam Wright, is a dramatic southern gothic story song, about a mother who turns to murder to protect her child. It’s a compelling story, and well sung, but spoiled somewhat by the intrusive production:

You can’t blend in down in San Jacinto
With long blonde hair and an orange El Camino
But two things I never thought I’d need to get by
A 38 special and an alibi

Whatever I get I guess I’ve earned
But I never hurt anyone that didn’t deserve it

Oh, wicked is as wicked does
And if this ain’t wicked
Well, it’s close enough
I thought I was good and maybe I was
But wicked is as wicked does

Somethin’ had to happen
Somethin’ had to be done
And it turns out I’m pretty good with a gun
It doesn’t make it right but it is what it is and
Any mama in the world woulda done what I did

On his own, Adam Wright contributed the charming ‘End Of The End Of The World’, a pretty lilting waltz about getting back together. The title track is a subdued country ballad featuring steel guitar, gently regretting all that has been lost – a broken heart and changing times. It was written by Adam Wright with Jay Knowles.

Dale Dodson and the great Dean Dillon co-wrote ‘Talking Behind Your Back’, a lovely conversational song with the protagonist admitting to her lover’s ex over an awkward lunch that the man still really loves the other woman. A slightly loungy arrangement is okay but doesn’t quite do the song justice. Dodson teamed up with Lee Ann again, together with Dani Flowers, to write ‘Someone Else’s Heartache’, a nicely understated song of apparent resignation to a breakup, with the vulnerable vocal telling a different tale.

Covers of a couple of country classics are thrown in, remade in a soulful style fitting the overall mood of the album. ‘Long Black Veil’ (with no gender twist to the original lyric) is slow and soulful, with a stripped down arrangement and fragile vocal. ‘He Called Me Baby’, a Harlan Howard song once recorded by Patsy Cline, gets an intensely sultry jazzy makeover. An obscure George Jones-penned rockabilly gospel song, ‘Take The Devil Out Of Me’ is retro, vivacious and all too short.

Brent Cobb is a rising singer-songwriter, and Lee Ann is obviously a fan as she has covered two of his songs. ‘Shine On Rainy Day’ (the title track of Cobb’s own recent album) is a dreamy ballad with a messy, dirty sounding production I didn’t like at all set against Lee Ann’s pure vocals. The mid paced ‘Bottom Of The Barrel’ is a bit monotonous.

I’ve never been a big fan of Frank Liddell’s production choices, but I have little doubt that this album is exactly what Lee Ann wanted this time. My own feelings are mixed: it is a beautifully realized piece of work from a general artistic point of view, but I really miss the traditional country Lee Ann Womack.

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Album Review: Robert Mizzell – ‘Travelling Shoes’

Produced by Wayne Thorose, Robert Mizzell’s latest offering was released late last year. As usual, there is a heavy reliance on cover material, although he largely avoided covering song that have been overdone already. That complaint aside, there is little to gripe about here; this is a solid collection of the kind of country music that rarely gets made anymore on this side of the Atlantic.

The title track is Sawyer Brown tune dating back to the band’s 1992 Cafe on the Corner album. Mizzell also covers Lefty Frizzell (“Gone, Gone, Gone” written by Harlan Howard), Johnny Cash (“Greystone Chapel” from 1968’s Live at Folsom Prison), Mel Street (“Borrowed Angel”) and Kris Kristofferson (“Why Me Lord”), as well as more contemporary artists such as Josh Turner (“Firecracker”) and Phil Vassar (“Like I Never Loved Before”). He acquits himself nicely on all of these, although “Firecracker” is not one of my favorite Josh Turner songs. “Like I Never Loved Before” is a pop-tinged power ballad, and though well done, seems out of place on this otherwise very traditional album. However, the best cover on this album is “Her Carried Her Memory”, an obscure Bradley Walker number dating back to 2006. This is a great song that deserves to be better known than it is.

“Day Job” was written and originally recorded by Gord Bamford, an Australian country singer who was raised in Canada and has enjoyed some success there. Mizzell’s version enjoyed some success on the Irish charts. It’s a fun song, whose central theme is one to which most of us can relate:

This crazy day job, it ain’t no thrill
But it makes those ends meet and pays my bills
I ain’t complainin’, but it ain’t right
‘Cause my old day job, is ruining my night life.

This is a song that could have bit a big hit in the US for someone if it had come along 20 years earlier.

There is also a decent amount of original material on the album, the best of which is “She’s On The Way” an upbeat number that Mizzell wrote himself about his new wife and daughter. This was the first time he recorded one of his own compositions and I look forward to hearing more in the future. “John Deere Beer” is a fun and somewhat lyrically light summer song that was hit for Robert in Ireland in 2015. On a more serious note, “City of Shreveport” is a nice tribute to Robert’s hometown, and “Two Rooms and a Kitchen” is a typical Irish country song about spending time at Grandma’s house. It might pass for an American country song if its references to digging spuds and drying turf (to fuel the fire) didn’t betray its origins.

The album closes with a remake of Mizzell’s 2010 hit “Mama Courtney”, his tribute to the foster parents who raised him in Louisiana. The tempo is slowed down considerably and it’s done as a piano ballad but the new arrangement is quite effective.

Although Travelling Shoes contains a fair amount of remakes, they are all well done, and thanks to its generous 15 tracks, there is also a decent amount of new material. The album comes across as a bit incohesive — at times it seems like a hits compilation since the songs don’t always share a common theme; however, I enjoyed listening to this more than anything else that I’ve heard lately, with the possible exception of Zephaniah OHora’s album. I’m very glad to have discovered Robert Mizzell and I will make it a point to continue following his career.

Grade: A

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘Make Mine Country’

Make Mine Country, Charley Pride’s fourth album, was released via RCA Victor in 1968. The album didn’t produce any singles but featured covers of many notable songs that have become classics. It was produced by Chet Atkins along with Jack Clement, Bob Ferguson, and Felton Jarvis.

The album opens with Jack Clement’s “Now I Can Live Again,” a minor hit for Mickey Gilley the previous year. The uptempo track, about a newly-single man finally putting the sorrow behind him, is brimming with sunshine.

“A Word or Two to Mary,” written by Vince Bulla and Peter Cotton, is a ballad between friends in which a man asks his buddy to compose a letter to the woman he’s leaving behind in death. The track, typical of the era, is beyond creepy and has an inappropriate sing-song melody that clashes with the subject matter.

“If You Should Come Back Today” was also recorded by Johnny Paycheck although I couldn’t find the year he released his version. The honky-tonk uptempo number returns the album to the sunny disposition of the opening track, with a lyric (written by Johnny Mathis and Harlan Howard) about a guy who would forgive his ex if she came back into his life.

Clement also solely wrote “Guess Things Happen That Way,” which Johnny Cash took to #1 the year previous. Pride’s version is slicker sounding than Cash’s, which is the sole difference between the recordings.

The album’s fifth song is “Before The Next Teardrop Falls,” which appears here seven years before Freddy Fender had an international hit with it. Pride’s version is terrible by comparison, a by-the-numbers take that lacks the nuance Fender was able to find within the lyric.

Make Mine Country continues with Clement’s arrangement of “Banks of the Ohio.” The track, drenched in mandolin, feels rushed and like the song before it, lacks any care to bring the emotional qualities out in the lyric.

“Wings of a Dove” was already eight years old when Pride released his version. It’s a solid take, although the arrangement is far too cheesy for my tastes.

“A Girl I Used To Know” was six years old by 1968, a top 5 hit for George Jones that would top the charts as “Just Someone I Used to Know” in a duet recording by Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton the following year. Pride’s version is very good, but hardly an essential take on the song.

“Lie To Me,” which only saw this version by Pride, is another sunny uptempo number. This one is about a guy who wants his woman to confess her love to him, even if she doesn’t truly feel it deep inside.

The regretful “Why Didn’t I Think of That” appears next, with Pride taking on the role of voyeur, watching the way his ex’s new love shows his affection towards her. The track is merely good.

Eight years after Buck Owens took it to #3, Pride unleashes his rendition of “Above and Beyond (The Call of Love).” He handles the song beautifully, allowing it to stand out among the twelve tracks on the album. “Baby Is Gone,” a mid-tempo ballad, closes out the record.

Make Mine Country is a very strong album, with solid takes on some of the hits from the day. Given that it didn’t have any singles, I can only guess it was an obligatory record aimed at fulfilling some clause of his recording contract. I found the album to be bogged down by a few second-rate relationship songs that could’ve been swapped out for a bit more meaty material.

Grade: B

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘The Country Way’

Released in December 1967, Charley’s third album was his first to reach #1 on Billboard’s Country Albums charts and even hit #199 on the all-genres chart, starting a run of fourteen consecutive top ten albums, all but one of which were top five or better.

The album opens up with the Jack Clement composition “Too Hard To Say I’m Sorry”, a plodding ballad that in the hands of (almost) anyone else, would have been a complete misfire. In Charley’s hands this song of self recrimination conveys the story of a man whose pride gets in the way of apologizing and perhaps salvaging the most important relationship in his life.

Just two words were all that she would ask of me
And I could have the world and all it holds for me
Of love and tender care, not the pain and the sorrow
That will be mine tomorrow, but I just can’t seem to say it – I’m sorry

I know exactly what I should do admit I’m wrong, it wouldn’t take long
And she’d forgive me
And I know exactly what I ought to say, but I’m not built that way
Wish that I could say I’m sorry

Next up is another Jack Clement ballad, “The Little Folks”, a song that assesses who the real losers are in a divorce. I’ve heard Willie Nelson perform the song but I’m not if he ever recorded the song.

“Crystal Chandeliers” was written by Ted Harris, but the hit went to the great songwriter Carl Belew. For whatever reason, other than “Kiss An Angel Good Morning”, this has become Charley’s most requested song, even though it was never a Charley Pride single in the USA (I think it was a single for Charley in parts of Europe). Charley would repeat the song in his Live At Panther Hall album released in January 1969.

Oh, the crystal chandeliers light up the paintings on your wall
The marble statuettes are standing stately in the hall
But will the timely crowd that has you laughing loud help you dry your tears
When the new wears off of your crystal chandeliers

“Act Naturally” was a cover of a huge Buck Owens hit from a few years earlier. Johnny Russell wrote the song and certainly saw considerable royalties from the records sold by Buck and The Beatles, let alone all the other covers. Charley’s version is good but not electrifying as was Buck’s version.

“Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger”, a Robertson/Crutchfeld/Clement collaboration, reached #4, his third straight top ten single. This song of a wayward wife just drips with understated irony.

Does my ring hurt your finger when you go out at night?
When I bought it for you, darling, it seemed to be just right
Should I take it to the jeweler so it won’t fit so tight?
Does my ring hurt your finger when you go out at night?

Did you enjoy yourself last night, dear, how was the show?
You know that I don’t mind it when you go
I understand sometimes we all need time alone
But why do you always leave your ring at home?

This is followed by “Mama Don’t Cry For Me” which the underrated Johnny Seay (or Sea) released as a non-charting single a few years later. I really liked Seay’s version, and Charley does a fine job with the song as well, although with a slightly less dramatic reading of the song. Fred Foster and Johnny Wilson wrote this song:

I’ve seen the big fish jumping, mama, I’ve heard crickets sing
And I’ve felt my heart start pounding at the side of New Orleans
I’ve seen the New York City with her lights aglow
I’ve been a lot of places always on the go
I’ve seen most everything I cared to see, so mama, when I’m gone, don’t cry for me …

I’ve climbed the highest mountains covered with snow
I’ve seen most everything I cared to see, so mama, when I’m gone, don’t cry for me
I’m sending you this message, mama, I must say goodbye
I live the life you gave me, mama, I’m not afaid to die

Even though I’m dying, mama, the hands of death are strong
I don’t want you crying, mama, after I’m gone
I’ve seen all of this old world I cared to see, so mama, when I’m gone, don’t cry for me
So mama, when I’m gone, don’t cry for me

The second single released from this album was the Jerry Foster/Bill Rice collaboration “The Day The World Stood Still”. This ballad of lost love reached #4.

For one day in my life
You brought me happiness
You stopped the lonely world
With all your tenderness

I can’t get over you
I guess I never will
Time was a precious thing
The day the world stood still

The next song, another Jack Clement composition, is one of my favorite Charley Pride recordings. In the middle of the song Charley calls out ‘here’s Big Joe Talbot and his electric Hawaiian steel guitar’ by way of introducing Big Joe’s instrumental break. Charley did not release this song as a single but later in the year, the Jack Clement produced Tompall & The Glaser Brothers released it as a charting single, and they too made the same introduction of Big Joe Talbot (and basically used the same arrangement).

Someday I think I’ll take up thinking and try my best to understand
How she could be loving me forever and leaving on the other hand
Last night I thought I’d see a movie to help me get my thoughts in hand
I think what I saw was the western preacher or James Bond on the other hand
I placed the ring upon one finger of her left hand
The one who said she’d stay forever is gone on the other hand

Next up is a sad ballad about a love that can’t be, written by Country Johnny Mathis. “You Can Tell The World” is pleasant enough listening, but would never be regarded as singles material.

Mel Tillis and Danny Dill provided “I’ll Wander Back To You”. This song is a cover of the Earl Scott single that reached #30 in 1965. It’s a nice, but not terribly exciting, tale of wanderlust:

They say I’m like my daddy, always on the roam
I know he loved my mama but he couldn’t stay at home
I vowed to not be like him but somewhere I went wrong
Cause I’m a thousand miles from nowhere and the girl I love at home
One of these days I’m gonna quit my wandering
One of these days I’ll wander back to you

Younger listeners may remember Ricky Van Shelton’s 1988 #1 single of the Harlan Howard classic “Life Turned Her That Way”. Older listeners may remember the 1967 Mel Tillis recording that just missed the top ten or perhaps an earlier recording by Little Jimmy Dickens. Charley does a very good job with the song.

No one could out-Haggard Merle Haggard on one of his compositions, and Charley couldn’t either. His version of “I Threw Away The Rose” is a pleasant jog-along ballad but nothing more than that.

I liked this album, but think that the song selection was not quite as strong as on his debut album. The vocal choruses remain, but the songs are string-free and the vocal accompaniments are not too obtrusive. Nothing about this album suggest that this is anything but a country album, and while the big blockbuster singles were still on the horizon, it was clear that they were coming.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent & Daryle Singletary – ‘American Grandstand’

“Traditional country music is a whole different genre,” Vincent said. “A lot of people will say that there is not a market for traditional country music, but I know that is not true as it has its own niche. I did that traditional country album with Gene Watson not long ago, and I found out that there is a tremendous audience out there for traditional country music. Daryle and I have been doing shows together, and he is so much fun. When everybody hears this new album, they will know how special it is.” – Rhonda Vincent discussing American Grandstand. h/t That Nashville Sound

It’s hard to believe it’s been six years since Your Money and My Good Looks, which helped redefine Vincent’s pedigree beyond bluegrass. American Grandstand is a companion album of sorts to the project with Watson, a chance to recreate the magic all over again. Her friendship with Daryle Singletary goes back 23 years when they were labelmates on Giant Records. One of their earliest collaborations, a cover of Keith Whitley’s “Would These Arms Be In Your Way,” appeared on his self-titled debut album. They’ve collaborated frequently through the years, most recently on “We Must’ve Been Out of Our Minds,” from Vincent’s Only Me in 2014.

To say American Grandstand has been a long time coming is an understatement. With the timing finally right, they went into the studio to craft an album that mixes old and new, covers of classic duets interwoven amongst tracks newly-composed. A few of the duets may be oft-covered, but in the care of Vincent and Singletary, are as expertly executed as they’ve ever been. They tackle the mournful nature of “After The Fire Is Gone” with ease and extract the effervesce from “Golden Ring” without issue. “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” is a revelation, one of the strongest collaborative recordings I’ve heard in years.

They also surprise, with a stunning rendition of Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens’ lesser-known “Slowly and Surely.” Also not as famous is George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s “One,” which the pair released in 1996. Vincent and Singletary’s serviceable take is the album’s lead single. Other surprises include Harlan Howard’s “Above and Beyond,” which they deliver flawlessly. A third Jones cover, “A Picture of Me (Without You)” is also very good. “Up This Hill and Down,” which originated with The Osborne Brothers, is excellent.

The remainder of the album consists of the new songs, which include a reprise of “We Must Be Out of Our Minds.” These tracks are all ballads, which varying degrees of tempo. “As We Kiss Our World Goodbye,” about the end of a relationship, feels like the kind of track Singletary would’ve recorded back in the mid-1990s. In any other era, “Can’t Live Life” would be cemented as a standard.

If you can believe it, the rest of the album only slightly pails in comparison to the title track, which showcases Vincent as a songwriter (she wrote it solo). The spellbinding ballad is a grand finale of sorts, detailing the tale of duet partners preparing for their final show and the emotions attached to such an ending. I love how Vincent presents the well-worn themes in a new and exciting light.

American Grandstand is everything you would expect from a Vincent and Singletary collaboration, yet it’s even more deeply satisfying than you could even imagine. In a rare move, they actually sang together in the studio, at the instance of Singetary, who knew immediately that recording separately wasn’t going to work. The pair were born to sing together, even if Vincent’s power overtakes Singletary’s understated charm on occasion. He sounds to me like a modern day incarnation of Whitley, with a voice that has deepened over the years. It proves that Whitley’s influence continues to this day, which only makes this record even more special and essential.

I cannot recommend American Grandstand enough.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘Country Charley Pride’

RCA took an unconventional approach in introducing Charley Pride to country audiences. Legend has it that they avoided putting his picture on the sleeves of his singles, in order to conceal his race and increase the likelihood that radio would play them. However, his debut album Country Charley Pride, which does have his photo on the cover, was released in 1966 before he’d scored any charting singles.

Produced by Jack Clement, Country Charley Pride consists mostly of covers of well-known songs of the day. The only original song is Pride’s debut single, the non-charting “The Snakes Crawl at Night”, a tale of infidelity and revenge, written by Mel Tillis and Fred Burch. Given the subject matter, it is a surprisingly upbeat number about a cuckolded husband who sentenced to hang after shooting his unfaithful wife and her paramour. The album’s other non-charting single was “Before I Met You”, one of my favorite Charley Pride songs. Originally a hit for Carl Smith a decade earlier, the song was later recorded by Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. Reba McEntire also covered it in 1984 on her My Kind of Country album.

It was unusual in the 1960s (and now) to release a full album for a new artist that had yet to prove himself at radio but for whatever reason, RCA did sanction an album release. Interestingly, the lack of a radio hit did not impede the album’s sales. It reached #16 on the album charts and earned gold status — a rare feat for a country album, particularly one as traditional as this one. Clearly audiences connected with Pride’s voice. It also didn’t hurt that Clement and Pride played it safe and went with mostly well-known songs of the day, beginning with Harlan Howard’s “Busted”, and including credible covers of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City” (another Mel Tillis tune co-written with Danny Dill). Curly Putman’s “Green, Green Grass of Home” is also included, as are a pair of Jack Clement tunes, “Miller’s Cave” and “Got Leavin’ on Her Mind”, which closes out the disc.

None of these tunes lent themselves particularly well to 1960s Nashville Sound orchestral arrangements, so strings are mercifully absent from the album. Most of the songs do contain vocal choruses, though, which are quite intrusive at times as they tend to drown out Pride’s voice. That is my sole complaint about an otherwise stellar album. In addition to very strong material and wonderful singing by Pride, there is also a lot of prominent steel guitar work throughout.

Charley Pride is one of those artists, who despite being a huge star in his hey-day, is not as well remembered today as he ought to be. This is partially because he peaked before the CD era and for decades RCA did a poor job of managing its back catalog and allowed most of his work (and many of their other artists) to go out of print. That error is finally being rectified. Country Charley Pride is available on a 2-disc import set that also contains three of Pride’s other early albums, all of which are worthy of a listen.

Grade: A

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