My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Jan Howard

Album Review: Jeannie Seely – ‘Written In Song’

61wcxdrzxl-_ss500Grand Ole Opry star Jeannie Seely, best known for her 1966 hit “Don’t Touch Me”, enjoyed only moderate success as a recording artist, but many do not realize that she is also an accomplished songwriter. Written In Song, her latest collection, was released last month. It consists of 14 tracks, all of which were written or co-written by Seely. Twelve of the songs were previously recorded by other artists, while two were newly written for this project. None of them, however, had ever been recorded by Jeannie herself, until now.

In the 1960s, Monument Records had marketed Seely as “Miss Country Soul”, which was likely in part an acknowledgement that her initial success had occurred outside the realm of country music. “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is”, the oldest song on this album had been a 1964 R&B hit for Irma Thomas. The other 13 selections are strictly country. At age 76, Seely’s voice is a little rough around the ages at times, but not enough to detract from my enjoyment of the album.

I have to admit that I wasn’t previously familiar with any of the songs on this album. “Leavin’ and Sayin’ Goodbye” was a Top 10 hit for Faron Young in 1971 and had also been recorded by The Time Jumpers. Kenny and Tessa Sears, widower and daughter of the late Dawn Sears, join Jeannie on this track, which is one of the album’s standouts. Aside from that, none of the others seem to have been major hits that are well remembered today. I suspect that most of them were album cuts that were never released as singles. Nevertheless, they are all worthy of another listen. My favorite tracks are “Senses”, a co-write with Glen Campbell that features local harmonies by Marty Stuart and Connie Smith, “Sometimes I Do”, which had been recorded by Ernest Tubb, and “Enough to Lie”, which had been recorded by Ray Price. On a number that had been recorded by her old duet partner Jack Greene, Seely promises “You don’t need me, but you will.”

The album’s two new numbers allow Jeannie’s sense of humor to shine through. “Who Needs You” casts her in the role of a jilted lover, who is comforting herself with alcohol and shopping — standard operating procedure for a country song. Then comes the song’s final verse which discloses that she’s been enjoying a little marijuana as well. It’s hardly a shocking revelation in this day in age — and as Seely points out in her spoken disclaimer before starting the final verse, it’s legal now in many states — but it sure wasn’t what I was expecting to hear on this album. The closing number is “We’re Still Hanging In There, Ain’t We Jessi”, which name drops the names of many famous women of country music — from Audrey Williams and Jan Howard to Tammy Wynette and Jessi Colter — who survived difficult relationships with some of country music’s famous men. Her own failed marriage to Hank Cochran is also referenced, all in an upbeat, tongue-in-cheek manner. Jan Howard and Jessi Colter both lend their voices to the track.

Written In Song is a surprisingly fresh-sounding album. It’s mostly traditional country, with plenty of fiddle and some fine steel guitar work, but it manages to avoid sounding retro despite the fact that many of the songs are fifty or more years old. I’m sure that many listeners, like me, will be hearing these songs for the first time. If it is something you don’t want to spend money on, it is available on streaming services such as Amazon Unlimited and is worth checking out.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Tammy Wynette – ‘The First Lady’

tumblr_ls3bvtwziu1qf01xeo1_500The First Lady, Tammy Wynette’s eighth album, was her third and final release in 1970. The project’s sole number one was the chart topping cautionary tale, “Run Woman Run,” in which a woman advises a friend to work it out with her ex-lover:

Run woman, run

Go back to him and fix things up the very best you can

Tell him you missed him while you were gone

Run woman, run back to your man

 

You’re a young girl, so understand, it’s so hard to find a man

Who comes home every night to only you

You may not find true love again, so go home while you still can

And find a way to work it out with your man

While no other singles were released, The First Lady is notable for containing six songs written or co-written by Billy Sherill. Barbara Mandrell simultaneously covered the excellent “Playin’ Around With Love,” which was issued as the second single from her debut album. Jody Miller released a version of the similarly upbeat “Safe In These Lovin’ Arms of Mine,” which wasn’t released to radio. Wynette does a superb job on both songs, even surpassing Mandrell with a superior vocal performance.

Given Wynette’s success with songs regarding domestic life and marriage, it’s no surprise to find most of Sherill’s contributions cover similar thematic ground. “He’s Still My Man” finds Wynette devastated by the philandering spouse she chooses to forgive. On another she’s “The Lovin’ Kind” to a man who favors the emotionally detached.

She’s a next-door neighbor on “I Wish I Had a Mommy Like You,” one of Sherill’s creepier contributions. Wynette is left to comfort a boy abandoned by his father and left home alone by his mother. A twist ending only makes matters harder to swallow:

There lives a little boy in the house next door to me

And as usual his mommy was gone

So he came over this morning and sat down next to me

And asked why does mommy leave me alone

 

But he’ll find out someday why his mommy stays away

And why a woman needs arms to hold her tight

And that she would stay at home and not leave him all alone

If his daddy didn’t stay away at night

 

He said I wish I had a mommy like you just like you

To hold me in her arms the way you do

When I lay me down to sleep I pray the Lord my soul to keep

And I ask for a mommy like you

 

Though a tear fell from his eye he was trying not to cry

I said don’t worry everything will be all right

So you just wait and see and I held him close to me

Just like I held his daddy last night

As if that wasn’t enough, Sherill and Wynette team with Carmol Taylor for “My Daddy Doll,” in which Wynette observes her daughter explaining to her friend how she’s transferred the love she’s lost from the father that’s abandoned her:

My little girl was playing with her friend from down the street

She took her by the hand and said there’s someone you should meet

And then they went into her room to play another game

She picked up all her dolly’s and told them all by name

 

I listened as she said their names here’s Betty Sue and Kay

Jack and June and Mary Jo and then I’ve heard her say

This one is my Daddy Doll and she sat him on the floor

I make believe he’s daddy since he don’t live here no more

 

My daddy doll is always near to help put me to bed

He kisses me and says goodnight like my real daddy did

He talks with me and never failes to answer when I called

My Daddy Doll is special and I love him most of all

My Daddy Doll is special and I love him most of all

Taylor’s solely written “Buy Me A Daddy” plays as a companion piece to the aforementioned song, albeit in a much tamer way. The lyric, in which a little girl offers a simple request, is more heartbreaking than eerie:

I buy toys for my little girl almost every day

To try and keep her happy

Since her daddy went away

But today she looked so lonely

As she climbed upon my knees

And in her sweet tiny voice she said this to me

 

Mommy I love you and all of my toys

But I want a daddy like the other girls and boys

Then she gave me her pennies her nickels and dimes

And the next thing she told me broke this heart of mine

Buy me a daddy, he don’t have to be new

Just as long as he loves me any daddy will do

 

And we’ll make him promise daddy won’t go away

Please buy me a daddy let’s go get one today

Buy me a daddy let’s go get one today

Taylor’s final contribution is the serviceable yet bland “True and Lasting Love.” Also included on The First Lady is Wynette’s version of Bill Anderson and Jan Howard’s “I Never Once Stopped Loving You,” a #5 peaking hit for Connie Smith that very year.

The remaining cut on The First Lady is the fabulous Chet Atkins and Curly Putman composition “Sally Trash.” Wynette channels Loretta Lynn with a lyric that finally gives her woman-scorned persona a backbone:

The whole big town of Knoxville is your playground every night

It seems I’m just your everyday plaything and honey that ain’t right

But my kinda love turns strong and steady not off and on like a neon flash

But if you don’t like my sweet kinda love then baby

Then go on out and pick up Sally trash

 

She’s been picked up many times then dropped like a hot potatoe

And she’s been squeezed and handled like an overripe tomatoe

But she don’t really love your lovin’ she just likes your cash

So if you don’t want my sweet kinda love then baby

Then go on out and pick up Sally trash

Evaluating The First Lady isn’t as easy a task as it might seem. Despite just one single, the album is a complete body of work. The listener never gets the sense that Wynette or Sherill padded the project to rush a release full of filler to the marketplace. Despite the subject matter, which leaves a bad taste in my mouth, there honestly isn’t a throwaway track in the bunch.

Songs like “I Wish I Had A Mommy Like You” and “My Daddy Doll” aren’t necessarily to my tastes, and will likely alienate the majority of the audience, but they aren’t as poorly constructed as they are sinister. The twist in the former is actually kind of genius. I’m just glad country music has evolved away from these types of songs. It proves that some evolvement, in which the genre is correctly pushed forward, only benefited later generations.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton – ‘Once More’

folder-6August 1970, saw the release of the fifth Porter and Dolly duet album in Once More. The album featured five songs that Dolly had a hand in writing, plus two fine songs from the Don Reno and Red Smiley songbook, perhaps not so surprising since Porter’s fiddle player Mack Magaha had spent years playing with Reno and Smiley

The album opens up with “Daddy Was An Old Time Preacher Man” co-written by Dolly with her aunt Dorothy Jo Hope about the Reverend Jake Owens, Dolly’s maternal grandfather, who was a Pentecostal minister. Surprisingly, this would be the only single released from the album, reaching #4 on Record World, #7 on Billboard and #12 on the Canadian country chart. The song has the feel of an old-time gospel song and remains one of my favorite Porter & Dolly songs.


Daddy was an old time preacher man
He preacher the word of God throughout the land
He preached so plain a child could understand
Yes, Daddy was an old time preacher man
He told the people of the need to pray
He talked about God’s wrath and judgement day
He preached about the great eternity
He preached hell so hot that you could feel the heat

Yes, Daddy was an old time preacher man
Aunt Leanona would get up to testify
And we’d sing “In The Sweet By And By”
The we’d sing “I’m On My Way To Canaan Land”
Yes, Daddy was an old time preacher man

This is followed by a magnificent cut on the Reno and Smiley classic “I Know You’re Married But I Love You Still” a song that Mack Magaha wrote with Don Reno. The song, a quintessential forbidden fruit song was a staple of the Reno & Smiley repertoire for years and has been covered as an album track by many country artists. The duo of Bill Anderson and Jan Howard had a minor hit with the song as did Red Sovine.

The day I met you my heart spoke to me it said to love you through eternity
I know exact you were another’s pride I vowed I always be close by your side
I love you Darlin and I always will
I know you’re married but I love you still
You broke a heart dear that would die for you
I’d give the world if I could be with you

“Thoughfulness” is a modest ballad written by Dolly’s uncle Bill Owens. The song is a little subdued compared to most of the duo’s material but it makes a nice album track.

“Fight and Scratch” is one of those humorous ‘bickering couples’ songs that Dolly excelled in writing. I think it would have made for a good single but perhaps RCA was leery of issuing too many novelties as singles.

Fight and scratch fight and scratch that’s all we ever do
There surely must be more to love than to fight and scratch with you
You you to fight and scratch with you
Well you just bought a foal last month now you want a wig
It looks like you couldn’t understand my paycheck ain’t that big
Well what about the dough you lose in them poker games downtown
I figured you’d mention that smart aleck
Yeah and that brand new boat and that fishin’ gear
But no uhhuh I don’t reckon that’d count really
Fight and scratch fight and scratch…

Louis Owens wrote “Before Our Weakness Gets Too Strong” is a straight ahead country ballad, a let’s not cheat song. I’m guessing that Louis Owens might be one of Dolly’s kin.

“Once More” was the last top ten chart hit for the King of Country Music Roy Acuff back in 1958. Later the Osborne Brothers recorded the song for Decca. Porter and Dolly harmonize nicely on the song, but their recording sounds tame compared to the Acuff and Osborne versions. I think if the song had been considered as a single, the duo would have put more muscle into this Dusty Owens (no kin to Dolly) song.

Once more to be with you dear
Just for tonight to hold you tight
Once more I’d give a fortune
If I could see you once more

Forget the past this hurt can’t last
So I don’t want it to keep us apart
Your love I need say you’ll love me
And say you’ll give me all of your heart

Joe Babcock’s “One Day At A Time” is neither the same song has Marilyn Sellars gospel hit from 1974 and nor is the same song that Don Gibson hit from that same year. This song is a reflective song about the way to approach life.

Dolly wrote “Ragged Angel”, another one of those doomed children songs that Dolly apparently needed to write as a catharsis. It’s a good song but the lyrics are nothing special. What is of interest is the exquisite Porter and Dolly’s vocal harmonies, which are a little different than their usual fare.

“A Good Understanding” is one of Dolly’s compositions, which suggests a marital relationship in which the ground rules were agreed upon in advance. The opening lyric suggests that this might have been an open marriage but as the lyrics unfold a more traditional relationship is revealed.

The album closes with the Don Reno composition “Let’s Live For Tonight”. While still sticking with usual bluegrass array of instruments, Reno and Smiley probably were the bluegrass group whose music most closely resembled the country music of its era.

Bob Ferguson is listed as the producer on this album, but I suspect that Porter Wagoner carried the bulk of the production duties. There is a characteristic Porter Wagoner & The Wagonmasters sound that permeates all of Porter’s RCA records. That isn’t a bad thing because it made the production of Porter’s records sound different that the vast majority of RCA product, but I am sure that it must have gnawed at Dolly at least a little, because if you removed Dolly’s voice from the duet albums you would have a Porter Wagoner record that sounded incomplete, needing another voice or voices. I like this album quite a bit but for whatever reason, this album is not quite as exuberant as some of their prior (and future efforts). I’d give this a B+ but a little more emphatic treatment of a couple of the songs would have turned this into an A. 


Classic Review: Stonewall Jackson – ‘Stars Of The Grand Ole Opry’ (1981)

stars of the grand ole opryDuring the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s major labels trimmed their rosters, shedding veteran artists who were no longer cranking out the hits or generating decent album sales. Sometimes these veteran artists would find another major label deal but mostly these artists wound up on minor / independent labels. Even those artists who managed to find a major label deal found their stay at the new label to be a short one that lead to landing on a minor label (for example, Jimmy Dickens: Columbia > Decca > Gusto / Charlie Walker: Columbia > RCA > Plantation).

While on the minor / independent labels, most of the veteran artists recorded very little new material, usually producing an album or two of dreary remakes of their older hits with perhaps some covers of other big hits from artists (it is astounding how many artists issued albums listing songs such as “San Antonio Rose”, “There Goes My Everything” and “There Stands The Glass” among their greatest hits).
Most of these albums featured low budget production, thin sound, and were recorded with minimal numbers of disinterested musicians accompanying a bored vocalist singing songs sung literally thousands of times before.

First Generation Records was owned by Pete Drake (1932-1988), one of the great steel guitar players, and a musician who was not about to settle for the bored and tired performances described above. Producing the records himself, and often playing steel guitar on the recording sessions, Pete gathered a group of excellent musicians to play on his recording sessions. Rather than merely re-recording an artist’s older hits, Pete’s Stars of the Grand Ole Opry series generally featured five songs new to the artist (and often simply new songs) followed by five of the artist’s older hits but with a difference, that difference being energized singers and musicians. Among the artists featured on the series were Ferlin Husky, Jan Howard, Vic Willis, Stonewall Jackson, Billy Walker, Ernest Tubb, George Hamilton IV, Ray Pillow, Jean Shepard, The Wilburn Brothers and Charlie Louvin. While all were decent to very good albums, the album with Stonewall Jackson is the standout among the series.

Prior to this album, Stonewall Jackson has not spent much time in the recording studios since his last new Columbia album was issued in 1971. There had been an album in 1976 for GRT (I think the tracks were leased from MGM, intended for a never released 1973 album) reprising his Columbia hits in the manner of most remake albums, plus a deplorable new song from Foster & Rice titled “Herman Schwartz”. There was a pair of 1979 albums for Little Darling with little to recommend them. One of the Little Darlin’ albums was remakes and the other was largely undistinguished new material, although two of the songs had clever song titles, “The Pint of No Return” and “The Alcohol of Fame”.

For Stonewall Jackson’s First Generation sessions, in addition to playing steel himself, Pete gathered up an all-star lineup of Nashville session men including Jimmy Capps, Billy Sanford, Pete Wade and Bill Hullett (guitar), Jimmy Crawford and John Hughey (steel), Hargus “Pig” Robbins and Bobby Emmons (piano), Tommy Williams (fiddle), Bob Moore and Randy Best (bass).

The album opens up with the Billy Joe Shaver composition “I’m Just An Old Chunk of Coal”, a very recent hit for John Anderson (I think it is possible that Jackson’s version pre-dates Anderson’s recording, but I’m not certain); Billy Joe’s album also hit the streets in 1981. Whatever the timing, I feel that the Stonewall Jackson recording is the best recording I’ve ever heard of the song, far better than Billy Joe’s version and slightly better than John Anderson’s version. Stonewall sings the song with great enthusiasm as the lyric fits the ‘hardscrabble-pull up your own bootstraps’ upbringing of Stonewall’s youth:

Hey, I’m just an old chunk of coal
But I’m gonna be a diamond some day
I’m gonna grow and glow till I’m so blue, pure, perfect
I’m gonna put a smile on everybody’s face
I’m gonna kneel and pray every day
At last I should become vain along the way
I’m just an old chunk of coal now, Lord
But I’m gonna be a diamond some day

R.J. Jones and M. Kosser wrote “Full Moon, Empty Pockets”, a song that several artists subsequently recorded. The song tells a tale of woe that many of us have encountered – time on our hands but no money.

Full moon empty pockets
Stone broke on a Saturday night
Full moon empty pockets
Won’t a lady treat a cowboy right

Next up is “There Are No Shortcuts (To Get Me Over You)”, a good heartbreak ballad that of the kind that Stonewall Jackson always tackled well. This is followed by a song from Ben Peters and Curly Putman, “Breaking Up Breakdown”, a song that I could see as a successful single had it been issued in 1966 rather than 1981. The song is an up-tempo barroom ballad in which the narrator asks for the band to keep playing that song about breaking up.

The last of the newer songs is ”Let The Sun Shine On The People” by Frank Dycus and Larry Kingston. Frank Dycus, of course, wrote some of George Strait’s hits and Larry Kingston provided a number of songs to Johnny Bush and other singers.

At this point the nostalgia trip begins, but with an enthusiastic Stonewall Jackson leading the way on excellent new versions of some of his classic hits, starting off with his biggest hit (#1 Country / #4 Pop) “Waterloo”. For those familiar only with the ABBA hit of the same name, this song is a bit of a romp through history referencing Adam, Napoleon and Tom Dooley:

Now old Adam, was the first in history
With an apple, he was tempted and deceived
Just for spite, the devil made him take a bite
And that’s where old Adam met his Waterloo

Chorus
Waterloo, Waterloo
Where will you meet your Waterloo
Every puppy has his day and everybody has his day
Everybody has to meet his Waterloo

Waterloo was such a big hit that Homer & Jethro took the time to spoof it:

The Lone Ranger and Tonto rode the trail
Catching Outlaws and putting them in jail
But the Ranger shot Tonto for it seems
He found out what ‘kemosabe’ means

Perhaps Stonewall’s most enduring song, “Don’t Be Angry,” is up next. Written by Stonewall’s brother Wade Jackson, not only was it a big hit for Jackson, but Donna Fargo took the song to the top during the 1970s and the song has been covered by many artists and remains in the active repertoires of county bar bands across the USA.

Don’t be angry at me darling if I fail to understand
All your little whims and wishes all the time
Just remember that I’m dumb I guess like any foolish man
And my head stays sorta foggy cause you’re mine

Well, I recall the first time that I flirted with you dear
When I jokingly said come and be my bride
Now that time has turned the pages it’s the sweetest joke on earth
That I have you near forever by my side

Joe Babcock authored the next Stonewall Jackson classic “I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water”, which also was a major hit for pop crooner Pat Boone and has also been a favorite of the R&B crowd and many of the rock & roll crowd as well, including Elvis Presley and Johny Rivers

I was born in Macon Georgia
They kept my daddy over in Macon jail
He told me if you keep your hands clean
You won’t hear them bloodhounds on your trail

Well I fell in with bad companions
Robbed a man, oh up in Tennessee
They caught me way up in Nashville
They locked me up and threw away the key

Chorus
I washed my hands in muddy water
Washed my hands, but they didn’t come clean
Tried to do what my daddy told me
But I must have washed my hands in a muddy stream

Next up is Bill Johnson’s “A Wound Time Can’t Erase”, a sad and tender ballad that was a big hit for Stonewall and later for Gene Watson.

The fifth and final Stonewall Jackson classic is the Melvin Endsley / Stonewall Jackson composition “Why I’m Walkin’”, a song Ricky Skaggs covered during the 1980s. Melvin Endsley was a disabled person who wrote several classic country songs including “Singling the Blues” and “Knee Deep In The Blues”. Some readers may remember an alternate title “Got My Angel On My Mind”, but however you label this ballad, it’s a good one.

I’ve got an angel on my mind, that’s why I’m walkin’
There’s such an aching in this old heart, now I ain’t talkin’
The little hand that held mine tight, just waved goodbye tonite
I’ve got her sweet love on my mind, that’s why I’m walkin’

This album is still readily available on CD, as are most of the other albums in the series. Unfortunately, Pete Drake began experiencing health problems in 1985 and passed away in 1988. I would like to have seen Pete issue new albums on the next generation of veteran artists released by the major labels. It would have been much better music than much of what was actually released by other minor/ independent labels over the next decade. Anyway, almost unique among this class of minor label albums by veteran artists, this album rates a solid A, the first album for Stonewall in many years that I would rate that highly.

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.

Reissues wish list part 2: MCA and Decca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Album Review: Ricky Van Shelton – ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’

friedgreentomatoes2000’s Fried Green Tomatoes has nothing to do with the 1991 film of the same title. It was Ricky Van Shelton’s ninth studio album — and his last, aside from a Christmas album released later that year. It was his only entirely self-produced album. It was released on the Audium label, which gave it the potential to reach a wider audience than 1998’s WalMart exclusive Making Plans. Unfortunately, it didn’t perform any better commercially than its predecessor.

Like his earlier albums, Fried Green Tomatoes is a combination of contemporary songs and covers of old country classics. On the newer material, Shelton seems to have made a conscious decision to update his sound just a little; many of the uptempo numbers such as “Call Me Crazy”, “I’m The One”, and “From The Fryin’ Pan” all have more of a rock edge to them. For the most part, he is able to perform these contemporary songs credibly, without sounding like he is out of his league. However, as always, it is on the more traditonal numbers that he truly excels. The Dallas Frazier-A.L. “Doodle” Owens tune “All I Have To Offer You Is Me” had been Charley Pride’s first #1 hit in 1969. Ricky’s version doesn’t match the original, but it is quite good and it’s a shame that it hadn’t appeared on one of his Columbia albums where more people might have heard it. It’s my favorite song on the album, followed closely by “Foolish Pride” written by Ernie Rowell and Mel Tillis. This song doesn’t appear to have been recorded before, but it certainly sounds like an older song with its rich melody and generous helpings of fiddle and steel.

Another beautiful traditional ballad, “You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Crazy)” is a forgotten gem whose first appearance seems to have been on a 1966 Jan Howard album. It was later covered by Alan Jackson. “Who’s Laughin’ Now”, written by Tom Littlefield, Rick Rowell and Mel Tillis Jr. also sounds like it may be an older song given a second lease on life.

“The Decision”, co-written by Ricky with Jerry Thompson, was the album’s sole single and its biggest misstep. With a more pop-oriented sound than typically heard from Ricky, it tells the story of an unwed 17-year-old expectant mother who is wrestling with whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. The saccharine arrangement and Ricky’s easy-going delivery are all wrong for a song about a life and death decision. I suppose Shelton and Thompson should be given credit for attempting to tackle such a serious and emotionally difficult topic, but it is done in a very superficial manner and seems like a missed opportunity. Incidentally, we are never told what the girl ultimately decides.

Aside from this one clunker, Fried Green Tomatoes is a solid album that allowed Ricky Van Shelton to wrap up his recording career on a high note. He released a Christmas album later in 2000. He continued to tour for a few more years before announcing his retirement from the music business in 2006. It’s a shame that he didn’t enjoy as much post-major label success as many of his contemporaries. His retirement was a loss for country music. We can only hope that he will one day decide to treat his fans to another album. Until then, pick up a cheap used copy of Fried Green Tomatoes if you haven’t already heard it.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan – ‘Classics’

classicsJust like her current tourmate and last month’s Spotlight Artist, Pam Tillis, Lorrie Morgan had recorded a number of sides for Hickory Records before her rise to fame, and saw those early recordings cynically re-released in an attempt to capitalize. Licenced to Curb and packaged as the optimistically titled Classics in 1991, the music shows Lorrie could definitely sing beautifully (perhaps a little too sugar-sweet at times on the ballads), but shows little artistic individuality, with the music typical of the pop-country of the latest 70s and early 80s.

‘The First Few Days Of Love’ is a mellow ballad written by Sanger D Shafer and Eddy Raven and smothered in strings. It’s a little sleepy, and now sounds very dated, but Lorrie sings it well. Along similar lines is ‘In For Rain’, although that one works a little better than the rather boring ‘Let It Be Yesterday’.

The best tracks are all up-tempo. ‘Say The Part About I Love You’ is a beaty up-tempo number with a cynical lyric about a one night stand with a sexy but obviously shady man. The production does sound dated, as is often the case with material with a pop-country influence, but Lorrie’s committed, energetic vocal makes it quite enjoyable.

I also liked the assertive demand to a spouse, ‘Who Do You Know In California’, which like ‘Say The Part About I Love You’, was written by Eddy Raven. The catchy ‘Ain’t Got Time To Rock No Baby’, a withering putdown of a needy and juvenile lover is another winner:

I only meant to love you, not to raise you
I thought you were already grown

Liz Anderson’s ‘Tell Me I’m Only Dreaming’ is not bad, although the dated production hampers it a bit, It charted in the lower reaches of the country charts in 1979.

Only the first seven tracks are on the iTunes version (no doubt a copyright issue). The CD version adds another three fairly forgettable cuts, which I think come from 1984. ‘Don’t Go Changing’ is a bland ballad with strings and choir-style backing vocals which was a flop single; ‘Easy Love’ is equally bland mid-tempo pop-country song; and ‘Someday We’ll Be Together’ is a boring cover of a pop hit for R&B group the Supremes (which Lorrie may have known from the Bill Anderson/Jan Howard country hit version). None is worth tracking down separately.

At this point in her career, Lorrie was showing few signs of star quality, and this compilation is of historical interest only.

Grade: C-

Country music’s fellow travelers: Burl Ives

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

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

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

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

Ten best reissues of 2012

2012 wasn’t a great year for reissues, but there were ten that struck me as exceptional enough to make a ten best list. Here is a list of my favorites (note: some of the foreign CDs may carry a 2011 date but did not hit the American market until 2012). My list is a mixed bag of single volume releases, affordable multi-disc sets and two rather expensive boxed sets

janiefricke Janie Fricke – The Country Side of Bluesgrass

An excellent set of Janie Fricke’s 1970s and 1980s hits recast as bluegrass. This album was advertised as the follow-up to her 2004 Bluegrass Sessions album, but it is actually a reissue of that album minus the bonus DVD – same songs, same “bonus track”, same musicians and producer. Only the packaging differs, so if you have the earlier CD you don’t need this one. If you don’t have the earlier version then you do need this one as Janie is one of the few female singers whose vocal chops have gotten better as she aged.

loudermilkSitting in the Balcony – The Songs of John D. Loudermilk

Although John D. Loudermilk wrote a large number of hit records for other performers, his hit songs (“Abilene”, “Waterloo”, “Talk Back Trembling Lips”, “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” , “Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian”, “Tobacco Road” , “A Rose And A Baby Ruth”, etc) were not at all typical of the material with which he filed his albums. A first cousin of Ira & Charlie Louvin (they were actually the Loudermilk Brothers before the name change), John D. Loudermilk had a decidedly offbeat outlook on life as evidenced by the songs in this two CD set. Loudermilk didn’t have a great singing voice and his offbeat songs resulted in no top twenty hits for him as a performer, but his songs are treasures.

Disc One (John D. Loudermilk: The Records) contains 32 recordings John made from 1957-1961. Disc Two (John D. Loudermilk: The Songs of John D. Loudermilk) contains 32 recordings made by other artists from 1956-1961, not necessarily big hits (although several are sprinkled in) but interesting songs by a wide array of artists, both famous and obscure (the famous names include Eddie Cochran, Johnny Cash, The Everly Brothers, Kitty Wells and Connie Francis). If you’ve never heard John D. Loudermilk, this is the place to start – it won’t be your stopping point

bradleykincaid Bradley Kincaid – A Man and His Guitar
Released by the British label JSP, this four CD set sells for under $30.00 and gives you 103 songs by one the individuals most responsible for preserving the musical heritage of rural America, through his song collecting and issuance of songbooks. Beyond being a preservationist, Kincaid was an excellent songwriter, singer and radio performer, as well as being Grandpa Jones’ mentor. This collection covers the period 1927-1950. An essential set for anyone interested in the history of country music

bootleg4 Johnny Cash – The Soul of Truth: Bootleg Vol. 4

You can never have too much Johnny Cash in your collection, and this 2 CD set includes the released albums A Believer Sings the Truth and Johnny Cash – Gospel Singer, plus unreleased material and outtakes. Various members of Cash’s extended family appear plus Jan Howard and Jessi Colter.

shebwooley Sheb Wooley –
White Lightnin’ (Shake This Shack Tonight)

Sheb Wooley had several careers – movie star, television actor (Rawhide), singer and comedian. Actually Sheb had two singing careers – a ‘straight’ country as Sheb Wooley and a comic alter-ego, the besotted Ben Colder.

This set covers the post WW2 recordings, recorded under the name Sheb Wooley. Sheb had a considerable sense of humor even when recording under his own name and there are quite a few humorous and offbeat songs in this thirty song collection released by Bear Family. Recorded on the west coast of the USA, many of these recordings feature steel guitar wizard Speedy West and the lightning fingers of guitarist Jimmie Bryant. Sheb’s biggest hit was “Purple People Eater”, which is not on this CD but there are many songs to make you smile including such classics as “That’s My Pa”, “You’re The Cat’s Meow” and “Rover, Scoot Over”, plus a number of boogies and a song titled “Hill Billy Mambo”.

martyrobbinsEl Paso: The Marty Robbins Story (1952-1960)

Marty Robbins was the “renaissance man” of country music. He could sing anything and everything. I always suspected that if rock and roll had not come along and momentarily wiped out the pop standards/classic pop market, Marty might have been competing against Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Julius Larosa and Tony Bennett, rather than competing as a county artist.

Whatever the case, Robbins was a truly great singer and this two CD set from the Czech label Jasmine proves it. This sixty (60) song collections gives us pop standards, rock and roll (“Maybelline”, “Long Tall Sally”, “That’s All Right, Mama”), ‘Mr. Teardrop’ ballads (“I Couldn’t Keep From Crying” , “Mr. Teardrop”, Teen Hits (“A White Sport Coat [And A Pink Carnation]”, “The Story of My Life”) , Country Standards (“Singing The Blues”, and lots of the great western ballads for which he was most famous”

If you don’t have any Marty Robbins this is a good place to start – sixty songs, under twenty bucks. Marty’s songs have been around and available in various configurations so this isn’t an essential album, merely an excellent one.

johnhartford

John Hartford – Aereo Plane/Morning Bugle: The Complete Warner Collection

John Hartford (December 30, 1937 – June 4, 2001) is best remembered for writing “Gentle On My Mind” but he was much more than a songwriter who happened to write a hit for Glen Campbell. Hartford was an extremely talented musician who could play any instruments, although banjo and fiddle were his main tools, a fine singer with a wry sense of humor and a scholar of the lore and history of the Mississippi River. While he sometimes is group settings, John was comfortable performing as a one-man band playing either banjo or guitar along with harmonica while clogging out the rhythm on an amplified piece of plywood while he played and sang.

Warner Brothers released these albums in 1971 and 1972, following his four-year run on RCA. Aereo-Plain has been described as hippie bluegrass, and its failure to sell well caused Warner Brothers to not bother with promoting the follow-up album Morning Bugle. Too bad as Aereo-Plain is chock full of quirky but interesting songs, with musicianship of the highest order with Norman Blake on guitar, Tut Taylor on dobro, and Vassar Clements on fiddle as part of the ensemble. I’ve always regard this album as the first “newgrass” album, and while others may disagree, it certainly is among the first. I don’t recall any singles being released from this album but I heard “Steam Powered Aereo Plane” and “Teardown The Grand Ole Opry” on the radio a few times.

While Aereo-Plain reached the Billboard album charts at #193, the follow-up Morning Bugle didn’t chart at all. Too bad as it is an imaginative album featuring Hartford with Norman Blake on guitar and mandolin, joined by legendary jazz bassist Dave Holland. The album features nine original compositions plus a couple of old folk songs. I particulary liked “Nobody Eats at Linebaugh’s Anymore” and “Howard Hughes’ Blues”, but the entire album is excellent. Following Warner Brothers’ failure to promote this album, Hartford asked to be released from his contract. He never again recorded for a major label, instead producing a series of fine albums for the likes of Flying Fish, Rounder and Small Dog A-Barkin’.

This reissue unearths eight previously unreleased tracks, making it a ‘must-have’ for any true John Hartford fan and a great starting point for those unfamiliar with his music.

bobbybare Bobby Bare – As Is/Ain’t Got Nothin’ To Lose

Bobby Bare was never flashy or gimmicky in his approach to music even though he recorded many novelties from the pen of Shel Silverstein. For Bare songs had stories to tell and that’s how he approached them. Whether the song was something from Shel, Tom T Hall, Billy Joe Shaver, Bob McDill or whomever, Bobby made sure that the song’s story was told. While this approach didn’t always get Bare the big hits, it always gained him the respect of the listener.

This reissue couples two of Bare’s early 1980s Columbia releases plus a few bonus tracks. The great John Morthland in his classic book The Best of Country Music, had this to say about As Is: “… It is the ideal Bobby Bare formula really: give him a batch of good songs and turn him loose. No concepts here, nothing cutesy, just ten slices-of-life produced to perfection by Rodney Crowell”.

My two favorite tracks on As Is were a pair of old warhorses, Ray Price’s 1968 “Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go) “ and the Ian Tyson classic “Summer Wages”.

While I Ain’t Got Nothing To Lose isn’t quite as stong an album, it gives Bare’s wry sense of humor several display platforms. The (almost) title track echos thoughts that many of us have felt at some point in our life (the first line is the actual song title:

If you ain’t got nothin’ you ain’t got nothin’ to lose
There ain’t no pressure when you’re singin’ these low down blues
Smokin’ that git down bummin’ them red men chews
If you ain’t got nothin’ you ain’t got nothin’ to lose

Hugh Moffat’s “Praise The Lord and Send Me The Money” is a clever jab at televangelistas . I’ll give you a middle verse and let you guess the rest:

I woke up late for work the next morning
I could not believe what I’d done
Wrote a hot check to Jesus for ten thousand dollars
And my bank account only held thirty-one

I consider virtually everything Bobby Bare recorded to be worthwhile so I jumped on this one the minute I knew of its existence. I already had As Is on vinyl but somehow the companion album slipped by me.

This brings us up to two rather expensive box sets that will set the purchaser back by several bills.

conniesmithThe obsessive German label Bear Family finally got around to releasing their second box set on Connie Smith. Just For What I Am picks up where the prior set left off and completes the RCA years. While many prefer Miss Smith’s earliest recordings, I am most fond of her work from the period 1968-1972, when her material was more adventurous, especially on the album tracks. During this period Smith had shifted from Bill Anderson being her preferred songwriter to focusing on the songs of Dallas Frazier, including one full album of nothing but Dallas Frazier-penned songs. The ‘Nashville Sound’ blend of strings and steel never sounded as good as it did on these tracks. There is a fair amount of religious music on the set, but for the less religiously inclined there is more than enough good solid country music on the set to be worth the effort in programming your CD player to skip the religious tracks. At her peak Connie Smith was the strongest vocalist the genre has ever generated – even today at age 71, she can blow away most female vocalists. Highlights are songs such as “Where Is My Castle”, “Louisiana Man”, “Ribbon of Darkness”, but when I listen to these discs, I just put ‘em on and let ‘em spin.

cashUp to this point, I actually own all of the albums and sets listed above. Not being made of money, I haven’t purchased Sony/Legacy’s massive 63 CD set The Complete Johnny Cash Columbia Album Collection, although the temptation is there. What is stopping me from making the purchase (other than my wife) is that already own 99% of what the set contains in one format or another.

What the set contains is an unbelievable array of material, it’s difficult to think of any singer whose work has been so varied. There are gospel albums, Christmas albums, a children’s album, soundtrack albums from a couple of movies, two Highwayman albums, a collaboration with former Sun label mates Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, a concert from a Swedish prison and other live albums and duet albums – a total of 59 albums as originally released on the Columbia label (no bonus tracks). There set also includes another four CDs of miscellaneous materials – singles and B-sides not originally on albums, Johnny’s guest vocals on other artist’s albums plus various oddities. Some of Cash’s later Columbia albums were not quite as strong as the earlier albums, but even the weaker albums contained some quite interesting material. This set usually sells for around $265 or $4 per disc.

Album Review: Connie Smith – ‘Just For What I Am’

The past decade or so hasn’t produced much great country music, forcing many fans to mine the back catalogs of some of the genre’s legends, in search of material that they might have initially overlooked. Germany’s Bear Family Records has released numerous extensive box sets of many legendary artists and in doing so has been a Godsend to fans of classic country music. Last month they released a second set of Connie Smith’s music, a little more than a week after it was announced that the Sweetheart of the Grand Ole Opry would finally be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Just For What I Am
is a companion piece to 2001’s Born To Sing, picking up where the earlier collection left off. Together the two collections represent the singer’s entire RCA catalog, marking the first time in decades that many of these classic recordings have been commercially available. It covers the period from 1967 through 1972, and contains 151 tracks, spanning five discs. It contains 14 Top 20 singles, several Gospel numbers, and Connie’s take on many of the then-current hits of her contemporaries, such as Loretta Lynn, Dottie West, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty and Waylon Jennings. It also contains nine tracks that were never released by RCA. The highest charting single in the collection is “Just One Time”, a Don Gibson number that Connie took to #2 in 1971. My personal favorites among the singles are “I Never Once Stopped Loving You” written by Bill Anderson and Jan Howard, and the Dallas Frazier compositions “Where Is My Castle” and “If It Ain’t Love (Let’s Leave It Alone)”, both of which feature the great Johnny Gimble on fiddle and stands in stark contrast to the countrypolitan that was dominating the country charts at the time.

Smith’s singles from this era were great, but most of them have been available for quite some time on the small handful of compilations that RCA saw fit to release on CD. The real gems are the album cuts, most of which have been unavailable since their initial release 40 years ago or more. Of particular interest are the covers of other artists’ hits. Waylon Jennings’ “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line” seems like an unlikely choice for Connie Smith, but she attacks it with gusto, altering the lyrics slightly to represent the female point of view. Jerry Reed’s “Natchilly Ain’t No Good” gets a similar treatment, as do Conway Twitty’s signature tunes “Hello, Darlin'” and “I Can’t Believe You Stopped Loving Me”. Her rendition of Loretta Lynn’s “Before I’m Over You” rivals the original, and her version of “Here Comes My Baby” is superior to Dottie West’s Grammy winning record. My favorite of the cover songs is “If My Heart Had Windows”, which had been a Top 10 for George Jones in 1967. Patty Loveless would later score her first Top 10 hit when she covered the tune in 1988. Another highlight is Harlan Howard’s heartbreaking “The Deepening Snow”. I’d previously heard this song on Tammy Wynette’s 1992 box set; inexplicably, neither Wynette’s nor Smith’s version was ever released as a single.

It was common in the 60s and 70s for male and female labelmates to become duet partners. RCA wanted to pair Connie up with Waylon Jennings, but she resisted, fearing that a hit Jennings-Smith duet would require her to spend more time on the road promoting it. In retrospect, it’s regrettable because Jennings and Smith would have been an amazing pairing. Instead, Connie teamed up with Nat Stuckey, a singer-songwriter who had written such hits as Jim Ed Brown’s “Pop A Top” and Buck Owens’ “Waiting In Your Welfare Line”, and who would go on to co-write “Diggin’ Up Bones” with Paul Overstreet and Al Gore (not the former Vice President). That tune would become a #1 hit for Randy Travis in 1986. Smith recorded two duet albums with Stuckey, and although he was a fine vocalist, it is here that the material falters a bit. Still, there are some gems among their duets. I especially like their take on The Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me” and the Gospel standard “Whispering Hope.” Connie also recorded a handful of duets with Dallas Frazier, who is a great songwriter but not much of a singer.

Among the previously unreleased tracks are Connie’s interpretations of Mel Tillis’and Webb Pierce’s “I Ain’t Never”, Johnny Paycheck’s “(S)he’s All I Got”, Porter Wagoner’s “What Ain’t To Be Just Might Happen” and Dottie West’s somewhat sappy “Country Girl”.

Producer Bob Ferguson was largely responsible for creating the unique Connie Smith sound, but much of the credit should go to steel guitarist Weldon Myrick, who was featured prominently on many of Connie’s recordings. His tribute “Connie’s Song” closes out the collection. It is a steel guitar-led instrumental medley of some of Connie’s biggest hits: “Once A Day, “Then and Only Then”, and “I Can’t Remember”.

Just For What I Am
comes with extensive liner notes written by Barry Mazor, which are contained in a hardcover book. Like all Bear Family projects, it is beautifully packaged and contains a wealth of material, however, it avoids the trap of exhausting the listener with multiple takes of the same song, false starts and studio chatter which were characteristics of many other Bear Family releases. It is expensive, and will probably only appeal to diehard fans. The price, however, can be rationalized by taking into account that it contains twelve albums’ worth of material. If you’ve got some extra cash in your music budget, it is well worth checking out.

Grade: A+

Favorite country songs of the 1970s: Part 3

The 1970s were not my favorite decade for country music but it was the decade in which I did my largest amount of listening to country radio, having the good fortune to have such country giants as WSUN AM- 620 in St. Petersburg, FL, WHOO AM-1090 in Orlando and WCMS AM-1050 in Norfolk, VA for my listening pleasure, plus I could tune in WSM AM – 650 in Nashville at night. I did a lot of shift-work during this decade so my radio was on constantly.

    

This list is meant neither to be a comprehensive list of great country songs from the 1970s, nor any sort of ranking of records. It’s just a list of some songs that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records

Silver Wings” – Jim & Jon Hager (1970)

Since Hag issued the song as a B side (“Workin’ Man Blues” was the A side), this version is the only charting version of Hag’s classic. The Hager Twins do a nice job with the song, although it only reached #59 on the charts . Fans of Hee Haw will remember this duo well.

I Can’t Be Myself” – Merle Haggard (1970)

My all-time favorite Merle Haggard recording, this song went to #1 on Cashbox. Frankly, picking an all-time favorite Hag song is a hopeless proposition as he is the most consistently great artist of all time. Hag wrote about fifty #1 songs, the most of any songwriter. The flip side of this record “Sidewalks of Chicago” also received a lot of airplay and likely would be in my top ten favorite Haggard recordings.   Read more of this post

Classic Rewind: Connie Smith – ‘I Never Once Stopped Loving You’

We’d like to extend our wishes for a very happy 70th birthday to Connie Smith, one of country music’s greatest and most underrated performers. Her latest album, Long Line of Heartaches, will be released later this month. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy this Top 5 hit from 1970, which was written by Bill Anderson and Jan Howard:

Country Heritage Redux: Wynn Stewart (1934-1985)

An updated version of an article originally published by The 9513:

Mention Bakersfield to a country music fan and the names Buck Owens and Merle Haggard immediately come to mind. That’s to be expected considering Buck and the Hag were the two most successful practitioners of the “Bakersfield Sound,” but there are several other artists just as important to the evolution of the sound. Chief among these is Wynn Stewart, a hard-core honky-tonk singer who arrived at a time when Nashville was distancing itself from the hard-core sounds.

Country music rapidly lost its audience after the arrival of Elvis Presley in 1956. In order to retain viability in the marketplace, Nashville producers attempted to broaden the appeal of the music by adding strings and background voices. As time went by, the background voices became choruses, the strings became entire string sections and (worst of all) fiddle and steel guitar became noticeably absent in the recordings of the likes of Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold. Plus, the vocals themselves often became bland.

Wynn Stewart arrived in 1954 with his hard-core sound and distinctive tenor and phrasing, recording for a minor label out in California. He signed to major label Capitol in 1956 and had one hit, “Waltz of the Angels,” which reached #14, but he was unable to duplicate that success and was soon released.

He then signed to Jackpot / Challenge Records in 1958 where, after dabbling with a few rock and roll songs on the Jackpot label, he recorded a number of classic country songs, including “Wishful Thinking,” which hit #5 (Ralph Mooney on steel and Gordon Terry on fiddle), “Big Big Big Love (#18) and several duets with Jan Howard, including “Wrong Company” (#26). These records featured fiddle and steel guitar in a way that Nashville recordings of that era wouldn’t touch. My personal favorite of Stewart’s songs, “Playboy,” was recorded during this period. As was often the case for Stewart, some of his strongest material did not chart – this song being one of those cases.

While Stewart was signed to Challenge, one of his songs, “Above and Beyond,” was recorded by Buck Owens who took it to #3 in early 1960 (Buck’s second big hit). Years later Rodney Crowell finally got the song to #1. Before Buck formed the Buckaroos, you could clearly hear the Wynn Stewart influence in his vocals and sound.

In late 1963, Stewart’s bass player, a young ex-con named Merle Haggard, asked for his permission to record “Sing A Sad Song.” Always willing to help a fellow artist, Wynn gave the song to Merle who had his first chart record with the song (it reached #19).

Stewart re-signed with Capitol Records in 1964 but had little success until 1967, when his fifth single for the label, “It’s Such A Pretty World Today,” topped the charts. The recording found the classic Wynn Stewart sound softened with vocal choruses and string accompaniment. Three more top tens (“‘Cause I Have You,” “Love’s Gonna Happen To Me” and “Something Pretty”) followed, but the hits became smaller and smaller and after 1971 Stewart was dropped by Capitol. A stint with RCA produced no hits, although he did score one more top ten with “After The Storm” in 1976 on the Playboy label where he returned to his hard-core sound. Stewart’s last top 20 hit came in 1977 with “Sing A Sad Song,” which, ironically, was the song that launched Merle Haggard’s career; it too, got to #19.

Stewart formed his own label, Pretty World Records, named for his biggest hit, and seemed to be ready to get his career back into high gear when he was felled by a heart attack on July 17, 1985.

Both Buck Owens and Merle Haggard have cited Wynn Stewart as a major influence on their careers, yet somehow, he was never able to translate his enormous talent into extended and consistent success for himself. Possible reasons are several:

1. Poor timing. He was a hard country artist at a time when Nashville was going soft and attempting to co-opt the easy listening market.
2. A lack of self-discipline and some bouts with the bottle.
3. Lack of visual appeal. Like Haggard, Wynn Stewart was short in stature, probably shorter than Haggard. Unlike Haggard, who was very handsome and photogenic in his younger days, Wynn Stewart was just another guy, and not very photogenic (his daughters are all quite pretty, however.)

Wynn Stewart inspired tremendous loyalty among his fellow musicians and artists. For years after his death, legendary steel guitar player Ralph Mooney would identify himself as “Wynn Stewart’s steel player.” Roy Nichols, Haggard’s long-time guitar player, played for Wynn Stewart, and before that, for Lefty Frizzell. Roy regarded Stewart as a giant of the music.

Affordable CD collections of Wynn’s material are few. The crown jewel, of course, is Wishful Thinking, a massive ten CD box set. This set covers 279 recordings, from all labels, and is the only place to find all of Wynn’s Capitol hits. This set lists for $299 but can be found for less money if you look around.

Other than the Bear Box Set, the Ernest Tubb Record Shop has available only two other Wynn Stewart collections. There is a Best of Wynn Stewart 1958-1962 CD issued by Varese Sarabande available covering his years with Challenge Records. While this collection of nineteen songs misses his big hits on Capitol, it does include what I feel to be his best recordings: hard-core honky-tonk classics. Varese Sarabande also issued The Very Best of Wynn Stewart and Jan Howard which features eight Jan Howard songs from the Challenge years, six Wynn Stewart songs and the four duets they did together. Both of the Varese Sarabande sets are highly recommended.

http://www.collectorschoicemusic.com has available all three of the above titles plus Wynn Stewart- Greatest Country Hits. There is finally a CD available that contains some of Wynn’s recordings on Capitol. Titled Wynn Stewart – Greatest Country Hits, the CD, issued by Micro Werks (out of Los Angeles) contains his 13 biggest hits. The music is excellent, although I was hoping for a more comprehensive set (such as the other three Capitol singles to chart, plus some key album tracks), but at least it’s out there.

It’s out of print now, but in 1995 AVI released Wynn Stewart – The Best of The Challenge Years. This set contains sixteen of the nineteen songs on the Varese set plus an additional thirteen songs. With some effort, you may be able to find this CD.

Stewart’s daughter, Wren Stewart Tidwell, runs a very informative website and has some of Stewart’s vinyl LPs for sale. While I have hopes that someday Capitol / EMI comes to its senses and releases some of the songs on CD, I’m not holding my breath waiting for it to happen. The LPs are all worth owning and I’ve been buying them whenever I can find them. The official Wynn Stewart website is at http://www.wynnstewart.com

He recorded at least 58 of the 45 rpm singles–of which 31 charted. Used record stores may carry some of these records. Another place to search is http://www.musicstack.com . Happy hunting!

There is also available a tribute album available, recorded by Billy Keeble. This CD features 15 of Billy’s favorite Wynn Stewart songs, including a duet with Wren Stewart Tidwell on one of the selections. Billy isn’t Wynn Stewart, but his CD shows the breadth of the Wynn Stewart repertoire. This disc is available from CD Baby or from http://www.billykeeble.com.

Interestingly enough, Wynn experienced a bit of an upsurge in 2010 when Volkswagen used his 1962 recording of “Another Day, Another Dollar” in a commercial for the VW Jetta. This song can be found on the Bear Box Set and on the Varese Sarabande Best of Wynn Stewart 1958-1962 collection. While the song was not a giant hit (#18 Cashbox /#27 on Billboard), it is fondly remembered by those of us who recall hearing it the first time around.

Album Review: Amber Digby and Justin Trevino – ‘Keeping Up Appearances’

Only a few months after the release of her last solo album, Amber Digby is back with a collection of duets with her longterm producer Justin Trevino, a recording artist in his own right with a vibrato-laden tenor reminiscent of the country music of the 1960s. Their voices blend together very well, bearing comparison with the classic duos of the past, and the result is a delightful record which sounds as though it could have been made 40 years ago yet has a timeless feel. The production (credited jointly to Amber and Justin) is exemplary, with the musicians including Amber’s husband Randy Lindley on various guitars and stepfather Dickie Overbey on steel.

As has become customary for an Amber Digby record, everything here is a cover (mostly from the 1960s or early 1970s), but the pair have mixed in some obscure cuts in with the better known songs, and the quality of the 14 songs selected is uniformly high. The subject matter is exclusively relationships: love songs, cheating songs, and tales of marital unhappiness.

My favorite track on the album is the pair’s version of ‘Lead Me On’, a smash hit in 1971 for Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn. This has a couple on the verge of an illicit relationship and wanting some encouragement. The vocals are particularly outstanding here from both Justin and Amber.

The fiddle-led ‘Which One is To Blame’ is another delightful cheating song mixing regret and desire, with Amber and Justin swapping lines through the song, as they share the anguish of forbidden love:

Amber: Somehow I can’t blame myself
Although I guess I should
Justin: And I can’t put the blame on you
I wouldn’t if I could
Amber: We’ve made ourselves the gossip of the town
Justin: The things we’ve done can only bring us shame
Together: We’ve let our passion drag our honor down
I wonder which one of us is to blame

There is less penitence in the defiant passion of ‘After The Fire Is Gone’, where the couple blame their infidelity on a moribund marriage. This is a great song which has been recorded so many times I sighed inwardly when I initially saw it on the track listing, but this is a very fine version which is well worth hearing.

Read more of this post