My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Jimmie Rodgers

Where to find good ol’ country music – or the transition to bluegrass

I really like good ol’ country music from the period 1930 – 2005. Most of my favorite songs and performances dated from 1975 back to the days of Jimmie Rodgers and The Original Carter Family. I also like to see live music performances. Except in a few sections of the country, modern country radio has largely forsaken good ol’ country music. Yes, there is Sirius-XM Radio, but the stations that play pre-2005 country tend to have rather shallow playlists, and satellite radio can be a pricey proposition. I do have XM in my vehicle because I make a number of long trips on business.

Being able to see live good ol’ country music performed is getting more problematic. In some areas there are younger performers who have embraced the art form, but in other areas they can barely be found. Moreover, the classic country performers are ageing. Most of the great country performers of the 1950s and 1960s have moved on to that Great Opry Stage in The Sky. The same is increasingly true for many of the stars of the 1970s. We have even lost some of the stars of the 1980s.

What to do ?

During the 1940s and 1950s there wasn’t much difference between country and bluegrass except the instrumentation, with many artists (Jimmie Skinner, Lee Moore, Mac Wiseman) straddling the border between the two genres. As the 1960s arrived, there was more separation although artists such as the Osborne Brothers and Jim & Jesse McReynolds featured steel guitar and ‘Nashville’ sound trappings on their major label bluegrass recordings. Through the early 1970s it wasn’t unusual to see bluegrass acts chart on the country music charts.

By the mid-1970s, the two streams had completely separated. Bluegrass was no longer played on country radio (except an occasional song from a movie such as “Dueling/Feuding Banjos” might be played), and the repertoire had largely segmented as well.

Over the last twenty years or so, as the product on country radio has become more unlistenable, something strange has happened: bluegrass artists have become the guardians of the country music tradition. Many of today’s bluegrass artists grew up listening to that good ol’ country music and have been incorporating larger amounts of it into their repertoire. In some cases artists, such as Ricky Skaggs and Marty Raybon who had substantial country careers, returned to their bluegrass roots, bringing their country repertoire with them. In other cases bluegrass acts, often serious students of music, have gone back and founded the repertoire that country radio and young country artists seemingly lost.

Obviously, I’ve done no detailed study into the matter, but I’ve been attending bluegrass festivals over the last eight years, and have heard a tremendous amount of country songs performed. Almost every bluegrass group has at least a few classic country songs that they perform, and many have repertoires that are 30%-50% country songs.

So where should you start?

I must admit that the ‘high lonesome sound’ is an acquired taste. Even now, I really cannot listen to more than a few Bill Monroe vocals at a time. That said, Bill usually kept some other vocalist on board with such proficient singers as Lester Flatt, Jimmy Martin, Mac Wiseman and Peter Rowan all taking turns in Bill’s band. Consequently, one generally wasn’t stuck listening to Bill Monroe sing the lead.

You can develop a taste for that ‘High Lonesome Sound’ but rather than torture yourself with an overload of it, I would suggest easing yourself into it. Below are acts that feature good ol’ country music in their repertoires. Here’s where to start:

Classic Era/First Generation artists

Mac Wiseman – possessed of a pleasant and sleek Irish tenor, Mac can sing anything and everything and sing it well. There is a reason he is known as the “voice with a heart”. I think Mac is one of the few left alive from the gestation period of the music.

Jimmy Martin – Jimmy was more in the realm of the ‘high lonesome’ but unlike most such singers, who sound like the voice of gloom, agony and despair, Jimmy was such an unabashedly good natured and exuberant singer that you can help but like him.

Lester Flatt – whether singing with Bill Monroe, as part of Flatt & Scruggs or after the split with Scruggs, Lester’s lower tenor made bluegrass palatable to those not enamored of the high pitched vocals of Monroe and his acolytes.

Modern Era

While groups such as Trinity River, Flatt Lonesome, IIIrd Tyme Out and Balsam Range are very good, I would recommend you start with Chris Jones and the Night Drivers. Chris has an excellent, somewhat lower pitched voice that would have made him a star during the classic country days. Chris is a DJ on XM Radio’s Bluegrass Junction (Channel 62 on XM Radio) and he will occasionally feature one of his own recordings.

Next I would point you toward The Gibson Brothers, The Spinney Brothers and Rhonda Vincent and the Rage. If you are a big Statler Brothers fan, the Dailey & Vincent duo include a lot of Statler songs in their repertoire and on some numbers can make you think that the Statler Brothers have come out of retirement. Marty Raybon, lead singer of Shenandoah, features a lot of Shenandoah material in his performances with his current band Full Circle.

In recent years Rhonda Vincent (the “Queen of Bluegrass Music” has been occasionally performing with classic country acts such as Gene Watson, Moe Bandy and Daryle Singletary, so you might find these guys at bluegrass festivals.

I will note that I have left some of my personal favorites (The Osborne Brothers, Del McCoury, Reno & Smiley, James King, Dale Ann Bradley, Lorraine Jordan) out of this discussion. I’m not worried about leaving them out – you’ll work your way to them eventually.

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Miss the Mississippi’

5174w-nuyal1979 saw a big shift in the direction of Crystal Gayle’s music when she switched record labels. Although she continued to work with producer Allen Reynolds, she delved even further into pop territory from the get go. Her first single for Columbia was “Half the Way”, which was her biggest hit for the label. Although it just missed the top spot on the Billboard country charts (peaking at #2), it landed at #15 on the Billboard Hot 100 (her final entry in the Top 20 of that chart) and #9 on the AC chart. The song is undeniably catchy, but does not sound even remotely country, although at least one its writers had solid country credentials. Ralph Murphy, a British born Canadian songwriter, penned the tune with Bobby Wood. The duo also wrote “He Got You” which was a hit for Ronnie Milsap the following year. Murphy had also written Jeannie C. Riley’s “Good Enough to Be Your Wife” and would go on to write hits for Randy Travis, Kathy Mattea, Don Williams and others and would eventually be inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame. “Half the Way” was Crystal’s biggest hit on the pop charts after “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” and set the tone for the sound of her music for the rest of her tenure with Columbia.

The second single from Miss the Mississippi was “It’s Like We Never Said Goodbye”, an uptempo number with a lush string arrangement. It reached #1 on the country chart and #17 on the AC chart but only reached #63 on the Hot 100 chart. Like “Half the Way”, it is barely country but irresistibly catchy. The more stripped-down ballad “The Blue Side” was the final single, charting at #8 country, #16 AC and #81 Hot 100.

Another tune that most people old enough to remember this era will recognize is the mid tempo pop number “Don’t Go My Love” written by James Valentini and Frank Saulino. Crystal never released it as a single but I definitely remember hearing it played on MOR radio stations, although I don’t know who the artist was. My research — admittedly very limited — shows that the song was recorded by a Greek singer named Nana Mouskouri who enjoyed quite a few international hits. Again, the song is a bit of an ear worm, but there’s nothing country about it.

Balancing out all this pop are a handful of songs that are more country in nature, at least by late 70s standards. Crystal does a capable job on “Dancing the Night Away” which had been a Top 20 country hit for Tanya Tucker in 1977. “Room for One More” is another one with appeal for country fans, and the concluding track is an exquisite reading of “Miss the Missippi and You”, which is far more polished than anything Jimmie Rodgers probably ever imagined.

Miss the Mississippi is not an album for everyone. If you’re looking for hardcore country it’s best to give it a miss. However, it provides an interesting glimpse at the direction country music was taking in the late 70s — and why there was the eventual backlash known as the New Traditionalist movement in the 1980s. Even though it’s not very country, I enjoyed listening to it.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent & The Rage – ‘All The Rage Volume 1’

all-the-rageMost bluegrass bands are at their best live, and great though she is as a recording artist, Rhonda Vincent and her road band The Rage are no exception. Her latest album, the result of a concert at Bethel University in Tennessee in May 2015, really allows her band the chance to shine on a selection of mainly lesser known tunes from Rhonda’s back catalog.

They open with a coruscating version of the Jimmie Rodgers classic ‘Muleskinner Blues’ with Rhonda wailing and yodelling impressively. This is a complete tour de force. In similar vein is ‘Kentucky Borderline’, written by Rhonda herself, while the closing ‘Mississippi River’ comes from the Mark Twain tribute album a few years back.

Slowing down the tempo, ‘Is The Grass Any Bluer (On The Other Side)’ is an affectionate tribute to Father of bluegrass Bill Monroe. There is an excellent version of the Barbara Mandrell hit ‘Midnight Angel’ (originally a bluegrass song, and also recorded by Highway 101). ‘Missouri Moon’ is a beautiful, melancholy ballad. The delicately understated ‘I’ve Forgotten You’ is one of those songs which means the absolute opposite of its title.

Rhonda takes the lead on a traditional bluegrass gospel quartet for the cheerfully judgmental ‘You Don’t Love God (If You Don’t Love Your Neighbour)’. She also sings a devout ‘The Old Rugged Cross’.

The guys are allowed to sing lead on several of the songs. The bands newest member Josh Williams, is an excellent singer in his own right, and he takes on the much-recorded rambler’s song ‘Freeborn Man’. Dobro player Brent Burke (one of Rhonda’s sons in law) shows off an attractive tenor voice on ‘The Girl From West Virginia’. Bassist Mickey Harris sings his own ‘If We Would Just Pray’.

A couple of fast paced instrumentals round out the set, a fiddle tune composed by Hunter Berry (Rhonda’s other son in law) and a banjo one by Aaron McDaris respectively.

The concert is also available as a DVD. It is an outstanding set of performances which I warmly recommend.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Blue Jungle’

blue jungleThe 1990s saw Haggard make what he hoped would be a new start as, following his departure from Epic, he signed a deal with Curb Records. His first album for the label featured mainly his own songs, and they’re a good collection.

There was only one single, ‘When It Rains It Pours’, which was almost ignored by radio, peaking at #30. But was this a missed opportunity? Haggard wanted his topical polemic ‘Me And Crippled Soldiers’ to be the lead single, but the label relegated it to the B-side, perhaps fearful that its message would be controversial. Written by Hag with his ex-wife Bonnie Owens, it was an outraged response to a recent Supreme Court decision which allowed burning the US flag as an expression of free speech. It may not have been a hit, but it still made an impact as a live favourite, and perhaps if it had been released in the download era I suspect it would have garnered big sales.

The actual single, ‘When It Rains It Pours’ is a rather downbeat little ballad about missing a loved one, written by John Cody Carter. It’s not a bad song, but it’s easy to see how it got lost in the competition from younger stars in the ferment of 1990.

There were other songs tackling current issues. ‘Under The Bridge’ and ‘My Home Is In The Street’ (the latter a co-write with wife Theresa) both put a personal face to the issue of homelessness. In both takes, a middle aged man loses his family’s home as the result of losing a job, and both songs express a positive attitude to life despite their dire circumstances:

No sir, I’m not homeless
We just need a house to put it in

The title track is a mellow western swing about the dreariness of a workday city life without a lover. There is a nice cover of one of Jimmie Rodgers’ lesser known tunes, ‘Never No Mo’ Blues’, with some authentic yodelling.

The best song on the album is the lost-love ballad ‘Lucky Old Colorado’, written by Red Simpson. Also excellent in the same style is ‘Sometimes I Dream’, and the wistful ‘Driftwood’, both fine new Haggard compositions.

Finally, the enjoyable shuffle ‘A Bar In Bakersfield’ which Hag wrote with Freddy Powers from the point of view of a musician who never made it big. Very charming.

This is a very nice album, with a generally subdued, low key feel, and a step back to more traditional country sounds from the jazz influences of his later Epic releases. There’s still an occasional bit of brass, but it is very much in the background. Unfortunately, lacking a big hit single or much in the way of promotion, it did not prove much of a commercial success, but it’s worth checking out.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Chill Factor’

chill factorMerle Haggard turned fifty shortly before Chill Factor was released in October 1987. To those of us who remember when the blues and jazz were still influences on country music (rather than the hip-hop and rock that seem to be today’s influences) this album is an overlooked treasure out of the Merle Haggard catalogue. The album is compromised of eleven songs of which Merle wrote six by himself, with three co-writes and two songs from outside sources.

I’m not sure, but I think this was the first complete Merle Haggard album recorded without longtime Stranger Roy Nichols (1932-2001) on lead guitar. Roy, who was a truly great guitar player, and a quintessential part of the Merle Haggard sound, retired in early 1987 due to health issues.

The album opens with the title track, a solo Haggard composition. “Chill Factor” is a very melancholy song about a down period in the singer’s life. Taken at a slow tempo the song features horns and winds during the last third of the song and comes to a fade ending. “Chill Factor” was the first single from the album and reached #9 on the Billboard country chart:

The long nights get longer
And I wish a friend would come by
The forecast is zero
And the chill factor is high

“Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star”, another Haggard composition, was the second single released from the album. It would prove to be Merle’s final #1 single. A mid-tempo song, the song finds the narrator wishing upon a star.

Like two ships on the ocean
We drifted apart …

Twinkle twinkle lucky star
Can you send me luck from where you are
Can you make a rainbow shine that far
Twinkle twinkle lucky star

“Man From Another Town” is yet another melancholy song, this time from the pens of Haggard and his most frequent co-writer at the time, Freddy Powers, This song reflects on relationship that should not be in that the man is thirty years older than the woman.

The great Hank Cochran wrote “We Never Touch At All”, a song that would have been a #1 record if it had been released twenty years earlier. The song features a 1960s style country accompaniment with excellent steel guitar by longtime Stranger Norm Hamlet. The song was released as the third single from the album and reached #22. The song is about a relationship that is slowly unraveling. I think it is the best song on the album:

Are we afraid we’ll wind up alone
Is this the tie that keeps us hanging on
Why don’t we just stay out
While we can still climb the wall
We hardly ever talk
And we never touch at all

“You Babe” was the fourth and final single pulled from this album, reaching #23. The song is a mid-tempo ballad, full of hope, by a man who has found what was truly important. The comes from the pen of Sanger D “Whitey” Shafer who was a friend and co-writer with Lefty Frizzell:

And if there’s nothin’ else I do
To spend my whole life through
Lovin’ you, babe, you babe
I’ll always be in command
Just as long as I’m the man
Lovin’ you, babe, you babe

“Thanking The Good Lord” is an upbeat and up-tempo written ny Merle and T.A. Lane:

The pieces are all falling together
The picture is coming in view
When I thought the end was upon me
I found my purpose in you

And let the power that made
Help me to prosper and be fair in all things that I do
The love I’ve been needin’ I just found in your heart
And I’m thanking the good Lord for you

I could easily see Leon Redbone recording “After DarK”, a very jazzy and reflective mid-tempo song with some instrumental breaks that give sax and trumpet player Don Markham a chance to stretch out.

Merle’s solo composition “1929” opens up with some nice dobro playing by Norm Hamlet, and the general feel of the instrumental accompaniment sounds like something that the legendary “Blue Yodeler” Jimmie Rodgers (aka “the father of country music” or the “Singing Brakeman”) would have felt perfectly comfortable singing. This song looks to possible bad times ahead. Like many of Jimmie’s songs, some Memphis style horns kick in during the latter part of the song:

All my life I’ve heard about hard depression days
They so resemble times we’re living now
And old news of yesteryear sounds like yesterday
And hunger lines always look the same somehow

Are we living now or is it 1929
A dollar bill ain’t worth one thin dime
And tricks are sometimes played upon the mind
Are we living now or 1929

I can really relate to “Thirty Again”, a slow introspective ballad with a hint of a chuckle in the vocal. Like several of the songs on this album, this song straddles the border between country and jazz.

Similar to the narrator of the song I don’t think I’d care to be a teenager again but thirty sounds like a good age to be.

Youth should be saved for the last
But it’s wasted on the young and fast…

Wish I could be thirty again
Wish time didn’t wrinkle my skin
They say life begins at fifty
We’ve been lied to my friend
And I just wish I could be
Thirty again

The album closes up with a pair of fairly traditional country ballads.

“I Don’t Have Any Love Around” opens with a fiddle and steel guitar introduction and generally keeps the feel of slow traditional country music ballad. I could see this song as a single during the 1950-1975 heyday of the genre.

“More Than This Old Heart Can Take” is a typical barroom crying-in-your-beer song, a solid mid-tempo country ballad with plenty of fiddle and dobro and an ageless story:

You walk into his arms before my very eyes
You can’t even wait to be somewhere alone
The ties that bind have broken loose and I’m about to break
Loving you is more than this old heart can take

There was a place in time when I was always on your mind
And now I’m nothing more than just a fool
I thought that I was strong enough to live with my mistake
But loving you is more than this old heart can take

I mentioned that this was the first full Haggard album to be missing Roy Nichols. In his place we have the great Grady Martin handling much of the lead guitar work. I think Martin’s presence lends itself to the jazzy feel Haggard seemed to be seeking with this album.

As for the album itself, I think that the album accurately reflects the roller coaster ride that Merle was experiencing at the time. He had one marriage (to Leona Williams) break rather acrimoniously, but at the point this album was released, Hag was a relative newlywed having married Debbie Parret in 1985, a marriage that would last until 1991. Like many veteran artists, he was having a hard time getting radio play as the singles from this album would prove. In all, Merle is revealed as being clear-minded and perceptive, with some nostalgic longings, but still firmly rooted in the present . When initially released this album received mixed reviews, (but remember that jazz has always been an anathema to rock audiences – there was even a band calling itself Johnny Hates Jazz) and most music critics had no feel for jazz in any form.

I liked this album when it was initially issued and I like it even more today – I regard it as a solid A.

Merle Haggard – vocals, guitar, background vocals
Biff Adam – drums / Jim Belken – fiddle
Gary Church – trombone / Steve Gibson – guitar
Norm Hamlet – dobro, pedal steel guitar
Jim Haas – background vocals / Jon Joice – background vocals
Bonnie Owens – background vocals
Red Lane – guitar Mike Leech – bass
Don Markham – saxophone, trumpet
Grady Martin – guitar / Clint Strong – guitar
Bobby Wayne – guitar / Mark Yeary – keyboards

Classic Rewind: Jimmie Rogers – ‘Blue Yodel No 1 (T for Texas)’

Merle Haggard: An Appreciation

haggard4I cannot say that I was surprised to hear of Merle’s death yesterday, but I was tremendously saddened as Merle’s music has been an important part of my life since I was about 13 when “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers” hit the airwaves in versions by Roy Drusky and Merle Haggard. The Billboard charts say that Drusky had the bigger hit, but the DJs in Virginia mostly played the Haggard version with its driving telecaster and incomparable vocals. At the time I didn’t have much money but by 1968 I had a summer job and purchased the 45 RPM records of “Legend of Bonnie and Clyde” and “Mama Tried”, great songs both. Unlike most 45s, however, the B sides were hardly throwaways. In fact the B side of “Legend of Bonnie and Clyde” was “Today I Started Loving You Again”, arguably Haggard’s most famous and most covered song.

It didn’t take me long to switch to buying the Hag’s albums and I eagerly obtained each new Merle Haggard album as soon as it was available for purchase. Haggard issued a great many albums, and to me they are all cherished friends, although I do prefer the early Capitol albums. Although Merle was a great songwriter, he was also good at selecting material from other writers. Plus he had a strong sense of the past paying proper homage to the likes of Lefty Frizzell, Ernest Tubb, Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. Merle’s tribute to Bob Wills A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player In The World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills) kicked off the western swing revival that continues to this day,

I had three opportunities to see Haggard live and the shows I saw in 1968, 1975, and 1982 were all great shows, although they differed greatly from each other. The 1968 show was that of a tight little honky-tonk band with a young and enthusiastic Merle as the vocalist and rhythm guitar player. The 1975 show featured a slightly larger band with more western swing elements and featured Merle playing fiddle on some of the numbers. The 1982 featured a much bigger band with whatever survivors of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys were still playing, and the band featured horns and reeds. In 1968 Haggard may have had a set list but for the later two shows Hag was clearly winging it – and the audience ate it up.

I could cite a number of statistics to support my contention that Merle Haggard was the greatest country artist of all time. I could do that, but I won’t – all that is needed is to listen to the recordings. Kevin over at Country Universe listed the Hag as the #1 male country artist of all time and listed thirteen essential singles. I made the following comment on Kevin’s blog:

“Every Haggard album is filled with treasures that never made the radio, and most of the Haggard singles had very strong B-sides. Kevin’s list of essential singles doesn’t include my two favorite singles and that’s okay – they’re all essential and you can’t have a list that long.”

I still stand by that comment and as Merle makes his way up to that heavenly choir, I will leave you with the lyrics from my favorite Merle Haggard song, “I Can’t Be Myself”

It’s a way of mine to say just what I’m thinking

And to do the things I really want to do

And you want to change the part of me I’m proud of

So I can’t be myself, when I’m with you

CHORUS
I can’t be myself and be what pleases you

And down deep inside, I don’t believe that you’d want me to

And it’s not my way to take so long deciding

But I Can’t Be Myself When I’m With You
Oh, you never liked the clothes I wear on Sunday

Just because I don’t believe the way you do

But I believe the Lord knows I’m unhappy

‘Cause I can’t be myself when I’m with you

RIP.

Fellow Travelers – Jimmie Rodgers

jimmie rodgersJimmie Rodgers was an American pop singer who had considerable success on the pop and country charts during the 1950s. Although not related to Jimmie Rodgers (the “Singing Brakeman”), the most famous country singer of the 1920s and 1930s, this Jimmie Rodgers was born in 1933, the same year that his namesake passed away.

Who Was He?

Starting in 1957, Jimmie Rodgers had a three year run of enormous pop success with several of his songs receiving heavy country airplay. In 1957 “Honeycomb” went #1 on the pop and R&B charts and its follow-up “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” went #3 pop and #8 R&B. In 1958 Jimmie had seven songs chart on Billboard’s pop charts with “Uh Oh, I’m Falling In Love Again reaching #7 pop and #19 R&B, “Secretly” reaching #3 pop and #7 R&B and “Are You Really Mine” reaching #10 pop. Rodgers charted another eight song on the pop charts in 1959 although none of them went top ten.

As musical tastes changed during the 1960s, the hits slowed down with only 13 pop chart hits during the 1960s although he had several significant hits on the Adult Contemporary charts during the 1960s with his cover of Rod McKuen’s “The World I Used To Know” reaching #9 in 1964 and his own composition “It’s Over” (not to be mistaken for the Roy Orbison song of the same name) reached #5.

On December 1, 1967, Jimmie Rodgers was discovered by a friend, alone in his car with traumatic head injuries from a savage beating. Jimmie had sustained a fractured skull and required several surgeries, which placed his career on hold for several years. The assailants remain unknown to this very day. His original record label Roulette had known mob ties and the suspicion remains to this day that mob retribution was involved, Jimmie having changed record labels a few years earlier; however, the possibility of police misconduct is believed by many to have occurred.

What Was His Connection to County Music?

Jimmie Rodgers had four songs reach the country top ten in 1957-1958 (“Honeycomb” – #7; “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” – #6; “Uh-Oh I’m Falling In Love Again” – #5 and “Secretly” – #5). Several more of his songs reached the country top twenty. Although he fell off the country charts entirely during the 1960s a late 1970s comeback saw four more country chart singles for Rodgers.

Even though Rodgers county chart success was sporadic after 1957-1958, his four biggest hits were played as oldies on various country stations and some of his later material was covered by country artists. Johnny Darrell had an acclaimed album track of “Child of Clay” that would likely have charted if Billboard had charted album tracks back in 1968, Eddy Arnold had a successful single on “It’s Over” (#4 country) and Eddy would cover several of Jimmie’s singles as singles or album tracks.

Jimmie recorded for A&M Records during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many of the tracks on the A&M albums would have fit comfortably on country radio.

Jimmie Rodgers Today

Jimmie is still alive, although spastic dysphonia has largely curtailed his singing career. Jimmie has a website http://www.jimmie-rodgers.com/ which gives more details of his life and has some of his product available.

Classic Rewind: Jimmie Rodgers – ‘Uh Oh, I’m Falling In Love Again’

The pop artist’s biggest country hit:

Album Review: Glen Campbell – ‘Gentle on My Mind’

51cP-6ZEttLBy 1967 Glen Campbell had been a Capitol Records artist for five years. He was well known to the public from his frequent television appearances as well as his stint touring with The Beach Boys in early 1965. He was also in demand as a session musician but he was still having difficulty establishing himself as an A-list solo recording artist.

Campbell’s fortunes began to change in late 1966 when he teamed up with Al De Lory, who produced Glen’s first solo Top 20 country hit “Burning Bridges”, which peaked at #18 in early 1967. Their next notable collaboration was “Gentle on My Mind”, released in June 1967, which became the centerpiece of the album of the same title, released a few months later. As the story goes, Campbell heard composer John Hartford’s original version and quickly recorded a demo version of the song to pitch to DeLory. Unbeknownst to Campbell, DeLory released the demo version as a single after doing a little minor clean-up work, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“Gentle on My Mind”, a song about a free spirit who feels genuine affection for a female friend but not enough to settle down with her, is regarded as a classic today, but surprisingly it was not a huge hit at the time. It peaked at #30 on the country chart, far lower than “Burning Bridges”, and it topped out at #62 on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100 chart. Employing a strategy that Warner Bros would borrow with Randy Travis nearly two decades later, Capitol re-released “Gentle on My Mind” in mid-1968. This time it performed worse on the country chart (#44) but better on the Hot 100 (#39). It also became a #8 adult contemporary hit as well as a Top 20 country hit in Canada. In 1968 Campbell hosted a variety program on CBS, while The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was on summer hiatus. This led to his own program The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour beginning in January 1969. “Gentle on My Mind” served as the show’s theme song, which eventually pushed the album’s sales past the platinum mark. This is a textbook example of a song that has endured and stood the test of time, despite somewhat underperforming on the charts — and also a lesson in why chart performance should never be used as a measurement of quality.

Gentle on My Mind the album, follows the usual template of its era; the title track is the album’s only single. The rest of the track list is made up of cover versions of songs that had been hits for other artists, and other songs (including one co-written by Glen) that were regarded as filler but still provide for a pleasant listen. First and foremost, one must bear in mind that this is not a country album. At this stage of his career, Campbell was based in Los Angeles, not Nashville, and was working with a pop producer. It was, however, an era when country, pop and adult contemporary relied on orchestrated arrangements, which made it relatively easy for Glen and other artists of the day to score hits in multiple radio formats. There are no fiddles or steel to be found in this collection, although there is a little banjo here and there, and plenty of acoustic guitar picking, which was probably an influence from the then-popular folk music movement.

The album’s most country-sounding track is the Campbell-Joe Allison co-write “Just Another Man”, which is a very nice and understated acoustic ballad. The rest of the album is difficult to categorize, but if pressed, I’d call it melodious late 60s pop, which was the perfect showcase for Glen’s voice. There are country influences on “It’s Over” and “Crying”, both of which had been hits for Roy Orbison. The former was written by Jimmie Rodgers. The latter has always been one of my favorite pseudo-country songs, and I would probably have been blown away by Glen’s version had I never heard the Orbison original. Nobody will ever sing that song like Roy did, but that doesn’t mean that Glen’s interpretation isn’t enjoyable.

There are traces of country on “Bowling Green” which also relies heavily on strings and a double-tracked vocal. In the end it’s more pop than country but still quite good. Ditto for “Catch The Wind”, which has a Byrds-like feel to it. There’s nothing country at all about “You’re My World”, which sounded to me like something Dusty Springfield might have sung, but my research showed that it was Italian in origin, had had been a hit in the English speaking world for British singer Cilla Black.

Gentle on My Mind was meant to capitalize on the success of Glen’s television program, and as such it makes sense that Capitol was aiming for a wider audience than country music typically reached. It contains some country elements, but was clearly intended for mass consumption. The strategy worked; the album sold more than a million copies and Glen’s singles over the next few years for the most part charted significantly higher than anything he’d done up to that point. While this is not an album for hardcore traditionalists, there is plenty here to appeal to those who enjoy the popular music of the late 1960s.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard – ‘Django & Jimmie’

django and jimmieDjango & Jimmie is the latest endeavor by the ageless comrades Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. While the title suggests an album of songs made famous by Django Reinhart and Jimmie Rodgers, the Django part of the equation would be impossible to pull off since Django was a Gypsy guitarist whose musical compositions were instrumentals, “Nuages” being the most famous.

Instead what we have is an album of interesting songs, mostly new but some old, and taken from a variety of sources.

The Django connection for Willie Nelson is quite strong; you can hear it every time Willie plays his guitar. While Willie is an excellent guitar player, he is not in Django’s class (almost no one is) but listen to some Django recordings and you will know why Willie’s guitar playing sounds like it does.

As for Merle’s connection to Jimmie Rodgers, Merle and those such as Lefty Frizzell who influenced Merle, grew up with the music of Jimmie Rodgers. At the height of his commercial prowess in 1969 (he released six albums in 1969), Merle felt strongly enough about the music of Jimmie Rodgers that he recorded a two album set that he got Capitol Records to release. Ken Nelson, Merle’s producer must have cringed at the idea of releasing a two album set of blues, yodels, thirties pop music, Hawaiian music and parlor songs but release it he did. Nelson also put Rodgers’ “California Blues” as the B side to “Hungry Eyes”.

Surprisingly, the title song “Django and Jimmie” was not written by either Willie or Merle, coming instead from the pens of Jimmy Melton & Jeff Prince. In this jog-along ballad, Willie and Merle discuss where their styles came from

W

illie I’m a kid with a guitar
Trying to play “Nuages”, when they ask
Where does your style come from?

Merle I know what you mean
‘Cause I learned to sing
Listening to blue, yodel number one

Willie We love Hank and Lefty
Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, and Johnny Cash
But if we had to pinpoint
The start of who we are
Or who we go by

Both The Django and Jimmie
Paris, Mississippi
A young singing brakeman
A jazz playing gypsy
Might not have been
A Merle or a Willie
If not for a Django and Jimmie

The rest of the album really has nothing to do with Django or Jimmie, except to the extent that Django and Jimmie flavor all of their music.

“It’s All Going To Pot” has nothing to do with marijuana but instead comments on the general state of the world and the state of their own lives. The song was written by Buddy Cannon, Jamey Johnson and Larry Shell with Jamey joining Merle and Willie in vocalizing. The song is very upbeat in tempo with some Mariachi horns (played by Jamey Johnson):

Well, it’s all going to pot
Whether we like it or not
The best I can tell
The world’s gone to hell
And we’re sure gonna miss it a lot
All of the whiskey in Lynchburg, Tennessee
It just couldn’t hit the spot
I gotta hundred dollar bill, friend
You can keep your pills
‘Cause it’s all going to pot

“Unfair Weather Friend” is a gentle ballad about friendship. Penned by Marla Cannon-Goodman and Ward Davis, the song is the flip of the concept of fair weather friends.

“Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash” is a recent Merle Haggard composition on which Merle and Willie and Bobby Bare swap lyrics and stories about Johnny Cash. The song is an affectionate look back at their departed friend. This is another jog-along ballad that probably cannot be covered in a believable manner by anyone else. Here’s one of Willie’s verses:

Well now Johnny Cash wore black attire
And he fell into that Ring of Fire
He came up swinging like a Boy Named Sue
And he married June Carter and he [?] too
He wrote his songs from deep within
And he hit the stage with a crooked grin
He and I were both Highwaymen
And that record became a smash
Well I’m missing ol’ Johnny Cash

Here’s Bobby Bare’s verse:

Johnny Cash never walked no line
Johnny Cash never did no time, but
When he sang a Folsom Prison Blues
You knew good and well he’d paid his dues
True, he always dressed in black
But he loved folks and they loved him back
Carried his pills in a brown paper sack
Well I don’t care if they found his stash
I’m missin’ old Johnny Cash

Shawn Camp and Marv Green wrote “Live This Long” and I suspect that they wrote it specifically for this album. Another slow ballad, this song look backward at life and what might have done differently if the narrators had known that they would live this long.

“Alice In Hula Land” is a Willie Nelson-Buddy Cannon co-write. As performed here, the song is yet another slow ballad, but with a very Hawaiian sound. As best as I can tell, this song is about a groupie, although I may be very mistaken in my interpretation.

Alice in Hulaland
Come sit here on the front row
And get close to the sound
As close as you can
Are you there for the melody?
There for the lyrics?
Or just for the boys in the band?

“Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” is the Bob Dylan classic from treated as a straight-ahead country ballad with steel guitar featured prominently (Mike Johnson &/or Dan Dugmore) and harmonica by Mickey Raphael featured at points in the song also.

“Family Bible” was one of Willie’s first successful songs. Willie sold the rights to the song so the songwriter credits read Claude Gray, Paul Buskirk and Walt Breeland. Merle sings the verses on this song while Willie limits himself to playing the guitar and singing harmony on the choruses. THis is a very nice recording, perhaps my favorite recording of the song.

WIllie Nelson and Buddy Cannon collaborated on “It’s Only Money”. I don’t know who Renato Caranto is, but his saxophone work. Mike Johnson’s dobro and Jim “Moose” Brown’s keyboards really shine on this up-tempo song.

“Swinging Doors” was a huge Merle Haggard hit in 1966. If you ever wondered how Willie Nelson would tackle the song, here’s your chance to find out. Willie and Merle swap verses on this one.

“This Is Where Dreams Come To Die” is yet another Willie Nelson – Buddy Cannon composition. This slow ballad would make a lovely single in a less brain-dead musical environment.

This is where dreams come to die
This is where dreams come to die
Then they fly back to heaven
But this is where dreams come to die

They’re fun when you dream them
Everyone is laughing at you
And it’s fun, watching them wonder
And all of the dreams are coming true

“Somewhere Between” is a old Merle Haggard song from 1967, an album track from his 1967 album Branded Man. Suzy Bogguss had a nice recording of the song about twenty years ago, but the song never has been a big hit for anyone, being mostly relegated to being an album track on countless albums. Willie sings the vocals on this one.

Somewhere between your heart and mine
There’s a window that I can’t see through
There’s a wall so high that it reaches the sky
Somewhere between me and you

I love you so much, I can’t let you go
And sometimes, I believe you love me
But somewhere between your heart and mine
There’s a door without any key

Yet another Willie Nelson-Buddy Cannon song is next, a cowboy western ballad titled “Driving The Herd”. The subject matter seems self-explanatory, but the song can be interpreted either as a song about a cattle drive, or a song about a singer gauging his audience.

The album closes with “The Only Man Wilder Than Me”, another recent Merle Haggard composition that could be about either Merle or Willie in their younger days. The tempo is that of a slow ballad.

This album is fine – although older, Willie’s voice is in better shape than Haggard’s, but the band is tight, the songs are very good and the songs are treated with proper respect. It’s pretty clear that neither artist has an ego problem because the ebb and flow between Willie and Merle couldn’t be better

Grade: A-

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Orthophonic Joy’

orthophonic joyThis project seems to have been in the works for some time, as I remember hearing about it last summer with a projected release date of October 2014. Now at last it has made its way into the world, and it was worth the wait.

It is a tribute to the 1927-8 recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, which really created country music as a recording genre, with the artists including Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. A generous 18 tracks, spread across two discs, interspersed with spoken segments by Eddie Stubbs, veteran Opry compere. The songs are performed by a range of latterday luminaries, while Stubbs provides informative commentary which is well worth listening to, with small snippets from the original recordings. Carl Jackson acts as producer, and the musicians do a wonderful job recreating the original backings.

The Carter Family were one of the great successes of early country music, and several of the songs they sang at Bristol are included in this project. Emmylou Harris takes on ‘Bury Me Under The Willow’, another traditional song which was the first song the Carters recorded. Ashley Monroe’s version ‘The Storms Are On The Ocean’ is very charming and one of my favourite tracks here. Rock (and occasional country) singer Sheryl Crow sings ‘The Wandering Boy’ very well.

Vince Gill isn’t the most obvious choice to play the part of Jimmie Rodgers, but ‘The Soldier’s Sweetheart’ is a ballad well suited to his plaintive vocal, and this WWI ballad is another highlight.

Ernest ‘Pop’ Stoneman was already an established recording artist when he contributed to the Bristol sessions with various musical partners. One of the songs he performed, the religious ‘I Am Resolved’, is performed here by the Shotgun Rubies, with bluegrass singer Val Storey’s sweet, tender lead vocal.

Religious songs were a very important element of the repertoire of these early musicians. Bluegrass legend Doyle Lawson and his band Quicksilver tackle the traditional gospel tune ‘I’m Redeemed’, originally recorded by the little known Alcoa Quartet, a local acappella group, whose name came from the steelworks where two of the men worked.

Dolly Parton sings ‘When They Ring Those Golden Bells’, recorded at Bristol by the Reverend Alfred Karnes, and does so with great sincerity. Karnes’ selections are well represented in this project. The roots of country, blues and gospel all draw from the same well and blues musician Keb Mo’ performs a soulful version of ‘To The Work’, with the help of a 12 year old protege. The Church Sisters take on the slow ‘Where We’ll Never Grow Old’.

Marty Stuart brings great energy to the banjo tune ‘Black Eyed Susie’, originally recorded by a local farmer. Comedian and banjo player Steve Martin is joined by the Steep Canyon Rangers for the Tenneva Ramblers’ comic ‘Sweet Heaven When I Die’. Glen Campbell’s children Shannon and Ashley sing Blind Alfred Reed’s tale of a real life train tragedy, ‘The Wreck Of The Old Virginian’, and do a fine job.

Larry Cordle sings ‘Gotta Catch That Train’, supported by the Virginian Luthiers, a band led by a grandson of the fiddler on the original session. Bluegrass star Jesse McReynolds, now 85, and another grandson of an original musician from the Bristol sessions, plays that grandfather’s fiddle on ‘Johnny Goodwin’ (now better known as The Girl I Left Behind’), one of the tunes he recorded.

Superstar Brad Paisley is joined by producer Carl Jackson for a beautifully played and nicely harmonised version of ‘In The Pines’. Jackson takes the lead on the murder ballad ‘Pretty Polly’, recorded at Bristol by the uneducated farmer B F Shelton, who also recorded the moonshine fuelled ‘Darling Cora’. 20 year old newcomer Corbin Hayslett sings and plays banjo on the latter, and he has a very authentic old-time style which defies his youth.

The Chuck Wagon Gang close proceedings with the choral ‘Shall we Gather At The River’, the last song recorded at Bristol, joined by the massed artists involved in this project.

I would have liked the liner notes to be included with the digital version of the album, but Stubbs’ knowledgeable discussion betwee songs makes up for this lack. This is a very educational album which brings home the significance of the sessions and their place in music history. It is also highly enjoyable listening, beautifully played, arranged and produced.

Grade: A

Album Review: Raul Malo, Pat Flynn, Rob Ickes and Dave Pomeroy – ‘The Nashville Acoustic Sessions’

nashville acoustic sessionsOne of Raul Malo lesser known recordings, yet perhaps my personal favourite, is the acoustic album he released in collaboration with three virtuoso musicians: Pat Flynn of New Grass Revival (on acoustic guitar and mandolin), dobro genius Rob Ickes and bassist Dave Pomeroy. Malo takes care of all the lead vocals, and despite the democratic equal billing, to all intents and purposes this works as a solo Raul Malo album – and the best he has made. It was released in 2004, just after the breakup of the Mavericks.

The record opens with a beautiful version of ‘Blue Bayou’, with Raul Malo’s vocal measured yet soaring to challenge the Orbison original.

Raul’s vocal on the Louvin Brothers’ ‘When I Stop Dreaming’ is exquisite, and for once one doesn’t miss the harmonies. He is joined by the harmonies of Flynn and Ickes in a committed take on the Louvins’ Cold War-inspired gospel song ‘The Great Atomic Power’.

An ethereally mournful wail is used for a haunting version of Hank Williams’s ‘Weary Blues From Waiting’. Jimmie Rodgers ‘Waiting For A Train’ is, a little disappointingly, relegated to an instrumental – perhaps to make the point that it isn’t technically a Malo album, but I would have liked to hear him sing this, although it goes without saying that it is beautifully played.

‘Hot Burrito #1’ (the Gram Parsons/Flying Burrito Brothers’ song in which the protagonist bemoans “I’m your toy”) has another stellar vocal and stripped down arrangement.

Gordon Lightfoot’s gentle folk-country ‘Early Morning Rain’ is delivered smoothly, while Van Morrison’s ‘Bright Side Of The Road’ is perky. Bob Dylan’s ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’ is strongly performed, with additional harmonies from R&B singer Siedah Garrett, but is one of the less memorable tracks.

Pop/Great American Songbook standards ‘Moon River’ and ‘I Love You (For Sentimental Reasons)’ are beautifully sung, particularly the former.

This may not appeal to those Mavericks fans most drawn to the Latin party side of the band – but Raul Malo’s magnificent voice is showcased at its very best. I rather wish he had continued in this vein, but he had more eclectic paths in mind.

Grade: A+

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken?’

will the circle be unbrokenEven if the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had never made another album after this one, they would have still deserved a place in country music history. This groundbreaking album teamed up the young folk-rockers with country hearts with a selection of veterans including some from the early days of recorded country music, performing music mostly from the same era. It was a triple LP, but was remastered and released as a double CD in 2002, and is also available digitally. There is a friendly living room atmosphere, with snippets of the chat in the studio between tracks.

The various instrumental tracks and backings are brilliantly played by the Nitty Gritties and their guests, often anchored by Earl Scruggs and fiddler Vassar Clements.

The album opens with bluegrass singer Jimmy Martin (1927-2005) singing Hylo Brown’s ‘Grand Ole Opry Song’, which pays affectionate tributes to the stars of the Opry past and present. The song’s subject sets the mood for the whole project. This was one of the singles released to promote the album. It is very charming, but wasn’t very commercial even in the 1970s. Martin’s former boss Bill Monroe had declined to take part in the sessions, distrusting the young men from California, and reportedly regretted that decision once he heard the end result; but Martin’s piercing tenor is a strong presence on a number of tracks. ‘Sunny Side Of The Mountain’ and ‘My Walkin’ Shoes’ are a bit more standard pacy bluegrass – brilliantly performed, but they don’t really hit the heartstrings. The plaintive ‘Losin’ You (Might Be The Best thing Yet)’ is more affecting, and ‘You Don’t Know My Mind’ is also good.

Roy Acuff (1903-1992) was also dubious about the project, but having agreed to take part was quickly won over by the long haired youngsters’ genuine love of country music and their musicianly skills. Known as the King of Country Music, Acuff was the biggest star in country in the 1940s, and one of the influences on artists like George Jones. Even after his commercial star had faded, he remained a very visible presence in the genre, as a stalwart of the Opry and as co-owner of the music publishing company Acuff Rose. He sings some of his signature gospel-infused tunes ‘The Precious Jewel’, the gloomy ‘Wreck On The Highway’, plus the lonesome love song ‘Pins And Needles In My Heart’. He also takes the lead on Hank William’s joyful country gospel classic ‘I Saw The Light’, enthusiastically backed by the NGDB and Jimmy Martin on the chorus.

Mother Maybelle Carter (1909-1978) represents the earliest country recordings and the crystallization of country as a genre from Appalachian folk and the popular music of the day. She sings the lead on the optimistic ‘Keep On The Sunny Side’, a turn of the century religious tune which was one of the Carter Family’s first recordings in the 1920s. Her vocals are thickened with age (and she was never the lead voice in the original Carter Family, taking second place vocally to sister in law Sara), but backed by a chorus of other participants there is a warm familial atmosphere which is quite endearing, and the playing is impeccable. ‘I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes’, another Carter Family classic, and ‘Wildwood Flower’ are also charming.

Flatpicking guitarist Merle Travis sings ‘I Am A Pilgrim’, the coalmining ‘Dark As A Dungeon’ and ‘Nine Pound Hammer’; these are delightful and among my favorite tracks, particularly ‘Dark As A Dungeon’. Another guitar legend, Doc Watson, who surprisingly only met Travis for the first time at these sessions, takes on vocal duties for Jimmie Driftwood’s always enjoyable story song ‘Tennessee Stud’ as well as the traditional ‘Way Downtown’.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band harmonise nicely on a tasteful version of A P Carter’s delicately pretty ‘You Are My Flower’. Their vocal style betrays their folk-rock roots, but the instrumentation is perfectly authentic. They also picked out some Hank Williams classics to spotlight their own vocals. Jimmie Fadden leads on ‘Honky Tonking’, and Jeff Hanna gives ‘Honky Tonk Blues’ a Jimmie Rodgers style edge with his voice sounding as though at any moment he’s going to break into a fully fledged yodel. Jimmy Ibbotson takes on ‘Lost Highway’ (penned by Leon Payne but most associated with Hank)..Their vocals sound a little tentative compared with their more confident later work, but the songs are beautifully played. That is actually a reasonable assessment of the whole album – there is nothing to criticise musically, but the vocals, while honest and authentic, are not up to the standard of, say, today’s best bluegrass.

Pretty much the entire lineup participates in the title song, an inspired choice. The song’s own message is a spiritual one but in the context of this project it has a metaphorical second meaning. The messages of unity and tradition are underpinned by the cover art with its use of US and Confederate flags, and the legend “Music forms a new circle”.

This album is a towering achievement and one of the most significant in country music history. It united two generations, linking the up and coming country rockers with the men and women who had in effect created country music as a unique and definable genre. If you have any interest in music history, it’s a must-have.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘Influence Vol 2: The Man I Am’

influence 2The first volume of Randy Travis’s recordings of classic country covers came out last year, not long after his health issues came to a head. I was afraid this second volume would consists of lesser cuts left on the shelf when the first album was released, but if anything I think this instalment is even stronger. His vocals are better on both sets than they had been in years, and Randy delivers a masterclass in country music.

‘Vern Gosdin’s great ‘set Em Up Joe’ only came out in 1988 so could not really be described as a direct influence on Randy, who was at his commercial peak himself at the time. However, it fits perfectly thematically with its tribute to classic country records and their lasting impact as solace for a broken heart. It is also, of course, a wonderful song, and Randy’s version is great, matching the original. It is one of the standouts on a collection of consistently exceptionally high quality.

‘For The Good Times’ is also stunning, with a gently tender reading which is just exquisite. A delicate string arrangement is sweet without being overwhelming.

Haggard was the strongest influence on Vol. 1, and his shadow is strong here too. ‘Are The Good Times Really Over’ is masterfully done, with a thoughtful reading of Hag’s gloomy polemic about changing times. A resigned ‘That’s The Way Love Goes’ is almost as good.

‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ is also excellent, with a very distinctive interpretation.

Vibrant committed versions of ‘I’m Movin’ On’ and ‘The Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line’ pick up the tempo nicely. Ernest Tubb’s lesser-known ‘You Nearly Lose Your Mind’ is catchy and enjoyable.

Marty Robbins’s ‘Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me’ and Hank’s ‘Mind Your Own Business’ both have a playful almost jazzy feel; the latter is more successful for me with Randy sounding fully engaged. His own travails with press interest in his life may have fed into this.

Jimmie Rodgers’ ‘California Blues’ is the most bluesy side of Rodgers, and effectively done. ‘There I’ve Said It Again’ is a crooning pop ballad from the early 60s which is an unexpected choice but smoothly performed.

Volume 1 included a new song. ‘Tonight I’m Playing Possum’, recorded as a duet with Joe Nichols. The song makes a reappearance here, solo.

This is an excellent album from one of the greatest living country singers. Playing this through and then taking a look at any recent “country” chart is enough to make one cry with frustration and regret at what we appear to have lost. Perhaps it’s best just to take consolation in the great music we do have access to.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Tom T. Hall – ‘Homecoming’

homecomingBy the time Tom T’s second album was ready for release, Jeannie C. Riley’s version of Hall’s composition “Harper Valley PTA” had been a big hit, and “Ballad of Forty Dollars” had become Hall’s first top ten record. Although Homecoming would not be issued until November 1969, Mercury started issuing singles off the album in May 1969, starting with “Strawberry Farms”.

The first single “Strawberry Farms” was a very personal song, ostensibly about an orphan’s home, but more a reflection on Hall’s life as his mother passed away when he was barely a teen, and his dad was disabled soon thereafter. The song barely cracked the top forty, marred by an arrangement reminiscent of “Ode To Billie Joe” with elements of “If You Could Read My Mind” (a future hit for Gordon Lightfoot).

Summer comes early to strawberry farms
Oh the sun always shines but an orphan can’t go
My mother is dead, she doesn’t care where I go
My father left a long long time ago

Basically, the song was far too depressing to have been a big hit.

The next single, “Homecoming”, was unlike anything else on the radio, reflecting Tom T’s attempts to explain to his father exactly how it was that he made his living. Basically the song is heard through Hall’s responses to his father’s questions:

You heard my record on the radio, oh, well it’s just another song
But I’ve got a hit recorded and it’ll be out on the market ‘fore too long
I got this ring in Mexico, no, it didn’t cost me quite a bunch
When you’re in the business that I’m in, the people call it puttin’ up a front

I know I’ve lost a little weight, I guess I am looking kind of pale
If you didn’t know me better, Dad, you’d think that I’d just gotten out of jail
No, we don’t ever call them beer joints, night clubs are the places that I work
You meet a lot of people there, but no, there ain’t much chance of gettin’ hurt

“Homecoming propelled Hall back into the top ten, reaching #5 and staying in the charts for fifteen weeks. While Hall would never consistently be a top ten chart artist, most of his singles through 1979 would at least reach the top twenty.

The third single “A Week In A County Jail” would be the first chart topping single for Tom T Hall. According to this song was based on something that actually happened to him:

“I was arrested for not having my driver’s license with me in Paintsville, Kentucky. And the judge’s grandmother dies so he left town for a week. I was only supposed to be in jail overnight, but I just had to wait ‘til he got back …”

Two days later when I thought I’d been forgotten
The sheriff came in chewin’ on a straw
He said, ‘ where’s the guy who thinks this is Indianapolis ?
I’d like to talk to him about the law

“A Week In A County Jail“ reached #1 on January 31, 1970, staying there for two weeks.

The fourth and final single from the album was “Shoeshine Man”, a jaunty talking blues number that reached #8 and features a smart harmonica driven arrangement that fit Hall’s voice perfectly:

I’m a shoeshine man number one in the land
A shoeshine man make you shine where you stand
Leave me a tip if you can I’m a shoeshine man

Well I can sing, I can dance, I can play the harmonica too
I got a brand new thing on the South Side Montgomery Blues
You better stick around and watch me cause I’m an entertainin’ fool

There were two more big hit records on the album, but one of Hall’s friends, Bobby Bare, released “(Margie’s At) The Lincoln Park Inn” as a single for RCA before Mercury could get around to releasing it as a single (if ever they planned to do so). Tom T Hall rarely recorded his songs if other artists had already recorded the songs; consequently, unless Tom recorded the song before the other artist, there won’t be a Tom T Hall recording against which to compare it. Bare’s version charted in March 1969, eventually reaching #4).

The song is told from the perspective of a father, who describes his everyday life and activities as the backdrop to his tale of temptation as personified by his adulterous relationship with a woman named Margie. It is not clear whether or not Margie is a prostitute or mistress / girl friend, but he knows that she’s waiting at the Lincoln Park Inn, and the temptation is strong to go see her.

Next Sunday it’s my turn to speak to the young people’s class
They expect answers to all of the questions they ask
What would they say if I spoke on a modern day sin
And all of the Margies at all of the Lincoln Park Inns

The bike is all fixed and my little boy is in bed asleep
His little ol’ puppy is curled in a ball at my feet
My wife’s baking cookies to feed to the bridge club again
I’m almost out of cigarettes and Margie’s at the Lincoln Park Inn

Hall’s version was not as dramatic as Bare’s hit single but I suspect that it could have been a hit for Tom as the subject matter was unlike anything else on the radio at the time and tells a compelling story.

“The Carter Boys” is an autobiographical song that Hall wrote about himself and his brothers. The song title refers to the county in which Hall lived. The song has the talking blues-style arrangement that Kennedy had worked out for Hall’s voice

We had an old car that we kept tied together with pieces of baling wire and hope
Well they knew when we got there and they knew when we left
They could tell by the noise and the smoke
Anytime the sheriff had nothing to do he’d get out and chase us around
The old women prayed the old men laughed and the middle aged people all frowned

“Flat–Footin’ It” would have made a good single. An up-tempo song about a dance craze popular while Hall was attending college, the arrangement is bluegrass in everything but its instrumentation.
Not a substantial song but a fun song:

And you’ll be flat footin’ it, flat gettin’ it
You don’t know just how good it is until you hear that guitar pickin’ it, pick it

The other big hit record on the album, “George (and The North Woods)” is lyrically the most interesting song on the album as it is subject to varying interpretations. Old friend Dave Dudley snagged the song for a top ten single in the autumn of 1969. In Dudley’s version, it is strongly hinted that George is the narrator’s dog. In Hall’s version it seems that George is a friend of the narrator. The song is a perfect fit for Dave Dudley’s voice and the Dave Dudley version has a more contemporary sound than does the Tom T Hall recording. I doubt Hall’s version would have been as big as Dudley’s version if released as a single.

George, I guess you knew how much it hurt me
The day that old judge gave her both my kids
But she said she wouldn’t care if I’s to drop dead
With all that insurance I don’t guess she would

Most people think the wilderness is quiet
Would you listen to the wolves out in the woods
Well tomorrow when I’ll leave here I’ll be a changed man
I’m gonna ride those trains when they yell all aboard

You spent a lotta time here in the big woods
I’m really glad you’re goin’ with me George
George, George, George, are you there?
Hey man, you’re not puttin’ me on, are you George?

Other songs include “Nashville Is A Groovy Little Town” which is just another song, in this case about the life of a songwriter.

Remember how I used to sit and drink and play guitar
And I’d get up and sing for all those folks at Jody’s bar
Well I found out it ain’t too bad, the way I pick and sound
Nashville is a groovy little town

“Kentucky In The Morning”, a salute to Tom’s home state:

I will sing of a place that you may have seen in the eastern half of our land so green
Where the sun is warm and the sky is blue and the love of a girl is true
Kentucky in the morning trimmed in green and blue
Kentucky in the morning I was only passing through

The album closes with another talking blues arrangement, featuring a different twist on the old theme of leaving someone behind crying at the station. If Jimmie Rodgers were alive in the 1960s, he might have written a song like this one. I am, of course, a big Jimmie Rodgers fan.

When the train pulls in the station, you’ll be waiting by the track
You’re having trouble sleeping nights, you want me to come back
But that old train will roll on by, you’ll know I never came
While I sleep good and miss a lot of trains

I sleep good and I miss a lot of trains
That one way track to no man’s love, I’ll never ride again
I used to lie awake like you, calling out your name
Now I sleep good and miss a lot of trains

At the time the album came out, I didn’t give the matter a lot of thought, but in retrospect, you can hear Tom T Hall’s bluegrass roots throughout much of this album. I’d give this album an “A” but even better albums would be forthcoming.

Grade: A

Country Heritage: Patsy Montana

Patsy MontanaAs we enter the holiday season, I thought it might be worthwhile to remember one of the true female pioneers of country music.

The recently departed Kitty Wells may have had the first number one single for a solo female country artist, and she undoubtedly deserved her crown as the “Queen of Country Music,” but she was not the first country female to sell a million copies of a single release. That honor belongs to Patsy Montana, who in 1935, during the depths of the Great Depression, recorded a song that sold well over a million copies in “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” A steady seller for years, the song even became a top ten pop hit in 1936 (there were no country charts until January 1944).

Patsy Montana was born with the name Ruby Rebecca Blevins on October 30, 1908, in Hot Springs, Arkansas (there is some controversy about the year of birth) the only girl of eleven children born to Augustus Blevins and Amanda Meeks. Growing up with 10 brothers, Montana inevitably grew up a tomboy, but a tomboy with musical inclinations. Later famous for her yodeling abilities, she listened to her parents’ Jimmie Rodgers records, learned and absorbed his yodels, and also learned to play the fiddle.

A year after graduating from high school in 1928, Montana moved to Los Angeles and began music studies at the University of the West (later the UCLA). In addition to the “highbrow” music taught in college, she associated with hillbilly musicians and after winning first place in a singing contest, performed on radio station KTMR as Rubye Blevins, “the Yodeling Cowgirl from San Antone.”

Eventually Montana came to the attention of future gospel great Stuart Hamblen, who invited her to sing for more money on a rival radio station. She joined Lorraine McIntire and Ruthy DeMondrum as the Montana Cowgirls. This is the point at which the name change to Patsy Montana occurred, given to her by Hamblen upon learning that she was of Irish descent, and not wanting a “Ruthie” and a “Rubye” in the same group.

In the summer of 1932, she returned home for a vacation, and received a week’s booking on KWKH in Shreveport, Louisiana. Following these performances, Jimmie Davis (future two-time Governor of Louisiana and also a future Country Music Hall of Fame member) called her and invited her to travel to New York to record. Initially skeptical, she changed her mind when one of her brothers advised her that Davis was an important Victor recording artist. During the next two years, Montana sang backup for Davis on some recordings and recorded her first single, “When the Flowers of Montana Were Blooming.” She eventually returned to California and rejoined the Montana Cowgirls. When the group dissolved in 1933, she returned home to Arkansas.

Montana stayed home only briefly, as her brothers Kenneth and Claude decided to enter a huge watermelon into competition at the Chicago World’s Fair. She tagged along and upon arrival she sought out Dolly Good of the Girls of the Golden West, who tipped her off to a band looking for a new lead singer. She auditioned and began an eight-year relationship with the (soon to be named) Prairie Ramblers. During this period, Montana and the band would record dozens of songs and make hundreds of personal appearances. Although based in Chicago at WLS’s National Barn Dance, the band also performed for a year on WOR in New York. In 1934 she married Paul Rose, an organizer of the traveling portion of the WLS program. With Rose, she would have two daughters: Beverly and Judy.

Although record sales during this period plunged precipitously, the American Record Company (ARC) decided to record Patsy Montana and the Prairie Ramblers in New York during August of 1935. They recorded “Nobody’s Darling but Mine,” which became one of the biggest hits of the decade. Future Columbia A&R director “Uncle” Art Satherly, suggested that she record a song she had written titled “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” The rest is history. While not a hit right out of the box, the recording slowly built momentum eventually becoming an intrinsic part of the American culture. The song, a paean of love and independence, is still loved and performed to this day.

While Montana never again had another huge hit recording, she stayed busy as an entertainer for another 60 years, appearing in a Gene Autry movie in 1939, recording with groups such as the Sons of the Pioneers and the Light Crust Doughboys, and hosting an ABC network radio show in 1946-47, Wake Up and Smile (which featured her trademark greeting, “Hi, pardner! It’s Patsy Montana,” accompanied by the thunder of horses’ hooves). She continued to make personal appearances and occasionally recorded new material. She became an influence on many cowgirl wannabes and an idol to many female singers during the ensuing years. Montana received the Academy of Country Music’s Pioneer Award in 1970. Her signature song “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart” has been recorded many times in recent years, most notably by Suzy Bogguss in 1988 and by Montana herself, during her last recording sessions in 1995. In fact the song is played over the end credits of John Sayles’s 1996 film Lone Star, which was released just weeks after Montana’s death.

Patsy Montana passed away on May 3, 1996 in San Jacinto, CA and was elected that same year into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Her autobiography The Cowboy’s Sweetheart was published posthumously. Read more of this post

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss & Chet Atkins – ‘Simpatico’

simpaticoChet Atkins’ contributions to country music are immeasurable; he was arguably the genre’s greatest guitarist ever, and as a producer and label executive at RCA, he paved the way for such legendary artists as Waylon Jennings, Jerry Reed, Don Gibson, Skeeter Davis, Dolly Parton, Connie Smith, and many more. He was also an early champion of Suzy Bogguss, as anyone who has read the liner notes to her debut album can attest, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when the two of them decided to release an album together. Simpatico, which was released in 1994, was one of the last albums in the Atkins’ discography and his last entry into the Billboard Country Albums chart.

The album was also a turning point in Bogguss’ career; she’d parted ways with longtime producer Jimmy Bowen, and produced Simpatico with John Guess. Interestingly, Atkins didn’t share production credits at all on this project. The project also marked the beginning of Suzy’s chart decline; it may be simply because her star was beginning to fade, or it could have been because the album was released at a time when Liberty Records was neglecting any artist on its roster not named Garth. However, it seems fairly certain that this is one album that not made with one eye on the charts; instead it is a labor of love that that is largely indifferent to commercial concerns.

As one might expect from a man who helped develop the Nashville Sound, and whose tastes ran from country to pop and jazz, Simpatico is not a collection of traditional country tunes. Instead it encompasses a variety of sounds, influenced by both country and pop, and occasionally including some Spanish and Latin influences. Chet’s trademark picking is heard prominently throughout the album. He does chime in vocally on occasion, but Chet was never much of a singer, so Suzy does the heavy lifting as far as the vocal duties are concerned.

Two singles were released; neither of which charted. The first was the uptempo “One More For The Road”, written by Atkins and Bogguss, along with Suzy’s husband Doug Crider. The second was a surprisingly good cover of Elton John’s “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word.” A better choice might have been “Forget About It”, one of the album’s more contemporary numbers. It is more in the vein of what country radio was looking for at the time, but given Liberty’s half-hearted support, it probably would not have been any more successful.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable album from beginning to end, without any missteps. my particular favorites are the covers of Jimmie Rodgers’ “In The Jailhouse Now”, which opens the album, and a stunning version of Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone”. I also quite like the whimsical “Wives Don’t Like Old Girlfriends.” At first glance “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” seems to be a little out of place, but the tasteful production, complete with a restrained string section, and the excellent singing and picking, makes the record work. Though it would probably never held much appeal for country radio, in another era it might have been an adult contemporary hit, but AC radio in the 90s was too R&B influenced to embrace a recording like this or “When She Smiled At Him”, which also sounds like a holdover from 1970s Top 40 AM radio. “Two Shades of Blue” is a lovely Spanish-sounding number written by Deborah Allen, Bobby Braddock and Rafe VanHoy.

Nearly two decades after its release, Simpatico holds up well. Bogguss and Atkins succeeded in making an evergreen record, which does not sound dated at all. My only criticism is its brevity, but country albums rarely exceeded ten tracks in the nineties. Such a non-commercial album would probably not even be released by a major label today. Given its lack of chart success, a fair number of fans might have missed this album. Those who did miss it can pick it up from Amazon. Unlike a lot of older albums, expect to pay full price for this one, but it is worth every penny.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Aaron Tippin – ‘Call Of The Wild’

call of the wildAaron’s third album, released in 1993, saw a change of producer with a move to Scott Hendricks. Hendricks is a heavier handed producer than Emory Gordy Jr, so the change was not for the better, and the album did not sell as well as Read Between The Lines, but was still certified gold. As before, Tippin wrote every song with a variety of collaborators, mostly on themes relating to working class pride.

The lead single ‘Workin’ Man’s PhD’ is archetypal Aaron Tippin; if you type his name into a search engine, “aaron tippin working mans phd” is the suggested completion. Paying tribute to blue-collar workers’ hard work and contribution to society, it was the album’s biggest hit, peaking at #7. It’s a bit shouty and lacking in melody, but the honesty of the message exemplifies part of what makes country music great.

On a less serious note, the fairly forgettable title track (about a woman who likes to let her hair down in a honky tonk every now and then) faltered ten spots lower on the chart. The tongue-in-cheek ode to being a beer-fueled ‘Honky Tonk Superman’ failed to crack the top 40 despite a comic video featuring Reba McEntire as the bar owner. Both song and video are fun, although the latter exaggerates the comedy to cartoonish effect.

The final single ‘Whole Lotta Love On The Line’ reached #30 and is a good song about desperately trying to save a relationship, with a sincere vocal. Unfortunately it is smothered by a cluttered production with far too much going on.

‘My Kind Of Town’ is a rocking number about finding a small town to settle down in which would fit in on today’s country radio. It is a bit of a disappointment considering it was a co-write with the legendary Sanger D Shafer, but is not unlikable. The fast-paced ‘When Country Took The Throne’ celebrates the commercial rise of country music in the 90s and traces it back to the pioneering music of Jimmie Rodgers.

‘Trim Yourself To Fit The World’ is an attempt to recapture the magic of ‘You’ve Got To Stand For Something’, and while it offers nothing really new, it is catchy with a memorable chorus:

If you trim yourself to fit the world there won’t be nothing left
Just a little here and a little there till you won’t know yourself
You’ll be a pile of shavings when they put you in your grave
If you trim yourself to fit the world you’ll whittle yourself away

There is also a prescient dig at the self-styled outlaw types, when Aaron notes,

Each time the good Lord makes a man He always breaks the mold
So it sure does raise the flag for that rebel in my soul
When some phony carbon copy says “I’m the black sheep of the fold”

‘Let’s Talk About You’ is a cheery mid-tempo love song which is quite enjoyable, but ‘Nothing In The World’ is completely forgettable fluff.

In the midst of the honky tonking and positive expressions of working class pride, the best song here by far comes from a bleaker angle. Along the same lines as the classic ‘My Elusive Dreams’, the protagonist of ‘I Promised You the World’ admits defeat in life, but is sustained by the love of the woman he feels he has let down:

I had dreams that were bigger than the Montana sky
We were gonna do great in Great Falls
I just knew we were, this time
But when winter finally broke, so were we
You’ll never know how bad that hurt
‘Cause this ain’t what I meant
When I promised you the world

I lost the farm in Kansas
Along with a lot of pride
And I almost lost my life
Down in that West Virginia mine
And that motel room in Memphis
Was a long ways from diamonds and pearls
And that sure ain’t what I meant
When I promised you the world

I swear your love is stronger
Than any dream of mine I’ve ever drug you through
And I swear I wasn’t lying
They just never did come true
You’ve always bet on this old gambler
Every time I gave the wheel a whirl
But this ain’t what I meant
When I promised you the world

Now this Shreveport sun is settin’
On another broken dream of mine
And I guess that mansion on the hill
Is pretty hard to see tonight
But as long as there’s a breath of life in me
I’m gonna get it for you, girl
‘Cause this ain’t what I meant
When I promised you the world

Set to a slow, reflective pace which sets it apart on a mainly up-tempo record, this is a real hidden gem which deserves to be better known, with a touching delivery from Aaron.

Overall, this is a solid album, which is mostly typical Tippin fare, with one hidden classic everyone should hear.

Grade: B

Country Heritage: Pop Stoneman and the Stoneman Family

stoneman familyMost people trace the dawn of recorded country music back to the famous Bristol sessions of 1927, from which Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family rose to prominence. While I am not sure that even Ernest V. Stoneman (May 25, 1893 – June 14, 1968) represents the dawn of recorded country music, he has a far better claim to it than do Jimmie Rodgers and the Carters.

Born in 1893 in Carroll Country, Virginia, near the mining community of Iron Ridge, Ernest Van Stoneman was raised by his father and three cousins who taught him traditional Blue Ridge Mountain songs. Ernest married Hattie Frost in 1919. He and his wife set about having a family, eventually having 23 kids, of which 13 lived to be adults. Stoneman worked at various jobs and played music for his own entertainment. He was a talented musician who could play (and make) a variety of instruments, including banjo, guitar, fiddle and autoharp, although the autoharp would become his trademark during his recording career.

Legend has it that Stoneman heard a recording by Henry Whittier, a popular artist of the time and a friend of her father’s (according to daughter Roni), and swore he could sing better. In 1924 he traveled to New York and received a recording contract. The first single, “The Sinking of the Titanic”, was issued on the Okeh label and became the biggest hit he ever had. Sales figures for the 1920s are not terribly reliable, but several sources have sales pegged at four million copies sold – a remarkable total for the time and certainly one of the biggest hits of the 1920s. Read more of this post