My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Joe Maphis

Album boxed set review: The Mac Wiseman Story

the-mac-wiseman-storyBorn in 1925, Malcolm “Mac” Wiseman is the renaissance man of county and bluegrass music – singer, songwriter, musician, A&R man, record producer, disc jockey, co-founder of the Country Music Association. Mac was an early pioneer of country music, performing with Molly O’Day, and was a very early member of Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, and later performed with Bill Monroe.

Mac survived polio, changing musical trends, changes in the structure of the recording industry, yet through it all, he has remained “the voice with a heart”, possessor of a slick Irish tenor with just enough “down home” in his voice to enable him to sing any form of music convincingly. Mac Wiseman is my absolute all-time favorite bluegrass vocalist.

Mac was elected into the International Bluegrass Hall of Honor in 1993 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2014, one of only three bluegrass acts (the others are Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs) to be inducted.

Mac Wiseman has recorded for a wide variety of record labels with performers as diverse as John Prine, Lester Flatt, Merle Haggard and Doc Watson. It would be presumptuous of any box set comprised of only six CDs and 153 songs to claim to tell the Mac Wiseman story, but this set gives it an awfully good try.

The Mac Wiseman Story is comprised of all of the albums that Mac recorded for the CMH (originally County Music Heritage) label from 1976 to 1982, plus some recordings Mac obtained from minor labels.

Disc One is comprised of The Mac Wiseman Story, a collection of twenty songs recorded with the Shenandoah Cutups, the band which accompanied the late great Red Smiley after his split from Don Reno. These are amiable straight-ahead bluegrass recordings of Mac’s most famous songs such as “Love Letters In The Sand”, “I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home” and “Tis Sweet To Be Remembered”. I think these are Vetco recordings from 1976-1977, but whatever the source, these are fine recordings.

I should note that in order to ensure that each disc is chock full of music, that tracks from the 1979 CMH double album The Essential Bluegrass Album (with the Osborne Brothers ) are scattered at the end of CDs 1,2,4,5 & 6.

Disc Two is comprised of Country Music Memories and Mac Wiseman Sings Gordon Lightfoot. The former is a 1976 set of classic, mostly 1950s, country music songs ably backed by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith and Clay Smith as well as some other acoustic instruments. The latter, released in 1977, contains Mac’s renditions of some of Canadian folk Singer Gordon Lightfoot’s classic songs as well as some lesser known songs. In addition to Arthur & Clay Smith on guitars, Eddie Adcock appears playing five string banjo.

The entirety of Disc Three is given to one of my favorite albums, The Clayton McMichen Story. Clayton McMichen (January 26, 1900 – January 4, 1970) was an American fiddler and country musician, whose band, the Georgia Wildcats, played a mix of country, pop, jazz and swing tunes. Clayton was regarded as one of the hottest fiddlers of his time. This album, in reality a tribute to Clayton and his band, finds Red Herron taking the role of Clayton McMichen, with Mac taking the role of vocalist Jack Dunnagan, Joe Maphis as tenor banjo player Jerry Wallace and Merle Travis as guitarist Slim Bryant. This album is a cohesive representation of what Clayton and his band sounded like, with an assortment of the reels, rags, blues and thirties pop tunes played.

Disc Four contains the excellent 1982 album Grassroots To Bluegrass. Some of the songs come from the early days of country music before bluegrass split off from country music. Included in this group would be “Kentucky”, “Short Life of Trouble”, and “Don’t Give Your Heart To A Rambler” and the rest are early bluegrass songs such as “I’m Using My Bible For A Roadmap”. Mac is accompanied by a stellar band that includes Eddie Adcock (banjo, guitar), Kenny Baker and Jim Campbell (fiddle), Martha Adcock (rhythm guitar), Josh Graves (dobro), Jesse McReynolds (mandolin) and Missy Raines (bass)

Disc Five finds Mac in the role of hard country/western swing artist on the 1980 album Songs That Make The Jukebox Play. The musicians with Mac on this album include a bunch of guys that played with Bob Wills or with Merle Haggard during his big band days – Johnny Gimble (fiddle & co-producer) , Jim Belken (fiddle), Dick Gimble (bass), Will Briggs (sax), Curley Hollingsworth (piano) , Herb Remington (steel guitar), Eldon Shamblin (lead guitar) and Bill Stone (trumpet). If you ever wondered how Mac does with western swing, wonder no more. Other than Hank Thompson and Tommy Duncan, I can’t think of any better swing vocalists than Mac Wiseman. I bought the vinyl version of this when it came out and kept hoping that Mac would revisit the genre. Among the classics covered are “Bubbles In My Beer”, “Time Changes Everything” , “Driving Nails In My Coffin” and “Wild Side of Life”.

Disc Six is a so-called bonus disc titled Mac Wiseman – Most Requested. This album contains a few songs not found earlier in the box set, plus it contains the remaining track from the Wiseman – Osborne Brothers collaboration.

This box set is released under the Wise Records label which is Mac’s own label. Mac has apparently obtained the rights for many of his recordings from the past. This set retails for $49.98 but you can obtain it for about five bucks less online.

Maybe this isn’t quite a comprehensive account of Mac’s career, but it is a really fine collection and an excellent place to start if you would like to explore Mac’s music. One thing is for sure – after listening to this collection, you will have no doubts as to why he is known as “the voice with a heart”.

Grade: A+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Album Review: Dwight Yoakam – “3 Pears”

I miss the days when major label country music artists could be counted on to release albums once a year like clockwork. Not only did it ultimately mean more music in the hands of the consumer, but it also gave the artist a bit of a safety net if he or she wanted to experiment a bit. If an album wasn’t quite up to par, the fans could take consolation in the knowledge that it wouldn’t be too long before a new — and hopefully better — album would be released. But under the current business model, where it’s not unusual for the wait between albums to be five or more years, it is a huge disappointment when an album isn’t to one’s liking. And this is, unfortunately, the case with Dwight Yoakam’s latest release 3 Pears.

In addition to being Yoakam’s first studio album in five years, and his first collection of (mostly) original material since 2005’s Blame The Vain, 3 Pears also marks his return to Warner Bros., the label of his commercial heyday. It could have been — and should have been — one of the biggest events of the year in country music. But unfortunately, the album has little to do with actual country music, and seems to be more influenced by 1960s rock groups such as The Beatles and The Mamas and The Papas than Buck Owens or George Jones.

It’s hard not to like a Dwight Yoakam album, and I should make it perfectly clear that 3 Pears is by no means a terrible album, but it falls short of the high bar set by Dwight’s earlier work and it is not the album I was hoping for. While I wasn’t expecting a Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc, Etc or Hillbilly Deluxe, I was expecting an eclectic set encompassing a variety of styles, with at least a few traditional country numbers to balance things out. Instead, 3 Pears is dominated by too-loud electric guitars, too much reverb and very little that is particularly memorable. The one ostensibly traditional number — a cover of “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” is obnoxiously overproduced with the loud electric guitars and equally loud and unnecessary percussion taking the place of the fiddle and steel of the classic Joe Maphis and Vern Gosdin versions.

The opening track “Take Hold Of My Hand”, a co-write with Kid Rock, is a pleasant enough toe-tapper that would have sounded at home on Dwight’s 2000 effort Tomorrow’s Sounds Today, but things begin to deteriorate with the second track “Waterfall”, the first of two Yoakam-penned songs with bizarre lyrics (the other song being the title track). It’s clearly meant to be tongue-in-cheek but I just can’t get into lyrics like

If I had a jellyfish
I betcha we would never miss
A single peanut butter kiss or squeeze

or

If I had a big giraffe
He’d have to take a real long bath
And that’s why waterfalls are really neat

Seriously??

The lyrics to the title track are downright incomprehensible, talking about “three pairs” of various items — glasses, shades, shoes, and not the three pieces of fruit implied by the spelling of the title or the album’s cover art. My other big beef with this song is the synthesizer track that would have been intrusive even by 1980s standards.

That’s not to say that everything here is bad. “It’s Never Alright” is a nice midtempo number written with Ashley Monroe, and “Long Way To Go” is an excellent number that is reminiscent of Dwight’s 90s work. An alternate, piano-led acoustic version of the song appears as the album’s closing track. Both versions are highly enjoyable, as is “Missing Heart”, a mostly acoustic ballad that shows that Dwight is still in good vocal form, and that he doesn’t need to overwhelm his voice with loud, cluttered production and reverb effects.

In general, the second half of the album is better than the first half and the album’s better tracks show that Dwight is still capable of making worthwhile music. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll hear any of the songs from 3 Pears on country radio. While I can’t recommend the entire album without reservation, I do think it’s worth cherry-picking and individually downloading some of the better tracks such as “It’s Never Alright”, “Missing Heart”, and both versions of “Long Way To Go”. The rest of the album is just filler. I hope that we don’t have to wait another five to seven years for Dwight’s next project, which ideally would be a back to basics project produced by Pete Anderson. In the meantime, I’ll continue to listen to Dwight’s classic 80s and 90s work.

Grade: B-