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Album Review: Glen Campbell – ‘Galveston’

galvestonReleased in March 1969, Galveston was the thirteenth album Capitol released on Glen Campbell, an astounding number of albums considering that Glen had been in the public consciousness for only two years.

Released hot on the heels of the song of the same name, and following the very successful Wichita Lineman album and single, Galveston soared up the charts, spending eleven weeks at #1 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart and reaching #2 on Billboard’s Hot 200 (all genres) chart, the album reached platinum, sales status, the last Glen Campbell album to do so on original release, although he would continue to be a highly successful singles artist, with his biggest singles hits yet to come.

Caveat: my vinyl copy of this album was issued on the English Ember label and has fourteen tracks. In describing this album, I know I have the correct tracks as released on the US Capitol label, I’m just not sure that I have them in the correct sequence.

The album opens with “Galveston”, a Jimmy Webb composition that soared to the top of the Country and Easy Listening charts and reached #4 on the pop charts. Released during the Vietnam War years, apparently Webb conceived of the song as an anti-war song but Campbell’s reading of the song need not be interpreted in that way. I was living in London when this song was released and was surprised that it failed to do better than #14 in the UK (“Wichita Lineman” reached #7 in the UK). Perhaps the interpretation of the song as an anti-war song detracted from its universal appear. I think it is a great song:

Galveston, oh, Galveston
I still hear your seawaves crashin
While I watch the cannons flashin’
I clean my gun, and dream of Galveston

I still see her standing by the water
Standing there looking out to sea
And is she waiting there for me
On the beach where we used to run
Galveston, oh, Galveston
I am so afraid of dying
Before I dry the tears she’s crying
Before I watch your sea birds flying
In the sun, at Galveston, at Galveston

Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Native Canadian singer-songwriter who achieve prominence in the 1960s, wrote “Take My Hand For A While”, a gentle song of heartbreak that was covered by many artists, although none better than Glen Campbell (George Hamilton IV’s version was also outstanding)

Take my hand for a while
Explain it to me once again
Just for the sake of my broken heart

Look into my eyes and maybe I will understand
How love I counted on was never there
You see, I thought that you might love me

So you caught me it seems off balance with a heart
So full of love and pretty dreams that two should share
And so I know but please before you go

The nest two songs are “If This Is Love”, written by Glen with Bill Ezell which I regard as simply album filler. The following track is “Today”, a Randy Sparks composition that was performed by Randy’s group the New Christry Minstrels, and was in the repertoire of many folk groups of the era . If the song wasn’t so overly familiar, it would have made a good single.

Today while the blossoms still cling to the vine
I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink your sweet wine

A million tomorrows shall all pass away
Ere I forget all the joy that is mine today

I’ll be a dandy and I’ll be a rover
You’ll know who I am by the song that I sing
I’ll feast at your table, I’ll sleep in your clover
Who cares what the morrow shall bring?

Side One of the album closes with.”Gotta Have Tenderness”, a Mitchell Torok composition that makes a classy album track, but wasn’t what radio was looking for at the time.

The sun comes up in the morning
Over the neighboring hill
Breeze sings the song in the tree top
In tune with Mr. Whippoorwill

Got to have tenderness
Got to have tenderness
We’ve got to have love

Side Two opens with another Jimmy Webb composition, “Where’s The Playground, Susie”, a relatively unsuccessful song that reached #28 Country, #26 Pop and #10 Adult Contemporary . I must confess that I regard this as the weakest song on the album, a rare Jimmy Webb misfire.

The carousel has stopped us here
It twirled a time or two and then it dropped us here
And still you’re not content with something about me
But what merry-go-round can you ride without me
To take your hand ? How would you stand?

Where’s the playground, Susie,
If I decide to let you go and play around?
Where’s the playground, Susie,
If I don’t stay around? If I don’t stay around?

This is followed by .”Time”, written by Michel Merchant. Glen performs it competantly, but it’s just another song.

Another Buffy Saint-Marie song, “Until It’s Time for You to Go”, follows. I always liked Buffy’s compositions, although I am not wild about her as a singer, and this song is no exception. Essentially the song is about a man and woman who are in love with each other, but cannot stay together because they come from differing cultures.

You’re not a dream
You’re not an angel
You’re a woman
I’m not a king,
I’m a man,

Take my hand
We’ll make a space
In the lives that we planned
And here we’ll stay
Until it’s time for you to go

Yes, we’re diff’rent worlds apart
We’re not the same
We laughed and played
At the start like in a game

You could have stayed
Outside my heart
But in you came
And here you’ll stay
Until it’s time for you to go

Glen does a masterful job with Buffy’s compositions, but I would urge you to check out some of Buffy’s albums for yourself.

“Oh What a Woman” is a Jerry Reed romp that Glen handles well. Jerry Reed was one of the world’s greatest guitar players (Chet Atkins considered him to be the greatest) and Glen acquits himself well on this number, both vocally and on the guitar.

The US version of the album closes with .”Every Time I Itch I Wind Up Scratchin’ You”, a Glen Campbell co-write with Jeremy Slate. It’s an amusing song but hardly essential.

Between Al DeLory’s orchestrations and the efforts of some of the finest session musicians in Los Angeles, the sound of this album has a very polished feel to it, maybe too much so. The album features Glen Campbell on vocals, acoustic and electric guitars, Hal Blaine and Bob Felts on drums, Al Casey on acoustic guitar, Dennis McCarthy on piano and Joe Osborn on bass guitar.

As I noted above, this would be Glen’s final album to achieve platinum sales. Razor X had asked me how the Gentle On My Mind album had reached such staggering sales with NO hit singles. Below was part of my reply:

“You know the old saying, a rising tide lifts all boats ? I think that is what occurred here. Campbell made five or six appearances on the Smothers Brothers Show during the second and third seasons, hosted a summer replacement show for the Smothers Brothers and then was given his own show. He appeared as a guest on many shows including The Tonight Show (Johnny Carson) and if I recall correctly, the Ed Sullivan Show. He was ubiquitous and he was better than good. He was an ideal guest for any variety or talk show – a good conversationalist who sang really well and could absolutely dazzle with his instrumental prowess…

The next several singles [after “Gentle On My Mind”] were huge and the single was reissued and made another chart run. Moreover, Cash Box had the single reach #21 and Record World #26 … The song won four Grammy Awards, two of them for writer John Hartford, who appeared on the Smothers Brothers and Glen Campbell shows (plus others) and had the song in his active repertoire.

I think the increased prominence and success of follow up singles and albums caused people to go back and pick up his past albums. The single “By The Time I Get to Phoenix” reached #1 about the same time that the GENTLE ON MY MIND album hit #1 on the album charts. I know in my case, I went back and purchased his older albums after buying A NEW PLACE IN THE SUN, a nice album that reached #1 despite the fact that NO singles were released from the album. Billboard did not chart album tracks at the time but radio stations around the country apparently played tracks from the album.

During this period a country album could go #1 without being an enormous seller, but in Campbell’s case his albums stayed on the charts forever, selling steadily ([Gentle On My Mind spent] 88 weeks on the country album charts / 75 weeks on the pop album charts). Much the same thing happened with other Campbell albums – HEY LITTLE ONE’s singles “Hay Little One” and I Want to Live” are barely remembered today but that album hung onto the charts for about a year”

I think the market had become saturated with Glen Campbell albums by the time Galveston was released. Capitol had released a lot of albums, many of which became huge sellers, some of them on a delayed basis.

Anyway I would give this album a solid B+.

1.”Galveston” (Jimmy Webb) – 2:39
2.”Take My Hand for a While” (Buffy Sainte-Marie) – 2:41
3.”If This Is Love” (Glen Campbell, Bill Ezell) – 2:08
4.”Today” (Randy Sparks) – 2:29
5.”Gotta Have Tenderness” (Ramona Redd, Mitch Torok) – 2:09
6.”Friends” (Dick Bowman, Campbell) – 2:31
Side 21.”Where’s The Playground Susie” (Webb) – 2:55
2.”Time” (Michel Merchant) – 2:42
3.”Until It’s Time for You to Go” (Sainte-Marie) – 3:02
4.”Oh What a Woman” (Jerry Hubbard) – 2:39
5.”Every Time I Itch I Wind Up Scratchin’ You” (Campbell, Jeremy Slate) – 1:51

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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 – The Byrds – ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’

TheByrdsSweetheartoftheRodeo

For more background on Sweetheart of The Rodeo, including insights into the recording sessions, click here

Just as Chris Hillman was enrolling at UCLA, he got a call from his old manager Jim Dickson to join a new band as their Bass Guitar player. The Byrds as they came to be known consisted of Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, and Hillman. He’d never picked up a bass guitar before, but his bluegrass background led him to quickly master it while developing his own style with the instrument.

Although he remained quiet on the bands first two releases, he quickly rose to the forefront, and he blossomed as a singer and vocalist after Clark left the band. By 1968, the band was down to just Hillman and McGuinn after Crosby bid his farewell. To replace him they hired Gram Parsons, who along with Hillman changed the sound of the band to reflect a country rock style, which was unheard of in the music industry at the time. This revolution was captured on The Byrds’ Sweetheart of The Rodeo, which was released on August 30, 1968.

The album found Hillman playing a supporting role yet again, as Parsons and McGuinn shared the brunt of the vocal duties. Parsons, who was little known at the time, was brought to the forefront of mainstream rock because of this album.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo was originally supposed to be a reflection of American popular music incorporating elements of Jazz and R&B but Parsons steered the project into a pure country album instead. This move was highly controversial, as Nashville had little interest in embracing a band they thought of as longhaired hippies attempting to sabotage country music. In the mists of all the hoopla, Parsons left the band, and wasn’t even a member when the August release date came around.

A cover of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” was released in April as the project’s lead single. The band heard the tune on a collection of Dylan’s Woodstock demos and thought it appropriate for them to cover. The mid-tempo ballad features an assist from Lloyd Green on Pedal Steel and came more than three years before Dylan would commercially release the track himself. It peaked at #74 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.

Hillman and McGuinn arranged the second and finale single “I Am A Pilgrim,” which failed to chart. The folk song is a bit more country sounding than the Dylan cover thanks to McGuinn’s banjo and some lovely fiddle playing by John Hartford.

Even more famous than the two singles is Parsons’ “Hickory Wind,” a fiddle and steel ballad he co-wrote with Bob Buchanan on a train ride from Florida to Los Angeles. The song is marred in controversy, from claims it wasn’t Parsons but a blind folksinger named Sylvia Sammons who wrote it, to being the tune that got them banned from The Grand Ole Opry. As the story goes, Parsons sang it instead of their planned Merle Haggard cover of “Life In Prison” and thus ticked off the country music establishment and sent shockwaves through the audience. Nonetheless “Hickory Wind” is an excellent song that still endures today.

Parsons also wrote “One Hundred Years from Now,” a tune in which McGuinn and Hillman shared lead vocals and Green once again contributed pedal steel. It’s another excellent song and I love the production on it, too, thanks in a large part to Green’s beautiful flourishes of steel.

The remainder of Sweetheart of the Rodeo consisted of cover songs. The band revived soul singer William Bell’s debut single “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” which had only been released five years earlier. The band’s version is similar to Bell’s although they take out the horns in favor of steel guitar performed by JayDee Maness.

Songs by The Louvin Brothers and Cindy Walker also appear. Charlie and Ira’s “The Christian Life” doesn’t differ much in The Byrds’ hands, but they manage to turn it into a honky-tonk stunner (with a wonderful lead vocal by McGuinn) and one of the album’s more twang-centric songs. Walker’s “Blue Canadian Rockies” is in similar vain and one of my favorite of this albums’ numbers thanks to the twangy guitar and Hillman’s wonderful lead vocal.

The aforementioned Haggard (and Jelly Sanders) song “Life In Prison” appears here, too. It’s stunning through and through from Manass’ steel guitar to Parsons’ lead vocal. He finds a way to channel Haggard while still making the song his own.

I also adore their version of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” a folk song about the titular bank robber. The band dresses it up with Hartford’s otherwordly banjo riffs and Hillman’s gorgeous mandolin picking. McGuinn also has a natural knack for storytelling that serves him well as he shoulders the lead vocal duties.

Luke Daniels’ “You’re Still On My Mind” is another Parsons fronted number featuring Maness on steel guitar. The results are glorious as the sunny steel is ear candy for the listener. The album closes with a final Dylan cover, “Nothing Was Delivered.” McGuinn takes the lead and with Green on pedal steel, the results are wonderful.

Full disclosure – before writing this review I’d never listened to an album by The Byrds, Chris Hillman, or Gram Parsons (although I do own Grievous Angel on vinyl). And as a formal introduction it doesn’t get much better than Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The album is a classic in every sense of the word and a pure delight to listen to forty-six years later. I had an idea what to expect when I went in to listen, but I had no idea what a fabulous steel guitar record this would turn out to be. Lloyd Green and JayDee Maness are masters of their craft and just a pure joy to listen to. If you don’t own your own copy of this album I suggest you run out and buy one as Sweetheart of The Rodeo is a must own for any fan of country or roots music.

Grade: A+

Willie Nelson: The early years

country favoritesWillie Nelson, alone among his contemporaries, continues to be an active and prolific recording artist. Not only is he releasing albums at a pace that would leave today’s stars thoroughly exhausted, but Willie continues to make guest appearances on the albums of other artists, famous and unknown alike.

The eighty year old Nelson continues to tour relentlessly, something he has been doing in one form or another for over fifty years.

Prior to “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”, most knew Willie Nelson (if they knew of him at all) as the man who wrote “Hello Walls” for Faron Young and “Crazy” for Patsy Cline, and some songs that other singers had success recording.

Outside of his home state of Texas, the public consciousness of Willie Nelson as a performer basically dates back to the two albums Willie recorded for Atlantic in the early 1970s after which time he moved to Columbia for his recording heyday. This article will discuss the major label albums issued before then.

The first album out of the box was … And Then I Wrote which was released on the Liberty label in September 1962. This album featured “Touch Me” as the single (it reached #7 on Billboard’s country chart) and featured some songs that other artists had recorded with some success such as “Hello Walls” and “Three Days” (Faron Young), “Crazy” (Patsy Cline), “Funny How Time Slips Away” (Joe Hinton, Billy Walker). Although not released as a singles, “Mr. Record Man” and “Darkness On The Face of The Earth” would become songs associated with Willie, and “Undo The Right” would be a top ten hit for long-time friend Johnny Bush in 1968 (Johnny Bush and Willie Nelson were both in Ray Price’s band the Cherokee Cowboys during the early 1960s, and played in each others bands at various points in time). “The Part Where I Cry” was the other single release from this album.

… And Then I Wrote was not a terribly successful album but it was the first opportunity most had to hear Willie’s quirky phrasing. Although marred by Liberty’s version of the ‘Nashville Sound’, it is certainly an interesting album.

Willie’s second and final album for Liberty was Here’s Willie Nelson. This album featured five songs that Willie wrote (“Half A Man”, “Lonely Little Mansion”, “Take My Word”, “The Way You See Me” and “Home Motel”). The originals compositions were nothing special – only “Half A Man” attracted much attention from other artists – but among the covers are the Fred Rose composition “Roly Poly” (a successful recording for Bob Wills and for Jim Reeves) and Rex Griffin’s “The Last Letter”.

There were no Country Album charts until 1964. Neither of the two Liberty albums made the pop charts.

From Liberty, Willie very briefly moved to Monument Records, with no success (I’m not sure if any tracks actually were released at the time). Some of these songs were released in 1980 on a two album set titled The Winning Hand featuring Brenda Lee, Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson and released to cash in on the popularity of Dolly and Willie. All four artists had recorded for Monument in the past, and Kristofferson and Lee recorded additional vocals to create duets (and some existing tracks were edited together to create duets). Twelve of the twenty tracks were duets, and despite the contrived origins of the project, it was critically well received and well worth owning.

Willie’s immense songwriting talents attracted the attention of Chester Burton (“Chet”) Atkins”, the head honcho of RCA’s Nashville operations, and he was signed to RCA.

There is the misconception that Willie Nelson’s RCA albums found Willie buried by syrupy string arrangements and soulless background choruses. While it is true that RCA was never really sure what to do with Willie, the reality is that only the occasional track suffered from over production. Unlike Decca where Owen Bradley buried his more traditional artist such as Webb Pierce and Ernest Tubb with unnecessary choral arrangements, Chet and his other producers went much lighter on the embellishments. Although what we would deem the classic ‘Willie and Family’ sound never completely emerged on the RCA recordings, many of Willie’s albums had relatively sparse production. In fact, when Mickey Raphael produced and released the 17 track Naked Willie album in 2009, an album in which he removed excess production off Willie’s RCA tracks, he probably corralled about 80% of the tracks on which the production could be deemed excessive. Whether or not RCA could turn Willie into a star, his records always featured some of the best musicians and arrangers on the planet.

Country Willie – His Own Songs features twelve songs Willie wrote or co-wrote. Some of the songs were also on his major label debut, but I prefer the RCA take on the ‘Nashville Sound’ to that of Liberty. The songs are great and Willie is in good voice.. Songs included are “One Day at a Time” (not the Marilyn Sellars/Cristy Lane gospel hit of the 1970s), “My Own Peculiar Way”, “Night Life”, “Funny How Time Slips Away”, “Healing Hands of Time”, “Darkness on the Face of the Earth”, “Hello Walls”, .”Are You Sure”, “Mr. Record Man”, “It Should Be Easier Now”, “So Much to Do” and “Within Your Crowd”. Pickers include Jerry Kennedy and Jerry Reed, and steel guitar is featured on some of the tracks. This could be considered a ‘best of’ compilation of Willie’s songs (not recordings) up to this point in time. This album reached #14 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Country Favorites – Willie Nelson Style is one of my two favorite RCA albums. This 1966 album was recorded with members of Ernest Tubb’s legendary Texas Troubadours, augmented by fiddler Wade Ray and pianist Hargus Robbins. Willie and Wade, of course were regulars on ET’s syndicated television show and the use of the Troubadours and the lack of the ‘Nashville Sound’ trappings made for a swinging set of western swing and honky-tonk classics. This version of the Texas Troubadours included Buddy Charleton (steel), Jack Drake (bass), Jack Greene (drums) , Leon Rhodes (lead guitar) and Cal Smith (rhythm guitar) augmented by Wade Ray and pianist Hargus Robbins. This album reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart .

Standout tracks on this album include “My Window Faces The South”, “Columbus Stockade Blues” and “San Antonio Rose” but the entire album is good. Willie sounds comfortable and relaxed on this entire set and his vocals, while sometimes an awkward fit , reflect the fun he was having performing with this collection of musicians , who were not credited on the initial release. A truncated version of this album was released on RCA Camden in 1970 as Columbus Stockade Blues.

Country Music Concert was recorded live in 1966 at Panther Hall in Dallas Texas, one of two live albums RCA would record there (the other was 1968’s Charley Pride Live at Panther Hall). This live performance featured Willie on guitar and vocals backed by his band members, Johnny Bush on drums and Wade Ray playing bass guitar. This album is my other favorite RCA album, again featuring Willie uncluttered by strings and choruses, singing mostly his own songs, but with a few covers. The album opens with Willie introducing the band and then starts with the music with a pair of long medleys in “Mr. Record Man”/”Hello Walls”/ “One Day At A Time” and “The Last Letter”/ “Half A Man”. To me the highlights of the album are Willie’s take on Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” and his own “I Never Cared For You” and “Night Life”. This album reached #32 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Make Way For Willie Nelson is a mixed bag of original compositions and covers. Released in 1967, some of the recordings are a bit overproduced and the album produced no real hits. The quasi-title track “Make Way For A Better Man” is one of those songs only Willie Nelson would write:

Hear me talkin’ now you tried to make her happy you couldn’t make her happy
Make way for a better man than you
You tried your brand of lovin’ she couldn’t stand your lovin’

Make way for a better man than you
I held back cause you and I were friends
But old buddy this is where our friendship ends
I’m takin’ over now those signals she keeps sendin’ means your romance is endin’
Make way for a better man than you

Willie’s own composition “One In A Row” reached #19 two years before this album was released. Notable covers on the album include “Born To Lose” and “Mansion On The Hill”. This album reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

“The Party’s Over” and Other Great Willie Nelson Songs featured the title song, which while never a big hit, was made famous by the late Don Meredith, one of the original trio of announcers for ABC Monday Night Football. When the result of the games was already determined (regardless of the time left in the game) Don would sing this song. “The Party’s Over” reached #24 for Willie, in a somewhat overproduced version. The rest of the album could be described as moody and downbeat. This album also reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Good Ol’ Country Singin’ was released on RCA’s budget Camden label in January 1968. RCA sometimes used the Camden label to release truncated versions of older albums, but RCA also used it to release material that would not be released on the main label. This album is the latter but RCA actually issued a single from the album, “Blackjack County Chain”, which reached #21. My favorite track on the album is a classic weeper “You Ought To Hear Me Cry”. Billboard did not chart budget albums.

Texas In My Soul was Willie’s 1968 tribute to his home state of Texas. Three of the songs, “Waltz Across Texas”, “There’s A Little Bit of Everything In Texas” and “Texas In My Soul” were songs performed by and associated with Ernest Tubb. “Who Put All My Ex’s In Texas” was one of the first songs written by Eddie Rabbitt to be recorded. This album reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Good Times is a little different and finds Willie breaking away from ‘The Nashville Sound’ mold to some extent. Other than Mickey Newbury’s “Sweet Memories” and the Jan Crutchfield-Wayne Moss composition “Down To Our Last Goodbye”, all of the songs were written or co-written by Willie. The title track has very minimal production. This album reached #29 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

My Own Peculiar Way, released in 1969, features eight Willie Nelson compositions (one, “Any Old Arms Won’t Do”, co-written with Hank Cochran) plus an exceptional cover John Hartford’s “Natural To Be Gone”. The title track wasn’t a hit, but it is quintessential Willie. This album reached #39 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart (are you seeing a pattern?).

Both Sides Now was released in 1970 and is basically a covers album with Willie penning only three of the eleven tracks. This album included two songs from the Roy Acuff catalogue (“Wabash Cannonball”, “Pins and Needles In My Heart”), a song from the Ray Price hit list (“Crazy Arms”) plus covers of pop songs “Both Sides Now” (penned by Joni Mitchell but a hit for Judy Collins) and and “Everybody’s Talking” (penned by Fred Neil but a hit for Nilsson). The single from this album was penned by soon-to be-ex-wife Shirley Nelson and reached #42. The now familiar “Bloody Mary Morning” makes its debut here – it would be re-recorded and released as a single after Willie moved to Atlantic.

While I like this album, it is a disjointed affair and Willie’s unusual phrasing on some of the songs won’t be to everybody’s taste. “Crazy Arms” features steel guitar and a walking base line whereas “Both Sides Now” features little more than a guitar. This album did not chart.

Laying My Burdens Down also was released in 1970 but by this time RCA had given up on having Willie score any hit singles. The title track reached #68 and the over-produced “I’m A Memory” would reach #28 and would be Willie’s last top fifty chart appearance while signed to RCA. This album is mostly composed of Willie originals but isn’t his best work. This album did not chart.

Willie Nelson and Family is a collection of songs released in 1971 as performed by Willie and the beginnings of his family band. Paul English was on board playing drums as was his sister Bobbie Nelson playing the piano. This album would set the template for future albums. Songs include the Willie Nelson-Hank Cochran collaboration “What Can You Do To Me Now” along with Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, Hank Sr.’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”, Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again”, plus some Nelson originals. This album reached #43 on Billboard Country albums chart.

Released with no fanfare in September 1971, Yesterday’s Wine contains some of Willie’s finest songs, and is Willie’s first concept album. The album contains the full complement of RCA’s finest session players but sounds surprisingly spare at times. The album has a deeply philosophical and religious feel to it without being too preachy (the premise is the life of an ‘Imperfect Man’ from birth to the day of his death). The single released from the album “Yesterday’s Wine” b/w “Me and Paul” barely dented the charts, but both are still loved and remembered today:

Miracles appear in the strangest of places
Fancy me finding you here
The last time I saw you was just out of Houston
Let me sit down, let me buy you a beer

Your presence is welcome with me and my friend here
This is a hangout of mine
We come here quite often and listen to music
And to taste yesterday’s wine

Yesterday’s wine, yesterday’s wine
Aging with time, like yesterday’s wine
Yesterday’s wine, yesterday’s wine
We’re aging with time, like yesterday’s wine

“Family Bible”, a song Willie wrote but sold in order to keep eating, makes an appearance here. This album did not chart.

There would be a couple more RCA albums, and RCA would re-release various permutations and combinations of old material after Willie hit it big in the middle 1970s (including an album an which Danny Davis and The Nashville Brass were overdubbed onto ten of Willie’s songs, but by the end of 1971 it was clear that Willie would need to look elsewhere if he was to achieve success as a recording artist.

It should be noted that RCA issued several singles on Willie that either never made it onto an album, or made it onto an album years later. Two notable examples were “Johnny One Time” which hit #36 for Willie in 1968 and was a minor pop hit for Brenda Lee in 1969, and “Bring Me Sunshine” which reached #13 in 1968 but wasn’t on an album until the 1974 RCA Camden release Spotlight On Willie.

In the digital age, there are plenty of good collections covering Willie’s earlier years, both anthologies and reissues of individual albums. For the obsessive Willie Nelson fan, Bear Family has issued an eight CD set with 219 recordings. That’s overkill for all but diehard fans, but there are numerous good anthologies available. There is also Naked Willie for those who would like to have multiple versions of some of Willie’s RCA recordings.

Country Heritage: Tompall Glaser

tompall glaser

RIP Tompall Glaser (1933-2013)
This Country Heritage feature is reposted today as a tribute to the late Tompall Glaser, who died earlier this week.

It really is too bad the Glaser Brothers couldn’t get along with each other on a more sustained basis, as they truly were an amazing act to see live. The three Glaser brothers had voices that overlapped, and with their near identical phrasing they could take a lyric that started at the lowest notes and work their way up and down the scales, taking over from each other in mid-word. It was wondrous to see and required an audience’s full attention to know who was singing at any given moment. Moreover, the Glasers were capable of vocal harmony equal to that of any other great brother group. I only saw Tompall and the Glaser Brothers live one time, and yet that one occasion (at the 1st International Festival of Country Music in Wembley, England, in 1969) remains as indelibly etched in my memory as if it occurred yesterday.

Tompall Glaser (b. 9/3/33) was the fourth oldest of six children born to Louis and Marie Glaser in the farming community of Spalding, Nebraska. As a child, he taught his younger brothers Chuck (b. 2/27/36 – baritone) and Jim (b. 12/16/37 – high tenor) to sing harmony to his lead vocals and developed the trio into an accomplished vocal act during the mid 1950s. As often occurred in those days, the act was just getting rolling when Tompall received his “invitation” to enter the army, where he served during 1956-57. During this interlude, brothers Jim and Chuck performed on radio in Hastings, Nebraska, and, assisted by their father Louis, performed on various local shows. Their big break occurred in late 1957 when the boys, with brother Tompall again available, earned an appearance on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, a national radio show on CBS. Their performance caught the ear of Marty Robbins, who signed the boys to his Robbins Records label and released the single “Five Penny Nickel.” This record failed to make any waves, and with Robbins unable to devote much attention to promoting their career, he sold their contract to Decca Records (later MCA) in 1959.

By this time Tompall and the Glaser Brothers had made the move to Nashville, but again were sidelined by Uncle Sam who extended an invitation to Chuck to join the U S Army (1959-61). During this period, the Glaser Brothers found frequent studio work as background singers, the most notable example of this being Jim Glaser’s trio work on “El Paso” and other songs on Marty Robbins’ mega-hit album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. Tompall and Jim Glaser wrote one of the tracks on the album, “Running Gun”.

After Chuck was released from the US Army, the Glaser Brothers landed a spot on Johnny Cash’s road show, which brought as a side benefit an association with Cash’s longtime friend and business associate Jack Clement. In 1966, Clement got them a contract with MGM Records, which wasn’t a major player in Country Music but a label with a good pedigree (Hank Williams Sr. & Jr., Marvin Rainwater, Sheb Wooley/Ben Colder). One of the songs the group recorded was “Streets of Baltimore” which was co-written by Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard. Unfortunately, the hit version of the song went to Bobby Bare. During this time Clement produced the group’s records and provided them with material.

While with MGM the brothers (always billed as Tompall and the Glaser Brothers) had a number of moderately successful singles and recorded a number of terrific album tracks. Their biggest success on the label were “California Girl (And the Tennessee Square)” which made it to #11 (#93 pop) and, in 1971, “Rings,” a cover of a pop hit by Cymarron. “Rings” went to #7 on Billboard, #5 on Cashbox and #1 on Record World. The accompanying LP, Rings and Things, was first rate, with a heavy western swing feel to many of the songs, including “Back In Each Other’s Arms Again.” Unfortunately, “Rings” failed to generate further commercial success and the group disbanded in 1973, but not before establishing a publishing company, spurred on by Chuck Glaser’s discovery of John Hartford, and later, Dick Feller. Also, in 1968, Jim Glaser saw one of his compositions, “Woman, Woman,” become a major hit for the pop group Gary Puckett and the Union Gap.

After the group’s breakup, Tompall Glaser opened his recording studio, Hillbilly Central, which became one of the incubation chambers for the “outlaw” movement of the 1970s. It was at Hillbilly Central that Waylon Jennings recorded his landmark album Honky Tonk Heroes. Other free spirits such as Billy Joe Shaver and Richard “Kinky” Friedman also recorded albums there. In 1975, in a shrewd marketing ploy, RCA issued the landmark album Wanted! The Outlaws which coupled current tracks from Jessi Colter & Waylon, some old Willie Nelson tracks and a couple of leased tracks of Tompall Glaser. The resulting mishmash was the first Gold Album in country music history. Unfortunately, Tompall was unable to capitalize on the success of the album, and his often prickly personality (coupled with Waylon’s drug use) ultimately led to his split with Waylon. As a solo artist, Tompall had only one real hit single, the politically incorrect ditty “Put Another Log on the Fire (Male Chauvinist National Anthem)”. This song peaked at #21, making it Tompall’s biggest solo hit. Albums for MGM and ABC failed to generate much attention.

During this same period, Jim Glaser plugged on, but failed to achieve any hits, while brother Chuck ran the publishing company, his singing career derailed by a stroke in 1975 that affected his vocal cords and left him temporarily unable to sing. Chuck had success as a producer, producing artists such as Hank Snow.

In 1978, the brothers achieved an uneasy reconciliation and reformed Tompall and the Glaser Brothers. One big hit followed, a cover of the Kristofferson song “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)” which went to #2 on the country charts for both Billboard and Cashbox. Unfortunately, this rapprochement was only temporary, as in 1983 Jim Glaser split to pursue a solo career. Jim was replaced by Shaun Neilson, an arrangement that continued only briefly.

After the group split, Tompall continued to produce records for a while but by the end of the 1980s he sold Hillbilly Central and has been largely retired since then. He died on August 13, 2013, aged 79. Chuck Glaser continued to work behind the scenes but has since largely retired, as well.

Jim Glaser saw some momentary success as a solo artist. In the early 1980s, Jim began recording as a solo artist for the newly-formed independent label Noble Vision Records. The first release, “When You’re Not A Lady,” stayed on the national charts for 34 weeks and in 1984 “You’re Gettin’ To Me Again” reached the top of the charts, the only Billboard #1 single achieved by any of the Glasers. That same year Jim Glaser was voted “Top New Male Vocalist of the Year” by the Academy of Country Music. Jim’s first solo album, The Man In The Mirror, ultimately had six top-twenty singles that were pulled from it. Shortly thereafter, Noble Vision Records was no more and with it vanished Jim Glaser’s solo career.

Discography

Vinyl

Most of the albums issued by Tompall and the Glaser Brothers were on MGM. The following are recommended but there are also some other albums on Decca and MGM that might be found:

Tompall and the Glaser Brothers (1967) contains the hit single “Gone On The Other Hand” (#24 Billboard/#20 Cashbox), a song that featured Big Joe Talbot on steel guitar, plus the group’s recordings of “The Last Thing On My Mind” and “Streets of Baltimore.”

Through The Eyes of Love (1967) features the title track (#27) plus “Moods of Mary” (#42) and the group’s take on “Woman, Woman.”

Wonderful World (1968) features minor hit singles in “One of These Days” (#36) and a nice recording of Jack Clement’s “Got Leavin’ On Her Mind,” a minor national/major southeast regional hit in 1968 for Mac Wiseman.

Now Country (1969) showcases “Wicked California” (#24) and “California Girl” (#11).

Award Winners (1971) is mostly covers with an excellent take of “Faded Love” released as the single (#22).

Rings and Things (1972) is the group’s masterpiece, with “Rings” (#5 Cashbox/#7 Billboard/#1 Record World) and “Sweet Love Me Good Woman” (#19 Cashbox/#23 Billboard) plus an eclectic mix of swing and vocal harmony efforts. My favorite of all the group’s tracks, “Back In Each Other’s Arms Again”, is on this album.

Charlie (1973) is ostensibly a group effort but in actuality a solo album by Tompall Glaser.

After the MGM years Tompall reunited with his brothers in 1981 for Loving Her Was Easier, followed by one last album in 1982, After All These Years, both on Elektra.

I don’t know of any solo albums by Chuck Glaser.

Jim Glaser issued three albums on Noble Vision: 1983’s Man In The Mirror, which has all four of Jim’s top twenty hits (“The Man in The Mirror” “If I Could Only Dance With You”, “You’re Getting To Me Again”, and “Let Me Down Easy”), Past The Point of No Return (1985), and Everybody Knows I’m Yours (1986). This last album is on Noble Vision/MCA, the masters purchased after Noble Vision went under.

Virtually all of Tompall Glaser’s solo efforts are available on CD from Bear Family (see below).

CD

There are two readily available CDs of Tompall and the Glaser Brothers. The Best of Tompall and the Glaser Brothers, issued on Collector’s Choice Music,  has 18 hits from the group plus six solo recordings by Tompall Glaser. This CD is now out of print, but can be found with a little effort.

The other CD was released in April 2012 and is a two-fer released on the Hux label,  Award Winners/Rings And Things.

You may be able to find the out of print twofer of the Electra years titled Lovin’ Her Was Easier/After All These Years.

Jim Glaser has one CD currently available titled Me And My Dream.  This appears to be  recordings from around 2002.  With luck you might find the CD of The Man in the Mirror, but that is all that is available.

On the other hand, Tompall Glaser’s solo efforts are well covered by Bear Family in the form of four CDs: The Rogue, The Outlaw, My Notorious Youth (aka Hillbilly Central V1), and Another Log On The Fire (aka Hillbilly Central V2). These can be obtained from the Bear Family website

A group called The Brothers Glaser issued Five Penny Nickle, a tribute album to Tompall and the Glaser Brothers. This foursome consists of sons of an older Glaser brother who was not part of the Tompall and the Glaser Brothers. They have a website at www.thebrothersglaser.com –in looking at their photographs, there is no denying the family resemblance – no one could doubt that they are nephews of the Glaser Brothers.

Country Heritage: Merle Travis

merle travisIt troubles me no end that the artistry of Merle Travis has been lost in the sands of time. It troubles me, but does not surprise me, as Travis–the victim of changing tastes and a lifelong battle with John Barleycorn–had largely disappeared from the airwaves by the time I started really following country music in the mid-60s. Although the general public lost sight of Merle’s genius, he has fared better in the esteem of Nashville’s pickers and singers and has been cited as a primary influence by many of the world’s best pickers, including Chet Atkins, Doc Watson, Earl Hooker, Scotty Moore and Marcel Dadi.

Chet Atkins admired and initially tried to emulate the Travis style, once commenting that it was fortunate that he did not have as much opportunity to hear Travis growing up as he would have liked or his own style might have become a clone. The great Arthel “Doc” Watson thought so much of Travis that he named his son Merle after him. Glen Campbell’s parents were such big fans that they reportedly gave their son the middle name “Travis.” The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had him as a featured performer on their classic Will the Circle Be Unbroken album issued in 1972.

Travis was born and raised in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, a coal mining center that would prove to be the source of inspiration for many of his finest musical compositions. In the hard and bleak life of a coal mining town, he found escape in the guitar–an instrument played by his brother Jim, who was also believed to have made Merle’s first guitar.

Music was one of the few recreations available in the area of western Kentucky, particularly during the heights of the Great Depression. There were many guitar players in the vicinity of Muhlenberg, and Travis freely acknowledged his debt to such earlier players as black country blues guitarist Arnold Shultz, and more directly to guitarists Mose Rager, a part-time barber and coal miner, and Ike Everly, the father of Don and Phil Everly. The Travis style eventually evolved into the ‘Travis Pickin’’ style of playing a steady bass pattern with the thumb and filling out some syncopated rhythms with the fingers of the right hand. Meanwhile, he developed a “talking bluesman” style of singing that was instantly recognizable by the perpetual smile in his voice. Read more of this post

Ten best reissues of 2012

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

janiefricke Janie Fricke – The Country Side of Bluesgrass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

johnhartford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Album Review – Ricky Skaggs – ‘Sweet Temptation’

Ricky Skaggs’ debut for Sugar Hill Records, Sweet Temptation was Skaggs’ second album overall when it was released in 1979. The album features backing vocals from Emmylou Harris, and is influenced sonically by her solo efforts.

The Carter Stanley composition “I’ll Take The Blame” was the album’s sole single reaching #86. A gorgeous stone cold traditional country ballad, it features Harris prominently on backing vocals and the overall track rests on the high twang of their vocals, a hit or miss depending on the style of country you find most appealing. I happen to love the bluegrass twang, but can see where others may not be able to warm up to it.

“Little Cabin Home On The Hill,” collaboration by Lester Flatt, John Hartford and Bill Monroe is another fiddle centric ballad, this time finding our protagonist mending a broken heart by crying out his pain in his cabin home. This bluegrass tune is stellar, as Skaggs and Harris’ vocals blend seamlessly and the mournful fiddle echoes the ache felt by the main character.

The fiddle also takes center stage on “Put It Off Until Tomorrow,” co-written by Dolly Parton and Bill Owens. Parton released the tune herself three years later as a duet with Kris Kristofferson from a double album entitled The Winning Hand, a project consisting of unreleased tracks on the Monument label. Skaggs’ version once again finds Harris on backing vocals, and the tune straddles the space between country and bluegrass, finding a nice home somewhere in the middle. I like the subdued atmosphere of Skaggs’ version the best although Parton provides a nice prospective by flipping the gender roles.

Skaggs keeps Sweet Temptation alive with a few banjo and dobro centric tunes in the middle of the album. “Baby I’m In Love With You” is a fabulously plucky love song that takes after old-time country, Stanley’s “Baby Girl” is a delightful traditional bluegrass thumper, while “I Know What It Means to be Lonesome” has a wonderfully fast acoustic arrangement that doesn’t quite fit with the sad themes of the song and Skaggs’ vocals are a rare misstep as he sings the track in too high a key. Skaggs rectifies this on “I’ll Stay Around,” another traditional bluegrass tune that ranks among my favorite tracks on the album.

The title track written by Cliffie Stone and Merle Travis is another masterful tune and an album highlight. I love everything about the song from the wonderful combination of dobro and steel that lead the arrangement, to Skaggs’ pitch perfect vocals. Travis also sang the song, (his version can be heard HERE), but I much prefer the vibrancy Skaggs brings to the song.

The quietest song on the album, Stanley’s “Could You Love Me On More Time” puts Skaggs’ vocal front and center, backing him solely with an acoustic guitar. In lesser hands this naked approach could’ve been disastrous, but Skaggs pulls it off with effortless ease.

The most blatantly country track on the project is “Forgive Me,” which Wayne Walker wrote with G. Paul Sullivan. Another stellar tune, it somewhat foreshadows the direction Skaggs would take in the 80s, when he became a genre superstar. It’s another standout track on the album.

What surprises me about Sweet Temptation is the level in which Skaggs knows himself as an artist. He was only in his early 20s in 1979 and yet he sang with a confidence of someone twice to three times his age. This keeps Sweet Temptation from sounding like a less then project, an early representation of an artist still learning where he fits in the country music landscape. Instead its essential listening from an artist who hadn’t yet hit his prime, although you wouldn’t know that from listening to this.

Grade: A 

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘A Dream Come True’

A Dream Come True was Rhonda Vincent’s second solo album, and also her second album for Rebel Records, a Roanoke Virginia label that already had a long and distinguished history of preserving and presenting bluegrass music.

Rebel certainly put their best foot forward with this album, assembling a fine cast of musicians to augment Rhonda’s usual supporting cast, with such great musicians as Jerry Douglas (dobro) and Roy Huskey (bass) plus some other guests appearing on selected tracks. Carl Jackson, Kathy Chiavola , Wayland Patton and Tensel Davidson provide vocal harmonies throughout the album.

The album opens up with “Kentucky Sweetheart”, an uptempo romp by bluegrass stalwarts Carl Jackson and Tony King. Blaine Sprouse plays fiddle on this track. The vocal harmonies on this track are somewhat reminiscent of those of the Osborne Brothers during the 1960s. “We Were Almost Like A Dream Come True” is slow ballad co-written by Larry Cordle, a very pretty and wistful song.

One doesn’t think of Pat Alger as a bluegrass songwriter and he isn’t. That said, “Lone Star State of Mind” definitely works as a bluegrass song. This song is performed at a medium fast tempo.

What would a bluegrass album be without a religious song ? The song chosen for this album is a pretty tune titled “Mama’s Angels” from the recently departed Charlie Louvin. Rhonda does a really nice job with this song. David Parmley provides the harmony vocal.

“Wishing Well Blues” is a wistful medium slow ballad which gives Rhonda some opportunity to show off her mandolin playing. “Just For Old Time’s Sake” is a vocal duet with one of Nashville’s finest voices in Jim Ed Brown. I really love this song – Jim Ed and Rhonda harmonize beautifully – and having the great John Hartford playing banjo doesn’t hurt either.

“Break My Heart” is a somewhat generic uptempo number, in that the song itself is nothing special. Rhonda and her cast sound just fine on this number.

Steve Earle and Jimbeau Hinson penned “A Far Cry From You”, a song which was a minor hit for Connie Smith. Today, Rhonda is one of the few vocalists I would compare to Connie Smith, but when this album was recorded in 1989, she was still developing her style. This is not a criticism as Rhonda does an excellent job with this song, but I think if she recorded it today it would be better still.

Jennifer McCarter and Carl Jackson penned “Love Without A Trace”. Jennifer McCarter was the lead singer of the McCarters, a sister act whose music harkened back to a much earlier style of music. This track is a bit more modern sounding than the music of the McCarters, but it has a lovely and intricate harmony arrangement reminiscent of some older musical styles. Blaine Sprouse plays fiddle on this track.

“Goin’ Gone” is another Pat Alger tune that Kathy Mattea took to #1 in early 1988. I love the arrangement on this tune with Blaine Sprouse and John Hartford doing their thing in a very tasteful manner. It’s a tossup as to whether I like this version better than Mattea’s version.

Allen Reynolds is better known as a producer for such artists as Crystal Gayle, Emmylou Harris and Garth Brooks, but he is also a talented songwriter and “Till I’m Fool Enough To Give It One More Try” is a nice medium fast tempo ballad that Rhonda handles to perfection.

Closing out the set is “Sundown”, an instrumental written by Ms Vincent herself. In recent years Rhonda has developed into quite an accomplished songwriter but at this stage of her career she was relying on others for material. This song provides a nice closing to the album and gives Rhonda a chance to let her pickers shine a little.

A Dream Come True is not Rhonda’s best album, but it is a very entertaining album and shows Rhonda as a recording artist of considerable promise. The powerful rafter-rattling vocals would come later as would her development as a songwriter and development of a sense of humor in her music, only hinted at here and there on this album. This was the first Rhonda Vincent album I purchased, the one that served to get me hooked on Ms. Vincent’s remarkable talents.

This album is somewhere in the range of B+/A-.

Head to head: rival versions of the same song

LeAnn Rimes has elected to premier her upcoming covers album Lady And Gentlemen by releasing a ramped-up version of John Anderson’s 1983 smash hit ‘Swingin’’ as the lead single. Self-evidently, covering another artist’s signature song means you have to bear comparison with the original. Unfortunately for LeAnn, she also has to compete with a much better cover getting attention at the moment in the form of Chris Young’s fresh acoustic take on the same song on his excellent new EP Voices (reviewed here recently by Razor X). Admittedly Chris’s version is not being promoted as a single, but it’s certainly the version I would prefer to hear on the radio.

LeAnn has of course been in a similar position before. As a teenager she was at the center of a public rivalry, when her recording of ‘How Do I Live’, intended for the soundtrack of the 1997 action movie Con Air, was rejected by the producers in favor of a version by Trisha Yearwood. As well as its appearance in the film, Trisha’s version was a big country hit single, reaching #2 on Billboard, and won a Grammy. LeAnn arguably got the last laugh that time, as her rival cut was a massive international pop hit and sold three million copies.

In fact, rival versions of the same song competing for sales and airplay, are something of a tradition. In the singles-dominated 1950s and 60s it was commonplace for artists to cover current hits, either as direct competition or as easy choices of popular songs to fill out an album. In an era when country fans had less disposable income, it made sense for an artist to record the most popular songs out there, so that if someone liked a particular song they might choose to buy the version by their favorite singer. Successful artists who sold well were almost unbelievably prolific, typically releasing several 12-track albums a year – George Jones, for instance, recorded over 150 songs when he was signed to United Artists, over the period 1962-1964. There was thus great demand for good material, even by singer-songwriters who simply couldn’t write enough on their own.

Merrle Haggard, for instance, wrote much of his material, but also included covers of contemporary hits. His 1968 album Mama Tried supplemented his own classic title song with covers of recent hits ‘The Green, Green Grass Of Home’, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, Dolly Parton’s ‘In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)’ , and the now-forgotten ‘Little Old Wine Drinker Me’. In turn, ‘Mama Tried’ and the previous year’s hit ‘Sing Me Back Home’ were covered by the Everly Brothers on their own 1968 release Roots.

It was also often common for singers in other genres to cover country hits, and vice versa. An early example is Hank Williams’ Cajun-styled ‘Jambalaya (On the Bayou)’. Hank’s original was a 14-week #1 in 1952; a cover by singer Jo Stafford saw top 10 success on the pop charts the same year. Stafford had quite an eye for country hits which could be brought to a new audience – she also covered Hank Snow’s 1952 country hit ‘A Fool Such As I’ in 1953, and had duetted with Frankie Laine on Hank Williams’ ‘Hey Good Lookin’. Laine also covered ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, but the biggest pop version was by Joni James, who recorded it the day Hank died. Patti Page’s 1950 country-pop crossover smash ‘Tennessee Waltz’ was another to see off several rival versions.

A decade later, nothing had changed. John Hartford’s ‘Gentle On My Mind’ won him a folk Grammy in 1968; Glen Campbell’s cover of the same song won the country Grammy the same year. Patti Page charted a pop version that year, and Aretha Franklin gave it an R&B twist the following year, while Rat Packer Dean Martin had an easy listening international hit, and Elvis Presley also covered the tune on an album. The Kris Kristofferson classic ‘Me And Bobby McGee’ was a top 20 country hit for Roger Miller in 1969, who recorded it before the Statler Brothers (who had been offered the song) could get into the studio. The same year a rival version by Canadian Gordon Lightfoot was a pop hit, and it was also an album track for Kenny Rogers. A year later it was a rock smash for Janis Joplin. ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town’ was a top 10 country hit for Johnny Darrell, and covered the same year by Waylon Jennings, Roger Miller and the Statler Brothers, before Kenny Rogers’ #1 a few years later displaced all previous versions.

Even as late as the 1990s, genre reinventions were bringing songs to new audiences. 90s country star Mark Wills saw his 1998 country hit ‘I Do (Cherish You)’ (written by Keith Stegall and Dan Hill) covered the following year by pop group 98 Degrees. He then covered R&B artist Brian McKnight’s 1999 pop hit ‘Back At One’, getting a country hit for himself in 2000. Weirdly, both versions of the latter got to #2 on their respective charts.

In more recent years, competing cuts tended to mean that one artist got the hit, and the other was forced to release another song instead. In some cases that changed the course of country music history.

1983 saw rival versions of the inspirational ‘The Wind Beneath My Wings’. The earliest cut was actually by English MOR singer Roger Whittaker in 1982, but in 1983 two pop-country stars went head to head. Actor-singer Gary Morris enjoyed a top 10 hit but it might easily have been Lee Greenwood, who included the song on his album Somebody’s Gonna Love You released the same year. In 1985 the fast-rising Reba McEntire’s recording of the lively ‘She’s Single Again’ was not released as a single – because Janie Fricke got there first, and enjoyed a #2 hit.

Keith Whitley saw his big breakthrough delayed when he was unable to release the two best tracks on his 1986 album LA To Miami as singles, due to rival versions getting to radio first. He might have had a big hit with Dean Dillon’s ‘Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her’, but George Strait‘s cut went to #1 instead, and is one of Strait’s most fondly remembered singles. ‘On The Other Hand’ was to become the signature hit for Randy Travis in 1986 – but it might so easily have served that function for Keith instead. Incidentally, a third recording of the song was also made by veteran Charley Pride on After All This Time, his 1987 album for independent label 16th Avenue. All three versions are good enough to have been hits.

George Strait also potentially stymied the chances of his favorite songwriter when his choice of Dean Dillon’s ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’ as a single in 1993 – a song Dillon had earmarked for his own next shot at the charts. Even our current Spotlight Artist Mark Chesnutt has drawn the short straw a couple of times. As Razor X mentioned in yesterday’s review of Too Cold At Home, that album featured a version of ‘Friends In Low Places’ – only to be forestalled when Garth Brooks had a smash hit with his version of the song. More recently, Joe Nichols recorded ‘Don’t Ruin It For The Rest Of Us’ on his Revelation album in 2004, the same year Mark recorded the song on his first independent release Savin’ the Honky Tonk, although in this case neither artist selected the song as a single.

I’ve only scratched the surface here – what rival versions can you think of? Did the best cut always win the chart battle?