My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: Conway Twitty – ‘Timeless’

I guess there really is a Santa Claus because I just received the “new” Conway Twitty album from Country Rewind Records, Timeless, just in time for Christmas.

These aren’t really new recordings. During the 1960s and 1970s it was not uncommon for the various branches of the US Military to put together fifteen or thirty minute radio shows for use on country radio stations. Mostly these shows aired on smaller radio stations, usually in air slots where it was difficult for them to sell advertising. Some of these shows, such as COUNTRY MUSIC TIME (a recruiting tool for the US Air Force) and COUNTRY COOKING WITH LEE ARNOLD (a recruiting program for the Army Reserves) featured some chatter with the weeks’ musical guests followed by some records by the musical guest. Others, such as NAVY HOEDOWN, featured some minimal chatter with the featured artist followed by live performances with the program’s band, or occasionally with the artist’s own band. These recordings were not made available for public purchase

Timeless comes from recordings made for an unspecified military recruiter program. The recordings were made at Scotty Moore’s Music City Recorders on May 24, 1972. The songs feature Conway’s tight road band of Joe E. Lewis on bass, Tommy Markham on drums, and the legendary John Hughey on steel guitar. Conway played rhythm guitar on the recordings and the band was augmented by Hargus “Pig” Robins on piano. At this time Conway normally did not have piano on his live performances.

The songs featured here are songs from the first half dozen years of Conway’s career with MCA. In other words, this is a real county album with none of the MOR trappings that contaminated Conway’s later recordings. The revelation here is that most of these songs were originally recorded with studio musicians and occasional Owen Bradley strings and chorus production. Here we get the real stage sounds of Conway Twitty.

Originally recorded after a brief rehearsal, in a single take, these recordings were typically played once or twice in a given geographical area and then returned or discarded. Many years later pristine recordings were found and forwarded to Thomas Gramuglia at Country Rewind Records. Gramuglia contacted Conway Twitty United, a company dedicated to preserving Conway’s legacy, comprised of Conway’s four children. Gramuglia presented his idea to find a producer to update and modernize the sound for release to Joni Twitty.

After the family listened to the tapes, they felt that releasing them would not dishonor Conway’s memory at all, but Joni suggested that they do the new production in-house. Joni was a talented artist herself, and her husband John Wesley Ryles had several hits on his own and has appeared as a harmony singer on literally thousands of tracks.

The end result is an album they could have been released during the mid-1990s. Co-producers Joni Twitty Ryles and John Wesley Ryles have produced a great album. For the most part the post-production is limited to John Wesley Ryles providing some background vocals, Ron Oates adding a bit of keyboards, and some additional acoustic guitar, most notably on “15 Years Ago”. To me the most important difference between the studio recordings of the songs on this album, and these recordings is the gigantic presence of steel wizard John Hughey.

The song list is as follows:

(Lost Her Love) On Our Last Date – a #1 single with lyrics grafted onto a Floyd Cramer’s instrumental
Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music) – album track from 1968’s Here’s Conway Twitty
Hello Darlin’ – Conway’s biggest country hit
How Much More Can She Stand – a #1 single from 1971
Working Girl – an album track from the 1967 album Conway Twitty Country
I Can’t See Me Without You – a #1 single (according to Record World) from early 1972
I Love You More Today – a #1 single from 1969
Crazy Arms – nice cover of the Ray Price classic
15 Years Ago – the follow up to Hello Darlin’ – it hit #1
Honky-Tonk Man – cover of the Johnny Horton classic
The Image of Me – Conway’s first top ten country single
If You Were Mine To Lose – an album track from the 1966 album Look Into My Teardrops
Proud Mary – cover of protégé Anthony Armstrong Jones’ hit from 1969
Next In Line – Conway’s first country number one from 1968

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Retro Album Reviews: Joe Nichols – ‘Real Things’, and Tracy Lawrence – ‘For The Love’

for the loveBack in the days writing for the 9513 Blog, I would post occasional reviews on Amazon. We are republishing updated versions of some of those reviews here.

REAL THINGS – JOE NICHOLS (2007)

Other than Brad Paisley, I cannot think of another of the current Nashville acts that has as good a grasp on what is or isn’t country music than Joe Nichols. This album simply is a delight from start to finish.

The opening track “Real Things” sets a nice placemat for the current single “Another Side of You” (currently a top 25 and rising). For this album Nichols has tapped the cream of Nashville’s songwriting community for good songs. Only one old song was selected for the album and that is the late Blaze Foley’s classic “If I Could Only Fly” performed here as a duet with Lee Ann Womack and with the legendary John Hughey on steel guitar (Paul Franklin plays steel on the remaining tracks where steel is used). All of the material is top-flight and my only fear was that it may prove “too country” for today’s wimpy country radio.

The copy of the CD I purchased has a 14th track on it, a wry song titled “When I’m Hurtin'” in which a country singer apologizes to the audience that the only time he really sings well is you know when. This song is easily a 5 star effort and should have been released as a single.

Grade: A

FOR THE LOVE – TRACY LAWRENCE (2007)

Among the younger singers, Tracy Lawrence has the best pure country voice this side of John Anderson and Randy Travis. Like previous efforts, this CD has two or three cuts that are merely okay, and the rest are terrific. My favorite songs is “Til I Was a Daddy Too” , as meaningful a song as you will ever encounter. “You Can’t Hide Redneck” is a fun romp and “Rock and A Soft Place is another highlight. Such is the vocal prowess of Tracy Lawrence that his solo cut of “Find out Who Your Friends Are” is considerably better than the cut on which he is joined by Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw, both lesser vocal talents. I love this disc, an early nominee for CD of The Year honors.

Grade: A+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘I Still Believe In You’

Released in 1992, this album transformed Vince from star to superstar, with four of the five singles hitting #1 on Billboard, and excellent sales figures and a string of awards for the album itself. It showcases Vince Gill at his very best, with lovely soaring vocals, supported by tasteful and subtle production overseen by Tony Brown. Vince wrote or co-wrote every song, and the quality is exceptionally high. Backing singers include Alison Krauss and Dawn Sears.

The title track was Vince’s very first #1 hit. It won Vince and co-writer John Barlow Jarvis Song of the Year awards from both the ACM and CMA. Reportedly written for Vince’s then-wife Janis about their sometimes troubled relationship, the message is one of the power of true love to surmount such difficulties, and even though the couple were eventually to divorce, the song’s message stands up in its own right.

The mid-tempo follow-up, ‘Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away’ is an appeal to a wife in a marriage which is beginning to fray at the seams, which Vince wrote with his keyboard player Pete Wasner. It is pleasant enough and quietly catchy, but pales in comparison to most of the other material. The fact that it still made it to #1 is an indication that Vince’s career was in overdrive.

Surprisingly, although it was still a big hit, the next single did not do quite as well, although I think it is abetter song. The gently mournful ballad ‘No Future In The Past’, co-written with Carl Jackson, forms a sequel of sorts to ‘When I Call Your Name’, where the protagonist accepts there is no point dwelling on his memories of the good times. Peaking at a still-respectable #3 it was the album’s poorest chart performer, possibly due to competition for airplay from ‘The Heart Won’t Lie’, his duet with Reba.

It was a change of pace and back to the top of the charts with the next single, the lively and amusing ‘One More Last Chance’, written with Gary Nicholson. Vince begs his woman for mercy after one too many nights out with the boys. Delbert McClinton guests on harmonica, and the video (but not the song) featured a cameo from George Jones, whose own life probably inspired the lines:

Well, she might’ve took my car keys
But she forgot about my old John Deere

There was enough juice left in the album for a fifth single, and yet another #1 with the lyrically bleak but beautiful sounding ‘Trying To Get Over You’ (written with Gary Nicholson), where he confesses that “it’ll take dying” to help him get over the woman who has broken his heart.

My favorite track is another gorgeous ballad, the absolutely beautiful ‘Love Never Broke Anyone’s Heart’, written with Jim Weatherly. This finds Vince offering wise words of consolation to a woman who has suffered a broken heart:

It’s not love that causes the pain
Whenever a heart has been shattered
It’s the losing of love that’s to blame

Love never broke anyone’s heart
It never left anyone scarred
It’s not really love
If it tears you apart
Love never broke anyone’s heart

Andrea Zonn’s solemn fiddle and John Hughey’s sympathetic steel add to the mood set by the perfectly judged vocal and lovely melody.

‘Under These Conditions’ is an agonized almost-cheating song, with two potential lovers held back from a good relationship from the fact that both are already married with children. It is another excellent song and performance, written by Vince with Max D Barnes. ‘Say Hello’ (another co-write with Pete Wasner) is a traditional shuffle on another heartbreak theme, with prominent harmonies.

Romantic ballad ‘Nothing Like A Woman’, written with Reed Nielsen, has a mellow, more AC feel than the bulk of the material and I don’t care for it as much, but it is very well done. I preferred the uptempo appeal to a woman being led astray by a persuasive liar’s ‘Pretty Words’, written with Don Schlitz.

The best selling album of Vince’s career, it has been certified quintuple platinum and was deservedly the CMA Album of the Year in 1993, and also helped him with his run of CMA Male Vocalist titles (1991-1995) and his wins as Entertainer of the Year in 1993 and 1994. It is excellent from start to finish, and warmly recommended. Used copies are available incredibly cheaply, making this a bargain not to be turned down.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘Guitar Slinger’

It’s been half a decade since Vince Gill released a new album. On that occasion, he came out with four at once, with the critically acclaimed box set These Days. This time around the same team of Vince, John Hobbs and Justin Niebank has created a more concentrated effort with 15 tracks, recorded in Vince’s home studio. Vince’s vocals sound thoroughly energised and invested in the material, all of which he wrote or co-wrote, and which I feel is more consistent in quality than that on These Days. It is definitely a mature work, with a number of the songs focussed on the prospect of death, but never a depressing one.

The joyous and amusing title track opens proceedings with a bang with many references to Vince’s life ranging from his “contemporary Christian singer” wife to last year’s Nashville floods (“half my stuff’s in the Cumberland River”. This really conveys the sheer joy of making music. In the equally lively up-tempo ‘All Nighter Comin’’ (written with Chris Stapleton and Al Anderson, and only on the deluxe version) a newly unemployed truck driver sets aside his troubles for the evening. Despite the depressing background, the mood is uplifting, and either of these songs would sound great on the radio.

The beautifully sung lead single ‘Threaten Me With Heaven’ is a tender but confident gospel ballad written with Vince’s wife Amy Grant, Will Owsley (who tragically committed suicide last year) and Dillon Osborn. Owsley and Amy also co-wrote the mid-tempo AC ‘When Lonely Comes Around’, which is pleasant but forgettable. Amy and Vince duet on their song ‘True Love’, an AC ballad which pays tribute to their relationship, “true love that found us in time”. It isn’t a particularly interesting song, but the authenticity of the emotions make it touching beyond its merits. Amy’s daughter Sarah Chapman sings harmony.

Talented singer-songwriter and now a Pistol Annie, Ashley Monroe wrote two songs with Vince. The excellent ‘If I Die’, a beautifully constructed reflection on mortality and what comes after, is one of the best tracks on a fine record. Her other contribution, ‘Who Wouldn’t Fall In Love With You’ is a low-key, tender love ballad with a pretty melody and Ashley’s distinctive voice evident on harmony.  Lee Ann Womack, meanwhile, provides tasteful backing vocals on ‘Lipstick Everywhere’, a retelling of a passionate one night stand with no subsequent regrets or repercussions. Another fine artist, Texas traditionalist Amber Digby co-wrote ‘One More Thing I Wished I’d Said’, dwelling with regret on the missed opportunities in a failed relationship. Sadly, she doesn’t sing on the track, but Dawn Sears makes a good substitute. These two are only included on the deluxe version, which is well worth the additional cost.

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