My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Johnny Bush

Album Review: Wade Hayes – ‘On A Good Night’

Released in June 1996, On A Good Night was Wade’s second album on Columbia. Produced by Don Cook, who also sings background on the album, the album climbed to #11 on the country albums chart and reached gold (500,000 sales) status. The album features a Who’s Who of Nashville session musician with Bruce Bouton on steel guitar, Mark Casstevens on acoustic guitar, Rob Hajacos on fiddle, Dennis Burnside on piano and organ, Brent Mason on electric guitar, Glenn Worf on bass guitar and Lonnie Wilson on drums. This is nothing if not a country album.

The album opens up with the title track, written by Larry Boone, Don Cook and Paul Nelson. The first single released from the album, it topped out at #2 on Billboard’s Country chart. The song is a rocking up-tempo romp:

On a good night I could hop in my truck
Round up my friends and with any kind of luck
We could end up howling at a harvest moon
On a good night I could put on my hat
Head down to the honky tonk and dance
But on a real good night I meet a women like you

Brown hair blue eyes once in a life time countrified kind of girl
Heart-breaking chance-taking wild little love making
Shaking up my world
Hey on a good night I can picture the day
All my dreams come true
But on a real good night I meet a women like you

Next up is a nice cover of the Willie Nelson- Hank Cochran collaboration, “Undo The Right”. The original was a top ten hit in 1968 by the ‘Country Caruso’ Johnny Bush. Bush’s recording is one of my top ten all-time favorite recordings. Hayes is no Johnny Bush, but he acquits himself well.

“The Room” was written by Chris Waters and Tom Shapiro. Chris is the brother of the late Holly Dunn and produced many of her records. The song is a slow ballad, rather introspective song of getting over the loss of love. It makes a nice change of pace but would not have made a good single.

Wade collaborated with Chick Rains and the redoubtable Bill Anderson on the up-tempo “It’s Over My Head” . The song was released as the third single from the album and topped out at #46. It’s a good song, well sung and I do not understand why it failed to do better:

That just goes to show how crazy love can be
Look at us now baby who would have thought it
I don’t know why you chose me

It’s over my head and I’m six feet tall
This beats anything I ever saw
Well I don’t see what you see in me at all
It’s over my head and I’m six feet tall

Marty Stuart and Chick Rains wrote “ I Still Do”. The song is a medium-slow ballad that I think could have made an effective single. This is not the same song that was a top twenty country hit for Bill Medley in 1984.

Don Cook and Chick Rains teamed up for “My Side of Town”, an up-tempo rocker that serves well to keep tempos appropriately varied on the album.

Wade Hayes and Chick Rains wrote “Where Do I Go To Start All Over”. Released as the second single from the album, the song stiffed, only reaching #42. It’s a nice ballad but and I’m not sure why it didn’t do better, especially since the previous five singles all went top ten or better.

I drove around last night, and tried with all my might
To leave the past behind, cause you stayed on my mind
So I stopped for a drink, I never stopped to think
That it wouldn’t work, It just made it worse
So I came on back home, I hadn’t changed a thing
And sat here all alone, missing you and wondering

Where do I go to start all over
From your memory
Where do I go to start all over
When in your arms is where I won’t be

“Our Time Is Coming was written by Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn and appeared on their Hard Workin’ Man album. The song is a dramatic ballad that Wade does masterfully – in fact it is my favorite song on the album, and I much prefer Wade’s recording to that of Brooks & Dunn.

Times are hard and the money’s tight
Day to day we fight that fight
Nothing new, it’s the same old grind
Uphill all the way

Boss man says forget the raise
Preacher says to keep the faith
Good things come to those who wait
Tomorrow’s another day

Our time is coming
When or where the good Lord only knows
Our time is coming
When this road we’re on will turn to a street of gold

Long as we keep love alive
Something tells me we’ll survive
It’s the little things that’ll get us by
And hold us together

I feel it when you hold me close
Baby we got more than most
Steady through the highs and lows
We’ll go on forever

The album closes with “Hurts Don’t It”, a ballad from the pens of Sam Hogin, Jim McBride & Greg Holland, and the mid-tempo semi-autobiographical “This Is the Life for Me” that Hayes penned with Chick Rains & Gary Nicholson. Dennis Burnside’s piano is well featured on this track.

I really liked this album and would give it an A-.

I am sure that Wade and producer Don Cook was greatly disappointed by the poor chart performance of the last two singles from the album. Accordingly they tried something different.

Unfortunately, that effort failed miserably. As I sit here writing this article I am listening to the single release that effectively killed Wade Hayes’ career at country radio. Intended as the initial single for the next album When The Wrong One Loves You Right, radio reaction to Wade’s cover of the old Glen Campbell hit “Wichita Lineman” single was so negative that the single was withdrawn (it peaked at #55) and ultimately did not appear on that album.

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Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘We Must Believe In Magic’

818pkpdvl6l-_sx522_Released in June 1977, We Must Believe In Magic was Crystal’s fourth album for United Artists. Fueled by her massive crossover hit “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”, it would prove to be her biggest selling album, reaching #2 on the Billboard Country Albums chart and #12 on the Billboard all-genres chart (her only top twenty entry on that chart). The album was certified platinum by the RIAA in 1978 and purportedly was the first platinum album recorded by a female country singer.

The album contains an eclectic mix of songs ranging from pop standards to rock ‘n’ roll hits to songs by contemporary country songsmiths.

The album opens with the first single and only single released from the album (and her biggest ever hit) “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”. Written by Richard Leigh, who had also supplied her three previous top ten hits, the sung justified the use of the word ‘magic’ in the album title by becoming a huge international hit as well as a hit in the United States and Canada. In the US the song reached #1 on the country charts, #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100, #1 on the Cashbox Top 100, and #4 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart. It sweep the boards in Canada reaching #1 on the country, pop and AC charts and reached the top ten in the UK, Ireland, Netherlands and New Zealand, and the top twenty in Australia

Don’t know when I’ve been so blue

Don’t know what’s come over you

You’ve found someone new and

Don’t it make my brown eyes blue

I’ll be fine when you’re gone

I’ll just cry all night long

Say it isn’t true and

Don’t it make my brown eyes blue

“I Want To Come Back To You” is a nice easy listening ballad with a flute weaving around the melody

The third song, “River Road” comes from the pen of Sylvia Fricker, an integral part of the 1960s folk movement, both as a songwriter and half of the Ian & Sylvia duo. I do not understand why this song was not released as a single.

Although my favorite pop standards songwriter was Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter comes a close second and Crystal shows her interpretive abilities with a fine recording of “It’s All Right With Me”, one of Cole Porter’s later songs, written for the 1953 musical CAN-CAN. The song has been recorded by many jazz and classic pop artists. My favorite rendition is by Ella Fitzgerald, but Crystal acquits herself well, giving a bit of a hoedown introduction to the song while still retaining the essence of the song

It’s the wrong time, and the wrong place
Though your face is charming, it’s the wrong face
It’s not his face, but such a charming face
That it’s all right with me

It’s the wrong song, in the wrong style
Though your smile is lovely, it’s the wrong smile
It’s not his smile, but such a lovely smile
That it’s all right with me

You can’t know how happy I am that we met
I’m strangely attracted to you
There’s someone I’m trying so hard to forget
Don’t you want to forget someone, too?

It’s the wrong game, with the wrong chips
Though your lips are tempting, they’re the wrong lips
They’re not his lips, but they’re such tempting lips
That, if some night, you are free
Dear, it’s all right, yes, it’s all right with me

“Going Down Slow is another easy listening ballad, nothing special but well sung by Crystal.

Producer Allen Reynolds takes a co-writing credit on “All I Want To Do In Life”. I’m not sure that the cowbell adds anything to the song, but Crystal turns in an impeccable vocal (“Cowboy” Jack Clement, by no means as good a singer as Crystal Gayle recorded a charming take on the song years later injecting far more personality into the song).

Larry Kingston’s “Make A Dream Come True” veers closer to actually being country than does most of the songs on this album, with effective use of steel guitar in the arrangement. Kingston wrote quite a few songs recorded by the ‘Country Caruso’ Johnny Bush.

If I try as hard as I can

Maybe I can paint you again

In my mind, the way you were when you used to love me

Before you learned to think you were above me

Track eight “Green Door” was composed by Bob Davie and Marvin Moore, and was a huge pop hit in 1956 for Jim Lowe knocking Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” out of the #1 slot. The song did better still in the UK where the song was a hit single several times for various artists. I’m not sure I would be accurate in describing this as a rock ‘n’ roll, as the song’s primary instrumentation on Lowe’s version is that of a honky-tonk piano. The lyrics describe a mysterious private club forbidden to the singer. The club has a green entrance door, behind which apparently the crowds have a lot of fun. Crystal’s rendition is a little less rollicking than the Lowe version.

(Midnight, one more night without sleepin’)
(Watchin’ till the mornin’ comes creepin’)
(Green door, what’s that secret you’re keepin?)
There’s an old piano
And they play it hot behind the green door
Don’t know what they’re doin’
But they laugh a lot behind the green door
Wish they’d let me in
So I could find out what’s behind the green door

“Green Door” is a song which has aged well and I would suggest that the reader find Jim Lowe’s recording on You Tube. Lowe (May 7, 1923 – December 12, 2016) was a successful songwriter with some connections to country music, including Rusty Draper’s million-selling pop & country hit of 1953, “Gambler’s Guitar”

If I try as hard as I can

Maybe I can paint you again

In my mind, the way you were when you used to love me

Before you learned to think you were above me

“Funny” has the sound and feel of something from the 1920s. The author is listed as L. Anderson, but I really could not find out much about the song. It sounds like something Ted Lewis and his Orchestra would have performed during the vaudeville era and as such it makes a nice change of pace.

The album closes with the title track. “We Must Believe In Magic,” by Allen Reynolds and Bob McDill. The song opens with some odd SF sounds and special effects, which retreat to the background once the vocals commence. Johnny Cash would record the song on his The Adventures of Johnny Cash album, giving it a more of a folk feel.

Mad is the captain of Alpha Centauri
We must be out of our minds
Still we are shipmates bound for tomorrow
And everyone here’s flying blind

[Chorus]
Oh, we must believe in magic
We must believe in the guiding hand
If you believe in magic
You’ll have the universe at your command

I really like this album, although I don’t find it very country at all. It is well produced and well sung.

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.

Classic Rewind: Johnny Bush and Darrell McCall – ‘I Can’t See Texas From Here’

Classic Rewind: Johnny Bush and Darrell McCall – ‘Melted Down Memories’

Album Review: Dale Watson – ‘Blessed Or Damned’

Dale’s second album continued his assertion of being too country for country music, as he works his way through a collection of self-penned material covering all the traditional themes of country music. The music is dominated by steel guitar, and as traditional country as one can imagine.

The low key title track is a pensive consideration of the contrast between those musicians who achieve fame and fortune, and those, like himself, struggling in obscurity:

Read about a singer
That took home all the awards
I guess he’s one of the chosen few
That’s his reward
But there’s a troubadour in a beer joint
And he’s singing to empty chairs and his empty cans
No, it ain’t hard to figure out
Who’s blessed or damned

I hope heaven has a place
For those of us who lost our way
And I pray He’ll understand
And bless the damned

He appeals to DJs to play ‘A Real Country Song’, i.e. one of the classics of the past.

Trucking songs had enjoyed a fad in the 1970s, but had long fallen out of favour with mainstream country music. Dale, defiantly non-commercial, chose to include a brace of trucking songs on this album. ‘Truckin’ Man’, about a wannabe trucker, chugs along efficiently with trucking rhythms. ‘Truckstop In La Grange’ is a bit less interesting.

The gospel sounding ‘Fly Away’ is really a cheerful drinking song. Traditional honky tonker ‘Honkiest Tonkiest Beer Joint’ is a fond tribute to a favourite drinking spot. The stylishly performed western swing ‘Poor Baby’ is a sardonic, faux-sympathetic look at a constant loser who drinks too much and too often, with fabulous steel guitar.

‘It’s Over Again’ is a very good sad song about a marriage in a repeat pattern of breaking up and getting back together. The wearied ‘It’s All behind Us Now’ looks back at a failed relationship once all the dust has settled.

The sober ‘Everyone Knew But Me’ is about the depressing enlightenment of a man once blinded by love and fooled by a cheating spouse he thought was an “angel”.

There are a couple of story songs, the better of which is the compelling mining saga ‘Shortcut To The Streets Of Gold’. The gloomy ‘Sweet Jessie Brown’ is about a girl whose youthful dreams of fame are derailed by love and motherhood, and who is then driven to suicide by the loss of her child.

The likeable fiddle led ‘That’s What I Like About Texas’ paints a rosy picture of the musical life of the Lone Star State, and is performed as a duet with veteran Johnny Bush.

‘Cowboy Lloyd Cross’ is about an Austin maker of cowboy hats, and is not all that interesting.

Overall, an excellent album in retro 60s/70s country style.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Johnny Bush & Darrell McCall – ‘Pick Me Up On Your Way Down’

Also spot the great Buddy Emmons playing steel guitar.

Five songs and some recollections from 1968

Although I had been listening to country music all of my life, 1968 was the first time I ever really focused on the genre.

There were several reasons for this, including the fact that with part-time and summer jobs I had some spending money for the first time in my life. One of my jobs was in Virginia Beach where there was a record store next door that actually carried a decent selection of country 45s.

The summer of 1968 may have been “the Summer of Love” for many but in my opinion pop music had started getting a bit weird for my taste so I started keeping my radio on either WCMS in Norfolk (“Where Country Music Swings”) or WTID in Newport News (“Top Gun”). Both of these were AM stations as the FM bands were reserved for classical music.

Mostly I listened to WCMS which was the stronger station (50,000 watts) and had better disc jockeys, folks such as “Hopalong” Joe Hoppel and “Carolina” Charlie Wiggs. Disc jockeys had more latitude in what they played, and local listener requests figured heavily in airplay. While I won’t pretend that the radio stations were perfect (there were lots of dumb commercials and sometimes really silly contests),radio station DJs could play records by local artists and other non-charting records without running afoul of corporate mucky-mucks. Local DJ Carolina Charlie had two records in “Pound By Pound” and “Angel Wings” in 1968 that received frequent airplay on WCMS and also received airplay on other stations throughout the area in which Charlie played live shows.

Most of the larger country radio stations had their own top forty charts and many of them had a local countdown show on Saturday or Sunday afternoon. At one time I had several years worth of top forty charts for WCMS AM-1050. Mom, God rest her soul, threw them out long ago without telling me, so to some extent I am operating on memory but there were five songs that were huge hits in the Norfolk area in 1968 that have stuck in my memory, songs that were not necessarily big hits nationally, but that the local audiences, composed largely of US military personnel and families loved (there were three local Navy bases plus an army base).

Undo The Right”, sung by Johnny Bush and written by Johnny’s good buddy Willie Nelson, was a big hit nationally, reaching #10 on Billboard’s Country chart. In the Norfolk area, the song was huge staying at the #1 slot for five weeks. The song, with its heavy dose of fiddle and steel, was more country sounding than 95% of the songs (mostly countrypolitan or Nashville Sound productions) to chart that year. The single was issued on Pete Drake’s Stop label and led to Bush being signed to RCA, where a mysterious throat problem derailed his career for a number of years

The big hits basically had long since stopped by 1968 for George Morgan, although “Sounds of Goodbye”, released on the Starday label, might have become a big national hit for him had not two other artists recorded the song, thus splitting the hit. Although the song only reached #31 nationally, it did spark off a bit of a renaissance for Morgan. In the Norfolk area the song was a top five hit, reaching #2. The song, probably the first hit on an Eddie Rabbitt composition, also charted for Tommy Cash at #41 and was a top twenty hit for Cash on the Canadian Country charts. Vern & Rex Gosdin had a successful record with the song on the west coast of the US in late 1967. Cashbox had the song reach #15 but their methodology in 1968 was to combine all versions of the song into a single chart listing. I’ve heard the Gosdins’ version of the song, but Tommy Cash’s version for United Artists never made it to an album and I’ve never found a copy of the single, so I’ve not heard his recording.

“Got Leavin’ On Her Mind” was probably my favorite recording of 1968. Written by the legendary Jack Clement, the song was issued on the MGM label by newly minted Country Music Hall of Fame member Mac Wiseman. As far as I know, the song was a ‘one-off’ for MGM and Wiseman. Long known as “the voice with a heart” and a legendary bluegrass singer, this record had the feel of bluegrass without actually being a bluegrass record in that the instrumentation was standard country without Nashville Sound trappings. Bluegrass artists rarely have huge chart hits and this was no exception, reaching only #54 for Mac. In the Norfolk area, demand for the single was strong and while it only reached #5 on the WCMS charts, the record store I frequented had difficulty keeping the record in stock, reordering new supplies of the single on several occasions.

Carl and Pearl Butler were archaic even when their music was new, but “Punish Me Tomorrow” seemed to catch the ears of the servicemen in our area. It only reached #28 nationally, but it was top ten on WCMS and might have reached higher but the DJs on WCMS made the mistake of playing the flip side “Goodbye Tennessee” resulting in the station receiving a lot of requests for that song, too.

Drinking Champagne” went top ten on WCMS, anticipating by four years the huge success that Cal Smith would achieve starting in 1972. Written by legendary disc jockey Bill Mack, the song reached #35 on Billboard’s country chart but went to #1 for a week on WCMS. Years later George Strait would have a successful record with the song. Cal’s was the better version and this might have been a huge national hit if released a few years later after Smith hit the big time.

I realize that most of our readership wasn’t born in 1968 and if they think about country music in 1968 at all, it is for pop-country singles like “Honey“, “Harper Valley PTA” and the various Glen Campbell and Sonny James singles that received some pop airplay. There were good solid country records being made but aside from the aforementioned and some Johnny Cash recordings, they weren’t receiving pop airplay. In 1968 there were large sections of the country that had no country stations at all; moreover, many country stations went off the air at sundown or cut power significantly so that they reached only the most local of audiences.

Classic Rewind: Darrell McCall and Johnny Bush – ‘I Can’t See Texas From Here’

Album Review: Jeff Chance – ‘Between The Sheets’

between the sheetsOnetime Curb artist Jeff Chance reportedly died a few years ago but it looks as if various recordings were on the shelf and have now come to light.  He was a solidly traditional country singer in the Texas dancehall tradition, perhaps not the most subtle of vocalists but an emotionally convincing one.  I was a big fan of his two albums for Curb, and was delighted to come across this; it was apparently released last year but has only just come my way.

‘Sad Eyed Lady’ is a well-written regretful ballad with the narrator begging for forgiveness for the way he has hurt his loved one, and begging her not to leave. The steel-laden arrangement and strong vocal make this a delight.  A contrasting story is told in ‘Soft Eyes’, the possessor of which is trying to get back together with an unsympathetic protagonist, who is once burned, twice shy.

The wistful yearning for a ‘Storybook World’ is quite pretty, if a little cutesy with some of its metaphors.  But I do like its rueful lament that

 You don’t always get what’s in your dreams

I wish that we could be like we were before

Living in a storybook world forevermore

‘Living Like Tomorrow Is Another Glass Of Wine’ offers a somber warning to a honky tonk angel ex that she can’t escape her past.

The title track is a witty, somewhat bawdy take on a tired relationship, with the frustrated protagonist complaining:

Lovin’ ain’t a game to see who goes o sleep

Silence is a virtue

But not between the sheets

He ends with a languid spoken plea to “think about it., darlin’’.

The valedictory ‘Saddle Up And Ride’ is also very good, with yearning steel guitar as a wearied Chance accepts that a relationship is over.

‘The Waitress Song’ paints a fond portrait of the listening skills of a woman working in an all-night cafe, and reminds listeners to leave a tip.

‘Those Old Country Songs’ is a fond appreciation of the genre we love.  Veteran Johnny Bush (a fine singer in his own right, albeit one showing his age) joins Chance on ‘Country’, another appreciation of the music “that is what the whole world needs”.

It seemed particularly fitting that there was a reference in it to Whiskey River, which Bush wrote.

Labelmate Jeff Woolsey, whose voice is decent but not spectacular, with quite a strong vibrato, takes the lead on a couple of songs.  I quite enjoyed the entertaining mid-tempo ‘Number 3’, which denies another chance to a cheating ex.  ‘Lonesome’s My Friend’, also featuring Woolsey on vocals, is even better, a classic styled lonesome ballad about a breakup which is very good indeed.

A third guest vocalist, Donny Sawyer, takes over for ‘I’m So Lonesome Livin’ Without You’, a pleasant mid-tempo number but not a very memorable one.

If you’re tired of current trends in country radio, this is a refreshing reminder of the way things used to be: unpretentious, straightforward, good country music.

Grade: A-

Ray Price Remembered

Ray PriceWith the recent passing of legendary singer Ray Price, the chapter closes on the last of the great male honky-tonk singers of the 1950s. At times overshadowed by contemporaries such as Webb Pierce, Carl Smith, Faron Young, Ferlin Husky and Hank Locklin, Ray Price adapted and persevered, outlasting all of his contemporaries and continuing as an active performer until the end of 2012. His singles and albums encompassed a wide array of styles from shuffles, western swing and pure honky-tonk through to “Nashville Sound”, countrypolitan and pure classic pop standards. Willie Nelson calls him the greatest country singer ever and he certainly is in the top two or three for many of his fellow country artists.

Along the way he left a catalog brimming full of great music, charting 109 singles along the way, with 80 of them reaching the top forty and 46 reaching the top ten.

Born in 1926, and labeled as the “Cherokee Cowboy” because he hailed from Cherokee County Texas, Ray Price was part of what Tom Brokaw called the Greatest Generation, serving in the US Marines from 1944-1946 before starting his musical career in Dallas in 1948, recording a few singles for the small Bullet label.

Price’s big break came when he moved to Nashville, signing in late 1951 with Columbia Records and becoming the roommate and only real protégé of Hank Williams. When Hank died on New Years Day 1953, Ray inherited Hank’s band, the “Drifting Cowboys”, which was renamed and expanded to become the “Cherokee Cowboys”.

The hits started coming shortly after Price after signing with Columbia starting with 1953’s “Talk To Your Heart” which reached #3 on Billboard’s DJ charts. From that point through 1989 at least one of Rays singles would appear on the country charts every year.

Always a bit of a contrarian, when Rock ‘n Roll was beginning to hurt country music, Ray hit it really big with the retro sounds of “Crazy Arms” which featured a heavy bass, twin fiddles and introduced the world to the ‘Ray Price 4/4 beat’. “Crazy Arms” topped the charts for 20 weeks in 1956, staying on the charts for 45 weeks. For the next few years Ray scored big with such hard-core honky-tonk classics as “You Done Me Wrong”, I’ve Got A New Heartache”, “Heartaches By The Number”, “City Lights” and “Heart Over Mind”.

In 1963, having proved to the world that it was indeed possible to sell hard-core country in the age of rock ‘n roll and the “Nashville Sound”, Ray changed directions and started softening his sound with “You Took Her Off My Hands (Now Please Take Her Off My Mind)” followed by “Make The World Go Away” and a bluesy number written by a fellow who had been in his band, Willie Nelson. That song “Night Life” kicked off a new direction of more heavily orchestrated sounds for Ray culminating in his huge 1970 record “Grazing In Greener Pastures” b/w “For The Good Times”. This record sold close to a million copies and the B-side “For The Good Times” reached #11 on Billboard all genres chart.

The top ten records ended for Ray in 1975 by which time he was forty-nine years old, but Ray kept recording and experimenting giving exposure to new songwriters and following his own muse. Eventually Ray returned to his honky-tonk roots in his live performances

Ray Price was an innovator and collector/developer of new talent recording songs from new songwriters and giving valuable stage experience to new talent during his earlier days. Ray was among the first to record songs by Bill Anderson, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Conway Twitty. Among the future stars of country music to pass through his band were singers Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, Darrell McCall, Van Howard, Johnny Paycheck and Johnny Bush,and instrumentalists Buddy Emmons, Pete Wade, Jan Kurtis, Shorty Lavender and Buddy Spicher.

I could rattle on about the albums of Ray Price but will simply say that each album contains its share of treasures, although I am especially fond of his 1980 album with Willie Nelson, San Antonio Rose which contains one of my all-time favorite tracks the exquisite “Faded Love” with Ray and Willie joined by Crystal Gayle as part of a trio on the choruses.

In 2007 Ray and fellow legends Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard recorded an album, Last of The Breed and toured in support of the album.

Now the great Ray Price is gone, truly the last of the breed.

Willie Nelson: the country duet albums

Whatever else one may think about Willie Nelson, there are two things that are absolutely true about the man – he has a strong sense of the history of the genre and he believes in paying it forward and back.

Take a stroll through the sales pages of a website such as CD Baby and count the number of country albums by unheralded artists that feature a track or two in which Willie Nelson does a guest duet or harmony vocal. As for duet albums, Willie has recorded more duet albums than most regular duos record in their career.

In this article we will take a look at some of the many duet albums that Willie has recorded with other country artists. We won’t be looking at the albums he cut with Ray Price (someone else will do that article) and we won’t be looking at the albums that Willie cut with artists outside the genre such as Ray Charles, Julio Iglesias, Wynton Marsailles, Leon Russell or Norma Jones. This will be country music – period.

1) Willie Nelson & Roger Miller – Old Friends (Columbia, 1982)

Willie Nelson and Roger Miller (1936-1992) were contemporaries and old friends who both played in Ray Price’s band. Roger was a unique talent, perhaps the greatest entertainer the world has ever seen. Roger barely needed even a guitar to keep an audience enthralled for hours, but before breaking through as a performer, he was a solid country songsmith, writing hits for other singers such as Jim Reeves and Ray Price.

This album, partially recorded at Willie’s Pedernales Recording Studio and using Willie’s band augmented by a few extra musicians such as Johnny Gimble (fiddle and mandolin), Grady Martin (guitar) and Jimmy Day (steel guitar) has the sound of a Willie Nelson album but all of the material is associated with Roger Miller (Roger wrote all ten songs, one a co-write with Bill Anderson). Staying away from the obvious Miller hits (most of them novelties that don’t lend themselves to duets) Willie and Roger tackle Roger’s solid classics that were hits for others such as “Invitation To The Blues” (Ray Price), “Half A Mind” (Ernest Tubb) “When Two Worlds Collide” (Jim Reeves) and “Husbands & Wives” (a hit for Roger, Jack Jones, Brooks & Dunn and also recorded by many others such as Neil Diamond). The single released from the album, “Old Friends”, also featured Ray Price, and scraped into the top twenty. Oddly enough only three of the songs are actual duets at all (Roger solos on three songs, including the only novelty on the album “Aladambama”, and Willie solos on four songs), but they do represent an enlightening dip into the Roger Miller song-bag.

2) Willie Nelson & Faron Young – Funny How Time Slips Away (Columbia, 1985)

Faron Young (1932-1996), although only a year older than Willie, had already been a star for six-plus years when Willie hit Nashville. Faron gave Willie his first two big breaks as a songwriter: he recorded “Hello Walls” (a million seller in 1961) and he refused to let Willie (the proverbial starving songwriter) sell him the song for $500, lending him the money instead. At the time, Faron had already seen the preliminary sales figures for the song and knew the songwriters’ royalties would be thousands of dollars. Willie never forgot this and the two remained friends until the end of Faron’s life. Faron would have hits on several other songs written by Willie and this album features most of them.

Side one of the album featured six songs written by Willie Nelson of which three (“Hello Walls”, “Congratulations” and “Three Days” were hits for Faron). Side two of the record features five of Faron’s hits supplied by other songwriters (“Live Fast – Love Hard – Die Young”, “Sweet Dreams” , “Four In The Morning” ,
“Life Turned Her That Way” and “Going Steady”, plus the title track – written by Willie but not a Faron Young hit.

This album was released in 1985. By then Faron’s 22 year run at the top of the charts was long over, but Faron could still sing. Consequently, even though this album was recorded at Pedernales studio, the musicians are Nashville session men and the album does not come across as a Willie Nelson album, but as a true collaborative effort. Faron solos on “Four In The Morning” and Willie solos on “She’s Not For You” but the rest is duets including possibly the best versions you’ll ever hear on “Hello Walls” and “Funny How Time Slips Away”.

3) Willie Nelson & Webb Pierce – In The Jailhouse Now (Columbia 1982)

Webb Pierce (1921-1991) was the biggest star in country music during the decade of the 1950s and remained a viable star until about 1967, after which time his high nasal style permanently fell out of vogue (except in bluegrass music). Most observers have failed to see Willie’s connection with Webb Pierce, who never recorded any of Willie’s songs, except as album cuts, and never had any working relationship with Webb, and it is a bit tenuous to see the connection, although Willie’s vocal phrasing and pinched nasal vibrato seem influenced by Webb’s vocals of the 1950s.

This album features duets on nine of Webb’s 1950s recordings, including Webb’s mega-hits “Slowly”, “There Stands The Glass”, More and More”, “Wondering” , “I Don’t Care” and “Back Street Affair” (a sextet of songs that spent eighty weeks at #1) plus three more songs that appeared on Webb’s albums and one new song written by Willie Nelson, Webb Pierce and Max Powell , the bluesy “Heebie Jeebie Blues #2” . The album was recorded at Pedernales Studio using Willie’s band augmented by Johnny Gimble, Grady Martin, Jimmy Day, Leon Russell and Richard Manuel.

The only single released from the album, “In The Jailhouse Now” barely dented the charts at #72, but Webb’s voice had dropped enough in pitch to make him an effective duet partner for Willie. Both singers obviously had fun recording this album and I regard this as the most effective of Willie’s major label duet albums.

Willie Nelson & Curtis Potter – Six Hours At Pedernales (Step One Records, 1994)

Curtis Potter (1940 – ) is part of the Willie’s Texas connection, having served as Hank Thompson’s band leader from 1959-1971 and one of Willie’s circle of friends including Johnny Bush, Darrell McCall and who knows how many others. Curtis never became a big star outside of his native Texas but he is an impressive singer and he and Willie harmonize well on this collection of country songs. Produced by Ray Pennington, the in-house producer at Step One Records, this collection features three songs written by Pennington, three written by Nelson, plus some outside material. This album features none of Willie’s band members, aiming instead for a Texas Swing/Honky-Tonk feel with outstanding fiddle work by Rob Hajacos and steel by Buddy Emmons.

For me the highlights are “The Party’s Over” and “My Own Peculiar Way” in which Willie and Curtis swap verses on a pair of Willie classics, and Willie’s solo turn on Ray Pennington’s “Turn Me Loose and Let Me Swing”. That said, I really like this entire album. It’s been in my car CD player for the last week.

4) Willie Nelson & Johnny Bush – Together Again (Delta Records, 1982)

Delta Records is a long-defunct Texas independent label that never had much distribution outside of Texas and had some of its inventory confiscated by the IRS during Willie’s tax problem days. Johnny Bush Shinn (1935 – ) is a long-time friend of Willie’s dating back to the 1950s. Both were in Ray Price’s band and have been members of each other’s bands at various times.

This twelve song album features ten duets plus Johnny Bush solos on “Driving Nails In My Coffin” and his own “Whiskey River” (taken at a very different tempo than Willie usually performs it). The album opens up with the Buck Owens classic “Together Again” and works its way through a solid program of songs including the Paul Simon song “Still Crazy After All These Years” plus Willie Nelson tunes “I Let My Mind Wander”, “I’ve Just Destroyed The World I’m Living In” , “The Party’s Over” and “My Own Peculiar Way”.

“Whiskey River” was released as a single just denting the top 100, and “You Sure Tell It Like It Is, George Jones” was also released as a single, although it didn’t chart (it is a great track). “The Party’s Over is a standout track as is “The Sound of A Heartache”, a song written by Johnny Bush.

The album was recorded at Willie’s Pedernales Studio, but produced by Johnny Bush. Willie’s band was not used on this album, so the sound is more that of a conventional country band. This album was recorded after Johnny was struck with spastic dysphonia so he was not at his vocal peak , but still he was still a tremendous singer, if not quite the ‘country Caruso’ (later medical discoveries would restore him to peak condition).

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Album Review – Willie Nelson – ‘Shotgun Willie’

220px-Shotgun_WillieAfter the release of The Willie Way in 1972, Willie Nelson opted not to resign with RCA Records, thus terminating his seven-year relationship with the label. He retreated to Austin, Texas for what was supposed to be a short trip, but found the bourgeoning hippie scene at Armadillo World Headquarters so enlightening that it had a profound effect on his musical style. Back in Nashville, he met Atlantic Records Vice President Jerry Wexler at a party who then signed Nelson as the first act under Atlantic’s newly formed country division.

The sessions for Shotgun Willie began in New York City (where Wexler rented Nelson a studio) in February 1973. The initial sessions yielded the tracks that would become his 1976 album The Troublemaker plus early sides for Shotgun Willie. Nelson was still feeling uninspired after these preliminary sessions, but found the motivation he needed after penning what would become the album’s title song on a sanitary napkin rapper in his hotel bathroom. Turkish-American music producer Arif Mardin oversaw most of the sessions while Wexler and David Briggs also shared production duties. Sessions for the project also took place in Nashville as well as Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee.

The significance of Shotgun Willie cannot be overstated – it was one of the original albums of the outlaw movement, a revolt against the slick pop-heavy Nashville Sound that was dominant at the time. National sales of the album were poor upon release that June, although in Austin it sold more copies than most of Nelson’s earlier recordings did nationwide.

Atlantic chose the title track as the lead single and it peaked at #60 on the Billboard Country Chart. The song tells the story of real-life domestic abuse suffered by Nelson’s daughter Lana. When Nelson confronted Lana’s husband, he threatened to kill him if he ever hit Lana again. Lana’s husband retaliated by shooting at Nelson’s house with his brothers, only to have Nelson fight back by shooting at their truck, thus ending the incident. It’s a fairly simple song given the subject matter, with Nelson singing, ‘You can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothing to say,’ referring to his anguish over the recording sessions. The production is nice and understated, with acoustic guitars and drums framing Nelson’s confident vocal.

A cover of Bob Willis’ “Stay All Night (Stay A Little Longer)” was the second and final single peaking at #22. Nelson’s version is very good even though it scarifies the track’s western swing elements in favor of a jaunty barroom arrangement complete with a chorus of backup singers. His vocal could’ve also been stronger, as he seems to mumble a bit throughout, but it does add a nice effect to the whole proceedings.

Nelson’s original studio recording of “Whiskey River” was on Shotgun Willie, coming a year after Johnny Bush’s (who co-wrote the song with Paul Stroud) #17 peaking hit. Nelson would release the song from Willie and Family Live five years later and it would become his signature tune. The studio recording is very similar to the live one, but lacking in the famous boisterous energy Nelson is known for with the song. It’s still excellent and a nice alternate interpretation to the smoothness of Bush’s take.

“Bubbles In My Beer” was a second Willis’ cover and a song that became a country music standard shortly after Willis and his Texas Playboys first recorded it in 1947, taking it to #4 on the charts. Co-written by Cindy Walker, Thomas Duncan, and Willis it’s the drinking song that started the classic theme of drowning your sorrows in a barroom. Nelson hits a home run by retaining the western swing elements of the song while also updating it for the modern audience.

Keith Whitley covered “Sad Songs and Waltzes” in 1982 although it first saw CD release in 2000 as the title track to a compilation of his pre-fame recordings. Nelson’s original is phenomenal, with acoustic guitars and pedal steel framing his gorgeously deep vocal. He gives a more understated reading than Whitley, and his conversational tone has a hymn-like effect that helps the track stand out.

Leon Russell wrote “You Look Like The Devil,” a simple no-frills traditional country number complete with Steel and acoustic guitars. He also penned the American standard “A Song for You,” which closes the album. Nelson’s take is slow, with just a simple acoustic guitar backdrop, but it allows him to shine vocally, giving the track an everyman feel that draws the listener in to the story.

“Local Memory” is beautifully simple number with nice acoustic guitar, steel, and drums giving Nelson a gently rolling mid-tempo arrangement to compliment his warm vocal. It’s an excellent track, even when Nelson descends to near whisper at the end of the second verse, just before the melody picks up again.

“Slow Down Old World” has an elegant opening of Spanish-infused guitar that gives way to a wonderful mix of acoustic guitar and steel. Nelson’s vocal is sharp and confident giving off an intimacy between Nelson and the listener. “Slow Down Old World” is easily one of Nelson’s finest moments.

“Devil In My Sleeping Bag” gives the middle of the album a nice dose of pep, infusing acoustic guitars and drums in a sunny feel good arrangement. It’s an excellent story song about his return to Austin but the chorus becomes a little prodding with Nelson’s exaggerated twang putting a damper on the listening experience. “She’s Not for You” is a typical Nelson ballad, with his usually sleepy vocal, but the production (complete with steel, guitars, and drums) helps to nicely lift the song out of the doldrums of being another slow number. “So Much to Do” is also slow, but the fantastic lyric makes up for any shortcomings in the production:

My oatmeal tastes just like confetti

The coffee’s too strong so forget it

The toast is burning

Well let it

There’s just so much to do

Since you’ve gone

Too much to do all alone

Shotgun Willie may’ve only peaked at #41, but it remains one of Nelson’s most important albums, a project that “cleared his throat” as he later said. The project is a masterpiece not because of the Outlaw Movement it inspired, but on it’s own merit – song for song, vocal for vocal it’s spot on. The arrangements let the songs have their own life and Nelson once again proves his incredible talents at crafting simple yet effecting songs. Shotgun Willie stands out because it doesn’t pander to any ideals – it just stands on its own as an understated gem. If you’re only familiar with Nelson’s more popular recordings from the mid to late 70s, go and pick this one up. You’ll witness a singer/songwriter in his prime, who’s stumbled upon the authentic identity that would help cement his place in not just country, but American music history.

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.

Favorite country songs of the 1980s, Part 1

The 1980s were a mixed bag, with the early 1980s producing some of the lamest country music ever recorded, as the Urban Cowboy movie wrecked havoc on the genre. Fortunately, there was still good country music being released. The first flowering of the late 1980s “New Traditionalist” movement arrived in 1981 with the first hits of Ricky Skaggs and George Strait, but they remained outliers until 1986 as far as good new artists were concerned. The latter part of the decade, however, produced some truly excellent country music with the 1986 arrival of Randy Travis and company.

This list is meant neither to be a comprehensive list of great country songs from the 1980s, nor any sort of ranking of records. It’s just a list of some songs that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records.

If You’re Gonna Play In Texas (You Gotta Have A Fiddle In The Band)“ – Alabama
Alabama made excellent music during the 1980s, although the country content of some of it was suspect. Not this song, which is dominated by fiddle. One of the few up-tempo Alabama records that swings rather than rocks.

I’ve Been Wrong Before” – Deborah Allen
An accomplished songwriter who wrote many hits for others, particularly with Rafe VanHoy, this was one of three top ten tunes for Ms. Allen, reaching #2 in 1984. This is much more country sounding than her other big hit “Baby I Lied”.

Last of The Silver Screen Cowboys” – Rex Allen Jr.
After some success as a pop-country balladeer, Rex Jr. turned increasing to western-themed material as the 1980s rolled along. This was not a big hit, reaching #43 in 1982, but it featured legendary music/film stars Roy Rogers and Rex Allen Sr. on backing vocals.

“Southern Fried” – Bill Anderson
This was Whispering Bill’s first release for Southern Tracks after spending over twenty years recording for Decca/MCA. Bill was no longer a chart force and this song only reached #42 in 1982, but as the chorus notes: “We like Richard Petty, Conway Twitty and the Charlie Daniels Band”.

Indeed we do. Read more of this post

Favorite country songs of the 1970s: Part 5

For part five of this series, as always, just some songs I liked, one song per artist, not necessarily the biggest hit, (although I feel free to comment on other songs by the artist).

Let’s All Go Down To The River” – Jody Miller & Johnny Paycheck (1972)

A nice country cover of an old gospel song – how could you go wrong with this duo? Jody Miller would have a number of hits during the 1970s, although her single biggest record was in 1965 when “Queen of The House” (an answer song to Roger Miller’s “King of The Road”) went #12 pop / #5 country. I don’t know that Jody viewed herself as a country singer, but she had a sassy & sexy voice and was quite easy on the eyes.

Tom Green County Fair” – Roger Miller (1970)

Roger Miller’s career had largely run out of steam by this time, but the imagery in this song makes it one of my favorites. Alas, this song only reached #38. Roger would experience a significant renaissance in the mid-1980s writing the music for the Broadway play Big River.

Music Box Dancer” – Frank Mills (1979)

I have no idea why this song charted country as Frank Mills was an orchestra leader and this instrumental song was no more country than Lady Gaga. It was a huge pop hit reaching #3 and selling millions in the process.

Pure Love” – Ronnie Milsap (1974)

Written by Eddie Rabbitt, this was Ronnie’s first #1. How can you not like a song that contains a line like “Milk and honey and Captain Krunch and you in the morning?”

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Favorite country songs of the 1970s: part 1

A revised and expanded version of a post first published on The 9513:

The 1970s were not my favorite decade for country music but it was the decade in which I did my largest amount of listening to country radio, having the good fortune to have such country giants as WSUN AM- 620 in St. Petersburg, FL, WHOO AM-1090 in Orlando and WCMS AM-1050 in Norfolk, VA for my listening pleasure, plus I could tune in WSM AM – 650 in Nashville at night. I did a lot of shift-work during this decade so my radio was on constantly.  This list is meant neither to be a comprehensive list of great country songs from the 1970s, nor any sort of ranking of records. It’s just a list of some songs that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records:

Cowboy Convention” – Buddy Alan

A silly record with some great trumpet work, “Cowboy Convention” is a cover of a Lovin’ Spoonful record from the mid 60s, about the villains of the silent movie era who were always tying Sweet Nell to the railroad track. The Buddy Alan title credit on the label is misleading as this is really a Buddy Alan/Don Rich duet with the Buckaroos. Buddy Alan, of course, is the son of Buck Owens. Read more of this post

25 Greatest Live Country Albums

All readers of this website are fans of recorded music. I would assume that most also enjoy seeing and hearing music performed live. After all, there is electricity which permeates a live performance, the interaction of performer and audience coupled with the ambiance of the venue. Tempos are usually faster, there is banter between the performer and the band and/or audience, and often songs are performed that never are recorded by the artist.

That said, it can be very difficult to capture that electricity and the landscape is littered with poor live recordings, victims of either poor recording technology, poor venue acoustics or sub-par backing bands (I had a cassette copy – probably a bootleg – of a live Chuck Berry performance in France where he was backed by what was essentially a polka band, complete with tuba and accordion). Below is my  listing of the greatest live country albums.  My list is solid country, without too many fellow travelers such as Americana or alt-country artists. I may admire John Prine and Townes Van Zandt as songwriters but I cannot stand to listen to either of them sing. The less said about the Eagles and Gram Parsons, the better.  In putting my list together, I’ve limited any given artist to one album, although I may comment on other live albums issued by the artist.

Yes, I know that bluegrass and western swing are underrepresented in my list as are modern era artists, although if I expanded to a top forty list, I’d have albums by Alabama, Tracy Lawrence, Tom T. Hall, Brad Paisley, The Osborne Brothers, Glen Campbell, Bob Wills, Hank Thompson, Rhonda Vincent and Hank Williams to include. Moreover, over time there have been improvements in recording technology and the sound of live recordings has improved, so sonically, some of the albums I’ve left off will sound better than some I’ve included.

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RIP Hank Cochran

The legendary songwriter Hank Cochran died yesterday. His own singing career is largely forgotten, despite a handful of minor hit singles in the 60s, but country music would have been immeasurably the poorer if not for the many great classics he wrote over the years. Refresh your memory with these former Classic Rewinds.

Other personal favorites of mine are ‘I know An Ending When It Comes’, originally recorded by Merle Haggard but revived by Gene Watson just last year, Buck Owens’ classic ‘A-11’, and Johnny Bush’s ‘Undo The Right’. He also wrote a number of the great Vern Gosdin’s finest songs, including ‘Set ‘Em Up Joe’, ‘Is It Raining At Your House’ and ‘There Ain’t Nothing Wrong (Just Ain’t Nothing Right)’.

In the 80s Hank wrote these two hit songs with Dean Dillon – on the same day:

Album Review: Amber Digby – ‘Another Way To Live’

Amber Digby has earned herself a reputation as one of the finest young singers of traditional country music. Her fourth album is produced by the artist herself with husband Randy Lindley and Justin Trevino, like last year’s excellent Passion, Pride And What Might Have Been, with the same reliable production values reminiscent of the best 1960s country with lashings of fiddle and steel and a song selection policy majoring in heartbreak.

This record marks a departure of sorts in that hitherto, Amber has recorded almost exclusively revivals of older songs. Now for the first time she includes three songs she has co-written herself, but they remain firmly in the honky tonk tradition. The best of these is ‘After It Breaks’, which she wrote with Dan Powers, a classic-sounding emotional sad song with a genuinely affecting vocal performance:

With you I dealt with heartache at every turn
I witnessed true love all but crash and burn
Maybe now my soul will find the time
To get rest and find some peace of mind
Since you don’t come around here anymore
Cause I’ve cried over you just long enough
To wash away the pain no one can touch
Now gettin’ over you should be easy to take
Cause a heart don’t hurt as much after it breaks

This lovely song is the highlight of the album. Had it been written in 1965, it might now be regarded as a country classic.

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