My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Johnny Mullins

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Blue Kentucky Girl’

51i+XrdZe0L._SS280By 1965, with three consecutive Top 5 hits under her belt, Loretta Lynn was on a hot streak and well on her way towards becoming country music’s next big female star. “Blue Kentucky Girl”, which was written by Johnny Mullins, who had also penned her breakthrough hit “Success”, didn’t fare quite as well on the charts but still finished at a very respectable #7. It’s one of my favorites of Loretta’s early recordings and is interesting today for a couple of reasons, aside from just being a very good song: the use of the banjo was quite unusual for the era, when the lush Nashville Sound was at its peak. It’s also notable because we are still seeing Loretta in the role of the downtrodden woman, who is pining for her man who has been lured away — at least temporarily — by the bright lights of the city. She would continue in this vein for just a little while longer, but soon the public would get to see a more assertive side of Loretta, beginning with 1966’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” and continuing on with “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” and the following year’s “Fist City”.

She asserts herself just a little bit on “Night Girl”, a co-write with Teddy Wilburn, which is one of the album’s four Loretta-penned songs. This one casts her as girl from the wrong side of the tracks who has fallen for rich man, but not enough to sacrifice her pride. She knows he’s ashamed to be seen with her publicly and tells him on no uncertain terms that she’s not willing to partake in a clandestine relationship with him. The pair also wrote “Love’s Been Here and Gone”, a filler song about a dying relationship. Her solo composition “Farther to Go” is similarly unmemorable, although it contains some nice Hank Williams-ish steel guitar licks. The uptempo “Two Steps Forward”, another Loretta original, is quite good. This one finds her trying to work up the nerve — and not quite succeeding — in walking away from a bad relationship.

Like most country albums of the era, Blue Kentucky Girl relies heavily on remakes of other artists’ hits. Though some have been critical of this practice, it is important to remember why it was done. First and foremost, most major stars were releasing at least three albums a year. It would have been difficult to come up enough good original material to fill out that many albums. Covers had the advantage of being already familiar to record buyers, as well as the studio musicians, which meant that they had to spend little or no time learning the songs, which made them relatively inexpensive to record. Loretta does a beautiful job on Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” and Hank Locklin’s “Send Me The Pillow You Dream On”, both of which showcase her voice nicely. Harlan Howard’s “I Won’t Forget You” had been a monster hit for Jim Reeves the previous year, and shows that Loretta was more than capable of handling more polished material. She does an adequate job on George Jones’ “The Race Is On”, but doesn’t really leave her stamp on the song.

Barbara Mandrell once said in an interview that early in her career before she had enough of her own hits to fill out a show, she was advised only to perform hits sung by men, because audiences were bound to make too many comparisons of a woman singing another female artist’s song. Loretta’s cover of “Then and Only Then” illustrates this point nicely. Written by Bill Anderson, it was Connie Smith’s Top 5 follow-up to “Once a Day”. It’s not that Loretta’s version isn’t good – it is and if I’d never heard Connie Smith’s version it might actually be my favorite song on the album. But there is no escaping the fact that it doesn’t really sound much like a Loretta Lynn song and that it still sounds very much like a Connie Smith song, no matter who is singing it.

That being said, I’m not as opposed to covering other artists’ hits as many people are. I consider Blue Kentucky Girl to be Loretta’s strongest album up to that point and I highly recommend it.

Grade: A

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Sings’

loretta lynn singsLoretta Lynn Sings was Loretta Lynn’s debut album on Decca Records. Released in December 1963, the album followed on the heels of an uncharted single 1961 (“I Walked Away From The Wreck”), two 1962 singles including her first chart single “Success”, and another uncharted single (“World of Forgotten People”), and in 1963 another charted single, “The Other Woman”. There would be another single released in 1963, the #4 “Before I’m Over You” (not found on this album) before this album was released.

The album opens up with “Success” written by Johnny Mullins, who was a high school custodian. “Success” was a lament about how a husband’s career success was undermining their marriage. The song went to #6 as would “Blue Kentucky Girl”, another Johnny Mullins-penned song a few years later.

Since Loretta was a new artist that Decca was trying to break into the country markets, this album, more so than most country albums of the time, is full of covers rather than a few covers and some filler.

For many years Jimmy Gateley was the front man for Bill Anderson’s band. He was also an adept song-writer, as “The Minute You’re Gone” proves. Sonny James would have a top ten country hit with the song in 1963, and British rocker Cliff Richard would take the song to #1 on the UK pop charts (and top ten in seven other countries). Needless to say, Loretta sounds nothing like Cliff Richard but her presentation is strong and clear.

Betty Sue Perry would provide Loretta with quite a few songs during the 1960s. “The Other Woman”, not to be mistaken for the Ray Price song of the same title, tells the love triangle story from the perspective of the mistress.

According to Billboard, “Alone With You” was Faron Young’s biggest hit, spending a whopping ten weeks at #1. While I don’t think it was Faron’s biggest seller, it was a great song and Loretta acquits herself well on the song.

“Why I’m Walking” was writing by Stonewall Jackson and Melvin Endsley. A big hit for Stonewall Jackson, it resurfaced decades later as a hit for Ricky Skaggs. Again Loretta acquits herself admirably.

The first of Loretta’s own compositions “The Girl That I Am Now” is next. Although not released as a single, I think it would have made a good single and it demonstrates how proficient Loretta already was as a songwriter. This song is bout a wife who cheated on her husband and is racked by guilt and the hope that he never finds out about what she did.

He loves the girl I used to be
But could he love the girl I am now

I don’t think I need to say anything about the lineage of “Act Naturally’. Loretta tackles the song with aplomb. The instrumental arrangement remains up-tempo but the acoustic guitars have a very hootenanny era feel.

Another Loretta Lynn composition follows, “World of Forgotten People”. I don’t remember it being a hit single for anyone but everybody and his cousin recorded the song including the Osborne Brothers, George Jones, Conway Twitty, Vernon Oxford, The Wilburn Brothers, Ernest Tubb and countless others:

I live in the world world of forgotten people
Who’ve loved and lost their hearts so many times
I’m here in the world of forgotten people
Where every heart is aching just like mine

“The Color of The Blues” was written by George Jones and Lawton Williams and was a hit for George Jones. Lawton Williams, of course, wrote “Fraulein” and “Farewell Party”. Loretta handles the song effectively.

“Hundred Proof Heartache” is another of Loretta’s compositions. This works as an album cut but would not have made a good single for Loretta.

I’ve got a hundred proof heartache and a case of the blues
My baby’s gone and left me I’ve lost all I can lose
I’ve got a hundred proof heartache my world keeps turnin’ round
This hundred proof heartache’s got me down
You waded through my tears and said goodbye
You didn’t seem to care how much I’d cry
You made your home the tavern down the street
And this old heart cries out with every beat

Cindy Walker was a great songwriter, being a favorite writer for Bob Wills, Jack Greene and countless other country stars. “I Walked Away from the Wreck” equates a failed love affair with an automobile accident. Although released as a single, the song did not chart.

Justin Tubb’s “Lonesome 7-7203″ proved to be the only #1 record for Hawkshaw Hawkins, and a posthumous one at that for “The Hawk”, who died in the same plane crash that killed Cowboy Copas and Patsy Cline. The song would also be a hit for Tony Booth about a decade later. Whoever arranged the song took it at a far too slow tempo. Taken at a faster tempo I think Loretta could have really nailed the song.

There was a distinctive “Decca Records” sound during the 1960s that tends to permeate all of the label’s recordings. Since the same studio musicians and same arranger (Owen Bradley) were used on most of the major artists recordings, this is understandable. There was a little bit of an attempt to vary Loretta’s sound through occasional use of banjo or acoustic guitar on Loretta’s recordings but it was still basically a formulaic background production. Set apart Loretta’s recordings was her voice which could never be anything but country, no matter the pop trappings applied to the final product.

Loretta Lynn Sings would reach #2 on Billboard’s country albums chart. This album is a solid B+ but better albums would follow.

Messin’ with my mind

Music has always been a very personal experience for me. And if that sounds a bit redundant or hokey to you, I cannot apologize. I’ve never been one to wear my heart on my sleeve, but you better believe it doesn’t hang out far from my ear. My current state of mind is usually pretty easy to decipher from the recent songs on my playlists. Yeah, I’m pretty transparent like that. My brain has been wired to seek out melodic poetry to state my feelings. I don’t lock myself in a room and blast the twang from my speakers, even when emotions hit harder than usual.  When I begin to feel a little overwhelmed, I like to think I strike a nice medium somewhere in between insane and indifferent. But I guess that’s for the people around me to call.  Still, there are times in life when only your favorite songs will understand the way you feel.

With all that in mind, I invite you to join me on this trip to ex-lover-land with these quintessential country songs.

Dolly Parton – Here You Come Again

Dolly’s husband Carl Dean first recognized the potential in her first pop hit, telling her “that song right there is a million seller.”  Sure enough, when Dolly released it in 1977, it became her first million-selling single.   A somewhat cheesy electric piano intro first grabs your attention, but it’s not long before Parton is pouring one of her strongest vocals ever onto these lyrics that tell of a ex-lover’s effect on her state of mind.  ‘All you gotta do is smile that smile, and there go all my defenses‘ she sings, as her mind stays completely aware of the dire situation her heart is putting her in once again.  But she doesn’t care, her senses are all full up, and the mind will just have to suffer the consequences of the heart’s decision.

Randy Travis – Diggin’ Up Bones

Even though others started the New Traditionalist revival of the 1980s before him, no one better exemplified the sound than Randy Travis.  His debut album Storms of Life is essential listening for any country fan, and personally, I can’t get enough of it.  His second #1 single finds him revisiting a failed marriage through pictures, old love letters, the rings, and even a negligee’, all of which he finds while going through the ‘lonely bedroom of our recent broken home‘.  Allowing the rhythm section to the front separated this kind of traditional country from its old-school counterparts, and created a template for modern traditionalism that has yet to be reestablished.  This was not your father’s country music, but you can both sure enjoy it together, and I dare you not to sing along with those repeating harmonies.

Ronnie Milsap – Back On My Mind Again

I cannot say enough about Ronnie Milsap and his influence on my listening habits.  As one of the first out-of-my-generation acts whose catalog I fell headlong into, his smooth crooning and the diversity of his songs gave me my first real footing into the deep well of country’s backlog of superlative artists.  This contemporary gem is a hybrid of a country shuffle and Urban Cowboy-era countrypolitan.  Following another failed relationship, Milsap sings of recharging his batteries, pulling himself back together, and even starting over with someone new.  Yet none of this can keep thoughts of his ex off his mind.

Emmylou Harris – Blue Kentucky Girl

Loretta Lynn also recorded this Johnny Mullins-penned track, but Harris’ has been in my library lately because of our spotlight artist coverage this month.  Featuring one of the most memorable choruses in memory, this sweetly demure song simply says ‘I don’t care why you left, just come on home’.

Trisha Yearwood – Woman Walk The Line

Even if it didn’t have a cold opening – those get me every time, I swear – this Emmylou Harris co-write would still have grabbed me immediately.  It’s got the kind of immediate one-two punch most ballads only hope to deliver.  In the first couple of lines, we’re instantly transported to the barside table of our narrator as she attempts to ‘do some drinking’ and ‘listen to the band’ to forget the man who’s out doing her wrong.  But that’s all she’s there to accomplish.  Any attempt at picking her up, or even keeping her company, is an exercise in futility. Behind a stone-country arrangement (maybe her most traditional country recording), Yearwood’s masterful vocal breathes new life into this song inspired by Johnny Cash’s signature hit.  Bringing Harris along on harmony, Yearwood proves she’s ‘as good as what you’re thinking‘.  Better, even.

Patty Loveless – Here I Am

Jesus said “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”  Patty Loveless said “Don’t do it darlin, don’t you dare look in there … Cause you know I’m right there waiting for you in the bottom of your glass”  And while they were probably speaking of different life situations, both speak of the folly in looking back.  Playing the part of the all-knowing and all-seeing jilted lover, Patty’s soaring song paints her as the perfect pragmatist, before concluding that pride diminishes with age, oh, and by the way, come back and get me if you want to.

Travis Tritt – Anymore

Power ballads don’t get much more powerful than Travis Tritt’s 1991 mega-hit that also spawned a video trilogy sequence about the life of disabled veteran Mac Singleton and Annie.  Chomping at the bit from the beginning, the acoustic guitar leads the verses as Tritt lets his feelings flow out.  By the time the big, big chorus begins, he’s resolved that he’s ‘got to take the chance or let it pass by‘.  Electric guitars ring and drums bang as Tritt admits ‘I can’t keep pretending I don’t love you anymore‘ in his most passionate vocal.

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Luxury Liner’

1977’s Luxury Liner is the third offering in Emmylou Harris’ discography, excluding 1970’s Gliding Bird. Like its two predecessors, it is an eclectic mix of country and rock-and-roll, relying a little more heavily on cover material than her earlier albums had done. Produced by Brian Ahern and backed by her superb Hot Band, Emmylou pays tribute to everyone from Chuck Berry and her late mentor Gram Parsons to The Carter Family, The Louvin Brothers, and Kitty Wells. Though it failed to produce any Top 5 hits, Luxury Liner reached #1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and is Emmylou’s best-selling solo effort.

Rodney Crowell, Albert Lee, Glen D. Hardin, Emory Gordy Jr. and Ricky Skaggs all make appearances as members of The Hot Band, while Herb Pedersen, Nicolette Larson, Fayssoux Starling, and Dolly Parton lend their voices to the project. The first single was a cover of Chuck Berry’s 1964 hit “You Never Can Tell (C’est La Vie”), which is given a Cajun flavor by Ricky Skaggs on fiddle. It reached #6 on the Billboard country singles chart. For the second single, Emmylou did an about-face and released the very traditional “Making Believe”, a remake of Kitty Wells’ 1955 hit. Emmylou’s version reached #8.

Although only two singles were released, Luxury Liner contains some very well known album cuts. “Hello Stranger”, on which Nicolette Larson chimes in, had been a hit for The Carter Family in the 1930s. Though clearly not in the vein of what country radio was playing in the 1970s, I was surprised to learn that the track had never been released as a single, primarily because of its inclusion on Emmylou’s 1978 compilation album Profile. Also in the traditional vein are Susanna Clark’s “I’ll Be Your Rose of San Antone” and a remake of the Louvin Brothers’ 1955 recording “When I Stop Dreaming,” on which Dolly Parton provides a beautiful harmony vocal. My personal favorite among this set, “When I Stop Dreaming” sowed the seeds for the Trio project which would appear a decade later.

On the more contemporary side are the title track and “She”, both written by Harris’ mentor Gram Parsons (the latter co-written with Chris Etheridge), a pair of Rodney Crowell tunes (“You’re Supposed To Be Feeling Good” and “Tulsa Queen”, which he co-wrote with Emmylou), and a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty”, a tale of two aging Mexican bandits, which would go on to become a #1 smash for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard in 1983.

Warner Bros. remastered and re-released Luxury Liner in 2004, along with two bonus tracks: “Me and Willie” and the excellent “Night Flyer” which was written by Johhny Mullins. Mullins is best known as the writer of “Blue Kentucky Girl” which had been a hit for both Emmylou and Loretta Lynn.

Eclectic albums are hard to pull off; it’s difficult to perform a wide variety of musical styles well. It’s even more difficult to put together such a collection without losing cohesion or alienating fans who prefer one style over another. But Emmylou and the Hot Band move seamlessly from rock to old-time country and everything in between, and even though I consider the two Crowell-penned tunes to be the weakest on the album, there really isn’t a bad song to be found here.

Grade: A

Luxury Liner is available from Amazon and iTunes and is well worth seeking out.

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Greatest Hits’

Loretta Lynn’s success in the 1970s was so great that it somewhat overshadowed the equally worthwhile music that she made in the 1960s. Her first Greatest Hits collection, released by Decca in 1968, provides an excellent sampler of her early work. Though the hits are not presented in sequential order, the album shows her progression from long-suffering wife to outspoken feminist.

The earliest track on the album is 1962’s “Success”, which was her first Top Ten hit. Written by Johnny Mullins, the song tells the story of a couple for whom fame and fortune come at the expense of their relationship.  Rock singer Sinead O’Connor covered the song thirty years later.  Lynn’s next chart hit from 1963 features her in a rare role as “The Other Woman”. Usually Loretta is the wronged wife who confronts the woman who is trying to steal here husband, but in this instance, she’s on the opposite side of the fence, trying to justify her behavior:

But you gave him the right to seek that other woman
And you know who was first to cheat on who
I just accepted love from him you never wanted
The other woman didn’t steal from you

Peaking at #13, “The Other Woman” is the only song in this collection that didn’t reach the Top 10.

1965’s “The Home You’re Tearin’ Down” is an interesting example of Loretta’s work before she truly found her niche.  Like “The Other Woman”, it was written by Betty Sue Perry, who penned several of Loretta’s early hits.  She is clearly playing the victim here, as she attempts to send her husband’s mistress on a guilt trip by extending an invitation for her to meet the wife and children:

Once some happy faces would have met you at the door,
But since their daddy’s gone so much, they don’t smile anymore.
There’s shattered parts of broken hearts, just scattered all around,
Come over anytime and see the home you’re tearin’ down.

I’ll dry all my tears and have the coffee hot,
‘Cause I can’t sleep a wink no more, time’s all I’ve got
You’ll see the price I’m paying for happiness you’ve found,
Come over anytime and see the home you’re tearin’ down.

Just one year later, Lynn revisited the theme of a conversation between a wife and the other woman, but this time in a self-penned composition that shows her feistier side:

You’ve come to tell me somethin’
You say I ought to know
That he don’t love me anymore
And I’ll have to let him go
You say you’re gonna take him,
Oh, but I don’t think you can,
‘Cause you ain’t woman enough to take my man

“You Ain’t Woman Enough To Take My Man” was Loretta’s biggest hit up to that time, reaching #2 on the Billboard country singles chart. It marks the beginning of the more assertive Loretta that we would see many times in the years to come. It is probably her best remembered hit after “Coal Miner’s Daughter”.

In a similar vein, Lynn’s next single was “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)”, her first #1 hit which she wrote with her sister Peggy Sue Wells. In this tune, Loretta is an angry wife who confronts her drunken husband as he returns from a night on the town. It’s a theme she’d visited earlier, with 1963’s “Wine, Women and Song”, another honky-tonk number written by Betty Sue Perry, and would visit again in 1968 with “Your Squaw Is On The Warpath”, which is not included in this collection.

My favorite song in this collection is 1965’s “Blue Kentucky Girl”, which was written by Johnny Mullins and later covered by Emmylou Harris. It features Lynn as a young woman who is faithfully awaiting the return of her boyfriend and possible fiance who has gone out into the world to seek his fortune. It stands in stark contrast to “If You’re Not Gone Too Long”, in which Loretta promises her love that “I’ll be true to you honey, while you’re gone — if you’re not gone too long.”

Another noteworthy song from this collection is a #4 hit from 1966, “Dear Uncle Sam.” It was largely overshadowed by the bigger hits that followed it, but was recently rediscovered in the wake of the U.S’s wars on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s been somewhat misrepresented as an anti-war protest song by those who opposed these military involvements, but its lyrics are totally apolitical. Its final verse is one of the most dramatic and effective performances of Loretta’s career. She speaks the lyrics as a bugle plays “Taps”:

Dear Uncle Sam,
I just got your telegram
And I can’t believe that this is me,
Shaking like I am
For it said, I’m sorry to inform you …

There are more comprehensive compilations of Loretta’s work available, but for those who are specifically interested in her 1960s material, this one is the best. It is currently out of print, but inexpensive new and used copies can be purchased from third-party sellers on Amazon.

Grade:  A

Spotlight Artist: Loretta Lynn (Part 1)

Our look back at the legends of country music continues as we turn the spotlight on Loretta Lynn.

The story of her hardscrabble origin and subsequent rise to fame is well known. She was born in Van Lear, Kentucky, on April 14 in 1934 or 1935. (There is conflicting information about the year of her birth, but most evidence points to 1934 being the correct year). The second of eight children, she grew up in extreme poverty, “in a cabin on a hill” without electricity or running water. Her father was a coal miner. When she was only 13 years old, she married Oliver “Mooney” Lynn (always referred to as “Doolittle” or “Doo” by Loretta), and gave birth to four of her six children before she was 19.

A year after their marriage, in an effort to break away from poverty-stricken Kentucky, Mooney relocated his young family to Washington State, breaking a promise he’d made to Loretta’s father not to take her too far from home. Mooney’s shortcomings as a husband and father were considerable; however, it was he who recognized Loretta’s potential and practically forced her into the music business. He bought her a $17 guitar for her eighteenth birthday and told her to learn how to play it. She did, and soon was singing in honky-tonks on weekends for $5 a night. Eventually she earned a guest spot on Buck Owens’ television show, which originated from Tacoma, Washington. A wealthy Canadian businessman named Norm Burley saw the show and offered to finance Loretta’s career. He formed a label called Zero Records, and signed Loretta, promising to release her from her contract if she ever managed to secure a deal from a major label.

The Lynns traveled to Los Angeles for Loretta’s first recording session, where she recorded her own compositions “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl” and “Whispering Sea”, which became the A and B sides of her first single. The Lynns themselves mailed out 3,500 copies of the record to radio stations, and traveled by car down the west coast to promote it, visiting radio stations along the way. By July 1960, “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl” had reached #14 in Billboard, and Loretta Lynn was on her way to Nashville.

In October 1960, Loretta made her debut appearance on the Grand Ole Opry and was such a hit with the both the audience and the Opry management, she was invited back for 17 consecutive weekends. She would become an Opry member in 1962. She signed a songwriting and management contract with the Wilburn Brothers, who offered her a spot on their syndicated television show. They also took a demo recording of one her songs to Owen Bradley and secured a six-month contract with Decca Records. Bradley wasn’t initially interested in signing Loretta; he felt she sounded too much like Kitty Wells, who was already on the Decca roster. Bradley was interested in the song on the demo, but the Wilburns would not allow him to have it unless he offered Loretta a contract. Bradley relented and signed Loretta to Decca. The song on the demo, “Fool #1” went on to become a smash pop hit for Brenda Lee.

Loretta’s first release for Decca, “I Walked Away From The Wreck” did not chart, but her next release, Johnny Mullins’ “Success” reached #6. The vast majority of her subsequent releases reached the Top 20, and most of those reached the Top 10. She hit the #1 spot for the first of 16 times in 1966 with “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)”, which she co-wrote with her sister Peggy Sue Wells. The album of the same title became the first by a female country artist to earn gold certification from the RIAA.

In 1970, Loretta released the autobiographical “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, which became her signature hit. Unlike anything she’d previously recorded, it told the story of her humble origins in Kentucky. It became her fourth #1 single and second gold album. Also that year she recorded a duet with Conway Twitty called “After The Fire Is Gone”, which also went to #1 and earned a Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. Her partnership with Twitty was one of the most successful, if not the most successful, duos in country music history.

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