My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Joni Mitchell

Johnny Cash: A Look Back

We lost Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter Cash within months of each other back in 2003, so 2018 marks a very sad 15th-anniversary farewell to the “Man In Black”.

The release last year of UNEARTHED, a nine album 180 gram vinyl box set (originally released on CD two months after his death) of unreleased tracks recorded by Rick Rubin, (it features some interesting pairings such as Fiona Apple providing guest vocals on Cat Stevens’ “Father & Son,” and the late Joe Strummer’s duets with Cash on Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”) provides us with a excuse to take another look back at his career.

While modern country radio has no use for the likes of Johnny Cash, preferring more commercial fodder, other sections of the music industry have kept his music alive, whether on Willie’s Roadhouse (Sirius XM Radio) or through the musical press. Cover bands continue to play his music and while younger so-called country singers play music that bears little connection to country music, his music remains a staple of Roots-Rock, Texas Red-Dirt and Bluegrass performers

Make no mistake about it: Johnny Cash was a huge commercial success, despite his own apparent lack of concern about how commercial his music was at any given moment–Cash’s inquisitive artistry meant that he flitted from realm to realm, sometimes touching down in areas with limited commercial appeal.

Cash had 24 songs reach #1 on the Billboard, Cashbox or Record World country charts (often all three), but unlike more chart-oriented artists including Webb Pierce, Buck Owens, Sonny James, Alabama, Conway Twitty or George Strait, Cash never ran off a long string of consecutive #1s, with his longest streak being four during 1968 when “Roseanna’s Going Wild,” “Daddy Sang Bass,” “A Boy Named Sue,” and his iconic “Folsom Prison Blues” all reached the top of one of the charts.

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Album Review: Wynonna – ‘Her Story: Scenes From A Lifetime’

MI0000488716Wynonna released her only solo live album to date, Her Story: Scenes From a Lifetime, in September 2005. The project was recorded live at the Grand Ole Opry House that winter. The concert traced her musical journey as one half of The Judds to her solo career and beyond.

It’s easy to view Her Story: Scenes From A Lifetime as just another live album, with little stylistic reinterpretation and little new to offer the longtime listener. But to cast it aside is to miss Wynonna at her most confident and self-assured, digging into her vocal prowess like never before. The double album is a rich tapestry perfectly encapsulating her personality through song and story.

Wynonna opened with a gorgeous rendition of “Dream Chaser,” a brilliant album cut that should’ve been a Judds single. She uses her refined grit to full effect on the plucky “Girls Night Out” and adds some bluesy charm to “Love Is Alive.” Wynonna reflects on the Mayberry-esque nature of Judds music before “Young Love” and Carl Perkins’ electric contributions to “Let Me Tell You About Love.”

For her solo music, Wynonna thanked the crowd for helping “She Is His Only Need” hit #1. She remarked on the acts (Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, Billy Dean, etc) that were opening for her as “Tell Me Why” was climbing the charts. A quick story about changing diapers on the tour bus proved a poignant into to “To Be Loved By You.” There wasn’t a story, but she did elevate “No One Else on Earth” to full-fledged arena rock.

My favorite of her solo-revisions is “That Was Yesterday,” a song I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t heard before. Wynonna told the audience of a fan who finally had the courage to leave her abusive husband and as an explanation left that song playing as a loop in the CD player. It’s my favorite vocal on the whole album, a reminder of why Wynonna is one of the greatest singers country music has ever produced. Her control is spellbinding.

Wynonna took liberties with the remainder of the set list. She performed many choice album cuts and a few cover songs. A few of the tunes, “Sometimes I Feel Like Elvis,” “Burnin’ Love” and “I Want to Know What Love Is” came from her What The World Needs Now Is Love album. She reprised “Don’t You Through That Mojo On Me” from The Other Side along with a quick anecdote about Ray Benson’s role in introducing her to the blues (along with giving her, her stage name).

The covers were, not surprisingly, excellent. Wynonna’s tone lends perfectly to Melissa Etheridge’s “I’m The Only One” and Tina Turner’s “The Best.” Just as good is “Help Me,” the Joni Mitchell classic she originally recorded on New Day Dawning.

It wouldn’t be a Wynonna album without a spiritual bent. She becomes her most personal, talking about the father she never met, when introducing “I Can Only Imagine.” I used this recording in college for a presentation on spirituality. She also included “When I Reach The Place I’m Going” (From Wynonna) and “Peace In This House.”

After listening to Her Story, you feel like you know Wynonna just a little bit more. The conversational style she brought to this album brilliantly sets it apart from those cash-grabbing live projects most singers release throughout their careers. This is a full concert and is treated as such. What that in mind it does become cumbersome to listen to the tracks individually and hear the talking before the music. But that’s a small price to pay for the magical night she’s committed to tape. This is the shining example of Wynonna the singer, warts and all.

Grade: A

Album Review: Wynonna – ‘New Day Dawning’

17b866fff09f6964b58b058adcbefa861429d7fde0f7d12d9aefacb45755f8ea_500x500It’s a scenario that’s familiar to every country music fan: an up-and-coming artist breaks through with a traditional record and is heralded as a “savior” that will return the genre to its roots. In interviews, he/she pays homage to Haggard and Jones, etc., etc. Then a few albums down the road, the same artist moves to a more mainstream pop (or at least less country) sound in order to expand his/her commercial appeal. The artist denies doing so, even though it’s blatantly obvious to everyone what’s going on.

Wynonna Judd began distancing herself from country music as soon as The Judds disbanded. It can be argued that The Judds themselves were becoming less traditional with their last two studio albums, but the the process got underway in full when Wynonna launched her solo career. 1997’s The Other Side was a completely non-country album and the same can be said of its follow-up New Day Dawning, which was released in 2000. In Wynonna’s defense, the change in musical styles seems to be less of a crass grab for pop airplay and more of a reflection of her true musical tastes. Unfortunately, her tastes are at odds with mine, which makes New Day Dawning difficult to review fairly. I’ll admit to feeling irritated while listening to it, not so much because it isn’t country, but because it was marketed as country. While artists have every right to experiment with other styles, it would be nice if they would occasionally throw a bone to the country fans who supported them from the beginning by including one or two more traditional songs on their albums. It rarely happens, though, and it certainly does not happen here.

New Day Dawning finds Wynonna working with a new production team — James Stroud and Gary Nicholson — and sharing production duties for the first time. This is not a country album, nor is it an Americana or roots album. It’s mid tempo soft rock similar to what is played on the radio stations playing in the background in any dentist’s office. If you like synthesizers, saxophones and horns, this is the album for you. While there are some country elements on the opening track and the album’s second single “Going Nowhere”, but they are drowned out by the “nah-nah” background vocals. Still, it is catchy and the logical choice for a single. Country radio wasn’t impressed; the single stalled at #43.

Overall, I liked the album’s ballads better than the mid- and up-tempo numbers. “Can’t Nobody Love You (Like I Do)” is a pretty, AC-leaning number that served as the album’s lead single. It seems like an odd choice for a lead single, though, and it only peaked at #31. “Learning to Live With Love Again”, written by Gary Nicholson and Mike Reid is also quite good, and so is “Who Am I Trying To Fool”, although I would have greatly preferred it without the intrusive synthesizer.

The title track is one of the album’s better uptempo cuts — more Memphis than Nashville — but the background vocals sometimes border on bombastic. I disliked the funky “Chain Reaction”, another Nicholson co-write, even though it actually has some fiddle on it. Before I even heard “Tuff Snuff”, I was annoyed by the spelling. It’s a remake of a 1986 song by the blues rock band The Fabulous Thunderbirds. Wynonna’s voice is too husky on this one; she seems to be singing at the very bottom of her register, the complete opposite of her syrupy vocals on her remake of Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me”. I would not have been able to identify the singer of this song if I hadn’t already known. I intensely disliked the closing track “I Can’t Wait To Meet You”, a spiritual number co-written by R&B singer Macy Gray.

Overall, I did not enjoy this album and I do not recommend it. To be fair, though, it isn’t a bad album, just not my cup of tea. It was Wynonna’s first album not to earn gold or platinum certification and marks the acceleration of the commercial decline that began with The Other Side. The original pressing of the album included a four-song EP of The Judds, which I have not heard but I assume is much better than the main album.

Grade: C

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.

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘Swing’

swingAlthough there was a swing revival that lasted for a few years (roughly 1998-2003), swing as a musical genre had its heyday during the period from 1935-1946, the period in which swing was America’s popular music. The economics of trying to keep a large band on the road after World War II led to the great swing bands breaking up and the music scene becoming the domain of smaller musical groups and solo singing stars.

Suzy Bogguss falls into that small group of country artists who comfortably perform in a wide variety of musical genres. Western, folk, country, pop and jazz all are areas which Ms. Bogguss has conquered.

The title of the album, Swing, suggests an album full of classic swing-era music from the Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie era. I would love for Suzy to record such an album, but this one isn’t it, although she does reach into the past for some classic swing numbers.

Swing could be described as Suzy’s tribute to modern day swing/jazz, with five of the twelve songs on the album coming from the pen of April Barrows.  Ms. Barrows, an excellent singer in her own right, composes and sings songs with the feel of swing, but with more modern and introspective lyrics than customarily found in the swing of the big band era.

In order to achieve an authentic feel for this album, Suzy engaged country music’s leading purveyor of swing, Ray Benson and members of Asleep at the Wheel.  Ray Benson plays guitar, Floyd Domino is on piano, David Sanger beats and brushes the drums and Jason Roberts plays fiddle.   Suzy and Ray produced the album.

Swing opens up with the Nat King Cole-Irving Mills composition “Straighten Up and Fly Right”, a major hit for the Nat King Cole Trio during the middle 1940s reaching #1 on the Harlem Hit Parade and spending six weeks at #1 on Billboard’s country chart . The song was based on a folk tale that Cole’s minister father had used as a theme for one of his sermons. In the song, a buzzard who had been taking different animals for joy rides would bounce them off and eat them after they were smashed on the rocks below. The monkey who is riding the buzzard in this humorous song is much too smart to fall for this trick, hanging onto the buzzard’s neck, with the admonition to “straighten up and fly right”.  There are people who swear that Nat King Cole was the best male vocalist ever in any genre of popular music (they may be right). Suzy handles the song effectively, although perhaps not with the quite the humor permeating her vocal that Cole had in his version.

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Country Heritage: George Hamilton IV

george hamilton iv

I’ve been travelin’ down the highways with my guitar for so long
Shakin’ hands and meetin’ lots of folks
Living my life my way with a handshake and a song
Caring little if I was rich or broke
Cause there’s country music in my soul
People music for the young and the old
I’ll keep on singing my song keep on keeping on
Cause there’s country music in my soul

From “County Music In My Soul” written by Bobby Bond

Many musicians who have met Freddie Hart have commented to me that he is the one of the nicest people that they have ever encountered. I‘ve never had the pleasure of meeting Freddie Hart, but if he is nicer person than George Hamilton IV, he must qualify for sainthood. I’ve met George IV on a number of occasions over the last 39 years, and a finer gentleman can’t be found.

George Hamilton IV has always had country music in his soul, although his recording career, like that of a number of country stars, started off in pop. Unlike other country boys such as Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash, Narvel Felts and Billy Craddock, who started off as rockabilly stars, George’s early endeavors were straightforward pop rather than rockabilly or rock and roll.

Hamilton was born on July 19, 1937 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He was raised on the country music loved by his grandfather, George Hamilton II, and he learned to play the guitar at the age of 12. While in high school he formed a country band, and while still a freshman at the University of North Carolina, he met John D. Loudermilk, first cousin of Ira and Charlie Louvin (formerly Loudermilk), at the time a struggling songwriter. Landing a contract with the Colonial label, Hamilton recorded “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” Loudermilk’s first attempt at teen pop. The single did very well regionally during 1956 and was picked up by ABC-Paramount later that same year. Since the song hit #6 on the pop charts and sold over a million copies in the process, ABC-Paramount signed Hamilton to a regular contract. During this time he transferred to American University in Washington DC to continue his studies.

Since Hamilton was never really comfortable recording pop music, subsequent efforts failed to achieve the heights of “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” although the next four singles made the pop top 40, with “Why Don’t They Understand” reaching #10 in early 1958. After an appearance on The Jimmy Dean Show 1957-58, Hamilton was given his own short-lived show by ABC-TV in 1959.

Even while signed to ABC-Paramount, Hamilton was recording country songs such as “Why I’m Walking,” “Even Tho’” and at least seven songs associated with Hank Williams. His first entry on the country charts (“Before This Day Ends”) rose to #4 in late 1960.

In 1961 George switched labels, moving to RCA Victor, where Chet Atkins promised that he could record as a country artist. After top ten entries in 1961 (“Three Steps to the Phone,” “Millions of Miles”) and 1962 (“If You Don’t Know I Ain’t Gonna Tell You”), Hamilton finally hit the top of the country charts in 1963 with “Abilene,” a song penned by his old friend John D. Loudermilk. The single topped the country charts for four weeks in June and crossed over to #15 on the pop charts. During 1964, Hamilton charted three singles and returned to the top ten with “Fort Worth, Dallas or Houston.”

Deeply influenced by the folk music artists of the “Hootenanny Era,” George became a major conduit for introducing such future folk deities as Gordon Lightfoot, Ian Tyson, and Joni Mitchell to American audiences. Indeed, Hamilton probably recorded more Gordon Lightfoot songs during the mid 1960s to early 1970s than any other artist including such classics as “Steel Rail Blues” and “Early Morning Rain,” both hits in 1966. George’s version of “Urge for Going” (written by Joni Mitchell) hit #7 in 1967; “Break My Mind,” another John D. Loudermilk song, hit #6 later in the year. During this period Hamilton recorded songs by the likes of Leonard Cohen, James Taylor, Buffy St. Marie and countless other singer-songwriters. Not ignoring his country favorites, in 1965 he recorded an album in tribute to Ernest Tubb, enjoying a hit with “Walking The Floor Over You.”

George continued to record for RCA until 1974, but major chart success largely eluded him except for the #3 hit “She’s a Little Bit Country” in 1970. This is not to say that he quit making great records, as some of my personal favorite Hamilton tracks such as “Ten Degrees (and Getting Colder)”, “West Texas Highway” and “Country Music In My Soul” came after 1970.

While his stature as a singles star waned, George took on a greater prominence as the “International Ambassador of Country Music” thanks to his several world tours, 10 visits to Great Britain, numerous visits to Europe, and his BBC television programs (seven seasons). He became the first country artist to perform behind the Iron Curtain, and also toured Africa, Asia, New Zealand, Australia, and even the Middle East.

In recent years Hamilton has focused on gospel music, although he still plays dates in which he performs secular music. I saw George five years ago at the Florida Sunshine Opry in Eustis, Florida; he still put an an excellent show, and hung around as long as anyone wished to speak with him. Two years later I saw him at the Rolling Hills Moravian Church in Longwood, Florida where he performed an excellent show that was about 2/3 religious material – just GH4 and his guitar. Hamilton once mentioned to me that he’d like to live long enough to meet George Hamilton VII. It seems that GH1 (his great grandfather) was alive long enough for George to remember him, and son George Hege Hamilton V has a son George Hege Hamilton VI who should soon be of age to start a family.

Imagine that – getting to know seven generations of George Hege Hamiltons. I hope he makes it.

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Country Heritage: Gail Davies

Gail DaviesDuring the late winter & early spring of 1979, listeners of country radio were treated to the unusual strains of “Someone Is Looking For Someone Like You”. Amidst the clutter of the last vestiges of the Outlaw Movement, the dying gasps of the Nashville Sound and the nascent Urban Cowboy movement, this lilting and beautiful melody was unlike anything else being played. Released on the independent Lifesong label, the song suffered from spotty distribution (which turned into no distribution at all when Lifesong’s distribution deal fell apart) yet made it to #11 on Billboard’s Country Chart. For Gail Davies, this song turned out to be her career breakthrough, leading to a record deal with Warner Brothers.

Gail Davies (originally Patricia Gail Dickerson) was born into a musical family in Broken Bow, Oklahoma, on June 5, 1948. Her father, Tex Dickerson, was a country singer who occasionally appeared on the Louisiana Hayride. When Davies was five, her parents divorced and her mother took her and her two brothers to the Seattle area. At some point, her mother remarried and she and her brothers were adopted by their stepfather, Darby Davies, and took his surname. One of her brothers was Ron Davies, a renown songwriter and performer, who wrote songs that were recorded by such luminaries as David Bowie, Three Dog Night, Joe Cocker, Dave Edmunds, Jerry Jeff Walker and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

After graduating from high school in 1966, Davies moved to Los Angeles where she was briefly married to a jazz musician. After her divorce, she found work as a session singer at A&M studios. While at A&M she was befriended by songwriter Joni Mitchell and A&M recording engineer Henry Lewy who introduced her to the production end of the business, where she was able to sit in on a number of noteworthy recording sessions, including a John Lennon session that was being produced by Phil Spector.

Things moved rapidly for Davies, and by 1974 she was touring with the legendary Roger Miller and made her national television debut as his duet partner in 1974 singing on the Merv Griffin Show. During this period, she began writing songs and signed with EMI Publishing in 1975. Her first major success as a songwriter came when Ava Barber, a regular cast member of television’s Lawrence Welk Show, had a hit single with “Bucket to the South,” which reached #14 in 1978 on the Billboard Country Chart. This led to a contract with CBS/Lifesong Records in 1978 and the release of her first album simply entitled Gail Davies. Read more of this post

Classic Rewind: Johnny Cash and Joni Mitchell – ‘Long Black Veil’

There doesn’t seem to be a live version of the incomparable Lefty Frizzell original of this classic Danny Dill/Marijohn Wilkin song , so this will have to do as a reminder of one of the greatest country songs ever written: