My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: June Carter Cash

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: Kenny Rogers – ‘Water & Bridges’

In 2006 Kenny Rogers once again found himself signed to a major label — an interesting turn of events for an almost 70-year-old artist. Water & Bridges was released by Capitol and produced by Dann Huff, who is not my favorite producer but I was pleasantly surprised by the fruits of their labors. Like most Kenny Rogers albums, this is a pop-country collection, but unlike a lot of his earlier work, there are no blatant pop songs. Everything is targeted for the mainstream country audience, such as it was a little over a decade ago. The production is polished, but not tastefully restrained.

The title track, which opens the album is a somber ballad written by Tim Nichols and Craig Wiseman, about life’s regrets and the need to accept them and move on. It was too serious for consideration as a single, but a very good song nonetheless. It had previously been recorded by Collin Rate a few years earlier. “Someone Is Me” is a bit of social commentary written by Josh Kear and Joe Doyle, which urges people to take action to correct the things that are wrong with this world instead of waiting for someone else to do it. “Someone Somewhere Tonight” is a little too slickly produced for my taste, but Sarah Buxton harmonizes well with Kenny. This song would later be recorded by Pam Tillis and Kellie Pickler, who took it to #49 on the Billboard country singles chart.

The album’s best song is its lead single “I Can’t Unlove You” which took Kenny to the Top 20 one last time. Peaking at #17, this break-up ballad would have been a monster hit if it had come along during Rogers’ commercial heyday. “The Last Ten Years (Superman)” was the next single. True to its title, it refers to a number of events that were in the news during the previous decade (1996-2006), making reference to events such as the Oklahoma City bombing, the Y2K hysteria, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as name-checking several celebrities that passed away during that time, from Minnie Pearl, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash to Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and actor Christopher Reeve. It’s a very good song, but as a stripped-down, serious ballad focusing on mostly unhappy events, it didn’t perform particularly well at radio, topping out at #56. “Calling Me”, a mid tempo number featuring a Gospel-like piano and duet vocal by Don Henley fared slightly better, peaking at #53. It’s a little more pop-leaning than the rest of the album but it deserved more attention than it received. It marks Kenny Rogers’ last appearance (to date) on the Billboard country singles chart.

Kenny’s voice shows some signs of wear and tear at times, but for the most part he is in good vocal form and I enjoyed this album a lot more than I expected to. It might have benefited from a little more uptempo material, but overall this is a solid effort. It’s available for streaming and worth checking out.

Grade: B

Album Review: Hank Williams Jr. & Lois Johnson – ‘Removing the Shadow’

R-4659119-1371346861-1435.jpegRemoving the Shadow sounds like it ought to be Hank Jr.’s declaration of independence from his father’s legacy, but instead it is a song about forgetting an old love and moving on to a new relationship. It’s also the title track of Hank Jr.’s 1970 duets album with Lois Johnson.

Lois Johnson was minor country artist who was active from 1969 to 1984. Her singles for MGM all peaked outside the Top 40, if they charted at all, and the label never released an album of her solo work. After moving on to 20th Century Records, she scored one Top 10 hit in 1975 with “Loving You Will Never Grow Old”. The mere fact that she was Hank Jr.’s labelmate is the most likely the reason she was paired up with him. Whether MGM was looking for a duet partner for Hank or just seeking to increase Johnson’s exposure is unclear. She had a pleasant voice but it was not very distinctive. As as a team, the two lacked the chemistry of the more successful duos of the era: Conway and Loretta, Porter and Dolly, George and Tammy. Hank Jr. needed to be teamed someone with the vocal prowess of a Melba Montgomery or a Connie Smith, but in those days labels limited their choices to someone who was already signed to their roster.

Like many albums of the era, Removing the Shadow relies a lot on cover material. Lois and Hank tackle Johnny and June’s “If I Were a Carpenter”, “Why Don’t You Love Me” (the obligatory Hank Sr. cover), and “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)”, a 1960 pop hit for The Everly Brothers, which has been recorded many times, including versions by Connie Smith in 1976, Steve Wariner in 1978, and Emmylou Harris in 1983. My favorite version is a 1986 album cut by The Sweethearts of the Rodeo with Vince Gill. No one has ever scored a Top 10 hit on the country charts with this song, but Hank and Lois came the closest, taking it to #12. The song is a particular favorite of mine and it’s easily the best cut on this album.

“Removing the Shadow”, which is also quite good, preceded “So Sad” as a single, peaking at #23. I also enjoyed the Cajun-flavored “Party People” and the upbeat honky-tonker “Settin’ the Woods on Fire”. This is an album that has a lot of appeal to traditionalists; it contains very little of the countrypolitan trappings of the era and has plenty of pedal steel. This probably limited its commercial appeal, though it sold well enough that the duo released a follow-up album in 1972. Removing the Shadow peaked at #21 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, but it has never been released on CD. While a digital version could possibly appear in the future, I think it is unlikely, which is somewhat unfortunate. It’s not essential listening but the material is top notch. If you’re a fan of classic country and can find a used vinyl copy somewhere, it’s worth seeking out.

As an aside, Lois Johnson’s last album was released in 1984. She died in Nashville in July 2014 at age 72.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard – ‘Django & Jimmie’

django and jimmieDjango & Jimmie is the latest endeavor by the ageless comrades Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. While the title suggests an album of songs made famous by Django Reinhart and Jimmie Rodgers, the Django part of the equation would be impossible to pull off since Django was a Gypsy guitarist whose musical compositions were instrumentals, “Nuages” being the most famous.

Instead what we have is an album of interesting songs, mostly new but some old, and taken from a variety of sources.

The Django connection for Willie Nelson is quite strong; you can hear it every time Willie plays his guitar. While Willie is an excellent guitar player, he is not in Django’s class (almost no one is) but listen to some Django recordings and you will know why Willie’s guitar playing sounds like it does.

As for Merle’s connection to Jimmie Rodgers, Merle and those such as Lefty Frizzell who influenced Merle, grew up with the music of Jimmie Rodgers. At the height of his commercial prowess in 1969 (he released six albums in 1969), Merle felt strongly enough about the music of Jimmie Rodgers that he recorded a two album set that he got Capitol Records to release. Ken Nelson, Merle’s producer must have cringed at the idea of releasing a two album set of blues, yodels, thirties pop music, Hawaiian music and parlor songs but release it he did. Nelson also put Rodgers’ “California Blues” as the B side to “Hungry Eyes”.

Surprisingly, the title song “Django and Jimmie” was not written by either Willie or Merle, coming instead from the pens of Jimmy Melton & Jeff Prince. In this jog-along ballad, Willie and Merle discuss where their styles came from

W

illie I’m a kid with a guitar
Trying to play “Nuages”, when they ask
Where does your style come from?

Merle I know what you mean
‘Cause I learned to sing
Listening to blue, yodel number one

Willie We love Hank and Lefty
Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, and Johnny Cash
But if we had to pinpoint
The start of who we are
Or who we go by

Both The Django and Jimmie
Paris, Mississippi
A young singing brakeman
A jazz playing gypsy
Might not have been
A Merle or a Willie
If not for a Django and Jimmie

The rest of the album really has nothing to do with Django or Jimmie, except to the extent that Django and Jimmie flavor all of their music.

“It’s All Going To Pot” has nothing to do with marijuana but instead comments on the general state of the world and the state of their own lives. The song was written by Buddy Cannon, Jamey Johnson and Larry Shell with Jamey joining Merle and Willie in vocalizing. The song is very upbeat in tempo with some Mariachi horns (played by Jamey Johnson):

Well, it’s all going to pot
Whether we like it or not
The best I can tell
The world’s gone to hell
And we’re sure gonna miss it a lot
All of the whiskey in Lynchburg, Tennessee
It just couldn’t hit the spot
I gotta hundred dollar bill, friend
You can keep your pills
‘Cause it’s all going to pot

“Unfair Weather Friend” is a gentle ballad about friendship. Penned by Marla Cannon-Goodman and Ward Davis, the song is the flip of the concept of fair weather friends.

“Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash” is a recent Merle Haggard composition on which Merle and Willie and Bobby Bare swap lyrics and stories about Johnny Cash. The song is an affectionate look back at their departed friend. This is another jog-along ballad that probably cannot be covered in a believable manner by anyone else. Here’s one of Willie’s verses:

Well now Johnny Cash wore black attire
And he fell into that Ring of Fire
He came up swinging like a Boy Named Sue
And he married June Carter and he [?] too
He wrote his songs from deep within
And he hit the stage with a crooked grin
He and I were both Highwaymen
And that record became a smash
Well I’m missing ol’ Johnny Cash

Here’s Bobby Bare’s verse:

Johnny Cash never walked no line
Johnny Cash never did no time, but
When he sang a Folsom Prison Blues
You knew good and well he’d paid his dues
True, he always dressed in black
But he loved folks and they loved him back
Carried his pills in a brown paper sack
Well I don’t care if they found his stash
I’m missin’ old Johnny Cash

Shawn Camp and Marv Green wrote “Live This Long” and I suspect that they wrote it specifically for this album. Another slow ballad, this song look backward at life and what might have done differently if the narrators had known that they would live this long.

“Alice In Hula Land” is a Willie Nelson-Buddy Cannon co-write. As performed here, the song is yet another slow ballad, but with a very Hawaiian sound. As best as I can tell, this song is about a groupie, although I may be very mistaken in my interpretation.

Alice in Hulaland
Come sit here on the front row
And get close to the sound
As close as you can
Are you there for the melody?
There for the lyrics?
Or just for the boys in the band?

“Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” is the Bob Dylan classic from treated as a straight-ahead country ballad with steel guitar featured prominently (Mike Johnson &/or Dan Dugmore) and harmonica by Mickey Raphael featured at points in the song also.

“Family Bible” was one of Willie’s first successful songs. Willie sold the rights to the song so the songwriter credits read Claude Gray, Paul Buskirk and Walt Breeland. Merle sings the verses on this song while Willie limits himself to playing the guitar and singing harmony on the choruses. THis is a very nice recording, perhaps my favorite recording of the song.

WIllie Nelson and Buddy Cannon collaborated on “It’s Only Money”. I don’t know who Renato Caranto is, but his saxophone work. Mike Johnson’s dobro and Jim “Moose” Brown’s keyboards really shine on this up-tempo song.

“Swinging Doors” was a huge Merle Haggard hit in 1966. If you ever wondered how Willie Nelson would tackle the song, here’s your chance to find out. Willie and Merle swap verses on this one.

“This Is Where Dreams Come To Die” is yet another Willie Nelson – Buddy Cannon composition. This slow ballad would make a lovely single in a less brain-dead musical environment.

This is where dreams come to die
This is where dreams come to die
Then they fly back to heaven
But this is where dreams come to die

They’re fun when you dream them
Everyone is laughing at you
And it’s fun, watching them wonder
And all of the dreams are coming true

“Somewhere Between” is a old Merle Haggard song from 1967, an album track from his 1967 album Branded Man. Suzy Bogguss had a nice recording of the song about twenty years ago, but the song never has been a big hit for anyone, being mostly relegated to being an album track on countless albums. Willie sings the vocals on this one.

Somewhere between your heart and mine
There’s a window that I can’t see through
There’s a wall so high that it reaches the sky
Somewhere between me and you

I love you so much, I can’t let you go
And sometimes, I believe you love me
But somewhere between your heart and mine
There’s a door without any key

Yet another Willie Nelson-Buddy Cannon song is next, a cowboy western ballad titled “Driving The Herd”. The subject matter seems self-explanatory, but the song can be interpreted either as a song about a cattle drive, or a song about a singer gauging his audience.

The album closes with “The Only Man Wilder Than Me”, another recent Merle Haggard composition that could be about either Merle or Willie in their younger days. The tempo is that of a slow ballad.

This album is fine – although older, Willie’s voice is in better shape than Haggard’s, but the band is tight, the songs are very good and the songs are treated with proper respect. It’s pretty clear that neither artist has an ego problem because the ebb and flow between Willie and Merle couldn’t be better

Grade: A-

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume III’

will the circle 317 years passed between the original Will The Circle Be Unbroken and Volume II. 13 years after that, in 2002, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band decided it was time for a third instalment, which they released on Capitol. It did not make as much of a stir as either of the previous instalments, but is still a pretty solid collection of bluegrass and oldtime music with some guests old and new.

The opening ‘Take Me In Your Lifeboat’ is beaty bluegrass gospel performed with Del McCoury and his sons. The McCourys are back on the secular ‘Love Please Come Home’, which is well done but not memorable.

I preferred the contributions from bluegrass great Jimmy Martin (1927-2005), who had taken part in both previous versions, and who belies his age with confident upbeat performances here. He sings his own ‘Hold Whatcha Got’ (which Ricky Skaggs had made into a hit in the late 80s), and also the lively ‘Save It, Save It’.

In contrast, June Carter Cash (1929-2003) takes the lead vocal on the Carter Family’s ‘Diamonds In The Rough’, with Earl Scruggs on banjo. She does not sound at all well, and indeed died the following year. Although Johnny Cash (1932-2003) was also in poor health, he sounds much better than his wife on a self-penned tribute to the late Maybelle and Sara Carter, ‘Tears In The Holston River.

Willie Nelson, not involved in previous versions, gets two cuts here. Willie sounds good on ‘Goodnight Irene’, but the tracks is irredeemably ruined by the presence of duet partner Tom Petty. Petty is out of tune and the harmony is embarrassingly dissonant. A cheery Nelson version of ‘Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms’ is better although it does feel a bit perfunctory.

Dwight Yoakam (another newcomer to the series) is great on his two tracks. He shows his Kentucky roots on the mournful and authentic ‘Some Dark Holler’. He is outstanding on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ ‘Wheels’, which he makes sound like. Vince Gill’s ‘All Prayed Up’ is an excellent piece of up-tempo bluegrass gospel.

Emmylou Harris sings her ex-husband Paul Kennerley’s ‘I’ll Be Faithful To You’, a sweet declaration of eternal love, exquisitely. She also duets with Matraca Berg (Mrs Jeff Hanna) on Berg’s folk-styleode to the river running through Nashville, ‘Oh Cumberland’. Alison Krauss exercises her angelic tones on ‘Catfish John’.

Iris Dement sings beautifully on her own nostalgic ‘Mama’s Opry’. Ricky Skaggs and Rodney Dillard team up for the pacy folk of ‘There Is A Time’. Band members’sons Jaime Hanna and Jonathan McEuen (who were the duo Hanna-McEuen at the time) are a bit limp for me on ‘The Lowlands’, a folky Gary Scruggs song.

Sam Bush takes it high mountain lonesome on Carter Stanley’s ‘Lonesome River’. ‘Milk Cow Blues’ is taken back to its blues roots and features Josh Graves and Doc Watson. Watson also sings the traditional ‘I Am A Pilgrim’. More contemporary is ‘I Find Jesus’, penned by Jimmy Ibbotson. ‘Roll The Stone Away’ (written by Jeff Hanna with Marcus Hummon) uses religious imagery but it is a bit dull. The Nashville Bluegrass Band take on A. P. Carter’s ‘I Know What It Means To Be Lonesome which is OK.

Gravel-voiced bluesman Taj Mahal and legendary fiddler Vassar Clements guest on the good-humored ‘Fishin’ Blues, which is mildly amusing. Taj Mahal and Alison Krauss guest on this album’s take on the title song which falls rather flat with Alison sounding a bit squeaky and therest of them dull and lifeless.

This album lacks the groundbreaking nature of Volume I, and the cosy atmosphere of either previous set, making more of a standard collection of older material. There are definitely some tracks well worth hearing, and I’d still be interested if there was a Volume 4.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash, Pop Staples – ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’

Album Review: Carlene Carter – ‘Carter Girl’

carlenecarterCarlene Carter’s own music is vastly different from that of her famous family, so when plans were announced for a Carter Family tribute album, I wasn’t expecting a collection of faithful-to-the-original remakes. On one hand it makes sense to update these old classics, many of which date back to the 1920s, for the benefit of modern audiences. And who better to do so than the heiress to the Carter Family musical legacy? On the other hand, changing them too much runs the risk of alienating fans. Although she does take some liberties with the arrangements, for the most part Carter and producer Don Was get things right, although there are a few production missteps along the way.

Carter Girl, which was released last week on Rounder Records boasts an impressive lineup of guest artists from Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Kris Kristofferson and Elizabeth Cook to Sam Bush and the late Cowboy Jack Clement. The song selection is impeccable, consisting mostly of old chestnuts written by A.P. Carter, Helen Carter, June Carter Cash, and of course Mother Maybelle. Carlene herself gets songwriting credit on two numbers: “Me and the Wildwood Rose”, a remake of a recording she included on her 1993 album I Fell In Love and “Lonesome Valley 2003”, an old A.P. Carter and Al Anderson number which gets some updated lyrics.

The album’s main weakness is that some of the updated arrangements are too heavy-handed with the percussion, which doesn’t suit some of these old songs. This is immediately apparent with the opening track “Little Black Train”, which I instantly disliked. Upon hearing it, I was convinced that the entire album was going to be a disaster. The production on “Blackie’s Gunman” is also a bit cluttered. I did not initially like her take on her mother’s composition “Tall Lover Man” at all, finding the production a bit heavy-handed, but it’s been growing on me with repeated listenings.

Carlene and Don Was may have pushed the envelope a little too far on some of these numbers but they more than compensate for those excesses on the ones they get right, which is the rest of the album. She does a stunning version of “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight”, which features harmony vocals by Elizabeth Cook. Willie Nelson is her duet partner on “Troublesome Waters”, and Vince Gill provides the harmony on “Lonesome Valley 2003”, which is the centerpiece of the album. The original tune dates back to the 1930s. Carlene wrote the updated and deeply personal lyrics, which deal with the 2003 death of her mother June Carter Cash as well as the death of Johnny Cash four months later.

Production missteps aside, Carter Girl is a very fine tribute and a great introduction to one of the most influential families that country music has ever known.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Johnny Cash – ‘Out Among The Stars’

johnnycashThere hasn’t been any shortage of “new” Johnny Cash music in the decade since the Man In Black’s death. But unlike most of those releases, this week’s Out Among The Stars isn’t a reissue, an alternate take, a demo or a recording made during the singer’s declining years when he was long past his vocal peak. Rather, Out Among The Stars is a full-fledged studio album that was mostly recorded in the 1980s and produced by Billy Sherrill. The nearly completed album was discovered two years ago by John Carter Cash, who was in the process of mining the Sony archives while trying to catalog his parents’ extensive discographies. He brought in some additional musicians, including Marty Stuart, Buddy Miller and Carlene Carter, to bring the project to completion. The final product was released last week.

Normally, news of this sort would be cause for great celebration but any excitement about the album had to be tempered with the knowledge that the 1980s were, as even the most die-hard Cash fans will admit , a period in which the singer released mostly less than stellar work. Add to that the fact that Billy Sherrill had been the producer behind “The Chicken In Black”, widely regarded to be one of the worst singles of Cash’s career, and no one was quite sure what to expect.

Considering that Out Among The Stars was mostly recorded in 1984, while Cash’s career was in the middle of a long dry spell and just two years before Columbia dropped him from its roster, it isn’t surprising that the album was forgotten. But those who were braced for the worst will be pleasantly surprised because it is far superior to most of his output from that era. So far the album has produced one non-charting single, “She Used To Love Me a Lot”, which David Allan Coe took to #11 in 1984. It was written by Charles Quillen with Dennis W. Morgan and Kye Fleming. Morgan and Fleming were one of Nashville’s top songwriting teams of the day, having written many hits for Ronnie Milsap, Barbara Mandrell and Sylvia.

Many other top 80s songwriters teams are also represented. Ed and Patsy Bruce contributed “After All”, a pop-tinged ballad that was a departure from Johnny’s usual fare and Paul Kennerley and Graham Lyle wrote “Rock and Roll Shoes”. Johnny himself contributed the sentimental “Call Your Mother” and the inspirational “I Came To Believe”, which was written while Johnny was struggling with addiction and completing a stint at the Betty Ford Center. Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman wrote the tongue-in-cheek “If I Told You Who It Was” about a country music fan who has a fling with a female Opry star after changing her flat tire. No names are named, but the lady’s identity is revealed (for those old enough to recognize it) by an uncredited vocal appearance near the end of the song. It’s not Dolly Parton; that’s all I’m going to say.

Although traditionalists like to claim Cash as one of their own, The Man In Black was no purist and frequently pushed the boundaries of the genre. In this collection he sticks close to his country roots, and unlike many of his records, there is plenty of steel guitar on this album. Among the most traditional tunes are two excellent duets with June Carter Cash — “Baby, Ride Easy” and a cover of Tommy Collins’ “Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time”. Johnny sounds relaxed and refreshed on these tracks, and June is also in fine vocal form. “Baby, Come Easy” features harmony vocals by Carlene Carter and “Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time” features some excellent picking by Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Bryan Sutton. Waylon Jennings joins Johnny for a faithful-to-the-original cover of the Hank Snow classic “I’m Movin’ On”. Jennings’ presence elevates a performance that otherwise wouldn’t be particularly memorable.

The album closes with a remixed version of “She Used To Love Me A Lot” that was produced by Elvis Costello. Not surprisingly, this version isn’t country but it is in keeping with some of Cash’s genre-pushing efforts. It doesn’t really add anything to the album, however, and I could have done without it. “I Came To Believe” would have been a more appropriate closing track, but that is the only negative thing I can say about an otherwise exceptional album.

It is unlikely that Out Among The Stars would have fared well commercially had it been released thirty years ago. It was not then and is not now what mainstream Nashville wanted. It won’t produce any big radio hits, but now there is a greater appreciation of Johnny Cash than there was in 1984. Sony is giving the release the promotional effort it deserves and I imagine it will sell quite well.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind – Mother Maybelle Carter – ‘Wildwood Flower’

A truly special performance from the pioneer who helped define our modern definition of Country Music. Included here is rare footage of her discussing the famed Bristol Sessions from 1927, known as “The Big Bang of Country Music.” Those sessions featured her, A.P., and Sara Carter (The Carter Family) along with Jimmie Rogers and others.

The song she sings here, “Wildwood Flower” was written circa 1860 with lyrics by  Maud Irving and music by Joseph Philbrick Webster. The original title of the song was “I’ll Twine ‘Mid the Ringlets.” It became an American standard when The Carter Family recorded it on the Victor label in 1928.

“Wildwood Flower” would see a second life when Hank Thompson and Merle Travis recorded it as an instrumental in 1955. Their version would peak at #5 on the charts that year.

Actress Reece Witherspoon also has a version of the song, performing it in the film Walk The Line. She won The Best Actress Oscar for portraying June Carter Cash (Mother Maybelle’s daughter) in the 2005 film.

Carter passed away in 1978 at the age of 68.

Classic Rewind: Hank Williams – ‘Hey Good Lookin’

Album Review – Rosanne Cash – ‘Black Cadillac’

A musical memoir, Black Cadillac finds Cash channeling the pain of losing her stepmother June, her father Johnny, and her mother Vivian within a two-year period into her most personal album yet. A dark and often moody reflection on her life, Black Cadillac displays some strokes of genius and is easily the best album of her career.

It was also split down the middle with producers- half the tracks were produced by her husband John Leventhal while the other half was produced by Bill Bottrell. This split personality in production didn’t hinder the project one bit as both producers contributed to the greater whole of the project.

The centerpiece of the record, “I Was Watching You” is my favorite song she’s ever recorded. Solely written by Cash, it’s the haunting tale of a child watching their parent’s love affair from heaven long before conception. It then twists in the end to the parent watching the child from heaven, after they’ve died. A bleak tale, it’s so beautifully orchestrated and is so effortlessly perfect, you can’t help but be in awe of a master at work. The piano-laced production adds the ideal amount of heaviness to the track, grounding the tale in just enough sorrow without going overboard.

Another such song is “House on the Lake,” a personal reflection about the Hendersonville, Tennessee residence Johnny and June called home. The property, while undergoing a complete restoration by Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees, burned to the ground in 2007. “House” serves as a lasting legacy to the place with the “Blue bare room, the wood and nails” where “there’s nothing left to take” because “love and years are not for sale.” There’s something uniquely special in this tale about home – introspection is rarely executed this masterfully.  More than the average where I’m from song, “House” stands as a legacy to a home that natured one of country music’s greatest love stories.

And it’s that elevation from ordinary to a sense of importance that binds Black Cadillac. These aren’t just rants of a grieving woman but rather reflections of the life Cash was brought into and the legacy she now has to uphold. But it’s how she honors her parents that make this album truly shine.

In the opening track, we hear some faint crackling before the familiar voice, seemingly from beyond the grave, chimes in with “Rosanne C’mon.” From there Cash launches into “Black Cadillac” which juxtaposes the hearse that brought her father to his funeral with the car he used to drive. The production is cloudy yet doesn’t intrude on our ability to focus on the lyrics. And in another gesture of honor, the horns at the end of the song are meant to recall the distinctive horn work from her dad’s “Ring of Fire.”

What follows, “Radio Operator” is easily the most rocking song on the whole project. It comes as a bit of a jolt after the somber opening while “Burn Down This Town,” a song about Johnny’s love of fire, continues this rollicking trend.

“God Is In The Roses” is a haunting tale of reemergence and self-discovery. It isn’t so much about the omnipresent nature of the universe, but rather of redefining the meaning of place in the deepest parts of our souls – “The sun is on the cemetery/Leaves are on the stones/There never was a place on earth/That felt so much like home.” I’ve never heard it put that way before, but the transcendent power of the graveyard is very palpable.

The rest of the album follows suit in brilliantly articulating Cash’s sense of loss. “The World Unseen” is another tale of descent, this time into the unknown world of life without your guiding force. What on some level could be viewed as a simple break-up ballad is rendered so much more in the imagery Cash conveys – “You must be somewhere in the stars/’Cause from a distance comes the sound of your guitar.” Her ability to convey so much with very little only heightens the beauty of this song, as does the simple production of piano and light drums. They give the song just enough without overpowering the message.

“Like Fugitives” attacks the bitter side of grief, where anger replaces any sense of compassion. The theme of life without is still present here yet it’s everyone else’s inability to understand that insights the rage – “It’s a strange new world we live in/Where the church leads you to hell/And the lawyers get the money/For the lives they divide and sell.”  With that line, Cash perfectly articulates the weirdness of a dead parent and the mess the children are left with in their wake. As with “God Is In The Roses” she accurately puts into words what is often hard to communicate. And the understated production fits the song perfectly.

In listening to this album, I am in awe of how well Cash was able to put every emotion of grief into words. She’s made a very special album here, one relatable to anyone who has lost a parent or a grandparent. I especially like the sentiment behind “0:71,” the closing track which finds 71 seconds of silence for each year of her parent’s natural lives. Sometimes the perfect way to honor someone is by saying nothing at all.

Only one very slight complaint has hindered my enjoyment of this exceptional musical project. As a listening experience, Black Cadillac is weighted down with heaviness and too many similarly produced tracks leave need for variety. I’ve owned the project since its release in 2006, and have only really been into the first half of the album. But this isn’t a fault of anyone involved – the album perfectly conveys the grief and sorrow one feels when your elders have ascended into heaven. And for that, Black Cadillac elevates musical memoirs to new and exciting heights.

This is a very worthy addition to anyone’s music collection and essential listening for anyone who’s lost a parent or grandparent. Copies are very easy to find in either digital or hard copy from both Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A 

Single Review: Alan Jackson – ‘Ring of Fire’

Some songs take on legendary status nearly as big as their singers.  Of course, even the Music City folk-lore that surrounds the composition and recording of Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’ doesn’t rival the Man in Black’s stature, ‘Ring’, however, is a fascinating story in itself.  History tells us that June Carter co-wrote the tune with Merle Kilgore, putting her feelings for Cash down in the process.  Other sources may tell you that it was actually Cash who co-wrote the song and gave half to the financially-strapped Carter.

Whichever side you believe, or who the author of the lyrics are, the fact remains that the blossoming love affair between Johnny Cash and June Carter was the inspiration for the original creation.  Johnny Cash’s passionate delivery of the horn-infused track – according to his biography, the idea to frame the verses with horns came to Cash in a dream – is the kind deemed untouchable by cover standards, as any subsequent recording would almost always walk a fine line between irrelevance and tribute. Alan Jackson’s recent take on the tune, the only previously unreleased track on Jackson’s current 34 Number Ones set, unfortunately falls somewhere in between the two.

Jackson’s own catalog lends him an air of believability few on Music Row can match, and he offers up his best bass vocal here, channeling Cash with all high might. But try as he might, Jackson just can’t fill the shoes he’s planted himself in this time. The addition of Lee Ann Womack’s harmony in the chorus add a depth to Jackson’s own enjoyable performance, but the lack of horns make the melody almost unrecognizable to me, and a chunky guitar fill adds little more than filler noise.  Two of the best neo-traditional country music voices of their generation tackling a timeless country classic all add up here to much less than the sum of their parts.

Grade: C-

Listen here.

Grammy Rewind: Sammi Smith – ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’

‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’ was written by Kris Kristofferson, with credit given to Fred Foster as well.  This classic has been recorded by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, to name a few.  Kristofferson himself recorded a version of it, but Sammi Smith’s 1971 recording shot to #1 on the Country Singles chart, and pushed the song to nationwide recognition.  The NARAS awarded it Best Country Song in 1971.

Classic Christmas Rewind: Johnny Cash and Friends – ‘Children Go Where I Send Thee’

Album Review: Patty Loveless – ‘Sleepless Nights’

Sleepless NightsPatty Loveless was dropped by Epic following disappointing sales and minimal airplay for her last album for the label, Dreamin’ My Dreams. She was in no hurry to make her next move, taking some time off the road to move down to Georgia, and dealing with family deaths and illness, but in 2008 she signed with the independent label Saguaro Road, and in September that year she released a new album, produced as usual by husband Emory Gordy Jr. She cast aside thoughts of regaining her chart-topping status, and instead recorded a tribute to traditional country music. It was heralded as a kind of companion piece or counterpart to 2001’s Mountain Soul, as it was billed on the cover as “the traditional country soul” of Patty Loveless. What resulted was even better than we could have expected. Sleepless Nights is a masterpiece.

Classic cover albums have a tendency to fall into one of two main categories: excessively cautious tributes where the artist sounds frankly overwhelmed by the thought of competing with a much-loved original, and ends up producing a carbon copy or high quality karaoke; and trying too hard to put their own stamp on the material in such a way that the merits of the original song are stifled. Sleepless Nights triumphantly avoids either pitfall. Patty sounds thoroughly invested in the material and style, and makes it sound alive. Her versions of each of these songs sounds as though it could have been the original classic version.

George Jones is a very challenging artist to risk comparison with, although perhaps it is less dangerous for a female vocalist where the comparisons will inevitably be less deleterious. Patty had already successfully tackled one Jones classic in the form of ‘If My Heart Had Windows’ back in the early days, and she chose to open Sleepless Nights with George’s first hit single (in 1955), the honky tonking ‘Why Baby Why’ (with a couple of minor lyric changes to fit the change in gender) which also served as the single released to promote this album. Sadly, if predictably, it was far too traditional for today’s country radio, but it is a perfect opening to the album as Patty tears into the song, the most up-tempo on the set.

Patty also picked three more Jones songs, including a truly lovely version of one of his greatest classics (written by Dickey Lee). ‘She Thinks I Still Care’ is altered here to ‘He Thinks I Still Care’. There is a fantastic take on ‘Color Of The Blues’ on which Patty actually achieves the almost impossible: improving on a song once recorded by George Jones as she infuses the lyric with pain. The most obscure Jones cover is ‘That’s All It Took’, from one of his 1960s duet albums with pop singer Gene Pitney, which is probably best known today from the 1970s cover by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Patty’s version features her former guitarist, Australian Jedd Hughes, on harmonies.

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1989 Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken Volume Two’

200px-circle_ii_album_coverAlongside our reviews of albums produced by the ‘Class of ’89’, we’ve been taking the opportunity to look in depth at some of the other great albums released that year. Perhaps the most ambitious of those was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s second Will The Circle Be Unbroken project, which harks back to the early days of country music and shows how that heritage was still influential.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band started out in the California folk-rock movement of the 1960s. They revealed their country leanings in 1972 when they produced a legendary triple LP entitled Will The Circle Be Unbroken in collaboration with some of the seminal figures of bluegrass and old-time country music, including Roy Acuff, Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family, bluegrass great Earl Scruggs and many others — mostly artists who were past their commercial peaks. If the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had never again ventured into country music, this album alone would have sealed their place in the music’s history.

In the 1980s, however, after a period using the name the Dirt Band, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band rebranded themselves and forged a very successful career in contemporary country music. In 1988, they decided the time had come to produce a follow-up to their classic. Many of the original collaborators had died, and this time the guests included some contemporary acts and some artists from outside country music altogether, or who were from related genres. The album liner notes say, “This time they drew the circle bigger”, and talk about “the many hyphenated hybrid styles writers have used to describe all sorts of American music that comes from the heart. Big enough to embrace gospel, blues, honky tonk, Cajun and traditional folksong”. In other words, the term might not have been invented yet — but in many ways this was perhaps one of the the first self-consciously Americana albums. The result was a little more commercial-sounding than the original, but it strikes a fine balance between showcasing musical history and showing that that heritage was a living thing. Read more of this post

Just a recommendation …

terriclark1I’ve written about this song on various occasions before in comments on other sites.  But, here is my official recommendation for ‘Nashville Girls’. The track was recorded back in March 2008 for Terri’s album, In My Next Life – scheduled to be released April 29, 2008.  It features guest vocals from Reba, Sara Evans, and Martina McBride.

Steel guitars kick off this clever novelty number all about Nashville girls, how they’ll never go out of style and why they ‘have big hair for a reason’ even imploring them to ‘tease them curls, jack em up to Jesus’.  We all cried when Tammy Wynette died – and Terri admits it here.  And how dare her L.A. friends laugh at that.  So here’s to Loretta, Dolly, Patsy, Emmylou, Jessi, June, Tammy, and all the other fine ladies that made country music great.  How could they go out of style?

The singles from the album, ‘Dirty Girl’ and ‘In My Next Life’ barely cracked the top 40 on the U.S. country charts peaking at #30 and #36, respectively.  However, both did well in Clark’s native homeland of Canada.   The former going all the way to #1.  So, in November 2008, the singer announced she was leaving BNA Records to pursue her career in Canada and hinted at the prospect of creating her own label.  Maybe the song will surface one day on her future albums.  Until then, here’s my recommended track for the weekend.

Listen to Terri Clark with Reba, Sara Evans, and Martina McBride – ‘Nashville Girls’