My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Ken Nelson

Classic Album Review: Wanda Jackson ‘Salutes The Country Music Hall Of Fame’

Released in 1966 by Capitol Records (my copy is a British pressing on Capitol / EMI), Wanda’s album may be the first album to expressly salute the recently established Country Music Hall of Fame. At the time the album was recorded only six persons had been inducted into the County Music Hall of Fame:

1961 – Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Fred Rose
1962 – Roy Acuff
1964 – Tex Ritter
1965 – Ernest Tubb

Of the six above, Fred Rose was a publisher & songwriter but not a performer. The other five would today be described as very traditional performers, so this album gave Wanda, more commonly regarded as a rockabilly or rock ‘n roll performer (she is in both the Rockabilly and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame) a chance to display her credentials as a country performer. Reaching #12 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, this album would prove to be Wanda’s second highest charting album.

While no singles were released from this album, I frequently heard tracks from the album played on the various county stations around the southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina. This at a time that when Billboard did not chart album tracks.

Produced by Ken Nelson, no musician credits are given but I suspect that members of Buck Owen’s Buckaroos and Merle Haggard’s Strangers are in the mix somewhere.

The album opens up with the Hank Williams classic “Jambalaya” taken at mid-tempo. The song has a standard 1960s country arrangement with steel guitar and piano feature in the arrangement and the lyrics clearly enunciated.

Next up is one of my favorite Ernest Tubb songs “Try Me One More Time”. This was Ernest’s first chart entry when Billboard started its County Charts in 1944. The song was a crossover pop hit. This song is taken at a medium slow tempo that could be described as plodding, but which fits the song perfectly.

Yes I know I’ve been untrue
And I have hurt you through and through
Please have a mercy on this heart of mine
Take me back and try me one more time

If my darling you could see
Just what your leaving done to me
You’d know that love is still a tie that binds
And take me back and try me one more time

In my dreams I see your face
But it seems there’s someone in my place
Oh does she know you were once just mine
Take me back and try me one more time

“There’s A New Moon Over My Shoulder” was a huge hit for cowboy actor Tex Ritter in 1944. Again, this is a slow ballad.

Wanda enters another dimension with her cover of the 1929 Jimmie Rodgers tune “Blue Yodel #6” with its bluesy arrangement (nearly acoustic) and, of course, Jimmie Rodgers style blue yodel

He left me this morning, midnight was turning day
He left me this morning, midnight was turning day
I didn’t have no blues till my good man went away

Got the blues like midnight, moon shining bright as day
Got the blues like midnight, moon shining bright as day
I wish a tornado would come and blow my blues away

Now one of these mornings, I’m gonna leave this town
Yeah one of these mornings, I’m gonna leave this town
‘Cause you trifling men really keep a good gal down

When a woman’s down, you men don’t want her round
When a woman’s down, you men don’t want her round
But if she’s got money, she’s the sweetest gal in town

“Fireball Mail” was a beloved and oft-covered Roy Acuff song with writer credits to Floyd Jenkins, an alias of Fred Rose. This song is taken at a medium fast tempo with modern 1960s instrumentation (no dobro, fiddle or banjo).

Here she comes, look at her roll, there she goes eatin’ that coal
Watch her fly huggin’ the rails, let her by by by the fireball mail
Let her go look at her steam, hear her blow, whistle and scream
Like a hound waggin’ his tail Dallas bound bound bound, the fireball mail

Engineer makin’ up time, tracks are clear, look at her climb
See that freight clearin’ the rail, bet she’s late late late, the fireball mail
Watch her swerve, look at her sway, get that curve out of the way
Watch her fly, look at her sail, let her by by by the fireball mail
Let her by by by the fireball mail, let her by by by the fireball mail

Side one of the album closes out with another Ernest Tubb classic “Let’s Say Goodbye Like We Said Hello”, a 1948 hit for the redoubtable Tubb. The arrangement on this track plays direct tribute to Tubb retaining the three note guitar signature featured on nearly all of Ernest’s recordings. The song is taken at a medium slow tempo.

Side two opens up with “Jealous Heart” a 1944 ballad for Tex Ritter that reached #2 and was a top twenty pop hit. Wanda takes the song at a slightly faster tempo than did Tex (she also lacks Tex’s drawl).

Jealous heart, oh jealous heart, stop beating, can’t you see the damage you have done
You have driven him away forever jealous heart, now I’m the lonely one
I was part of everything he planned for and I know he loved me from the start
Now he hates the sight of all I stand for all because of you, oh jealous heart

Jealous heart, why did I let you rule me when I knew the end would bring me pain
Now he’s gone, he’s gone and found another, oh I’ll never see my love again
Through the years his memory will haunt me even though we’re many miles apart
It’s so hard to know he’ll never want me cause he heard your beating, jealous heart

Next up is “Great Speckled Bird”, a Roy Acuff classic from the 1930s. One of the all-time favorite religious songs of country audiences Wanda does a creditable job with the song but Roy Acuff she’s not.

“The Soldier’s Last Letter” was a huge Ernest Tubb hit from 1944 reaching #1 for four weeks. According to Billboard this was Ernest’s biggest chart hit (there were no country charts in 1941 when “I’m Walking The Floor Over You” was released, as one that was a big pop hit and sold (according to various sources) over a million copies. Merle Haggard would revive the song as a single taking it to #1 on Record World in 1971.

I think everyone has heard “The Wabash Cannonball” a song credited to A.P. Carter and popularized by Roy Acuff. Taken at a medium-fast tempo, and using a standard arrangement Wanda does a nice job with the song.

The final track is my favorite on the album, Jimmie Rodgers’ “Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues”, one of Jimmie’s lesser known songs. Wanda opens the song with a rolling yodel and gets to demonstrate her yodeling skills on this song.

I’m always blue, feeling so blue, I wish I had someone I knew
Just to help me tuck away my blues, lonesome blues
Won’t you be that someone to help me lose the blues
I really need someone to love me, someone to kiss
Someone to scold me, someone to miss
Won’t you be that someone to help me lose the blues
I really need someone to love me.

None of these songs are taken at a really fast tempo, so the entire album gives Wanda to demonstrate her skill as a balladeer. This is my favorite Wanda Jackson album and I’m grateful that I got to see her on several Capitol package programs where she focused on country songs and stayed away from the rockabilly stuff.

I am not sure why Wanda’s career as a country artist never really caught fire – she had a good clear voice with character and personality, she could yodel and she could tackle anything. I think she took off some years in mid-career to raise a family, and perhaps she never got the push from Capital that she deserved. Regardless, she was a fine singer – I’d give this album an “A”.

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Album Review: Johnny Paycheck – ‘Mr Hag Told My Story’

Nowadays when a tribute album is released, often it is more of a multi-artist gala event than an honest tribute with many of those paying tribute being mere poseurs. This was not always the case. Prior to the Urban Cowboy movement, it was common to see single artist albums that paid tribute to another artist. Kitty Wells, Faron Young and Del Reeves paid tribute to Jim Reeves. Similarly, Stonewall Jackson, Ernest Tubb and Charley Pride issued Hank Williams tribute albums and Loretta Lynn cut a tribute album to Patsy Cline. Even the great Merle Haggard issued tribute albums to Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers, as did Willie Nelson with his a salute to Lefty Frizzell. Most of these single artist tribute albums were sincere tributes, but they were seldom innovative or particularly soulful endeavors, just albums of adequate cover versions.

Mr. Hag Told My Story is different. For one thing Paycheck, a somewhat kindred spirit to Haggard, inhabits these songs, making them very personal indeed. Moreover, instead of merely recording a collection of Haggard’s hits, Paycheck goes deep catalog, recording some relatively obscure songs that were mostly album tracks for Haggard.

While Haggard and Paycheck had some similarities such as tough childhoods which resulted in both being hellions during their younger years, Haggard outgrew his demons and never was regarded as being part of the outlaw movement. This may be at least partially due to Haggard’s producer at Capitol, Ken Nelson, giving Haggard free reign to release some very personal albums with less commercial viability. Consequently, Haggard did not have much cause for rebellion.

I am not convinced that Johnny Paycheck ever truly conquered his demons, except when he grew too old to continue his self-destructive ways.

Haggard was a huge star with over 20 years of sustained chart success while Paycheck had three scattered periods of success scattered over a 15 year period. Both were successful songwriters and both got started in the bands of the biggest stars of the time.

For a brief period of time Haggard and Paycheck recorded for the same label, Epic, toured together and were able to record together.

Released in 1981, Mr. Hag Told My Story is an album of moody and/or introspective songs all of which were written by Haggard except for “Carolyn” a Haggard hit written by Tommy Collins. There were no hit singles released from the album, but there are a lot of classic performances, with Haggard’s band The Strangers providing much of the instrumental backing.

The structure of the album is that Paycheck introduces each of the songs with a spoken introduction. Haggard himself weaves in and out of the album, sometimes as a lead or harmony singer, sometimes as part of a conversation and sometimes playing his guitar. Make no mistake – this is a Johnny Paycheck album but Haggard’s presence is significant.

The album opens up with “(I’m) Turning Off A Memory”, the B-side of Haggard’s 1971 hit “Grandma Harp”. This is a great song that I think should have been an A-side for Haggard. Haggard adds some asides and sings on the choruses and takes on one of the verses.

You can find me in a dim lighted bar room
If your coldness should ever turn warm
But the chances of you ever changing
Are as slim as your two loving arms

So I’m turning off a memory
As quickly as time will allow
Yes, I’m turning off a memory
And the wine seems to help me somehow

“I’ve Got A Yearning” was an album track on Haggard’s 1978 Capitol album Eleven Winners. Taken slightly up-tempo, the song is another tale of loneliness:

I’ve got a yearning to hold you tight
A burning desire I live with day and night
Everything I lose keeps on hanging on
This feeling isn’t leaving and by now it should be gone.

I keep on thinking those thoughts that keep making me want you all the time
I should be trying to find me a way I can drive you from my mind
I know that you wanted to give and I know that you gave all you could
Wish I could accept what is over and done with for good.

Tommy Collins wrote “Carolyn”, a classic song of frustration and angst, that Haggard took to the top of the charts in 1972. Here Paycheck sings the verses and Haggard does the narrations. Don Markham’s horns give the song a more jazzy feeling than on Haggard’s earlier single.

Yes, Carolyn, a man will do that sometimes on his own
And sometimes when he’s lonely
I believe a man will do that sometimes out of spite
But Carolyn, a man will do that always
When he’s treated bad at home

“I’ll Leave the Bottle on the Bar” comes from Haggard’s 1968 album Sing Me Back Home. This song is another featuring a quicker tempo. The steel guitar sounds like that of Big Jim Murphy, Paycheck’s regular steel guitarist:

A loser doesn’t always know he’s losing
Till he’s lost the game and it’s too late to win
I hope I’ll call in time and you’ll forgive me
‘Cause I want so much to come back home again
And I’ll leave the bottle on the bar
If you’ll take me back to start anew
I’ll leave the bottle on the bar
I’ll sober up and come back home to you

I’m not sure that “All Night Lady” was ever issued on a Merle Haggard album. This song is about Death Row, not the first time Haggard wrote about the subject. Paycheck does a masterful job of singing the song.

Through the window he sits watching his last sunset
Like a blackout curtain closing out the light
It’s now he needs someone’s arms around him
Yes it’s now he needs someone to help him through the night

An all night lady
One who loves me
And won’t leave me when daylight comes
One who’ll stay with me until my life is done

At 9 AM they’re going to lead him to the death-house
And at 10 AM they’ll lay his soul to rest
I can see them giving him his last supper
I can hear him giving them his last request

“I Can’t Hold Myself in Line” was the only single issued from the album, dying at #41. The song originally appeared on Haggard’s Pride in What I Am album released in 1969. This song is basically a very bluesy conversation between Haggard and Paycheck, with twin steel by Jim Murphy and Norm Hamlet, plus some very funky lead guitar by Roy Nichols and terrific horns played by Don Markham.

I’m going off of the deep end
And I’m slowly losing my mind
And I disagree with the way (ha-ha) I’m living
But I can’t hold myself in line

You give me no reason for my drinkin’
But I can’t stand myself at times
And you’re better off to just leave and forget me
Cause I can’t hold myself in line

“Yesterday’s News Just Hit Home Today” is another bluesy track with the sage advice that ‘being a fool is one thing, but not knowing you’re a fool is another thing’.

“You Don’t Have Very Far to Go” was a Haggard co-write with Red Simpson that first surfaced on Haggard’s 1967 album Branded Man. I thought at the time that it would have made a good single for Haggard but then, most of his sixties albums were full of good singles material. Johnny gives it a more honky-tonk treatment that Hag had given it.

You always find the way to hurt my pride
If I’m not crying you’re not satisfied
And I don’t know why you want to hurt me so
If you’re tryin’ to break my heart
You don’t have very far to go
You don’t have very far to go

Before the heartache begins
I already feel the sadness
Of a heartbreak settin’ in
I don’t know why you want to hurt me so
If you’re tryin’ to break my heart
You don’t have very far to go

“No More You and Me” is a fairly generic honky-tonk ballad, executed perfectly by Paycheck.

The album closes with the bluesy title track “Someone Told My Story”:

I played a brand-new record on the jukebox
And I scarcely could believe the song I heard
It told of how you left me for another
It was almost like I’d written every word

Someone told my story in a song
The lyrics told of happiness and home
And then it told of how you’ve done me wrong

Someone told my story in a song
The writer must’ve seen the way you done me
For he told it all and never missed a line
He told of swinging doors and the jukebox

And he even knew I almost lost my mind
Someone told my story in a song

After listening to this album, I think you’d have to say that Haggard definitely told Paycheck’s story in his songs. This album is my favorite of the post-Little Darlin’ Johnny Paycheck. Really, how could this miss?

The great songs of Merle Haggard, as sung by Johnny Paycheck with an amplified version of Haggard’s Strangers providing most of the instrumental backing and Hag himself joining in at times.

Grade: A+

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-

Country Heritage: Jean Shepard

jean shepard 1You gaze at that guitar on your knee
In a way that you never look at me
This love affair of yours has gone too far
And I’m tired of playing second fiddle to an old guitar

— From “Second Fiddle (To an Old Guitar),” Capitol Records, 1964

Kitty Wells may have been the reigning Queen of Country Music during the 1950s, but in the eyes of many (including myself) Jean Shepard had at least as good a claim to the title. Whereas Kitty Wells, after the uncharacteristically defiant “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” reverted back to songs of domestic bliss and of being the “wronged woman,” Jean Shepard kept pushing the boundaries for female country singers. Jean may not have pushed things as far as Loretta Lynn did during the late 1960s and 70s, but she laid the groundwork for Loretta and those to follow. Among Europeans, whose tastes in country music run to more traditional sounds, many regard her as the greatest of all female country singers, a sentiment that was echoed by such leading British county music journalists as Pat Campbell, Bob Powell, and David Allen. While I don’t regard Shepard quite that highly, on my personal list of the greatest female country singers of all time, she would be in my top three (greatest, as opposed to most popular or most influential) singers. During her peak years (roughly 1953-75) she was a definite force of nature

Born Ollie Imogene Shepard on November 21, 1933 in Oklahoma, she was the child of parents who moved to Bakersfield, California, as a result of the Dust Bowl that engulfed the midwest during the 1930s. Since Shepard has been staunchly performing modern traditional country music for over sixty years, it seems only fitting that she grew up and started her career in the area surrounding Bakersfield, California.

Jean began her career as a bass player in the Melody Ranch Girls, an all-female band formed in 1948. Not long thereafter, she came to the attention of Hank Thompson, who, impressed by her talents, helped her get a record deal with Capitol Records–where she worked with Thompson’s producer, Ken Nelson. At the time she inked her deal, Shepard was still a teenager.

On her Capitol recordings, Shepard was a honky-tonker whose hard-core sound could rival any of her male counterparts. While her first single “Crying Steel Guitar Waltz” failed to chart, it showed enough promise for Capitol to team her with another promising singer, Ferlin Husky, for the 1953 chart-topper “A Dear John Letter,” a song which resonated with many returning Korean War veterans. After this, the solo hits started coming with “Beautiful Lies” and “A Satisfied Mind” being among the biggest hits of 1955 ( “A Satisfied Mind” was also a major hit for Porter Wagoner and Red Foley, but after you’ve heard Jean Shepard’s version, you will forget about the others).

Along the way, Shepard became a part of Red Foley’s Ozark Jubilee (broadcast from Springfield, MO on ABC TV) from 1955 to 1957, and she was inducted as a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1956, where she has remained a member to this day. It was during this period that Jean released what may have been country music’s first album centered around a theme in Songs of a Love Affair. Shepard had a hand in writing all twelve songs on this album.

She continued to have hits throughout the fifties and sixties, although like many other traditional country singers her hits became increasingly smaller as rock ‘n roll and the Nashville sound came into prominence. Lost in the shuffle were such excellent singles as “Act Like A Married Man,” “Tomorrow I’ll Be Gone,” “I Used To Love You,” and “Have Heart, Will Love.”

In 1960 Shepard married Hawkshaw Hawkins, a minor star whose forte was his live stage shows rather than recording success. Jean was pregnant with his son Hawkshaw Hawkins, Jr. at the time of the 1963 plane crash that claimed Hawkins’ life (as well as those of Lloyd “Cowboy” Copas and Patsy Cline).

After her son’s birth, Shepard dealt with the tragedy of her husband’s death by pouring herself back into her career. In 1964 she rebounded back near the top of the charts with the feisty “Second Fiddle (To an Old Guitar),” a song which spotlighted her yodeling ability. The next few years would produce more hits including “Seven Lonely Days,” “Many Happy Hangovers To You,” and a rare ballad “Another Lonely Night.” She also teamed up with Ray Pillow for several duets, including the big hit “I’ll Take the Dog” in 1966.

Between 1965 and 1970 Shepard charted fifteen Top 40 hits. Eventually, though, Capitol –- blessed with a deep roster that included Wanda Jackson, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Glen Campbell and Sonny James –quit pushing her recordings to radio.

A switch to United Artists (UA) in 1973 re-ignited her career as her first single for the label, the Bill Anderson-penned “Slippin’ Away,” went to #4  Billboard /#1 Cashbox /#1 Record World  , and was followed by such great singles as “At The Time,” “I’ll Do Anything It Takes (To Stay With You),” “Poor Sweet Baby,” “Tip of My Fingers,” and “Another Neon Night.” One of her UA albums, Poor Sweet Baby, was composed entirely of songs written by Bill Anderson.  Shepard remained with UA for five years.  Since then she has recorded only occasionally for various minor labels.

Along the way, Shepard married Benny Birchfield, (best known for his tenor harmonies during his tenure with the Osborne Brothers bluegrass group). She also served as president of the Association of Country Entertainers, the perfect spokesperson for this very traditionalist organization.

In 2010, Jean was inducted into the Oklahoma Country Music Hall of Fame. Then in 2011, Jean was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, an honor three decades overdue.

Jean Shepard has been a member of the Grand Ole Opry since 1955 and continues to perform regularly on the Grand Old Opry where she is indeed, the “Grand Lady of the Opry,” and a national treasure. She also tours occasionally, (in the past she sometimes performed with her son Hawkshaw Hawkins, Jr. but I haven’t heard much about him recently).  She’s lost a little off her vocal ‘chops’ over the course of time, but even 85% of Jean Shepard is a lot more than 100% of most singers.

Discography

Vinyl

Capitol Records issued twenty-one albums on Jean Shepard from 1956 to 1975 (one of these was a duet album with Ray Pillow) plus there were some budget reissues released on the Hilltop label. United Artists issued five albums plus a Greatest Hits collection from 1973 to 1976.

Albums on either Capitol or United Artist  will capture Jean at the peak of her vocal prowess. Later albums will still catch Jean in good voice but with less care given to the accompaniment and production, although the album Stars of the Grand Ole Opry issued in 1981 on Pete Drake’s First Generation Records, is a pretty good effort.

CD / Digital

The CD catalog for Shepard isn’t what it should be, although the Bear Family boxed set titled Melody Ranch Girl is available. The folks at Collector’s Choice Music described it thus, “151 legendary Capitol sides from the woman who broke through the thick gender barrier in country music without looking back! This is everything Jean recorded from 1952–1964—from ‘A Dear John Letter’ up through ‘Second Fiddle (to an Old Guitar)’—including her landmark album Songs of a Love Affair, the first concept album recorded by a female country artist, plus her Got You on My Mind, Lonesome Love and Heartaches and Tears albums. A 36-page book with a newly researched biography, discography and rare photos completes the story.”

For folks wanting to sample Jean’s work without shelling out over $100, there are some decent alternatives available.

The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently lists nine titles available, including the above-mentioned Melody Ranch Girl boxed set and the CD version of Stars of the Grand Ole Opry and an outstanding two disc set released recently by the UK label Jasmine titled The First Lady of Country, which is composed of four of Jean’s early Capitol albums (Songs of A Love Affair, Lonesome Love, This Is Jean Shepard, and Got You On My Mind).

I am not sure of the vintage of the recordings on the other sets available from Ernest Tubb, but if you call them, the folks taking your order often can give useful information.

The Country Music Foundation in 1995 issued the stellar Jean Shepard: Honky-Tonk Heroine, which has 24 songs taken from her tenure at Capitol. It may still be possible to obtain this disc. That same year Castle Communications (Australasia) issued A Satisfied Mind which has 26 tracks (17 Capitol recordings and 9 United Artist recordings)– this is the only set (of which I am aware) that contains original United Artist recordings.

Other collections available are of uncertain vintage. Jean has issued some CDs herself (Jean, Personal Favorites, and perhaps other titles) that are often remakes but contain some song titles otherwise unavailable. I have several of these discs and they are worth obtaining.

Amazon (and probably other sites, as well) have some of Jean’s music available as digital downloads. The available music appears to be a mixed bag of originals and remakes but fortunately you can hear samples before purchasing.   While recording quality can vary, there are no bad Jean Shepard vocal performances on any of the recordings that I’ve heard.

Country Heritage: Ferlin Husky

ferlin husky

I hear Little Rock calling
Homesick tears are falling
I’ve been away from Little Rock way too long
Gonna have a troubled mind
Til I reach that Arkansas line
I hear Little Rock calling me back home

From “I Hear Little Rock Calling” — music and lyrics by Dallas Frazier

In a career in which he was a humorist, a singer, a dramatic actor on Kraft TV Theater, a movie star and talent scout, it seems only appropriate that Ferlin Husky was one of the first to record and take a Dallas Frazier lyric up the country charts. Moreover, Husky is one of the few country stars to have three career songs in “A Dear John Letter”, his 1953 duet with Jean Shepard that spent 6 weeks at #1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Chart (and reached #4 on the pop charts); “Gone”, a 1957 hit that spent 10 weeks at #1 on Billboard (and also reached #4 on the pop chart); and finally, in 1960, “The Wings Of A Dove”, a massive hit that Cashbox lists as the biggest country song of the period 1958-1984 with 19 weeks at #1 (Billboard had it at #1 for 10 weeks).

Ferlin Husky (December 3, 1925 – March 17, 2011) was born on a farm midway between the Missouri towns of Flat River, Hickory Grove and Cantwell. As a youngster, Ferlin obtained a guitar and, aided by his uncle Clyde Wilson, he learned to play it. Upon graduation from high school, Ferlin moved to the region’s biggest city, St. Louis, where he briefly worked odd jobs to survive before joining the US Merchant Marines in 1943. Ferlin would spend five years in the Merchant Marines, where in his off hours he would entertain shipmates with his vocals and musicianship. In 1948 Ferlin left the Merchant Marines to return to St. Louis where he worked for over a year with Gene Autry’s sidekick Smiley Burnett at radio station KXLW.

Moving to California in 1949, Husky landed some bit parts in western movies before moving to Bakersfield, where he sang at local clubs and worked as a disc jockey. By 1950 he was recording for Four Star Records under the name ‘Terry Preston,’ a name Ferlin felt less contrived than his given name. While none of the Terry Preston recordings became hits, they favorably impressed Cliffie Stone, a Southern California disc jockey whose television show Hometown Jamboree was quite popular. Stone played the Terry Preston records on his morning show on KXLA and eventually got Ferlin signed to Capitol Records, still under the name Terry Preston. Recording for legendary Capitol producer Ken Nelson, several fine singles resulted, including a cover of an old Roy Acuff hit “Tennessee Central #9,” none of which charted.

Nelson urged Ferlin to use his real name and the first single released under that name (“Huskey”–with an E–being the spelling used on records until 1957) hit the jackpot as the 1953 recording of “A Dear John Letter,” sung by Jean Shepard with recitation by Ferlin, resonated with returning Korean War veterans and launched both careers.

A follow up record with Ms. Shepard, “Forgive Me John”, also went Top 10 in late 1953, but it took another year for the solo hits to start. Finally, in 1955, Ferlin hit with four songs, two Top 10 records in “I Feel Better All Over” and “Little Tom”, a Top 20 record in “I’ll Baby Sit With You,” and a #5 hit recorded under the name of his comic alter-ego Simon Crum, “Cuzz Yore So Sweet”.

Growing up in the Great Depression and coming of age during World War II gave Ferlin a sense of the importance of helping others. As one of the first artists to reach Bakersfield, Ferlin was an influence and mentor to such struggling entertainers as Tommy Collins, Billy Mize, Dallas Frazier, Buck Owens and Roy Drusky. In fact, it was Ferlin who renamed Leonard Sipes as Tommy Collins.
During his years with Capitol, Ferlin Husky would push the boundaries of country music, whether by the sophisticated balladry of “Gone”, or the gentle ribbing of his #2 hit “Country Music Is Here To Stay” (as recorded by Crum).

Ferlin would stay with Capitol Records until 1972 charting forty-one records along the way, although after “The Wings of A Dove” in 1960 Top Ten hits would be scarce for the singer, with only “Once” (1967) and “Just For You” (1968), both which reached #4, scaling the heights. (“Heavenly Sunshine” reached #10 on Cashbox in 1970, stalling out at #11 on Billboard.)

After 1972, Ferlin would sign with ABC where he would chart nine times with hits including “Rosie Cries A Lot” (#17). A very nice record called “A Room for A Boy … Never Used” got lost in the shuffle; it peaked at #60 but is well worth hunting down.
After his stint with ABC, Ferlin would record sporadically for minor labels, often remaking earlier hits but sometimes coming up with new material. In 2005, at the age of eighty, Ferlin issued an excellent new CD, The Way It Was (Is The Way It Is), on the Heart of Texas label. This CD featured both old and new material, with Leona Williams on two tracks, and backed by a cast of fine Texas swing musicians.

Ferlin Husky was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010. Many years before that, he became one of the first country artists to get his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Read more of this post

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘The Way I Am’

After leaving Capitol it took Haggard a while to get himself back on track in the studio, as this period found Haggard focusing mostly on his live performances, operating larger and more swinging ensembles. Seeing a live Merle Haggard performance during the late 1970s was indeed a treat; however, his recorded output (and songwriting) suffered in the process. Losing the steady (and unobtrusive) hand of Ken Nelson as producer didn’t help either.

The Way I Am was Merle’s fifth album for MCA. After Ramblin’ Fever and My Farewell To Elvis things seemed to stagnate. I’m Always On A Mountain When I Fall, peaked at #17 while spending twenty weeks on the charts and featured three singles that reached #2. Serving 190 Proof also peaked at #17 and spent twenty-five weeks on the charts while featuring four singles that each peaked at #4.

While The Way I Am only reached #16 on the charts, it had a long chart run of thirty-nine weeks and primed the pump for further success. Only the title track was released as a single, reaching #2 for two weeks (it reached #1 on both Cashbox and Record World charts) but with this album Haggard got back to focusing on his recorded vocals.

The Sonny Throckmorton title track probably describes the life most of us lead:

“Wish I was down on some blue bayou,
With a bamboo cane stuck in the sand.
But the road I’m on, don’t seem to go there,
So I just dream, keep on bein’ the way I am.

Wish I enjoyed what makes my living,
Did what I do with a willin’ hand.
Some would run, but that ain’t my way
So I just dream and keep on bein’ the way I am”

“Skybo” is one of two tracks on which Porter Wagoner shares production credits. Updating Jimmie Rodgers’ hobos to the last quarter of the twentieth century, “Skybo” tells the story of a man who works airports and hitches rides to new destinations. The song has a distinct Cajun feel to it.

“No One To Sing For But The Band” is a song of lost love. Not one of Hag’s better songs but still good.

“(Remember Me) I’m The One Who Loves You” is one of five older songs on the album. Written by Stuart Hamblen, a writer better known for gospel songs, the song is given a bluesy Dixieland feel. The song was a major hit several times and has been recorded by many including hit versions by Dean Martin, Ernest Tubb and Stuart Hamblen:

“If you’re all alone and blue
No one to tell your troubles to
Remember me cause I’m the one who loves you”

“Life’s Just Not The Way It Used To Be” is a decent piece of Haggard-penned filler, dealing with a topic Haggard dealt with many times in his songs. “Wake Up” is the other song co-produced by Porter Wagoner. While the song intro has a Dixieland feel to it, the song lapses into straight-forward country. The song has lyrics that could be interpreted in differing ways:

“Wake up, don’t just lay there like cold granite stone
Wake up, we’re too close to be alone
Wake up, and please, Darling, hold me if you would
Don’t just lay there like you’ve gone away for good

There’s too many empty pages with so many things in store
I can’t believe it’s over and you’ve closed the final door
And I’m not prepared to handle these things we’re going through
I wish God would grant me just one more night with you

“Where Have You Been” is the tale of a husband and family dealing with a wayward spouse. While not a classic Haggard song, it is a good enough effort to warrant listening.

The last four songs are songs often associated with the legendary Texas Troubadour, Ernest Tubb. During the period 1944-1956 honky-tonk was the dominant form of country music and Ernest Tubb and Floyd Tillman were the primary architects of the style.

At this point in his career Haggard no longer had the clout to get away with issuing whole albums with little apparent commercial appeal; however, he still had free rein to sprinkle his albums with oldies. “Take Me Back And Try Me One More Time” was penned by Tubb and initially issued in 1942. War-time shellac shortages prevented the record from receiving wide distribution so the record was re-released and charted in 1947. Haggard’s performance on this track makes me regret that Merle never got to do an entire Ernest Tubb tribute album as ET’s songs fit Merle’s voice so perfectly:

“Yes, I know I’ve been untrue
And I have hurt you through and through
But please have mercy on this heart of mine
Take me back and try me one more time”

“I’ll Always Be Glad To Take You Back” is another Tubb-penned song that Haggard handles to perfection. “It Makes No Difference Now” was penned by Floyd Tillman, the other pillar of the subgenre. There were several hit versions of the song (Cliff Bruner, Jimmie Davis) in the late 1930s and more in the early 1940s (Tillman, Tubb). The careful crafting of the lyrics led Ray Charles to record the song and include it in his classic Modern Sounds In County and Western Music album, released in 1961.

“Makes no difference now what kind of life fate hands me
I’ll get along without you now, that’s plain to see
I don’t care what happens next, ‘ cause I’ll get by somehow
I don’t worry ’cause it makes no difference now”

The album closes with another song written by Tubb, “It’s Been So Long Darling”. At the time this album was released, Ernest Tubb was in declining health (emphysema) so the song royalties were probably quite helpful to Tubb. This song was written about soldiers drafted into service during WW2 although it could have been written about soldiers in any war:

“It’s been so long, darlin’
But it won’t be long now
It’s been so long, darlin’
But I’ve kept ev’ry vow
I pray that you’ll be waiting
As you did in days gone by
It’s been so long, darlin’
Please don’t blame me if I cry.”

Merle Haggard would record one more secular studio album and a live album for MCA before moving to Epic, his label from late 1981 until mid-1989, where he experienced a renaissance that produced a number of successful albums and singles. Although Haggard’s tenure with MCA was brief, this album and the live Rainbow Stew album are reasons to remember his tenure with MCA.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Serving 190 Proof’

One would be hard pressed to find any duds within Merle Haggard’s Capitol catalog; during his dozen or so years with the label he and Ken Nelson created an impressive body of work. While Haggard continued to produce worthwhile music in his post-Capitol career, it’s generally acknowledged that his output was more hit or miss after he departed the label. Serving 190 Proof, produced by Fuzzy Owen and released in 1979 on MCA, is one of his less interesting efforts, despite producing two Top 5 hits.

Haggard wrote or co-wrote nine of the album’s eleven tracks, including the two singles “Red Bandana” and “My Own Kind Of Hat”, both of which peaked at #4. “Red Bandana” is about a pair of free spirits, 30 years into their relationship, and now she apparently wants to settle down, but Merle states emphatically that “I can’t change and live the way you want me to.” “My Own Kind Of Hat” is a whimsical ditty about marching to the beat of a different drummer. The catchy lyrics have fun with some words that contain double meanings, as well as a few double entendres:

There’s two kinds of brothers and two kinds of lovers
And two kinds of babies to hold
There’s two kinds of cherries and two kinds of fairies
And two kinds of mothers, I’m told, and told …

The rest of the album takes a more serious tone. The opening track “Footlights” is one of the most introspective songs Haggard ever recorded. It talks about the loneliness and isolation of life on the road, having to put on a brave face and smile for the sake of the fans, and — despite tremendous professional success — having to little to celebrate in his personal life. “Got Lonely Too Early (This Morning)” is a little more upbeat, despite the serious lyrics. The melody is somewhat similar to “C.C. Waterback”, which Merle would record a few years later with George Jones, but “Got Lonely” lacks the energy of that later track. It plods along and somehow doesn’t quite work.

The album’s best track is one that Haggard didn’t write. “Heaven Was A Drink Of Wine”, penned by the always reliable Sanger D. Shafer, finds Merle in therapy to overcome a drinking problem. Had the song been written a few years later, one could easily imagine Keith Whitley singing it.

As the album progresses, it becomes more and more apparent that Haggard was in the midst of a midlife crisis of sorts. He talks about loneliness and advancing age in “Footlights”, a drinking problem in “Heaven Was A Drink Of Wine”, and in “Driftwood” he is drifting through life without purpose. He finds that he can’t run away from his problems in “I Can’t Get Away” and in Red Lane’s “I Must Have Done Something Bad”, he’s been betrayed by a wife or girlfriend and thinks that it must be retribution for something he did in the past. He turns nostalgic with “Sing A Family Song” and holds out some hope that things will get better in the album’s closing track “Roses In The Winter”, which despite, being a very pretty song, doesn’t seem to be a good fit for Merle.

Whether it was his state of mind or the absence of Ken Nelson, Serving 190 Proof is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Most of the songs are good, but as a collection it seems a bit lifeless. By most other artists’ standard, Serving 190 Proof would be considered stellar work, but while it is by no means a bad album, it fails to reach the high bar set by Haggard’s earlier work on Capitol. While it is not his best work, it is still worth a listen, and is easy to find on CD and as a digital download.

Grade: B

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today’

It is not unusual for a record label to release material it has “in the can” after an artist has left for another label. What is unusual is for that material to be top-flight and perhaps even better than the artist’s current musical releases. A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today is the first of two albums in which Haggard and Capitol wave goodbye to each other. The album made its chart debut on October 15, 1977, approximately five months after the release of his first album for MCA, Ramblin’ Fever.

Since the album didn’t have the promotional push of Capitol Records behind it, #28 was as high on the album charts as it would get and the singles released (“A Workin’ Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today”, “Making Believe” , and ”Running Kind”) all languished between #12 and #16 on the Billboard Country charts. Despite that the album remains one of my favorites.

More so than on his most recent Capitol releases, this album was founded on the blues. Since Haggard was already gone from Capitol, I assume that Ken Nelson was the guiding force behind the songs chosen for this album. If so, he did a magnificent job of protecting Hag’s legacy.

The album opens up with the title song, a song which echoes the sentiments of working people everywhere:

“A working man can’t get nowhere today
A working man ain’t got no time to play
Today I work my fanny off and leave it lay
A working man can’t get nowhere today”

The next track is one familiar to country fans of my generation and older, a song which was a major hit for Kitty Wells and Emmylou Harris, the Jimmy Work-penned “Making Believe”. An older generation would remember “Blues Stay Away From Me” as a major hit for Alton & Rabon Delmore.

Life is full of misery
Dreams are like a memory
Bringing back your love that used to be

Some have referred to the Delmore Brothers recording of this song as the first real rock and roll song; I think that is pushing it a bit, but it certainly is an excellent (and depressing song).

“Got A Letter From My Kid Today” was an old Tin Pan Alley song, with lyrics by Hy Zaret, who also wrote the Al Hibbler hit “Unchained Melody”. Bob Wills recorded and released it during the early years of WW2 but shellac shortages limited its distribution:

“Got a letter from my kid today
They let me read a line or two
I lost my teddy bear, I can’t remember where
Daddy is he there with you?”

“When My Last Song Is Sung” is a Haggard original, a highly introspective song about a singer looking back at his career and giving thanks to his maker. “Moanin’ The Blues” is the Hank Williams classic – not one of Hag’s stronger efforts but a nice recording anyway.

Merle Haggard’s boyhood idol was Lefty Frizzell. “Goodbye Lefty” is Merle’s goodbye to his recently departed idol and mentor. The song is a little gimmicky, working in various Lefty Frizzell song titles into the lyrics, but it works and is a thoughtful tribute to one of the greatest country singers of all time:

“I’d love to hear a jukebox play ‘I love you a thousand ways’
Or ‘If you’ve got the money I’ve got the time’
I’d walk a mile for mom and dad and the good times that we had
‘Look what thoughts will do’ when you sing ‘old pal of mine’.”

“Blues For Dixie” is a song recorded by Bob Wills in 1947 that has a Dixieland Jazz feel but a lyric consistent with the blues. “Running Kind” was a single that probably could have been a big hit with the proper promotional push behind it. Like many of Haggard’s best songs, it reflects the angst in his soul:

“I was born the running kind, leaving always on my mind
Home was never home to me at anytime
Every front door found me open I would find the back door open
There just had to be a lesson for the running kind

Within me there’s a prison, surrounding me alone
As real as any dungeon with a wall of stone
I know running’s not the answer, but running’s been my nature
And a part of me that keeps me moving on”

The best songs spring from unhappiness, despair and uneasiness. While this fact has made for some great songs, it also explains why it took Haggard so long to ever really settle down.

The title of “I’m A White Boy” is much less controversial than the title might suggest. Merle could easily have titled it ‘I’m A Poor Boy’ although the lyrical value would have been affected.

Haggard was always at his best when singing blues-based lyrics and this album gives him some outstanding songs to sink his teeth into. Haggard had gotten into a rut with his previous three or four Capitol albums, and the first two MCA albums Rambling Fever and My Farewell To Elvis really didn’t pull him out of it, although an artist rebirth was just around the corner.

Capitol would dredge up one more Haggard album before giving up, a tribute to Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell titled The Way It Was in ‘51.

Grade: A

Album Review: Merle Haggard & The Strangers – ‘It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)’ and ‘If We Make It Through December’

1972’s It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad) was Merle Haggard’s 15th studio album for Capitol Records. Like his previous efforts, it was produced by Ken Nelson and Fuzzy Owen. It was recorded entirely at California — part of it as early as 1970 — at Capitol Records Studio and United Recording Studio in Hollywood, and Buck Owens Studio in Bakersfield. He wrote five of the album’s eleven tracks, relying on writers such as Hank Cochran, Glenn Martin, Tommy Collins, and Red Lane to supply the rest of the album’s songs. Cochran and Glenn supplied the title track, which became Merle’s 13th #1 hit. It’s one of my favorite Merle Haggard tunes that he didn’t write himself. Emmylou Harris revived it a decade later when she included a version on her live Last Date album.

The title track was the only single released from the collection, so most of the tunes here will be unfamiliar to many fans; however, this is an excellent collection without a single dud among its eleven tracks. Haggard’s own “My Woman Keeps Lovin’ Her Man” and “New York City Blues” which finds him homesick in Yankee territory, are both excellent, with the latter showing a strong Jimmie Rodgers influence. Another Haggard original, “A Shoulder To Cry On” would become a #1 hit for Charley Pride a few months later. Pride had expressed an interest in the song upon hearing Haggard perform it shortly after it was written. Merle generously allowed Charley to record the song and release it as a single. Had he kept it for himself, it’s a safe assumption to say that his own version would have reached the top of the charts.

“Dad’s Old Fiddle” sounds like a Haggard-penned tune, but it was actually written by Glenn Martin, most likely with Merle in mind. It tells the story of a man who inherits his father’s fiddle and learns to play it. Merle’s own father had played the fiddle in Oklahoma, but gave it up before Merle was born, and Merle later taught himself how to play the instrument when he was preparing to record his Bob Wills tribute album.
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Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘A Tribute To the Best Damn Fiddle Player In The World, Or My Salute To Bob Wills’

Unlike the Jimmie Rodgers tribute which celebrated a long dead and distant figure, this 1970 album was a tribute to a man still alive, and only about ten years removed from having been a viable recording artist.

Even so, by 1970 Western Swing was largely dead as a chart force, the only such artist still charting hit records being Hank Thompson, who had adapted his small-band swing sound into a more contemporary sound with some swing overtones. Spade Cooley was dead (after a stretch in prison for the murder of his wife) in prison, Tex Williams had become a Las Vegas lounge act, and Bob Wills himself had been traveling with a vocalist and using whatever house bands were available, few of whom had any real feel for western swing.

Meanwhile, hot on the heels of “Okie From Muskogee” (and a long string of other major hits), Merle Haggard had emerged as the biggest name in country music, releasing three albums (plus an album featuring his band) between the Jimmie Rodgers tribute and this album.

There would seem to be little to connect the music of Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. Jimmie’s music was that of the Great Depression, hard times and scraping by. Bob Wills’ music was, first and foremost, music for dancing and most of Bob Wills’ venues were dance halls. Both, however, were largely based in the blues. Moreover the two musical forces connected in Haggard’s music, probably because Wills was based in California for many years and his music was the music of the dance halls that Haggard heard growing up.

Emboldened by the success of the Rodgers tribute, Haggard set about working on a tribute to Bob Wills, producing three very commercially successful albums (two of them live albums) before pushing producer Ken Nelson into letting him produce another commercially questionable album. To prepare himself for the project, Haggard learned how to play fiddle, and, within a month of doing so, he started planning the album.

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Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Same Train, A Different Time: A Tribute To Jimmie Rodgers’

Merle Haggard was extremely fortunate that he landed with Capitol Records where he was granted considerable musical independence by his producer Ken Nelson. Nelson believed in letting his artists have freedom of expression. Nelson was there to ensure a quality production job and to give direction if needed, but to otherwise stay out of the way. In the case of artists such as Sonny James, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, this approach paid enormous dividends. It is difficult to imagine a different producer allowing one of his artists to issue as many non-commercial albums as Nelson allowed Haggard.

I was living in England when this album was issued in 1969 and purchased the single album British condensation of the US two-record set. When I got back Stateside I purchased the two record set, which I have to this day. I was delighted to find it on CD but when I’m home I still listen to the LP, reserving the CD for use in the car.

Same Train, A Different Time is something of a travelogue through Jimmie’s career with twenty of Jimmie’s songs interspersed with five narrations penned by Hugh Cherry and read by Haggard. This album features Haggard’s Strangers, with Roy Nichols often playing blues harmonica, instead of his customary lead guitar. The band, augmented by legendary guitarist James Burton on dobro, does a reasonable good job of replicating the feel (if not necessarily the sound) of the JR originals, and Haggard’s vocals are clearly a labor of love, complete with yodels. I should note that Jimmie Rodgers recorded in a number of settings, ranging from a simple guitar accompaniment to a full orchestra, with at least one recording featuring jazz legends Louis Armstong (trumpet) and Lil Hardin (piano). Haggard does not attempt to replicate the more complex settings sometimes found on Rodgers’ recordings but focuses on a basic blues or country setting. He also tends to focus more on songs that are based on the blues than Jimmie’s other inspirations.

Looking from the vantage point of 2011, it is difficult to comprehend just how important Jimmie Rodgers was to the development of country music as we know it. Such diverse performers as Jimmie Davis, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Bill Monroe, Grandpa Jones, Elton Britt, Wilf “Montana Slim” Carter and Lefty Frizzell all had Jimmie Rodgers as a primary influence in the development of their own musical styles – Snow and Tubb even worked overtime in helping establish the Jimmie Rodgers Festival Museum in Meridian, Mississippi.

Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933) was a railroad man who worked for many of America’s railroads until tuberculosis left him too weak to work. Jimmie had the heart and soul of a wanderer, and found his inspiration wherever music was played, incorporating blues, Appalachian ballads, jazz, vaudeville tunes, Tin Pan Alley and English parlor songs into his repertoire and creating a synthesis that inspired generations to come. Although Haggard grew up hearing Jimmie’s songs performed by others (such as Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow) it wasn’t until 1951 when Lefty Frizzell issued a series of 78 rpm recordings in tribute to Jimmie Rodgers (later issued as an LP), that Haggard went to the trouble of looking up the actual recordings of Jimmie Rodgers.

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Album Review: Merle Haggard & The Strangers – ‘I’m A Lonesome Fugitive’ and ‘Branded Man’

Merle Haggard released two albums in 1967, I’m A Lonesome Fugitive in March and Branded Man in August. Both were produced by Ken Nelson and appear to have been recorded concurrently at Capitol Recording Studios in Hollywood. Like his previous two LPs, the 1967 offerings broke with the day’s usual practice of building albums around one or two hit singles and cover versions of recent hits by other popular artists. Instead, Haggard’s albums consist primarily of original material written by the artist himself, occasionally co-written with Bonnie Owens, and a few select entries from other well-known songwriters including Tommy Collins, Hank Cochran and Liz and Casey Anderson.

The Andersons penned “The Fugitive” (also known as “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive”), which had been released the previous December. It is noteworthy not only because it became Haggard’s first #1 hit, but also because it was his first convict record, a theme he would revisit many times over the next 40 years. Inspired by the popular television series “The Fugitive” doesn’t reveal whether the antagonist is guilty or wrongly accused, which contrasts with Haggard’s later prison songs, in which the narrator is usually guilty and remorseful. The version on the current CD is an alternate take but isn’t significantly different from the better-known hit version. Initially reluctant to discuss his past transgressions, Merle was persuaded by Johnny Cash to face the issue head on rather than giving the tabloids the opportunity to do so. “Life In Prison”, in which the protagonist concludes that a life sentence is perhaps worse than execution, is perhaps his earliest self-penned effort about life behind bars. Although “The Fugitive” was the only single released from this set, many of the album’s other cuts were possible contenders. “Someone Told My Story”, with Bonnie Owens’ prominent and familiar harmony vocals, is a particular favorite of mine, as is “My House of Memories.” There are two covers on the album — a remake of his own “Skid Row” which had been his Tally Records debut a few years earlier, and Jimmie Rodgers “My Rough and Rowdy Ways”, which is only one of three tracks on the album in which Merle did not have a hand in writing (the other two are “Mary’s Mine” and the title track. The original album closed with the spirited “Mixed Up Mess Of A Heart”, which Merle wrote with Tommy Collins. The Buck Owens influence is readily apparent on this track. The current 2-for-1 release includes two bonus tracks: alternate tracks of “Life In Prison” and “Someone Told My Story”, which while nice to have, don’t add much value to the collection.

Branded Man, released five months after I’m A Lonesome Fugitive, is a stronger set than its predecessor. This time around Merle relied a little more on outside songwriters, with Tommy Collins contributing three entries, and co-writing a fourth with Merle. The great Hank Cochran wrote “Loneliness Is Eating Me Alive”. But the highlights of this album are the two singles, both penned by Haggard. “I Threw Away The Rose”, which was perhaps inspired by the 1962 film The Days Of Wine And Roses, was Merle’s follow-up hit to “The Fugitive”. Peaking at #2 in Billboard, it just missed becoming his second #1 hit. Instead, that honor went to the next single, the album’s title track, which topped the chart in September 1967. The semi-autobiographical number deals with an ex-convict’s unsuccessful attempts to wipe the slate clean and get on with his life.

Though it was never released as a single, “Somewhere Between”, co-written with Bonnie Owens, is a well-known album cut that has been covered many times by artists such as Suzy Bogguss and Keith Whitley, and is on my short list of favorite Haggard tunes. Tommy Collins’ “Don’t Get Married” is the best of the non-Haggard penned tunes, but Merle’s cover of the classic “Long Black Limousine” is surprisingly pedestrian and the weakest cut on the album. The album closes with two bonus tracks: alternate versions of “I Threw Away The Rose” and “Loneliness Is Eating Me Alive”. Both are quite different from the better-known versions. They sound as though they were recorded live in the studio, and I suspect that both are previously unreleased Tally recordings.

Because neither album was recorded in Nashville, many of the usual names are absent from the session musician credits, although the great Ralph Mooney plays steel guitar on both albums. Glen D. Hardin, who would later become well known through his association with Emmylou Harris, plays piano. Oh yeah, and some guy named Glen Campbell plays guitar.

This 2-for-1 release, available on CD and as a digital download, is excellent value and well worth adding to your collection.

Grades:

I’m A Lonesome Fugitive: A-
Branded Man: A

Album Review: Merle Haggard: ‘Strangers’ and ‘Swinging Doors And The Bottle Let Me Down’

Haggard’s debut single was a cover of Bakersfield star Wynn Stewart’s ‘Sing A Sad Song’ which was released on independent West Coast label Tally. Although it crept into the top 20 on Billboard, Merle sounds as if he is trying too hard to copy Stewart vocally, breaking into an uncomfortable falsetto, and there is a very heavy handed string arrangement.

He followed that up with a song penned by another Bakersfield boy, Tommy Collins’s perky novelty story song ‘Sam Hill’, which is certainly memorable, but now sounds very dated, particularly the backing vocals, and it performed less well than its predecessor. On the flip side was the pained ballad ‘You Don’t Have Very Far To Go’, which Haggard wrote with fellow Bakersfield singer-songwriter Red Simpson. This is an excellent song, addressed to although the string section is overdone again.

The third and last single for Tally, the rueful ‘(All Of My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers’, was the one which really kickstarted his career. The first of many genuine classics Haggard was to make hits, it is unusual in that it was not one of his own songs, but was written by fellow Californian Liz Anderson (mother of Lynn), to whom he had been introduced by Bonnie Owens. A Bakersfield bar room take on lost love, it was his first top 10 hit single and gave him the name of his backing band, the Strangers. Even though a competing version by the more established Roy Drusky may have cut into sales, it was a big enough success that it persuaded major label Capitol to buy out his Tally contract. Six Tally sides were packaged with newly recorded material in the same vein, produced by Ken Nelson, for Haggard’s debut album in 1965.

The malicious ‘I’m Gonna Break Every Heart I Can’ (a Haggard original) was his first single actually released on Capitol, although it failed to break into the top 40 on Billboard. It is an energetic, personality-infused response to “get even with womankind” by breaking the hearts of every girl he meets.

Typically, country albums in the 60s featured one or two singles, a lot of filler, and covers of other artists’ hits. Haggard was much more album-oriented, even at this early stage, writing five of the album’s dozen tracks, and there are other songs which could have been hit singles given the exposure.

I really like ‘Please Mr DJ’, a disconsolate plea for the radio to play a specific song for “someone who broke my heart today”. ‘If I Had Left It Up To You’ is another very good song with the protagonist regretting his earlier fighting for a doomed relationship, as if he had not done so,

It’d all be over now except the crying
I’d be used to spending all my nights alone

A couple of tracks are still filler, with overdone string-laden productions. The heartbreak ballad ‘You Don’t Even Try’ was written with Haggard’s friend (and Bonnie Owens’s then boyfriend) Fuzzy Owen, co-owner of Tally, while steel guitarist Ralph Mooney’s romantic and sophisticated sounding ‘Falling For You’ is not a patch on ‘Crazy Arms’.

A cover of Ernest Tubb’s classic ‘Walking The Floor Over You’ is taken at a disconcertingly brisk, almost cheerful pace, which doesn’t quite work. Rounding out the set are rather better versions of another fine Liz Anderson song, the depressed ‘The Worst Is Yet To Come’, and Jenny Lou Carson’s sad but pretty sounding lament for lost love ‘I’d Trade All Of My Tomorrows’.

The West Coast based Academy of Country Music recognized this bright new star by naming him Best New Male Vocalist for 1965 and also gave him the Best Vocal Duo award for his duet album with Bonnie Owens. A year later he had advanced to the title of Best Male Vocalist. Haggard was definitely on the right track with his debut, but had not quite found his distinctive voice yet.

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Country Heritage: Sonny James

“Let’s give a big Sarasota welcome to Capitol recording artist Sonny James and his Southern Gentlemen.”

Record labels do not have the aura that they had during the period of the 1940s–1970s, when artists were associated by the public with their record labels, and the record labels often put together tours of their artists. If you listen to live record radio programs of the period (or even live record albums), invariably the announcer would say something like this in introducing the artist “… and make welcome Capitol recording artist …”

The Big Four labels through the “Classic Period” of country music history (roughly 1950-1980) were, in order, Columbia/Epic, RCA, MCA/Decca and Capitol. Capitol was the smallest of the labels of the Big Four, with a shallower roster of artists, but during the period 1963-1972 Capitol had three artists who dominated in #1 records – Sonny James with 21 #1s, Buck Owens with 19 #1s and Merle Haggard with 13 #1s (according to Billboard). Yes, I know that all three artists had Billboard #1 records outside this decade, which ends when Sonny James left Capitol to sign with Columbia.

Sonny James is largely forgotten today, since when he retired, he really meant it. The raw numbers compiled by Billboard disguise the level of his success – Joel Whitburn has him as the #12 artist of the 1960s and the #10 artist of the 1970s but as of year-end 1997, Whitburn had Sonny James as #18 all-time. As of 2008, Whitburn still has him ranked at #22 all-time. Sonny James ranks ahead of many famous performers including Tanya Tucker, Kenny Rogers, Porter Wagoner, Tammy Wynette, Don Williams and Garth Brooks.

Born May 1, 1929 in the agricultural town of Hackleberg, Alabama, James Hugh Loden grew up in a musical family, singing with older sisters in the Loden Family group. While still a teen, Loden hosted his own radio show in Birmingham, Alabama. By the time James Loden entered the National Guard at the end of the 1940s, he was a seasoned professional entertainer. Although he had already finished his tour with the National Guard, the outbreak of hostilities in Korea resulted in Loden being recalled to active duty in September 1950, where he remained for the better part of two years.

Along the way James Loden had become friends with Chet Atkins who introduced Loden to Ken Nelson, famed record producer for Capitol Records. It was Ken Nelson who tagged James Loden with the Sonny James sobriquet, although apparently “Sonny” sometimes had been used as a nickname for Loden.

Ken Nelson started releasing singles on Sonny James in 1953. Some of the singles charted (others didn’t), starting with Sonny’s version of a song that Webb Pierce covered, “That’s Me Without You”, which reached #9 in 1953. Sonny would chart four more records through 1956, the biggest being “For Rent (One Empty Heart)” which reached #7 in early 1956. Sonny James was making inroads on television as well, appearing on the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, and on the nationally televised Ozark Jubilee hosting the first thirty minutes on a rotating basis with Porter Wagoner and Webb Pierce (Red Foley hosted the final hour of the show).

Sonny’s career song “Young Love” came to Sonny’s attention in 1956 through the recording of one of the co-writers, Ric Cartey. Ric’s record went nowhere but Sonny’s cover shot quickly up the charts reaching #1 for nine weeks in 1957 and reaching #1 on the Pop Charts as well, although Sonny’s recording was eclipsed on the Pop Charts by a note-for-note cover by actor Tab Hunter. Sonny feels that the opportunity for Tab’s cover to succeed came because Capitol could not keep up with the demand for the record.

Despite the success of “Young Love” (the flip side “You’re The Reason I’m In Love” reached #6) Sonny’s career did not kick into overdrive, as subsequent singles failed to maintain the momentum. By 1960 Sonny was off Capitol and recorded for NRC, RCA and Dot without notable success. From early 1958 until July 1963, Sonny charted only one single, that on the NRC label, “Jenny Lou”, which just missed the top twenty.

Reconnecting with producer Ken Nelson at Capitol in 1963, Sonny’s chart success resumed with some top ten singles. Then in January 1965 Sonny kicked off a run of singles that ran from 1965-1972 in which every single made it to the top three on Billboard’s country charts, a total of 25 in all, including a run in which sixteen consecutive singles made it to #1, a record later eclipsed by Alabama and tied by Earl Thomas Conley (the previous record holder had been Buck Owens with fifteen straight #1s). In reality, the string is more impressive than it sounds. After “You’re The Only World I Know” reached #1 for 4 weeks and “I’ll Keep Holding On” stalled out at #2, the next twenty-three singles would make it to #1 on at least one of the three major charts in use at the time (Billboard, Cashbox, Record World).

Sonny’s run of chart-toppers was the perfect blend of a smooth singer with a country sound that did away with fiddle and steel guitar but did not go to the extremes of Countypolitan and Nashville Sound recordings, being (mostly) easily replicated in live performance, and often featuring Sonny’s own excellent guitar playing. The songs were a mix of old Pop, Rock & Roll and R&B covers (13 songs) and original material (12 songs). While the earlier Sonny James hits did feature steel guitar (and he did keep a steel guitar player in his band) most of the later hits featured a guitar-organ, initially played on his stage show by band member Harland Powell.

How successful was the Sonny James during the 1960s and 1970s? Consider this:

1) According to Billboard for the decades of the 1960s and 1970s (1960-1979) Sonny’s recordings spent more time in the Number One chart position than any other artist in country music – a total of 57 weeks.

2) Also, according to Billboard, Sonny was the fifth ranking county artist for the two decade period, ranking behind only (in order) George Jones, Buck Owens, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard.

3) Sonny made more appearances on the Ed Sullivan show than any other country act. For those too young to remember, Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night variety show was “Must-See TV” introducing acts such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley to the American public and Sullivan was one of the first to prominently feature R&B, Motown and country acts on national television.

Clive Davis, President of Columbia Records, was a big fan of Sonny James, and lured him to Columbia where he scored his last #1 of the twenty-five song streak with “When The Snow Is On The Roses”. Sonny would score #1 and a handful of top ten records in his six years with Columbia before moving on to other labels. During his Columbia years Sonny seemed to become less interested in hit records and began recording theme-centered albums. In the chart below, the songs during 1972-1973 that charted at 30 or worse were older material released as singles by Capitol after Sonny left the label.

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Country Heritage: Gary Stewart – A Short Life Of Trouble (1944-2003)

Readers of The 9513 will be familiar with Paul W. Dennis’ excellent Country Heritage (aka Forgotten Artists) series. We are pleased to announce that Paul has agreed to continue the column for My Kind of Country:

A few years ago, the venerable Ralph Stanley issued an album titled A Short Life of Trouble: Songs of Grayson and Whitter. Neither Grayson nor Whitter, a musical partnership of the late 1920s, lived to be fifty years old. Beyond that I don’t know much about the duo, but the title certainly would apply to the life of Gary Stewart.

Gary Stewart was a hard rocking, hard drinking artist who arrived at the wrong time and in the wrong place. Often described as “too country for rock radio and too rock for country radio”, Gary simply arrived on the market at the wrong time for his rocking brand of hard-core honky-tonk music to achieve general acceptance, for his music was neither outlaw nor countrypolitan, the two dominant strains of country music during the 1970s.

Gary Stewart was born in Kentucky, the son of a coal miner who suffered a disabling injury when Gary was a teenager. As a result Gary’s family relocated to Fort Pierce, Florida, where Gary learned to play guitar and piano and started writing songs. Playing the clubs at night, while working a full-time job in an airplane factory, Gary had the good fortune to meet Mel Tillis. Mel encouraged Gary to travel to Nashville to pitch his songs. While early recording efforts for minor labels failed to interest radio, Gary achieved some success pitching songs to other artists. Among the early efforts were “Poor Red Georgia Dirt”, a 1965 hit for Stonewall Jackson and “Sweet Thang and Cisco” a top ten record for Nat Stuckey in 1969 . Other artists also recorded his songs, most notably Billy Walker (“She Goes Walking Through My Mind,” “Traces of a Woman,” “It’s Time to Love Her”) and Cal Smith (“You Can’t Housebreak a Tomcat”, “It Takes Me All Night Long”).

In 1968 Gary was signed by Kapp Records where he recorded several unsuccessful singles. Disheartened, Gary headed back to Fort Pierce, again playing the skull orchards and juke joints.
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Book Review: ‘Buck Owens – The Biography’ by Eileen Sisk

The following review was written by MKOC reader and commenter Ken Johnson:

Buck Owens – The Biography

Author: Eileen Sisk
Publisher: Chicago Review Press

If you only know about Buck Owens via his amazing catalog of hit recordings and songs or his hayseed “Hee-Haw” persona, you truly don’t know the REAL Buck Owens. Author Eileen Sisk went behind the public facade to reveal a complicated, difficult, contradictory, vindictive, manipulative yet occasionally generous man who knew how to completely control his image long before publicists became a required member of every country performer’s staff. Singer/songwriter Gene Price perhaps summed up the Buck Owens story best when he told Sisk that she was about to “write a book about a very bad man who made very good music. “

Sisk relates how she began writing her book with Buck’s blessing after a face-to-face meeting at his Bakersfield, California headquarters in early 1997. Concerned that focusing primarily on his music would make for a boring read, Buck desired an entertaining book that would concentrate on his unpredictable and occasionally sensational personal life. True to form, three years later permission to write his story was abruptly withdrawn without warning or explanation. Rather than abandon the three years that she had already invested in the project, Sisk decided to label her work as an “unauthorized” biography. She enlisted the assistance of a former member of Buck’s “Buckaroos” band Doyle Holly who acted as her liaison to former Owens’ subordinates and encouraged them to go on the record and be forthcoming with their memories.  Because Holly was quoted “everything with Buck is fifty percent bullshit and fifty percent truth” the resulting story is probably closer to reality than if Buck had fully participated and exercised complete editorial control.

Born just two months before the stock market crash that caused the Great Depression, Alvis Edgar “Buck” Owens entered the world in Sherman, Texas on August 12, 1929. The book details how despite two birth defects and serious childhood illnesses including a serious brain infection, Buck persevered. By his early teens he had become proficient on several musical instruments. Buck loved to tell about dropping out of school to help his poor struggling family and often compared his own story to the Steinbeck classic The Grapes Of Wrath. However it was the first of many fabricated tales that Buck would create throughout his career. Despite the hard times, his father was always able to find work to fully support his family. Though life may have been difficult it was far from the dire situation that many other depression-era families faced.

Young Buck found plenty of time for female companionship, an activity that would continue in excess throughout his lifetime. Contrary to what Buck wanted his fans to believe, Bonnie Owens was not his first wife. Sisk uncovered Buck’s first marriage at the age of sixteen that produced a daughter that he never knew. Buck would sire at least eight more children, both in and out of wedlock, but only publicly acknowledged three of them.

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