My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: Janie Fricke and Johnny Duncan – ‘Nice ‘n Easy’

Nice ‘n’ Easy was released in October 1980, in response to significant demand for an album that collected the earlier Johnny Duncan recordings that prominently featured Janie Fricke, whether or not Janie was actually credited on the original recordings. It also served as a true duets album.

The album actually falls neatly into two categories: (1) new recordings made in order to have enough tracks to complete an album and give customers who already had the earlier tracks a reason to purchase this album, and (2) the earlier hit singles. The new recordings are on side one of the album, with the older tracks being on side two.

Billy Sherrill was the producer of the album. While albums of this era often did not provide musician credits, the album cover notes tell us that on side one the background singers were Lea Jane Berinati, Jackie Cusic, Larry Keith and Steve Pippin whereas on side two the Nashville Edition provided the background harmonies.

Side one opens with “He’s Out of My Life”, a song written by Tom Bahler. Pop artist Michael Jackson recorded the song on his 1979 album Off The Wall and released it as a top ten pop single. The original title was “She’s Out of My Life”, retitled for duet purposes with Duncan and Fricke swapping verses but most of the song told from the male perspective. I think it is a bit of an overwrought ballad (Bahler wrote it after breaking up with his girl friend) but it works. The song was a #20 country hit for Johnny & Janie in 1980.

He’s out of my life
He’s out of my life

And I don’t know whether to laugh or cry
I don’t know whether to live or die
And it cuts like a knife
He’s out of my life

It’s out of my hands
It’s out of my hands

To think the two years he was here
And I took him for granted, I was so cavalier
Now the way that it stands
He’s out of my hands

Track two is the title cut “Nice ‘n’ Easy” written by Alan Bergman, Marilyn Keith and Lew Spence. The song is best known for Frank Sinatra’s 1960 recording. The Sinatra album Nice ‘n’ Easy was nominated for a Grammy in 1960 and Frank took the title track onto the pop charts that year. Charlie Rich had a minor pop hit with it in 1964, and in later years country radio sometimes played the track (or a later 1970 Epic re-recording of it). It would be blasphemy to suggest that any of the covers were better than Sinatra’s recording (they weren’t) although Rich’s recording was nearly as good.

Let’s take it nice and easy
It’s gonna be so easy
For us to fall in love

Hey baby what’s your hurry
Relax and don’t you worry
We’re gonna fall in love

We’re on the road to romance – that’s safe to say
But let’s make all the stops along the way

The problem now of course is
To simply hold your horses
To rush would be a crime
‘Cause nice and easy does it every time.

Paul Anka is often thought of as a late50s-early 60s teen idol, but he was much more than that, providing a number of classic songs to other artists such as “My Way” to Frank Sinatra and “Guess It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” to Buddy Holly. “(I Believe) There’s Nothing Stronger Than Our Love” is a song that Paul kept this song for himself, recording it as a solo (#15 pop / #3 AC) in 1975 and later as a duet with Odia Coates. It works fine as a duet.

I believe there is nothing stronger than our love
I believe there is nothing stronger than our love
When I’m with you Baby
All my worries disappear

Troubles that surround me
Disappear when you are near
When you need my loving
I’ll be there

“Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)” is a 1960 song written by Clyde Otis, Murray Stein and Brook Benton. It was originally recorded as a duet by Dinah Washington and Brook Benton, and reached #5 pop / #1 R&B. Later recordings include Jerry Lee Lewis & Linda Gail Lewis, Charlie Louvin & Melba Montgomery, Michael Buble (with Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings) and Kevin Mahogany. Obviously it works as a duet, and it works for Duncan and Fricke, although they do not bring the soulfulness to the song that Dinah & Brook achieved, nor the excitement of the Jerry Lee & Linda Gail recording. By the way, if you are unfamiliar with Brook Benton and/or Dinah Washington, you really should check them out.

“Loving Arms” was written by Tom Jans and is a ballad of longing and loneliness that has been recorded many times, initially by Dobie Gray, then Elvis and many times since then including the great Etta James and acts such as the Dixie Chicks. To my knowledge no one has ever had a big hit with the song.

If you could see me now
The one who said that he’d rather roam
The one who said he’d rather be alone
If you could only see me now

If I could hold you now
Just for a moment if I could really make you mine
Just for a while turn back the hands of time
If I could only hold you now

I’ve been too long in the wind, too long in the rain
Taking any comfort that I can
Looking back and longing for the freedom of my chains
And lying in your loving arms again

This concludes side one of the album. You will note that none of these songs were initially country songs, although all were songs of a good pedigree. By 1980, for better or worse, the ‘Nashville Sound’ era had passed and none of the songs featured string arrangements. The production could best be described as pop-country with steel guitar used mostly as background shading.

Side two collects the Johnny Duncan hits that featured Janie Fricke. Since these songs have already been discussed earlier I will simply touch them lightly.

“Come A Little Bit Closer” was a cover of a Jay & The Americans hit that Johnny and Janie took to #4 in 1977. This song was billed to both of them.

“It Couldn’t Have Been Any Better” went to #1 for Johnny in 1977, his second #1. The string arrangements on this recording are by Bill McElhiney.

“Atlanta Georgia Stray” was not released as a single for Johnny Duncan. It appears on Johnny’s 1977 album Johnny Duncan.

The song was recorded by Kenny Price for RCA in 1969 and made the country charts. I was living in England in 1969, but when I returned to the USA in 1970, I recall the song receiving some airplay as an oldie. I really liked Kenny’s version, but Fricke and Duncan do a reasonable job with the song. Bergan White does the string arrangements

On the Greyhound bus trip home I was feelin’ all alone
When a long haired gal sat down next to me
She said she was Atlanta bound, kill some time, maybe kick around
Cause it sounded like a friendly place to be

From Chicago to Kentucky we just talked awhile
And somewhere in between I was captured by her smile
But why I left the bus in Nashville has been a mystery till today
Cause for two years I’ve been tracking down that Atlanta Georgia stray

“Thinkin’of A Rendezvous” was Johnny’s first #1 county hit in 1976. Bergan White did the string arrangements.

“Stranger”,also from 1976, was Johnny’s second top ten hit reaching #4 country.

I do not mean to downplay Janie Fricke’s contributions to the songs on side two, but they were released as Johnny Duncan records and Janie’s role was less prominent on some of them than on some of the others.

In retrospect, most of our readers will think that the success of these recordings was due to Janie Fricke, since Johnny Duncan dropped out of the music scene for family reasons during the 1980s and then died too young in 2006. He had a significant career and some big hits that did not feature Janie Fricke, including several of my favorites.

Janie, of course, went on to have a brilliant career and is still active today

This album has never been released on CD. The hit singles are available on several Johnny Duncan CDs and possibly some various artist collections. As best as I can tell, the tracks from side one are not available anywhere.

Johnny Duncan and Janie Fricke were both very polished performers and I think most listeners would find the tracks on side one very interesting indeed. This is a well produced album that I would give a B+

Reissues wish list: part 3 – RCA and Columbia

carl smithWhen speaking of the big four labels we need to define terms
Columbia refers to records originally issued on Columbia, Epic, Harmony or Okeh labels. Okeh was used for so-called minority interest recordings. Columbia also owned Vocalion for a while. RCA refers to recordings on the RCA Victor and RCA Camden labels.

RCA

In addition to folks such as Chet Atkins, Jim Reeves, Dolly Parton, Eddy Arnold, Connie Smith and Charley Pride, RCA had a fine group of second tier artists including Kenny Price, Porter Wagoner, Jim Ed Brown, Stu Phillips, Nat Stuckey, Jimmy Dean, Norma Jean, Skeeter Davis, Dottie West, Bobby Bare, The Browns and Jerry Reed.

Bear Family has released multiple boxed sets on several RCA artists including Connie Smith, Don Gibson, Waylon Jennings and Hank Snow who have multiple boxed sets (essentially everything Hank Snow recorded while on RCA – forty plus years worth of recordings is available on Bear). Enough Waylon has been released that what remains doesn’t justify a wish list.

What is really needed is for someone to issue decent sets on Kenny Price, Jim Ed Brown (without his sisters or Helen Cornelius), Norma Jean, Dottsy, Liz Anderson and Earl Thomas Conley. There is virtually nothing on any of these artists. Jimmy Dean recorded for RCA for about six years but nothing is available from his RCA years which saw some really fine recordings, including the best version of “A Thing Called Love“.

I would have said the same thing about Charley Pride but recent years have seen various Charley Pride sets become available, so we can take him off our wish list.

COLUMBIA RECORDS

When you think of Columbia Records, names such as Johnny Cash, Ray Price, Carl Smith, Stonewall Jackson, Flatt & Scruggs and Marty Robbins spring immediately to mind, but the well is deep and that doesn’t even count sister label Epic which boasted names like David Houston, Tammy Wynette, Charlie Rich, Jody Miller, Johnny Paycheck and Bob Luman.

By and large foreign and domestic reissues abound for most of the bigger names, but even here there are some major shortfalls.

Carl Smith recorded for Columbia through the early 1970s and while his 1950s output has been thoroughly mined, his sixties output has barely been touched and his seventies output (“Mama Bear”, “Don’t Say Goodbye”) completely neglected. Smith’s recordings increasingly veered toward western swing as the sixties wore on, but he recorded a fine bluegrass album, and a tribute to fellow East Tennessean Roy Acuff. His outstanding Twenty Years of Hits (1952-1972) recast twenty of his classic tunes as western swing. A good three CD set seems in order.

I could make a good case for electing David Houston to the Country Music Hall of Fame. From 1966 he had thirteen #1 hits and a bunch more top ten and top twenty recordings. “Almost Persuaded” was his biggest hit but there were bunches of good songs scattered across his many albums. A good two CD set is a must, and I could easily justify a three CD set.

While Sony Legacy issued a decent Johnny Paycheck single disc hits collection, it is long on the later stages of his career and short on the earliest years. Paycheck released over thirty singles for Epic from 1972–1982 and it’s about time someone collected them on a good two (or preferably three) disc collection along with some key album cuts.

Moe Bandy achieved his greatest commercial success while recording for Columbia. Between chart singles and album cuts Moe warrants at least a decent two CD set, and please leave the ‘Moe & Joe’ nonsense out of the mix.

Columbia has a lot of artists that would justify a single or double disc hits collection: David Wills, Al Dexter, Ted Daffan, David Rodgers, Connie Smith, Carl & Pearl Butler, Tommy Cash, David Frizzell, Bob Luman, Jody Miller, Barbara Fairchild, Barbara Mandrell, Charlie Walker and Sammi Smith.

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘The Way I’m Livin”

wayimlivinIt’s a bit early for year-in-review reflections, but 2014 will surely go down as an important year in country music history — the one that saw the long-awaited comebacks of two of its most important female artists, Trisha Yearwood and Lee Ann Womack. Womack’s long-awaited debut on Sugar Hill Records finally hit the market last week.

Womack may be frustratingly unprolific but anyone who listens to The Way I’m Livin’ — her first effort since 2008’s Call Me Crazy — will be hard-pressed to make the case that it wasn’t worth the wait. Whereas Call Me Crazy was a somewhat uneven affair, that is decidedly not the case here. Womack seems to have made good use of her time during her long hiatus from recording; she didn’t write any of the songs on The Way I’m Livin’ but she and her producers Chuck Ainlay, Frank Liddell, and Glenn Worf have compiled an excellent selection of songs from some of Nashville’s best songwriters. In an era where mainstream country music seems to have lost its way, The Way I’m Livin’ could be used as a textbook for a course called “Country Music Done Properly” that ought to be compulsory for every recording artist, producer and label executive in Nashville.

While the sound of The Way I’m Livin’ is no way retro, the songs do harken back to a time, not that long ago, when country music relied on melody rather than beat and the lyrics weren’t afraid to tackle serious topics. Much of The Way I’m Livin’ deals with life’s darker side — from the right-and-wrong struggles of the title track, Brennan Leigh’s “Sleeping With The Devil”, and Mindy Smith’s Delta-blues flavored “All His Saints”, to the beautiful and understated opening track “Prelude: Fly”, which deals with the death from spinal menangitis of songwriter Brent Cobb’s friend. Womack’s performance here has been compared to some of Dolly Parton’s early work.

Her performance on Hayes Carll’s “Chances Are” — my favorite track on the album — has evoked comparisons to another female legend, and although it’s not hard to imagine the treatment that Billy Sherrill and Tammy Wynette would have given this one, I think it’s just vintage Lee Ann Womack that sounds like something that could have been included on her masterpiece There’s More Where That Came From. The mournful “Send It On Down” sounds like something that Patty Loveless might have sung with gusto, but it’s hard to imagine her or anyone else topping Lee Ann’s version.

The great Bruce Robison contributed two tracks to the project: “Nightwind” and “Not Forgotten You”, which might have been considered the highlights on a weaker ablum, but the material on The Way I’m Livin’ is so consistently excellent, it’s really difficult to pick favorites. I didn’t realize at first that Kenny Price’s “Tommorow Night In Baltimore”, about a man in love with a nightclub dancer, was a remake of a 1971 Roger Miller hit. I’m not sure how I managed not to hear this one until now.

I simply cannot praise this album enough; it is one of those rare collections that is flawless from beginning to end. If you are only going to buy one album this year, make sure it’s this one.

Grade: A +

Classic Rewind: Kenny Price – ‘The Sheriff Of Boone County’

Country Heritage: Kenny Price (1931-1987)

kenny priceFans of the long running television show Hee Haw may remember Kenny Price. He played various roles in Hee Haw’s skits, including the over-protective father of a pretty teenage daughter (whose suitor, Billy Bob, did not meet his approval), a backwater sheriff and a country bumpkin lounging on the lawn in front of the general store. He also appeared in two of the regular musical spots, the “Gloom, Despair and Agony” snippets and the glorious Hee Haw Gospel Quartet segment wherein Kenny, Grandpa Jones, Buck Owens and Roy Clark would lend their talents to old-time gospel favorites. Many viewers considered the Hee Haw Gospel Quartet to be their favorite portion of the show. He also appeared as Kenny Honey, the father on the spin-off Hee Haw Honeys and hosted a travel show on TNN called Wish You Were Here with his wife Donna.

Unfortunately, few today remember Kenny Price as a country music recording star for Boone and RCA records. A solid journeyman performer, known as ‘The Round Mound of Sound’, he charted 34 singles during his 15 year chart run, but never had a number one record or a sustained run of top ten records.

Standing six-feet tall and weighing well over 300 pounds, Kenneth James Price is remembered by fellow performers and fans alike as one of the nicest individuals to ever sing a country song. Born near Florence in Boone County, Kentucky, he was raised on a ranch and learned to play the guitar when he was only five. Initially at least, Price aspired to be a farmer but eventually he changed the focus of his endeavors. He got his start in 1945 playing on WZIP-Cincinnati and over the next few years, played a few dates in the Kentucky-Ohio border area. Uncle Sam called in 1952 and Price spent the next two years in the military. While stationed in Korea, he auditioned for a USO show. By the time he was discharged in 1954 Price had decided on music as a career and studied briefly at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. From there he appeared on Midwestern Hayride at WLW-Cincinnati and by 1957 was appearing on Hometown, a Cincinnati television show hosted by Buddy Ross. Meanwhile, in 1955, he issued two singles on the “X” label (an RCA subsidiary) called “Cold Hearted Love” and “Worryin’”. Neither single charted.

Nearly nine years passed before Price again landed a recording contract, this time with Boone Records, out of Boone, NC. After four non-charting singles he finally hit it big with his third single, “Walking on the New Grass”, which cracked the Top 10 in 1966–as did his next single “Happy Tracks”. While none of his following Boone singles charted in the top ten nationally (“Southern Bound” came close), they did well enough in regional markets to land him a recording contract with RCA. Moreover, RCA thought highly enough of him that they purchased the masters for his two albums on Boone and reissued them as his first two RCA albums.

The first RCA hit was achieved in 1969 when “Northeast Arkansas Mississippi County Bootlegger” reached #17. This was followed by two more top ten hits in “Biloxi” (#10 in 1970) and “The Sheriff of Boone County” which reached #8 at the end of 1970 and appeared briefly on the pop charts (the song was inspired by a series of amusing Dodge automobile commercials). After that, Top 10 success eluded Price, although he did have a few more minor hits. His tenure with RCA ended in late 1975, but he kept busy when Hee Haw beckoned in 1976. He remained a member of the cast until his death in 1987.

I never had the pleasure of seeing Kenny perform live, but I’ve met several musicians who worked with him and all of them had fond memories of him. Read more of this post

Country Heritage: Ed Bruce

ed bruceFor a brief period in the late 1970s to mid 80s, Ed Bruce seemed to be everywhere–hit songs as a songwriter, hit records as a recording artist and regular appearances on the television show Bret Maverick.

Like many other artists, Ed Bruce got his start as a rockabilly singer signed to Sun Records; however, for him the sun would not shine while at Sun. Indeed, it would take twenty years of plugging away for him to become known in the world of country music.

William Edwin Bruce, Jr. was born in Keiser, Arkansas, in 1939; however, the family moved to Memphis when Ed was quite young. Ed started writing songs as a teenager and, as Edwin Bruce, he cut his first sides for Sun in 1956 at the age of 17. With Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and other great artists signed to Sun, Ed was lost in the shuffle. A cut on the B-side of Tommy Roe’s million seller “Sheila” provided Ed with the funding necessary for a move to Nashville in 1962.

The next year, Charlie Louvin recorded “See The Big Man Cry,” earning Ed his first BMI award, with other cuts to follow including Kenny Price’s recording of “Northeast Arkansas Mississippi County Bootlegger”. He also became a member of the Marijohn Wilkin Singers, performing live and as a backing vocalist. His warm, friendly voice made him a natural for voiceovers and he soon achieved success singing advertising jingles; his best-known advertising campaign cast him as a character called the Tennessean.

Recording success came more slowly. In 1966, Ed Bruce signed with RCA, notching his first chart hit with the single “Walker’s Woods”. After that he recorded for Monument Records, releasing the singles “Song For Ginny” and “Everybody Wants To Get To Heaven.” In 1973, a deal with United Artists resulted in the minor chart hit “July, You‘re A Woman”. Ed spent four years hosting an early morning TV show on Nashville’s WSM.

Finally, in 1975, Ed’s composition “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” made it into the Top 20. The song, Ed’s best-known, became a huge hit when covered by Waylon Jennings & Willie Nelson in 1977. The song was nominated for, and won, a Grammy in 1978. That same year, “Texas When I Die”, as recorded by Tanya Tucker, was nominated for Grammy and CMA Awards.
After a brief tenure at Epic Records between 1977 and 78, Ed Bruce finally achieved real success as a recording artist with MCA in the 1980s.

Ed Bruce’s string of hits on MCA
Year Charted Singles Peak
March 1980 Diane #21
June 1980 Last Cowboy Song #12
October 1980 Girls Women And Ladies #14
February 1981 Evil Angel #24
June 1981 (When You Fall In Love) Everything’s A Waltz #14
October 1981 You’re The Best Break This Old Heart Ever Had #1
February 1982 Love’s Found You And Me #13
July 1982 Ever Never Lovin’ You #4
November 1982 My First Taste Of Texas #6
April 1983 You’re Not Leaving Here Tonight #21
July 1983 If It Was Easy #19
October 1983 After All #6
July 1984 Tell ‘Em I’ve Gone Crazy #45

Although not his biggest hit, the imagery in “The Last Cowboy Song” tells you a lot about Ed Bruce’s skills as a songsmith:

Remington showed us how he looked on canvas
And Louis L’Amour has told us his tale
And Willie and Waylon and me sing about him
And wish to God we could have ridden his trail

Ed returned to RCA for a pair of albums in 1984, with two songs cracking the top twenty: “If It Ain’t Love” (#20 in 1985) and “Nights” (#4 in 1986). After his 1986 album Night Things and a 1988 self-titled follow-up, Bruce made the conscious decision to cut back on his music to focus on his acting career, appearing in several made-for-TV films. With a resume that included a role in the CBS mini-series The Chisolms, the NBC movie The Return of Frank and Jesse James and, of course, as co-star of the television show Bret Maverick with James Garner, this seemed the rational thing to do. More film roles followed, as well as a stint as the host of American Sports Cavalcade on The Nashville Network. He also hosted the seven seasons of Truckin’ USA, also on TNN. Ed continued to record music occasionally, as well.

Discography

Vinyl
Ed was not the most prolific recording artist. He issued four RCA albums, one on Monument, one on United Artists, two on Epic and six on MCA. These, of course, are all out of print (but are worth the effort to find used copies). Ed also issued a number of 45 RPM singles, on various labels – good luck in tracking those down!

CD
The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has six titles by Ed Bruce available for sale. Three of the titles are of religious material on the EB label; I’ve not heard these, so I won’t comment on them.

12 Classics (Varese) issued in 2003 consists of re-recorded tracks from Ed’s years with MCA, including his biggest hits. These recordings are not bad, but they do not measure up to the now out-of print Varese set issued in 1995 titled The Best of Ed Bruce, which had 15 original MCA tracks and three RCA hits from his second stint with the label.

Puzzles, a Bear Family CD issued around 1995, gathers up the music Ed recorded for RCA between 1966 and 1968. “Walker’s Woods” is the biggest hit collected here, but his recording of the Monkees’ hit “Last Train to Clarksville” is also worthwhile.

The Tennessean / Cowboys & Dreamers is a two-fer released by British label Hux. This pairing takes a pair of recordings released in 1978 & 1979 on the Epic label, just before Ed’s breakthrough on MCA. Ed charted six records while on Epic, none of which reached the top forty, but there are some great song on this pairing.

This Old Hat is a CD produced and released by Ed in 2002, consisting of 11 new tunes, plus new renditions of “You’re The Best Break This Old Heart Ever Had” and “My First Taste of Texas.” The physical CD is out of print, but it is available on Amazon MP3 and iTunes.

Favorite country songs of the 1970s: Part 5

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

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

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

Tom Green County Fair” – Roger Miller (1970)

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

Music Box Dancer” – Frank Mills (1979)

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

Pure Love” – Ronnie Milsap (1974)

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

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