My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Kitty Wells

Classic Rewind: Kitty Wells with Loretta Lynn – ‘Searching’

Week ending 8/2/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

kittyred1954 (Sales): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Jukebox): One By One — Kitty Wells and Red Foley (Decca)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1964: Dang Me — Roger Miller (Smash)

1974: You Can’t Be A Beacon (If Your Light Don’t Shine) — Donna Fargo (Dot)

1984: Angel In Disguise — Earl Thomas Conley (RCA)

1994: Summmertime Blues — Alan Jackson (Arista)

2004: Live Like You Were Dying — Tim McGraw (Curb)

2014: Dirt — Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

2014 (Airplay): Yeah — Joe Nichols (Red Bow)

Classic Rewind: Connie Smith with Kitty Wells – ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’

Connie Smith pays tribute to the Queen of Country Music in a 2010 clip from The Marty Stuart Show:

Album Review: Chris Hillman & Herb Pedersen – ‘Bakersfield Bound’

chrishillmanAlthough not marketed as such, 1996’s Bakersfield Bound is, in many ways, a Desert Rose Band reunion album, as it finds Chris Hillman working with both Herb Pedersen and DRB steel guitarist Jay Dee Maness again. The music is decidedly more traditional and less commercial than anything that the Desert Rose Band ever attempted and that may be why Hillman and Pedersen avoided labeling it as such.

Despite its title and Hillman’s and Pedersen’s west coast roots, this is not, strictly speaking, a salute to the Bakersfield sound in the same vein as many of the tribute albums that have been released since Buck Owens died in 2006. There is a healthy dose of Bakersfield, to be sure, but there are plenty of non-Bakersfield influences as well. Hillman and Pedersen harmonize on the albums 13 tracks in ways that are in reminiscent at times of The Everly Brothers, The Louvin Brothers, and the Willburn Brothers as well as Buck Owens and Don Rich. The album’s first track “Playboy” was written by Eddie Miller, who was more famous for having written “There She Goes” for Carl Smith, “Thanks a Lot” for Ernest Tubb, and “Release Me” which was recorded by Kitty Wells and countless others. Hillman and Pedersen effectively channel The Louvin Brothers with an excellent cover of “My Baby’s Gone”. Also excellent is their version of “Lost Highway”, a 1948 composition by Leon Payne, which was most famously recorded by Hank Williams in 1949..

Perhaps the most surprising cover here is “Time Goes So Slow”, a beautiful waltz that was written by Skeeter Davis and Marie Wilson, which finds Herb Pedersen harmonizing at what has to be the very top of his register.

These songs aside, the meat and potatoes of this album are the Bakersfield tunes, which pay tribute to such legends as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Owens is saluted with covers of “He Don’t Deserve You Anymore”, “There Goes My Love”, and “Close Up The Honky Tonks”, which was written by Red Simpson. Haggard is represented by a cover of the Hank Cochran and Glenn Martin-penned “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)”. The album closes with two Hillman co-writes, “Just Tell Me Darlin'” and the title track.

This an outstanding album with impeccable song choices and excellent singing and picking throughout. It’s virtually impossible to select any favorite tracks, because they are all so good. It is a must-have for fans of Chris Hillman, The Desert Rose Band, and fans of roots music in general.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Kitty Wells – ‘Lonely Side Of Town’

Classic Rewind: Kitty Wells – ‘Searching (For Someone Like You)’

The best reissues of 2013

2013 was a bad year for fans of traditional country music and its near cousins.Not only was radio virtually devoid of traditional country sounds, but Billboard bastardized its country charts to the point of meaninglessness, accepting remixes and reissues with other artists and treating them all as one record. Worse yet, a good many of our radio heroes passed away, starting on January 1, 2013 with the death of Patti Page, a country girl who went on to become a great classic pop singer, and who continued to showcase country songs throughout her illustrious career. Along the way we lost Jack Greene, Cal Smith, George Jones, Kitty Wells, Tompall Glaser, Ottis “Slim” Whitman, Claude King, Jack Clements, Lorene Mann, George Beverly Shea, and too many more for me to recount. We ended the year with the death of the great Ray Price.

Fortunately, we live in an age where the musical legacy of our radio heroes can and does live on. While not the absolute best year for reissues, it was a very strong year, with most of the great reissues coming from foreign soil.

On the domestic front Sony Legacy has been redoing their Essential series, issuing a series of two disc sets. The Essential Tammy Wynette is easily the best Tammy Wynette collection we will see, unless Bear Family decides to do a box set. The collection is arranged chronologically and without skipping the lesser hits. Fans of Tammy will hear some songs that rarely have been anthologized, and hear her catalog of hits in the order in which they were released. The forty songs are digitally remastered to sound superb, and even though I have such other Tammy Wynette collections as Tears of Fire and Anniversary: Twenty Years of Hits, still I regard this as an essential purchase for Tammy’s fans and a great introduction for those unfamiliar with her work.

I’m not a big Martina McBride fan but Sony Legacy’s two disc The Essential Martina McBride, issued in late 2012 and not widely available until this year, is probably the best collection you’ll see on Martina – terrific sound, with forty songs. A few minor hits have been omitted in favor of other material, which I don’t like, but that’s just me.

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The UK based Jasmine label has probably been the leading purveyor of reasonably pricced reissues, issuing a series of two CD sets, either featuring intact four older albums of a particular artist or issuing some sets that are simply collections of songs. Some of the Jasmine releases below were actually issued in late 2012, but not widely available until 2013.

Oh Lonesome Me, Singles Collection 1956-1962 is an outstanding two CD collection of Don Gibson’s singles from 1956-1962. Not only does the set capture Don’s earliest and biggest RCA hits (“Oh Lonesome Me”, “Sea of Heartbreak”, “Blue Blue Day”), but it also revisits Don’s rarely found MGM singles, including the earliest take on “Sweet Dreams”. Forty-six songs, hours of listening pleasure.

Love Is The Sweatest Thing: The Early Album Collection collects four of Ferlin Husky’s early Capitol albums. The albums are not overrun with hit singles (during the 1950s albums were often marketed to a different audience than were singles) but has four albums that are quite different from one another. 1956’s Songs of Home and The Heart features older country songs. Boulevard of Broken Dreams (1957) and Sittin’ On A Rainbow (1958) both feature what would today be referred as classic pop or pop standards – in other words, not very country at all. The last album in the set, Walkin’ And A Hunmin’ (1961), which Ferlin referred to as his Hank Williams album, does feature seven songs associated with Hank Williams. This collection gives a good overview of the breadth of Ferlin’s talent.

Headin’ Down The Wrong Highway: The Early Albums features four Hank Thompson albums from 1958-1961. For me the standout album is 1961’s Live At The Golden Nugget, but all of the albums are great listening. Relatively few hits are in this collection, but once you start the disc playing, you won’t care about the lack of hit records as Hank and his Brazos Valley Boys always exude good cheer and lotsa fun.

The First Lady of Country: The Early Album Collection is what I would deem to be an essential Jean Shepard album, including as it does one of the very first ‘concept’ albums in 1956’s Songs of A Love Affair. There are not a lot of hit singles in this 2 CD collection, but there are a lot of songs capturing the heart and soul of this pioneering female singer.

Queen of Honky Tonk Angels: Four Original Albums by Kitty Wells, captures an early hit collection in Country Hit Time, a gospel album, Dust On The Bible, and a pair of albums largely comprised of covers. Kitty Wells had a strong clear voice that didn’t waver until very late in life. She treats her material and herself with respect, the end result being albums really worth hearing.

Folk Ballads, Hits and Hymns – Four Stereo LPs finds legendary bluegrass singer Mac Wiseman traveling down other more mainstream country roads. Fans of bluegrass may be disappointed with the albums, but fans of Mac Wiseman will love this set comprised of two gospel albums, an album of some current (as of 1960) folk and country hits plus an album of folk songs. One of the gospel albums features the Jordanaires throughout, not that Mac ever really needed help to perform a gospel song.

I don’t know that you can really call Walter Brennan a country artist at all, but Jasmine released a single disc CD on Grandpa McCoy titled Reminiscing With Walter Brennan which definitely catches the essence of a beloved actor and perfermer. Brennan only had one hit “Old Rivers” (#3 Country / #5 pop) but it’s here along with 27 other favorites including his wonderful take on “The Shifting Whispering Sands”

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If the name Curly Putman means anything at all to the casual fan, it is as the writer of “Green Green Grass of Home” and co-writer of “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today” . Curly did have a bit of a singing career and issued a some albums on ABC Records. Omni has collected two of Curly’s albums The Lonesome Country Of Curly Putman (1967) and Curly Putman’s World Of Country Music (1969) on a single disc. He’s hardly a compelling singer, but it is always interesting to hear a songwriter interpret his own material. “My Elusive Dreams” was released as a single and reached #41.

New West Records issued Dwight Yoakam’s 21st Century Hits: Best-Of 2000-2012, a nice collection of fourteen singles and miscellaneous tracks . Hardly Dwight’s best work, but still a useful collection, gathering together tracks not easily found.

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Omnivore Recordings, a label out of Los Angeles, CA started releasing albums in late 2012. Probably their most important release was the George Jones collection The Complete United Artists Solo Singles. I’ve always regarded the best recordings George Jones ever made as coming from his tenure with United Artists 1962-1965. From this period the finely nuanced singer emerged with such great singles as “She Thinks I Still Care” , “Sometimes You Can’t Win” , “A Girl I Used To Know” , “You Comb Her Hair” and “The Race Is On”. All of these titles have been available as re-recordings made for Musicor and/or Epic , but these are the original hit versions – 32 songs, the A and B sides of his 16 United Artist singles – an absolutely essential collection (unless you own the Bear Family box set of the United Artists years).

Omnivore also has released some Buck Owens, Don Rich and Buckaroos collections.

Buck Em! : The Music of Buck Owens 1955-1967 is billed as the companion to the recently published Buck Owens autobiography, but as a stand-alone collection it is a worthy acquisition if there is a hole in your Buck Owens catalog. Some alternative and live recordings are among the two CD sets fifty tracks. Not essential but a nice collection spanning the Pep and early Capitol years.

Omnivore’s Honky Tonk Man: Buck Sings The Country Classics collects eighteen tracks recorded for use on the television show Hee Haw. Many of these tracks were recorded after the death of Don Rich, so the classic harmonies aren’t always present, and these are very short recordings designed to fit the pace of the television show, but they are songs that Buck didn’t otherwise record for commerical release, covering country classics from 1945-1973 by the likes of Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Johnny Horton and Ray Price.

With “Live” At The White House (… And In Space), Omnivore makes available a live Buck Owens album that Capitol had a available for a short time of Buck’s September 9, 1968 White House performance for President Lyndon Johnson. The original album only ran about 22 minutes so in order to get a usable length CD, Omnivore coupled the album with a program recorded for the Apollo 16 astronauts to take on their mission with them. A bit gimmicky, but Buck Owens completists will want the album.

The late Don Rich was a fine singer in his own right and an excellent musician that Omnivore has focused upon. That Fiddlin’ Man restores to print a 1971 Buckaroos allbum featuring Don Rich on fiddle and adds an additional ten tracks of Don fiddlin’ around from other Buckaroo albums. I got to see Buck & Don in person three times and it was always a highlight of the show when Buck has Don pull out his ‘cherry apple red fiddle’ and play “Cajun Fiddle”, “Orange Blossom Special” or some other tune. Don Rich Sings George Jones features ten George Jones songs that were recorded for a never released Don Rich solo album, augmented with four Buck Owens tracks of George Jones covers. The Buckaroos Play Merle and Buck couple a pair of Buckaroos albums, 1965’s The Buck Owens Songbook with 1971’s The Songs of Merle Haggard. These are all instrumental numbers featuring Don Rich (mostly) on telecaster.

There are many fine Merle Haggard collections available so Omnivore’s The Complete 60s Capitol Singles is hardly an essential collection but it is definitely an excellent one and anyway one can never have too much Merle Haggard in their collection. Twenty-eight songs – the A & B sides of Merle’s fourteen singles, and Merle’s B sides were hardly throw-aways, “Today I Started Loving You Again” and “Silver Wings” both being B sides. Merle’s peak years were with Capitol and this is all great stuff – it doesn’t get any better than this !

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I will close out with a Bear Family boxed set that is beyond the price range for most of us, probably even beyond the Christmas ‘wish list’: Tall Dark Stranger – Buck Owens and The Buckaroos Recordings: 1968-1975. This eight CD set covers Buck’s slightly post-peak eriod with Capitol Records, a period that saw Buck experimenting with and updating the ‘freight train’ sound that had become his hallmark. Includes his duet albums with son Buddy Alan Owens, the Susan Raye duets, some Buckaroos recordings and even a duet with a duet with R&B singer Bettye Swann. Buck had about 20 chart hits during this period and the set features many previously unreleased songs

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Favorite Country Albums of 2013

The statistic is getting old, fast. If your name isn’t Miranda, Carrie, or Taylor and you’re a solo female artist, then you’re probably not going to have many hit singles. It’s too bad because the strongest country music released this year comes from female artists who aren’t scared to go against the grain and say what needs sayin.’ I’m always amazed at the good quality music that’s released each year – and these are ten such releases, all of which should be apart of your musical catalog.

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10. Alan Jackson – The Bluegrass Album

Now a legacy artist, Jackson proves he isn’t done doing what he does best – crafting simple songs framed in equally uncomplicated melodies. But he nicely updates his formula this time around by making a bluegrass record, proving he isn’t done with experimentation. May he never go to the lows of Thirty Miles West ever again.

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9. Jason Isbell – Southeastern 

The best modern album by a male country singer released this year. Southeastern is a tour-de-force of emotion and strength – a modern masterwork from a man who’s just getting started reaching his potential.

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8. Patty Griffin – American Kid

In an effort to pay tribute to her father Patty Griffin has given us one of the best discs to tackle the many facets of death in recent memory. One listen to her spiritual anthem “Go Where Ever You Wanna Go” and you’ll be hooked into taking this journey right along with her. Be sure to catch, “Please Don’t Let My Die In Florida.” It’s the best song against retirement in the Sunshine State I’ve ever heard.

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7. Pistol Annies – Annie Up

When most people criticize modern country they take aim at the songwriting, which has been modified to appeal to a younger demographic. The other complaint is the addition of rock and hip-hop sounds into the music. Even worse, then all of that is the diminishing of traditional country instruments in modern sound.

Annie Up is a fantastic country album both vocally and lyrically. Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley defied the sophomore slump by recording another killer record. Tracks like “Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” “Dear Sobriety,” and “I Hope you’re The End of My Story” are among the best of the year. I just wish the CD didn’t so blatantly throw its lack of steel guitar and fiddle in our faces. If these country songs retained the hallmarks of classic country, I’d have this ranked much higher.

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6. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Cheater’s Game

One of the year’s most refreshing albums came from this husband and wife duo, who’ve never recorded a LP together until now. Both give us fantastic numbers; Willis shines on a cover of Hayes Carll’s “Long Way Home” while Robinson is perfect on Robert Earl Keen’s “No Kinda Dancer.” But it’s Robison’s self-penned material that shines brightest, making me long for the days when his no-fuss songwriting was a regular fixture on country radio.

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5. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – Old Yellow Moon

Ever since a glimpse at the track listing a year ago, I can’t help but shake the feeling this decades-in-the-making collaboration is merely an above average album, not the transcendent masterwork it could’ve been. Covers of “Invitation to the Blues” and “Dreaming My Dreams” are very good, but feel like doorstops. Surely Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell could’ve dug a little deeper into their combined musical legacies instead of spending their time covering country classics. In any event, it’s still among my most played CDs this year which means they did something right.

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4. Ashley Monroe – Like A Rose

Like A Rose redefines the sophomore record by building on the tremendous potential set by the artist’s debut. Monroe brings a sharper pen and keener ear to these 9 songs that are standards, more than mere pieces of music. Observances on out-of-wedlock pregnancy (“Two Weeks Late”), drunken flings (“The Morning After”), and adulteresses (“She’s Driving Me Out of His Mind”) are rarely this fully formed, from someone so young. At its best Like A Rose is a modern masterpiece from a woman who’s just getting started forming her artistic identity.

As far as female vocalists go, Monroe holds her own with all the genre greats from Loretta Lynn and Connie Smith to Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton. Her buttery soprano is a modern wonder, shifting from honky-tonk twang to contemporary pop with ease far beyond her 26 years. God only knows where she’ll go from here.

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3. Vince Gill & Paul Franklin – Bakersfield

Twenty years ago when Vince Gill was accepting the ACM Song of the Year trophy for “I Still Believe In You” he quipped about the state of modern country saying, “I’ve been watching this show tonight and I’ve marveled at how country music has grown. And I want you to know that in my heart country music hasn’t changed, it has just grown. And that’s the healthiest thing we got goin’” He went on to share a lesson he learned from his parents, that a person’s greatest strengths are embedded in their roots.

For Gill that optimistic view of commercial country doesn’t hold up today, but as a legacy artist he’s clearly taking his parents’ innate wisdom to heart. Teaming up with Steel Guitarist Paul Franklin to cover a set of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens tunes is no easy undertaking, but the pairing has resulted in one of the only perfect country albums of 2013. Instead of merely covering the hits, the duo dug deep into the artists’ catalog and unearthed gems even they weren’t familiar with going in. The added effort gave the album unexpected depth but a flawless reading of “I Can’t Be Myself,” a favorite of Gill’s since his late teens, gave the album it’s heart and soul.

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2. Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park

If you view Kacey Musgraves as yet another castoff from a reality singing competition, she placed seventh on Nashville Star in 2007, then you’re missing out on the most promising newcomer signed to a major Nashville label in years.

Musgraves didn’t win the Best New Artist CMA Award (beating Florida-Georgia Line) by accident. She won on the sheer strength of her debut album, an exceptional collection of songs bursting with a depth of clarity well beyond her 24 years. “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Follow Your Arrow” are just the beginning, introductions to the deeper material found within. She’s only just scratched the surface, which makes the prospect of future recordings all the more exciting.

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1. Brandy Clark – 12 Stories

Not since Clint Black reinvigorated Merle Haggard’s legacy on his classic Killin’ Time has a debut album come so fully formed, from an artist with such a clear prospective. Clark’s brilliance isn’t an updated take on classic country but rather the next evolution of the 90s female renaissance – a group of individualists (Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, Patty Loveless, etc) who owe their genesis to Linda Ronstadt and the rulebook she crafted through Prisoner In Disguise and her definitive take on “Blue Bayou.”

Clark is the first newcomer to work with the formula in more than 20 years, and she often exceeds what her forbearers brought to the table. “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” and “Pray to Jesus” are two of the best songs Yearwood has yet to record, while “The Day She Got Divorced” is as perfect a story song as any I’ve ever heard.

Nashville, while admitting their admiration for the album, found 12 Stories too hot to touch. It’s shameful the adult female perspective has been silenced in Music City since without it country music has lost a major piece of its cultural identity. Where would we be as a genre today if the likes of Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and Emmylou Harris had been regulated to offbeat labels and kept off of radio? Clark is fortunate she’s found success writing for other artists, but country music would be far better off if she found success as a singer, too.

Country Heritage: Patsy Montana

Patsy MontanaAs we enter the holiday season, I thought it might be worthwhile to remember one of the true female pioneers of country music.

The recently departed Kitty Wells may have had the first number one single for a solo female country artist, and she undoubtedly deserved her crown as the “Queen of Country Music,” but she was not the first country female to sell a million copies of a single release. That honor belongs to Patsy Montana, who in 1935, during the depths of the Great Depression, recorded a song that sold well over a million copies in “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” A steady seller for years, the song even became a top ten pop hit in 1936 (there were no country charts until January 1944).

Patsy Montana was born with the name Ruby Rebecca Blevins on October 30, 1908, in Hot Springs, Arkansas (there is some controversy about the year of birth) the only girl of eleven children born to Augustus Blevins and Amanda Meeks. Growing up with 10 brothers, Montana inevitably grew up a tomboy, but a tomboy with musical inclinations. Later famous for her yodeling abilities, she listened to her parents’ Jimmie Rodgers records, learned and absorbed his yodels, and also learned to play the fiddle.

A year after graduating from high school in 1928, Montana moved to Los Angeles and began music studies at the University of the West (later the UCLA). In addition to the “highbrow” music taught in college, she associated with hillbilly musicians and after winning first place in a singing contest, performed on radio station KTMR as Rubye Blevins, “the Yodeling Cowgirl from San Antone.”

Eventually Montana came to the attention of future gospel great Stuart Hamblen, who invited her to sing for more money on a rival radio station. She joined Lorraine McIntire and Ruthy DeMondrum as the Montana Cowgirls. This is the point at which the name change to Patsy Montana occurred, given to her by Hamblen upon learning that she was of Irish descent, and not wanting a “Ruthie” and a “Rubye” in the same group.

In the summer of 1932, she returned home for a vacation, and received a week’s booking on KWKH in Shreveport, Louisiana. Following these performances, Jimmie Davis (future two-time Governor of Louisiana and also a future Country Music Hall of Fame member) called her and invited her to travel to New York to record. Initially skeptical, she changed her mind when one of her brothers advised her that Davis was an important Victor recording artist. During the next two years, Montana sang backup for Davis on some recordings and recorded her first single, “When the Flowers of Montana Were Blooming.” She eventually returned to California and rejoined the Montana Cowgirls. When the group dissolved in 1933, she returned home to Arkansas.

Montana stayed home only briefly, as her brothers Kenneth and Claude decided to enter a huge watermelon into competition at the Chicago World’s Fair. She tagged along and upon arrival she sought out Dolly Good of the Girls of the Golden West, who tipped her off to a band looking for a new lead singer. She auditioned and began an eight-year relationship with the (soon to be named) Prairie Ramblers. During this period, Montana and the band would record dozens of songs and make hundreds of personal appearances. Although based in Chicago at WLS’s National Barn Dance, the band also performed for a year on WOR in New York. In 1934 she married Paul Rose, an organizer of the traveling portion of the WLS program. With Rose, she would have two daughters: Beverly and Judy.

Although record sales during this period plunged precipitously, the American Record Company (ARC) decided to record Patsy Montana and the Prairie Ramblers in New York during August of 1935. They recorded “Nobody’s Darling but Mine,” which became one of the biggest hits of the decade. Future Columbia A&R director “Uncle” Art Satherly, suggested that she record a song she had written titled “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” The rest is history. While not a hit right out of the box, the recording slowly built momentum eventually becoming an intrinsic part of the American culture. The song, a paean of love and independence, is still loved and performed to this day.

While Montana never again had another huge hit recording, she stayed busy as an entertainer for another 60 years, appearing in a Gene Autry movie in 1939, recording with groups such as the Sons of the Pioneers and the Light Crust Doughboys, and hosting an ABC network radio show in 1946-47, Wake Up and Smile (which featured her trademark greeting, “Hi, pardner! It’s Patsy Montana,” accompanied by the thunder of horses’ hooves). She continued to make personal appearances and occasionally recorded new material. She became an influence on many cowgirl wannabes and an idol to many female singers during the ensuing years. Montana received the Academy of Country Music’s Pioneer Award in 1970. Her signature song “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart” has been recorded many times in recent years, most notably by Suzy Bogguss in 1988 and by Montana herself, during her last recording sessions in 1995. In fact the song is played over the end credits of John Sayles’s 1996 film Lone Star, which was released just weeks after Montana’s death.

Patsy Montana passed away on May 3, 1996 in San Jacinto, CA and was elected that same year into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Her autobiography The Cowboy’s Sweetheart was published posthumously. Read more of this post

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘To All The Girls’

to all the girlsThe newest Willie Nelson album finds Willie treading familiar ground, recording eighteen duets with various female partners. These partners range from young to old, famous to fairly unknown and across a wide array of genres.

The album opens up with the “From Here To The Moon And Back”, an introspective ballad from the catalogue of duet partner Dolly Parton. This song has a very quiet arrangement with piano being the dominant sound, along with a very light string arrangement – very nice song.

Another very quiet song is “She Was No Good For Me” with the normally boisterous Miranda Lambert assisting Willie on an old Waylon Jennings tune. It is nice to hear Miranda sing a song that requires nuance and restraint.

She was a good looking woman no doubt
A high steppin’ mover that men talk about
Everything bad in me she brought it out
And she was just no good for me

[Chorus:]
Don’t be taken by the look in her eyes
If she looks like an angel
It’s a perfect disguise
And for somebody else she may be
But she was just no good for me

“It Won’t Be Very Long” opens with a harmonica intro which comes to a dead stop and then starts to a song with a very country gospel feel – something either Roy Acuff or the Nitty Gritty Dirt band might have tackled. The Secret Sisters aren’t really very well known but probably do the best job of any act on the album of actually harmonizing with Willie. Willie and producer Buddy Cannon wrote this song.

“Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends” is a Kris Kristofferson song that originally was a top ten hit for new Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby Bare (it reached #1 on Record World) in 1971. In 1974 it reached #1 on Billboard for Ronnie Milsap. I always preferred Bare’s version as I think the song benefited from Bare’s more laid back approach to the song. Nelson and duet partner Rosanne Cash adopt the more relaxed approach to the song, with Willie’s guitar being the dominant sound of the background, but with a tasteful organ undertone by Moose Brown. Willie and Rosanne’s voices really don’t mesh well together and Willie’s eccentric phrasing is difficult for any singer to handle, but actual harmonizing on this tune is kept to a dead minimum.

“Far Away Places” is one of the classics of the American Pop Standards canon. The song was written by Joan Whitney and Alex Kramer way back in 1948, and was an immediate hit by three artists in late 1948-early 1949, reaching #2 for the legendary Bing Crosby, #3 for Margaret Whiting and #6 for Perry Como. The Como version is probably the best remembered version since RCA kept the song available for most of the last 65 years whereas the other versions have frequently been out of print. Willie and partner Sheryl Crow harmonize well and recreate the dreamy feel of the 1948 versions. This is my favorite track on this album:

Far away places with strange soundin’ names
Far away over the sea
Those far away places with the strange soundin’ names
Are callin’, callin’ me

Goin’ to China or maybe Siam
I want to see for myself
Those far away places I’ve been readin’ about
In a book that I took from the shelf

I don’t know how many times Willie has recorded his own “Bloody Mary Morning” but this version must be the fastest version on disc. I’m not a big Wynonna Judd fan but this is the kind of song she handles well. Mike Johnson (steel) and Dan “Man of Constant Sorrow” Tyminski (acoustic guitar) really shine on this track.

Writers Wayne Carson, Mark James and John Christopher, Jr cashed in big time with “You Were Always On My Mind” as it was a hit thrice (Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson) and appeared on many albums generating many millions of sales (and royalties for the songwriters). On this recording Willie is joined by Carrie Underwood in a nice version with fairly minimal backing.

During the 1960s and 1970s semi-permanent male-female duos abounded, nearly all of whom tackled Merle Haggard’s “Somewhere Between”. It’s a great song and Willie is joined by the legendary Loretta Lynn, singing in better voice than anything I’ve heard from her recently. Willie and Loretta trade verses (usually in different keys) and do not harmonize except one line at the end. It’s a great song and full justice is done to the song.

“No Mas Amore” written by Keith Gattis and Sammy Barrett, is given the Mexican treatment by Willie and partner Alison Krauss complete with trumpets. Willies band member Mickey Raphael plays chord harmonica and bass harmonica; Alison’s band member Dan Tyminski adds background vocals and plays mandolin. Usually Alison Krauss duets produce a certain magic, but this one is merely pleasant listening.

“Back To Earth” features Melonie Cannon on this Willie Nelson ballad, taken at a languid pace. The song is nothing special but Melanie and Willie execute it well.

Mavis Staples is one of the best known gospel singers, carrying on the fine tradition of the legendary Staples Family. “Grandma’s Hands” was penned by Bill Withers, probably best known for his monster hits “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean On Me”. The song was about Wither’s own grandma and is an affectionate look at a loved one, now departed. Willie and Mavis give it a bit of a ‘swamp blues pop’ treatment that fits the song exactly.

“Walkin” features Wiliie’s good friend Norah Jones on a Willie composition. This is a bluesy slow ballad about leaving.

“Till The End of World” is an old Vaughn Horton standard given an up-tempo western swing arrangement. Back in 1949 Ernest Tubb, Jimmy Wakely and Johnny Bond all had top twelve hits with the song, then in 1952 Bing Crosby and ace guitarist Grady Martin took it back into the top ten. Shelby Lynne reestablishes her country credibility with this effort.

“Will You Remember Mine” is a lovely ballad from Willie’s pen. I don’t know anything about Lily Meola but she is a perfect complement to Willie on this song.

Gone are the times when I held you close
And pressed your lips to mine
Now when you kissed another’s lips
Will you remember mine?

I’m sure we’ve all had this thought – indeed.

“Dry Lightning” comes from the pen of Bruce Springsteen. Emmylou Harris can sing with anyone. Therefore it is no surprise that this song works as a duet. It’s another slow ballad, but Emmylou, as usual is exquisite.

I first ran across Brandi Carlile some years ago when the late and lamented Borders chain distributed sampler CDs of her work. On “Making Believe” she proves both that she can sing effective harmony and can sing country music with feeling. This song was written by Jimmy Work but is best remembered as a major hit for Kitty Wells in 1955, with Emmylou Harris taking it back to the top ten in 1977.

“Have You Ever Seen The Rain” is a John Fogarty composition given a slow folk arrangement that enables Willie and (I think) daughter Paula Nelson to convey the lyrics in an uncluttered manner. I really like this recording.

Tina Rose is the daughter of Leon & Mary Russell. Willie recorded an album with Leon Russell in 1979, so it seems only proper that he should record a song with Leon’s daughter. I’m not that impressed with Ms Russell’s vocals, but they work well enough on the vehicle chosen, L.E White’s “After The Fire Is Gone”, which White’s boss, Conway Twitty took to the top of the charts with Loretta Lynn in 1971. Willie and Tina don’t have the chemistry Conway and Loretta had (few do) but the end result is worthwhile.

It remains true:
There’s nothing cold as ashes
After the fire’s gone

All told, there is a very pleasant offering from Willie – I’d give it a B+, mostly because a few more up-tempo numbers were needed. Willie, of course, is always Willie, and as always, he was chosen well in his selection of female guests.

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘Always On My Mind’

alwaysVoices like Willie Nelson’s are an often-cited reason why many people don’t like country music, so in many respects Willie was an unlikely pop star. Nevertheless, with albums like Stardust, he proved that he could not only handle non-country material, but that he could also appeal to worldwide audiences much broader than the typical country music fan base. 1982’s Always On My Mind is one of his most AC-leaning albums. Like Stardust, it reached outside the country genre for material, though the selections this time around were more contemporary.

The title track had first been introduced to country audiences by Brenda Lee a decade earlier. Her version peaked outside the country Top 40. A cover version by Elvis Presley the same year reached 16 on the AC charts, but the song remained relatively unknown despite being recorded by numerous other artists, until Willie’s version came along. His recording of the song became the biggest hit of his career; it topped the Billboard country singles chart in May 1982 and was the magazine’s #1 country single of the year. It also reached #5 on the all-genre Hot 100 chart and earned three Grammy Awards — one for Willie for Best Male Country Vocal Performance as well as Best Country Song and Song of the Year for its writers Mark James, Johnny Christopher and Wayne Carson Thompson. It was also widely honored by the Country Music Association, winning Single of the Year in 1982 and Song of the Year in both 1982 and 1983. Willie also took home the 1982 Album of the Year trophy.

It’s exceedingly difficult to follow up a career record, but Willie’s next two singles, while not matching the success of “Always On My Mind”, turned in respectable chart performances. His cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me” reached #2 on the country charts and #11 on the AC charts and just cracked the Top 40 on the Hot 100. “Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning”, a song that I did not initially like but now consider a favorite, also reached #2 on the country chart but did not enjoy any crossover success.

Aside from some harmonica and Willie’s trademark guitar, there is no country instrumentation on this album. The fiddle and steel guitar are absent, and the saxophone is used instead on tracks like “Let It Be Me” and “Old Fords and a Natural Stone”, and most of the non-single album cuts come from outside of country music. The opening track “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”, written by the album’s producer Chips Moman and Dan Penn, had been an R&B hit for Aretha Franklin in 1967. The song had been covered for the country market previously, by Barbara Mandrell whose version went to #17 in 1971, and surprisingly, it was also recorded by Kitty Wells at some point. “A Whiter Shade Of Pale”, on which Willie is joined by Waylon Jennings, is a remake of a 1967 psychadelic rock hit by the British group Procul Harum. Willie also does a very nice version of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”.

Always On My Mind was clearly designed with one eye on the pop market, but it avoids the excesses and overproduction that was typical of most recordings of the era that had crossover aspirations. Sufficient concessions were also made to keep country fans happy. Among the more country-sounding material are two songs penned by Willie: “Permanently Lonely” and “The Party’s Over”, a remake of his own earlier recording, which like some of the other remakes on this album, dates back to 1967. It’s my favorite track on the album.

Legacy Recordings reissued Always On My Mind in 2008, with two new tracks: “The Man Who Owes Everyone” and “I’m A Memory”, both of which are enjoyable, though they would have fit in better on one of his more country-sounding albums.

Selling more than 4 million copies in the United States and another 2 million in Canada, Always On My Mind is second only to Stardust in terms of commercial success. It’s always been a favorite of mine, primarily for nostalgic reasons, but due to its reliance on pop, R&B and rock material, it’s not an especially important album in terms of country music, aside from the three singles, which are widely available on numerous compilations. That being said, it is an enjoyable record, country or not, and a cheap used copy is well worth picking up.

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.

Concert Review – ‘An Evening with Vince Gill’ – August 10, 2013

1373942682001-VG-PF-0487-GPub-300rgb-1307152246_4_3I was witness to a major bucket list moment for the second time in four years Aug 10 – an in the round performance by Vince Gill at one of my favorite venues, The 2,250 seat South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, MA. With his full band in toe (including Paul Franklin and Dawn Sears, who sang, but held back on many songs, likely due to her ongoing cancer battle), he ran through a two and a half hour set that mixed his legendary recordings with the iconic numbers he and Franklin made their own on Bakersfield.

I knew the night would be special when I bought the tickets last June, before I’d heard the album, or knew Franklin would join him. Gill is easily one of my favorite people in country music, a constant professional who can write, sing, play, and host with an ease that hasn’t been duplicated by any superstar that’s risen in his wake. He’s also the rare exception who’s only gotten better with age. Gill is as good (if not better) now at 57 then he was in his commercial prime more than twenty years ago.

He opened with the weary “One More Last Chance” before launching into “Take Your Memory With You.” Gill then preceded “High Lonesome Sound” with the joke that if you want to win a Grammy Alison Krauss should play on your song, a bit of irony seeing as he’s as much a Grammy magnet as Krauss. “Pocket Full of Gold” came in tribute to the cheaters as Gill wanted to know who he should look at while he sings.

His set, billed as an “Evening With Vince Gill,” was broken into two segments, bookending a 25-minute intermission to sell merchandise and beer. He spent a lot of time in the first act on his admiration for songwriter Max D. Barnes, complementing his talent on “Chiseled In Stone” and “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes.” A detour into sad songs led to a childhood memory of his dad singing “Old Shep” to him, before he told of the writing session behind “Look At Us,” a would be weeper that Barnes had Gill flip around to extenuate the positive. One of my favorite of his recordings, he sang it with beautiful precision while Franklin made the steel solo come alive. Another favorite was “Old Lucky Diamond Motel,” a Guitar Slinger album cut that I was glad he brought out.

What surprised me the most about the whole show was how little emphasis was placed on Bakersfield. They closed the first half with the requisite five songs an artist usually plays from their newest release, but they almost felt like an afterthought, when they should’ve been the main attraction. They opened this portion with Owens’ “Foolin’ Around” before gracing us with their timely cover of Haggard’s “The Fighting Side of Me,” which was a little loud, but excellent. His odes to Emmylou Harris – “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Together Again” were stellar, but I got the most joy from “I Can’t Be Myself,” which is as perfect a lyric as I’ve ever heard. “Together Again” had the right amount of steel, but “I Can’t Be Myself” was the winner of the Bakersfield songs.

Gill opened the second half with “What The Cowgirls Do,” another of my least favorites, but won redemption with “Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away.” He was more musically focused and thus didn’t interact as much this time around, but with his catalog front and center, that didn’t matter. I was surprised when he went way back into that catalog and pulled out “Never Alone” and the breakneck “Oklahoma Borderline,” which he flubbed a little lyrically (it was funny to watch him reading the lyrics from a monitor). Both were good, but I wasn’t as familiar with the latter as I would’ve liked to have been.

The highlights were a mix of both expected and somewhat surprising. Gill brought out his usual greatness on “Go Rest High On That Mountain,” but it was an out of nowhere “What You Give Away” that threw me. I had forgotten about that single, a top 30 hit from 2006, and was pleased when an audience member had requested it. He was also great on “Pretty Little Adriana,” “Trying to Get Over You,” and show closer “Whenever You Come Around.”

As intricately specialized as Gill is, the show wasn’t without a couple of minor cracks. Frankly, I would’ve killed for a little more experimentation. Gill and the band was almost too tight a unit, too perfect. The show would’ve been even stronger had they reworked some of Gill’s classics in the Bakersfield Sound, like he did with “Go Rest High On That Mountain” in the wake of Kitty Wells’ passing last year. Franklin, meanwhile, was regulated as the onstage steel player, thus he didn’t talk at all – the album was as much his project as Gill’s, so it wouldn’t have hurt to hear him talk about the music from his perspective. I didn’t expect his presence to feel like just another member of the band, and it was jarring seeing as Bakersfield was a collaborative album.

But that doesn’t excuse the fact that Gill put on an incredible show from start to finish that’s a must see for any country music fan. In thinking about his place in music, I would put Gill up there with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney as an icon who may not be as transcendent as those rock pioneers, be he’s arguably just as important to the genre he’s helped shape for the better part of the last thirty-five years.

Ten best reissues of 2012

2012 wasn’t a great year for reissues, but there were ten that struck me as exceptional enough to make a ten best list. Here is a list of my favorites (note: some of the foreign CDs may carry a 2011 date but did not hit the American market until 2012). My list is a mixed bag of single volume releases, affordable multi-disc sets and two rather expensive boxed sets

janiefricke Janie Fricke – The Country Side of Bluesgrass

An excellent set of Janie Fricke’s 1970s and 1980s hits recast as bluegrass. This album was advertised as the follow-up to her 2004 Bluegrass Sessions album, but it is actually a reissue of that album minus the bonus DVD – same songs, same “bonus track”, same musicians and producer. Only the packaging differs, so if you have the earlier CD you don’t need this one. If you don’t have the earlier version then you do need this one as Janie is one of the few female singers whose vocal chops have gotten better as she aged.

loudermilkSitting in the Balcony – The Songs of John D. Loudermilk

Although John D. Loudermilk wrote a large number of hit records for other performers, his hit songs (“Abilene”, “Waterloo”, “Talk Back Trembling Lips”, “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” , “Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian”, “Tobacco Road” , “A Rose And A Baby Ruth”, etc) were not at all typical of the material with which he filed his albums. A first cousin of Ira & Charlie Louvin (they were actually the Loudermilk Brothers before the name change), John D. Loudermilk had a decidedly offbeat outlook on life as evidenced by the songs in this two CD set. Loudermilk didn’t have a great singing voice and his offbeat songs resulted in no top twenty hits for him as a performer, but his songs are treasures.

Disc One (John D. Loudermilk: The Records) contains 32 recordings John made from 1957-1961. Disc Two (John D. Loudermilk: The Songs of John D. Loudermilk) contains 32 recordings made by other artists from 1956-1961, not necessarily big hits (although several are sprinkled in) but interesting songs by a wide array of artists, both famous and obscure (the famous names include Eddie Cochran, Johnny Cash, The Everly Brothers, Kitty Wells and Connie Francis). If you’ve never heard John D. Loudermilk, this is the place to start – it won’t be your stopping point

bradleykincaid Bradley Kincaid – A Man and His Guitar
Released by the British label JSP, this four CD set sells for under $30.00 and gives you 103 songs by one the individuals most responsible for preserving the musical heritage of rural America, through his song collecting and issuance of songbooks. Beyond being a preservationist, Kincaid was an excellent songwriter, singer and radio performer, as well as being Grandpa Jones’ mentor. This collection covers the period 1927-1950. An essential set for anyone interested in the history of country music

bootleg4 Johnny Cash – The Soul of Truth: Bootleg Vol. 4

You can never have too much Johnny Cash in your collection, and this 2 CD set includes the released albums A Believer Sings the Truth and Johnny Cash – Gospel Singer, plus unreleased material and outtakes. Various members of Cash’s extended family appear plus Jan Howard and Jessi Colter.

shebwooley Sheb Wooley –
White Lightnin’ (Shake This Shack Tonight)

Sheb Wooley had several careers – movie star, television actor (Rawhide), singer and comedian. Actually Sheb had two singing careers – a ‘straight’ country as Sheb Wooley and a comic alter-ego, the besotted Ben Colder.

This set covers the post WW2 recordings, recorded under the name Sheb Wooley. Sheb had a considerable sense of humor even when recording under his own name and there are quite a few humorous and offbeat songs in this thirty song collection released by Bear Family. Recorded on the west coast of the USA, many of these recordings feature steel guitar wizard Speedy West and the lightning fingers of guitarist Jimmie Bryant. Sheb’s biggest hit was “Purple People Eater”, which is not on this CD but there are many songs to make you smile including such classics as “That’s My Pa”, “You’re The Cat’s Meow” and “Rover, Scoot Over”, plus a number of boogies and a song titled “Hill Billy Mambo”.

martyrobbinsEl Paso: The Marty Robbins Story (1952-1960)

Marty Robbins was the “renaissance man” of country music. He could sing anything and everything. I always suspected that if rock and roll had not come along and momentarily wiped out the pop standards/classic pop market, Marty might have been competing against Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Julius Larosa and Tony Bennett, rather than competing as a county artist.

Whatever the case, Robbins was a truly great singer and this two CD set from the Czech label Jasmine proves it. This sixty (60) song collections gives us pop standards, rock and roll (“Maybelline”, “Long Tall Sally”, “That’s All Right, Mama”), ‘Mr. Teardrop’ ballads (“I Couldn’t Keep From Crying” , “Mr. Teardrop”, Teen Hits (“A White Sport Coat [And A Pink Carnation]”, “The Story of My Life”) , Country Standards (“Singing The Blues”, and lots of the great western ballads for which he was most famous”

If you don’t have any Marty Robbins this is a good place to start – sixty songs, under twenty bucks. Marty’s songs have been around and available in various configurations so this isn’t an essential album, merely an excellent one.

johnhartford

John Hartford – Aereo Plane/Morning Bugle: The Complete Warner Collection

John Hartford (December 30, 1937 – June 4, 2001) is best remembered for writing “Gentle On My Mind” but he was much more than a songwriter who happened to write a hit for Glen Campbell. Hartford was an extremely talented musician who could play any instruments, although banjo and fiddle were his main tools, a fine singer with a wry sense of humor and a scholar of the lore and history of the Mississippi River. While he sometimes is group settings, John was comfortable performing as a one-man band playing either banjo or guitar along with harmonica while clogging out the rhythm on an amplified piece of plywood while he played and sang.

Warner Brothers released these albums in 1971 and 1972, following his four-year run on RCA. Aereo-Plain has been described as hippie bluegrass, and its failure to sell well caused Warner Brothers to not bother with promoting the follow-up album Morning Bugle. Too bad as Aereo-Plain is chock full of quirky but interesting songs, with musicianship of the highest order with Norman Blake on guitar, Tut Taylor on dobro, and Vassar Clements on fiddle as part of the ensemble. I’ve always regard this album as the first “newgrass” album, and while others may disagree, it certainly is among the first. I don’t recall any singles being released from this album but I heard “Steam Powered Aereo Plane” and “Teardown The Grand Ole Opry” on the radio a few times.

While Aereo-Plain reached the Billboard album charts at #193, the follow-up Morning Bugle didn’t chart at all. Too bad as it is an imaginative album featuring Hartford with Norman Blake on guitar and mandolin, joined by legendary jazz bassist Dave Holland. The album features nine original compositions plus a couple of old folk songs. I particulary liked “Nobody Eats at Linebaugh’s Anymore” and “Howard Hughes’ Blues”, but the entire album is excellent. Following Warner Brothers’ failure to promote this album, Hartford asked to be released from his contract. He never again recorded for a major label, instead producing a series of fine albums for the likes of Flying Fish, Rounder and Small Dog A-Barkin’.

This reissue unearths eight previously unreleased tracks, making it a ‘must-have’ for any true John Hartford fan and a great starting point for those unfamiliar with his music.

bobbybare Bobby Bare – As Is/Ain’t Got Nothin’ To Lose

Bobby Bare was never flashy or gimmicky in his approach to music even though he recorded many novelties from the pen of Shel Silverstein. For Bare songs had stories to tell and that’s how he approached them. Whether the song was something from Shel, Tom T Hall, Billy Joe Shaver, Bob McDill or whomever, Bobby made sure that the song’s story was told. While this approach didn’t always get Bare the big hits, it always gained him the respect of the listener.

This reissue couples two of Bare’s early 1980s Columbia releases plus a few bonus tracks. The great John Morthland in his classic book The Best of Country Music, had this to say about As Is: “… It is the ideal Bobby Bare formula really: give him a batch of good songs and turn him loose. No concepts here, nothing cutesy, just ten slices-of-life produced to perfection by Rodney Crowell”.

My two favorite tracks on As Is were a pair of old warhorses, Ray Price’s 1968 “Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go) “ and the Ian Tyson classic “Summer Wages”.

While I Ain’t Got Nothing To Lose isn’t quite as stong an album, it gives Bare’s wry sense of humor several display platforms. The (almost) title track echos thoughts that many of us have felt at some point in our life (the first line is the actual song title:

If you ain’t got nothin’ you ain’t got nothin’ to lose
There ain’t no pressure when you’re singin’ these low down blues
Smokin’ that git down bummin’ them red men chews
If you ain’t got nothin’ you ain’t got nothin’ to lose

Hugh Moffat’s “Praise The Lord and Send Me The Money” is a clever jab at televangelistas . I’ll give you a middle verse and let you guess the rest:

I woke up late for work the next morning
I could not believe what I’d done
Wrote a hot check to Jesus for ten thousand dollars
And my bank account only held thirty-one

I consider virtually everything Bobby Bare recorded to be worthwhile so I jumped on this one the minute I knew of its existence. I already had As Is on vinyl but somehow the companion album slipped by me.

This brings us up to two rather expensive box sets that will set the purchaser back by several bills.

conniesmithThe obsessive German label Bear Family finally got around to releasing their second box set on Connie Smith. Just For What I Am picks up where the prior set left off and completes the RCA years. While many prefer Miss Smith’s earliest recordings, I am most fond of her work from the period 1968-1972, when her material was more adventurous, especially on the album tracks. During this period Smith had shifted from Bill Anderson being her preferred songwriter to focusing on the songs of Dallas Frazier, including one full album of nothing but Dallas Frazier-penned songs. The ‘Nashville Sound’ blend of strings and steel never sounded as good as it did on these tracks. There is a fair amount of religious music on the set, but for the less religiously inclined there is more than enough good solid country music on the set to be worth the effort in programming your CD player to skip the religious tracks. At her peak Connie Smith was the strongest vocalist the genre has ever generated – even today at age 71, she can blow away most female vocalists. Highlights are songs such as “Where Is My Castle”, “Louisiana Man”, “Ribbon of Darkness”, but when I listen to these discs, I just put ‘em on and let ‘em spin.

cashUp to this point, I actually own all of the albums and sets listed above. Not being made of money, I haven’t purchased Sony/Legacy’s massive 63 CD set The Complete Johnny Cash Columbia Album Collection, although the temptation is there. What is stopping me from making the purchase (other than my wife) is that already own 99% of what the set contains in one format or another.

What the set contains is an unbelievable array of material, it’s difficult to think of any singer whose work has been so varied. There are gospel albums, Christmas albums, a children’s album, soundtrack albums from a couple of movies, two Highwayman albums, a collaboration with former Sun label mates Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, a concert from a Swedish prison and other live albums and duet albums – a total of 59 albums as originally released on the Columbia label (no bonus tracks). There set also includes another four CDs of miscellaneous materials – singles and B-sides not originally on albums, Johnny’s guest vocals on other artist’s albums plus various oddities. Some of Cash’s later Columbia albums were not quite as strong as the earlier albums, but even the weaker albums contained some quite interesting material. This set usually sells for around $265 or $4 per disc.

Album Review: Terri Clark – ‘Classic’

The past few years has seen many a covers album by the female country stars of the 1980’s and ’90s. One by one, Lorrie Morgan, Wynonna Judd, Rosanne Cash, Patty Loveless and others have delivered varying sets of their takes on yesterday’s hits. On her latest album for her own Baretrack Records, Terri Clark is singing classic country made famous by greats like Kitty Wells, Hank Snow, Loretta Lynn and Merle Haggard, and throwing in more contemporary material from Linda Ronstadt, Glen Campbell and Reba McEntire.

With the same five-piece country band, she gives fairly routine renditions on several songs. For the most part Clark swaggers and swings, cries and carries on at just the right moments like the seasoned performer and lifetime country music fan she is. The biggest flaw to be found on this album is the production on some tracks. “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin'” is given the boot-scootin’ treatment, amped up to a breakneck shuffle which saps the spunky, soap-in-your-mouth ultimatum out of Loretta Lynn’s lyrics. While “Delta Dawn” benefits from a breezier production that allows the original Southern gospel sound to remain intact and Tanya Tucker proves to still be at the top of her game and Reba’s bent-note delivery of “How Blue” proves to be as good as ever too, there’s a redundancy to these recordings. Fans of either song will likely stick with the originals.

At her commercial peak, Clark shone brightest because of her confident country-is-cool charisma, and the best tracks here benefit from that. Fiddles cry as she tears into Merle Haggard’s “Swingin’ Doors” with her best back of the throat ache and she likewise summons just the right amount of young naiveté in her voice to sell Emmylou Harris’ “Two More Bottles of Wine” convincingly. Again, Clark’s vocal chops prove to be her greatest strength on “Gentle On My Mind”, which is given a simple acoustic and three-part harmony reading. On it, the singer reveals a storytelling ability yet to be heard on her original material.

The lesser half of Classic comes off as above average karaoke and works more as an homage to their original interpreters. The better half comes when Terri Clark is interpreting the songs herself instead of paying tribute to the her favorite singers. She’s got the goods to sell.  I only wish she had brought the other half.

Grade: B-

Listen on Spotify.

Buy it at amazon.

Week ending 9/29/12: #1 singles this week in country music history

1952: It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels — Kitty Wells (Decca)

1962: Devil Woman — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1972: I Can’t Stop Loving You — Conway Twitty (Decca)

1982: What’s Forever For — Michael Martin Murphey (Liberty)

1992: Love’s Got A Hold On You — Alan Jackson (Arista)

2002: Beautiful Mess — Diamond Rio (Arista)

2012: Wanted — Hunter Hayes (Atlantic)

Week ending 9/22/12: #1 singles this week in country music history

1952: It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels — Kitty Wells (Decca)

1962: Devil Woman — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1972: When The Snow Is On The Roses — Sonny James (Columbia)

1982: She Got The Goldmine (I Got The Shaft) — Jerry Reed (RCA)

1992: Love’s Got A Hold On You — Alan Jackson (Arista)

2002: I Miss My Friend — Darryl Worley (DreamWorks Nashville)

2012: Pontoon — Little Big Town (Capitol)

Week ending 9/15/12: #1 singles this week in country music history

1952: It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels — Kitty Wells (Decca)

1962: Devil Woman — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1972: If You Leave Me Tonight I’ll Cry — Jerry Wallace (Decca)

1982: She Got The Goldmine (I Got The Shaft) — Jerry Reed (RCA)

1992: I Still Believe In You — Vince Gill (MCA)

2002: Unbroken — Tim McGraw (Curb)

2012: Pontoon — Little Big Town (Capitol)

Week ending 9/8/12: #1 singles this week in country music history

1952: It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels — Kitty Wells (Decca)

1962: Devil Woman — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1972: Woman (Sensuous Woman) — Don Gibson (Hickory)

1982: Love Will Turn You Around — Kenny Rogers (Liberty)

1992: I Still Believe In You — Vince Gill (MCA)

2002: The Good Stuff — Kenny Chesney (BNA)

2012: Over — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

Week ending 9/1/12: #1 singles this week in country music history

1952: It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels — Kitty Wells (Decca)

1962: Devil Woman — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1972: If You Leave Me Tonight I’ll Cry — Jerry Wallace (Decca)

1982: Fool Hearted Memory — George Strait (MCA)

1992: I’ll Think Of Something — Mark Chesnutt (MCA)

2002: The Good Stuff — Kenny Chesney (BNA)

2012: Over — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)