My Kind of Country

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Classic Album Review — ‘The Carl Smith Anniversary Album: 20 Years of Hits’

During the late 1960s-early 1970s, Columbia Records tried to mine their back catalog of songs by releasing two album sets with gatefold covers. These typically took three different directions:

A) Mixed artists compilations of singles, album tracks (often Columbia artists covering hits of artists on other labels).

B) Compilations of an artists’ miscellaneous older singles and album tracks into a two-album set. In some cases (The World of Ray Price comes to mind) the singles would represent remakes of the original hits recorded in stereo and often with slick ‘Nashville Sound’. In other cases (such as The World of Johnny Cash, The World of Lynn Anderson, The World of Tammy Wynette or The World of Flatt & Scruggs) the compilation consisted of album tracks from out of print albums with perhaps a few singles mixed in 1960. C) Re-recordings of an artist’s greatest hits, but not utilizing the slick ‘Nashville Sound” production often associated with country production of the period. I can think of only two albums that fit

C) Re-recordings of an artist’s greatest hits, but not utilizing the slick ‘Nashville Sound” production often associated with country production of the period. I can think of only two albums that fit in this category. One of these albums was The World of Johnny Horton, where Columbia had some material in the can which had light post-production applied to some tracks after Horton’s premature death in 1960.

The other album was The Carl Smith Anniversary Album: 20 Years of Hits. 

Largely forgotten today, or remembered as the father of Carlene Carter, during the 1950s Carl Smith was a huge star, ranking behind only Webb Pierce, Eddy Arnold and, Hank Snow among the stars of the 1950s. His songs were solidly country; however that was nothing revolutionary or pioneering about his sound as many of Carl’s hits could have fit comfortably on 1940s country playlists. Although his success fell off sharply after rock & roll hit, still he persevered long enough to roll up 93 chart hits by the time he retired in the mid-1970s.

Although Carl had a very good voice, there was too much east Tennessee in Carl’s voice for him to make the Jim Reeves/Eddy Arnold/Ray Price turn toward pop balladry and his voice was far too deeply masculine for him to record the effeminate sounds of rock & roll or doo wop. Still he continued to have a number of top twenty hits during the 1960s. Although Merle Haggard is given deserved credit for the western swing resurgence of the 1970s, Carl’s music had been turning toward western swing sounds during the latter 1960s.

With this album, many of Carl’s biggest hits were recast as western swing, with other songs given a more jazzy feel just short of western swing.

Here are the songs on the album with some comments on each:

“Hey Joe” was a 1953 hit for Carl, spending eight weeks at #1 in 1953. This recording has a definite swing arrangement.

“Back Up Buddy” reached #2 for Carl in 1954 

“She Called Me Baby” was a minor hit for Carl (#32 Billboard / #20 Record World) in 1965. The song was a cover of a Patsy Cline hit from 1962 and Charlie Rich would take the song to #1 in 1974. The arrangement on this version differs little from Carl’s 1965 recording with some extra horns being the main difference.

“Deep Water” would prove to be Carl’s biggest hit of the 1960s, reaching #6 on Record World and #10 on Billboard in 1967. Written by Fred Rose and recorded by Bob Wills (among others), this version differs little from Carl’s 1967 recording, with some extra horns being the main difference. 

“Foggy River” was the follow-up to “Deep Water” breaking into the top twenty. The arrangement is an up-tempo modern country arrangement minus the strings of the Nashville Sound. Kate Smith had a pop hit with the song in 1948.

“Pull My String And Wind Me Up” was a top twenty hit for Carl in 1970. I recall hearing this on the radio so I think that this was the jazzy version released as a single. 

“Heartbreak Avenue” was released as a single in1969. The song is a slow ballad and features a bluesy arrangement and vocal by Carl. 

“Good Deal Lucille” was a single released in 1969 that broke into the top twenty. The version on this album swings a little harder than the single release.   

“It’s All Right” was not released as a single but has a nice swing feel with some nice saxophone. 

“I Love You Because” was a #3 pop hit for Al Martino in 1963 and was recorded as an album track that same year by Jim Reeves (and was released as a posthumous Jim Reeves single in 1976). The song was written by blind country singer Leon Payne and reached #4 for Leon in 1949. Carl’s 1969 release reached #14 – the single was very similar to this recording. Basically, the steel guitar is the lead instrument for much of this track.   

“I Overlooked An Orchid” was an early recording for Carl Smith. Released in 1950, the song never charted but was a regional hit for Carl, and apparently sold quite well despite its lack of chart activity. The song would become a #1 hit for Mickey Gilley in 1974.   

‘Mister Moon” was Carl’s second hit from 1951, a song that reached #4 and spent 17 weeks on the charts. The song features standard country production but no strings or background singers.

“I Feel Like Cryin’” reached #7 in early 1956 as the B side of “You’re Free To Go” which topped out at #6. Again the song features standard production minus strings, but with some harmony vocals. 

“There She Goes” reached #3 for Carl in 1955 and spent 25 weeks on the charts. Jerry Wallace would have a pop hit with the song in 1961. Once again the song features standard production minus strings, but with some harmony vocals. 

“Let Old Mother Nature Have Her Way” was Carl’s fourth chart hit for 1951 and his biggest ever hit reaching #1 for eight weeks and spending thirty-three weeks on the charts. This recording is a slow ballad with a jazzy, but not western swing, feel to it.   

“Loose Talk” was Carl’s last #1 single reaching the top in early 1955 and staying there for seven weeks during its thirty-two week chart run. The song would be a big hit for the duo of Buck Owens & Rose Maddox in 1961 and become a country standard. The song was written by Freddie Hart and verges on western swing in this version.

“Are You Teasing Me” is a cover of a Louvin Brothers song that reached #1 for Carl in 1952, his third consecutive #1 record. This version is given a jazzy arrangement. 

“Don’t Just Stand There” was the following up to “Let Old Mother Nature Have Her Way” and it also spent eight weeks at #1, although it faded off the charts after only twenty-four weeks. I would describe this recording as solidly western swing. 

“If Teardrops Were Pennies” reached #8 for Carl in 1951, his third charted single of the year. Porter & Dolly would take the song to #3 in 1973. 

“I Betcha My Heart I Love You” dates back to Bob Wills, and while no one ever had a hit with the song, it was a staple of many country bands for years. Wanda Jackson had a nice recording of the song, but Carl’s rendition here really swings. Carl himself recorded the song in 1950 but without any chart action.

The Carl Smith Anniversary Album: 20 Years of Hits remains one of my favorite albums, one that I pull out and play frequently. Over the years I have dubbed it onto cassette tapes and also made digital copies of the album. To my knowledge, it has only ever been released on vinyl.

Carl Smith is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and while his 1950s output has been adequately available his post-1950s output has been shamefully under-represented in the digital era.

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Album Review: Robert Mizzell – ‘Mama’s Rocking Chair’

2011 was a good year for Louisiana Born Irish country singer Robert Mizzell. He was inducted into the Shreveport Walk of Stars, which recognizes achievement in the world of country music, and is the highest honor his home city could bestow upon him. He also released his eighth album, Mama’s Rocking Chair, a collection of thirteen songs, many of which were classic country covers.

Among the tracks are three George Jones songs from his years recording for Musicor. The earliest, “Things Have Gone to Pieces,” written by Leon Payne, was his first single for the label, peaking at #9. Mizzell gives an excellent reading of the ballad, which nicely stands up to Jones’ recording. The other two were culled from Jones’ 1970 album Will You Visit Me On Sunday. The title track, written by Dallas Frazier is about a prison inmate and the woman he loves on the outside. Charlie Walker’s “Rosie Bokay,” tells the story of a man falls for an enigmatic bartender. Both are also excellent and devoid of the intrusive touches on Jones’ versions.

The jaunty “Sick, Sober and Sorry” was a duet for Lefty Frizzell and Johnny Bond in 1951. Mizzell reprises it here, beautifully, as a duet with Martin Cleary. John Prine’s “Grandpa Was A Carpenter” is newer, first seeing release by him in 1973 and again in 1989 from The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 2. Mizzell once again turns in an equally wonderful performance. Also very good is his version of Rodney Crowell’s “Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight,” which came to prominence through recordings by Emmylou Harris and The Oak Ridge Boys.

The plight of Irish immigrants in the 1950s is covered on “Paddy,” an Irish folk ballad given a traditional arrangement. Also gut wrenching is “The Orphan Train,” a brutal ballad. The title track, a mid-tempo fiddle drenched ballad, is another excellent story song. “What We Don’t Have” and “Can You Hear Me Now” are pure honky-tonk.

Also featured on Mama’s Rocking Chair is Mizzell’s biggest hit to date at the time, the upbeat “I Ain’t Fallin’ for That” and “Cajun Dance,” a fiddle heavy ode to his Louisiana heritage written specifically for him by Peter McKeever. Of the two,“Cajun Dance,” which opens the album, is the stronger song, which recalls the line dance craze of the early 1990s.

Mama’s Rocking Chair, as a whole, does a great job of mixing both old and new cohesively. I thought it was a bit too clean and precise in execution, but it’s a fine album worth checking out. Individual tracks are available on YouTube and the album is also on Itunes.

Grade: A-

Album Review: The Crowe Brothers – ‘Forty Years Old’

forty years old

Straddling the boundaries between traditional country and bluegrass, the close sibling Louvin-style harmonies of Josh and Wayne Crowe are always worth hearing, especially as the duo have a penchant for picking great songs. Their latest album is no exception.

A number of country classics given bluegrass instrumentation include the opening ‘Lost Highway’, written by Leon Payne but best known from Hank Williams’ recording. the Crowe Brothers’ version is excellent. I also enjoyed ‘Excuse Me, I Think I’ve Got A Heartache’, which is suitably plaintive, with soaring fiddle. The romantic ‘Send Me The Pillow’ is also nicely done, while a bluegrass classic ‘Don’t Let Our Love Die’ is beautiful. The pleasantly philosophical ‘Someday My Ship Will Sail’ is less well known, but the Allen Reynolds tune has been recorded in the past by Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash.

‘I’ve Got The Moon On My Side’ was written by Tom T Hall and wife Dixie with Troy Engle. It has been released as a single for bluegrass radio. It has a perky feel as the protagonist takes comfort in the country moonlight while his ex lives it up in town. The quirky ‘Livin’ In A Mobile Home’ was written by country songwriters Rory Michael Bourke and Ronny Scaife. It celebrates a life on the road in a Winnebago, and is entertaining and memorable.

‘Green Fields Of Erin’ is about the Irish emigrant experience and the longing for home.

The more-or-less title track ‘You Turned Forty Years Old’ is an old man’s fond tribute as his beloved son reaches a landmark age, written by Steve Watts. A charming lullaby rhythm and melody make this very memorable as the protagonist reminisces about his boy’s childhood.

‘Where Will You Be’ is a gospel tune written by Wayne Crowe and delivered with good cheer. ‘Angel Mother’ is an old fashioned (in a good way) pure bluegrass tribute to a mother. The set closes with the rapid-paced ‘Two Feet On The Floor’, which is typical up-tempo bluegrass.

Grade: A-

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken?’

will the circle be unbrokenEven if the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had never made another album after this one, they would have still deserved a place in country music history. This groundbreaking album teamed up the young folk-rockers with country hearts with a selection of veterans including some from the early days of recorded country music, performing music mostly from the same era. It was a triple LP, but was remastered and released as a double CD in 2002, and is also available digitally. There is a friendly living room atmosphere, with snippets of the chat in the studio between tracks.

The various instrumental tracks and backings are brilliantly played by the Nitty Gritties and their guests, often anchored by Earl Scruggs and fiddler Vassar Clements.

The album opens with bluegrass singer Jimmy Martin (1927-2005) singing Hylo Brown’s ‘Grand Ole Opry Song’, which pays affectionate tributes to the stars of the Opry past and present. The song’s subject sets the mood for the whole project. This was one of the singles released to promote the album. It is very charming, but wasn’t very commercial even in the 1970s. Martin’s former boss Bill Monroe had declined to take part in the sessions, distrusting the young men from California, and reportedly regretted that decision once he heard the end result; but Martin’s piercing tenor is a strong presence on a number of tracks. ‘Sunny Side Of The Mountain’ and ‘My Walkin’ Shoes’ are a bit more standard pacy bluegrass – brilliantly performed, but they don’t really hit the heartstrings. The plaintive ‘Losin’ You (Might Be The Best thing Yet)’ is more affecting, and ‘You Don’t Know My Mind’ is also good.

Roy Acuff (1903-1992) was also dubious about the project, but having agreed to take part was quickly won over by the long haired youngsters’ genuine love of country music and their musicianly skills. Known as the King of Country Music, Acuff was the biggest star in country in the 1940s, and one of the influences on artists like George Jones. Even after his commercial star had faded, he remained a very visible presence in the genre, as a stalwart of the Opry and as co-owner of the music publishing company Acuff Rose. He sings some of his signature gospel-infused tunes ‘The Precious Jewel’, the gloomy ‘Wreck On The Highway’, plus the lonesome love song ‘Pins And Needles In My Heart’. He also takes the lead on Hank William’s joyful country gospel classic ‘I Saw The Light’, enthusiastically backed by the NGDB and Jimmy Martin on the chorus.

Mother Maybelle Carter (1909-1978) represents the earliest country recordings and the crystallization of country as a genre from Appalachian folk and the popular music of the day. She sings the lead on the optimistic ‘Keep On The Sunny Side’, a turn of the century religious tune which was one of the Carter Family’s first recordings in the 1920s. Her vocals are thickened with age (and she was never the lead voice in the original Carter Family, taking second place vocally to sister in law Sara), but backed by a chorus of other participants there is a warm familial atmosphere which is quite endearing, and the playing is impeccable. ‘I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes’, another Carter Family classic, and ‘Wildwood Flower’ are also charming.

Flatpicking guitarist Merle Travis sings ‘I Am A Pilgrim’, the coalmining ‘Dark As A Dungeon’ and ‘Nine Pound Hammer’; these are delightful and among my favorite tracks, particularly ‘Dark As A Dungeon’. Another guitar legend, Doc Watson, who surprisingly only met Travis for the first time at these sessions, takes on vocal duties for Jimmie Driftwood’s always enjoyable story song ‘Tennessee Stud’ as well as the traditional ‘Way Downtown’.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band harmonise nicely on a tasteful version of A P Carter’s delicately pretty ‘You Are My Flower’. Their vocal style betrays their folk-rock roots, but the instrumentation is perfectly authentic. They also picked out some Hank Williams classics to spotlight their own vocals. Jimmie Fadden leads on ‘Honky Tonking’, and Jeff Hanna gives ‘Honky Tonk Blues’ a Jimmie Rodgers style edge with his voice sounding as though at any moment he’s going to break into a fully fledged yodel. Jimmy Ibbotson takes on ‘Lost Highway’ (penned by Leon Payne but most associated with Hank)..Their vocals sound a little tentative compared with their more confident later work, but the songs are beautifully played. That is actually a reasonable assessment of the whole album – there is nothing to criticise musically, but the vocals, while honest and authentic, are not up to the standard of, say, today’s best bluegrass.

Pretty much the entire lineup participates in the title song, an inspired choice. The song’s own message is a spiritual one but in the context of this project it has a metaphorical second meaning. The messages of unity and tradition are underpinned by the cover art with its use of US and Confederate flags, and the legend “Music forms a new circle”.

This album is a towering achievement and one of the most significant in country music history. It united two generations, linking the up and coming country rockers with the men and women who had in effect created country music as a unique and definable genre. If you have any interest in music history, it’s a must-have.

Grade: A+

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+

Country Heritage: Con Hunley

In an article which appeared on the9513.com in March of 2010, titled Forgotten Artists: Ten from the ’80s, Pt. 1, I had the following to say about Con Hunley:

“I have no idea why Con Hunley didn’t become a big star. He had an excellent voice and the look that 1980s record labels were seeking. Perhaps his voice was too distinctive, as it was smoky with strong blues flavoring. At any rate, he charted 25 times (11 Top 20 hits) from 1977-86, with his biggest national hit being “What’s New With You,” which reached #11 in 1981. I doubt that anyone remembers him for that song, however, as other songs such as “Week-End Friend” (#13), “I’ve Been Waiting For You All My Life” (#14), “You’ve Still Got A Place In My Heart (#14), “Since I Fell For You” (#20) and “Oh Girl” (#12) were all huge regional hits, reaching Top 5 status in many markets.”

That doesn’t seem like enough to say about this superlative vocalist so here goes:

Conrad Logan “Con” Hunley (born April 9, 1945) was born in Union County, Tennessee, an area which also produced such country legends as Roy Acuff and Carl Smith. Con was born into a musical family and at age nine his parents bought him a used “Stella” guitar for Christmas. Con soon taught himself to play Chet Atkins thumb-style guitar; however, his biggest early influence was to be found among R&B artists, particularly Ray Charles.

Con’s first professional job came in 1964, courtesy of the Eagles Lodge in downtown Knoxville. In 1965 Con joined the United States Air Force in 1965. After basic training, Con was sent to a tech school at Chanute AFB in Illinois where he was taught aircraft hydraulic and pneumatic systems. Con learned so well that he was made an instructor. While there, he played area bars and clubs with a local band. Later Con was transferred to Castle AFB near Atwater, CA, where he found a job playing piano at the Empire Lounge in Atwater.

After his tour of duty was finished Hunley returned to Knoxville and began performing weekly at a local nightclub owned by Sam Kirkpatrick, who formed the independent label Prairie Dust Records to showcase Hunley’s talents. After some minor success on the country music charts with three 1977 singles charting in the lower regions outside the top fifty, Hunley caught the attention of Warner Brothers Records (WB), who signed him in 1978.

Hunley’s first WB single, a cover of Jimmy C. Newman’s  “Cry Cry Darling”, cracked the top forty, reaching #34. From this point forward, Con Hunley had eleven straight singles that reached the Billboard Top Twenty, although none reached the top ten.  This singles were all on the border between Country and R&B (this during a time when R&B was actually music). “Weekend Friend” started the parade, reaching #13 in October 1978. This was followed by a cover of the Leon Payne classic “You’ve Still Got A Place In My Heart”  which reached #14 . This was followed “I’ve Been Waiting For You All Of My Life” which also reached #14 (although according to Cashbox the record reached #10 and was Con’s biggest hit – this squares with my recollections of the record and its airplay in Central Florida). Paul Anka would have a pop hit with the record two years later in 1981.

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Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Blue Kentucky Girl’

Emmylou Harris’ fourth album for Warner Brothers contains more traditional and straightforward country fare than before.  This is partially because, after being involved in the mixing of Quarter Moon In a Ten Cent Town, she felt it was too slick-sounding.  But the more traditional arrangements were mostly created as a response to the outcry that the healthy mixing of pop and rock hits on past albums were the primary reason for their success. Shucking Tin Pan Alley for more Printer’s Alley, the set includes songs by country stalwarts Dallas Frazier, The Louvin Brothers, Willie Nelson, and others.  It’s biggest flaw – and only downfall – is in the lack of tempo, as too many of the tracks begin to bleed together with their like-minded and plodding melodies. Blue Kentucky Girl also features an all-star line-up of guest vocalists, including Tanya Tucker, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Don Everly, and like its predecessors would earn a gold certification, though it was her first since her Reprise debut not to hit the top 40 of the pop albums chart.

Things are kicked off with the bouncy, if unremarkable, ‘Sister’s Coming Home’ with Tanya Tucker duetting.  Willie Nelson wrote the repetitive tale of a honky tonking sibling returning home, which is smothered in the pedal steel playing of Hank DeVito and Ricky Skaggs’ fiddling.  As the album’s only up-tempo, it’s a forgettable tune with no real storyline and the annoying repeats of lines several times.  The Skaggs family is also represented on ‘Sorrow In The Wind’. Sharon and Cheryl White contribute angelic harmonies to this sparse take on the old British folk song. Known professionally as The Whites, the sister duo scored several country top 10s in the early to mid-1980s. Sharon White also married Hot Band member Ricky Skaggs in 1982.

The uncertainty of the road ahead following the exit of a relationship filled with hard times is contemplated in ‘Rough and Rocky’.  A kind-to-the-ears melody and a driving accordion lead the track, and it’s a personal favorite.  Another standout is ‘Even Cowgirls Get The Blues’ with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt.  It was recorded during the first ill-fated Trio sessions. It would take another 10 years before the three women’s careers and schedules would permit the album to be produced.  Roadhouse country is the main influence on the Rodney Crowell-tune.(Crowell also plays lead acoustic guitar here.)

‘Everytime You Leave’, with Don Everly was written and originally recorded by The Louvin Brothers.  The narrator’s heartbreak is the result of a revolving-door relationship to which she can never say no, and even with its stellar arrangement, Harris doesn’t sound terribly invested in the song’s ultimate melancholy.  Likewise flat, to me, is ‘Never Take His Love From Me’, the Leon Payne-written tune, most famously recorded by Hank Williams.  Here, Emmylou flips the pronoun and offers her weakest performance on the album.

Harris has never been more than a competent vocalist; never a powerhouse belter nor a burning balladeer. That’s most evident on Blue Kentucky Girl when she wraps her raspy vocal around Gram Parsons’ signature tune ‘Hickory Wind’. The deep, desolate lyric calls for more range than Harris can muster at the climax of the song, yet the simple vocal of Harris, even when it reaches for a note it simply cannot find, still conveys all the pathos and longing of a first-class vocalist. That’s because, wide range or no, Harris’ emotive skills place her among the best of the belting divas.

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Week ending 1/16/10: #1 singles this week in country music history

1950: I Love You Because — Leon Payne (Capitol)

1960: El Paso — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1970: Baby, Baby (I Know You’re A Lady) — David Houston (Epic)

1980: Coward of the County — Kenny Rogers (United Artists)

1990: It Ain’t Nothin’— Keith Whitley (RCA)

2000: Breathe — Faith Hill (Warner Bros.)

2010: Consider Me Gone — Reba McEntire (Starstruck/Valory)