My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: Varous Artists: ‘Gentle Giants: The Songs Of Don Williams’

Don Williams had a very successful career in Country Music and is pretty much beloved throughout the English-speaking world. Don would have a long run of chart singles (46 as a solo artist) that would run from 1973 to 1992, and he would continue to release albums of new music through 2014.

With such a long discography, the task is twofold: (1) find artists whose styles are sympathetic to the honoree’s style without being mere imitations, and (2) find some interesting catalog songs rather than simply covering the biggest hits. Moreover, tribute albums tend to be a mixed bag with some of them being very good, and others merely star vehicles for current stars rather than genuine tributes. Gentle Giants is a genuine tribute to Don.

This project succeeds in both respects. The artists cover a broad range of styles and while the songs are mostly big hits, a few lesser known songs are covered as well.

The album opens up with the Pistol Annies’ version of “Tulsa Time” a song written by Danny Flowers, one of Don’s band members. The arrangement of this 1979 #1 record for Don is considerably funkier than Don’s arrangement.

“I Believe In You” was written by Roger Cook and Sam Hogin, hitting #1 in 1980. This was probably Don’s biggest international hit, even reaching #4 on New Zealand’s pop charts. Brandy Clark does a decent job of the song, although it probably should have been tackled by a more grizzled artist than young Brandy.

“We’ve Got A Good Fire Going” was not one of Don’s bigger hits, only reaching #3 in 1986. Written by master songsmith David Loggins, the song seems perfectly suited for a vocal trio such as Lady Antebellum. The arrangement is very gentle with a light string accompaniment.

There’s a storm rollin’ over the hill
And the willow trees are blowin’
I’m standin’ here starin’ out the window
Safe and warm
I feel her put her arms around me
And it’s a good feelin’ that I’m knowin’
Oh, I’ve got a good woman and we’ve got a good fire goin’

“Some Broken Hearts Never Mend” comes from the pen of Wayland Holyfield. The song reached #1 in 1977, Dierks Bentley gives the song an acoustic, nearly bluegrass arrangement. I love the song and I love Dierks’ performance of the song.

While there are no complete misfires on the album, “Amanda” seems ill suited for the duo of Chris Stapleton and Morgane Stapleton. I really like Chris but his voice is just wrong for this song. His version is acceptable but both Don and ol’ Waylon did far better versions of the song.

Similarly Alison Krauss makes the mistake of slowing the tempo in “Till The Rivers All Run Dry”. Since all of Don’s songs are taken at slow to medium slow tempos, reducing the tempo on any of Don’s songs is a mistake. Alison provides a gorgeous vocal, but the song just seems to drag. Don co-wrote this song with Wayland Holyfield, his fourth #1 from back in 1976.

I regard John Prine as a talented songwriter but a poor vocalist with his vocal efforts ranging from mediocre to terrible. Somehow “Love Is On A Roll” works. It was a good idea to pair him with Roger Cook, especially since Prine and Cook were the writers on the song. Don took this song to #1 in 1983.

Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You”, as sung by Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, was a bit of a disappointment, mostly because Amanda Shires is no Emmylou Harris as a harmony singer. I think the song originally was an Emmylou Harris single featuring Don Williams since it was released on Warner Brothers, which was Emmylou’s label. The song only reached #3 but I thought it was an outstanding effort by Don and Emmylou.

“Maggie’s Dream” missed the top ten when released in 1984 but by then Don was staring to lose momentum as a singles artist. Also the album from which the song came, Cafe Carolina, was Don’s least successful album in a decade. Written by David Loggins and Lisa Silver, Trisha Yearwood does a masterful job with the song. I think it has one of the more interesting lyrics that Don ever tackled:

Maggie’s up each morning at four am
By five at the counter at the diner
Her trucker friends out on the road will soon be stopping in
As the lights go on at Cafe Carolina

Maggie’s been a waitress here most all her life
Thirty years of coffee cups and sore feet
The mountains around Ashevill,e she’s never seen the other side
Closer now to fifty than to forty

Maggie’s never had a love
She said she’s never had enough time
To let a man into her life
Aw but Maggie has a dream
She’s had since she was seventeen
To find a husband and be a wife

I am not that familiar with Keb Mo’ but he nailed “Lord I Hope This Day Is Good”, adding a very sincere vocal to an arrangement that is nearly a clone of Don’s original. The song was written by Dave Hanner, best known for his role in the Corbin/Hanner Band. The song reached #1 in 1981.

“Good Ole Boys Like Me”, written by Bob McDill is probably my favorite Don Williams song and Garth Brooks version tells me that Garth definitely grew up on and was inspired by Don’s songs. Billboard had this song dying at #2 but Cashbox and Record World both had it reaching #1.

All said, this is a pretty nice album. Don Williams was a pretty laid back artist and I wish someone had selected some of the more up-tempo songs (admittedly, there were not that many from which to choose). Other than Leon Redbone and Bobby Bare, no one was as good at laid-back as Don Williams.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Chill Factor’

chill factorMerle Haggard turned fifty shortly before Chill Factor was released in October 1987. To those of us who remember when the blues and jazz were still influences on country music (rather than the hip-hop and rock that seem to be today’s influences) this album is an overlooked treasure out of the Merle Haggard catalogue. The album is compromised of eleven songs of which Merle wrote six by himself, with three co-writes and two songs from outside sources.

I’m not sure, but I think this was the first complete Merle Haggard album recorded without longtime Stranger Roy Nichols (1932-2001) on lead guitar. Roy, who was a truly great guitar player, and a quintessential part of the Merle Haggard sound, retired in early 1987 due to health issues.

The album opens with the title track, a solo Haggard composition. “Chill Factor” is a very melancholy song about a down period in the singer’s life. Taken at a slow tempo the song features horns and winds during the last third of the song and comes to a fade ending. “Chill Factor” was the first single from the album and reached #9 on the Billboard country chart:

The long nights get longer
And I wish a friend would come by
The forecast is zero
And the chill factor is high

“Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star”, another Haggard composition, was the second single released from the album. It would prove to be Merle’s final #1 single. A mid-tempo song, the song finds the narrator wishing upon a star.

Like two ships on the ocean
We drifted apart …

Twinkle twinkle lucky star
Can you send me luck from where you are
Can you make a rainbow shine that far
Twinkle twinkle lucky star

“Man From Another Town” is yet another melancholy song, this time from the pens of Haggard and his most frequent co-writer at the time, Freddy Powers, This song reflects on relationship that should not be in that the man is thirty years older than the woman.

The great Hank Cochran wrote “We Never Touch At All”, a song that would have been a #1 record if it had been released twenty years earlier. The song features a 1960s style country accompaniment with excellent steel guitar by longtime Stranger Norm Hamlet. The song was released as the third single from the album and reached #22. The song is about a relationship that is slowly unraveling. I think it is the best song on the album:

Are we afraid we’ll wind up alone
Is this the tie that keeps us hanging on
Why don’t we just stay out
While we can still climb the wall
We hardly ever talk
And we never touch at all

“You Babe” was the fourth and final single pulled from this album, reaching #23. The song is a mid-tempo ballad, full of hope, by a man who has found what was truly important. The comes from the pen of Sanger D “Whitey” Shafer who was a friend and co-writer with Lefty Frizzell:

And if there’s nothin’ else I do
To spend my whole life through
Lovin’ you, babe, you babe
I’ll always be in command
Just as long as I’m the man
Lovin’ you, babe, you babe

“Thanking The Good Lord” is an upbeat and up-tempo written ny Merle and T.A. Lane:

The pieces are all falling together
The picture is coming in view
When I thought the end was upon me
I found my purpose in you

And let the power that made
Help me to prosper and be fair in all things that I do
The love I’ve been needin’ I just found in your heart
And I’m thanking the good Lord for you

I could easily see Leon Redbone recording “After DarK”, a very jazzy and reflective mid-tempo song with some instrumental breaks that give sax and trumpet player Don Markham a chance to stretch out.

Merle’s solo composition “1929” opens up with some nice dobro playing by Norm Hamlet, and the general feel of the instrumental accompaniment sounds like something that the legendary “Blue Yodeler” Jimmie Rodgers (aka “the father of country music” or the “Singing Brakeman”) would have felt perfectly comfortable singing. This song looks to possible bad times ahead. Like many of Jimmie’s songs, some Memphis style horns kick in during the latter part of the song:

All my life I’ve heard about hard depression days
They so resemble times we’re living now
And old news of yesteryear sounds like yesterday
And hunger lines always look the same somehow

Are we living now or is it 1929
A dollar bill ain’t worth one thin dime
And tricks are sometimes played upon the mind
Are we living now or 1929

I can really relate to “Thirty Again”, a slow introspective ballad with a hint of a chuckle in the vocal. Like several of the songs on this album, this song straddles the border between country and jazz.

Similar to the narrator of the song I don’t think I’d care to be a teenager again but thirty sounds like a good age to be.

Youth should be saved for the last
But it’s wasted on the young and fast…

Wish I could be thirty again
Wish time didn’t wrinkle my skin
They say life begins at fifty
We’ve been lied to my friend
And I just wish I could be
Thirty again

The album closes up with a pair of fairly traditional country ballads.

“I Don’t Have Any Love Around” opens with a fiddle and steel guitar introduction and generally keeps the feel of slow traditional country music ballad. I could see this song as a single during the 1950-1975 heyday of the genre.

“More Than This Old Heart Can Take” is a typical barroom crying-in-your-beer song, a solid mid-tempo country ballad with plenty of fiddle and dobro and an ageless story:

You walk into his arms before my very eyes
You can’t even wait to be somewhere alone
The ties that bind have broken loose and I’m about to break
Loving you is more than this old heart can take

There was a place in time when I was always on your mind
And now I’m nothing more than just a fool
I thought that I was strong enough to live with my mistake
But loving you is more than this old heart can take

I mentioned that this was the first full Haggard album to be missing Roy Nichols. In his place we have the great Grady Martin handling much of the lead guitar work. I think Martin’s presence lends itself to the jazzy feel Haggard seemed to be seeking with this album.

As for the album itself, I think that the album accurately reflects the roller coaster ride that Merle was experiencing at the time. He had one marriage (to Leona Williams) break rather acrimoniously, but at the point this album was released, Hag was a relative newlywed having married Debbie Parret in 1985, a marriage that would last until 1991. Like many veteran artists, he was having a hard time getting radio play as the singles from this album would prove. In all, Merle is revealed as being clear-minded and perceptive, with some nostalgic longings, but still firmly rooted in the present . When initially released this album received mixed reviews, (but remember that jazz has always been an anathema to rock audiences – there was even a band calling itself Johnny Hates Jazz) and most music critics had no feel for jazz in any form.

I liked this album when it was initially issued and I like it even more today – I regard it as a solid A.

Merle Haggard – vocals, guitar, background vocals
Biff Adam – drums / Jim Belken – fiddle
Gary Church – trombone / Steve Gibson – guitar
Norm Hamlet – dobro, pedal steel guitar
Jim Haas – background vocals / Jon Joice – background vocals
Bonnie Owens – background vocals
Red Lane – guitar Mike Leech – bass
Don Markham – saxophone, trumpet
Grady Martin – guitar / Clint Strong – guitar
Bobby Wayne – guitar / Mark Yeary – keyboards

Country Heritage: Jerry Lee Lewis

This article is about country singer Jerry Lee Lewis, who occupies and inhabits the same body as the somewhat demented rock ‘n roller about whom we will speak little further.

Jerry Lee Lewis was born on September 29, 1935 in Ferriday, Louisiana, and is a first cousin to famed evangelist Jimmy Swaggart and a second cousin to fellow country singer Mickey Gilley. Swaggart and Lewis were born in Ferriday, and Gilley across the river in Natchez, Mississippi, all within a ten month span, and grew up together.

Like most of his era Jerry Lee grew up singing in church. He also was influenced by the country and rhythm and blues music that surrounded him. While Jerry Lee has cited few specific influences to his music, one of those cited was Texas-born Moon Mullican, an exuberant performer who frequently toured Louisiana during the 1930s and 1940s. Moon, who is worth an article himself, played a pounding piano, barrelhouse boogie style, that would vibrate beer bottles off the tables.

Jerry Lee made his way to Memphis and the attention of Sam Phillips at Sun Records. While Jerry Lee was to gain great initial success doing other forms of music, Jerry Lee continued to record country music. His 1957 cover of Hank Williams’ “You Win Again” reached #2 for two weeks, and other songs, while not charting, demonstrated an artist comfortable with the most country of country songs. Jerry Lee’s cover of the Ray Price hit “Crazy Arms”, while bearing no strong resemblance to the Price hit, is worth seeking.

A minor scandal that erupted while Jerry Lee was touring England derailed the chart career of the ‘Ferriday Fireball’ after 1958 (Jerry Lee hadn’t actually done anything illegal – or even unusual for folks of his upbringing). While “Cold Cold Heart” would chart at #22 during August 1961, Jerry Lee would only hit the country charts once more time through 1967.

Jerry Lee Lewis never quit performing, playing small southern ‘tank towns’ and the ‘chitlin’ circuit’. After his Sun Record contract expired in 1963, Jerry Lee signed with Smash Records, a subsidiary of Mercury, which had Jerry Lee re-record his old Sun hits and record modern rhythm & blues classics. Several live albums were released that demonstrated that Jerry Lee had lost a thing when it came to live performing but between the lingering effects of scandal and the influence of Berry Gordy’s slick Motown enterprise, and the “British Invasion” of the mid-1960s, American audiences just weren’t buying Jerry Lee’s brand of pop music. Read more of this post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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