My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Leon Rhodes

Legends (and others) lost in 2017

For one who grew up on the country music of the period (1960-1975) the last few years have been tough as we have seen many legendary figures come to the end of the road. 2017 was no exception. Let’s take a look back with a few words about the various stars that were dimmed in 2017. I should note that I’ve included a few non-country personal favorites.

Junior Barber
, a fantastic dobro player died at the age of 73. He worked with the Gibson Brothers bluegrass for seven years and his son Mike has played bass for the Gibson Brothers for the last twenty-five years.

Chuck Berr
y, 90, was a pioneer of rock ‘n roll and while many would not regard him as country, Buck Owens thought that Berry wrote great country songs, and the bluegrass duo of Jim & Jesse McReynolds recorded an entire album of his songs (Chuck wrote the liner notes) so who am I to disagree with them?

Sonny Burgess, 88, rockabilly pioneer and early Sun Records artist. There is a younger country artist with the name Sonny Burgess, whom I don’t believe is related. This guy was a great on-stage performer.

Glen Campbell
, 81, singer and guitarist who first came to my attention as a session musician for Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys (with whom he sometimes toured). Glen, who died after a long bout with Alzheimer’s, could play anything with strings and could sing anything. My favorite tracks by him include “Galveston”, “Wichita Lineman”, “Wherefore and Why” and “I’m Gonna Love You”. Glen hosted a television show, appeared in movies and was simply one of the giants of the industry.

Antoine “Fats” Domino, 89, wasn’t a country singer but his music was infectious fun and enjoyed across the board. His hits were too numerous to list and many of them were covered by country singers.

Dave Evans, 65, had one of the best voices in bluegrass music being a great tenor singer, as well as being a good banjo player. It would be difficult to find another singer who sang with as much heart as Dave Evans.

Troy Gentry, 50, of Montgomery Gentry duo, died in a helicopter crash in Medford, New Jersey. I wasn’t a big Montgomery Gentry fan, but they had some good numbers and performed with enthusiasm.

Michael Johnson, 72, singer and guitarist whose country hits included “Give Me Wings” and “The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder”. Michael was a terrific acoustic guitar player and had a major pop/adult contemporary hit with “Bluer Than Blue”.

Pete Kuykendall, 79, banjo champion and editor and publisher of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. I have subscribed to Bluegrass Unlimited for many years and think it is the finest magazine in the world of music.

Miggie Lewis
, 91 was a part of the first family of bluegrass gospel, the Lewis Family. The group disbanded years ago but youngest brother “Little” Roy Lewis a dynamic banjo player, comic and personality who still plays the bluegrass festival circuit.

Sam Lovullo, 88, was the producer and casting director of the long-running Hee Haw TV series (1969-1992). If he was only remembered for Hee Haw that would be sufficient legacy, but his son Torey Lovullo played major league baseball for eight years and then became a major league manager (he was the National League Manager of The Year for 2017). I am not ashamed to admit that I watched Hee Haw every chance I had, and that I know dozens of verses to “Pffffft, You Were Gone”.

Geoff Mack, 94, composer of the tongue-twisting and widely recorded “I’ve Been Everywhere,” in his native Australia. The lyrics familiar to American listeners were not the original lyrics, but a rewritten version to reflect North American place names.

Kevin Mahogany, 59 was a brilliant jazz baritone singer. He appeared and performed in Robert Altman’s 1996 movie, Kansas City.

Jo Walker Meador, 93, as executive director built the Country Music Association from a tiny, ragged startup into one of the nation’s most visible and successful trade organizations. Jo is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, and I can make a pretty good case for her being one of the two or three most important women in the history of country music.

D.L. Menard, 85, singer and songwriter widely known as the “Cajun Hank Williams” and most celebrated for his 1962 recording of “La Porte en Arriere,”. He died in his native Louisiana.

Tom Paley
died in England at the age of 89. Tom was a founding member (along with Mike Seeger and John Cohen) of the New Lost City Ramblers, a group that did much to further the acceptance of bluegrass among folk audiences. I saw them once in 1962 and they were terrific.

Leon Rhodes, 85, was the lead guitarist for Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours and later played in the Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw staff bands. He was also a successful session musician.

Kayton Roberts
, 83, steel guitarist in Hank Snow’s Rainbow Ranch Boys band from 1968 to 1999. His son Louie Roberts also had a career in country music.

Curley Seckler who died in late December at the age of 98, was one of the last links to the first generation of bluegrass musicians, having performed with Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs. Curley was old enough to remember Jimmie Rodgers and the Original Carter family being played on the radio. He also appeared on several segments of the Marty Stuart Show on RFD.

There was nothing country about Keely Smith, 89, but she was a fine singer with a terrific comedic touch. Her act with ex-husband Louis Prima played to packed houses in Las Vegas for the better part of a decade.

Tammy Sullivan died at the much too young age of 52, of cancer. Tammy was a marvelous singer best known for her work with the Sullivan Family, a bluegrass gospel band.

Wendy Thatcher, 69, was a formidable singer who is best remembered for her years with Eddie Adcock’s various bands.

Mel Tillis, 85, songwriter, singer, actor, comedian and member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, died in Ocala, Florida. Mel first came to prominence as a songwriter, with early efforts becoming hits for the likes of Webb Pierce and Ray Price during the early 1960s. It would be a decade before his career as a performer went into overdrive, but when it did he racked up many hits and won the CMA Entertainer of the Year Award. I liked many of his songs but my favorite is “Would You Want The World To End (Not Loving Me)”. I saw Mel live on several occasions.

Don Warden, 87, was a former steel guitar player in Porter Wagoner’s band and subsequently Dolly Parton’s manager. You can sometimes catch Don in RFD’s reruns of the Porter Wagoner Show.

Don Williams, 78, was a singer and songwriter who regularly topped the country charts during the 1970s and ’80s. Starting out with the folk-country Pozo Seco Singers, Don’s solo career made him an international star and landed him in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Norro Wilson, 79, producer, songwriter and former recording artist, whose hit compositions included George Jones’ “The Grand Tour” and Charlie Rich’s “The Most Beautiful Girl,” died in Nashville.

Bob Wooton
, 75, Johnny Cash’s lead guitar player from 1968 until Cash’s retirement in 1997, died in Gallatin, Tennessee. Bob was the replacement for Luther Perkins.

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Retro Album Review: Steve Wariner – ‘Guitar Laboratory’

61b4xZQKEoLChet Atkins had many disciples, not the least of whom was Steve Wariner. Steve was a major country star and chart presence from 1980-1994 with scattered success both before and after his peak years.

Steve grew up listening to his father’s record collection which included some Merle Travis and everything Chet Atkins recorded. After tours with Dottie West and Bob Luman, Steve signed with RCA as a recording artist and became a friend and student of Chet Atkins. Steve has won many awards and honors but the award of which he is most proud was being awarded the Certified Guitar Player designation by Chet (the only others were Tommy Emmanuel, Jerry Reed and John Knowles).

Guitar Laboratory is a sequel of sorts to his previous album, My Tribute To Chet Atkins, released in 2009 . This album is no stubborn copy or pastiche of Chet’s style but represents a tribute to the spirit of Chet Atkins, covering a wide range of styles and tempos. While I wouldn’t describe this album as a country album, it does contain some country (“Sugarfoot Rag”) as well as some jazz (“A Groove”), some rock (“Telekinesis”), some blues (“Crafty”), some folk/bluegrass (“Up A Red Hill”) and even some Hawai’ian (Waikiki ’79) On some songs such as “Crafty” and “Kentuckiana” Steve sounds very much like Chet; however , on other tracks, not quite so much.

Steve enlists several guest pickers on the album who acquit themselves admirably. Steve is joined on “Sugarfoot Rag” by legendary guitarist Leon Rhodes, a long-time Opry Band member and former member of Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours. Paul Yandell, a long-time associate and musical colleague of Chet’s, joins in on “Pals” and Steve’s son Ryan Wariner shows his musical chops on the rocking “Sting Ray”. The review copy of the album did not include any notes so I am not sure of the identity of any background musicians such as the accordionist and violinist on “I Will Never Forget You (Je Ne T’oulbieri Jamais)” or the trumpeter on “Phyllis and Ramona”, but suffice it to say they are all excellent.

All songs on this album, except “Sugarfoot Rag” were written by Steve Wariner (“Sugarfoot Rag” of course was written by guitar legend Hank Garland). There’s something for everyone on this all instrumental collection, and while I generally prefer vocal albums, I’ve listened to this album five times through thus far, although I’ve played my two favorite tunes “Sugarfoot Rag” and “Up a Red Hill” far more often than that.

Willie Nelson: The early years

country favoritesWillie Nelson, alone among his contemporaries, continues to be an active and prolific recording artist. Not only is he releasing albums at a pace that would leave today’s stars thoroughly exhausted, but Willie continues to make guest appearances on the albums of other artists, famous and unknown alike.

The eighty year old Nelson continues to tour relentlessly, something he has been doing in one form or another for over fifty years.

Prior to “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”, most knew Willie Nelson (if they knew of him at all) as the man who wrote “Hello Walls” for Faron Young and “Crazy” for Patsy Cline, and some songs that other singers had success recording.

Outside of his home state of Texas, the public consciousness of Willie Nelson as a performer basically dates back to the two albums Willie recorded for Atlantic in the early 1970s after which time he moved to Columbia for his recording heyday. This article will discuss the major label albums issued before then.

The first album out of the box was … And Then I Wrote which was released on the Liberty label in September 1962. This album featured “Touch Me” as the single (it reached #7 on Billboard’s country chart) and featured some songs that other artists had recorded with some success such as “Hello Walls” and “Three Days” (Faron Young), “Crazy” (Patsy Cline), “Funny How Time Slips Away” (Joe Hinton, Billy Walker). Although not released as a singles, “Mr. Record Man” and “Darkness On The Face of The Earth” would become songs associated with Willie, and “Undo The Right” would be a top ten hit for long-time friend Johnny Bush in 1968 (Johnny Bush and Willie Nelson were both in Ray Price’s band the Cherokee Cowboys during the early 1960s, and played in each others bands at various points in time). “The Part Where I Cry” was the other single release from this album.

… And Then I Wrote was not a terribly successful album but it was the first opportunity most had to hear Willie’s quirky phrasing. Although marred by Liberty’s version of the ‘Nashville Sound’, it is certainly an interesting album.

Willie’s second and final album for Liberty was Here’s Willie Nelson. This album featured five songs that Willie wrote (“Half A Man”, “Lonely Little Mansion”, “Take My Word”, “The Way You See Me” and “Home Motel”). The originals compositions were nothing special – only “Half A Man” attracted much attention from other artists – but among the covers are the Fred Rose composition “Roly Poly” (a successful recording for Bob Wills and for Jim Reeves) and Rex Griffin’s “The Last Letter”.

There were no Country Album charts until 1964. Neither of the two Liberty albums made the pop charts.

From Liberty, Willie very briefly moved to Monument Records, with no success (I’m not sure if any tracks actually were released at the time). Some of these songs were released in 1980 on a two album set titled The Winning Hand featuring Brenda Lee, Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson and released to cash in on the popularity of Dolly and Willie. All four artists had recorded for Monument in the past, and Kristofferson and Lee recorded additional vocals to create duets (and some existing tracks were edited together to create duets). Twelve of the twenty tracks were duets, and despite the contrived origins of the project, it was critically well received and well worth owning.

Willie’s immense songwriting talents attracted the attention of Chester Burton (“Chet”) Atkins”, the head honcho of RCA’s Nashville operations, and he was signed to RCA.

There is the misconception that Willie Nelson’s RCA albums found Willie buried by syrupy string arrangements and soulless background choruses. While it is true that RCA was never really sure what to do with Willie, the reality is that only the occasional track suffered from over production. Unlike Decca where Owen Bradley buried his more traditional artist such as Webb Pierce and Ernest Tubb with unnecessary choral arrangements, Chet and his other producers went much lighter on the embellishments. Although what we would deem the classic ‘Willie and Family’ sound never completely emerged on the RCA recordings, many of Willie’s albums had relatively sparse production. In fact, when Mickey Raphael produced and released the 17 track Naked Willie album in 2009, an album in which he removed excess production off Willie’s RCA tracks, he probably corralled about 80% of the tracks on which the production could be deemed excessive. Whether or not RCA could turn Willie into a star, his records always featured some of the best musicians and arrangers on the planet.

Country Willie – His Own Songs features twelve songs Willie wrote or co-wrote. Some of the songs were also on his major label debut, but I prefer the RCA take on the ‘Nashville Sound’ to that of Liberty. The songs are great and Willie is in good voice.. Songs included are “One Day at a Time” (not the Marilyn Sellars/Cristy Lane gospel hit of the 1970s), “My Own Peculiar Way”, “Night Life”, “Funny How Time Slips Away”, “Healing Hands of Time”, “Darkness on the Face of the Earth”, “Hello Walls”, .”Are You Sure”, “Mr. Record Man”, “It Should Be Easier Now”, “So Much to Do” and “Within Your Crowd”. Pickers include Jerry Kennedy and Jerry Reed, and steel guitar is featured on some of the tracks. This could be considered a ‘best of’ compilation of Willie’s songs (not recordings) up to this point in time. This album reached #14 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Country Favorites – Willie Nelson Style is one of my two favorite RCA albums. This 1966 album was recorded with members of Ernest Tubb’s legendary Texas Troubadours, augmented by fiddler Wade Ray and pianist Hargus Robbins. Willie and Wade, of course were regulars on ET’s syndicated television show and the use of the Troubadours and the lack of the ‘Nashville Sound’ trappings made for a swinging set of western swing and honky-tonk classics. This version of the Texas Troubadours included Buddy Charleton (steel), Jack Drake (bass), Jack Greene (drums) , Leon Rhodes (lead guitar) and Cal Smith (rhythm guitar) augmented by Wade Ray and pianist Hargus Robbins. This album reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart .

Standout tracks on this album include “My Window Faces The South”, “Columbus Stockade Blues” and “San Antonio Rose” but the entire album is good. Willie sounds comfortable and relaxed on this entire set and his vocals, while sometimes an awkward fit , reflect the fun he was having performing with this collection of musicians , who were not credited on the initial release. A truncated version of this album was released on RCA Camden in 1970 as Columbus Stockade Blues.

Country Music Concert was recorded live in 1966 at Panther Hall in Dallas Texas, one of two live albums RCA would record there (the other was 1968’s Charley Pride Live at Panther Hall). This live performance featured Willie on guitar and vocals backed by his band members, Johnny Bush on drums and Wade Ray playing bass guitar. This album is my other favorite RCA album, again featuring Willie uncluttered by strings and choruses, singing mostly his own songs, but with a few covers. The album opens with Willie introducing the band and then starts with the music with a pair of long medleys in “Mr. Record Man”/”Hello Walls”/ “One Day At A Time” and “The Last Letter”/ “Half A Man”. To me the highlights of the album are Willie’s take on Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” and his own “I Never Cared For You” and “Night Life”. This album reached #32 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Make Way For Willie Nelson is a mixed bag of original compositions and covers. Released in 1967, some of the recordings are a bit overproduced and the album produced no real hits. The quasi-title track “Make Way For A Better Man” is one of those songs only Willie Nelson would write:

Hear me talkin’ now you tried to make her happy you couldn’t make her happy
Make way for a better man than you
You tried your brand of lovin’ she couldn’t stand your lovin’

Make way for a better man than you
I held back cause you and I were friends
But old buddy this is where our friendship ends
I’m takin’ over now those signals she keeps sendin’ means your romance is endin’
Make way for a better man than you

Willie’s own composition “One In A Row” reached #19 two years before this album was released. Notable covers on the album include “Born To Lose” and “Mansion On The Hill”. This album reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

“The Party’s Over” and Other Great Willie Nelson Songs featured the title song, which while never a big hit, was made famous by the late Don Meredith, one of the original trio of announcers for ABC Monday Night Football. When the result of the games was already determined (regardless of the time left in the game) Don would sing this song. “The Party’s Over” reached #24 for Willie, in a somewhat overproduced version. The rest of the album could be described as moody and downbeat. This album also reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Good Ol’ Country Singin’ was released on RCA’s budget Camden label in January 1968. RCA sometimes used the Camden label to release truncated versions of older albums, but RCA also used it to release material that would not be released on the main label. This album is the latter but RCA actually issued a single from the album, “Blackjack County Chain”, which reached #21. My favorite track on the album is a classic weeper “You Ought To Hear Me Cry”. Billboard did not chart budget albums.

Texas In My Soul was Willie’s 1968 tribute to his home state of Texas. Three of the songs, “Waltz Across Texas”, “There’s A Little Bit of Everything In Texas” and “Texas In My Soul” were songs performed by and associated with Ernest Tubb. “Who Put All My Ex’s In Texas” was one of the first songs written by Eddie Rabbitt to be recorded. This album reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Good Times is a little different and finds Willie breaking away from ‘The Nashville Sound’ mold to some extent. Other than Mickey Newbury’s “Sweet Memories” and the Jan Crutchfield-Wayne Moss composition “Down To Our Last Goodbye”, all of the songs were written or co-written by Willie. The title track has very minimal production. This album reached #29 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

My Own Peculiar Way, released in 1969, features eight Willie Nelson compositions (one, “Any Old Arms Won’t Do”, co-written with Hank Cochran) plus an exceptional cover John Hartford’s “Natural To Be Gone”. The title track wasn’t a hit, but it is quintessential Willie. This album reached #39 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart (are you seeing a pattern?).

Both Sides Now was released in 1970 and is basically a covers album with Willie penning only three of the eleven tracks. This album included two songs from the Roy Acuff catalogue (“Wabash Cannonball”, “Pins and Needles In My Heart”), a song from the Ray Price hit list (“Crazy Arms”) plus covers of pop songs “Both Sides Now” (penned by Joni Mitchell but a hit for Judy Collins) and and “Everybody’s Talking” (penned by Fred Neil but a hit for Nilsson). The single from this album was penned by soon-to be-ex-wife Shirley Nelson and reached #42. The now familiar “Bloody Mary Morning” makes its debut here – it would be re-recorded and released as a single after Willie moved to Atlantic.

While I like this album, it is a disjointed affair and Willie’s unusual phrasing on some of the songs won’t be to everybody’s taste. “Crazy Arms” features steel guitar and a walking base line whereas “Both Sides Now” features little more than a guitar. This album did not chart.

Laying My Burdens Down also was released in 1970 but by this time RCA had given up on having Willie score any hit singles. The title track reached #68 and the over-produced “I’m A Memory” would reach #28 and would be Willie’s last top fifty chart appearance while signed to RCA. This album is mostly composed of Willie originals but isn’t his best work. This album did not chart.

Willie Nelson and Family is a collection of songs released in 1971 as performed by Willie and the beginnings of his family band. Paul English was on board playing drums as was his sister Bobbie Nelson playing the piano. This album would set the template for future albums. Songs include the Willie Nelson-Hank Cochran collaboration “What Can You Do To Me Now” along with Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, Hank Sr.’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”, Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again”, plus some Nelson originals. This album reached #43 on Billboard Country albums chart.

Released with no fanfare in September 1971, Yesterday’s Wine contains some of Willie’s finest songs, and is Willie’s first concept album. The album contains the full complement of RCA’s finest session players but sounds surprisingly spare at times. The album has a deeply philosophical and religious feel to it without being too preachy (the premise is the life of an ‘Imperfect Man’ from birth to the day of his death). The single released from the album “Yesterday’s Wine” b/w “Me and Paul” barely dented the charts, but both are still loved and remembered today:

Miracles appear in the strangest of places
Fancy me finding you here
The last time I saw you was just out of Houston
Let me sit down, let me buy you a beer

Your presence is welcome with me and my friend here
This is a hangout of mine
We come here quite often and listen to music
And to taste yesterday’s wine

Yesterday’s wine, yesterday’s wine
Aging with time, like yesterday’s wine
Yesterday’s wine, yesterday’s wine
We’re aging with time, like yesterday’s wine

“Family Bible”, a song Willie wrote but sold in order to keep eating, makes an appearance here. This album did not chart.

There would be a couple more RCA albums, and RCA would re-release various permutations and combinations of old material after Willie hit it big in the middle 1970s (including an album an which Danny Davis and The Nashville Brass were overdubbed onto ten of Willie’s songs, but by the end of 1971 it was clear that Willie would need to look elsewhere if he was to achieve success as a recording artist.

It should be noted that RCA issued several singles on Willie that either never made it onto an album, or made it onto an album years later. Two notable examples were “Johnny One Time” which hit #36 for Willie in 1968 and was a minor pop hit for Brenda Lee in 1969, and “Bring Me Sunshine” which reached #13 in 1968 but wasn’t on an album until the 1974 RCA Camden release Spotlight On Willie.

In the digital age, there are plenty of good collections covering Willie’s earlier years, both anthologies and reissues of individual albums. For the obsessive Willie Nelson fan, Bear Family has issued an eight CD set with 219 recordings. That’s overkill for all but diehard fans, but there are numerous good anthologies available. There is also Naked Willie for those who would like to have multiple versions of some of Willie’s RCA recordings.

Country Heritage: Cal Smith

the best of cal smith

I just came home to count the memories that I’ve been countin’ in my mind
I just come home to count the memories from a better day and time

“I Just Came Home To Count The Memories” (written by Glen Ray, 1974)

When the recently closed Florida Sunshine Opry (Eustis, FL) booked its first “name” (non-local) act back in 1999, the act they chose was Cal Smith. No wonder, since Cal is an excellent singer, musician, storyteller and showman.

Born Calvin Grant Shofner on April 7, 1932, in Gans, Oklahoma (but raised in Oakland California), Smith began his music career performing in San Francisco at the age of fifteen, but was not able to sustain himself professionally as a singer. Accordingly, he continued working at various day jobs–which included stints driving trucks and bronco busting – all the while working on and off as a musician.

After his discharge from the military in the mid 1950s, Smith played in a San Francisco area band while awaiting his opportunity. His big break came in 1961, when the legendary Ernest Tubb heard Smith perform and hired him to join Tubb’s equally legendary Texas Troubadours. It was during this period that “Shofner” started using the stage name “Cal Smith”, although the name did not become firmly affixed until Tubb helped the singer get his own record deal with Kapp in 1966.

The Texas Troubadours of the 1960s may have been the greatest small country band ever assembled. Consisting of Bud Charlton on steel guitar, Jack Greene on drums, Jack Drake (brother of legendary steel guitarist Pete Drake) on bass, Leon Rhodes on lead guitar and Smith on rhythm guitar, the Texas Troubadours could play fast or slow, hot or romantic, and could swing with the best of them. In Jack Greene and Cal Smith, the band boasted two superior vocalists, both of whom would have successful solo careers.

The Texas Troubadours cut three LPs of their own from 1964 to 1966, which exposed both Greene and Smith to wider audiences, with each taking care of two or more vocals per album.

While still a Texas Troubadour, Smith starting issuing records on Kapp, having chart success immediately, although the big hits were slow arriving. The first single released, “I’ll Just Go Home,” didn’t chart but made some impact on the public. The next single, “The Only Thing I Want”, hit #58 on Billboard and #41 on Cash Box, and When “Drinking Champagne” cracked the Billboard Top 40 in 1968, Smith left Tubb to start a solo career.

During his several years with Kapp he had eight more moderate hits, including “Heaven Is Just a Touch Away” which hit #47 on Billboard and “It Takes Me All Night Long” which reached #12 on Cash Box, although it only peaked at #51 on Billboard.

Upon completion of his Kapp contract, Smith signed with his former boss’s label, Decca, in 1971. The first single, “That’s What It’s Like To Be Lonesome,” only reached #58 on Billboard (#29 on Cash Box), but after that, things started happening quickly for Smith with a three year period of top twenty hits starting with “I’ve Found Someone Of My Own” (#4) in summer of 1972. After a misfire with “For My Baby,” Smith then hit the top spot with “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking,” a Bill Anderson-penned song that rings as true today as it did back then.

After another misfire came Smith’s most famous song, “Country Bumpkin,” a #1 record and the CMA Song of the Year for 1974. The follow-up to that smash hit was “Between Lust and Watching TV,” which stalled out at #11, followed by Smith’s last Billboard top ten, “It’s Time To Pay The Fiddler,” which reached the top of the pile. After that, Smith continued to chart regularly for the next four years, logging increasingly lower chart positions with his hard country sound, as only “Jason’s Farm,” “She Talked A Lot About Texas,” and “I Just Came Home To Count The Memories,” cracked the Billboard top twenty – although “Jason’s Farm” clocked in at #7 for two weeks on Cash Box.

After 1979 the hits stopped for Cal Smith, with the exception of a pair of lower singles on independent labels in 1982 and 1986, neither getting anywhere close to the top fifty.

Cal Smith was 36 years old by the time he achieved solo status as a recording artist, and already 40 years old by the time he had a top ten hit, so he figured to have a fairly short shelf life as a top-charting artist in the increasingly youth–oriented market. By way of comparison, Bobby Bare’s first top ten recording came in 1963. By 1972 Bare had already charted 29 times–and he was still three years younger than Cal Smith. Read more of this post

Country Heritage Redux: Ernest Tubb (1914-1984)

An expanded and updated version of an article previously published by The 9513:

Disclaimer: Expect no objectivity at all from me with this article. Along with Webb Pierce and Merle Haggard, Ernest Tubb is one of my all-time favorite country artists. Yes, I know he started out most songs a quarter tone flat and worked his way flatter from there, and yes, I know that 80% of The 9513s readership has technically better singing voices than Tubb had. But no one in country music (and few outside the genre, Al Jolson, Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima, Phil Harris among them) was ever able to infuse as much warmth and personality into his singing.

Ernest Tubb, known as E.T. to nearly everyone, was born in 1914 in Crisp, Texas, a town in Ellis County which is no longer even a flyspeck on the map. Tubb grew up working on farms and used his free time learning to play guitar, sing and yodel. As with many who grew up in the rural southeast and southwest, E.T. grew up listening to the music of the legendary “Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933), and like such contemporaries as Gene Autry, Jimmie Davis , Bill Monroe, Jimmie Skinner and Hank Snow, E.T. started his career sounding like a Jimmie Rodgers clone. In Ernest’s case, he eventually met Jimmie’s widow, Carrie Rodgers, who was sufficiently impressed with Tubb to sponsor his career and give him one of Jimmie’s guitars to play. Tubb played clubs around Texas and the southwest and, with Mrs. Rodgers’ help, secured a record deal with RCA. As there had already been one Jimmie Rodgers, Tubb’s sound-alike records sold only modestly.

Good luck can take many forms. In Tubb’s case, his good luck came in the form of illness. In 1939 E.T. suffered a throat infection that necessitated a tonsillectomy, robbing him of his ability to yodel and thereby forcing him to develop a style of his own.

Moving to Decca Records in 1940, Tubb continued to record. Nothing happened initially, but his sixth release–a self-penned number titled “Walking the Floor Over You”–turned him into a star. The song was released in 1941, before the advent of Billboard’s country music charts. It did, however, appear on the pop charts, selling over a million records in the process. The song was covered by such luminaries as Bing Crosby and became Tubb’s signature song. Over the years the song has been recorded hundreds of times with artists including Pat Boone, Hank Thompson, Patsy Cline, Asleep at the Wheel and Glen Campbell being among the more notable.
Read more of this post

Country Heritage: Sonny & Bobby, The Osborne Brothers

Bluegrass and Modern Country Music – kissin’ cousins or estranged relations ? Although they claim common ancestry (Ernest Tubb, Gene Autry and Bill Monroe were all hugely influenced by Jimmie Rodgers, and many others were influenced by the Original Carter Family), it has been many years since modern country and bluegrass music split off in different directions from their acoustic string band origins. Up until the end of the 1960s you could hear bluegrass played by some country radio stations (most frequently by smaller stations located in more rural areas), and artists such as Jimmie Skinner, the Willis Brothers, Lee Moore, Grandpa Jones and Frank “Hylo” Brown straddled the two genres. Mainstream artists such as Skeeter Davis, Carl Smith, Porter Wagoner and the duo of George Jones & Melba Montgomery would record albums of bluegrass songs. By the end of the 1960s, however, bluegrass was nearly extinct on country radio. True, there were a few songs, usually associated with movies (“Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “Dueling Banjos”) or television shows (“The Ballad of Jed Clampett”), which achieved some airplay, but those were few and far between.

Today bluegrass is largely banished from country radio. Yes, various performers such as Keith Urban or Rascal Flatts will gratuitously drop a banjo or a mandolin into their songs, but their music isn’t bluegrass. Yes, artists such as Alison Krauss or Rhonda Vincent will occasionally grace a Nashville artist’s album as a duet partner for a song or two, but those songs really aren’t bluegrass either. And yes, the soundtrack to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, sold millions of copies – but how often did your local country station play any of the songs from the soundtrack?

The last bluegrass act regularly to receive country radio airplay was the duo of banjo player Roland “Sonny” Osborne (born 10/29/37) and his mandolin-playing brother, Bobby Osborne (born 12/9/1931). Sonny and Bobby were born in Hyden, Kentucky, but when Sonny was very young, the family moved near Dayton, Ohio where they had their first experiences as performers. As children, their father instilled a love for traditional music. Bobby picked up the electric guitar as a teenager and played in various local bands. A few years after his brother began playing the guitar, Sonny picked up the banjo. Both were greatly influenced by the likes of Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Alton & Rabon Delmore and Bill Monroe.

Being six years older, Bobby was first out of the gate. During the autumn of 1949, he and friend/banjoist Larry Richardson joined the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. This effectively changed the band from Delmore Brothers sound-alikes into a pioneering bluegrass band. They recorded a number of sides together including the original version of “Pain In My Heart.”

In 1950, 13 year old Sonny joined his brother in the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. Following his tenure with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Bobby joined forces with Jimmy Martin to form a band called the ‘Sunny Mountain Boys’. Following the breakup with Martin, Bobby briefly joined the Stanley Brothers, singing high baritone above Carter’s lead and Ralph’s tenor. Unfortunately, before this trio was able to record, Bobby was drafted into the military in November of 1951.

During Bobby’s military service Sonny continued his musical career. During the summers of 1952 and 1953, Sonny played banjo for Bill Monroe. Also, Sonny recorded a number of singles for small record labels such as Kentucky and Gateway. I do not know how many sides were released by Gateway, but I am aware of at least forty-two songs being recorded, featuring Sonny on banjo and vocals, Carlos Brock on guitar and vocals, Billy Thomas on fiddle, Smokey Ward on bass and Enos Johnson on mandolin and vocals.

In late 1953, Bobby & Sonny teamed up with Jimmy Martin and performed on a local Detroit radio station billed as “Jimmy Martin and The Osborne Brothers.” Bobby & Sonny lasted two years with the mercurial Martin, during which time they recorded a few singles for RCA. They left in 1956 to work with Charlie Bailey on the WWVA Big Jamboree in Wheeling, West Virginia, where they would stay for four years. A few months later they joined forces with lead singer Harley “Red” Allen and formed their own band–thereafter becoming known as the Osborne Brothers.

Shortly after joining forces with Red Allen, The Osborne Brothers signed a deal with MGM records. Their fifth single for MGM, “Once More,” reached #13 in 1958. While no more singles charted nationally for MGM (many of their records were regional hits), the Osborne Brothers continued to record, refining their sound. Red Allen left the group after the first album, but Sonny & Bobby soldiered onward, with other outstanding vocalists such as Benny Birchfield helping complete the harmony trios. They would record three more albums for MGM before leaving for Decca in late 1963. Many of these albums included songs that would later become hits when re-recorded for Decca.

The Decca years found Sonny and Bobby experimenting with the instrumentation of their music. They experimented slowly at first, using an electric bass, then added additional instruments such as steel guitar and piano, and Sonny’s own creation, the electric six-string banjo. The hybrid country bluegrass sound proved quite popular with fans and disc jockeys alike. They were soon booked on the major country package shows of the day. With their voices being featured on their own major label recordings and on others from Conway Twitty to Bill Monroe, their name became synonymous with harmony singing. From 1966 to 1976, the Osborne Brothers would chart 16 times. While none of these songs were huge national hits, the records sold well and were mostly huge hits in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic areas. Several of their songs such as “Ruby (Are You Mad),” “Roll Muddy River,” “Son of A Sawmill Man” and “Rocky Top” became bluegrass standards, with the latter even being designated as an official Tennessee State song.

The Osborne Brothers were inducted as members of the Grand Ole Opry in 1964. They were voted as the CMA’s “Vocal Group of the Year” in 1971, and received nominations in the category in 1970, 1974 and 1975. From 1971-1978 they were honored by Music City News as the nation’s top bluegrass group. Along the way, they became one of the first major bluegrass groups to appear extensively at bluegrass festivals.

The eighteenth (and last) charted single for Sonny & Bobby was “I Can Hear Kentucky Calling Me” in early 1980, which peaked at #75. By 1980, the chasm between the sound of bluegrass and modern country music had grown too deep for bluegrass to get any airplay on country radio. Ricky Skaggs would have considerable success on country radio during the years just ahead, but the records that charted well for Skaggs were far less grassy than the hybrids that the Osborne Brothers had been charting in the 1960s and 1970s.

Following their departure from Decca/MCA in 1975, The Osborne Brothers signed with Country Music Heritage (CMH) records and gradually reverted to traditional bluegrass instrumentation and have stayed there ever since. The Osborne Brothers were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music’s Hall of Honor (the genre’s equivalent to the Country Music Hall of Fame) in 1994 and were elected to the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame in 2002.

He Osborne Brothers continued to perform until Sonny Osborne retired from performing in 2005 after a shoulder operation affected his ability to play the banjo. Bobby Osborne continues to perform to this day, with Rocky Top X-Press, the band he formed after Sonny’s retirement. At 79 years of age, Bobby still tours – his busy schedule can be checked out on his website www.bobbyosborne.com .

The Osborne Brothers were pioneers in being among the first bluegrass groups (possibly the first bluegrass group) to include modern country instruments such as drums, electric bass, electric guitar, electric banjo, guitjo (a banjo neck on a guitar body) and steel guitar into bluegrass music. Many other acts would follow suit, even traditionally oriented groups such as Jim & Jesse McReynolds. Perhaps of greater importance was the vocal trio style created by the Osborne Brothers in conjunction with Red Allen, sometimes dubbed as “inverted stacked harmony”. This sound, unique and electrifying, featured Bobby singing a high lead line, Sonny singing baritone, and finally Red Allen singing the tenor as the lowest part. Although Red left after the first MGM album, subsequent vocalist such as Benny Birchfield , Dale Sledd and others kept the excitement going, setting a pattern many other groups,both bluegrass and modern country tried to duplicate, although few with such panache.

Discography

VINYL

The Osborne Brothers recorded four albums for MGM and 14 albums for Decca/MCA during the vinyl era. All of these records are worthwhile. If you found all 18 of the albums and played them chronologically you would hear a detailed history of the evolution of bluegrass music as the Osborne Brothers occasionally strayed into “newgrass” before the term was invented. The Decca/MCA albums are especially interesting as the Osborne Brothers covered many classic country songs as well as contemporary country material.

Unfortunately, little of the classic MGM and Decca/MCA material is available on CD, except for on two terrific (and quite expensive) boxed sets issued by Bear Family which contain all of the MGM and Decca/MCA material.

Leaving MCA/Decca after 1975, the Osborne Brothers joined the tradition-oriented Country Music Heritage (CMH) label, issuing at least ten albums for CMH, including a wonderful double album with Mac Wiseman. The CMH albums straddle the vinyl, cassette and CD eras, so you may find those albums in any or all of those formats.

Four albums were issued on Sugar Hill and five on Pinecastle. The Pinecastle albums all were issued on CD, however, only Once More, Volumes 1 & 2 were released on CD by Sugar Hill.

There was a live album issued on RCA in April 1982 titled Bluegrass Spectacular. This album, recorded in October 1981 at Opryland’s Theater By The Lake, features the Osborne Brothers with guests the Lewis Family and Mac Wiseman. Hairl Hensley and Roy Acuff do the opening introductions. For this performance, Paul Brewster sings the additional harmony Hal Rug plays steel guitar and former Texas Troubadour Leon Rhodes plays electric lead guitar. As far as I know this is the only RCA album, although RCA Camden issued something in 1968 called Bluegrass Banjo Pickers which has a few Sonny Osborne tracks (I’ve never seen the actual album)

CD

The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has available both of the Bear Family Box Sets at $99.98 each. If you are a diehard fan, it’s definitely worth the money to buy these, but for the casual fan, they are overkill. It is possible (sometimes) to find these sets for less money on sites such as www.overstock.com and www.countysales.com . Also you may be able to find used sets on sites such as www.musicstack.com .

The only other CD available covering the Decca/MCA years is titled Country Bluegrass. It sells for $9.98 and has ten of their chart hits including “Rocky Top,” “Roll Muddy River” and “Ruby (Are You Mad).” It’s inadequate, but essential.

ET has eleven more titles available, all of which come from post-1975. They do have the terrific Essential Bluegrass Album (with Mac Wiseman) which was a double album with 24 songs.

ET also has available six solo albums that Bobby Osborne has issued plus an album with Jesse McReynolds titled Masters of The Mandolin. I have several of Bobby’s solo albums – they are good but something was definitely lost from the vocal blend when Sonny retired. Moreover, Bobby has lost some of his upper range over the years, especially on the more recent albums and when he performs some of the old Osborne Brothers classics, he has had to do them in lower keys. This point was brought home by Bobby’s performance on the Opry in July 2011, where Bobby has clearly changed the chord progression on the chorus of “Rocky Top” to make it easier to sing.

Currently www.bobbyosborne.com has six of Bobby’s solo albums available for sale as well as ten Osborne Brothers CDs and two DVDs of the Osborne Brothers in concert.