My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Leona Williams

Album Review: The Forester Sisters – ‘Talkin’ ‘Bout Men’

Talkin’ ‘Bout Men was the Forester Sisters’ eighth studio album for Warner Brothers, although it should be noted that this includes a Christmas album an a religious album. Released in March 1991, Talking About Men momentarily broke the downward slope of the previous four albums, reaching #16 on the charts. Four singles were released from the album, with only the sassy title track receiving much traction at radio, reaching #8 each reaching the top ten but none getting any higher than #7.

The album opens with “A Step In The Right Direction” a spritely mid-tempo number written by Rick Bowles, Robert Byrne and Tom Wopat (yes – that Tom Wopat). This track would have made a good follow up to “Men”. The song had previously been released as a single by Judy Taylor about a decade earlier, but that version barely cracked the charts:

Everybody knows that love’s like a swingin’ door
Comes and goes and we’ve all been there before
But you can’t get none till you’re back out on the floor

Well, that’s a step in the step in the right direction
Everybody knows that practice makes perfection
So, come on, let’s make a step in the right direction

“Too Much Fun” was the second single released and the actual follow up to the title track. It tanked only reaching #64. Written by Robert Byrne and Al Shulman, this is not the same song that Daryle Singletary took to #4 a few years later. This song is also a good-time mid-tempo ballad about a woman enjoying being free of a relationship. I would have expected it to do better as a single, but when as Jerry Reed put it, ‘when you’re hot, you’re hot and when you’re not, you’re not’.

Rick Bowles and Barbara Wyrick teamed up to write “That Makes One of Us”, the third single released from the album. The single did not chart. The song has acoustic instrumentation with a dobro introduction, and is a slow ballad about a relationship that is ending because only one is trying to keep it going. The song sounds like something the McCarter Sisters or The Judds (in their earlier days) might have recorded:

You’ve made up your mind
We don’t want the same thing
And that we won’t change things
Wishing there were ways
And there’s no use staying together
Nothing lasts forever
That’s what you say

And that makes one of us not in love
And that makes one of us who can’t give up
If you can walk away from the life we’ve made
Then that makes one of us

I still believe we’ve got something worth saving
I keep hoping and praying for another chance
You’ve held my heart and your gonna break it
Cause you wanna make it
A part of your past

Byrne and Shulman teamed up to write “Men”, the first single released from the album and the laast top ten single for the group, reaching #8. The song succeeded despite not truly fitting in with the ‘New Traditionalist’ movement that had taken over the genre. “Men” is a smart song that likely would have charted higher had it been released a few years earlier:

They buy you dinner, open your door
Other then that, what are they good for?
Men! I’m talkin’ ’bout men
They all want a girl just like the girl
That married dear old dad, they make me so mad

Men! I’m talkin’ ’bout men
Well, you can’t beat ’em up ’cause they’re bigger then you
You can’t live with ’em and you just can’t shoot ’em
Men! I’m talkin’ ’bout men

They love their toys, they make their noise
Nothing but a bunch of overgrown boys
Men! I’m talking ’bout men
If you give ’em what they want, they never fall in love
Don’t give ’em nothin’, they can’t get enough

Men! I’m talking ’bout men
Well, you can’t beat ’em up ’cause they’re bigger then you
You can’t live with ’em and you just can’t shoot ’em
Men! I’m talkin’ ’bout men

“Sombody Else’s Moon”is a nice ballad written by Beth Nielsen Chapman and Kent Robbins. This is not the same song that would be a top five hit for Collin Raye in 1993.

“It’s Getting Around” was written by Sandy Ramos and Bob Regan is an mid-tempo song with dobro leading the way for the acoustic accompaniment. It is a nice track that might have made a decent song. What’s getting around, of course, is goodbye.

Next up is “You Take Me For Granted”, a classic written by Leona Williams while she was married to Merle Haggard. It’s a great song that Haggard took to #1, and that Leona recorded several times over the years. The Forester Sisters have a nice take on the song, but it is not a knock on them to say that they are neither a nuanced as Haggard, nor as soulful as Leona Williams:

My legs and my feet
Have walked ’till they can’t hardly move from tryin’ to please you
And my back is sore
From bendin’ over backwards to just lay the world at your door.
I’ve tried so hard to keep a smile on a sad face while deep down
It’s breakin’ my heart
And as sure as the sun shines I’ll be a lifetime
Not knowin’ if I’ve done my part

‘Cause you take me for granted And it’s breakin’ my heart
As sure as the sunshines I’ll be a lifetime
Not knowin’ if I’ve done my part.

“The Blues Don’t Stand A Chance” is a slow ballad written by Gary Burr and Jack Sundred. The song is about a strong relationship that endures despite separation.

Tim Nichols and Jimmy Stewart combined to write “Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled”, the third single released from the album. The song did not chart, and I’m not sure the reggae beat helped matters with country audiences. The lyric could be described as folk-gospel. I like the song but would have not chosen it for single release.

“What About Tonight” closes out the album. Written by John Jarrard and J.D. Martin, the song is a slow ballad that I regard as album filler. The highlight of the song is some nice steel guitar work by Bruce Bouton.

Talkin’ ‘Bout Men would prove to be the last big hurrah for the Forester Sisters. The title track would not only be the last top ten single but would also be the last single to crack the top fifty. Noteworthy musicians on the album include Bruce Bouton on steel and dobro, Rob Hajacos on fiddle, and Guy Higginbotham on saxophone.

I liked the album but it was definitely going against the prevailing trends at the time of its release. My favorite song on the album is “Step In The Right Direction” followed by “Men”. I would give the album a B+.

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Classic Rewind: Leona Williams – ‘Cold In California’

Album Review: Tammy Wynette – ‘Take Me To Your World/I Don’t Wanna Play House’

take-me-to-your-worldReleased in January 1968, Take Me To Your World/ I Don’t Wanna Play House, was Tammy’s second solo album and represented another step forward in Tammy Wynette’s career, rising to #3 on the Country Albums chart. Not only that, but the two singles released from the album both rose to #1 giving Tammy her first two solo #1 records and her third overall #1 (her duet of “My Elusive Dreams” with David Houston reached #1 in 1967).

For me, the apogee of female country singers was reached in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While female singers may have achieved better chart penetration later, qualitative the major label crop of female singers was abundant and excellent with the likes of Connie Smith, Wilma Burgess, Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, Jean Shepard, Dottie West, Skeeter Davis, Lynn Anderson, Liz Anderson, Norma Jean, Rose Maddox, Jeanie Seely, Jeannie C Riley, Barbara Mandrell and Wanda Jackson being among the competition. There also were a host of second-tier artists on the major labels and many female artists on minor and independent labels. Within a few years the likes of Tanya Tucker and Barbara Fairchild would appear on the scene. The ghost of Patsy Cline was also on the scene.

While Tammy Wynette did not have the sheer vocal power of a Jean Shepard or Loretta Lynn, she did have the advantage of a record producer who was perfectly able to overcome Tammy’s vocal limitations and devise accompaniments to perfectly frame the essential teardrop in Tammy’s voice, and to write (when necessary) to showcase the voice and the production.

(As an aside, when I refer to the term “Nashville Sound”, I am referring to recordings where steel guitars and fiddles are accompanied (or sometimes replaced) by symphonic arrangements and choral accompaniments. The chief architects of this style were Chet Atkins at RCA, Owen Bradley at Decca, and Billy Sherrill at Epic. In Sherrill’s hands the arrangements were sometimes referred to as ‘country cocktails’. The style was very effective in covering up a singer’s lack of range, particularly in the higher registers.)

The album opens with “I Don’t Wanna Play House” a Billy Sherrill-Glen Sutton composition that won the 1968 Grammy for Best Female Country Performance. In the song, the narrator, a woman whose husband has left her, hears her daughter tell a neighbor boy that she doesn’t want to play house and the reason why she doesn’t want to play. This is a very compelling song:

Today I sat alone at the window
And I watched our little girl outside at play
With the little boy next door like so many times before
But something didn’t seem quite right today

So I went outside to see what they were doing
And then the teardrops made my eyes grow dim
‘Cause I heard him name a game and I hung my head in shame
When I heard our little girl say to him.

I don’t want to play house; I know it can’t be fun
I’ve watched mommy and daddy
And if that’s the way it’s done
I don’t want to play house; It makes my mommy cry
‘Cause when she played house
My daddy said good-bye.

Next up is “Jackson Ain’t A Very Big Town”, a minor hit for Norma Jean in 1967. Tammy does as nice job with the song.

“Broadminded” comes from the pen of Leona Williams and Jimmy Payne. At some point Leona would become one of Merle Haggard’s wives and would have some success on the country charts, although never as much as her talent would have warranted. The Leona Williams version of the songs is far superior to Tammy’s rendition, but if you’ve not heard Leona’s version you will likely like Tammy’s recording. At this point in her career Tammy really hadn’t become quite assertive enough to give this sassy up-tempo song the proper reading.

Broadminded, narrow minded man
Every night I catch you sleepin’ with a smile on your face
And a-callin’ names that I don’t even know
If it ain’t Carmel, Pat and Gracie
Aand drinkin’ down at Stacey’s
It’s making plans to see a girly show

Broadminded, I just don’t understand
A broadminded, narrow minded man

“Cry” was a big 1950s hit for male pop singer Johnnie Ray. Tammy gives it a straight ahead reading, but the song works better in the hands of someone with a bigger voice – both Lynn Anderson (#3 in 1972) and Crystal Gayle (#1 in 1986) would have big hits with the song in the upcoming years.

“The Phone Call”, written by Norris “Norro” Wilson, is just album filler, a phone call between a daughter and her mother, telling her mother her tale of woe about a man who mistreated her.

“Take Me To Your World”, a Glen Sutton-Billy Sherrill collaboration, is given the full Nashville Sound treatment by Sherrill. The song is an outstanding effort and showcases Tammy vocals perfectly.

If you can find it in your heart to just forgive
I’ll come back and live the way you’ve wanted me to live
All I want is just to be your girl
Please come and get me, and take me to your world

Take me to your world, away from bar rooms filled with smoke
Where I won’t have to serve a drink, or hear a dirty joke
All I want is just to be your girl

“(Or) Is It Love” was written by Buddy Ray. It too, is given the full Nashville Sound treatment, turning a piece of filler into a worthwhile effort. Harry Mills’ “Fuzzy Wuzzy Ego” is a song about a woman essentially talking her man off the ledge and into returning home. The production on this song is very country, including use of a dobro.

With one elbow on the bar you’re drinking double
Tryin’ hard to drown up my memories
And you’re tellin’ all your buddies all your troubles
Layin’ the blame smack upon me.

If you set that bottle down and while I listen
You lose your pain inside that hurts you so
Neither one of us is all to blame baby
It’s your foggy woggy, wishy washy, fuzzy wuzzy ego.

My vinyl album contains “It’s My Way” a song credited to Wayne Walker and Webb Pierce. It is a good song, but it does not appear on my digital version of the album.

Glen Sutton’s “Good” would have made a good single, a tale of a woman torn between good and bad, who simply cannot keep herself in line. The production is subdued Nashville Sound.

Now I’m back here in a barroom,
A waitress again.
The good world I’ve lived in,
Just came to an end.

For temptation comes easy
To a woman like me.
And regardless of my chances,
I know that I’ll never be.

Good like I used to be;
I guess it’s just not in me.
With all my heart how I wish I proved
I’ve been good like he wanted me.

“Ode To Billy Joe” is a cover of the Bobbie Gentry hit from a few years earlier. Tammy gives the song a satisfactory rendition, but she does not have the soulful Gothic feel of Gentry’s original.

“Soaking Wet” is the bonus track on my digital copy of the album, a straight ahead country treatment devoid of Nashville Sound trappings. I have no other information concerning this song.

At this point in Tammy’s career she and Billy Sherrill were still looking for that magic formula that would turn Tammy into a full-fledged star. Consequently this album features songs with the full Nashville Sound treatment, some songs with scaled back Nashville Sound treatments and a few straight ahead country arrangements.

While Tammy and Billy were still experimenting here, the very next album would answer all the questions and set the trajectory for subsequent albums.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Leona Williams – ‘Someday When Things Are Good’

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

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘That’s the Way Love Goes’

51f3QpNJP2L._SS280The early 1980s were a prolific time for Merle Haggard. The beginning of the new decade saw him releasing two new albums for MCA and then fulfilling his contract for the label with a live album and a Gospel collection before signing with Epic in 1981. Then over the next two years he released two regular solo albums, a Christmas album and duet albums with both George Jones and Willie Nelson. 1983’s That’s the Way Love Goes was his third (excluding the Christmas collection) solo album for Epic and his sixth album overall for the label.

Hag co-produced the album with Ray Baker. Never one to follow trends, Haggard had avoided the era’s propensity towards overproduction. That’s the Way Love Goes is a collection of ten laid-back ballads, the type of album that would not gain any traction at radio today, if it even managed to get made at all. It wasn’t exactly in sync with the commercial tastes of its time, either; the production is tastefully understated throughout. It did however, perform quite well commercially, spawning three hit singles, two of which were chart-toppers. The album also marked the beginning a mellowing of Merle’s sound and he began experimenting with adding horns and saxophones to the mix, something that would characterize his music for the remainder of the decade.

Commercially Haggard was riding high, but he was entering an era that would be very dark for him personally, involving both marital and substance abuse problems. His rocky marriage to Leona Williams finally ended that year, and it seems to have been foreshadowed in a few of the album’s songs, particularly the bleak and introspective lead single “What Am I Gonna Do (With the Rest of My Life)”, a self-penned number that landed at #3. He also penned “Someday When Things Are Good” with his soon-to-be ex-wife Leona. The #1 hit finds him contemplating walking out on his marriage, but unable to find the right time to do it.

Sandwiched in between these two hits is a remake of “That’s the Way Love Goes”, a Lefty Frizzell and Sanger D. Shafer composition that had been a #1hit for Johnny Rodriguez in 1973. Hag also took the tune to the top of the charts and it remains one of my favorites of his recordings from this era.

There are no uptempo songs on this album and for that reason some may find it a bit difficult to listen to all the way through. However, they are all well done and for the most part they have aged well with the possible exception of Red Lane’s “Carryin’ Fire”, which has a dated-sounding keyboard intro. “The Last Boat of the Day”, also penned by Lane with Hank Cochran has a subtle Calypso feel to it and is a bit of an artistic stretch for Merle. Beach songs were not yet a staple of mainstream country and this one stands head and shoulders over almost ever contemporary example I can think of.

Merle had a hand in writing all of the remaining songs on the album. I particularly liked “(I’m Gonna Paint Me) A Bed of Roses”, which finds him trying to make the best of things after a break-up. It has a radio-friendly feel and might have been a hit, but it was highly unusual to release more than three singles from an album in those days. “Don’t Seem Like We’ve Been Together All Our Lives” is about a long-term relationship that is still going well — decidedly at odds with Merle’s real-life situation at the time. “If You Hated Me” is possibly semi-autobiographical, a song in which he questions how bad things would have been if his wife had hated him, considering how badly she treated him when she supposedly loved him. I like this one a lot. Red Lane and Dean Holloway were the co-writers. The album closer “I Think I’ll Stay” is a bluesy number that close with an extended jam session.

Overall, That’s the Way Love Goes is very good, but it does not quite rise to the level of Big City and Going Where the Lonely Go. It is not great but it is very good and worth investigating.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘The Way I Am’

the way i amThe first Merle Haggard album of the 1980s was released in April 1980. Production duties were shared by Fuzzy Owen, Don Gant and country legend Porter Wagoner. It is half an unofficial Ernest Tubb tribute album, and half new songs from the Haggard household.

The only song not to fall into one of these categories is title track, penned by Sonny Throckmorton. This was the only single, and it did pretty well, peaking at #2. It’s a rather relaxed, accepting look at life which is pleasantly mellow.

Merle included four of his own songs. ‘Sky-Bo’ is a slightly awkward re-imagining of his early hobo persona for the jet age. It’s enjoyable musically, but doesn’t really work lyrically – and certainly doesn’t hold up in the age of massive security checks. ‘No One To Sing For (But The Band)’ is much better, a half-ironic song about loneliness and loss, with a relaxed jazzy arrangement and a melancholic undertow. The delicately sad ‘Life’s Just Not The Way It Used To Be’ has a tasteful steel intro and is excellent. ‘Wake Up’ is a plea to a loved one who has possibly just died:

Wake up
Don’t just lay there like cold granite stone
Wake up
We’re too close to be alone
Wake up and please, darling, hold me if you would
Don’t just lay there like you’ve gone away for good

There’s too many empty pages with so many things in store
I can’t believe it’s over and you’ve closed the final door
And I’m not prepared to handle these things we’re going through
I wish God would grant me just one more night with you

Haggard was married at this time to Leona Williams, and he cut one of her songs, ‘Where Have You Been’, a call to work at friendship.

One of Hag’s major vocal influences was Ernest Tubb, and one wonders why Merle never got around to a dedicated tribute album . This is as close as he got, with three songs written by Tubb, and two more which he had recorded. The three written by Tubb are given very faithful cover versions. ‘Take Me Back And Try Me One More Time’ is my favourite, but ‘It’s Been So Long Darling’ and ‘I’ll Always Be Glad To Take You Back’ are also very good. The Floyd Tillman penned country standard ‘It Makes No Difference Now’ suits Merle perfectly. Stuart Hamblen was best known for his religious songs, but ‘Remember Me (I’m The One Who Loves You)’ is a secular tune, and Merle gives it a jazzy treatment.

Just six months later, Haggard released the magnificent Back To The Barrooms, which we reviewed last time we looked at Merle, and that record has rather overshadowed this one. It turns out to be something of an overlooked gem, although its pleasures lean to the subtle without obvious potential hit singles.

Grade: A

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)’

MI0003832259Loretta Lynn scored her first chart topping single with the title track to her seventh album, Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind). The record, produced as usual by Owen Bradley, was the first by a female artist to achieve Gold status.

Don’t Come Home also continues Lynn’s tradition of populating her albums with cover songs and little by way of self-penned material. She had writing credits on two excellent honky-tonkers in addition to the title track. She co-wrote “Get What ‘Cha Got and Go,” with Leona Williams (one-time wife of the late Merle Haggard) and composed “I Got Caught” solo. The cover tunes include a brilliant steel-drenched take on “There Goes My Everything” and an equally exquisite reading of “The Shoe Goes on the Other Foot Tonight.”

Johnny Bond and Ernest Tubb co-wrote the wonderful “Tomorrow Never Comes,” a ballad concerning a woman fed up with her man’s dead-end promises. “Saint to a Sinner” has ear-catching flourishes of piano as do “I’m Living In Two World,” “Making Plans,” and “I Really Don’t Want to Know.” “The Devil Gets His Due” is a refreshing change of pace, in the mid-tempo range, with glorious twang guitar. “I Can’t Keep Away From You” is just as good, with a nice helping of steel added to the mix.

Don’t Come Home is nothing short of a spectacular album. Bradley helped Lynn shed the trappings of The Nashville Sound and embrace a honky-tonk style much more pleasing to my ears. The ballads can get sonically maudlin after a while, but the mid-to-up tempo numbers are where the album truly shines. I highly suggest seeking out this project if you’ve never heard it. You won’t be disappointed.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Leona Williams – ‘Yes Ma’am (He Found Me In A Honky Tonk)’

Album Review: Jade Jack – ‘Off The Record’

off the recordIt’s always exciting to discover a new artist, especially one who make the kind of music I like the best. I had just that experience when I came across Jade Jack on youtube, and this album fulfils that promise. She’s not yet quite as good as, say Amber Digby, as her voice, while sweet and listenable, still has the lightness of youth, but she is the same kind of artist. Her selection of material is great; and the production is pure traditional country with plenty of fiddle and steel. She grew up in a musical family, and started fiddle lessons at the age of four, beginning to perform in public soon afterwards.

That youtube song was a cover of Doug Stone’s classic ‘I’d Be Better Off (In A Pine Box’), and a beautifully sung version is included on this album. In fact, she currently plays fiddle in Doug Stone’s band, and throws in a catchy Celtic-style instrumental to show off her skills.

There are two George Jones covers: a pretty, delicate version of ‘Once You’ve Had The Best’ and a strong take on ‘The Grand Tour’. ‘A Woman’s Man’ is a Leona Williams song lyrically along the lines of Loretta Lynn’s ‘You Ain’t Woman Enough’, and Jade’s version is very enjoyable. Leona is reportedly one of Jade’s influences, and one can hear it in some of her phrasing, particularly on this song. The arrangement also recreates the original, particularly the steel playing.

A couple of other songs were co-written and previously recorded by the underrated Ken Mellons. The gorgeous sad ballad ‘I Can Bring Him Back’ was a single for Mellons in 1994 (as ‘I Can Bring her Back’), while he recorded the midtempo ‘Institute Of Honky Tonks’ (with a cameo from George Jones) on his 2004 album Sweet, more recently re-released under the title Just What I’m Wantin’ To do). I prefer the meatier male version on the latter song, but Jade’s version (with a few minor lyric changes to suit a female voice) is very good. ‘I Can Bring Him Back’ is beautifully done.

She clearly has a penchant for cheating songs, and there are some excellent ones here, which are the highlights of the album. The outstanding ‘I Can’t Help It If He Can’t Stop Loving Me’ is unrepentantly addressed to her lover’s new wife:

I’m not stealing him from you
Just doing what he wants me to
And I can’t help it if he can’t stop loving me
I can’t stop him if that’s where he wants to be
There must be something here he really needs

A great song, and perhaps Jade’s most impressive vocal performance.

In ‘I’m Dynamite’ she warns a potential adulterous lover not to let anything get started before they go too far and too many innocent parties get hurt in the fallout:

The flame of love is burning
Just begging to be used
I’m dynamite so please don’t light the fuse
You can’t undo the damage that I’ll do
And the first thing I’ll destroy will be you

Also great is ‘I Had A Husband’, in which the protagonist discovers a very unwelcome secret her man has been keeping:

I should’ve known better but I couldn’t see
The game he’d been playin’ with her and with me
Loving two women and livin’ two lives
Well, I had a husband
But he wasn’t mine

In ‘Go Away’ she addresses a husband who has betrayed her, wanting to take him back but aware turning him away will save her heartbreak in the long run.

‘No Reason To Quit’ declares drinking to forget beats sobering up and rejoining her circle of friends who are now shunning her, because “I’ve got no reason for living right”.

Finally, ‘Tijuana Grass’ is a rather unexpected song about the possible effects of legalising marijuana.

You can get this excellent album in either CD or download formats from Jade’s website. It is highly recommended.

Grade: A

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘Lucky’

LuckyOne of the hallmarks of a great song is its ability to be enjoyed even when stripped down to the barest of arrangements. With her latest project, Suzy Bogguss reaffirms — just in case there was any lingering doubt — that Merle Haggard is indeed the poet of the common man and one of country music’s greatest songwriters. Lucky, which was released earlier this month, is a collection of twelve Haggard tunes, simply and sparsely arranged with an occasional– and very subtle — touch of blues and jazz.

One of Suzy’s early singles and the title track of her 1989 debut album was a cover of Haggard’s “Somewhere Between”. Her version charted outside the Top 40, but it rightly earned her a lot of attention and critical acclaim. An entire album of Haggard covers, therefore, seems like a logical choice for her. Most Haggard tributes concentrate on his Capitol recordings, which admittedly are his best, but Bogguss wisely avoids some of the more obvious choices and digs deeper into Merle’s catalog. Well-known hits like “If We Make It Through December”, “Think I”ll Just Stay Here and Drink” and “Today I Started Loving You Again” are all present as are some of highlights His 80s output on Epic — “Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room”, “Going Where The Lonely Go” and “Someday When Things Are Good”. These are the Haggard records that I can remember as current hits on the radio. Another 80s song was a bit of a surprise. “I Always Get Lucky With You” was a #1 hit for George Jones in 1983; I had forgotten that Haggard had written it with Freddy Powers, Gary Church, and Tex Whitson. I was slightly disappointed that one my favorite Haggard songs from this era — the underrated Leona Williams-penned “You Take Me For Granted” — wasn’t included; it would have been a perfect showcase for Suzy’s voice, which is still in great form. I would have preferred it to “The Running Kind”, the album’s one misstep. Bogguss seems to be singing this one at the higher end of her register and straining slightly to do so. Her version falls short compared to Radney Foster’s fantastic 1994 recording for the multi-artist Haggard tribute album Mama’s Hungry Eyes.

“The Running Kind” notwithstanding, the other eleven tracks are excellent with “Silver Wings” and “Sing Me Back Home” being the two standout cuts. Fans of both Suzy Bogguss and Merle Haggard will not be disappointed.

Grade: A

Country Heritage: Ferlin Husky

ferlin husky

I hear Little Rock calling
Homesick tears are falling
I’ve been away from Little Rock way too long
Gonna have a troubled mind
Til I reach that Arkansas line
I hear Little Rock calling me back home

From “I Hear Little Rock Calling” — music and lyrics by Dallas Frazier

In a career in which he was a humorist, a singer, a dramatic actor on Kraft TV Theater, a movie star and talent scout, it seems only appropriate that Ferlin Husky was one of the first to record and take a Dallas Frazier lyric up the country charts. Moreover, Husky is one of the few country stars to have three career songs in “A Dear John Letter”, his 1953 duet with Jean Shepard that spent 6 weeks at #1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Chart (and reached #4 on the pop charts); “Gone”, a 1957 hit that spent 10 weeks at #1 on Billboard (and also reached #4 on the pop chart); and finally, in 1960, “The Wings Of A Dove”, a massive hit that Cashbox lists as the biggest country song of the period 1958-1984 with 19 weeks at #1 (Billboard had it at #1 for 10 weeks).

Ferlin Husky (December 3, 1925 – March 17, 2011) was born on a farm midway between the Missouri towns of Flat River, Hickory Grove and Cantwell. As a youngster, Ferlin obtained a guitar and, aided by his uncle Clyde Wilson, he learned to play it. Upon graduation from high school, Ferlin moved to the region’s biggest city, St. Louis, where he briefly worked odd jobs to survive before joining the US Merchant Marines in 1943. Ferlin would spend five years in the Merchant Marines, where in his off hours he would entertain shipmates with his vocals and musicianship. In 1948 Ferlin left the Merchant Marines to return to St. Louis where he worked for over a year with Gene Autry’s sidekick Smiley Burnett at radio station KXLW.

Moving to California in 1949, Husky landed some bit parts in western movies before moving to Bakersfield, where he sang at local clubs and worked as a disc jockey. By 1950 he was recording for Four Star Records under the name ‘Terry Preston,’ a name Ferlin felt less contrived than his given name. While none of the Terry Preston recordings became hits, they favorably impressed Cliffie Stone, a Southern California disc jockey whose television show Hometown Jamboree was quite popular. Stone played the Terry Preston records on his morning show on KXLA and eventually got Ferlin signed to Capitol Records, still under the name Terry Preston. Recording for legendary Capitol producer Ken Nelson, several fine singles resulted, including a cover of an old Roy Acuff hit “Tennessee Central #9,” none of which charted.

Nelson urged Ferlin to use his real name and the first single released under that name (“Huskey”–with an E–being the spelling used on records until 1957) hit the jackpot as the 1953 recording of “A Dear John Letter,” sung by Jean Shepard with recitation by Ferlin, resonated with returning Korean War veterans and launched both careers.

A follow up record with Ms. Shepard, “Forgive Me John”, also went Top 10 in late 1953, but it took another year for the solo hits to start. Finally, in 1955, Ferlin hit with four songs, two Top 10 records in “I Feel Better All Over” and “Little Tom”, a Top 20 record in “I’ll Baby Sit With You,” and a #5 hit recorded under the name of his comic alter-ego Simon Crum, “Cuzz Yore So Sweet”.

Growing up in the Great Depression and coming of age during World War II gave Ferlin a sense of the importance of helping others. As one of the first artists to reach Bakersfield, Ferlin was an influence and mentor to such struggling entertainers as Tommy Collins, Billy Mize, Dallas Frazier, Buck Owens and Roy Drusky. In fact, it was Ferlin who renamed Leonard Sipes as Tommy Collins.
During his years with Capitol, Ferlin Husky would push the boundaries of country music, whether by the sophisticated balladry of “Gone”, or the gentle ribbing of his #2 hit “Country Music Is Here To Stay” (as recorded by Crum).

Ferlin would stay with Capitol Records until 1972 charting forty-one records along the way, although after “The Wings of A Dove” in 1960 Top Ten hits would be scarce for the singer, with only “Once” (1967) and “Just For You” (1968), both which reached #4, scaling the heights. (“Heavenly Sunshine” reached #10 on Cashbox in 1970, stalling out at #11 on Billboard.)

After 1972, Ferlin would sign with ABC where he would chart nine times with hits including “Rosie Cries A Lot” (#17). A very nice record called “A Room for A Boy … Never Used” got lost in the shuffle; it peaked at #60 but is well worth hunting down.
After his stint with ABC, Ferlin would record sporadically for minor labels, often remaking earlier hits but sometimes coming up with new material. In 2005, at the age of eighty, Ferlin issued an excellent new CD, The Way It Was (Is The Way It Is), on the Heart of Texas label. This CD featured both old and new material, with Leona Williams on two tracks, and backed by a cast of fine Texas swing musicians.

Ferlin Husky was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010. Many years before that, he became one of the first country artists to get his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Read more of this post

Classic Rewind: Leona Williams – ‘Yes Ma’am (He Found Me In A Honky Tonk)’

Album Review: Leona Williams – ‘By George This Is… A Tribute To George Jones’

Despite her lack of real commercial success, George Jones once called Merle Haggard’s ex-wife Leona Williams “the greatest female singer to have ever stepped up to a microphone” – a quotation she naturally likes to repeat. She was also one of his chosen duet partners in Ladies’ Choice, the duet album he did with assorted female singers in 1985. On her own New Patches album on Heart of Texas a few years back, Leona included a warmhearted tribute to Jones and his wife Nancy, and her latest venture is a full-scale tribute album to the man she, and I, would call the greatest country singer of all time.

She resurrects that original tribute song, ‘Ol’ George’ (which she also wrote), as the lead-in to a nice set of covers of some of Jones’s greatest hits, given traditional country arrangements.

Leona delivers an emotional version of the brooding ‘Window Up Above’ which is very good. Working equally well are her version of ‘A Picture Of Me (Without You)’ and (given a gender switch) ‘He Thinks I Still Care’. ‘You Comb His Hair’ is beautifully sung, and lyrically perhaps works a little better interpreted by a woman than the original. This is a highlight for me.

The romantic ‘I’ll Share My World With You’ and ‘Walk Through This World With Me’ are also very well done, and don’t prompt unfavorable comparisons at all.

Tribute versions often show just how good the subject of that tribute is, and this is no exception. ‘Color Of The Blues’ sounds pretty but lacks the hopeless intensity of heartbreak of the original. The same goes for ‘I’m Not Ready Yet’, ‘Things Have Gone To Pieces, and ‘When The Grass Grows Over Me’. They are quite effective on their own terms, but the originals are hard, if not impossible, to match. She makes a good stab at ‘He stopped Loving her Today’, with a low key approach which works quite well, but inevitably falls a little short of Jones.

A bouncy up-tempo hillbilly medley of ‘Race Is On’/’White Lightnin’’/’Why Baby Why’ is quite enjoyable, but my favorite track is an invested take on ‘Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?’, which is rather lovely.

I think in some ways any one of these covers would have been a delightful addition to a collection of otherwise new material, but brought together as a tribute, comparisons are unavoidable. The sympathetic production, helmed by Bruce Hoffman, who did the same job on last year’s super bluegrass Grass Roots, help to make this a thoroughly pleasant listening experience. On the whole, though, it is a nice but inessential tribute from a fine older singer still near the top of her game, but George Jones’s originals are insurmountable.

Grade: B+

Favorite country songs of the 1970s, Part 9

Some more songs that I liked, one song per artist, not necessarily the biggest hit. As always, I consider myself free to comment on other songs by the artist.

Arkansas”– Teddy & Doyle Wilburn (1972)
The last chart hit for a duo that was of more importance as businessmen than as recording artists. This song got to #47 (#29 on Cashbox). The Wilburns remained important for many years to follow through their publishing companies and other enterprises. One of their protégées, Patty Loveless is still actively recording and performing.

One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show” – Little David Wilkins(1975)
This song got to #11; it figures that an equally large performer, Johnny Russell, was his closest friend in the business.

“We Should Be Together”– Don Williams (1974)
This was Don’s first top five recording. The single issued immediately prior to this “Come Early Morning” b/w ”Amanda” was a double sided hit , with the two sides splitting the airplay. This record was issued on the small JMI label – within a year Don would be signed by a major label and his career would jet into the stratosphere.

Why Don’t You Love Me” – Hank Williams(1976)
I don’t know why MGM reissued this 1950 single that spent 10 weeks at #1 in its original release. It only got to #61 this time around, but any excuse to list a Hank Williams single is welcome.

“Eleven Roses” – Hank Williams, Jr. (1972)
This Darrell McCall-penned song spent two weeks at #1. I was torn between listing this song or “I’ll Think of Something”, which Mark Chesnutt took to #1 in 1992. The pre-outlaw Hank Jr. was a pretty good straight ahead country singer.

“He Will Break Your Heart” – Johnny Williams (1972)
Johnny Williams was a soul singer from Chicago. This song reached #68. Country audiences became familiar with this song as Johnny Paycheck recorded it in 1971 on his first album for Epic. Although Billboard did not track album cuts at the time, country DJs gave the song so many spins off Paycheck’s album that I was sure that that Epic would issue the song as a Paycheck single.

“Country Girl With Hot Pants On” – Leona Williams (1972)
Great singer/songwriter, better remembered as one of the Hag’s ex-wives. While it’s been 26 years since she charted, she still is issuing great albums for the Heart of Texas label. ”Country Girl With Hot Pants On” only reached #52 but did much better in some markets. Her biggest hit was “The Bull and the Beaver” which reached #8 in 1978.

“I Wanna Go Country” – Otis Williams and The Midnight Cowboys (1971)
One of several black singers to attempt to follow Charley Pride, this all-black band from the Cincinnati area was led by the former lead singer of The Charms, who had several pop hits during the 1950s including “Hearts of Stone”. This was the only record to chart country but it, and the album from which it came, were both excellent.

“The Night Miss Nancy Ann’s Hotel For Single Girls Burned Down“ – Tex Williams (1972)

Tex was a big star during the 1940s, both as part of Spade Cooley’s band and on his own, with a mega-hit with “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke (That Cigarette)“ which went #1 country (16 weeks) and pop (6 weeks) in 1947. This amusing story reached #29 Billboard /#18 Cashbox, his last real hit. Tex died in 1985 of lung cancer.

“Ida Red” – Bob Wills (1976)
New version of Bob’s 1938 hit – reached #99 for one week. Bob had chart hits throughout the 1940s. His most famous song, “New San Antonio Rose, was nearing the end of its pop chart run when Billboard started their country charts on January 1, 1944. Had the charts been started six months earlier the song would have spent many weeks at #1.

“There’s A Song On The Jukebox” – David Wills (1975)
This was one of two top ten records for Wills, a protégé of Charlie Rich, who produced his first three singles. I don’t hear any resemblance to Rich, but he was a fine singer.

“Do It To Someone You Love” – Norro Wilson (1970)
The only top twenty record for one of Nashville’s leading producers and songwriters. Charlie Rich had huge hits with his “The Most Beautiful Girl”, “Very Special Love Song” and “I Love My Friend”.

“Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride” – Mac Wiseman (1970)
Mac is probably the best bluegrass vocalist – ever. Known as ‘The Voice With A Heart’, this amusing record went top forty, a major feat for 50 year old bluegrass artist.

“The Wonders You Perform” – Tammy Wynette (1971)
Just a song I happen to like. This record reached #1 on Record World and #2 on Cashbox.

“Goin’ Steady” – Faron Young (1971)
A remake of his 1952 smash, this speeded up version is probably my favorite Faron Young track. From 1969 to 1971, Faron had six songs reach #1 on one or more of the major charts. “Step Aside”, “Leavin’ And Sayin’ Goodbye” and “Four In The Morning” were also classic songs from this period.

Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Albums of 2011

2011 wasn’t the best year for country, but there was still some very good music to be found if you looked for it.  Just missing the cut for my personal top 10 were fine records by the excellent Sunny Sweeney, country chart debutant Craig Campbell, independent artist Justin Haigh, blue collar bluegrass newcomer Scott Holstein, the compelling close harmonies of the Gibson Brothers,  and an enjoyable if not groundbreaking live set from Amber Digby which flew under the radar.

So what did make my cut? Read more of this post

Album Review – Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson – ‘Pancho and Lefty’

Released in January 1983, Pancho and Lefty was one of the biggest selling albums of that year. Commenter Ken Johnson provided some details on the recording of this album, which can be read here. The album featured two singles, “Reason To Quit” and the title track. Pancho and Lefty was nominated for Album of the Year by the CMA, but lost to Alabama’s The Closer You Get.

Lead single “Reason To Quit,” a mid-tempo honky-tonk shuffle, was solely written by Haggard. It peaked just outside the top 5 and featured Haggard and Nelson trading off on vocals. The song tells the story of two young men who are “rolling down the fast lane” where the reason to quit “gets bigger each day.”

Looking back now, it’s funny to hear Haggard and Nelson facing their demons in song. I especially enjoy the line where Willie sings about not being able to afford his habit, like that ever stopped him from his marijuana addiction. The tongue-in-cheek nature of the song works, but the vocal performances weren’t very engaging. They sound fine when singing a part but their voices don’t seem to blend that well together here.

The same can’t be said for the title track, which ranks among my favorite country songs of all time. Originally recorded by its writer Townes Van Zandt in the early 1970s and then Emmylou Harris on her Luxury Liner album, it’s this duet between Nelson and Haggard where this song finally received its due. I love the expertly crafted story and the guitar riffs that open this song. The gentle and easy-going production helps this song age better over time than most of this album.

I grew up with both my grandfather and parents loving “Pancho and Lefty” so I got really turned on to it as a kid. While the interplay by Nelson and Haggard is missing here as Nelson takes the lead, that choice in crafting this a non-traditional duet never bothered me. I’ve always enjoyed when Haggard kicks in on the third verse, and the music video only furthered the legendary status of this song. I’ve been an unabashed fan for as long as I can recall and my love and appreciation of this song has only deepened overtime.

I can’t say the same for the rest of this album. From 2011 ears, this almost thirty-year-old album hasn’t aged well which is a shame considering the talent that created it. While the production is kept understated and traditional in nature, it doesn’t keep songs like “It’s my Lazy Day” and “My Mary” from coming off a bit cheesy. The former suffers from an attempt to come off light and breezy while the latter sounds foolish coming from Haggard. The way he gushes about Mary like a fetish object underscores Haggard’s talent for honest and hard-hitting country music.

Thankfully, “Half A Man” and “No Reason To Quit” see the album turning around and Haggard restoring the faith that he hadn’t resorted to keeping his career alive through material a notch below sub-par. The Nelson pinned “Half A Man” is the result of a bad relationship in which the man is now only “half a man” that “you made of me.” It’s a strong tale about the pieces left when relationships are over and features a nicely understated production of piano, drums, guitar, and flourishes of fiddle. And “No Reason To Quit,” a better song than the single “Reason to Quit,” finds Haggard lamenting about his drinking habits saying he could quit tomorrow but has no reason too. The blunt honesty that trademarked his best work is on full display here and the production matches that of “Half A Man” – the perfect amount of softness to allow Haggard ample ability to convey the lyrics, which were composed by Dean Holloway, who co-wrote “Big City” with him.

“Still Water Runs The Deepest” acts as a change of pace for the album, previously heavy on Haggard singing lead, this finds Nelson at the helm. Along with the change in vocalists comes an up kick in energy brought by Nelson to the track. Written by Jesse Ashlock, it’s a familiar tale of an ending relationship – the woman has done the man wrong and the couple has been together for too long. I also love the production on this song. The lead guitar gives it an almost Spanish vibe that I really dig.

“My Life’s Been a Pleasure” continues the change of pace through a very unique fiddle solo that helps the track stand out from the rest of the album even though it isn’t dramatically different in lyric or texture from anything else in the set. Also written by Ashlock, it’s a positive spin on love where life was enhanced because of the relationship, not beaten down by it.

Haggard’s wife Leona Williams composed “All The Soft Places to Fall,” and it’s a classic Haggard-type song. A true duet, it features a nice interplay between Haggard and Nelson and understated production that helps sell the lyrics. It’s one of my favorite songs on the whole project and grabbed me from the beginning. I like it because it feels like a return to form for the duo who are at home on a song in this vein.

Pancho and Lefty closes with “Opportunity to Cry,” a typical Nelson-style ballad he also wrote. I can’t muster up enthusiasm for the song because it’s too maudlin for my tastes. Nelson does what he does best here, but I’ve heard this kind of thing before, and don’t really get excited about hearing it again.

As an overall album, Pancho and Lefty is hit-or-miss with me. There were far too many places where the production, while understated and traditional, aged very poorly. On the strength of the title song I can see where this album garnered the love it received in 1983, but this just isn’t my type of thing. Too many ballads wore down this project and there wasn’t much I could be excited about.

The album was re-issued in 2003 with two extra tracks, an alternate take on “Half A Man” and the new song “My Own Peculiar Way.” The “Half A Man” reprise doesn’t offer much to differ from the original and “My Own Peculiar Way” is indicative of the rest of the album and features Nelson singing lead.

Pancho and Lefty is available in both hard and digital copy from Amazon and on iTunes .

Grade: B-

Album Review – Merle Haggard – ‘Big City’ / ‘Goin’ Where The Lonely Go’

Recorded in July 1981 and released that October, Big City was created during a two-day recording session producing enough material to span this and his follow-up Going Where The Lonely Go, released a little more than a year later in 1982. Both projects were successful and charted four number one country hits between them. Big City, Haggard’s debut for Epic Records, would also go on to a Gold certification from the RIAA.

Big City primarily dealt with the plight of Urban America through tales of the workingman. Lead single “My Favorite Memory,” a love song of sorts, became Haggard’s 25 number one single in the fall of 1981. It stands out due to its understated production and confident vocal performance. I’m enjoying the directness of the lyrics here; Haggard is never one to mince words. The way he sings so openly about sex only makes the narrow-mindedness of today’s country radio more apparent. It’s a shame that such a great song would probably be deemed too risqué today.

Second single and title track “Big City” also topped the charts becoming Haggard’s 26th number one hit.  Drenched in the best of honky-tonk fiddle and steel guitar and Written by Haggard with Dean Holloway, “Big City” drives home the theme of dealing with the struggles faced by honest workingmen. Haggard is making a simple request here – he wants the big city to turn him loose and set him free; more specifically to Montana where he’d be free to have some fun like the rich get to do. He also bluntly tells his boss to keep his retirement and “so called social security,” since he only wants what’s coming to him. Like “Memory,” it’s the direct honesty from both the lyrics and Haggard’s vocal that draws me into the song.

“Are The Good Times Really Over (I Wish A Buck was still Silver)” just missed the top spot, peaking at number 2 in the summer of 1982. Despite just missing the top, the track, written solely by Haggard, would go on to win the ACM Award for Song of the year in 1983. The only ballad released a single, “Good Times” is a companion single of sorts to “Big City.” If Haggard is pondering the good life in “City” he’s now wondering where it’s all gone. Haggard has grown mournful as he wishes Ford and Chevy automobiles still lasted ten years before wearing out and coke was still good ‘ol cola and joints were only bad places to be. Like all great vocalists, Haggard doesn’t just sing but rather conveys his message with all the pain he can muster. But what I really love about “Good Times” is how brilliantly Haggard was able to create a conversation with the listener. This isn’t just another country song but rather a document of where our country was in 1981. I’ve always said the best country songs portray the consciousness of America and this is what I’m talking about. Only a few such songs have surfaced since and the only one truly able to match this legacy is Ronnie Dunn’s latest single “Cost of Livin.’”

Like the hit singles, the rest of Big City is just as powerful. “Good Ole American Guest” continues Haggard’s love affair with trains, this time with a western swing-y arrangement. “I Think I’m Gonna Live Forever” has a terrific blues guitar and drum solo that sound surprisingly refreshing after all these years. While “Stop The World and Let me off” is an often-covered standard done most recently by Rhonda Vincent in 2009.  I also love the delightful “Texas Fiddle Song” which brings a core country instrument front and center.

But it’s “This Song is mine” that stopped me in my tracks. Why this track never became a classic is beyond me. I love how Haggard so honestly sings about how he’s stolen words and melodies before, but this song is all his. I’ve never heard a song talk so introspectively before about the art of songwriting like Haggard does here. The light drums and string section also do their job of nicely underscoring Haggard’s plainspoken vocal.

“You don’t have Very Far to Go” finds Haggard taking the most chances vocally as he puts some power behind his voice, while “I Always Get Lucky with You” is a classic torch ballad, done frequently in the early 1980s. Both are excellent additions to Haggard’s ever-growing catalog of outstanding material.

The rest of the songs from the two-day recording session comprise Goin’ Where The Lonely Go released in November 1982. Like it’s predecessor, Lonely also produced two number one hits.

The title track was issued as the first single, 29 years ago this week. “Goin’ Where The Lonely Go” remains one of Haggard’s most recognizable hits and a highlight from this period in his recording career. Led by his deep and haunting vocal, the track is made even spookier by the flourishes of piano heard throughout. It’s a masterful vocal from Haggard but we expected nothing less from him at this point. I love how the drum work actually seems to have purpose opposed to just having to be there.

The second and final single “You take me for Granted” was written by his then-wife Leona Williams. Another mournful ballad, it finds Haggard doing what he does best – traditionally arranged and well-sung country music. It’s another fine moment albeit not a favorite of mine though, it sounds too much like a few of his other hits in this vein.

But there’s more to the album than just the two singles. “Why Am I Drinkin’” is a classic barroom thumper, which has Haggard backed by a bouncy steel guitar and asking why he has to hurt this way. The track is dated – the female backup chorus is cheesy and distracting but it does play up the barroom vibe. “If I Left it up to You” finds a man willing to work on his relationship even though she’d rather not, and “For All I Know” finds Haggard playing a man unable to trust his lady love.

Listening to Going Where The Lonely Go is an experience that, for me, comes up short. Nothing beyond the excellent title track is really anything extraordinary and in the wake of Big City this album is a let down. Since they were both recorded during the same session one would assume equal quality but that isn’t the case. There isn’t anything wrong with Lonely but it greatly pales in comparison when placed against the stellar Big City.

Big City and Going Where The Lonely Go are both available from Amazon as a 2-for-1 import released this year. For the budget conscious, they are available separately from Amazon and iTunes in both hard and digital copy.

Big City: A

Going Where The Lonely Go: B 

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Back To The Barrooms’

Released in October 1980, the last mainstream album Haggard recorded for MCA (a gospel release was his swan song for the label) was a concept album of sorts, on the classic country themes of broken hearts and honky tonks, with drinking and casual barroomhook-ups frequently serving as some kind of consolation for lost love. The traditional themes and basic country structures of the songs are counterpointed with a sometimes adventuruous production courteous of Jimmy Bowen, with extensive but tasteful use of brass giving a faint Dixieland jazz feel. Three quarters of the songs were written by Haggard, and, as a group, they form Haggard’s strongest collection in some years.

The downbeat melancholy of ‘Misery And Gin’ was originally recorded for the soundtrack of now-forgotten Clint Eastwood vehicle Bronco Billy (which had also produced Haggard’s first #1 hit of the 80s, his jovial duet with Eastwood, ‘Bar Room Buddies’, which was presumably not thought worthy of repeating here). ‘Misery And Gin’ is a great song, written by Snuff Garrett and John Durrill, shows the pain hiding behind the outward joviality of a barroom crowd, the protagonist hooking up with a fellow loser in love with only themselves to blame for their single status. Garrett produced the track, sweetening the downbeat mood with strings, as Haggard bemoans,

Here I am again mixing misery and gin
Sitting with all my friends and talking to myself
I look like I’m havin’ a good time, but any fool can tell
That this honky tonk heaven really makes you feel like hell

It peaked at #3. The defeated honky tonker ‘I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink’, another classic number, with tinkling bar room piano cementing the mood, took him back to the top of the charts.

It was followed to radio by top 10 hit ‘Leonard’, a fond tribute to Tommy Collins, a Bakersfield singer-songwriter whose real name was Leonard Sipes, and who had been an early friend and inspiration to Haggard. The song, possibly my personal favorite on the album, traces the ups and downs of his friend’s career, as country star, songwriter, preacher, singer on the comeback trail, and hopeless alcoholic:

He laid it all aside to follow Jesus
For years he chose to let his music go
But preaching wasn’t really meant for Leonard
But how in the hell was Leonard supposed to know?

Well, life began to twist its way around him
And I wondered how he carried such a load
He came back again to try his luck in music
And lost his wife and family on the road.

After that he seemed to fall down even deeper
And I saw what booze and pills could really do
And I wondered if I’d ever see him sober
But I forgot about a friend that Leonard knew

Well, Leonard gave me lots of inspiration
He helped teach me how to write a country song
And he even brought around a bag of groceries
Back before “Muskogee” came along

The acutely observed story song of ‘Make Up And Faded Blue Jeans’ finds the struggling singer-songwriter protagonist half-reluctantly hooking up with an equally desperate older woman. It was not a single, but is a well-remembered song which has been covered by, among others, Daryle Singletary.

Title track ‘Back To The Bar Rooms Again’, yet another classic on an album packed with them, was written by Haggard with Dave Kirby. It draws once more on the honky tonk atmosphere and downbeat mood, with a cuckolded husband returning to drinking, although this time whiskey is the “best friend” of choice.

In ‘I Don’t Want To Sober Up Tonight’, he refuses to pretend everything’s okay in a troubled marriage/life. His own marriage, to Leona Williams, was beginning to crack at the seams, but they co-wrote the cheerful ‘Can’t Break The Habit’ celebrating a love which sounds a little more like co-dependency. That fracturing relationship may also have prompted Haggard’s choice to cover Hank Williams Jr’s rather final ‘I Don’t Have Any More Love Songs’.

Dave Kirby (who was, ironically enough, to marry Leona Williams in 1983 after her marriage to Haggard finally collapsed) co-wrote the mellow and melodic ‘Ever Changing Woman’ with Curly Putman. Iain Sutherland’s ‘Easy Come, Easy Go; has a similar vibe, but is more forgettable.

The wistfully melancholic ‘Our Paths My Never Cross’ about missed opportunities for potential true love has a lovely tune and a jazzy feel thanks to the brass in the mix.

The album is easy to find on CD at reasonable prices, and is well worth tracking down. The production has dated a bit, but the songs haven’t, and this is recommended listening.

Grade: A

Album Review: Leona Williams – ‘Grass Roots’

Leona Williams was never a star, despite a five-year marriage to Merle Haggard, but I’ve always liked her honeyed voice, and she is still sounding good despite advancing years. After a few years associated with the estimable Heart Of Texas Records, Leona is now going it alone and has released this album on her own Loveshine Records. It was recorded mainly in her home state of Missouri with, I believe, local musicians, who do a fine job, led by producer and multi-instrumentalist Bruce Hoffman, with post-production and the addition of some of the star guests’ contributions in Nashville. It bears what is not the most imaginative title for a bluegrass-influenced album by a country artist, but the music inside is well worth it.

Leona, a talented songwriter perhaps best known for writing ‘You Take Me For Granted’ for Haggard, wrote almost all the material (much of it solo), and it is all pretty good, although not all of it is new. She wrote the mid-tempo lost-love plaint ‘Midnight Blue’ with Terry Gibbs, which opens the set to promising effect.

Three songs (all excellent) are co-writes with Leona’s late husband Dave Kirby. The pensive ‘My Heart Has Finally Said Goodbye’ is an excellent traditional country song, as the protagonist finds equilibrium after losing in love. The optimistic ‘The Good Times Are Ready To Come’, sung as a duet with bluegrass veteran Mac Wiseman, is also great, with a very Depression era feel, about a Kentucky couple looking forward to spending the proceeds of mining wages, with a new road and coal prices up:

We’ll buy some new shoes for the babies
We’ll catch us some new fish to fry
It’s been a long time since us ladies have had enough money to cry
It’ll be hallelujah in Wallins, Kentucky
After the work is all done
It won’t be long till we’re rollin’ in groceries
And the good times are ready to come

The pretty-sounding ‘When I Dream’ was written by the couple with daughter Cathy Lee Coyne (who provides close sweet harmonies throughout). It is another fine song about a woman clinging to a long-past relationship, if only in her dreams.

The affecting ‘Come To See Me Sometimes’ is addressed to a loved one who has died – perhaps Kirby, who died a year or two ago. With its intensely emotional, almost-breaking vocal, this is the highlight of the record. Another favourite of mine is ‘Mama, I’ve Got To Go To Memphis’, which Haggard recorded in 1978 with altered lyrics to suit the gender switch. This version, surely the original intention, is a lovely old-fashioned story of a young woman desperate to track down her ex and “drown some memories”, and leaving her baby, “little Brady” behind with her own mother. It works beautifully as a bluegrass number, and is beautifully constructed and sung, with the narrator’s desperation palpable.

One of Leona’s older songs, the melodic ‘Taste Of Life’, which she previously recorded back in the 80s, feels like the theme tune for the project, said to be inspired by Leona’s childhood memories and her earliest musical roots. Here, she fondly recalls childhood memories of growing up poor but loved, including a reference to listening to Bill Monroe’s music on the radio. It closes with a segue into ‘In The Sweet Bye And Bye’. Cheryl and Sharon White add beautiful harmonies.

Vince Gill duets delightfully with Leona on the up-tempo ‘The Legend’, a cheerful tribute to Monroe (“the greatest name of all” in bluegrass). Monroe’s classic ‘Molly And Tenbrooks’ (actually an adaptation of a 19th century folk song about the fatal showdown between two racehorses, based on a real race) gets a lively workout with cameos from 70s country star Barbara Fairchild, Pam Tillis, and Rhonda Vincent, and the less-well known Melody Hart, a Branson-based singer and fiddle player.

The surprisingly catchy ‘Do Wah Ditty’ has a silly title but is rather engaging, with a midtempo sing along tune featuring Rodney and Beverly Dillard with a husband and wife casting aspersions at one another entertainingly in the verses – she spends too much money on credit, with bright fiddle and Beverly’s claw hammer banjo contributing to the good humor of it all.

‘The Lights Of Aberdeen’ is a song of thanks to Leona’s fans in Scotland, and appreciation for the countryside there, which is clearly heartfelt but is the least effective track overall.  The record closes with the traditional ‘Take This Hammer’, an insistent gospel number.

This is a lovely record. It seems to be available only from Leona’s official website, but is worth finding.

Grade: A