My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Lester Flatt

Album Review: Mac Wiseman and Friends – ‘I Sang The Song: Life Of The Voice With A Heart’

If you consider Bill Monroe and those who recorded with his early bands to be Generation 1A in Bluegrass, with those immediately followed in his wake to be Generation 1B (Reno & Smiley, Flatt & Scruggs (Lester & Earl personally were 1A), Carter & Ralph Stanley, Bobby & Sunny Osborne, Jim & Jesse McReynolds, Jimmy Martin), then the last surviving member of generation 1A is Mac Wiseman.

Born in 1925, Mac Wiseman is the great survivor: he survived polio, the Great Depression, Molly O’Day, Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, Dot Records (as an executive) Rock ‘n Roll, The Hootenanny Era, The WWVA Jamboree, the WSM Grand Ole Opry and The Nashville Sound. Along the way he forged a stellar career as a solo artist recording pop, country and bluegrass music. He was friends with Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard and Gordon Lightfoot, helped organize the CMA and has been inducted into both the Country and Bluegrass Music Halls of Fame.

This album arises from a series of interviews (or perhaps visits) Peter Cooper and Thomm Jutz had with Wiseman in which they discussed his life, listened to his stories and realized that many of the stories would make good songs. All songs are credited to Wiseman, Cooper & Jutz with the exception of the last track on the album.

Mac was past ninety years old when this album was recorded, no longer is very mobile and his voice isn’t quite what it was even a few years ago. Consequently Mac does very little singing on this album, his contributions mostly limited to the beginning or the end of some of the tracks.

Instead a phalanx of his admirers and colleagues do most of the singing with Shawn Camp, Buddy Melton, Junior Sisk, and Ronnie Bowman, among the featured vocalists. Needless to say these vocal performances are terrific. From outside the field of bluegrass, several other vocalists were enlisted.

The album opens up with “The Guitar” a song about Mac’s first guitar, a mail order guitar from Sears, and his experiences in leaning the guitar. Sierra Hull and Justin Moses do the singing on this song (Mac takes a refrain at the end). Sierra (mandolin) and Justin (banjo.fiddle, dobro) team with Mark Fain (bass) and Thom Jutz (guitar) to serve as the backing band for the entire project, with Jutz and Cooper providing harmony vocals on some of the tracks.

“Somewhere Bound” is next up, a song about Mac’s childhood dreams of seeing the world, Buddy Melton, Milan Miller and Andrea Zonn provide the vocals.

“The Wheat Crop” opens and closes with Mac singing a chorus of “Bringing In the Sheaves”, followed by this song about the responsibilities and problems of managing the wheat crop. Junior Sisk, Sonya Isaacs Yeary and Becky Isaacs Bowman provide the remaining vocals.

Jim Lauderdale has always been one of my favorite singers and I firmly believe that if he had come along in the 1950s or 1960s he would have been a huge country music star. “Barefoot ‘Til After the Frost” recounts Mac’s childhood as a school boy. I can’t personally identify with the song, but my father and anyone who grew up in rural America during the Great Depression certainly could – I can remember Dad speaking of this very thing.

“Manganese Mine” is the tale of a property owner taken advantage of and conned nto selling his mineral rights too cheaply. A sad story too often repeated, especially in Kentucky and West Virginia.
The trio of Melton, Miller and Zonn return for “Three Cows and Two Horses” are Mac’s homespun story of the fortunes of many rural families.

“Simple Math,” sung by Jim Lauderdale, is one of my two favorite songs on the album. The song follows Mac’s experiences breaking in as a professional musician including his big break playing with the great Molly O’Day. Lauderdale, who can sing anything and everything is the perfect vocalist to relate the pithy truths of Mac’s observations (“You Can’t Spend The Money You Don’t Have, That’s How It Works – It’s Simple Math”.

Junior Sisk and Ronnie Bowman join up to sing the sing the religiously-themed “Crimora Church of The Brethren”. The song is about going to church during the Great Depression.

“Going Back To Bristol” is my other favorite from the album, and the song currently getting the most airplay. Sung by Shawn Camp, the song is an excellent summary or snapshot of Mac’s career. Shawn Camp was originally pushed as a country artist by Reprise around 2000, but it didn’t take (too much bluegrass in his soul) so he returned to his first love and has had great success as a bluegrass artist, In addition to his solo endeavors (song writer, Grammy winning record producer, etc.), Shawn is the vocalist for the Earls of Leicester.

I’m not really a John Prine fan, but there is no questioning that he has a great appreciation for the music of Mac Wiseman and he and Mac are friends (in 2007 they cut a terrific album together of mostly classic country songs titled Standard Songs for Average People). John was a perfect choice to sing the title cut, the gentle ballad “I Sang The Song”. Prine has the weathered voice necessary to convey the optimistic but weary lyrics.

“I Sang The Song” was originally planned as the last cut on the album, but the decision was made to reprise Mac’s first hit from 1951 (and the only song on the album written entirely by Mac himself) “”Tis Sweet To Be Remembered”. Mac is joined by Alison Krauss on the choruses, a fitting end to the album.

Although these songs fit together to tell Mac’s life story, the fact is that each of the songs works as a stand-alone song, a remarkable achievement indeed, I picked out two of the songs above as my favorites, but the truth is that I love all of these songs and all of the performances. Modern day country music fans may not be too familiar with bluegrass artists but the pickers and singers on this album are an elite group paying proper homage to a truly legendary performer.

Grade: A++

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Where to find good ol’ country music – or the transition to bluegrass

I really like good ol’ country music from the period 1930 – 2005. Most of my favorite songs and performances dated from 1975 back to the days of Jimmie Rodgers and The Original Carter Family. I also like to see live music performances. Except in a few sections of the country, modern country radio has largely forsaken good ol’ country music. Yes, there is Sirius-XM Radio, but the stations that play pre-2005 country tend to have rather shallow playlists, and satellite radio can be a pricey proposition. I do have XM in my vehicle because I make a number of long trips on business.

Being able to see live good ol’ country music performed is getting more problematic. In some areas there are younger performers who have embraced the art form, but in other areas they can barely be found. Moreover, the classic country performers are ageing. Most of the great country performers of the 1950s and 1960s have moved on to that Great Opry Stage in The Sky. The same is increasingly true for many of the stars of the 1970s. We have even lost some of the stars of the 1980s.

What to do ?

During the 1940s and 1950s there wasn’t much difference between country and bluegrass except the instrumentation, with many artists (Jimmie Skinner, Lee Moore, Mac Wiseman) straddling the border between the two genres. As the 1960s arrived, there was more separation although artists such as the Osborne Brothers and Jim & Jesse McReynolds featured steel guitar and ‘Nashville’ sound trappings on their major label bluegrass recordings. Through the early 1970s it wasn’t unusual to see bluegrass acts chart on the country music charts.

By the mid-1970s, the two streams had completely separated. Bluegrass was no longer played on country radio (except an occasional song from a movie such as “Dueling/Feuding Banjos” might be played), and the repertoire had largely segmented as well.

Over the last twenty years or so, as the product on country radio has become more unlistenable, something strange has happened: bluegrass artists have become the guardians of the country music tradition. Many of today’s bluegrass artists grew up listening to that good ol’ country music and have been incorporating larger amounts of it into their repertoire. In some cases artists, such as Ricky Skaggs and Marty Raybon who had substantial country careers, returned to their bluegrass roots, bringing their country repertoire with them. In other cases bluegrass acts, often serious students of music, have gone back and founded the repertoire that country radio and young country artists seemingly lost.

Obviously, I’ve done no detailed study into the matter, but I’ve been attending bluegrass festivals over the last eight years, and have heard a tremendous amount of country songs performed. Almost every bluegrass group has at least a few classic country songs that they perform, and many have repertoires that are 30%-50% country songs.

So where should you start?

I must admit that the ‘high lonesome sound’ is an acquired taste. Even now, I really cannot listen to more than a few Bill Monroe vocals at a time. That said, Bill usually kept some other vocalist on board with such proficient singers as Lester Flatt, Jimmy Martin, Mac Wiseman and Peter Rowan all taking turns in Bill’s band. Consequently, one generally wasn’t stuck listening to Bill Monroe sing the lead.

You can develop a taste for that ‘High Lonesome Sound’ but rather than torture yourself with an overload of it, I would suggest easing yourself into it. Below are acts that feature good ol’ country music in their repertoires. Here’s where to start:

Classic Era/First Generation artists

Mac Wiseman – possessed of a pleasant and sleek Irish tenor, Mac can sing anything and everything and sing it well. There is a reason he is known as the “voice with a heart”. I think Mac is one of the few left alive from the gestation period of the music.

Jimmy Martin – Jimmy was more in the realm of the ‘high lonesome’ but unlike most such singers, who sound like the voice of gloom, agony and despair, Jimmy was such an unabashedly good natured and exuberant singer that you can help but like him.

Lester Flatt – whether singing with Bill Monroe, as part of Flatt & Scruggs or after the split with Scruggs, Lester’s lower tenor made bluegrass palatable to those not enamored of the high pitched vocals of Monroe and his acolytes.

Modern Era

While groups such as Trinity River, Flatt Lonesome, IIIrd Tyme Out and Balsam Range are very good, I would recommend you start with Chris Jones and the Night Drivers. Chris has an excellent, somewhat lower pitched voice that would have made him a star during the classic country days. Chris is a DJ on XM Radio’s Bluegrass Junction (Channel 62 on XM Radio) and he will occasionally feature one of his own recordings.

Next I would point you toward The Gibson Brothers, The Spinney Brothers and Rhonda Vincent and the Rage. If you are a big Statler Brothers fan, the Dailey & Vincent duo include a lot of Statler songs in their repertoire and on some numbers can make you think that the Statler Brothers have come out of retirement. Marty Raybon, lead singer of Shenandoah, features a lot of Shenandoah material in his performances with his current band Full Circle.

In recent years Rhonda Vincent (the “Queen of Bluegrass Music” has been occasionally performing with classic country acts such as Gene Watson, Moe Bandy and Daryle Singletary, so you might find these guys at bluegrass festivals.

I will note that I have left some of my personal favorites (The Osborne Brothers, Del McCoury, Reno & Smiley, James King, Dale Ann Bradley, Lorraine Jordan) out of this discussion. I’m not worried about leaving them out – you’ll work your way to them eventually.

Best reissues of 2016

As always most of the best reissues come from labels outside the USA. In those cities that still have adequate recorded music stores (sadly a rare commodity these days) , it can be a real thrill finding a label you’ve not encountered before reissuing something you’ve spent decades seeking. It can be worthwhile to seek out the foreign affiliates of American labels for recordings that Capitol hasn’t reissued might be available on the UK or European EMI labels.

The fine folks at Jasmine Records (UK) can always be counted on for fine reissues:

SHUTTERS AND BOARD: THE CHALLENGER SINGLES 1957-1962 – Jerry Wallace
Jerry Wallace wasn’t really a country artist during this period, but he was a definite fellow traveler and a very popular artist and very fine singer. This thirty-two track collection includes all his early hits (except 1964’s “In The Misty Moonlight”) , such as million (and near million) sellers such as “How The Time Flies”, “Primrose Lane”, “There She Goes” and “Shutters And Boards”. From about 1965 forward his focus become more country and he would have two #1 county singles in the 1970s

THE NASHVILLE SOUND OF SUCCESS (1958-1962) – Various Artists
I will just list the tracks for this fine two disc set. This is a good primer on a very important era in country music

Disc 1 1958-1959
1 THE STORY OF MY LIFE – Marty Robbins
2 GREAT BALLS OF FIRE – Jerry Lee Lewis
3 BALLAD OF A TEENAGE QUEEN – Johnny Cash
4 OH LONESOME ME – Don Gibson
5 JUST MARRIED – Marty Robbins
6 ALL I HAVE TO DO IS DREAM – The Everly Brothers
7 GUESS THINGS HAPPEN THAT WAY – Johnny Cash
8 ALONE WITH YOU – Faron Young
9 BLUE BLUE DAY – Don Gibson
10 BIRD DOG – The Everly Brothers
11 CITY LIGHTS – Ray Price
12 BILLY BAYOU – Jim Reeves
13 DON’T TAKE YOUR GUNS TO TOWN – Johnny Cash
14 WHEN IT’S SPRINGTIME IN ALASKA (It’s Forty Below) – Johnny Horton
15 WHITE LIGHTNING – George Jones
16 THE BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS – Johnny Horton
17 WATERLOO – Stonewall Jackson
18 THE THREE BELLS – The Browns
19 COUNTRY GIRL – Faron Young
20 THE SAME OLD ME – Ray Price
21 EL PASO – Marty Robbins

Disc 2 1960-1962
1 HE’LL HAVE TO GO – Jim Reeves
2 PLEASE HELP ME, I’M FALLING – Hank Locklin
3 ALABAM – Cowboy Copas
4 WINGS OF A DOVE – Ferlin Husky
5 NORTH TO ALASKA – Johnny Horton
6 DON’T WORRY – Marty Robbins
7 HELLO WALLS – Faron Young
8 HEARTBREAK U.S.A – Kitty Wells
9 I FALL TO PIECES – Patsy Cline
10 TENDER YEARS – George Jones
11 WALK ON BY – Leroy Van Dyke
12 BIG BAD JOHN – Jimmy Dean
13 MISERY LOVES COMPANY – Porter Wagoner
14 THAT’S MY PA – Sheb Wooley
15 SHE’S GOT YOU – Patsy Cline
16 CHARLIE’S SHOES – Billy Walker
17 SHE THINKS I STILL CARE – George Jones
18 WOLVERTON MOUNTAIN – Claude King
19 DEVIL WOMAN – Marty Robbins
20 MAMA SANG A SONG – Bill Anderson
21 I’VE BEEN EVERYWHERE – Hank Snow
22 DON’T LET ME CROSS OVER – Carl Butler and Pearl
23 RUBY ANN – Marty Robbins
24 THE BALLAD OF JED CLAMPETT – Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys

Another UK label, Hux Records, continues to issue delightful product:

HERE’S FARON YOUNG/ OCCASIONAL WIFE – Faron Young
After mucking about with more pop-oriented material for a number of years, these two fine Mercury albums (from 1968 and 1970) find Faron making his way back to a more traditional country sound. It must have worked for the singles from these albums (“’She Went A Little Bit Farther”, “I Just Came To Get My Baby”, “Occasional Wife” and “If I Ever Fall In Love (With A Honky Tonk Girl)” all returned Faron to the top ten, a place he had largely missed in the few years prior.

THE BEST OF TOMMY OVERSTREET – Tommy Overstreet (released late 2015)
Tommy Overstreet had a fine run of country singles in the early 1970s, most of which are included in this albums twenty-six tracks, along with about eight album tracks. While Tommy never had a #1 Billboard Country song, four of his song (“Gwen-Congratulations”, “I Don’t Know You Any More”, “Ann, Don’t Go Running” and “Heaven Is My Woman’s Love”) made it to #1 on Cashbox and/or Record World. Tommy’s early seventies records sounded very different from most of what was playing on the radio at the time.

Hux only releases a few new items per year, but in recent years they have reissued albums by Johnny Rodriguez, Connie Smith, Reba McEntire, Ray Price and others.

http://huxrecords.com/news.htm

Humphead Records releases quit a few ‘needle drop’ collections which our friend Ken Johnson has kvetched. The bad news is that for some artists this is necessary since so many masters were destroyed in a warehouse fire some years ago. The good news is that Humphead has gotten much better at doing this and all of my recent acquisitions from them have been quite good, if not always perfect.

TRUCK DRIVIN’ SON OF A GUN – Dave Dudley
This two disc fifty-track collection is a Dave Dudley fan’s dream. Not only does this album give you all of the truck driving hits (caveat: “Six Days On The Road” and “Cowboy Boots” are the excellent Mercury remakes) but also key album tracks and hit singles that were not about truck driving. Only about half of these tracks have been available previously

BARROOMS & BEDROOMS : THE CAPITOL & MCA YEARS – Gene Watson
This two disc, fifty-track set covers Gene’s years with Capitol (1975-1980) and MCA 1980-1985. Most of the tracks have been available digitally over the years, but the MCA tracks have been missing in recent years. The collection is approximately 70% Capitol and 30% MCA. These are needle drop but the soiund ranges from very good to excellent. There are a few tracks from the MCA years that have not previously been available in a digital format, but most of the material will be familiar to Gene Watson fans. Of course, if you buy this collection and are not already a Gene Watson fan, you will become one very quickly. I would have preferred more tracks from the MCA years since most of the Capitol tracks have been readily available, but the price is right and the music is timeless.

The folks at Bear Family issued quite a few sets this year; however, very little of it was country and none of it essential. There is an upcoming set to be issued in 2017 that will cover the complete Starday and Mercury recordings of a very young George Jones. I’m sure it will be a terrific set so be on the lookout for it. We will discuss it next year.

Although not essential FERLIN HUSKY WITH GUESTS SIMON CRUM AND TERRY PRESTON is a nice single disc entry in Bear Family’s Gonna Shake This Shack Tonight series. Simon Crum, of course, was Ferlin’s comedic alter-ego, and Terry Preston was a stage name Ferlin used early in his career. The set contains thirty-two tracks of country bop, proto-rockabilly and comedy that should prove enjoyable to everyone, along with Bear’s usual impeccable digital re-mastering and an informative seventy-two page booklet.

I don’t know that the music available from Cracker Barrel can always be described as reissues since some of it has never been commercially available before.

During the last twelve months we reviewed WAYLON JENNINGS – THE LOST NASHVILLE SESSIONS

Our friend Ken Johnson helps keep the folks at Varese Vintage on the straight and narrow for their country releases

THAT WAS YESTERDAY – Donna Fargo
This sixteen track collection gathers up Donna’s singles with Warner Brothers as well as two interesting album tracks. Donna was with Warner Brothers from 1976 to 1980 and this set is a welcome addition to the catalogue.

FOR THE GOOD TIMES – Glen Campbell
This sixteen track collections covers the 1980s when Glen was still charting but no longer having huge hits. These tracks mostly were on Atlantic but there are a few religion tracks and a song from a movie soundtrack from other sources. For me the highlights are the two previously unreleased tracks “Please Come To Boston” (a hit for Dave Loggins) and the title track (a hit for Ray Price).

SILK PURSE – Linda Ronstadt
This is a straight reissue of Linda’s second Capitol album, a fairly country album that features her first major hit “Long Long Time” plus her takes on “Lovesick Blues”, “Mental Revenge” and “Life’s Railway To Heaven”

On the domestic front Sony Legacy issued a few worthy sets:

THE ULTIMATE COLLECTION – Roy Orbison
This twenty-six track set covers Roy’s work on several labels including a couple of Traveling Wilbury tracks. All of these songs have been (and remain) available elsewhere, but this is a nice starter set.

THE HIGHWAYMEN LIVE: AMERICAN OUTLAWS
This is a three disc set of live recordings featuring the Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. To be honest, I prefer the studio recordings, but this is a worthwhile set

Meanwhile Real Gone Music has become a real player in the classic country market:

LYNN ANDERSON: THE DEFINITIVE COLLECTION
This two disc set provides a nice overview of one of the leading ladies of country music during the mid-1960s through the mid- 1970s, covering her work for the Chart and Columbia labels. Although not quite as comprehensive on the Chart years as the out-of-print single disc on Renaissance, this is likely to be the best coverage of those years that you are likely to see anytime soon on disc. Forty tracks (15 Chart, 25 Columbia) with excellent sound, all the hits and some interesting near-hits.

PORTER WAGONER: THE DEFINITIVE COLLECTION
There is a lot of Porter Wagoner material available, although much of it is either remakes or gospel songs from the Gusto family of labels. For a comprehensive look at Porter’s career it has been necessary to purchase one of the pricey (albeit excellent) Bear Family collections.

This two disc set has forty tracks, twenty seven of Porter’s biggest hits and thirteen key album cuts and shows the evolution and growth of Porter as an artist. While there is some overlap with the Jasmine set released last year (The First Ten Years: 1952-1962) about 60% of this set covers from 1963 onward, making it a fine complement to the Jasmine collection. This is straight Porter – no duets.

DIAMOND RIO: THE DEFINITIVE HITS COLLECTION
I’m not a real big Diamond Rio fan, but I have quite a few of their albums. If someone is interested in sampling Diamond Rio’s run of hits during the 1990s, this would be my recommendation. Fabulous digital re-mastering with all the major Arista hits such as “Meet in the Middle,” “How Your Love Makes Me Feel,” “One More Day,” “Beautiful Mess,” and “I Believe,” plus favorites as “Love a Little Stronger,” “Walkin’ Away,” “You’re Gone,” and one of my favorites “Bubba Hyde”.

EACH ROAD I TAKE: THE 1970 LEE HAZELWOOD & CHET ATKINS SESSIONS – Eddy Arnold
This is one of the more interesting collections put out by Real Gone Music.

The first half of the disc is the album Love and Guitars, the last album produced for Eddy by Chet Atkins. Missing is the usual Nashville Sound production, replaced by an acoustic setting featuring Nashville super pickers guitarists including Jerry Reed, Harold Bradley, Ray Edenton, and Chet himself, playing on an array of contemporary county and pop material.

The second half features the album Standing Alone, produced (in Hollywood) by Lee Hazelwood and featuring Eddy’s take on modern Adult Contemporary writers such as John Stewart, Steve Young, Ben Peters, and Mac Davis.

The album closes with four singles heretofore not collected on a domestic CD. On this album Eddy is cast neither as the Tennessee Plowboy nor the Nashville Sound titan. If you’ve not heard this material before, you might not believe your ears !

TAKE THIS JOB AND SHOVE IT: THE DEFINITIVE JOHNNY PAYCHECK
MICKEY GILLEY: THE DEFINITIVE COLLECTION

These albums were reviewed earlier. Needless to say, both are is highly recommended

Real Gone Music does not specialize in country music – they just do a good job of it. If you are a fan of jazz, folk, rock or even classical, Real Gone Music has something right up your alley

There is a UK based label that also calls itself Real Gone Music but in order to avoid confusion I will refer to this label as RGM-MCPS. This label specializes (mostly) in four disc sets that compile some older albums, sometimes with miscellaneous singles. The sound quality has ranged from fair to very good depending upon the source material, and the packaging is very minimal – no booklet, basically the names of the albums and very little more. Usually these can be obtained from Amazon or other on-line vendors. These are bargain priced and can fill holes in your collection

SIX CLASSIC ALBUMS PLUS BONUS SINGLES – Kitty Wells
This collection collects six fifties and early singles albums plus some singles. Much Kitty Wells music is available but if you want to collect a bunch of it cheaply, this is the way to go

The British Charly label doesn’t specialize in country records but they have a fabulous catalogue of rockabilly, including some very fine collections of recordings of the legendary Memphis label Sun. For legal reasons they cannot market much of their product in the USA but their product can be found on various on-line vendors. Their reissue of Townes Van Zandt albums is excellent.

I suppose I should again say a few words about the Gusto family of labels. It appears that Gusto is in the process of redesigning their website but plenty of their product can be found from other on-line vendors
As I mentioned last year, with the exception of the numerous gospel recordings made by Porter Wagoner during the last decade of his life, there is little new or original material on the Gusto Family of labels. Essentially, everything Gusto does is a reissue, but they are forever recombining older recordings into new combinations.
Gusto has accumulated the catalogs of King, Starday, Dixie, Federal, Musicor, Step One, Little Darlin’ and various other small independent labels and made available the music of artists that are otherwise largely unavailable. Generally speaking, older material on Gusto’s labels is more likely to be original recordings. This is especially true of bluegrass recordings with artists such as Frank “Hylo” Brown, The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Stringbean and Curley Fox being almost exclusive to Gusto.

After 1970, Gusto’s labels tended to be old age homes for over-the-hill country and R&B artists, and the recordings often were remakes of the artists’ hits of earlier days or a mixture of remakes of hits plus covers of other artists hits. These recordings range from inspired to tired and the value of the CDs can be excellent, from the fabulous boxed sets of Reno & Smiley, Mel Street and The Stanley Brothers, to wastes of plastic and oxides with numerous short eight and ten song collections.

To be fair, some of these eight and ten song collections can be worth having, if they represent the only recordings you can find by a particular artist you favor. Just looking at the letter “A” you can find the following: Roy Acuff, Bill Anderson, Lynn Anderson, Eddy Arnold, Leon Ashley, Ernie Ashworth, Chet Atkins and Gene Autry. If you have a favorite first or second tier country artist of the 1960s or 1970s, there is a good chance that Gusto has an album (or at least some tracks) on that artist.

Album boxed set review: The Mac Wiseman Story

the-mac-wiseman-storyBorn in 1925, Malcolm “Mac” Wiseman is the renaissance man of county and bluegrass music – singer, songwriter, musician, A&R man, record producer, disc jockey, co-founder of the Country Music Association. Mac was an early pioneer of country music, performing with Molly O’Day, and was a very early member of Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, and later performed with Bill Monroe.

Mac survived polio, changing musical trends, changes in the structure of the recording industry, yet through it all, he has remained “the voice with a heart”, possessor of a slick Irish tenor with just enough “down home” in his voice to enable him to sing any form of music convincingly. Mac Wiseman is my absolute all-time favorite bluegrass vocalist.

Mac was elected into the International Bluegrass Hall of Honor in 1993 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2014, one of only three bluegrass acts (the others are Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs) to be inducted.

Mac Wiseman has recorded for a wide variety of record labels with performers as diverse as John Prine, Lester Flatt, Merle Haggard and Doc Watson. It would be presumptuous of any box set comprised of only six CDs and 153 songs to claim to tell the Mac Wiseman story, but this set gives it an awfully good try.

The Mac Wiseman Story is comprised of all of the albums that Mac recorded for the CMH (originally County Music Heritage) label from 1976 to 1982, plus some recordings Mac obtained from minor labels.

Disc One is comprised of The Mac Wiseman Story, a collection of twenty songs recorded with the Shenandoah Cutups, the band which accompanied the late great Red Smiley after his split from Don Reno. These are amiable straight-ahead bluegrass recordings of Mac’s most famous songs such as “Love Letters In The Sand”, “I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home” and “Tis Sweet To Be Remembered”. I think these are Vetco recordings from 1976-1977, but whatever the source, these are fine recordings.

I should note that in order to ensure that each disc is chock full of music, that tracks from the 1979 CMH double album The Essential Bluegrass Album (with the Osborne Brothers ) are scattered at the end of CDs 1,2,4,5 & 6.

Disc Two is comprised of Country Music Memories and Mac Wiseman Sings Gordon Lightfoot. The former is a 1976 set of classic, mostly 1950s, country music songs ably backed by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith and Clay Smith as well as some other acoustic instruments. The latter, released in 1977, contains Mac’s renditions of some of Canadian folk Singer Gordon Lightfoot’s classic songs as well as some lesser known songs. In addition to Arthur & Clay Smith on guitars, Eddie Adcock appears playing five string banjo.

The entirety of Disc Three is given to one of my favorite albums, The Clayton McMichen Story. Clayton McMichen (January 26, 1900 – January 4, 1970) was an American fiddler and country musician, whose band, the Georgia Wildcats, played a mix of country, pop, jazz and swing tunes. Clayton was regarded as one of the hottest fiddlers of his time. This album, in reality a tribute to Clayton and his band, finds Red Herron taking the role of Clayton McMichen, with Mac taking the role of vocalist Jack Dunnagan, Joe Maphis as tenor banjo player Jerry Wallace and Merle Travis as guitarist Slim Bryant. This album is a cohesive representation of what Clayton and his band sounded like, with an assortment of the reels, rags, blues and thirties pop tunes played.

Disc Four contains the excellent 1982 album Grassroots To Bluegrass. Some of the songs come from the early days of country music before bluegrass split off from country music. Included in this group would be “Kentucky”, “Short Life of Trouble”, and “Don’t Give Your Heart To A Rambler” and the rest are early bluegrass songs such as “I’m Using My Bible For A Roadmap”. Mac is accompanied by a stellar band that includes Eddie Adcock (banjo, guitar), Kenny Baker and Jim Campbell (fiddle), Martha Adcock (rhythm guitar), Josh Graves (dobro), Jesse McReynolds (mandolin) and Missy Raines (bass)

Disc Five finds Mac in the role of hard country/western swing artist on the 1980 album Songs That Make The Jukebox Play. The musicians with Mac on this album include a bunch of guys that played with Bob Wills or with Merle Haggard during his big band days – Johnny Gimble (fiddle & co-producer) , Jim Belken (fiddle), Dick Gimble (bass), Will Briggs (sax), Curley Hollingsworth (piano) , Herb Remington (steel guitar), Eldon Shamblin (lead guitar) and Bill Stone (trumpet). If you ever wondered how Mac does with western swing, wonder no more. Other than Hank Thompson and Tommy Duncan, I can’t think of any better swing vocalists than Mac Wiseman. I bought the vinyl version of this when it came out and kept hoping that Mac would revisit the genre. Among the classics covered are “Bubbles In My Beer”, “Time Changes Everything” , “Driving Nails In My Coffin” and “Wild Side of Life”.

Disc Six is a so-called bonus disc titled Mac Wiseman – Most Requested. This album contains a few songs not found earlier in the box set, plus it contains the remaining track from the Wiseman – Osborne Brothers collaboration.

This box set is released under the Wise Records label which is Mac’s own label. Mac has apparently obtained the rights for many of his recordings from the past. This set retails for $49.98 but you can obtain it for about five bucks less online.

Maybe this isn’t quite a comprehensive account of Mac’s career, but it is a really fine collection and an excellent place to start if you would like to explore Mac’s music. One thing is for sure – after listening to this collection, you will have no doubts as to why he is known as “the voice with a heart”.

Grade: A+

Retro Album Review: Cherryholmes: ‘Cherryholmes II – Black And White’ (2007)

black and whiteBack in the days writing for the 9513 Blog, I would post occasional reviews on Amazon. We will be republishing some of those reviews here, slightly updated.

In 2006 I had no idea about the Cherryholmes family band. Today [in 2007] I know them to be the finest family bluegrass band going. In this, their second CD, the group shows impressive growth – several members of the band write original material and all of them can pick and sing with the best of them.

Daughter Cia Cherryholmes continues to develop her skills as a banjo player, and is becoming a truly impressive songwriter and vocalist. I can easily see her becoming a significant solo artist. The rest of the family is pretty good, too. Close harmonies, tight musicianship, excellent lead vocals (although Cia is clearly the standout vocalist). What more could you ask?

I liked all of the songs on this disc, but I was particularly impressed with the songs Cia wrote such as “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, “I Don’t Know”, “Turned Me Down” and “Don’t Give Your Heart to A Knoxville Girl”.

Three excellent instrumentals, “Darkness On The Delta”, “The Nine Yards” and “Bootstrap Hill”, give the family a chance to stretch and display their instrumental prowess. While the CD consists mostly of originals, they do a nice cover on the Lester Flatt composition “I’ll Never Shed Another Tear”.

I really could rattle on all day about this CD but suffice it to say, this is one of the best bluegrass CDs issued in this, or any other year.

Grade: A+

Album Review – Ricky Skaggs – ‘Sweet Temptation’

Ricky Skaggs’ debut for Sugar Hill Records, Sweet Temptation was Skaggs’ second album overall when it was released in 1979. The album features backing vocals from Emmylou Harris, and is influenced sonically by her solo efforts.

The Carter Stanley composition “I’ll Take The Blame” was the album’s sole single reaching #86. A gorgeous stone cold traditional country ballad, it features Harris prominently on backing vocals and the overall track rests on the high twang of their vocals, a hit or miss depending on the style of country you find most appealing. I happen to love the bluegrass twang, but can see where others may not be able to warm up to it.

“Little Cabin Home On The Hill,” collaboration by Lester Flatt, John Hartford and Bill Monroe is another fiddle centric ballad, this time finding our protagonist mending a broken heart by crying out his pain in his cabin home. This bluegrass tune is stellar, as Skaggs and Harris’ vocals blend seamlessly and the mournful fiddle echoes the ache felt by the main character.

The fiddle also takes center stage on “Put It Off Until Tomorrow,” co-written by Dolly Parton and Bill Owens. Parton released the tune herself three years later as a duet with Kris Kristofferson from a double album entitled The Winning Hand, a project consisting of unreleased tracks on the Monument label. Skaggs’ version once again finds Harris on backing vocals, and the tune straddles the space between country and bluegrass, finding a nice home somewhere in the middle. I like the subdued atmosphere of Skaggs’ version the best although Parton provides a nice prospective by flipping the gender roles.

Skaggs keeps Sweet Temptation alive with a few banjo and dobro centric tunes in the middle of the album. “Baby I’m In Love With You” is a fabulously plucky love song that takes after old-time country, Stanley’s “Baby Girl” is a delightful traditional bluegrass thumper, while “I Know What It Means to be Lonesome” has a wonderfully fast acoustic arrangement that doesn’t quite fit with the sad themes of the song and Skaggs’ vocals are a rare misstep as he sings the track in too high a key. Skaggs rectifies this on “I’ll Stay Around,” another traditional bluegrass tune that ranks among my favorite tracks on the album.

The title track written by Cliffie Stone and Merle Travis is another masterful tune and an album highlight. I love everything about the song from the wonderful combination of dobro and steel that lead the arrangement, to Skaggs’ pitch perfect vocals. Travis also sang the song, (his version can be heard HERE), but I much prefer the vibrancy Skaggs brings to the song.

The quietest song on the album, Stanley’s “Could You Love Me On More Time” puts Skaggs’ vocal front and center, backing him solely with an acoustic guitar. In lesser hands this naked approach could’ve been disastrous, but Skaggs pulls it off with effortless ease.

The most blatantly country track on the project is “Forgive Me,” which Wayne Walker wrote with G. Paul Sullivan. Another stellar tune, it somewhat foreshadows the direction Skaggs would take in the 80s, when he became a genre superstar. It’s another standout track on the album.

What surprises me about Sweet Temptation is the level in which Skaggs knows himself as an artist. He was only in his early 20s in 1979 and yet he sang with a confidence of someone twice to three times his age. This keeps Sweet Temptation from sounding like a less then project, an early representation of an artist still learning where he fits in the country music landscape. Instead its essential listening from an artist who hadn’t yet hit his prime, although you wouldn’t know that from listening to this.

Grade: A 

Classic Rewind – Flatt and Scruggs – ‘Dim Lights Thick Smoke’

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘The Storm Still Rages’

A year and a half after her triumphant return to bluegrass, Rhonda Vincent did the unthinkable and released an album that was actually better than 2000’s excellent Back Home Again. Like its predecessor, it is a collection of contemporary and traditional bluegrass songs, along with a handful of covers of country classics with acoustic arrangements. Slightly more traditional than Back Home Again, The Storm Still Rages was self-produced. Ronnie Light, who shared production duties on Back Home Again, acts as engineer this time around. Rhonda’s brother Darrin is once again in tow, playing bass and singing harmony. Also present are some of Nashville’s most prestigious musicians, including Stuart Duncan on fiddle, and Sonya Issacs and Alison Krauss whose harmonies are what really give this album an edge over Back Home Again.

By 2001, bluegrass was on a hot streak and the rising tide that lifted albums by Alison Krauss and the O, Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack to the top of the charts also benefited Rhonda, who had an album on the charts herself for the very first time. The Storm Still Rages reached #59 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart and #9 on their Top Bluegrass Albums chart.

In addition to her roles as lead singer, mandolin player and producer, Rhonda is also credited as a songwriter, having had a hand in creating three of the album’s songs — the opening track “Cry of the Whippoorwill” and “On Solid Ground”, which she co-wrote with Terry Herd, and “When The Angels Sing” which she co-wrote with Herd and her brother Darrin.

One of the album’s standout tracks is “Is The Grass Any Bluer”, which is a tribute to the late Bill Monroe. Addressing the father of bluegrass directly, Vincent asks:

Is the grass any bluer on the other side?
Did it look like old Kentucky when the gates swung open wide?
Bet the good Lord’s got you playin’ somewhere up there every night.
Is the grass any bluer on the other side?

Rhonda also pays tribute to Lester Flatt with the album’s closing track “The Martha White Theme”.

My favorite song on the album is “Don’t Lie”, which had been a single for Trace Adkins two years earlier and ranks among his most underrated recordings. Rhonda’s version was also released as a single but it did not chart. The album produced two more non-charting singles, “I’m Not Over You” and a cover of the Hank Williams classic “My Sweet Love Ain’t Around”. Also among the country classics Rhonda covers is a version of the Jack Clement tune “Just Someone I Used To Know”, which was originally recorded by George Jones and is best remembered as a hit for Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. Rhonda’s version reminds me of the version Lee Ann Womack would record a few years later for her There’s More Where That Came From album.

Two gospel tunes are included in the set, the aforementioned “When Angels Sing” and “If You Don’t Love Your Neighbor You Don’t Love God”, a rousing toe-tapper that is probably the best known of Rhonda’s religious tunes.

The Storm Still Rages is one of those rare albums without a single misstep; the singing, playing, production and the songs themselves are all top-notch. Even if you think you don’t like bluegrass, give this one a listen and you may find that you’ve changed your mind.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Busy Bee Cafe’

It’s common to hear today’s singers speak about their country roots, but it’s relatively rare to come across an artist who not only talks the talk but walks the walk as Marty Stuart has done. He was already a seasoned veteran at the age of 24 when his second solo album, 1982’s Busy Bee Cafe, was released. Instead of using the album as a platform to propel himself to stardom, he seems to content to share the spotlight with the many guest artists — Johnny Cash, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Merle Watson, Carl Jackson and Jerry Douglas — who contributed to the project. It perhaps should have been billed as an album by “Marty Stuart and Friends”. An acoustic and heavily bluegrass-flavored collection, it seems like an odd choice for a young artist trying to make his breakthrough. Instead, it appears to be one of those rare projects made for the love of the music, without much regard for commercial considerations.

The album contains a few traditional numbers, a few written by Marty himself, and a few more written by his musical mentors Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and Johnny Cash. Cash lends his vocals to three tracks — the album opener “One More Ride”, Lester Flatt’s “Get In Line Brother” and a remake of Cash’s 1954 hit “Hey Porter”. All three songs are billed as duets, but Cash’s vocal is much more prominent than Marty’s on “One More Ride”. “Hey Porter” is strictly a Cash vehicle; Stuart’s voice can only be heard occasionally as he gives shout-outs to the other musicians playing on the track. “Get In Line Brother” is arranged more as a vocal quartet, with Cash again dominating. Marty’s voice can be heard, but it is overwhelmed by Cash and the other two uncredited singers. Marty’s singing is more prominent on tracks like “Blue Railroad Train”, “Busy Bee Cafe”, and “Down The Road” — which features the unmistakable banjo-picking of Earl Scruggs — but he sounds very little like the singer we’re familiar with today. His voice is not as strong, nor his style as distinct. The only glimpse of the singer who would one day break through with “Hillbilly Rock” is the album’s closing track, the rockabilly-flavored “Long Train Gone.”

Though Stuart was yet to fully blossom as vocalist at the time of this album’s release, this project is more noteworthy for the picking than the singing, as evidenced in its several instrumental tracks such as “I Don’t Love Nobody”, “Watson’s Blues”, “Soldier’s Joy”, and “Boogie For Clarence”. The entire project has a feel of a bunch of friends sitting around the living room and just letting the music happen. It won’t appeal to those who don’t like bluegrass or instrumental music, but it will be very much enjoyed by those who do.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind – Lester Flatt and Marty Stuart – ‘Bluebirds Singing For Me’

Here is a fourteen year old Marty Stuart singing with Lester Flatt on The Porter Wagoner Show in 1973:

Spotlight Artist: Marty Stuart

John Martin “Marty” Stuart was born in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1958.  His childhood was steeped in country and bluegrass music.  Not only a child prodigy, but a self-taught one, he started playing guitar at the age of two and was an accomplished mandolin player by the time he reached his teens.  At just 13 and already a member of gospel group the Sullivan Family, he joined the band of bluegrass legend Lester Flatt. After Flatt’s death he joined Johnny Cash’s road band, a move which was to bring him romantic as well as professional success, as in 1983 Marty married Cash’s daughter Cindy. That marriage ended in divorce after five years, but Marty remained on excellent professional terms with his former father in law.

His first two solo albums, the obscure 1979 release With A Little Help From My Friends, and 1982’s Busy Bee Cafe, were bluegrass records, and both were really side projects while his main focus was on his sidesman duties with Flatt and Cash respectively.  In 1983 he left the Cash band in order to seriously pursue a solo country career, and soon signed a deal with Columbia Records.  He enjoyed only modest success with Columbia, and reportedly left the label at least partly in protest when his mentor Cash was controversially dropped.  The apparent collapse of his career before it had really taken off was in the end just a blip, as in 1989 Stuart signed with MCA and soon hit the top 10 of the country charts with hist first big hit, ‘Hillbilly Rock’.

The MCA years were to be the most commercially successful of Marty’s career, with a string of mainly rocking country hits, many of them self-penned.  Collaborations with Travis Tritt on record, and their successful “No Hats” tour of the early 90s, helped mark Marty out from the pack of “Hat Acts” who dfominated country radio at this period, and sustained Marty’s career trrough the 90s.  One of several duets with Tritt, ‘The Whiskey Ain’t Working’ won CMA and Grammy awards. In 1992 he was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, a fitting tribute for an artist with a deep love and knowledge of the genre’s heritage, and one who has made it a point over the years to collect memorabilia and photographs, which have been put on public display.  He was elected President of the Country Music Foundation in 1996, a post he served until 2001.  His appreciation of country music heritage saw a new venture in recent years when he started presenting  The Marty Stuart Show on RFD-TV, which enabled many older and more traditional artists to find a platform, and he presents an eclectic radio show on Sirius XM, Marty Stuart’s American Odyssey.

Radio play and sales of Marty’s music began to tail off in the mid to late 90s.  Moving away from the mainstream, his last record for MCA was 1999’s ambitious story/concept album The Pilgrim.  This received good reviews but failed to garner radio play or much in the way of sales, and Marty left MCA. He briefly returned to Columbia for one last major label release, which failed to reignite his commercial spark.  But it was moving away from mainstream success that led to Marty really making his mark artistically.

In 2005, Marty formed his own label, Superlatone, with distribution by Universal South, and released a trio of specialist albums, respectively gospel, a Native American concept album, and a live set.  He also used Superlatone to publish his collection of country music photographs in his book Country Music – The Masters.  A multimedia digital version of the book is also available.  He later signed to bluegrass and acoustic specialists Sugar Hill for the stunning and much-lauded Ghost Train.

Marty has also developed a very accomplished sideline working with other artists.  He had produced a gospel album for his then boss and father in law Johnny Cash back in 1983, and music for former employers Jerry and Tammy Sullivan in the 1990s.  He also produced singer-songwriter George Ducas’s debut album.  His marriage, in 1997, to his childhood crush, country legend Connie Smith, led him into a more prominent second career producing  – initially Connie herself, who he tempted back into the recording studio for the first time in years, and then another 60s legend, Porter Wagoner, on his final album, The Wagonmaster.  He also produced Kathy Mattea’s equally critically acclaimed Coal (released on Superlatone).

We will be showcasing Marty and his music over the month of May.

25 Greatest Live Country Albums

All readers of this website are fans of recorded music. I would assume that most also enjoy seeing and hearing music performed live. After all, there is electricity which permeates a live performance, the interaction of performer and audience coupled with the ambiance of the venue. Tempos are usually faster, there is banter between the performer and the band and/or audience, and often songs are performed that never are recorded by the artist.

That said, it can be very difficult to capture that electricity and the landscape is littered with poor live recordings, victims of either poor recording technology, poor venue acoustics or sub-par backing bands (I had a cassette copy – probably a bootleg – of a live Chuck Berry performance in France where he was backed by what was essentially a polka band, complete with tuba and accordion). Below is my  listing of the greatest live country albums.  My list is solid country, without too many fellow travelers such as Americana or alt-country artists. I may admire John Prine and Townes Van Zandt as songwriters but I cannot stand to listen to either of them sing. The less said about the Eagles and Gram Parsons, the better.  In putting my list together, I’ve limited any given artist to one album, although I may comment on other live albums issued by the artist.

Yes, I know that bluegrass and western swing are underrepresented in my list as are modern era artists, although if I expanded to a top forty list, I’d have albums by Alabama, Tracy Lawrence, Tom T. Hall, Brad Paisley, The Osborne Brothers, Glen Campbell, Bob Wills, Hank Thompson, Rhonda Vincent and Hank Williams to include. Moreover, over time there have been improvements in recording technology and the sound of live recordings has improved, so sonically, some of the albums I’ve left off will sound better than some I’ve included.

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Album Review: Dolly Parton – ‘The Grass Is Blue’

Dolly Parton found herself without a record deal for the first time in 30 years when Decca Records closed its Nashville office in 1998. Throughout the decade, she had been losing ground with country radio, though her album sales had remained solid for much of that time. With the major label phase of her career now over, she decided that it was time to make a legacy record and partnered with Sugar Hill Records for a trilogy of critically acclaimed bluegrass albums. The first and best was 1999’s The Grass Is Blue, which is one of the finest — perhaps the finest — albums of her career.. Finally free of major-label constraints and commercial considerations, she finally made the bluegrass album she’d first talked about a decade earlier. With longtime producer Steve Buckingham once again on board, she assembled a who’s who list of bluegrass musicians, including Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton, Jim Mills and Barry Bales, and recorded a collection that included some bluegrass standards, grassed-up covers of other artists’ hits and four of her own original compositions. Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Claire Lynch, Keith Little, Patty Loveless, Rhonda Vincent and Darrin Vincent all contributed harmony vocals to the project.

The album opens with a spirited cover of Billy Joel’s “Travelin’ Prayer” that is so effective it is difficult to remember that it wasn’t originally conceived as a bluegrass song. It is followed by covers of The Louvin Brothers’ “Cash On The Barrelhead”, Hazel Dickens’ “A Few Old Memories”, and Lester Flatt’s “I’m Gonna Sleep With One Eye Open”. The best of the cover songs, however, is a beautiful rendition of Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone”, on which Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski contribute harmony vocals.

The four original Parton compositions are reminders of Dolly’s tremendous talent as a songwriter. “Steady As The Rain” and “Endless Stream Of Tears” sound like rediscoveries of previously forgotten long-lost gems, while “Will He Be Waiting For Me” has a slightly more contemporary feel. Dolly’s sister Stella had taken “Steady As The Rain” into the Top 40 in 1979, while “Will He Be Waiting For Me” was a remake of one of Dolly’s own album cuts from the early 70s. But the centerpiece of the album is the gorgeous title track, on which Dolly’s vocal performance and songwriting, as well as the musicians’ performances, shine. “The Grass Is Blue” is vintage Dolly that, with a slightly different arrangement, would have been equally at home on her albums from the early 70s or the 90s. The album closes with an acapella gospel number, “I Am Ready”, which was written by Dolly’s sister Rachel Dennison. Rhonda Vincent, Darrin Vincent and Louis Nunley provide the harmonies.

Perhaps as an acknowledgement that there was little here to appeal to radio, no singles were released, but the album managed to reach #24 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and is credited with aiding the resurgence of the bluegrass genre in the early 2000s. It also earned Dolly a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album, which, along with her induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999, allowed her to close out the millennium on a high note. More importantly, The Grass Is Blue, along with its successors Little Sparrow and Halos & Horns, helped to erase lingering memories of some of Dolly’s less than stellar efforts from the late 70s and early 80s, and went a long way towards restoring her credibility amongst those who still regarded her as a pop sellout. These three albums were to Dolly’s career what the American Recordings albums were to Johnny Cash’s – they reaffirmed that veteran artists who were past their hitmaking days could remain relevant, and that their finest work often comes after the mainstream has stopped paying attention.

The Grass Is Blue
is still easy to find on CD and in digital form from Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A+

Country Heritage Redux: David Rogers (1936-1993)

An updated version of an article originally published by The 9513:

David Rogers (1936-1993) is proof of the adage that it’s great to be on a major label, but only if the label is truly behind you.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, during the depths of the Great Depression, Rogers began playing guitar when he was eleven, and shortly thereafter began appearing in local bands. He successfully auditioned for Roger Miller in 1956, but was drafted before getting the opportunity to join Miller’s band.

In 1962, after Rogers’ was discharged from the service, he landed a regular gig at the Egyptian Ballroom–a gig which lasted several years. While performing there he recorded a demo tape which eventually came to the attention of Frank Jones at Columbia, and a recording contract was not far behind.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s Columbia was home to a great many country artists, including Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Ray Price, Carl Smith, Stonewall Jackson, Lefty Frizzell, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, Carl Butler & Pearl, Lynn Anderson, Jimmy Dickens, Johnny Duncan, Barbara Fairchild and a host of other minor artists. The label also controlled significant back catalogs on artists such as Ted Daffan, Gene Autry, Bill Monroe and Bob Wills.

With that array of artists (which doesn’t even count those on sister label Epic), there simply wasn’t much promotional oomph left for the likes of an aging bar-band singer, and so the recording of Roger’s albums was left to independent producer Pete Drake.

Drake, a great steel player famous for his “talking” steel guitar, used the “Country Cocktail” production style of Billy Sherrill and Glenn Sutton on Rogers’ records. Background vocals and symphonic strings were heavy, but because of Drake’s personal instrumental specialty, steel guitar played a far more prominent role than in the typical Sherrill or Sutton production.

Rogers’ first single, “Forgiven Fruit,” was release in 1967, but failed to chart. The next single, “I’d Be Your Fool Again,” checked in at #69, and the one after that, “I’m In Love With My Wife,” (bundled with “Tessie’s Bar Mystery”) finally cracked the top 40. Progress was slow but steady. In 1969, “A World Called You” hit #23. Meanwhile, Rogers made his debut on the Grand Ole Opry and started appearing regularly on the WWVA (Wheeling, WV) Big Jamboree, where I first heard him many Saturday nights on the radio.

Rogers’ breakthrough hit was 1970′s “I Wake Up In Heaven”, which peaked at #19 on the Cashbox Country Chart (Billboard had it at #26). The song was very strong in selected regional markets, hitting #1 in places like Orlando, FL, and Norfolk VA. The follow-up single, “She Don’t Make Me Cry” (#19 Billboard / #4 Cashbox) continued the upward momentum, and “Ruby You’re Warm” held place (#21 Billboard / #13 Cashbox).

According to Billboard, the next single, 1972′s “Need You,” was Rogers’biggest hit, reaching #9 (it went to #5 on Cashbox and, again, hit #1 in many markets). (“Need You” was a remake of the 1958 Donnie Owens pop hit and is, in fact, my favorite David Rogers recording.)

After that peak, Columbia apparently lost interest in Rogers as his next two singles barely cracked the top 40 on either Billboard or Cashbox. By 1973, Rogers was off Columbia and had signed with Atlantic Records, hardly a power in the world of country music, though the label was trying to penetrate the country market as they signed Willie Nelson at this time.

Atlantic actually had more success with Rogers than with Nelson –- Rogers achieved one top ten single with the late 1973 single “Loving You Has Changed My Life,” which peaked at #9 on both Billboard and Cashbox in January 1974.

Both Nelson and Rogers were gone from Atlantic by the end of 1974. Nelson, of course, went on to bigger and better things, but Rogers would slowly fade from the public eye. After recording one album for United Artists, he moved on to a series of minor labels including Republic, Kari, Music Master and Hal Kat, where he charted singles until 1984, with only 1979′s “Darling” cracking the top twenty.

Recordings

Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, none of David Rogers’ albums have ever been issued on CD, so you’ll need to do vinyl hunting (there may be some digital download available).

The three Columbia albums (A World Called You, She Don’t Make Me Cry and Need You) are quite good, especially the latter two. The Atlantic albums, which were again produced by Pete Drake, are also worthwhile, though they differ from the Columbia albums in that most of the “Country Cocktail” trappings were abandoned.

My favorite album from the Atlantic years is Farewell To The Ryman, issued in 1973 to commemorate the Opry’s move to Opryland. The track-list is a cornucopia of classic country songs: “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Great Speckled Bird,” “I’m Movin’ On,” “I Can’t Help It,” “Walking The Floor Over You,” “Send Me The Pillow That You Dream On,” “Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” “Release Me,” “Mexican Joe,” “Wondering,”, “I Walk The Line,” and “Satisfied Mind.”

Aside from the Republic records, Music Master issued one Rogers album titled The Best of David Rogers, a two record set comprised of 11 re-makes of his Columbia and Atlantic hits and nine new songs written by Harold Shields. The new songs aren’t bad; two of them–”Hold Me” and “Crown Prince of the Barroom”–charted, and the remakes are decent, finding Rogers in good voice.

In addition to the albums David Rogers charted 37 of the 45 rpm singles plus there are an untold number of uncharted singles. Used record stores may carry some of these records but the best place to look is http://www.musicstack.com

Happy hunting!

Album Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions’

After exploring the various aspects of American roots music, including southern gospel, delta blues, bluegrass, and a concept album exploring the plight of Native Americans, Marty Stuart is back with Ghost Train, his most mainstream album in years. This time around he’s offering unadulterated traditional country music with a generous helping of rockabilly and a touch of bluegrass. Stuart chose to record the self-produced project in Nashville’s famed RCA Studio B, where many timeless classics were captured on tape, and where Stuart himself took part in his first recording session at age 13 when he was playing mandolin for Lester Flatt. Those expecting a retro-sounding album are in for a surprise; Stuart has successfully accomplished his goal of “writing a new chapter” in traditional country music, and produced an album that is unquestionably traditional, yet sounds fresh and contemporary rather than a nostalgic tribute to days gone by.

The opening track and lead single, “Branded” is one of eleven tracks on the album in which Marty had a hand in writing. It has drawn comparisons to Merle Haggard, and the lyrics do bring to mind such classics as “Branded Man” and “The Fugitive”, but the arrangement and production are solidly in the vein of Stuart’s own classics such as “Hillbilly Rock” and “Tempted.” In a sane and rational world, “Branded” would be in heavy rotation at country radio stations from coast to coast. “Country Boy Rock and Roll”, as the title suggests, delves further into rockabilly territory. Though Stuart is in fine vocal form, it is his guitar picking and that of Kenny Vaughan, a member of Stuart’s band The Fabulous Superlatives, that compels the listener to stop and take notice. The lack of this kind of picking is what has contributed to the blandness of most of today’s country music.

The three finest songs on the album are “Drifting Apart”, “A World Without You” and “I Run To You”, all of which Stuart co-wrote with his wife Connie Smith. Not to be confused with the recent Lady Antebellum hit of the same title, “I Run To You”, the best song on the album, is a declaration of undying love that is beautifully sung by Stuart and Smith. The tasteful production is enhanced by a prominent steel guitar and an understated string section.

“Hangman” is a somber affair of self-examination and soul-searching by an executioner trying to come to terms with the unpleasantries of his grim profession. Though too dark and brooding for country radio’s tastes, the song will be remembered as one of the last, if not the last, written by Johnny Cash. Cash penned the tune with Stuart a mere four days before The Man In Black died.

Stuart draws on personal experience with “Hard Working Man”, which tells the tale of Marty’s father who was relieved of his duties as a factory worker after many years of service. Very much in the vein of songs written by both Merle Haggard and Alan Jackson, it is eerily relevant in today’s economic climate:

What will become of the working man
With honest sweat on his brow?
Is the nation that raised him to build it
Gonna turn its back on him now?
Take away his pride and dignity,
Give his job to some foreign land?
Here’s a question that needs a straight answer:
What will become of the hard working man?

Ghost Train also pays homage to the past by reviving the once common practice of including a few instrumental tracks on the album. The most noteworthy of the three instrumentals is “Crazy Arms”, which is performed by its composer, the legendary steel guitar virtuoso Ralph Mooney, who also plays steel on several other of the album’s tracks.

Following “Crazy Arms” is “Porter Wagoner’s Grave”, which tells the story of a lost soul who is saved after an encounter in a cemetery with the late country legend’s spirit. And just when it appears that the album is winding down, the pace picks up again with “Little Heartbreaker (The Likes Of You)”, a co-write with Ralph Mooney, that like “Branded”, is reminiscent of Stuart’s hit-making days. The instrumental bluegrass number “Mississippi Railroad Blues” closes the album, and allows Stuart to showcase his mastery of the mandolin.

I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed an album this much, but suffice it to say, it’s been a long time. If you’re only going to buy one country album this year, make it this one. My feelings about this collection can be summed up in two words: More, please.

Grade: A+


Ghost Train
is widely available from retailers such as Amazon and iTunes.

Album Review: Keith Whitley – ‘Kentucky Bluebird’

Kentucky BluebirdRCA had a lot of unreleased Keith Whitley recordings in the vaults, and in 1991 the label got his last producer, Garth Fundis, to work on a number of these, leading to the release of Kentucky Bluebird. The album is a bit of a hodgepodge, comprising a mixture of these re-produced tracks, snippets from radio interviews of primarily historical interest, and a few tracks from Keith’s earlier RCA albums. A total of 15 tracks are listed, but only eight were new songs. The material is not of such a consistently high material as his two masterworks, Don’t Close Your Eyes or I Wonder Do You Think Of Me, but Garth Fundis did a pretty good job making it sound like a reasonably cohesive project.

Five tracks were taken from the sessions for the jettisoned album Keith recorded with Blake Mevis as a follow-up to LA To Miami, with new backings recorded under Fundis’ oversight. The label obviously regarded these as the most commercial tracks, and two were picked as singles to promote the album. The more successful of these was ‘Brotherly Love’, a duet with Earl Thomas Conley, which reached #2 on Billboard. Conley was rather a curious choice of duet partner, as although he had been a massive star in the 80s, he was at the tail-end of his hitmaking career, he was quite a bit older than Keith, and his soulful style had little in common with Keith’s traditional country and bluegrass influences. However, their voices blend together surprisingly well on a touching if slightly sentimental tale of brotherhood.

Keith’s last ever hit single (making #15) was the pleasantly inoffensive but rather forgettable pop-country ballad ‘Somebody’s Doin’ Me Right’, written by Fred Knobloch, Paul Overstreet and Dan Tyler. It feels rather like an out-take from LA To Miami, as does the undistinguished stuttering rocker ‘Going Home’, which was written by Troy Seals and actor John Schneider (who had himself been pursuing a career in country music with some success in the 80s). You can see why Keith was not altogether happy with the album they were planned for.

The best of the Mevis-originating tracks is the rather lovely ‘That’s Where I Want To Take Our Love’, written by Dean Dillon (who later recorded it himself) and the legendary Hank Cochran. Keith gives a beautifully tender interpretation of this reflective dream of settling down and making a home in the country: “They’ll know just what country means ‘fore they go off to town”, he sings of his imagined future children.

RCA had never given Keith much opportunity to record his own songs, but he did write songs, and three tracks here are based on demos he recorded for his publishing company, Tree, although only two of them are songs he co-wrote himself. ‘Backbone Job’ was written by Keith with Kix Brooks, and has a jaunty tune belying a serious lyric about searching for honest manual work in a hi-tech world.

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