My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Lew DeWitt

Our Country Heritage: The Statler Brothers

It is hard to believe that it has been over 16 years since the Statler Brothers announced their retirement; however when they retired they really meant it. Since 2003 Don Reid has written some books, co-authoring one book with older brother Harold Reid but little else has been heard from Harold and virtually nothing from Phil Balsley. The fourth Statler, Jimmy Fortune was ten years younger than Don Reid and fifteen years younger than Harold Reid and Phil Balsley, so he chose to pursue a solo career. Fortune still performs today, sometimes in conjunction with Dailey & Vincent or other bluegrass acts.

We take country music groups for granted as there have been many successful such acts over the years, with the Oak Ridge Boys, Exile, Restless Heart, Shenandoah, Alabama, Sawyer Brown, Old Dominion and other acts following in the Statler Brothers’ footsteps. While there had been vocal groups before the Statler Brothers, those groups had either been cowboy groups such as The Sons of The Pioneers, The Oklahoma Wranglers (a/k/a The Willis Brothers) and Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage, or else gospel groups such as the Chuck Wagon Gang, The Blackwood Brothers or The Oak Ridge Quartet (from which sprang the Oak Ridge Boys).

Indeed, even the Statler Brothers started out as a gospel group using the name the Kingsmen, changing their name when a west coast group had a hit with a song titled “Louie, Louie”. During this period the group consisted of the Don Reid(lead vocals), Harold Reid (bass vocals), Phil Balsley (harmony vocals) and Lew DeWitt (high tenor vocals). Although the Don usually sang lead vocals, on many songs each member would sing lead on a verse. Because of his unique soaring high tenor, sometimes Lew DeWitt would be the lead on a song.

By that time, the Statler Brothers had already become associated with Johnny Cash and were no longer performing strictly as a gospel group, experimenting with secular music, often novelties. They would remain on the road with Cash from 1963 to 1971 and were signed to Cash’s label Columbia Records from 1964-1969. In 1965 the group scored its biggest ever hit with DeWitt’s “Flowers on the Wall,” which went #2 country / #4 pop was a huge seller internationally and won a Grammy. Subsequent singles for Columbia did not reach that level of success although novelties “Ruthless” and “You Can’t Have Your Kate and Edith, Too” both reached the top ten.

The Statlers signed to Mercury in 1970, find their sound and milieu almost immediately, aided by expert production by Jerry Kennedy, who had helped resurrect the career of Jerry Lee Lewis. Tapping into America’s longing for more peaceable times, the Statler Brothers embarked on a series of albums, dealing with nostalgia in its many forms, while also embracing more modern themes and occasionally some gospel music. Although the group wrote much of its own material, they also used outside material, both new and old, both country and pop in their quest for quality material. From 1970 through 1982 the group charted 36 singles, 17 of which made the top ten (8 into the top five) and another 10 of which reached the top twenty.

In 1983 Lew DeWitt dropped out of the group after battling Crohn’s disease for many years. DeWitt had been missed a number of dates in 1982 and had spotted Jimmy Fortune as a worthy replacement. When DeWitt dropped out, Fortune slid easily into the group. DeWitt had a brief remission from Crohn’s and pursued a solo career but the remission was brief and by 1990 DeWitt had passed away from complications of the disease.

The substitution of Fortune into the lineup added an additional quality songwriter and provided a brief upsurge in the group’s fortunes. While the group had consistently been near the top of the charts only “Do You Know You Are My Sunshine” had reached #1 for the Statlers while DeWitt was in the group. The group would have three more #1 singles, all on songs penned by Fortune (“Elizabeth”, “My Only Love”, and “Too Much On My Heart” but after 1985, radio increasingly turned to younger acts – the last top ten record would be “More Than A Name On The Wall” (about a mother visiting the Vietnam War Memorial to see her son’s name).

Although radio lost interest, The Nashville Network (TNN) did not, and the group hosted a television series for 1991-1998. Although the show’s ratings remained high throughout, new ownership really had no interest in country music and discarded most of TNN’s programming.

The Statler Brothers were the first vocal group to have sustained success in country music (I should note that the Oak Ridge Boys pre-date the Statler Brothers, but they remained a gospel group until 1977). While modern-day country acts seem unaware of the Statler Brothers, their influence on bluegrass has been strong, with Dailey & Vincent being strong proponents of their music and always including several Statler songs in live performance. The Statler Brothers were probably the first country music act to transfer the genre’s tendency toward nostalgia from a rural to a suburban setting. Kurt Vonnegut referred to them as “America’s Poets”. Moreover, the group stayed together unlike many groups which seemed to have a revolving door of group members.

Discography 

Vinyl records were the format in which recordings for the Lew Dewitt years were issue. The material on Columbia is pleasant, but the group was still finding its way. I have all of the Mercury albums featuring Lew DeWitt and I regard all of them as priceless treasures. Unfortunately, most of the CDs featuring DeWitt are anthologies that also include the Jimmy Fortune years. The Statler Brothers website does have a four-CD set featuring the group’s first eight albums on Mercury – it sells for $49.95. It is a little pricey but if all you have heard is the radio hits, this is a great place to examine the depth and breadth of the group’s talent.

Actually, I could make the same comment about the Jimmy Fortune years – mostly it is anthologies that are available, but because Jimmy’s entire tenure with the group falls into the digital era, used CDs can be found with a little effort. I will say that the albums of the Jimmy Fortune period tend to be less interesting as albums, although the singles remained strong. I would stay away from the Farewell Concert album which sounds very rushed as if the boys couldn’t wait for the show to be over.

The Statlers continued to issue some recordings after their tenure with Mercury (later Polygram) was over. Some of these recordings can be found on their website.                                                         

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Spotlight Artist: Lonestar

lonestarFor many years, the prototypical country group took the form of a gospel quartet or quintet, modeled after such gospel favorites as the Jordanaires, The Old Hickory Singers, The Oak Ridge Quartet or the Blackwood Brothers. These groups were strictly vocal groups, with some sort of instrumental accompaniment, often nothing more than someone playing the piano. It was rare that the group handled its own instrumentals, other than perhaps the original version of the Sons of The Pioneers; and aside from western groups such as the Sons of The Pioneers, the repertoire was almost entirely gospel.

The first group to venture off into mostly secular music was the Statler Brothers in 1965, with the electrifying hit “Flowers On The Wall”. The Statler Brothers were strictly a vocal group, although the great Lew DeWitt played some acoustic guitar. In 1976, the Statlers were followed by the Oak Ridge Boys (formerly the Oak Ridge Quartet). Like the Statler Brothers, the Oak Ridge Boys were a gospel quartet that went secular. Both groups tended to strongly resemble the gospel groups from which they had arisen, and both groups had all four members vocals featured prominently.

It was not until Alabama came to prominence in 1980 that the modern day concept of a country group entered the public conscience. Alabama was comprised of three cousins (Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook) plus a very talented outsider in drummer Mark Herndon. Unlike other country groups, Alabama had a designated lead vocalist in Randy Owen, with the other members providing instrumental support and taking an occasional lead vocal, mostly on album cuts.

Alabama proved to be hugely successful with dozens of #1 singles and millions of albums sold. Soon additional similarly structure groups would arise such as Atlanta (1983), Exile (1983), Restless Heart (1985), Shenandoah (1987), Diamond Rio (1991), and Little Texas (1991).

Of course, every trend and/or fad runs its course and Lonestar (1992) would prove to be the last really successful band of the wave that started with Alabama.

Lonestar was unusual in that as they originally were constructed, Lonestar had two singers who perceived of themselves as the lead vocalist of the group. Richie McDonald was the lead vocalist but bass player John Rich also sang some leads (mostly on album tracks) and would be booted out of the group after the second album.

Lonestar would prove to have staying power, releasing eleven studio albums (five reached gold or platinum status) and enjoying a large number of hit singles including nine that reached #1 and another nine that landed in the country top ten. One of their #1 singles, “Amazed” also reached #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 for two weeks sandwiched between singles by Savage Garden and Destiny’s Child, and it charted in the United Kingdom.

Although the top ten singles ceased in 2006, Lonestar is still around having just issued a new album. Richie McDonald left the group for a while, but has since returned and the band once again consists of Richie McDonald on lead vocals and piano, Michael Britt on lead guitar, backing vocals, Keech Rainwater banging on the drums and Dean Sams on keyboards, acoustic guitar and backing vocal. This is essentially the original group minus John Rich.

Lonestar has a website and is playing a full schedule of road appearances. They still sound good, and if you liked them during their 1990s heydays, you’ll like them now.

So sit back as enjoy our Spotlight review of the one of the leading country groups of the 1990s and the early 2000s.

Album Review: Waylon Jennings – ‘Love of the Common People’

51wqa0MBekL._SS280In the 1960s, sales of single records were far more important to the music industry than album sales. Albums consisted of one or two hit singles, and 8 to 10 “filler” songs, which were often cover versions of the current hits of other artists or less commercially viable songs written by the artist and/or producer. Country artists typically released an average of three albums a year. Waylon Jennings’ 1967 collection Love of the Common People was his fifth album for RCA, released a year after his debut collection for the label.

Produced by Chet Atkins, Love of the Common People is a little unusual in that none of its tracks were released as singles. It consists of the usual cover songs and original artist/producer compositions as well as a few contributions from well known songwriters of the day, such as Sonny James and Harlan Howard. Despite its lack of radio hits, the album’s material is stronger and less uneven than many albums of the day, and it sold reasonably well, peaking at #3 on the Billboard country albums chart. And although this is a slightly more polished Waylon than we would hear a few years later, the album largely avoids some of the excesses of the Nashville Sound era.

My favorite track is “Young Widow Brown”, a light-hearted tune written by Waylon and Sky Corbin, concerning a fun-loving young woman who drives her husband to an early grave and doing her best to send her many suitors to a similar fate. While not as edgy as Waylon’s later work, it’s not as far removed from his Outlaw music as one might expect.

The title track is a folk-rock tune that had been a pop hit earlier in the year for The Four Preps. It sounds like something that might have fit on Waylon’s earlier effort Folk-Country. “Taos, New Mexico”, written by RCA in-house producer Bob Ferguson, is a very nice Tex-Mex tune that’s a little ahead of its time. It sounds like something that Freddy Fender or Marty Robbins would have success with a few years later. “I Tremble For You” is a little known Johnny Cash song written by the man in black and Lew DeWitt, who was part of the original Statler Brothers lineup. It’s not the usual boom-chicka-boom style usually associated with Cash, and it shows Waylon’s strength as a ballad singer. Shoulda been a single. “If The Shoe Fits” by Harlan Howard and Freddie Hart, “Destiny’s Child” by Sonny James, and “The Road” by Ted Harris are all worth a listen.

The album does contain a couple of missteps: a cover of the John Lennon/Paul McCartney tune “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”, and Mel Tillis’ “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”. The latter about a wounded warrior suffering from physical injuries and PTSD, long before those terms were coined. His wife callously prepares to leave him on his own while she seeks her pleasures elsewhere, making no attempts to hide her intentions. The song had been a Top 10 hit earlier in the year for Johnny Darrell and two years later would become a huge pop smash for Kenny Rogers and The First Edition. It’s a good song, but Jennings’ delivery is surprisingly stiff and devoid of emotion.

Waylon Jennings, of course, had a long and distinguished career in country music and left behind a catalog so huge that it’s easy to overlook some of the entries that weren’t big hits. Love of the Common People is a gem well worth exploring.

Grade: A

Favorite Country Songs Of The 80s: Part 7

It seems to me that I never did finish off this series, the last installment being posted on February 11, 2014 (and the installment before that appeared April 9,2013). Here are some more songs from the 1980s that I liked. This is an expanded and revised version of the February 11, 2014 article which was a rush job :

Shame On The Moon” – Bob Seger
Bob’s 1982 recording of a Rodney Crowell song charted on the country charts in early 1983, reaching #15 in the process. The song was a bigger hit on the pop charts, reaching #2 for four weeks.

Finally” – T. G. Sheppard
He worked for Elvis, sang background for Travis Wammack, and eventually emerged with a solo career worth noting, racking up 42 chart singles from 1974-1991. This 1982 single was one of fourteen #1 record racked up by Sheppard, eleven of them reaching #1 during the 1980s.

Doesn’t Anybody Get High On Love Anymore” – The Shoppe
The Shoppe was a Dallas based band that hung around for years after their 1968 formation. In the early 1980s they had eight chart records, but this was the only one to crack the top forty, reaching #33. They had a record deal with MTM Records in 1985, but that label vanished, taking the Shoppe with them.

Crying My Heart Out Over You” – Ricky Skaggs
Ricky Skaggs was one of the dominant artists of the first half of the 1980s with his bluegrass/country hybrid. Starting with 1981’s “You May See Me Walking” and ending with 1986’s “Love’s Gonna Get You Some Day“, Skaggs ran off sixteen consecutive top ten singles with ten of them reaching number one, This 1982 classic was the first chart topper. Eventually Ricky returned to straight bluegrass, but I like the hybrid recordings better. In my original article I spotlighted “Honey (Open That Door)“, a straight forward country Mel Tillis song recorded by Webb Pierce.

Don’t Stay If You Don’t Love Me” – Patsy Sledd
Stardom never really happened for Patsy, who was a good singer marooned early in her career on a bad label. She was part of the George Jones-Tammy Wynette show in the early 1970s. This song reached #79 in 1987.

“Nice To Be With You” – Slewfoot
This band replaced Alabama as the feature band at the Bowery Club in Myrtle Beach. This was their only chart single, a cover of Gallery’s #4 pop hit from 1972 that reached #85 in 1986.

King Lear” – Cal Smith
The last chart hit for the former Texas Troubadour. This song reached #75 in 1986.

“A Far Cry From You” – Connie Smith
After a six year recording hiatus, the greatest female country recording artist of all time returned with this one-shot single on the Epic label. It’s a great song but received no promotional push at all from the label landing at #71 in 1985. Unfortunately, this single has never appeared on an album.

“The Shuffle Song” – Margo Smith
Exactly as described – a shuffle song that reached #13 for Margo in early 1980. Margo had a brief run of top ten hits in the middle and late 1970s but the string was about over. In my prior article I featured “He Gives Me Diamonds, You Give Me Chills” but The Shuffle song is actually my favorite 80s hit from Margo. She lives in The Villages in Florida and still performs occasionally.

Cheatin’s A Two Way Street” – Sammi Smith
Her last top twenty song from 1981. Sammi only had three top ten hits but made many fine records. This was one of them.

Hasn’t It Been good Together” – Hank Snow and Kelly Foxton
The last chart record for the ‘Singing Ranger’. The record only got to #78 for the 65 year old Snow in 1980 but I couldn’t let pass the opportunity to acknowledge the great career of the most successful Canadian country artist. By any legitimate means of chart tracking, his 1950 hit “I’m Moving On” is still the number one country hit of all time. Hank had perfect diction and was a great guitar player.

Tear-Stained Letter” – Jo-El Sonnier
A late bloomer, this was the forty-two year old Jo-El’s second of two top ten records and my favorite. It reached #8 in 1988. There were brief periods in the past when Cajun music could break through for a hit or two. Eddy Raven was the most successful Cajun artist but most of his material was straight-ahead country.

Sometimes You Just Can’t Win” – J.D. Souther and Linda Ronstadt
George Jones charted this record twice, but it’s such a good song it was worth covering. This version went to #27 in 1982. J.D had a big pop hit in 1980 with “You’re Only Lonely” which reached #7.

Honey I Dare You” – Southern Pacific
Southern Pacific was a bunch of guys who previously played with other bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Doobie Brothers and Pablo Cruise, making some real good country music in the process. This was one of their four top ten hits of the 1980s. “A Girl Like Emmylou” from 1986 only reached #17 but the song tells you where this band’s heart was located.

Lonely But Only For You” – Sissy Spacek
Loretta Lynn wanted to Spacek to portray her in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter, and it turns out that Sissy can really can sing. This song reached #15 in 1983.

Standing Tall” – Billie Jo Spears
Billie Jo Spears, from Beaumont, Texas, was incredibly popular in England and Ireland, where “Blanket On The Ground” and “What I’ve Got In Mind” were top five pop hits in the mid 1970s and she had many more lesser successes. Many of her later albums were not released in the US but she had a substantial US career with thirty-four charted records, including two #1 hits. “Standing Tall” reached #15 in 1980.

Chain Gang” – Bobby Lee Springfield
More successful as a songwriter than as a performer, Springfield had two chart sings in 1987 with “Hank Drank” (#75) and “Chain Gang” (#66) which was NOT the Sam Cooke hit. Bobby Lee was both too country and too rockabilly for what was charting at the time. I really liked All Fired Up, the one album Epic released on him.

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Favorite country songs of the 1970s: Part 7

For part seven of this series, as always, just some songs I liked, one song per artist, not necessarily the biggest hit, (although I feel free to comment on other songs by the artist).

I’m Having Your Baby” – Sunday Sharpe (1974)
Female answer to a rather lame Paul Anka hit with the answer song being better (or at least more believable) than the original. Ms. Sharpe originally was from Orlando, FL, but seemingly has disappeared from view. This song reached #10 on Cashbox, her only Top 10 hit (#11 Billboard). A few years later she had one more top twenty hit with “A Little At A Time”.

“I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train” – Billy Joe Shaver (1973)
For a guy whose only two charting records charted at 88 and 80, and who can’t sing a lick, Billy Joe Shaver has had a heck of a career as a recording artist, issuing several acclaimed albums. Of course, his main claim to fame is as a songwriter.

Slippin’ Away” – Jean Shepard (1973)
Jean took this Bill Anderson composition to #1 (Cashbox) reviving a career that Capitol had abandoned. Jean was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001, an honor two decades overdue.

Devil In The Bottle” – T.G. Sheppard (1975)
T.G. kicked off his career as a singer under the T.G. Sheppard name (real name Bill Browder, and recorded also as Brian Stacey) with consecutive #1s. T.G. would have fourteen #1 singles between 1975 and ’86, along with three more that reached #2 . He worked for Elvis at one point, before kicking off his solo career.

Greystone Chapel” – Glen Sherley (1970)
This song first saw the light of day when Johnny Cash recorded it for the Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison album in 1968. At the time Glen Sherley was a prisoner at Folsom. This was his only chart record, reaching #63. In addition to this song, Sherley had several other songs he’d written recorded, most notably Eddy Arnold’s recording of “Portrait of My Woman.” Johnny Cash helped get Glen Sherley released from prison, and even had him as part of his road show for a while. Unfortunately, Glen Sherley was unable to adapt to life outside of prison, and committed suicide in 1978.

Dog Tired of Cattin’ Around” – Shylo (1976)
An amusing tune, Shylo recorded for Columbia during the years 1976-1979. This single charted at #75. Columbia would release eight charting singles but none went higher than #63.

I’m A Truck” – Red Simpson (1971)
A truck tells its side of the story:

There’d be no truck drivers if it wasn’t for us trucks
No double-clutching gear- jamming coffee drinking nuts
They’ll drive their way to glory and they have all the luck
There’d be no truck drivers if it wasn’t for us trucks
.

Red’s biggest hit, in fact his only top 30 record, reaching #1 Cashbox/#4 Billboard. Simpson was from Bakersfield and co-wrote a number of songs with Buck Owens, many of which Buck recorded, including “Sam’s Place” and “Kansas City Song.” Junior Brown recently recorded Red’s “Highway Patrol.” Curiously enough, “I’m A Truck” was not written by Red Simpson, but came from the pen of Bob Stanton, who worked as a mailman and sent Red the song.

Nothing Can Stop My Loving You” – Patsy Sledd (1972)
Great debut recording – it only reached #68 but unknown to Ms. Sledd, her record label was created as a tax write off, so that there was no promotional push for anyone by the label. The next single “Chip Chip” reached #33 but from there it was all downhill. Patsy was part of the George Jones-Tammy Wynette show for a few years.

The Lord Knows I’m Drinking” – Cal Smith (1973)
Bill Anderson wrote it and Cal Smith took it to #1 on March 3, 1973. Cal only had four Top 10 records, but three of them went to #1. His biggest chart hit was “It’s Time To Pay The Fiddler,” but this song and “Country Bumpkin” are probably the best remembered songs for the former member of Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours.   Cal actually changed a few of the words from what Bill had written, probably a change for the better.

“Mama Bear” – Carl Smith (1972)
Carl only had one Top 10 song after 1959 and this song wasn’t it, dying at #46. By the time this record was issued, Carl was 45 years old and his career as a recording artist was stone-cold dead but that doesn’t mean he quit making good records. Carl issued many good records in the 1970s, but only “Pull My String and Wind Me Up” and “How I Love Them Old Songs” would reach the top twenty. Read more of this post