My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: Raul Malo – ‘After Hours’

51tOoPsggiLThere is always risk in releasing an album of “covers”. First, the possibility always exists that the material is too familiar to attract much attention. Second, there is the risk of being unfavorably compared to the earlier versions of the material being covered.

After Hours mostly avoids the first risk by focusing on material from before 1973, ensuring that most of the audience will not be terribly familiar with the material. The second risk is more problematic as there are some definite misfires in the tempos at which some of the songs are performed.

The album opens with “Welcome To My World”, a ballad generally associated with either “Gentleman” Jim Reeves or Dean Martin, two of the premier balladeers of the twentieth century. Jim Reeves had a smooth, velvety voice capable of conveying warmth like few others (Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Ray Price) ever could. Dean Martin was the King of Cool with great warmth but a more casual feel to his vocals than Reeves could achieve. If you have not heard either Reeves or Martin perform this song, then you will really like Malo’s performance. Raul does not have the warmth of his predecessors, but does an admirable job with the song and the accompaniment is excellent.

“(Now and Then) There’s A Fool Such As I” is a slight misstep, taken at a tempo that is too fast and bouncy for the sad lyrics. This song was a big hit for Hank Snow in 1952 and was covered by some guy named Elvis Presley (himself a big Hank Snow fan) a few years later. A honky-tonk style piano takes a break in the song but the basic arrangement is big band swing.

Malo gets back on track with the Kris Kristofferson classic “For The Good Times”, a song which revitalized Ray Price’s career in the early 1970s. Again, I prefer Ray’s version, but Raul’s take is very nice.
Steel Guitar is heard on this song toward the very end of the song

The two newest songs on the album come from the pen of Dwight Yoakam. The first of these is “Pocket of A Clown”, a song that just missed the top twenty for Dwight in 1994 (it reached #4 on the Canadian country chart). Raul’s arrangement is a little slower than the original and has a 40s/50s feel to the horn arrangements.

“Crying Time” was written by Buck Owens, who regarded the song as album filler. A few years later Ray Charles resurrected the song causing Buck to add it to his set list (usually as part of a medley). It’s a great song, and Malo does it justice, although he can’t deliver it with the same soul that Ray did (no one else could either).

A serious misstep follows with the Hank Williams classic “Cold Cold Heart”. It certainly is possible to treat the song as a pop song (Tony Bennett sold millions of copies with his cover) but here the tempo is much too fast and much too happy for such a morose set of lyrics

“You Can Depend On Me” is the oldest song on the album written sometime before 1931 by Charles Carpenter, Louis Dunlap and jazz piano great Earl “Fatha” Hines. The song was recorded by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Nat King Cole. In 1961 Brenda Lee took it to #6 on the pop charts. Malo handles this song quite effectively. The basic arrangement would be that of cocktail lounge jazz.

Oh if you ever, if you ever need a friend
I’ll be right by your side until the end
And you can depend on me
You can depend on me

My favorite song on the album is “Husbands and Wives”, which was written by Roger Miller and went top five country, #2 adult contemporary and top thirty pop for Roger in 1966. Subsequently, the duo of David Frizzell and Shelly West had a top twenty county hit with it in 1981, and Brooks & Dunn took it to #1 country and #36 pop in 1998. This song features steel guitar as part of the instrumentation, the only truly country sounding song of the album. For me, it as a toss-up whether Neil Diamond’s album track from his 1971 album Stones or Raul’s version on this album is my favorite version of this song.

The angry words, spoken in haste
Such a waste of two lives
It’s my belief, pride is the chief cause and the decline
In the number of husbands and wives

Speaking of Roger Miller, one of the last songs Roger wrote was a co-write with Dwight Yoakam on “It Only Hurts Me When I Cry” a #7 country hit for Yoakam in 1991. Again, Malo uses an arrangement very similar to Dwight’s original and performs the song well. There are horns on this track and they serve to create a swinging effect, even though the tempo is no faster than the Yoakam original.

The album closes with a very nice rendition of the Hy Heath-Fred Rose composition “Take These Chains From My Heart”, best known as a posthumous #1 hit for Hank Williams in 1953, and in 1963, a #8 pop hit Ray Charles (Ray’s version also reached #5 in the UK). The accompaniment on this final track starts out with just a single guitar then expands with the subsequent verses, but remains at all times uncluttered, with tasteful saxophone and piano solos between the vocals.

After Hours is an enjoyable album which I would rate as good, but not great, as it is marred by the tempo errors noted above. Malo is in good voice throughout and he is accompanied by what could be essentially described as a jazz quintet of himself on guitar, Robert Chevrier on piano, Jay Weaver on bass, Tom Lewis on drums and Jim Hoke on sax, clarinet and steel guitar. The album was recorded live, with only Hoke being overdubbed occasionally (it’s tough to play three instruments simultaneously). Malo and producer Evan York, keep the focus on the melodies and lyrics, never obscuring either.

Grade: B+

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Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘Influence, Vol. 1: The Man I Am’

randyA disappointing 25th anniversary album and the slightly underwhelming single “Tonight I’m Playing Possum”, as well as a general fatigue regarding the endless array of cover albums released in recent years left me feeling indifferent about Randy Travis’ new release Influence, Vol. 1: The Man I Am. In last July’s review of “Tonight I’m Playing Possum”, the only original song on the album, last July, we discussed at length Travis’ diminished vocal abilities, which further lowered my expectations for the full album.

Though the bar was admittedly set low, I was pleasantly surprised when the album was finally released last week. Though most of the songs are not that vocally challenging, I was quite pleased to hear Randy sounding better, for the most part, than he has on most of his recent recordings. Randy mostly avoids some of the obvious standards that have appeared on countless other tribute albums and dusts off some under-appreciated gems. Due to the death of George Jones earlier this year, I expected a number of the Possum’s tunes to be featured. Surprisingly, there is only one, “Why Baby Why”, which leads into “Tonight I’m Playing Possum” which closes the album. Instead, Travis digs deeply into the catalog of Merle Haggard for inspiration. Five of the album’s twelve cover tunes are some of the Hag’s lesser-known numbers, while the remaining songs are remakes of hits by Ernest Tubb, Waylon Jennings, and Lefty Frizzell. In addition, Randy reaches outside the genre for a few numbers: Louis Armstrong’s 1926 jazz hit “Butter and Egg Man” which is given a Western swing arrangement, and “Pennies From Heaven”, a pop standard first introduced by Bing Crosby in 1936. Both of these tunes are creative stretches for Travis, and both are extremely well done, with the Armstrong tune arguably being the best track on the album. Also included is “Trouble In Mind”, a blues standard dating back to 1924, which was later covered by both Haggard and Jones. It is one of the few tracks on the album were Randy’s vocal difficulties are apparent.

Ernest Tubb’s “Thanks a Lot” is given a by-the-numbers faithful-to-the-original treatment, while Travis’ interpretation of Waylon’s “You Asked Me To” is a little short on outlaw attitude. His take on Lefty Frizzell’s “Saginaw, Michigan”, however, is outstanding, though I could have done without the 1960s-style background singers. Randy has always named Lefty as one of his big influences and I would like to hear him sing more from the Frizzell catalog.

It is the Haggard tunes, however, that are the meat and potatoes of this album. If there are any criticisms of Influence, it is that it is a little Haggard-heavy. On the other hand, it’s nice to see Merle finally get his due; every male country singer to emerge during the past twenty years has claimed to have idolized George Jones, while the equally important Haggard usually went unmentioned.

The album opens with “Someday We’ll Look Back”, which Merle took to #2 in 1971. “What Have You Got Planned Tonight Diana” was originally released as the B-side to 1976’s “Cherokee Maiden”. Its lyrics are the deathbed reminiscences of an Alaskan homesteader as he prepares to join his departed wife. It is a beautiful number and is my favorite of the Haggard tunes included here. “Ever-Changing Woman”, written by Dave Kirby and Curly Putman is an obscure album cut mined from 1980’s Back to the Barrooms. It’s surprising that no one ever had a big hit with this song. “My Mary”, which is also quite well done, is from 1983’s Pancho and Lefty. “I’m Always On A Mountain When I Fall” is the the best-known of the Haggard songs included here and like the others, it is a pleasure to listen to.

I’m trying not to read too much into the inclusion of the words “Volume 1” in the album’s title, since I can think of numerous examples where a “Volume 1” was never followed up with any sequels. I do hope that a second set is planned, though that will depend on how quickly Randy recovers from his recent health problems. In the meantime, there is more than enough here to keep his fans happy.

Grade: A

Country Heritage Redux: Ernest Tubb (1914-1984)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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